April 24, 2024

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Nikon Z 28-400mm f/4-8 VR hands-on: One lens covers it all

Nikon Z 28-400mm f/4-8 VR hands-on: One lens covers it all

Nikon's new Nikkor Z 28-400mm f/4-8 VR is a full-frame zoom lens, offering up to 14.2x magnification in a lightweight package. Does it come with unacceptable compromises, or is it poised to be the perfect all-in-one lens for Nikon Z photographers?

Nikon is no stranger to superzoom lenses. I made a 28-300mm lens for F-mount SLR cameras, which I found to be comfortable and optically decent. The DSLR era was characterized by a saturated market where almost everyone had a superzoom quiver for every lens.

Since then, full-frame mirrorless superzooms exceeding 200mm have become rare. Is it due to lack of demand? Nikon makes a 24-200mm f/4-6.3 for Z mount, and while it's a good lens, it still falls short of the reach category. Panasonic recently released a full frame 28-200mm L-Mount which certainly brings versatility to this system. But now, Nikon has broken the mold with a super-long-range 28-400mm f/4-8 zoom lens.

Can a lens with such a diverse focal range provide acceptable image quality? Will we witness a renaissance of the superzoom lens?

The 28-400mm lens I used was a pre-production sample, but I had the opportunity to get at least some early results on how this lens performed. The superzoom feels like a travel lens, so feeling like a road trip was in order, I headed to the beautiful city of Nanton, Alberta. There were plenty of photographic opportunities for the giant range superzoom lens at Nanton, from a row of granaries to a pair of pigeons clustered in the distance.

The Nikkor Z 28-400mm f/4-8 takes up little space in your camera bag but covers many other lenses.
    Nikkor Z 28-400mm f/4-8 extended lens
When fully extended, the 28-400mm is undoubtedly a long telephoto lens.

On the road again

The Nikkor Z 28-400mm uses STM motors to drive the glass elements, and its focusing is smooth, if not particularly fast, at the telephoto end. Focusing from near to far can take a while, but it wasn't a problem in practical situations where you primarily focus at long distances. Also, the focusing speed when using the lens in its wide to normal range is fast enough.

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    Nikkor Z Child Statue 28-400mm f/4-8
Autofocus at 400mm is fast enough when focusing at further distances.

The Nikkor 28-400mm f/4-8 is surprisingly lightweight, weighing just 26 ounces (725 grams). The lens balances well even on lighter bodies like the Z6.

Although lightweight, the 28-400mm extends quite physically and has a filter thread diameter of 77mm, adding to its larger dimensions. This is the grower when extended to 400mm, and even when enlarged to 28mm, it takes up a fair amount of space in the bag.

There's plenty of room on the barrel for a wide zoom ring, so even with the cap reversed, it's easy to handle. I like the lock switch to keep the zoom from creeping around when moving around. There's also a customizable control ring, though that's a bit weird about it. Focus has to be controlled on the body, and although the lens has VR technology, there is no switch to control it on the lens.

    Nikkor Z 28-400mm f/4-8 weather sealed lens
The build quality and construction of the 28-400mm seems adequate to handle a bit of travel.

Good settlement

Superzoom lenses usually have very complex optical formulas containing many glass elements. I was concerned about shooting the lens towards the sun because all that glass tends to cause internal reflections. I was very surprised to see almost no glow and minimal ghosting. Even when turned off, the amount of shadows is still well controlled thanks to Nikon's excellent coatings. The sun's stars are not particularly noteworthy, as might be expected.

Nikkor Z 28-400mm f/4-8 lens
Flare is well controlled as are shadows. Superzoom lenses usually struggle in this regard.
One Nikkor Z 28-400mm f/4-8 lens to rule them all
The Nikkor Z 28-400mm f/4-8 is one lens that covers them all.

The 28-400mm lens can provide a shallow depth of field toward the long end of the range despite its slow f/8 aperture. Unfortunately, bokeh quality is not a strong point of the 28-400mm. There are no onion rings in the highlights, but there is a strange double ring around the outside. When turned off, the highlights also show a distinctly polygonal shape, thanks to the nine-blade aperture. Out of focus backgrounds look messy because of this and don't transition as smoothly out of focus as they could. However, given this lens's relatively slow maximum apertures, the downsides aren't as noticeable.

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    Nikkor Z 28-400mm f/4-8 Portraits of Cats
Transitions towards out-of-focus areas are good but backgrounds can look harsh and distracting.
    Nikkor Z 28-400mm f/4-8 Bird in flight
Serious wildlife photographers might want something more purpose-built, but the 400mm is for enthusiasts.

I enjoyed using the 28-400mm lens for close-ups because it achieves a life-size reproduction ratio of approximately 1:3, whether at 28mm or 400mm. This adds a great deal of versatility to the lens and allows for wide-angle macro shots with the background pushed away or compact close-ups with a large working distance. Autofocus performance was still accurate up close, and sharpness was good.

    Nikkor Z 28-400mm f/4-8 lens
Now you know the location of Nanton Hospital thanks to the close-up capabilities of your Nikon camera.
    Vintage Nikkor Z 28-400mm f/4-8
Nanton is a charming little town with so many things to photograph and I never felt like I needed a different lens to explore it.

Since our sample was a pre-production lens and I only had an afternoon with it, there wasn't enough time to shoot test plots to evaluate sharpness. When evaluating sample images over the following days, I found sharpness to be excellent at both ends of the lens' range. Corners help well, too, and the lens performs well at its widest open apertures. That's a good thing, too, because the Nikkor 28-400mm doesn't capture a lot of light.

    Nikkor Z 28-400mm f/4-8
Sharpness is excellent in the 400mm range and VR helps keep things steady.
    This versatile Nikkor Z 28-400mm f/4-8 kit lens
There's nothing wrong with the 28-400mm's overall image quality and the comfort factor is high.

Just like old times: positive first impressions

I'm glad to see the return of superzoom to more mirrorless camera systems, and Nikon has pulled off an exciting lens range while mitigating the downsides well.

The main deciding factor will come down to whether or not a slower aperture range is acceptable. Although the widest f/4 aperture is good at 28mm, the aperture immediately drops when zoomed out, and by 200mm it's already at f/8. This will be acceptable for casual photography on sunny days or as a travel lens in fair weather, but serious wildlife photographers may want to look for something a little brighter. As light levels drop, the ISO will have to rise sooner than might be desirable, and this is the main trade-off for such a wide zoom range.

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However, the larger size and darker apertures are acceptable trade-offs for such a diverse zoom range. Some users may be completely fine with the 200mm maximum range usually found on the market, but it is undeniable that 400mm can make a huge difference in this area.

No one should buy lenses like this expecting to have their cake and eat it too. But if you want a single lens, you can barely Do all that and still produce beautiful images, and Nikon has been hugely successful.