Review of the AS-F NIKKOR 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR

This great article was written by local photographer, Dave Argyle.



Shooting daytime sports just got a lot easier.

I shoot a lot of high school sports. And I’ve had experience with a fair number of lenses doing this type of photography. For me, the most important qualities of a lens are the following (in rough order of importance):

1: Focus speed. If a lens can’t focus fast enough to catch the action, it’s useless.

2: Wide aperture. You need a lot of light to get fast shutter speeds at reasonable ISO values, making this criterion especially important for indoor and nighttime sports. Wide apertures also provide narrow depths-of-field to help isolate players from the cluttered backgrounds present at most high school venues.

3: Sharpness. Nobody likes a soft action photo.

4: Focal length. You need some serious telephoto lengths to reach across big playing fields.

5: Zoom. When the action moves around quickly, a zoom makes it much easier to follow.

6: Ease of use. I’ll put up with a lot to get the shots I want. But if a smaller, lighter, or more versatile lens can do the job, why not use it?

I typically take two cameras to a sporting event. On one I use a 70-200mm f2.8 lens for relatively close action, and the other will have a larger lens with a longer focal length on a monopod. But this can be cumbersome. I know I’ve missed a lot of shots because I couldn’t switch between cameras fast enough, such as when I’m standing near first base at a baseball game, looking through the big lens at a batter, and the pitcher suddenly turns and throws to first base trying to pick off a runner.

So I have been very interested in Nikon’s new 80-400mm f/4-5.6G ED VR lens. I’ve wondered how it would hold up to my criteria, and if the convenience of using this single lens with its long zoom-range would offset some possible deficiencies in other areas.

I took it to an afternoon high school softball game, with the sun moving in and out from behind the clouds, cluttered backgrounds, and action at lots of different distances. I figured this would be a good test. MTF charts and carefully controlled test images are interesting, but I wanted to know how the lens would work for me and what I do in real-world conditions. I also brought along a 200-400mm f4 zoom and a 400mm f2.8 prime to get some comparison shots. I shot the 80-400 handheld, and used a monopod with the big lenses.

I started out just taking some boring comparison shots of players against different backgrounds using each of the lenses at their widest apertures. Then I put the big lenses away and shot the rest of the game using just the 80-400. Here are my observations:

1: Focus speed – no problem. The new lens seemed to focus just as quickly as any of the other lenses, and fast enough to catch the action.

2: Wide aperture – mixed feelings. Experience tells me that this lens’ smaller maximum aperture will cause it to really struggle indoors and at night, but it was good enough for an overcast daytime event. As expected, the cluttered backgrounds were sharper and more distracting when compared with the images from the big lenses. But it was not as bad as I had feared, particularly compared to the 200-400mm f4.

3: Sharpness – pleasantly surprised. I got some very sharp images, and the keeper-rate seemed just as good as with any of the other lenses.

4: Focal length – no problem. Obviously at full zoom this lens matches the 400mm focal length of the big lenses I compared it with.

5: Zoom – fantastic. The ability to zoom through the entire range I normally use with just one lens was terrific, and enabled me to switch between close and far action much more quickly than when juggling two cameras.

6: Ease of use – great. There were a few minor annoyances. The viewfinder image was noticeably darker than when using an f2.8 lens due to the smaller maximum aperture. The zoom ring was stiffer than I’m used to. And the lens gets pretty long when extended to 400mm with the lens hood attached, making it a bit more bothersome to carry around than a 70-200mm. But these complaints are trivial when compared to the freedom of not needing to haul around a second camera with a big lens and monopod.

So what’s the bottom line? The new 80-400 is not going to replace the low-light and subject isolation abilities of an f2.8 lens. But it’s good enough that it will probably replace the 200-400mm f4. It’s not going to be my lens of choice for indoor or nighttime sports. But its overall quality, and especially its ease of use, makes me think I’ll end up using one a lot in the daytime.


Article written by Dave Argyle




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