Nikon Z 400mm f/4.5 VR S Field Test

Tips & Techniques

Before the Nikon Z 400mm f/4.5 VR S lands in our new lens testing lab, I gathered some experiences with it over two weeks of bird photography in Latin America. How did the Nikon 400mm f/4.5 perform under the equatorial sun? I’ll cover that in my field review of the lens today.

Buff-tailed coronet
NIKON Z 9 + NIKKOR Z 400mm f/4.5 VR S @ 400mm, ISO 7200, 1/640, f/4.5

Table of Contents

Build Quality

Long telephoto lenses tend to see intense use in the field and need to hold up under professional use. The Nikon Z 400mm f/4.5 has a mix of metal and plastic construction, including a primarily plastic barrel. The impression it leaves me is excellent. The materials inspire confidence, nothing wobbles anywhere, and the rings operate smoothly.

Personally, I consider the use of high-quality plastics rather positive in a telephoto prime like this. Plastics are lighter than metal, and they tend to resist everyday mechanical shocks better. Plastic lenses are less heat-conductive than metal, so they don’t feel as cold. What about their durability and longevity? I wouldn’t worry about the longevity of plastic, considering how long it seems to last in the Great Pacific garbage patch. But metal probably still has the advantage there.

To ensure that the internal parts, and especially the electronics, don’t suffer from the weather, the 400mm f/4.5 has dust and weather seals. Nikon says that it will withstand dripping water, and that mirrors my experience with the lens in the rain. It wasn’t a problem at all. As with prior Nikon telephoto lenses, the build quality overall is excellent.

Buff-winged Starfrontlet
NIKON Z 9 + NIKKOR Z 400mm f/4.5 VR S @ 400mm, ISO 5000, 1/1250, f/5.0

Handling

The first thing that comes to mind when you pick up the Nikon 400mm f/4.5 is how incredibly light it is. Up until now, the king of lightweight has been the Nikon AF-S 500mm f/5.6E PF – but even that lens has to bow to the lightness of the new 400mm. (And the weight difference isn’t just because this is 400mm instead of 500mm; the 400mm lens has a wider maximum aperture, after all.)

Specifically, the weight of the 400mm f/4.5 S lens is 1245g. If you mount Nikon’s 1.4x teleconverter on it – making a 560mm f/6.3 – the combined weight is 1465g. By comparison, Nikon’s F-mount 500mm f/5.6 PF weighs 1460g, not counting the necessary FTZ adapter needed to use it on a Nikon Z camera. Wildlife photographers who are trying to travel light could hardly find a better choice than the Z 400mm f/4.5.

As for the controls, a welcome change from the classic telephoto lenses of the f-mount era is the implementation of the function ring. I use mine for quick ISO changes in manual mode, combined with the live histogram to see the brightness of my images. It’s been more useful than I expected.

Hummingbirds fight_02
NIKON Z 9 + NIKKOR Z 400mm f/4.5 VR S @ 400mm, ISO 2800, 1/1250, f/5.0

Alongside the function ring are function buttons, which are carried over from previous Nikon telephoto lenses. I use them in conjunction with the Memory Set button in order to store a focusing distance in the lens’s memory, and then recall it quickly. If you’re shooting at a bird feeder, for example – or a branch where the birds keep landing – definitely give this feature a try.

Golden-naped tanager
NIKON Z 9 + NIKKOR Z 400mm f/4.5 VR S @ 400mm, ISO 900, 1/640, f/5.0

I only have minor issues with the lens’s handling, which I already covered in my article comparing the 400mm f/4.5 against the 400mm f/2.8. Mainly, the tripod collar has some design flaws, including the potential for overtightening, and a non-standard tripod foot. I also don’t like the lens hood’s locking mechanism as much as on the Z 400mm f/2.8 TC VR S. These complaints don’t overshadow the rest of the lens’s handling, but I’d be remiss not to point them out.

Image Quality

The Nikon Z 400mm f/4.5 VR S has 19 lens elements in 13 groups. These elements include one ED (Extra-low Dispersion) element, two Super ED glass elements, and one SR (Short-wavelength Refractive) element. The SR element helps correct chromatic aberration, and is largely responsible for the lens’s light weight.

Although the lens lacks Nikon’s most powerful (at least according to their marketing) ARNEO coating for reducing flare, it has Nano Crystal Coating and Super Integrated Coating, which do the same job. Frankly, I can never tell the difference between any of these coatings for reducing flare in practice, so I guess I’m just taking Nikon at their word. If you want the ARNEO coating, you’ll find it in the Nikon Z 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6, as well as the more expensive Nikon Z 400mm f/2.8 TC and 600mm f/4 TC lenses.

What I care about more is the performance in practice. Does the 400mm f/4.5 S reach a high enough standard?

Well, it certainly does to me. For one thing, the sharpness of the lens is amazing, sometimes almost shocking. On one of Nikon’s higher-resolution mirrorless cameras like the Z7 II or Z9, you can crop extensively with this lens without a problem.

Not that I necessarily recommend cropping your way out of trouble. When I first started wildlife photography, I used a 6MP camera. There, every pixel was sacred, and it taught me to compose as accurately as possible. Any cropping of the photo meant a big degradation in quality. Even though my camera today has much more resolution, I still keep this habit, and I recommend you do the same.

But if you need to crop, here’s an example from a photo of a Sapphire-vented Puffleg, which I took at 3000 meters above sea level in the Ecuadorian Andes. The photo shows a hummingbird feeding on the flower:

Sapphire-vented puffleg
NIKON Z 9 + NIKKOR Z 400mm f/4.5 VR S @ 400mm, ISO 5000, 1/1000, f/5.6

However, the hummingbird is far from the only animal in the photograph. I didn’t notice that I had captured an entire small ecosystem until I zoomed in 100%. Do you see it too? There are tiny mites on the hummingbird’s beak:

Sapphire-vented puffleg_crop
NIKON Z 9 + NIKKOR Z 400mm f/4.5 VR S @ 400mm, ISO 5000, 1/1000, f/5.6

That’s an exciting advantage of high-resolution lenses. Another advantage – one that you’ll appreciate even without pixel-peeping – is using the lens with teleconverters.

Any teleconverter takes away from the optical performance of the lens. In this case, however, there is plenty available to take away! The Nikon Z 1.4x teleconverter pairs extremely well with this lens, and whatever sharpness it takes away is not enough to be of concern. The Nikon Z Teleconverter TC-2x is certainly usable too, although the maximum aperture of f/9.0 is too narrow for my taste.

As for other optical characteristics, the chromatic aberration on this lens is very well corrected. You will rarely find it in your photographs. Flare is another area where the lens does well, despite the lack of ARNEO coatings. I admit that I don’t shoot in strong backlight with telephotos very often, but occasionally the opportunity arises – for example, the photo below of the Rufous-booted Racket-tail in the eastern Andes. Pleasingly, the backlight causes neither flare nor a loss of contrast in the image:

Racket-tail
NIKON Z 9 + NIKKOR Z 400mm f/4.5 VR S @ 400mm, ISO 900, 1/1000, f/4.5

Then there’s the question of bokeh. This parameter is impossible to find objective criteria for. So – purely subjectively – the bokeh of the 400mm f4.5 is very pleasing. This is true both in normal situations and in backlit conditions with specular highlights (which tend to strain a lens’s background blur a bit more).

Even when there are bright, out-of-focus points of light in your photo, this lens blurs them well. There aren’t many visible artifacts, with just a tiny hint of defined edges. This is one reason why I’m glad that Nikon didn’t go with a phase-fresnel optical design on the 400mm f/4.5 S. Although a PF element may have reduced the lens’s weight even further, PF lenses tend to have more nervous bokeh (although there are exceptions).

In any case, the 400mm f/4.5 S blows out backgrounds like a charm.

Brown violet-ear
NIKON Z 9 + NIKKOR Z 400mm f/4.5 VR S @ 400mm, ISO 8000, 1/800, f/4.5

Focus Speed and Accuracy

Focusing on this lens isn’t based on a “Silky Swift” motor like you’d find in Nikon’s Z 400mm f/2.8 and 600mm f/4. Even so, the comparatively weaker stepping motor focuses extremely well on this lens, probably because there isn’t much heavy glass inside the lens to move quickly. The lens can focus in a heartbeat.

Focus accuracy is high, too. I would say that under standard lighting conditions, this lens is comparable to the significantly more expensive Nikon Z 400mm f/2.8 TC VR S in terms of focusing.

That said, when the focusing distance is very close to its limit (which is 2.5m), the AF reliability starts to decline a bit. Most telephoto lenses will struggle in such conditions, and it’s not that the 400mm f/4.5 S is worse than alternatives here – but it’s something to keep in mind if you photograph smaller, closer subjects.

For anything else, including a fast-moving bird like the one below, focusing with this lens is faster than my eye can detect.

Andean guan
NIKON Z 9 + NIKKOR Z 400mm f/4.5 VR S @ 400mm, ISO 4500, 1/3200, f/5.0

Vibration Reduction

Nikon promises vibration reduction to 5.5 stops with all Nikon Z cameras, except the Z9, which is rated for 6 stops of VR.

In practice, the amount of vibration reduction depends on your ability to hold the camera steady – and it doesn’t matter much anyway if your subject isn’t holding still. My longest handheld shutter speeds were about 1/10 second using Sport Mode VR, and 1/6 second using Standard. However, this was when photographing a nonmoving object. In practice, none of my real-world subjects ever stood still long enough to allow sharp photos past 1/30 second.

Personally, I use VR in sport mode, because there’s less of an image shift in the viewfinder after I press the shutter release. This phenomenon is most noticeable with long telephoto lenses. So, you’ll need to decide if the steadier viewfinder of Sport mode is worth about 1 stop worse VR performance for your needs.

Rufous Antpitta
NIKON Z 9 + NIKKOR Z 400mm f/4.5 VR S @ 400mm, ISO 2200, 1/250, f/4.5

Value

Aside from the lens’s weight, what do I see as the biggest strength of the 400mm f/4.5 VR S? It’s the price/performance ratio.

At $3250, the 400mm f/4.5 is about 25% of the price of the 400mm f/2.8, while offering about 98% of the image quality. The reason to get the more expensive lens isn’t for better image quality, or even for faster focusing – it’s for the extra 1.3 stops of light in dim conditions, and the built-in teleconverter.

The other lens you may be considering as an alternative is the Nikon Z 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6, which is less expensive at $2700. Although it’s a bit of a dilemma, I believe that the ability to use a 1.4x teleconverter and use the 400mm f/4.5 as a 560mm f/6.3 makes it the better choice for wildlife-only photographers. It also gets you the extra 0.7 stops of light for taking pictures in dim environments. But the 100-400mm has the versatility of wider focal lengths, so it all comes down to your situation.

In any case, I think the Nikon Z 400mm f/4.5 VR S is an excellent value.

glossy flowerpiercer
NIKON Z 9 + NIKKOR Z 400mm f/4.5 VR S @ 400mm, ISO 4000, 1/1250, f/5.0

Conclusion

I have few complaints about the Nikon Z 400mm f/4.5 VR S. Only a redesign of the tripod collar would make the lens meaningfully better than it already is. That’s not to say it’s the perfect telephoto lens for everyone – you may be more in need of the 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6, 800mm f/6.3, or one of the exotic supertelephotos – but it strikes a great balance for wildlife photographers. I consider it Nikon’s best general-purpose wildlife lens since at least the 500mm f/5.6 PF. Maybe ever.

I hope that you found this field review of the lens to be useful. We’ll expand the review with lab data and tests both with and without the two teleconverters as soon as possible. In the meantime, let me know if you have any questions about the lens below, and I’ll be happy to answer. You can also put your name on the waitlist here:

The lens is extremely new, so there aren’t many copies shipping yet! But you’ll get one eventually. For comparison, we just got our copy of the Nikon 800mm f/6.3 for lab testing a few days ago, which we ordered soon after it was announced. It’s just a matter of being patient.

Nikon Z 400mm f/4.5 VR S Field-
  • Optical Quality
  • Construction & Handling
  • Value

Photography Life Overall Rating

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