Nikon has expanded its already substantial range of lenses with the AF-S NIKKOR 180-400 mm f/4E TC1.4 FL ED VR. This is the first telephoto lens in the NIKKOR range with a built-in 1.4x teleconverter. We have been able to test it briefly. This zoom lens always produces sharp, stable images and, thanks to the built-in 1.4x converter, offers a range of 560 mm if the situation requires it.
SUPER-TELEPHOTO IN PRACTICE: Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 180–400mm f/4E TC1.4 FL ED VR
DThe AF-S NIKKOR 180-400 mm f/4E TC1.4 FL ED VR is not a lens with which you can take pictures unobtrusively. Even animals give you extra attention if you point this lens at them. It is so big that even at events you stand out among other photographers, especially if you use the large lens hood. It is also quite heavy. After a day of shooting by hand with this lens, you have certainly put in a good workout. There are two good reasons for that substantial size and weight: range and quality. With a range of 180 to 400mm, you have three long telephoto lenses with this lens: a 200, a 300 and a 400mm. The lens also has a built-in teleconverter. That is located in a bulge on the right-hand side of the lens close to the camera. The switch can be operated with a fingertip without letting go of the camera. If you want to prevent accidentally engaging it, there is a lock to secure the converter. With the converter, you have a 500mm, and with a range of up to 560mm also nearly a 600mm. With this zoom you thus have pretty much available telephoto lenses at once. The lens not only has a big range, but also lots of setting options.
On the left side of the lens, near the camera, are the switches for autofocus/manual focus, limiting the setting range, the image stabilization, the preselection setting for four programmable buttons and a button for switching the sound of the presets on or off. The first three buttons speak for themselves. With the top one, you choose between autofocus with the option of manual correction, manual focus with the option of using the AF for fine adjustment or full manual focus. The button below that is for using the full focus range from infinity to two meters or only the area between infinity and 6 meters. Below that is the button for the different modes for image stabilization. Here you have the choice between off, ordinary or ‘sport’. You use this last mode when you want to track your subject. The last two switches are unique. With the first one, you can set which function you want to assign to the four buttons that are just in front of the zoom ring. You can choose from Focus Lock, Focus On and Memory. When using the Memory mode, the lens focuses to a predetermined distance as soon as you press one of the four buttons. That’s handy if, for example, you want to focus at once on the goal line or something similar. The last button is for turning a warning signal on or off. Furthermore, the lens is of course fitted with a big tripod base and a button for locking it and two eyes for attaching a carrying strap. With a lens like this, which is much heavier than the camera, it’s better to carry the lens than the camera. That puts a lot less stress on the mount. Of course, a professional lens like this has every possible seal and an extra fluorine coating on the front lens to keep that big glass surface clean. With a length of more than 36 cm, this is a hefty lens. However, that length does not increase when you zoom, not even when using the teleconverter. The front lens is so big that you cannot use screw filters onto this lens. There is a slot at the back for 40.5mm filters.
OPTICAL PERFORMANCE 180-400mm
With a lens priced at around 12,000 euros, you expect nothing more or less than top performances, and the AF-S NIKKOR 180-400 mm f/4E TC1.4 FL ED VR lives up to that expectation. Without using the teleconverter, the sharpness at all focal lengths and apertures is very high. Many telephoto zoom lenses clearly perform better on the shortest setting than on the longest, but that does not apply to this Nikkor. If we have to identify one range that is (slightly) less good, then it’s the middle settings, at 200 and 300 mm, where the center scores just as high as on the other settings, but you see a small gradient of sharpness from the center to the corners. At 180mm and 400mm, there is hardly any gradient of sharpness to the corners. Chromatic aberrations are also virtually absent, which contributes to the impression of high sharpness of the lens. The lens does have more trouble at full aperture with vignetting than you would expect from a long telephoto. On f/4, it ranges from around 1.8 stops at 180mm to 1.6 stops at 400mm. It decreases when you stop down, and in practice you won’t see much of it on f/8. For nature, landscape and sports photography, where this lens will be used a lot, it doesn’t matter, but it’s also good to know that the Nikkor is not completely free of distortion. On the shortest setting, it’s about half a percent barrel shaped, and that runs up to just over one percent pincushion at 400mm. If you shoot a lot of buildings with this lens, you’ll probably want to correct that in the post-processing.
OPTICAL PERFORMANCE 250-560mm
Teleconverters enlarge the image that you capture. Because they do that, they also magnify any errors of the lens that they are placed behind. The extent of the loss of quality when using a teleconverter depends on how good the lens is with which the converter is used. The AF-S Nikkor 180-400mm is very good, with high sharpness and few aberrations. That ensures that the performance with the converter switched on is also very good. The center sharpness is a fraction lower when using the converter, but it’s so limited that you’ll hardly see it in practice. At the longer focal lengths, 400 and 500 mm, the corners do lose some sharpness. It’s not much, but probably just enough to be able to see it if you have a subject with details that run into the corners. Whether you use f/5.6 or f/8 doesn’t matter. At f/11 on the D850, with its extremely critical 42-megapixel sensor, the sharpness in the corners lags a bit more. Try to avoid that aperture, unless you really need that much depth of field.
With the teleconverter, the distortion over the entire zoom range is pincushion-shaped, varying from 1% at 300mm to 1.5% at 500mm. The vignetting is a bit less with the teleconverter than without it. That has to do with the fact that the converter also enlarges the image circle. The lens achieves the highest value at full aperture on 500mm, and then the vignetting is just a bit more than a stop. In all other modes, it’s less than that, and at f/8 it’s so limited that you won’t even see it.
The autofocus is pretty fast for such a big lens. Focusing on static subjects is very fast and precise. Focusing on moving subjects requires a bit more experience. Despite the fact that it’s possible to work with this lens out of hand, it helps to have at least one-legged tripod under it. Tracking a subject works better if you do it as smoothly as possible and don’t wobble too much. And when working by hand, the latter is easy to slip into. Because of the high weight and the magnification factor, it’s not easy to keep a moving subject in the frame, and that makes it harder for the autofocus to get the focus perfect.
VR, Vibration Reduction, is the name that Nikon chooses for image stabilization. On a lens with which you can magnify subjects (and therefore vibration) 11 times compared to a 50mm standard lens, it’s indispensable. Nikon claims a profit of about four stops. An old rule of thumb says that you can determine the slowest shutter speed (without stabilization) by dividing 1 by the focal length. For this lens, you can then assume 1/500th second. But actually, on cameras with a very high resolution like the D850, the old rules of thumb have become obsolete. With 42 megapixels, you see every bit of blur, and then 1/1000th of a second is much more realistic as the slowest shutter speed without stabilization. With this lens, we were able to get a number of sharp shots at 1/60th of a second. Four stops’ profit is therefore realistic.
The AF-S NIKKOR 180-400mm f/4E TC1.4 FL ED VR has a fixed brightness of f/4 over the entire range without the converter and f/5.6 over the entire range with converter.
For the shortest focal lengths, 200mm and 300mm, that’s not particularly bright, but for 400mm and 500mm, that’s pretty decent. On the 200mm setting, you can say that this lens is about one stop less bright than the best telephoto lenses with fixed focal length. That one stop is negligible with respect to the bokeh, the quality of background blur. The focal depth is namely still quite limited at f/4 on 400 mm and f/5.6 on 550 mm. Depending on how close you are to your subject, it’s sometimes only a few centimeters. With this lens, backgrounds are quickly blurred. And the quality of the blur is nice.
CONCLUSION: REVIEW Nikon AF-S 180–400mm f/4E TC1.4 FL ED VR
- Big range
- Built-in teleconverter
- Image stabilization
- Dust and moisture resistant
- Solidly built
- Fixed brightness
The quality of the Nikon AF-S 180-400 mm f/4E TC1.4 FL ED VR is great, and the range of options is big.
The AF-S NIKKOR 180-400 mm f/4E TC1.4 FL ED VR is certainly not a lens that you will soon see in large numbers in nature. The purchase price of around 12,000 euros alone will be a considerable hurdle for many photographers. Furthermore, it’s big and heavy. This is not a lens that you just buy to have in case you need it once. Buying a lens like this 180-400mm is a very deliberate choice. But once you have it, it’s probably also the last and perhaps the only long telephoto lens you’ll ever need. The quality is great, and the range of options is big. It’s much easier to carry than two fixed focal lengths in this range, and the changing out separate converters with a fixed focal length can be cumbersome with heavy lenses like these. The AF-S NIKKOR 180-400mm f/4E TC1.4 FL ED VR offers all in one and makes working with long focal lengths much easier.