Nikon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 Lens Review

What is It?

The 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 VR S lens is Nikon's first longer telephoto zoom for the Z system. Up until it appeared, the Z system maxed out at the 200mm focal length mark (without teleconverters). In very rapid succession, we received the 100-400mm (this review), the 400mm f/2.8 (next review), and the 800mm f/6.3 PF. Suddenly you have several choices in the long telephoto range for the Z-mount, with more coming (400mm f/4.5? PF, 200-600mm f/5.6-6.3?, and 600mm f/4). But let me cut to the chase: most of you are going to end up with the 100-400mm. Let me foreshadow why: it's svelte, it's highly competent, and it's affordable.

Let's start with size. With the lens at the 100mm mark, the 100-400mm is remarkably about the same size and weight as the 70-200mm f/2.8. Specifically, that's 8.7" (222mm) with a 3.5" (89mm) diameter. Total weight is 1435g with the tripod collar. The 70-200mm is 8.7", 3.5" and 1440g. This wasn't expected. The old 80-400mm F-mount lens is a little wider in diameter and heavier, for instance, though it does collapse to 8" (203mm). Remember, however, that the 80-400mm used on a Z System camera will become longer and even heavier due to the necessary FTZ adapter. 

Fully extended, the 100-400mm grows about 2" (49mm) in length, and the plastic lens hood adds another 2.5" (65mm). So, at 400mm the mount to front of hood distance is about 13.2" (336mm). That's still surprisingly small. Typical telephoto lens designs usually come in at physical length = focal length (which would be 400mm to the front element). 

Build quality is Nikon's typical S level. That means a magnesium alloy core with lots of weather sealing (13 rings and nine other gaskets around switches/buttons). Like many of the Z-mount zooms, the barrel diameter stays very constant throughout much of its length. As with (most) S lenses, you get an OLED display that can show focal length, aperture, focusing distance, and depth-of-field. The tripod collar rotates, and its foot is removable/replaceable, but not Arca-Swiss compatible. On the tripod collar is a large round knob whose top rubber cover opens to reveal a Kensington-compatible lock point. The lens comes with the HB-103 hood, which can be reversed on the lens for travel.

You'll find 25 elements in 20 groups inside the lens. Six of those elements are ED, with two being a Super ED type of glass. There are no aspherical elements in the lens. ARNEO and Nano coatings are used on the lens to reduce flare and ghosting, and the front element is fluorine coated to repel water and dust. That front element allows for 77mm filters to be mounted on the lens. Nikon makes a claim that the center of balance moves only 0.15" (3.8mm) as the lens is zooms and focused. They also claim that the lens won't zoom creep when held up or straight down.

Maximum aperture is f/4.5 at 100mm, f/5.6 at 400mm. Minimum aperture is f/32 at 100mm, f/40 at 400mm. The aperture diaphragm is 9 blades.  Maximum apertures go like this as you zoom:

  • 100mm f/4.5
  • 125mm f/4.8
  • 185mm f/5
  • 270mm f/5.3
  • 380mm f/5.6

Focus is done with two stepping motors, and the lens focuses down to just over 3 feet (0.97m) at 400mm, which produces a maximum magnification ratio of 1:2.5, which is near macro level. The working distance at 400mm is about 27" (0.7m). 100mm isn't quite as much of a close up wiz at 1:5, with the focus distance being just about 27" (0.71m) with a working distance of 18" (0.47m). Note that you can use Nikon Z teleconverters with this lens, and that gets you into macro range. With the 1.4x the maximum magnification hits 1:1.8, while with the 2x the ratio is 1:1.3. The 100-400mm is not a true parfocal zoom; you'll see some focus shift when zooming. Perhaps less so than most zooms, but you still need to focus again if you zoom.

Focus breathing, however, is minimal, particularly at the shorter focal lengths, where I can't really detect any.

Like most of Nikon's Z telephotos, the 100-400mm has a built-in VR system within the lens. With the Z6 II, Z7 II, and Z9, Nikon claims that Synchro VR is used, and this results in the 5.5 stops (CIPA) claim. On the DX bodies, only two-axis in-lens stabilization is performed.

The lens has an array of controls. Besides the ubiquitous A/M switch, there's a focus limiter switch, L-Fn button, four L-Fn2 buttons, and a second control ring. The last three can be programmed activate various functions.

The lens is made in Japan and lists US$2699. 

Nikon's page for the lens.

Source of the reviewed lens: purchased via NPS priority.

How's it Handle?

In a word, excellently. Mostly. Unlike the 400mm f/2.8S, the controls are very tightly spaced, and in the right place for my hands (photo, below).

100-400 controls

On my Z9, my hand rests at a point under the lens where my thumb naturally hits the L-Fn button and I can roll the focus ring with my fingers. I use a modified hybrid approach to focus, which involves two different AF-area modes and focus peaking for override. This became second nature on the 100-400mm. While I suspect this ergonomic excellence was "by accident" in the lens design process, I'll take it. I do have to move my hand forward to zoom, but the ring is easy to find and relatively smooth, so again, natural in feel. Even the second control ring is easy to reach and change, though I program all mine to None. Overall, the control handling was very good; I wish I felt this way about all Z-mount Nikkors. 

I did wish for a three-way focus limiter switch (close, far, full) instead of the two way one (FULL, infinity to 3m). Indeed, I would have preferred to get that instead of the DISP button and the OLED display of the S lenses.

The tripod collar is not Arca-Swiss compatible, so the first thing I did was swap Nikon's handle out with a Kirk handle. Fortunately, the 70-200mm and 100-400mm share the foot design, so you can already get replacement feet with the Arca-style plate. I'm not a fan of the release mechanism for that foot, as it is too easily triggered, but this has been a Nikon design problem for some time now, and doesn't seem to be subject to change.

How's it Perform?

Focus: Surprisingly fast. The dual motor method seems to work quite well, and other than the usual Z-system lag to first focus—mostly due to the way Nikon does phase detect in the bodies—saw no issues. You'll note my comment about focus peaking in the handling section. The way to get faster initial focus is to make sure the focus point is near the subject distance prior to pressing AF-ON. If the subject is nearly in focus, the system will grab onto it fast (the Z9 uncannily so), but if the subject is a complete blur in the viewfinder, the Z system focus methodology almost always triggers a full range hunt (the focus limiter switch is your friend). Fortunately, that, too, happens fast on this lens, but still, instant it's not.

Sharpness: With test targets at 100-200mm the performance is very good both in the center and corners wide open. At 300mm, the center is very good, the corners just barely good. At 400mm, you have to stop down to f/8 to make the center very good, and the corners stay in the good range at almost every aperture. I've seen others describe their test results as "excellent," but if I'm being consistent with the charts and evaluation, I have to stick with "very good." Not that this is bad.

Moving away from the test charts photographed at close distances, the 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 S becomes clearly excellent in the center at distance, and particularly improves in the corners to perhaps very good. Even with the 1.4x teleconverter I'd judge the results to range from very good in the center to the margin of good/very good in the corners. But again, at the closest focus distance the lens is a little soft, though stopping down two or more stops brings the results into the good to very good category, even with the teleconverter. 

So there's a bit of a consistency issue you need to be aware of: at the closest focus distances the results are not as strong optically and you should stop down to get best results. With close-in subjects at test chart distances, the center snaps into something very usable, but at 300-400mm the corners are still weak. As you move to longer distances and more normal use distances, the lens gets better. Almost the opposite of the old 200-400mm f/4's reputation: subjects further away from the 100-400mm render quite well, but get down to the closest focus distances and you lose contrast and acuity. 

I know that much of what I wrote above might feel "lukewarm" to many of you, but I'm not lukewarm to this lens. The lens focuses down to a 1:2.6 magnification ratio, which is near macro, and thus needs to be tested at both close and far distances. It's the close side where the lens is more tepid. At the distance end, note that I wrote that it's excellent wide open, with very good corners. Even with the 1.4x teleconverter on the lens, I'd judge the center to be very good and the corners to be good at most use distances.

Compared to the F-mount 80-400mm, the Z-mount 100-400mm is much better at most focal lengths and apertures at typical use distances, though only slightly so at the wider end of the zoom range. Compared to the 70-200mm f/2.8 S with a 2x teleconverter, the 100-400mm is also clearly better, though perhaps not by as much as some would expect at the wider end of the range. Still, the common question I get is "why not just use the 2x on the 70-200mm?" My answer is: the 100-400mm is better at 400mm f/5.6 in almost all cases. 

The lens has very little field curvature, but there is a bit of focus shift forward at wider apertures. Also: no real coma was detected, which was surprising. I can see some spherical aberration, particularly at 400mm, but it's not particularly problematic.

Linear Distortion: Very slight pin-cushion (<1%) at 100mm that increases to visible distortion (~3%) as you zoom in to 400mm. I'd be tempted not to correct the lens at 100mm, and would only really want to correct it in the 200-400mm range. Curiously, the in-camera corrections often produce slight barrel distortion when applied.

Chromatic Aberration: longitudinal CA is very low, with only a trace of it wide open, much as you'd expect with a slower aperture zoom. Lateral CA is also very low, rarely even producing a pixel's width, which only happens at 400mm and with teleconverters.

Vignetting: While there is significant vignetting in the extreme corners wide open, the image circle immune from darkening is relative wide. For instance, at 100mm, neither the top nor bottom of the frame really show vignetting, it's only the extreme sides/corners that do. This improves to totally ignorable by f/8. At 400mm, the image circle showing vignetting closes down some, affecting mostly the area outside the DX frame, and again vignetting is ignorable stopping down two stops. At both focal lengths, even stopping down one stop improves things to where you only have extreme corner darkening to worry about. In camera corrections seem to work very well for this lens, softening the impact considerably.

Flare: If the 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 S has any real flaw, I'd tend to say that it would be a tendency to flare, both slight ghosted element artifacts on in-frame light sources, plus some veiling glare in backlit situations. This is a bit surprising considering the multiple coatings used in this lens. Generally you're not composing with in-frame light sources with a long telephoto like this, but do be aware of near edge light sources.

Bokeh: Very minor onion skinning, but with a bright, mostly non-colored edge. Significant cats eyes as you move past the DX frame area. For a variable aperture zoom, the performance is actually pretty darned good, and I don't see some of the busy-ness in the falloff to out of focus as I do in some lenses. 

Compared to the F-mount 80-400mm: The big benefits of the 100-400mm are better sharpness as you move outwards from the center of the image (easily seen outside the DX boundary), a closer focus distance, it packs smaller and lighter, and 400mm is really 400mm (the 80-400mm focal length breaths slightly, and tends to show a “wider” angle of view at 400mm). The 100-400mm also is highly tolerant of the 1.4x teleconverter. Finally, I’d tend to say that the 100-400mm has a slight bit more contrast at identical settings and focus distances. The primary thing that the F-mount lens provides over the 100-400mm is the 80-100mm range, which some may find useful (and the 80-400mm is excellent at those wider focal lengths). 

Final Words

We all wanted Nikon to improve the 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G, and that's pretty much exactly what Nikon did. In almost every respect the new Z-mount zoom is better, and clearly so in many ways. It's difficult to find fault with it other than some minor flare tendencies and a slight loss of close-up acuity wide open. Moreover, as good as the 70-200mm f/2.8 S with a teleconverter is, the 100-400mm upstages that combo, too. Indeed, at 400mm f/5.6, this lens looks very similar to the 400mm f/2.8 when used at f/5.6, at least with distances over 30 feet (10m). That's saying a lot. 

Moreover, when used with the 1.4x teleconverter, the lens becomes a highly usable 140-560mm f/5.3-8. The upcoming 180-600mm has a very high bar to get over.

So what we have here is the new (Nikon) standard for a long telephoto zoom. The 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 definitely justifies its S-line marking, and I'd tend to argue that its price is therefore justified, as well. Of course, we're all going to replace the Nikon-supplied tripod foot with an Arca-Swiss compatible one, which adds to the cost.

Given that the packed size and weight of the 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 S is fairly close to the 70-200mm f/2.8, we now have a relatively small safari pack capability that's highly competent. Kudos to Nikon's optical engineers. They might not have hit it out of the park with this lens, but they hit a solid triple off the wall, which is more than I can say for quite a few other lenses in this focal length range.

Highly Recommended (2022), downgraded to Recommended (2023 to present)

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