By Bill Lockhart
One of the questions I am often asked, is what lenses are best for an African Safari. For years, I have suggested the Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5/6L IS lens. The reason is that the lens gives one maximum flexibility for both shooting up close images of large animals, but the ability to zoom back to give one a sense of the environment. One of the major reasons for such a lens is that it allows one to pack lighter, that is, one lens instead of two or three lenses.
Nikon’s version of the Canon 100-400mm wasn’t anywhere close to the quality of the Canon offering. The older 80-400mm was basically a mediocre lens, not something one would buy after reading many unfavorable reviews.
Nikon shooters for years have wanted a new lens with the same zoom range. So, Nikon finally, after ten years has introduced the AF-S NIKKOR 80-400mm f/4.5/5.6 ED VR lens.
Recently, I sold all my Canon cameras and lenses, and began the difficult task of the transition. I did so because of the phenomenal new Nikon D800 and D800e cameras. Both cameras have unique attributes, not the least of which is their 35MP image resolution. During the transition, I found myself wanting a good quality medium to telephoto lens, just like my old and reliable Canon 100-400mm. So, when the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR Lens was announced, I ordered one.
When it arrived, I found its construction to use polycarbonate, instead of metal. It is a large lens, comparable to the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8, but not as well made, the 70-200mm is all metal and will withstand lots of years of rugged use. While the new 80-400mm is solidly built, it does not have the same feel as the more well known Nikon lenses. The significant trade off is weight, which frankly, I think is important. Lighter is better than heavy.
All this said, the final test of any lens is the quality of images it produces. During the last two weeks I have taken a wide range of shots under different lighting conditions. Here are some of the images I found with the lens.
The Osprey was photographed very early in the morning, just at sunrise. I needed image stabilization for sure! This lens has Nikon’s new VRII technology and when one does hand held shots, one can actually see the difference between a non-VR lens and this lens. I dearly love my Nikon 300mm f/4 lens. It is sharp as a razor, but it is what I call a “good light lens,” meaning that until one gets to 1/1000, hand holding is impossible. Not so with the new 80-400mm. Having the two to three f-stop advantage when hand holding is critically important to me. I can give up resolution easily for a stable shot any day.
I followed this Limpkin for about five minutes as it worked it way along the shoreline of a small lake near my home. Finally it entered the water and began ducking its head in the water searching for a good morsel. As it raised its head I got this shot. Here, because of low light, I was fortunate to have the fantastic VR stabilization that is built into this lens.
Wildlife photography is about capturing action. The lens proven to be exceptional at fast AF, even in poor light, as in this shot where the best I could muster at ISO 400 was 1/800.
When shooting, sometimes the unexpected happens, this is why fast AF is critical. Here a White Morph suddenly appeared out of nowhere and I had very little time to react, perhaps not my best flight shot, but not bad considering that I had less than two seconds to point and shoot.
How does the lens compare with lenses that are highly regarded for sharpness? To be fair, the lens will be outperformed by the Nikon 300mm f/4, even with a 1.4x attached. It simply is not as sharp. The trade off is VR and flexibility, two things I value when I travel.
One must also consider price. To buy a Nikon 400mm f/2.8 lens, one needs around $8,500. The Nikon 200-400mm will set you back about $6,700. The 80-400mm is priced at $2,700 – yes, expensive, but less than half what the 200-400mm costs. I must point out, however, that one can buy a Nikon 300mm f/4 for $1,369 – half what the 80-400mm costs, and it is sharper. So, price is an issue. I was willing to pay what I did because I wanted one lens to take with me to Africa, not two. I wanted flexibility, and I wanted stabilization. You get what you pay for. If the 80-400mm were priced at $2,000 it would be a good buy, at $2,700 one has to say “ouch” and buy it, or wait for gosh knows how long until Nikon comes out with a 300mm f/4 with VR.
How does the Nikon 80-400mm compare with the Canon 100-400mm? The Canon lens is old technology. It is good technology and frankly I loved the lens, despite many who trounced its sharpness. I had a “good” copy and I found the lens to be a wonderful companion. It’s biggest failing, however, was its slow AF. I missed hundreds of in-flight shots in Alaska while using the lens because it would not focus fast enough. I missed a great shot of a Leopard in South Africa because I had a 1.4x mounted on the lens and it could not find focus in low light. In sum, the Nikon 80-400mm runs rings around the Canon 100-400mm in terms of its ability to acquire focus quickly, even in low light conditions.
This lens is the perfect match for the Nikon D7100. On that camera the lens in DX mode it becomes a 160mm-780mm stabilized 15 megapixel system. That is simply awesome. From what I hear, the lens is very well balanced on this camera, as if the two were meant for one another.
On the D800 series, it depends whether one is shooting in DX or FX mode. In DX mode, the lens becomes a 180mm-600mm lens. In FX mode it is a 80-400mm lens, although some reviews report that the far end is really 385mm lens not a 400mm lens. It has to do with the sure lack of industry standards when listing lens ranges.
The sweet spot on this lens is f/7.1 and I highly recommend using D800 image size of 1.2 as this mode avoids distortion on the edges of a FX mode setting.
In sum, I will be using the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR Lens constantly during the next five weeks as I prepare for my Safari to Kenya. It takes time to understand all its settings vis a vis the Nikon 800 series. Having the right settings on the camera, and the right settings on the lens switches does make a significant difference in capturing sharp images.
I think Nikon has a winner with this lens. In my view, it may be the perfect Safari lens for any Nikon shooter.
Build Quality – ****
Image Stabilization – *****
Sharpness - ****
Versatility – *****
Price – ****