Nikon 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR – First Review

Good afternoon, you.

Well I have been using the Nikon 80-400mm lens this week, and what sort of person would I be if I didn’t let you lovely people know what I thought about it?

Not a very good one, that’s what.


Well let’s get started then. This lens is very big, that much should be obvious before you actually get your hands on it. It completely dwarfs many cameras, and is not light at all. So be aware that you will probably want to build up those muscles before you spend a day with this thing. It actually weighs in at over 1.3kg.

To be honest, I didn’t find this a problem at all. You know what you are getting yourself in for with a lens like this, so if you complain of size and weight then you are the one to blame.

Because of this lens’s size and weight, it is incredibly well built. It feels like you could drop it many times and it would just soak it up. Even the inner barrel is made of metal.

While on the subject of the ergonomics, I have to talk about the manual focus setting. The actual focusing is absolutely fine, no problems with that at all. It is switching this damn thing on to manual focus which really gets to me. It is not a simple switch on the side, but a button to press down, while you rotate a small focus ring. This is not so difficult to do normally, but when you are composing a shot and want to switch focus modes, it is near impossible.

In Use

I have been using this lens with the Nikon D300s, which is an excellent camera. However, I have only had the chance to test it while out taking wildlife shots.

The main, well-known flaw of this lens is it’s AF speed, so this was probably not the best place to test this lens. I was hopeful for some animals that would like to stay still for more than a second, and I think I got some good shots. However, this is just not the lens for the job. It doesn’t grab focus quick enough, and it was almost impossible to track fast moving animals and get a decent shot. The focusing is actually very reminiscent of the cheap and cheerful 70-300mm zooms from Tamron and Sigma.

Never mind, I fully expected this.

I will hopefully be taking this lens out for a nice test later on this week, but it will be at an air festival. So instead of animals going 10mph, it will be jets flying at 1000mph. Good idea, right? Well hopefully I will be able to take some shots of more static attractions, and maybe some candid portraiture.

At the same air festival, I will also have the Tamron 70-200mm f2.8 which I reviewing recently. I should therefore be able to return with a direct comparison of these two lenses, showing the benefits of each, and the downfalls.

The focusing issue really isn’t that much of a problem if you know the limits of this lens. The same can be said about any lens, but this one can produce some excellent photos when used in its comfort zone.

The 400mm reach came in very useful for getting close-up portraits of many of the animals, and when used with the crop sensor of the D300s, it is effectively 600mm. While on this little shoot, I was with another photographer, who was using a 300mm lens on his full frame body. So I had double the reach he had, which really showed in some of our comparative shots.

This lens has a maximum aperture of 4.5-5.6 as you go up the zoom range. This is not so bad, but it is far from great. Obviously to get a wider aperture, or a constant one, you’d probably have to double the cost of this lens. But for a lot of situations I found I wanted that extra stop, that extra speed, and some more light in to the camera. For a lot of the shots I was boosting the ISO right up to around 1600, which although is no real problem for a higher end Nikon, but it did mean I had to be careful when it came to processing shots.

Now on a side note, there is also a very slight chance that I will be able to test the D300s against the Canon 7D while at this air show. These are direct competitors, so using them both simultaneously could be interesting. Now it is obvious that I am a Nikon man, but I already think the 7D is better than the 5D mark II, so the bias is already dwindling, and I hope to give a fair test.

Both cameras have their strengths, and I fear the 7D’s 8FPS shooting may put it ahead for this little test, couple that with the fact it will have the Tamron 70-200mm lens, where as the D300s will have the 80-400mm.

I shall report back with more soon. But for the time being, here are some shots taken with the 80-400mm.

Test shots

Final Verdict

This lens definitely has the ability to be very sharp, and produces some great photos, especially when stopped down a little. Now I know I was testing this in the wrong setting, but I will continue to test it and will add to this review. However, it is already clear that speed and low-light are not this guy’s friend. However, I have no doubt that lighter conditions and still subjects will be a home away from home for this lens.