Nikon 400mm f/2.8 S TC VR Lens Review

What is It?

The 400mm f/2.8 S TC VR is the first of the Z-mount exotics. By exotic, I refer to expensive glass that performs at insanely high levels, but also costs what some consider to be an insane amount. You can purchase a really good late model used car for the same amount as you'd pay for this lens (US$13,999). 

Nikon made this new lens unique (for an exotic prime) in that they added a built-in teleconverter that is quickly flipped in via a convenient lever on the shutter release side of the lens (photo, above). In essence, the lens is two exotic lenses in one package: a 400mm f/2.8 and a 560mm f/4. This is the key element of what makes the lens so desirable: in a light (for an exotic lens) package you get the equivalent of two telephoto lenses, not one. You can also lock the lens to one of the two teleconverter positions (1x or 1.4x). As with any 1.4x converter, you lose a stop of maximum aperture, but gain 1.4x the focal length, thus the 560mm f/4.

Speaking of teleconverters, the 400mm f/2.8 S can use external teleconverters, too. The full set of possibilities is:

  • 400mm f/2.8 (no TC)
  • 560mm f/4 (internal TC, or external 1.4x; external not recommended)
  • 784mm f/5.6 (internal TC plus external 1.4x; not recommended)
  • 800mm f/5.6 (no internal TC plus external 2x)
  • 1120mm f/8 (internal TC plus external 2x)

If you didn't catch that: the only external teleconverter I would tend to use with this lens is the 2x. That gives you 400mm, 560mm, 800mm, and 1120mm options.

I mentioned "light". Nikon has dropped nearly two pounds from the most recent F-mount version of the lens (which doesn't have a built-in teleconverter). That makes the 400mm f/2.8 S TC VR only 6.5 pounds (2950g), and within a few grams of Sony's light 400mm f/2.8GM OSS. At 15" (without the hood mounted, which adds another 5"), this is not a small lens, but again, it's smaller and lighter than any similar Nikkor before it. Indeed, my old F-mount 400mm f/2.8G comes in at 4620g, which is a whopping 58.9 ounces more (almost four pounds!). 

Beyond the weight reduction, Nikon has also spent time refining the weight distribution. The center of mass of this new lens is further back towards the camera than on previous exotics, which also helps with the ability to handhold the lens. Indeed, if you look at the side view and where the handle is placed, you'll see that this is relatively centered. The actual center of gravity is about where the focus ring is.

HowHoweHowever, note where that puts your hand relative to the controls when handholding the lens. I'll have more to say about that in the handling section, below. 

Bonus: if you are only going to handhold the lens, you can remove another 4.3 ounces (121g) by unscrewing the tripod foot. Heck, you could probably also remove the strap attachments and lose another ounce or two.

Nikon talks about "no-look" controls in their marketing literature, so it's probably worth mentioning what controls you have and whether you need to look at them ;~). 

First up, we have that teleconverter lever with a lock switch in between positions. You'll eventually not have to look for the lever, though it's a bit forward of where I'd like it and where it naturally falls under a finger. Just below and in front of the teleconverter lever is the Memory Set button in an awkward, hard-to-find position. On the other side at the back of the lens are the A/M switch, and the focus limiter switch. Just in front of that is the L-Fn button. At the very front of the lens near where it widens to the front element are four L-Fn2 buttons arrayed around the lens. In between the L-Fn and L-Fn2 buttons are three rings. From camera to front of lens: focus, control ring, Fn ring (yes, Nikon calls it the Fn ring). This last ring has two positions you can trigger (left/right), and those are definable as to what they do (I set mine to "set focus point" and "recall focus point"). 

Speaking of controls, an OLED information display is conspicuously missing from the 400mm f/2.8 S: it's the first S lens not to have such a display, though I've found that display to be mostly useless, so no big loss.

As you might expect, the optical formula is a bit complex, and quite different than previous 400mm f/2.8's. The Z-mount lens features 25 elements in 19 groups. However, only 18 elements in 15 groups are used for the 400mm position. Two of those are ED elements, one is a Super ED element, two are fluorite elements to keep weight down, and there's also an SR (short wavelength refractive) element in the mix as well. Instead of Nano coating, the lens features a new Meso Amorphous coating that has superior flare and ghosting suppression. The lens also has an ARNEO coating internally that helps against incident light reflection. Nikon has dropped the additional (removable) front protection element of previous exotics. The front element is a true front element, not a meniscus dummy that can be removed. Moreover, much of the actual glass has been moved closer to the camera body, while two of the four bigger elements that still live forward of the center point are lighter fluorite elements.

Minimum aperture is f/22 at 400mm, f/32 at 560mm. If you're worried about bokeh, the aperture diaphragm consists of 9 blades. 

Focusing is internal, and handled by a new system, which Nikon calls SSVCM (Silky Smooth Voice Coil Motor). Voice coil motors tend to be smooth and very quiet, but with high torque and speed. The guide mechanism for the motor appears to be what Nikon is trying to promote in their literature. It's a new (to Nikon) rail system that has special coating and very tight spacing to help the motor do its work silently and quickly. This is coupled with a new optical position encoder that communicates with the camera body to provide fast focus without hunting. Someone apparently thought this was all worth a new name (acronym). The marketing person assigned to come up with the name was not as clever as the engineers. 

Minimum focus distance is just over 8 feet (2.5m), with or without the teleconverter, which provides close to a 1:3.9 maximum magnification with the teleconverter in place (otherwise it's 1:5.6). Not macro, but also not particularly restrictive for a long telephoto. 

The lens has internal VR (vibration reduction), but Nikon is now touting this as being "Synchro VR." This apparently refers to a new communication strategy between camera and lens that improves the lens/sensor VR interaction. On a Z6 II, Z7 II, or Z9, the Synchro VR nets 5.5 stops (CIPA) of improvement, while on the other Z cameras you'll only get 5 stops (CIPA). 

As with all the S Nikkors in the Z-mount, the 400mm f/2.8 is designed with an internal magnesium alloy body, and the lens is sealed at multiple points, including all movable parts and switches, as well as a rubber gasket at the lens mount. Nikon also has coated the front element with a fluorine coating to repel water and dust. 

The 400mm f/2.8 S TC VR lens comes with the HK-42 lens hood, the LC-K105 leather-like lens cap, and the CL-L3 soft carrying case. The lens hood reverses onto the lens for travel, and the whole thing just barely fits into one side of my Bataflae 26L backpack, which I can't say about my older F-mount version. You also get a 46mm drop-in filter holder, which can be replaced by Nikon's C-PL460 circular polarizer (the 800mm f/6.3 uses the same drop-in). Somehow the drop-in polarizer has doubled in price from the one used in the F-mount lens. Nikon has usefully included a Kensington-style lock point on the lens (under a rubber cap on the tripod collar). 

The 400mm f/2.8 S TC VR lens is made in Japan, and has a list price of US$13,999. 

Nikon's Web page for the lens

Source of reviewed lens: purchased via NPS priority and hand delivered to Africa

How's it Handle?

Time for some reality to hit. Nikon botched this lens in the handling department. Handling is the sole reason why this lens doesn't get my Highly Recommended rating. Repeat: sole reason. I've been writing (and saying) it for years: a few of us need to drag some Nikon engineers and designers into the field with us and give them a clear indication of how things work in the real world. Because they clearly aren't using the products they design.

We have one good thing to talk about in terms of handling. The size and weight of this new 400mm f/2.8 is the big handling win. With the F-mount 400mm f/2.8 (and 500mm f/4, 600mm f/4, and 800mm f/5.6) hand holding the lens with a big body was a combination that would just wear you down. Nearly instantly. You could manage it only for short periods and without a lot of follow movement; for long sessions with lots of subject movement, you pretty much needed a monopod or a tripod with a gimbal. Either that or you were a Marvel superhero who could hold 10 pounds+ at any angle for infinite periods without breaking a sweat. 

The new 400mm f/2.8 S dropped so much in weight from the F-mount versions that the first time I picked it up I almost threw it at the ceiling. Okay, that's a bit of an exaggeration, but pretty much everyone I know that's held it has been surprised at the "light" weight. It simply weighs less than you expect from using previous exotics. After weeks in Africa using the lens, I'll even go so far as to say this: the 400mm f/2.8 S is definitely hand holdable for long periods (even longer periods if you've been working out ;~). There were times when I was holding the lens pointed up at an awkward angle for minutes on end waiting for a tiny bird-on-stick to become a bird-leaving-stick (photo below). I didn't shake. I didn't tire. I just got angry with the slow-to-move bird. But the lens didn't waver. 

Which brings me to the problem: the controls on the 400mm f/2.8 S aren't positioned for hand holding. Not even close. The point where the lens balances in your left hand palm cradling its underside puts your fingers nowhere near any of the controls you'll want to use. This was immediately evident to me as I had previously set my L-Fn button on the 100-400mm as my hybrid focus switch. Cradling the 100-400mm, my thumb was on the button and two of my fingers could roll the focus ring without moving my hand. With my right hand I controlled AF-ON and the shutter release. With my left I controlled manual focus and the switch to another AF-area mode. Oops: on the 400mm the L-Fn button is a long way away from where my hand is, and so are the L-Fn2 buttons. I can't reach either without moving my hand, which is supporting the lens! My fingers aren't even where they could easily roll the focus ring (because my palm is resting under it). The new special Fn ring isn't where I can easily reach it, and the secondary control ring ends up being about the only thing that doesn't change my hand position to use. 

Now if the lens were on a monopod or tripod, I'd have no real problems. Okay, it would still be a little awkward, as the five controls I want to manage are a long way from one another, so my left hand would be constantly moving to use them. Still, I can manage that on a tripod (or even monopod). However, I had to reprogram my Z9 completely to get anything near what I wanted in terms of focus control, and ended up not using the controls on the lens. Might as well have glued them shut. 

I note in Nikon's literature that they keep showing images of people holding the lens near the front, on the knurled area that widens out to the front element. Those folk can at least reach the L-Fn2 buttons with a finger, but they're still a long way from any of the other controls on the lens. Moreover, I don't think that's really where they want to be holding the lens. I'm holding it at the center of gravity, which means that I can rotate it more easily when following fast moving subjects. Holding the lens at the front means that the center of gravity is between your two hands and you're rotating around that, which I find awkward (and I think you will, too). 

Okay, let me try stating things a little differently: the minimum distance between the front L-Fn2 buttons and the single L-Fn button is 7.5" (190.5mm). That's almost the full natural stretch of my thumb to little finger. Guess Nikon didn't want anyone to accidentally use both buttons at the same time. 

If you can find a 400mm f/2.8 S, try holding it with a Z9. Where does your hand want to be under the lens? Can you change any of the controls with that hand position? I rest my case. 

Then there's the issue Nikon's been ignoring since forever: we all use Arca-style plates on our long lenses. This means completely replacing Nikon's supplied tripod foot. Does no one at Nikon actually use the long lenses? Have they not seen that the first thing we all do is throw away the Nikon-supplied foot? 

For US$13,999 I expect better, and so should you. Nikon's ergonomics designers for this lens seem to have studied at the Jony Ive School of User Befuddlement. Please send them back to the Giugiaro School of This is How the Hand Works for remedial work.

How's it Perform?

Focus: I've heard others say that they found the focus to be not so instant on this lens, but it turned out they were also using older bodies (Z6, Z7, not even a Z6 II or Z7 II). It does seem that the older bodies (and Z5) spend a little more thinking time before moving the lens. On a Z9 I didn't find focus speed to ever be an issue, though. The lens kept up with every subject I pointed it out, no matter how fast or how close it was. Any "lag" I noted tended to be the Z9 subject detection getting up to speed when the focus started too far from the correct point. In no case could I fault the lens's motor and focus speed. 

Videographers will be disappointed in that the 400mm f/2.8 S has clear focus breathing, though. Very clear focus breathing if you rack any meaningful distance, which is unusual for a Z-mount Nikkor. Nikon's marketing says "focus breathing is suppressed." Don't believe them. 

Sharpness: In a word, divine. 

Probably the best acuity I've seen from center to edge wide open on any telephoto lens, ever. This improves slightly (!) with stopping down. If you pushed me, I'd say that f/5.6 is the best aperture, but most of you would be hard pressed to tell the difference from f/2.8. I'm not going to comment further on acuity, as there's no reason to try to ferret out any more information. This lens is so killer sharp wide open that it can create issues for some just-out-of-focus areas. Let's take a look:

The above is something you don't see every day (or any other day in my 25 years of Africa experience up to this point): an African Wild Cat in the dark at 6am (the above image is the full frame, no cropping). The photo was taken at ISO 12800, and the "light" on the right side of his face is actually predawn ambient light from the horizon, not direct sunlight. So how does this look at actual pixels?

Note the grass blade just in front of the left side of the face: things just outside the focus plane have a tendency to resolve with a bit of a double blur artifact that calls attention to itself. Things far from the focus plane just wash out into a blur of color, as in the following photo:

The 400mm f/2.8 S has some minimal focus shift (to the back), but generally this wasn't something that proved to be a problem. However, be careful with the TC in place. Stopping down even a stop will produce a small shift in focus. I didn't see any field curvature with the lens, though I've heard others note that using the external teleconverters can produce some.

With the built-in teleconverter in place (560mm), the lens is still ridiculously sharp in the center of the frame. Outside the DX crop area I see some drop in corner sharpness, and it seems mostly due to astigmatism. That said, the full frame corners at 560mm are still probably better than you've seen on any lens of the same focal length. The primary loss in the corners—at both 400mm and 560mm—is a reduction in contrast, not so much a change in acuity. You can coax a bit more out of the lens with the teleconverter in use by stopping down, but again, as with 400mm, the difference is small. And if you're not at maximum aperture with the TC in place, be careful of focus shift.

Coma is really well controlled on this lens, to the point of being difficult to discern.

Final sharpness comment: this lens seems to do as well with close distance as it does with far. I saw no fall-off in acuity at either end of the focus range. Indeed, at the closest focus point, this lens is quite good from center to edge, though stopping down to f/5.6 helps pull the last bits in. At infinity focus, the lens is sharp wide open.

Linear Distortion: none worth mentioning, well less than a half percent (pincushion).

Vignetting: Wide open you'll see vignetting only in the extreme corners, though modest in strength (a bit more than a stop). This mostly disappears by stopping down, and is completely gone by f/5.6. The lens corrections make it ignorable, except perhaps wide open with the teleconverter invoked, where the extreme corners still clip a bit. 

Chromatic aberration: none worth mentioning on the lateral axis, less than a pixel width worst case. Even longitudinal aberration was minimal and essentially ignorable.

Flare: strongly backlit subjects can show a bit of contrast reduction, but no obvious flare patterns of discoloration.

Bokeh: The only real issue with bokeh is the cats eye effect on out of focus highlights as you move from the center. The internal barrel of the lens starts clipping out-of-focus highlights fairly close to the center of the frame, unfortunately. The aperture diaphragm is also not quite fully rounded when stopped down on my sample, and adds a bit of "edge" to the cats eyes when stopped down. Edge outlining on out of focus highlights is minimal, and there's no evidence of onion skinning. 

Overall I'd judge the bokeh to be very good for natural subjects, but again not in the zone near the focal plane, where you can get get that double-edge blur effect that calls attention to itself. 

Final Words

At US$13,999 for a lens, you expect a lot. With the exception of handling while hand holding, the 400mm f/2.8 S VR TC delivers. You get a wicked sharp 400mm f/2.8 coupled with an instant 560mm f/4 that's better than the last 600mm f/4 exotic I used. Coupled with the reduction in weight and other optical performance, there's a lot to like with this lens. A lot. My F-mount 400mm f/2.8G and 500mm f/4G are now both going to be sold, something I wasn't expecting. 

Speaking of which, the 400mm f/2.8 S is indeed slightly better optically than my 400mm f/2.8G. The difference isn't in the center of the frame, where both are absurd in acuity, but rather as you move towards the corners. My old f/2.8G isn't as graceful into the corners as the new lens is. (I consider the f/2.8G slightly better in sharpness than the f/2.8E, by the way. While the E version dropped weight, something didn't quite translate in the optical formula with those original FL elements.)

On the other hand, the devil shows up in some of the details with this new lens. For videography, the focus breathing shows up too clearly on long focus pulls. That's a shame, as with the Z9 and its excellent 8K video, this could have been a killer combination, bumping us all into NatGeo level capabilities. The tripod foot is a travesty. Sure, it's one of the more comfortable ones Nikon has produced for carrying the lens, but I now have to find the right foot for the lens to use on a gimbal. Finally, those scattered lens controls just don't cut it for hand holding, which is a shame, as I'll certainly hand hold this lens more than I did my F-mount 400mm f/2.8G. We do finally get a decent soft lens case with the lens, and the "lens hood and cap" is better designed than before, so at least two small details advanced forward. Too bad the others didn't.

I'm sure you're asking whether you should get this lens. My answer may surprise you. No, most of you should get the 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 S lens instead, which has better handling and a 400mm f/5.6 capability that is surprisingly nearly as good as the 400mm f/2.8's. Pity that you have to give up two stops of light, sure, but I have to say that the 100-400mm has surprised me in just how good it is, and it's a smaller, less expensive, and more flexible lens that handles superbly. Moreover, we have the upcoming 400mm f/4.5? PF lens coming soon, which might be the right choice for many of you. If you need the 400mm f/2.8 S, consider renting it. While my friends at Lensrentals don't yet have one to rent, I suspect they will soon at around the US$100/day mark (for longer term rentals). You could rent the lens a lot of days before you hit US$13,999.

That said, the fact that the 400mm f/2.8 is dual personality at the touch of a lever (400mm f/2.8 or 560mm f/4) and that it is so optically excellent at virtually every aspect, if you're looking for the best possible telephoto, the 400mm f/2.8 S is where you'll find it at the moment. I found myself so attached to the lens I didn't even bother with a second camera and lens during the last two weeks of my Botswana trip. I had to move the vehicle a bit further away from my subject (!) a few times, but otherwise I was in optical heaven. 

The handling faults are not ones I can ignore, though. Thus, this lens doesn't deserve my highest rating. A lens this expensive and this good shouldn't be let down in the details that pop up in use. 

Recommended (2022)

Support this site by purchasing from the following advertiser:

Looking for other photographic information? Check out our other Web sites:
DSLRS: | mirrorless: | general/technique: | film SLR:

text and images © 2024 Thom Hogan
All Rights Reserved — 
the contents of this site, including but not limited to its text, illustrations, and concepts, 
 may not be utilized, directly or indirectly, to inform, train, or improve any artificial intelligence program or system.