New Nikon 80-400 Lens Comparison

May 19, 2014


The New Nikon 80mm-400mm f/4.5 - 5.6.  Is it worth the cost?  


Recently I took the plunge and purchased the new Nikon 80-400 f/4.5 - 5.6 lens based on reviews and image examples I had seen.  But, I had to ask myself, was it really worth the cost of nearly $3000 for a lens that was not considered to be in the Nikon 'pro' category.  (Well to be honest I sold my Sigma 120-400mm and there was a huge Nikon rebate going on so I actually paid less than $1000 in the end. But I digress…)

I decided to evaluate, based on real-world conditions, this new lens against the two other Nikon zoom lenses that I owned and which were less than the nearly $3,000 price tag for this lens.  I also wanted to conduct the tests on a full frame (FX) camera such as the Nikon D800, with its 36megapixel sensor that often reveals the true quality of a lens and any of its imperfections.

Since I already own the classic pro Nikon 70-200 f/2.8 and the lower cost consumer Nikon 70-300 f/4.5-5.6, I had all three lenses readily available to compare. And, as mentioned, for each test case, the camera body to be used was to be my Nikon D800.  I also intended to mount the camera on a Really Right Stuff TVC-33 tripod (very sturdy).  I decided to focus on my subject using Nikon's LiveView at 100% magnification and also use a remote cable release to minimize any camera shake.  For outdoor tests, the shutter speed was to be set at 1/160sec (on a tripod), aperture set to f/8, the ISO set to 100 and 'Vibration Control' turned off.  For indoor tests, studio lights (Paul Buff Alien Bees 1600) were to be used for controlled lighting, the shutter speed to be set to 1/250sec, the aperture f/8 and the ISO 100.  All images were to be shot in RAW.  In post processing, all images were to be synched in LightRoom to have the same white balance, exposure settings and color saturation.  

should note that this is not a complete review of all of the features of the 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6 lens, but rather a few real-world tests to determine if this lens lives up to its hefty price tag.  I should note that there are many reviews both in print and on the internet that go into detail for those that desire a more complete accounting of this lens. 


Test Lenses - a brief background

The Nikon 70-200, f/2.8

The Nikon 70-200, f/2.8 is a de-facto standard in Nikon's pro line - known for its rugged build and high quality images. The obvious advantage of this lens is the fact that, if available light is low, or there is a need for a shallow Depth of Field, this lens stands at the front of the line with an aperture of f/2.8 at all focal lengths.  The 70-200 lens is built like a tank and often is the 'go-to lens' for the pro that needs a high quality, hand-holdable lens that has some extra reach.  Quality comes with a price though.  This lens sells for just over $2,300.  This is the lens I used as a baseline for comparison.

With most outdoor photography, losing a few stops is not the issue it once was - especially considering ISO can be bumped up to compensate for lack of available light. Most modern cameras do a really good job in reducing noise at higher ISOs.  Personally I often shoot events at f/8 for the extended depth of field and overall lens sharpness. 


This brings us to the next two lenses for consideration that have less light gathering capability than an f/2.8 lens has:


The Nikon 70-300, f/4.5 - 5.6

The Nikon 70-300, f/4.5-5.6 offers a very reasonable zoom range (although it cannot take a Teleconverter) and sells for less than $600 new.  It is very light weight and will work on both FX and DX bodies.  It can reach from 70mm (the same as the 70-200) but go all the way to 300mm.  The zoom features and attractive price point makes this lens very popular to many photographers.  It is often paired with a DX body (considering the additional reach factor of 1.5) but also works fine on full frame camera bodies as well.  This is considered to be a consumer lens and does not have the build quality of the pro series.  


The Nikon 80-400, f/4.5 - 5.6

The new Nikon 80-400, f/4.5-5.6, is an update to the older 80-400 lens.  This new lens offers improved image quality, better vibration reduction and faster focusing than the older lens.  The new 80-400, however, is not considered to be in the Nikon pro line either and is considered more to be a semi-pro or 'prosumer'.  It's price tag, may make one think otherwise as this lens comes in at over $2600.  So the question becomes is this lens worth the $2000 price over the 70-300 (which also has VR and f/4.5-5.6, but only reaches to 300mm)?  And, how does this lens compare with the image quality of the pro 70-200?


Size Comparisons

Before I began the tests, I decided to take a quick look at the size of these three lenses, both compressed and fully extended:


Lens compressed _JAS6605-Edit_JAS6605-Edit
Lens fully extended _JAS6607-Edit_JAS6607-Edit

Since the pro 70-200 uses internal zoom, the overall length remains constant at all focal lengths.  (It should be noted that when a lens extends and contracts, such as is the case for the 70-300 and 80-400, problems of sucking in air and dust can be introduced - just be aware.)  Although the 80-400 becomes a long lens when fully extended - it is still manageable.  


Mounting rings (tripod collar)

Most telephoto lenses, due to their size and weight, require a tripod mounting mechanism (tripod collar) to support the weight of the lens coupled to the camera.  And, since it is often necessary to rotate the camera in most photoshoots, the mounting ring should be designed to allow the lens to be easily rotated 90 degrees from landscape to portrait position by just loosing a knob and twisting the camera.  The support mechanisms must be sturdy and able to support the lens/camera while reducing camera shake. 

Many photographers have found the 70-200 Nikon mounting ring to be adequate - however I replaced the Nikon supplied mounting foot plate with a Really Right Stuff  (RRS) foot and plate for extra stability.  The 80-300 lens is light-weight and does not require a mounting ring.  The 80-400 is a heavy lens, (like the 70-200), and requires a mounting ring.  Many photographers have opted to replace the Nikon 80-400 mounting ring - and I must agree.  I personally felt the Nikon mounting ring to be of low quality - especially based on lens weight and the overall cost of this system.  For me, a Really Right Stuff (or Kirk) mounting ring and foot plate were needed replacements.  However, this was another $290 expense that brought the overall price of this lens to just over $3,000.  If you look at the two mounting rings below, (Nikon left, RRS right), you can see why this was a necessary expense.



Image Quality - a few tests

What about Image Quality?  This is the number one concern I have with any lens.  Is the convenience of having a wide-zoom going to provide enough 'keepers' to justify the cost of this new system?  Only if the image quality is there.  To find out if I had a winner with this new Nikon lens, I conducted a few lens comparisons in three environments:

  • Outdoors (controlled settings with tripod);
  • Indoors (controlled settings, tripod and studio lights); and
  • Real World wildlife (hand-held, VR on, variable settings based on subject).

I compared each lens at 200mm, 300mm and 400mm (using the 70-200, f/2.8 as the baseline for comparison).


Outdoor Tests

In the first samples I compared each lens at 200mm.  With all settings the same, the results from a 150% crop are seen below.   For all practical purposes, I would say all three samples were very close to being the same. The pro 70-200 had an edge in terms of clarity (note small text "Nikon HB-40 Made in Japan" on lens hood is easier to read from the pro 70-200 sample, followed by the 80-400.  However, if lighting was good, I would not hesitate to take any of these three out in the field shooting at f/8.


 Focal Length: 200mm, f/8, 150% Crop

1/160, f/8 and ISO 100

Nikon 70-200mm, f/2.8 _JAS6590-Edit_JAS6590-Edit
Nikon 70-300mm, f/4.5 - 5.6 _JAS6591-Edit_JAS6591-Edit
Nikon 80-400mm, f/4.5-5.6 _JAS6592-Edit_JAS6592-Edit


We have now reached the zoom limitation of the 70-200 (a Teleconverter can be added to this lens for extra reaches needed).

The next test was for the focal length of 300mm between the 70-300 and the 80-400 (remember that the 80-400 is over $2000 more expensive than the 70-300).

Focal Length: 300mm

1/160, f/8 and ISO 100
Nikon 70-300mm, f/4.5 - 5.6 _JAS6593-Edit_JAS6593-Edit
Nikon 80-400mm, f/4.5-5.6 _JAS6594-Edit_JAS6594-Edit

Both of these lenses were quite close in terms of Image Quality and either could work well under the same lighting conditions.  No real winner thus far.

We have now reached the basic zoom limitation of the 70-300 (remember ho Teleconverter capability - however it can be used on a Dx body yielding an effective focal length of 105mm - 450mm without loss of image quality).

The last outdoor test was to see how well the 80-400 would do at 400mm (which one would expect to be a tad soft).  I used a cropped version of the 70-200 for a baseline comparison.


1/160, f/8 and ISO 100
 Nikon 70-200mm, f/2.8 _JAS6590-Edit_JAS6590-Edit

(cropped to 400mm equivalent)

Nikon 80-400mm, f/4.5-5.6 _JAS6595-Edit_JAS6595-Edit

(shot at 400mm)

Overall the 80-400 did a relatively good job of resolving the details of the subject.  Large text on the test subject was clear in both samples.  However, the fine wording on the lens hood in the test ("Nikon HB-40 Made in Japan") was cleaner on the cropped image from the Nikon 70-200 than that compared with image from the Nikon 80-400.  As a result, I found for high quality images, the 80-400 should not be used at the full 400mm focal length but rather be backed off to around 380mm.  Not a deal breaker.  Remember that on a DX body, this become 120mm - 600mm without loss of image quality.


Indoor Tests

I now switched to an indoor setup that used studio controlled lighting.  


1/250sec, f/16 and ISO 100.



Note that at a close distance to the subject, the 300mm focal length becomes 280mm in reality



Take a closer look


 70-200 @ 200mm


Nikon 70-200 @ 200 w/TC1.4=


Nikon 70-300 @ 300 Closeup-3Closeup-3
Nikon 80-400 @ 300 Closeup-4Closeup-4
Nikon 80-400 @ 400 Closeup-5Closeup-5
Nikon 80-400 @ 400 w/TC1.4 =560mm Closeup-6Closeup-6

(Note drop-off on edges)

In my opinion, the Nikon 80-400 is sharp for each focal length to nearly 400mm. Image quality suffers when adding a Teleconverter (Note the fuzzy "M/A" on the left side above for last sample, 560mm focal length).  Especially for 300mm and below, I found the 80-400mm to be excellent in terms of clarity in relation to each of the tested zoom lenses.  The controlled tests were conducted to produce the "best" I could obtain from each lens under optimum conditions.  But how would this lens fair in the real-world?  Here are a few examples.


Real Word - Wildlife tests


West African Crowned CraneWest African Crowned Crane

Nikon 80-400 @ 310mm, 1/400sec, f/8, ISO 1000

Lesser KuduLesser Kudu

Nikon 80-400 @ 280mm, 1/500sec, f/5.6, ISO 720


Nikon 80-400 @ 260mm, 1/400sec, f/8, ISO 100

Saddle-billed StorkSaddle-billed Stork

Nikon 80-400@ 360mm, 1/500sec, f/5.6, ISO 180


For each shot above my camera was initially at my side - no tripod was used.  When it came time to shoot, I lifted the lens in position and found the it balanced well in the hand, the focus was quick and the VR locked quickly as expected.  With this lens I shot in Shutter Priority mode to keep the Shutter Speed to at least 1/400 -1/500sec.  I set ISO to Auto to allow it adjust to 1000 as necessary based on my aperture of being around f/8 if possible - but that was not very often.  


Note - if the shutter speed was at 1/500 or slower, (and no tripod), turn VR on.  Do not use VR if using a tripod or if the shutter speed is faster than 1/500sec.  In those incidents, VR would actually lower the Image Quality.  



To me the Nikon 80-400, f/4.5-5.6 performed well and, as long as one follows the shutter speed rule, 1/focal length or faster (400mm focal length = 1/400sec or faster), and the aperture is near f/8, the images will be of decent quality.  With the low noise capabilities in today's cameras, pushing the ISO up a tad to obtain the higher shutter speeds is certainly acceptable for sports and wildlife.  In terms of hand-holding this lens, I found it not to be a problem and the VR and fast focus worked to advantage of getting more 'keepers.'  

I also found that the 70-300, f/4.5-5.6 did very well throughout the focal lengths and would make a fine light-weight alternative at several thousand dollars less than the 80-400.  Focusing, however, on the 70-300 was not as consistent and there were times I could not get an auto lock and had to manually focus. For that reason, that lens would not work for me for sports or wildlife.

If available light was good, I found that I went for the Nikon 80-400 f/4.5-5.6 lens instead of my pro 70-200 more often to be able to utilize the wide zoom capabilities and get that 'extra reach' of the 400mm.  This lens, and most zoom lenses for that matter, will never take the place of a good prime lens in terms of image quality.  However, in many situations the advantage of a zoom can be the difference in getting that special shot or not.  And, if the 80-400mm lens is attached to a Nikon DX camera body, you now have a 120mm - 600 f/4.5 - 5.6 without the loss of image quality or light gathering that a Teleconverter will introduce.  

For best results, I do suggest keeping the shutter speed at 1/400 or faster, aperture set to f/8 for sharpness, VR on for shutter speeds of 1/500 or slower and to not go beyond a focal length of 380mm (go to 400mm and back off just a tad).  This should give you nice sharp images. 

If you can get beyond the sticker shock of spending nearly $3,000 for this lens, and you feel the images above are acceptable to you, I would suggest going for flexibility this lens has to offer.



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