The Nikon Z 800mm f/6.3 VR S is an anomaly: a lens with this kind of focal length and aperture shouldn’t be so easy to use and cheap. So what’s the problem ?
Measuring 5.6 inches (140 millimeters) in front by 15.2 inches (385 millimeters) in length, it’s unlike any other high-end 800mm lens seen before. For comparison, Nikon’s latest 800mm f/5.6 F-mount is almost an inch wider and three inches longer. This comparison gets really crazy when you look at the difference in weight: the new Z 800mm f/6.3 weighs just 5lbs 4oz, while the previous 800mm f/5.6 weighs 10lbs 1oz.
This won’t be a comparative review, but it has to be said because it completely changes how and where the new 800mm is used. My time with the lens has always been handheld with the Nikon Z9. If you’re also used to shooting with long handheld lenses, this one will fit right in with what you’re already used to. I was able to keep the camera’s viewfinder up to my eyes for as long as I needed while waiting for a shot, and it has to be expressed again that I’m talking about an 800mm lens which weighed a 10-pound swingarm in the latest generation. What progress!
Looking more closely at the lens layout, the mount side features a 46mm drop-in filter holder that can be replaced with a separate drop-in circular polarizing filter with a control dial. There are also a few switches and buttons here, including a Memory Tuning button, L-Fn button, Focus Mode switch, and Focus Distance Limiter switch with full options. or from 10 meters to infinity.
One glaring omission is that there’s no way to toggle vibration reduction (VR) modes from a lens switch. This problem is compounded by the fact that we still cannot assign VR to a custom button for quick access on the Z9. Having VR set to On, Sport and of course Off, each acts very differently, and hopefully this is something that will be addressed sooner rather than later.
The focus ring is a healthy size with rubber ribs. It has smooth starts and stops, but I find the cornering has a bit more friction than I would prefer when moving fast. The transition of starts and stops makes all the difference for the more difficult rings, and while it could be better, I still find what we have here acceptable.
On the other hand, the placement could not be better since it is located right in front of where my hand rests. This means my fingers end up on it without needing to readjust.
In front of the focus ring is a control ring that can only be programmed to control aperture, exposure compensation and ISO. This ring is quite stiff and takes a lot more effort to move with just one finger. As it is shot, the changes are drastic. About 30 degrees of rotation (12 to 1 on an analog clock) is enough to sweep the entire aperture or ISO range.
There are four more L-Fn2 buttons in this area facing the top, bottom and sides, although they all control the same custom function defined in the camera’s menu system.
This lens’ tripod collar is non-removable and has nice click stops at every 90 degree turn for quick, no-eye leveling. That said, the new $14,000 Nikon 400mm f/2.8 TC VR S doesn’t have it either, so its exclusion here shouldn’t surprise me although it still disappoints. On a positive note, this lens has a very comfortable tripod leg for briefcase-style transport, whereas this Z 400mm f/2.8 comes with a slightly too short leg.
The lens hood is an interesting subject with this lens. First off, it’s surprisingly not the screw-down type you usually get with expensive super telephoto lenses. Instead, it is a bayonet style that is threaded and twisted to lock. It has a nice rubberized rim, a dull interior to stop glare, and overall isn’t a bad design. Instead of a plastic hood, the lens comes with a drawstring pouch to cover the front element and does not fit properly without the hood attached.
This brings us immediately to a topic that I think is rather interesting: I think many owners could do without a hood.
I used the lens hood on the lens for a few days, but then realized how much it ruined everything. The problem is, it’s just huge. It adds five and a half inches in length to the end of the lens and it is about six and a half inches wide.
I’m well aware that this isn’t new to super telephoto lenses, but I’ll tell you again that this lens is different. It feels thin, it feels light, and it makes the honkin’ visor look like it’s from a previous era.
Look at the lens design and how it flares out sharply near the front element. Everything is thin until the very end. With the lens hood installed, a much larger portion of the lens is fat. Now consider reversing the sun visor and adding a padded cover. It turns that slim, backpack-friendly lens (provided you have the length) into an entirely different beast with entirely different storage needs. After checking to see if this lens had a flare issue (spoiler: it doesn’t), I said screw it on and left the lens hood at home for a month without looking back. Rather than the huge semi-rigid lens cover, I used a tight little LensCoat hoodie to protect the front during transport.
The Nikon Z 800mm is made up of 22 elements in 14 groups, including three extra-low dispersion elements, a short-wavelength refracting element, and a Phase Fresnel element. There is also a Nano Crystal coating on the elements.
From the perspective of real-world natural light wildlife photography, the flare of this lens is well controlled. There’s a splash of color built up near the source, but it doesn’t dominate the whole frame. I tried to get this lens to give me lousy test results, but it’s not easy. Looking at my photos, there are no noticeable color fringing. All of Nikon’s latest super telephoto lenses that I’ve used are masters at maintaining high image quality.
In a support document, Nikon states that the Phase Fresnel element can cause ring-shaped colored lens flare when a light source is in the frame or enters the lens from outside the frame, but at least from my usage I haven’t seen this happen.
When it comes to sharpness, the lens didn’t disappoint: in my photos, every detail of fur and feathers is there. The resolving power also allows for considerable unsuspecting reframing. As an f/6.3 maximum aperture lens, many photographers will opt to stick with it to get the most light for a faster shutter speed. The good news is that even at wide apertures, sharpness won’t suffer. The photo below was taken at f/6.3, and every beard in the feathers can be made out.
This lens uses an STM (stepper motor) for autofocus. It’s not the company’s latest and greatest tech, which would be the Silky Swift VCM found in the 400mm f/2.8 TC VR S, but I haven’t seen a solid case in my shoot where he had to. It’s fast enough not to become a problem during dramatic changes in focusing distance, although it’s not flash-fast. It’s also quick, however, during more common focus changes, say, from 20ft to 30ft.
It has a minimum focusing distance of 16.41 feet (five meters). It seems like a long way off, but at 800mm for many subjects at that distance it may fill the frame more than you’d like. Most of the time I didn’t find it limiting, but there is an adjustment period to remember, I should take a few steps back from where I would typically shoot with a 500mm or 600 mm and a shorter minimum focus distance.
When shooting at 800mm handheld, vibration reduction is an essential part of this lens. Nikon claims the lens can compensate for shake up to five and a half stops combined with the Z9 or five stops just from the lens alone. That’s magic, considering the lens’ field of view is about three degrees. Having worked with this lens, it’s safe to say that the “one in focal length” rule is still well buried in the past.
The gold standard of super telephoto lenses
So what’s the catch? I do not know. I really have no idea why this lens doesn’t cost double the $6,500 that Nikon asked for, because I think the company could have gotten away with it. For photographers who can’t get enough focal length, high-end 800mm lenses always come with the understanding that they’ll be huge, heavy, and expensive. This lens is neither of those things, comparatively and in my experience no great sacrifice is made either.
Waiting lists and estimated delivery times for this lens are reaching six months from what I’ve seen, and I think that may be the only “hiccup” for the lens: it won’t be not easy to get without a lot of luck, at least for now.
Are there alternatives?
There is, but it’s not good news. You’d have to be crazy to spend $16,300 and buy a new Nikon 800mm f/5.6E AF-S FL ED VR F-mount and adapt it for use on a Z-mount camera. That’s close to $10,000 more and you only earn a third light stop. It’s also 10 pounds versus the Z 800mm’s 5.25 pounds. This is perhaps the worst deal in photography for those who have gone Nikon mirrorless.
For now, I wouldn’t consider anything else comparable to the Nikon Z 800mm f/6.3. This is a unique lens among all brands and systems in terms of design, image quality and price. However, according to the company’s lens roadmap from 2021, Nikon plans to release a 600mm prime lens and a 200-600mm zoom lens. Adding a 1.4x teleconverter would convert these lenses to 840mm at the cost of another complete light stop.
Should you buy it?
Yes. The Nikon Z 800mm f/6.3 VR S is the new gold standard of prime super-telephoto lenses when considering reach, weight, build quality, image quality and price.