22nd September 2023

A Virtual World of Live Pictures

Technology and Computer

Nikon Z 180-600mm f/5.6-6.3 VR review

The Nikon Z 180-600mm f/5.6-6.3 VR aims to deliver seriously ultra-telephoto focal lengths along with an impressive overall zoom range, at an ‘affordable’ price of around $1,697/$1,799. To put that into context, the Nikon Z 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 VR S ($2,497/£2,299) zoom and Nikon Z 400mm f/4.5 VR S ($2,997/£2,871) prime lenses give less telephoto reach and are considerably pricier to buy.  The Nikon Z 800mm f/6.3 VR S ($6,497/£6,299) ultra-telephoto prime is another few rungs up the price ladder, while the Nikon Z 400mm f/2.8 TC VR S ($13,997/£13,499) and Nikon Z 600mm f/4 TC VR S ($15,497/£15,499) with their built-in tele-converters are far too expensive for most of us to consider.

The Z 180-600mm is more of an ultra-telephoto zoom for the masses, following in the footsteps of the Nikon AF-S 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR for F-mount DSLRs, priced at $1,397/£1,249. There’s something to be said for using this excellent lens on a mirrorless Z-system camera, via an FTZ or FTZ II mount adapter. The same goes for the similarly ‘lightweight’ Sigma 150-600mm F5-6.3 DG OS HSM Contemporary ($939/£849) and considerably heftier Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM Sports ($1,999/£1,295), both of which are available in F-mount options. It’s interesting to note that the ‘Sports’ edition has been reengineered for Sony and L-mount mirrorless cameras, sold as the Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG DN OS Sports at $1,499/£1,099. However, this lens isn’t available in a Z-mount version for Nikon cameras. All in all, the Z 180-600mm really fills a gap, bringing ultra-telephoto zoom potential while making full use of the Z-system mounting flange’s wide diameter and close proximity to the image sensor, for enhanced performance.

(Image credit: Matthew Richards)


Mount: Nikon Z
Full-frame: Yes
Autofocus: Yes
Stabilization: Yes
Lens construction: 25 elements in 17 groups
Angle of view: 13.7-4.1 degrees
Diaphragm blades: 9
Minimum aperture: f/32-46
Minimum focusing distance: 1.3-2.4m
Maximum magnification ratio: 0.25x
Filter size: 95mm
Dimensions: 110×315.5mm
Weight: 1,955g (2,140g with tripod collar)

Key features

The 180-600mm zoom range is a standout feature of this lens. It kicks off with a moderate viewing angle of 13.7 degrees at the short end, and powers through to just 4.1 degrees at the long end. The former works really well at relatively short to medium distances, while the latter really covers the distance when you can’t get as close as you might like to the subject. That’s often the case in sports photography, as well as for wildlife in general and birds in particular, as well as aircraft at air shows. And if you need even greater reach, the lens is compatible with Nikon’s Z-mount 1.4x and 2.0x tele-converters, albeit with the usual relative one or two f/stop reduction in aperture width.

(Image credit: Matthew Richards)

Another way of gaining even greater telephoto power is to shoot in DX (APS-C) crop mode on a full-frame Nikon Z-system camera, or to use it on a DX format body like the Z 50 and Z fc. In both cases, you’ll get an ‘effective’ 270-900mm zoom range, with no loss of aperture rating.

It’s worth noting that the zoom range of this lens neatly picks up the baton from the Nikon Z 70-180mm f/2.8 which, at $1,247/£1,299, is another highly attractive and competitively priced telephoto zoom.

Nikon Z 180-600mm f/5.6-6.3 VR

(Image credit: Matthew Richards)

To help keep the size and weight of the lens to manageable proportions, the optical design includes an aspherical element, which also has the potential to reduce distortion. The optical path also includes no less than six ED (Extra-low Dispersion) elements, aiming to enhance contrast and color accuracy while minimizing color fringing.

Autofocus is of the now-common linear stepping motor variety, with the potential for fast response and effective tracking while shooting stills, along with smooth and virtually silent focus transitions when shooting video. An autofocus range limiter switch is featured, which can lock out the short section of the range closer than 6 meters. When the full range is enabled, the lens can focus down to 1.3m at the short end of the zoom range, rising to 2.4m at the long end, with a maximum reproduction ratio of 0.25x, which gives plenty of close-up potential.

(Image credit: Matthew Richards)

No ultra-telephoto lens would be complete without optical image stabilization, especially considering that camera-shake is such an ever-present danger at very long focal lengths and that IBIS (In-Body Image Stabilization) becomes less effective. As such, the Z 180-600mm comes complete with optical VR, claimed to be worth 5.5 stops. The lens also features a rank of customizable function buttons, which we’ll come to next in ‘build and handling’.

(Image credit: Matthew Richards)

Build and handling

Although it’s not classified as one of Nikon’s premium S-line lenses, the Z 180-600mm feels sturdy and robust, with very good build quality. The construction incorporates a full set of weather-seals, although Nikon says the lens isn’t guaranteed to be dust- and drip-resistant in all situations and under all conditions. A fluorine coating is applied to the front element, to repel moisture and grease and to aid easy cleaning.

The lens comes complete with a pouch and neck/shoulder strap. A pair of eyelets are featured for attaching the strap, to avoid undue strain on the camera body’s lens mount by using a carrying strap on the body itself. (Image credit: Matthew Richards)

A bonus in terms of both build quality and handling is that both of the zoom and focus mechanisms are fully internal. As such, the physical length remains fixed throughout the entire zoom and focus ranges. Shooting at ultra-telephoto focal lengths, it can be difficult to pick out subjects in the viewfinder like birds and planes in flight, or racing vehicles on a track. In practice, it can be a big help to locate them using the short end of the zoom range and then to zoom in as needed. That’s particularly easy with this lens, as the zoom ring operates very smoothly and has a short throw of just 90 degrees from 180mm all the way to 600mm. The fact that there’s no extending inner barrel also avoids the risk of dust and moisture being ingested by the lens during continual zooming in and out.

(Image credit: Matthew Richards)

Naturally, shooting handheld gives you greater freedom of movement than using a tripod or monopod, especially when tracking erratically moving subjects. At 2,140g complete with tripod mounting ring, the Z 180-600mm is certainly no lightweight, but it’s entirely viable for prolonged periods of handheld shooting. The tripod ring is completely removable, dropping the weight to 1,955g. To put that into context against F-mount lenses, the heavier Nikon AF-S 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR weighs in at 2,300g and the Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM Sports is a real handful at 2,860g, while the Sigma 150-600mm F5-6.3 DG OS HSM Contemporary is a little lighter at 1,930g (1,830g without the tripod ring).

To help retain a good balance when you’re using a tripod, monopod or gimbal, the tripod mounting ring works well and gives the usual ability to easily switch between landscape and portrait orientation shooting. Again, the internal zoom mechanism is a bonus, keeping the center of gravity pretty constant throughout the zoom range.

There are switches for A/M focus modes and an autofocus range limiter but not for VR on/off. (Image credit: Matthew Richards)

The A/M focus mode switch enables easy switching between autofocus and manual focus modes, without resorting to in-camera menus. In autofocus mode, you can also switch instantly to manual focus simply by twisting the focus ring, which is electronically coupled and operates very smoothly. Alternatively, you can assign other functions to the focus ring while in autofocus mode, like control over aperture, ISO and exposure compensation.

(Image credit: Matthew Richards)

Similarly, there’s an array of four customizable L-Fn (Lens Function) buttons, situated at 90-degree increments around the barrel, just forward of the zoom ring. These fall neatly under the thumb when shooting at any orientation. They’re typically used for AF-Lock but can be assigned to many alternative functions via the host camera’s Custom Settings menu.

(Image credit: Matthew Richards)