Nikon AF-S 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR Field Test
Deciding on which camera to take was pretty easy, plumping quickly for the Nikon D810. However, deciding on my main lens proved much more difficult. My Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 wasn’t going to have the reach, so my mind naturally drifted towards some of Nikon’s exotic primes, like the 400mm f/2.8 and 500mm f/4. With prices running into five figures for these optics, there was no way I was going to be able to afford one, but for a fraction of the cost I could hire one for the week.
There’s no doubt that these are stunning optics that would be in their element out in the field, but having lugged a 400mm f/2.8 around with me at a premiership rugby match last year I know they’re back-achingly heavy. I also had to consider transportation – I didn’t want to take the chance of checking my kit into the hold on the flight, so my gear had to meet Kenya Airways’ hand-baggage allowance of measuring 55x25x35cm and weighing no more than 12kg.
While there are some bags out there that would have done the job, getting all the other kit in as well as the 400mm would have been a struggle – even though the weight limit would easily have been met. After a lot of agonising I decided to drop the idea of taking a large telephoto prime and look at other alternatives, which led me to having to choose between the 200-400mm f/4 and the 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6.
The 200-400mm is a cracking lens, but after a lot of deliberation I settled on the 80-400mm. The AF-S Nikkor 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR, to give it its full title, is the successor to the 13-year-old 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6D VR – Nikon’s first lens with Vibration Reduction. The wider focal range meant I could leave my trusty 70-200mm at home and happily pack just two bodies, the 80-400mm and 24-70mm f/2.8, into my Lowepro Vertex 200AW backpack without worrying about baggage restrictions.
There was no denying the weight and versatility advantages offered by the lens, but had I put this at the expense of image quality, especially when combined with an unforgiving 36.3-million-pixel sensor?
Flying in over the Masai Mara in our little 13-seat Cessna Caravan from Nairobi, we caught a glimpse of what lay ahead, with giraffes and herds of elephants roaming below us in the bush. After being transported to our beautiful tented camp in the middle of the bush, we had just enough time to drop our bags and grab some lunch before heading out for an afternoon’s game drive – and my first chance to see how the 80-400mm lens stacks up.
With three of us to each Toyota Land Cruiser, along with our guide/driver, we left the camp. My bag was down at my feet with the D810 and 80-400mm ready to go. I’d set my camera up with back-button focus – something I started doing a couple of years ago and it’s been a revelation. Rather than relying on focusing with the shutter button (which I’ve deactivated for AF and only triggers the shutter), I press my thumb down on the AF-ON button at the rear of the D810. With continuous AF set, I find it much easier to track a moving subject.
It also means I don’t have to mess around switching to single AF for static subjects – I can focus on my subject, lift my thumb off the AF-ON button and recompose before firing the shutter. I chose the centre AF point, but to assist with moving subjects I opted for dynamic-area AF with nine points, so if my subject were to move out of the centre AF point the surrounding eight would be able to pick it up. As for the lens, I flicked the focus-limit switch over to ∞-6m from full to speed up AF acquirement.
With our Land Cruisers equipped with plenty of beanbags to rest lenses on, monopods weren’t necessary (plus they’d get in the way). I opted to leave the VR mode set to normal, with active coming into play only if we shot from the Land Cruiser as it moved across the bush.
At about 3pm our Land Cruiser came to a halt 15m away from a lone tree where a lioness had decided to position herself halfway up – quite an unusual sight, by all accounts, but our guide told us that she’d done this to get away from the swarms of flies buzzing around the reserve. The rest of the pride didn’t seem as fussed by the insects, so were lounging on the floor beneath her, having fed earlier in the day.