Review Nikon 400 mm f/2.8 @ FX
|What a whopper this top-of-the-line Nikon AF-S 400 mm f/2.8E FL ED VR is! A combination of all the technology that Nikon has in house: bright optics, super-fast auto focus, nano-coating against reflections, dirt-repellent fluoride coating on the flat front lens, ED glass against chromatic aberration, fluorite glass also preventing CA but also limiting the weight. Vibration reduction that has to be good for about 4 stops. Better and more beautiful you won't find, nor heavier (nearly 4 kilos) or more expensive, by the way. We were able to try out this technical masterpiece on a full-frame D810. Read on to see whether this masterpiece is worth the money.|
Nikon AF-S 400 mm f/2.8E FL ED VR
When and where a 400 mm f/2.8?
A bright 400 mm telephoto lens in this price class really only has two target audiences: the nature photographer and the sports photographer. For photographing large mammals in nature, 400 mm is ideal. For small birds, a 400 mm is on the short side. At a distance of 10 meters you have an image field of just under a meter; that is too much for a bullfinch. With a D810 body, you naturally have so terribly many pixels that you can easily crop 2x without visible loss of quality. With the shortest distance setting (2.6 meters), you have an image field of more than 20 cm.
For field sports, the 400 mm is handy. With these activities, there is so much happening, quickly and at the same time, that you mustn't have too much telephoto, otherwise, you soon lose sight of your subject. In addition, the 400 mm is still somewhat manageable, although the use of a (one-legged) tripod is necessary. The lens is simply too heavy to successfully shoot by hand for longer than a couple of minutes.
The bright (f/2.8) is not only a guarantee for a good, bright viewfinder image, but also for reliable auto focus; it also makes the use of teleconverters possible. With a 2x teleconverter, the effective brightness becomes f/5.6 and then the phase detection AF still works.
The lens is designed for professional use, and that means solid construction with little plastic and a lot of metal. Nikon talks about 16 elements in 12 groups (including 2 fluorite and 2 ED glass elements) plus a protective, meniscus-shaped glass element, and 2 aspherical lens elements with a Nano Crystal Coat. There is a nice tripod collar on it, also handy as a handgrip when being carried. There is even an eye for a strap. The front lens is so large that there are few filters that fit it; therefore, there is a mount on the back, into which you can screw 40.5 mm filters. If you do not use a filter, there is clear glass in it. You can remove that, but then the focusing is no longer right. Upon request, Nikon even delivers a polarization filter that can be set in the lens with a rotating knob.
The electronically driven aperture (the reason for the "E" in the name) has 9 lamellae for a beautifully round opening. The lens has a carbon filter sun cap of gigantic dimensions, which you can mount backwards during transport. A cloth protective bag fits on the front side. The whole thing is delivered in a beautiful case, unfortunately without wheels.
Nikon AF-S 400 mm f/2.8E FL ED VR Auto focus
For the purpose for which this lens is built, lightning-fast auto focus is a must. Fast, but also accurate: the focal depth is very small at this focal distance, after all. On both points, this 400 mm in the practice test scores flawlessly. You do not notice or hear that you are focusing, and the accuracy was perfect. With fast-moving subjects, the photographer is typically the limiting factor; it is actually not easy and requires a lot of practice in order to keep something in frame well. In order to combat "walking", you can limit the range of the AF. When there are any front focus or back focus deviations, most bodies offer the option of correcting for that. With our D810, that was not needed. There is an AF-Lock and AF-Memory Recall button in order to fix the focal point or to return to a previous focal point.
VR and Sports VR @ Nikon AF-S 400 mm f/2.8E FL ED VR
The vibration reduction, according to Nikon, is good for about 4 stops. There are two setting options: "standard" and "sport". You use the latter setting when you move the camera itself a lot in order to follow your subject, a sort of "panning" setting. From our measurements, it appears that with a shutter time of 1/30 of a second, you still take a sharp picture if you make use of image stabilization. From a tripod, a shot made with the same shutter time is even sharper, but a shot by hand at the same shutter time is worthless. Shooting by hand, you can still make razor-sharp pictures with a shutter time of 1/100 of a second (see the portrait further along).
|Framing and focusing with a telephoto lens is difficult, because the smallest movement of the photographer causes an enormous change in the image. Sports photographers usually use very short shutter times in order to freeze the image, and then you cannot use the normal image stabilization. With short shutter times, you make sharper photos without image stabilization than with it. You see that in many of the graphs of our test results for the effectiveness of image stabilization of lenses. Nikon has come up with a very elegant solution for this: Sports VR – during focusing, the image stabilization of the Nikon 400 mm f/2.8 is on, so that you have a very quiet viewfinder image. While making an action photo with Sports VR on, the image stabilization is momentarily turned off, so that you maintain the maximum sharpness. Above, you see a video from Nikon Asia, in which the operation of Sports VR is illustrated. While taking practice shots (shown here), it was indeed refreshing to use Sports VR.
Vignetting, distortion, flare and chromatic aberration
Due to the enormous amount of glass, extreme telephoto lenses are more sensitive to flare than a standard lens. That's why such enormously large sun caps are included with good telephoto lenses. Even so, with this lens, you will have little trouble with flare or ghosts even without the sun cap. We can be brief about vignetting, distortion, flare and chromatic aberration: they are as good as completely absent! The optical qualities of this lens are really exceptional, whereby we naturally have to note here that this is the best but also the most expensive that Nikon has to offer. The bar can thus be set very high.
Nikon AF-S 400 mm f/2.8E FL ED VR + Nikon D810 @ f/2.8, 1/320 s, uit de hand.
We express sharpness in our test work as resolution, the number of line pairs per image height. This is very high for a lens of this focal distance, even at full aperture, and both in the corners and in the middle. The highest values will be measured at 1 stop stopping down (f/4), see the picture shown here. The decrease at f/11 (and higher) is caused by diffraction. The light starts to curl, as it were, around the aperture, and this causes some loss of quality. This is a phenomenon of physics that occurs with all lenses.
That the score for resolution does not come out as 9.9 is probably caused by the enormous column of air that is located between the test card and camera for the tests. The same test card that you get a frame-filling photograph of from 1 meter with a 35 mm you photograph from a distance of 30 meters when you are photographing with a large telephoto lens, so that the contrast – and a resolution measurement is a contrast measurement – decreases.
This friendly woman sat many meters away from us in Artis, drawing in the monkey house. Low light, so ISO 5000, 1/100 of a second at full aperture and shot by hand. It is a beautiful demonstration of both the effectiveness of the VR and that of the auto focus: focusing on the eye of the woman.
|Bokeh (the quality of the blur) is never a problem for lenses with a long focal point. Both above and below, you see beautifully blurred backgrounds without frayed edges. The 9 aperture blades guarantee that.
Nikon AF-S 400 mm f/2.8E FL ED VR + Nikon D810 @ f/2.8, 1/1000 s, 200 ISO
Nikon AF-S 400 mm f/2.8E FL ED VR review @ Nikon D810
Test camera: Nikon D800, D810
WYSIWYG score: This table shows the performance of this lens if you store the file in the camera as a jpg, where you have applied all available in-camera lens corrections. This score gives you for this lens/test camera combination: "What you see is what you get".