Last Updated on 02/11/2023 by Mark Beckenbach
The last time I picked up a 400mm lens, I closed my exercise ring with a lens that was almost as long as my own arm. But what if portability and price are more prized than an f2.8 aperture? That’s the idea behind the Nikon Z 400mm f4.5 VR S lens. It’s a prime with a long reach yet a form factor that’s not going to restrict photographers to standing on the sidelines with a monopod or waiting out wildlife in a blind. At about 2.5 pounds and just over nine inches long, the cheaper of Nikon’s two Z-mount 400mm lenses is easy to hike with. Oh, and it’s also $10,000 less than the f2.8 variant.
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The Nikon Z 400mm f4.5 is a bit of an oddball. Canon and Sony don’t really offer anything similar, unless you count Canon’s affordable and portable RF 800mm f11 lens. Yet, this lens fills a big gap by creating a high-quality super telephoto that’s compact and reasonably priced. The only question is whether the extra stop of light in the Nikon Z 100-400mm f3.5-5.6 VR S is worth paying for.
The Big Picture
One of the biggest features of the Nikon Z 400mm f4.5 VR S is easily noticeable before even holding the lens: it’s $10k less than the f2.8 variation. But that’s not the only reason to love this lens. At about 2.5 pounds, it’s light and compact enough to hike with. Mix in 5.5 stops of stabilization and there are few reasons to use that included tripod mount. It’s also weather sealed and designed with a number of controls.
As an S series lens, the 400mm delivers the look Nikon Z photographers are craving: rich colors and tack sharp subjects. The longer focal length is enough to create good bokeh. (That extra $10k will probably help you forget just how creamy the backgrounds of a 400mm f2.8 are.)
There are just two things I didn’t like about this lens. The autofocus performance really struggles with fast subjects heading straight towards the camera. And I think the autofocus limiter switch should have had a 2.5m to 6m position. The f4.5 aperture is also obviously going to introduce more noise when compensating with a high ISO, but it’s a sacrifice that’s likely worth the cost savings for most.
Saving $10k over the f2.8 makes the lens’ autofocus struggles easy to accommodate for all but the most demanding sports action. I’m giving this lens four out of five stars. Want one? Check it out at Amazon or Adorama.
- It’s $10k less than the f2.8 variation
- Small enough to actually hike with
- Rich, warm colors
- Sharp images
- VR is good enough to easily handhold this lens
- The autofocus has a hard time with fast subjects coming straight towards the camera
- The autofocus limiter switch should have one more position for close subjects
I tested the Nikon Z 400mm f4.5 VR S with the Nikon Z7 II and a protective filter from B&W. The lens was a temporary loan provided by LensRentals. The camera body is on loan from Nikon.
Much of the innovation in the Nikon Z 400mm f4.5 is simply regarding size. It’s a long reach 400mm lens, but it only weighs 2.5 pounds and is about nine inches long. Yes, much of the small size is due to the fact that the maximum aperture is just f4.5. But, the biggest selling point for this lens is that it’s easier to handhold and haul around in a typical sized camera bag. The only other option to get this kind of reach in this kind of portability is a 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 lens.
While the Nikon Z 400mm f4.5 isn’t a compact lens by any stretch of the imagination, it’s a pretty manageable size for the 400mm focal length. If you’ve ever shot with a 400mm f2.8, you’ll be easily impressed by its compact size. It’s actually lighter than the Nikon Z 70-200mm f2.8, weighing about 41 ounces. It’s 9.3 inches long, which is a bit longer than the 70-200mm but only by about half an inch.
The first bank of controls sits close to the mount. On the left-hand side, an L-Fn sits above an auto to manual focus switch and a focus limiter switch. The latter limits the focal distance from the full range or from 6m to infinity. There are just two settings to this focus limiter switch, so you can limit the lens to the long end but not the close end of its capabilities. On the right-hand side of the lens, there’s a memory set button for recalling a specific focal distance.
Next up is the tripod mount, but it’s removable if you’d rather handhold.
The first dial closest to the mount is the focus ring. It’s available even in autofocus mode to make small adjustments. The second ring is the aperture ring. It’s a thin but textured ring with a smooth turn (no click). Finally, towards the front of the lens, there are four Fn-2 buttons evenly spaced for easy access. The very end of the lens has an extra grip around the surface.
The front of this lens is mostly glass, and it can accommodate large 95mm screw-in filters. The lens ships with a large locking hood.
The Nikon Z 400mm f4.5 is not a metal lens, but it does seem to be well built. It has a feel similar to Nikon’s other S-line optics. It’s also weather-sealed. I gave it a good dousing with a water bottle and the lens and camera held up fine. I also didn’t detect any dust on the camera sensor.
A 400mm has a lot of glass to move, and I had this lens paired with the Nikon Z7 II, which is a bit slower than similar bodies from Canon and Sony. For most action, the Nikon Z 400mm f4.5 was able to keep up. I was able to get a reasonable amount of sharply focused shots of kids riding bikes and birds flying to a feeder.
But, the lens really struggled with fast subjects coming straight at the lens. The lens will keep up at a slow jog, but anything faster and the lens got a few hits in then fell off and didn’t pick the subject back up again. A leisurely bike ride towards the lens, yes, my dog running at full speed, no. Turning off exposure preview and using the AF limiter switch helps some. But, this is a lens that’s going to do best on the sidelines of a race rather than shooting from behind the finish line.
One thing that I think is missing from this lens is one more spot on the focus limiter switch. The lens can be limited to farther subjects. But there’s no spot to tell the lens to ignore everything far away and just focus on objects from 2.5m to 6m from the front of the lens. I think this would have sped up the autofocus speed more when working with closer subjects.
While the autofocus had some challenges on this lens, I did find it to be a bit faster at picking up birds when compared to the Nikon Z 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR S.
Ease of Use
With 5.5 stops of stabilization and a reasonable 2.5 pound weight, this lens doesn’t require a tripod, I was able to shoot at 1/60th of a second and get sharp results, both with panning and just holding the camera steady. With a body that supports Synchro VR, the stabilization bumps up to 6 stops.
The lens’ different controls also helps simplify shooting. I like the placement of the different Fn buttons for easy access. The only control that I really missed is that third focus limiter switch position. It also doesn’t have the built-in LCD that displays things like the focal distance scale, but I didn’t find myself missing it too much.
The S line is among my favorite Z-mount lenses, and the Nikon Z 400mm f4.5 VR S is no exception. Subjects are tack sharp and colors are rich and golden. The compression of a 400mm focal length is enough to give the lens some decent bokeh, despite having a rather narrow aperture for a prime lens.
The Nikon Z 400mm f4.5 VR S trades the bright f2.8 aperture that’s more typical of a telephoto prime for a smaller size and a lower price point. But the long length of the lens helps make up for the narrower aperture. Yes, Nikon’s f2.8 version of this lens is going to create even more background blur and allow for a lower ISO when using the high shutter speeds required for sports and birds. But nobody is going to look at these images on Instagram and scold you for not buying the f2.8. There’s still some nice background separation and this lens is sharp enough that shooting wide open is ideal. The lens is going to require more distance to render the background into a solid color, but, in the photo above, the white is a snowbank that’s roughly 20 feet away from the bird feeder.
Points of light are rendered to round bokeh balls at the center at cat eye towards the edges. Some of the bokeh does occasionally get a bit of a line on the edge, but it’s only noticeable at 100 percent.
The colors coming from this lens remind me of the colors coming from the Z 70-200mm f2.8 S — rich and warm. The 400mm f4.5 is joining my list of favorites for golden colors coming from a Nikon body. Even shooting this lens in a muddy mid-winter melt, the images had a great warmth to them.
The Nikon Z 400mm f4.5 has a nice mix of sharpness, rich colors and a bit of bokeh. The S line of lenses tend to be more technically great, but there’s a little character to be had here. Use this lens without the hood and you can get some soft sun flares and occasional ghosting spots. Even with the flare, I didn’t find much chromatic aberration or colored fringing, which is great.
As a former Nikon F mount shooter, I’ve long been impressed by the sharpness coming from Z mount lenses. This 400mm is no exception. Subjects placed towards the edges will still have a great level of sharpness and detail.
Extra Image Samples
From day one, The Phoblographer has been huge on transparency with our audience. Nothing from this review is sponsored. Further, lots of folks will post reviews and show lots of editing in the photos. The problem then becomes that anyone and everyone can do the same thing. They’re not showing what the lens can do. So we have a section in our Extra Image Samples area to show edited and unedited photos. From this, you can make a decision for yourself.
Who Should Buy It?
The Nikon Z 400mm f4.5 VR S retails for about $3,250 — which is more than $10,000 less than the f2.8 version. That brings the optics of a high-end super telephoto zoom to a much wider audience. And most of that audience is going to really like this lens. Images are sharp with rich colors. And the ability to easily carry this lens — and actually pay for it —is worth sacrificing a bit of aperture for.
I had a bit more more luck focusing on birds with this lens over the 100-400mm and the aperture is a bit wider. However, that zoom lens is a bit cheaper and, of course, also more versatile. There will likely be some photographers that prefer the zoom’s versatility and lower price point than the 400mm’s wider aperture and slight improvement in performance.
But, the 400mm f4.5 can have some trouble focusing on most difficult subjects — i.e. fast movement heading straight towards the camera. Photographers with a high-end body like the Z9 may be able to squeeze a bit more speed out of this lens than I was able to. If most of the shots that you are visualizing taking with this lens involve very fast subjects coming straight for you, the autofocus performance may be a deal breaker.
Want one? Check it out at Amazon or Adorama.
LensRentals lists the following specifications for the Nikon Z 400mm f4.5:
- Angle of View: 6° 10’
- Autofocus: Autofocus
- Brand: Nikon
- Compatibility: Full Frame and Crop
- Filter Size: 95.0mm
- Focal Length: 400.0-400.0
- Hood Included: Yes
- Image Stabilization: Yes
- Item Type: Lens
- Lens Type: Supertelephoto
- Max Aperture: 4.5
- Maximum Magnification: 0.16x
- Mfr. Model Number : 20112
- Minimum Aperture: 22.0
- Minimum Focusing Distance: 8.2 feet
- Mount: Nikon Z
- Optical Design
- Groups/Elements: 13/19
- Extra-Low Dispersion Elements: 1
- Super Extra-Low Dispersion Elements: 2
- Short-Wavelength Refractive Elements: 1
- Aperture Blades: 9, Rounded
- Dimensions (Diameter x Length): 4.1 × 9.2″
- Weight: 2.7 lbs.
- Tripod Collar: Removable and Rotating