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Nikon 80-400mm f4.5-5.6D 

by Jim McGee

Construction: 17 elements in 11 groups
Minimum Focus Distance: 7.5ft 
Macro: No 
Filter Size: 77mm 
Front Rotate w/ Focus: No 
Hood: HB-24 Included 
Dimensions: 3.4 x 7.4 inches 
Weight: 47.3 oz, 40.5 oz without tripod mount. 
Available Mounts: Nikon F 
Other: A tripod mount and soft case are included.

Verdict: Thumbs Up

While testing with this lens I was approached several times by curious Nikon shooters. They talked about vibration reduction as if it were the answer to all photographic problems. It's not. Let's face it, if it were, Canon would have put Nikon out of business by now!

So let's forget about vibration reduction and talk about the lens first and then about what vibration reduction will and won't do for you. The lens is worth talking about even without the VR.

The optics are first rate throughout its wide zoom range. The optical package consists of 17 elements in 11 groups. Three of those elements are ED glass which helps maintain sharpness and prevent color fringing at longer focal lengths. Pick it up and you can feel the effect of all that glass. This lens is no lightweight at 47 ounces with the tripod mount attached. That makes it a touch heavier than the venerable 80-200mm f2.8. Remove the tripod collar for handheld shooting and you drop 7 ounces bringing the weight down to around 40 ounces. But while its no lightweight, it is well balanced, especially when mounted to a heavier body such as the F100 or F5. A rounded 9 blade diaphragm opening provides pleasingly soft out of focus backgrounds for isolating subjects and making those subjects pop out from the background.

The lens has an attractive matte black finish and sports a two-ring design for focus and zoom. The rings are rubberized and ribbed, making them easy to find by feel when your eye is to the viewfinder and easy to grip, even with wet hands. The focus ring is smooth and well damped - as you would expect from a pro-level lens. The zoom ring is biased slightly on the stiff side to prevent creep when pointing the lens upward. Run it out to 400mm and point it straight up. It won't move. Filter size is 77mm, a common size for those shooting higher end Nikon glass.

A feature I really liked was the manual/auto switch design. A narrow third ring, instead of a switch, located just inboard of the focus ring makes it easy to switch quickly over to manual focus by feel to tweak your focus "just so" before pressing the shutter. The switch can also be locked out in either position to prevent accidentally switching modes; but it's hardly necessary. I kept it in the unlocked position the entire time I had the lens and never once had it slip positions. A limit switch helps prevent autofocus hunting.

Extras included with the lens include a soft case made of ballistic nylon that can be adapted to work with interchangeable systems from Tamrac and Lowepro. A serious hard lens hood is included that can be reversed for storage. A removable, hefty, rotating tripod mount is included.

Compatibility & Teleconverters 
At present there is no Nikon teleconverter that allows vibration reduction and metering to function normally. However it is heavily rumored that when Nikon releases an 80-200mm VR lens later this year, they will also release a line of compatible teleconverters. We used a Kenko Pro 300 2X converter and while VR was disabled we were able to preserve autofocus at a reasonable speed with little hunting when using the limit switch. Shooting birds from a tripod with VR turned off produced images from this combination that were sharp and pleasing when shooting wide open.

Body compatibility is a different issue. Nikon is justifiably proud of the fact that it has now produced over 30 million F-mount lenses. In theory any F-mount lens will work with any Nikon body going back to the original Nikon F camera first produced over 40 years ago.

Reality isn't quite as neat as the theory. Owners of new generations of both lenses and bodies learn there are idiosyncrasies of how metering and focus technologies work together or in some cases won't work together. The introduction of VR technology is no exception. Vibration reduction required additional electrical contacts on the lens mount. That means the vibration reduction function will only work with some current and future Nikon bodies. On those bodies not compatible with VR, the lens functions like any other Nikon D lens. Currently compatible bodies include the F5, F100, F80/N80, D1H, D1X, and the D100. The entry level N55 & N65 are not VR compatible.

Kissing Cousins the VR and the 80-200mm f2.8 
A question that has been asked by readers and was asked by those curious Nikon shooters was which is the better lens choice - the VR or the 80-200mm f2.8? The 80-200mm f2.8 has long been the preferred zoom among pros and serious amateurs because it's fast and super sharp. Current street prices for this lens are around $900 for the non-AFS version and around $1,400 for the AFS version. The VR is around the same size and weight. At $1,400 it's in the same price ballpark plus it has double the focal length and vibration reduction. So should you choose the VR over the 80-200mm?

It really depends on your shooting style. These lenses solve two different problems. With its vibration reduction technology the VR can shoot in low light right alongside the 80-200mm. Both are rugged and both have sharp optics. But the VR can't match the 80-200mm for its ability to isolate a subject in that 80-200mm range. At 400mm it does a great job, remember depth of field decreases with focal length, but whether you're shooting runway models or wildlife the 80-200mm will provide that additional isolation in its focal range.

Shooting both lenses side by side I did get one surprise. The VR was better balanced for handholding - noticeably so. The 80-200mm had never felt unbalanced to me in the past, but when shooting the two lenses back to back the 80-200mm felt front heavy by comparison.

The lower image shows the face of the baby osprey so you can get a feel for the sharpness in the top image. The point of sharpest focus may have been on the sticks directly in front of him but given that it was shot from the deck of a pitching sailboat handheld at 400mm the potential is obvious. Just look at that eye!

Vibration Reduction 
I'll admit to always having been something of a VR skeptic. I'm one of those lucky individuals that have a steady hand. I'm often able to get shots well into shutter speeds where tripods are required. So I always wondered just how much VR would do for me. The answer is "a lot".

The rule of thumb is you shouldn't hand hold past one over the focal length that you're shooting or 1/400th of a second at 400mm. Nikon claims that vibration reduction will allow you to pick up an additional 3 stops handheld. If you already have a steady hand, VR conceivably allows you to shoot at shutter speeds well beyond that formula. As I processed more rolls of shots taken with this lens I became increasingly open to taking shots at shutter speeds that bordered on ridiculous and found myself amazed at the results. This image of the baby osprey in its nest was taken from a sailboat bucking through light chop in the Chesapeake Bay. It was shot handheld at 400mm and yet its tack sharp. There is just no way I could have gotten that shot without vibration reduction. The system in the VR also picks up when you are panning with a moving subject.

Vibration reduction is turned on and off via a three position switch on the left side of the lens. VR mode 1 reduces vibration from the moment the shutter is lightly pressed and the meter is activated. This allows you to see the effect in the viewfinder. Mode 2 only activates VR when the shutter is fully depressed. Since the viewfinder is blacked out at that moment you don't see the effect in the viewfinder. Mode 1 definitely creates more drain on the batteries since VR is active much longer, but I found this to be the mode I used most since it gave me a feel for how effective it would be in the final image.

Look for a detailed article on how both vibration reduction and image stabilization work in an upcoming issue.

In Use The lens was a joy to use and the more I used it the more I pushed the limits of the vibration reduction. Images were of the sharpness that you expect from a professional lens in this price range. Center and edge sharpness were excellent out to 300mm. From 300mm to 400mm shooting wide open a little edge softness was creeping in. But this only showed up in a test shot designed to look for it. In reality at 400mm you're usually isolating a subject shooting wide open and blurring the background so any softness in the corners is a moot point anyway. If your subject requires sharpness out to the edges just stop down to f8 and the images were sharp edge to edge at 400mm. Color and contrast were excellent and there was no color fringing at 400mm thanks to the ED elements. The only addition I would make would be to add rings for a camera strap to the lens body. Though it's not a monster like the 300mm f2.8, at almost 3lbs I'd feel a little better if the strap was to the lens rather than the camera body.

A really wonderful lens with great optics, a wide range of coverage, and rugged build quality. Vibration reduction works better than you might think and it opens up a range of picture taking possibilities. But the real story is the quality of the optics.

However street prices for this lens in the $1,400 to $1,500 dollar range will limit its use to pros and those who are serious about their photography.

A Weird Interaction with the F100 

We think that any quirk that costs you film is a serious quirk; and we found just such a quirk when using the VR lens with the F100. Walking through the rain forest in Puerto Rico and shooting birds (see next month's issue) I had left vibration reduction turned on. This was my first real outing with the VR and I was pushing its limits with some of the bird shots to see what I'd get. After firing off the final frame of a roll I hit rewind and started fishing around in my camera bag for the next roll of film. When I didn't hear the rewind motor anymore I popped the back - and too my horror I was looking at the film!

I tried rewind again. The motor didn't sound normal and it started clicking long before the roll would have been rewound. I looked at the LCD on the top deck of the camera. "E" was flashing in the frame counter along with "0_ _" (the rewind indicator). The battery indicator still showed that there was plenty of juice. I switched to my backup body and pondered what shots had been lost and what might be wrong with the camera. I'd been caught in HEAVY rain the day before and was shooting in high humidity in the rain forest so I was thinking camera failure.

In a dark bathroom with a towel blocking any light from coming under the door I removed the film from the camera. After winding the film back into the canister and turning on the lights I mounted a lens to the F100 and turned it on. Everything looked and worked fine. I put in a sacrificial roll and fired through all 36 frames and hit rewind. When I popped the back the film had rewound without a hitch.

I headed back out. The first roll was fine. But when I rewound the second roll and popped the back - I was looking at film again! What I hadn't noticed was that both times this happened I had the VR mounted on the camera. I saw the same flashing indicators. The battery indicator still showed a full charge. Out came the backup body and I resigned myself to the fact that the F100 was going to the service center at the end of the trip.

The next morning I went to into my camera bag and dug out the F100 manual. When traveling I always have more gear with me than I'll carry at any one time. Being so familiar with the F100 I don't bother to carry the manual with me. Under troubleshooting I found my set of blinking indicators and the following diagnosis: "Film stops midway due to low battery power. Replace the batteries and rewind the film again".

Why some engineer decided that two cryptic flashing indicators was a better way to alert you to this condition than the existing battery light is beyond me. Fresh batteries and the F100 was back to it's old self.

I sat down with Technical Editor Chuck McKern when I returned. He speculated that using the VR constantly is a real drain on the batteries. Evidently this depletes them enough that the rewind motor can't draw enough current. So it stops mid-roll or doesn't rewind at all. Why did the battery indicator still show positive and the camera still work with another lens attached? Evidently the batteries recovered enough to handle another roll of film, and Chuck speculated that if I hadn't remounted the VR I would have soon gotten the expected low battery indicator. Using the VR again was enough of a drain to quickly pull down the weakened batteries causing the rewind failure again.

The solution. Know this cryptic set of indicators for what they are - a low battery indicator; and always keep spares in your bag if you'll be using the vibration reduction heavily (something you should do anyway).


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