Posted by: kerryl29 | March 27, 2014

The Sweet Spot

I’ve said it many times:  photography, at just about every level, is about making and accepting compromises.  The reality of this is made evident, for instance, when you gain depth of field at the cost of losing stops of light by closing down the aperture of a lens.  It’s revealed when increasing the ISO–to get that shutter speed you need in a low-light situation, for example–comes at the price of increased noise.  It shows up when the photographer makes the fundamental decision to use a telephoto lens for an intimate scene, at the expense of depth of field.  There are countless examples of these kinds of tradeoffs.  You can prove this to yourself.  Head out for a day of shooting and take note of how many times you give up one thing in order to obtain another while in the field.

While the tradeoff examples are most obvious when it comes to the technical aspects of photography, the analogy plays out in more distantly-related realms as well, including equipment–what to buy, what to use.

*                     *                     *

I did something a bit unusual a few weeks ago, something I hadn’t done in nearly six years:  I bought a new lens.  The lens in question is the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR lens .  This model, which hit the market a bit more than a year ago, is the long-awaited (and requested) replacement for the Nikon AF VR Zoom-NIKKOR 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6D ED lens, which I have owned and used for approximately 11 years. 

Nikon 80-400, D (left) and G (right)

Nikon 80-400, D (left) and G (right)

If I already owned an 80-400 mm lens, why did I need another one?  The short answer is, the new one’s better. 🙂  No, really, it is.  Much of the attention regarding the “G” version has centered around the (much) faster autofocus capability relative to the “D” version (the “G” is an AF-S lens) and the improved vibration reduction system, and the improvements in both of these areas are quite real and significant.  But they’re also not particularly important to me, given the kind of photography I engage in.

Freeland Farm Morning, Tucker County, West Virginia

Freeland Farm Morning, Tucker County, West Virginia

The issue is this–and it’s a classic case of the tradeoff matter outlined above:  the older, “D” version of the 80-400, was never the greatest lens, in terms of optics.  It was never better than “decent,” in terms of its ability to render image quality, with its most significant shortcomings visible in the corners of the frame (where IQ degrades for many lenses).  This was never a big deal when I was shooting with AFS-C crop-sensor (DX, in Nikon-speak) cameras, as was the case when I first obtained the 80-400 D in 2003.  But when I made the move to a full frame (FX) camera at the tail end of 2008, when I purchased the D700, the optical shortcomings began to be revealed just a bit.  I loved–and still do–the flexibility of the focal length of the lens, and with the 12-megapixel sensor of the D700, the image quality provided by the 80-400, even in the corners, I deemed “acceptable.”  The tradeoff was obvious–some IQ sacrificed (over, say, a 70-200 mm/2.8) in order to gain the flexibility of the focal range.  (As I’ve noted on this blog, I not infrequently find myself shooting at focal lengths well above 200 mm, so limiting myself to 200 mm on the long end has never been a desirable situation.)

Solitude, Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Solitude, Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

But the IQ problems of the “D” version of the lens started to really become objectionable, at least to me, when I began to shoot with the D800E and its 36-MP sensor in the summer of 2012.  Those corner problems didn’t seem minor anymore.

When the “G” version of the 80-400 was announced early in 2013, I paid close attention.  I wanted to see if early reviews of the lens were positive, particularly in the IQ department.  They were, pretty much uniformly.  Objective tests of the two lenses showed a significant improvement throughout the entire frame, particularly in the corners.  I was excited.  Until I saw the announced price–roughly $2700.  Ouch.  Based on what I was reading, the lens was very good, but this is a variable aperture lens (i.e. the maximum aperture changes–becomes narrower–as you move from the shortest part of the zoom range to the longest).  And that range is f/4.5 to 5.6.  $2700 is an awful lot of money for a variable aperture lens.  It’s also more than $1000 more than the “D” version had been selling for prior to the introduction of the “G” version of the lens.  Everything I was reading suggested that the “G” version was very good.  But was it $2700 good?  I had my doubts.

Pewits Nest State Natural Area, Wisconsin

Pewits Nest State Natural Area, Wisconsin

Nikon (and Canon, for that matter) has had a habit in recent years of introducing new equipment at premium prices and then, after six months or so, cutting the price significantly.  As much as I wanted to replace the 80-400 with the new version, I decided to wait and see if a discount was in the offing.

By January of this year, no price cut had come and I had decided that if, by March, there was no drop I would probably swallow hard and simply make the purchase.   But around the beginning of February Nikon announced instant rebates on more than a dozen lenses and–guess what?–one of them was the 80-400 G.  That rebate was $400.  The wait had been worth it.  The lens was still, arguably, somewhat overpriced, but I felt that I’d waited long enough.  I pulled the trigger.

Setting Sun, Clingman's Dome, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee/North Carolina

Setting Sun, Clingman’s Dome, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee/North Carolina

When it arrived in late February I immediately spent some time setting up some test shots of my own just to confirm what I’d already learned–there was a clear and undeniable IQ improvement from “D” to “G.”  I finally had the opportunity to try the new lens out in the field following a very wet, sticky snow in the Chicago area in early March.

Winterwood, Churchill Woods Forest Preserve, DuPage County, Illinois

Winterwood, Churchill Woods Forest Preserve, DuPage County, Illinois

Note how this story is shot through with compromises–cash retained, IQ unrealized; cash spent, IQ obtained; flexibility obtained, IQ sacrificed; IQ potential attained (D800E), lens limitations exposed.  It’s the never-ending push-pull of photography, rearing its head yet again, as we search for the elusive sweet spot.  I’ll have more to say on this topic in another post in the relatively near-future.



  1. Mi hai fatto venire voglia di comperarlo 🙂
    Chissà, chissà !! Devo vedere se si adatta alla mia Nikon
    Ciaoo, Pat

    • Grazie, Patrizia.

      Se si dispone di un corpo F-mount Nikon – qualsiasi DSLR Nikon o qualsiasi pellicola SLR Nikon degli ultimi decenni – si adatta. 🙂

      (I hope this is intelligible; I relied on Google Translate. 🙂 )

  2. Congratulation Kerry!

    • Thanks very much, Tom. This was my first new lens purchase in more than five years and, very likely, the last in at least that long.

  3. Beautiful shots. It’s always a challenge deciding how much is enough when considering the purchase of a new piece of equipment. I try to keep in mind what I’m using the results for. For me it’s usually to help tell a story on my blog. Since I’m not earning or supplementing my income selling my images, it makes it a little easier to be happy with less than “optimal” equipment. Having said that, I’m grateful for those like yourself who buy the really good stuff and then share your excellent results.

    • Thanks very much.

      Agreed re the issue of purchasing new equipment. Prior to this occasion, I last purchased a new lens in late 2008. Before that it was 2003 (the original 80-400). If I don’t expect to use it often–and for quite some time–I don’t buy it in the the first place. With the possible exception of the macro lens I carry (which I bought used–though it was “like new”–12 years ago), I don’t have the sharpest glass available. My other three lenses are pro quality zooms, but they definitely aren’t the best optics money can buy for the F-mount. In fact, I plan to blog on this very topic, in furtherance of the “compromises” theme, in the near future, so I thank you for bringing it up. 🙂

  4. Congratulations on the new purchase, but I’m a bit surprised that you went with a lens with such a long zoom range as the 80-400 mm. But, I hope that the new lens continues to match the quality of images that you typically share with us.

    • Yeah, a lot of people are surprised that I favor this zoom range, rather than, say, going with the 70-200, but I took an informal inventory of my shots some time ago and found that something like 10-15% of my images–that’s of the total of all images shot with all lenses, not the percentage shot with a telephoto lens–fell in the focal range above 200 mm. Those would be lost–or would require cropping–if I settled for the 70-200 as my telephoto lens–so I’ve always been loathe to give up the 80-400. In truth, for most of the last year, I’ve taken to carrying a used 70-200/2.8 that I was given in place of the 80-400 (this was a concession to just how much the warts of the 80-400 D were revealed by the D800E), but now that I have the 80-400 G I’ve reverted to my preferred set up. The snowy tree image that accompanies this entry was shot with the “G” at a focal length of roughly 320 mm. As I said, a significant minority of my images–and I’d guess at least 1/3 of those shot with the 80-400–are beyond 200 mm in length. What can I say, I like long lens landscapes. 🙂

      • I understand the need for a longer lens, even for landscapes, but my understanding is that the longer the range of focal length a zoom lens has, the more that image quality drops off, and you seem to be a stickler for quality. I would think that you would opt for something like a 200-400 mm lens to go with a 70-200 mm, that was my the point of my question. But then, I’m not familiar with the lens choices available for Nikon.

        • This is a great question, and it–along with the accompanying reply–so beautifully illustrates the principle of compromise that I’m attempting to flesh out that I’m going to beg your indulgence by asking you to wait for a substantial answer until I post a follow-up to this entry in the near future. And, do you mind if I directly reference this exchange in the forthcoming post?

        • Thant’s fine, on both counts. I’ll be looking forward to your next post.

  5. I always learn so much from your analysis of what and how and why… but your images are the frosting on the cake. I could easily get lost in the ‘Solitude’ and the ‘Setting Sun’ shots.

    • Thanks very much; that’s very kind of you to say.

  6. Hi Kerry, I have a question for you that isn’t necessarily related to this post. My friend recently acquired a Nikon D5100 camera, which I realize is nowhere near the sophistication of a $2700 lens, but I was wondering if you had any tips for how a completely novice photographer could develop their skills with a decent camera that isn’t a point-and-shoot. Are there particular types of shots (close-ups vs. landscapes) that a beginning photographer should focus on? Are there any beginners guides you could recommend? I’d like to feature more photography on my blog, but I feel bad always asking my friend to take the pictures. I imagine you might have written about this before, and a link to an existing resource would be much appreciated! Cheers.

    • Hi Alina. First, don’t sell the D5100 short. While it’s marketed as a “consumer” camera, it’s not Nikon’s entry level series (that would be the 3xxx) and, as is the case with virtually all DSLRs by all manufacturers these days, is a very capable piece of equipment. (This really is something of a golden age of small format camera equipment we’re living in.)

      To the meat of your questions. There are two things–related, but distinct–that I recommend. One is learning/understanding the basic technicals of photography (if you don’t already know them), principally exposure and depth of field, and how they’re realized. The second thing is familiarizing yourself with the camera you’re using. There’s definitely some overlap between the two, but only some. The focus on technicals will expose you to the principles behind them. (This is essentially a “teach a man to fish” analogy.) The focus on the camera itself–and I highly recommend sitting down with the camera and the manual and going through it from beginning to end–will tell you what the camera is capable of and will allow you to operationalize the technical principles. (For instance, once you learn the components of exposure, you’ll be able to see how to adjust those aspects using your camera.)

      Here’s a link to an entry I posted as part of my guest blogging gig on 1001 Scribbles that covers what I call “the exposure triad”:

      Here’s a link to a piece that serves as an effective follow-up, covering the topic of applying exposure choices in the field:

      These should help get you started.

      I don’t think I’ve ever put together a piece on the basics of depth of field (DOF). Here’s a link to a tutorial that covers the fundamentals (, though it may a bit more technical than some folks like.

      As far as subject matter goes…my philosophy (for what it’s worth) is: shoot what you want to shoot, at least for starters. I do think that shooting different types of subjects, and within different genres, will expose you to different principles and force you to consider different aspects of photography, from the technical to the aesthetic, but from the point of view of making suggestions to someone who’s in the early stages of development, I’m hesitant to recommend a specific approach without knowing a lot more about what someone hopes to achieve. I hope that’s not too opaque.

      I hope the above is of some assistance. Please don’t hesitate to drop me a note if you think I can be of any additional help.

      • I never thanked you for your incredibly thorough note. I’ve had a busy few weeks at work, and the weather in Chicago still has yet to settle into something resembling spring, so between the two I haven’t had much of an opportunity to take many photos. But rest assured that I am using this weekend as an opportunity to read the sources you provided! Again, thank you.

        • Happy to help; please let me know if I can be of any further assistance.

  7. Thanks for posting your comments on this lens, Kerry; I remember when you mentioned your interest in it. I’m still not getting enough reach using my 70-200 f4 plus the 1.4 converter when shooting birds. On the other hand, the weight I can carry in the field is limited by what I can carry on my back, so weight and size are top considerations for me. I rented the 300 mm when I was searching for a good video lens; it was incredibly sharp but so heavy and bulky that I could barely handle it and knew that I would never carry it in the field. You’ve given me food for thought, and perhaps I will rent one to try it before making a new purchase. Thanks again!

    • Hi, Lynn. The 80-400 is roughly twice as heavy as the 70-200/4 (1.87 lbs. for the latter; 3.5 lbs for the former). Of course, you could lose the weight of the TC (7 ounces), so the practical weight difference of the two rigs is a bit more than one pound). I’m not sure which of the 300 primes you tried–the 2.8 (which weighs roughly 6.4 lbs.) or the 4 (which weighs 3.17 lbs.). If the 300/4 was too heavy, the 80-400 will be too. If the comparison is to the 2.8 version, the 80-400 is much lighter. The 80-400 is definitely not as sharp as the 70-200/4 or (especially) either of the 300 primes…assuming no converters are used on any of the lenses…but if you’re happy with the IQ of the 70-200 + 1.4 TC combination, I don’t think you’ll be at all disappointed with the 80-400 IQ (without a TC).

      Since you’re using the 70-200/4 plus the 1.4 teleconverter, I have to assume that a maximum aperture of f/5.6 isn’t a problem for you (since that’s effectively what you’re getting with that combination); that, of course, is the max aperture of the 80-400 at the long end. The pivot points for max aperture for this lens, BTW, based on my experimentation are as follows:

      f/4.5: 80-approx. 100mm
      f/4.8: 100-approx. 135mm
      f/5: 135-approx. 180mm
      f/5.3: 180-approx. 250mm
      f/5.6: 250-400mm

      Basically, this is a 5.6 lens for long telephoto shots.

      Unless anything I’ve said here serves as an outright disqualifier, I think it would be a very good idea to rent or borrow the lens and see if it meets your needs in terms of ergonomics and specifications before buying. And, I hasten to add, the instant rebate on the lens that I mentioned in the above entry is no longer available and I don’t anticipate it becoming available again any time real soon.

  8. […] month I posted an entry entitled “The Sweet Spot,” which described my early experiences with Nikon’s new(ish) AF-S 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR lens […]

  9. Really enjoyed this post, Kerry.

    • Thanks very much!

  10. […] smug or anything, but I haven’t made a major photo purchase in more than 2 1/2 years when I replaced my old 80-400 mm lens with the new model.  The other three lenses I carry with me have been in my possession for eight […]

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