At long last: Nikon updates ancient 80-400 telephoto zoom with new Nikon AF-S 80-400mm ED VR Lens

For twelve years Nikon’s entry in the long end of the telephoto zoom market has been its aging 80-400mm model. In 2001, when Moose Peterson and I shot a dozen of the photos for our book on The D1 Generation of cameras with it, the lens was pretty cool. It worked well with DX sensors, had this amazing new thing called VR, and autofocused. Twelve years later it is a non-starter. Finally Nikon has done something about it, announcing a radically overhauled version, the Nikon “FX-format” 80-400mm lens, the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 80-400m f/4.5-5.6G ED VR Lens. It isn’t any wider as far as aperture, being f/4.5-5.6, but it is guaranteed to have improved focus, optics, and VR.

VR on the lens is of the latest design, with Nikon promising up to 4 stops of vibration reduction, along with tripod detection. This is a huge step forward from the older version which had first generation VR. The lens features a focus range switch offering a choice of full range or 6m to infinity for faster focusing in flight and distance photography. There is a lock to keep the barrel from extending, but I don’t remember the old version needing that (it’s been awhile since I sold mine).

Nano-crystal coating should reduce lens flare and improve contrast, while the redesigned optics will help reduce vignetting on full-frame sensors. Remember that the current version of the lens was introduced years before Nikon even had a full-frame DSLR. Importantly the new model is also AF-S (featuring a built-in focusing motor) which should dramatically improve autofocus speed.

The lens comes with a removable tripod foot, always nice for those of us (like me) who almost always use smaller zooms hand held. That plus a lens cap, hood and case complete the product package.

Nikon USA is continuing its tradition of jacking up prices on new versions of lenses, so you’ll pay up for all these new features. The lens is priced at a whopping $2,696.95 available for pre-order at B&H, but it is still a bargain compared to its bigger brother the Nikon 200-400mm lens. For less than very serious users the Nikon 70-300mm lens is almost certainly a better value, but for those wanting a full range safari lens, the newly redesigned Nikon 80-400mm lens will certainly put Nikon back in the running with a competitive lens.

Overview from B&H:

The Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR Lens is a telephoto zoom lens that is compatible with both FX and DX-sized image sensors. This lens features an extensive zoom range that encompasses both portrait lengths and long-reaching telephoto lengths to suit working with a variety of subjects.
The lens construction integrates one super ED (extra-low dispersion) and four ED glass elements to help minimize chromatic aberrations throughout the zoom range and also contribute to higher image sharpness, clarity, and color fidelity. A Nano Crystal Coat is also applied to individual lens elements to help reduce surface reflections and prevent lens flare and ghosting for greater overall contrast and light transmission. Built-in Vibration Reduction image stabilization also lends itself to producing sharper imagery by compensating for the effects of camera shake up to the equivalent of four shutter speed steps. Additionally, a dedicated VR setting for tripods is available for producing the sharpest imagery possible without countering the effects of the image stabilization system.
Three focusing modes are available and include A/M (autofocus with manual override, AF priority), M/A (autofocus with manual override, MF priority), and M (manual focus). Transitioning between these focusing modes is controlled by a rocker switch on the lens barrel for quick switching and greater precision depending on the subject matter being photographed. The SWM (Silent Wave Motor) focusing system provides quick, quiet, and smooth auto focusing performance that is ideal for use with video and subject-tracking applications. Internal focusing is also employed in order to maintain an overall compact lens form-factor and to produce overall faster performance.