My new old 400mm lens, Nikon 400 f/3.5 EDIF manual focus.
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I needed a long lens and don’t make enough money to afford one of the new fast VR lenses, so I checked out what’s available on the used market. I ended up getting the Nikon 400mm f:3.5 AIS manual focus lens. They run about a grand. There wasn’t much information available besides the basic specifications (the lens originally came out about 30 years ago) but perhaps, since they are relatively affordable and fairly readily available, I feel I should provide some more practical information for you.
The example I got was in user condition, beat up and a bit ugly, but functional with decent glass. The glass is clean, with a couple minor scratches that do not affect image quality, at least shouldn’t to the point where it is noticeable. Little scratches don’t show up in the pictures, but affect picture quality by slightly robbing contrast in the lens. Pretty good for a lens that’s probably 25 years old.
A note on the revision: I’ve added better examples of performance from shooting in the field, as well as revised some of my language on its use. I’ve also added some thoughts on modern technology versus these old manual focus lenses to my conclusion. It might be that you aren’t missing as much as you think if you skip the new, much more pricey lenses.
Also note that this review is not a technical review. I don’t waste time taking pictures of test charts or whatever. I am trying to give practical advice based on actual shooting. I try to be systematic in my approach to photography with a new lens so I can know what I can accomplish with a lens and where it seems to perform best. This is the sort of information I’m hoping to give. There are other, more technical phtoographers who are a lot better at reading test charts than me anyway. While I like reading the info, frankly, I’ll get bored trying to do that stuff anyway. We didn;t get into phtoography to be bored, now did we?
The stuff that doesn’t matter really when taking pictures, but people like to say anyway in most reviews, is that the lens has eight elements in six groups. What matters is that it’s front heavy, so unless you have a large pro body, it will tend to lean on you. The tripod attachment is sturdy, but back a bit from the center of gravity with the D300-size bodies. The foot is about the size of a standard Arca-Swiss plate, which explains why there are no custom plates for this lens. A standard plate fits decently, though I would like a slightly longer one to help with balance.
It will focus down to 4.5 meters, which is about 14.8 feet. Back in the day, people would carry extension tubes to bring that closer if they needed to, but who does this anymore? It would render that lovely meter in the camera completely useless.
Moose Peterson, in his Magic Lantern Guide on Nikon lenses says that it’s “popularity comes and goes” due to the fact that 400mm is “a tad too long for sports and a tad too short for wildlife.” Well, things change. Shooting a DX camera for the pixel density and free teleconverter effect, it’s now the equivalent of 600mm on a D300 (or similar DX body).
WooHoo! It’s a 600mm f:3.5 that’s hand holdable!
It will also take the TC-14B and TC-301 teleconverters with no problems. With the TC-301 on a D300, it’s a 1200mm equivalent (800mm actually), and just a half stop faster than f:8. Not bad for an extreme lens in an emergency, like catching that shot of Bigfoot from across the valley. With the TC-14B, it’s a 560mm that’s a hair faster than f:5.6. On a DX body, that’s equivalent to an 840mm lens. I have the Tamron SP Af teleconverter. I’ll get into the lens’s performance with the third-party telecoverter below. It’s not too bad.
It’s just shy of a foot long and about 5 1/4 inches in diameter.
The front glass is large and beautiful. It has a built-in lens shade. Don’t fool yourself. I’ve heard complaints about how inadequate it is. Well, it’s not really a lens shade; it’s a lens protector. It’s a thick metal shade that screws down tight for storage and then screws tight into position to deflect incoming objects. Back in the day, I’m sure there was an extra screw on accessory shade out there that worked as a real shade. Basically when shooting, use the built-in shade at all times to take the brunt of any incoming rocks or branches as you are carrying it and help minimally with flare and ghosting.
It also has the old style focus stop that uses a rotating ring with a knurled thumb screw to set it. This one seems broken. When you hit the focus limit, you hear a click and grinding, like a rough detente, but it doesn’t actually stop it, and it’s not precise enough of a detente to really fix focus on a point, given the extremely narrow depth of field at 400mm. I don;t know what it was like originally. The 300 f:4 has a hard stop. I don’t use it. so I don’t think I’ll miss it.
It’s also got a filter drawer with a small, non-standard, 39mm drop-in filter. The filter itself necks down to 37mm. Good luck finding a polarizer to fit it. It requires a special drawer and filter with a little wheel to turn the polarizer, which is tough to find. The lens needs a filter in the drawer, or else the optical formula will be off, so make sure the lens you buy has the little clear L37 lens in the drawer when you buy it. You can’t stack filters in the drawer, but you could conceivably use a 122mm filter over the front lens, though have you ever priced 122mm filters? If so, you probably aren’t in the market for the budget model and getting this lens.
I’ve tossed out my previous performance assessment. It’s better than it looked. My main problem the first day I tried it was a dark, overcast day with strong winds. In better conditions, the lens sings. I kept this fellow in the review though:
I captured him walking along the trail behind my house. I was hoping to take shots of one of our local hawks, but they were all MIA, and this little fellow was the only model who showed up. I shot it hand-held with the 400mm f:3.5 with the 1.4x teleconverter attached. It’s not too bad. It’s not super sharp with the converter, but it’s not bad for what it is. I’m hand holding an 800mm-equivalent lens! I’m sure it looks downright blurry compared to the 600 f:4 Af-s VR on a heavy tripod, but who cares? I can’t afford that lens, and you probably can’t either. It’s good enough to print, and that’s in bad light. Imagine this guy printed 20 inches across on your wall. It’s detailed enough to give you that.
These are from my trip to Big Bear to photograph birds. It is above the June gloom here in Riverside so the light was much better for testing.
This is the full frame (reduced, of course) of a shot showing the fruit of a flannel bush, shot raw and translated to jpeg in Blbble Pro. I was killing time before the other birders arrived and grabbed this in the morning light. The fruit has tiny, delicate hispid hairs that can show off (or not) the detail captured by a lens.
This is a 100% crop. Each pixel on your screen should be a pixel in the above shot. The amount of detail captured is wonderful. I’m quite happy with its performance and would give it an A. Note that there is no hint of purple fringing on the bristly hairs.
How is it with the converter? In my case, I am using the Tamron SP 140F-FNs 1.4x. This combination introduces a significant measure of chromatic aberration. Still, I used it and I’m pretty happy. I get a sense that my teleconverter is to blame for most of the faults and I’m guessing the Nikon converter would probably provide better, though not perfect performance, which I will test soon.
This is a shot with very tiny rough-winged swallows in it from the Arrastre Creek area using the Tamron AP teleconverter on the lens. It’s one of those nightmare shots through tree branches that are the classic case for purple fringing.
And this is a crop at the pixel level of the in-focus area:
It’s OK, but it’s not as good. This has not been sharpened, which would bring out a little bit of detail, but still, it’s OK. I give it a B-.
Now for the slightly uglier:
Checking the out-of-focus area, you can see greenish color fringing. I’ve seen worse on very-well-reviewed and very popular zoom lenses. It’s a little bit ugly, but not too bad. It’s really apparent if you blow it up 300 times, but when you look at the pixels at 100%, it’s there, but it’s not too bad. You’ll find you have more problems with blowing focus with the combination’s narrow depth of field, or else camera shake due to hand holding or a light tripod, but these aren’t the lens’s fault. Still, it’s a B-. It’s not terrible, but clearly not as good as the lens is without the converter.
Now for the more ugly:
This is the worst case I could find from this batch of pictures using the Tamron converter. Mind you, this is at 100% and cropped to select the worst of the image quality issues and an area with extreme contrast differences. Remember the highlights in the bristly white hairs above? Check out the fuzzy down on the baby dusky flycatcher’s head. With the converter, the images just look generally more diffused than those shot without the converter. They don’t have that crisp detail that the lens has without the converter. You can also see the purple fringing in highlights on the front of the nest and the branch. It’s more apparent on my large monitor than my laptop where I can hardly see it. It’s pretty apparent at 300%, but what’s the use of looking at an image at that size?
These problems though are part of the nature of using teleconverters. This shot is actually a keeper. At reasonable print sizes, the purple fringing is only noticeable if you know what you are looking for and are specifically looking for it. A little curves adjustment helps the diffusion problem significantly. If I decide to print it, I’ll use a little more sharpening, though not enough to emphasize the little bit of noise in the image (this was taken hand held in deep shade, so the sensitivity has to go up to compensate). Pragmatically, the Tamron converter introduces some quality issues, but the results are acceptable for most uses and users, especially considering the price and the fact that it maintains autofocus with both AF and AF-S lenses. It also gets better if you stop it down a couple stops, though periodically, like in the case of this shot, there really isn’t much choice but to shoot it wide open. If you want to tell me to use a tripod for this shot, you can carry the tripod in there and then find a way to set it up without disturbing the nest. Sometimes the compromises dictate the shot more than what a test chart suggests is the best for a lens.
I’m now curious to try this lens with Nikon’s old TC-14B to compare the performance. I suspect it will be noticeably better, though not perfect. Better glass and coatings would improve the images but not perform miracles. Then again, the Tamron is new glass, with new coatings. I’m skeptical that it will be that bad compared to Nikon’s glass and coatings from 20 years ago. I have an example of the old TC-14B in the mail and will try it to see how well it works in comparison.
On the kitchen scale, the lens is about 6 1/4 pounds. With a D300 attached, that’s about 8 1/2 pounds! It’s still pretty hand holdable, as long as you don’t do it for very long on any given string of shots. You just can’t stand there with the lens up to your eye, waiting for the gopher to pop its head out of the hole. You have less than a minute of straight hand holding (depending on your strength, of course) before fatigue sets in to jiggle your pictures. That gopher shot is better suited to a tripod anyway, and usually you can bring the lens down from your eye to rest your hand every few seconds between shots.
A monopod with this lens would be helpful, but shooting twitchy birds with a moving group tends to beg for pure hand holding. This lens is about as big as I’d carry without always going with the monopod, and I’d still strongly consider one for most uses. The usual rule is to shoot at 1 over the focal length of the lens to get sharp hand-held shots. I can hand hold it down to about 1/200th of a second and get pretty consistently sharp images, though I try to run off a burst to make sure. At 1/125, I need to run off at least three or four to be sure I have something sharp. I’ve gotten decently sharp images down to around 1/60th of a second hand held, but don’t expect this to happen every time. With a good tree to lean it on, I’ve shot it at 1/20th of a second. Your results may vary.
At this point, I carry it with a strap on the lugs so that it hangs down at my side or in front, depending. I sling the strap around my neck and right shoulder like a bandoleer (with the strap going over my left shoulder and under my right). That way, I don’t have to rearrange it to pick it up and shoot.
Don’t carry this lens using just the camera body! It’s heavy enough that with the right bounce or jarring motion, it could rip the mount right off the body.
I use a Domke gripper strap and leave strap leads attached to both camera and lens. When I’m carrying a smaller lens, the strap clips to the camera. Then when I use the big lens, I just clip the leads from the lens to the strap. In fact, when adjusted right, you can hook the camera and lens leads to the same strap to distribute weight better.
One trick is to turn the tripod foot around backward so its facing up while carrying it. Otherwise, the foot bangs into your gut as you walk.
Hand held, you have to support the weight of the lens by holding the area in front of the focus wheel.
The focus wheel flares out so that it protrudes into the area where you would be supporting it, which can be an annoyance, especially since the tendency is to hold it back closer toward the body. On this example, the focus is loose, especially for that era Nikon, but that is a good thing. I can support the camera with my hand, but still use my thumb, ring and middle fingers adjust focus. In practice, it works pretty well. Also, with very delicate focus adjustments, it helps to adjust focus via the flared-out part of the wheel, because its larger diameter translates into something like a lower gear ratio. On the larger diameter part of the wheel, a larger actual hand movement is required to achieve the same focus change as with the narrower part.
I grew up with manual focus cameras, so I really shouldn’t feel like I’m missing anything. In fact, when I first started thinking about SLR photography, this was one of the lenses that were drool worthy, beyond my grasp. If I just close my eyes, I can imagine myself with this lens on an F4! Actually, now that I own it, I can grab my F4 and pretend I’m back in 1987! All I need is a Jolt Cola and a Rush mixed tape. Wait, even better: I have an espresso machine and an iPod full of Rush tunes. It’s my lucky day.
Nostalgia (and Futurama references) aside, while it would be nice to have vibration reduction, and fast AF-S focusing, I don’t miss it as much as I thought I would. The addition of the Katz Eyes focusing screen would make focusing easier on modern digital bodies, but it is acceptable as it is, provided you really pay attention to details, that is, if you are still young enough to see the details in the tiny DX finder. Even so, the electronic rangefinder on modern AF cameras works as a pretty good focusing aid. With some thought, I’m almost always hitting focus, at least within the tolerances of what I get with autofocus. Plus, I’m better at knowing the exact plane that I really want in focus (like the eye of the animal) better than any autofocus can ever be.
Personally, I think Nikon should strongly consider remaking this lens as a 400mm f:3.5 AF-S VR lens. You can’t really beat the optics as they are. With modern coatings and lighter materials, it would be a killer lens for DX photographers shooting telephoto. It’s smaller and lighter than the f:2.8 version, so it would be more likely to actually go on the trip, rather than staying at home in the locker. It would also be a relative bargain when considering what it can do, especially on a DX body, relative to the bulk and expense of the faster exotic glass.
On the other hand, I’m beginning to understand why Nikon was so slow to adopt vibration reduction despite the fact that they own several of the first patents for the technology. For the experienced photographer, it’s not as useful as it seems. When photographing small animals like birds, the photographer needs to maintain faster shutter speeds to begin with, even when using a tripod. The faster shutter speeds are necessary to freeze the motion of the constantly moving subject. Think about it: if you take a picture of a bird at 1/60th of a second shutter speed, most of the time it will be blurred by subject motion just because a bird is moving constantly and very rapidly, even when it sits in one place. To freeze that bird, you want to keep the shutter speed around 1/1000th of a second. At that shutter speed, pretty much anyone who can lift it can get sharp pictures from a 400mm lens without vibration reduction. If shutter speed drops down to where VR (or IS) is really useful, a subject like a bird will be blurred while the background is tack sharp. This is the exact opposite of the desired result.
I always see hobbyist bird photographers using newer, often fairly slow IS or VR zooms with added teleconverters making them even slower. Most often these zooms are in the f:4 to f:5.6 range, so with a converter, that means f:5.6, f:8 or even f:11 is the fastest aperture. At f:5.6, autofocus hunt becomes a problem requiring manual adjustment anyway. At f:8 and beyond, autofocus usually doesn’t operate at all. To maintain a decent shutter speed, they are required to crank up the sensitivity so noise ends up robbing detail. Noise reduction schemes further reduce detail and give an odd, posterized, watercolor effect to the images. It’s true, people can take sharp pictures using an image-stabilized, long, slower lens. The question is whether they actually benefit from the technology that allows it. I’m not so sure. For a lot of situations that you would want a super-telephoto for, I’d say not really.
For example, a fellow photographer and I were shooting the same scene. There was a hummingbird at a feeder with something stuck to it and we all wanted to know what the thing was. His lens was the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 L IS USM, an excellent lens in its own right. It has a minimum aperture of f:5.6 at the long end, plus the converter pushes this to f:8. In the meantime, I was shooting the same scene with basically equivalent angle of view (due to the different sensor sizes in our cameras). On reviewing the images, it was immediately clear to me that the bird had a little twig stuck to it. The other photographer got basically equivalent pictures, but at first, he couldn’t confirm that it was a twig. After digging around some, he found a shot that confirmed it. Since we were using the same ISO sensitivity, I suspect that having a 2 1/2 stop shutter speed advantage was the difference in making every one of those shots tack sharp for me (except for the wings of course) so that I could see the actual nodes on the little twig. [I mean little, since a hummingbird was carrying it around.]
Mind you, we were getting basically equivalent shots, but there is a real advantage to having a faster lens over the “gee-whiz” technologies.
Do I miss autofocus on this lens? I do a little, but not as much as I thought I would. With super-telephotos, the depth of field is so narrow that I use manual focus a lot to touch up the focus point. Do I miss vibration reduction? Actually, not nearly as much as I thought I would. I find that for the subejcts I’m shooting, I need to keep the shutter speed high enough that VR or IS doesn’t help as much as people think it does. I’m not going to shoot many static subjects like landscapes with a super-telephoto. Not that these technologies aren’t appreciated. It’s more that they may be over-appreciated, and they are definitely not as appreciated as the extra f-stops of speed that I can afford by buying a used manual focus lens. This is something to consider the next time you buy a lens, or invest in a camera system that doesn’t support old manual focus lenses.
Tags: 400mm EDIF, Nikon, Nikon 400 3.5, Nikon 400 ED, Nikon 400 f/3.5, Nikon 400mm, Nikon 400mm 3.5, Nikon D300, Nikon manual focus, Nikon manual focus digital, Tamron 140f-FNs, tamron af tele-converter, Tamron converter, Tamron SP AF tele-converter, tarantula, Wildlife, wildlife photography