The Nikon AF-S Nikkor 180-400mm F4E TC1.4 FL ED VR is an updated version of the AF-S Nikkor 200-400mm F4G ED VR – one of the first lenses Nikon added stabilisation (VR) to (the other being the AF-S Nikkor 200mm F2.0, effectively a 300mm on the DX only bodies back then) and the favourite of animal safari photographers everywhere. Not surprisingly, it’s also a popular choice with those that cover sports. This new model though is much more than just an update – it’s a re-designed lens complete with a built-in 1.4x teleconverter that’s meant to counter the Canon EF 200-400mm F4L IS USM Extender 1.4x, itself a showcase model based on the earlier Nikkor.
While its predecessor was very well made, anyone familiar with Nikon’s high-end super-telephoto lenses could see it wasn’t built to quite the same level, but this new model is. Every element of the design of the lens itself and accessories such as the hood and tripod collar has been carefully thought out and immaculately engineered for the rough and tumble of fieldwork. That’s not always a given, though. Nikon’s tripod collars have been less than stellar even on high-end lenses. Still, the design used here is one of the better ones, and even the foot can be removed and replaced with a third-party one (ideally with an Arca-style groove, like those from Wimberley, or RRS).
Like its predecessor, it is delivered with an expensive-looking soft sling-type case that’s not bad even though you’re likely to never use it (it has Nikon all over it and you’re asking for trouble). I promptly loaded the lens with hood and a Nikon D5 into one side of one of my favourite bags a Gura Gear Kiboko [advertiser link] – another staple of animal safari photographers everywhere.
Like other updates to the super-tele range, Nikon has taken the unusual step of adopting fluorite in the optical design, which the company once eschewed in favour of ED glass. Although durable and relatively unaffected by temperature extremes, the ‘problem’ with ED glass is that it’s heavy, far heavier than fluorite crystal anyway. Not only that but it takes two ED elements to provide the same level of fringing correction as one fluorite. With everyone watching the weight of super-telephoto lenses these days, there’s simply no other choice.
This lens only uses one large-diameter fluorite element but combines that with eight ED glass elements in an optical design comprising of 27 elements in all. As you might expect, even with a mostly aluminium alloy body, the lens is weighty at around 3,500g (8 lb). That’s still light enough to allow for some hand-held shooting with the VR engaged as insurance but it’s best to use it supported. Most people will use a monopod, I suspect, but if space allows then a sturdy tripod (I use an older version) with one of these [advertiser links] is even better – keep the VR engaged and you have practically one-handed operation.
With an MSRP / RRP of $12,399 / £12,570, it’s no surprise that it’s one of Nikon’s most expensive lenses. For that amount, you would expect a dedicated T/C. In fact, what you get is a built-in 1.4x T/C, which can be engaged with a flick of a switch and locked within a second, even while looking through the viewfinder. Use of the converter extends the zoom range to an arguably more useful 250-560mm on a full-frame camera like the Nikon D5 with a loss of 1-stop, resulting in an effective F5.6 maximum aperture (as displayed on the Nikon D5 and in metadata).
All very useful, as losing a matched teleconverter in the past meant supplementing it for one ‘off the shelf’ and a decrease in optical performance and, ultimately, user experience. (If you’re unfamiliar with the term “matched” teleconverter, Nikon used to build the bundled converters to the characteristics of each individual lens for optimal optical performance, such as the made-to-order AI/AIS Nikkor 300mm F2.0 IFED, which came with a matched x2 converter. They even had the same serial numbers.)
As a pro-oriented lens, it will come as no surprise to learn that AF is exceptionally fast, almost instantaneous on the Nikon D5a (dual XQD). So fast that if the D5’s tracking lost the subject for a split second the result in the viewfinder would be one of complete blur. Then, with the subject reacquired, it would be pin-sharp again, and all within a fraction of a second. With the T/C engaged, focusing felt fractionally slower, though it was still incredibly fast. You only see that kind of performance with Nikon’s best ring-type sonic motors, found on their super-telephotos.
Image sharpness is excellent at all apertures, but particularly so wide open, which if we’re honest is where it really counts in a lens like this. And it’s excellent to F8 if you care to use it for a little extra depth of field. It’s even sharp at the edges of the frame and on into the corners when they’re in focus. Sure, there’s some vignetting and there’s a little pincushion distortion at the longer end, which is exaggerated with the teleconverter in place. Still, even then the lens is very sharp with it engaged and not just at relatively close distances but mid- to long distances as well.
Fringing is practically non-existent with the Nikon D5 (I didn’t have a higher-resolution body to test), with images that are so clear of distracting chromatism to the point that they need no additional work to remove post-capture – a real boon to those using JPEGs in a pressured environment, such as those working to short deadlines. It’s even lower than the AF-S Nikkor 400mm F2.8G ED VR, the last of the ED-only models, and that had exceptionally low levels.
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With Canon able to command such a high price tag for their equivalent, it is perhaps no surprise to see the Nikkor now at a similar level. In terms of sharpness without the T/C enabled, it’s a step up from the original AF-S Nikkor 200-400mm F4G ED VR, and the new lens is not exactly weak with the T/C engaged either. Optical quality like this doesn’t come cheap. If you can afford it and you’re invested in the Nikon DSLR eco-system and you need that coverage (obvs) then it’s a solid choice.
Nikon pro-telephoto build quality in a zoom
Extremely high sharpness at all focal lengths
Effective VR (stabilisation)
Still a bit unwieldy for hand-held use
Sample Images (resized to 1200px)