The more glass pieces a lens has, the harder it is to move all those elements quickly. The Nikon Z 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR S doubles up on autofocus motors in order to quickly move its 25 different elements to bring the subject into focus. And while initially finding that subject with all those parts can still take a little time, the dual motors keep track of quick subjects without dropping too many frames.
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But while the lens is part of the high-end S series, it’s the Z mount’s most affordable super telephoto to date. I can’t with good conscience put a $2,700 lens in a sentence with the word budget — particularly when Sony’s most similar lens is around $200 less, and Canon has a narrower aperture alternative under $1,000. But, the lens puts telephoto reach with sharp, colorful images within reach for more Z system photographers. I spent some time with the Nikon Z 100-400mm to see how the telephoto holds up.
The Big Picture
The Nikon Z 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 blends high-end S features with a narrower aperture for more portability — and a more palatable price. The lens delivers the sharpness and color that I’ve come to expect from the S series. Yet, it’s pretty portable considering the long reach and doesn’t need a tripod. It doesn’t skip out weather-sealing or durability either.
What the lens skips out on is aperture — it’s a narrower f4.5-5.6 compared to pricier options. Two autofocus motors help the lens to keep up with a lot of moving subjects. But, it can be a bit slower to focus on a new subject to begin with. Bird and wildlife photographers are going to ideally want to pair this lens with a body that has bird AF.
The Nikon Z 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 balances high-end optics with a portable body with only a few minor quirks — so I’m giving this lens four out of five stars. Want one? Check them out at Amazon.
- Weather sealed
- Versatile telephoto zoom range
- Compact enough to hike with and hand hold
- Sharp images
- Great colors
- Minimal focus breathing
- Up to 5.5 stops of stabilization
- AF tends to keep up once locked on
- AF can take some extra time to lock on to new subjects
- AF limiter switch needs one more option for close subjects
- The narrower aperture is what’s behind that portability and lower price point
I tested the Nikon Z 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR S with the Nikon Z7 II. Both are on temporary loan from Nikon.
The Nikon Z 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR S uses two autofocus motors rather than one. That helps reduce focus breathing and increase autofocus speed. The lens also balances a long reach with a more compact size by using a narrower aperture.
While the Nikon Z 100-400mm has a long telephoto reach, the narrower aperture helps keep the lens at a manageable size. At 3.2 pounds and 8.7 inches long, the zoom lens is still compact enough to hike with and shoot handheld easily. I was even able to fit it into a larger messenger bag.
Up close to the mount, the lens has two control switches, for auto to manual focus and a focus limiter switch. Like the Nikon Z 400mm f4.5, the focus limiter switch only has two positions, infinity to 3 meters and full. There’s no spot to limit the focus from 2.5 feet to 3 meters.
After a removable tripod collar, the next control is a thin aperture ring. Continuing the tour of the lens towards the front, the Z 100-400mm has a mini screen built-in that can display things like the focal distance scale. A DISP button swaps through the different display modes. Below that is the first of two Fn or customizable function buttons.
Next up is the focus ring, which is mid-sized compared to the aperture and zoom rings. The lens also houses four evenly spaced Fn-2 buttons to keep the shortcuts within easy reach shooting both horizontally and vertically. The final control is the large, grippy zoom ring towards the front of the lens.
The front of the lens accommodates 77mm circular filters. The lens comes with a locking petal-shaped hood.
As an S-series lens, the Nikon Z 100-400mm has a sturdy, weather-sealed build. The lens doesn’t have the feel of a metal lens, but it looks and feels much nicer than a cheap optic. I used this lens in the snow, and even though snow was hanging on in small clumps, the lens was unfazed.
To test the autofocus on this lens, I photographed kids cruising down a sledding hill. Once this lens locks on to the subject, it does a pretty good job keeping up. In zone focusing mode, the camera would focus on the front of the sled, the chest, or the face, pretty consistently. With eye AF on, the lens-camera combo did a pretty solid job of staying on the face. There will be some misses in a series, but once the lens locks on, a majority of those burst shots will be in focus.
While the lens performs consistently once locked on, it does seem to take a little longer to lock on a new subject. This lens does best focusing on the subject ahead of the action and waiting for that right moment. Once the action has already started, I thought the lens was a bit slower to find the subject compared to similar setups that I’ve tested from Canon and Sony. There were definitely a handful of times that I missed the moment because the lens hadn’t yet focused. Anticipating the action is key to getting the best results. I was also sorely missing bird eye AF, so this lens is going to be best paired with a body equipped with the feature.
One thing that I think could have helped is adding one more setting on the focus limiter switch. Using the focus limiter does improve autofocus performance a bit. But, the switch is missing a setting to focus only on closer subjects, which is the setting you’d need if you want to, say, fill the frame with a songbird.
The dual autofocus motors do help minimize focus breathing. I couldn’t detect much difference in the edges of the photo when focusing through the entire range at both 100mm and 400mm. The autofocus motors are also pretty quiet.
Overall, I think the autofocus on the Nikon Z 100-400mm lens is good, but not great. It’s going to serve sports and wildlife photographers well, but it does best finding the subject early, then waiting for that peak moment. It may occasionally mean some missed moments when the subject changes quickly.
Ease of Use
The manageable size and the image stabilization work together to make the Nikon Z 100-400mm a lens that’s easy to hike with. If you need to be mobile on the sidelines or prefer hiking over waiting in a wildlife blind, this lens is a good choice. While the f4.5-5.6 means a higher ISO for fast shutter speeds and less ideal performance indoors, the trade-off is the more manageable size (and price).
Using the in-body stabilization and careful handholding, I was able to shoot 400mm at 1/80th of a second. Push that a bit higher if you’re not holding your breath or drank too much coffee. While the sports and wildlife that this lens is made for is going to demand higher speeds, if you want a slower speed to pan or for slower subjects, it’s a non-issue with the stabilization in this lens.
This lens lacks the pre-set focal distance options of optics like the Z 400mm. But, as a zoom lens, it’s still got a good mix between an overwhelming amount of controls and giving advanced users lots of options. While the price of this lens isn’t typical of a beginners lens, I don’t think newer wildlife and sports photographers are going to have any major issues jumping in.
Nikon’s S line is the Z system’s high-end optics — when I see that S on the side of the lens, I’m expecting richer colors and sharpness that still exists towards the edges. The Nikon Z 100-400mm meets those expectations with ease. It’s a sharp lens with nice color — the only thing it lacks is the softer backgrounds of a brighter aperture lens.
If you’ve never used a 400mm f2.8, you’ll find then blurred backgrounds coming from this lens perfectly pleasant. The longer focal length creates some nice background separation that helps the subject stand out. It’s doesn’t deliver the solid colored backgrounds that you can get with an f2.8 telephoto, but it’s also a lighter, less expensive lens than an f2.8 telephoto.
Points of light are generally rendered to round bokeh balls with soft edges. This bokeh is rounded at the center and slightly elongated at the edges, but doesn’t take on a cat-eye shape as quickly as many other lenses.
The Nikon Z 100-400mm renders rich, deep tones. It doesn’t skew as much towards green as some Nikon lenses have a tendency to do. I didn’t find as much of the gold tones that I love from the Z 400mm f4.5, but I have a feeling that this was due using the zoom lens on dreary winter days without much sunshine to speak of. I also didn’t spot much chromatic aberration or colored fringing.
The Nikon Z 100-400mm has what I would call happy medium flare. You can still get some ghosting spots and soft blooms of light when directed right at a light source. But shooting into the light doesn’t totally ruin the colors and contrast of the image either.
There’s a bit of a vignette on this lens. It’s fixed in JPEG files automatically and easy enough to take out in post when working with RAW.
The Nikon Z 100-400mm captures sharply detailed subjects. The lens is sharp enough that, when you zoom in to 100 percent, you can see the texture on a bird’s feathers. I could even make out the details on the snowflakes clinging to the bird’s beak. Subjects placed towards the edge still had a solid level of sharpness and detail.
Extra Image Samples
From day one, The Phoblographer has been huge on transparency with our audience. Nothing from this review is sponsored. Further, lots of folks will post reviews and show lots of editing in the photos. The problem then becomes that anyone and everyone can do the same thing. They’re not showing what the lens can do. So we have a section in our Extra Image Samples area to show edited and unedited photos. From this, you can make a decision for yourself.
Who Should Buy It?
The portability and semi-palatable price point makes the Nikon Z 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 a solid choice for many wildlife and action photographers. While there’s less bokeh than the Z 400mm f4.5 or the 400mm f2.8, the lens is easy to shoot handheld and it fits in a typical camera bag. Image quality is excellent with great sharpness and color.
While the autofocus is decent once locked on, it does take a bit more time to focus on a new subject than lenses from competing camera systems. That’s going to create some challenges for sports photographers that need to quickly recompose when the action suddenly moves downfield. It’s going to work best in the hands of a photographer accustomed to anticipating the action or more predictable types of sports.
Want one? Check it out on Amazon.
LensRentals lists the following specifications for the Nikon Z 100-400mm:
- Angle of View: 24° 20’ to 6° 10’
- Aperture Blades: 9, Rounded
- Autofocus: Autofocus
- Brand: Nikon
- Compatibility: Full Frame
- Filter Size: 77.0mm
- Hood Included: Yes
- Image Stabilization: Yes
- Item Type: Lens
- Lens Type: Supertelephoto
- Max Aperture: 4.5
- Maximum Magnification: 0.38x
- Mfr. Model Number: 20106
- Minimum Aperture: 22.0
- Minimum Focusing Distance: 2.5feet
- Mount: Nikon Z
- Optical Design
- Groups/Elements: 20/25
- Extra-Low Dispersion Elements: 6
- Super Extra-Low Dispersion Elements: 2
- Dimensions (ø x L): 3.9 × 8.7″ / 98 × 222mm
- Weight: 3.2 lbs. / 1435 g