The Nikkor Z 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 VR S is a general-purpose telephoto zoom lens for the Nikon Z system. Optically, it holds its own compared to the other high-quality zoom lenses in the same range and has the advantage of being made for Nikon Z cameras. In contrast, others need an adapter like Nikon’s FTZ or FTZ II.
For this review, I used the lens with a 45-megapixel Nikon Z 7II on various assignments and for personal work: corporate conferences, executive portraits, industrial commissions, architectural details, landscapes, and still lifes. The 100-400mm focal length range is suitable for almost, but not quite, everything at which you are likely to point a long lens. Still, it is not a substitute for a larger apertured, more specialized prime lens, such as the superb Nikkor Z MC 105mm VR S and Nikkor Z 400mm f/2.8 VR S lenses. It even performs well with indoor event photography, provided the room is reasonably well lit and you can tolerate high ISO settings.
Nikon made the strategic decision to emphasize reasonably priced and sized general-purpose Z series lenses with excellent optical qualities. The 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 VR S fits squarely into this category. Although it weighs 50.6 ounces (just over 3 pounds), that isn’t bad for a telephoto zoom. Like almost all lenses of this type, it extends as the focal length increases. The lens is an internal focus design with a 77mm non-rotating filter ring on the front. The complex optical formula consists of 25 elements in 20 groups. Six elements are made from Nikon’s ED (extra-low dispersion) glass, and two more are from Nikon’s Super ED glass. Inside the lens, coatings are used on internal elements to increase optical transmission efficiency and reduce, if not eliminate, flare and other chromatic aberrations. Additionally, the front element has a dust- and moisture-protective fluorine coating.
The lens has weather-proofing seals, O-rings, and gaskets throughout. There are 10 controls on the body. In addition to the focus, zoom, and a programmable control ring (aperture control, exposure compensation settings, ISO sensitivity, and none), there are four programable L-FN2 buttons located between the zoom and manual focus rings. Between the focus and control rings on the left side of the lens are the single L-Fn button and an activation/menu control button for the white-on-black OLED display. Finally, close to the rear end of the lens is a pair of sliders. The upper one sets the focus mode to auto or manual, and the lower one gives you a focus range option of full-range or 3 meters to infinity.
The L-Fn buttons connect to your camera’s custom controls f2 menus, allowing you to choose among the 24 available options. The OLED panel on the lens can display three information fields: f/stop, focus distance in meters or feet, and focal length.
Precision stepper motors move the elements needed for the lens’s fast and surefooted autofocus performance. The vibration reduction (VR) system uses voice coil motors and works with the internal body image stabilization (IBIS) system built into all Nikon Z series cameras except the Z 50. The VR and IBIS combination, along with good physical technique on the part of the photographer, makes it possible to make vibration-free hand-held images at shutter speeds deep in the double-digit range, even at 400mm. Just be aware that as you become fatigued or the longer you hold the camera and lens, the less effective this or any form of image or sensor stabilization will be.
Beyond sharpness, optical performance is excellent across the entire focal length range with virtually no pincushion, barrel, or mustache types of distortion. As with almost all lenses, it performs better a stop or two down from wide open, but it’s very sharp when wide open and, more surprising, acceptably sharp at the smallest apertures.
The lens shines as a portrait lens, primarily when a session is not in a studio. What you give up in emotional and psychological proximity, you gain in working distance; this is useful for creative, non-standard lighting options and compositional choices that make your work stand out. In addition, the extended focal length range allows for more compositional opportunities and more room for placing lights.
Unlike other similar contemporary telescoping long focal length lens designs, the 100-400 VR S lacks a focal length lock at the short end of the range. Nikon addresses this problem by using what it calls “inner balance technology.” With typical telescoping lenses, the inner barrel containing the front elements and groups extend or retract as you change focal lengths, which changes the lens’s center of gravity and causes problems when using a gimbal or fluid-type tripod head. Nikon’s design moves elements toward the rear of the lens even farther back to maintain the lens’s center of gravity position. To keep the lens from inadvertently extending when the lens barrel points down, the tracks that move elements and groups are at right angles, creating drag.
As good as the lens is, it isn’t without flaws. Nikon, Canon, and Sony don’t have an Arca-Swiss compatible quick-release beveled base on the removable tripod mount foot. Both Sigma and Tamron do this with similar size lenses. Many photographers use the Arca-Swiss quick-release system, and this would be a simple, genuinely utilitarian improvement.
The Nikkor Z 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 VR S is priced at $2,699.95.
Ellis Vener is a contributing editor.