Nikon 80-400 AF-S VR Review

I just got the new Nikon 80-400 AF-S VR lens yesterday, which comes at a good time as I will have a photography trip to India within a week.

I wanted to conduct a few quick tests of the lens just to make sure I got a keeper.  In time all the major review sites will publish indepth reviews so I won’t be doing that, just a few quick simple tests, all at 400mm focal length which for me is what I most wanted to test.

Nikon 80-400 AF-S VR

First I put the lens through the same set of tests that I have done for years with all other telephoto lens.  I took pictures of an aircraft warning light on the roof of a hotel located about 625 meters from my open window.  I always do these tests in the morning before the air heats up and atmospheric turbulence becomes a major problem.  First a sequence of images from f5.6 to f16 taken with a D800 at iso200.  All images are 100% crops with no sharpening, taken on a tripod with mirror lock up and cable release.  I have done this test many times with many lens, including multiple copies of 300mm F2.8, 600mm f4, 200-400mm f4.   As this is just a quick review I won’t have images from prior tests and other lens, but I can say that at wide open at f5.6 the results look quite good to me.  As you can see the lens gets a bit sharper at f8 and then diffraction starts to set in at f11 and f16.

80-400mm @400mm

Next a test of the lens with TC14 attached.  This is a new feature for this lens as the prior generation of 80-400 AF-D didn’t allow a TC to be attached.  Actually the results at f8 look quite good and the lens gets a bit sharper at f11.  At f16 diffraction is taking it’s toll.

80-400mm @560mm with TC14

Then just for comparions sake, I did a quick test of the 70-200mm VR1 lens.  (I don’t have the VR2 version).  The TC20III was mounted to give 400mm focal length.  The TC20III is a very good teleconvertor and I have tested this before with other lens.  But as you can see with the 70-200 VR1 lens wide open at f5.6 the combination is just not very sharp.  Some improvement can be had stopping the lens down and it even gets better stopped down to f16.  It’s clear the new 80-400 AF-S VR lens easily beats the 70-200 VR1 lens and TC20III combination.

70-200 VR1 @400mm with TC20III

Now for a real world test, since I mainly photograph birds, I went to the Singapore Botanic Gardens this morning to photograph the sunbirds.  The first shot is a 50% crop at 400mm, 1/500s, f5.6, iso400 taken with a D800, handheld.

Crimson Sunbird @400mm

The second image is a 100% crop with no sharpening.  Looks good to me.

AF-S operation is quick and snappy.  I had no trouble keeping up with the sunbirds and as you know they are small and fast!  AF-S with the TC14 attached was noticeably slower, I haven’t tried this combination on birds yet.  I should add that the VR operation is silent and unobtrusive.  Build quality of the lens is top notch.  I never owned or used the prior version, so I can not compare these two lenses from my own experience.   Overall, it looks like Nikon has designed a great new lens that will be a welcome addition to my kit.

Crimson Sunbird 100% Crop

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34 Responses to “Nikon 80-400 AF-S VR Review”

  1. Des says:

    Good, concise review Con. Looks an interesting lens. It’d appear that the price tag is justified, well, almost! Thanks for the info.



  2. Fernando says:

    Great Sunbird image! I wonder how does this new 80-400 compares to the 200-400 VR in terms of sharpness at 400 mm and AF speed.? Which lens would work better with a 1.4TC or even a 1.7TC? I use a D800 and a D300 s. Any comments?

  3. Con Foley says:

    Hi Fernando, I used to own the orignal 200-400 VR1 lens from late 2004 to late 2006 and then sold it. I used this lens extensively with a TC14 and also TC17. It wasn’t so sharp with either TC, which is the reason I sold the lens and went with a 600mm prime and 300mm prime to cover the same focal length range. I don’t think I will use the 80-400 with a TC very often and will revert to the primes when I want the focal length. But as a zoom I expect the 80-400 to do just fine. At 400 mm I am very happy so far.

  4. william boehm says:

    greetings con..still in seattle..but coming back to singapore april what a shot of the sunbird..where and what time in the am?
    i would love to get togehter with you there, we never did hook up to go to malaysia…rainy season is now over. bill (we met for coffee at UE square a few months back)

  5. Con Foley says:

    Hi Bill, the sunbird photo was taken about 10 am in Botanic Gardens. They are not early birds 🙂

  6. Harry says:

    Your antennae are having heatwave issues. hence they look like they are melting… 😛

  7. Tim says:

    I was hoping that this new 80-400 might be able to replace my 300 f/4 afs (I am tired of waiting for Nikon to upgrade it and add VR) but unfortunately the 100% crop of the sunbird is just too soft for me. The 300 f/4 would be sharper than that.

  8. Tom Bancroft says:

    Thanks so much for the quick review. My lens is suppose to arrive tomorrow. The sunbird shot is just outstanding. I too plan to use it for bird photography and based on you review I am really excited. I can’t wait to test it out.


  9. As a full time nature and wildlife photographer…I am extremely please with my new AF-S 80-400. I shoot with both a D600 and the new D7100. Coupling the lens with the D7100 is amazing. With the 1.5 crop factor plus the added 1.3 crop factor, I feel a new lease on my DX photos. Very pleased.

  10. Ian J Llewellyn says:

    Hi Con,
    I too am a passionate Wildlife photographer & am currently using a D7100 coupled with an 18-300 VR lens (simply for it’s versatility), however, this lens does not quite have the reach I am looking for.
    Do you believe that I can achieve much better results with the new 80-400 lens?

  11. Con Foley says:

    Hi Ian,

    Yes, I think the new 80-400 will work fine with your D7100. In fact another poster commented that he was pleased with this combo.

  12. Ash Mills says:

    Hi, thanks for the testing, very informative. Just one query, the test shots with 70-200 and TC2 seem odd that sharpness rises and falls like that- are you quite sure that f5.6/f11 were in focus, as it seems odd that f16 is so much sharper, and F8? Sorry to niggle but as a 70-200 (vr2) user the comparison is important for the investment..

  13. Con Foley says:

    Hi Ash, thanks for your post. Certainly there will be some repeatability issues so the results with the 70-200 and TC2 might be a bit different from test run to test run, but I’m satisfied that overall the 80-400 is sharper in the range I’m interested in which is primarily f5.6 and f8. Bear in mind this was with a 70-200 vr1. I don’t have a vr2 and I don’t think you can draw any conclusions about the vr2 performance from my test of the vr1.

  14. sachin says:

    got this thing today evening ..tx for the tips, will try tmrw with f4/500, life seems a blast

  15. D600 says:

    I’ve learn some excellent stuff here. Definitely value bookmarking for revisiting. I surprise how a lot effort you put to make any such fantastic informative website.

  16. Mark says:

    I tried out the new 80-400 at a Nikon dealer today – before seeing this. Very interesting. Have taken some comparison shots with my 70-200 2.8 VR2 which takes nice detailed pics and focuses quickly. The 70-200 with the D800E lacks reach… I also tried the TC2.0 III with the 70-200 today. See the comparison photos on this link – not a professional comparison but the parking sign shows how much sharper the 80-400 is at shorter distances – and how good the 70-200 is on its own cropped with a D800 (not a fair comparison though). I like the light weight of the 80-400 – but the price is… well… high. But then the alternative is adding the 200-400 f4 or a straight 400mm… and the bag gets much heavier and expensive. How does the 80-400 compare to the 200-400… I guess they are a little sharper… and heavier… I won’t be buying the TC2.0 to go with the 70-200 though.

  17. Mark says:

    Another test on this interesting lens with some interesting pictures to gauge sharpness at long focal length…

  18. I currently have the 200-400mm which I dont take around casually due to the weight. I hand hold when I use it (I know this is not good). I had the 80-400mm original which unfortunately got broken. My question is whether to sell the 200-400 for the new 80-400 as I would like the lighter lens. Problem is I need it for bears in rainforest and am concerned about low light. I do have the D4 but am concerned with low light @ 5.6.
    Anyone thoughts on this?

  19. Con Foley says:

    Hi Melody,
    I used to own the 200-400mm, I had the original VR1 version. Eventually I sold that and got a 600mm lens. Mainly I photograph birds and inevitably one must crop. I find the big prime lens much sharper than the 200-400mm. Now for mammals the story might be different, perhaps less cropping is required. But you are right, the weight of the 200-400mm is no joke. I think the new 80-400 is really sharp and with it’s light weight you may be able to hold it more steadily than the 200-400mm. Coupled with the D4 you can get to some pretty low light levels! It has become my walk-about lens. I also have the 300mm f2.8 if I need to get some really low light shots.

  20. Terry Heppell says:

    Hi Con,
    I was wondering how you would rate the VR on this lens. Presently I use the AF-S 300mm F4 with the TC-14E II.
    The quality is good but the absence of VR makes handheld only possible in very good lighting. After reading your review I am thinking of getting the 80-400. I would value your opinion.

  21. Con Foley says:

    Hi Terry,
    I find the VR on the lens to be quite good. I can regularily get good shots at 400 mm and at 1/60 second hand held which I am quite sure you can not get with an non-VR lens.

    The sharpness of the 300mm / TC1.4 is well known, but I don’t believe you will find the 80-400VR lacking.

  22. Girish A says:

    Hi….am an hobbyist..starting to pursue serious birding/wildlife photography. Found the posts here useful. currenty having Nikon D90 with 70-300 VR. Am planning to upgrade my equipment…am confused as to whether is should go for better body or lens first.i know that need to upgrade both of them. Am tempted to buy 80-400 VR new lens..but apprehensive about its compatability with my D90..would like to have some guidance on this aspect….subsequently i plan to upgrade body as well…..please help………regards…..girish.

    • Con Foley says:

      Hi Girish,
      All good questions, tough to answer without being in your shoes. But having said that, I would be tempted to look at the D600 camera body first, it’ll be a huge upgrade from the D90 in terms of overall capability. Then, depending on your needs and budget the new 80-400VR. I will probably sell my 70-300VR, really don’t use it anymore.
      Cheers, Con

  23. Marc MOL says:

    Excellent and concise review Con.
    Just picked up my AF-S 80-400 the other day and initial images are very promising, love the VR and AF/tracking is exceptional for a f/5.6 zoom.
    Look forward to giving it a workout in conjunction with my 500VR on a return trip to Selous & Ruaha NP’s – Tanzania next month.

    • DanB says:

      Would be interested in the results of the 80-400
      on your safari trip. I’m planning on a trip to
      Tanzania and debating between the 80-400
      vs. the 200-400/f4 with my D800. Weight and
      cost vs. image quality.

      • Con Foley says:

        I haven’t done a safari to Africa with the 80-400, but I did shoot big game in India and I was very happy with the results. I previously owned the 200-400 VR1 and that was a good lens too, but much more expensive and heavier. The combination I now favor is 80-400VR and 600VR.

  24. Roger king says:

    Hi Con,

    I hope you are well.
    I don’t own any Nikon DSLRs but am very interested in this 80-400 for wildlife. But I might be tempted to get the d7100 and 80-400 combo.
    Con, how do you find the AF performance on the D7100 in conjunction with the new 80-400? Is it comparable to the D4 in speed and tracking abilities? Also is the JPEG files of the d7100 close to FF IQ? If I understood it correctly, the d7100 stalls after six frames in raw, what about at 1.3 crop mode? In your opinion, do you think it is necessary to take raw or just JPEG will do for d7100 files?

    Also if you have used the Canon 400mm F5.6L before, do you think this new 80-400 is just as sharp, sharper or not so sharp at the 400 end wide open?

    Thank you.


    • Con Foley says:

      Hi Roger, I can’t give you any first hand help with the D7100 because I don’t own one. I’ve seen several folks use this combo and they seem happy. I always shoot raw. I have not used the Canon 400mm lens, so no experience here either. But I can say the 80-400 is sharp, even wide open at 400mm. Quite happy with this lens, I use it a lot.

  25. Joe Goodman says:

    Hi Con,
    I’ve just gotten my 80-400 and am trying it out on a D7100. In trials, I am finding the AF doing more hunting than I would have expected…and making quite a bit of noise (clicks and whirs)in the process. With no way to compare the lens to another copy of it, I am not sure if this is user error (certainly a possibility) or if there is something wrong with the lens. Do you hear noise when using this lens; if so, when is it most likely to occur? And will AF act differently with a continuous setting than in single-release mode? I’m wondering if this is why I am getting so much hunting. Thanks for any advice you can offer!

  26. Con Foley says:

    Hi Joe, difficult to diagnose remotely for sure ! For wildlife I always use AF-C mode. I’m using the lens with D800 and D4 which have the high end focus module, sorry I haven’t tried the lens with a D7100. The lens does make some small noises (perhaps even clicks) in normal operation, I just tried mine, nothing wrong here. In good light and a high contrast target my lens acquires focus quickly. In low light or low contrast situations acquiring focus will take longer.

  27. Reece Croucher says:

    Hi Con,
    great review (my second time reading it) – with the new 300 PF f/4.0 just released I’m wondering how the 80-400 will stack up? Hopefully you’ll get your hands on one to test for us!
    Going on Safari later this year so looking for a second camera rig to go with the D4/600mm combo. The 80-400 looks a good choice as a second lens because it’s light weight for hand-held and it allows variable a range of distances and subject sizes based on the zoom. Where I’m a bit stumped is on the camera body…not sure whether to go low-end full frame (D750 or similar) or high-end crop (D7100)? Any thoughts on that issue Con?
    Also I think a previous poster may have had the old version of the 80-400 – whizzing, clicking, hunting are all symptoms of the first troubled version of the 80-400!

  28. Con Foley says:

    Hi Reece, Having owned the 80-400VR for nearly two years now, I’m still very happy with it, my 300 f2.8 hardly gets any use. The 300 f4 serves a different niche. I have and will continue to go on Safari with the 80-400VR for certain, some of the animals are really big and you’ll want the 80mm end. I’d get the D750 or D810 as a second body. With a DX camera you’ll have 120mm – 600mm which overlaps too much with your 600mm prime.
    Cheers, Con

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