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Nikon Technology

Getting Wild with the AF-S NIKKOR 180-400mm f/4E TC1.4 FL ED VR

I have been a professional wildlife photographer for 30 years, and for almost all of that time I have been using Nikon cameras and lenses. However my flirtation with Nikon started long before that, with the first “proper” camera I owned being a Nikon Photomic F2 purchased in 1972!

During my career as a wildlife photographer I have also owned and used almost every professional telephoto lens Nikon manufactures, in various forms, and as primes or zooms. Through my hands have passed the AF-S NIKKOR 200mm f/2G ED VR II, AF-S NIKKOR 300mm f/2.8G ED VR II, AF-S NIKKOR 300mm f/4D IF-ED, AF-S NIKKOR 400mm f/2.8E FL ED VR, AF-S NIKKOR 500mm f/4E ED VR and AF-S NIKKOR 600mm f/4E ED VR along with the AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8E FL ED VR (and the older AF Zoom-NIKKOR 80-200mm f/2.8D ED before that), AF-S NIKKOR 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR and AF-S NIKKOR 200-400mm f/4G ED VR II.

I still own the AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8E FL ED VR, AF-S NIKKOR 300mm f/2.8G ED VR II and AF-S NIKKOR 400mm f/2.8E FL ED VR – as you can see I like quality fast lenses!

The AF-S NIKKOR 180-400mm f/4E TC1.4 FL ED VR

The acquisition of the AF-S NIKKOR 180-400mm f/4E TC1.4 FL ED VR immediately changed things. On its release in March 2018, it had a profound impact on my work and quite quickly became my favourite and number one lens. 

As a photographer of large wildlife, primarily in Africa, but also in other parts of the world too, I honestly believe it is the best, most practical and versatile lens I have ever owned.

A match made in heaven

Pairing the AF-S NIKKOR 180-400mm f/4E TC1.4 FL ED VR with my two D850 gives me a great deal of versatility. I can literally zoom from 180mm all the way to 840mm by using the lens’s basic 180-400 feature. A simple flick of a switch activates the built-in 1.4x converter, without me having to take my eye or hands off the camera. It gives me a new level of manoeuvrability and agility ¬– which is especially important when you’re in the wild.

Other functions include the Fn button on the right front of the camera, which activates the D850’s DX mode and increases the lens’s effective reach out to 840mm, and still gives me a resolution of about 20MP. 

Simplicity is key

Having tried out another brand’s 200-400mm with a built-in 1.4x some years back, I can honestly say that the ability to simply, with a single finger, flick the switch to activate the 1.4x on this Nikon lens without removing my eye from the viewfinder or having to remove my left hand from its support, is a huge advantage over its rival. When you’re on a shoot, economy of movement is paramount. The fewer steps you have to take, the better. 

Clarity you can count on

The AF-S NIKKOR 180-400mm f/4E TC1.4 FL ED VR gives a level of versatility and agility that wildlife photographers dream of. But it is not just the versatility of the effective 180-840mm zoom range that has swayed me. The first thing I noticed on using this lens is that it lives up to its name. The Vibration Reduction system really does work. The claim that it offers a good four stops of “shake elimination” is indeed true, and results in a very practical hand-held lens – an important consideration when shooting active wildlife.

When you’re out in the field, you need to trust your gear. You must be quick on the draw because the opportunity for a shot is always present. In my opinion, the AF-S NIKKOR 180-400mm f/4E TC1.4 FL ED VR hass the best VR or image stabilisation I have ever experienced on a telephoto lens.

Be fast, be focused

Without a doubt, the AF-S NIKKOR 180-400mm f/4E TC1.4 FL ED VR has the fastest focus-acquisition and focus tracking available, especially when attached to my D850 and D5. I also make sure this is the first lens that goes into my bag when setting off on a photographic excursion, be it in Africa, the Arctic, Asia or the Americas. The fast and accurate AF is especially so when used on Nikon models such as the D5, D500 and D850, all of which are equipped with the 153-point AF system. I can honestly say that I am missing far fewer shots due to a lack of focus than ever before, even when using my exemplary AF-S NIKKOR 300mm f/2.8G ED VR II and AF-S NIKKOR 400mm f/2.8E FL ED VR!

Going the distance

Having used the earlier AF-S NIKKOR 200-400mm f/4G ED VR II, I can say with assurance that the new model surpasses it in every aspect. There is one major area where this is most apparent; in the older lens there is a noticeable drop-off in sharpness when capturing an image past 400mm in the distance. This means that you trade maximum magnification for clarity.

I have certainly not found this to be the case with the AF-S NIKKOR 180-400mm f/4E TC1.4 FL ED VR, even with the 1.4x teleconverter activated. This lens remains “professionally sharp” across its full range of focal lengths, focusing from its closest focus point of 2 metres all the way out to the furthest possible distance.

The use of a fluorite element, as well as a magnesium body, does help to make this lens more manageable, but make no mistake, it is still a heavy piece of glass to lug around all day, or when traveling internationally. Professional-level dust and weather sealing, as well as a fluorine coating on the front element, makes the lens more suitable to professional use in the field. I am so enamored by this lens and its versatility, that I have pared down my day-to-day wildlife photo kit to just two lenses and two D850 bodies – which is an incredible feat for me!

This lens is obviously my go-to telephoto lens, and I have recently acquired the oft-overlooked and underrated AF-S NIKKOR 24-120mm f/4G ED VR to carry as the second option in my bag.

If I ever have a need for a faster f/2.8 (or wider) lens, I will only then consider adding to this versatile combination. I can wholeheartedly say that this AF-S NIKKOR 180-400mm f/4E TC1.4 FL ED VR satisfies my needs as a professional wildlife photographer, and is perfect for 99.9% of my shooting.

About Daryl Balfour

Daryl Balfour was born and raised in South Africa. He spent his childhood in the company of wildlife conservationists such as the legendary Dr Ian Player, and has been a professional wildlife photographer and safari guide since 1986. Daryl's photography has received worldwide recognition, and he has published more than a dozen books and countless magazine articles. Daryl has guided safaris throughout East, West and Southern Africa as well as Canada, Alaska and Antarctica, and enjoys sharing his photographic knowledge and skills.