Natural Art: The Photography of Brad Hill

 

Brad Hill: Blog: Photography. Nature. Gadgets. Software. Conservation. Whatever.

Not so short-winded blatherings on whatever is currently occupying the part of my brain that deals with nature photography and related concerns. Updated sorta weekly.

On this page you'll find all my 2019 blog listings (immediately below). And, further down this page you'll also find some key (and very popular) gear-related blog entries from 2018 (jump to that section now).

And, finally, if you're looking for a directory to ALL my blog listings EVER - just follow this link.


I. 2019 Blog Entries...

14 Jan 2019: Booking 2020 Photo Tours?

My email in-bin has been filled with a lot of enquiries lately about 2020 photo tours. So here's the latest info:

1. When 2020 Photo Tours Will Be Publicly Posted.

Detailed descriptions of our 2020 Photo Tours will be posted on the Photo Tours page of this website in early-to-mid February (we are still working on some final nitty-gritty details on the 2020 photo tours). The minute those trips are listed on the photo tours page we will begin taking registrations for them.

2. Can I Reserve a Spot Ahead of Time?

Sort of. We have a Priority Booking List for EACH photo tour we offer. Think of it as a "first right of refusal" list. If you go on this list you will receive FIRST crack at getting a spot on the trip (based, of course, solely on when you went on the list). So if we have a photo tour where we can take 6 participants, the first 6 on the Priority Booking List are guaranteed of a spot if they still want it when registration opens. We do hold off on taking registrations until we know the final dates and pricing of each trip (which is kinda why the Priority Booking List exists). You can find out more about the Priority Booking List for 2020 Photo Tours right here on our Photo Tours Page. Please note that there is NO commitment on your part in going on any Priority Booking List (no deposit, nada).

To help you out a little, you should know that some of our 2020 photo tours (mostly those that have been around the longest) already have very long Priority Booking Lists and the chances of getting a spot on these trips now (by going onto the Priority Booking List NOW) are low. However, a number of our newer trips have pretty short lists and if you act fast (i.e., going on the Priority Booking List for those trips now) you have a really good chance of getting a spot. So here's a quick and dirty guideline (and just go to our Photo Tours Page if you need more info about these trips):

A. Photo Tours With VERY SHORT Priority Booking Lists (trips you WILL get on):

• Pacific Rim Explorer Instructional Photo Tour: Send Priority Booking List Request
• Spring in the Southern Great Bear Instructional Photo Tour: Send Priority Booking List Request

B. Photo Tours With MODERATE LENGTH Priority Booking Lists (trips you have a GOOD chance to get on):

• Haida Gwaii Explorer Instructional Photo Tour: Send Priority Booking List Request
• Marine Mammals of the Central Pacific Coast: Send Priority Booking List Request
• Summer in the Southern Great Bear Instructional Photo Tour: 2020 Priority Booking List Request

C. Photo Tours With LONG Priority Booking Lists (so in the "What the heck...you never know" category):

• Khutzeymateen 5-day Instructional Photo Tour: Send Priority Booking List Request
• Khutzeymateen 4-day Photo Op Photo Tour: Send Priority Booking List Request
• Into the Great Bear Rainforest Instructional Photo Tour: Send Priority Booking List Request
• Into the Great Bear Rainforest Photo Op Photo Tour: Send Priority Booking List Request

Note that we will be accepting names on any of the 2020 Priority Booking Lists up to the end of day on January 23, 2019.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

10 Jan 2019: Arca-Swiss Lens Plate for Nikkor 500mm f5.6E PF

In my 500mm PF First Impressions blog entry (below) I mentioned that the tripod foot for the 500mm PF was identical to that of the 70-200mm f2.8E VR lens. Here's an example of a well-priced lens plate from Jobu Design that will work for BOTH lenses:

Jobu LP-N7228-E Lens Plate for 500mm f5.6E PF and 70-200mm f2.8E VR

So while you're waiting to get your 500mm PF AT LEAST you can take delivery of the bits needed to make its tripod foot Arca-Swiss compatible! ;-)

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

09 Jan 2019: 2019 Photo Tours: 3 Openings!

14 JANUARY UPDATE: The spot on the "Summer in the Southern Great Bear" Photo tour that is listed below is no longer available.

The new year brought the usual game of "Photo Tour Musical Chairs" where folks moved from one photo tour (or in one year) to another, with the net result that we have a total of 3 openings over 3 different photo tours (i.e., one opening on three different trips). Here are the details:

• July 2019: One spot on the Gwaii Haanas Explorer - more details for more details DOWNLOAD THIS PDF BROCHURE (2.8 MB)

• August 2019: One spot on the Humpbacks, Orcas, Sea Lions & More Marine Mammals Photo Tour - for more details DOWNLOAD THIS PDF BROCHURE (3.8 MB)

• August 2019: One spot on the Summer in the Southern Great Bear Photo Tour - for more details DOWNLOAD THIS PDF BROCHURE (4.1 MB)

So get 'em while they're hot! If you'd like even MORE info (or would like to register for one of these great trips), just contact me at seminars@naturalart.ca.

Information on our 2020 Photo Tours is coming soon.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

07 Jan 2019: The 500mm f5.6E PF vs. the 300mm f4E PF plus TC-14EIII?

Since I posted my first installment of my 500mm PF review last Friday I've received bucketfuls of email. Interestingly, one thing I'm hearing loud and clear is many are interested in how the 500mm PF stacks up against another "diminutive competitor" - the 300mm f4 PF combined with the TC-14EIII (1.4x) teleconverter. In the last 24 hours alone I've received 4 requests to include the 300 PF plus TC-14EIII in my comparison tests. And I suppose that this comparison does make some sense (if we forget about the 80mm difference in focal length) - both are very light and compact ways to go "over 400mm" and both are much more affordable than Nikon's non-PF super-telephoto lenses (making the potential market for the "winner" of a 500 PF vs. 300 PF plus TC shootout much bigger).

Bad news first: I have already completed the image-capture portion of my optical performance testing (I still have to scrutinize and analyse the results) and I don't have time to go back and re-do them all.

Better news next: I will add in some comparative tests of the 300mm PF plus 1.4x TC against the 500mm PF. So I will be able to show and comment on the differences between those two lenses. I won't be comparing the 300 PF plus TC against the other lenses in the review (the Sigma 500mm f4 Sport, the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E @ 500mm, or the Sigma 150-600mmm f5-6.3 Sport).

And...last but not least...an opinion based on a lot of use of the 300mm PF, including with the TC-14EIII: I very much like the 300mm PF, and I have found it to work surprising well with the TC-14EIII (at least surprising to me). I would go so far to say that the results I most commonly get with the 300mm PF plus TC-14EIII are, well..."pretty good". However, both the image quality and the autofocus performance of the 500mm PF are EXCEPTIONAL - right up there with the best super-telephoto primes. Although comparing the optical quality of images captured with a 300mm lens to that of a 500mmm lens is tricky and open to debate, I am already quite confident that if both lenses are shot "native" (meaning with no TC attached) almost everyone viewing the images would easily give the nod to the 500 PF images. And...add a TC to the 300mm PF and that image quality gap compared to the 500 PF (AND the AF performance) will only grow.

I recognize that many will want me to PROVE that the 500mm PF is better than the 300mm plus 1.4x TC, and also that they will want to end up with a decent handle on how much better the 500mm PF images are. So, for those reasons I'm going to take the time to do the needed field tests.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca


Nikon 500mm f5.6E PF Field Test: Intro & First Impressions

04 Jan 2019: Nikkor 500mm f5.6E PF Field Test I: Intro & First Impressions...

This is the first installment of several that will describe my experiences field-testing the Nikkor 500mm f5.6E PF (the full name of the lens is actually the "AF-S NIKKOR 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR", but this is WAY too much of a mouthful - and WAY too many odd keystrokes - to type repeatedly...so expect me to refer to it as "the Nikkor 500mm PF" or just "the 500PF"). I took possession of the lens (I bought it) on December 23, 2018. I took advantage of the holiday break to shoot extensively with the 500mm PF - and on a variety of current camera bodies, including the Z7, D5, D850, and D500. And, over the next month or so I will be extensively field-testing testing this new - and relatively tiny - addition to Nikon's lineup of super-telephoto lenses. My goal is to thoroughly field test the new lens' optical quality, autofocus (AF) performance, vibration-reduction (VR) performance - and more - against several other mid-to-high-end lenses that could be competing for the contents of the wallet of serious wildlife and "action" shooters (including, of course, sports photographers). By the end of the testing period I want to have (and share) a thorough understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of this exciting new (and reasonably priced!) photographic tool.

If you have a love for detailed specifications, the place to go get them is here on dpreview.com's website. The key thing in understanding this lens is that Nikon has found a way (through use of a "Phase Fresnel" - or PF - lens element) to reduce the chromatic aberration in this lens without adding a TON of elements. Which is a fancy way of saying that there were able to produce a 500mm lens that is almost tiny in comparison to other 500mm lenses on the market. So how small IS this lens? The closest lens in size in Nikon's lineup is the 70-200mm f2.8E VR - the 500mm PF is only very slightly longer and very slightly heavier than that lens (and it IS lighter than the older 70-200 f2.8's from Nikon).

The only other "specification" I will mention at this point is that this lens has a maximum aperture of f5.6. This smaller maximum aperture (compared to f4 500mm lenses) also contributes greatly to its small size (relative to 500mm f4 lenses). Of course, by going to a smaller maximum aperture there are two potentially negative consequences facing users of the 500PF: it's lack of light gathering ability (i.e., less effectiveness in low light scenarios) and possibly a noticeable reduction in the photographer's ability to isolate (or separate) a subject from a busy background. As a consequence, you will see me almost obsessively focusing during my field testing on how the 500PF performs when shot wide open (in this and future installments of this lens review).

But THE critical point to make here is that when you combine these two key specifications - the Phase Fresnel lens element and the f5.6 maximum aperture - you end up with a 500mm lens that is just diminutive compared to other 500mm lenses on the market. This exceptionally small size (and low weight) helps a wildlife photographer in many ways. It helps when traveling via plane or other means that have a weight or size restriction (something that is often limiting for the traveling wildlife photographer), it helps in day-to-day portability (carrying it around in the field) a LOT, and it helps tremendously in maintaining the mobility of the photographer - including in how fast you can re-position the lens and in how quickly and easily you can re-position yourself when shooting with the lens. When using the 500PF I've literally dove onto the ground a couple of times to get some uber low-level shots that I would have missed if I was shooting a "traditional" (bigger and heavier) 500mm lens. This final consequence of the tiny size of the 500PF (maintenance of photographer mobility when using the 500PF) was absolutely striking to me when I was shooting in the field. You simply don't realize how much you miss this mobility when using a "traditional" 500mm lens until you try the 500PF - after my first session with the 500PF I was already thinking (BEFORE seeing any the results) "How could any wildlife photographer NOT love this lens?"

Anyway...the remainder of today's entry focuses on two things: my simple first impressions of the 500PF plus a little of what my initial shooting has clearly indicated or, at the very least, strongly suggested.

For those who want a SINGLE WORD SUMMARY of the nuances of the performance of this cool little tool...well...after about 10 days of shooting I am quite comfortable saying this: WOW!

OK...let's get to it:

1. First Impressions - Build Quality.

This new lens is - like the 300mm f4 PF - manufactured in China (unlike most of Nikon's other pro lenses that are made in Japan). Over the years we have seen the quality of Chinese manufactured products go up but, to date, an experienced lens aficionado could instantly distinguish a Japanese-built lens from a Chinese-built lens. Well, they could do this up until now - if I didn't see "Made in China" stamped on this lens I would have thought it was Japanese-built. Simply put - the build quality and finishing is absolutely excellent. The focusing ring spins very, very smoothly, and even the tripod collar moves as smooth (or smoother) than all other lenses I've owned or tried. Toggle switches are positive. And, as stated on Nikon's website, the lens is extensively weather-sealed and the front element is coated in fluorine (to repel water drops and other gunk). Even the supplied hood is not too bad (and much better than the hood found on the Nikkor 200-500mm f5.6E zoom lens). So full marks on build quality.

2. First Impressions - Physical Characteristics: Length and Weight.

You can't compare the 500PF to other 500mm lenses and have that comparison make much sense or have any degree of "relatability" - saying that the lens is almost 3100 gm (or over 3.5 lb) lighter than the Nikkor 500mm f4E doesn't do it justice. So let's compare it to the Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E. The shooting weight of the 500PF (no lens caps, no tripod foot, but with hood in place) is 1474 gm (3.25 lb). The shooting weight of the 70-200mm f2.8E is 1418 gm (3.125 lb). SO...that means the 500PF is ONLY 56 gm (one EIGHTH of a pound) heavier than the Nikkor 70-200 f2.8E.

Length? Again, the only sensible comparison is against the 70-200 f2.8E. So...the 500PF comes in at 23.8 cm (9.37") and the 70-200 f2.8E comes in at 20.4 cm (8.03") - both measured without the hood in place. So the 500PF is only about 3.4 cm (or 1.33") longer than the 70-200 f2.8E.

Like I said, this lens is - when compared to other 500mm prime lenses - absolutely TINY!

3. First Impressions - Physical Characteristics: Balance.

I find the 500PF well-balanced on any of Nikon's top-end DSLR's - kinda feels like have a 70-200 mounted on your camera! With the lighter weight Z7 the entire "rig" feels slightly front-heavy, but not so much that it's any problem or inconvenience to hold (don't forget that when using the 500PF with the Z7 you have the mount adapter FTZ in the middle, which adds about another 3 cm - just over an inch - to the total length of the setup).

4. First Impressions - Physical Characteristics: Tripod Foot.

The bad news? Just like with ALL of Nikon's super-telephoto lens (and the foot on the 70-200mm f2.8E) the OEM tripod foot is NOT Arca-Swiss compatible (why not Nikon??). The good news? Well...just so happens that the tripod foot - including the mounting mechanism - is the exact same one as on the 70-200mm f2.8E. So if you have invested in a 3rd party tripod foot with Arca-Swiss compatibility for your 70-200mm f2.8E (like the one from Jobu Designs or the LCF-11 from Really Right Stuff)...well...you ALREADY have an Arca-Swiss compatible tripod foot.

5. First Impressions - Ergonomics and Controls.

The ergonomics and button/toggle locations are similar to those on the majority of Nikon telephoto lenses. This lens DOES come equipped with a "ring" of 4 AF activation buttons and, at least for me, they are positioned exactly where my hand naturally "falls" when hand-holding the lens. Those buttons (near the distal end of the lens) can be used to focus the lens, lock the focus of the lens, or for "memory recall" of a pre-focused point that you previously stored using ANOTHER button on the lens - the Memory Set button. Of course, if you have a camera body that supports the functionality, you can use the AF activation button to switch to a different AF Area mode on the fly. And...something I just learned when playing with the 500PF on the Z7 - if you are using the "memory recall" function with a Z7 (and presumably a Z6 but I haven't tried it), when you push the AF activation button not only does the lens refocus on the previously stored position, it automatically uses focus peaking to show you what actually IS in focus. Pretty cool!

Have I identified any problems with the ergonomics of the lens? Sort of. The focusing ring is RIGHT beside the AF activation buttons and right where my hand naturally rests. This means it's easy for me to bump that focus ring (of course, always at inopportune times). I DO wish that the gap between the AF activation buttons and the focus ring was wider. My workaround is to ensure that I am always shooting in A/M mode when gives priority to autofocus over manual focus (and thus accidentally bumping that focus ring is less consequential).

6. First Impressions - Optical Quality

Systematic testing of the 500PF will be a huge part of future blog entries (and my final full lens review). In those tests I will be comparing the 500PF against 3 other lenses and at 3 distances (and from wide open through to f11). The lenses I'll be comparing against are the Sigma 500mm f4 Sport, the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E (at 500mm...so with the built-in TC engaged) and the Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3. I'll be making the comparisons at short distance (7 meters), "moderate" distances (27 meters) and with distant scenes (over 1 km away).

BUT...I have already shot about 5000 images with the 500PF and I can say several things with at least reasonable confidence AND show you several sample images illustrating those points. So let's go there now...

A. With Close Subjects (7 meters or about 23 feet):

After spending some time shooting perching birds and small mammals (squirrels!) at close distances it's REAL hard not to just gush about the extreme sharpness AND the quality of the out-of-focus (OOF) zones of the 500PF. Check out these two 2400 pixel annotated sample shots (and it will likely be worth it to you to read the notes accompanying the images):

• Mountain Chickadee: DOWNLOAD 2400 PIXEL IMAGE (JPEG; 1.7 MB).
• Clark's Nutcracker: DOWNLOAD 2400 PIXEL IMAGE (JPEG; 1.4 MB).

B. With "Mid-distance" Subjects (10-40 meters or about 32-130 feet):

This is a distance zone that I work in a LOT with my wildlife photography. So how the lens performs here is critical to its usefulness to me. Of particular interest (at least to me) is how well the lens performs in this distance range when shot wide open (in both sharpness AND in the quality of the OOF zones or bokeh). And...while I know I'm letting the cat out of the bag a little with this next statement, the optical performance of the 500PF in this distance range has JUST BLOWN ME AWAY. It has exceeded my expectations by a huge amount! Here's a few annotated samples (and those annotations ARE worth looking at for context):

• Vigilance - White-tailed Deer: DOWNLOAD 2400 PIXEL IMAGE (JPEG; 1.49 MB).

What about the contrast and overall lens performance in a back-lit situation with a subject about 40 meters (130 feet) away? Check out this image:

• Backlit Snow Dog: DOWNLOAD 2400 PIXEL IMAGE (JPEG; 1.80 MB).

And what about those really "dreamy" and buttery soft backgrounds that users of the Nikkor 300mm f2.8 and Nikkor 400mm f2.8E's know so well - can you really get those with an f5.6 lens? Well...just check out this shot of Poncho (my Portuguese Water Dog) trotting at me in the snow:

• Going Low: DOWNLOAD 2400 PIXEL IMAGE (JPEG; 1.68 MB).

Note that this is one of the shots previously mentioned where I spontaneously dove to the ground (with my 500PF in hand) to get the shot. That's not something I'd try with a 8 lb 500mm f4 in my hands.

C. With Distant Scenes (500+ meters):

This is another aspect of optical performance I am going to systematically test and examine in the near future. But on a recent hike I ran into a good scenario to do an impromptu "test" (albeit an "anecdotal" test). The following image is a full-resolution Z7 shot where the focus point (front-most grass edge where it meets the foreground snow). This is a handheld shot (using my Z7) and to full appreciate what you're seeing here you should download the image and view central portions AND edges at 100% magnification. Note that the 500PF was WIDE OPEN (at f5.6) when I shot this shot - and it's another shot that basically blew me away when I checked it out. You can check it out here:

• Columbia Wetlands from 600 meters: DOWNLOAD 8256 PIXEL IMAGE (JPEG; 15.3 MB).

Summing up my first impressions on the optical performance of the 500PF: While I still have a lot of head-to-head systematic optical testing to do on the 500PF (to determine things like "how do wide open shots of the 500PF compare to wide open shots of the Sigma Sport 500 f4?") I already know that Nikon has designed and built an optically top-shelf lens in the 500PF. In my view lens performance is not just about sharpness - it's about both the quality of the in-focus zones, the quality of the out-of-focus zones, AND how those zones interact in any given image. And the 500PF balances those characteristics beautifully!

7. First Impressions - Autofocus Performance.

Nikon makes an interesting claim about the AF performance of the 500mm PF. And it relates to the size and weight of the focusing elements of the lens. In their words "By employing a lighter focus lens group, higher AF speed is achieved, assuring superb subject-tracking performance."

User's of Nikon's latest super-telephoto primes (like the 400mm f2.8E) know how fast those lenses focus, and they have much heavier focusing elements than the 500PF. Can we actually expect an f5.6 lens at under half the price of Nikon's other super-telephotos will focus as fast (or faster) than them? I haven't done head-to-head tests YET (that will come in the near future) - but I have done some "anecdotal testing" using Poncho, my Portuguese Water Dog and well-paid assistant. In these tests (where all animal subjects are very happy and gorging themselves with treats) I have Poncho run at me at full-tilt and blast away with my D5 as he approaches me. This tests both the predictive AF capabilities of the lens and just how fast it can re-focus when shooting a fast-moving subject at a high frame rate. I have done this test for years and it REALLY separates out the fast focusing lenses from the pretenders. To date, the best lens in this test has been my 400mm f2.8E and I can count on it producing a "tack sharp hit rate" of 85-90%.

So...I took Poncho out and ran 3 test sequences of this "test", capturing a total of 305 images. How many were tack sharp? Only 297 of them! That's an absolutely astounding 97.38% of them tack sharp. And, that's mind-boggling good and off-the-charts in AF performance. Note that these trials were run with a D5 - Nikon's absolute best DSLR in terms of autofocus performance. With a D850 or D500 I'd expect a somewhat lower hit rate (probably in the 70% range) and with a Z7 more like 50%.

Sample image? Here you go...

• Cho on the Go: DOWNLOAD 2400 PIXEL IMAGE (JPEG; 1.62 MB).

Expect more systematic testing of the AF of the 500PF in coming days (including head-to-head comparisons against other lenses).

8. First Impressions - VR Performance & "Hand-holdability"

VR performance is only one of the contributing factors to one's ability to hand-hold a lens under field conditions - others include lens weight, balance, and (now) whether or not the camera body it is being used with adds supplementary stabilization (as the Z Series mirrorless bodies do). At this point I haven't had a chance to systematically compare how effectively I can hand-hold the 500PF against other 500mm lenses, but here's several anecdotal observations I've made to date...

First, the obvious (if you cut the weight of a super-telephoto by over 50% it should be easier to hand-hold and most should be able to hand-hold it for longer bouts) is true. Hand-holding the 500PF is dramatically easier than hand-holding any of the other 500mm lenses I've ever used. If you are in a situation where you are forced to hand-hold a lens (as I often am when working from a Zodiac on British Columbia's coast) the small size and low weight of this lens give it a massive advantage over "traditional" 500mm lenses. There ARE many people who simple can't effectively hand-hold a "traditional" 500mm lens - and I suspect MOST of these shooters would find that they could easily hand-hold the 500PF. This can open up huge possibilities.

What about the VR itself? Nikon claims a 4.0 stop advantage when shooting in VR Normal mode and at this point (and anecdotally) I have no reason to doubt this claim - the VR seems very effective. The 500PF also offers VR Sport mode which offers a little less image stabilization but is MUCH better if you're shooting in high frame-rate sequences (there's a whole lot less between-frame "jerkiness" in what you see through the viewfinder in Sport mode than there is in Normal mode).

I will be teasing apart the nuances of the VR and hand-holdability (and comparing the shutter speeds that I can hand-hold this lens at vs. other 500mm lenses) in the near future. But one thing that won't show up in those tests - but can have a big impact on your shooting - is how LONG you can hand-hold this lens for (in a single bout) and how many times you can do it in a single day (without coming home exhausted). I don't know how many times I've heard wildlife photographers say "Of course, I can hand-hold my 500mm...for about 30 seconds at a time". If that same user can hand-hold the 500PF for two minutes at a time, their chances of getting that "oh so special shot" just went up 4-fold!

9. First Impressions - My OVERALL Early Impression of the 500PF!

We live in an age of exaggerated - and even blatantly false - marketing claims and ever-increasing hyperbole. Products with a 1% increase in performance are labelled as "game-changing" or "revolutionary". I don't want to contribute to this myself and make claims about what this lens will do for OTHERS. So I am just going to say three things in summarizing my overall first impression of the 500PF and how it works for me:

A. WOW!

B. Expectations Exceeded! This lens has already wildly exceeded my own expectations for it. To be fair, my expectations weren't tremendously high - I KNEW the lens was going to be small, easy to transport and carry, and "convenient" to use. And I expected it would be acceptable optically. But I really felt its main selling point would be its relatively diminutive size...and for this alone we'd be willing to accept a slight degrade in image quality relative to Nikon's "best" super-telephotos. But I am completely shocked at how good this lens is in both optical and autofocus performance. It is right there (stride for stride) with Nikon's best super-telephoto lenses.

C. A Revolutionary Game-changer for ME! I won't say this lens will be a revolutionary or game-changing product for anyone else - but it IS for ME. My use of a 500mm lens will no longer be limited to areas where it can be easily transported to or easily set-up and/or used. This lens will be with me whenever I'm out in the woods and whenever I could carry a 70-200mm f2.8 lens. And I am already confident that in owning this lens I will have a distinct advantage in the field (compared to "the me without a 500PF") and it will allow me to capture images I could not have otherwise captured.

So Nikon...when is the 600mm f5.6E PF coming? Sign me up for that one too...

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#500PF_FirstImpressions

02 Jan 2019: HNY! And Looking Forward to a GREAT 2019 Season!

First off - a simple Happy New Year to all followers of this blog. I truly wish you GREAT light and GREAT photo ops in the coming year. Get out there and create some great images, eh? ;-)

Second...MAN is it ever a good time to be a Nikon-shooting nature and wildlife photographer! I honestly can't recall ever being this excited about a coming year of shooting. Why? I think a big part of it is that over the past year Nikon has delivered a series of products that have shored up many of the "holes" or "gaps" in equipment that I felt held me back at times. The Z7 brings the promise of great high resolution landscape, animalscape, and wildlife shots with a higher degree of control (in exposure and focusing) than any Nikon before it. The Nikkor 180-400mm f4E gives me - in ONE lens - the ability to capture incredibly sharp images over a wide range of focal lengths. And - with the 500mm PF - I can now bring along a top-notch super-telephoto with me on any hike, snowshoe trip, and...well...almost anywhere I could take a 70-200!

What direction is my blog going to take in 2019? Good question. I never know, with any degree of accuracy, where it will go or what I will write about. In the first quarter of the year you can expect I'll be finalizing my very detailed 180-400mm f4E review (nope, it's not done yet!). And...you should see my detailed 500mm f5.6E PF review begin AND end in Q1 2019. After that? Who knows! Maybe a review of the Nikon D6. Or maybe...ahhhh...I dunno! ;-)

So stay tuned...there's some real good stuff coming soon!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca


II. Selected and Popular 2018 Gear-related Blog Entries

18 Dec 2018: FINALLY! My Nikkor 500mm f5.6E PF Arrives (sort of)

I can't speak for what's been happening in RoW (Rest of World) but copies of the Nikkor 500mm f5.6 PF's have been trickling into this country (Canada) at below a snail's pace. Like...a handful to date for the entire country - just painfully (and frustratingly) slow! And, at least from what I see, it appears that even the majority of Canadian Nikon Professional Service (NPS) members who applied for priority purchase privileges on them are still waiting for their lenses.

So...when I got the call this morning that my 500mm PF had arrived in Calgary (the closest major city to my hideaway in the woods!) I was close to ecstatic! YESSSSS...I get to begin my testing of the 500mm PF over the holiday season! Now all I have to do is figure out how to get the lens the last 300 km or so to my home in an expedited fashion.

I stated quite a while ago that I wouldn't be doing a full field-test of the Nikon Z7 (but I would post a series of blog posts about how it was working out for me). BUT, I have been planning all along - and it's STILL in my plans - to do a "full-blown" field-test and review of the 500mm PF. Like with the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E, I will be comparing the 500mm f5.6 PF to a number of lenses (notably the 180-400mm f4E and the Sigma Sport 500mm f4) in optical performance, autofocus, and "hand-holdability". And, again like the 180-400mm, you'll see a series of posts on this blog while my testing is proceeding and (eventually) a final review in a permanent home (yes, I know...that final 180-400 review is still not posted!).

So...expect to start seeing my firt "interim" blog posts on the 500mm f5.6E PF starting within the next 10 days to two weeks.

Cheers...

Brad

PS: The 500mm f5.6E PF that I'm taking possession of was actually originally going to another Canadian wildlife photography who VERY GENEROUSLY offered it up to me so I could begin testing and evaluating it. So I - and anyone who finds the material I post about the 500mm PF useful - owe DS a very special thanks! I owe you big time Duane! ;-)

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8 November 2018: So Brad...Z7 or D850?

Given how many emails I'm currently receiving from people asking me if they should get a D850 or Z7 I am guessing there are just huge numbers of photographers wondering the same thing. So...in an effort to stem the flow of emails with this question (a move that almost always backfires on me) here's some thoughts on the "D850 or Z7?" issue.

But first things first: It's absolutely impossible for me to tell someone I don't know - and don't how they shoot, what they shoot, what other gear they have, et cetera - which of these two cameras is BEST for them. The only thing I can do is tell you which camera I prefer and why. It's then up to you to decide if my reasons and use of the camera(s) parallel yours and the same decision would work for you.

Here's the most succinct-but-complete statement I can make:

For my own uses of a high resolution camera I prefer the Z7 over the D850. But if I could only have ONE camera for ALL my uses - and it had to be either a D850 or a Z7 - I would go for the D850.

How does this make any sense? Why would I take the D850 over the Z7 if I could only have one camera? Simply because - in my opinion - the D850 is slightly better for action shooting than the Z7 is. I say this because my own testing has shown that the D850 keeps up with rapidly moving subjects (especially those moving rapidly toward me) a little better than the Z7 does. Please note that my answer has NOTHING to do with subject-tracking as per dpreview's "have the track the drunk bike rider who rides from frame-edge-to-frame-edge as she approaches me" test - I don't bolt my camera to the ground and expect it to track my subject all over the viewfinder - if I'm shooting action I am invariably panning with it. When I am panning birds in flight or running mammals the Z7 does pretty darned well. But most germane to the current discussion...I DO have multiple camera bodies and one of those cameras is particularly well-suited to shooting action - the D5. In fact - and again in my opinion- the D5 is the best camera that has ever been made for shooting action - and it is leaps and bounds ahead of BOTH the D850 and Z7 when it comes to shooting action. So I simply don't CARE if the D850 is a little better for shooting action than the Z7 is.

So what do I use the D850 (and Z7 for)? I explained that in detail in a previous blog entry (entitled "Why I Ordered the Nikon Z7 (and NOT the Z6)" on September 8 - right here...) but long story short, I use the D850 (and Z7) for shooting "more static" wildlife, animalscapes, and landscapes - but only when I have sufficient light to keep the ISO down (or have the time to set up a tripod). In my view, this is the absolute "sweet spot" of the D850 and of the Z7 and what those two cameras are GREAT at. Action shooting? That's what the D5 (and to a lesser extent, the D500) is great for. Action shooting in low light? Definitely NOT the sweet spot of the D850 or the Z7 (or the D500) - and RIGHT in the D5's wheelhouse!

What features or attributes of the Z7 stand out above and beyond those on the D850 for ME? A bunch of 'em...and YES, this is a pared-down and "ranked and weighted by real world use" condensed list derived from about a zillion marketing bullet points (many of which are irrelevant to me and probably many other users).

1. Size and weight! Only one variable to consider in comparing two cameras (of course) but for me it IS a biggie. It's just so much easier to carry around or travel with (compared to the big "pro" DSLR's).

2. More ACCURATE AF. I AM finding that I get more accurate AF with the Z7 than with the D850 (unless using Live View on the D850, in which case AF was definitely very accurate). I am noticing this particularly when using "wider" angle zooms, like a 24-70mm.

3. Ability to focus closer to the frame edge. When shooting animalscapes or landscapes I often DO want to focus on something close to the edge of the frame (normally the bottom edge), and I LOVE that I can do this without going through the focus, focus-lock, and then recompose routine.

4. MUCH Better VR. So far I'm finding the VR system of the Z7 allows me to effectively hand-hold lenses (Z-mount, VR F-mounts, and of course NON-VR F-mounts) at significantly slower shutter speeds than I could with the D850 (and still get sharp shots!). And given the D850's penchant for beating up on image quality if there is camera shake and/or vibrations, this is a big feature. It ends up meaning I can either capture shots I couldn't with a D850 OR that I can shoot the same shot at a lower ISO (which is always a good thing).

5. Extra Viewfinder Info. Yep, I DO like having a histogram in view when shooting...and it's fast and convenient to display a virtual level or other info through the viewfinder.

6. Imparting VR on non-VR lenses. I have some lenses that I REALLY like but were pretty much limited to collecting dust because they pretty much needed to be used on a tripod if I shot them with the D850 (given the apertures I wanted to shoot at and the uses I wanted to put the lenses to). Two in particular are the Sigma 85mm f1.4 Art and the Sigma 35mm f1.4 Art. I love the fact that if I use these lenses (and others) on the Z7 they instantly "have" VR.

7. Performance of the Z-mount 24-70mm f4S. I've done enough testing of the 24-70mm f4S against the Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8E (the VR version) and the Sigma 24-70mm f2.8 OS Art to convince myself that there IS something to Nikon's claim that the new Z-mount allows them to build optically superior lenses. In the case of the 24-70's I can find virtually no difference in central sharpness (of the 3 lenses), but the edges of the Z-mount 24-70mm f4S are definitely sharper (at all apertures). Some may say "but what about the stop of "lost" light?", but I am finding the much better VR of the Z-mount 24-70mm f4s (5 axis stabilization rather than 3 with non-Z-mounts) MORE than makes up for the lost light. And...while OTHERS may like the creative options of having a 24-70mm with a f2.8 aperture, when I am shooting a 24-70mm I am usually stopping it down to f5 or smaller far more commonly than even opening it up to f4 (but that's a "different strokes for different folks" thing).

8. Charger-less Battery Charging! Hey, I travel a lot and sometimes I have really restrictive baggage restrictions (on float planes and/or helicopters, etc.). I fork out oodles of money for compact, light outdoor clothing (thanks for your help ARC'TERYX) just to save weight and bulk and the same goes for my camera gear - I love that I only have to take an "adapter" along to charge the Z7 (but I am hoping Nikon finds a way to make the AC adapter a LITTLE smaller).

Are there features of the D850 do I prefer over the Z7? Yep, a few...

1. Clarity and brightness of its optical viewfinder. This is really just "legacy preference" and has no true functionality "correlate" - just a bias!

2. Availability of a battery grip with vertical controls. While I AM finding the Z7 to be easier to use vertically than my D850 sans battery grip (probably just because the Z7 is smaller and the buttons are a little easier to get to when held vertically), I STILL prefer having vertical controls. I wouldn't want the body increased in size to accommodate the vertical controls (like a D5 is), but having the option of attaching a grip with vertical controls would be nice.

3. Hmmm...can't think of a 3rd feature preference on the D850...I personally don't care about the 2nd card slot and I haven't exhausted an EN-EL15B battery during a single field shoot with my Z7 yet...

One other interesting but possibly telling (or possibly meaningless!) observation: After shooting my Z7 for awhile and then going back to my D850 I kinda feel like I'm picking up a turn of the century cell phone (note that I have not figured out how to make a phone call or send a text with either my D850 or Z7).

I am just FINE with others preferring the D850 over the Z7 and I have no interest in convincing them otherwise. Of course I don't mind hearing about why someone prefers one camera over another, but odds are you won't convince me that a D850 is better than a Z7 for ME! ;-)

Cheers...

Brad

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1 November 2018: The Nikon Z7: A Few More Tidbits

Since posting my 17 October blog entry entitled "The Nikon Z7: Three Weeks In..." a combination of several things (questions to me via email, a discussion with a technical representative from Nikon, and further scrutiny of images I've captured with the Z7) have put me in a position to add a few more tidbits to the fog bank of knowledge about the Z7! ;-)

So here goes...

1. Z7 Image Quality?

Since that last blog entry several people emailed me and asked me what I thought about the overall image quality of the Z7 images (in that previous blog entry I DID mention that I could see absolutely no difference in visible noise between the two cameras over an ISO range of ISO 64 to ISO 12,800 - they were in a dead heat). While I have absolutely no objective way to measure dynamic range beyond visible inspection of images, at this point I can SEE no differences in how dynamic range of the two cameras vary with ISO.

But what about overall image quality of the Z7 images? Well...just like D850 images - fantastic. Great colour, wonderful tonal range, and - with the right lenses - the incredible detail you'd expect out of a 45.6 MP sensor. And, just like with the D850, if you use "less than stellar" quality lenses or sloppy image capture techniques the 45.6 MP sensor can reveal lens and/or user technique flaws real quick! I have called the D850 the "Camera of Truth" in the past, and in many regards the same thing can be said of the Z7. However (and I'll expand on this a little more below in the VR section) the amazing VR performance of the Z7 camera CAN make up for some user technique sloppiness that the D850 would be more likely to reveal (in other words, you can often get away with using SLOWER shutter speeds than you could with a D850, even if you are using a lens on the D850 that has a very good VR on it).

2. Further Z7 VR Thoughts...

Two things to say on the VR of the Z7 today. First, I am still blown away with just how well the VR works on the Z7, particularly at the "crazy slow" shutter speeds in the 0.1s to 0.5s range (with the 24-70mm f4S Z-mount lens). I am still feeling that if you use a Nikkor F-mount lens with VR (or a 3rd party lens like a Sigma with its own Optical Stabilization or "OS") the VR improves compared to shooting that lens on a DSLR, but I haven't had a chance to test this yet (I will as soon as I can).

Second, I spent some time testing to see if there was ANY negative impact associated with leaving the VR on (in either VR Normal or VR Sport mode) when shooting off a firm tripod. The reason I looked at this is that the Z7 manual states...

"To avoid unintended results, select Off when the camera is mounted on a tripod unless the tripod head is unsecured or the camera is mounted on a monopod, in which case Normal, Sport, or On is recommended."

So I tested 3 different lenses that were mounted on a firm tripod (with the head fully tightened down) over a shutter speed range of 1/500s down to 0.1s and in each of 3 states: VR Off, VR Normal, VR Sport. The three lenses I tested were the Z-mount 24-70mm f4S, the Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E (which has Normal, Sport, and Off as its three VR modes), and the Sigma 85mm f1.4 Art (a non-stabilized lens that gets its stabilization from the Z7 body). In evaluating the results I compared image sharpness AND the quality of the out-of-focus zones for each lens (at each shutter speed and each VR mode).

The result: I could discern NO difference in image sharpness or the quality of the out-of-focus zones among each of the 3 VR states for any shutter speed on ANY of the three lenses. In other words, in the shutter speed range from 1/500s all the way down to 0.1s you can just always leave the VR on in your preferred mode (even if you are shooting from a rock-solid tripod).

This means when I'm using my Z7 for casual shooting or any form of wildlife photography (and using a telephoto lens hand-held or on a tripod) I'll simply leave the VR on. However, if I am doing some extremely slow shutter speed work (like in the 0.5s or slower range, and likely when shooting landscapes and/or scenes) and am bolted down on a tripod and using a cable release, I'll likely just play it safe and turn the VR off. Of course, in these cases I'll be using the full electronic shutter to remove one more contributor to camera shake...

3. The Autofocus Lowdown

In my previous blog entry on the Z7 I stated that if you looked at the published information on how Nikon's Hybrid AF system works it's not easy "...to figure out (or get reliable information about) how Nikon's Hybrid AF system (meaning "part phase-detect, part contrast-detect") actually works."

Since then I have had the opportunity to shoot with the Z7 even more and also (and more importantly) chat with a technical specialist at Nikon Canada about how the AF system really works. And...it's how I thought and really quite simple. Here's the lowdown:

• There is ONE mode where the camera uses full-time (i.e., dedicated) contrast-detect AF: Pinpoint AF. This mode is ONLY available when you're using Single AF (AF-S) mode. And, Nikon warns that it may be a little slower than all other modes.

• For ALL other AF area modes (in both AF-S and AF-C servo modes) the camera uses BOTH Phase Detect Autofocus (PDAF) and Contrast Detect Autofocus (CDAF). So...in any focusing trial the camera first approximates focus quickly using PDAF and then tweaks and finalizes the focus with CDAF.

There are a few repercussions of this "hybrid" (and dual) AF action:

First, and very positively, it means that AF tuning is NOT needed for any lens. During the final Contrast Detect portion of the focusing the contrast is being maximized on the image sensor itself...which means tuning issues become irrelevant.

So that leads to a related question: If AF tuning is not needed to obtain accurate focus, why is there a way (in the Set-up Menu) to input tuning values for specific lenses? That's for the those who have decided they WANT their camera to slightly front- or back-focus for their OWN reasons. So, for instance, if a photographer of wildlife decides he/she want a LITTLE front-focus so that they have a little foreground in focus (and they don't want to play the focus-lock and re-compose game) they can do so. Note that the tuning values you input for a lens over-ride the final contrast-detect "correct" focus.

Second...if you think about how this hybrid-AF system works a logical question would be this: Does the 2-part PDAF and CDAF system work slower than a simpler PDAF system of our DSLR's? Intuitively it seems logical that it might. And...one thing I have noticed when I am shooting the Z7 on a subject that is rapidly moving toward (or away) from me (when the camera's Predictive AF is working) is that the camera doesn't keep up in focusing quite as well as my fastest DSLR's (like my D5) do. So it's at least possible that this is because of the 2-step hybrid AF system. But it's important to point out that even if this observation of a slightly degraded ability to keep the focus on a rapidly moving object it's still pretty darned good (and certainly better than I had anticipated prior to getting the Z7).

Third, and again positively, the fact that CDAF makes the "final" tweaking of the focus means it may end up being overall more reliable (and accurate) than with the PDAF-only AF system of our DSLR's, especially our high-resolution DSLR's. It's been my experience since acquiring my D850 that focus on it can be "finicky", especially when using zoom lenses (and, for some reason, especially with wider angle zooms, like a 24-70mm). In fact, I had almost given up using 24-70's for landscape shooting with my D850 if I was hand-holding my camera (and not able to effectively use the contrast-detect AF mode of Live View). Months ago (long before the Z7 was shipping) I was hopeful that the Z7 would allow more accurate focus with wide angle lenses and so far I am very pleased that I am finding this to be the case.

4. The Mount Adapter FTZ

I've received a lot of email asking me how the mount adapter FTZ performs. Simple answer on this one - just fine...and it works as advertised. To date I've tried my Z7 with all my Nikkor F-mount lenses (and they're all AF-S lenses) and all have worked perfectly. And, I have tried it with most of my Sigma lenses with the same result...and so-far so-good! Not much else to say on this one...

5. Feedback I've Received on the Z7?

Finally, a lot of folks spontaneously email me about gear, and I received quite a few emails after my October 17 blog entry on the Z7. So far NONE have been negative, and several have expressed almost surprise at how well the Z7 performs. I received one email from a pro shooter from the east coast of the US that had been using a Nikon D810 as his main (and "trusty") tool of choice. His comment after a 4-day shoot (where he began shooting with the Z7 early in the shoot was that after day one the D810 "...never saw the light of day again." And, he concluded the email with a very interesting statement:

"I've read that some think the transition from DSLR to mirrorless will be gradual and take years, but for me it's all over already, and I'm an old school photographer!"

Food for thought, eh?

Cheers...

Brad

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17 October 2018: The Nikon Z7: Three Weeks In...

I took delivery of my Nikon Z7 kit (including the 24-70mm f4S zoom lens and the mount adapter FTZ) almost three weeks ago. And while I vowed (to myself and those around me) to NOT do a full review of the camera, after 3 weeks (and pushing 5,000 shots) I do have a few thoughts about the camera and figured I'd share them with a few of you - hope you don't mind! ;-)

There has been an almost unprecedented amount of internet chatter about this camera over the last few months, and much of it was based solely on its specifications or by Nikon "insiders" who receive benefits for saying nice things about Nikon's products. I did post a few blogs entries about the Z7 before I took delivery of it (Sept 7: Cautious Excitement about Nikon's New Z Series System; Sept 8: Why I've Ordered the Z7 [and NOT the Z6]), but I hesitated stating anything definitive about it (or trashing its specs) until I did something unique these days - waited until I actually USED the camera in the field. So...since the arrival of my Z7 on September 27 I have poked it, prodded it, tested it, just shot with it, and spent a whole lot of time looking at images spit out of it. So what follows is a summary of my thoughts to date...

For those wanting a real short answer...here ya go: I like the Z7 - a lot. I'm almost certain that I'll soon conclude it has earned a spot in my camera kit. A likely consequence of that is that it will replace my D850 in my kit.

If anyone is shocked that THIS wildlife photographer would consider replacing a D850 with a Z7 they should look at two previous blog entries to get the context they need - my 8 Sept entry on why I ordered the Z7 (right here) and my 27 March entry about which Nikon DSLR I consider best for wildlife photography (right here). Bottom line: I use my D850 largely for landscape and animalscape shooting and it's my opinion the Z7 will meet this need equally as well as my D850 does. And, it has other features - and does many things - my D850 doesn't have or do. Like being way smaller and lighter. Like imparting VR on several of my F-mount non-VR lenses (from both Nikon and Sigma). Like providing "live histograms" for me BEFORE I shoot. Like offering User Settings (rather than Shooting Banks)...which is something I have LONG wanted Nikon to do with their pro cameras. Like...yada, yada, yada...you get the picture. Given the type of shooting I do (and where I do it), the Z7 complements my D5 very nicely and in no way competes with it. And...to a certain degree that also could be said about the Z7 and my D500. But for MY uses...the Z7 competes pretty much directly with my D850 AND it will give me additional capabilities the D850 doesn't.

But let's get back on track...and look at some specifics...

1. Setting Up the Z7

OK...unless you're one of "those people" who make those pointless and kinda weird "unboxing" videos, the FIRST thing you have to do when you get a new camera is set it up. And here's good news for existing users of Nikon DSLR's - you'll find the initial setup of the camera VERY familiar - and very "Nikon-ish". Both the menu "logic" and menu navigation is very similar to that of most Nikon DSLR's. Some of the available options may differ between your Nikon DSLR and the Z7, but you're going to find those features in pretty much the same place as always. So...if you're an experienced Nikon DSLR user it's totally safe to do the "guy thing" and toss the manual over your shoulder (at least for now).

How user-friendly is the camera's initial set-up if you're NOT familiar with setting up a Nikon? Hard for me to forget what I know about Nikon cameras and answer this, but probably not much better than some of the other "better" modern mirrorless cameras. Which means "totally confusing and incomprehensible" if you're a novice photographer and you're trying to use the User's Guide to guide you in setting the camera up!

2. Build Quality?

Shortly after I took my Z7 out of its box (sorry, no video of that) and began setting it up I was impressed with it's "high-end Nikon" build quality. Buttons and dials were nicely finished and were positive in their "movements" (dialing or pushing). The "Made in Japan" label instilled confidence. And although this is obviously subjective - the camera felt like a serious tool rather than a toy.

Durability and sealing? This is something impossible to comment on shortly after you get a camera - I'm not willing to drop my own camera on the floor or take a shower with it to test it. Nikon claims (in the Z Series brochure) that "Effective sealing, equivalent to the D850, is applied to the joints of each exterior cover, as well as the shutter release button and battery chamber cover. Sealing is also employed in the Nikkor Z lenses and Mount Adapter FTZ, to enhance total reliability as a system." Time and use will tell...but with the D850-ish apparent build quality I'll give them the benefit of the doubt until then. But...as someone who has lead a lot of photo tours in very wet conditions (and seen a LOT of good DSLR's give up the ghost) I wouldn't recommend shooting the Z7 in heavy rain or snow without a quality raincover.

3. Camera Layout & Ergonomics

Most of the most commonly used buttons on the camera are where you'd expect them - on a Nikon DSLR. So the command and sub-command dials are in the same place. And the AF-On button is right where it should be (and has always been). And there are "function" buttons on the front side of the camera beside the lens. Given the camera is smaller than Nikon's "serious" DSLR's - and given the monitor occupies MOST of the back of the camera - some buttons have been moved. As an example, all the buttons associated with image playback and menu display have shifted to the right side of the back of the camera (rather than being in a column to the left of the LCD).

There's a "macro" level difference in the Z7 (compared to Nikon's top DSLR's) that's worth mentioning now - overall the camera has fewer buttons. This means MORE of the cameras functions (including some you would want access to quite commonly) are accessible only via menus. At first this might seem almost cringe-worthy. BUT...Nikon was actually pretty smart about how they dealt with this "problem" - once you discover how the menu triggered by the i-button works you end up with quick access to even MORE functions than you ever had with a DSLR. Hit the i-button when you're in shooting mode (i.e., not in image playback mode) and you'll be presented - within the viewfinder and/or on the LCD - with a 2x6 grid of settings (called the i Menu) displayed along the bottom of the display. Any of those settings can be changed on-the-fly without taking your eye out of the viewfinder (or off the LCD). And...best of all...you can customize each of the 12 setting choices within the i Menu. Very cool...and very, very handy when you're shooting.

One quick "tip" about customizing the i Menu: The Nikon Z7 features User Settings (like the Nikon D750 and D600's) which allows the user to collect a whole array of camera settings into a single group, allowing you to switch a ton of settings at once. (Side note: Having User Settings configured to match your style can allow you to quickly change between settings. So, for instance, you could choose to have U1 (User Setting 1) set up for landscape photography. So U1 might be set up as follows: Manual Exposure Mode, Manual ISO, RAW 14-bit images, AF-S with Pinpoint area mode, et cetera. But, being a landscape photographer you're out in the wilderness (right?) and you just might come across...say...a bird-in-flight (BIF)...and you want to re-configure your whole camera to be able to nab that BIF shot in an eye blink. So...you've set up U2 (User Setting 2) for "action shooting" - so it's in Aperture Priority Mode, with Auto ISO on and with a high minimum shutter speed, AF-C with Wide Area (S) AF mode, et cetera. And...you're able to instantly switch from U1 (landscape shooting) to U2 (action shooting) with a quick rotation of the Mode dial. Cool, eh?)

Now...what about that i Menu tip? OK...even if you set up all your User Settings for different things, odds are you'll want the choices available in the i Menu to be the same throughout ALL your Mode options (M, A, P, S, and your User Settings). If not, you'll likely be as confused as hell whenever you display the i Menu! ANYWAY...if you want to save yourself a good hour or so during your initial set up, configure your i Menu BEFORE you create your User Settings! If you don't you'll end up having to go to EACH User Setting and re-do your i Menu options (and then re-save those User Settings).

Confused? Once you have your Z7 in your hands and begin to set it up this will all make sense (trust me).

BTW: I LOVE the fact that the Z7 has User Settings. I find this approach superior (for my type of shooting) to what Nikon does with its best DSLR's, i.e., giving you Shooting Banks, Extended Shooting Banks, and Custom Banks. I've long wished that Nikon's pro DSLR's offered User Settings...

4. Shooting and Camera Handling

OK...the actual experience you have shooting the Z7 is partly dependent on the camera layout and ergonomics, the menu logic, and user-dependent things like the size of your hand. I have medium-sized (but bigger than Trump's) hands (as I'm sure most males do), and I am finding the small size of the Z7 just fine in the field. Yes, my pinky finger on my right hand is kinda "off the bottom" of the camera most of the time, but button and control spacing is just fine for me. And, as an experienced Nikon shooter, my fingers instinctively know where to go for all the basic functions. So I have NO issue instantly changing my aperture (sub-command dial), easy exposure compensation (main command dial...I'm an Aperture Priority shooter mostly), toggle the focus point in the viewfinder, etc.

Is there ANYTHING I find awkward? Well...if I'm being honest (why not, eh?) I'm still struggling a little in getting my thumb down to the i button when my eye is looking through the viewfinder (remember that this button triggers the "delicious" i Menu you can see through the viewfinder) AND I am still finding it challenging to find the Display button with my thumb as well (while looking through the viewfinder). This Display button is one you DO want to be able to access quickly - if you're looking through the viewfinder it lets you toggle between a "clean" display vs. showing a Live Histogram, vs. showing a Virtual Horizon display, et cetera. I know it will only be a matter of time before my thumb can instantly "find" these buttons without any active thinking on my part.

The most important take-home lesson? Anyone familiar with a Nikon DSLR will likely master the controls and find the Z7 easy to shoot with in minutes. And, I think this is a pretty important thing. And...one reason for a Nikon DSLR user to NOT go mirrorless ("Arrgghhh...I have to go through the pain of learning a totally new camera set-up, menu logic, and more!!") has just gone away.

One other almost random comment about the Z7 "user experience": As a user of Nikon's BEST DSLR's I am used to a camera having an unnoticeable start-up lag - you turn the camera on and it's instantly ready to go. However, with the Z7 it takes many times longer before it's ready to shoot (like maybe a whole second). Not really a problem, but definitely noticeable (and it does make me tend to leave the camera on more than I do with my DSLR's).

Big picture question: How easy is it for a NON-Nikon shooting user (novice or experienced photographer) to pick up a Z7 and start shooting effectively with it? Tough for me to answer...but probably safe to say it's infinitely more challenging for the average person than figuring out how to use the "super-competitor" camera we all want to forget about - the iPhone! (Ironically...I find my iPhone infinitely harder to use and understand than my D5 OR my Z7, but I have this bizarre "I want to CONTROL my camera" attitude I can't beat into submission.)

5. The Electronic Viewfinder (EVF)

Ok...here's an admission on my part: I have never liked EVF's. I love a clear and bright optical viewfinder. Heck, I travel to some pretty amazing places with my photography and I'd prefer to see them MOSTLY as they appear (through an optical viewfinder) rather than looking at them through what is kinda like looking at them through a 20-year old TV screen (an EVF). Yes, I admit this is a personal quirk and it may be shared with no one else.

Now...that being said, here's what I think of the Z7 EVF: It's pretty darned nice! And...more importantly...when you get used to what it can offer you (after you master getting to the Display button and the i button) - things like a live (before you shoot) histogram, availability of tweaking a zillion settings with the i Menu while you are looking through the viewfinder and more - well - Z7 EVF DOES seem like the future of photography.

An example of what I mean may be helpful here: I have been using Matrix metering as my primary metering method for ages (count that in decades). When I look at a scene with my eyes OR with an optical viewfinder, I can almost always nail the amount of exposure compensation needed (if any) to get the exposure I want. But when I look at a scene with the Z7's EVF I lose my ability to judge the scene's brightness based on what I'm seeing through the viewfinder (it's always bright, regardless of of how bright the scene is). BUT...having a Live Histogram there in the viewfinder MORE than makes up for it! I was really good at getting the exposure right with my Nikon DSLR's, but I'm BETTER at it with my Z7!

Note that there is an unexpected (at least by me) positive thing associated with the "it's always bright" EVF: I've already found that it's easier to see (and follow) a dark subject in low light. So if you're photographing a black bear in the shade in a dark forest you'll probably have a better idea what its eyes are doing - and where they're looking - with this EVF than with an optical viewfinder.

Any negatives of the EVF? Yep. High contrast scenes go excessively contrasty (and look like crap). And...obviously it pulls power and reduces battery life. Which gives me a nice transition to my next topic...

6. Battery Life

Ok...I pity Nikon here. To their credit they published the exceptionally conservative CIPA rating of 330 shots per charge in their specifications. If this rating was accurate in the real world it would be have been AWFUL (yep, light camera, but my backpack FULL of EN-EL15B batteries is sure heavy). In reality I'm finding I'm averaging about 1300 shots per charge, which is just under 4 times the CIPA rating. Hey CIPA - time to re-do how that rating is determined!!

Bottom line: Battery life is NOT the problem we thought it would be (when we read the camera's specs).

7. Autofocus Performance

I am going to tackle this issue in a MUCH bigger way in a few months. It's not easy to figure out (or get reliable information about) how Nikon's Hybrid AF system (meaning "part phase-detect, part contrast-detect") actually works. As an example, it seems quite clear that the new "tiny" area mode called Pinpoint AF (available only when using Single Servo - or AF-S - mode) is fully contrast-detect. But how much of a role contrast-detect plays in the "other" AF-S modes and ALL the AF-C modes isn't clear. Many (including me) assumed that the "hybrid" AF system meant that contrast-detect was ALWAYS contributing to the AF (in any mode) and thus negated the need for any form of AF tuning on a lens. However, given that the camera allows the user to input AF tuning values for lenses makes me question that. And...I have read quotes of Nikon executives saying "Contrast-detect is always in effect when AF-S mode is used" but that assumes that the executive being interviewed actually knows what he/she is saying! Like I said, I will be digging into this fully in the coming months.

BUT...I CAN comment on several things about the AF system (based on my own use) already:

First, initial acquisition of focus on a subject seems very fast. When I pair my Z7 with a very fast focusing lens (like a 70-200mm f2.8E or my 400mm f2.8E) it snaps into focus extremely fast (so fast that it SEEMS as fast as my DSLR's, tho' this is a qualitative statement that I can't verify). I am more than slightly pleased (and pleasantly surprised) that the Z7 acquires initial focus as fast as it does.

Second, the predictive AF seems good, but NOT as good as on Nikon's best DSLR's. What's predictive AF? It's what your camera is doing when an object (like my dog, though he'll bite you if you call him an object) moves directly towards you (or away from you) and stays under the same focus point (the camera is actually calculating its exact position when the shutter exposes the sensor to light). So...when good old Poncho the Portie is running right at me I CAN get shots in focus (like this one of Poncho trotting at me and captured with the Z7 plus my 400mm f2.8E), but the hit rate (shots in tack sharp focus) doesn't appear as high as on my D5 (which is Nikon's best camera at this test). I say "doesn't appear" because I haven't had the chance to systematically test this so can't fully quantify it yet...but in time I will.

Third...on Focus Tracking: There's been a LOT of negative internet chatter about how Nikon has executed focus-tracking on the Z7 and on the fact that it doesn't have 3D-tracking (and I have also heard some complaints about how the Z7 doesn't have Group Area or as many Dynamic Area modes). As a wildlife photographer I almost NEVER use 3D-tracking for any form of action shooting - not with birds in flight, not with sparring grizzlies, not with any running mammals (or breaching humpback whales). While the 3D-tracking has improved a lot on recent DSLR's (its BEST execution is on the D5), in the brown-on-brown world of wildlife photography it isn't the "go-to" mode for MOST wildlife photographers when they are shooting action. Rather, they tend to use ONE of the Dynamic Area modes OR, if there's no chance of having foreground nab the wrong subject, Group Area AF. And, MOST wildlife photographers don't "bolt" their camera in one place and expect the AF system to track it all over their frame - rather, they PAN with the subject.

So...the Z7 DOES have 9-point Dynamic Area mode, and the area enclosed by the points is MUCH larger (i.e., a larger proportion of the frame) than on the D5. And...it works pretty darn well for panning on (and keep a moving subject) in focus. D5 good? Nope. But not too darned bad.

What about the missing Group Area AF modes? Well...they're not really missing - they've been re-named. On the Z7 there are two Wide Area modes where a MUCH bigger area than a single focus point acts as one BIG focus point (kinda like Group Area!). And, again kinda like Group Area, the AF system prioritizes on focusing on the closest object within the "box" that defines the focus area boundaries. And, the Wide Area S mode is smaller (compared to the size of the Group Area mode on a D850) and the Wide Area L mode is larger (again than the D850's Group Area AF). So...if you have to worry about keeping foreground out of the Wide Area bounding box you choose the S (small) option - if your subject is moving erratically choose the L (larger) option. Hmmm...just like Group Area, but with more size options!

Focus accuracy on the Z7? Seems very good in all modes...and incredibly good if you use the pinpoint mode, which is a very small focus point and is dedicated to contrast-detect AF. Where I have noticed the accuracy of that pinpoint mode the most has been when comparing the focus accuracy of wide angle zooms, like 24-70's (which always seemed a bit hit and miss with my D850 when I was focusing using the optical viewfinder).

Expect more to read more about the AF performance of the Z7 on this blog in the coming months...but at this point I can honestly say this: the AF system of the Z7 has exceeded my expectations. In most modes it is very fast, it's acceptable for panning, and - used correctly - it is deadly accurate.

8. ISO Performance

As a wildlife photographer who often works under low light I am primarily concerned about how two things vary with ISO - noise (both luminance and colour) and dynamic range. I have done systematic tests comparing the luminance and colour noise of the Z7 to that of the D850 from ISO 64 through to ISO 12,800. My finding was very simple: I could find NO difference between the Z7 and the D850 (in how luminance and colour noise varied with ISO).

What does this mean in practical terms? I'm going to set my own ISO limits on the Z7 the same as I set them on my D850 - in most situations I will want to set the limit at ISO 3200 and try to keep it as far below that as I can. And because the camera has a great VR system (see more on this below), it means I will probably shoot AVERAGE ISO's that are lower on the Z7 than on the D850 (i.e., I can risk hand-holding slower shutter speeds without blurring the shot through camera shake on the Z7 and consequently I won't have to bump the ISO up quite as much).

Dynamic Range? I have no way to accurately measure this, but based on my shooting results so far I have no reason to believe there is a significant difference in dynamic range between the Z7 and the D850 (or that how it changes with ISO is any different than the D850).

9. VR Performance

As I'm sure most know, Nikon has made a BIG departure on how they have executed VR on this camera - it's Nikon's first serious camera with in-camera (in the body!) VR. And, if you use Z-mount lenses it stabilizes the image in 5 planes (rather than the 3 of lens-based VR systems we're mostly familiar with). When you use a Z-mount lens you have 3 VR options: Off, VR Normal, and VR Sport. These modes work pretty much the same as they do on Nikon's lenses with the same 3 modes - VR Normal gives you the MOST stabilization but if you are shooting bursts the frame jumps around between in a herky-jerky fashion. VR Sport has slightly less stabilization capability, but the image is much more stable between frames in a burst.

Before I discuss the actual performance of the VR system I have to mention a few consequences of the in-body VR and how Nikon has made it work with F-mount lenses (if one has a mount adapter FTZ...as I assume most early Z7 buyers will):

• If you are using the Z7 with an F-mount lens with the same VR modes as the camera (Off, VR Normal, VR Sport) you control the VR FROM THE LENS (including choosing the VR mode you want)

• If you are using the Z7 with an F-mount lens with DIFFERENT VR modes than the camera (e.g., Off, VR Normal, VR Active) you end up with TWO usable VR modes - Off and Normal (you don't get Sport mode)

• If you are using the Z7 with an F-mount lens with NO VR (including 3rd partly lenses like Sigma) you control the VR from the camera AND you get all 3 of its modes - Off, VR Normal, and VR Sport. And YES - this means that a Z7 imparts VR capability on your "system" even if you are using a lens that has NO image stabilization (and I am just LOVING this and using some "normally left at home" lenses a LOT more now).

When you're in the field this implementation of the VR system makes perfect sense (nicely done Nikon).

So...how well does the VR system work? Time for a few more bullet points...

• The MOST striking thing when using Z-mount lenses is amazing performance at super-slow shutter speeds. I am able to get extremely sharp shots (and I'm an anal pixel-peeper) down to shots BELOW one tenth (0.1s) while hand-holding the 24-70mm f4s. As an example, check out this shot of a mountain stream captured hand-held with a shutter speed of one-quarter of a second (0.25s) - with no form of support whatsoever...no leaning on anything...no wedging of the camera against a rock or tree...just standing upright holding the camera in my hands. This shot was captured with the Z-mount 24-70mm f4s at 32mm. And note that I did NOT have to shoot a zillion shots of this scene (at this shutter speed) to get a single sharp shot - I shot 10 frames of this scene and 7 of them were as sharp as the image linked here.

• What about F-mount lenses with VR systems - is the VR any BETTER with the Z7 than with a DSLR of the same resolution (like a D850)? I THINK so. Late last week I was in a scenario where I was shooting raven portraits with the Z7 and the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E at its longest focal length with the TC engaged (560mm). I shot around 200 frames of the raven under low-light conditions and all were shot hand-held at either 1/200s or 1/250s (this 560mm shot hand-held at 1/200s). And almost ALL of them were tack sharp. I didn't get the chance to repeat the exercise with my D850, but in the past I have found myself on thin ice getting ANY tack sharp shots if I shoot the 180-400mm at 560mm and 1/200s. This is anecdotal information at best...but my gut is telling me you DO get better VR performance out of a VR lens if it's on the Z7. I will follow up on this in future testing of the camera.

• What about F-mount lenses WITHOUT VR's? To date I've only shot TWO of them - the Sigma 85mm f1.4 Art (a remarkably sharp lens with wonderful bokeh) and the Sigma 35mm f1.4 Art (another very sharp lens). The results have been very good. Check out this shot - it's a 1:1 crop from the central region of a hand-held shot captured at 0.1s using the Sigma 85mm 1.4 Art (attached to the Z7 with the mount adapter FTZ).

Bottom line: I definitely have to do more VR testing, but at this point Nikon seems to have done a remarkable job at their first real crack at in-body image stabilization. And I love the increased opportunities to capture slow shutter speed shots with the Z7 (that I couldn't capture with my D850) when on hikes or even photo tours where I might not have access to a tripod. Yes!!!!

10. Frame Rate and Burst Depth

As most anyone who can read specs knows, there are TWO "fastest" frame rates on the Z7 when shooting in continuous mode - Continuous High (5.5 fps) and Continuous High Extended (9 fps). What's the difference? Continuous High (5.5 fps) utilizes the mechanical shutter and Continuous High Extended (9 fps) utilizes the electronic shutter. You DO get AF with both modes (but AE is fixed on the first frame when in Continuous High Extended mode).

Are there consequences of which of the two Continuous High Speed modes you're in when shooting action...like...say...panning on a bird in flight? ABSOLUTELY. When shooting in Continuous High (at 5.5 fps) the appearance of the subject through the viewfinder is like a DSLR, including with blackout time. And, that blackout time IS longer than you'd get with Nikon's top DSLR's (and that blackout time appears very pronounced if you are comparing it to a D5 where blackout time is almost unnoticeable).

Shift to Continuous High Speed Extended mode and the image blackout is gone! But...something worse happens (if you are trying to pan on a moving object) - through the viewfinder you see a "herky-jerky" freeze-frame sequence that looks almost like the flickering of an ancient movie. And it makes panning on your subject very challenging (if I'm being generous).

Others may find the Continuous High Speed Extended mode just fine for panning on moving subjects, but I don't. For me the highest FUNCTIONAL frame rate for photographing the type of action I most commonly encounter when photographing wildlife is 5.5 fps (so a little slower than the 7 fps of a D850).

But that doesn't make the Z7's Continuous High Extended mode "useless". If you're in a scenario where you are shooting action and you are NOT panning (say two grizzlies going toe-to-toe sparring) it will work just fine - and capture images at a higher rate than a D850!

What about burst depth? During my own testing shooting 14-bit compressed raw files I am consistently getting around 30 frames (using Continuous High at 5.5 fps and a Sony G-Series 440 MB/s XQD card) before the camera slows down to a crawl. That number jumps up to an average of 35 frames if I shoot 12-bit compressed raw files. If I go over to Continuous High Extended mode (9 fps) the burst depth falls to 18 frames with 14-bit compressed raws and 22 frames with 12-bit compressed raws.

So this burst depth is a little lower than on a D850 and WAY lower than on the lower resolution D5 or D500 (200 frames before the camera abruptly stops, but is ready to shot another 200 virtually instantly).

11. So...How 'bout ACTION SHOOTING?

The suitability of a camera for successful action shooting is dependent on several things - AF capability, frame rate, burst depth, and now with mirrorless cameras, viewfinder "behavior". If you compare a Z7 to a D5 for action shooting (or even a D500) there is simply no comparison - the Z7 doesn't come close. But...if you compare the Z7 to a D850 (a camera with the same resolution) the comparison is fairer - and the cameras' performance is far more similar (in terms of hit rates when action shooting). Yes, the D850 is still a little better at action shooting, but the gap in performance in action shooting capability between a Z7 and a D850 is FAR smaller than the gap between a Z7 (or D850) and a D5. Yes, you will be able to capture great high-resolution shots of a bird in flight with a Z7. And, capture things like sparring grizzlies at a higher frame rate than a D850. So...for MOST action shooting you will likely experience a slightly lower success rate than on a D850 (and WAY lower than on a D5) but it's wrong to think of a Z7 as completely unsuitable for action shooting...

12. So...How 'bout for WILDLIFE PHOTOGRAPHY?

It appears to be fashionable to declare a camera to be "not good for genre X" even before you've had that camera in your hands. I've read online comments (and seen videos) claiming how poorly the Z7 is designed for wildlife photography (and I think many of these pundits equate shooting birds-in-flight with ALL wildlife photography, which is plain wrong!). I'm going to reserve judgment a little longer and I've had a little more opportunity to use it for wildlife shooting. I'm quite confident it won't replace my D5 as my "go-to" wildlife camera. But...after carefully reviewing my favourite wildlife photos that I have captured with the Nikon D850, I haven't actually found a single one that I couldn't have captured with the Z7. I can't say the same about my favourite D5 shots. So stay tuned on more on this topic in the coming months...

13. And That Pesky SINGLE Card Slot "Issue"?

Yep, no matter how much time you spend looking for a second card slot you won't find it (I've looked EVERYWHERE). I get how those who photograph weddings or other "crucial" events - and are used to using less reliable storage media than XQD cards (like SD cards) - think NOT having a second card slot (for backup) is a deal-breaker. And, I understand how those who like to segregate format types by slot (e.g., raw in card slot 1, JPEG in card slot 2) are disappointed that the Z7 won't do this. But I have always used my 2nd card slot as an overflow (and my experience is that this is how MOST wildlife shooters work) and I have never had an XQD card fail - so I am completely unconcerned that the Z7 has only one card slot. I saw a recent interview of a Nikon executive from Europe and he called it like it was - the decision of having a second card slot came down to this: have one card slot and have a smaller camera or have two card slots and have a larger camera. Personally, I have enough big cameras - I'll go for the "one card slot and smaller camera" option.

My final "after 3 weeks" comment about the Z7? Well...it ain't perfect, but it works pretty darned well for me.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#Z7_3weeks

09 Sept 2018: Hey Canon - GOOD IDEA!

Lke Nikon, Canon has just announced their new full-frame entry into the mirrorless market - the EOS R. Like Nikon, Canon realized that a big part of getting immediate sales and "converts" to their system was to offer a mount adapter so Canon EF and EF-S lenses could be used on their mirrorless body. But on the mount adapter front Canon scooped Nikon by offering multiple adapters. One of their adapters is called the "Drop-in Filter Mount Adapter EF-EOS R" and I bet you'll never guess what it does. Oh...good guess - it includes drop-in filter capability for use with circular polarizing filters or variable ND filters! OK...think about that - wouldn't it be incredibly nice to have ONE circular polarizer or ONE variable ND filter that fits ALL your lenses! Good idea Canon.

Take note Nikon (please). And if there's internal resistance at head office to "copying" Canon, just think how many drop-in CPL's and drop-in variable ND's you'd be able to sell (stolen market share from B+W and others!) if you followed suit and independently came up with the cleverly named Mount Adapter FTZ with Drop-in Filter Holder! Heck, you'd even sell a whole lot more mount adapters (I'm sure a LOT of shooters would end up owning the standard mount adapter PLUS the drop-in filter mount adapter).

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

08 Sept 2018: Why I've Ordered the Nikon Z7 (and NOT the Z6)

NOTE: Minor revisions to this entry were made on 09 September.

In my last blog entry I outlined why I was cautiously excited and optimistic about the new Z Series mirrorless camera system recently announced by Nikon. In this blog entry I'm going to try to explain why I have ordered the 45.7 MP Z7 rather than the considerably less expensive, lower resolution, faster, and presumably the new mirrorless with better ISO performance - the Z6. Along the way I'm going to tell it exactly as I see it - from my perspective as a nature photographer.

In understanding why I have chosen to go with the Z7 (rather than the Z6) it's probably important to note that beyond being "just" a nature photographer, I'm one who primarily specializes in wildlife photography on British Columbia's wild and dark coast. This means that a disproportionately large amount of my own shooting is in low-light conditions and often hand-held from a Zodiac inflatable boat. A large proportion of my wildlife photography is of animals in action...including animals in action in low light. The key point here is that my camera needs for MY wildlife shooting probably differ a lot from someone who shoots sleeping lions in bright African sun! Stick with me...you'll see where I'm going with this in a few more sentences! ;-)

As a final background note - I do enjoy landscape photography, but at this point I'm an opportunistic (and spontaneous) landscape shooter. Given the opportunity I will meticulously set up a landscape shot (using a firm tripod, cable release, electronic shutter, etc.), but my reality is that those opportunities are few and far between and I often have to hand-hold my landscape shots. A camera facilitating spontaneous hand-held shooting (with - hint - perhaps an excellent 5-stop VR system with ALL lenses I might use it with) just might have some value for me.

An important part of understanding my interest in the Z7 is related to how I perceive and use Nikon's other 45.7 MP camera - the D850. Very long story short, the D850 doesn't work too well for me as a wildlife camera. Why? Partly because of the region and conditions under which I do the bulk of my wildlife photography and partly because I own a different camera far better suited to my style of wildlife shooting - the Nikon D5. Don't get me wrong - I think the D850 is a great camera. But the D5 has many attributes that makes it a MUCH better wildlife camera for me than the D850 - and those would be better ISO performance, better dynamic range in the ISO region I mostly live in (above ISO 640), a faster frame rate, MUCH better burst depth, better AF performance, a superior mirror-driving mechanism (which leads to shorter blackout times and better between-frame image stability when shooting bursts) and more. Anyone interested in a much more detailed comparison of the effectiveness of Nikon's latest models as wildlife cameras should read my 27 March 2018 blog entry entitled "The BEST Nikon DSLR for Wildlife Photography?").

So...what do I use my D850 for? Mainly three things - opportunistic landscape shooting, animalscape shooting, and a lot of lens testing! The common denominator here is that I DON'T use it much at all for action shooting or "wildlife in action" shooting. My D5 is a much better tool for any form of action shooting than is my D850. Oh...and if anyone wants to know exactly what I mean by animalscape shooting there are two places you can go (on this website - and neither are located in Hades!) - either here for a written description, or to my Animalscapes Gallery for some sample animalscape shots (for the visually inclined!).

Now - the bottom line - and please read this carefully: It's my opinion that the Z7 will come closer to matching the D850 for what I use that camera for than the Z6 will come to the D5 for what I use THAT camera for. And, most importantly, I think it is likely that the Z7 will beat (or offer additional features beyond) the D850 in a few areas that are important to me. These areas include in the absolute accuracy of autofocus on stationary or near-stationary subjects (landscapes and animalscapes), the addition of VR to some key non-VR lenses I like (including the Sigma 85mm f1.4 Art, the Sigma 35mm f1.4 Art, and more), improved "automated" capture of images for focus-stacking, a wider area of AF coverage, and more. Central to my argument is that I think it's completely reasonable to assume that the image QUALITY of the 45.7 MP images coming out Z7 will match the quality of the images coming out of the D850 (so in sharpness, dynamic range, ISO performance, etc.).

The clever reader (so everyone reading this) will instantly realize there are a lot of consequences and/or assumptions (and preconceptions) behind the statement immediately above. Yep, guilty as charged. And those preconceptions include:

1. That I don't think the first generation Nikon Z Series cameras will match the D5 as wildlife cameras.

Yep, no surprise there. And this first generation of Z's won't fully match the D850 or the D500 as wildlife cameras either. But this doesn't disappoint me at all. The current top Nikon DSLR's are the result of decades of development. If the version 1.0's of the Z's matched Nikon's best DSLR's in the demanding field of wildlife photography it wouldn't say much about those DSLR's! And most importantly - the new Z's will have some different and unique attributes that NO DSLR has (How good are you at guessing the DoF of a zoom lens used on your DSLR at EACH focal length it offers? Oh...you can SEE that on the EVF of a Z7? Hey, that's pretty cool!).

But what are the specific "deficiencies" that I expect to see in the Z7 that will prevent it from being my preferred camera for wildlife? Pretty much the same ones that prevent my D850 from being my go-to wildlife camera (and it's likely that with a few of them the deficiency will be greater than with my D850). Relative to my current #1 wildlife camera for wildlife photography (yep, the D5) these will - or are likely to - include reduced frame rates, reduced burst sizes, increased viewfinder black out times, decreased focus-tracking ability, and decreased ISO performance.

Based on email I've received - and a certain video I've seen online - there seem to be some who are disappointed that the first Z's can't match the world's best DSLR's as wildlife cameras. Uhhhh...what did you expect with Version 1.0? Some might argue the Sony A9 can compete with a Nikon D5 as a wildlife camera (I'd argue otherwise, but that's another story), but it seems to me that expecting the first Z's to be top-notch wildlife cameras is unrealistic. Obviously it will be POSSIBLE to grab a great bird-in-flight shot with a Nikon Z7 or Z6, but your hit rate on capturing any form of high-speed action won't be anywhere close to that of Nikon's top DSLR's.

If anyone is interested in unfettered speculation, my best guess is that discerning and demanding wildlife photographers will opt for at least one more generation of DSLR's before going to mirrorless for their "go-to" wildlife camera. I think I will be be buying a D6 as my NEXT preferred wildlife camera (just think - D5 AF and ISO performance with a 30 MP sensor!). But a D7 (if we even see it)? Maybe not...

2. That I think the Z7 will be a highly capable landscape and animalscape camera.

Yep, I definitely believe that. And, moreover, I think it will be a really good all-rounder too! I also think the Z6 will be a good "all-rounder" (and likely offer great ISO performance with pretty decent speed), but anyone thinking that it can compete with a D5 for action or wildlife shooting is bound to be disappointed.

3. That I think that at product launch the Nikon Z's will be GREAT (and highly useful) complements to Nikon DSLR's for serious enthusiast and professional shooters.

Yep. In fact, I think the Z7 will complement my D5 and D500 so well that I may be able to sell my D850 without losing a step (and I'll even gaining a step in some ways). And this is in no way a criticism of my D850 - I think it's an amazing 45.7 DSLR.

Anyway...back to the point of this entry - why I have ordered a Z7 and not a Z6. And it's simply because I think in a few ways the Z7 will be more useful for me than my D850 (i.e., has the potential to replace my D850). But, given I own both a D5 and D500, I can't begin to imagine what advantage or "edge" a Z6 would give to this wildlife photographer. And, compared to my D5 and even my D500, I'm quite confident that the Z6 would fall short in some key performance parameters that are critical to me in my wildlife work, including AF performance, realized frame rate, burst size, blackout time, yada, yada, yada! So...ME buying a Z6 would be akin to burning money and make ZERO sense...

All-in-all...it's a good and highly interesting time to be a Nikon-shooting wildlife photographer. The Z Series introduction won't instantly shake up our world, but that shake-up is coming and it's just around the corner. I'm choosing to embrace and move forward with the mirrorless revolution. Along the way I plan to enjoy learning something new with it, and just have some good ol' fun with it. I am genuinely excited about starting shooting with my Z7 and having it open up my "photographic thinking".

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#WhyZ7

07 Sept 2018: Cautious Excitement About Nikon's New Z Series System

By now most visitors to this website know that Nikon (and Canon) are about to seriously step into the mirrorless camera market. I won't get into the specs of Nikon's new Z Series cameras and lenses here - anyone wanting that information can go to dpreview.com, nikonrumors.com, or even their favourite Nikon website (like nikon.ca). I'm going to limit this blog entry to why I'm personally excited - but cautiously excited - about Nikon's new mirrorless system. A subsequent blog entry will explain my rationale and reasoning for ordering the 45.7 MP Z7 (with a 24-70mm f4S lens) rather than the 24.5 MP Z6.

CONTEXT:

Keep in mind this commentary is written by a nature photographer who primarily specializes in wildlife photography on British Columbia's wild - and often dark - coast. This means that a disproportionately large amount of my own shooting is in low-light conditions and often hand-held from a Zodiac inflatable boat (there aren't many roads leading into the Great Bear Rainforest or to the coastal islands I work and play on). I enjoy landscape photography, but at this point I'm an opportunistic (and spontaneous) landscape shooter. Given the opportunity I will meticulously set up a landscape shot (using a firm tripod, cable release, electronic shutter, etc.), but my reality is that those opportunities are few and far between and I often have to hand-hold my landscape shots.

What about my previous mirrorless experiences? Some may be surprised to find out that I've owned 5 mirrorless cameras, including offerings from Olympus, Panasonic, and Nikon 1's (both a V1 and V2). To date - and relative to my Nikon DSLR's - I have found them awkward, slow, too small for my medium-sized hands, and pretty much in the way of the image-capturing process. I have NOT owned (or extensively used) any of the more recent "high end" mirrorless from Sony (such as an A7 MkIII or an A9) - so my comments in the previous sentence don't necessarily apply to them.

Finally, I have a considerable investment in F-mount lenses and love many of them. And...not all of them have VR.

WHY I'M EXCITED

So...as long as image quality isn't compromised, who wouldn't want a smaller and lighter camera body? I think at the most basic level this is the key appeal of a mirrorless system. Of course, other features most commonly found on mirrorless systems have appeal as well - things like a silent, vibration-free electronic shutter (yep, you CAN find this on a D850 as well), exceptionally high frame rates, and more. But why should a Nikon-shooting nature photographer like me be excited about Nikon's first serious entry into the mirrorless market? Here's a few things - starting with the most important - that interest and excite me...

1. Nikon Ergonomics:

I mentioned above that I found all previous mirrorless systems I have used more or less got in the way of the image capture process. A big part of this is simply ergonomics and having a "different" layout than the Nikon DSLR's my hands know so well. By all accounts - and after discounting the hype - it appears that the size and layout of the key operating controls of the Z Series bodies largely mimics that of their DSLR's. My reality is that for the foreseeable future (3 years? 4 years?) I will still be shooting a DSLR for a large (but possibly changing) proportion of my work, and the ease of going back and forth between mirrorless and DSLR - without having to actively think about where the controls are - is an absolutely HUGE concern for me. Sure...one Sony model or another may have a feature or two I prefer over the Z7, but for me this is absolutely dwarfed in comparison to having a mirrorless camera that my fingers alone can control as well as they can control my Nikon DSLR (i.e., with almost no active involvement of my brain!).

2. The Mount Adapter FTZ:

This one is a no-brainer: I have a HUGE investment in F-mount lenses and I want to be able to use many (if not all) of them on any new camera I acquire. And with the Mount Adapter FTZ all the lenses in my own collection should work seamlessly with the Z7. In fact, I currently have a 500mm f5.6 PF on order - and if there wasn't a way to use this lens with the Z Series bodies I may not have ordered it (I have a feeling that it won't be long before you start seeing a lot of traveling wildlife photographers with a Z6 or Z7 in their hands with either a 300mm PF or a 500mm PF attached to them).

3. VR on my Non-VR Lenses!

I have a few lenses that I really like but use less than I would if they had VR on them. These lenses include my Sigma 85mm f1.4 Art (my sharpest lens, period!), my Sigma 35mm f1.4 Art, and even my Nikkor 200mm f4 Micro (Note: At this time I am assuming that Sigma F-mount lenses will be fully compatible with the Z Series cameras via the mount adapter FTZ). When you use a non-VR F-mount lens on a Z Series mirrorless camera you gain the benefit of the in-body VR and your non-VR lens instantly has up to 5-stops of 3-axis image stabilization. In my books this is really cool and really useful. And, it's something above and beyond what I can get on ANY of my Nikon DSLR's (that IS the ultimate question, isn't it - what true performance advantage do you get with a mirrorless camera that you CAN'T get with a DSLR?). Got a sharp F-mount lens that has become a paperweight largely because it doesn't have VR? Well...it just might be time to dust it off!

4. The Promise of the Z-mount?

OK...I've read and watched everything about the "potential" of the large mount diameter and short flange focal distance of the new Z-mount lenses that I can lay my hands on. And, it's all claiming that the new mount design gives optical engineers new and relaxed design contraints and will lead to more light transmission (= faster lenses) and more. But, at this point virtually all the readily-available information is from Nikon or Nikon-sponsored sources - so it's challenging to separate the marketing hype and spin from objective facts. But, the claimed benefits of the Z-mount seem logical and, interestingly, Canon is doing the exact same things - and making the same claims (is that an indication of collusion or just good industrial espionage?). But maybe...just maybe...some of the new Z-mount lenses WILL offer better optics (such as better corner sharpness?) than the F-mount lenses. And that thought IS quite exciting, especially as sensor resolution rises...

5. USB-Rechargeable Batteries!

For many the fact that you can recharge the new EN-EL15B batteries simply via a USB cable (without need for a charging station) may seem like no big deal. But for a traveling photographer (and especially one that flies under increasingly strict luggage limits) this is great news. Especially if one is looking to combine a Z Series body with one like the D5 that takes different battery types and requires a different charger. This is cool.

WHY MY EXCITEMENT IS CAUTIOUS

I mentioned above that I'm cautiously excited about the Z Series System. Why the caution? Simple - because of my previous quite negative experiences with mirrorless systems. Here are my primary concerns with the Z Series cameras - and they're things that Nikon may or may not have "fixed" to my satisfaction.

1. The Electronic Viewfinder (EVF)

OK...upfront admission of a bias that may lack logic - but to date I absolutely hate the EVF's I have used (but please note that I have NOT tried the latest Sony EVF's which are reportedly very good). I like a bright optical viewfinder. I go to some amazing places, and to view them through what looks like a decades old TV screen is beyond unappealing to me. I fully understand the advantages of an EVF (including showing you exactly what the sensor "sees" - like your DoF - and all sorts of additional handy info), but having a crappy view of the scene overrides these advantages for me. I have already heard very good things about the Z Series EVF's - and I know developing an EVF that would please picky DSLR owners was a design priority for Nikon's mirrorless cameras. I truly hope Nikon has taken EVF's to a new level and I like what I see through the viewfinder. But I'm still concerned about this...

2. Autofocus Performance

I have an honestly developed bias here - I'm used to the stunning autofocus performance of the Nikon D5. So anything less - which for me includes the AF performance of the D500 and D850 - feels somehow "inferior". But if I do two things - think about my own experiences with mirrorless autofocus systems AND listen to the feedback of others - I hear three recurring themes about other mirrorless AF systems: very good accuracy, relatively slow initial acquisition of focus, and relatively poor tracking ability. But, if any camera company "gets" autofocus (and knows how to make it work almost seamlessly), it's Nikon.

So what's my expectation (educated guess?) about the autofocus performance of the first Z Series cameras? LIKELY the best in the mirrorless world (sorry Sony, but just telling it like I think it will be!). LIKELY good enough for an awful lot of uses and/or users. How about in comparison to DSLR's? LIKELY better than many - and possibly "almost as good" as some of the better ones (like the D500 and D850). But I would be shocked if it was even close to the performance of the D5. And for a wildlife photographer that pushes a D5 to the limit, the Z6 or Z7 AF system may just not quite cut it.

At this point I find it hard to make too many definitive statements about the feature set of the Z Series cameras based solely on the "spotty" specs we have. For example, a quick perusal of the Z Series camera specs shows that there is no "Group Area" AF mode - instead we see Wide-area AF (S and L, which is presumably Small and Large) with no detailed information (at least that I have been able to find) in terms of how those modes actually work. Are the Wide-area AF modes simply "re-named" Group Area modes? And, it appears there is only ONE Dynamic-area AF - which of the many Dynamic-area AF modes found on the newest Nikon DSLR's do they most directly compare to? We simply don't know yet.

And here's a point I will go into in more detail in my coming post on why I chose the Z7 over the Z6 - I DO expect to see excellent AF accuracy on the Z Series cameras. In fact, it would not surprise me to see (and I am actually counting on) the AF accuracy of the 45.7 MP Z7 exceeding that of the phase detect AF system of the 45.7 MP D850 (but not necessarily of the contrast detect AF system of the D850 when you shoot it in Live View mode).

Last but not least - and this is speculative until I can find more technical information on the Z Series hybrid AF system - I think it is likely that the Z Series cameras will mark the end of the need to perform AF tuning. I truly hope this is the case (I view AF tuning as an almost painful task I would LOVE to be able to forget about).

3. Battery Life?

While I am getting mixed signals on this one (I see a rating of 330 shots per charge on Nikon's website and videos online showing between 1000-2000 shots per charge), it's likely that the per-charge battery life of the Z Series cameras will allow for far fewer shots than on the EN-EL18's I use on my D5, D500, and D850 (the latter two via use of a battery grip). If Nikon's published rating of 330 shots per charge is close to accurate it would be a big negative for me. If the "rating" on the video I saw online (by good 'ol @nikonricci) suggesting a battery life of about 1000-2000 shots (depending on camera settings) battery life could be a total non-issue. This one will have to wait until I get a Z7 in my hands and start shooting with it.

4. Burst Depth?

And...this is another one I'll just have to wait to test before saying too much about. But, at least for my wildlife shooting, burst depth does matter to me - any camera with less than about 40 frames per burst (at the highest frame rate) more or less disqualifies itself from being my primary wildlife camera.

For obvious reasons (different file sizes and data flow rate limitations) I'm sure the burst depth of the Z6 will exceed that of the Z7. I have no a priori reason to believe that they will differ greatly from Nikon's DSLR's of comparable resolution (so I expect the Z7 will be similar to the D850). But we'll see...

All in all? I'm just really looking forward to getting my Z7 and trying it out. Who knows - I may even keep it! ;-)

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#Z7_cautiousexcitement



Nikon 180-400mm Field Test: Optical Performance at 560mm

02 August 2018: Nikkor 180-400mm f4E Field Test IIIF: Optical Performance at 560mm

This is the ninth installment in an on-going series describing my experiences field-testing the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E. Previous entries covered:

• 21 May 2018: First Impressions
• 18 June 2018: Shooting the 180-400mm in the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Sanctuary (including 27 sample images)
• 29 June 2018: Optical Performance at 500mm
• 02 July 2018: Optical Performance at 400mm
• 05 July 2018: Commentary 1 - What's AIS?
• 09 July 2018: Optical Performance - MORE at 400mm
• 16 July 2018: Optical Performance at 200mm
• 25 July 2018: Optical Performance at 300mm

In this entry I describe my results from systematic and comparative optical field-testing of the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E lens at a 560mm focal length against 3 other 560mm "options". Here's the list of lenses in this comparison:

• Nikkor 180-400mm f4E (at 400mm with built-in TC engaged)
• Nikkor 400mm f2.8E plus Nikkor TC-14EIII (1.4x) teleconverter
• Nikkor 200-400mm f4G plus TC-14EIII
• Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3 @ 560mm

This is my FINAL detailed entry on optical performance of the 180-400mm at any particular focal length (thank gawd!). I am planning on two more entries that touch on optical performance in a general sense, i.e., entries on the vignetting exhibited by the Nikkor 180-400mm and on the performance of its integrated TC (including comparisons of it against the TC-14EIII). I don't anticipate these entries will be as exhaustive (or exhausting for me!) as the previous ones on optical performance at the various focal lengths.

As with all previous optical performance tests the lenses were tested over an aperture range from maximum aperture (wide open) through to f11. And, all lenses were tested at 3 distances. In this 560mm comparison the distances were 9.5 meters, 30 meters, and 1500 meters (i.e., a distant scene). The close and mid-range distances were selected to produce final images with subjects occupying very close to the same proportion of the viewfinder and/or final image as they did in all previous optical performance tests.

For both the close (9.5 meters) and mid-range (30 meters) working distances the images were examined for central region sharpness and the "quality" of the Out-of-Focus (OoF) zones (i.e., bokeh quality). The images of the distant scene (1500 meters) were captured and evaluated for both central and edge-to-edge sharpness (but not for bokeh).

Anyone wishing to skip the remaining background material and description of my methodology can jump directly to The Executive Summary of my results by following this link...

I. Critical Background!

Why the test at 180-400mm f4E at 560mm? That's easy to answer. First, it's the absolute LONGEST focal length offered by the 180-400mm f4E (if shot on an FX body) - you get there by taking the lens to its maximum native focal length (400mm) and then engaging the built-in 1.4 teleconverter (or in the reverse order!). Historically Nikon zoom lenses have tended to be at their weakest optically (= least sharp) at their longest focal length (and please note that I did NOT just say they were BAD at their longest focal length - they're just not quite as GOOD at their longest focal length). And...most serious shooters accept that ALL teleconverters degrade image quality at least SOME. So...if you take a newly-designed zoom lens to its longest focal length and THEN add an image-degrading teleconverter to it can you expect to get professional-level image quality out of it? Tons of folks want to know the answer to this question (and obviously I wanted to know too!).

Second, in my opinion the absolute GOLD STANDARD of Nikon teleconverter performance just happens to be at this focal length. I'm referring to the stellar combination of the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E plus the Nikkor TC-14EIII teleconverter. I have shot this combination for years (and know many, many other wildlife photographers who have too) and have found it to be absolutely excellent (both in image sharpness and in bokeh). In fact, I made the decision to sell my Nikkor 600mm f4G VR solely because of how well the 400mm f2.8E plus TC-14EIII performed (at only 40mm less). IF the 180-400mm f4E at 560mm can rival the 400mm f2.8E plus TC-14EIII in optical performance THAT will be something (and potentially impact the purchase decision and the "what to sell to pay for the 180-400mm" decision for me AND a lot of other people!).

In a related sense, IF the 180-400mm f4E performs well at 560mm (we already know it performs exceptionally well at virtually all focal lengths up to 500mm) then this new lens becomes even MORE versatile and - in a sense - valuable to the wildlife photographer. But, if we discover the "reverse" (i.e., if it sucks at 560mm), then I know a lot of wildlife photographers (including this one) who would likely decide to pass on buying the 180-400mm and park all that money in OTHER gear!

Many people like to read multiple reviews before buying a lens, especially an expensive lens like this one (which makes a lot of sense). Unfortunately, if you read multiple reviews about the performance of the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E at 560mm you'll see some very different "stories" - including everything from "Way better than the Canon 200-400mm f4 with its teleconverter" through to "Perfectly sharp and as good as any prime" (from those completely unrestrained by objectivity - Nikon-sponsored photographers!) and "Weak, use only as a last resort" (from, no doubt, someone who paid more attention to MTF curves than what they could capture in the field!). The bottom line - I was both very skeptical of everything I had read on both sides of the "performance at 560mm" debate and I could really find no instances of a systematic and comparative approach to unravelling the mystery of how the 180-560mm performed at 560mm in the field. Thus this test...

One final introductory note: WAY back in late May and early June I took the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E into British Columbia's Khutzeymateen Grizzly Sanctuary and shot with it over 9 days. During that time I shot a LOT of images at 560mm. So...besides the "comparison shots" below, here's some additional "real world" samples of images captured at 560mm that some may find interesting or helpful:

• Grizzly Swimming with D5: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.27 MB)
• Grizzlies Sparring with D5: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.95 MB)
• Grizzly Portrait with D5: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.88 MB)
• Grizzly Portrait with D500: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 2.21 MB)
• Grizzly Portrait with D850: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 2.02 MB)
• Crow with D5: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.21 MB)
• Distant Eagle with D5: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.91 MB)
• Seal with D850: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.44 MB)
• Mew Gull in Flight with D5: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.56 MB)

You'll also currently find a few more images shot with the 180-400mm at 560mm in my Gallery of Latest Additions.

II. Field-Testing Methods

With the exception of slightly different sdistances for the close and mid-distant subjects (as discussed above) both the field-testing methods and the assessment of the final images were made using the exact same methodology as described in my 02 July 2018 blog entry on the optical performance at 400mm (open the methodology section of that entry in a new tab/window using this link).

The goal of the optical testing is to get a good handle on what I refer to as the Maximum Attainable Field Sharpness (or MAFS) for each lens. This means that I try to control as many variables as possible - the images are captured from a firm tripod and gimbal head, Live View focus is used (to remove any bias associated with AF tuning issues), a cable release is used, a FULL electronic shutter is used, optical stabilization systems are all turned OFF, et cetera. And, to reveal as many lens flaws as possible, all tests are performed using the highest resolution DSLR currently available from Nikon - the D850.

For those seeking a "visual" of the subjects I used (and the "scenes") at each of the three test distances in this test, here ya go AGAIN...(each image is full-frame, but reduced in resolution from 8256 x 5504 pixels to 2400 x 1600 pixels):

• Close Subject (9.5 meters): The Stump (JPEG: 1.0 MB)
• Mid-distance Subject (30 meters): My Amazingly Cooperative Eagle (JPEG: 1.25 MB)
• Distant Subject (1500 meters): Distant Treeline at Sunrise (JPEG: 1.6 MB)

III. The RESULTS!

As always, I'll give you a quick and dirty Executive Summary followed by a few more nitty-gritty details of the results.

1. The Executive Summary:

Overall the 4 lenses in this group quickly sorted themselves into two groups from a sharpness perspective. The first group consisted of the 400mm f2.8E plus 1.4x TC and the 180-400mm f4E with built-in TC engaged. These two lenses were much sharper at all distances and at almost all apertures than the lenses in the other group (i..e, the Sigma Sport 150-600mm at 560mm and the Nikkor 200-400mm plus 1.4x TC). And, they exhibited VERY similar (and almost indistinguishable) sharpness to one another.

At the working distances where bokeh (and the ability to separate subjects from a background) were important the wider aperture of the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E plus 1.4x TC (i.e., f4 vs. f5.6) did make an appreciable difference. At both 9.5 meters and 30 meters the Out-of-Focus (OoF) zones of the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E plus TC could be made less detailed and smoother (and a subject could be made to stand out from its background better) than with the other lenses in this test.

What about at long subject distances at 560mm? In both the central region and on the edges it was pretty much a tie for the sharpness "title" between two of the four lenses - the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E plus TC and the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E with built-in TC engaged. With enough stopping down (f9 and smaller) both the Sigma Sport 150-600mm plus the Nikkor 200-400mm f4G plus TC could pretty much match the two others in sharpness of the central region, but the edges were never as sharp (at any aperture).

At 560mm only one lens exhibited Aperture Independent Sharpness (AIS) at all distances - the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E (read more about AIS HERE). This means it was as sharp wide open as when stopped down (including on the edges with the long distant subject). The Nikkor 400mm f2.8E plus TC needed very little stopping down before approaching maximum sharpness (details below) which means that the widest "usable" apertures were available on this lens/TC combination.

The overall top performer at 560mm? If we JUST look at image sharpness it's almost a dead-heat between the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E plus TC and the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E with TC engaged. In bokeh it's clearly the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E plus TC. So...overall...the nod for first place does go to the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E plus TC, but the Nikkor 180-400mm is nipping very closely at its heels!

2. The Nitty Gritty Details:

A. Optical Performance at 9.5 meters (560mm focal length):

• Overall Sharpness: At close distance (9.5 meters) - and at all overlapping apertures - the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E plus 1.4x TC is very (as in "very, very") slightly sharper than Nikkor 180-400mm f4E with its built-in TC engaged. The difference is almost "statistical" and certainly within the range where careful sharpening in post-processing would remove any visible difference (and even without sharpening it would be next to impossible to see on a high-resolution display...like a Retina). At this close distance both the Sigma Sport 150-600mm and the Nikkor 200-400mm plus TC were very noticeably softer (less sharp) and had to be stopped WAY down (in the f8 to f10 range) before approaching the sharpness of the other two lenses (and still never fully matched them).

How large of a difference is there in sharpness between these lenses at various apertures? See for yourself - here's a few comparisons of the central portions of the test images (at 100% magnification in viewer window of Capture One Pro). As always, these comparisons are best viewed at 100% magnification (on YOUR computer) and the sharpness differences will be harder to see on higher resolution (e.g., Retina) displays:

• All 4 lenses shot WIDE OPEN @ 9.5 meters: Download Composite Image (JPEG: 2.5 MB)
• All 4 lenses shot @ f6.3 @ 9.5 meters: Download Composite Image (JPEG: 2.5 MB)
• All 4 lenses shot @ f8 @ 9.5 meters: Download Composite Image (JPEG: 2.7 MB)

• Sharpness Progression (need to stop down from wide open to attain maximum sharpness) - Nikkor 180-400mm f4E: None, meaning the lens is at maximum sharpness when shot wide open (@ f4). This is a consistent with all previous optical performance test, and this was the ONLY lens exhibiting AIS (HUH? What's AIS?) at this distance. When you consider that a TC is involved, and that I have NEVER seen a lens/TC combination before that didn't benefit at least a LITTLE via stopping down, this is quite amazing!
• Sharpness Progression - Nikkor 400mm f2.8E plus TC-14EIII: 0.3 stops (to f4.5) before approximating maximum sharpness. Darned good!
• Sharpness Progression - Nikkor 200-400mm f4G plus TC-14EIII: 1 stop (to f8), but note that this lens was NEVER quite as sharp as the Nikkor 400 or the Nikkor 180-400 at this distance.
• Sharpness Progression - Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-5-6.3: 0.67 stops (to f8), but note that this lens was NEVER quite as sharp as the Nikkor 400 or the Nikkor 180-400 at this distance.

• OoF Zones (Bokeh): OK...this is where the wide aperture (and great optics) of the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E (plus TC) shows its stuff. When all lenses are shot wide open you DEFINITELY get less detailed and smoother OoF zones - period. But even when all four lenses are stopped down to f8 the OoF zones of the 400mm f2.8E are STILL nicer than the other lenses (see examples below). Note that both the Nikkor 180-400 AND the Nikkor 200-400 (each with a TC) did fairly well in this regard too. The Sigma Sport exhibits enough focus-breathing at this distance that it shows considerably more detail (and is less smooth) in its OoF zones.

How noticeable are the bokeh differences? Check out these composite images and decide for yourself:

• Comparative Bokeh When Shot Wide Open @ 560mm: Download Composite Image (JPEG: 1.6 MB)
• Comparative Bokeh When Shot at f8 @ 560mm: Download Composite Image (JPEG: 1.5 MB)

• Difference in Ability to Isolate Subject from Background: When this close to a subject pretty much all the lenses can do a decent job of isolating the subject from the background. But because in this case two lenses (the 400mm f2.8E and the 180-400mm f4e) are appreciably sharper at wide apertures than the other lenses - and because the 400mm f2.8E has noticeably better bokeh than the 180-400mm f4E - I have to give the nod to the 400mm f2.8E plus TC as "the best" in subject isolation ability at this distance.

OVERALL CONCLUSION: Here the "overall conclusion" parallels what I just said re: the difference in subject isolation ability - you have to acknowledge that at this distance the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E plus TC has a slight edge over the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E plus built-in TC. But they are REALLY close and both are considerably better than the other two options.

B. Optical Performance at 30 meters (560mm focal length):

• Overall Sharpness: The pattern at the mid-range working distance (30 meters) was very similar to that at 9.5 meters. If your primary concern is image sharpness then once again you have two great options - the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E plus TC and the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E with built-in TC engaged. Interestingly, at this distance if you shoot both of these lenses wide open the 180-400mm is slightly sharper. And, no matter how much you stop down, neither the Sigma Sport 150-600mm or the Nikkor 200-400mm plus TC can match their sharpness.

Just how significant is the difference in sharpness between the lenses at this distance? Here's two examples - the first with all lenses wide open and the second with all lenses at f8:

• All 4 lenses shot WIDE OPEN @ 30 meters: Download Composite Image (JPEG: 2.3 MB)
• All 4 lenses shot @ f8 @ 30 meters: Download Composite Image (JPEG: 2.5 MB)

• Sharpness Progression (need to stop down from wide open to attain maximum sharpness) - Nikkor 180-400mm f4E: Once more...NONE. And, once more, this is the ONLY lens in the test exhibiting AIS.
• Sharpness Progression - Nikkor 400mm f2.8E plus TC-14EIII: 0.3 stops (to f4.5), but note that the lens still sharpens up very slightly more (incrementally) up to f5.6.
• Sharpness Progression - Nikkor 200-400mm f4G plus TC-14EIII: 0.67 stops (to f7.1), but note that the lens/TC combination isn't very sharp at this distant at ANY aperture.
• Sharpness Progression - Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-5-6.3: 0.3 stops (to f7.1), but note that this lens very slowly sharpens up all the way to f10.

• Out-of-Focus (OoF) Zones (or Bokeh): Like at 9.5 meters, the larger aperture of the 400mm f2.8E plus TC (f4 vs f5.6 or f6.3) DOES make a difference here. So you WILL see the smoothest and least detailed OoF zones with the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E plus TC in the aperture range of f4 to f5 (simply because the other options can't get to these apertures). But once you're at f5.6 and smaller there is functionally no difference between the Nikkor 400mm f2.8 plus TC, the Nikkor 180-400mm with built-in TC engaged, and the Nikkor 200-400mm f4G plus TC (the Sigma Sport STILL shows focus-breathing at this distance and consequently its background is less smooth and more detailed).

• All 4 lenses shot WIDE OPEN @ 30 meters: Download Composite Image (JPEG: 1.7 MB)
• All 4 lenses shot @ f8 @ 30 meters: Download Composite Image (JPEG: 1.65 MB)

• Difference in Ability to Isolate Subject from Background: Unless you shoot at the wide apertures ONLY available on the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E plus TC (f4 through f5) you won't find much real difference in the ability to separate your subject (i.e., "make it pop") between these lenses. And the fact that the Nikkor 180-400mm f4e is SHARPER when it is shot wide open than the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E plus TC is when it is shot wide open (and because the ability to make a subject pop is based on the sharpness differential between the in-focus and the out-of-focus zones) further complicates declaring a clear-cut "winner" in this regard!

OVERALL CONCLUSION: In purely optical terms the very slight advantage must go to the Nikkor f2.8E plus TC-14EIII over the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E with built-in TC engaged. And that's simply because of its wider aperture and the slight advantage that can give in separating or isolating a subject from its background. In practical terms, the smaller size, lighter weight, and ability to zoom the focal length of the 180-400mm f4E would all bias me towards choosing this lens over the 400mm f2.8E plus TC combination in a field setting where I needed to get to a 560mm focal length (i.e., to me these variables outweigh the tiny difference in optical performance). Oh...and if you like sharp images, at this distance the Nikkor 200-400mm f4G plus TC-14EIII isn't for you! ;-)

C. Optical Performance with Distant (1500 meters) Subject (560mm focal length):

• Overall Sharpness: The trend with a distant subject was very clear - in both the central region and on the edges it was pretty much a tie for the sharpness "title" between two of the four lenses - the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E plus TC and the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E with built-in TC engaged. With enough stopping down (f9 and smaller) both the Sigma Sport 150-600mm plus the Nikkor 200-400mm f4G plus TC came very close to matching the two others in sharpness of the central region, but the edge sharpness of both the Sigma Sport 150-600mm and the Nikkor 200-400 plus TC was quite poor (i.e., soft edges) at all apertures.

• Sharpness Progression (need to stop down from wide open to attain maximum sharpness) - Nikkor 180-400mm f4E: Center AND Edges: None, even with distant subjects there's no sharpness-related reason to stop down this lens at 560mm and with a distant subject.
• Sharpness Progression - Nikkor 400mm f2.8E plus TC-14EIII: Center: 0.3 stops (to f4.5); Edges: 0.67 stops (to f5).
• Sharpness Progression - Nikkor 200-400mm f4G plus TC-14EIII: Center and Edges: 1.0 to 1.3 stops (to f8-f9), but note that the "maximum sharpness of the edges" wasn't very maximum (meaning the edges were soft at all apertures).
• Sharpness Progression - Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-5-6.3: Center and Edges: 0.67 stops (f8), but like with the Nikkor 200-400mm plus TC even the "maximum sharpness" of the edges simply wasn't very sharp.

• Out-of-Focus (OoF) Zones (or Bokeh): N/A (at this distance).
• Difference in Ability to Isolate Subject from Background: N/A (at this distance).

OVERALL CONCLUSION: At long distance you have two excellent options giving you very good edge-to-edge sharpness - the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E with built-in TC engaged and the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E plus TC-14EIII. With long distance subjects you CAN get decent central sharpness with both Nikkor 200-400mm f4G plus the TC-14EIII or the Sigma Sport 150-600mm if you stop down enough, but edges are soft at all apertures. So if you like to shoot distant landscapes OR animalscapes at 560mm and that require edge-to-edge sharpness you're best served with either the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E plus TC or the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E with its built-in TC engaged.

V. Final Discussion and Comments

If we start with the "biggest picture" findings about the optical performance of the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E at 560mm it's simple to produce a succinct summary: it performs very, very well. In sharpness it is functionally equal to the previous "gold standard" for both teleconverter and 560mm performance - the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E plus the TC-14EIII teleconverter. And, the quality of its OoF zones (bokeh) and its ability to separate a subject from a busy background at normal working distances are both very good, but can't quite match the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E plus TC in these regards. The final big picture comment about this lens is becoming so boring to write about it's darned easy to forget it's very remarkable: At each distance in this test only ONE lens exhibited complete aperture independent sharpness (i.e., required NO stopping down to get to maximum sharpness in the central regions OR on the edges) - and it WASN'T the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E. Yep, it was the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E.

In the "other" optical performance test I previously performed with the TC engaged (that at 500mm - details here) I obtained a similar result - the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E compares very favorably with the "best of the best" primes even when its TC is engaged.

If I combine both of these sets of test results (i.e., at 500mm and at 560mm) with the photographic results I obtained when I shot thousands of images with the 180-400mm with its TC engaged over 9 days in the Khutzeymateen I find myself left with absolutely NO reason to be reluctant to engage the built-in TC and use the "extended" portion of the focal range of this lens. For me, using this lens with the TC engaged is definitely NOT - as at least one other reviewer has reported - a last resort!

How do the other lenses in this test stack up against the two front-runners? In previous segments of this series I have found the Nikkor 200-400mm f4G surprisingly strong at native (without a TC) focal lengths. But...the Nikon 200-400mm f4G does not like (or do well with) teleconverters! Keep this lens away from TC's and you will be very happy with it - and it's certainly a lens capable of producing professional-level output (as long as you keep it away from teleconverters!).

The optical performance of the Sigma 150-600mm at 560mm is a bit more complex. At short and mid-range working distances it definitely will produce sharp images (with just a little stopping down), but at these same distances its focus-breathing does negatively impact on the quality of its OoF zones (bokeh) and its ability to isolate a subject from a busy background. At very long distances it can produce good central sharpness, but - at least on the high resolution D850 - it doesn't do well in edge sharpness. But its always important to remember that this lens costs a fraction of what the others in this lens cost. I STILL think this lens represents EXCELLENT value and there's a darned good reason you see so many of them out in the field.

Where am I going next with my testing of the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E? Good question! Before I have all the information I need to decide on where the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E "fits" in my own camera kit (and what that kit will look like moving forward in the near future) I still have to evaluate the VR performance/hand-holdability of the lens, learn more about its autofocus capabilities, quantify the degree of its vignetting "issue", and...as much for curiosity as anything...determine even MORE about it's TC performance (and surely I can't be the only one out there wondering how this lens will perform with the TC-20EIII...with its built-in TC UN-engaged).

A while ago someone asked me about what I thought the "sweet spot" of the 180-400mm f4E was (presumably he was asking both what focal lengths it performed best at AND what apertures were its strongest). The best focal length? That would be 180-560mm. The best aperture? That would be f4 through to f11 or beyond. I have NEVER seen a lens (prime or zoom) as solid optically as this one.

Stay tuned!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#180-400_Optic560mm

30 July 2018: So Brad...What About the 180-400mm's Vignetting??

Over the last few weeks I've received a fair amount of email asking me about the vignetting "issue" of the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E. Yes, the 180-400mm vignettes and it DOES exhibit MORE vignetting than many other lenses. I am planning to produce a fairly extensive and thorough discussion on the vignetting shown by the 180-400mm f4E (including how it varies with aperture, focal length, and distance) in the not-so-distant future. That discussion will appear first here on my blog and later in my final review of the 180-400mm f4E (which will permanently reside in the Field Tests section of this website.)

For those wanting a LITTLE more information on the vignetting NOW...I just posted an image (titled "Summer Sunrise - East Kootenays") in my Gallery of Latest Additions that shows an example of the vignetting on a shot captured with the 180-400mm f4E at 400mm and f4. The comparison images (vignetting removed vs. vignetting untouched) AND the discussion about the vignetting are revealed BELOW that image when you click on the "In the Field" tab (which is immediately below the main image window).

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca



Nikon 180-400mm Field Test: Optical Performance at 300mm

25 July 2018: Nikkor 180-400mm f4E Field Test IIIE: Optical Performance at 300mm

This is the eight installment in an on-going series describing my experiences field-testing the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E. Previous entries covered:

• 21 May 2018: First Impressions
• 18 June 2018: Shooting the 180-400mm in the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Sanctuary (including 27 sample images)
• 29 June 2018: Optical Performance at 500mm
• 02 July 2018: Optical Performance at 400mm
• 05 July 2018: Commentary 1 - What's AIS?
• 09 July 2018: Optical Performance - MORE at 400mm
• 16 July 2018: Optical Performance at 200mm

In this entry I describe my results from systematic and comparative optical field-testing of the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E lens at a 300mm focal length against 5 other 300mm "options". Here's the list of lenses in this comparison:

• Nikkor 180-400mm f4E
• Nikkor 200-400mm f4G
• Nikkor 300mm f2.8G VRII
• Nikkor 300mm f4 PF
• Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8
• Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3

As with all previous optical performance tests the lenses were tested over an aperture range from maximum aperture (wide open) through to f11. And, all lenses were tested at 3 distances. In this 300mm comparison the distances were 4.5 meters, 18 meters, and 1500 meters (i.e., a distant scene). The close and mid-range distances were selected to produce final images with subjects occupying very close to the same proportion of the viewfinder and/or final image as they did in all previous optical performance tests.

For both the close (4.5 meters) and mid-range (18 meters) distances to the subject the images were examined for central region sharpness and the "quality" of the Out-of-Focus (OoF) zones (i.e., bokeh quality). The images of the distant scene (1500 meters) were captured and evaluated for both central and edge-to-edge sharpness (but not for bokeh).

Anyone wishing to skip the remaining background material and description of my methodology can jump directly to The Executive Summary of my results by following this link...

I. Critical Background!

Why the test at 300mm? I think the most significant reason is that many wildlife photographers will already own at least one other "option" for getting to 300mm - and many of those shooters are probably quite interested in knowing how their "current" 300mm option stacks up against the new 180-400mm f4E at 300mm. I chose lenses for this comparison that most Nikon-shooting wildlife photographers are likely to be familiar with - all but two come from my own collection of lenses. Many thanks are extended to Nikon Canada for loaning me the Nikkor 300mm f2.8G VRII and Mike Wieser for loaning me the Nikkor 200-400mm f4G - without these two lenses this comparison would have been far less interesting or useful.

Personally, I'm happy my acquisition of the Nikkor 180-400mm f4G gave me the justification and motivation to allocate (sacrifice?) the time needed to perform all these optical tests at this time (at this and all other focal lengths). It's been a few years since I owned a copy of the 300mm f2.8G VRII or a copy of the 200-400mm f4G and I have wondered how those lenses truly stack up against some of the "newer" lenses in my collection. I've had the perception (= gut feeling) that the newer lenses (and in particular the newest lenses, like the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E) are simply better optically, and that this is likely because lens-makers have been forced to "up the ante" on their optical standards (and quality control) to meet the demands of the higher resolution sensors in use today. And, of course, you'd have to be living in a cave to miss the fact that the 3rd-party lens makers (such as Sigma) have REALLY upped their game in recent years (and perhaps they're forcing Nikon to up their game in response). In a related fashion, since the development of the D800-series cameras (especially the 46 MP D850) I've been wondering how those "older" lenses - and that were developed in a lower resolution world - would perform when paired up with demanding D850 that just LOVES to show lens flaws! So that leads to questions like "Is the venerable Nikkor 300mm f2.8G VRII competent enough to excel on the D850 or will it start to show its age" (like the 200mm f4D Micro did in the 200mm test).

So while the main goal of this test is to see how the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E at 300mm compares against the other lenses, this test will have lots of other interesting match-ups. Like how the 300mm f2.8G VRII and 300mm f4 PF stack up against each other when mounted on the D850 - as well as against Sigma's highly capable 120-300mm f2.8 Sport.

II. Field-Testing Methods

With the exception of using shorter distances for the close and mid-distant subjects (as discussed above) both the field-testing methods and the assessment of the final images were made using the exact same methodology as described in my 02 July 2018 blog entry on the optical performance at 400mm (open the methodology section of that entry in a new tab/window using this link).

The goal of the optical testing is to get a good handle on what I refer to as the Maximum Attainable Field Sharpness (or MAFS) for each lens. This means that I try to control as many variables as possible - the images are captured from a firm tripod and gimbal head, Live View focus is used (to remove any bias associated with AF tuning issues), a cable release is used, a FULL electronic shutter is used, optical stabilization systems are all turned OFF, et cetera. And, to reveal as many lens flaws as possible, all tests are performed using the highest resolution DSLR currently available from Nikon - the D850.

For those seeking a "visual" of the subjects I used (and the "scenes") at each of the three test distances in this test, here ya go AGAIN...(each image is full-frame, but reduced in resolution from 8256 x 5504 pixels to 2400 x 1600 pixels):

• Close Subject (4.5 meters): The Stump (JPEG: 1.1 MB)
• Mid-distance Subject (18 meters): My Amazingly Cooperative Eagle (JPEG: 1.4 MB)
• Distant Subject (1500 meters): Distant Treeline at Sunrise (JPEG: 1.6 MB)

III. The RESULTS!

As always, I'll give you a quick and dirty Executive Summary followed by a few more nitty-gritty details of the results.

1. The Executive Summary:

Overall the differences in central sharpness between most of the lenses at 300mm (at all distances) varied quite dramatically with aperture, especially at close and mid-range working distances. At close distance (4.5 meters) the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E was the sharpest lens from wide open up to f5. With further stopping down most of the other lenses eventually produced images of equal sharpness (details in "Nitty Gritty Details" below), but none exceeded the sharpness of the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E - at any aperture.

What about bokeh at 4.5 meters? This is the "wheelhouse" of the Nikkor 300mm f2.8G VRII! It clearly had the best bokeh at all apertures, though at apertures from f5 and smaller the 180-400mm f4E drew very close to the Nikkor 300mm f2.8 in bokeh quality.

The pattern at the mid-range distance (18 meters) was very similar to that at 4.5 meters. If your primary concern is image sharpness - no lens matched the Nikkor 180-400mm in sharpness from wide open up to f5.6. If your primary concern is bokeh - no lens fully matched the bokeh of the Nikkor 300mm f2.8G VRII at any aperture.

What about at long subject distances? In the central region it was pretty much a tie for the sharpness "title" between two of the six lenses - the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E and the Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8 were slightly but noticeably sharper than all the other lenses (at all apertures). Interestingly, when it came to EDGE sharpness, the Nikkor 300mm f2.8G VRII drew even with the 180-400mm f4E and the Sigma Sport 120-300mm.

At 300mm only one lens exhibited Aperture Independent Sharpness (AIS) at all distances - the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E (read more about AIS HERE). This means it was as sharp wide open as when stopped down (including on the edges with the long distant subject). Interestingly, the lens that needed to be stopped down the MOST to attain maximum sharpness was the Nikkor 300mm f2.8G VRII (details below).

The overall top performer at 300mm? This is a tough call - if we JUST look at image sharpness it's clearly the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E. In bokeh it's clearly the Nikkor 300mm f2.8G VRII. But...because the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E was nipping at the heels of the Nikkor 300mm f2.8G VRII in bokeh at moderate to small apertures (and clearly in 2nd place at the widest apertures), I'd give the overall nod to the 180-400mm f4E once more.

2. The Nitty Gritty Details:

A. Optical Performance at 4.5 meters (300mm focal length):

• Overall Sharpness: At close distance (4.5 meters) and apertures up to and including f5 the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E clearly produced the sharpest images. At f5.6 both the Nikkor 300mm f4 PF and the Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8 drew even with the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E, and both the Nikkor 200-400mm f4G and the Nikkor 300mm f2.8G produced images equally sharp to the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E at f6.3 and beyond. The Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3 was slightly but noticeably softer than the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E at all overlapping apertures.

How large of a difference is there in sharpness between these lenses at the wider apertures? It's definitely significant - here's a few comparisons of the central portions of the test image (at 100% magnification in viewer window of Capture One Pro). As always, these comparisons are best viewed at 100% magnification (on YOUR computer) and the sharpness differences will be harder to see on higher resolution (e.g., Retina) displays:

• Nikkor 300mm f2.8 vs. "The Nikkor Zooms" @ 4.5 meters: Download Composite Image (JPEG: 2.4 MB)
• Nikkor 300mm f2.8 vs. Nikkor 300mm f4 PF @ 4.5 meters: Download Composite Image (JPEG: 2.4 MB)
• Nikkor 300mm f2.8 vs. Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8 @ 4.5 meters: Download Composite Image (JPEG: 2.3 MB)

• Sharpness Progression (need to stop down from wide open to attain maximum sharpness) - Nikkor 180-400mm f4E: None, meaning the lens is at maximum sharpness when shot wide open (@ f4). This is a consistent with previous tests at 200mm, 400mm and 500mm - this was the ONLY lens exhibiting AIS (HUH? What's AIS?) at this distance.
• Sharpness Progression - Nikkor 300mm f2.8G VRII: 1.3 stops - required stopping down to f4.5 before approximating maximum sharpness.
• Sharpness Progression - Nikkor 300mm f4 PF: 0.67 stops - required stopping down to f5 before approximating maximum sharpness.
• Sharpness Progression - Nikkor 200-400mm f4G: 0.3 stops - required stopping down to f4.5 before approximating maximum sharpness.
• Sharpness Progression - Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8: 0.67 stops - required stopping down to f3.5 before approximating maximum sharpness.
• Sharpness Progression - Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-5-6.3: Just less than 0.3 stops - required stopping down to f6.3 (from f6) before approximating maximum sharpness (but note that this lens was NEVER as sharp as its competitors at 300mm - at any aperture).

• Out-of-Focus (OoF) Zones (or Bokeh): At this distance 3 lenses fell out of the running owing to focus-breathing - the Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8, the Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3, and (to a lesser extent) the Nikkor 300mm f4 PF all had enough focal length shortening (focus-breathing) that their OoF zones contained much more detail and far less pleasing bokeh. Three lenses showed no noticeable focus-breathing - the Nikkor 300mm f2.8G VRII, the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E, and the Nikkor 200-400mm f4G. And at ALL apertures this is where the Nikkor 300mm f2.8G VR REALLY showed its stuff - at all apertures it had the smoothest and most visually appealing bokeh. At f5 and smaller apertures the 180-400mm f4E drew very close to the 300mm f2.8 in bokeh quality, but never quite matched it. And, at f8 and smaller apertures the bokeh of the Nikkor 200-400mm f4G was ALMOST identical to that of the Nikkor 180-400mm (and thus very close to the Nikkor 300mm f2.8G as well).

How noticeable are the bokeh differences? Check out this composite image and decide for yourself:

• A Few Bokeh vs. Aperture Comparisons at 4.5 meters: Download Composite Image (JPEG: 1.65 MB)

• Difference in Ability to Isolate Subject from Background: When this close to a subject pretty much all the lenses can do a decent job of isolating the subject from the background. The trick in declaring an absolute "winner" in this category is that ONE lens (the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E) was noticeably sharper at wide apertures and a different lens (the Nikkor 300mm f2.8G VRII) had the best bokeh at wide apertures. In my view "subject isolation ability" is about the "visual differential" between the sharp areas and the OoF zones in an image. If I was forced to grab for one lens or the other to isolate a subject I'd probably opt for the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E, largely owing for my own predilection for liking VERY sharp in-focus zones. But it is a personal and subjective decision - there isn't much between them!

OVERALL CONCLUSION: In a sense this "conclusion" parallels what I just said re: the difference in subject isolation ability. If you're into crazy sharpness the 180-400mm f4E is the clear winner. If you're into absolutely dreamy OoF zones then you'd probably argue for being the best overall lens at this distance. Me? I'll take the 180-400mm f4E! ;-)

B. Optical Performance at 18 meters (300mm focal length):

• Overall Sharpness: The pattern at the mid-range distance (18 meters) was very similar to that at 4.5 meters. If your primary concern is image sharpness - no lens matched the Nikkor 180-400mm in sharpness from wide open up to f5.6. And, by f7.1, all lenses in the test EXCEPT the Sigma Sport 150-600mm produced images of comparable central region sharpness (like at 4.5 meters the Sigma Sport 150-600mm was slightly softer than the other lenses at all apertures). One result that may interest some readers - while the sharpest lens at this distance was the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E, if you compare ONLY the Nikkor 300mm f2.8G VRII against the Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8 when BOTH are shot wide open (f2.8), the Sigma Sport is MUCH sharper!

Just how significant is the difference in sharpness between the lenses at this distance? As always, it depends a lot on how you're going to use the images, but this composite image should give you a bit of a feel for the magnitude of the sharpness differences:

• Nikkor 300mm f2.8 vs. "The Nikkor Zooms" @ 18 meters: Download Composite Image (JPEG: 2.7 MB)

• Sharpness Progression (need to stop down from wide open to attain maximum sharpness) - Nikkor 180-400mm f4E: None, meaning the lens is at maximum sharpness when shot wide open (@ f4). This is a consistent with previous tests at 200mm, 400mm and 500mm - this was the ONLY lens exhibiting AIS.
• Sharpness Progression - Nikkor 300mm f2.8G VRII: Two full stops - required stopping down to f5.6 before approximating maximum sharpness.
• Sharpness Progression - Nikkor 300mm f4 PF: 0.67 stops - required stopping down to f5 before approximating maximum sharpness.
• Sharpness Progression - Nikkor 200-400mm f4G: 0.3 stops (at most) - required stopping down to f4.5 before approximating maximum sharpness (but was very sharp at f4).
• Sharpness Progression - Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8: 0.67 stops - required stopping down to f3.5 before approximating maximum sharpness.
• Sharpness Progression - Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-5-6.3: Just less than 0.3 stops - required stopping down to f6.3 (from f6) before approximating maximum sharpness (but note that this lens was NEVER as sharp as its competitors at 300mm - at any aperture).

• Out-of-Focus (OoF) Zones (or Bokeh): If your primary concern is bokeh - no lens fully matched the bokeh of the Nikkor 300mm f2.8G VRII at any aperture (though at f5.6 the bokeh of both the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E and the Nikkor 300mm f4 PF were nipping at its heels). Note that focus-breathing of the two Sigma Sport lenses was still significant enough to reduce the quality of their OoF zones. Of course, at this distance the differences you'll see in the bokeh and OoF zones is more subtle and nuanced (lost on someone like Donald Trump)...as this example shows...

• A Few Bokeh vs. Aperture Comparisons @ 18 meters: Download Composite Image (JPEG: 1.52 MB)

• Difference in Ability to Isolate Subject from Background: Just like at 4.5 meters this is darned close to a toss-up between the Nikkor 300mm f2.8G VRII and the 180-400mm f4E. AND, if the focus-breathing of the Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8 WASN'T impacted as much as it is by bokeh-damaging focus-breathing, it would be in the running (simply because it's considerably sharper than the Nikkor 300mm f2.8G at f2.8). Tough call to declare a "winner" here...can't really go too wrong with any of the 3 lenses. Here's a visual comparing all 3 of these lenses and "showing" the various issues:

• Subject Isolation Ability @ 18 meters: Download Composite Image (JPEG: 2/0 MB)

OVERALL CONCLUSION: Same story as at 4.5 meters - you want maximum image sharpness you want the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E. You want the absolute SOFTEST OoF zones then you want the Nikkor 300mm f2.8G VRII. You want a darned good compromise with high sharpness when shot at wide apertures (and you can live with some focus-breathing) at a whole lot less money - then you want the Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8!

C. Optical Performance with Distant (1500 meters) Subject (300mm focal length):

• Overall Sharpness: In the central region it was pretty much a tie for the sharpness "title" between two of the six lenses - the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E and the Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8 were slightly but noticeably sharper than all the other lenses (at all apertures). Both the Nikkor 300mm f2.8G VRII and the Nikkor 200-400mm came in just behind the Nikkor 180-400mm and the Sigma Sport 120-300 at virtually all apertures. Next in central sharpness came the Sigma Sport 150-600mm and, a bit surprisingly, the Nikkor 300mm f4 PF brought up the rear!

Interestingly, when it came to EDGE sharpness, the Nikkor 300mm f2.8G VRII drew even with the 180-400mm f4E and the Sigma Sport 120-300mm. In a bit of a shock to me, the Nikkor 200-400 came in next in edge sharpness - at most apertures it had decent (and acceptable) edge sharpness and wasn't far behind the top 3! Both the Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3 and the Nikkor 300mm f4 PF faired poorer - their edges were quite comparable to one another (both had quite soft edges).

• Sharpness Progression (need to stop down from wide open to attain maximum sharpness) - Nikkor 180-400mm f4E: None, even with distant subjects there's no sharpness-related reason to stop down this lens. This is a consistent with previous tests at 200mm, 400mm and 500mm - still incredible! And it's AIS at long subject distance for this lens ONLY.
• Sharpness Progression - Nikkor 300mm f2.8G VRII: Center AND Edges - 0.3 stop ONLY (to f3.2) to approach maximum sharpness.
• Sharpness Progression - Nikkor 300mm f4 PF: Center AND Edges - 0.67 stop (to f5) to approach maximum sharpness (but note that neither center or edges were particularly sharp at any aperture).
• Sharpness Progression - Nikkor 200-400mm f4G: Center AND Edges - 0.67 stop (to f5) to approach maximum sharpness.
• Sharpness Progression - Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8: Center AND Edges - 0.67 stop (to f3.5) to approach maximum sharpness.
• Sharpness Progression - Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-5-6.3: Center AND Edges - less than 0.3 stop (from f6 to f6.3) to approach maximum sharpness.

• Out-of-Focus (OoF) Zones (or Bokeh): N/A (at this distance).
• Difference in Ability to Isolate Subject from Background: N/A (at this distance).

OVERALL CONCLUSION: At long distance you have two excellent options giving you very good edge-to-edge sharpness - the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E and the Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8. Both the Nikkor 300mm f2.8G VRII and the Nikkor 200-400mm f4G do very well too. But if long-distance scenes captured at 300mm are your thing (especially on a high-res camera like the D850) you probably want to avoid using the Nikkor 300mm f4 PF and the Sigma Sport 150-600mm!

V. Final Discussion and Comments

Several things stood out for me in the testing at 300mm. The first is obvious - at all distances the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E was very strong optically. As in mind-boggling good. It was overall the sharpest of the lot, and at "normal" working distances (4.5 meters and 18 meters) it had really good bokeh. And, at 300mm (and at all distances to the subject) it once more exhibited Aperture Independent Sharpness - just tack sharp at any aperture at any distance! Incredible.

The second was the optical performance of the Nikkor 300mm f2.8G VRII. As most everyone who has shot with this lens would expect, it has GREAT bokeh! But...it really wasn't very sharp at wide apertures - at the distances one would commonly use this lens for (the short and mid-range working distances in this test) you had to stop down a LOT before getting to maximum sharpness. My own suspicion is that this observation on the need to stop the lens down to get to excellent sharpness is more obvious when pixel-peeping D850 images than it would be with images captured using lower resolution cameras. So, when I get emails from irritated owners of the Nikkor 300mm f2.8G VRII who tell me something like "...hey you idiot...I get GREAT images with my 300mm f2.8G VRII when I shoot it wide open on my D3s" my response will be "Yep, I believe you..." But, like I found with the 200mm f4 Micro...I think this lens was designed to work best with DSLR's of a few generations back and is need of an update.

The third was the continuing solid performance of the Nikkor 200-400mm f4G - this time at 300mm. At short and medium working distances this lens is really quite sharp, even shot wide open. And, it gets to maximum sharpness fast - usually by f4.5. And, contrary to that "interweb" thing, it's still solid at long distance at 300mm. In my view this lens can still - even with the Nikon D850 - produce incredible images. Those who already own it and have been thinking they should let it go might want to think again! And, those looking for a real high quality wildlife lens at a decent price should definitely see if they can find a used 200-400mm f4G.

How did the Nikkor 300mm f4 PF stack up against Nikkor 300mm f2.8G VRII? At short and mid-range working distances there really wasn't much difference in central region sharpness, and the 300mm f4 PF required less stopping down to get to maximum sharpness. But the bokeh of the 300mm f2.8G VRII was definitely better at the shortest distance (and this difference was exacerbated by the focus-breathing of the 300mm f4 PF) and even at 18 meters you could definitely see a difference in bokeh quality between the 300mm f4 PF and the 300mm f2.8G VRII (with the f2.8G producing smoother bokeh and an enhanced ability to isolate the subject from a busy background). However, with a distant subject the 300mm f2.8G VRII produced noticeably sharper images (from edge-to-edge) than the 300mm f4 PF. A few years back I decided to sell my Nikkor 300mm f2.8G VRII in favor of the 300mm f4 PF. On balance - and factoring in the very small size and low weight of the 300mm f4 PF - I'm not regretting that decision at all.

And, how did the Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8 and the Nikkor 300mm f2.8G VRII compare? Well...the Sigma Sport definitely held its own (and then some). At short and mid-range working distances the Sigma Sport was as sharp (or sharper) than the Nikkor 300mm f2.8G VRII at the widest apertures, AND you had to stop down much less to get to maximum sharpness. And at long distance the Sigma Sport was slightly sharper than the Nikkor 300mm f2.8 in the central regions (with the edges being virtually identical). In a sense, the ONLY negative thing about the Sigma Sport was its focus-breathing at short and mid-range working distances. This focus-breathing meant that you lost some bokeh quality and its ability to isolate a subject from its background was slightly impaired (relative to the Nikkor 300mm f2.8G VRII). I continue to be impressed with the Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8 (and let's not forget - it's a zoom!).

What about the the Sigma Sport 150-600mm? Like with the Nikkor 300mm f4 PF, the D850 kinda beats it up at long subject distances. But when you go back to "normal wildlife working distances" - it really is still quite sharp. Focus breathing and the small maximum apertures DOES limit your ability to isolate a subject with this lens, but for the money it offers a lot.

Finally, which lens do I consider the overall BEST lens in the test at 300mm and at all distances (and factoring in both sharpness AND the quality of the bokeh)? Well...it's getting repetitive...but it was clearly the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E.

Up next? Comparative optical performance at 560mm. Stay tuned!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#180-400_Optic300mm



Nikon 180-400mm Field Test: Optical Performance at 200mm

16 July 2018: Nikkor 180-400mm f4E Field Test IIID: Optical Performance at 200mm

This is the seventth installment in an on-going series describing my experiences field-testing the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E. Previous entries covered:

• 21 May 2018: First Impressions
• 18 June 2018: Shooting the 180-400mm in the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Sanctuary (including 27 sample images)
• 29 June 2018: Optical Performance at 500mm
• 02 July 2018: Optical Performance at 400mm
• 05 July 2018: Commentary 1 - What's AIS?
• 09 July 2018: Optical Performance - MORE at 400mm

In this entry I describe my results from systematic and comparative optical field-testing of the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E lens at a 200mm focal length against 6 other 200mm "options". Here's the list of lenses in this comparison:

• Nikkor 180-400mm f4E
• Nikkor 200-400mm f4G
• Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3
• Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8
• Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E
• Nikkor 70-200mm f4G
• Nikkor 200mm f4D Micro

As with the previous comparative tests at 400mm and 500mm the lenses were tested over an aperture range from maximum aperture (wide open) through to f11. And, as with previous tests, they were tested at 3 distances. In this 200mm comparison the distances were 3 meters, 11 meters, and 1500 meters (i.e., a distant scene). The close and mid-range distances were closer than in previous tests and produced subjects that occupied very close to the same proportion of the viewfinder and/or final image as they did in the 400mm and 500mm tests.

For both the close (3 meters) and medium (11 meters) distances to the subject the images were examined for central region sharpness and the "quality" of the Out-of-Focus (OoF) zones (i.e., bokeh quality). The images of the distant scene (1500 meters) were captured and evaluated for both central and edge-to-edge sharpness (but, for obvious reasons, not bokeh).

For those wondering where the 300mm comparison went - hey, who said I had to do them in order? Actually, I had to wait for delivery of a Nikkor 300mm f2.8 VRII before performing the 300mm comparison tests. I should have that lens today or tomorrow and I'll begin that testing as soon as conditions (mostly weather) permits. And thanks are extended to Nikon Canada for supplying me with the 300mm f2.8 VRII for testing purposes.

Anyone wishing to skip the remaining background material and description of my methodology can jump directly to The Executive Summary of my results at 200mm by following this link...

I. Critical Background!

Why the test at 200mm? First, it's my view that if you're buying a zoom lens you are likely at least planning to use it over it over its full focal range. And if that's the case, there's value in knowing exactly how it performs over that full focal range (including if there are any anomalies you have to take into consideration at any focal length...such as stopping down to sharpen up the edges, etc.). Obviously the very same information (i.e., how the lens performs over its full focal range) is useful in making a purchase decision - especially when consdering a lens as expensive as the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E.

Second, it's likely that many who will get the 180-400mm will use it (and take it on outings or trips) in combination with other lenses. Based on my OWN needs, and certainly on what I'm hearing from other wildlife photographers, the 180-400mm will commonly be used in combination with a 70-200mm zoom...such as the Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E or perhaps the Nikkor 70-200mm f4G. So, it likely won't be uncommon at all that a wildlife photographer runs into a "200mm scene" and has to decide between using their 180-400mm and the 70-200mm they have with them. So knowing the idiosyncrasies of their relative optical performance (e.g., which is better at separating a close subject from its background or which has sharper edges on distance scenes) can be pretty darned useful information.

So...I figure it's worth it to do this testing! ;-)

II. Field-Testing Methods

With the exception of using shorter distances for the close and mid-distant subjects (as discussed above) both the field-testing methods and the assessment of the final images were made using the exact same methodology as described in my 02 July 2018 blog entry (open the methodology section of that entry in a new tab/window using this link).

For those who haven't read or reviewed previous blog entries in this field-testing series, the goal of the optical testing is to get a good handle on what I refer to as the Maximum Attainable Field Sharpness (or MAFS) for each lens. This means that I try to control as many variables as possible - the images are captured from a firm tripod and gimbal head, Live View focus is used (to remove any bias associated with AF tuning issues), a cable release is used, a FULL electronic shutter is used, et cetera. And, to reveal as many lens flaws as possible, all tests are performed using the highest resolution DSLR currently available from Nikon - the D850.

Of course, in many field situations we aren't able to use techniques quite this disciplined - we may have to hand-hold lenses, we are likely using the faster but possibly less accurate (and possibly out-of-tune) phase-detection-through-the-optical-viewfinder AF system, et cetera. So...we often don't (or can't) achieve MAFS. Moreover, the quality and performance of the VR systems and the AF systems varies between lenses - and that variation can impact on how close one can get to MAFS in a REAL field situation. So, I combine my optical performance testing with both VR ("hand-holdabiity") and AF testing as well as many sessions of just plain old shooting during full lens testing regime. Only after all that do I really have a handle on the nebulous thing that most would think of as the true "usability" (or, in Pirsig's world, the "quality") of a lens.

For those seeking a "visual" of the subjects I used (and the "scenes") at each of the three test distances, here ya go...(each image is full-frame, but reduced in resolution from 8256 x 5504 pixels to 2400 x 1600 pixels):

• Close Subject (3 meters): The Stump (JPEG: 1.1 MB)
• Mid-distance Subject (11 meters): My Amazingly Cooperative Eagle (JPEG: 1.5 MB)
• Distant Subject (1500 meters): The Distant Treeline (JPEG: 1.43 MB)

III. The RESULTS!

As before, I'll give you a quick and dirty Executive Summary followed by a few more nitty-gritty details of the results.

1. The Executive Summary:

Overall the differences in central sharpness between most of the lenses at 200mm (at all distances) were very small. At close distance (3 meters) and wide apertures the Nikkor 180-400mm, Nikkor 200-400mm, and the Sigma 120-300mm separated themselves out from the other lenses by being both slightly sharper (central region) and in the quality of their OoF zones. Similarly, at mid-distance to subject (11 meters) the same three lenses (Nikkor 180-400mm, Nikkor 200-400mm and the Sigma 120-300mm) were both slightly sharper than the competing lenses and - at wide apertures - produced slightly smoother and less detailed OoF zones (it is important to note that at this distance the Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E trailed by only VERY little in sharpness and bokeh).

What about at long subject distances? In the central region it was pretty much a toss-up in sharpness (at all overlapping apertures) for six of the seven lenses - only the Nikkor 200mm f4 Micro faltered and was noticeably softer (less sharp) in the central region. But on the edges it was a far different story - the ONLY lens sharp on the edges at ALL apertures was the Nikkor 180-400mm. Interestingly, the second best lens in edge sharpness at wide apertures was the Nikkor 200-400mm f4G. From f5.6 on (i.e., and smaller apertures) the Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E also exhibited excellent edge sharpness. The edges of the remaining lenses (the two Sigma zooms, the Nikkor 70-200mm f4 and the Nikkor 200mm f4 Micro) were considerably softer (less sharp) at all apertures.

At 200mm only one lens exhibited Aperture Independent Sharpness (AIS) at all distances - the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E (read more about AIS HERE). This means it was as sharp wide open as when stopped down (including on the edges with the long distant subject). The Nikkor 200-400mm f4G exhibited AIS at the closest distance but not with mid-distance or distant subjects.

The overall top performer at 200mm? Factoring in both sharpness (central region and edges) and the quality of the bokeh - definitely the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E.

2. The Nitty Gritty Details:

In interpreting these results it's important to remember that the two closer distances (3 meters and 11 meters) were included to assess two things only: Central sharpness and the quality of the OoF zones (or bokeh). The longest distance-to-subject (1500 meters) test was included to assess both central region sharpness AND edge sharpness (but not bokeh).

A. Optical Performance at 3 meters (200mm focal length):

• Overall Sharpness: While the majority of lenses tested needed to be stopped down a little to achieve maximum sharpness (see below for details), once each lens was at maximum sharpness the sharpness differences BETWEEN lenses was almost non-existent. The only exception to this was the Nikkor 200mm f4 Micro - it was noticeably softer (less sharp) than all the other lenses at equivalent apertures.

• Sharpness Progression (need to stop down from wide open to attain maximum sharpness) - Nikkor 180-400mm f4E: None, meaning the lens is at maximum sharpness when shot wide open (@ f4). This is a consistent with previous tests at 400mm and 500mm - and it's still very noteworthy. AIS in action! (HUH? What's AIS?).
• Sharpness Progression - Nikkor 200-400mm f4G: NONE! At this distance the Nikkor 200-400mm is very sharp at all apertures. This is the ONLY case in the entire comparison test where a lens other than the Nikkor 180-400mm exhibits AIS.
• Sharpness Progression - Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-5-6.3: Less than 0.3 stops (from f5.3 to f5.6).
• Sharpness Progression - Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8: Approx. 0.67 stops - so down to f3.5. But note this lens was still VERY sharp at f2.8 (sharper than the Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E at f2.8).
• Sharpness Progression - Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8Emm: 1 stop (to f4).
• Sharpness Progression - Nikkor 70-200mm f4G: 0.67 stops (to f5)
• Sharpness Progression - Nikkor 200mm f4D Micro: 0.3 stops (to f4.5)

• Out-of-Focus (OoF) Zones (or Bokeh): Now THIS is interesting! While one would likely expect the f2.8 lenses (the Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8 and the Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E) to show the softest and most pleasingly blurred backgrounds, both of these lenses exhibited some focus-breathing (shortening of focal length) at this close distance. Consequently, even shot wide open their OoF zones aren't as soft as two other lenses shot at f4 - the Nikkor 180-400mm and the Nikkor 200-400mm. So the first-place honours here are shared between the "old" 200-400 and the "new" 180-400mm. Confused? Check out this composite image comparing the OoF zones of the Nikkor 180-400mm vs. the Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E - it might help:

• A Few Bokeh vs. Aperture Comparisons: Download Composite Image (JPEG: 1.2 MB)

• Difference in Ability to Isolate Subject from Background: When this close to a subject pretty much all the lenses can do a decent job of isolating the subject from the background. But, because two lenses in this test have equal sharpness (to all the others) AND they exhibit the softest and most-pleasing OoF zones of the batch, I'd argue that the two BEST lenses in this test (at this distance) for isolating a subject from the background are the Nikkor 180-400mnm f4E and the Nikkor 200-400mm f4G.

OVERALL CONCLUSION: At 200mm and a subject distance of 3 meters almost all the lenses in this test exhibit top-notch central sharpness - it's definitely an exercise in pixel-peeping and hair-splitting to see differences between them. You get a small but noticeable advantage in bokeh with both the Nikkor 180-400mm and the Nikkor 200-400mm and in my view that puts them at the top of the heap at this distance. Interestingly the Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 very slightly outperformed the Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E in both sharpness and bokeh so I'd rank them as third and fourth respectively. Fifth place (and really still quite similar to all the others) would be a two-way tie between the Sigma Sport 150-600mm and the Nikkor 70-200mm f4. The Nikkor 200mm f4D Micro lagged behind all the others in sharpness at this distance.

B. Optical Performance at 11 meters (200mm focal length):

• Overall Sharpness: Like at 3 meters, at a distance of 11 meters there's darned little difference in central region sharpness between most of these lenses (once they are stopped down enough to hit their maximum sharpness). The only two lenses that were noticeably softer (less sharp) than the others were the Nikkor 70-200mm f4G and the Nikkor 200mm f4 Micro (but even they weren't too darned bad!).

• Sharpness Progression (need to stop down from wide open to attain maximum sharpness) - Nikkor 180-400mm f4E: Once more - None! This result is almost getting predictable (and boring) - but it's still amazing. Another case of AIS. (HUH? What's AIS?).
• Sharpness Progression - Nikkor 200-400mm f4G: 0.3 stops (to f4.5).
• Sharpness Progression - Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-5-6.3: Less than 0.3 stops (from f5.3 to f5.6).
• Sharpness Progression - Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8: Approx. 0.67 stops - so down to f3.5. But again this lens was still VERY sharp at f2.8 (sharper than the Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E at f2.8 through to f4).
• Sharpness Progression - Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8Emm: 1 stop (to f4).
• Sharpness Progression - Nikkor 70-200mm f4G: 0.3 stops (to f4.5).
• Sharpness Progression - Nikkor 200mm f4D Micro: 0.67 stops (to f5).

• Out-of-Focus (OoF) Zones (or Bokeh): Again an interesting situation here! At f4 and f4.5 the "new" Nikkor 180-400mm and the "old" Nikkor 200-400mm have the smoothest OoF zones of ALL the others lenses shot at the same apertures (but note that at f2.8 the OoF zones of the Sigma 120-300 are definitely softer again). But at f5 and smaller the BEST OoF zones are produced by the Sigma 120-300mm f2.8.

• Difference in Ability to Isolate Subject from Background: Here the first-place award goes to the Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8. It's awfully darned sharp at f2.8, and maximally sharp at f3.2 (it handily beats the Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E in sharpness at these apertures). And, at these apertures it DEFINITELY has the smoothest OoF zones (yep, smoother than the 70-200mm f2.8E).

OVERALL CONCLUSION: OK...at this distance if I was forced to choose between all the lenses I'd grab for the Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 first. My second choice? Well, in optical terms only it would be a tie between the 180-400mm f4E and the 200-400mm f4G. The Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E would be nipping incredibly closely at their heels. Fifth choice would be a dead-heat between the Sigma Sport 150-600mm and the Nikkor 70-200mm f4G. And note that the difference between the fifth choices and the first choice are at the pixel-peeping level. The only lens I would actually AVOID would be the last place finisher - the 200mm f4D Micro.

C. Optical Performance with Distant (1500 meters) Subject (200mm focal length):

• Overall Sharpness: If ALL you care about is central sharpness you CAN get there with all 5 of 6 lenses (with, in some cases, a little stopping down). Only the Nikkor 200mm f4D Micro DOESN'T compare favorably with the others in central sharpness. How 'bout the edges? NOW we see BIG differences between the lenses - only the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E produces very sharp edges (and for BOTH edges) at all apertures - it easily beats the other lenses in this test. Second best - definitely the Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E, but to get those sharp edges you have to stop down to f5.6 or smaller. After that? You won't get REALLY sharp edges (on both sides of the frame) out of any of the other lenses at any aperture (both Sigma's will give you ONE sharp edge, but not two!).

• Sharpness Progression (need to stop down from wide open to attain maximum sharpness) - Nikkor 180-400mm f4E: None! At f4 this lens is maximally sharp in BOTH the center and edges. Just crazy. And still exhibiting AIS! (HUH? What's AIS?).
• Sharpness Progression - Nikkor 200-400mm f4G: Center: 1/3 stop only (to f4.5). Edges: Left edge 0.3 stops (to f4.5); right edge 1.3 stops (to f6.3).
• Sharpness Progression - Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-5-6.3: Center: Less than 0.3 stops (from f5.3 to f5.6). Edges: Left edge <0.3 stop (to f5.6, but never as sharp as center); right edge 1.3 stops (to f9, but still quite soft).
• Sharpness Progression - Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8: Center: Barely 0.3 stops (to f3.2). Edges: Left edge 2.3 stops (to f6.3); right edge never sharpens up.
• Sharpness Progression - Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8Emm: Center: 0.3 stops (to f3.2); BOTH Edges: 0.3 stops (to f3.2) - this is DEFINITELY the second best result in this test (the 180-400mm not only sharpens up with no stopping down, but it invariably is slightly sharper than the 70-200mm f2.8E in center and edges in this test). Note that to get EXTREMELY sharp edges you do have to stop down to f5.6.
• Sharpness Progression - Nikkor 70-200mm f4G: Center: 0.3 stops (to f4.5); BOTH Edges: 1 stop (to f5.6).
• Sharpness Progression - Nikkor 200mm f4D Micro: 0.67 stops (to f5); BOTH Edges: 1 stop (to f5.6) but here "maximum sharpness" isn't very darn sharp!

• Out-of-Focus (OoF) Zones (or Bokeh): N/A (at this distance).
• Difference in Ability to Isolate Subject from Background: N/A (at this distance).

OVERALL CONCLUSION: Without boring you with dozens of images it's hard to describe how much better the 180-400mm f4E is on a distant subject at 200mm than all the others. If you shoot a lot of distant landscapes or animalscapes at 200mm you'll LOVE the 180-400mm f4E (especially if you're using a high-resolution camera like the D850). The Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E does fairly well too, but you have to stop it down to f5.6 (or smaller) to sharpen up the edges and even then it's simply not as sharp as the 180-400mm (in either the center or edges).

V. Final Discussion and Comments

Historically Nikon telephoto zooms lenses are their optical best at or near the short end of their focal range (and weakest optically at their longest focal lengths). So, in a sense, it's not surprising that both the Nikkor 180-400mm and the Nikkor 200-400mm outperformed both of the Nikkor 70-200's at short and medium distances to the subject. Of course, for many users other practicalities (such as handling ease or even affordability) may take precedence over optical performance and it's good for them to know that with the exception of the Nikkor 200mm f4 Micro virtually all the lenses produce darned good results at the shorter distances to the subject.

Most wildlife photographers are probably most interested in optical performance at those shorter distances to the subject (11 meters or less) as they probably shoot at those distances much more than they shoot distant scenes. At those distances - and if you factor in both image sharpness AND the quality of the out-of-focus zones - three lenses really stood out for me...the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E, the Nikkor 200-400mm f4, and the Sigma 120-300mm f2.8. Realistically any 3 of these lenses will MORE than do the trick. And, the excellent Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E may not quite as dreamy backgrounds on very close subjects, but it's still a pretty amazing lens.

The overall BEST lens in the test at 200mm and at all distances (and factoring in both sharpness AND the quality of the bokeh)? I almost hate to say it, but it's clearly the 180-400mm f4E. Anyone looking to NOT buy it (or, in my case, not keep it) sure can't use "poor performance at 200mm" as a reason! ;-)

At this point I feel compelled to say a few things about two of the "supporting cast" lenses in this test. First, as is so often the case these days with so many things (largely thanks to the internet and "herd" mentality), it's become almost fashionable to outright dump on the Nikkor 200-400mm f4G. I see this all the time - people who have never even shot with it condemn it because of something they read online. At this point in my optical testing (with ONLY the 300mm focal length left), the 200-400 is testing out pretty darned well. No, it's NOT fully keeping up with the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E, but it's much older and half the price (or far less bought second hand). It's definitely still capable of professional quality output on ANY Nikon DSLR.

Finally...one clear result from this test almost saddened me. I've owned the Nikkor 200mm f4D Micro for years and with lower resolution bodies (including even the D800e) it always tested out very well at all distances. And it's a lens I have really liked for its long macro "working distance" and great output. But it's an old design and it appears as though the demanding 46 MP D850 sensor is now kicking the old dog around a little (OK...a lot). Bummer...

Up next? Comparative optical performance at 300mm. Featuring the Nikkor 300mm f2.8 VRII, the Nikkor 300mm f4 PF, the Nikkor 200-400mm f4G, the Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8, and the Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3. Oh right, and the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E. Stay tuned!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#180-400_Optic200mm



Nikon 180-400mm Field Test: MORE at 400mm

09 July 2018: Nikkor 180-400mm Field Test IIIC: MORE at 400mm

This is the sixth installment in an on-going series describing my experiences field-testing the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E. Previous entries covered:

• 21 May 2018: First Impressions
• 18 June 2018: Shooting the 180-400mm in the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Sanctuary (including 27 sample images)
• 29 June 2018: Optical Performance at 500mm
• 02 July 2018: Optical Performance at 400mm
• 05 July 2018: Commentary 1 - What's AIS?

In today's entry I describe my results from additional optical performance testing of two more 400mm (or thereabouts!) options vs. the Nikkor 180-400mm @ 400mm. The additional two lenses I am bringing into the mix are the Nikkor 300mm f4 PF combined with the TC-14EIII (1.4x) teleconverter (AKA "TC") and the Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8 plus its 1.4x TC (the Sigma TC-1401). The full testing protocol (including the three distances chosen) and the image assessment procedure is exactly the same as in the previous optical performance testing at 400mm. Those procedures can be reviewed in the 02 July 2018 blog entry below (open in new browser tab with this link). My previous (02 July 2018) blog entry on optical performance at 400mm compared the following lenses at 3 distances: Nikkor 400mm f2.8E, Nikkor 180-400mm f4E; Nikkor 200-400 f4G; and the Sigma Sport 150-600mm. That comparison can be viewed right here...

Anyone wishing to skip the remaining background material and description of my methodology can jump directly to The Executive Summary of my results by following this link...

I. Critical Background!

Why am I testing these two lens-TC combinations against the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E? To begin with, it's partly due to popular demand - I received multiple requests for these tests against the 180-400mm for each lens. Moreover, I know absolutely that I will be quizzed on how these lenses stacked up against the 180-400mm many times in the future - both from followers of this website and blog AND from clients participating in my photo tours and seeking equipment advice about what gear to bring on the tours.

The Nikkor 300mm f4 PF has developed a strong following among wildlife photographers. The lens is comparatively affordable (VERY affordable compared to the Nikkor 180-400mm), extremely small and light (= very portable) and very solid optically. Moreover, it has a reputation (that I agree with) of performing quite well with Nikon's 1.4x teleconverter (the TC-14EIII). It's natural that many would want to know how this really handy 420mm combination compares optically against the 180-400mm f4E at 400mm. After all, it is likely that many who eventually end up with the 180-400mm will also own the 300mm f4 PF and undoubtedly some will face situations where a certain "shoot" will force them into deciding which option (to get to 400mm or thereabouts) they should bring with them (and to make that decision knowing the compromises associated with going with the 300mm f4 PF plus TC-14EIII option).

The Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8 is a completely different kettle of fish. It isn't light (it's a little over 3600 gm - or pushing 8 lb) and isn't "inexpensive" (unless one compares it to the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E or any of the other Nikkor FL super-telephotos). But, when shot native (without a TC), it is VERY strong optically - both in terms of sharpness and bokeh. And, when Sigma's 1.4x TC is added to the equation it performs better than many "zoom-plus-TC" combinations (and it's still a comparatively fast f4 lens with TC in place). So...when you combine the full focal range this lens can cover (including shot native as well as with a TC) it overlaps a LOT of the focal range of the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E. Factor in that price differential (a factor of 3 give-or-take) and it's no wonder many are wondering if this is a decent alternative to spending their kids' inheritance on a 180-400mm f4E.

Two final quick introductory comments. First, does it make any sense to compare a 400mm lens against two other lenses that are supposed to be produce a focal length of 420mm? Yep, not only would that be a pretty minor difference if all of the lenses produced "true" focal lengths, but it's important to remember that almost all lenses exhibit SOME degree of "focus-breathing" (where the focal length functionally "shortens" when used on close subjects). As it turns out, I've noticed that the Nikkor 180-400mm exhibits VERY little focus breathing (if any at all) - with short and mid-distance subjects it produces images virtually IDENTICAL in "size" relative to the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E. Conversely, the Sigma Sport 120-300mm exhibits significant focus-breathing (with or without the TC in place) - so much so that the at close and mid-distances its 420mm focal lengths produces "smaller" images (= shorter REAL focal length) than the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E at 400mm. The 300mm f4 PF plus TC-14EIII? It exhibits just a little focus-breathing...such that images captured at close and mid-distances with the 180-400mm @ 400mm or the 300mm f4 PF plus TC0-14EIII appear to be shot with virtually identical focal lengths. Which makes the whole "hey...don't compare images shot with different focal lengths" argument academic (or pretty much moot).

Finally, and for the record, I have always been a VERY selective TC user. I totally understand the appeal of TC's, but over the years I have found almost no lenses where TC's can be used without more compromises than I am prepared to make in my own shooting. Those compromises come in several forms - you lose one stop of light (with a 1.4x TC), you always give up at least some optical quality (both in sharpness and the bokeh), and with most lenses you have to stop down quite a bit to "squeeze" maximum sharpness out of them. I have also found that they rarely perform well optically with zoom lenses (not "never", just "rarely"). Finally, I have found them to perform best (and be most useful) on lenses with a maximum aperture of f2.8. At the end of the day the ONLY lens I historically added a TC to with no hesitation was the Nikkor 400mm f2.8 (both the G and E versions).

The cold, hard truth is that when it comes to telephoto lenses the nearly-trite saying "You get what you pay for" is, quite sadly, almost always true. And, what you're invariably paying for is fewer and fewer compromises (as price rises). My testing of the 180-400mm f4E - at least to date and including today's results - has made this abundantly clear (costs FAR more than any other zoom, but FAR fewer compromises than any other zoom).

II. Field-Testing Methods

Both the field-testing methods and the assessment of the final images were made using the exact same methodology as described in my 02 July 2018 blog entry (open the methodology section of that entry in a new tab/window using this link).

For those seeking a "visual" of the subjects I used (and the "scenes") at each of the three test distances, here ya go...(each image is full-frame, but reduced in resolution from 8256 x 5504 pixels to 2400 x 1600 pixels):

• Close Subject (7 meters): The Stump (JPEG: 1.14 MB)
• Mid-distance Subject (25 meters): My Amazingly Cooperative Eagle (JPEG: 1.29 MB)
• Distant Subject (1500 meters): The Distant Treeline at Sunrise (JPEG: 1.32 MB)

III. The RESULTS!

As in past entries, I'll give you a quick and dirty Executive Summary followed by a few more nitty-gritty details of the results.

1. The Executive Summary:

With only a few very limited exceptions (at very small apertures), the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E @ 400mm easily optically outperformed both the Nikkor 300mm plus TC-14EIII and the Sigma Sport 120-300mm plus TC-1401. At short distances (7 meters) the Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8 plus TC-1401 had to be stopped down to f9 before approximating the sharpness of the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E when shot wide open. And, the 300mm plus TC-14EIII did not produce images as sharp as the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E (shot wide open) at ANY aperture tested. At mid-distances to the subject (25 meters) neither the Sigma 120-300 plus TC nor the 300mm PF f4E matched the sharpness of the 180-400mm f4E when shot wide open. What about bokeh? A bit different story - at close distances the Sigma Sport 120-300 (plus TC) matched the Nikkor 180-400mm at most equivalent apertures. And, at 25 meters the Nikkor 300mm f4 PF (plus TC) produced the best bokeh - its OoF zones were noticeably smoother than both the Nikkor 180-400mm and the Sigma Sport 120-300mm (plus TC) at all overlapping apertures (and the Nikkor 180-400 and the Sigma Sport 120-300 were in a virtual dead heat).

At long distance the difference between the optics of the 3 lenses was even more pronounced, especially on the edges. The central region of the 180-400mm (even at f4) was sharper than the central region of the other lenses until f10 (for the Sigma Sport plus TC) and f11 (for the 300mm PF plus TC). Edges? Neither the Sigma Sport 120-300 plus TC nor the 300mm f4 PF approximated the sharpness of the edges of the Nikkor 180-400mm (even when this lens was shot wide open) at ANY aperture. In other words, the edges of the Sigma Sport 120-300 and the Nikkor 300mm f4 PF never fully sharpened up. If you like shooting distant scenes (including animalscapes) with good edge-to-edge sharpness with the Nikon D850 only the Nikkor 180-400mm is up to the task. And, remarkably, it is up to the task at any aperture (including shot wide open).

2. The Nitty Gritty Details:

In interpreting these results it's important to remember that the two closer distances (7 meters and 25 meters) were included to assess two things only: Central sharpness and the quality of the OoF zones (or bokeh). The longest distance-to-subject (1500 meters) test was included to assess both central region sharpness AND edge sharpness (but not bokeh).

A. Optical Performance at 7 meters (400mm focal length):

• Overall Sharpness: At all apertures the Nikkor 180-400mm @ 400m placed "first" in sharpness in the central region of the image. The Sigma Sport 120-300 plus TC placed 2nd in sharpness at all apertures until f9, at which point (and at f10 and f11) it drew even with the Nikkor 180-400mm in a tie for first place. The Nikkor 300mm f4 PF plus TC never matched either of the other two lenses in central region sharpness.

• Sharpness Progression (need to stop down from wide open) - Nikkor 180-400mm: Virtually none, meaning the lens is virtually at maximum sharpness when shot wide open (@ f4). This is a consistent with previous tests at 400mm - and it's still a remarkable result. Good old AIS in action! (HUH? What's AIS?).
• Sharpness Progression (need to stop down from wide open) - Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8 plus TC-1401: Requires stopping down about 1.3 stops from wide open (to f6.3) before approaching maximum sharpness, and still slowly sharpens up more until f9. Approximates sharpness of 180-400mm f4E (shot at any aperture) from f9 to f11.
• Sharpness Progression (need to stop down from wide open) - Nikkor 300mm f4 PF plus TC-14EIII: Requires stopping down about 1 stop (to f8) to get to maximum sharpness. But note that it never gets to the sharpness of the Nikon 180-400mm (at any aperture) or the Sigma Sport 120-300 plus TC shot at f9.
• Out-of-Focus (OoF) Zones (or Bokeh): Best (and smoothest) OoF zones in the test were VERY similar between the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E and the Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8 plus TC. The Nikkor 300mm f4 PF plus TC invariably showed more detail (in the OoF zones) and appeared "less pleasing" than the other two lenses.
• Difference in Ability to Isolate Subject from Background: With subjects this close all lenses can easily separate the subject from background. However, between producing the sharpest images at all apertures (especially at the widest apertures) AND being in a tie with the Sigma Sport 120-300 plus TC in bokeh...the clear BEST CHOICE in subject-isolation ability (with maximum quality images) is the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E.

OVERALL CONCLUSION: At 7 meters the difference in image quality between the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E and both the Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8 plus TC and the Nikkor 300mm f4 PF is quite stark. And, the most striking "feeling" you get when shooting all 3 lenses is the difference in the number of compromises you have to make when shooting the different lenses: with the Nikkor 180-400mm there are virtually NO compromises (you have freedom to choose any aperture you want) while you have to stop down a TON with the other two lenses to get acceptable images.

So...for context...just how signficant are the differences in sharpness discussed above? Is this just advanced pixel-peeping? Or...are the sharpness differences just "statistically" (but not visibly) different? Nope...not at ALL...check out this sample to see for yourself (100% previews of a small section of the scene):

• Wide Open vs. Wide Open vs. Wide Open: Download Sample Image (JPEG: 1.72 MB)

B. Optical Performance at 25 meters (400mm focal length):

• Overall Sharpness: At 25 meters the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E claims the top stop on the sharpness podium (and without having to share the top spot with any other of the test lenses at any aperture). The Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8 plus TC is alone in 2nd spot until f8, at which point it's in a dead-heat (for SECOND place) with the Nikkor 300mm PF plus TC.

• Sharpness Progression (need to stop down from wide open) - Nikkor 180-400mm: Virtually none, meaning the lens is virtually at maximum sharpness when shot wide open (@ f4). A consistent - but in no way unremarkable - result. More AIS! (HUH? What's AIS?).
• Sharpness Progression (need to stop down from wide open) - Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8 plus TC-1401: Requires stopping down about 1 to 1.3 stops from wide open (to f6.3) before approaching maximum sharpness, and again still slowly sharpens up more until f9.
• Sharpness Progression (need to stop down from wide open) - Nikkor 300mm f4 PF plus TC-14EIII: Identical to result at 7 meters, i.e., requires stopping down about 1 stop (to f8) to get to maximum sharpness.
• Out-of-Focus (OoF) Zones (or Bokeh): Interestingly, now the best (smoothest and with least detail) shifts over to the Nikkor 300mm f4 PF plus TC. Both the Nikkor 180-400mm and the Sigma Sport 120-300mm are close at all apertures (and virtually identical to one another).
• Difference in Ability to Isolate Subject from Background: Actually - close to a saw-off. But it's still important to note that in the field I'd definitely select the Nikkor 180-400mm at this distance (and at 400mm) if my goal was to effectively separate a subject from a busy background. Why? Well...BOTH the 180-400 and the Sigma Sport 120-300 will let me shoot at a background-blurring f4, but at f4 the Nikkor 180-400 is a LOT sharper than the Sigma 120-300 plus TC. And...while the 300mm f4 PF plus TC will produce a very nice background at f5.6 (but with a little more detail than the 180-400mm at f4), unfortunately the subject is soft too! ;-)

OVERALL CONCLUSION: At 25 meters you simply have superior optical performance - and fewer optical compromises (as in almost NONE) - with the 180-400mm f4E than either of the other two 400mm options. The compromise to the condition of your wallet for the 180-400mm f4E is a different (non-optical) issue.

C. Optical Performance with Distant (1500 meters) Subject (400mm focal length):

• Overall Sharpness: Well...if ALL you care about is central sharpness you CAN get there with all 3 lenses. With the Nikkor 180-400mm you can get it from f4 to f11. With the Sigma Sport 120-300 plus TC you can get it from f10 through to f11. With the Nikkor 300 f4 PF plus TC you can get it at f11 (only). Sharp edges? Available from f4 to f11 with the Nikkor 180-400mm. Not available with the other two lenses.

• Sharpness Progression (need to stop down from wide open) - Nikkor 180-400mm: None! At f4 this lens is maximally sharp in both the center and edges. Still mind-boggling. And still exhibiting AIS! (HUH? What's AIS?).
• Sharpness Progression (need to stop down from wide open) - Sigma Sport 120-300mm plus TC-1401: Requires stopping down 2/3 of a stop from wide open (to f5) before approaching maximum sharpness in the central region, and one full stop (to f5.6) before approaching maximum sharpness on the edges.
• Sharpness Progression (need to stop down from wide open) - Nikkor 300mm f4 PF plus TC-14EIII: Requires stopping down one stop (to f8) to get to close to maximum sharpness in the central region. Edges remain very soft at all apertures.
• Out-of-Focus (OoF) Zones (or Bokeh): N/A (at this distance).
• Difference in Ability to Isolate Subject from Background: N/A (at this distance).

OVERALL CONCLUSION: Very good center and edge sharpness together is only available with the Nikkor 180-400mm - and it's available at all apertures. You CAN get decent central sharpness if you stop down (a lot) with both the Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 plus TC and the 300mm f4 PF plus TC. Some MAY find the edge sharpness of the Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8 at f5.6 and smaller apertures, but I doubt anyone would be happy with the edges of the 300mm f4 PF at long distances (regardless of aperture). Again...the big difference in the lenses comes down to the number of compromises you are willing to make...

V. Final Discussion and Comments

Not too surprisingly the Nikkor 180-400mm - shot native at 400mm - outperformed its "TC-endowed" competitors in this test. There were only a few instances - and they occurred ONLY when the lenses paired up with their respective TC's were stopped WAY down - where you could approximate the optical performance of the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E with either the Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8 (plus TC) or the Nikkor 300mm f4 PF (plus TC). For me the test confirmed my long-held belief that teleconverters CAN produce good results, but it takes a lot of compromises to get those results. For some shooters - especially those who shoot a lot in bright light - those compromises may well be acceptable. As one who shoots a lot in low light - AND who likes to shoot a lot of scenes at longer distances (and almost always want edge-to-edge sharpness in those distant scenes or animalscapes) - the compromises don't work for me.

One final "Let's put this in context" note: This test was performed using a very demanding DSLR (especially when it comes to edge-sharpness) - the D850. The differentials I experienced in image quality - especially differences in edge sharpness - may not be nearly so evident if you are shooting with lower resolution cameras than the D850.

Up next? Comparative optical performance at 200mm - a 7 lens shootout! Stay tuned!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#180-400_OpticalMORE_400



Nikon 180-400mm Field Test: Commentary 1 - Aperture-Independent Sharpness?

05 July 2018: Nikkor 180-400mm Field Test: Commentary 1 - What's AIS?

After a few highly detailed posts on the optical performance of the Nikkor 180-400mm at 400mm and 500mm I think it's high time for a bit of a "Let's look at the forest, not just the trees" commentary.

Yesterday and early this morning I - while I was going cross-eyed reviewing images captured comparing the optical characteristics of the Nikkor 180-400mm vs. two other 400mm "solutions" (specifically the Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8 plus its 1.4x TC and the Nikkor 300mm f4 PF plus its 1.4x TC) - I saw a VERY similar pattern emerge once again. That pattern can be summed up in a few words and nicely encapsulates what I have learned to date about the optical performance of the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E. And it's primarily three things:

1. Exceptional Overall Sharpness - Central Region:

After systematic testing at 400mm and 500mm Nikon has appeared to achieve what many thought was unattainable - producing a zoom lens that can go head-to-head in overall sharpness in the central region of an image with the best primes (at least at 400mm and 500mm). This includes when the built-in teleconverter is engaged and the lens is compared to primes at over 400mm (specifically at 500mm). Of course many of us hoped this would be the case, but I doubt many thought it WOULD be the case. Kudos to Nikon on this.

2. Exceptional Consistency in Sharpness ACROSS the Frame:

It's not only the central region of the images shot with the 180-400mm that are sharp - that sharpness extends completely across the frame (from edge-to-edge), even on the demanding D850 46 MP sensor (which beats up the edges of many a good lens). Again, this is a place where the best-of-the-best primes often (but not always) shined and it was, in a sense, a place no super-telephoto zoom had gone before. Despite conventional wisdom, I have found that you CAN get great central region sharpness out of the "old" Nikkor 200-400mm f4 lens - with a little stopping down. But the sharpness of the edges on that lens never matches the sharpness of the central region (even at f11). And...once again...kudos to Nikon on this achievement.

So...in overall sharpness and edge sharpness Nikon has managed to make the 180-400mm perform like a prime lens. That's simply amazing. BUT...in one other regard...and one that is also REALLY significant...Nikon has actually done something that SURPASSES all the prime lenses (and all the zooms) I have ever used or tested. That performance characteristic is...

3. Aperture Independent Sharpness:

Over the years I have tested (and used) oodles of lenses. And, until now, I have never found a lens that was at its maximum sharpness when shot absolutely wide open. Of course, every bit of marketing propaganda for any lens (made by any manufacturer) made in the last two decades claims they're "sharp even at wide apertures". But the reality is that those claims are just typical marketing BS (with the appropriate and intentionally misleading weasel-words cleverly inserted). Yep, they may be "sharp" when wide open, but they aren't their "sharpest" when shot wide open (which is, of course, what they WANT you to believe).

Take the amazing Nikkor 400mm f2.8E and shoot it at f2.8 and what do you see? A very sharp image. But stop it down to f3.2 or - even better - f3.5 and what do you see? An even sharper image. Same thing with the best 70-200mm f2.8 ever made - the 70-200mm f2.8E: Shoot it at f2.8 and it's sharp, but it doesn't get really (as in "really really") close to its maximum sharpness until f3.5.

The 180-400mm? So far - at least when the TC is not engaged (and even MOST of the time with the TC engaged) - the 180-400mm hits about 99% of maximum sharpness when shot absolutely wide open (in most cases I have been completely unable to detect ANY difference in sharpness when the lens is shot wide open vs. at f4.5, or f5, or f8, etc.). And that doesn't mean just central sharpness - it includes full edge-to-edge sharpness! Major, major kudos to Nikon on this breakthrough!

Why is this significant? Well...some of the best lenses (like the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E) require only a little stopping down (1/3 to 1/2 stop) before you get to maximum sharpness. Some shooters adjust their shooting to accommodate this, as I did in this shot where I wanted to get the cub super sharp but I wanted the foreground and background as soft as possible. So, I faced an "optimization" problem and had to think about how to balance sharpness against the subject isolation associated with shooting with a wide aperture (that shot was shot at f3.2, and I kinda wished I shot it at f3.5). But with the 180-400mm (at least at the focal lengths I've tested so far) in almost all cases you can just forget about the relationship between aperture choice and sharpness and think ONLY about the impact of aperture on depth-of-field (DoF).

And don't forget that with MOST lenses (and certainly most zooms) you have to stop down WAY more to get anywhere near the sharpness of the 180-400mm. As an example, when I was comparing the 180-400mm to the Nikkor 200-400mm f4 at 400mm with a subject 25 meters away I had to stop the 200-400mm down to f10 to approach the sharpness of the 180-400mm when shot wide open (at f4). SO...if I wanted as sharp a subject with the 200-400mm as I could get with the 180-400mm I had absolutely no aperture "latitude" to play with, and had NO control over DoF (or the ability to isolate the subject from its surroundings). With the 180-400mm I could choose f4, f4.5, f5, f5.6, f6.3, f7.1, f8, f9, f10, and f11 (that's 10 different aperture settings) - and with the 200-400 I could choose only f10 or f11 (after f11 - with both lenses - the image starts to soften up noticeably due to diffraction issues).

Anyway...to my way of thinking (and shooting) this characteristic of Aperture Independent Sharpness (or AIS...yippee...yet another acronym is born) of the 180-400mm is INCREDIBLY liberating in a field setting. It's already affecting my shooting (and my thinking while I'm shooting) - now I don't have to think about how much I have to stop down to maximize the sharpness of my subject and concentrate solely on how I can best use my aperture from a creative perspective. Of course, you still have to think about how much light you have (and how that might limit how much you can stop down or how much you must open up based on shutter speed concerns).

Very cool. And you can bet I'll be watching to see if AIS continues to be exhibited as I test the optical performance of the 180-400mm at 200mm and 300mm.

More coming on the Nikkor 180-400 soon...stay tuned!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#180-400_comment1_AIS

03 July 2018: Now Appearing: NEW IMAGES (finally!)

Images from my early season photo tours are NOW appearing in my Gallery of Latest Additions. I just posted a few new Khutzeymateen Grizzlies images, and in the coming days and weeks there will be LOTS more images appearing in there, including images shot with the new Nikkor 180-400mm f4E that have NOT been publicly displayed (anywhere) before!

New visitors to this website may not realize that each image (in each of my many galleries) is accompanied by absolute oodles of contextual information and metadata. To access the information all you have to do is to click on the tabs BELOW the image - that's those "In the Field" and "Behind the Camera", etc. tabs!

ENJOY!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca



Nikon 180-400mm Field Test: Optical Performance at 400mm

02 July 2018: Nikkor 180-400mm f4E TC1.4 VR Field Test IIIB: Optical Performance at 400mm

This is the fourth installment in an on-going series describing my experiences field-testing the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E. Here's what was covered in previous entries in this series:

• 21 May 2018: First Impressions
• 18 June 2018: Shooting the 180-400mm in the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Sanctuary (including 27 sample images)
• 29 June 2018: Optical Performance at 500mm

In this entry I describe my results from systematic and comparative optical field-testing of the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E lens at 400mm - its longest "native" focal length. I compared the 180-400mm against three other lens (all, of course, at 400mm) - the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E, the Nikkor 200-400mm f4G, and the Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3. Just like my previous entry on optical performance at 500mm, in this entry sharpness of the three lenses was compared with images captured at 3 different distances to the subject. In this comparative 400mm test I slightly shortened the "close distance" test to 7 meters (rather than 8 meters as in the 500mm test) and the "mid-distance" test to 25 meters (rather than 27 meters). This was done to reflect the normal field practice of using shorter focal lengths as the distance to the subject decreases. The "long distance" test was done at the exact same distance - about 1500 meters to the subject (just under a mile). Both central region sharpness and the quality of the Out-of-Focus (or "OoF"...AKA the "bokeh") were examined in the tests performed at the two shortest distances-to-subject (7 meters and 25 meters). Edge-to-edge sharpness (only) was examined in the long camera-to-subject (1500 meters) test. My reasons for choosing these distances - and for NOT examining the quality of the OoF zone at 1500 meters - are parallel to those for the 500mm optical test. Anyone interested can read those reasons in the 29 June blog entry (jump directly to those reasons with this link).

Anyone wishing to skip the remaining background material and description of my methodology can jump directly to The Executive Summary of my results by following this link...

I. Critical Background!

There are a number of different reasons why this test at 400mm will be of interest to a lot of shooters. First, I'm pitting the new 180-400mm zoom lens against what many wildlife (and sports) photographers consider Nikon's sharpest super-telephoto prime lens - the almost venerable Nikkor 400mm f2.8E. If Nikon has found a way to make this new zoom lens as sharp (or as close to as sharp) as the 400mm f2.8E not only will it be a more than a bit mind-boggling, but it will likely make many (including me) think of the 180-400mm as a true game-changer. And, it will likely make many think that the sky-high price of the 180-400mm isn't as unreasonable as it first appeared (or at least no more unreasonable than the price of the "other" Nikkor super-telephoto lenses with fluorine elements!).

Second, many (if not most...or even all) of Nikon's previous super-telephoto zooms are at their weakest optically at their longest focal length. This doesn't mean they aren't still good at their longest focal length, simply that they're usually not quite AS GOOD at maximum focal length as they are at shorter focal lengths. So if the Nikkor 180-400 is strong at 400mm it will make the lens very appealing to a lot of shooters (and suggest that at even shorter focal lengths the lens will be amazing!). It's my observation a lot of wildlife shooters use super-telephoto zooms at their maximum focal length a LOT, so performance at maximum focal length is critical to a LOT of wildlife photographers.

Third, if one wants to use the 180-400mm at 400mm there is no need to engage the built-in teleconverter (of course, you COULD zoom the lens to about 286mm and engage the 1.4x TC to get to 400mm...but this way of using the lens should only be done by those looking to unnecessarily shoot themselves in the foot!). In my previous test at 500mm I found the Nikkor 180-400mm amazingly sharp at short and mid-distances to a subject (pretty much on par with the highly-regarded Sigma Sport 500mm f4) but its performance on a long-distance subject was slightly weaker (I had to stop the Nikkor 180-400mm down to f8 before it approximated the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 in sharpness). So the question became "Is this an indication that the 180-400mm doesn't perform well at long distances at any focal length or was the slightly weaker performance at distance owing largely to having the TC engaged?".

Fourth, I am including the "old" Nikon 200-400mm f4G in this test...and many have long-thought that this lens was great EXCEPT for how it performed at long distances to the subject. To be honest, I have always wondered if this was one of those "internet things" where someone says it online (possibly without rigorous testing) and then it gets repeated often enough that it becomes dogma. So in including this lens in the test I can verify for myself if the 200-400mm is weak at long distances and IF this perceived problem IS real, whether or not Nikon has "remedied it" on the 180-400mm.

So in this test the gloves - and the teleconverters - come off (or are disengaged)! Based on the email I have received about the 180-400mm the burning issue for a LOT of wildlife photographers was how the 180-400mm performed at 400mm. And I know lots are wondering how it compares to the amazing 400mm f2.8E! It's crunch time!!

One final comment: My optical testing at 500mm revealed a few things about the 180-400mm that were quite astounding. The first was amazing edge-to-edge sharpness (as in "prime lens sharpness") on the 180-400 at all distances (with the only minor exception was in the f5.6 to f7.1 range with a distant subject). The other was the fact that the lens is pretty much as sharp as a tack (edge-to-edge) when shot completely wide open, i.e., there was no need to stop down at all to get the central or edge regions to sharpen up. My results when I was shooting in the Khutzeymateen in late May and early June were absolutely consistent with these test results. If these same trends continue at 400mm and shorter focal lengths then Nikon may have done something I once thought was impossible: producing a zoom lens with almost no optical compromises...

II. Field-Testing Methods

With the exception of using slightly different distances, the methods I used for capturing the images and assessing the images are identical for those used in my 500mm optical testing. You can check out all those gory details right here...

In short, I captured all the images using a Nikon D850 in a field-setting using a highly-disciplined approach and systematic approach (stable tripod, Live View, cable release, etc.) designed to minimize confounding variables. My goal in these tests is to get to what I refer to as "Maximum Attainable Field Sharpness" (or MAFS) for a given lens. It's likely there is a correlation between these results and MTF curves, but I have not tested this assumption. Of course, in most of our REAL field-shooting we'll never fully attain MAFS but I believe the "best-of-the-best" lenses have other performance-related characteristics (like AF performance, VR performance, lens weight and balance, etc.) that let us approach the MAFS quite closely (while with "lesser" lenses we may NEVER get close to their MAFS). And that's the whole reason my full field-testing regime involves the disciplined and systematic optical testing PLUS AF testing, VR testing, AND a whole lot of time doing real world "just shooting". This field test is a bit unique in that I have done a lot of my "just shooting" already (as reported - including with sample images - in my June 21 "Shooting the Khutzeymateen" blog entry).

For those seeking a "visual" of the subjects I used (and the "scenes") at each of the three test distances, here ya go...(each image is full-frame, but reduced in resolution from 8256 x 5504 pixels to 2400 x 1600 pixels):

• Close Subject (7 meters): The Stump (JPEG: 1.14 MB)
• Mid-distance Subject (25 meters): My Amazingly Cooperative Eagle (JPEG: 1.29 MB)
• Distant Subject (1500 meters): The Distant Treeline at Sunrise (JPEG: 1.32 MB)

III. The RESULTS!

As usual, here's a quick and dirty Executive Summary followed by a few more nitty-gritty details (for those who really want to understand the nuances of the 180-400mm).

1. The Executive Summary:

At 400mm the Nikkor 180-400mm exhibited mind-boggling (and I dare say game-changing) edge-to-edge sharpness and exceptional bokeh (along with great contrast!). Shockingly, with one or two very minor exceptions that are described in the Nitty Gritty Details section below, there was virtually no observable difference in image sharpness between the 180-400mm f4E and the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E at all overlapping apertures. This was true at all test distances - with subjects at a close distance (7 meters), mid-distance (25 meters), and long distance (1500 meters). Even more surprisingly, images captured wide open with the 180-400mm f4E (so at f4) were sharper at all distances than images captured wide open with the 400mm f2.8E (so at f2.8). Both the Nikkor 180-400mm and the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E outperformed the Sigma Sport 150-600mm and the Nikkor 200-400mm f4G by a significant margin (at all distances) until all lenses were stopped down to the f8/f9 range. At both close and mid-distances the Sigma Sport 150-600mm and the Nikkor 200-400mm f4G were quite comparable in sharpness to one another, but the Sigma 150-600 had to be stopped down less (from its smaller largest aperture!) than the Nikkor 200-400 to get to maximum sharpness. Interestingly, the Nikkor 200-400 f4G did NOT exhibit the expected "soft-at-long-subject-distance" characteristic it has a reputation for - like with other distances it needed to be stopped down to f5 to get to maximum sharpness, but once this was done it was as sharp as the Nikkor 180-400 AND the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E in the central region (but slightly softer on the edges). Like at 500mm, the Sigma Sport 150-600mm showed good central region sharpness with a distant subject once stopped down (in this case to f7.1) but its edges remained soft on the distant subject at all apertures tested.

2. The Nitty Gritty Details:

In interpreting these results it's important to remember that the two closer distances (7 meters and 25 meters) were included to assess two things only: Central sharpness and the quality of the OoF zones (or bokeh). The longest distance-to-subject (1500 meters) test was included to assess both central region sharpness AND edge sharpness (but not bokeh).

A. Optical Performance at 7 meters (400mm focal length):

• Overall Sharpness: Parity in sharpness between Nikkor 180-400mm f4E and Nikkor 400mm f2.8E at all equivalent apertures (from f4.5 to f11) EXCEPT at f4 where the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E was very slightly sharper. Nikkor 200-400mm f4G very soft at f4 through f5 and only equivalent to the Nikkor 180-400 and the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E at f11. Sigma Sport slightly sharper than the Nikkor 200-400 at all overlapping apertures and approached sharpness of Nikkor 180-400 and Nikkor 400mm f2.8E at f10 and smaller apertures.

• Sharpness Progression (need to stop down from wide open) - Nikkor 400mm f2.8E: Requires stopping down 2/3 of a stop from wide open (to f3.5) before approaching maximum sharpness.
• Sharpness Progression (need to stop down from wide open) - Nikkor 180-400mm: Virtually none, meaning the lens is virtually at maximum sharpness when shot wide open (@ f4). This is a remarkable result.
• Sharpness Progression (need to stop down from wide open) - Nikkor 200-400mm f4G: Requires stopping down 2/3 of a stop from wide open (to f5) before approaching maximum sharpness, and only approaches sharpness of Nikkor 180-400mm and Nikkor 400mm f2.8E when stopped all the way down to f11.
• Sharpness Progression (need to stop down from wide open) - Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3: Requires stopping down only 1/3 of a stop or less (from f6 to f6.3) to get to maximum sharpness. Only approaches sharpness of Nikkor 180-400mm and Nikkor 400mm f2.8E when stopped down to f10.
• Out-of-Focus (OoF) Zones (or Bokeh): Best (and smoothest) OoF zones in the test were shown by the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E from f4 through f5, with both the Nikkor 180-400mm and the Nikkor 200-400 showing virtual identical OoF zones to the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E from f5.6 to f11. The Sigma Sport 150-600 showed more "nervous" (slightly less smooth and slightly more "jittery") bokeh than the other 3 lenses at all overlapping apertures.
• Difference in Ability to Isolate Subject from Background: With subjects this close all lenses can easily separate the subject from background. However, the 400mm f2.8E produces the absolute smoothest and least detailed OoF zones (pure beauty) when shot wide open - none of the other lenses could produce comparable bokeh. At this point the 400mm f2.8E offers the BEST subject isolation from a background. However, shooting the 400mm f2.8E at f2.8 comes with a penalty - the in-focus regions soften up somewhat and the lens must be stopped down to f3.5 before it hits maximum sharpness, and at this point the ability to separate the subject from the background isn't much different than that of the Nikkor 180-400mm! Two sample images will help you get a handle on these trade-offs...

Wide Open (Nikkor 400mm f2.8E) vs. Wide Open (Nikkor 180-400mm f4E) Version 1: Aperture's effect on background and subject isolation (JPEG: 2.29 MB)
Wide Open (Nikkor 400mm f2.8E) vs. Wide Open (Nikkor 180-400mm f4E) Version 1: Comparative Subject Sharpness (100% magnification crop) (JPEG: 2.07 MB)

OVERALL CONCLUSION: At 7 meters the difference in image sharpness and bokeh between the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E and the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E is reduced to hair-splitting (and extreme pixel-peeping!). My own feeling is that the difference is image quality between these two lenses is so insignificant at this distance that photographer technique/abilities and/or post-processing skills would both be more important in final image quality than lens choice. The Nikkor 200-400mm f4G and the Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3 performed well, but showed the typical compromises we have historically come to expect from zoom lenses - they either required significantly more stopping down to get to maximum sharpness (in the case of the Nikkor 200-400mm) or produced poorer quality bokeh at all overlapping apertures (in the case of the Sigma Sport 150-600).

B. Optical Performance at 25 meters (400mm focal length):

• Overall Sharpness: After an extended period of pixel-peeping I was finally able to convince myself there was a real (but extremely slight) difference in sharpness between images shot with the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E and the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E between f4 and f5. At apertures of f5.6 and smaller I could discern NO difference whatsoever in sharpness between images shot with those two lenses. At this distance the Nikkor 200-400mm was very weak when shot wide open, but by f5.6 it sharpened up enough to be called "decent", but it was still much less sharp than the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E and Nikkor 180-400 f4E until f9 (and it more or less drew even at f10). To get a feeling for the sharpness "gaps" I am talking about, check out this composite image showing 100% magnification previews of a tiny portion of the scene with the 3 Nikkors at f4 (and note that this is the WORST result for the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E of ALL the 400mm tests). (If you DO view that composite shot, look beyond the end of the broken beak [which is arguably a function of micro-focus differences] and examine several of the other areas on the image, including the carved feathers on the neck - you'll see the two images are STILL very similar). The Sigma Sport didn't fare quite as well at this distance - it was last in sharpness up to f7.1, drew even with the Nikkor 200-400 at f8, and then was arguably as sharp as the other 3 lenses at f10.

• Sharpness Progression (need to stop down from wide open) - Nikkor 400mm f2.8E: Requires stopping down 1/3 of a stop from wide open (to f3.2) before approaching maximum sharpness.
• Sharpness Progression (need to stop down from wide open) - Nikkor 180-400mm: Requires stopping down 1/3 of a stop from wide open (to f4.5) before approaching maximum sharpness.
• Sharpness Progression (need to stop down from wide open) - Nikkor 200-400mm f4G: Requires stopping down 2/3 of a stop from wide open (to f5) before approaching maximum sharpness, and only approaches sharpness of Nikkor 180-400mm and Nikkor 400mm f2.8E when stopped down to f10.
• Sharpness Progression (need to stop down from wide open) - Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3: Requires stopping down about 2/3 of a stop or less (from f6 to f7.1) to get to maximum sharpness. Only approaches sharpness of Nikkor 180-400mm and Nikkor 400mm f2.8E when stopped down to f10.
• Out-of-Focus (OoF) Zones (or Bokeh): At apertures from wide open to f4.5 the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E places first (smoothest and "most buttery" bokeh). But beyond f4.5 you pretty much couldn't see any difference in the quality of the OoF zones of the three Nikkors (the 400mm f2.8E, the 180-400mm, or the 200-400mm). The Sigma Sport 150-600 faltered here a little - up until f9 its OoF zones were noticeably less smooth and less eye-pleasing than the 3 Nikkors.
• Difference in Ability to Isolate Subject from Background: Now the situation between the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E and the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E is even murkier. There's no doubt you can separate the subject from the background better at this distance if you shoot both the 400mm and the 180-400mm wide open (check out this composite sample). But the difference in the ability to render the background "soft" is less pronounced between the two lenses than it was at 7 meters. And, once more the 180-400mm is sharper when it is shot wide open than the 400mm f2.8E is when it is shot wide open. In fact, you have to stop down the 400mm f2.8E down to f3.5 before it is as sharp as the 180-400mm is at f4. So...once more...if you care about maximizing the sharpness of your subject you have very little difference between the lenses in the ability to separate a subject from a busy background! Does your head hurt as much as mine does? ;-)

OVERALL CONCLUSION: At 25 meters the priciest lenses in this comparison (the 400mm f2.8 and the 180-400mm) continue to be separated optically by only an infinitesimally small amount. And, I think most importantly, any sharpness differences between the lenses falls within the range that can be negated by careful post-processing. The two "other" zooms lenses in the comparison (the Nikkor 200-400 and the Sigma 150-600) continue to perform quite similarly overall. In a sense you have two lenses battling it out for first place with a tiny gap between them, and you have two lenses battling it out for the 3rd and 4th spot with a tiny gap between them. BUT, the gap between the top two and the bottom two is MUCH larger (i.e., relatively huge) in comparison!

C. Optical Performance with Distant (1500 meters) Subject (400mm focal length):

• Overall Sharpness: Yup, Nikon fixed the perceived problem of "soft-at-long-distances" when they produced the 180-400mm. In what I consider an AMAZING result, there was NO VISIBLE DIFFERENCE IN EITHER CENTRAL OR EDGE SHARPNESS between the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E and the Nikkor 180-400mm at any overlapping aperture (from f4 to f11). NO DIFFERENCE. BUT...if you compare the results of shooting the 400mm f2.8 wide open vs. shooting the 180-400mm f4 wide open you'll find the 180-400mm sharper (in both the center and the edge). Another intriguing result is that after you stop the Nikkor 200-400mm f4G down to f5 (it's gawd-awful at this distance wide open!) it is as sharp in the central region as the other two Nikkors! It never gets as sharp on the edges as the other two Nikkors (it's not bad in edge sharpness at f5.6 and smaller apertures, but definitely softer than the two pricier Nikkors). The Sigma Sport 150-600 is excellent in the central region at f7.1 and smaller apertures (as good as the other 3 lenses), but is the worst on the edges (and never sharpens up much, even at f11).

• Sharpness Progression (need to stop down from wide open) - Nikkor 400mm f2.8E: Requires stopping down 1/3 of a stop from wide open (to f3.2) before approaching maximum sharpness (in both center and edges).
• Sharpness Progression (need to stop down from wide open) - Nikkor 180-400mm: None! At f4 this lens is maximally sharp in both the center and edges - insert one "amazing" right here!
• Sharpness Progression (need to stop down from wide open) - Nikkor 200-400mm f4G: Requires stopping down 2/3 of a stop from wide open (to f5) before approaching maximum sharpness in the central region, and one full stop (to f5.6) before approaching maximum sharpness on the edges.
• Sharpness Progression (need to stop down from wide open) - Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3: equires stopping down just over one third of a stop or less (from f6 to f7.1) to get to maximum sharpness in the central regions, and just over 1.67 stops (from f6 to f10) for the edges (and they're still not too sharp!).
• Out-of-Focus (OoF) Zones (or Bokeh): N/A (at this distance).
• Difference in Ability to Isolate Subject from Background: N/A (at this distance).

OVERALL CONCLUSION: At 1500 meters there is simply no visible difference whatsoever in the optical performance of the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E and the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E. If you're into long-distance scenes with great edge-to-edge sharpness (including animalscapes) shot at 400mm either of these high-end lenses will make you very happy. And, there's nothing you can do (including stopping WAY down) to make the Nikkor 200-400 OR the Sigma Sport 150-600mm match them in edge-to-edge sharpness.

V. Final Discussion and Comments

Well...somehow Nikon has managed to produce a zoom lens that can go toe-to-toe with the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 at 500mm and the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E at 400mm - and come away without a black eye (or even a bruise). For all intents and purposes there was no significant difference in my tests in sharpness between images captured with the 400mm f2.8E and the 180-400mm f4E (at any distance). Simply mind-boggling. Hell, even if your zoom on the 180-400mm f4E broke and the lens was frozen at 400mm you'd be left with a damn good 400mm f4 lens that could produce images that - in most cases - would be completely comparable to those captured with the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E! Like I said...just mind-boggling.

Many - including me - will be encouraged and excited by the strong results of the 180-400mm on a distant subject at 400mm. While I have always thought that the "problem" of the 200-400 being "soft" when shooting distances was overblown (and I think this even more after the results reported here today), I LOVE shooting distant scenes, including reasonably distant animalscapes. For ME, the ability to capture these distant scenes with a zoom lens offering great edge-to-edge sharpness (just like you can do with the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E) is a HUGE bonus!

And now we have - for the very first time - a totally new question for wildlife shooters to deal with: "Are there really ANY valid arguments left to justify owning one of the big primes?" There is still the one extra stop you get with a 500mm f4 (over the Nikkor 180-400mm with the TC engaged) and a 400mm f2.8 (over the Nikkor 180-400mm shot native). But what does this extra stop really mean in the field? I can't speak for others, but with today's "good to a zillion ISO" Nikon DSLR's I almost never shoot a f2.8 lens at f2.8 for "light-gathering" reasons any more. I DO shoot lenses with wide apertures wide open (or close to it) for creative reasons (such as isolating my subject from a busy background or getting the smoothest OoF zones possible). But...because the 180-400mm is so darned sharp when shot wide open (as in "sharper than the big primes when shot wide open")...some may choose to stop their big primes down a little (and lose what little advantage they have in subject-isolation ability).

A final comment: I have received a ton of email about the 180-400mm lens - and many said they were waiting for THIS blog entry (on performance at 400mm) before making their own purchase decision. I am confident that if anyone else replicated what I did in these systematic tests they would get similar or identical results. BUT...I can only report on my OWN experiences, especially when we move away from controlled tests and start "just shooting". A number of variables that can (and usually DO) vary between users (including user technique and skill, camera paired with the lens, differing shooting conditions, AF tuning, possible variation in quality control and sample quality and a whole bunch more) may influence others' experiences with a given lens. Given what I have already learned with my systematic testing AND what I found when shooting the 180-400mm for 9-days in the Khutzeymateen Grizzly sanctuary, I am now convinced that the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E is the single best wildlife lens on the market - for ME. Is it worth the HUGE price? I'm still deciding and I'll address this fully after I have completed ALL aspects of my testing. But at the end of the day it is still a tool - and what any given user can produce with it is MORE dependent on the hands (and eyes) of the craftsman than it is on the tool...

What's left in my 180-400mm testing? Lots. Optical performance at 200mm and 300mm. AF testing. VR testing. TC testing. So stay tuned!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#180-400_Optical400


Nikon 180-400mm Field Test: Optical Performance at 500mm

29 June 2018: Nikkor 180-400mm f4E TC1.4 VR Field Test IIIA: Optical Performance at 500mm

This is the third installment of several describing my experiences field-testing the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E. Previous installments in this 180-400mm series included an overview of my First Impressions and a detailed description of my experiences shooting the 180-400mm for 9 straight days in British Columbia's Khutzeymateen Grizzly Sanctuary.

In today's entry I describe my results from systematic and comparative optical field-testing of the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E lens at 500mm (TC-engaged) against two other lenses - the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 prime lens and the Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3 zoom lens (at 500mm). Sharpness of the three lenses were compared with images captured at 3 different distances to the subject - at close distance (8 meters or 26 feet), at a "mid-distance" (27 meters or 89 feet), and at long-distance (approx. 1500 meters or ABOUT a mile). The quality of the Out-of-Focus (OoF) zones (AKA "bokeh") of the three lenses were compared at the closest two distances (8 meters and 27 meters) - at 1500 meters the question of quality of the OoF zones becomes pretty much nonsensical as the appearance of any objects in front of or behind the subject are either likely to be in focus as well or - if they are very far away from the subject - not vary in appearance appreciably. My rationale for choosing these distances is described below in the "Field-Testing Methods" section.

The reason I'm presenting my results of optical testing at 500mm first is twofold. First, using the 180-400mm f4E at 500mm means the built-in teleconverter must be engaged and one of the obvious key questions about the 180-400mm is "...how does it perform with the TC engaged"? Second, at 500mm I can compare the optical performance of the 180-400mm against both a top-notch prime lens and one of the leading "ultra-zoom" lenses.

While I am only comparing the 180-400mm against two other lenses in these tests, note that key previous field-tests suggest it's probably safe to extrapolate the results to at least a few other lenses. In my "500mm Wars" field test I compared the Sigma 500mm f4 prime lens against Nikon's latest 500mm lens (the Nikkor 500mm f4E) and found them to be virtually identical in optical performance. So I am pretty comfortable saying that the optical comparison of the Nikkor 180-400 to the Sigma Sport 500mm would be virtually identical to the comparison of the Nikkor 180-400 to the Nikkor 500mm f4E. On the zoom side, way back in December of 2015 (that blog entry right here I compared the optical performance of the Sigma Sport 150-600mm against the ONLY OTHER current Nikkor offering a 500mm focal point (the Nikkor 200-500mm f5.6 zoom), including at 500mm. In that test I found the Sigma Sport 150-600mm to be slightly sharper than the Nikkor 200-500mm @ 500mm (and with extremely similar OoF zones).

Those who are impatient and don't care about context or reading about my field-testing methods, you can skip to The Executive Summary of my results by following this link...

I. Critical Background...And Qualifiers!

Historically the general feeling among serious wildlife photographers was that prime (fixed focal length) super-telephoto lenses offered the ultimate in image quality, with super-telephoto zooms falling behind at least a little in image quality, especially at their longest focal lengths (and, in some cases, at long camera-to-subject distances). However, zooms offered the photographer a wide range of focal lengths and all that go with that, including the ability to compose shots exactly as the photographer wanted (while the saying that with primes you have to "....zoom with your feet" is cute, it often isn't possible) and thus end up with shots that need little or no cropping. Another historical trend was that the super-telephoto primes cost a whole lot more than even the "best-of-the-best" super-telephoto primes.

When Nikon recently introduced the 180-400mm f4E zoom lens the price differential between their best prime lenses and the 180-400mm pretty much evaporated! Consequently, I (along with probably thousands of other photographers) began wondering if Nikon had managed to develop a lens with optical performance approaching that of the prime lenses with the focal lengths it overlapped. If that had done that, then perhaps the stratospheric price of the 180-400mm just might be justified (considering the number of lenses it could functionally replace). Of course, the 180-400 is a full stop slower than the top prime lenses it overlaps with in focal length, so a secondary consideration becomes "But can it isolate a subject as effectively as the big primes?".

So...that's where I'm coming from on this field test - not only do I care about the image quality at the longer focal lengths being "good enough" for me, but if I am going to keep my copy of the 180-400 I pretty much want it to perform as well as Nikon's (and Sigma's) big primes do.

Those who have followed my past field tests know I don't place much faith in how closely MTF curves predict lens performance in the field - in my view those MTF curves are produced under conditions just too far away from what we do in the field that they pretty much "fall apart" in usefulness. For example, if a lens has an autofocus system that is so bad (or non-existent like in many Zeiss lenses) that you never manage to get a sharp shot in the field...well...those wonderful Zeiss MTF curves don't mean much! Similarly, if you are regularly hand-holding a "big" lens then the quality of the image stabilization system may have more to do with how sharp your image is than does the MTF curve.

My optical field testing could be criticized for similar reasons. I conduct them using methods (see "Field-Testing Methods" below) that we rarely use in the field. I do this to minimize "confounding" variables and I come up with what I think of as "Maximum Attainable Field Sharpness" (all right...the birth of yet another acronym: MAFS!). How close one can get to this MAFS will vary between users AND with how other lens characteristics (that vary between lenses, such as AF performance, VR performance, weight, balance, etc.) permit. And that's the whole reason I combine my optical field tests with a lot of "just shooting" (like my 9-day stint shooting the Khutzeymateen Grizzlies - see blog entry below).

II. Field-Testing Methods

Okey dokey - here's what I did, followed by a quick rationale for why I did it the way I did...

At each of the three test distances - and for each lens - I shot aperture "runs" from wide open through to f11 in 1/3 stop increments. For each aperture I shot two images and "de-focused" the lens after each shot (and re-focused for the next shot). All images were captured with a Nikon D850 using Live View, a cable release, full electronic shutter, VR or OS OFF, and the lens/camera combination was supported on a firm tripod (Jobu Algonquin) and gimbal head (Jobu Heavy Duty Mk IV). Between EACH shot I waited a minimum of 10 seconds (and I have the mosquito bites to prove it) for all vibrations to dissipate (my "de-focusing" of the lens required me touching it, which could have produced minor vibrations). All images were captured using Manual exposure mode and a fixed ISO (so aperture and shutter speed varied between each 2-shot sequence). Now...that rationale...

• Three Test Distances: I shot test images at 8 meters, 27 meters and about 1500 meters. This was done because some lenses are known to vary in optical quality at different distances. I chose 8 meters because this is the type of distance I often shoot small mammals (e.g., squirrels and chipmunks) and/or medium-size perching birds (from Juncos to Clark's Nutcrackers and Robins and Bluebirds) at. My subject was my nearly-famous stump (and here it is!) - it allows me to carefully assess sharpness AND both close OoF zones (opposite side of the stump) and more distant OoF zones. Note that at this distance (and using this subject) I did NOT examine edge sharpness (i.e., I was interested primarily in central region sharpness). I'm comfortable with this because at this type of distance we're rarely shooting absolutely flat surfaces (hey...this is PORTRAIT distance) and more often than not the edges are of little concern (and often in OoF zones).

I chose 27 meters because I often work at this distance when shooting larger mammals (coyotes through to bears and many ungulates). My subject was a highly cooperative and patient eagle (see it here) with a garden rake positioned 1.5 meters behind it as well as trees behind it at about 8 meters and 40 meters respectively (to help assess the quality of the OoF zones). This setup let me examine image sharpness in the region I was focusing as well as getting a really good handle on how the OoF objects (at different distances) appeared.

I chose 1500 meters as my distant subject because this is a distant I often shoot scenes at with long telephoto lenses (including some animalscape shots) and in these shots I almost always care about edge-to-edge sharpness. The scene I chose is a distant treeline that runs perpendicular to the position I shot the images from and the treelike runs completely across the frame (which allows easy edge-to-edge assessment). Here's the scene...

• Nikon D850: This 46 MP DSLR is highly demanding and shows lens flaws (such as edge softness) more readily than Nikon's lower res DSLR's do. As a general rule, if a lens tests well with the Nikon D850 it will perform GREAT on Nikon's lower-resolution DSLR's. All images were captured as maximum resolution 14-bit compressed raw files.

• Live View (and Live View Autofocus): Live View is "immune" to AF tuning issues/biases and highly accurate. Using it (rather than the phase detect AF system of the optical viewfinder) removes a confounding variable. Note that for each aperture (for each lens at each distance) I shot two shots - and I "de-focused" and then "re-focused" the lens between shots. As it turns out, this "de-focus and re-focus" step was largely unnecessary - in over 95% of the test "sequences" there was no difference between the two shots (in focus or sharpness).

• Cable Release and Electronic Shutter: Both used to minimize camera movement/shake...thus assuring the sharpest possible image.

• VR/OS OFF: The performance of different VR/OS systems when shot from a firm tripod varies between lenses, and some even make the image "drift" over time (and this image drifting can even blur the image at slow shutter speeds). Simplest way to control for this variable is simply to turn the VR/OS system off (hey...I was shooting from a rock-solid tripod and had cut out other sources of vibration...and my subjects were static!).

III. Image Quality Assessment

I assessed images shot at 8 and 27 meters for central region sharpness AND the quality of the OoF zones. Images shot at 1500 meters were assessed for edge-to-edge (including central region) sharpness but not for quality of OoF zones. Image quality was assessed by viewing raw previews constructed by Capture One Pro V11.1.1 (ALL settings affecting preview quality absolutely identical for all images) on a Apple 30" Cinema HD display (101 ppi). Sharpness was assessed at 100% magnification - OoF zone quality was assessed at both lower magnifications AND 100% magnification. The image assessment method could best be described as VERY SLOW AND METHODICAL (AND REPETITIVE) PIXEL-PEEPING! ;-)

IV. The RESULTS!

Here's a quick and dirty executive summary PLUS a few more nitty-gritty details for those who appreciate precision and nuance...

1. The Executive Summary:

At both close and moderate camera-to-subject distances (8 meters and 27 meters) the Nikkor 180-400mm (at a 500mm focal length - with TC engaged) and the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 were virtually identical optically. At those same distances the Sigma Sport 150-600mm (@ 500mm) was noticeably softer (less sharp) at wider apertures but was closely nipping at the heels of the other two lenses at f9 through f11. When the subject was much more distant (1500 meters) the Sigma Sport was noticeably sharper (in both the central regions and edges) than the Nikkor 180-400mm, but only at "wider" apertures (f5.6 through f7.1). From f8 through f11 there was little difference in sharpness between the Nikkor 180-400 and the Sigma 500. The Sigma Sport 150-600mm faltered more at the long distance - central region sharpness was decent at f8 and smaller apertures but the edges did not sharpen up even at f11.

2. The Nitty Gritty Details:

A. Optical Performance at 8 meters (500mm focal length):

• Overall Sharpness: Parity in sharpness between Nikkor 180-400mm f4E and Sigma Sport 500mm f4 at all equivalent apertures (from f5.6 to f11). Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3 noticeably softer up to (and including) f8 but approaches (but does not fully match) sharpness of the other two lenses from f9 to f11.

• Sharpness Progression (need to stop down from wide open) - Nikkor 180-400mm: Virtually none, meaning the lens is virtually at maximum sharpness when shot wide open (@ 5.6). This is absolutely remarkable, especially given that at this focal length the built-in TC is engaged (not only have I never seen ANY lens at maximum sharpness when shot wide before, but normally even MORE stopping down is required to get to maximum sharpness if a TC is added to the equation).
• Sharpness Progression (need to stop down from wide open) - Sigma Sport 500mm f4: Requires stopping down 2/3 of a stop from wide open (to f5) before approaching maximal sharpness, and must be stopped down to f5.6 to match the sharpness of the Nikkor 180-400mm shot wide open (@ f5.6).
• Sharpness Progression (need to stop down from wide open) - Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3: Requires stopping one full stop from wide open (to f9) before approaching maximum sharpness.
• Out-of-Focus (OoF) Zones (or Bokeh): Parity in the smoothness and aesthetic appeal of the OoF zones of the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E and the Sigma Sport f5.6 at all equivalent apertures. OoF zones of Sigma Sport 150-600mm slightly less smooth (more "jittery" or "nervous") than the other two lenses at equivalent apertures.
• Difference in Ability to Isolate Subject from Background: With subjects this close all 3 lenses can easily separate the subject from background. Given that the quality of the OoF zones of the Nikkor 180-400mm and the Sigma Sport 500mm are virtually identical, and given that the Sigma Sport 500mm must be stopped down to f5.6 to match the sharpness of the Nikkor 180-400mm when shot wide open (which is f5.6 with the TC engaged), I can find no net difference in the ability of the Nikkor 180-400 and the Sigma 500 to isolate a close subject.

OVERALL CONCLUSION: At 8 meters I could find no image quality compromises associated with using the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E zoom compared to the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 prime lens. And overall both lenses outperformed the Sigma Sport 150-600mm.

B. Optical Performance at 27 meters (500mm focal length):

• Overall Sharpness: Again, a virtual dead-heat in sharpness between the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E and the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 at all equivalent apertures (from f5.6 to f11). I was able to detect an extremely small difference in sharpness between the Nikkor 180-400mm and the Sigma Sport 500mm at TWO apertures (f7.1 and f9). At both of these apertures the Nikkor 180-400 was very slightly sharper, but seeing the difference required extreme pixel-peeping on a 101 ppi monitor and would have been invisible on a higher resolution monitor and was within the range that could have been easily negated with sharpening during post-processing. Again, the Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3 was noticeably softer up to (and including) f8 but approaches (but does not fully match) sharpness of the other two lenses from f9 to f11.

Here's an image shot that shows a sample result (this one at f6.3) comparing the three images (note that this is a small crop from the central region as seen when viewed at 100% magnification: Download image (JPEG: 1.87 MB)

• Sharpness Progression (need to stop down from wide open) - Nikkor 180-400mm: As at 8 meters...virtually no stopping down needed to get to maximum sharpness. And again, I feel compelled to point out that this is absolutely remarkable!
• Sharpness Progression (need to stop down from wide open) - Sigma Sport 500mm f4: Requires stopping down 2/3 of a stop from wide open (to f5) before approaching maximum sharpness, and (like at 8 meters) the Sigma 500mm f4 must be stopped down to f5.6 to match sharpness of Nikkor 180-400mm shot wide open (@ f5.6).
• Sharpness Progression (need to stop down from wide open) - Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3: Requires stopping down one full stop from wide open (to f9) before approaching maximum sharpness.
• Out-of-Focus (OoF) Zones (or Bokeh): This is interesting...I found the OoF zones of the Nikkor 180-400mm to be noticeably smoother and more aesthetically pleasing compared to both the Sigma Sport 500 and the Sigma Sport 150-600 when images shot at the same aperture were compared. This means there was less "ghosting" around fine OoF lines (like branches) and the various OoF objects (regardless of distance behind the subject) always appeared "smoother" on the images shot with the Nikkor 180-400mm. Interestingly, the OoF zones of the Sigma 500 and the Sigma 150-600 were virtually identical at all equivalent apertures.
• Difference in Ability to Isolate Subject from Background: Hmmm...this is a bit complicated and the result kind of depends on how you look at it. If you compare images shot wide open with the Sigma 500 (so at f4) and wide open with the Nikkor 180-400 (so at f5.6) you CAN see a difference in the ability of the "faster" Sigma 500 to separate the subject from the background (see THIS sample comparative image). BUT...if you were to pixel-peep full resolution versions of these images you'd notice that the Nikkor 180-400 shot is considerably sharper. If you want to compare the quality of the OoF zones of the shots where the subjects are equivalently sharp (which occurs at f5.6), then you'd notice the OoF zone of the image shot with the Nikkor 180-400 has better (smoother and "more buttery") OoF zones (see THIS Sample Comparative Image).

OVERALL CONCLUSION: At 27 meters there is arguably a small advantage to the optical performance of the Nikkor 180-400mm over the Sigma Sport 500 - their sharpness is virtually identical at all equivalent apertures BUT the OoF zones of the 180-400mm are slightly smoother and "more buttery". BUT...if you're OK with a slightly less sharp subject, the f4 aperture of the Sigma Sport 500mm does allow you to separate your subject from a busy background a little better. Which lens would I choose when shooting a subject at this distance? I'd probably grab the Nikon 180-400mm. Why? Given the near optical equivalence I'd give up the slightly better ability of the Sigma 500mm f4 to isolate the subject from the background for the ability to tweak the framing and composition via zooming a little. But it's pretty much a coin toss!

C. Optical Performance with Distant (1500 meters) Subject (500mm focal length):

• Overall Sharpness: Now the Sigma Sport 500mm prime lens pulls away from both of the zooms. Between f5.6 and f7.1 the Sigma 500mm f4 was noticeably sharper than the Nikkor 180-400mm in both the center and edges of the frame. Once stopped down to f8 (and through to f11) the differential in sharpness between the Sigma 500mm and the Nikkor 180-400mm fell dramatically and it took pixel-peeping at 100% magnification to see that the Sigma 500mm was still a little sharper (i.e., once stopped down to f8 the 180-400mm and the Sigma 500 were EXTREMELY similar in sharpness).180-400_500_methods How did the Sigma 150-600mm fare? Soft on the edges at all apertures but not bad central sharpness (close to the same as the Nikkor 180-400) when stopped down to f8 and beyond.

• Sharpness Progression (need to stop down from wide open) - Nikkor 180-400mm: Now the 180-400mm becomes mortal! Maximum sharpness (center and edges) not attained until stopped down one full stop (to f8)
• Sharpness Progression (need to stop down from wide open) - Sigma Sport 500mm f4: Requires stopping down a full stop from wide open (to f5.6) before approaching maximum sharpness in center and edges.
• Sharpness Progression (need to stop down from wide open) - Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3: Never sharpens on edges at any aperture; requires stopping 2/3 of a stop from wide open (to f8) before approaching maximum sharpness in central region.
• Out-of-Focus (OoF) Zones (or Bokeh): N/A (at this distance).
• Difference in Ability to Isolate Subject from Background: N/A (at this distance).

OVERALL CONCLUSION: This is the only distance where the Sigma 500mm showed a clear optical advantage over the Nikkor 180-400mm. If one is going to use the Nikkor 180-400mm at these types of distances they should stop down to f8 (or smaller apertures). At this point it is impossible to determine if the diminished performance of the 180-400 with distant subjects (compared to its performance at shorter distances) means that the lens will generally perform poorer at long distances (at all focal lengths) or if this result is a function of the TC being in use. This makes further testing at "native" focal lengths (TC NOT engaged) essential (and quite interesting!).

V. Final Discussion and Comments

I find the result that the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E @ 500mm matches the optical performance of the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 at most "normal" wildlife working distances to be absolutely amazing. It's important to remember that this result was obtained with the teleconverter ENGAGED and it makes me wonder how the Nikkor 180-400 will compare against the venerable Nikkor 400mm f2.8E when both are shot without teleconverters involved! In my mind one other result is really significant - the fact that at most normal working distances (for wildlife) the Nikkor 180-400 can be shot absolutely wide open (even with the TC engaged) without any optical penalty. For those worried that you'd have to stop the lens down to get maximum sharpness - and in doing so lose the critical ability to separate a subject from the background - well...scratch that concern off your list!

Next up? Optical performance at 400mm. This means a 4-way comparison between the Nikkor 180-400mm vs. the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E vs. the Nikkor 200-400mm f4 vs. the Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3. Stay tuned!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#Optical500


Nikon 180-400mm Field Test: Shooting the Khutzeymateen Grizzlies

18 June 2018: Nikkor 180-400mm f4E TC1.4 VR Field Test II: Shooting the Khutzeymateen...

This is the second installment of several describing my experiences field-testing the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E. In this entry I describe my experiences and impressions of the 180-400mm after a focused 9-day stint of shooting the "Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen" under very real-world conditions in late May and early June. I took possession of my copy of the 180-400mm about a week before heading into the Khutzeymateen which gave me some time do some preliminary testing of the lens. The prefatory results of this early testing were reported in my 21 May blog entry and they suggested that the 180-400mm exhibited very good edge-to-edge sharpness at several "native" focal lengths (i.e., without the built-in teleconverter engaged). They also suggested that the autofocus (AF) system was very good at native focal lengths but in at least some tests (that may or may not be highly correlated with most real-world shooting situations) some aspects of AF performance MAY be degraded when the TC was engaged. And...during that 1-week pre-Khutzeymateen period I had the impression (without hard evidence) that the Vibration Reduction (VR) system was very effective. And that's pretty much all I knew about the performance of the 180-400mm when I packed it up and took it into the Khutzeymateen.

I. Critical Background...And Qualifiers!

For those who don't know, the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Sanctuary is one of the world's premiere locations to photograph grizzly bears (AKA Coastal Brown Bears). It is located on British Columbia's northern coast and is closely regulated (which means there's a long lineup to get in there!). The "hottest" spot in the Khutzeymateen for photographing bears is invariably the estuary at the top of the inlet. The estuary can only be accessed at moderately high tides and via smallish inflatable boats (typically Zodiacs). Why am I mentioning this? Because it has a huge consequence on how you must do your photography in there - you can't use a tripod in a smallish Zodiac and consequently ALL shots are captured hand-held in the Khutzeymateen.

I have been leading photo tours in the Khutzeymateen for 12 years now (info on the 2018 photo tours that lead to this blog entry are described here on my Photo Tours page). In all my years of going into the Khutzeymateen I can honestly say the 2018 "edition" of my photo tours were the wettest and coldest ever! We awoke several mornings to fresh snow on the mountains around us (fortunately not on us). Why am I mentioning this? Well...during the vast majority of my time in the Khutzeymateen this year it was heavily overcast and/or raining. So think low-light. And...as mentioned just above...all shooting in the Khutzeymateen is done hand-held. Which means higher ISO shooting, which means (you guessed it!) I did the VAST majority of my Khutzeymateen shooting in 2018 using my D5. Overall 70% of the 17,107 shots I took over my 9 days in the Khutzeymateen were with my D5. I used my D850 for 28% of the shots and my D500 for only 2% of my shots. Of all the shots I took with the 180-400 there was even a slightly stronger bias towards D5 use - a full 75% of the shots taken using the 180-400 were when it was paired with my D5. Consequently...it's worth keeping this D5 bias in mind when reading the rest of this blog entry - if I say something like "The autofocus of the 180-400mm was phenomenal" it should probably be read as "The autofocus of the 180-400mm was phenomenal when paired with the D5". While I have no a priori reason to argue that my observations of the performance of the 180-400mm wouldn't also apply to other Nikon DSLR's, my results in the Khutzeymateen indicating stellar performance of the 180-400mm (oops...getting ahead of myself there) are based almost exclusively on pairing it with Nikon's flagship DSLR (and its number 1 action camera by a wide margin). Just sayin'...

Oh...and BTW...all the rain we received in the Khutzeymateen gave me a great chance to evaluate how a new rain cover I purchased for the 180-400mm performed under tough conditions. And, on that note, if someone is looking for a GREAT rain cover for the 180-400mm I can highly recommend the AquaTech SSRC Large Sport Shield Rain Cover (info on this rain cover right here).

Some Interesting Khutzeymateen Shooting Stats:

Here's a few shooting stats from my Khutzeymateen trip that some may find interesting (including a few that lead to interesting conclusions):

• Total number of raw images captured over 9 days: 17,107
• Total number of raw images captured with the 180-400mm: 15,729 (92% of all images captured)
• Total number of raw images captured using 180-400mm WITHOUT the TC engaged: 4,491
• Total number of raw images captured using 180-400mm WITH the TC engaged: 11,238

The heavy usage of the 180-400mm relative to the other lenses I took into the Khutzeymateen speaks volumes about the versatility of the lens. In past years I have taken other combinations of lenses into the Khutzeymateen and one of my favourite combinations in the Khutz has been the Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8 with the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR. I took this combination with me in 2018 and my initial plan was to alternate between using the 180-400mm and the Sigma Sport 120-300 plus 400mm f2.8E combination daily (one day with the 180-400mm, next day with the Sigma Sport plus the Nikkor 400). But after one day with the 180-400 (including what I learned from reviewing day #1's images on my laptop the first evening of the trip) I almost instantly dumped that plan (and used the 180-400mm each day of the trip). I can honestly say (as I mentioned in my last blog entry) that I never once find myself thinking "I wish I had my 400mm f2.8E (or my Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8) in my hands right now..."

Another "factoid" (not shown in the stats above) that further argues for the versatility (and overall usefulness) of the 180-400mm is that when reviewing the images from Khutzeymateen - I used virtually EVERY focal length between 180-560mm during my Khutzeymateen stint. I WAS biased heavily towards using the longest native focal length (400mm) and longest overall focal length (550/560mm), but a large part of this was simply because I was VERY keen on knowing how this lens performed at "maximum" focal lengths. When I was examining the focal lengths I used with the 180-400mm I noticed some things about how the cameras I used (D5, D850, D500) recorded that were partly interesting and partly quirky (and deserve documentation somewhere...why not here?!):

1. The D5, D500, and D850 all record the focal lengths used in 10mm increments from 180-500mm. So you can see focal lengths (when reviewing images on the back of your camera or on any image-editing program) of 180mm, 190mm, 230mm, et cetera. But ALL focal lengths longer than 490mm are recorded as 500mm or 550mm (or 560mm if you are shooting with a D5 with the most recent firmware update). So...according to the cameras you NEVER shoot at 510mm or 520mm or 530mm, et cetera. Weird.

2. The cameras perceive that the 180-400mm without the TC engaged is a different lens than WITH the TC engaged. For shots without the TC engaged the lens is listed as the "180.0-400.0 mm f/4.0" and with the TC engaged it is listed as the "250.0-550.0 mm f5.6" (add in an external TC WITHOUT the TC engaged and it calls the lens a 250-550 mm f5.6...without the decimal points!). So what? Well...two consequences - one trivial and one not-so-trivial. The trivial one is that if you are tallying up (or filtering) images by lens type in any image management program (e.g., Lightroom, Capture One Pro, etc.) you have to be careful or you can miss a lot of images. The not-so-trivial consequence? Because the cameras perceive that the 180-400mm (TC NOT engaged) is a different lens than the 250-550/560mm (TC engaged) it allows you to store DIFFERENT AF tuning values for them. This is good. It means that if the TC changes your AF tuning values (which often happens with TC's), you can "accommodate" that need (I will avoid going into a tirade right now about how inadequate it is to use a single AF tuning value for a zoom lens! ;-)

3. Focal length and firmware update chaos! OK...so Nikon is being really inconsistent in its firmware updates (in terms of the maximum focal lengths this lens actually has). If you have a D5 and HAVEN'T done the firmware update that came out on or about May 24, 2018 then the maximum focal of the lens with the TC engaged is 550mm. If you HAVE done the firmware update then the longest focal length is 560mm. What about the D500 and D850's? Well...if you have OR haven't done the June 7, 2018 firmware update (and note that date) the maximum focal length of the lens always 550mm. Makes total sense - right? Yep, but only in random world. I had no idea that Donald Trump had taken over the Department of Firmware and Metadata Logic at Nikon.

Back to the Khutzeymateen shooting stats. Why such a high percentage of shots WITH the TC engaged (almost two thirds of all shots captured with the 180-400)? This is biased upwards at least some by my interest in testing how well the lens worked with the TC engaged...and it's obviously influenced by the average shooting distance to the subjects. But it's also a reflection of how rapidly my confidence grew in the quality of the shots captured with the TC engaged (I was reviewing each day's shots in the evenings...and there was more than one "holy crap...these 560mm shots are great" statements uttered on night 1!).

And HERE's the biggest qualifier that should be kept in mind while reading this blog entry: I did NO comparative and/or systematic testing in the Khutzeymateen - I was "just shooting". Consequently, everything that follows is subjective and in no way scientific. Some findings ARE a little beyond "anecdotal" (if all of the 15,729 shots captured showed vignetting there's a darned good chance the lens vignettes!), but I can't make absolute or comparative statements with any degree of confidence. I CAN say that the lens appeared very sharp but I CAN'T say the lens is the sharpest lens I ever shot OR that the lens was "slightly less sharp than the 400mm f2.8E". When hand-holding ANY lens in a floating Zodiac and shooting wildlife under rapidly changing conditions there are a plethora of uncontrolled variables. But...I HAVE been going into the Khutzeymateen for over a decade now and my "gut feelings" probably have some merit! ;-)

II. My Primary Observations, Findings and Thoughts?

So...qualifiers in mind...what were my "big picture" observations, findings and thoughts after shooting the 180-400mm f4E for 9 days in the Khutzeymateen? Because there are so few of them, I'll start with the negatives...

1. Vignetting: The vignetting I reported on in my First Impressions blog entry was persistent and affected ALL the images I captured. Repeat after me - "The Nikkor 180-400mm f4E vignettes". As anticipated, the vignetting is less obvious on most wildlife shots than on landscape shots (especially if the wildlife subject is in dark surroundings), but it's always there. How much? It varies with focal length and aperture, but in most cases it's cleaned up "enough" if I apply a correction of 0.67 stops using Capture One Pro's "Circular On Crop" vignetting correction factor.

2. Weight: While I had no problem at all hand-holding the 180-400mm for extended periods of time in the Khutzeymateen, it is still a 3700+ gm (8+ lb) lens. And those who feel that the Nikkor 80-400mm (1570 gm or 3.5 lb), Nikkor 200-500 (2300 gm or 5.1 lb) or the Sigma Sport 150-600mm (2860 gm or 6.3 lb) are on the heavy side may find the 180-400mm just too heavy for them. The current reality (at least until Nikon introduces its 400, 500, and 600mm PF lenses) is that if you want a top-notch super-telephoto lens (prime or zoom) you will be adding about 8 lbs to your kit.

3. Price: No matter how great the 180-400mm turns out to be (or how blown away I was by its performance in the Khutzeymateen) I still consider its price to be "off the charts". And, sadly, it puts it out of reach of countless wildlife photographers of all levels (from novices through to seasoned pros). In my view the lens is somewhere between $4000 and $5000 CAD over-priced. But I doubt Nikon will drop the price on it much (if any) anytime soon. Sigh.

The positives? Where do I begin? In the field - when doing what you're supposed to be doing with it - well...in my never-humble opinion this is simply a STELLAR lens. Here's what stood out the MOST for me:

1. Astounding "Hit Rate: When I began scrolling through my images after the first day in the Khutzeymateen the first thing that struck me was just how few shots I missed with the 180-400mm. Almost all my shots captured with the 180-400mm and the D5 were tack sharp. And this includes shots of static subjects, rapidly moving subjects, subjects shot in absolute downpours, flying subjects, subjects shot in great light, subjects shot in terrible light...all of which were shot hand-held from a floating inflatable boat! In my view the observation of a noticeably higher "hit rate" in the field means that all performance-related lens characteristics (optical quality, autofocus, vibration reduction, etc.) are interacting (co-mingling?) to produce a lens that is somehow more than the sum of its parts (yeah, I know it sounds almost "sucky", but it's true). For me, this exceptionally high hit ratio was the single most mind-boggling aspect of the performance of the 180-400mm in the Khutzeymateen.

2. Excellent Image Quality - Native Focal Range (180-400mm): As my preliminary testing had suggested the image quality of the 180-400mm was simply excellent. This means several things - great edge-to-edge sharpness, exceptionally pleasing out-of-focus zones (AKA "bokeh"), and fantastic contrast (including in back-lit scenarios). What continues to surprise me is that the sharpness of the 180-400mm isn't just found when you stop down - at virtually ALL apertures (including when shot wide open) - this lens is SHARP. It's also darned sharp at its maximum focal length (400mm). And, very importantly, this image quality was consistent over all distances to subject - from portraits of cooperative bears through to distant scenes. In the sample images below I intentionally picked subjects over a variety of distances-to-subject - keep that in the back of your mind when examining the sample shots.

3. Very Good to Excellent Image Quality - "Extended" Focal Range (with TC engaged: 250-550/560mm): While my shooting in the Khutzeymateen doesn't permit me to say that engaging the built-in 1.4x teleconverter had no negative consequences on image quality, I got results in the 401-550/560mm focal range that pleased me very much. Sharpness, bokeh, and contrast were all extremely good (if not excellent). I think it's very notable that I obtained excellent results with the TC engaged and the lens shot at MAXIMUM focal length even when shooting wide open (f5.6). And I think it's worth mentioning that after the first day any "reluctance" I had to engage the TC (for fear of diminishing the image quality lower than I would deem acceptable) completely evaporated.

4. Exceptional Versatility: I shot 17,107 images over the 9 days - and 15,729 (92%) of these were with the 180-400mm. I never once took (or felt the need to take) my 400mm f2.8E or Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8 into the field during the 9 days. What does this tell you? Yep...this is an incredibly versatile lens. The allure of taking only this lens - plus a 70-200mm and 24-70mm - and NO OTHER LENSES on any trips involving weight restrictions or air travel (and making virtually no compromises in image quality) is very strong.

5. Excellent Autofocus (all focal lengths): Seemed great, even when the TC was engaged. My shooting included lots of action shots - including sparring grizzlies and birds in flight - and listening to me when I was reviewing shots in the evening would have been very boring (and probably very irritating): "Sharp...sharp...sharp again...another sharp one...sharp...that one's sharp..sharp...sharp..." But note that I find it extremely challenging to determine anything "quantitative" or definitive about AF when shooting in the field. For this reason I will be doing a lot more AF testing (under controlled conditions) in the coming weeks...

6. Rock Solid Vibration Reduction: Again...it seemed great, but like with AF I find this hard to assess when "just shooting" (but the high "hit ratio" above does argue for the VR system being at least adequate...and I THINK it's WAY beyond this, but I haven't done systematic testing on it yet). I will be doing a lot more VR testing in the coming weeks (so stay tuned on this). One "not-so-surprising" observation is worth mentioning: like with other Nikkors that offer the VR Sport or VR Normal options I found that the biggest difference between these two modes is the "good old HJ factor", where HJ = Herky Jerky, and it refers to how much the image jumps around BETWEEN frames shot in a burst. In Sport Mode the image is rock solid in position from the first frame in a burst through to the last frame. In Normal Mode (where presumably you get a LITTLE more VR performance) the image jumps around like crazy between shots in a burst (you do NOT want to be shooting action - be it sparring bears or a bird in flight - using VR normal).

7. Smart Ergonomics: Nikon is almost always very good at ergonomics, and they did TWO things on this lens that I REALLY like. The first is position of the lever that toggles the TC on and off. During my first day in the Khutzeymateen I found myself toggling the TC on and off almost subconsciously and without ever taking my eye away the viewfinder. Full marks to Nikon on positioning of this lever. The second thing I really like is "reversing" the zoom and AF rings (relative to the 200-400 and "older" generation Nikon zooms). On the 180-400mm the zoom ring is now the distal ring (closest to the far end of the lens) and, at least for me, it falls right where it needs to so that I can zoom the lens when I am "naturally" holding the lens. The end-result of this is that I DID end up zooming the lens far more than I did when I owned the 200-400. Good move Nikon.

III. ANNOTATED Sample Images

In my mind this is the heart of this blog entry - the darned images! Note that each image is annotated with tech specs, processing notes, and MOST IMPORTANTLY comments about the lens. If you take the time to look at the image AND read the comments you will learn a LOT more about my observations, findings, and thoughts about the lens than simply by reading the information above. Because there seems to be a tremendous amount of interest about how this lens performs with the TC engaged I'm ordering the sample images below based on focal length starting with the LONGEST focal length sample images. Of course, all these sample images were captured in full compliance with the Wildlife FIRST! Principles of Photographer Conduct.

Oh...and a final warning: It was raining a LOT during our trip - you WILL see a lot of raindrops in these shots. And...despite their "fierce" reputation, 95% of what grizzlies eat is vegetative matter, including a whole lot of grass! ;-)

1. At 550/560mm

• Grizzly Swimming with D5: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.27 MB)
• Grizzlies Sparring with D5: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.95 MB)
• Grizzly Portrait with D5: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.88 MB)
• Grizzly Portrait with D500: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 2.21 MB)
• Grizzly Portrait with D850: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 2.02 MB)
• Crow with D5: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.21 MB)
• Distant Eagle with D5: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.91 MB)
• Seal with D850: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.44 MB)
• Mew Gull in Flight with D5: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.56 MB)

2. At 500mm (or somewhere between 500mm and 550/560mm!)

• Grizzly Portrait with D5: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 2.32 MB)
• Grizzly "Enviroscape" with D5: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 2.72 MB)

3. At 490mm

• Big Male Griz with D5: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 2.2 MB)

4. At 460mm

• Griz Wet Both Sides with D5: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.54 MB)

5. At 450mm

• Griz Looking Back with D5: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.69 MB)

6. At 440mm

• The Big Dude with D5: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 2.27 MB)

7. At 420mm

• Female Griz Profile with D5: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.82 MB)

8. At 400mm (TC NOT engaged)

• Muddy Clammer with D5: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 2.12 MB)
• Griz Animalscape with D850: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.88 MB)
• Drive by Shooting with D5: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.64 MB)

9. At 380mm

• Prime Time with D5: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.65 MB)

10. At 320mm

• Reflections on Zooming with D5: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 2.54 MB)

11. At 300mm

• Khutz Life with D5: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.86 MB)

12. At 260mm

• Shake it Off with D5: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 2.24 MB)

13. At 240mm

• Edge-to-Edge with D5: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 3.53 MB)

14. At 210mm

• Where's Waldo Animalscape with D5: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 2.15 MB)
• Chilled Out with D5: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 2.72 MB)

15. At 200mm

• Running Water with D5: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 3.96 MB)

IV. Conclusion...and Up Next?

Yep, I like the 180-400mm f4E - a LOT. In my view Nikon has set a new standard in super-telephoto zoom lens performance with this one. But...believe it or not...I still haven't fully decided if I'm going to keep mine. Or what else I will sell if I do choose to keep it. If the lens was priced where it should be I wouldn't feel nearly as conflicted - I'd just keep the 180-400mm AND my other "key" wildlife lenses. Only time - and more detailed testing of the 180-400mm - will tell.

Anyway...what's left to do in my 180-400mm f4E testing - and what's up next? It's back to systematic field testing of...

• Optical quality, including direct systematic comparisons with several other lenses at key focal lengths and multiple camera-to-subject distances
• Detailed TC evaluation, including comparison of 180-400mm with TC engaged vs. other key super-telephoto primes and zooms plus evaluation of the built-in TC vs. using an "external" TC-14EIII, et cetera
• Further Autofocus testing
• Detailed VR (and comparative "hand-holdability") testing
• And a whole lot more sessions of "just shooting"...

By the time this is all over we'll all know WAY more about the 180-400mm than we ever wanted to! ;-)

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#180-400_ShootKhutz


Nikon 180-400mm Field Test: First Impressions

21 May 2018: Nikkor 180-400mm f4E TC1.4 VR Field Test I: First Impressions...

This is the first installment of many that will describe my experiences field-testing the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E (the full name of the lens is actually the "AF-S NIKKOR 180-400mm f/4E TC1.4 FL ED VR", but this is WAY too much of a mouthful - and WAY too many odd keystrokes - to type repeatedly...so expect me to refer to it as either "the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E" or just "the 180-400mm"!). Over the next 1-2 months I will be extensively field-testing testing Nikon's latest high-end super-telephoto zoom. My goal is to thoroughly test the new lens' optical quality, autofocus (AF) performance, vibration-reduction (VR) performance - and more - against a wide variety of other high-end lenses that could be competing for the contents of the wallet of serious wildlife and "action" shooters (including, of course, sports photographers). By the end of the testing period I want to have (and share) a thorough understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of this highly promising (and highly expensive) photographic tool.

Those with a love for specifications will already know that Nikon has pulled out ALL the stops on the design of this new lens - it features a VERY convenient "native" focal range of 180-400mm, an integrated 1.4x teleconverter (which extends the focal range to 550mm), a fixed f4 aperture over the native focal range (which shifts to f5.6 with the teleconverter engaged), a totally new lens formula that includes a 8 ED and one fluorite lens, Nikon's latest AF technology, a "next-generation" vibration-reduction system, and "advanced" weather sealing. Those wishing to examine the specs in detail can check them out right here on dpreview.com's website...

The only other "specification" I will mention at this point is the price - in Canada the MSRP is $15,549.95 CAD and on the Nikon USA website it is listed as going for $12,399.95 USD (at the time of this writing). And, as of today it is listed at $12,396.95 on the B&H website. I mention the price here for one reason only: with a price like this comes the expectation that the lens MUST break new ground in super-telephoto zoom lens performance. For me, this means that the lens MUST offer "near-prime" performance in all regards - optical quality, AF and VR performance, handling, and more! For this reason my field testing period will pit the 180-400 against both competing zoom lenses AND "state-of-the-art" primes that overlap it in focal length.

My copy of the 180-400mm f4E arrived a few weeks ago but because I was away leading a photo tour I was only able to pick it up last Tuesday. I am leaving to lead back-to-back "Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen" photo tours tomorrow (where I will, of course, be shooting the 180-400 extensively). Since I picked up the lens I have been actively shooting AND doing selective "preliminary" testing on it (with a focus on some aspects of its performance that I wanted to have "nailed down" before heading into the Khutzeymateen).

So...today's entry focuses on two things: my simple first impressions of the 180-400mm plus what my earliest testing has clearly indicated or, at the very least, strongly suggested.

For those who want a single sentence summary of the nuances the performance of what is a very complex tool...well...after only 5 days of shooting I am quite comfortable saying this:

In MOST respects the performance of the 180-400mm f4E is absolutely remarkable, but it comes with a FEW compromises and even some shortcomings.

OK...let's get to it:

1. First Impressions - Build Quality.

Just superb! This Japanese-made lens simply exudes quality. Zoom and focus rings couldn't rotate more smoothly (nor could their "friction" or resistance to turning be dialed in any better). I'm not sure what else can really be said about the build quality at this point beyond the fact that the lens "projects" the feeling that it will hold up to heavy field use for years. Excellent quality hood (unlike the Nikkor 200-500), "positive-clicking" and snappy toggle switches...and just good old-fashioned quality. Absolutely the best of bling!

2. First Impressions - Physical Characteristics: Length and Weight.

The lens is virtually identical in length to the 200-400 f4 VR zoom it is functionally replacing. Nikon claims the weight to be 3500 grams (7.7 lb). My copy came to EXACTLY this weight - once I removed the "caps" from both ends AND took the hood off. If you're interested in what I consider "shooting weight" (with the hood on) - the lens comes in at 3735 gm (8.25 lb) both with the stock tripod foot (no lens plate installed) and with my preferred Arca-swiss compatible replacement foot (more on this below). So...this makes it a "little" heavier than the "old" 200-400mm and a little heavier than both the Nikkor 500mm f4E and Sigma Sport 500mm f4. It also comes in at about 100 grams (about 4 oz) heavier than the Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8. If you own a copy of the Nikkor 200-500mm f5.6 VR you can take heart in the fact that YOUR lens is around 1200 grams (a little under 3 lbs) lighter than the new 180-400. For those who shoot the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E - well...THAT lens is very close to 450 grams (about a pound) HEAVIER than the 180-400.

The bottom line: The 180-400mm is smack-dab in the middle of the weights of most contemporary super-telephoto lenses - you aren't buying this one because it's real light!

3. First Impressions - Physical Characteristics: Balance.

Ahhh...THIS is what Nikon got right - especially if you're shooting a D5 (or one of its D-single-digit precursors) or a "semi-pro" Nikon DSLR with a battery grip attached. I find the balance - and consequently the ease of hand-holding the lens - to be just excellent. Note that when you zoom the lens (from shortest to longest focal length or vice-versa) the balance is completely unaffected (the balance point on a smoothly rotating and "loose" gimbal head doesn't change at all when you zoom the lens). Some shooting the lens with a lighter Nikon DSLR (without a battery grip attached) MAY find the lens a bit front-heavy, though when I took the battery grip off my D850 and mounted the 180-400mm on it the unit still felt quite nicely balanced to me. In my view (and up to a certain point), balance can be as critical as weight in determining the ease of "hand-holdability" of a lens.

4. First Impressions - Physical Characteristics: Tripod Foot.

Well...Nikon has finally realized that virtually no one has hands the size of the Hulk...and they've reduced the "drop" down to the tripod foot considerably. But...sigh...they haven't realized that virtually anyone using the tripod foot on a tripod (or monopod) on a lens like this would benefit from having that foot being Arca-swiss compatible! So...most users will want/need to replace the stock foot with one from a third party. And there's good news here - Nikon DIDN'T change the bolt (screw) pattern - it's STILL the same as the "old" 200-400 and virtually all current Nikon super-telephotos. So...I had several "workable" tripod feet in my collection. The one I have settled on that gives a nice amount of space between foot and lens barrel (important when using the tripod foot as a handle for carrying the lens) AND long enough to balance the lens with a wide variety of DSLR bodies (including those WITHOUT battery grips installed) is the Jobu LF-N504LP (info on that one right here).

5. First Impressions - Ergonomics.

Like with other recently introduced "new" zooms, Nikon has moved the zoom ring to the distal end of the lens. Unlike some other recent zoom lens introductions (e.g., the Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E) the zoom ring IS still accessible when the lens hood is in the "carrying" (i.e., reversed position). And, this positioning of the zoom ring puts it exactly where someone with the same length of arms as me would want it - right where the left hand naturally "falls" under the lens (when hand-holding it). Consequently, I find it remarkably easy to zoom the lens (using only my left thumb) over its entire focal range (which requires only one-quarter of a full turn) with a single "swipe" of my thumb. Very, very convenient. Well done Nikon.

Similarly, Nikon did some thinking in where they positioned the lens activation buttons - they too naturally fall right where they should (when shooting the lens horizontally or vertically) - right under my thumb. In fact, I have already learned that if I always place my thumb over one of the four lens-activation buttons when I grab the lens then my thumb is always perfectly positioned to hit the button OR zoom the lens.

What about the lever to engage (or disengage) the integrated 1.4x TC? Well...another feather in the cap of the design team: that lever can be accessed (and easily toggled) with one's right hand when holding the camera. In practice, it's a little easier to flip the lever when the lens is supported on a tripod than when hand-holding it. But, that being said, with a little practice you can quite easily flip the TC on or off when hand-holding the lens (without having to take your eyes from the viewfinder). What works best for me is to flip the lever down (from the 1x position TO the 1.4x position using my middle finger (i.e., the "flip the bird finger") and up (from the 1.4x to the 1x position) using my fourth ("ring") finger.

So...summing up...both the build quality and the ergonomics of the 180-400mm get absolute full marks from me. And the ONLY negative I really have is Nikon's on-going refusal to make their stock tripod feet Arca-Swiss Compatible. But how does the lens actually perform? Read on...

6. Preliminary Testing - Optical Quality

OK...at this point I have shot about 2000 images with the 180-400mm with a Nikon D5 and Nikon D850. Of these, about 1000 were shot during systematic (but preliminary) testing and the remaining 1000 while "just shooting". So far ALL my systematic testing has been WITHOUT the TC engaged, i.e., in the 180-400mm focal range. But, I have done a lot of my "just shooting" sessions with the TC engaged (and thus over the 400-550mm focal range). To be really clear...while I am completely confident of the results I have obtained during my systematic comparisons (these were ALL shot using a D850 and with a tripod, VR off, Live View (using electronic shutter), cable release, yada, yada, yada), I still have a LOT more systematic testing left to do. MOST of my systematic comparisons to this point have been with distant scenes (a tree line against a bright sky almost 2 km away) but I have done a LITTLE with very close subjects (about 6 meters to subject).

So...what have I found with the preliminary systematic testing done to date? Two things have already jumped out:

• The 180-400mm has absolutely amazing edge-to-edge sharpness at all focal lengths when shooting distant subjects, even on the D850. Like...top-notch prime lens quality.

• I have NEVER seen a lens where the difference in sharpness (both in the center AND on the edges) between images shot with the aperture wide open vs. those shot after stopping down by 2/3 to a full stop is so trivial. In other words, this lens is very, very close to its maximum sharpness when shot absolutely wide open (and at ALL focal lengths). To some this may not sound like a big deal, but for someone like me (who shoots a lot in low light and is comparing the lens against top-notch primes like the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E) this is just HUGE.

Some example results from the systematic comparisons I have already done (and please note I will be providing a lot more detail, including sample images, about my testing protocols and detailed results in future blog entries focused specifically on optical quality of the lens):

A. Versus the Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E at 180mm and 200mm focal lengths: A dead heat (tie) in central sharpness at all apertures from f4 through f11 (and don't forget that with the 70-200mm f2.8E you are already a stop down from wide open at f4). Edges? Very slightly sharper on the 180-400 at f4 and f4.5, then virtually identical at all smaller apertures.

B. Versus the Nikkor 300mm f4 PF (on distant scenes): 180-400mm f4E sharper in the central region from f4 to f5, with the 300mm f4 PF drawing even in sharpness at f5.6. At f4 the 180-400mm was dramatically sharper (in the central region). Edges? Same trend - the edges of the 180-400 were much sharper than the 300mm f4 PF at f4 and the 300mm PF didn't match the 180-400 until f5.6.

C. Versus 3 other lenses (Nikkor 400mm f2.8E, Nikkor 200-400 f4 VR, Sigma Sport 150-600) at 400mm focal length and, again, on distant scenes: Are you sitting down? From f4 to f5.6 two of these 4 lenses were in a dead heat in center AND edge sharpness. Those lenses were the 180-400mm f4E and the amazing 400mm f2.8E. The 200-400 Nikkor lagged far behind in BOTH centre and edge sharpness in that aperture range (note that at 400mm the Sigma Sport has a maximum aperture of f6, so it couldn't be tested in the f4 to ff5.6 range). By f6.3 all four lenses were in a dead-heat in sharpness in the central region, but neither the Nikkor 200-400 nor the Sigma Sport 150-600mm matched the other two lenses in edge sharpness - at any aperture.

Until now I have never found another lens that can match the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E (or the 2.8G) in centre AND edge sharpness on distant scenes. That the 180-400mm can do it at 400mm (its LONGEST focal length without the TC engaged, which is where most Nikon zooms are traditionally their weakest) is nothing short of mind-boggling.

While I have MUCH more systematic testing to do (including bringing more lenses into the mix AND testing at different distances), the results obtained to date are very suggestive of the 180-400 being a superb performer optically under real-world field conditions.

What have I found when "Just Shooting" (mostly hand-held) the 180-400? Lots of "suggestions" (all of which I will follow up on in subsequent testing). Here's some examples...

A. That in the 180-400mm focal range the lens is just crazy sharp.

B. That when the TC is engaged the lens is still quite sharp...but there is SOME image degradation. How much? Still to be fully sussed out...stay tuned.

C. That the 180-400mm has fantastic contrast. While this is obviously something that can be adjusted in post-processing, it's always nice to START with an image with great contrast.

D. That the AF system seems to be top-notch and grabs initial focus stunningly fast, at least in the 180-400mm range. One way I test the speed of AF systems (and, in particular, the ability of a lens to maintain sharp focus on a subject moving directly at me) is to shoot extended bursts of shots (usually 100 consecutive frames) of my Portuguese Water Dog running directly at me. I have used this test for years and have found lenses differ dramatically in their "hit ratio" (percentage of acceptably sharp shots to be deemed as "keepers") with this test (and a single lens and camera combination will produce very similar results when the test is run over and over again). Anyway...at this point I have run two trials of this test with the 180-400 (both using my D5 shooting at a rate of 12 fps). Here's what I found:

• At 400mm I obtained an absolutely stunning "hit ratio": 95%. No lens, including my 400mm f2.8E, has ever produced a higher hit ratio.
• At 550mm (400mm with the TC engaged) the hit ratio dropped - a lot. It fell to 39%.

At this point (partly because of the small sample size - one trial) I am considering these results preliminary and suggestive, but not definitive - I will be doing a LOT more AF testing of the 180-400mm in June. In those tests I will be particularly interested in seeing what kind of hit ratios I obtain over the full range of focal lengths accessible with the TC engaged (so 401mm through to 550mm).

E. That, at least anecdotally, the VR system seems very good. What makes me think this is that I have shot a LOT of hand-held images at a shutter speed of 1/focal length of the lens (using Auto ISO with Auto shutter speed). It's not particularly surprising that images shot at 400mm (and thus 1/400s) should be sharp, but it's my experience that when shooting a "big" zoom that images shot at 1/focal length at shorter focal lengths (e.g., 180mm focal length at 1/200s) are often a bit soft. But so far I've found virtually all images shot at 1/focal length (even on the demanding D850, a camera that I've found to be harder to effectively hand-hold at slower shutter speeds) have been tack sharp. And...yep...you've guessed it...I will be testing this aspect of lens performance MUCH more thoroughly in the near future.

F. That the ability of this lens to focus very close is wonderful - I LOVE how closely this lens focuses, especially at 550mm! The minimum focus of this lens is 2 meters (about 6'6"), even with the TC engaged. You can FILL the frame with flowers, insects, etc. And...the lens seems incredibly sharp (even at 550mm) at "near its closest focus" distances.

H. That the lens exhibits very noticeable vignetting. There's no way to candy coat this: the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E vignettes (produces images with darker corners and edges) very noticeably at all focal lengths and all apertures up to AT LEAST f9. I noticed this instantly on my very first series of test images (mostly because those shots had a white sky covering 50% of the frame). Does this vignetting have anything to do with the lens hood? Nope...I did several test series with and without the hood - and got the exact same amount of vignetting. Does the vignetting have anything to do with focus distance? Nope. Tested for that too. Here's what I found during my vignette testing (and the values listed below are the adjustments needed to remove the vignetting - measured in f-stops - using the vignette-removal tool in Phase One's Capture One Pro):

• At 180mm: 1.3 stops at f4, just under 0.3 stops at f8. Vignetting virtually unnoticeable at f9 and smaller apertures.

• At 200mm, 250mm, and 300mm: Same as at 180mm.

• At 400mm: 0.8 stops at f4, down to just under 0.3 stops at f8 and almost unnoticeable by f9 and smaller apertures.

• Beyond 400mm (with TC engaged): Not yet tested.

A few other factoids about the vignetting: It occurs on both raw files and in-camera JPEG's - but is automatically "cleaned up" if you view or process your raw files using Nikon's Capture NX-D.

Of course, vignetting can be easily removed during post-processing with most popular raw converters. It will be most noticeable on images of scenes that contain lighter tones in the corners and sides. During a lot of wildlife photography (subjects in non-white or "non-light" scenes) many users would likely not notice the effect (unless of course, they are shooting with a snowy background)...unless the user happened to bump the vignette slider on their raw converter!

How serious of a "flaw" is this vignetting? I'm sure opinions will vary dramatically - some will (no doubt) consider it a fatal flaw while others will consider it trivial. If I'm being honest I am already finding it annoying, but I am way more impressed with all the positives of the 180-400mm than I am "turned off" by this negative issue.

Anyway...like I said above...in MOST respects the performance of the 180-400mm f4E is absolutely remarkable, but it comes with a FEW compromises and even some shortcomings.

Tomorrow I am off to the Khutzeymateen and without internet access. Expect to see more blog entries on my on-going field-testing (plus a whole lot of images) in early June.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#180-400_FirstImpressions

01 April 2018: TOO Hard on the Nikon D850?

Not surprisingly, my last blog entry entitled "The BEST Nikon DSLR for Wildlife Photography?" generated a lot of feedback. Most of the email I received was positive, and only a few who sent email strongly disagreed with me. Some appeared to think I was a little too hard on the D850, and more than one said things like "But the D850 can do so much so well".

I FULLY agree that the Nikon D850 can do a lot of things very well. BUT...that last blog entry was evaluating it (against the D5 and the D500) as a camera for wildlife photography (not for landscape use, not for studio use, etc.).

So...to be fully clear, I think the D850 is a WONDERFUL camera. And I think it's amazing that Nikon put together a 46 MP camera versatile enough for us to even debate its merits for wildlife photography against Nikon's flagship - the D5.

In late February I put out my latest edition of my very sporadic newsletter (info about my newsletter can be found here...). Here's what I said about the D850 in that newsletter...

THE NIKON D850 - THE CAMERA OF TRUTH?

It's been a long time since we've seen as much excitement about a camera as the 46MP Nikon D850 has generated. I've been testing and shooting with the D850 since early August and have definitely formed some opinions about it. It's hard to sum up the performance and utility of a camera in just a few words (and still retain any value to the statement), but here goes..."

In my view the title of "most versatile DSLR" has now been passed from the Nikon D750 to the D850. The dynamic range and resolution (along with several other features such as the fully electronic shutter) make the D850 a SUPERB landscape camera. And, its top-notch autofocus system, frame rate and burst size make it "very good" at several other things as well, including wildlife and sports photography. I don't believe the D850 supplants the D5 as Nikon's premiere action camera OR low-light performer (and my OWN number one choice for wildlife shooting is still the D5), but it just does so darned much so well!

But (always the "but", eh?), I would be remiss not to mention the "downside" of shooting with a camera of such high resolution. While capable of superb detail, the D850 has so much resolution (and such small pixel pitch) that it can quickly reveal flaws in lenses OR flaws in photographer technique. It performs best at low ISO's - crank the ISO up and noise quickly increases and dynamic range quickly falls. Use the D850 with high-quality lenses and with medium-format like discipline and it CAN provide images of stunning quality. But...use it like a point-and-shoot and/or with consumer-level lenses and it can really beat you up!

I can't think of a better single phrase to describe the D850 than "The Nikon D850 - the Camera of Truth"!

Too hard on the Nikon D850? Nah, just realistic! ;-)

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

27 March 2018: The BEST Nikon DSLR for Wildlife Photography?

I field an absolute ton of questions about camera gear. But over the last 6 months or so the one I have received most is this:

Which is the best of Nikon's current DSLRs for wildlife photography?

Sometimes the question comes with a lot of valuable "qualifying" information that helps me point the curious enquirer in the right direction, sometimes it doesn't. Based on how often I get this question I assume there are thousands (or perhaps tens of thousands) of others out there with the same question. And that's the main reason for this blog entry. There's also a selfish motivation - after doing up this entry I'll have a place to send all those in the future who ask the question (at least until Nikon comes out with the D5s, or the D550, or the D860...).

I. Overview - And Some Qualifiers:

1. Scope: I'm going to limit this discussion to the current (and recent) Nikon DSLR's, specifically the Nikon D5, D500, and D850. These are the three Nikon DSLR's I get asked about the most (as "tools" for wildlife photography). A few other Nikon DSLR's are still commonly used for wildlife photography (e.g., Nikon D4s or D750) but the rapid pace of change in the digital photography world means that most who are considering their "next" (or perhaps first) DSLR purchase for wildlife photography are trying to decide between a D5, D500, or D850.

2. Best for WILDLIFE Photography: This blog entry is about which Nikon DSLR is best suited to WILDLIFE photography. So...not landscape photography, not sports photography, not portrait photography, not best "all-rounder", etc.

3. Price is IRRELEVANT: Well, at least for this blog entry. While there is some correlation between camera price and camera performance, the impact of the price on your selection of a camera is a personal choice. But, despite what many seem to think, that choice has no impact on how well the camera performs.

4. Keeping it Concise and Cogent: This is the type of blog entry where if I explained or gave background to every statement or opinion that I made it would quickly turn into a book. I very much like long-form and nuanced discussions (my personal backlash against Twitter!), but for the sake of brevity I am going to do my best to keep this one as "to the point" as possible.

So what follows is a summary of my views of how the Nikon D5, D500, and D850 stack up against one another as wildlife cameras. It is based on literally thousands of test shots - AND thousands of shots captured under real-world field conditions - over 7 months of overlapping and simultaneous use of the three cameras. And, of course, it's based on a ridiculous amount of time behind my computer carefully scrutinizing just a pile images! ;-)

What Characteristics Make for a Great Wildlife Camera?

Modern DSLR's have a mind-numbing number (about a billion) features. But once you get in the field and actually use a DSLR for wildlife photography you quickly realize that just a handful of characteristics have a tremendous and oversized importance in how well a particular camera delivers (and, in comparison, the several hundred million other features of a DSLR are almost trivial in importance). In my biased view the most critical characteristics are ISO performance, autofocus performance, frame rate and burst depth, resolution, and build quality. It could be argued that a few other characteristics merit honourable mention as well - and those would be dynamic range, camera layout and ergonomics, and possibly even image blackout time (during high frame-rate bursts).

SO...I am going to focus primarily on how the Nikon D5, D500, and D850 differ in the primary characteristics associated with being a great wildlife camera. And I'm going to add one more thing to the list: FX vs. DX format.

II. A CRITICAL Tangent - Evaluating ISO Performance

WARNING: I am going to say some things about ISO performance that those who prefer quoting dxomark.com or dpreview.com over going into the field and shooting images (and closely evaluating those images) will disagree with. Most photographers equate ISO performance with image noise. In reality, there is a whole lot more to it than that. The amount of luminosity noise and colour noise in an image DOES vary with ISO. But so do other critical variables, including dynamic range, tonal range, color depth, color fidelity, and more. But even if we limit our discussion to JUST image noise, there are two VERY different ways to assess it:

1. Compare FULL Resolution Images at 100% Magnification: In my view, this is the way MOST photographers (or at least most wildlife photographers) relate to image noise in their own photos - they examine an image on a computer screen and zoom in to 100% (or 1:1 magnification) and say "Oh...that's pretty clean" or "Wow...is that ever noisy". Depending on a particular photographer's experience in post-processing they may be able to judge just how noisy an image can be and still be made to "look good" for whatever they want to do with it (whether it's reducing it in resolution and/or cropping it for web use, re-sizing it for printing, etc.). Of course, many of these photographers will know that the more you reduce the resolution of an image (i.e., downsample it on their computer) the less you notice the noise in that image. BUT...the key point is that those photographers who examine their own images for noise on a computer screen (at full resolution and 100% magnification) usually quickly come up with their OWN decision-rules on how high of an ISO they will shoot a specific camera at. So...you'll hear them say things like "I will only shoot my D500 up to ISO 2000" or "ISO 4000 shots on my D850 almost always suck".

2. Compare Noise AFTER Reducing the Resolution of Images to an Arbitrary "Standard". Some argue that the only way to compare the ISO performance of cameras of different resolution (and more often than not they are referring to image noise only) is to reduce the resolution of an image to a "fixed" standard and then see how the resolution-reduced images compare in noise. As an example, dxomark.com has decided that images from ANY camera must be reduced to the size needed to make a print of 8"x12" @ 300ppi (so 8 MP) before they can be compared for noise. So...if you are comparing the ISO performance of a D5 (20.9 MP or 5588 x 3712 pixels) to that of a D850 (45.9 MP or 8256 x 5504 pixels) you end up reducing the resolution of the D850 DRAMATICALLY MORE than that of the D5 BEFORE you compare the noise characteristics of the image. Note that this method is perfectly valid if your end goal is to always make 8" x 12" prints. But it tells you NOTHING (and is often incredibly misleading) about how images from those two cameras look if you compare them at full resolution and 1:1 magnification. In defense of dxomark.com - if you dig deeper and look at more of what they present on their website - they DO let you look at both how cameras compare in various characteristics (in noise and more) at full resolution on-screen (at 100% magnification) AND using their "Reduced to 8x12" Print Size" method. NOT in defense of dxomark.com - their single reported value for "Sports (Low-Light ISO)" performance (which many online pundits love to quote) seems to be based solely on their "Reduce Resolution BEFORE Comparing (Print)" methodology and ignores how the images look at full-resolution.

For the record, my following comments (and the supplied test images) on ISO performance of the D5, D500, and D850 will be based on the first method above, i.e., how they appear on-screen at full-resolution and 100% magnification (which is equivalent to the graphs for "Screen" on dxomark.com). It's my view that this characteristic (the appearance of the raw image at full resolution and 100% magnification) ultimately determines what the image can be used for, including things like how large it can be printed, how much it can be cropped and still be made "presentable", et cetera. At the end of the day, anything you do with your image is simply a derivative of the quality of the full res raw image.

III. Comparing the D5, D500, and D850 In...

1. ISO Performance - Visible Image Noise

This one is incredibly easy - at high ISO's the D5 kicks the butt of both the D500 and the D850 in the amount of visible noise in an image. Up to about ISO 800 all 3 cameras shoot "very clean" images. By about ISO 1600 images shot with the D5 show less noise than those shot with the D500 and D850. By ISO 3200 the difference in the amount of noise visible in the images shot with the different cameras is quite pronounced and the gap between the D5 and the others only gets more noticeable as the ISO climbs.

What about the D500 vs. the D850? Fairly close (as you'd expect based on their pixel pitch). In my own tests (a few examples below) I noticed about a 1/3 stop advantage to the D500 over the D850 in visible image noise.

What does this mean in the field? Well...like most photographers I have my own "limits" as to what I'll take each camera to. And please note these are my OWN subjective ISO boundaries - yours may be very different. In all cases how high you can go in ISO depends somewhat on the nature of the scene (including the required dynamic range to capture the scene - see immediately below). But based MOSTLY on image noise, for most uses I "throttle" my D5 (in the Auto ISO menu) to ISO 12,800. YES, I CAN get highly usable images up to ISO 12,800 (and sometimes higher). And I can almost always get really good results up to ISO 8000.

For most scenes and shot types I throttle BOTH my D850 and my D500 to never exceed ISO 3200. Of course, with both cameras I can occasionally get good results up to ISO 4000 to 5000 (but almost never at ISO 6400). And...interestingly I seem to end up with more "unacceptable" shots with the D500 at ISO 3200 than I do with the D850. I think this is due to better tonal range (with increasing ISO) on the D850...but have to admit that is speculation on my part.

Can I back these statements up? Sure...here's a few test shot comparisons from 3 cameras in question plus one more (I've also included shots from the D800e). They were captured under controlled conditions (firm tripod, cable release, live view, etc.) in the field and under genuine low-light conditions. How much difference you notice between the images will depend partly on the resolution (pixels per inch) of the display device you are using, with lower resolution devices showing greater differences between the images. I'd recommend examining the shots at 100% magnification (or 1:1). Note that I also have literally thousands of wildlife images shot with each camera under "true" field conditions...and what you see in the test shots below is absolutely consistent with what I have found when "just shooting" in the field.

i. ISO 3200 Comparison:

• Luminosity Noise ONLY: Download Image Comparison (JPEG: 2.5 MB)
• Luminosity AND Colour Noise: Download Image Comparison (JPEG: 3.1 MB)

ii. ISO 6400 Comparison:

• Luminosity Noise ONLY: Download Image Comparison (JPEG: 2.74 MB)
• Luminosity AND Colour Noise: Download Image Comparison (JPEG: 3.2 MB)

CONTEXT (for your friendly neighborhood wildlife photographer)? Ok...this is critical: While there is no doubt to me that the D5 greatly outperforms both the D500 and D850 in visible noise at ISO 1600 and above, whether or not this is important to YOU as a wildlife photographer will depend a LOT on the conditions under which you shoot. If you shoot mostly in bright light then it may not be that important to you. But if you shoot a LOT in low light (as I think many wildlife photographers do, especially those who shoot species that are most active at dawn and dusk) the relationship between visible noise and ISO MAY be critical to you (and make a D5 a very attractive tool). ME? I shoot a ton in the low light environment of the Great Bear Rainforest - so for ME ISO performance is the single most important characteristic of a camera for wildlife photography.

2. ISO Performance - Dynamic Range

Most wildlife photographers (including me) put MORE emphasis on how image noise varies with ISO than how dynamic range varies with ISO. But there is a point I HAVE to mention here (because I heard it from SO MANY photographers in 2017): Yes, it IS true that the D5 has significantly lower dynamic range than either the D500 and D850 at ISO 100 (dpreview.com made a HUGE deal about how the D5 was unique in this regard and how awful its dynamic range was, even though they had never tested the two precursors to the D5 - the D4 and D4s - and they "suffered" from the very same imagined problem). BUT...like image noise, dynamic range varies with ISO (decreases with increasing ISO) and, most importantly, at ISO 800 and above the the D5 has more dynamic range than either the D500 or the D850.

And, the D5 happens to have a higher tonal range (at ALL ISO's) than either the D500 and the D850.

CONTEXT for the wildlife photographer? If you're a wildlife photographer who shoots in low light the D5 is the clear "best choice" - from all perspectives, including image noise, dynamic range, and tonal range . And the D500 and the D850 are in a neck-and-neck battle for next best (but neither are nipping at the D5's heels).

3. Autofocus Performance

Overall the autofocus "feature sets" of the Nikon D5, D500 and D850 are quite similar. The only really "specification" differences are in the number of AF Area Modes offered by the various cameras. The D5 and D850 are identical in area modes EXCEPT that the D5 has two "extra" Group Area Modes, specifically two "new" ones that were added in a firmware update in 2017 - Group HL (horizontal line) and Group VL (vertical line). To avoid going down an endless rabbit hole explaining the nuances of how the Group HL and Group VL work, all I'll say about them is that I have yet to even conceive of a scenario in nature photography where they would be your BEST autofocus Group Area choice. So, for all intents and purposes, the D5 and D850 have identical autofocus feature sets.

What about the D500? Well...it also lacks the Group HL and Group VL area modes (so no loss there). BUT, it also lacks the 9-point Dynamic Area Mode, which is the Dynamic Area mode featuring the tightest "cluster" of focus points. Since this area mode was introduced as a firmware update to the D5 it quickly replace Single Point Area Mode as my favourite area mode for all my shooting. Yes, under specific situations I switch to other area modes, but in general I find 9-point Dynamic Area to be just excellent - in my opinion it's a near perfect balance of focus point size vs. the ability of the focus point to "stick" to a subject that may be moving (or, if you're hand-holding a big lens, it helps prevent the focus point from "slipping off" the subject if you're a little wobbly in holding the lens). Note that with its later introduction date, the D850 came equipped with the 9-point Dynamic Area mode from the outset.

Are there any other differences between the operation of the AF systems of the cameras that are of function of...say...camera design? Good question. And the answer is YES. On all 3 cameras the AF points occupy the same amount on area on the image sensor. BUT, because the D500 is a cropped sensor camera (i.e., a DX sensor) the focus points occupy a larger portion of the image sensor (and viewfinder), with the points extending ALMOST to the lateral edges of the sensor and/or viewfinder (and a LITTLE closer to the top and bottom) whereas the focus points don't come very close to the lateral edges of the D5 or D850 (assuming you're shooting in FX mode...they DO come just as close to the edge of the sensor if you're shooting the cameras in DX mode).

There's ONE MORE consequence of using identically-sized focus point arrays on DX vs. FX cameras: On the D500 (DX) each of the 55 selectable focus points appear MUCH larger through the viewfinder than on the two FX (D5 and D850) cameras. The net result in the field is that the relatively smaller (as seen through the viewfinder) focus points of the D5 and D850 allow for more precise positioning of the focus points on your subject. Might sound like a trivial issue, but when you're trying to focus on a grizzly in an area with grasses or twigs overlapping the subject it's way easier to screw up with a D500 than a D5 or D850 (shot in FX mode), as THIS SHOT SHOWS (JPEG: 1.95 MB).

What about performance in the field? Thought you'd NEVER ask! Since its introduction the D5 has been widely recognized as having the industry's leading AF system - it's simply amazing (in speed, accuracy, focus-tracking, predictive AF, etc.). The D850 has a functionally identical feature set and it's amazing too. BUT my experience is that they don't perform identically: When shooting eagles in flight in Alaska (under snowy and overcast conditions) in November of 2017 I noticed one consistent difference between the AF of the D5 and the D850 - for some reason the D850 struggled with initial focus acquisition (compared to the D5) under very low contrast conditions. Once I noticed this I tested it several times both on the same subject (using the same lens, same area mode, same focus point, etc.) and other subjects in low contrast light. And, the result was always the same - the D5 could focus successfully under the very low contrast light I was dealing with whereas the D850 simply could not. And please note I am talking VERY low contrast scenes - eagle in the distance with snow coming down between me and the subject and with a gray sky background.

What about the D500? It has a damn good AF system - if it weren't for the D5 and D850 it would likely be considered the best in the business. BUT...I haven't found it to be as accurate (possibly owing to those "large" AF points) or as good at focus-tracking as either the D5 or D850. And, after getting used to the 9-point Dynamic Area mode (which is now the default area mode on both my D5 and D850) I find I REALLY miss it on the D500.

The bottom line on AF performance: The D5 places first again, but this time the D850 is nipping REALLY closely at its heels (and in most scenarios you likely couldn't separate their performance in the field). The D500 places third here in accuracy and focus-tracking and (at least for me) in NOT having the 9-point Dynamic Area mode. Some may like how close the D500 will allow you to the lateral edges of the viewfinder, but for me the negative consequences of the relatively larger focus points of the D500 more than offsets the increased viewfinder coverage.

CONTEXT for the wildlife photographer? Under MOST conditions the AF systems of all 3 cameras will deliver very good results. If you are the type of wildlife photographer who really likes to push the limits (including shooting fast action) nothing fully matches the D5 (but the D850 isn't far behind). My own experience is that I always get the highest proportion of sharp shots (which is obviously correlated with autofocus performance) if I'm using my D5 - and this is true whether I'm shooting static subjects or those that are moving. While there are probably some wildlife photographers who don't place too much importance on the ISO performance of a camera, I have a hard time imagining any wildlife photographer who wouldn't place high value on the AF performance of a camera. So with Nikon's DSLRs we have the options of good (D500), better (D850), and best (D5) in autofocus performance...and it's up to you how high up the food chain you have to go! ;-)

4. Camera Speed - Frame Rate and Burst Depth

Camera speed differences - expressed in terms of both frame rate and burst depth (how many consecutive images that can be shot at the highest frame rate before the camera slows down or stops) - are reasonably easy to sort out. If we compare the maximum possible frame rates where the cameras retain full functionality (full autofocus) AND we use the same EN-EL18 battery (which requires battery grips in the D500 and D850 but not the D5), the D5 is the fastest at 12 frame per second (fps), the D500 comes in second at 10 fps, and the D850 third at 9 fps (or 7 fps if you DON'T use the battery grip and EN-EL18 battery).

Burst Depth is slightly trickier to compare - with both the D5 and D500 it's 200 frames when shooting the highest quality RAW files (14-bit compressed raws) and using a reasonably fast XQD card. But even when using the fastest XQD card the burst depth of the D850 varies with two more factors - the bit-depth you select and the maximum frame rate you use (7 fps with NO battery grip, 8 fps with battery grip, or 9 fps with battery grip). My blog entry of 15 October 2017 gave burst depths for all the various permutations and combinations (view it here). But if you want to compare apples-to-apples as closely as possible, if you shoot each of the cameras at its highest possible frame rate and capture the highest quality raw images you get a burst depth of 200 frames with both the D5 and D500 and 25 frames with the D850. You CAN get longer bursts out of the D850 if you slow down the frame rate and/or shoot 12-bit raw images (again, all the permutations and combinations are right here...).

So...the D5 is Nikon's overall king of speed, with the D500 not far behind. The D850 is incredibly fast for a 46 MP camera (hats off to Nikon for pulling that off!), but it does lag quite a ways behind both the D5 and D500 in frame rate, and even more so in burst depth.

CONTEXT for the wildlife photographer? If you like shooting wildlife in action (including birds in flight), the D5 is clearly Nikon's "fastest" DSLR. The D500 lags only a little in frame rate and has a buffer depth to match. The D850 lags behind in both frame rate and burst depth. But does it matter? That will vary between photographers. Some could probably care less. But I know I have run into a number of scenarios (including when shooting pairs of eagles "battling" while in flight and when shooting bubble-netting humpback whales) where I absolutely NEEDED burst depths of over 75 frames to capture the full duration of the action (and I wanted the fastest frame rate possible). And I have "buffered out" the D850 (after only 25 frames) on several occasions and, when it has happened, I have missed out on capturing a lot of shots at the end of the action sequence.

So...it's another good, better, best scenario with Nikon's top DSLRs, but this time good is the D850, better is the D500, and best is the D5.

5. Resolution and the DX-FX "Thing"

To this day I commonly see massive confusion among photographers about how a camera's resolution, sensor size, and "magnification" are interrelated (and in determining when you DO actually have a true magnification "increase" with a DX sensor). The most critical thing to remember when you're going down this rabbit hole is that what you can do with an image is always determined by the number of pixels dedicated to the subject. Repeat after me: the thing that REALLY matters is the number of pixels dedicated to the subject.

Let's quickly look at each camera's resolution in terms of pixels:

• D5: 5568 pixels x 3712 pixels
• D500: 5568 x 3712 pixels (identical to D5!)
• D850: 8256 x 5504 pixels in FX mode; 5408 x 3600 pixels in DX crop mode.

The observant reader will notice that the FX-format D5 has the same total number of pixels as the DX-format D500. That observant reader already knows that the sensor of the D5 is larger than the D500 - in fact they know that the D5 sensor is about 36mm wide by 24mm high whereas the D500 sensor is about 24mm wide x 16mm high. Because they have the same total number of pixels those pixels MUST be jammed in tighter (or are "smaller") in the D500 than in the D5 (and that smaller pixel pitch is what is most "linked" to their different ISO performance, but that's another rabbit hole we're going to avoid for now).

Now, because the D5 and D500 have exactly the same number of pixels but in DIFFERENT sized sensors, if you set your camera up on a tripod and shoot the same scene (say of a deer 25 feet away) with the same lens with both cameras, you end up with MORE pixels dedicated to the subject (that deer) with the D500. SO...if you view images shot with the D5 and D500 on a computer monitor at 100% magnification (where 1 image pixel = 1 display device pixel) you magically have what appears to be a 50% increase in magnification on the D500. And, if you shot the images with a 300mm lens, the D500 will appear (in size of subject and field of view) just like a D5 image if that D5 image was shot with a 450mmm lens.

The critical take-home point: If you're comparing a D5 to a D500 you will see a "true" increase in the number of pixels dedicated to the subject with the D500 and you can safely say that it has a relative increase in "reach" compared to the D5 (it's just like using a lens with a focal length 50% longer). But this is ONLY because the cameras have the same total resolution (20.9 MP...or 5568 pixels x 3712 pixels).

But what happens if you compare a D500 to a D850? Do you still have the same DX "reach advantage" on the D500. Nope. Don't forget that the D850 has WAY more resolution - it's a 46 MP camera (8256 x 5504 pixels). Heck, if you shoot a D850 in crop mode it will have almost exactly the same number of pixels as the same shot (shot, of course, from the same place with the same lens) as a D500 (in truth the D500 will have about 6% more pixels dedicated to the subject). So what WAS a 50% crop factor (or increase in "effective focal length") when you compared a D5 and D500 is now only a 3% crop factor (when you compare a D500 to a D850).

RELEVANCE: If you're thinking "I want to increase the effective focal length of my lenses to get closer shots of wildlife by buying a D500" that argument applies ONLY to the D5, not the D850. You WILL have more pixels dedicated to the subject if you are comparing a D500 to a D5, but you will have almost no increase in pixels dedicated to subject if you are comparing a D500 to a D850.

The most germane thing for ANY photographer to be thinking about? t's this: "Given what I actually DO with my photos, how much resolution to I really need?" If your main goal is to produce images for any form of digital (electronic) display (posting on the web, emailing to friends, doing the Instagram thing, whatever) ALL 3 of these cameras are OVERKILL (i.e., have way more pixels than you need). If you want to make massive prints (90 cm - or 3' - or longer on the long axis)...yep...the D850 is going to be the best choice.

And...what about CROPPING? Yep, the D850 has the most resolution of the batch and allows for the most cropping (and I know some wildlife photographers who have gravitated to the D850 for exactly this reason). But...if you ARE a cropper (and there's nothing wrong with that...it's self-limiting anyways) keep in mind that with more cropping you reduce the amount of resolution reduction (down-sampling) left available to you...which means you have impaired your ability to "hide" noise via downsampling. So croppers are probably better off judging ISO performance via viewing the images at 100% on a computer display rather then relying on dxomark.com's "Print" scores! After you have re-read this paragraph about 5 times (and thought about the consequences) you'll come to the realization that at the end of the day there is no free lunch.

CONTEXT for the wildlife photographer? The decision on the amount of resolution any individual wildlife photographer needs - and whether or not they'd benefit from a "crop" factor - will vary between photographers. There's no simple "one size fits all" answer. You have to know how much resolution you actually NEED for your own uses of your images to decide if you "need" the increased resolution of a D850 over either a D5 or D500. If you're comparing a D500 to a D5 and trying to decide if you NEED the crop factor you should consider the type of images you like (e.g., animalscape vs. portrait), how close you can work with your preferred subject matter, the focal length of the lenses in YOUR kit (and thus if you NEED an increase in "reach"), and more.

Me? For MOST of my wildlife shooting 20.9 MP is more than enough resolution and in most cases (with my preferred subject matter and the lenses I own) I rarely "need" the DX crop factor (and I'm NOT a member of the "closer is better" club of wildlife photography). If I run into a situation where I run into a scene that will make a great animalscape...well...THAT'S exactly when the value of the resolution of the D850 kicks in.

6. Build Quality and Camera Reliability

This is one of those features you READ about before you buy your shiny new wildlife camera and then forget about UNTIL your camera stops working. Which can be devastating if you're in a remote region and without easy access to a "replacement" camera.

There is some correlation between country of origin and the price of a camera and its build quality and durability. ALL cameras can break down and quit working. Nikon's "D single-digit" flagships - including the D5 - have always been built in Japan and have always been built like tanks. In contrast, both the D500 and the D850 are built in Thailand and - on the surface - appear to be built quite well. But they aren't built to withstand the heavy use that the D5 is. On the photo tours I lead I have already seen a higher proportion of D500's experience breakdowns (of one form or another) than any of the "D-single digit" Nikon flagships (so far I haven't seen enough D850's in use under tough field conditions to make any judgement about them at all). This is obviously anecdotal information and only Nikon would have the hard numbers on breakdown rates.

Of course, there is a negative side to the tank-like build quality of the D5 relative to both the D500 and D850: weight! Yep, the D5 is darned heavy! I find if I'm going hiking (and not going out to photograph wildlife in a specific place) I preferentially grab my D500 or D850 over my D5 based on camera size and camera weight. And in those situations (which I'd describe as "general use nature photography", not wildlife photography), I do like that I can strip off the battery grip and make the camera both lighter and more compact.

CONTEXT for the wildlife photographer? While ALL wildlife photographers work (by definition) in the "field", there's HUGE variation in the conditions they shoot in (or are willing to shoot in!) and how well they look after their gear. I shoot in all conditions - from torrential downpours down to -30C temperatures (about the only conditions I don't end up shooting under are warm, sunny conditions!). I tend to be careful with my gear, but no matter how careful I am my cameras get wet, muddy, and frozen! But I so know of other wildlife photographers (including some pretty serious ones) that shoot primarily under more "benign" conditions. My point is simple - how much emphasis should be placed on build quality and average camera durability does vary dramatically between users. But for me - it's a critical feature in a wildlife camera.

7. And Some "Honourable Mention" Characteristics To Consider

When talking to other wildlife photographers about what they like (or dislike) about a particular camera you sometimes hear things that NEVER crossed your mind about a camera (or thought of it as an issue). One example of this is how a camera "fits my hand" (something that I have almost never given a second of thought to). I hear as much about a camera being too small (obviously from big-handed shooters!) as I hear about a camera being too large. In my case, it would be easy to think I like "big and heavy" camera bodies (whenever I do "serious" wildlife photography you'll see that I have either a big "D-single digit" camera in my hands or another body with a battery grip attached). I do this for a few reasons. First, I like the vertical controls that battery grips offer. Second, I like that the extra weight associated with the battery grip helps balance the camera with a big lens installed (whether or not I'm shooting on a tripod or hand-held). Third, using a battery grip allows me (with the D500 and D850) use the same battery as my D5 uses. Not only does this give me more shots per battery (compared to those piddly little EN-EL15's), but it allows me to carry a single charger (and single type of spare battery) when traveling. While this information doesn't "separate out" the appeal of any of the 3 cameras I'm discussing, it may help someone choose a complimentary camera to purchase next if they already have one of the 3 cameras.

Getting back to the point, there are two other characteristics that differ BETWEEN these cameras that bias me a little more toward the D5 for wildlife photography. When Nikon introduced the D5 and D500 (and thankfully they carried this over to the D850) they FINALLY gave us the ability to switch between AF area modes using any of a number of programmable buttons on the camera body. I LOVE this feature and use it ALL the time (pressing the AF-On button on any of my cameras now instantly takes me to Group Area AF, and pressing the sub-selector switches me instantly to 72-point Dynamic Area AF). And, this ability to switch AF area modes with programmable buttons dramatically increases the value of the programmable buttons. And, the more of 'em the better, especially if they're within easy reach of your fingers during normal camera operation. And the D5 has one extra programmable button along the front side of the body that can be reached with fingers on the right hand (with the D5 you have Pv, Fn1, and F2 there, not just Pv and Fn1). Little thing on paper. Big thing in the field!

And...here's an even MORE obscure thing that almost no one ever talks about (and where the D5 has the edge). When Nikon came out with the D5 they updated the mirror-driving mechanism. This had two real world effects. It dramatically reduced blackout time on the camera. If you're shooting static subjects this is close to irrelevant. BUT, if you're doing a high-speed burst of a moving subject (think BIF or a running anything!) this reduced blackout time makes it WAY easier to follow the moving subject while you're firing off shots. Note that Nikon also revamped the mirror-driving mechanism on the D500 (I'm still scratching my head over just what they revamped it from on this camera!) and the D850 as well, but they didn't do as good as job with it as they did on the D5. The blackout time on the D5 is definitely reduced compared to both the D500 and D850.

The second real-world consequence of the updated mirror-driving mechanism on the performance of the D5 is just how darned stable the image in the viewfinder is between frames in a high-speed burst. This is true regardless of the lens in use or the VR mode you select on that lens (you'll also see much more between-frame stability in the image if you are using the "Sport" VR mode on lens than if you use "Normal' VR mode, assuming that the lens in use has the "Sport" option). Again, done pretty well on the D500 and D850, but done the best on the D5.

IV. And the BEST Nikon DSLR for Wildlife Photography IS...

Sorry - BAD news: There isn't ONE best Nikon DSLR for wildlife photography. Selecting the most appropriate Nikon DSLR for YOUR wildlife photography needs will require some thought. Damn...don't you just HATE when that happens? But only YOU know what your favourite subject matter is, what conditions you most often shoot under, what lenses you have in your collection, how important action shots are, what your budget is, blah, blah, blah! ;-)

BUT...there's GOOD news too: You're shooting Nikon - and right now Nikon has the BEST DSLR trio out there for shooting wildlife! Pick the RIGHT Nikon DSLR (or, better yet, the best two DSLR's for you!) you'll be able to handle virtually any conditions (and subject matter) that the natural world can throw at you. And that's pretty cool...

My DSLR choice for shooting wildlife? Well...I predominantly shoot large mammals that can be approached quite closely AND I have an extensive collection of lenses up to 600mm in focal length. And I LOVE shooting "wide" animalscapes when I run into them. All this means I likely have LESS need for a DX crop factor than many. I also tend to work in dark, coastal rainforests and from a Zodiac inflatable boat where I have to hand-hold my lenses, including super-telephotos. This means I place a HUGE value on ISO performance. I also like to shoot a lot of action (birds in flight, sparring bears, breaching or bubble-netting Humpback Whales, running wolves, etc.). This means that BOTH autofocus performance and camera speed (including large burst depths) are critical to me. And, I often work in gawd-awful conditions, putting a big premium on build quality and reliability.

So what SINGLE camera is absolutely BEST for me for wildlife photography? Hands down it's the D5. And, believe it or not, if a D5 didn't exist then my SECOND choice for me for my go-to DSLR for wildlife photography would be the D4s. And my third choice, probably a D4! ;-)

What two-camera combination is absolutely BEST for me for wildlife photography? Hands down it's the D5 paired with the D850. Best of all worlds - for the bulk of my shooting I have the D5. But if there's gobs of light, little chance of prolonged action breaking out, OR a great animalscape unfolding before me...well...it's wonderful to have a D850 within reach!

What about the D500? For many it would meet all (or most) of their needs in a wildlife camera. But, in my case, owning both the D5 and the D850 largely makes the D500 redundant. But I HAVE kept mine...it's just one helluva backup body! ;-)

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#BEST_Wildlife_Nikon

13 Feb 2018: If NOT the Nikkor 180-400mm F4E TC1.4 FL ED VR, Then What?

My two previous blog entries on the recently announced Nikkor 180-400mm f4E VR zoom lens resulted in a lot of email flowing into my inbin. Many who emailed me were wondering if I could recommend some other (and less astronomically priced) lens options they could consider in lieu of the 180-400mm. To be honest, I strongly dislike recommending specific lenses to photographers I haven't spent a lot of time shooting with. What works great for me may not work as well for them (and vice versa). Photographers differ in many ways...they may have different creative vision and photographic goals, different past experiences, different physical skills and abilities, different camera bodies to "host" a lens with, and much more. So about the best I can do is describe my approach to wildlife photography, the constraints I face, and what lenses work well for me (and why) and hopefully the reader can decide if that lens might work well for them.

So...here's MY answer to the question: "Which single lens makes you feel you can pass on the new Nikkor 180-400mm f4E VR without handicapping your ability to capture top-notch wildlife images?" You might be a little surprised by the answer...

I. Background and Context

OK...a little background is essential to making sense of my answer. So...here's a few critical contextual comments that strongly influence my first choice among the various options to the 180-400mm f4E VR:

1. Zooms vs. Primes?

OK...I'm going to limit my answer and discussion to zoom lenses (and exclude discussion of prime lenses as alternatives to the 180-400). I buy zoom lenses for convenience in covering a focal range I may need in a particular - and often unforeseen - situation, ease of travel (i.e., it's usually a LOT easier to pack and transport one zoom compared to up to 3 or so prime lenses!), and easy of carrying in the field (such as when hiking). I buy primes for ultimate image quality which, to me, means maximum sharpness (across the full frame) plus smooth and almost buttery out-of-focus zones. I also tend to buy FAST (wide aperture) primes because they offer an enhanced ability to better separate a subject from the background (i.e., the wider apertures allow you to shoot with thinner DoF's).

So...budgetary issues aside...I don't think in terms of buying either zoom X or prime Y - even if their focal lengths overlap I don't necessarily see "redundancy" in owning both of them. I own the Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E VR lens - which is, in my opinion, arguably the best short telephoto zoom lens ever made. But I also own Sigma's 85mm f1.4 Art prime lens, which absolutely kicks the butt of the Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E VR at 85mm. If I KNOW I'm going to encounter a scene where 85mm is the "right" focal length, there's no doubt you'll find the Sigma 85mm f1.4 Art in my pack. But...if I'm NOT sure that I'm about to encounter a 85mm scene...well...odds are I'll be carrying the Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E VR.

Similarly - and more relevant to this entry - owning the excellent Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR doesn't impact at ALL on my decision to buy (or not buy) the 180-400mm f4E VR zoom. I'd own them for different reasons.

2. The Longer the Better?

OK...more context...I'm NOT a member of the "more focal length is better" school of wildlife photography. Similarly, I don't think "closer is always better" when it comes to framing up wildlife images. I tend to LIKE "wider" wildlife shots that include more surrounding habitat or capture the essence of the environment the animal is typically found in. Check out my Animalscapes Gallery if you want to see what I mean...

And...anyone who has shot with me (or sat in on a workshop I have given on the creative side of wildlife photography) knows that I am anal about how out-of-focus zones are used in a photo. Which is another reason I'm not a proponent of the "longer is better" way of thinking about focal length - the reality in the field is that as lens focal length increases your ability to control your distribution of DoF (especially in the critical foreground) decreases.

Finally...I don't do a LOT of shooting of small birds (many of the bird photographers I know tend to favor LONG focal lengths). I gravitate more towards shooting large carnivores and marine mammals...and my preference when photographing those is to stay in the 300-500mm focal range. So my NEED for focal lengths over 500mm (in full-frame terms) is pretty low.

3. I LIVE in Low Light!

I do a LOT of shooting in rainy (and cloudy) coastal environments, including in dark temperate coastal rainforests. Which is another reason I like the light-gathering ability of large aperture lenses. So...when I am choosing a lens for wildlife work - be it a zoom or prime lens - I'll almost always opt for the one with the wider aperture. This doesn't mean ALL my lenses are uber-fast wide aperture lenses - I DO own the Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3 zoom and my lightweight "commando" kit (for use when I need to go REALLY light) includes Nikon's 300mm f4 PF VR. But the lenses I tend to rely on for most of my "serious" shooting tend to have large maximum apertures.

4. Lens Weight?

Within reason, I put less emphasis on lens weight than lens quality (and lens speed). I have had years of experience with (and practice at) hand-holding lenses in the 3500+ gm (8 lb) - and even more - weight range. Of course, all else being equal, I would prefer a lighter lens, but usually not all else is equal. I KNOW many feel differently on this point - and that's OK. But it may mean that a lens that works well for me may not work well for someone else who places more importance on lens weight. Different strokes...

II. MY Alternate Choice to the Nikon 180-400mm f4E VR?

SO...which single lens in my personal collection makes me feel like I can easily pass on the new Nikkor 180-400mm f4E VR without negatively impacting on my ability to capture top-notch wildlife shots?

Are you sitting down? It's...the Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8 (AKA - in full Sigma Speak - The Sigma 120-300mm F2.8 DG OS HSM | S)

Why? Here are my 5 top reasons:

1. It's GREAT Optically.

In my own controlled field tests using a D800e (tripod mounted, Live View, cable release, full aperture runs, etc.) it compared incredibly well to the "best" Nikkors. As an example, at 200mm it was actually sharper from edge-to-edge than the Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E VR (with both close and distant subjects). And, at 300mm I tested it against the Nikkor 300mm f2.8 VRII...and the results were almost indistinguishable at most apertures (the Nikkor prime WAS slightly sharper on the edges from f2.8 through f4, but by f5 the Sigma was actually sharper). And, the out-of-focus zones (the bokeh) of the 120-300mm are superb.

In the past I have made the point that lens "tests" often don't tell the whole story about lens "usefulness" - and that other factors (such as optical stabilization and autofocus and even lens balance) combine with optical quality to determine the quality of images you can capture in a field setting (using your own techniques, etc.). I can happily report that the solid field tests I have done with the 120-300mm f2.8 Sport have translated into EXCELLENT results when doing what this wildlife photographer does - capturing images in the field. See the Sample Images section below for 10 examples of shots captured with the Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 in 2017 (using a variety of Nikon bodies).

2. Excellent Build Quality.

Like with all the Sigma Sport (and Art) lenses, the build quality of the 120-300mm f2.8 is just excellent. It's environmentally sealed (highly resistant to moisture and dust) and built like a tank. Over the last few years I have exposed this and other Sigma Sport lenses to some pretty horrendous conditions and they've never let me down. This is extremely important to me.

3. It's Teleconverter "Friendly" - Giving it a Great TOTAL Focal Range.

It's my experience that few zooms do very well with teleconverters (compared to how selected primes work with teleconverters). One notable exception to this in the lineup of Nikon zooms is the new 70-200mm f2.8E - it performs very well with the 1.4x TC-14EIII. Another notable exception - the Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8 with the Sigma 1.4x TC-1401 teleconverter. Add the Sigma TC-1401 TC to the Sigma Sport 120-300 f2.8 on a FX body and you have a 168-420mm f4 zoom. Do the same on a DX body and you have the equivalent of about a 250-630mm f4 zoom. Of course, putting the 120-300mm on a DX body without a TC and it's equivalent to a 180-450mm f2.8 zoom (in light gathering ability) and a 180-450mm f4 zoom (in DoF).

Hmmm...it's obvious that the Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 is still shorter at the long end of the focal range than the new Nikkor 180-400mm f4E VR zoom. How much that matters will vary tremendously between users. But overall, and if one has DX and FX bodies AND the Sigma teleconverter, well...the 120-300mm f2.8 covers a very critical focal range for the type of wildlife photography THIS wildlife photographer practices.

4. Adequate Autofocus.

You CAN find some Nikkor lenses AND some Sigma lenses that autofocus faster than the Sigma 120-300mm f2.8. On the Nikon side that would include lenses like the Nikkor 300mm f2.8 VRII and the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR. And, on the Sigma side, the new AF motor found in the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 makes it focus a little faster than 120-300mm f2.8. To be very clear and fair, I HAVE been able to create test situations where the Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 (at 300mm) lagged behind the Nikkor 300mm f2.8E VRII in autofocus performance (in tracking moving subjects). But I can honestly say that I have only VERY rarely run into field situations in the real world where the autofocus system of the Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 didn't produce great results.

5. Highly Competent Optical Stabilization (OS) System - and "Hand-holdability".

My chosen subject matter and shooting locations (often from an inflatable boat) pretty much guarantee I end up hand-holding my equipment more than the "average" wildlife photographer. Add in the fact that I shoot in low light a lot and having a quality optical stabilization system becomes very critical to me. Does the OS on the 120-300 stack up well against the competition? To this point I haven't performed a systematic test of the OS system of the 120-300 against other lenses, but in the field I have found that the OS system of the Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 allows me to shoot hand-held within the same range of shutter speeds (when shooting as the same focal lengths) as the Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E VR and the Nikkor 300mm f2.8 VRII. So I'm very comfortable saying that the OS system on the Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 simply does its job.

Of course, the Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8 isn't perfect (what lens is?). If I were asked what should change on the NEXT version of the lens here's what I'd say:

• Shave Some Weight Off! I can live with the 3390 gm (7.5 lb) weight of the 120-300mm, but its heft may be a problem for some. I'd like to see close to 500 gm (slightly more than a pound) shaved off it...and re-designing the tripod collar and foot ALONE (see below) could go a long way toward accomplishing this.

• Improve the Tripod Collar and Foot. On the current version of the lens the tripod collar and foot are decidedly over-built. If Sigma replaced the current system with the same collar and foot used on the Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3 and the Sigma Sport 500mm f4 they'd save weight. And...while they're at it, why not make the tripod foot Arca-Swiss compatible (so the end-user doesn't have to add MORE weight by adding an Area-Swiss lens plate to it)?

• Improve the AF System. When Sigma introduced the 500mm f4 Sport lens they used a newer "Hyper Sonic Motor" to drive the AF system that provided 1.3x more torque (and sped up the AF system). It would be great if the NEXT version of the 120-300 used the same new AF motor.

• Lengthen the Lens Hood. The Sigma Sport 150-600mm and the Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8 share the same lens hood. And they both have the same problem - they're slightly too short. Why is this a problem? If you're shooting in the rain (even if it's coming STRAIGHT down) and a water drop strikes the distal END of the lens hood the resulting splashing droplets makes it ALL the way back to the front element of the lens. And, if it's raining hard this happens a LOT, with the net result that you end up spending WAY too much time wiping water droplets off the front of the lens (and way more than with virtually any other lens I regularly use for wildlife shooting). For those that don't shoot (or don't shoot regularly) in the rain this will be a non-issue. As one who shoots in the rain a LOT, this is a constant irritant for me.

• Add AF Activation Buttons to the Lens Barrel. Many users of Nikon's latest DSLR bodies love the fact that you can switch AF Area modes using a lot of different buttons on the camera bodies AND by using the AF Activation buttons on selected lenses. Sigma has these buttons on the 500mm f4 Sport lens (Sigma calls these buttons "AF Function Buttons") and you CAN switch AF Area modes using them. Given Sigma clearly knows about the buttons (and how to make 'em) why not add them to the next version of the 120-300?

III. But What About...

I anticipate getting a lot of email asking me why I didn't list one of several other "super-zooms" as the reason for not feeling like I NEED the new Nikkor 180-400mm f4 VR. Included in this list would be the Sigma and Tamron 150-600mm zooms, the Nikkor 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR, the Nikkor 200-500mm f5.6 VR, et cetera.

Long story short, I consider the Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3 to be the best of the more economical super zooms. After testing it against virtually all of its primary competitors I kept it and sold all the others. I DO use the Sigma Sport 150-600mm but its f6.3 aperture at focal lengths of about 420mm (and longer) has two consequences that limits its use for me. First, on even Nikon's latest DSLR's the f6.3 maximum aperture makes several focus points unusable. Most of the affected points are on the "periphery" of the array of focus points, but it can be inconvenient nonetheless. Second - and more importantly - as someone who shoots a lot in low light a f5.6 or f6.3 maximum aperture is quite limiting. I have absolutely NO doubt that I would get MORE use out of the new Nikkor 180-400mm f4E VR zoom than ANY of the super-zooms simply owing to its larger maximum aperture. So, just like with my prime lenses, owning any (or ALL!) of the lower-priced super-zooms has absolutely no impact on my decision to buy (or not buy) the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E VR.

This leads to a short tangent that's slightly off-topic (but I know if I don't address it I will get asked about it many times). Why did I elect to keep the Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3 super zoom and reject the others? Clever readers (so everyone reading this) will know this answer will also contain little tidbits about why I don't consider these other lenses to be serious "options" to the new 180-400mm f4. And I'm limiting myself to TWO sentences in describing why these lenses didn't beat out the Sigma Sport 150-600mm in joining my kit:

• Sigma 150-600mm F5-6.3 DG OS HSM | C (Contemporary model): Great value and surprisingly good build quality, but I found it to be noticeably softer (less sharp) than the Sigma Sport at focal lengths of 400mm or longer.

• Tamron SP 150-600mm F/5-6.3 Di VC USD (G1 version): Aside from image stabilization (where this lens was very good), this Tamron zoom fell short of the Sigma Sport 150-600 in almost all categories - so in build quality, optical quality, autofocus performance (much less effective than the Sigma), and more. To be blunt, I just couldn't squeeze the image quality out of this lens that pleased me.

• Tamron SP 150-600mm F5-6.3 Di VC USD G2: Based on how the G1 version of this lens performed I couldn't justify spending the time needed to fully test the G2 version (sorry Tamron, but I couldn't believe it was SO improved it could challenge the Sigma Sport or Nikkor competitors). So no comment.

• Nikkor AF-S Nikkor 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR: Lots to like, including decent image sharpness, relatively compact size, good VR system and more. But the single factor that turned me against this lens was the extremely poor quality of the out-of-focus zones (compared to ALL the other lenses in this list)...just downright ugly bokeh!

• Nikkor AF-S Nikkor 200-500mm F5.6E ED VR: Surprisingly good optically (as sharp as the Sigma Sport 150-600mm at most overlapping focal lengths and with very slightly better bokeh) plus quite light and easy to hand-hold. But, the general build quality, total lack of environmental sealing, and extreme wimpiness of the hood (dislodged even by a soft and light rain cover!) collectively conspired to bias me strongly against adding this lens to my kit.

IV. Sample Images - Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8

Here's 10 images I captured in 2017 using the Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8 zoom lens. I chose a mix that included images captured with the 3 latest Nikon DSLR's used by serious wildlife photographers (D5, D500, D850), at a variety of focal lengths, and several different apertures. I also included two shots captured with the 1.4x Sigma TC-1401 teleconverter. All 10 images can be downloaded and viewed as 2400-pixel (on long axis) JPEG's. Seven of the 10 images can be found in various image galleries on this website (along with a LOT more contextual information about the shot) - for those 7 images I included links to them in their respective galleries...

1. A September Great Bear Morning. Nikon D5; 155mm; f4

Download 2400 pixel image
More info (Animalscapes Gallery)

2. The Exit Ramp. Nikon D500; 195mm; f5

Download 2400 pixel image
More info (Bears Gallery)

3. Of Two Minds. Nikon D500; 270mm; f5

Download 2400 pixel image
More info (Bears Gallery)

4. The Spin Cycle. Nikon D5; 300mm; f3.5

Download 2400 pixel image
More info (Bears Gallery)

5. Khutzeymateen Cruising. Nikon D500; 300mm; f4

Download 2400 pixel image
More info (Bears Gallery)

6. Salmon Fishing. Nikon D850; 300mm; f3.2

Download 2400 pixel image
More info (Bears Gallery)

7. Great Blue Heron - Keep on Truckin'. Nikon D5; 300mm; f4.5

Download 2400 pixel image

8. The Sea Wolf. Nikon D500; 300mm; f4

Download 2400 pixel image
More info (Wolves & Kin Gallery)

9. Shoreline She-Wolf. Nikon D5; 300mm plus 1.4x TC (420mm); f5.6

Download 2400 pixel image

10. When Urges Diverge. Nikon D500; 260mm plus 1.4x TC (365mm); f8

Download 2400 pixel image

Could the Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8 tame YOUR desire (or need) to own the Nikkor 180-400mm f2E VR zoom? Possibly. Good food for thought...

Cheers...

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#Nikon180-400_alternatives

25 Jan 2018: More on the New AF-S Nikkor 180-400mm F4E TC1.4 FL ED VR

Since my 9 January blog entry on the recently announced Nikkor 180-400mm f4E VR I've received a lot of email feedback (both on what many are thinking about the lens and my comments on it). Interestingly, I don't think I've ever had so much feedback after posting a blog entry on a new lens (which I take to mean there is a LOT of interest in this lens). So...based on that feedback - and some more thinking about the lens - here's a few more comments and thoughts.

1. Universal Sticker Shock!

Unsurprisingly, the only common thread in all the feedback I've received on the lens is major "sticker shock" (i.e., shock at the price of the new zoom). I've had comments like "Hmmm...looks like I have to choose between this lens and that new car I've been wanting". Many have said that regardless of the quality of the lens, the price alone will make them hesitate or wait to make the purchase (for some until they've tried it or read objective reviews). And several have said it will completely prevent them from making the purchase. Several of my points below are related to the high price of the lens in some way.

One possible consequence (which means this is speculation) of Nikon's pricing strategy on this lens is that it may keep it out of the hands of a significant part of its target market, i.e., the working sports or wildlife photographer who is NOT sponsored by Nikon and largely considers a lens purchase as a business decision (and who already likely has a decent collection of "glass"). My next point below expands on this point...

2. A Business Decision OR a "Can I Hide This From My Spouse?" Decision?

In a sense there are two extreme ends of a continuum in how those in the target market for this lens are looking at this purchase decision. At one end are those who are looking at it purely as a business decision - they're asking "Will buying this lens increase my revenue and year-end profit enough to justify the purchase?" Many pro wildlife photographers (or sports photographers) who are still in business fit into this group.

In my case my photography revenue comes not only from image sales, but also from photo tours and private tutoring (and, to some degree, public speaking engagements). For ME a lens purchase CAN be partly a marketing expense - if owning that lens (and testing it, and reporting the results on this website) drives web traffic it can lead to an increase in my revenue (as people who are driven to the website book trips, engage me for private tutoring, etc.). But because I already have a strong lens collection I really can't convince myself that owning this uber-expensive new zoom will likely lead to a significant bump up in image sales. And...while web traffic is great, when virtually all of my other revenue streams (photo tours, teaching, speaking engagements, etc.) are at close to capacity (until I clone myself) there's pretty much no economic gain that I can realize via the "marketing leads to increased sales" argument for me buying this lens (to report on it here and drive web traffic, etc.). So...for me...buying the new AF-S Nikkor 180-400mm F4E TC1.4 FL ED VR can't be justified on economic terms.

I am only ONE professional wildlife photographer and I acknowledge that other pros may have different priorities (and different existing lens collections!). And perhaps for some it DOES make business sense to buy this lens. But based on the feedback I have been receiving (and based on some conversations I have with people in the business of selling camera gear) it does not appear that many working and "non-sponsored" pros are lining up to give Nikon money for this new zoom.

The OTHER end of the continuum of the market for this lens is the serious amateur photographer with a large amount of disposable income (or accumulated financial resources) who could care less if buying the lens makes business or economic sense. They simply WANT it, can afford it (and many HAVE said to me that their biggest concern is finding a way to get it by their "better half").

Of course, these are only the extreme ends of the continuum of how those in the market for this lens will view the decision - many potential buyers are probably somewhere in the middle between the extremes. Heck, even the most pragmatic pro gets a little excited about new gear! ;-)

But...and here's my main point...my best guess (yep, more speculation) is that the VAST majority of those who do buy this new zoom will be closer to the "Can I Hide This From My Spouse" end of the market spectrum (and few looking at the lens from a "Does it make business sense?" point of view will fork out for it). Interestingly, I've received feedback from several people who are in the "Can I Hide This Purchase" category of buyers and even many of them seem to be really having to work hard to talk themselves into the need for this lens.

3. Hand-holdability?

In my last blog entry I said:

"Based on my own experience of watching hundreds and hundreds of pretty serious enthusiast wildlife photographers attempt to hand-hold big lenses (from over a decade of leading photo tours), I would suggest that MANY of the photographers in Nikon's most lucrative target market for this lens won't be able to effectively hand-hold it."

Given the amount of feedback I received on this statement it's apparent that this point needs a bit more clarification. So...

• Lens weight is only ONE variable determining how easy it is for a given user to hand-hold a lens. Other variables include lens balance (which is partly impacted by how heavy of a body is used with the lens), VR performance, user technique, user strength, and more. BUT...my experience in leading photo tours for over a decade (and MOST on those tours are definitely in the target market for this lens) is that a lens in the 8 lb weight range is really on the "cusp" of hand-holdabilty for most users. Yep, some can hand-hold a well-balanced 3500 gm (8 lb) lens all day - others can't even dream of it.

• The importance of "hand-holdability" varies TREMENDOUSLY between users. For some (including me) it's critical. For others - it's irrelevant. But if hand-holdability of a lens IS important to you and you've never shot with a lens in the 3500 gm (8 lb) range...well...I'd recommend finding a way to TRY OUT a lens in this weight range and see how it "feels" and if you CAN hand-hold it (ideally it would be best to try the Nikkor 180-400 itself, but this will be a little tricky to do for awhile).

4. Optical Quality?

OK...repeat after me: "An MTF curve does NOT determine how sharp of a shot YOU will get from a specific lens in a field setting!" I have been testing lenses for years, and the most basic general truth I have learned is that there CAN be a big difference between the maximum theoretical optical quality (usually judged by image sharpness) that a lens can deliver under controlled conditions and what a given user will experience using their OWN shooting techniques in the field. I have seen lenses that test GREAT (and have wonderful MTF curves or score well on some other lab-based metric) but are awful for MOST users in the field. And, I have seen lenses that "test out" only OK (or have "iffy" MTF curves) but perform amazingly well in the field. If I had a dollar for every buyer of the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR who has said to me "How can a lens that dxomark.com calls "soft" be so bloody sharp?" I'd be a rich man.

My point? The photographic results YOU get in the field are not determined solely by the MTF curve (or any other single optical "measure") of a lens. They're impacted by everything from autofocus performance, VR performance (especially if you hand-hold the lens), lens balance, user technique, distance-to-subject, the camera the lens is used with, and more. Some lenses (in some user's hands) DO allow you to get close to their maximum theoretical performance. Lenses that really deliver for me while shooting wildlife in the field (i.e., lenses that allow me to squeeze close to their maximum sharpness out of them when using MY techniques in a field setting) include the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR (my number one choice for wildlife photography), the Sigma Sport 500mm f4, the Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8, and the Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E VR. Note that I am NOT saying these lenses will work great for ALL users - I am simply saying they work great for ME.

5. Opportunity to Try Before You Buy?

Quick point here: Of those who have told me they have pre-ordered the lens also told me they did it ONLY because the online retailer they ordered it from would take it back if they didn't like it. I don't know how many brick-and-mortar retailers offer this "money-back-guaranteed" service, but I know of several who do not. My guess (more speculation) is that for at least this lens you'll see a higher proportion than normal seeking out sellers who have "user-friendly" return policies.

6. "I Just KNOW It's Going to be GREAT!"

Remember how I said above that I've received email from folks who seem to be trying to talk themselves into buying this lens? Of those, many are using the excellent optical performance of another "newish" Nikon zoom (the 70-200mm f2.8E VR) to convince themselves that the 180mm-400mm f4E VR will be in the same optical quality category. I'm not sure I'm convinced by this argument. Designing a 70-200mm is very different from designing a 180-400mm (with a built-in teleconverter). Just because Nikon did a very good job on the optics of the 70-200mm f2.8E VR (which is another "very expensive for what it is" lens) doesn't mean it will necessarily happen again on the 180-400mm f4E.

In a similar vein, SOME photographers (not all) were never in love with the optical quality of what many consider the precursor to the 180-400mm - the 200-400mm f4 VRII. And, because of that, are skeptical about the how good the new 180-400mm f4 will be optically. My thinking is that from an optical perspective it's best to consider this a totally new lens (Edition or Version 1!) and wait and assess it on it's own merits (with no preconceived expectations). Of course, I can't disagree with those who have emailed me saying "Well...at that astronomical price it BETTER be great"!

I truly hope the new AF-S Nikkor 180-400mm F4E TC1.4 FL ED VR is a GREAT lens and meets the needs of a great number of wildlife shooters. But it will be quite some time before we know for sure.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#Nikon180-400More

09 Jan 2018: A Few Thoughts on the New AF-S Nikkor 180-400mm F4E TC1.4 FL ED VR

Yesterday Nikon announced a new full-frame super-telephoto zoom lens targeted at serious sports and wildlife photographers - the AF-S Nikkor 180-400mm F4E TC1.4 FL ED VR. This lens has been expected for quite some time - partly to replace the dated AF-S Nikkor 200-400mm f4 VRII and partly because of the initial sales success of Canon's 200-400mm zoom. Like the Canon zoom, the new Nikkor features a built-in 1.4x teleconverter which, when engaged, converts the lens to an f5.6 252-560mm zoom.

The new zoom features all of the "latest" features seen on other recent Nikkor lens revamps, including a fluorite front lens element, a dust-and-gunk shedding fluorine coating, an electronic diaphragm, 4-stop VR (with Normal and Sport Modes), AF activation buttons on the lens, and more. At 3500 gm (7.72 lb) the lens comes in at about 120 gm (or about .25 lb) lighter than its Canon counterpart. The lens is expected to ship in March (read "after the Olympics"). In Canada first dibs is being given to NPS members through a Priority Purchase program (my notice arrived via email yesterday). Those looking for a FULL spec spew can find one right here on dpreview.com's website.

Did I miss anything? Oh right, the price. Are you sitting down? It's absolutely stratospheric, with a MSRP of $12,399 USD ($15,549.95 CAD). I am guessing the street price will be a "mere" $11,999 in the US and $14,999 in Canada. Apparently Nikon is looking to return to profitability if they sell even one copy of this lens (and we know they'll sell a whole lot more than one of them!).

Here are a few candid thoughts and opinions about the new lens, as well as some answers to questions I will likely see in the next few days...

1. Jack - or Master - of All Trades? It could easily be argued that if a serious wildlife photographer could have only ONE lens then this would be the lens to have. Great focal range (especially when the teleconverter is factored in) and with all the latest "skookum" features. But whether this lens is a MASTER Of All Trades or a JACK Of All Trades (and Master of NONE!) will come down to a few things, including optical quality (over all focal lengths including at the long end with teleconverter engaged and over all distances-to-subject), how well the VR works on this lens (anyone recall the 300mm f4 PF vibration reduction fiasco?), how well the lens is balanced, et cetera. At 3500 gm (7.72 lb) the lens isn't svelte, and VR performance and balance may well be critical in determining if the majority of shooters can effectively hand-hold this lens. Based on my own experience of watching hundreds and hundreds of pretty serious enthusiast wildlife photographers attempt to hand-hold big lenses (from over a decade of leading photo tours), I would suggest that MANY of the photographers in Nikon's most lucrative target market for this lens won't be able to effectively hand-hold it. If past experience is any indication, it would not surprise me if this lens will initially sell well into the market that "travels the world to photograph wildlife" but once a lot of these shooters find the lens is just too heavy for them to effectively hand-hold it there will a lot of them available on the used lens market (starting about 18 months after the lens begins to get into the hands of users).

One final comment on this point: Anyone who has shot Nikon's latest 70-200mm f2.8E VR knows that it is possible to build a zoom lens with ALMOST the optical quality of a number of pro-level prime lenses (that the zoom range overlaps). If Nikon can pull off this trick again with the 180-400mm f4E (and at the price of this lens they sure the heck better do it) it COULD become a coveted lens. But note that at the price of this lens you could buy a whole collection of pro-level prime lenses (along with some darned good zooms!).

2. About the Built-in Teleconverter: The concept of building in a teleconverter is interesting. There's obviously some value in "speed of engaging" the teleconverter on this lens versus one where you have to manually place the teleconverter between lens and camera (and in some situations this CAN make the difference between capturing the shot and missing it). And, according at least to Nikon, they've designed this new lens (and positioned the switch) to allow you to engage the teleconverter while looking through the viewfinder which, if true, is great. But...my own experience is that teleconverters almost always perform better on prime lenses than on zoom lenses (and perform the best only on a FEW "best of the best" primes, like the 400mm f2.8E VR). So...I am more than a little curious how strong this lens will be in edge-to-edge sharpness at 400mm with the teleconverter engaged (so at 560mm). If you have to stop down to f8 or f9 to get acceptable sharp shots at 560mm...well...this feature (and the lens) would be of questionable use for me.

3. About the Price and Product Positioning: So...now Nikon has a 200-500mm f5.6 VR lens that sells for $1399 USD (or $1799 CAD) that is built in China and NOT environmentally sealed AND a 180-400mm f4 VR lens that sells for almost 9 times as much (but is built in Japan and is environmentally sealed). Do you think that just MAYBE there's room somewhere in the middle for a high-quality f4 super-telephoto zoom? Note to Sigma and Tamron - I think I see a gaping and unserviced hole in the middle of the market for you to jump into (and perhaps some photographers should consider waiting a bit to see if Sigma or Tamron makes the move into this market space?).

4. Am I Going to Buy One? Nope. Why? Three main reasons. First, I have a great collection of lenses that collectively cover the entire focal range that the new Nikkor zoom covers (and one of them - the Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5.6-6.3 covers MORE than the entire range by itself). And several of these lenses are speciality lenses that offer unique attributes not found on the new Nikkor 180-400mm (e.g., the extreme portability of the 300mm f4 PF, the dreamy saftness of the out-of-focus zones when shot with the 400mm f2.8E VR at f2.8, etc.).

Second, when I owned the Nikkor 200-400mm f4 VR I found that a huge majority of the time (if I recall it was around 90% of the time) I shot it at between 380mm and 400mm. I already own a 400mm f2.8E VR - and I dare say the 180-400mm @ 400mm just won't match that lens in image quality.

Third...sorry Nikon...but the price is just ludicrous. At up to about $9499 CAD I might have considered this lens for those situations where I CAN only take one lens with me and I may need a wide focal range. But at $14,999 CAD - not a hope! While we all know that wildlife photography is an amazingly lucrative profession (tongue in cheek!), for me forking out $15K has to make business sense...and buying this lens would make ZERO business sense for me.

5. Am I Going To Test One? Likely not (but never say never, right Oprah?). To do an in-depth test I would need a copy for longer than Nikon would be likely be willing to loan one to me. Based on past experience I don't get the feeling that Nikon is as keen as some other lens makers to have me (or someone like me!) do an objective in-depth field-based test on their lenses (clever readers should read this to mean "be VERY leery about what the early "testers" - particularly those that Nikon uses in their promotional literature - say about this lens"). But don't get me wrong - I would LOVE to field test this lens. Anyone wishing to buy one and loan it to me for a few months is encouraged to contact me at their earliest convenience! ;-)

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#Nikon180-400Thoughts



Blog Archive - not so fresh but still very readable and relevant...

2018 - The Whole Enchilada
2017 - The Full Meal Deal
2016 - The Whole Shebang
2015 - The Whole Shebang
2014 - The Whole Shebang
2013 - The Whole Shebang
2012 - Almost The Whole Shebang
2011 - The Whole Shebang
2009 - October to December2009 - July to September2009 - April to June
2009 - January to March 2008 - October to December 2008 - July to September
2008 - April to June 2008 - January to March 2007 - October to December
2007 - July to September 2007 - April to June 2007 - January to March