Nikon’s Long Lenses – A Rapidly Evolving Landscape

  By Brad Hill

 

Choosing the best long lens for your DSLR or mirrorless camera system and that matches your shooting style has always been a difficult task. But in recent years the on-going and rapid transition to mirrorless camera systems and the introduction of a lot of new lens technologies has complicated the long-lens selection process even more.

The intention of this short article is to unravel a lot of the mysteries and myths around the variables that could impact on your own choice of a long lens for your Nikon camera. It is written from the perspective of a professional wildlife photographer – but much of the information will apply to the long lens choice of sports photographers and other photographic genres. My comments are based on decades of shooting and field-testing dozens of Nikon’s long lenses and hopefully will be of more use to you than a simple regurgitation of lens specifications and internet “wisdom”! For the purposes of this article I’m considering a “long lens” to be a zoom or fixed focal length (prime) lens that has or can attain a focal length of 300mm or more.

Okay…let’s dig into the myths, mysteries and evolving lens technologies that will impact on your long lens choice:

The Transition To Z

When Nikon introduced their mirrorless Z system they decided that it was the right time to update the venerable F-mount system. Enter the Z-mount era, featuring a larger diameter mount and a much shorter distance from the backside of the lens to the image sensor. Nikon claimed that these lens mount changes gave their optical engineers the ability to make faster and sharper lenses (especially in edge-to-edge sharpness) that had less distortion. After extensively testing 9 different Z-mount lenses I can say this with all honesty: Nikon’s claims aren’t marketing hype – their Z-mount lenses produce noticeably better images.

However, it turns out that the bulk of the optical design advantages of the Z-mount have the greatest impact in lenses of up to about 100mm – after that focal length the “Z-advantage” diminishes. Which means your beloved F-mount super-telephoto lens (like your 500mm f5.6E PF) can capture images of equal image quality to their Z-mount equivalents.

What lens-camera compatibility complications did the Z-mount transition introduce? Well…if you own a Nikon DSLR you simply can’t use a Nikkor Z-mount lens on your camera – period. But if you own a Nikon Z camera it can use both Z-mount lenses and F-mount lenses, though you need a mount adapter (either a Mount Adapter FTZ or a Mount Adapter FTZ II) to use F-mount lenses with your Nikon Z camera.

The good news – your F-mount lens work at least as well on a Z camera as it did on your DSLR with the mount adapter having absolutely no diminishment of autofocus (AF) performance, image quality, or weather sealing. You may even find you get better performance out of your F-mount long lenses when shot on a Z-body (owing to the increased AF accuracy of the Z-bodies).

The bad news? Well, it’s not so bad – the FTZ adapters add about 120 gm (.25 lb) in weight and 2.9 cm (1.1”) to your F-mount long lens.

Teleconverters Are Now For REAL!

Owners of Z-cameras have another factor when choosing a long lens from Nikon – teleconverter performance is significantly better when they are shot on a Z-body (and this includes when F-mount teleconverters shot with F-mount long lenses are used on a Z-body). I noticed this shortly after getting my first Z body, and I’ve had it confirmed through careful field testing. And, I’ve heard from countless other Nikon shooters who’ve noticed the same thing.

Teleconverters continue to steal a stop or more of light from your system (depending on which teleconverter you are using) and a 2x TC can have a negative impact on the AF performance of the host lens, but the image quality “drop” when using a teleconverter is now greatly diminished, often to the point where it is simply not noticeable in the final image. So now you may be able to put off purchasing two lenses (like a Z 400mm f4.5S and a Z 800mm f6.3S) and simply pick up the 400mm lens and a 2x TC. Not only is this cool, but it can alter or at least influence your long lens choice.

Zooms vs. Primes?

Historically you bought zoom lenses over prime lenses for their versatility and the convenience of the multiple focal lengths they covered. But in doing so you accepted that you’d take a hit in two aspects of image quality – image sharpness and the quality of the out-of-focus zones (AKA “bokeh”). Simple, right?

Well, fast forward to 2018 when Nikon introduced the 180-400mm f4E TC1.4 VR lens. Suddenly the “zooms are convenient, primes are better optically” generalization began to crumble. And it was pretty much shattered in 2020 when Nikon released the 120-300mm f2.8E VR which – at least as shown by my own testing – is actually sharper at 300mm than the 300mm f2.8G VRII. And we’re seeing the same trend in the Z-mount line where the Z 100-400mm f4.5-5.6S is also exceptionally sharp, actually rivalling prime lenses in sharpness and even the 180-400mm over most of their overlapping focal lengths.

Where does that leave us in the zoom vs. prime lens decision? High-end zooms have definitely closed much of the sharpness gap compared to prime lenses. Prime lenses still tend to have an edge in bokeh quality (especially if you are looking at the “fast” primes like a 400mm f2.8), but even this gap is diminishing. For many uses, and for many photographers, the image quality “gap” between zoom and prime lenses is no longer high enough to worry about.

For those who have been out of the long lens market for awhile – and even if you’re the type of photographer who would only shoot prime lenses in the past – it may be worth trying out and re-considering a quality zoom lens now.

What About Those Phase Fresnel (PF) Lenses?

In 2015 Nikon turned some heads when they introduced the 300mm f4E PR VR prime lens that contained a phase fresnel lens element. This complex lens element allowed them to make a 300mm lens that was tiny and light compared to the “traditional” 300mm lenses – it was actually smaller and lighter than Nikon’s premier 24-70mm f2.8 lens of the time. And the 300mm f4 PF was pretty darned good optically too!

In 2018 Nikon turned a whole lot more heads when they introduced the 500mm f5.6E PF that combined excellent 500mm image quality with a severe reduction in size and weight (compared to the Nikkor 500mm f4E). And in 2022 Nikon introduced the Z 800mm f6.3 S lens (another PF lens) that is already looking to be a complete game-changer for many wildlife photographers, especially bird photographers.

Are the PF lenses for real (and for real serious use)? Yep – absolutely! I owned, tested and shot both the 300mm and 500mm PF lenses and recently completed testing an Z 800mm f6.3S. They offer great optical quality in a more compact and lighter package and are exceptionally “usable”, including being very “hand-holdable”. And, quite critically, they come in at a fraction of the price of the more “traditional” big (and heavy) super-telephoto primes!

Are there any downsides to the PF lenses? Some argue that the bokeh quality is reduced relative to the “big primes” in some lighting conditions, but my own experience is that this “bad bokeh” phenomenon is so rare that for most users it’s – at most – a trivial concern.

Based both on how many 500mm f5.6E PF lenses I am seeing in the field these days as well as on how many wildlife photography enthusiasts I know who have ordered the 800mm f6.3S lens it’s clear that the PF lenses are being very well-received. And, if you’re a Nikon shooter looking for a long lens, it would be a big mistake to overlook them.

Trends in Long Lens “Usability”

If you haven’t purchased a Nikon long lens in 4 or more years you’ve missed out on a lot of features that have collectively improved the overall usability of Nikon’s “big brutes”. In general we’ve seen a reduction in lens weight with each successive model, an improvement in VR and image stabilization capabilities, and improvements in AF capabilities (especially if you’ve migrated to the Z-bodies). Collectively these changes have had major impacts on at least two areas of our overall experience when shooting with Nikon’s latest long lenses.

The first is an increase in “hand-holdability”. It wasn’t too long ago that almost every prime or zoom lens that could reach 400mm in focal length was seen bolted to a firm tripod. And transported to its location in a vehicle or by a sherpa (OK…maybe I’m exaggerating here just a tad). But I’m now running into an increasing number of wildlife photographers who almost never use tripods anymore, and in some cases don’t even own a tripod. I just completed 10 days of testing of the Z 800mm f6.3S and found that over 95% of the hand-held shots I captured at 1/400s were tack sharp. Even when I dropped the shutter speed to 1/100s about 65% of my hand-held shots were completely sharp (and I’m sure others could do better than this!). Suddenly, even an 800mm lens can be easily transported and easily hand-held, which is simply mind-boggling for a wildlife photographer!

Second, I’m not alone amongst wildlife photographers who have noticed a huge jump in overall “hit ratios” of sharp shots captured in the field. And, going hand-in-hand with that, I’m feeling more comfortable shooting in more extreme conditions (including hand-held in lower light and far lower shutter speeds than even just a few years ago). And, it’s often in these extreme conditions where the most compelling images “live”.

A real-world consequence of these “usability” improvements across Nikon’s long lens line is that many photographers are opting to buy lenses of longer and longer focal lengths. I am seeing photographers who previously would never buy a lens longer than 400mm now buying 800mm lenses. Why? Because they’re now light enough to carry and they can shoot them hand-held.

Big and Fast vs. Smaller and Slower

If you look at how Nikon’s Z-mount lens lineup is evolving you’ll notice in their short focal length lenses they are often producing two versions of key lenses – a smaller and lighter version and a bigger and heavier version and that has a wider aperture. Examples of this include the Z 24- 70mm f4S vs. the Z 24-70mm f2.8S as well as the Z 50mm f1.8S vs. the Z Z 50mm f1.2S. In each case both members of the lens pair are excellent optically – they primarily differ simply in having a wider aperture.

With the recent introduction of the Z 400mm f4.5S super-telephoto lens we’re seeing the beginning of the same “offer both big and small” trend in Nikon’s long lenses. So at 400mm we can choose the Z 400mm f2.8 TC VR S or the Z 400mm f4.5S VR S. Of course, if we broaden our perspective to include the PF lenses, we see even more of the trend of having a “big and fast” and a “smaller and slower” option being offered to long lens users.

What’s right for you? The “bigger and faster” long lenses offer excellent image quality, including giving us the best in subject isolation capabilities and just beautiful out-of-focus zones. And, they will perform better in low light situations. But with their large size and heavy weight they are far less portable and harder to handle. And they tend to be much more expensive than their lighter and smaller counterparts.

The “smaller and slower” lens options still offer excellent image quality, but with a slight penalty in subject isolation capabilities and bokeh quality. And once the light starts dropping they won’t perform as well as their bigger and faster counterparts. But they’re a whole lot easier to carry with you.

My own experience? I’m seeing an increasing number of serious photographers who are realizing that having a very good lens they can carry and with them is better than having a superb lens that they almost always leave at home!

The Evolution of My Own Wildlife Kit

As Nikon’s long lens have evolved my own wildlife kit has evolved in parallel. And, rather than having one “do it all” wildlife kit I now have two nearly distinct kits that I use in different situations. The first kit – which I have jokingly named as my “Commando Kit” – is one I use whenever I am going to be carrying my own gear over a considerable distance (often while hiking). I also use this Commando Kit in my day-to-day shooting near my home. This kit balances the concerns of producing excellent image quality but keeping the kit light enough to easily carry. Here are its key components:

  1. Commando Kit – Essential Components
    Nikkor Z 24-120mm f4S
    Nikkor Z 100-400mm f4.5-5.6S
    Nikkor Z TC-1.4x
  2. Commando Kit – Occasional Additions and/or Substitutions
    Nikkor 500mm f5.6E PF
    Nikkor TC-14EIII
    Nikkor Z 400mm f4.5S (plus Nikkor Z TC-2x)

My second kit is my “Destination Kit” (AKA my “Photo Tour Kit”) used when I will be traveling to a destination in a vehicle (car, plane, boat, helicopter) and won’t need to carry my gear over an extended distance. This is my “no-holds barred” kit where my primary concern is ultimate image quality:

  1. Destination (Photo Tour) Kit – Essential Components
    Nikkor Z 24-120mm f4S
    Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E
    Nikkor Z 400mm f2.8 TC1.4 VR S
    Nikkor TC-14EIII
    Nikkor Z TC-2x
  2. Destination (Photo Tour) Kit – Occasional Additions and/or Substitutions
    Nikkor 800mm f6.3S PF (when it arrives!)

Whether you’re choosing your first Nikon long lens or strategically putting together your own long lens wildlife kit you have the pleasant problem of sifting through a wide variety of long lens options. Being realistic about your own photography goals, the importance of lens portability, image quality, and what fits your budget will go a long ways towards narrowing your options. And remember – there is no Holy Grail lens out there that’s “the best” in all possible shooting situations or for all styles of shooting.

 

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Author:

Brad Hill has been a professional wildlife photographer and writer since the turn of the century. HIs images have won many national and international awards. Brad’s formal training was in biology (B.Sc. Environmental Biology, M.Sc. Behavioural Ecology) and he spent several years studying animal behaviour. He also spent several years in the tech sector, including with Adobe Systems and Getty Images. He’s technical in nature but with a strong creative streak, making him well-adapted to his chosen profession of wildlife photography. Brad’s website (www.naturalart.ca) and blog have become “must-follows” for serious Nikon-shooting wildlife and nature photographers. For many, Brad's gear reviews have become required reading before making major purchases.