When I'm on the road, the lenses I find myself reaching most for are often wide-angles and primes like the Nikon 24mm f/1.4 and Nikon 50mm f/1.4 or the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8. They just suit how I usually like to take photos. I often prefer to get in close and capture some environmental elements in the frame than shoot from further retback or isolate single elements. And I just prefer to use primes when I can.
But there are a lot of times that no amount of cropping in post can replace having a good telephoto zoom on hand. That's especially true if you're out shooting wildlife. But even travel photography in urban places it can be nice to pick out architectural details or compress perspective.
The catch, of course, is that good telephoto zoom lenses are often heavy and bulky. And they can be darned expensive.
Nikon 80-400mm f/4.5-f/5.6
I've recently been putting the newest version of the Nikon 80-400mm f/4.5-f/5.6G VR through its paces.
It's quite a different lens from the original, which was Nikon's first ever VR lens for DSLRs. The new version is sharper, has much better and faster autofocus, a much-improved vibration reduction system (VRII, if you're counting), focuses closer, and has a better manual focus override. It's also bigger, heavier, and considerably more expensive.
This lens is really designed as a versatile telephoto zoom. It's not really designed for professional sports or wildlife photography--there are much higher-end, faster, and more expensive lenses for that. It's also not really an all-in-one walking around zoom lens, because even at 80mm you're in moderate telephoto territory. And even if the broad specs aren't that far apart, it's a much better lens than the Nikon 70-300mm.
For me, it's a choice between this and the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8, which is priced similarly. I'm a big fan of the 70-200mm--I've taken some of my favorite photos with it. It's an extra 1-2 stops faster than the 80-400mm and is a reliable workhorse lens. Under 200mm, the 70-200mm has a clear advantage in speed and sharpness. But if the extra reach between 300 and 400mm appeals, you'll need to add a teleconverter. You lose the extra stops' advantage while narrowing the gap between the maximum focal lengths but also losing the lower focal lengths. Good teleconverters also aren't cheap. I've found that the for all-round versatility for general travel photography, the 80-400mm works for me better than the combination of a 70-200mm and teleconverter.
I typically use this lens handheld or with a monopod in available light shooting on a Nikon D800 full-frame (FX) camera. On a camera with a DX sensor you get the equivalent of an extra 50 percent boost in focal length, making it the equivalent of a 120-600mm.
This lens is sharp. If you were to run it through lab tests you'd likely find something to gripe about, but in real-world shooting I've found nothing to complain about in terms of sharpness through the entire zoom range. That's including wide-open.
The vibration reduction works well. It's the equivalent of getting a few extra stops that you wouldn't otherwise get when hand holding or using a monopod.
The newest generation of Nikon's vibration reduction (VRII) is a marked improvement over the old one. But it's not going to work like magic in every scenario, especially when you're shooting at the 400mm end of the dial. So I use it in combination with Auto ISO. On the Nikon D800 you can also have the minimum shutter speed vary according to the focal length of the lens. I set that to one mark above the default. I've found that combination to be very effective with this lens when used with the right technique and reasonable expectations. The excellent high-ISO performance of the D800 also helps.
There is definite vignetting, but it's no more than I would expect for a lens in this combination of price range and focal length. It's most noticeable at the widest apertures. The vignetting is also over quite a smooth gradient, which makes it much less objectionable than lenses that have very sharp vignetting. Here's a test chart, with the shots taken in quick succession of plain blue sky at 400mm.
I've found that with Lightroom's lens profiles or just the vignette tool it can be eliminated or greatly reduced quite well. Here's a before and after of the same image, shot at f/5.6, before the Lightroom profile and after applying it.
I've found no real issue with chromatic aberration. To the extent there's any, it's minimal.
There are two features of this lens that will suck a lot more power out of your camera's battery. One is the vibration reduction system. The other is the autofocus. I find myself reaching for a spare battery more often when I'm using this lens.
The zoom mechanism is smooth and easy to use. Zooming extends the lens--it's not an internal zoom (but focus is internal).
Some zoom lenses perform better at one end of the zoom range or the other. I've found that this lens performs well throughout its zoom range.
At 80mm, it's down into medium telephoto portrait lens length. The maximum aperture of f/4.5 isn't ideal for portraits, where a larger aperture like f/2.8 or even f/1.4 on a dedicated portrait lens might provide better effects, but it's certainly serviceable if you find yourself doing only occasional portrait shots.
Zoomed to 400mm the maximum aperture becomes f/5.6. Again, there are faster lenses at that focal length, like the Nikon 400mm f/2.8, but you're then looking at a completely different price range.
It's well built, falling closer to the high-end Nikon models than some of the cheaper plastic kit lenses. It feels solid. I haven't had a problem with the zoom slipping like you do in many cheaper lenses--it's smooth and tight. And it's made in Japan.
You wouldn't accuse it of being petite, but it's also nowhere near the size of some telephoto zooms. It's also not light, weighing in at around 3.5 lbs. But again, that's lighter that some telephoto monsters.
The zoom ring is large and true. The manual focus ring is a bit smaller and rotates smoothly. Being in the "G" series, there's no aperture ring (aperture changes are all handled on the camera itself).
Tripod Collar & Lens Hood
The tripod collar that comes with the lens isn't as good as the one that comes with some of the lenses in Nikon's "pro" range. It's fairly lightweight, and doesn't rotate as smoothly, and doesn't have as smooth a graduated lock as the ones on, say, the Nikon 70-200mm or Nikon 400mm. The plate is also smaller, giving less flexibility on finding the balance point. That said, it does work well enough.
I replaced the standard one with a Kirk Arca-Swiss collar designed specifically for this lens. It's bigger, offers better support due to the addition of an extra brace, and, well, is compatible with Arca-Swiss quick release plates. It's also much better made, longer (to help with finding balance point), includes locks, and also includes a regular tripod thread. If you use Arca Swiss plates on your tripod or monopod, I highly recommend getting this collar.
The lens comes with its own hood, the HB-65. It's plastic, light, and is designed specifically for this lens. It's also pretty big and makes the lens quite a lot longer, but you can also attach it reversed for when you're carrying the lens in your bag. The catch is that when the hood is reversed it blocks the zoom ring, so it's not really practical just to leave the hood on reversed. Frankly, I find myself just leaving the hood at home when I know the camera will be going in and out of my bag a lot (which is most travel shooting).
The HB-65 works well in preventing lens flare, locks into place securely, protects the front lens element from light rain, and is compatible with screw-in filters on the lens. And if you lose it and break it and need to replace it, you'll have the dubious privilege of paying an exorbitant amount for what is essentially a piece of plastic with a locking pin.
I ended up replacing mine with a Vello HN-31 Dedicated Lens Hood, which is smaller and stronger (aluminum). Being smaller, it doesn't offer quite as much shading as the original, but I find that it's convenient to leave it on all the time, so I end up using it far more than with the original lens hood.
The lens also comes with a very good quality lens case (model CL-M2). It's kind of bulky and I rarely use it, but it's nice to have when packing the lens for travel. And it has a belt strap and various clips in case you're inclined to wear it or strap it to your bag.
More Sample Photos
Would I Recommend It?
If you're earning money from sports or wildlife photography, you'll probably want to look at the higher end lenses designed for those. And if you're only taking family snapshots, the Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G might be a more cost-effective option.
But overall, I'm very happy with this lens for general travel photography. While it's not perfect in every way, it's a very good lens, and the extra reach at the 400mm end helps me get shots I wouldn't otherwise be able to get. So, yes, if you're looking for a versatile telephoto zoom lens and the price works for you, I'd say it's a very good option and would recommend it. There are some compromises especially in terms of maximum aperture, but it's sharp, relatively compact, and snappy. If your camera has some room to move with usable high ISO images, this lens can work well in a surprisingly wide range of lighting.
Tech Specs of the Nikon 80-400mm f/4.5-f/5.6G
Mount Type: Nikon F-Bayonet
Focal Length: Range 80-400mm
Zoom Ratio: 5x
Maximum Aperture: f/4.5-5.6
Minimum Aperture: f/32-40
Maximum Angle of View (DX-format): 20°
Minimum Angle of View (DX-format): 4°
Maximum Angle of View (FX-format): 30°10'
Minimum Angle of View (FX-format): 6°10'
Maximum Reproduction Ratio: 0.2x
Lens Elements: 20
Lens Groups: 12
Compatible Format(s): FX / DX
VR (Vibration Reduction) Image Stabilization: Yes - VRII
Diaphragm Blades: 9
Distance Information: Yes
Nano Crystal Coat: Yes
ED Glass Elements: 4
Super ED Glass Elements" 1
Super Integrated Coating: Yes
AF-S (Silent Wave Motor): Yes
Internal Focusing: Yes
Minimum Focus Distance: 5.74 ft. (1.75m)
Focus Mode: Auto, Manual, Auto/Manual
Filter Size: 77mm
Accepts Filter Type: Screw-on
Compatible with Nikon AF-S Teleconverters: Yes (refer to the product manual for details)
Approx. Dimensions (Diameter x Length): 3.8 in. (95.5 mm) x 8.0 in. (203 mm)
Approx. Weight 3.5 lbs (1570 g) (including tripod collar)