The Nikon 400 2.8 has always been a dream lens for me, to use on tiger safaris for big mammals in India and so when I got a chance to acquire one that was kept in immaculate showroom condition with almost no use, I jumped on the chance and got myself, what is arguable one of Nikon’s finest lenses (I think its a tough tie between the 200 F2.0, 400 F2.8 and the 300 F2.8). IF DxO is to be believed then this lens is the sharpest telephoto at 400 across any system.
I got the lens from Pune and after an almost 3 hour journey from Navi Mumbai to Pune (easily my longest one in terms of time taken, thanks to a heavily clogged Mumbai-Pune expressway from the first toll naka to Lonavala on 25th Dec 2015). Eventually the effort was worth it, as early impressions of the lens are as expected.
One thing that I have realized is that, it is now possible to get amazing sharpness in a telephoto lens for a not a lot of money that arguably compares to exotic primes, which the new Nikon 200-500 F5.6 E and the Sigma Sport 150-600 F5.0-6.3 commendably demonstrate. So why does one still pay the kind of money that these lenses demand? Just one major thing, subject isolation, apart from the extraordinary wide open performance and top of the line features. People still pay a bomb to get something like a 400 2.8 or a 200 F2.0 or a 600 f4.0 to get that isolation, thus rendering a rather run of the mill photograph, pop out as much as possible. Theses lenses usually also have an amazing build quality, AF performance and are a joy to use assuming that you have all your support requirements taken care of.
I already own the amazing 600 F4.0, but the 400 F2.8 IMHO, takes that already superlative performance one notch above. More on this later as I will do another article on the differences between the 600 F4.0G and the 400 F2.8G.
The 400 F2.8 is a lighter lens than the 600 F4.0 and this is clearly seen from the fact that I can hold this lens for a longer time than my 600 F4.0. But frankly these are all relative times and none of these lenses are really hand holdable and one needs a proper support for getting the best of these behemoths.
I plan on using this lens mainly on tiger safaris that I go for, at least 4-6 times in a year.
My Gitzo GM5541 will be my first choice of support for this lens followed by my bean bag mounted on a 4X4 roll bar. Indian safari 4X4s do not have a roof so this is very much possible.
The first thing that I did when I got this lens home was change the tall profile tripod foot with a low profile RRS foot that does wonders to the handling of this lens. I then put on a Forest Camo Lenscoat Neoprene cover. One odd point to notice is that the 600 F4.0 Lencoat cover has a piece to cover the focusing ring whereas this piece is absent from the 400 2.8 cover. I wonder why. The lens is much shorter in length than the 600 F4.0 but is chubbier and so this may probably be the reason why it is much better to handle than the 600 F4.0 that feels too front heavy. This is also the the reason that this lens is hand holdable for slightly longer periods of time. Even weight could also be the reason, as it is about 600 gms lighter than the 600 F4.0. All the controls and switches as exactly as seen on the 600 F4.0 such as ring based VR switch and the various switches for VR mode, focusing distance limiter, memory recall, Focus conformation sound switch and M/AM/MA switch. The hood is a regular 2 piece carbon fiber affair, but is much shorter than that on 600 F4.0. I only use the inner hood and have not yet felt the need to carry both them on the field.
The box is also the standard Nikon beige colored one that IMHO is pretty useless. I carry this lens using my Think tank Accelerator backpack. A Lenscoat hoodie XXXX is highly recommended to reduce the circumference and bulk of the lens and provide adequate protection to the huge front element of this lens.
So how does this lens perform in the field? I have had just two outing with this lens, one for birds at the local water body and one on a tiger safari at Tadoba Andhari tiger reserve.
The lens is extremely sharp at 2.8 and it just obliterates all backgrounds, if distances to your subject are not too great. Sharpness, Color, Resolution are all top notch even at F2.8. I never even bother stopping down to smaller apertures, and I am unlikely to use this lens at any other aperture other than F2.8. AF speed is extremely fast and thanks to the F2.8 aperture, I can focus accurately and quickly even in low light. Here is a low light shot which was quite a tough one thanks to all the grass blades that made focusing difficult and I shot it hand held climbing up on top of the 4×4 roll bar.
The DoF, shooting at F2.8 is really thin even at not such close distances. So positioning of your AF point is very critical for such a fast lens. Here is an example of how thin the DoF is with objects that are close enough.
VR is very effective as I got more than enough keepers even with shutter speeds down to 1/150. But importantly the older generation VR on the 400 2.8G cannot match the VR on my 200-500 f5.6E or even my 70-200 F4.0 both of which have a newer generation VR compared to the VR on the 400 F2.8G.
Long distance shooting that has been the bug bear of most Nikon telephotos is thankfully not seen on the 400 F2.8. This mugger crocodile was atleast 75 meters away from where I took this shot even at F2.8, came out reasonably sharp.
I also shot this lens on my D7200 using my Gitzo GM5541 monopod and I am extremely pleased with the results even on a high pixel density crop sensor. While my Nikon 200-500 F5.6 VR clearly prefers my D800E over my D7200 for IQ, the difference is a lot lesser with the 400 2.8G. While the lens is crazy sharp on my D800E, its just a little less on my D7200.
I have not used a TC on this lens yet but do plan to use it sometime in the future. I also used this lens to shoot birds in flight and was very pleased with the results.
The biggest con is the price and weight. At 4.7 kgs and at a price which will buy you a decent hatchback car in India, this is a very expensive lens. Yes the new Nikon 400 2.8E is lighter by almost 1Kg in comparison to the 400 2.8G, but is even more expensive. Now the 600 F4.0 E and 600 F4.0 E cost almost the same which was not the case with the G versions. So unless you absolutely need the lesser weight of the new lens, optically I can’t see it to be much better than the older G version which even the DxO tests corroborate, with a slight edge to the older G version. But frankly this difference is moot and no one will really be able to discern differences between these lenses.
Thankfully I have been lucky enough to now acquire 2 of Nikon’s top super telephotos and their performance is nothing less than astounding. If one is unable to get good shots with this lens, it is due to operator error than anything else. I can only hope I can do justice to what these lens is truly capable of and this precision tool helps me improve my photography and take it to the next level.