Nikon 80-400 Lens review, a Safari test.

02nd September 2014
Deciding on a lens to take on Safari can often be a difficult choice, your choice of lens will often depend on the destination and how close you can get to your subject. I do a lot of safaris into the Sabi Sand area and to date I have used Nikon’s 200-400 F4 lens on one camera body and a 70-200 F2.8 lens on the second camera body, this way I can cover quite a extensive focal range of 70mm all the way up to 400mm, this was before Nikon released their new 80-400 mm F4.5 to 5.6 lens. I decided to take the 80-400 lens on a 8 day Safari to the Sabi Sands to give it a full workout in Safari conditions, this is what I think !

Nikon D4 with 80-400 lens ISO 1600 1/200 sec F5.6

Nikon D4 with 200-400 lens ISO 1000 1/1600 sec F5.6

The 200-400 lens weighs 3360 g and the 80-400 lens weighs 1570 g, what did this mean for me ! With the 80-400 lens that was considerably smaller and lighter than the 200-400 I found that I was getting more photographs, the smaller lighter lens was easier to handle and I was ready to shoot much quicker than with the 200-400 lens ! Handholding the 80-400 was also much easier and getting quick out of hand shots was much more successful than using the 200-400 lens. When travelling by plane and small aircraft on Safari in Africa weight is always a issue and the 80-400 would be much easier to travel with and it would save both space and weight, my wife also enjoys photography and she can handle the 80-400 lens fairly easily but she battles using the 200-400 lens so I guess the 80-400 would be better for the ladies and younger children to use.

The 200-400 lens has F4 throughout it’s focal range while the 80-400 on 80mm has F4.5 and then it gradually changes to end at F5.6 at 400mm, shooting in low light the 200-400 would have the advantage as you could shoot at 400mm at F4 and get a extra stop of light and shutter speed as opposed to the 80-400 at 400mm, so how did this affect my safari ? Not as much as I would have thought. I often shoot at F5.6 when the light is good so this made no difference to me at all in good light, shooting in lower light was a bit more challenging and here I found I was getting fewer sharp images than when I used the 200-400 but I still got some great images shooting with a spotlight and fill flash, I was able to increase my ISO by one third so this left me with two thirds short on the shutter speed as opposed to the F4 lens, by using a beanbag and trying to shoot when the subject was not moving too much yielded some good results, in the end I found I could get by with a 5.6 aperture, shooting the first night with the spotlight I did learn a lesson when using the 80-400 lens, when I photograph at night using the spotlight I change to manual mode, at first I set the aperture at 80mm on F4.5 and on 400m it would be F5.6, in the sighting I got my exposure correct at 400mm on F5.6, then the Leopard walked closer and I adjusted the shutter speed how I normally would with the 200-400 but I was still overexposing my image, it was then that I realized that I needed to set my aperture at F5.6 on 80mm so than when I zoomed out to photograph a closer subject at night as it came closer I would only need to adjust my shutter speed as per normal as the aperture would now be fixed at F5.6 throughout, the next opportunity we had for spotlight photography my results were much better. You could of course just make greater shutter speed adjustments and leave the lens at F4.5 at 80mm but as I have gotten used to the 200-400 with the F4 throughout I found it easier to set the 80-400 lens to F5.6 so then it would be a constant F5.6 throughout its focal range.

Nikon D800 with 80-400 lens ISO 1250 1/250 sec F5.6

Nikon D4 with 200-400 lens ISO 2500 1/100 sec F5

Sharpness and focusing
Both the 200-400 and the 80-400 lenses are extremely sharp and both deliver great image clarity and quality, I must admit that I was pleasantly surprised with the 80-400 lens as my images were as sharp as Images I have taken with the 200-400, I imagine that if the lenses were compared side by side and you photographed the same subject under the same conditions the 200-400 would be marginally sharper but I was very happy with the sharpness and quality of the 80-400 lens in both good light and low light conditions. The focusing of the 80-400 is great, it is just as fast as the 200-400 and I could find no difference between the two.

Here the 200-400 has the advantage over the 80-400, it is a much more robust lens and it could probably handle a accidental drop or knock better than the 80-400, I did however not think that the 80-400 lens was flimsy at all, the tripod collar of the 200-400 is also much better than the 80-400, it works smoother and is easier to work than the 80-400.

Nikon D4 with 80-400 lens ISO 2500 1/400 sec F5.6

Nikon D4 with 200-400 lens ISO 400 1/1600 sec F5.6

Focal Range and second camera body
When using the 200-400 I need to have a second camera body handy, often with a 70-200 lens mounted, just in case the subject is closer than 200mm and if I want a wider view of my subject, when using the 80-400 lens I found that I never used the second camera body with the 70-200 lens attached, the 80-400 had all the focal ranges covered, I could now put the 24-70 mm lens on the second camera body and this in turn opened up new opportunities for me.

A new 200-400 is currently selling for about R115 000-00 while a new 80-400 is currently selling for around R38 000-00.

I can highly recommend the 80-400 lens and it is a great lens to go on Safari with, it is fast, sharp and easy to travel with and to use, it is also more affordable than the 200-400 and the image quality, sharpness and clarity can compare with that of the 200-400, I would most certainly use the 80-400 again and if I didn’t already own a 200-400 I would more than likely buy a 80-400 lens!

Nikon D4 with 80-400 lens ISO 800 1/1250 sec F10

Nikon D4 with 200-400 lens ISO 450 1/1600 sec F5

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