Natural Art: The Photography of Brad Hill

 

Field Tests: The NIKKOR 180-400mm f/4E TC1.4 FL ED VR Resource Summary

This field test and review is in a somewhat different format than my normal reviews. It's probably best thought of as "resource summary" of pretty much everything I have written on the AF-S NIKKOR 180-400mm f/4E TC1.4 FL ED VR. Why? Slowly but surely I am learning that most viewers of my reviews don't have the time to read a tome approaching the length of "War & Peace". So what you get here is a shorter commentary entitled "Musings on the Performance of The AF-S NIKKOR 180-400mm f/4E TC1.4 FL ED VR" (that includes a whole lot of images shot with with the 180-400) AND links to key blog entries that provide a WHOLE LOT more detail about individual aspects of the 180-400's performance. Realistically I think most readers will find JUST the "Musings" section immediately below adequate to answer the vast majority of their questions.

Links to Supplementary (and detailed) Information on the 180-400mm f4E previously posted on my blog:

• 21 May 2018: First Impressions
• 18 June 2018: Shooting the 180-400mm in the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Sanctuary (including 27 sample images)
• 29 June 2018: Optical Performance at 500mm
• 02 July 2018: Optical Performance at 400mm
• 05 July 2018: Commentary 1 - What's AIS?
• 09 July 2018: Optical Performance - MORE at 400mm
• 16 July 2018: Optical Performance at 200mm
• 25 July 2018: Optical Performance at 300mm

Enjoy...and cheers!

Brad


Nikkor 180-400mm f4E Field Test: Some Musings

Musings on the Performance of The AF-S NIKKOR 180-400mm f/4E TC1.4 FL ED VR

PUBLICATION DATE: 17 September 2020
NOTE: This summation of - and musings on - the performance of the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E first appeared in my blog on 14 November 2019 under the heading "Musings Part 3 - The AF-S NIKKOR 180-400mm f/4E TC1.4 FL ED VR". In this version I have made only minor modifications and updates to the original that appeared in the 14 November blog post.

OVERVIEW

To most wildlife shooters the choice of purchasing and using a super-telephoto zoom lens versus a super-telephoto prime lens comes down to where they stand on a just a few key variables. By its very nature a zoom lens offers focal length versatility which, among other things, can make it easier to compose images in the field, especially when using your feet to "zoom" your prime lens isn't an option! Historically, most super-telephoto zoom lenses were somewhat slower (i.e., had smaller maximum apertures) than super-telephoto prime lenses and that fact has the potential to affect at least two things - the photographer's ability to isolate a subject from the background and how little light they can work in. And, there are at least two more variables that most shooters consider when choosing between a zoom and prime lens. First (and again historically), even the best zoom lenses never were quite as sharp as best prime lenses. Second, even the best telephoto zoom lenses tended to be less expensive than the best prime lenses.

When the 180-400mm f4E lens was first introduced it turned a few heads, and not just for "positive" reasons. First, it absolutely blew the "zooms are cheaper" paradigm out of the water - it came in with an astronomical price tag (not far off TWICE the price that most shooters thought it was replacing - the 200-400mm f4G). Second, with the built-in teleconverter it DID offer an incredibly appealing total focal length range for the wildlife photographer - 180mm to 560mm. So it offered at least the possibility of replacing several prime lenses in a wildlife photographer's kit. And - as it turns out - while not small or light in an absolute sense, the 180-400mm is a little smaller and lighter than the lenses it replaces in a wildlife photographer's kit (notably the 400mm f2.8E, the 500mm f4E, and the 600mm f4E).

So at the end of the day, and especially given the astronomical price of the 180-400, the question really came down to this: Can the 180-400mm REALLY perform at top-notch prime lens performance levels?

THE GOOD

When it comes to the good things about the 180-400mm the list is long. Its optical performance is superb. Its AF system works as well as any of Nikon's best telephoto primes. Its VR performance matches the best super-telephotos too. Probably the best way to show the strengths of the 180-400 - and how it answers questions about its performance - is through viewing a series of images I've shot with it since getting mine. Note that ALL of these images are shot under real-world field conditions using a variety of different cameras. All are hand-held shots, and many were shot from a floating Zodiac. Note that critical tech specs are included on the top left corner of all the shots...

1. Optical Performance: I can honestly say that from an optical perspective the 180-400 is one of the most "solid" lenses I have ever owned - at every aperture, every focal length (including those accessed only by engaging the built-in 1.4x teleconverter), and at all camera-to-subject distances, this lens delivers stunning edge-to-edge sharpness. And note that when I say that optically it is "...one of the most "solid" lenses I have ever owned" I AM including Nikon's best super-telephoto prime lenses. For instance, BEFORE the 180-400 my favourite super-telephoto was the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E. But even as a "proud" owner of the 400mm f2.8E I had to admit that the lens didn't reach its maximum sharpness until you stopped it down to f3.5 or - in some cases - even f4. But the 180-400mm is as sharp wide open as it is stopped down to f5.6 (or f8, or whatever). And, it is SHARPER when it is shot wide open than the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E is when it is shot wide open. And...this is the case at all focal lengths. On to the performance questions and supporting images...

A. Does it perform well optically at ALL camera-to-subject distances? The precursor to the 180-400 was the Nikkor 200-400mm f4G - and the general feeling with that lens was that it was "...strong optically with close subjects, but fell off in performance as the distance to the subject increased". Not so with the 180-400 - not only does it focus very close, but even when shot at wide open at maximum focal length it performs GREAT at all distances. Check out these "shot at wide open at f5.6 from extremely close to extremely far away" 560mm shots:

Immature Old World Swallowtail (Caterpillar) (JPEG: 0.8 MB)
The Lonely Sentinel (JPEG: 0.8 MB)
Ocean, shoreline, rainforest, WOLF (JPEG: 3.1 MB)

B. How well does it perform when shot wide open at focal lengths at up to 400mm (so at f4)? Well...you can't find a focal length where the lens is weak when shot wide open without the TC-engaged. Of course - and as you would expect - because the lens has "only" a maximum aperture of f4 your ability to separate the subject from its background at its shorter focal lengths is compromised a little (compared to f2.8 lenses). Some examples:

• 180mm: The Triple Gulp - Humpbacks Bubble-netting (JPEG: 1.8 MB)
• 220mm: Playing the Hunger Game (Spirit Bear) (JPEG: 1.3 MB)
• 390mm: Spirit Bear Fishing (JPEG: 1.3 MB)
• 400mm: Poncho Attack! (JPEG: 1.1 MB)

C. How well does it perform when shot wide open at focal lengths OVER 400mm (so with the TC engaged and at f5.6)? Over the years I've found that the minute a teleconverter was added you pretty much had to stop down (often a full stop) from wide open before getting decent sharpness. But...as it turns out...it's not so with the 180-400 - you can get GREAT shots with the TC-engaged when shot wide open at f5.6. Some examples:

• 450mm (TC engaged): Hey...Who's Back There? (JPEG: 1.2 MB)
• 560mm (TC engaged): Northern River Otter (JPEG: 2.2 MB)
• 560mm (TC engaged): Kids Will Be Kids (JPEG: 1.5 MB)
• 560mm (TC engaged): Only in Smoke Season! (JPEG: 1.3 MB)
• 560mm (TC engaged): Diving Deep (JPEG: 1.9 MB)
• 560mm (TC engaged): Surveilling the Shoreline (JPEG: 3.1 MB)

D. Can you really use ALL the focal lengths and get "prime-like" results? Yep. And...at all focal lengths you can shoot at ANY aperture and get sharp results...there is absolutely NO NEED WHATSOEVER to stop down from wide open to get that extra "biting" sharpness we all want in an image. Here's a "focal length tour" of some representative images...

• 180mm: I am SO Outta Here... (JPEG: 1.5 MB)
• 190mm: Prime Real Estate (JPEG: 1.9 MB)
• 200mm: After the Downpour - Khutzeymateen Waterfall (JPEG: 3.2 MB)
• 210mm: Bedded Down in the Khutzeymateen (JPEG: 1.2 MB)
• 270mm: Just Another Day in the Life Of... (JPEG: 1.9 MB)
• 310mm: The Wild Life (JPEG: 1.5 MB)
• 330mm: Non-verbal Communication! (JPEG: 1.5 MB)
• 380mm: Grabbing a Soggy Snack... (JPEG: 1.2 MB)
• 400mm: Pop Goes the Bear! (JPEG: 0.7 MB)
• 400mm: Ever Feel Like Everyone Is Talking About You? (JPEG: 1.3 MB)
• 400mm: The Khutzeymateen Estuary (JPEG: 1.3 MB)
• 450mm (TC engaged): Harbour Seals - High and Half Dry! (JPEG: 1.8 MB)
• 460mm (TC engaged): Soaked Top & Bottom (JPEG: 1.1 MB)
• 490mm (TC engaged): Pure Intimidation (JPEG: 1.9 MB)
• 490mm (TC engaged): Hanging Out at the Haul-Out (JPEG: 2.0 MB)
• 500mm (TC engaged): C'mon Mom...Just Grab the Next Fish and Let's Go! (JPEG: 1.7 MB)
• 560mm (TC engaged): Attentive But Calm (JPEG: 1.3 MB)
• 560mm (TC engaged): Eagle on Sitka (JPEG: 2.3 MB)
• 560mm (TC engaged): Relaxed But Attentive (JPEG: 1.5 MB)

E. OK...what happens when you screw up and use the 180-400mm's built-in TC for focal lengths UNDER 400mm - is there a big hit on image quality? Hey...this happens! And the good news is, when it DOES happen there is no obvious decline in image quality. Here's a few samples of some of most memorable "oops...should have disengaged the TC but didn't" screw-ups:

• 280mm (TC engaged - OOPS!): Chaos, Conflict, & Cuddles (JPEG: 1.7 MB)
• 290mm (TC engaged - OOPS!): Classically Coastal (JPEG: 1.9 MB)
• 320mm (TC engaged - OOPS!): Humpback Lunging in the Great Bear (JPEG: 2.0 MB)

F. What about high contrast shooting situations, like when shooting backlit subjects? Many telephoto zoom lenses aren't as effective at shooting high-contrast scenes as super-telephoto primes are - the resulting images often show flare or are simply lacking in contrast. Not so with the 180-400mm - it exhibits great contrast in ALL situations, including in those high-contrast situations. Here's a couple of backlit images (both shot wide open at 560mm, so with the TC engaged) to demonstrate what I mean:

• 560mm (TC engaged): Steamy Sunrise in the Great Bear (JPEG: 1.1 MB)
• 560mm (TC engaged): Sunrise Sentries - Coastal Gray Wolves (JPEG: 1.2 MB)

2. Autofocus Performance: For a wildlife photographer - and especially one who likes to shoot action (like birds in flight) - autofocus performance can make or break their perception of the usefulness of a lens. Historically Nikon's big primes have offered exceptional autofocus performance, especially when paired with their flagship DSLR's. My own experience is that Nikon's previous super-telephoto zoom lenses (including the Nikkor 200-400 f4G, the Nikkor 80-400 f4.5-5.6G, and the Nikkor 200-500mm f5.6E) and premium 3rd party super-telephoto zoom lenses (e.g, the Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8 and Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3) - all of which I have owned, tested extensively, and shot with - have good autofocus systems, but fall short of that of Nikon's best super-telephoto primes. The 180-400? Absolute measures of autofocus performance are notoriously hard to obtain, but in my own preliminary testing of the autofocus performance of the 180-400mm against the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E and against both the Sigma 500mm f4 Sport and the Nikkor 500mm f4E I have been able to discern no clear difference in autofocus performance (i.e., the 180-400 seems as good the best available primes). Note that I have not yet written up or posted these results on this website.

What about field results of the autofocus performance of the 180-400? Thought you'd never ask! While anecdotal, I can say I have been just thrilled by the results. Here's some examples (all these images were captured with the 180-400mm paired up with a D5):

• 400mm: An Absolutely Steller Ride... (JPEG: 1.3 MB)
• 410mm (TC engaged): Steller Sea Lions - Chaos & Energy (JPEG: 2.1 MB)
• 560mm (TC engaged): Herring Gull - Deploying Landing Gear (JPEG: 0.9 MB)
• 560mm (TC engaged): The Pounce (JPEG: 1.6 MB)
• 560mm (TC engaged): Canada Goose...Into the Setting Sun (JPEG: 0.7 MB)
• 560mm (TC engaged): Tufted Puffin (JPEG: 1.0 MB)

3. Vibration Reduction (VR) Performance: VR is one area where I have not seen a major difference in performance between prime and zoom lenses. And, its contribution to image quality can vary dramatically between photographers (i.e., those wildlife photographers that religiously shoot from tripods may not consider it as important as those who frequently shoot hand-held). In my OWN case - and as one who hand-holds super-telephotos the majority of the time - having good VR performance is absolutely critical in obtaining high quality images. I HAVE done extensive testing of the VR performance of the 180-400mm against a slew of lenses with overlapping focal lengths and have found there to be no significant difference in VR performance between the Nikon super-telephoto prime lenses and the 180-400 (I haven't published these results on this website yet). What have I found about the VR performance of the 180-400 in the field when shooting the lens? Two things...

First, that I CAN obtain very sharp shots with the 180-400mm at very slow shutter speeds. As an example, the following shot was captured hand-held at 1/15s:

• 220mm: Poised & Patient - Awaiting Dinner! (JPEG: 1.9 MB)

Note that I am NOT claiming that you will get sharp shots on EVERY exposure in this shutter speed range (and along with this sharp shot, I DID get a number of soft shots).

Second, with the 180-400 I can regularly count on getting sharp shots (with VR engaged) at shutter speeds of about one half of 1/focal length of focal length the lens is zoomed to. So, at 200mm I can regularly get sharp hand-held shots at 1/100s, at 400mm I can regularly get sharp hand-held shots at 1/200s, etc. This is completely on par with my own experience when shooting Nikon's best super-telephoto lenses.

THE BAD

Are there any weaknesses or downsides to the 180-400mm? I have found - or can think of - only three possible weaknesses:

1. Vignetting: Yes, the 180-400mm does exhibit strong vignetting (darkening of edges and corners of the image). The amount of vignetting is almost identical to that of the 200-400mm f4G. It is worse when shot wide open (at times up to 1.3 stops) and gradually tapers off as you stop down (but it is often still visible even at f8). Vignetting can be easily cleaned up in post-processing (if shooting RAW files) or in-camera (to some degree) if shooting JPEG files. Whether it is considered a problem (or even a deal-breaker) will vary between photographers. I consider it a PITA (Pain-In-the-A..), but not even a true "problem". The following image gives a feeling for the amount of vignetting you can expect without he 180-400 (the first is uncorrected for vignetting in post-processing, the second shows the same image with correction in post-processing). The image was captured at 400mm and at f4:

Summer Sunrise - East Kootenays, BC (vignette NOT removed) (JPEG: 0.5 MB)
Summer Sunrise - East Kootenays, BC (vignette removed) (JPEG: 0.5 MB)

2. Weight: The 180-400 tips the scales at 3500 gm (7.7 lb), which is slightly less than that of the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E (3800 gm or 8.4 lb) and slightly MORE than the Nikkor 500mm f4E (3090 gm or 6.8 lb). So it is pretty much "super-telephoto" weight. Which means it will be easily "hand-holdable" for some, and simply too heavy for others to hand-hold. So this could be a deal-breaker for some, and "just a fact of life" for others.

3. Subject Isolation? I've asked several other wildlife photographers who own prime super-telephoto lenses but NOT the 180-400 if they would ever consider swapping their primes for the 180-400. Many would (and have), but one common reason I have run into for why they wouldn't is because they want the extra stop when shot wide open (at f2.8 with a 400mm f2.8 or at f4 with a 500mm f4) because they feel they need it to "isolate" their subject from the background (i.e., keep the subject sharp and blur the background). I understand this logic, but I don't think it's a very valid concern. Why? To begin with, separating a subject from the background (and producing those "dreamy" out-of-focus backgrounds) is more a function of the ratio of distances from the camera to the subject AND the subject to the background than it is having one extra stop available to "open up". Simply put, if you are closer to your subject than your subject is to its background, you can successfully isolate that subject from the background (without shooting wide open). Take a look at the following images to see what I mean. All are shot wide open but the distance to the background varies (and you'll see the impact of "distance from subject to background" in action):

• 560mm (TC engaged): Arrow-leaved Balsamroot (JPEG: 1.0 MB)
• 400mm (Variable distance to background): Focus (JPEG: 1.2 MB)
• 400mm (Distant background): Poncho on West Ridge (JPEG: 1.1 MB)

Another thing to keep in mind is that unlike Nikon's super-telephoto prime lenses (all of which must be stopped down 2/3 of a stop to one full stop to achieve maximum sharpness) you can shoot the 180-400mm absolutely wide open at all focal lengths and get absolutely tack-sharp images. This fact also partially negates the "one stop advantage" (as it pertains to subject isolation) of Nikon's super-telephoto primes.

To be fair, I have noticed that I have to be a LITTLE more conscious of my relative distances (to the subject and from subject to the background) with my 180-400 than with my 400mm f2.8 if my goal is to produce a sharp subject and dreamy soft background. But this performance difference between the 180-400 and the super-telephoto primes is pretty much negligible to me.

THE UGLY!

The absolute ugliest aspect of the 180-400 is its price. Right now in Canada it is retailing for $14,999 CAD. This is MORE than the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E and the Nikkor 500mm f4E and only slightly less than the Nikkor 600mm f4E. Which puts it out of reach for a whole bunch of photographers. If you compare the price of the 180-400 to the lens it more-or-less replaced (i.e., the 200-400mm f4G) then it seems ridiculously expensive. But if you compare its price to the super-telephoto prime lens (or lenses) it can replace, then it doesn't appear quite so out of whack!

A QUICK SUMMARY - DOES THE 180-400mm ZOOM MATCH THE BIG PRIMES?

The short answer: Yes.

The longer answer: In combination, the great focal length range, exceptional optical performance over its entire focal range, "prime-like" autofocus performance, and absolutely capable VR performance make the 180-400mm an incredible lens. In my experience it is the only super-telephoto zoom lens I have ever shot that can go toe-to-toe with the best super-telephoto primes in both autofocus performance and optical performance, and - at times - even outperform them (it alone is the ONLY telephoto or telephoto zoom that is as sharp when shot wide open as when shot stopped down). To call it "versatile" is a huge understatement - for many it would be the ONLY wildlife lens they would ever need. It is versatility DEFINED.

18 September UPDATE: Since writing the paragraph above I have acquired and tested the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E. And now there are TWO super-telephoto zooms that can "go toe-to-toe with the best super-telephoto primes in both autofocus performance and optical performance, and - at times - even outperform them" - the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E AND the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E (you can read my review of the 120-300mm f2.8E here).

IS THE 180-400 A TRUE BREAKTHROUGH PRODUCT?

I have a hard time answering this for anyone but myself - for many folks I know this lens is close to photo gear equivalent of nirvana. But I am sure there are some out there (that I will likely hear from) who think it is "just another over-priced and over-hyped" run-of-the-mill zoom. There is absolutely NO doubt in my mind that is huge evolutionary jump in super-telephoto zooms. It simply annihilates the performance of all other super-telephoto zooms by a huge margin. It was the first lens I ever tested that is as sharp when shot wide open as when stopped down (by any amount) - none of Nikon's super-telephoto primes have this characteristic.

I think the most telling thing about this lens is how much of an impact it had on the OTHER gear in my kit. Keep in mind that my wildlife photography career means I must travel a lot by plane, and often in smaller planes with strict carry-on limits. So for ME having a lens that's easier to carry (which means either lighter OR less bulky OR both) or that takes the place of several other lenses has a HUGE value. Here are a few consequences of me acquiring the 180-400:

• I have sold my Nikkor 400mm f2.8E
• I have sold my Sigma Sport 500mm f4 (but note that ownership of my Nikkor 500mm PF has also impacted on this decision)
• I have sold my Nikkor 300mm f4 PF
• I WOULD sell my Sigma Sport 150-600mm...but I am keeping it only as a standard to test other lenses against.

That's a pretty massive impact on my gear kit by adding just ONE lens!

Field Test Index


Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VRIINikon's Series 3 tele-converters4 Ways to 400mm
Nikon D7000 - First ImpressionsLensCoat RainCoat ProThe Nikon V1
The Nikon D800The Nikon D4Nikon AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR
500mm Wars - Sigma vs. NikonNikkor AF-S 120-300mm f2.8ENikkor AF-S 180-400mm f4E