Nikon Says Consumers Buy US$12400 Lenses

Nikon used the Consumer Electronics Show to launch the new AF-S 180-400mm f/4E TC1.4 FL ED VR lens. Wow, that's US$2000 an acronym, nearly a record for a consumer product ;~).  

At this point everyone probably knows my opinion of the 200-400mm f/4 Nikkor that this new lens now competes with: the old 200-400mm was wicked good on close subjects, but decidedly poor with long distance subjects. Many of us were originally sold on the versatility of such a lens, but eventually grew disillusioned with it. When Canon came out with their 200-400mm f/4 and it had a built-in 1.4x teleconverter that could be flipped in, those of us who able to shoot with it against the Nikkor found what we really wanted. The Canon didn't have the Nikkor's reach flaw, and it had even more versatility. I sold my 200-400mm.

Now Nikon has matched Canon, while giving us an extra 20mm. 

The 180-400mm f/4 is virtually the same size as the older 200-400mm f/4, and only slightly more heavy (123.4 ounces instead of 118.5 ounces, probably due to the addition of the extra lens elements and mechanism for switching in the built-in TC-14x). The formula is much more complex, essentially being 35 elements in 24 groups when the TC is in place (the old lens was 24 and 17). 

The built-in TC means that you can use the lens as a 180-400mm f/4 lens, or as a 252-560mm f/5.6 lens by flicking a switch. Hope you're right handed, because the activation mechanism is near the lens mount on the right side of the lens as you're using it. Interestingly, you can mount a regular TC-14EIII on the lens, giving you a 252-560mm f/5.6 that can flip to a 353-784mm f/8. So there's some versatility in this new lens.

But the big change is price. Instead of US$7000, the new lens is US$12,400. Yep, an optical update with a free teleconverter is going to cost your US$5400. Not exactly the type of product you'd expect to be promoted at a consumer electronics show. 

Indeed, the 180-400mm f/4 is now the second most expensive lens in Nikon's lineup, only outpaced by the mammoth 800mm f/5.6. Oh, you do get a redesigned tripod collar that Nikon claims is smaller, lighter, and more comfortable and which has ball-bearing smoothness, when what we want is a one that transfers absolutely no jitter on mirror slap and which has a built-in Arca-swiss plate. Really Right Stuff and Kirk Enterprises will be happy to know that they still will be making accessories to fix Nikon's negligence. Okay, the new tripod collar handle has some rubber on it where you carry it, a new touch that's welcome.

Also not fixed is Nikon's silly lens cap and lens hood system. We still have the same fabric "lens cap" and prone-to-break, bolt-on lens hood. There are better third-party solutions available for both, but of course, that just adds to the expense of acquiring this lens. Of course, if you can afford US$12,400, what's another couple hundred dollars to fix Nikon's design issues? And why would we even expect Nikon to fix small little nagging issues like this when they only raise the price by US$5400?

Curiously, the 180-400mm f/4 is going to change one aspect of the focus system. Typically slower lenses start to disable outer focus areas on DSLRs. Apparently the D500, D850, and D5 are going to get a firmware update in March that will enable the use of the outer cross sensors with this lens, even with the TC in place. 

Yes, I'm being tough on Nikon with this new lens. I've looked at some test shots and Nikon's published (and theoretical) MTFs, and indeed they look very good. But when you go "up scale" and start pricing at this level, you really need to drill down on the details and get all those right, too. I expect better than a fabric lens cap that is cumbersome in use, a lens hood whose single point of constriction is prone to breaking, plus a handle that doesn't have Arca-Swiss mount built in.

I've written it for decades now, but it's becoming more apparent with each passing year: Nikon simply isn't really in touch with their customers. They don't seem to notice that we all replace the cap, hood, and collar on our exotic telephotos. That they've not noticed this in 30 years says a lot about how much they talk to the folk that really shoot with their gear for a living. I'm happy to give you more money Nikon, but you're going to have to start showing that you are listening to your user base and fixing the small things when you demand such high prices.

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