Review: Nikkor 400mm 1:5.6 ED-IF Ai

I don’t do a lot photography that requires a long tele-lens. My 70-200mm usually covers it and so I’ve never considered investing a lot of money in something longer. However, I stumbled across this older lens at a cheap price and thought that it might be interesting. I’ve been playing around with it for a while and here are my thoughts on this lens.

Nikon 400mm 5.6 ED-IF Ai

Nikon 400mm 5.6 ED-IF Ai

Before you read further I only want to note that my lens was quite beat up and not exactly in good condition when I bought it. This may affect some of my views on this lens. However the glass on my lens is flawless, so it should not affect the image quality. It’s usually sold for around $600 on eBay. I paid about $120 for mine so let that tell you something about its condition.

Build & handling

The build quality on this lens is very good! It’s metal and glass all the way like most older manual Nikons and it comes with a screw on cap, a built-in retractable lens hood and a tripod mount that can rotate. It also has a little focus stopping feature. If you’re lucky you’ll even get the original leather case.

This lens is very light considering the focal length. It’s almost a little too light for shooting hand-held, because it’s very prone to shake. I would recommend using it with a good and steady tripod on slower shutter speeds, but I’ve used it mostly hand-held and with a high shutter speed and a good and steady pose it’s still possible to shoot hand-held.

However there are a couple of things that annoy me about the design. First the screw-in cap. It’s a hassle to screw the cap on and off every time. At least now that we’re used to the snap-on caps. Second it’s the hood. It’s nice to have a built-in hood as older second-hand lenses almost never comes with the original hood. However it slides back if you tilt the lens up. This is probably a result of a beat up lens, but still. Third it’s the focus stopping feature which hardly work on mine and is mainly just annoying.

Apart from that this is a fine little lens. It has a good focus pulling distance and while the focus on mine is not as smooth as I’d like, after many years of wear and tear there are still no mechanical problems.

Performance

As I don’t do a lot of work on long lenses I don’t really have anything to compare it to. Earlier I’ve tried a Nikon 500mm 1:8 reflex lens. This did not impress me. On my D800 it was never properly sharp. F/8 also made it a very slow lens, however it was compact and otherwise nice.

Unlike that 500mm this lens is sharp. I’ve seen a lot sharper, however it’s not bad. It’s certainly usable. I’ve used this lens mainly at 5.6 and it’s no problem. It gets a little sharper stepped down, but on the D800 diffraction starts kicking in at f/8. At f/5.6 this lens performs nicely. It’s sharp enough and renders nice colors and contrast.

At f/5.6 this is not a very fast lens, but not particularly slow either. At least not if you’re shooting on a full frame camera and can boost the ISO a bit. For general use I never had trouble with this lens being too slow. It also quite easy to focus. For me focus hit almost every time when focusing both by eye and with the help of the in-camera focus confirmation. Being a manual focus it’s a bit harder to focus on moving subjects, but not impossible.

Conclusion

This lens does not give you the same image quality as a newer or faster lens. I would not recommend or talk about this lens as a pro lens. However, for someone like me who don’t do a lot of long tele shots and don’t want to spend a lot of money on a big hunk of a lens this one is a very good alternative. It gives you a bit more than say a 70-300mm or a 70-200mm and the quality is not bad at all! It’s also light weight which makes it a very portable lens.

Below is a selection of images taken with this lens. The images may have been edited and/or cropped.

Further reading

– Bjørn Rørslett has a short review

– More info on this lens at MIR.com

Tips when using older manual focus lenses on Nikon

Nikon D800 with manual focus lens 28mm ai-sI’ve been using older manual focus lenses on my new Nikon camera a while, and I’ve come to learn a trick or two that makes life a bit easier.

1. Focus confirmation

It’s not always easy to tell just by looking through the viewfinder, if your subjects are in focus. However, you can actually use the camera’s auto-focus system to help you when using manual focus!

Nikon cameras have a separate sensor for the auto-focus system. This is still active no matter what lens you put on your camera. However, if it’s not an auto-focus lens or if both your camera and lens lacks an auto-focus motor (which would be the case with say a D3200 and any AF-D lens) there is no way for the camera to automatically adjust the focus, but it would still be able to tell you if your subject is in focus though.

So, how can you utilize this? Well, first you’ll need to be aware that this requires a lens with an aperture of 5.6 or faster. In the lower left corner of your viewfinder you’ll see a green dot appear when your subject is in focus. Depending on your model some cameras also have two little arrows guiding you further or nearer.

Illustration of viewfinder showing focus confirmation– Press the shutter button half way (or alternatively the AF-ON button on some models) to activate the camera, set your focus point using the multi-selector button on the back of the camera.

– Turn the focus ring on the lens until the green dot is lit. This means your subject is in focus. Some models feature two arrows telling you if you should focus closer of further away.

– If the green dot is flashing it mean your subject is moving in and out of focus.

– If both arrows are lit, pointing towards each other it mean the camera can not find the accurate focus.

On some newer lower end Nikons (D3xxx and D5xxx series) when in manual mode you have the option to activate what Nikon calls a rangefinder that takes the place of the exposure meter in the viewfinder. This is usually activated in the a4 menu.

However, since this separate sensor requires light to be reflected off the mirror, it will not operate once the mirror is lifted. Hence this will not work in Live View. Unfortunately. If you are using Live View your best chance of focusing correctly is to use the display zoom-function and zoom in to easier see the accurate focus.

2. Non-CPU lens data

Newer lenses got loads electronics inside them. This is why your camera automatically recognizes which lens is mounted and saves information such as focal length and aperture in the image’s meta data. Older lenses however, are stripped of electronics and are often called non-CPU lenses. If you mount an older lens on your camera the camera will not be able to figure out the current F-number.

Before you continue to read all this, you should know that unfortunately not all Nikon cameras support adding non-CPU lens data. Most newer mid- and high-range cameras from the D7000 and up will support it, but lower end Nikons may not. You will still be able to use manual lenses on cameras that do not support adding non-CPU lens data, but you will have to shoot in manual mode and light metering in the camera will not work.

Nikon Non-CPU lens data menu

You’ll find the Non-CPU data menu under the wrench menu on your Nikon.

Since the camera lacks information such as focal length and aperture about the lens, auto functions, such as certain flash functions and light metering, may be crippled. But there are ways of getting around it! You can manually tell the camera what lens you are using. Your Nikon can store information about 9 different non-CPU lenses.

Nikon Non-CPU lens data menu

By adding the focal length and aperture info your Nikon can use auto functions with manual lenses.

At the bottom of the wrench menu you’ll find the Non-CPU lenses data menu. By adding focal length and maximum aperture, the camera will automatically display the current aperture in the display. If you use a lens that supports aperture indexing (Ai/Ais lenses) the camera will register when you change the aperture and change the aperture in the display to the next whole step. This means the camera can work out the light metering and flash functions and information about aperture and focal length will also be saved in the image’s EXIF data.

Nikon My menu

By adding the Non-CPU lens menu to My Menu you’ll have easy access to changing the settings when using multiple manual lenses

This is a great solution for fixed focal lenses. Unfortunately, you can not add shortest and longest focal length for zoom lenses. You can however save a lens under several lens numbers say one for 70mm and one for 200mm on a 70-200mm zoom lens.

If you use a lot of different non-CPU lenses make sure to add this menu to your custom My Menu for quick access as you have to change the lens number manually if you change lenses.