The Nikon Z 800mm f/6. 3 VR S is an anomaly: lens with this kind of focal length and aperture shouldn’t be so easy to use and inexpensive. What’s the problem?
Measuring 5. 6 inches (140 millimeters) at the front element by 15. 2 inches (385 millimeters) in length, this is unlike any other high-end 800mm lens seen before. For comparison, Nikon’s last 800mm f/5. 6 for F-mount is nearly an inch wider and three inches longer. This comparison really gets wild when you look at the difference in weight: the new Z 800mm f/6. 3 weighs only 5 pounds 4 ounces, whereas the previous 800mm f/5. 6 weighs 10 pounds 1 ounce.
This is not going to be a comparison review, but it needs to be said because this completely changes how and where the new 800mm is used. My time with the lens was always handheld with the Nikon Z9. If you are also accustomed to shooting long lenses handheld, this one will fit right into what you’re already used to. I was able to keep the camera’s viewfinder up to my eye for as long as I needed to while waiting out a shot, and it needs to be expressed again that I’m talking about an 800mm lens that weighed an arm-wobbling 10 pounds in the last generation. This is a great advancement.
Taking a closer look at the layout of the lens, the mount side features a 46mm drop-in filter holder that can be swapped for a separate drop-in circular polarizing filter with a control wheel. There are a couple of switches and buttons here too, including a Memory Set button, L-Fn button, focus mode switch, and focus distance limiter switch with options of full or 10 meters to infinity.
One glaring oversight is the inability to switch between Vibration Reduction and Normal modes using a lens switch. This problem is compounded by the fact that we still can’t assign VR to a custom button for fast access on the Z9. Having VR set to On, Sport, and of course, Off, each act very differently, and this is something I hope gets addressed sooner rather than later.
The focus ring is a proper healthy size with rubber ribbing. Although it has smooth stops and starts, I feel the turn is a little too frictional for my liking when I move fast. It makes a difference in tough rings. While it can be improved, I find the current setup acceptable.
On the other hand, the placement couldn’t be any better since it’s located just in front of where my hand rests. It’s so easy for my fingers to find it and adjust without having to turn the dial.
Ahead of the focus ring is a control ring that can only be programmed to control aperture, exposure compensation, and ISO. This ring is pretty stiff and takes a lot more effort to move with one finger. As it’s turned, the changes are drastic. Around 30 degrees of spin (12 to 1 on an analog clock) is enough to sweep through 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 will control the same custom function set in the camera’s menu system.
The tripod collar on this lens is not removable and does not have nice click stops at each 90-degree turn for fast, no-look leveling. That said, the new $14,000 Nikon 400mm f/2. 8 TC VR S also doesn’t have this, so its exclusion here shouldn’t surprise me although it still does disappoint. On a positive note, this lens has a tripod foot that is very comfortable for carrying briefcase style, whereas that Z 400mm f/2. 8 comes with one that’s slightly too short.
The lens hood is kind of an interesting topic with this lens. It’s not like the screws-on type that you get with super-telephoto lenses. Instead, it’s a bayonet style that’s popped on and twisted to lock. The design is good with a rubber rim and a dull interior that stops reflections. Instead of a plastic cap, the lens comes with a drawstring pouch-looking thing to cover the front element and does not fit right without the hood attached.
This leads me to a fascinating topic: Many owners may opt for hoodless.
I used the hood on the lens for a couple of days, but then I realized how much it threw everything off. The issue is that it’s just enormous. It adds five and a half inches of length to the end of the lens and it’s about six and a half inches wide.
I know this isn’t a new feature for super-telephoto lens, but this lens feels very different. The lens feels thin and light. It makes the honkin’ lens hood seem like something from another era.
Look at the design of the lens and how it steeply flares out near the front element. The entire lens is very slim right up to the end. With the hood installed, a much bigger portion of the lens is fat. Now consider reversing the lens hood on this and adding a padded cover. This transforms a slim, lightweight lens (assuming you have enough length) into a beast that can be carried in a backpack. The hood was removed from the lens for the last month after I checked if it had flared. Rather than the huge semi-rigid lens pouch cover, I used a tight little LensCoat Hoodie to protect the front in transit.
The Nikon Z 800mm is constructed of 22 elements in 14 groups, including three extra-low dispersion elements, one short-wavelength refractive element, and a Phase Fresnel element. The elements are also protected by a Nano Crystal Coat.
From a real-world, natural light wildlife photography perspective, the flaring of this lens is well controlled. Although there is some color scattered near the source of the light, it does not dominate the frame. I tried to make this lens give me some ugly results for testing, but it’s not easy. My photos show no visible color fringing. All of Nikon’s latest super-telephoto lenses that I’ve used have been masters at maintaining high image quality.
In a support document, Nikon states that the Phase Fresnel element can cause ring-shaped colored flare when a light source is in the frame or enters the lens from outside the frame, but at least from my use, I didn’t see this occur.
Looking at sharpness, the lens did not disappoint: in my photos, every bit of fur and feather detail is there. You can also crop without any suspicion because of the lens’s resolving powers. As an f/6. 3 maximum aperture lens, many photographers will opt to keep it there to get the most light for a faster shutter speed. The good news? Sharpness won’t suffer even when the aperture is wide open. The photo below was shot at f/6. 3, and each barb in the feathers can be made out.
This lens uses an STM (stepping motor) for autofocus. It’s not the company’s latest and greatest technology, which would be the Silky Swift VCM found in the 400mm f/2. 8 TC VR S, but I haven’t seen a strong case in my shooting where it needed to be. It’s fast enough not to become a problem when making dramatic shifts in focus distance, although it’s not blink-of-an-eye fast. It is that fast, however, when making more common focus shifts, for example, from 20 feet to 30 feet.
It has a minimum focusing distance of 16. 41 feet (five meters). That sounds far, but at 800mm for many subjects at that distance, it will be filling the frame maybe more than you’d like. Most of the time, I didn’t find it limiting, but there is an adjustment period to remember I would need to take a couple of steps back from where I might typically shoot with a 500mm or 600mm and a shorter minimum focus distance.
When shooting at 800mm handheld, Vibration Reduction is a critical component of this lens. Nikon claims that 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 that the lens’ field of view is about three degrees. It’s clear that this lens is a great example of the old “one-over-the focal length” rule.
The Gold Standard of Super-Telephoto Primes
So, what is the catch? I don’t know. I genuinely have no idea why this lens doesn’t cost double the $6,500 that Nikon is asking because I think the company could have gotten away with it. For photographers who can’t get enough focal length, the high-end 800mm lenses always come with the understanding that they will be huge, heavy, and expensive. This lens, however, isn’t any of these things. In fact, it doesn’t require that much effort.
Waiting and shipping estimates for this lens take half an year, according to what I have seen. I believe that is the “catch”: the lens will be difficult to get without much luck at the moment.
Are There Alternatives?
There is one, but it’s not good news. You’d have to be out of your mind to spend $16,300 and buy a new F-mount Nikon 800mm f/5. 6E AF-S FL ED VR and adapt it to use on a Z-mount camera. That’s almost $10,000 more expensive and gains you only a third stop of light. It’s also 10 pounds versus the 5. 25 pounds of the Z 800mm. That might be the worst deal in photography for those who have moved to Nikon mirrorless.
Right now, I wouldn’t consider anything else comparable to the Nikon Z 800mm f/6.3. It is a unique lens across all brands and systems in terms of its package of design, image quality, and price. However, according to the company’s lens road map from 2021, Nikon is planning to bring out 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 full stop of light.
Should You Buy It?
Yes. The Nikon Z 800mm f/6. 3 VR S is the new gold standard of super-telephoto prime lenses when factoring in reach, weight, build quality, image quality, and price.