New Nikon 80-400mm AF-S Lens: Ultimate optics for safari-goers and soccer moms

New Nikon 80-400mm AF-S Lens: Ultimate optics for safari-goers and soccer moms

No lens has been more eagerly awaited, or for longer, than the replacement for the aged Nikon 80-400mm zoom telephoto. After well over a decade Nikon has finally rolled out its successor – the , with massively improved VR and focusing speed, as well as completely redesigned optics. While it is a technical marvel, its high price and large size may mean it isn’t for you. We’ve got a review unit here in the office, and will be posting more over the next few weeks, but we wanted to get our first impressions out to those of you curious about the new lens…

Bigger and better than the old Nikon 80-400

The first thing you notice when taking the new 80-400 out of the box is that is a large and heavy lens compared to its predecessor. At 3.5 lbs. it is 8 ounces heavier, which is enough to notice. However, it is a gorgeous lens, and even though it is not internal focusing, the front element doesn’t move as far out as it does with some other zooms. It balances well on a medium-sized or larger DSLR like the D600, D800, or D4, although it might feel a little “front-heavy” on a smaller model.

Sharp, yes really sharp

This lens is sharp. On my 24MP I could see every pixel, sharp and in its place. This was amazingly true even at the very long end of the lens – 400mm – and wide open – f/5.3. The image Lorrie captured of a local softball game below is straight out of the camera (except for scaling) and is the equal of one that I might have taken with my or dare I say with an f/2.8 “pro” model?

f/5.6 @ 1/2000s, 390mm, ISO 800, Auto WB
Photo by Lorrie Duval

Image quality in general is excellent with this lens. From our early shooting experiments, there is very little light falloff in the corners, even with full-frame bodies.

The fastest telephoto zoom ever?

The new may have the fastest zoom ever for a lens in its class (handheld telephoto zoom). It is a night and day improvement over its non-AF-S predecessor, and leaps ahead of the competition in terms of focusing speed. It’s hard to benchmark AF speed head-to-head, but it’s up there in the same range as the Nikon 200-400mm AF-S Lens, although of course not as quick as speed champs like the Nikon 300mm f/2.8 and 400mm f/2.8

The Ultimate lens for photo safaris?

I get asked all the time by people headed off to the four corners of the world to photograph wildlife which lens should they buy. Without a question the is the king (although the new Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 is giving it a run for its money), but it is hard to tell people they need to spend nearly $7,000 on 6+ pound lens just to go on safari. The Sigma is less expensive, but still more than most people want to hand hold.

The older 80-400 was the fallback for many, which has been a shame, as it really hasn’t been competitive for a long time. The Sigma 120-400mm lens has been a worthy alternative its value pricing, but many shooters want something higher-end. Enter the new 80-400. It fits the bill perfectly. Reasonable for most people to hand hold, featuring a lens collar allowing use on a monopod or tripod for extended sessions, fast focusing, and sharp – with excellent VR for shooting from a vehicle. That only leaves one real drawback…

$2,700? Ouch!

Unlike every other piece of high-tech gear, high-grade optics seem to be getting more expensive each year. The new 80-400 is a full $1,000 more than the old version, and triple what I paid for an 80-200 f/2.8 zoom 12 years ago. Sure, the new lenses are amazing, with awesome VR and built-in high-speed focusing motors. Support for the edge to edge image quality needed for full-frame digital sensors also makes them heavier, larger, and more expensive. We expect our tech to get better like that – but we don’t expect to have to pay up for it.

That said, if you have the $2,700 to spend, the new is shaping up to be a great piece of gear. I’ll be writing more about it over the coming weeks, but I don’t hesitate to recommend it for those who have the budget and don’t mind carrying 3.5 lbs. of glass around.

What about those soccer moms?

I do a little bit of sports shooting for CBS Interactive / Maxpreps, and am inevitably asked at the games what camera and lens I recommend for parents who want better images of their own. None of them seem too interested in duplicating my typical setup of large zoom and monopod, though. It’s been tough to give them a way to get excellent-quality action shots without them though. Until now. The new version of the proved that it is up to the challenge.

f/5.6 @ 1/2000s, 250mm, ISO 800, Auto WB
Photo by Lorrie Duval

Lorrie took the lens and my out to a local high school softball game and fired away. Aside from finding that she needed to brace the heavy lens against the fence once in a while (a monopod would be another easy answer for those not wanting to do too much hand holding), the images came out wonderfully at all focal lengths. I’m almost tempted to try and shoot with it instead of with my 200-400 as it is certainly easier to work with and allows zooming out to capture group shots without changing cameras or lenses.

So if you know a well-heeled soccer mom (or soccer dad!) who has everything else, this lens would make an amazing Mother’s Day or Father’s Day gift. It’ll upgrade anyone’s sideline photography. If you don’t know what camera to use it with, the new is a great option. With lens, it is under $1500 as a kit.

For those on a tighter budget, or not willing to lug such a large piece of glass, the is a very worthy alternative, as is the . Both of those lenses can be had for under $1,000.

Stay-tuned for more updates on my work with this lens. I wanted to get this post out quickly since B&H closes starting Monday for Passover, so those in a hurry probably want to act quickly.