Leopard yawning

After shooting with my trusty Canon gear for more than a decade I’ve ‘crossed over to the dark side’ as most of my disappointed Canon-loving friends call it. That’s right. I’m now a Nikon-man.

“Why would you suddenly change brands after so many years?”, many have asked. Well, there are many reasons, but one of the main motivations was Nikon’s relatively new version of the 80-400 mm lens – the f/4.5 – 5.6G AF-S ED VR.

As a travel photographer I’ve always treasured my Canon 100-400 mm (version I) lens. It was light, affordable, had a great focal length range and, for the purposes of magazine publications, it was sharp enough. It was, however, not sharp enough for wildlife photography. It battled to provide me with consistent good results, especially in low light conditions or when there was action on game drives.

As a result I borrowed a Nikon 200-400 mm f/4 lens fitted to a Nikon D3s for the past year, when leading ODP Safaris to Elephant Plains in the Sabi Sands. The combination delivered great results, but boy, the weight was a massive hindrance. For someone who prefers to shoot out of hand, the 3 kg-plus monstrosity (combined with the heavy D3s) was enough to warrant nightly Deep Heat rubs on my shoulders. So the decision was made – it was time to look for a zoom lens that better suited my needs. One that was sharp enough to photograph wildlife with, but also light enough to use as a travel photographer.

Reading reviews

Nikon’s new 80-400 mm lens seemed like the obvious choice, not only because of its great focal length range and size, but also because the price was low enough to fit the budget, yet seemed high enough to assure quality. So I started reading as many online reviews as possible. The problem, however, was the fact that there were not nearly as many wildlife photography field tests with this lens as I had hoped. That’s the reason for this blog, actually. To help you make up your mind and to reinforce some of the valid points Andrew Schoeman made in a similar post in September this year. By the end of this blog, and after reading Andrew’s as well, you’ll have no more doubts about whether or not to add this lens to your kit.

This is what I loved

It’s hard to decide what I love most about the Nikon 80-400mm, but if I had to choose only one thing it would have to be the fact that it’s so light compared to lenses like the 200-400 mm f/4 and other large prime lenses. Being able to shoot from the hand means I’m getting 99% of the potential shots, and I’m doing it without getting sore or tired.

The next thing I’m extremely impressed with, is the sharpness of the lens. I was very worried that I would see similar softness in my images to those I got with the old Canon 100-400 mm, but I’m happy to say the Nikon 80-400 mm AF-S is ten times sharper! When I photograph a male lion, the sharpness of the image must make me want to stroke its fur…and this lens does that with flying colours.

Profile of male lion with blood around the edges of his mouth

Manoeuvrability – check! Sharpness – check! But what about focus? Would I be able to successfully photograph birds in flight? This was a real concern until I recently got the opportunity to photograph white-backed vultures streaming in from all directions to feast on a buffalo carcass. Even though every single photo wasn’t pin sharp, I still got more than enough that were.

Flying vulture

The lens’s impressive auto focus capabilities actually became obvious when I photographed a mother leopard and her boisterous cub at Elephant Plains Game Lodge. Even when they played in the treetops, where scores of branches could potentially throw off the focus, I was able to lock onto my subjects. And when the pair walked down the road towards us on an overcast morning, the lens had no trouble keeping both mother and cub in focus. The impressive Nikon D750 Camera Body  obviously helped a lot as well.

Leopard and her cub descending down a tree branch
Leopard and her cub walking in the dirt road

When I used the Nikon 200-400 mm f/4, I kept a Canon 5D mkIII with a 70-200 f/2.8 close by for wider shots, but with the Nikon 80-400 mm’s fantastic focal length range, I can now get the classic close-up portrait photo and the photo of the animal in its environment with one lens. No more changing lenses or fumbling to reach for your second camera. In a place like the Sabi Sands (or the Kruger National Park for that matter), where you usually photograph animals that are relatively close to you, it really is the ideal lens!

image of buffalo
buffalo under a tree in the bushveld

Last but not least, I love getting good value for my money. At about R30 800, it’s three times cheaper than a new version of Nikon’s 200-400 mm f/4. With the economy on crutches, this has to count for a lot!

This is what I didn’t like

There’s no such thing as the perfect wildlife lens. Some are too big. Some don’t focus well. Some are too expensive. So this blog would not be complete without mentioning a couple of things I don’t like about the lens. At least then you know what to expect when I (hopefully) convince you to buy it…

Some parts of the lens feel a bit flimsy. The main barrel with focus and zoom rings feel strong, like you would expect from a top-end Nikon lens, but every time I fasten or loosen the sun cover, I worry that it will crack. The lens cap also falls off very easily. With my Canon gear I never worried about mounting lenses, but since I’ve changed brands I feel like I have to mount the 80-400 mm on my D750 with extra care. It doesn’t click in as freely and easily as my Canon gear did. The lens’s great range, however, means I’m hardly ever changing lenses on a drive.

Finally, the Nikon 80-400 mm AF-S lens’s focus capabilities and sharpness decreases somewhat after dark. Photographing carnivores lit up by spotlights is difficult at the best of times, even with the most expensive gear, so trying to get perfect shots with a f/4.5 – f5.6 lens is a real challenge. Having said that, I’m still able to get good results under ideal conditions, ie. when the subject stands still and is well lit.

Low light image of leopard at night


I love this lens! It’s as simple as that. I never expected it to move mountains. It just had to give me better results than my old Canon 100-400 mm lens without breaking the bank. Luckily for me, the results are better.

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