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Best lenses for the Nikon D800E: Standard and telephoto primes and zooms


Best lenses for the studio and wildlife

In this the concluding part of the series, we’ve been looking at the best models for studio and wildlife photography. Admittedly, as a full-frame camera delivering 40MB Raw files the D800E isn’t likely to be the first choice for wildlife. A Nikon D4s with a 11fps burst rate or an APS-C Nikon D7100 with its 1.5x crop are the more likely choices, but there are always some compromises to be made and there’s a compelling case for increased resolution within a given format.

As we’ve revealed in our tests, the full-frame sensor in the D800E has a wide dynamic range, good color discrimination, low noise and it has excellent resolution, amounting to as much as a 30% increase in peak sharpness in some cases.  While the Nikon D800E requires the best quality lenses to achieve optimum results, when it comes to fast-paced photography either in the studio or on location, the best possible technique is required to reduce blurring and maintain this advantage.

Besides the performance and obvious physical characteristics of size and weight of individual lenses, some key points to remember when comparing models for this type of work are the minimum focus distance and reproduction ratio. One model may focus closer than the next, which is a benefit but it’s prudent to check the maximum magnification is higher as well.

For instance, Nikon’s new 400mm f2.8, announced only yesterday looks promising with regard to higher image quality and improved exposure reliability. However, while the new shorter minimum focus distance is useful, the slightly lower magnification means the effective focal length is slightly shorter than the old design. Using extension tubes is an easy way to reduce the minimum focus, however, Nikon has yet to add any with automatic diaphragm control.

Best standard and short telephoto primes for the portrait studio

As we mentioned in part I, the best corrected, best performing model of any focal length on the Nikon D800E is the Zeiss Distagon T* Otus 1,4/55, however as we also revealed, it’s not quite the sharpest – that accolade goes to its sibling, the Apo Sonnar T* 2/135.

Carl Zeiss Distagon T* Otus 1.4/55 ZF.2 Nikon 3999 50 33
Carl Zeiss Apo Sonnar T* 2/135 ZF.2 Nikon 1600 44 36
Nikon AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.4G 2199 44 30
Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 85mm f/1.8G 690 44 27
Carl Zeiss Makro-Planar T 100mm f/2 ZF2 Nikon 1840 40 23
Samyang 85mm f/1.4 Aspherique IF Nikon 328 39 23
Sigma 85mm F1.4 EX DG HSM Nikon 969 38 24
Nikon AF Nikkor 50mm f/1.4D 329 37 22
Sigma 50mm F1.4 EX DG HSM Nikon 499 36 23
Nikon AF Nikkor 85mm f/1.4D IF 1230 36 23
Nikon AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G 448 36 21
Nikon AF-S VR Micro-Nikkor 105mm f/2.8G IF-ED 890 36 21
Tamron SP 90mm F/2.8 Di MACRO 1:1 VC USD Nikon 749 35 27
Nikon AF Nikkor 85mm f/1.8D 460 35 23
Nikon AF DC-Nikkor 105mm f/2D 1099 35 23
Carl Zeiss Makro-Planar T 50mm f/2 ZF2 Nikon 1280 34 23
Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 50mm f/1.8G 219 34 23
Tokina AT-X M100 AF PRO D AF 100mm f/2.8 Nikon 500 34 22

In joint second place, with a DxOMark lens score of 44 points is the latest iteration of Nikkor 85mm f1.4 – Nikon’s premium portrait model for the last four decades. With the more modestly priced f1.8 model achieving the same ranking on the D800E, albeit with slightly lower peak sharpness, the choice now is not quite so clear-cut. At $700, and lacking some of the build quality, it’s a third of the price of the f1.4 model.

Given advances in lens design it seems little odd that the best performing 50mm Nikon lens in our database is the discontinued film-era AF Nikkor 50mm f1.4D. Still, the Sigma 50mm f1.4 EX DG HSM performs similarly, followed by the current AF-S Nikkor 50mm f1.4G, though it isn’t quite as sharp overall.

Although Nikon has two lenses in the top 5, rival Zeiss has three and of those two occupy first and second position. The Otus is an outstanding performer but it’s similar in size to the firm’s Apo Sonnar T* in second place.

At $4,000 it should be good of course but it doesn’t have AF and, on the D800E, it’s actually trumped by the Apo Sonnar in sharpness. Most of the gains are in the outer field but in real world use it would be difficult to tell the two apart. At $1,600 the Apo Sonnar looks ‘cheap’ compared to the Otus and Nikon’s 85mm f1.4G. At a third of the price of the f1.4 model, the best value must be the Nikon 85mm f1.8G. Build quality, while excellent, doesn’t have the same rugged feel of the f1.4 and it can’t quite match that model’s sharpness or rendering, though that’s a subjective quality. 

Best telephoto primes and zooms for wildlife

It’ll come as little to surprise to learn the best performing telephoto models on the D800E are the Nikkor AF-S 200mm f2G ED VR, 400mm f2.8G ED VR and 300mm f2.8G ED VR. While these models are suited to wildlife they are unashamedly pricey and aimed predominantly at sports photographers, where the fast maximum aperture is mostly required for AF compatibility when mixing with the firm’s various teleconverters.

Nikon AF-S Nikkor 200mm f/2G ED VR II 5899 44 34
Nikon AF-S Nikkor 400mm F2.8G ED VR 8999 39 33
Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 300mm f/2.8G ED VR II 5900 38 33
Tamron SP 70-200mm F/2.8 Di VC USD Nikon 1699 33 28
Sigma 120-300mm F2.8 DG OS HSM S Nikon 3599 32 29
Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/4G ED VR 1399 31 30
Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II 2699 31 27
Nikon AF Micro-Nikkor 200mm f/4D ED-IF 1425 30 28
Sigma 150mm F2.8 EX DG OS HSM APO Macro Nikon 1099 30 23
Sigma APO 120-300mm F2.8 EX DG OS HSM Nikon 2449 29 26
Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 600mm f/4G ED VR 9999 28 24
Nikon AF-S VR Zoom-Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8G IF-ED 1850 28 20
Tamron SP AF 70-200mm F/2.8 Di LD (IF) MACRO Nikon 770 28 20
Nikon AF Nikkor 180mm f/2.8D IF-ED 970 28 14
Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 200-400mm f/4G ED VR II 6999 27 23
Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 500mm f/4G ED VR 8030 27 22
Sigma 70-200mm F2.8 EX DG APO OS HSM Nikon 1699 27 20
Sigma 70-200mm F2.8 EX DG APO Macro HSM II Nikon 949 27 17
Sigma 70-200mm F2.8 EX DG APO HSM Nikon 880 25 18
Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR 2700 24 19
Nikon AF-S VR Zoom-Nikkor 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G IF-ED 669 23 15
Nikon AF Zoom-Nikkor 70-300mm f/4-5.6D ED 196 23 13
Sigma 70-300mm F4-5.6 APO Macro Super II Nikon 199 22 15
Sigma 70-300mm F4-5.6 APO-M DG Macro Nikon 209 22 14
Sigma 50-500mm F4.5-6.3 APO DG OS HSM Nikon 1659 21 17
Sigma 120-400mm F4.5-5.6 DG APO OS HSM Nikon 999 21 14
Sigma 70-300mm F4-5.6 DG OS Nikon 359 21 13
Tamron SP 70-300 F/4-5.6 Di VC USD Nikon 449 21 12
Nikon AF VR Zoom-Nikkor 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6D ED 1665 20 12
Nikon AF Zoom-Nikkor 28-200mm f/3.5-5.6G IF-ED 300 19 10
Sigma 150-500mm F5-6.3 APO DG OS HSM Nikon 1069 18 12
Nikon AF-S Nikkor 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR 1050 18 11
Tamron AF 28-300mm F/3.5-6.3 XR Di VC LD Aspherical [IF] Macro Nikon 600 17 10


Nikon are well known for supporting wildlife photographers with models that include the AF-S Nikkor 200-400mm f4G ED VRII at the high-end as well the 80-400mm f4.5-5.6G ED VR and to a lesser extent the AF-S VR 70-300mm f4.5-5.6G IF-ED. All three of these models are suitable for full-frame use, though they’re unlikely to be used with teleconverters. Nikon, like other makers, assume users would adopt an APS-C camera instead. Sigma’s 50-500mm f4.5-6.3, 120-400mm f4.5-5.6 and 120-300mm f2.8 EX DG models may also be contenders.

We’ve chosen Nikon’s three most popular lenses with wildlife photographers, though, admittedly, they’re more likely to be utilized with an APS-C body than the 36-Mpix D800E. Even so these lenses perform well, especially the two more exotic models where their performance at the longer focal lengths matters most. A long time favorite that recently underwent a revamp adding the latest VR (VRII) spec and Nano coating to improve contrast with digital sensors the $6,999 the AF-S 200-400mm f4 VR could never be described as cheap exactly, but it is good value compared with the firm’s super-telephoto primes and it has excellent sharpness and uniformity at the long-end. Far more compact and portable is the recently revised 80-400mm. This model adopts Super ED glass (found only on one other model in the firm’s range – the 200mm f2) and now includes a sonic type AF motor over its predecessor. Optical performance is better at shorter focal lengths but it’s still very good at 400mm though some corner softness is evident on the D800E at full-aperture. Although the weakest of the three optically, the modestly priced ($699) 70-300mm f4.5-5.6G IF-ED puts in a spirited performance at 300mm – just that it really needs to be stopped down a little.

If you have a Nikon D800E and a favorite lens, we would very much like to hear from you. Please leave a comment below, stating what lens it is and why you like it.

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