I’ve recently traded in one of my longest-serving lenses. I’ll come to the reason why later (and what I exchanged it for). But I wanted to write a short note about this lens: the venerable Nikkor 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6 AF-D VR.
The importance of this lens to me is that it was the lens that cemented my interest in aviation photography. Back in film days, I had the Olympus Zuiko OM 300mm f/4.5 lens: it was manual focus and never quite long enough on 35mm film for really satisfactory in-flight shots of aircraft (not that that stopped me trying, of course!) By comparison, the 80-400 on my first DSLR, a Nikon D70, was a revelation. Yes, the autofocus was slow, and every so often the autofocus would randomly go off hunting, losing focus completely. But it did autofocus, and even on a D70 - whose autofocus was extremely primitive by today’s standards - it could follow prop aircraft very well. The D70 was a 1.5x crop camera, so the field of view became 120-600. I got my first really satisfactory aviation shots with the D70 and 80-400, and I was hooked. (As an example, have a look at this shot of three classic jets).
When I changed from the D70 to a D300 just under 10 years ago, the 80-400 suddenly became a new lens. The hunting issue mostly stopped, and the focus tracking for fast-moving objects became much better. The pictures were good enough that some of them appeared in my LRPS portfolio (see numbers 5, 8, 9 and 10).
However, I quickly learned that, while the focus-tracking was much better, it was still not good enough to track a fast jet on a close, fast pass. Not only that, but wide open at f/5.6 at 400mm the pictures could not stand much cropping. The pictures looked fine if they were more or less uncropped and printed at, say, A4 size. But anything more demanding and the images were not up to the standards I was starting to expect. In fact, I was using it as a f/8 lens, stopping down to improve the overall sharpness and contrast.
By 2009, I had discovered the Nikon 200-400 f/4 VR lens, which I began to rent from Fixation on a regular basis.This seemed as much of a leap beyond the 80-400 as the 80-400 had been beyond my Olympus 300mm. Much faster and more reliable autofocus, and better sharpness, contrast and image stabilisation. The 200-400 became, and remains, my standard lens for ground-to-air aviation: all the ground-to-air shots in my ARPS portfolio were taken with that lens.
That the 80-400mm AF-D is not the greatest lens by today’s standards is unsurprising. It was introduced in 2000 at a time before the digital revolution had really got going, and before fast AF-S focusing was available. On film cameras, it was reportedly extremely good for its time: but time moved on, and this lens did not. The Canon 100-400mm IS L lens became the aviation photographer’s standard, at least in part because the focusing was so much better than the Nikon competitor. Because it is an AF-D lens, the 80-400 would also not autofocus on entry-level cameras that only support AF-S. The 80-400 AF-D lens was finally supplanted by an updated AF-S version in 2013. There is an excellent comparison of the two lenses at Photography Life (https://photographylife.com/reviews/nikon-80-400mm-vr). At 400mm the newer version is obviously better than the older one - but at shorter focal lengths, while still better, the difference is not at all compelling. And the 200-400 VRII is much, much better than the new 80-400.
So why did I take so long to sell it? I probably should have done so much sooner. But it was still useful. And the amazing thing is that it continued to get better with every new camera I put it on. If it was better on the D300 compared to the D70, it was better on the D700 than the D300, and better still on the D810. I expect it would be even better on the new D850.
On a D810, the focusing, if not fast, is at least very reliable. At RIAT 2016, I found I could track a MiG-29 taking off with the 80-400 AF-D on my D810, retain selective focus on the nearest of a pair of prop aircraft taking off, and even keep up with an F-22 pulling into a vertical climb.
On a full-frame camera, the pictures actually have quite an appealing character. Something I like in a lens is graceful falling off in sharpness as you move from in-focus to out-of-focus. I’m posting a couple of examples here that illustrate this (the Manhattan Dolls and a re-enactor at Duxford Flying Legends).
Looking back through my Lightroom catalogue, I was surprised how often I’d used this lens. The thing is that compared to the 80-400, it is much smaller and lighter than the 200-400. As much as I prefer the 200-400 in photographic terms, it is bigger and heavier. If you are in a crowded environment, hemmed in on all sides by other photographers, families with children and all the rest, it is not always convenient to have the 200-400 with you for the whole day. A smaller lens, like the 80-400, is much more of a practical prospect.
I have a couple of previous entries in this blog, where I’ve not even commented on the fact that I was using this lens (see Margate and Bude). As much as pixel-peepers on forums will knock the old 80-400 as incapable of getting anything worthwhile, pictures from the Margate and Bude sets have been accepted in several national competitive exhibitions (including the opening picture at the top of this entry).
The other aspect, of course, is the flexibility of a lens that is a 5x zoom. My Lightroom catalogue tells me that most of the pictures I took with it were at focal lengths below 200mm. Actually, in recent years, I have mostly been using it as a 80-200mm lens, with much rarer use of it as a >300mm lens. This point leads me on to the reason for trading it in. I eventually felt I would be better served by a modern 70-200.
The turning point came when I went on a workshop recently at the Nikon School in London and tried out the new Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8E AF-S FL ED VR. The problem with going the the Nikon School is that they let you use the latest and greatest gear. And, good grief, did trying out that 70-200 awaken my Gear Acquisition Syndrome! It really is something else. (I’ll write something about that lens another time).
So, the long and the short of it is that I traded in the 80-400 AF-D lens for the 70-200mm f/2.8 FL lens. There was also a cash back offer in August that helped, and with great reluctance, I also sold my beloved Nikon 105mm f/2 AF-D DC lens as well. Overall, I couldn’t be happier. A good decision. The old 80-400 has served me extremely well, and I’m really pleased that it enabled me to get some great pictures over the years. I hope that whoever subsequently buys it from the dealer, gets as much pleasure from it as I have.