Digital Outback Photo
- Photography using Digital SLRs

Nikon AF VR ED 80-400 f/4.5-5.6 D Lens
Experience Report

by Uwe Steinmueller

last updated 12/08/2000

12/24/2000 Use with TC-14A tele converter

12/08/2000 Review by Bjørn Rørslett

You can find the discussed and some more photos taken with the Nikon AF VR ED 80-400 f/4.5-5.6 D Lens here.
I bought this lens this week due to a brief review by Moose Peterson and some first postings in the news group. First I wanted to get the new AF-S 300 f/4.0 lens but then decided to go with the VR lens.
Canon is for some time now leading in image stabilization lenses so Nikon had to catch up. That is why many photographers were waiting how well they will do with their first one. Also Michael Reichmann was so positive about the Canon 100~400 f/4.5-f/5.6L IS zoom that I hardly could wait to have a Nikon VR lens in my hands.
The effective range of this lens for the D1 (about 120-600) is pretty impressive. In normal situations the maximum aperture of 5.6 at 600mm would be a real problem in lower light situations. The rule demands maximum shutter speed of 1/600 and I even try to stay below that value although I use my Slik monopod all the time with lenses of this size. And even at ISO 400 (the max ISO I usually use) you would have a lot of trouble with the light in too many situations.
This is not an AF-S lens which means that the auto focus is not very fast but I have not problem so far. Also I observed that the AF has some trouble focussing upon plain surfaces (walls without structure). I then try to focus on a nearby structure which works most of the time. But this behavior is not unique to this lens. The lens is a bit more compact and slightly lighter than the AF-S 80-200mm which makes hand holding easier. But as said before I use a monopod all the time.
Vasona Park Test (11/04/2000)
For many of our readers it comes to no surprise that we again started our evaluation in the Vasona Park (Los Gatos, CA). It is such a nice park with so many lovely birds.

400mm~600mm with D1, Exposure: 1/320 sec - F/6.7

We now know a spot where we find the "Night Herons" . One could need even more than the 600mm of effective focal length the lens offers with the D1. Hopefully you see what beautiful birds these Herons are even as it is well hidden in the tree. With most of our photos we did not really exploit too much the VR (vibration reduction) capabilities of the lens. But in general I would not have used only 1/320 sec for this photo. Also the quality seems for me to be up to the standard of other quality Nikon lenses.

400mm~600mm with D1, Exposure: 1/320 sec - F/8.5

I think his Egret photo is is quite nice. In that case the 1/320 was not ok with the movement of the bird. This is an vibration reduction lens (reducing vibrations introduced by the photographer) and does not compensate for the movement of the subject. The handling of high contrast (and especially white birds) remains a problem with the D1 but also other digital SLRs. I have seen a lot of Egret photos where the bird is just plain white without any structure.

400mm~600mm with D1, Exposure: 1/320 sec - F/5.6

I really waited for the male Canada Goose to take off (this is a very fast action) and the autofocus worked just fine. That this photo is a bit unsharp from the action does not really hurt as it symbolizes the speed of the bird.

330mm~495mm with D1, Exposure: 1/200 sec - F/5.6

Also color and contrast are also very much in synch with other good Nikon lenses.

230mm~345mm with D1, Exposure: 1/60 sec - F/5.3

This photo of the last remainders from Halloween would be very difficult at a speed of 1/60 with an effective focal length of 345mm without using the VR feature of this lens.
First round: I like this lens a lot. But I will also need some more experience how and when to user the VR mechanism. Handling was without any problem so far.
Point Reyes 11/05/2000
In all of the next praktical tests I will more concentrate how the lens performs overall and less stress the VR feature although I might more often risk hogher shutter speeds. With all photos the VR is set to on (why not?) and a higher shutter speed than usually selected. This lens would be interesting even without VR as it covers what the AF-S 80-200 without or plus TC-14E/TC-20E can cover. Also the results with the TC-20E get a bit soft.

185mm~280mm with D1, Exposure: 1/320 sec - F/11
Today out trip was to Point Reyes and Bodeka Bay. The weather was mostly cloudy but we still got some nice shots. Above is the Point Reyes Light House.

400mm~600mm with D1, Exposure: 1/250 sec - F/13

80mm~120mm with D1, Exposure: 1/250 sec - F/9
Overall the lens performed quite well.
Printing with the Olympus P-400 Dysub Printer 11/06/2000
Tonight I printed the above photos on the Olympus P-400 Dysub printer and they looked a lot better than even on the screen. This printer produces amazingly sharp photos. This tells me that this lens can produce very sharp photos. Yes I know these three photos did not challenge the lens with open aperture and its VR capabilities but still good to know that it is excellent in this more normal range.
Night Herons & Test (11/11/2000)
To no surprise we were again in the Vasona Park. On one tree we know there are Night Herons at this time of the year and today we have seen 9 of these beautiful creatures.

400mm~600mm with D1, Exposure: 1/250 sec - F/5.6

The VR lens gives pretty good results as far as the object is still or moves very slow.
Ok normally I do not like to be int tests mode. But some asked asked: does VR really work? Here is a simple test and I will be the last to claim it is exact!
The following are crops from the sample photos. All shot were handheld (normalle I would use my monopod). The full scaled photos can be found here (the camera setting is code into the filename (56_500 is f/5.6 and 1/500, all shots were ISO 200)
400mm, Exposure: 1/500 sec - F/5.6
400mm, Exposure: 1/250 sec - F/8.5
400mm, Exposure: 1/125sec - F/12.0
400mm, Exposure: 1/60 sec - F/17.0
400mm, Exposure: 1/30 sec - F/24.0
400mm, Exposure: 1/15 sec - F/34.0
First I want to note that I am not used to photograph from hand and not having at most set the shutter speed to 1/600 for a 600mm (400mm is 600mm equivalent on the D1). For me the result shows the the photos are usuable up to 1/125. Some stronger photographer might even get a solid 1/60. For me the result is very positive.
First Conclusion: The lens offers good optics with a working VR mechanism. I do not regret that I bought the lens.
Baylands in Palo Alto (11/12/2000)
The Baylands in Palo Alto is a birds paradise. As most of the time photographing white birds in the contrasty California sun is a challenge for every camera (film or digital). But today we managed to get some nice shots again. The light was good enough to switch off the VR mode.
Summary: For me the test phase is over. The Nikon VR lens is a good piece of glass and at times the VR mode comes in handy. I think the at 400mm it is a lot sharper than the AF-S 80-200mm + TC-20e and you do not have to switch lenses for the full range of 80mm to 400mm. This is not a lens for action as the auto focus is a lot slower than the AF-S 80-200 (but no problem for me 99% of the time). Also at times the low depth of field of the 80-200mm f/2.8 isolates the subject/object better from its background.
Now I wait for 24/28-135mm VR lens which matches the Canon EF28-135 F3.5-5.6 IS USM. There is a lot of work ahead of Nikon to match the Canon program of IS lenses. But Nikon's VR lens demonstrates that they can do it. This is great news for all Nikon photographers.
Late Additions
This photo might not be very original but you might not believe how difficult it is to capture the colors of such a bird and have a crisp photo. This photo demonstrates how sharp this lens can be. Probably our best duck so far! Inspect the full sized image and make up your own mind.

210mm~315mm with D1, Exposure: 1/320 sec - F/10.0 (ISO 400)

Click on the photo to see a larger one (you have to click on the next again)

Guest Photos

Peter Ibbotson: 1/50 @ f/12 340mm


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