Testing the New Nikkor 80-400mm Zoom Lens

Posted Sep. 1st, 2013 by Daniel J. Cox

Testing the New Nikkor 80-400mm Zoom Lens

I’ve been meaning to write this post highlighting Nikon’s newest zoom, the updated 80-400mm, for quite some time. Unfortunately a lot of travel has kept me from being able to run the proper tests, but finally I was able to put Nikon’s newest zoom through its paces, then sit down and write about the results. In short, it’s spectacular!  The new Nikkor 80-400mm zoom that was recently updated  is officially titled the  AF-S Nikkor 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6 ED VR, as opposed to the older model listed as the AF VR Zoom-Nikkor 80-400mm F/4.5-5.6 D ED. I highlight these two exact names as they are shown on the Nikon website so you won’t get them confused. I’m a firm believer the extra $1000 (U.S.) required for the new lens is well worth the cash.

Photo Tip:
Watch for my upcoming article in the October issue of Outdoor Photographer on zoom lenses. The new Nikon 80-400 is a big part of that story and there will be numerous published images showing the quality of this lens.

Anne gets some air as she goes in for the grab on a flying orange ball. Montana

Anne gets some air as she goes in for the grab on a flying orange ball. Montana

The old 80-400 has been around for something like 12 years now. And for all these 12 years I’ve  hoped beyond hope that Nikon would update the old lens and make it something I was proud to recommend. Many of the folks I run into in the field or who travel with us on our Invitational Photo Tours don’t have the desire to purchase or carry the expensive, heavy, and legendary 200-400mm F/4. That was really the only option in this zoom range for serious high quality images. But with the release of the new 80-400mm, Nikon has finally answered my wishes and made what I believe will become a new legend in Nikon optics.

My buddy Bill Buckley and godson Colter on the receiving end of the dog fetching exercise. Montana

My buddy Bill Buckley and godson Colter on the receiving end of the dog fetching exercise. Montana

Before I left for the Galapagos this past winter, Nikon was kind enough to send me the new 80-400mm to try. I bought it as soon as I got home. It is a stellar lens for sharpness, size, and ease of use. But most importantly, sharpness. The old 80-400mm left a lot to be desired when it came to getting crisp razor-sharp images. The details just weren’t there in the old lens, especially at the far end of its range of 400mm. At 300mm and below it wasn’t too bad, but beyond 300mm I was always left wanting better image quality. Nikon has changed all of that.

The focus ring is smooth as silk and would be a joy to use if I ever had a reason to manually focus. But I almost never do. Even so, I’m glad it’s still there. The focus ring has a different pattern than the zoom and is located closer to the camera so confusing the two isn’t easy. Nikon has included a substantial tripod collar and mount that is effortlessly removed if needed. The collar allows for easy rotation from horizontal to vertical when on tripod and is relatively smooth. It’s not quite like the 200-400mm but more than acceptable. For the front end of the lens you’ll need to purchase 77mm filters, if you choose to use them. I find them quite helpful since many of Nikon’s top optics are the same size. There’s a lens creep, locking switch on the side of this lens as well, so it’s not constantly extending itself as you walk with it carried over your shoulder. Near the barrel lock are the typical AF and VR switches, with the VR giving you the two options of normal and active. Normal for handholding on solid ground. Active for shooting from a boat, plane, or helicopter.

Good friend and fellow Explorer Fred Kurtz with his two favorite lenses, the 200-400 & 70-200 F/2.8 during his trip with us in the Galapagos.

Good friend and fellow Explorer Fred Kurtz with his two favorite lenses, the 200-400 and 70-200 F/2.8, during his trip with us in the Galapagos.

A good friend and also an NE Explorer, Fred Kurtz, took my recommendations on this lens and went out and bought one. Fred loves to shoot action. He brought the new 80-400mm on our recent photo tour to Ireland, leaving his trusty 200-400mm at home. Like me, Fred appreciates the smaller size and weight of the new 80-400mm, especially on trips that are mostly landscapes, culture, and travel types of photography. On the Ireland trip Fred shot action whenever it presented itself, and on one morning we were down by the coast shooting pictures of flying seagulls, Fred made the comment, “You know Dan I don’t think this lens focuses as fast as the 200-400mm. Seems I’m not getting as many keepers as I do with the larger lens.” That made me think. It hadn’t occurred to me that Nikon might hold  back on the speed of AF in the less expensive lens. However, when I thought about it, I had to admit it wouldn’t surprise me that there would be some advantages to the larger, faster 200-400mm, a nearly $7000 (U.S.) lens.

Daniel Cox in the Galapagos with the new nikon 80-400mm attached to a D600.

Me in the Galapagos with the new Nikon 80-400mm attached to a Nikon D600 body. As you can see it’s a pretty small, svelte package. Not me, the lens and camera 🙂

So what’s a photographer to do when confronted with the question of which lens is faster? Well, I went out and borrowed a speedy dog to perform my famous “Speeding Pooch” test that I first introduced awhile back here on the Blog. The idea is to find a subject that moves as much like a wild animal as possible, yet controllable so you can perform some tests. My speeding pooch test consists of a fast dog running straight at the camera while chasing a ball that’s been lobed over my head. Amazingly the toughest part of this setup is actually finding a human that can throw accurately enough so the dog stays in a straight line. No Bill I’m not talking about you. There are others 🙂

Star rating system shown on the web page galleries.

Star rating system shown on the web page galleries.

For these tests I shot three lenses, the 80-400mm and two different 200-400mm lenses, all of them at their widest apertures so there was no benefit from depth of field. All tests were preformed with the same Nikon D4 camera. It may seem strange that I shot two different 200-400mm lenses but there was a good reason. On the first test I used a 200-400mm that I normally keep tucked away as a spare. My father was borrowing my older 200-400mm and thus I pulled the spare out for the tests. I had run this same test with the older lens my father had and when I checked the results of my speeding pooch with the newer 200-400mm, I was concerned it wasn’t performing like my older 200-400mm. The newer one just didn’t seem to be keeping up.

I called my father and he shipped the older 200-400mm to me in Montana. When I refer to older and newer 200-400mm lenses I should explain, they are both the older, first generation 200-400mm, not the newer VRII updates. I then ran the tests again and my concerns were well founded. For whatever reason, the newer 200-400mm zoom was not doing as well in Predictive AF as the older lens. It just wasn’t nailing the focus like I’ve known my older 200-400mm to do. The newer 200-400mm is now on its way back to Nikon for a check-up.

So, on to the results of the speeding pooch test with the new Nikkor 80-400mm and the older version of the 200-400mm lenses. There are two web galleries of images I’ve created for you to view: Web Gallery for 80-400mm Test and Web Gallery for 200-400mm Test. At the top of each gallery page it states which lens was used. All of the images were rated by the industry standard Star Rating System. I rated each image either 1, 3, or 5 stars. One star represents an image completely out of focus. Three stars tells me it’s almost in focus and could possibly be used if printed very small, but in general, it’s still out of focus. Five stars is a perfect razor-sharp image. Below are the final results in an easy to read format.

Screen Shot 2013-09-01 at 12.14.46 PM

As you can see, the 80-400mm did a great job. Actually much better than I expected. The older 200-400mm did just as I expected, a very commendable job. From the chart above you see the older 200-400 did twice as well as the newer 200-400mm lens. Overall, it seems the 80-400mm isn’t much, if any, slower than the more expensive 200-400mm. That was exciting to see and exactly why we needed to run this test. I was hopeful Nikon didn’t hamper the AF performance in the new 80-400 and from what we can see in the chart, it seems they did not.

To grade the Auto Focus accuracy I used Apple’s Aperture, my standard digital workflow software. Aperture has a great tool that allows me to overlay the AF points the camera recorded in the EXIF data. If the AF spot on the dog was laying over the sharp part of the image, it was 5 stars, even if the face and eyes of the dog were not sharp. It’s impossible to keep the AF sensors exactly on the dog’s face, so I figured if the AF nails the dog’s back, that counts as in focus. Ideally you want the dog’s eyes perfectly in focus and most of the in-focus images were actually on the eye, but I had to take the human element of not bing able to keep perfectly trained on a speeding pooch into account. Thus some images that might look out of focus are actually in focus based on the placement of the AF sensor. Below is a screen shot of what the AF overlay in Aperture looks like.

Notice the red AF point right on Anne's nose and eye.

Notice the red AF point right on Anne’s nose and eye.

Another tool I often check when comparing lenses and trying to find the most optimal settings and technical information is the comparison tool on DxOMark. Here you can find almost any lens made, select them for comparison, and then DxOMark shows you side by side how they stack up to each other. With that in mind I surfed over to DxOMark and selected the 80-400 F/4 VRll and compared it to the closest Nikon 200-400mm F/4 they have data on, which unfortunately is the newest 200-400 VRll. I say unfortunately since I would have liked to compare it to the exact 200-400mm I have which is the older original AF model. That comparison is shown below in a screen shot form DxOMark.

Side by side comparison of the new Nikon 80-400mm and the newer version of the 200-400mm AF-VRll

Side by side comparison of the new Nikon 80-400mm and the newer version of the 200-400mm AF-VRll

One last thing I wanted to check beyond the AF was whether or not vignetting was a problem. Here’s a link to a gallery of images showing real world vignetting issues. I shot this test against a perfectly blue sky at several different focal lengths and apertures. As you can see, there is some vignetting taking place in the photos at 400mm, wide open at F/5.6 and a few other focal lengths, however, this is nothing good software like Apple’s Aperture, Adobe’s Lightroom, or even Nikon’s own Capture NX2 can easily remove. Ideally, it would be nice not to see any vignetting, but in today’s world of digital imaging this is no longer an issue I worry about. Had these images been almost anything but a clear blue sky, you most likely wouldn’t even know the vignetting was there. I haven’t even tried this test with the 200-400mm and I can’t right now, since I’m writing this from Brazil. I didn’t bring the 200-400mm with me for the first part of our Invitational Photo Tours trip to the Pantanal. In its place I chose to carry the new 80-400mm. Our first week we’re flying into a remote area where size and weight are an issue, so for this part of our adventure I brought only the 80-400mm for my long lens. My wife Tanya is meeting us all next week and she’ll be carrying the 200-400mm along with my beloved 600mm F/4. I’ll put the 200-400mm through the vignetting test against the bright Brazilian sky and update this a bit later.

A screen shot of the gallery page showing the vignetting test.

A screenshot of the gallery page showing the vignetting test.

So there you have it.  I hope you find this review useful and if you’ve been thinking of getting a lens with longer reach, this should be high on your list. Yes, at $2700 (U.S.) it’s a bit expensive for some folks, but on the other hand, you only buy it once. With traditional Nikon durability you won’t wear this ultimate optic out and it will give you quality that compares favorably with lenses twice as expensive and mush more difficult to carry around. I highly recommend this stellar new piece of the Nikon full fledged system . I finally have a spectacular answer for our guests who want to move up but just can’t justify nearly $7000 for the larger 200-400mm. This is the lens I’ve been waiting for.

Professional AF Model Gets Hurt on the Job

One  final note. One of the dogs I borrowed for this test was a beautiful, 10-year-old black lab named Daisy. She’s actually part of our office crew, and her master is one of our friends at Polar Bears International who we share office space with.  I chose not to show any of the tests I ran with Daisy since I had trouble finding a quality thrower and Daisy was all over the place. Not her fault but not a good test either. Even more unfortunate, during my time working with Daisy, she had a fairly serious accident. Daisy ran  a half  dozen sprints for me and about the time I was going to quit, her owner, master, mom, or the young lady I know as Amy, came out on the lawn to join  the fun of Daisy chasing a tennis ball. I asked Amy, “Do you think she’s done? She’s looking pretty tired.” Amy said, “Nah, lets do one more. She loves fetching.” So Amy winds up and fires the ball toward my camera, Daisy took off like a bullet, and half way into her sprint she lets out a loud YELP! “Oh boy, that didn’t sound good,” I said. Amy comments, “Might be her ACL.” And in fact, it was. The next day Daisy visited the vet and they confirm she did indeed tear her ACL. Poor girl. She was having a blast. So once again my father’s advice comes back to haunt me which is, “Don’t ever borrow anything. It’s guaranteed to break in your possession.” Did I ever imagine I would break a dog? No, not on your life. I’ve had many dogs in my days growing up in a family who love to hunt, and though I’ve heard of dogs blowing an ACL, I’ve never seen it. Just goes to show there’s always something new in life to experience. I’m just sorry this one was at Daisy’s expense. She’s such a sweetheart. Needless to say this test was kind of expensive since I’m paying half the vet bill for Daisy’s upcoming surgery. Amy didn’t want me to pay anything but as my father always said, “You break it, you pay for it.”

The exact moment Daisy blows her left rear ACL while chasing a ball.

The exact moment Daisy blows her left rear ACL while chasing a  tennis ball. As you can see in this image, she let out a loud yelp when it happened.

Daisy Update:

Daisy went through surgery really well and the vet says she’s a model patient. She was out of the PBI/Natural Exposures office for over a week but just yesterday she stopped by, walked into my little cubicle and gave me a big, sloppy, wet lick across my bare leg. Seems she harbored no ill will to the guy responsible for her recent pain. Based on her enthusiasm, I won’t be surprised if she’s bringing me the tennis ball in the not too distant future. It’s great to have her back.

Add Your Voice!
There are 29 comments on this post…
  1. Xanthoula NafpliotisOn Jul. 29th, 2015

    Thank you for your candid review of the newest Nikon 80-400 lens. It is much appreciated.

  2. Steven GoldsteinOn Mar. 18th, 2015

    Dan, I’m looking for a versatile lens for birds in flight. Am debating between the 80-400 and the 70 -200 F4 with the tc-14e III. Would be using the 70-200 on the new D7200 ( for the extra reach) , and the 80-400 on a D800. Performance wise, what do you think would be better? Which way would you go?

    • Portrait of Daniel J. Cox

      Daniel J. CoxOn Mar. 18th, 2015

      Steven, I would without a doubt go with the 80-400mm no matter which body I was shooting. It is a superb lens. The new D7200 combined with the 80-400mm would be an excellent combination.

  3. Charleen RatcliffOn May. 6th, 2014

    Thanks Daniel, if / when you give it a go with the TC would appreciate your feedback.

    I will be using the 80-400 on my new Nikon D7100 – which I like better than the D5300!!

  4. Charleen RatcliffOn May. 6th, 2014

    this has been an excellent review, as my new 80-400 will be arriving tomorrow. I am off on a photo tour to Namibia with Billy Dobson, Savannah Images on 01 June, so hoping to get some good pictures!

    What are your thoughts about using the 1.4 teleconverter?

    If you plan a trip to the Lake District, Cumbria England, I will join you! This is where I live

    And so glad to hear Daisy is well!!

    • Portrait of Daniel J. Cox

      Daniel J. CoxOn May. 6th, 2014

      Charleen, You won’t regret buying your 80-400mm. It’s a fabulous lens. Unfortunately I’ve not really tested this lens with a 1.4teleconverter attached. Although the new generation of converters are typically very good, when it comes to adding them to a zoom, I hesitate. It may be due to old habits. I need to give it a try. It inspires me to get out and give it a go. Have fun in Namibia. I’ve never been there but hope to see it someday. Thanks for the question and taking the time to join the conversation.

  5. Robert KingOn Mar. 18th, 2014

    Subsequent to your article and my previous comment in it, I did purchase this lens and I did test it out that first day…….in a snow storm on a running, young chocolate labrador retriever, chasing a yellow tennis ball in the snow storm.

    It was done with my old D300. The lens did keep up although most of the shots were done tangential to the dog’s running direction; i.e. most were done NOT with the dog running DIRECTLY at the lens……although some were.

    I came away with the feeling that this lens can keep up with this kind of dog action in low light. I had the D300 on Continuous High and it shot like a Tommy gun. The ISO was terribly high (I forget now), so that I could get a very high shutter speed out of it. So there was considerable noise……but with my old D300, I expected that in the first place, and that was not what I was testing.

    This lens is going to be a top shelf action tool for shooting running dogs. I hope that 5 FPS will be sufficient because I am pretty set on the D800(E) and that would be on DX too. Still, it is the best sensor out there. One of the D4’s or 3’s would be great but the price is way out there for me now.

  6. Robert Lee KingOn Jan. 25th, 2014

    This was a good review for me because if I get this lens, I am planning on using it for this very purpose, i.e. photographing running dogs.

    I would like to have seen it is diffused light, not direct sunlight. The images would have looked better I think. So I ask you: Is there a specific reason why it was done in bright sunlight? Of did it just happen to be bright the day of the shoot?

    I am referring to the lens’s variable aperture. You were not trying to mask or avoid any problem the lens might have had in reduced light were you?

    All I am saying it that it would have been more convincing to me if the shoot would have been done on a lightly overcast day with your ISO jacked up to allow for faster shutter speeds. That is all 🙂

    I am wondering if this lens will have autofocus problems when photographing frisbee-chasing dogs on overcast days……which is just what we have up her in Maine all too often. But again, diffused is so much better photographically. I mean, I am seriously considering pulling the trigger on one of these. There is now no doubt that it will be my go-to wildlife lens but there still doubt regarding autofocus in fast action on overcast days.

    Thanks very much for the effort you put in.


    • Portrait of Daniel J. Cox

      Daniel J. CoxOn Feb. 8th, 2014

      Robert, No I was not working to ask any issues with this lens in low light. It just so happened to be a sunny day. As long as the lens was shot wide open, there’s no issue with shooting rain or shine. The shutter speeds I used were plenty fast to stop action and again all at the widest opening the lens could achieve, thus eliminating any depth of field benefits. I can promise you, this lens is on it’s way to becoming a Legendary Nikon optic. I’ve talked to several of our NE Explorers who have bought this lens, many who were using the 200-400mm zoom, who are so impressed they’re putting their 200-400’s on the market like I have. This lens is impressive.

  7. Portrait of Christine Crosby

    Christine CrosbyOn Oct. 16th, 2013

    Thanks for this Dan!! I know we talked about this some in Brazil, but it’s good to have all the details written down for me to really get my head around! I’m thinking an 80-400 is definitely on the horizon for me! Anything that will make shooting easier and more comfortable on my neck and back are a huge plus, especially if not having to sacrifice image quality!! Awesome! Also so glad to hear Daisy is going to be OK! I “broke” my first yellow lab Harley in a similar way!! So hard with those guys to know when to quit!! Harley was OK too and lived to age 13 on that knee with no troubles ever!! ;o)

    • Portrait of Daniel J. Cox

      Daniel J. CoxOn Oct. 16th, 2013


      Happy to spread the word. You will love the new 80-400mm. I shot just over 30,000 images with mine in Brazil and South Africa and I’m so extremely pleased with the results. We actually bought Tanya one for South Africa on our way through Atlanta from Brazil. She used with the the D600. I set her camera up for Auto ISO and she was thrilled with the number of sharp frames she was able to get in South Africa. She’s not one to pay a lot of attention to changing ISO’s etc. so the Smaller lens with great high ISO capabilities of the D600 was a superb setup for her. I find the new lens so quick to pick up and shoot when something happens with little notice. I’m loving it. Daisy is nearly all well. She just got back from the Vet just twenty minutes ago and Amy says she’s nearly back to perfect. She even still comes in to give me a sloppy lick on the pant leg. Seems she holds no grudge.

  8. RoyOn Sep. 10th, 2013

    This an interesting review of the lens and very informative. However a do question the test from the standpoint that you used a D600.
    The D600 came out prior to the 80-400. That means the lens was designed using the latest microchip and firmware Nikon was using at the time. Since firmware updates for DSLR camera are not available, do we know what the possible effects on overall lens performance was due to the fact the camera firmware was x generations older than the firmware used to develop the lens? Could this be the reason the lens seemed slower, firmware compatibility issues? Could the results you achieved be even better if you were using a camera with the same version of firmware as the lens was using?

    • Portrait of Daniel J. Cox

      Daniel J. CoxOn Sep. 12th, 2013

      Roy, The text on the Galleries specifically state all tests were shot with the Nikon D4. If it says D600 somewhere I apologize and will remove it. Just let me know where you found the info they were shot with a D600. Thanks.

  9. c. LeeOn Sep. 9th, 2013

    All test photos are @ high light, useless

    • Portrait of Daniel J. Cox

      Daniel J. CoxOn Sep. 12th, 2013


      You seem pretty sure of yourself. Maybe you could explain your theory of why shooting this test in so called “high light” which I’m guessing you mean bright light, would be a problem. All photos were shot at the 80-400’s widest aperture setting of F/5.6. I assume you are confused/concerned that a lens shot in dark light, wide open, and one shot in bright light, wide open, would give different results. It doesn’t. Wide open is wide open. Unless you can explain otherwise I stick to my test results. Please feel free to add your insight.

  10. Patrick DownsOn Sep. 5th, 2013

    Great post Daniel, and it’s answered some questions I’ve had. Sometimes size – smaller – does matter!

    Now, what I’d like to see Nikon do too is answer the Canon challenge, and revise the 200-400 and add a built-in TC for less than Canon’s $13k price!

  11. Thanks so much for this review. I’ve had the older lens, but this new one is one my shortlist for the next purchase. Have the older model paired with the D800, and aside from the dismal non-AFS focus speed, it just doesn’t quite hold up at 400mm, so I’m crossing my fingers that this is an improved area as well. Really appreciate the time and real world testing, and best wishes to Daisy. 🙂

  12. Paul O'TooleOn Sep. 5th, 2013

    Interesting article and test results. I currently shoot birds mainly using the older 80-400VR on a aging Nikon D50 body. Upgrading to the newer lense version seems like a good move after reading your post and review. One question is what would be a good body upgrade from my D50 to get the best images out of the new lense. There are several to choose from and I understand how DX lenses perform on a FX body so choosing between a D600, 800 7000, and 7100 is driving me crazy. Any input is most welcome on this.

    Kingston, Ontario

  13. Michael FurtmanOn Sep. 2nd, 2013

    Hi Dan! Nice review. Good to hear that Nikon finally has a lens that can compete with the Canon 100-400 (though that will likely be updated next year). I have many students ask which system to go with, and I usually recommend Canon if the want to shoot wildlife because of the excellent 100-400. Now I can recommend either. Hope you’ve been well!

    • Portrait of Daniel J. Cox

      Daniel J. CoxOn Sep. 12th, 2013

      Good to hear from you Mike. Yep, it’s finally here. Hope all is well in Minnesota.

  14. Sue WolfeOn Sep. 2nd, 2013

    Boss: Thanks for doing all the research. After having used my new 80-400mm in Ireland with you and Lisbon with Fred it has become a part of my camera bag. I never would have thought my 70-200mm lens would become a spare. However, for shooting wildlife — the 200-400mm rocks!!! Grasshopper

    • Portrait of Daniel J. Cox

      Daniel J. CoxOn Sep. 2nd, 2013

      My pleasure Grasshopper. Glad you like it. I’m loving mine as well. Still hanging on to my 200-400 as well and my 70-200. But it is nice to have a great new option.

  15. Dave GlatzOn Sep. 2nd, 2013

    Hi Dan great post. Sold my 200-400mm lens on eBay and now use the 80-400mm as a secondary lens to the 600mm. Although you lose some light at maximum aperture (f/4 for 200-400 vs. f/5.6 for 80-400) I’ve found the 80-400mm to be a superb lens. At 400mm and in good light it’s as sharp or sharper than the 200-400mm – especially with subjects that are far away. I had the “older” VR “one” version of the 200-400mm. Loved that lens but agree 100% that the 80-400mm is a good value. Also much lighter of course. Now considering whether to sell the 70-200mm . . . .

    • Portrait of Daniel J. Cox

      Daniel J. CoxOn Sep. 2nd, 2013

      Thanks Dave, Wow, you’ve gone all out! I didn’t realize you had sold you’re 200-400mm. What about Shiela, is she still carrying the 200-400?

    • Portrait of Daniel J. Cox

      Daniel J. CoxOn Sep. 2nd, 2013

      Dave, you need to upload a bio photo. We need your mug.

  16. Fred KurtzOn Sep. 2nd, 2013

    Thanks for the extensive research Dan. That was a lot of work and poor Daisy. Glad she will be OK. I love my new 80-400. It is so easy to travel with it. That lens and my 24-70 are now my two main lenses. My 70-200 and 200-400 have been relegated to special situation purposes where they are needed. For example when I do an American Photo Model shoot, I use the 70-200 and if I do another Galapagos or Kenya trip or high action sports, I might still use the 200-400. Otherwise, its the 24-70 and 80-400.

    See you in Cuba, Italy, Romania and Patagonia (for starters). Thanks for putting on such wonderful trips.

    • Portrait of Daniel J. Cox

      Daniel J. CoxOn Sep. 2nd, 2013

      Thanks Fred, happy to do it. I like knowing the results myself. Can’t wait to see you back on the road with us again. Be well and keep shooting.

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