Yesterday, Nikon announced a long-awaited (overdue?) replacement to its 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6 VR lens. The the original 80–400mm VR has been around since 2000, and for as long as I can remember, enthusiasts have cried out for and AFS replacement. Why? Despite very good optics and excellent zoom range, the AF-D model of the 80-400mm was slow to focus and as such sub-par for many action and wildlife photographers. Despite its limitations it remained popular lens because it was the least expensive Nikkor with a focal length of 400mm. On a DX-format DSLR body, that translates to an effective field of view of 600mm, making the 80-400 the enthusiast’s choice for wildlife photography. The relatively compact size of this lens made it an ideal option for travel photographers or people wanting to have extra reach on a reasonable budget.
New design and features
The new 80–400mm Nikkor offers what should be fast AFS focusing and new coated optics for extra sharpness and clarity. It has an internal focusing design as well as nano-coated glass elements. The new lens is slightly larger than the original but still relatively compact with a length of 8 inches and a weight of about 3 1/2 pounds. The small size and relatively light weight makes this lens ideal for photographers need to travel when there are significant weight restrictions; for example traveling to Africa for a photo safari. Nikon has also upgraded the VR system in the new lens. The new lens uses Nikon’s VRII system which is said to allow up to four stops of image stabilization. Keep in mind that with all image stabilization systems the VR system only counteracts camera shake and not subject movement.
Another really great feature of the 80-400mm’s design is its ability to focus close. The new lens has a minimum focus distance of under 6 feet, which is great for semi-macro subjects. The lens includes a reversible bayonet type hood and a built in tripod collar. The tripod collar can be removed by the user if desired. A significant problem with the original lens was the weak design of the tripod collar. Most owners of the original 80-400mm lens replaced their tripod collar with a third-party one designed by Really Right Stuff or Kirk Photo. It remains to be seen as to whether the new lens has a sturdier tripod collar design.
The drawback of the new design, however, seems to be its price tag. The new 80–400mm Nikkor lens clocks in at almost $2700; $1000 more than its predecessor. This large price tag then begs the question as to whether or not this lens is well-suited for your needs. The only other Nikon lens that gets you to this kind of focal length is the 200 – 400 mm f/4 AFS G VRII, and it has a price tag of over $6000, and it”s also much larger. Let’s take a look at some of the other ways you might achieve a similar focal length range with Nikon and third-party options.
Nikon lenses with teleconverters
If you don’t mind using a teleconverter there are some potentially excellent options for getting a similar zoom range without completely breaking your bank. For example the 70–200mm f/2.8 AFS G VRII costs slightly less than 80-400mm and pairs well with TC-20EIII teleconverter. I personally use this combination when I’m traveling light and still want to have a slightly longer focal length at my disposal. I can say from personal experience that the image quality of the 70-200mm with TC-20EIII is excellent. Nikon also recently released a 70–200 mm f/4 AFS G VRII lens, which can also be used with a teleconverter. However if you want to use the 2X converter you will need to make sure that you’re using a Nikon D4, D800, or D7100 body, as otherwise autofocus may not be possible with the resulting f/8 effective aperture.
If you’re not wedded to Nikon lenses then you can choose from a couple of different third-party options to fit this range. The two best choices in my opinion are the Sigma 120-400mm and the Sigma 50-500mm. Both have optical stabilization and neither will break your budget. In my personal testing I found the 120–400 mm to have slightly better image quality than the 50-500 mm, but I’m nitpicking. As a previous owner of the 50 – 500mm Sigma my only complaint was its poor bokeh as compared to my Nikkor lenses.
Is the new Nikon lens right for you?
Given that it’s been 13 years since the 80–400mm VR originally appeared, Nikon photographers have been finding workarounds to suit their needs for a really long time. As I pointed out earlier there are several ways to get to similar focal lengths by using other lenses with teleconverters or by using third-party lenses. However, one area where you should consider the new 80–400mm lens is if you want the extra reach and need to use a teleconverter. With the newest Nikon DSLR bodies, autofocus is possible at effective apertures of f/8. That means you could add a TC-14EII to the 80-400mm and get an effective focal length of 560mm (FX) or 840mm (DX). Or, one could use the new Nikon D7100 in its crop-mode and have the equivalent of a 780mm f/5.6 lens.
If you’re a photographer who only occasionally needs to get to a focal length of 400mm, then I think it’s a good idea to consider other, less pricey options. The 70–200mm f/2.8 AFS G VRII Nikkor is a great portrait lens and works wonderfully with the 2X teleconverter. The 70-200mm Nikkor is a few hundred dollars less than the 80-400mm, and gives you the versatility of a fast zoom for subject isolation if needed.
In conclusion, the new 80–400 mm AFS G VRII Nikkor lens appears to be, on paper, an excellent replacement to its now vintage predecessor. However with the new design comes a substantially higher price tag, so you should really consider whether or not this lens is right for your photographic needs before you buy one. That being said, I’ve always been very happy with all my Nikon lenses because they offer sharpness, performance, uniform color rendition, and have maximum compatibility with all current Nikon DSLR bodies. If you’re planning a trip to Africa in the near future you should seriously consider this new Nikkor lens.