Nikkor 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6D ED Autofocus VR Zoom

I’m a total technology geek. I am always looking for a new toy or tool that will make my life easier or just plain more fun. It doesn’t matter what aspect of my life I am talking about; I am always looking for fun new toys. This winter my son was selected to play on an AYSO tournament soccer team. As a former soccer player myself I was enthusiastic at this selection. As a nervous father I tend to pace the sidelines and over analyze each moment of play. In order to keep my sanity and not get thrown out, my wife suggested that I take my Nikon D300 and D200 cameras and take pictures. She is now regretting that suggestion as I have filled hard drives with pictures and begun to make a list of camera accessories that I “need” in order to get the best possible shot.


I already had a Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8D ED Autofocus VR Zoom lens that I was using to try and capture the action on the soccer field. This is my favorite lens and works great especially in low light and high-speed action shots to freeze the ball and player. The problem was that it just wasn’t quite long enough to reach out and get that close up shot across the field. Since most of my shooting was as a parent with no possibility of making money I knew my options for a new lens was limited. I sat down to begin making a list of requirements and where I would be willing to make compromises to meet my needs in a cost effective manner.
From this exercise I established the following criteria:

  • Minimum of 300mm length to capture action from a distance
  • Total length of the lens must be less than 11 inches
  • Width of lens must be less than 5.5 inches
  • Lens should be sufficiently fast enough to shoot hand held
  • Autofocus must be fast enough to capture moving players in game action
  • Lens must be compatible with DX and full frame cameras
  • Low light abilities would be preferred for shooting dusk and night games
  • Lens must be Nikkor brand

Obviously a lens meeting the above capabilities is not possible so some of these criteria would not be met. Before deciding that though I should probably explain the why behind some of these statements. The 300mm length should be self-explanatory. Since a soccer field is larger than a football field and many tournaments quarantine photographers to a specific area it becomes necessary to have a long focal length to capture action that is occurring across the field.
The length and width of the lens at first might seem like strange requirements. The reason they are there are because some sporting venues such as MLB, NBA, and NFL stadiums are now cracking down on fans bringing “professional” cameras and lenses. After contacting the local teams and stadiums it seems that at least in Phoenix they have defined “professional” lens as being longer than 11 inches or having a lens opening larger than 5.5 inches. These measurements were devised to allow an usher to check equipment using a piece of paper. The lens can’t be longer than the paper or wider than half a sheet of paper. I know, it sounds random to me too but if I am getting a new lens I need to make sure I am able to use it in all venues.
Many stadiums also prohibit the use of tripods and monopods meaning that the lens must be able to be used as a handheld model and produce sufficient results. Since most of my shooting is sports action the autofocus motor needs to react quickly to make sure the subject is spot on focus. Many of the fields are poorly lit or have dark areas so a fast lens would take precedence over a slower one. I prefer the quality of the Nikkor lenses. I’ve had very good luck with the Nikon brand and want to continue to use them where possible. Finally I currently have a DX format camera but hope to move up to a full frame. I would prefer not to have to replace the lens when I make the camera switch.
Given the above criteria my choices quickly diminished to where the most logical selection was the Nikkor AF VR Zoom 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6D ED lens. This was one of Nikon’s earliest VR lenses and provides the necessary length for me to reach action at long distance. The lens itself is fairly heavy weighing 48 ounces. The weight is both a blessing and curse. On the plus side its bulk provides a good balance to the camera itself. On the minus side, this lens on a Nikon D300 is HEAVY! This will take its toll on you after 4 or 5 games where you are holding it up all day.
The focusing motor is on the slow side and there have been times when the pictures were not in focus due to the motor not being able to adapt quick enough. It requires you to be a little more creative and plan the shot or at least the distance ahead of time on a breakaway. I would love to have had a slightly faster lens than f/4.5-5.6. I typically shoot at f/4 to get the necessary depth of field so having 1.5-2 f/stops more makes some of the shots seem a little cluttered due to the focusing plane. It’s not extremely bad but is not necessarily optimal.
I’ve taken this lens attached to a D300 camera to several events and in all cases it has passed through security without any question as to its length. Fortunately in this case the zoom mechanism changes the length of the lens so if I keep it at 80mm when going through security it is well within the 11 inch length limit. With a diameter of 3.6 inches that too makes it well within the rules. Some of the security personnel have commented on how nice the camera and lens were but none have complained that it was out of compliance.
The pictures produced with this lens have been very good and I have had several people comment on the quality and length. The action seems to come alive with the extreme focal length. This lens has definitely found a place in my bag when I am shooting action sports especially in daylight when the overall speed has less significance. In low light it does falter but with the noise reduction capabilities of the D300 bumping the ISO has resulted in successful pictures. If you have similar needs as I did I suggest looking at the Nikkor AF VR Zoom 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6D ED lens.


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