So I'm in the big time at last. Dirck Halstead has asked me to write this review for the Digital Journalist. Fame and fortune on one hand--more extra work on the other. If you didn't get a Christmas card from me blame it on Dirck.
Most product reviews involve good news and bad news. My review of the AF VR Zoom-Nikkor 80-400mm F/4.5-5.6D ED is no exception.
First, the good news: An 80 to 400 zoom is a wonderful idea. The fact that it is well balanced, lightweight, and sharp adds to the fun. Put it on the digital D1 and we are talking about a 120mm to 600mm zoom-now that's impressive!
The lens is terrific in decent light and is very easy to hold. The images it produces are very sharp and have good contrast. I am happy to say that while handholding the lens in low light, I made some very sharp pictures. I can't do that with a normal long lens anymore. I always carry a lightweight, carbon fiber tripod that doubles (with one leg extended) as a monopod. Check out the pictures with this article, they are all made with the VR on a handheld D1 digital camera.
I took this lens with me on President Clinton's trip to Vietnam because I knew we would be doing a lot of shooting outdoors. I should point out that I have been using Nikon reflex cameras since the original F came out in the late 50's. I had a brief flirtation with Canon and a little longer relationship with the Leica R series--but I always came back to Nikon. I had been very jealous of my white-lensed buddies since Canon introduced their Image Stabilized lenses. So when Nikon's answer finally came along I snapped one up in a hurry, since I am growing old and shaky, afterall.
Now the bad news: The lens is an F/4.5-5.6--and that's just not fast enough for the majority of the things I cover. Covering the White House means a lot of shooting indoors-and that means I have to do some heavy lifting. The 300 F2.8 and tripod are going to have stick around for a while longer. The 80-400's vibration reduction works just fine and if I was shooting a still-life I wouldn't have a problem. However, I'm usually shooting people. If my light meter calls for 1/125 at F2.8 (that's on a good day) with the 80-400 I'd have to shoot at 1/30th or less at F5.6. The vibration reduction helps make the chair or the podium sharp but lots of time the subject or part of him or her is moving faster than that. I don't mind a blurry hand once in a while but when the lips are moving in 4 out of 5 pictures, you know you are shooting to slow.
Another drawback--for some reason Nikon decided that this lens should not work with it's excellent AF Tele-extenders. Maybe the auto-focus couldn't handle an F5.6 lens. Whatever the reason, it's a real pain to have to carry two different sets of extenders.
On a recent Saturday morning at the White House, I offered the lens to some of my peers. Mike Tyler of Reuters took it for a spin when Palestinian and Israeli peace negotiators showed up for a meeting with Clinton. Photographers weren't allowed inside but only to shoot delegations arriving and walking down the driveway. When Mike finished he said, "Hey this lens is really sharp!" He also said that it felt good on the camera and was easy to hold. But when I asked if he would buy one he said, "nah--I do too much inside work here at the White House and on the Hill. It's too slow."
So the moral of this story; Come on Nikon, let's put this great technology on some faster lenses!
PS: If you only shoot outside in great light, run out and buy one!
For more information, visit Nikon's website.