Hands-On With the Nikon Z 28-400mm f/4-8 VR: One Lens to Cover Them All

Nikon's new Nikkor Z 28-400mm f/4-8 VR lens is a groundbreaking full-frame zoom lens, delivering 14.2x zoom in a lightweight package. Does it come with unacceptable compromises, or is it poised to become the best all-in-one lens for Nikon Z photographers?

Nikon is no stranger to superzoom lenses. It made a 28-300mm lens for its F-mount SLR cameras, which I found convenient and optically decent. There was a saturated market in the DSLR era where almost everyone had a quiver of superzooms for every lens mount.

Since then, mirrorless full-frame superzooms going beyond 200mm have been rare. Is it due to lack of demand? Nikon makes a 24-200mm f/4-6.3 for the Z mount, and despite being a good lens, it is still low in the reach category. Panasonic recently released a full-frame 28-200mm for L-mount that certainly adds versatility to that system. But now, Nikon has broken that mold with the extremely long-lasting 28-400mm f/4-8 superzoom.

Can a lens with such diversity in focal range still provide acceptable image quality? Will we see a renaissance of superzoom lenses?

The 28-400mm I played with was a pre-production sample, but I had the opportunity to get at least some initial conclusions about how this lens performs. A superzoom lens feels like a travel lens, so I figured a road trip was in order, and I headed to the lovely town of Nanton, Alberta. There were plenty of photographic opportunities for a superzoom lens with a huge range at Nanton, from a row of grain elevators to a pair of pigeons perched in the distance.

The Nikkor Z 28-400mm f/4-8 takes up a little space in the camera bag but that covers a lot of other lenses.
    Nikkor Z 28-400mm f/4-8 Extended
When fully extended there is no mistake that the 28-400mm is a long telephoto lens.

on the road again

The Nikkor Z 28-400mm uses STM motors to drive glass elements, and its focus at the telephoto end is smooth, if not particularly fast. It may take a while to focus from near to far, but this wasn't a problem in practical situations where you mainly focus at long distances. Also, focusing speed is quite fast when using the lens in the normal to wide range.

    Nikkor Z 28-400mm f/4-8 Children's Statue
Autofocusing at 400mm is quite fast when focusing far away.

The Nikkor 28-400mm f/4-8 is surprisingly light, weighing only 26 ounces (725 grams). The lens strikes a good balance even on a light body like the Z6.

Although lightweight, the 28-400mm extends quite a distance physically and has a 77mm filter thread diameter, adding to its large dimensions. When zoomed out to 400mm, it's a grower, and when zoomed out to 28mm, it still takes up quite a bit of space in the bag.

There's plenty of room on the barrel for the wide zoom ring, so it's easy to manipulate even with the hood upside down. I like the locking switch to keep the zoom from slowing down while moving. However, there is also a customizable control ring, interestingly that's about it. Focusing controls have to be done in the body, and although the lens has VR, there is no switch to control it on the lens.

    Nikkor Z 28-400mm f/4-8 Weather Sealed
The build quality and construction of the 28-400mm feels good enough to survive a bit of travel.

a good deal

Superzoom lenses typically have very complex optical formulas with multiple glass elements. I was concerned about shooting the lens toward the sun because all that glass has a tendency to cause internal reflections. I was very surprised to see that there was almost no glare and very few ghosts. Even when stopped down, the amount of ghosting is still well controlled thanks to the excellent Nikon coatings. As expected, the sunstars are not particularly notable.

Nikkor Z 28-400mm f/4-8 Flare
The flare-ups, like the hauntings, are well controlled. Generally, superzoom lenses struggle in this regard.
Nikkor Z 28-400mm f/4-8 One lens to rule them all
The Nikkor Z 28-400mm f/4-8 is a lens to cover them all.

The 28-400mm can provide shallow depth of field at the long end of the range despite its slow f/8 aperture. Unfortunately, Bokeh quality is not the 28-400mm's strong point. No onion rings are present in the specular highlights, but there is a bizarre double ring around the outside. When stopped down, the specular highlights also show a clear polygonal shape due to the nine-bladed aperture. This causes out-of-focus backgrounds to look messy and not go out of focus as easily as they could. Still, due to the relatively slow maximum aperture of this lens, the downsides are not as noticeable.

    Nikkor Z 28-400mm f/4-8 Cat Image
The transitions to out-of-focus areas are fine but the background can look harsh and distracting.
    Nikkor Z 28-400mm f/4-8 Bird in Flight
Serious wildlife photographers may want something more purpose-built, but for enthusiasts the 400mm reach is convenient.

I enjoyed using the 28-400mm lens for close-up shots because it achieves about a 1:3 life-size reproduction ratio, whether at 28mm or 400mm. This adds considerable versatility to the lens and allows for wide-angle macro shots that push the background far away, or compressed close-up shots with very high working distances. Autofocus performance was still accurate up close, and sharpness was good.

    Nikkor Z 28-400mm f/4-8 Close Up
Now you know where Nanton Hospital is located thanks to Nikon's close-up capabilities.
    Nikkor Z 28-400mm f/4-8 Old Car Tire
Nanton is a charming little town, there is so much to photograph and I never felt like I needed a different lens to see it.

Because our sample was a pre-production lens and I only spent an afternoon with it, there wasn't enough time to shoot test charts to evaluate sharpness. When assessing sample images over the following days, I found sharpness to be excellent at both ends of the lens range. Corners are also well handled, and the lens performs well at its wide open aperture. This is also a good thing, as the Nikkor 28-400mm doesn't capture much light.

    Nikkor Z 28-400mm f/4-8 Dove
Sharpness in the 400mm range is excellent and VR helps keep things steady.
    Nikkor Z 28-400mm f/4-8 Versatile Lens Range
There's nothing wrong with the overall image quality of the 28-400mm and the comfort factor is high.

Just like old times: positive first impression

I'm glad to see the return of superzoom in more mirrorless camera systems, and Nikon has fleshed out the dramatic lens range, mitigating the shortcomings nicely.

The main deciding factor will be whether the slower aperture range is acceptable or not. Although the widest aperture of f/4 is fine at 28mm, as you zoom out, the aperture drops immediately, and at 200mm is already at f/8. This would be acceptable for casual shooting on sunny days or as a travel lens in fair weather, but serious wildlife photographers will want to look for something brighter. As light levels drop, the ISO will have to go up more quickly than expected, and this is the main compromise for such a wide zoom range.

Still, the larger size and deeper aperture are acceptable trade-offs for such a versatile zoom range. Some users may be completely okay with the 200mm maximum range commonly found in the market, but it cannot be denied that 400mm can make a big difference in the field.

No one should buy a lens with the expectation of having their cake and eating it too. But if you want a lens it can About Do all this and still have beautiful imagery, Nikon has succeeded in a big way.

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