Nikon AF Nikkor 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6D ED

 

Introduction

Nikon AF VR Zoom Nikkor 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6D ED lens is one of about half a dozen long telephoto zooms currently offered by Nikon. The lens was released in 2000 and was the first Nikon zoom with a VR (Vibration Control) system, finally bridging the technological gap with Canon, which first introduced its Image Stablization technology 5 years earlier. At 5x zoom ratio, this is actually also one of the highest power zooms in Nikon's portfolio. The lens sells for ~US$1,300 (as of November 2008), putting it somewhere between affordable, consumer grade zooms and ultra-schick, expensive pro lenses.

The optical construction of the lens consists of whopping 17 elements in 11 groups, with 3 ED elements designed to improve the overall resolution and image contrast. The build quality of the lens is pretty decent - the lens barrel and inner cams are made of hardened plastic, the focus ring is rubberized and is pretty smooth to operate, however, the zoom ring is a little bit stiff and requires some force to zoom the lens back and forth. The lens is moderately heavy, but is pretty compact for such a long telephoto, weighing 1360g (48oz) and measuring 91 x 171mm (3.6 x 6.7in), although the inner cams of the lens extend during zooming towards 400mm, practically doubling the overall length.

As mentioned earlier, the lens incorporates Nikon's first generation Vibration Reduction, an anti-shake system that gives photographers up to extra 3 f-stops of speed when shooting hand-held. The VR system supports two modes of operation. Mode 1 engages VR system when the shutter button is pressed  half way down and keeps stabilizing internal elements while you are focusing. You can even see the results of stabilization when looking through the viewfinder. Mode 2 on the other hand engages the stabilization system only when the shutter button is fully pressed and the results of the correction is not really visible in the viewfinder.

The lens supports both manual as well as auto focusing, however, there is no AF motor in the lens itself and auto-focusing is possible only on cameras that have slotted drive screw that locks into the slot on the base of the mount of the lens and rotates the groups in and out of focus. The AF/MF mode is controlled with a dedicated A/M ring. The minimum aperture is f/4.5 at the widest side of the zoom and f/5.6 at  400mm - not the fastest zoom on the market obviously, but an acceptable trade-off in terms of price/characteristics ratio. The aperture ring movesone full f-stop increments, and can be locked at f/32 to enable in-camera aperture control. The lens accepts 77mm screw-in type filters and since the front element does not rotate during focusing, can accept circular polarizers. The minimum focusing distance is 2.3m (7.5ft).

Image

The factory box includes Nikon AF VR Zoom Nikkor 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6D ED lens, tripod collar, front and rear lens caps, HB-24 lens hood, CL-M1 lens case, manual and registration card. The lens is designed for traditional 35mm cameras, so when used on APS-C type digital bodies with 1.6x crop factor senosrs, the field of view of the lens will resemble a 128-640mm prime on a full frame camera. The lens can be easily adapted to Canon and Olympus cameras using readily available Nikon F to Canon or Nikon F to Olympus 4/3 adapters.

 

Summary
Lens Composition 17 elements in 11 groups
Angular Field ~6-30 degrees
Minimum Focus 2.3m/7.5ft
Focusing Action AF/MF
f-stop Scale f/4.5-f/32, manual/electronic
Filter Size 77mm
Lens Hood HB-24 (included)
Weight 1360g/48oz
Dimensions 91x171mm/3.6x6.7"
Lens Case CL-M1

 

Field Tests

As mentioned earlier, Nikon AF VR Zoom Nikkor 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6D ED is a traditional AFD class lens, which means that the AF system is pretty much dependent on your camera. AFD focusing has never been very fast and this lens is no exception - it takes quite a bit of time for the camera motor to spin the lens elements back and forth to catch the focus. The focus limiter switch can help here, especially for the closeup work (what closeup at 2.3m minimum distance some might ask), where the switch limits the focusing between 2.3m and 3.5m. Just keep that in mind when trying to capture fast moving objects.

The VR system worked pretty flawlessly. With Canon being the de-factor leader in image stabilization technologies, many might think that Nkon's VR system would very likely to be second to Canon's. Far from it - while the system is a little bit noisy (the lens makes distinct clicking and whirling sounds when the VR system is engaged), performance wise it did not seem to lag in any aspect at all.

Image quality-wise, the lens showed quite good results in the short end of the zoom range - resolving capabilities in the 80-200mm range were quite solid with no visible signs of softness throughout the aperture settings. However, the image quality started to degrade beyond 200mm, first around borders at wider apertures and by 400mm pretty much throughout the entire picture frame.

 

Vignetting @ 80mm, f/4.5 - Full frame vs 1.6x crop
Vignetting @ 80mm, f/4.5 - Full frame vs 1.6x crop

 

Vignetting @ 400mm, f/5.6 - Full frame vs 1.6x crop
Vignetting @ 400mm, f/5.6 - Full frame vs 1.6x crop

The lens showed mild amount of vignetting on a full frame camera, which persisted throughout the zoom range at the widest aperture settings. Nothing disastrous, but somewhat surprising, considering that we are dealing with a telephoto zoom lens here. Vignetting on an APS-C camera persisted at pretty minimal levels at 80mm end of the zoom range, disappearing somewhere around 200mm. Stopping down the lens obviously helps reduce vignetting, and by f/8 AF VR Zoom Nikkor 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6D ED shows basically no color falloff.

Flare handling was decent, as can be seen from the shots below. With a strong direct light source positioned close to the image frame (in the samples below, the sun was hitting the front element of the lens at about 40 degrees), the lens showed some loss of contrast across the frame. Stopping down did not improve things much and with contrast remaining at subdued levels, images continued to looks somewhat lifeless. But, on the positive side, at least the lens did not exhibit any ghosting.

 

Left: ISO 200, 1/400, f/4.5, Right: ISO 200, 1/200, f/8
Left: ISO 200, 1/400, f/4.5, Right: ISO 200, 1/200, f/8

 

Generally speaking, color handling was rather average. The lens showed OK handling of color fringing, with no major noticeable signs of lateral or axial aberrations. However, the color palette seemed to be somewhat subdued, and images carried slightly lower levels of contrast, especially at 400mm.

 

ISO 200, 1/1250, f/4.5, 80mm (100% crop)
ISO 200, 1/1250, f/4.5, 80mm (100% crop)

 

Lab Tests

Please note that MTF50 results for APS-C and Full-Frame cameras as well as cameras from different manufacturers are not cross-comparable despite the same normalized [0:1] range used to report results for all types of cameras.

Nikon APS-C:

Coming soon...

 

Nikon FF: The lens showed pretty good performance around the shorter end of the supported zoom range. Center as well as border image quality at 80mm remained excellent throughout the tested aperture ranges. However, the overall performance continuously degraded from that point. Border performance was the first to give the ground - at 200mm border image quality suffered a little bit at the widest aperture settings, getting to very good level by f/8. However, in the 300mm to 400mm range border image performance is plain average and does not improve with stopped down aperture. Well, at least center performance remained good to excellent throughout the entire zoom range. Conclusion? Not bad overall, but your 'mileage' will vary - users certainly be happier with the results in the short end of the zoom range.

 

Normalized raw MTF50 @ 80mm
Normalized raw MTF50 @ 80mm

 

Normalized raw MTF50 @ 200mm
Normalized raw MTF50 @ 200mm

 

Normalized raw MTF50 @ 300mm
Normalized raw MTF50 @ 300mm

 

Normalized raw MTF50 @ 400mm
Normalized raw MTF50 @ 400mm

 

Nikon AF VR Zoom Nikkor  80-400mm f/4.5-5.6D ED showed mostly well controlled handling of chromatic aberration. Center CA is quite low throughout the zoom range and all aperture settings, never really exceeding ~0.5px. Border CA averaged from ~1px at 80mm to ~0.7px at 400mm.

 

Chromatic Aberration (FF) - Center
Chromatic Aberration (FF) - Center

 

Chromatic Aberration (FF) - Borders
Chromatic Aberration (FF) - Borders

Here are 100% crops, taken with a FF type Nikon D3, comparing image borders at 80mm, 200mm, 300mm and 400mm.

 

Image borders @ 80mm (100% crop): f/4.5 vs f/8
Image borders @ 80mm (100% crop): f/4.5 vs f/8

 

Image borders @ 200mm (100% crop): f/5.6 vs f/8
Image borders @ 200mm (100% crop): f/5.6 vs f/8

 

Image borders @ 300mm (100% crop): f/5.6 vs f/8
Image borders @ 300mm (100% crop): f/5.6 vs f/8

 

Image borders @ 400mm (100% crop): f/5.6 vs f/8
Image borders @ 400mm (100% crop): f/5.6 vs f/8

 

Alternatives

Nikon currently offers a pretty wide range of telephoto zoom lenses for its full frame as well as APS-C sized SLR cameras. The two most notable are Nikon AF-S VR Zoom Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8G IF ED and Nikon AF-S VR Zoom Nikkor 200-400mm f/4GIF ED. Both lenses offer excellent image performance along with exceptional build quality (albeit at somewhat high price). For budget concious users, Nikon AF-S VR Zoom Nikkor 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G IF ED is another potential option. Outside of the Nikon camp, Sigma's APO Macro 70-200mm f/2.8 EX DG HSM (and its variants) and APO 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6 DG EX OS (now discontinued) as well as Tamron's SP AF 70-200mm f/2.8 Di LD also offer excellent image quality and slightly more 'reasonable' prices.

 

Recommendation

Nikon AF VR Zoom Nikkor 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6D ED is a pretty decent, but otherwise not very spectacular performer. The lens showcases very solid resolving capabilities in the 80-200mm zoom range, but struggles in the 300-400mm range, where image quality around borders shows the most degradation. Other then image resolution, the lens shows decent handling of flare, vignetting and color fringing. VR system obviously is another major bonus. Drawbacks? At f/4.5-5.6, the lens is pretty slow for low light photography and at ~US$1,300 it is not a bargain either. Well, life is full of compromises, and Nikon AF VR Zoom Nikkor 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6D ED is not an exception to the rule.