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Hands-on with Nikon Nikkor Z 100-400mm F4.5-5.6 VR S

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Hands-on with Nikon Nikkor Z 100-400mm F4.5-5.6 VR S

The Nikon Nikkor Z 100-400mm F4.5-5.6 VR S is a premium telezoom lens for Nikon’s full-frame Z mount. Designed with wildlife and sports photographers in mind, the 100-400mm offers a versatile zoom range and impressive close focusing capabilities. Click through this article to learn more.

Build and handling

The Z 100-400mm F4.5-5.6 VR S is an ‘S’ line lens – a designation that Nikon reserves for its high-end Z mount lenses. As such it’s built to a high standard of construction, and features extensive environmental sealing, to prevent dust and moisture from getting into the lens (or camera) when shooting in inclement conditions.

From a distance, the 100-400mm is pretty hard to tell apart from the older Z 70-200mm F2.8, and they’re almost the same length, taking up about the same amount of space in a camera bag. The 100-400mm is slightly fatter, but weighs fractionally less, at 1,435 g / 3 lb 2.7 oz compared to 1,440 g / 3 lb 2.8 oz for the 70-200mm.

Removable tripod foot (same as Z 70-200mm F2.8 S)

One quirk of their similar physical dimensions is that they come with exactly the same removable tripod foot. So if you regularly shoot with both lenses, you can keep one foot aside for a spare, and just swap the other between the two. Or if you prefer a third-party foot – like this one, from Really Right Stuff – sold for the Z 70-200mm F2.8 S, rest assured that it’ll be an exact fit for the 100-400mm.

Controls

The Z 100-400mm features multiple buttons and dials. From front to back (moving towards the camera) you’ll find a zoom ring, a focus ring, a customizable control ring, and two Fn buttons, which can be set to various functions, depending on the camera model you’re shooting with. Finally, towards the mount end you’ll see two simple toggle switches, one for manual/automatic focus and the other to restrict the focus range, if required, to 3m – infinity.

This is a VR lens, but there’s no VR control on the body of the lens itself. Instead, VR modes (‘normal’ and ‘sport’) are controlled via an in-camera dialog. The VR system is rated for up to 5.5 stops of effectiveness (per CIPA) but this increases to up to 6 stops on the new Z9, which features combination lens and body ‘synchro’ VR.

Extending zoom

The zoom ring rotates to rack between 100-400mm in just under 90 degrees of turn. Like other recent (ish) Nikon telezooms, this control is at the very end of the lens, furthest from the camera. Some people will love this, some people will hate it (anyone who finds themselves needing to grab a quick tele shot with the lens hood still reversed will fall into the latter camp) and many won’t care.

Notice that this is an extending zoom design, and racking to 400mm increases the length of the lens considerably. It does not change the balance, though. Nikon has designed this lens with gimbal / video rig use in mind, and as such the center of gravity is not significantly affected by changes in focal length.

Balance

The zoom control itself operates smoothly, with good resistance, and Nikon makes a point of claiming that even without a tensioning control, there should be no zoom ‘creep’ when the lens is carried (we’ve certainly not noticed any).

Optical construction

Optical construction consists of of 25 elements in 20 groups, with 6 ED (extra-low dispersion) and 2 Super ED (super-low dispersion) elements that help mitigate chromatic aberrations. Nikon has also employed its Nano Crystal Coat and ARNEO Coat to elements to reduce ghosting and flare in backlit situations. We’ve only just started shooting with the 100-400mm, but our initial impressions are very positive. Look out for a sample gallery soon.

If 400mm isn’t long enough for you, the Z 100-400mm can accept Nikon’s TC 1.4 and TC 2X teleconverters for Z mount. Autofocus performance is retained with both, and from our initial impressions, overall speed and image quality appears to be largely unaffected when the TC 1.4X is used, but the TC 2X might be pushing it (you’re shooting with a 200-800mm F9-11 zoom at that point).

Close focus

One valuable but easy to overlook feature of the Z 100-400mm F4.5-5.6 is its minimum focus capabilities. At 400mm, minimum focus is about 1 meter (3.2 ft) which equates to a maximum magnification of 0.38X, or a ratio of about ~1.26. That’s some way off true macro reproduction, but it’s still extremely useful from a lens of this type. This kind of close focusing performance at the long tele end of the zoom allows for genuine closeup imaging at a distance, which is invaluable with certain subjects (like insects or small animals that might get spooked by a lens being shoved into their faces from closer range).

(Image above supplied by Nikon)

Autofocus and final thoughts

Like other recent Z-mount zooms the 100-400mm relies on twin stepper focus motors for AF, which provides silent and reasonably quick (and we’re told energy-efficient) autofocus, but a comparison against an adapted AF-S 500mm F5.6 PF shows that the ring-type motor of the older lens has an advantage in terms of AF acquisition speed. In our experience, the slower focus drive of the 100-400mm can limit initial subject acquisition, and this can affect the efficacy of Nikon’s 3D subject tracking AF. Shooting a fast-moving sport like rugby – where the subject of interest rapidly changes – we had better luck quickly selecting new subjects to track when we switched to adapted AF-S lenses with faster ring-type motors, as these lenses locked onto targets instantaneously with the Z9.

Overall though, the Nikon Nikkor Z 100-400mm F4.5-5.6 VR S is shaping up to be a very powerful lens for the Z mount, and we’re looking forward to shooting with it in the next few days. It’s a fairly large lens, but balances very nicely on both Z6/7 bodies and the new Z9.


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