fbpx

First look: Nikon Z 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 VR S super-telephoto lens wildlife test shots

Rhino - Woodland Park Zoo
Nikon Z7II, 400mm, f/5.6, 1/200 sec, ISO 1250

While waiting patiently for my Nikon Z9 to arrive, the new Nikkor Z 100-400mm VR S lens showed up yesterday. I decided to take it on a test run at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle to see how it would perform, both on its own and when using it together with the 1.4x teleconverter.

On its own, the lens has a zoom range of 100-400mm. With the 1.4x teleconverter, the range is 140-560mm. It is also compatible with the 2.0x teleconverter, giving a zoom range of 200-800mm.

I’ll provide some comparisons to similar lenses, specifically the Nikon AF-S 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR, Nikon AF-S 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR, and the Nikon 180-400mm f/4E TC 1.4 FL ED VR, all of which I have shot with extensively.

Sony shooters will recognize the similarity of this lens to the Sony FE 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 GM lens. The 100-400mm zoom range is highly desirable for all sorts of photography, from wildlife and sports to landscape. Given the popularity of Sony’s 100-400mm lens, this is Nikon’s clear competitive response.

At first glance, this is an excellent lens with outstanding sharpness, handling, and vibration reduction capabilities.

Variable Aperture

To keep size and weight down, this is a variable aperture lens. At 100mm, the maximum aperture is f/4.5. It ramps up as follows: f/4.8 at 130mm, f/5.0 at 190mm, f/5.3 at 270mm, and f/5.6 at 360mm and above.

When paired with the 1.4x teleconverter, the maximum apertures are smaller: f/6.3 at 140mm, f/6.7 at 175mm, f/7.1 at 260mm, f/7.6 at 380mm, and f/8 at 500mm and above.

In many wildlife shooting situations, these maximum apertures are plenty, especially with larger animals or groups of animals. But it is a tradeoff of weight and cost versus aperture. The 180-400mm f/4E gives a smaller constant aperture, but that lens is 244% heavier and 4.6x more expensive!

Size

The size is relatively small for the zoom range it covers and is very similar to carrying a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens in terms of size and form factor.

The following photo shows a size comparison of various lenses. The Nikon 100-400mm is shorter than all the other lenses, except for the Sony 100-400mm when retracted.

Nikon and Sony zoom lens size comparison
From left to right, Nikon 180-400mm f/4E, Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E, Nikon 500mm f/5.6E PF, Nikon Z 70-200mm f/2.8, Nikon Z 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6, Sony FE 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6
Extended to full zoom length, from left to right: Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E, Nikon Z 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6, Sony FE 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6

The new Z 100-400mm lens extends the barrel to achieve longer zoom lengths, but the barrel will stay in place, unlike the 200-500mm f/5.6E lens, which tends to drift when carrying the lens.

Weight & Price Comparison

The Z 100-400mm is almost identical in size and weight to the F-mount 500mm f/5.6E PF and considerably lighter and more expensive than the 200-500mm F-mount.

Compared to the Sony equivalent, the Z 100-400mm is just a touch taller when retracted. The Sony 100-400mm lens is slightly taller than the Nikon when extended.

LensWeightPrice
NIKKOR Z 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 VR S50.6 oz (1435 g)$2,699.95
AF-S NIKKOR 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR81.2 oz (2300 g)$1,399.95
AF-S NIKKOR 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR51.2 oz (1460 g)$3,299.95
AF-S NIKKOR 180-400mm f/4E TC1.4 FL ED VR123.4 oz (3500 g)$12,399.95

Handling

As I mentioned, carrying this lens is similar to carrying a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens. It is easy to handhold and surprisingly well-balanced whether the lens barrel is extended or not, unlike the 200-500mm f/5.6E, which tends to be front-heavy.

Vibration Reduction & Focus

During my first trial with this lens, the Z 100-400mm autofocus was speedy and confident, even in the lower-light situations I encountered. I was able to use all of the focus points in the far corners of the frame without issue, both with and without the Z 1.4x teleconverter attached.

The lens can focus as close as 2.46 feet, making it far more useful than other lenses in this lineup for close-up photos. The 200-500mm f/5.6E needs 7.2 feet, the 500mm f/5.6E PF needs 9.8 feet, and the 180-400mm f/4E requires 6.6 feet.

Like the other lenses in this comparison, the Z 100-400mm lens does have built-in vibration reduction (VR) motors. The motors in this lens work together with the in-body stabilization in Nikon’s Z9 camera using something called Synchro VR, which is slightly different than other bodies like the Z7 or Z7 II. This initial shoot was with my Nikon Z7 II and the VR capabilities were exceptional. Nikon’s marketing documents describe the ability to compensate for vibration up to 5.5 stops, making this the best VR performance that Nikon has ever delivered.

I was amazed by the VR performance while handholding this lens. I have always been impressed with the handheld VR performance of the 500mm f/5.6E PF lens, but the Z 100-400mm was even better.

I got very sharp images of animals at 1/60 sec, 1/50 sec, and even 1/20 sec, and these animals were moving slightly.

Warthog - Woodland Park Zoo
400mm at 1/80 sec, handheld
Elk - Woodland Park Zoo
560mm with 1.4x teleconverter, 1/60 sec, handheld
Elk - Woodland Park Zoo
170mm with 1.4x teleconverter, 1/20 sec, handheld

Honestly, this VR on this lens is so good that there are few shooting scenarios where tripod support would be necessary.

Gorilla - Woodland Park Zoo
560mm with 1.4x teleconverter, 1/60 sec, handheld

Sharpness

My initial tests showed excellent sharpness at all focal lengths for this lens. I found no discernible change in sharpness when using it together with the 1.4x teleconverter.

Watry Pig - Woodland Park Zoo
400mm, 1/200 sec, f/5.6, handheld
Rhino - Woodland Park Zoo
320mm, 1/320 sec, f/5.3, handheld
Gorilla - Woodland Park Zoo
250mm, 1/400 sec, f/5.0, handheld
Weaver - Woodland Park Zoo
400mm, 1/500 sec, f/5.6, handheld

Use with the Z 1.4x teleconverter

Adding the Z 1.4x teleconverter to this lens gives an outstanding focal length range of 140mm-560mm, adequate for all sorts of wildlife and action photography.

The teleconverter adds minimal size and weight to the setup, and all focus points in the far corners of the frame were still available.

Grey Wolf - Woodland Park Zoo
560mm with 1.4x teleconverter, 1/320 sec, f/8.0, handheld
Mountain Goat - Woodland Park Zoo
560mm with 1.4x teleconverter, 1/320 sec, f/8.0, handheld
Gorilla - Woodland Park Zoo
560mm with 1.4x teleconverter, 1/200 sec, f/8.0, handheld

I haven’t tested this setup with high-speed action yet, so I can’t speak to tracking and focus speed during fast motion.

Summary

While I’ve only tested this lens in one photoshoot, I was very impressed with the sharpness, handling, and VR capabilities. Given the ease of handholding this lens, I anticipate using it in a wide variety of shooting situations, both wildlife and even landscapes.