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Hands-on with Nikon's new Nikkor Z 400mm F4.5 VR S super-telephoto Z-mount lens


Introduction

Nikon recently announced its new Nikkor Z 400mm F4.5 VR S, a super-telephoto lens for the company’s expanding lineup of Z-mount cameras. While DPReview TV has already shared its thoughts on the new lens, we wanted to share a few hands-on details of the compact super-telephoto prime.

Who’s this lens for?

Considering its focal length and respectable F4.5 aperture, it’s clear this lens is designed with wildlife and outdoor sports photographers in mind. Its relatively compact form factor means it can be used without the need of a tripod and should relatively easily fit into even modestly-sized camera bags for photographers needing to make a trek to their end destination.

If you’re a wildlife photographer who needs a little more reach, this lens has been designed to work seamlessly with Nikon’s 1.4x and 2x teleconverters, which effectively turn the lens into a 560mm F6.3 or 800mm F9 lens, respectively. The lens can also give a 600mm equivalent field of view when mounted on one of Nikon’s ‘DX’ APS-C bodies, or an FX body with its ‘DX Crop’ mode engaged.

Optical Construction

The 400mm F4.5 VR S is constructed of 19 elements in 13 groups, including one Extra-low Dispersion (ED) element, two Super ED elements and one Short-wavelength Refractive (SR) lens element. Comparable to Canon’s Blue Spectrum Refractive (BR) elements, Nikon’s SR element refracts blue light more than green or red, which aides in better controlling longitudinal chromatic aberration in images.

Nikon has also designed the lens so that all of the corrective elements are at the back of the lens. This not only improves the balance of the lens when mounted to a camera, but also means the lens can weigh less, since those elements can be much smaller and lighter.

Optical Performance

While Nikon is known for its Phase Fresnel telephoto lenses, it acknowledges that PF elements can have a negative impact on bokeh. So, through its design process, Nikon sought out a happy medium where it was comparatively small and lightweight while sacrificing as little image quality as possible.

While we’re still working on more extensive testing, our pre-production unit has so far impressed us. Images are sharp across the frame, bokeh is pleasing enough and the Nano Crystal Coating on the front-most element does help to dramatically limit flare and ghosting.

The VR image stabilization is CIPA-rated for 5.5EV correction, but gets bumped up to 6EV when used with the Z9’s ‘Synchro VR’ system, which combines the effect of the lens and in-body image stabilization to correct for pitch and yaw shake (as opposed to other Nikon models that disengage in-body pitch and yaw correction and pass responsibility to the lens).

Autofocus

Autofocus on the 400mm F4.5 VR S is driven via a stepping motor, as is the case with nearly all of Nikon’s Z-mount glass. This makes for smooth transitions, as we’ve noted in our experience with the lens, but it does mean slightly slower transitions when making larger leaps between one subject and another.

However, being a super-telephoto, subjects tend to be relatively close to one another from a distance, so the impact should be somewhat minimal, be it for wildlife or sports.

Design

The 400mm F4.5 VR S is similar in both look and feel to the Nikkor 800mm F6.3 VR S super-telephoto lens Nikon released back in April. It has the same overall aesthetics, a very similar button array and even has the same style of tripod collar and foot, for better or worse (considering it’s not Arca-Swiss compatible).

It’s worth noting the tripod collar doesn’t have click-stops at the usual 90-degree increments, so depending on personal preference, that may go under either the pro or cons header. Nikon has also included the same quick-release lens hood we saw on the 800mm, making it easy to pop on and off as needed. There’s also a Kensington lock for additional security when you’re not with the lens.

Buttons and toggles

Much like the overall design of the lens, the button arrangement is very similar to its 800mm sibling. Just behind the focus ring is a gripped ring with four FN2 buttons that can be customized to activate whatever function you want quick access to while shooting. There’s also a single L-Fn button on the rear of the lens, which can also be customized to suit your needs.

As for the toggles, the lens features both a focus switch (Automatic/Manual) as well as a focus limiter (Full/6m-Infinity). As with the 800mm option, there’s no switch to control the VR function, so all of that will need to be done in-camera, which is less than convenient for anyone used to making those adjustments with a physical switch.

There’s also a ‘Memory Set’ button that lets you define a pre-set focus distanct with the press of a button. You can then use one of the lens’s function buttons to jump back to that preset point.

Size and weight

One of the main selling point for this lens is its relatively compact and lightweight frame. The lens measures 104mm (4.1”) in diameter by 235mm (9.3”) long and weighs 1245g (2lb 12oz) with the tripod collar. For comparison, that’s only slightly larger than Nikon’s 70-200mm F2.8 zoom lens in both diameter and length – by 15mm (0.6″) in both dimensions – while also weighing 195g (6.9oz) less.

While a bit older (and slower), another comparison is Canon’s old 400mm F5.6L USM lens designed for (D)SLRs. Canon’s 400mm F5.6 lens measured 90mm in diameter by 257mm long and weighed 1250g, without its collar attached. That’s 14mm (0.56″) narrower but 22mm (0.87″) longer and 90g (3.2oz) heavier than Nikon’s new 400mm F4.5 VR S lens for a much simpler (7 element, 6 group) design that was 2/3EV slower and didn’t have image stabilization.

Pricing and availability

The Nikkor Z 400mm F4.5 VR S lens will be available starting in June for a suggested price of $3,295. That’s just over half the price of the 800mm F6.3 VR S ($6,500), which means you’re more or less getting the same value from a per-millimeter perspective.

It’s also around $600 more than the recent Nikkor Z 100-400mm F4.5-5.6 VR S, which is undoubtedly a more flexible lens. If you consider the rule-of-thumb that a one-stop faster lens approximately doubles the price, then you’ll see that the 400mm F4.5 is 63% brighter than the 100-400mm is, at 400mm, but only 22% more expensive. The prime is also lighter and only a fraction longer than zoom in its retracted state, so shorter when actually set to 400mm. We’ll have to do more testing to see how they compare optically.

Summary

Overall, Nikon has managed to create an incredibly capable lens that offers respectable reach and speed without breaking your back or the bank. And it’s managed to do it all without the use of Phase Fresnel (PF) elements, which sets our expectations of image quality pretty high.



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