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08 March 2001
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This review is contributed by Steve Danielsson in Sweden, who actually claims to have one of the 80-400VR lenses. You may email him here.
The 80-400VR is mainly known for being Nikons first lens with "image stabilization". The VR stands for Vibration Reduction and it works the same way as Canons IS system. In a nutshell it works by moving optical elements within the lens to counter any camera-shake, up to a point. Canons system claims to give you a 2 stop advantage over a non-IS lens, Nikons system claims a 3 stop advantage.
Except for the VR, the lens offers a generous zoom range of 80-400mm. If you want a Nikkor 400mm F5.6 AF lens then this is your only option and I don't doubt that a lot of people will be tempted to buy this lens just to get a Nikkor 400 for decent money.
Metal or plastic? The answer is "yes". The actual barrel casing is metal. The zoom ring and the piece between the rings are plastic, the focus ring is metal. The filter thread is metal and the filter size is the "standard pro size" of 77mm.
The finish is exactly the same on the plastic and metal parts of the barrel and it is very hard to tell what either is made of (knocking on them with a metal tool tells the truth though). It is also a new finish that I haven't seen on any other lens (though I believe the new 300/4 AF-S has it too).
I believe that the finish gave rise to the rumor that it is an all-plastic lens (compared to the finish on other metal pro lenses which leaves no doubt of its metal construction, like the 80-200).
It is internal-focussing but it does extend when you zoom (unlike the 80-200s). The Auto-manual switch is a bit different from previous pro-lenses in that there are a "locked" position for A and M (like the old ones) but also non-locked positions (where you can switch modes with no pressing on the button).
The Limit switch can either be used to limit between eternity and 5 meters or between 4 meters and 2.3 meters depending on where the focus is set when you activate the Limit.
The tripod-collar is removable and apparently the same as on the new 300/4 AF-S. People criticize it for being flimsy... giving unsharp results between 1/30 and 1/4 or so, but I am not so sure the collar is to blame, it could be other things. I don't really care since I've hardly shot it on tripod at all (handheld is what the lens is made for).
The VR System
The VR really does work and it works well! It is supposed to give a 3 stop advantage (as opposed to the 2 stop Canon system) and I believe this to be correct. It takes some getting used to, a roll or two. Some photographers seem to feel that VR/IS is the best thing since sliced bread, while some think that it's useless if you know how to hold a camera. I fall in-between these two extremes. The system works and it is very helpful when you shoot handheld, even if you know what you are doing - but it's not going to revolutionize your wildlife photography either. It will help you hold still, but it won't help you make better images.
Can you get sharp shots at 1/30 sec and 400mm? Yes you can. I have lots of pictures at 1/30 and 1/60 that are sharp. The system is not a marketing gimmick. I have not tested the limits of the system (I'll do that when I get around to test-shooting the lens) though. Some people claim that they can shoot at like a 1/4 sec and 400mm, personally I think that sounds too good to be true. But a 1/30th or maybe even a 1/15th is very good indeed, in my book.
I have also tried panning shots, the VR system is supposed to feel that you are panning and only correct on the non-pan axis. This works, I shot a few rather sharp pictures of a landing swan the other week, panning with the bird (though this may be more credit to the F5s ability to focus-track :-).
Here is another piece of info: the manual states that VR should be turned OFF when you shoot at a tripod. Apparently the Nikon system corrects more and are more sensitive than the Canon system (which is supposed to be ON when shooting from a tripod) and that makes for over-correction on a tripod.
All things considered the VR system has delivered more than I expected, I did not buy the lens for the VR, but perhaps I should have.
The zoom ring is way overdamped (unfortunately, since it has a long way to travel), probably unavoidable since the lens extends when zooming. The focus ring is actually quite nice for a AF lens. The general "feel" of the lens is inferior to the 80-200/2.8 which in my opinion handles better than any other zoom I have got my hands on. Other than that, rest assured that this is a quality lens and not a toy.
The AF speed is not remarkable but not a total dog either. It is good enough for most shooting, it is in poor light you run into trouble (due to the slow aperture I guess). When I have shot smaller birds with it in overcast weather it tends to hunt too much to catch the subjects so I've switched to manual focus. The AF speed is acceptable in itself, but clearly slower than the 80-200 (non-AFS). Either way, this lens CRIES OUT for AFS!!! Too bad Nikon didn't want to give us all the good stuff in the same package.
This is highly subjective at this point, since I have not yet got around to any serious test-shooting. I only judge from the pictures I have taken so far. At the long end it seems to perform very well but I can't help feeling that the 80-200 is a tad sharper between 80-180 or so. This could be my imagination, before I do any real testing it is hard to say. Most of the pictures I've shot so far has been at the long end plus a few portraits at the short end. The long-end pics provide a general optical quality that is way better than expected from a 5X zoom. Sorry for being vague here but I want to be careful not to cast judgment before I've done any serious comparison. Subjectively the lens is very sharp for a zoom.
I am happy that I bought the lens. At the same time I am sad that it is not all it could be. Just adding AF-S and a less overdamped zoom ring would've made it a classic lens, but it's not to be. I will keep my 80-200/2.8. I still use it when I don't need the VR or the reach of the 80-400. I do not feel that this lens is an all-around replacement for the mighty 80-200/2.8. I am emotionally attached to the shorter zoom while the 80-400 is just a useful tool :-) The VR system is a hoot though. It also comes in handy when I need to travel light. With just two lenses (my Tokina AF 28-80 ATX Pro and the 80-400), I get plenty of reach with good optical quality. The lens is worth the $1700 I paid for it and I would not want to be without it, but it could have been so much more.
Before you run out and buy this lens (if you can find it, it's in short supply in some areas, apparently) make sure that you really need what it has to offer. Don't buy it because you need a 400mm and the 400/2.8 is too expensive for your budget - buy it because you want a long range, handholdable, high-quality and fairly compact tele-zoom. If you shoot lots of handheld shots you will love the VR, but get the 80-200/2.8 first because that lens is a true must-have while the 80-400VR is icing on the cake.
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