The smallest of Nikon's super-fast telephoto lenses.Nikon's huge AF-S Nikkor 400mm f/2.8G ED VR lens is so big it comes in its own special suitcase. At almost $13,000 its price tag is beyond the reach of even the most serious enthusiasts but, when we were offered it for review we felt it would be interesting to road test a lens that only a very specialised cohort of professional photographers would use - primarily sports photographers. . . [more]
Nikon's huge AF-S Nikkor 400mm f/2.8G ED VR lens is so big it comes in its own special suitcase. At almost $13,000 its price tag is beyond the reach of even the most serious enthusiasts but, when we were offered it for review we felt it would be interesting to road test a lens that only a very specialised cohort of professional photographers would use - primarily sports photographers.
Despite its 'lightweight' magnesium die-cast body, this is a very heavy lens. An overall weight of just over 4.6 kilograms would make it unsuitable for wildlife photographers unless they worked from a hide or vehicle. Fitted on a Nikon D3 body you're looking at roughly six kilograms of camera and lens to carry, hold and shoot with - and you need a pretty sturdy tripod to use this lens to best effect, which would add a couple of additional kilograms to your kit. Definitely not a lens to take bushwalking.
That said, this lens is beautifully constructed and elegantly designed and it has some fascinating features for a photographer to explore. Constructed from 14 elements in 11 groups with three ED glass and one Nano Crystal Coat deposited lens elements, it has been designed to deliver minimal chromatic aberration and little in the way of flare and ghosting from internal reflections. A meniscus-shaped protective glass element further reduces the ghosting that can occur when light reflected back from the image sensor is re-reflected off flat protective glass.
Built-in image stabilisation, in the form of Nikon's VR II system, enables photographers to use shutter speeds up to four stops slower than they would otherwise require - although shooting with it hand-held is a challenge. The stabilisation system uses gyroscopic detectors plus voice coil motors to move internal elements. Nikon's Silent Wave Motors are used to drive the internal focusing mechanisms so as to achieve fast and accurate focusing.
The lens barrel carries five slider switches. The top slider covers the focusing modes and is the same as on other Nikkor lenses. Two AF modes are provided in addition to a Manual setting. With the M/A setting, autofocus can be over-ridden by manually focusing the lens with the focus ring. This mode is suitable for situations that require precise focus.
The A/M position also allows autofocusing to be over-ridden but the focus ring detection sensitivity is reduced. This setting reduces the risk of cancelling the AF setting by unintentionally moving the focus ring.
The next slider down is a focus limiting switch. It can be set to the ∞- 6m position to minimise the chance of hunting when shooting subjects further from the camera than about six metres. For close-ups you use the alternative position. Below it is the VR switch for choosing the stabilisation mode. It has two settings: normal and tripod. The normal setting is used for hand-holding and when the camera is mounted on a monopod.
Below the VR slider is a slider that has three positions: AF-L, Memory Recall and AF-ON. It works in conjunction with a sound monitor slider further down, which has two musical note indicators, one of which is crossed out. AF-L is a standard focus lock that links the lens with the camera, allowing photographers to lock focus with the camera's AF-L button. The Memory Recall function works with the sound monitor to let photographers know when a focussed distance has been stored in memory. It can be used with any of the focus modes and the stored value is retained even when the camera is switched off or the lens is removed from the camera.
A depth-of-field scale is provided on the lens barrel but, because the lens has no aperture ring, aperture settings must be set via the camera (as is usual with modern DSLR lenses). Built into the lens barrel is a rotating tripod collar, which allows the photographer to move quickly from horizontal to vertical shooting when the lens is tripod mounted. A thumb screw lock on the upper left side of the collar locks the camera in position at the desired angle. A bracket on the collar carries the mounting socket and, because of its size and weight, the lens is mounted on the tripod with the camera attached rather than vice versa.
A two-part lens hood is provided, with each part attaching via a mounting screw. When the lens is stored, the hoods are reversed and slipped back over the lens barrel. Just in front of the camera mounting is a filter holder that accepts 52mm screw-in filters. A locking knob on the holder prevents the filter from coming out when the lens is in use. The lens is supplied with a Nikon NC UV-blocking filter. Nikon also sells a special C-PL1L circular polarising filer as an optional extra for this lens.
The size and weight of this lens present challenges for users. When fitted to a Nikon D3, the all-up weight (including camera battery, memory cards and lens hoods) is about 6.5 kilograms. You need pretty strong muscles to hand-hold that amount of equipment for extended periods of time. But, thanks to excellent balance, it is not impossible to use the lens for hand-held shooting and the built-in VR stabiliser does a fine job, given the challenges holding such a large lens presents.
The lens in use, showing the huge front element and central tripod mount.
Side view showing the positions of the tripod mount and camera.
Mounting the lens on a tripod is a more logical approach - but you need a strong and very solid tripod with secure adjustment facilities. You must also retain complete control of the camera and lens. However, with the right tripod, using the lens is a delight because all the controls are set in exactly the right places.
It's easy to rotate the camera by loosening the locking screw on the tripod collar - and then tighten it again when the position is right. You do it almost intuitively. Three tripod sockets are provided on the tripod stand, allowing users to set the correct balance for the camera and lens combination. It's generally easy to pick the right one for a given situation.
The focusing ring has a very long throw, which is necessary for such a long tele lens. Nevertheless, precise focusing is straightforward, thanks to the brightness of the image provided by the super-fast optical design. The filter holder slots in and out easily and is secured by a push-in-and-turn thumb screw. Changing filters is straightforward.
When fitted to the Nikon D3, which has an inherently fast AF system, focusing was very fast and accurate and we found no instances of hunting in low-light conditions. Imatest testing showed the supplied lens to be an excellent performer, with top resolution achieved between F/3.5 and f/8.0 followed by a slow decline to a slightly lower level at f/20 and f/22. The graph below plots the results of our Imatest resolution tests against lens aperture settings.
Lateral chromatic aberration was also well inside the 'insignificant' level of 0.04% of distance to corner. We found no evidence of coloured fringing in any test shots. Vignetting (edge darkening) was also negligible at all apertures and we saw no signs of rectilinear distortion. As long as the lens hoods were in place, we found little evidence of flare in shots taken with the lens pointing towards the sun - provided direct light from the solar disk was prevented from entering the lens.
Bokeh (out-of-focus blur) was very smooth and attractive and, thanks to the long focal length and large maximum aperture, true out-of-focus backgrounds were easy to achieve.
The above test shots show how much control over depth of field photographers can obtain with this lens.
Action shot at ISO 200; f/4.0, 1/2000 second.
ISO 200; f/2.8, 1/2500 second.
Low light action: ISO 400; f/2.8, 1/1250 second.
Available light: ISO 640; f/5, 1/50 second. Tripod used.
Focal length range: 400mm
Maximum aperture: f/2.8
Minimum aperture: f/22
Lens construction: 14 elements in 11 groups (3 ED glass and 1 Nano Crystal Coat deposited lens elements) as well as one protective glass
Stabilisation: Lens-shift method using voice coil motors
Lens mount: Nikon F mount
Diaphragm Blades: 9 rounded
Minimum focus: 2.9 metres in AF mode; 2.8 metres with manual focusing
Tripod collar: Built-in. Rotatable through 360 degrees, lens rotation position index at 90 degrees
Filter size: 52mm (slips into a holder at the camera end of the lens barrel)
Dimensions (Diameter x L): 159.5 x 368.0 mm
Weight: Approx. 4,620 grams
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