Thirteen years have passed since Nikon began manufacturing its first VR (vibration reduction) lens, the AF 80-400mm f/4.5-6.6D VR, and as can be expected, much has changed to improve the technology, which serves to reduce image blur caused by shaky hands, moving vehicles and raucous, rickety grandstands. Thus we have the new AF-S Nikkor 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR, Nikon’s long-awaited second generation of the venerable sports, wildlife and portraiture lens. In addition to the new vibration reduction tech, the brand redesigned the 20-element/12-group optical formula, incorporated a new motor to make the lens focus faster and quieter, and used its Nano Crystal Coat to prevent flaring and ghosts.
But how does it shoot? We wanted to find out if the new glass merits its elevated price, so we borrowed the new 80-400mm from Nikon and rented its former iteration from Adorama to compare the two side by side. The lens can be used with a cropped-frame DX model, where its range is equal to 120-600mm, but it’s really intended for full-frame FX-model shooting. We tested with a D800—the highest resolution full-frame digital SLR on the market—to get a full 36.3 megapixels out of both lenses for comparison. Our test occurred over a several week period and took place primarily on a New York City rooftop, where we captured handheld and tripod-based shots at both day and night, and on the Hudson River Valley Greenway, where we shot handheld.
New Versus Old
Side by side, the first thing you notice about the two lenses is that the new 80-400mm is actually both wider and taller than the previous model (fully extended to 400mm, and with the lens shade in place, it reaches nearly ten inches). In the hand, the new lens weighs more, too: three and a half pounds, versus the prior version’s three. The added weight isn’t just bloat; it’s courtesy of the lens’s added Super ED glass elements, which help carry sharpness all the way to an image’s corners. The second thing you notice is the new model’s redesigned tripod ring, which looks slighter (and detached from the lens, weighs less)—a seemingly problematic issue for such a substantive lens. We had no problems with it, however. A few other elements stand out with the new lens in comparison with the old: It’s gasketed and weather-sealed, its panel offers added controls and the aperture ring is gone (you won’t be able to use it with an old film camera).
The shooting experience with the new 80-400mm model is markedly smoother for several reasons. Its focus speed is quick—less than a second, with minimal hunting; there’s very little focus noise. Manual focusing is easy and accurate, thanks to a rubberized focus ring that’s over an inch wide. A bank of switches on the side includes a limited focal lock, so you can choose between its full range and from infinity to six meters (if you want to prevent the camera from repeatedly focusing on a tree’s leaves in the foreground, rather than the wildlife you’re trying to shoot in the distance, for example). The zoom ring is also rubberized, but rotates with a bit more friction; it can be locked at 80mm. Aside from the a better feel and improved touch points, the 80-400mm’s improved image stabilization is clearly superior, even from behind the viewfinder: From our perch downtown, we zoomed in on far-off building tops at 300mm or longer, and were surprised at the lens’s ability to stabilize what we were seeing. The pictures proved it as the new 80-400mm pulled off clear shots that the old lens couldn’t. One other noticeable improvement is that when the lens is mounted to a tripod, the vibration reduction adjusts automatically so it won’t introduce blur (with the old lens, you had to remember to shut it off).
To evaluate the results, we looked at RAW files in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 5. Like most zooms, the lens’s output is sharpest across the full frame at 80mm at f/5.6. At 200mm the new lens clearly differentiates itself from the old, with less softness in the corners, especially with both lenses’ apertures stepped down. Fully extended to 400mm, the old lens’s output looks unacceptable compared with the new, thanks to the 80-400mm’s improved VR system. Even at longer focal lengths, the new lens’s color rendering is impressive; there’s little chromatic aberration. Bokeh is silky smooth all across its zoom range.
The Bottom Line
Overall, if you shoot outdoor sports or wildlife on a full-frame Nikon and can spare the coin, this lens’s tough build and impressive optics could make it one of your kit’s workhorses. And if you already get use out of Nikon’s previous 80-400mm, an upgrade to the new one is a no-brainer.
Pros: Excellent upgraded image stabilization; exceptional optical performance through much of its zoom range; smooth, accurate focusing; solid, weather-sealed build
Cons: Steep launch price tag
Price: $2,699.95; www.nikonusa.com