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.
A D4s with my name on it arrived in Calgary, Alberta way back on March 5. Unfortunately (or fortunately I suppose, depending on one's viewpoint), I'm around 800 km away in frosty Manitoba leading a photo tour dedicated to capturing images of owls which features Great Gray, Northern Hawk, and Snowy Owls (with the odd Barred Owl thrown in for good measure). I'll be picking my D4s this coming Sunday on my way back to my BC home.
Expect my first comments about its performance beginning mid to late next week right here on this blog!
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Many of the regular visitors of this website and blog already know that the main reason I'm a photographer is to support conservation causes. In fact, I prefer to be described as a conservation photographer rather than as a wildlife photographer. My strongest passion is carnivore conservation. The conservation of those animals occupying the top of the food chain is challenging and those fighting for carnivores run into all sorts of obstacles - most of which are the result of long-held but misinformed biases. Take wolves for example - while absolutely hated by a small minority of North Americans, the reality is that they have a low cost to society (for background feel free to read this: On the Cost of a Wolf), but they also have high value to our society (for background on this go here: On the Value of a Wolf). But try getting a rancher or politician to participate in a science-based discussion on wolf conservation...well...that's a challenge up there with getting a photo of a flying pig.
One of the strongest arguments in favour of actively conserving our carnivores is the ecological concept of Trophic Cascades. Simply put, this well-documented ecological process means that small actions at the TOP of the food chain tumble all the way down to the bottom of a food chain - with massive consequences to the entire ecosystem and even the landscape itself. One of the best examples of a trophic cascade in action - and a strong, strong argument in favour of wolf conservation (and even re-introduction in areas where they have been extirpated) - is brilliantly shown in the following short video. Take 4:33 out of your life (or work day!) and give it a look:
How Wolves Change Rivers (video; 4:33 duration).
For those who want to help in the fight to save our carnivores - the biggest single hurdle faced in carnivore conservation isn't really a technical or logistic one - it's changing the attitude of policy-makers towards cornivores. A great first step is getting folks (including those who are against carnivore conservation) to accept the value and maintenance of carnivores on our planet. And a simple way to do this is to spread the word about this video...so please pass this along!
For the picky critics - to a Brit an elk is a deer (a Red Deer)! Those viewing the video will know what I mean!
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At the stroke of midnight last night (at least midnight somewhere on the planet) Nikon did the expected and announced their new flagship DSLR - the D4s. As most long-term Nikon-o-philes expected, the camera is a refinement - or evolution - of the D4, and remains at 16 MP. The best place to go for the full specification list is right here on dpreview's website...
It would be easy to look at the specs of this camera and ask "what's the big deal?" It doesn't have a teleporter (think Star Trek). It won't soak up atmospheric CO2 and solve the issue of climate change. It won't even improve the gas mileage of your car! And I'm being this facetious to point out how the incredible pace of technological advancement has completely warped what we consider product change or product development.
The D4s offers a huge list of improvements over the D4s - but many of them are important to only limited user groups. For instance, I'm a wildlife photographer first and foremost, so I really don't care much about using face detection (of bears?) to determine metering - but I can see something like that being fantastic for some event photographers or wedding photographers. Additionally, improvements like supporting faster transfer rates when connected via LAN isn't important at all to me, but may be super news for pros in other disciplines.
What are the key improvements of the D4s from this wildlife photographer's perspective? Here's the things that attracted my attention:
New sensor with claimed improvements in noise at high ISO's (in combination with a new image processing engine - the "Expeed 4" processing engine).
Improvements in autofocus function - although at this point all we really know is that Nikon is stating "tweaked and improved autofocus algorithms". The D4 AF system was already amazing - if it's significantly better in the D4s - well...this is the kind of thing that can be critical in the field.
Slightly faster frame rate with full autofocus capabilities (now 11 fps rather than 10 fps).
"What? Only 3 bullet points caught your interest?" Yep, but not all bullet points are created equal - IF the D4s is one stop better in ISO performance and IF those tweaked AF algorithms result in noticeable improvement in autofocus performance in the field, then for me the D4s will be well worth the money. With the D4s - the devil WILL be in the details!
Finally, a few answers to questions I've already received via email:
1. Do you already have a D4s and have you been shooting with it?
2. Are you getting a D4s?
Yes - as soon as possible. Nikon already has my "Priority Purchase" order (for Canadian NPS members).
3. Is there anything else you wished the D4s had or did differently?
Yes - I STILL think it's crazy to have two different card slots - complete pain in the field (among other places). My preference would have been to have two XQD slots. But, on the positive side, they didn't add a third slot (for SD cards). ;-)
4. What about the relative lack of improvement in video capabilities?
For my uses - I couldn't care less. But I do appreciate why this might be important to other users.
5. What about improved battery life?
Nice feature and possibly a noteworthy feature (and bullet point!) for some, but I haven't been limited in battery life in a field situation (even shooting in subzero weather) since the D1. And I often shoot full days in awful weather with big lenses with VR on full-time.
6. What about the new expanded ISO range (all the way up to ISO 409,600 - which is close to ISO one zillion)?
I'm thinking that's likely going to be pretty academic for me. What will be critical for me will be how high of an ISO I can shoot and get very high quality results that I please me and that I can sell - not how high I can dial the camera up to. I did find instances with the D4 where I was able to shoot at ISO 10,000 to 12,800 and get gallery quality results (e.g., check out this bear portrait shot at ISO 10,000). If I can shoot the D4s at up to ISO 25,600 and get quality results that please me I will be in 7th heaven. Fingers crossed.
7. Do I wish the camera was 24 MP?
Well sure - but only if it could be done with no change in ISO performance, burst number and frame rate, etc. Which I'm pretty sure is currently impossible. Bottom line: on this camera speed is far more important to me than going from 16 MP to 24 MP.
8. My thoughts on the new setting permitting the shooting of smaller (2464 x 1610 pixel) raw files?
Not important to me. I use Photoshop in my workflow and know how to crop!
As soon as the D4s is in my hands I will begin reporting my findings and thoughts that are based on real experience with the camera. Stay tuned.
PS: Twin golds in Olympic hockey - nirvana. Twin golds in Olympic curling - more nirvana. To most Canadians from coast-to-coast-to-coast, nothing else really matters (but congrats to all our other medal winners). Olympic perfection and Canuck heaven.
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Not so long ago it was relatively simple to produce and optimize images for online viewing. You could pretty much assume that MOST displays were in the 72 to 96 pixel per inch (ppi) range and produce appropriately sized (and appropriately sharpened) images that would look fairly similar across devices (baring differences in colour that you can only hope are minor!).
And then came Retina - first on iPhone (326 ppi), then iPad (264 ppi), and then on MacBook Pros (220 ppi). Suddenly our 72-96 ppi display world "expanded" into a 72-326 ppi one! This would be no big deal to how we prep our images for online display if Apple and others moving toward the high density displays showed graphics in their "native" (1:1) resolution. But doing this would mean that all images prepped for that 72-96 ppi world would suddenly be TINY on the high density displays like the Retinas. Deciding that would be bad, Apple decided to build powerful interpolation into their software (including their browsers) and in doing so they instantly "inflate" our images to a "more reasonable" - and much larger - size (so you don't need a loupe or magnifying glass to view a website!). Overall this approach of "blowing up" the size of websites is probably a good one, except for websites of picky photographers (like this one). What were once very sharp images are suddenly soft and, at times, pixelated! Horrors!
There are ways to deal with this new reality, but none are simple and straight-forward or without compromises. Those with a geekoid bent (like me) might be interested in some of the technical solutions as described on the focality.com website, which you can check out right here:
I own 3 devices with high density displays - an iPhone 5s, a "new" iPad, and a MacBook Pro with Retina display. I have to admit that it was paining me to see images on my own website that I knew were sharp appear soft and almost fuzzy on my iPad and, to an even greater degree, on my MacBook Pro. I have enough background in digital technology to realize that if I started optimizing images for the high density displays (simply by increasing the resolution of the source images and "commanding" the browser to display them "smaller" on the lower res devices) that the net result would be MUCH sharper looking images on the high density displays, but slightly softer looking images on the lower "traditional" displays (i.e., those in the 72-96 ppi range). There ARE other ways to deal with the problem (outlined in the reference above on focality.com), but bumping the pixel count of the images is definitely the simplest solution.
So...if one's images are going to appear slightly softer on "traditional" displays but MUCH sharper on the new high-density displays - well...what should one do? An obvious variable in the decision is the percentage of displays out there in the "traditional" vs. high density category. Over the last several months I've watched the website traffic on my website closely, and paid particular attention to what's happening with respect to the resolution of the devices used to view my website. Six months ago only 18% of my traffic was from tablets and other mobile devices (and 82% of the traffic was from desktops and laptops). Today, 30% of the traffic is from tablets and mobile devices. And it's almost misleading to say "tablets" - over 90% of the tablets are iPads with Retina displays and almost all the "mobile" traffic (again over 90%) is from iPhones with Retina displays. And, of the laptops/desktops used to view this website (70% of all traffic) a disproportionate number of them are Macs (44%). And a surprising number of them have Retina displays. Bottom line - when I crunch ALL the numbers, 28% of the current traffic on this website is viewing it with a high density display - and that number is growing fast.
So...time to adapt. As of today, all new "standard-sized" images posted in the galleries of this website will be optimized for the high density displays. The "standard-sized" images are those displayed in the main window of any image gallery after a thumbnail is clicked. I don't have the time to instantly convert all the existing images on this website to high density optimized versions, but over time most will migrate to the new format. This will mean that the new images will appear a LITTLE to a LOT sharper to those viewing this website with a high density display (on Retina equipped laptops this will be determined largely by the users settings of the resolution of the display). And it will mean that pixel peepers on more "traditional" displays MIGHT notice a very slight softening of the images (tho' I'm betting if I didn't say anything would have noticed!).
Curious about how large the differences are? Here's a before/after example from my bear gallery (and note that you may have to flush your browser's cache to see the two different versions):
Check out both images on any or all devices you own - odds are if it's a "traditional" display you won't notice much difference between them. But if it's a high density display (especially Retina iPad or Retina MacBook Pro) the version optimized for a high density display will appear noticeably sharper.
Finally - I have to do the Canadian thing and apologize. To who? Those on lower-speed internet connections or with limited bandwidth. The method I'm using to produce the new high-density-display-optimized-images (that's a mouthful!) increases their file size by about 30% to 80%, depending on the scene. Sorry 'bout that - but...hey...it's a PHOTOGRAPHY website!
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Looking for a simple way to stay on top of critical goings-on in the world of wildlife photography? You know...stuff like real world field tests of current camera gear that provide you with the REAL lowdown on how it actually works in the field and not just what some marketing geeks WANT you to think? How about tips that will help you ensure that your images are the sharpest they can possibly be? And wildlife conservation issues that could affect how you work in the field now and in the future? And a whole lot more...
Well...then there's no doubt about it - you NEED to sign-up for the Natural Art Images Newsletter! And signing up is simple as pie! Just email me at:
Stuff you MUST include in your sign-up request: Just your name (first and last) and your email address!
Optional info you CAN include: Country, province/state, and your camera brand
More About the Newsletter...
A few anticipated FAQ's (and answers) about the newsletter:
1. Are you going to fill my in-bin with junk email?
Nope - not at all. You'll get 4-6 newsletters per year and that's it. And, they'll come ONLY when I have interesting information and/or worthwhile content to share.
2. Are you going to sell or share my email address?
Absolutely NOT. I won't share it, lend it out, rent it out, sell it, or abuse it any way. Guaranteed.
3. Are you going to give me a chance at nabbing your used camera gear BEFORE you put it on your website?
Good idea - sure I'll do that.
4. Are you going to give me a chance at booking a spot on your most popular photo tours BEFORE you put them up on your website or market them anywhere else?
Another good idea - sure I'll do that too!
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Can you tell that one of my goals for this week was to make some long overdue updates to this website? ;-)
I just completed a major re-working of the page on this website that describes what lenses I use (and why). This page also lists what lenses I have "discarded" - and why I discarded them. The re-working of the page was done to accommodate my acquisition of the AF-S 24-120mm f4 VR; the AF-S 70-200mm f4 VR; and the AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR as well as my "disposal" of the AF-S 200mm f2 VR and the AF-S 200-400mm f4 VR.
Here's the link to the updated version of my "Stuff I Use - Lenses" page:
Stuff I Use - Part II: Lenses & Teleconverters (Updated).
More updates coming over the next week or so.
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I made a very minor update to my field test of the AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR this morning - I added a sample image that demonstrates the performance of the AF system of the 80-400 when paired up with the D800e (it's in section I-7).
Here's the link to the updated field test:
Field Tests: The Nikkor AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR (Updated).
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I made a very minor update to my field test of the TC-20EIII (2x teleconverter) today - I added in the performance (and my subjective usability rating) for the TC-20EIII when paired with the AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR. In doing so I had to add in a new usability rating on my scale. The new rating is "Non-existent"! There are MANY good reasons to purchase the "new" 80-400mm VR, but performance with the 2x teleconverter isn't one of them!
Here's the link to the updated TC-20EIII Field Test
Field Tests: Nikon's Series III Teleconverters (Updated).
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Way back in April of 2010 I produced a field test called "4 Ways to 400mm" that has proven to be exceptionally popular. Four years later and that page is still receiving around 1,000 unique visitors per month. The only problem is that it is out-of-date - in the last year or so Nikon has provided two NEW ways to get to 400mm in a way that's affordable to many users. These ways are through using the excellent new AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR or pairing the equally excellent 70-200mm f4 VR up with the 2x TC-20EIII (2x) teleconverter.
How do these two new means of getting to 400mm stack up against the 4 ways I discussed way back in 2010? Check out the updated article right here:
Field Tests: 4 Ways to 400mm (Updated).
Looking for a meaningful way to thank me for all my unpaid work assisting wildlife photographers? Nope I'm NOT going to ask you to open your wallet and donate to me and my dogs. What I'd like best is for you to sign my petition to put an end to the inhumane use of killing neck snares against wolves as practiced by the BC Gov't. And you can do that right here:
Thanks & Cheers...
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Not surprisingly, my field test of the AF-S 80-400 is generating a lot of interest (over 13,000 views already!) and a lot of feedback via email. Most of the feedback has been very positive and several who own the lens have said that their experience matches the comments and overall tone of my review extremely closely. That's gratifying (and insert one "Phew!" here!).
But one area where there seems to be confusion is on the build quality of the lens, largely because of very conflicting comments/opinions about the build quality than can be found online. For instance, in my review I began the section on build quality with this statement:
"Those who own some of Nikon's "best-of-the-best" lenses, such as any of their super-telephotos or top notch FX zooms (e.g., the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII) will likely be disappointed in the look and feel and general build quality/feel of this lens in their hands. Simply put, if feels more "plasticky" and when the zoom is extended it seems almost "wobbly" and fragile..."
But go to the review of the lens on slrgear.com (here) and you'll find their "official" review says this:
"The build quality in the new Nikon 80-400mm lens is excellent with the barrel comprised of metal and high-quality plastic, all painted with Nikon's typical black stipple finish. The lens feels solid, wide and beefy in the hands."
And, to complicate matters further, here's an excerpt from an email I received from Eric in Japan just a few days back:
"Just a quick feedback on my side: I've been enjoying the 80-400 since I purchased it here in Japan last July. Yesterday it fell down 30-40 cm on soft floor: all the hood's and the lens' plastic thread was broken. Now hood very difficult to use and not fix. My point: good lens, but surprisingly weak for the price."
In the end, I stand by what I said - I think those who have experienced the superb build quality of Nikon's best lenses WILL be disappointed if they expect the 80-400 to be of same build quality as a (for example) 300mm f2.8 VR or even the 200-400mm f4 VR. The hood or other parts on ANY lens (or the lens itself) can break if dropped, but I DO suspect that the "best-of-the-best" lenses would hold up better to the abuse of being dropped than the 80-400 would. To date, my 80-400 has held up fine to heavy, rugged - but non-abusive - field use. Is the build quality of the 80-400 sufficient to please you? I can't answer that...
I have no doubt Nikon could have made this lens with absolutely top-notch build quality. I don't know the financial consequence of this (or how much heavier the lens would have ended up being), but here's something to ponder - would YOU be willing to fork our $2999 or even $3499 for the same lens but with "best-of-the-best" build quality? I probably would, but I suspect many wouldn't. Just food for thought...
Finally...how can I explain slrgear.com's comments about the "excellent" build quality of the 80-400? Don't ask me - ask them! ;-)
My full field test of the 80-400 can be found here:
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This morning I finished off the last two sections on my AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR field test. The sections just put to bed include Part IIB (with the tongue-twisting title of "Optical Performance at Various Distances, Focal Lengths, and In Comparison to a Variety of Nikkor Lenses") and Part IV - the final conclusion.
My final word on this lens? For me - it's absolutely a keeper - and one I'll be using a lot.
Check the field test out here:
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A late cancellation has opened up one spot on my early March "Owls of Manitoba" photo tour. Those on the waiting list have been contacted and can't step in - so this opening is now officially up for grabs. Great Gray Owls are the "headline act" on this tour, with Northern Hawk-owls nipping at their heels in popularity. Other owls we have a good chance of encountering include Great Horned, Snowy, Barred, Eastern Screech-owl, Northern Saw-whet, and Short-eared.
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I've updated my field test on the AF-S 80-400mm by adding information on the optical performance under controlled field shooting. The new information includes comments on overall optical performance, edge-to-edge sharpness and more through to performance with teleconverters. Check it out right here: Field Tests: The Nikkor AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR.
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Finally - my field test of the "new" AF-S version of the 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR is almost done. And, it's far enough along that I've gone ahead and posted it (right here: Field Tests: The Nikkor AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR).
What remains to be added to the review? A small section in the middle called "Optical Performance Under Controlled Field Shooting"! But don't worry - no bad surprises coming in that section...I'm just finishing writing it up and processing a few test shots and I hope to have it online in a few days. While there will be lots of interesting tidbits in this section, the summary of the optical performance will read something like this: "The optical performance of the AF-S (i.e., updated) version of the lens is far superior ot the original version. While you can find a sharper lens for virtually all the focal lengths offered by the 80-400, you won't find many options that are MUCH sharper. And, most importantly for many, the lens is as sharp as the venerable 200-400mm f4 VR at all overlapping focal lengths (at all distances)."
Many will only have the time (or the energy) to read the "Executive Summary" - so...for their convenience...here it is:
My Executive Summary of the AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR:
The AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR is a significant and worthwhile upgrade from its predecessor. It's an incredibly versatile lens that will meet most of the needs for many, many nature and wildlife photographers. The build quality doesn't match Nikon's best and most expensive lenses, but for most uses it's simply good enough - and it stood up to a full field season of rugged field use with nary a problem. The autofocus system proved to be accurate and fast enough to capture any action - from birds-in-flight through to running mammals. The Vibration Reduction technology permitted me to effectively hand-hold the lens at manageable "real-world" shutter speeds (1/focal length and often slower) for all focal lengths. Optical quality? While one can find a Nikon lens that's sharper at virtually every focal length, this is a solid performer over its entire focal range and it produces images sharp enough to please most any user. Image sharpness was comparable to the almost legendary 200-400mm f4 VR at all overlapping focal lengths. The size and weight of the lens makes it extremely portable - whether in a backpack, waist-mounted holster system, or in your carry-on luggage on a plane. Taken as a whole, and for almost any nature or wildlife photographer, this is as close to a "must-have" lens as you can get.
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For those who've been waiting and/or emailed me about the details of my 2015 Photo Tours - I just posted them on the Photo Tours page of this website. You can jump directly to the 2015 listings by following this link. Two further notes:
1. When will I begin accepting registrations? Immediately - and on a first-come, first-served basis.
2. Is this ALL my photo tours for 2015? Very likely NOT - I am working on putting together at minimum of two additional tours (and I will post details as soon as I have them).
Historically my two fastest selling tours have been my spring "Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen" tours and my autumn "Into the Great Bear Rainforest" tours - so if you're hoping to participate in one of those trips it's probably best to contact me in the near future.
I'm going to attempt to keep the bulk of my blog entries in 2014 directly relevant to photography, but sometimes ya just gotta speak out. This is one of those times.
Way back when I was in graduate school (and trust me, that's WAY back!), I took a course entitled "The Philosophy of Science". I just loved the course. Anyway...during that course we talked extensively about Lysenkoism which, for those who don't know, refers to an era (the 1920's through to the 1960's) when, in the Soviet Bloc, the scientific process and scientific thinking (specifically in the field of evolutionary inheritance and good oid fashioned Mendelian genetics) was manipulated and distorted to conform to Soviet ideology (at its most basic, the Darwinian concept of "survival of the fittest" didn't fit well with communist theory). At its worst Lysenkoism resulted in the execution of many biologists and the starvation of millions as Trofim Lysenko's "politically correct" but utterly fallacious genetic principles were enacted and impacted extremely negatively on Soviet agricultural practices. Those interested in this deadly perversion of science can read a nice overview about it right here...
I wrote a paper on the subject and distinctly recall thinking how stupid it was, and how it could obviously never happen in this day and age. Fast forward to the present. Fast forward to a Canadian Government that is doing its utmost to squelch scientists who publish - or even say - ANYTHING that may conflict with their goal of ravaging and exploiting the natural resources Canada in the quickest manner possible (regardless of the environmental cost). Fast forward to a government who has fired over 2,000 federal scientists who were producing inconvenient truths. Fast forward to a government who is focused on having its ideology manipulate, distort, and even crush the scientific process and independent thought.
Why is this appearing in a blog focused mainly on wildlife photography? Well...if the current plundering of science, knowledge, and Canada's unmatched wilderness areas goes unchecked, before long there will be no areas left in Canada that one could even hope to call pristine. And, before long, nowhere where we can partake in true wildlife photography.
I strongly urge anyone - regardless of where you are from - who cares about the integrity of the science and the state of Canada's wild places to view the following full-length special that appeared on CBC's Fifth Edition on January 10, 2014:
My thanks are extended to the CBC for having the courage to produce and broadcast this chilling special. Among other things, the current Harper/Tea Party Government of Canada is certainly trying to shutdown the CBC.
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Some of you may know that for a number of years I was one of (or, at times, the only) moderator of the Wildlife Gallery on The Nature Photographer's Network (or NPN). And, some of you may even know that about a year ago I resigned from that role - largely to have more time to invest in some conservation issues. Well - as of January 5 I stepped back into the role of Wildlife Gallery moderator (along with two other excellent wildlife photographers - Lon Sharp and Gary Gulash). If you have the time, you should check out NPN's Wildlife Gallery - in there you'll always find interesting wildlife shots, and often you'll find some simply GREAT shots! The photographers that participate vary from novice through to seasoned professional.
Why do I support NPN so strongly? Well, to begin with, there's the obvious (but very real) reasons - it's one of the absolute best "deals" out there for a nature photographer. It's a welcoming and friendly online community and a fantastic vehicle for learning the nuances of nature photography from some amazing photographers.
And there's one more reason - one that's critically important to me. NPN, and in particular the NPN Wildlife Gallery, has taken a strong stance AGAINST the baiting of wildlife. In the Wildlife Gallery there is a plain and simple rule: images of baited animals are prohibited. Period. This policy is as strong as it gets against baiting. And, it is a whole lot stronger than the rules you'll find in many (most) wildlife photography competitions, including even the renowned Natural History Museum/BBC's "Wildlife Photographer of the Year" competition, which specifically prohibits only the use of live bait (view their entry rules here) - implying that use non-live bait is totally acceptable. You'll see me enter the Natural History Museum/BBC's "Wildlife Photographer of the Year" competition when they ban all use of baiting, and not before.
What is so bad about baiting wildlife for the purposes of photography? To make a long story short, I firmly believe that wildlife photographers should always conform to one over-riding ethical principle:
A wildlife photographer should not intentionally engage in ANY activity known to harm their subject(s).
I find it hard to believe that ANY wildlife photographer will OPENLY disagree with this ethical foundation.
Now...there is ample documentation (I daresay "the preponderance of the evidence") clearly indicating that in almost all cases the supplemental feeding of wildlife is harmful, including even the regular feeding of songbirds (those who don't believe this can email me and I will provide some source references for you to start with). There is a reason that feeding wildlife is illegal in many places. The harmful effects include (but are not limited to) obvious issues like digestive problems and physiological problems (salt balance issues, malnutrition, etc., all the way up to the problem of death) caused by providing inappropriate food to the animals. But they also include less visible problems, such as an impact on spacing behaviour (e.g., collapsing individual or flock territories and thus increasing social strife) to the point where breeding success is inhibited. In the case of mammalian carnivores, the big, big problem is the speed with which they form food associations with humans if they receive supplemental food (including through baiting), and those food associations almost always result in the death of the carnivore. Yep, a fed bear (or wolf, or cougar, or...) IS a dead bear. Is it possible to find a single instance where baiting and/or supplemental feeding isn't harmful to the subject? Sure. But, odds are, if you dig deep enough, almost all instances of wildlife feeding are detrimental to the subject. The best policy? If you can figure out no way to photograph it without baiting it, go photograph something else.
Why does baiting persist? I can think of at least two reasons. First, there are photographers who are unaware of its harmful effects. Photo competitions and magazines that don't prohibit baiting contribute to this feeling of baiting being acceptable (and harmless). Hopefully there are fewer photographers who are unaware of the harmful effects of baiting now. Second, and sadly, there are some who know it is harmful but know it works. And their images are more important to them then their subjects are. And they're willing to bait and even cover it up. I lump this group in with athletes who cheat using performance-enhancing drugs...hmmm...that gives me an idea for a thought-provoking and effective title to an essay..."Baiting - The Wildlife Photographer's Steroids". Hmmm...
Did NPN's aggressive stance cost them any paying members? I am not in charge of membership, but I did notice that certain photographers abruptly ceased posting images in the Wildlife Gallery immediately after the rule was implemented. But NPN stuck to the rule, even if it hit them in the pocketbook. And, for me, because they put the ethics of wildlife photography AHEAD of the profit of wildlife photography I believe they are very worthy of my support. NPN - good on ya'!
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Yesterday Nikon issued made a surprising announcement that contained several critical details that ardent Nikon-o-philes probably had no clue about:
There WILL be a successor to the D4 flagship DSLR (which, apparently, is now a HD-DSLR).
Quite shockingly, that successor will be known as the D4s.
Sometime in the future it WILL be announced, and...
there WILL be a time when specs, availability, and price will be disclosed.
Of course, the new camera will be better - largely because better things and more goodness factors have been added to it. Those craving more details are encouraged to close their eyes and then vigorously rub them.
And - also of course - with details like this I'm just dying to get my hands on this incredible new machine. One can only imagine the amazing and often stunning things that can be done with this exciting new imaging tool.
And, one can only hope that all versions of the press release used for this ground-shaking announcement were electronic (and not a single sheet of paper was wasted on this inane exercise).
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What - in a perfect dream world - would I want Nikon to deliver to us in 2014? Funny enough, it's EXACTLY what I wanted them to deliver in January of 2013!
As we begin 2014 even the most cynical of Nikon-o-philes would have to admit that Nikon currently has a pretty solid product lineup for the serious (and professional) nature photographer. The incomparable D4 (sorry Canon 1D X users - your camera is very good, but it's not a D4!). The two kings of resolution - the D800 and D800e. The amazingly versatile and affordable D600 and its tweaked successor - the D610. And a great overall lineup of lenses.
When I stop and think about my personal "in-a-perfect-world" list I can really only come up with TWO products I really would like (I won't even dare to use the word "need") for my own uses - and would absolutely love Nikon to introduce in 2014:
1. A NEW 300mm f4 Prime Lens - with VR:
The more I test and use two of Nikon's newer lenses - the excellent 70-200mm f4 VR lens and the incredibly useful and versatile 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR - the more I want Nikon to update the existing AF-S NIKKOR 300mm f/4D IF-ED lens. Make it a "G" lens. Give it a pro build quality. Update the optics to meet the demands of ALL the FX bodies. Make it teleconverter-friendly. And, most importantly, add VR to it - preferably the same VR as on the new 70-200mm f4 VR with up to 5 stops of stabilization and both Normal and Active modes. Don't scrimp on this lens - go for quality, not a price point. And, even if you charged $2,000 or slightly more, you'd sell a gadzillion of them. And make me (and thousands of other shooters) very, very happy.
What do I think the chances of this happening are? Well, exactly ONE year ago I said this:
"Actually...pretty good. It's just so logical...and the current 300mm f4 is REALLY long-in-the-tooth. Fingers crossed on this one!"
And, of course, it didn't happen. So, one year later what do I think? Well - pretty much the same thing - I think it IS likely we'll see this lens - sometime in the future. And I hope to heck I'm not forced to say the same thing 12 months from now!
2. A PRO LEVEL DX Body:
I'm not going to be too hard to please on this one. Give us a DX body with a D700/D800 (Japanese) build quality. Make it relatively compact and with an optional battery grip (that increases its frame rate from 5 fps to 8 or 9 fps). 16-18 MP. D800 level autofocus system. Video? I don't care. Price it at $2k (or even $2500). Call it anything you want - a D400, a D500...whatever. And Nikon would sell tons of them (and cause even more Canon users to make the switch). All without doing any significant parasitizing of the sales of any of the FX bodies.
And what do I think the chances are of Nikon giving us this pro-quality DX camera? A year ago I said this:
"Close to zero. Nikon seems to have decided that the DX format is for entry level, and that all serious users want full-frame. Tons of sports and wildlife shooters disagree...but this is what Nikon apparently thinks. Sigh..."
So what are the chances NOW (a full year later)? Well...given that 2013 saw the introduction of two "non-pro" DX cameras (the D7100 and the D5300), I'd have to say that the chances are even CLOSER to zero (than ever) that we'll see a pro-level DX camera (in 2014, or EVER!).
Anything else I'd like to see Nikon introduce or update in 2014? Well...if I was really pressed I could come up with some other "would-be-nice-to-have" new things from Nikon - maybe like a 400mm f4 VR lens...or an updated 24-70mm f2.8 zoom with a VR on it. But...even if I get only that 300mm f4 VR...well...I'll be happy!
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First off...to all the visitors of this website - Happy New Year! I sincerely hope that 2014 brings you good light, good subjects, and good times!
Second...a minor announcement. Each month the editor of The Nature Photographer's Network (NPN) chooses a "Gallery of the Month" from among all the NPN members' image galleries. The galleries themselves are automatically generated by any member that posts images in any of the critiquing galleries that are the centrepiece of NPN. In time, members who regularly post images there end up with a sizeable collection of work in their galleries. For instance, I post on NPN about once per week (often with the same image that goes into my Gallery of Latest Additions on this website for that week). My gallery on NPN now consists of 184 images.
Anyway...I found out just a few days back that my gallery on NPN has been chosen as the Gallery of the Month for December 2013! This unexpected bit of recognition was one of those "Oh...I didn't even know I was entered in that" kind of things that more or less came out of the blue - which in some respects makes it even nicer than "winning" something you had knowledge you were competing in!
You can view the "Gallery of the Galleries of the Month" on NPN (i.e., a listing of ALL winning galleries of the month since May 2011) right here. This "gallery of galleries" leads to some pretty impressive images of encompassing numerous nature photography genres (e.g., landscape photography, macro photography, wildlife photography, etc.), so if you have time it's really worth checking out.
To directly enter MY gallery of images on NPN, just go here.
As an aside, I personally consider NPN membership and participation to be one of the absolute best "deals" out there for a nature photographer. It's a welcoming and friendly online community and a fantastic vehicle for learning the nuances of nature photography. I know that many of the regular visitors to this website also regularly visit NPN, either as members or non-member "lurkers". If you're an aspiring (or accomplished) nature photographer and haven't visited NPN, you should check it out!
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As always, all blog entries from any given calendar year are available in my blog archives. For instance, all blog entries for 2013 may be found here...
For convenience, I have retained and collected some of the more popular 2013 (and even late 2012) gear-related entries immediately below (i.e., have extracted and placed all entries for a specific piece of gear together, beginning with all entries for the AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR). I acknowledge that the "chronologically-backwards" (newest to oldest) order of the entries some may find this information a little tricky to follow - but there's lots of valuable tidbits here and this listing IS easier than going to the blog archives and hunting down the information.
Here are some links to help you get to the various sections quickly:
In recent days I've received an email or two asking me what I've been up to (possibly implying that I've been a bit 'lax' in website updates). The answer? Two things. First, I've been updating a lot of the image galleries on this website - things like building the new Animalscapes & Enviroscapes Gallery, adding images to both the Bear Gallery and the Other Mammals Gallery, et cetera!
Second, I've been putting the finishing touches on my AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR final Field Test write-up. Yes, I've taken my time pushing the review out, simply because I wanted to thoroughly test this lens over an extended period and in a wide variety of situations before offering my 'final' opinion on it. I've shot with the lens all over Canada's west coast, in the Rockies, and up in the Arctic - got it wet (don't tell Nikon), bumped it around, and generally shot with it in almost every way a nature photographer could. And, I tested the lens against a LOT of other lenses - the 400mm f2.8 VR, the 200-400mm f4 VR, the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII and the 70-200mm f4 VR (both without and without teleconverters), and the 70-300mm f4.5-5.6 VR. So shortly - hopefully before the New Year - you'll get a review that's a whole lot more than a spec-spew or the results of shooting with the lens for a week or so!
For those who impatient types absolutely need to know what I think about the lens right NOW, here's two things that should help you out a little:
1. My ONE Sentence Summary of the AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR:
Its excellent optical quality, wide focal range, relatively small size and light weight, and non-astronomical price tag combine to make the AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR one of the most versatile and valuable lenses that a nature photographer of ANY level could own.
2. A Field Guide to My Blog Posts on the 80-400mm 4.5-5.6 VR:
I began commenting on and then testing the 80-400mm VR way back in 9 March 2013. I produced a number of running commentaries reporting my experiences with the lens here on this blog but - given the nature of the beast - hunting for and then reading each entry is much more painful than reading a single field test. But...having a field guide linking those blog entries together can help a little...so for the impatient types...here ya go:
9 March 2013: Preliminary Thoughts on the AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR. Written before it was in my hands...
9 May 2013: Very First Impressions. Some early practical considerations (including my criticism of the lens hood and the useless tripod collar) and very early experiences on how the lens performs, including the performance of the AF system.
13 May 2013: Up Close and Personal Part 1. Head-to-head comparison of the performance of the 80-400 against both the 200-400mm f4 VR and the 400mm f2.8 VR (at 400mm ONLY) at a distance of about 4.9m (16'). The kind of distance you'd often use the lens at when photographing things like small mammals or small birds.
15 May 2013: Up Close and Personal Part 2. As immediately above, but add in two 70-200mm lenses (the f2.8 VRII and the "new" f4 VR) - both with and without TC's. And in this case I compared many more focal lengths: 400mm, 360mm, 300mm, 200mm, 135mm, and 80mm.
23 May 2013: Moving Back - Part 1. A large array of head-to-head comparisons of lens performance at a distance of 38m (about 125') - the type of distance one often is at when shooting large mammals like deer, elk, bears, etc. And in this case I compared 5 lenses (80-400mm VR, 200-400mm f4 VR, 400mm f2.8 VR, 70-200mm f4 VR, 70-200mm f2.8 VRIi - these last two with and without TC's) at the following focal lengths: 400mm, 360mm, 300mm, 200mm, 135mm, and 80mm.
19 June 2013: Moving Back - Part 2. As immediately above, but now lenses compared at a distance-to-subject of 80m (about 262'). And, I added the economical 70-300mm f4.5-5.6 VR to the mix of lenses tested.
16 July 2013: Moving Back - Part 3. As immediately above, but now lenses compared at a distance-to-subject of about a kilometer (just under 1100 yards).
18 July 2013: Performance with Teleconverters. How the 80-400mm VR performs with the TC-14EII (1.4x) and TC-20EIII (2x) teleconverters.
There...that ought to keep you busy until I can get the final review written up!
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So...how does the updated 80-400mm VR perform when it is combined with Nikon teleconverters? In the not-too-distant past virtually all Nikon telephoto zooms performed only moderately well (some, including me, would say "poorly) when combined with teleconverters. However...with at least some recent lens releases (e.g., the new 70-200mm f4 VR) Nikon seems to have put more emphasis during the design process on how the lens performs with teleconverters. Which is a good thing. And, for me at least, it justified the effort in testing the lens with teleconverters (rather than just discarding the idea of combining this lens with any TC).
NOTE: I no longer own - and don't care to own - Nikon's TC-17EII (1.7x) teleconverter and do not have easy access to one. This entry is based on tests performed only with the TC-14EII (1.4x) and TC-20EIII (2x) teleconverters.
1. Performance of the AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR with the TC-14EII (1.4x) teleconverter.
A. What I Did: I performed two sets of tests of the 80-400mm VR paired with Nikon's 1.4x teleconverter and using a Nikon D600 body. Note that in both sets of test I chose to use one focal length only - 400mm. This was done simply because I assumed that most folks using a TC are using it to extend the maximum range of the zoom - it makes little sense to use a TC on a 80-400mm lens when it is zoomed to 200mm!
In the first set of tests I photographed a static object (my good old stump) at one fixed distance with the following combinations of gear: 80-400mm VR native (no TC), 80-400mm VR with 1.4x TC, 400mm f2.8 VR native, 400mm f2.8 VR with 1.4x TC. Images were captured using a firm tripled and using Live View with cable release. VR's were turned off. During this set of tests the ISO was fixed at 100. Images were captured in 1/3 stop increments from "wide open" through to two stops smaller than wide open, and then were captured in one full stop increments after that. This test was performed to reveal any "penalties" associated with the use of the TC (in terms of image sharpness) and to assess how much I needed to stop down (with the TC attached) to attain maximum sharpness. The 400mm f2.8 was included simply as a baseline to compare against.
The second set of tests had more real-world relevance to me (as a wildlife photographer). Again I shot from a tripod, but this time with the head loose and using the optical viewfinder. And I triggered the camera using just the shutter release. And my subjects were now birds, chipmunks, and squirrels. In this case I worked as I would in the field - with VR's ON (the head was loose on the tripod) and using Auto ISO (to ensure image sharpness when working with fast-moving subjects). Again, I varied apertures systematically.
B. What I Found: The results of both sets of tests were consistent: Overall I was quite impressed with the performance of the 80-400mm plus 1.4x TC - the images were surprisingly (to me) sharp. I found I had to stop down one full stop from wide open (so to f11) before I attained maximum sharpness - when shot wide open the shots were decidedly soft (which is almost always the case when one uses a TC on any Nikon lens). While I would be leery of shooting this lens/TC combo hand-held (remember, we're talking f11 to get to maximum sharpness), if one has time to set up on a tripod, this is a viable 550mm option (assuming you have a lot of light or a VERY still subject!!).
Here's a series of shots (f8 thru f16) for you to examine for yourself to see if this is the kind of performance that would work for you. They're of a chipmunk that was kind enough to sit in one place long enough for me to take a sequence of shots at different apertures. The shots are close to full frame and have been cut in resolution down to 2400 pixels across (at this size true differences in sharpness are still visible):
Chipmunk @ f8 (wide open aperture): Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.4 MB)
Chipmunk @ f11: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.4 MB)
Chipmunk @ f13: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.5 MB)
Chipmunk @ f16: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.5 MB)
2. Performance of the AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR with the TC-20EIII (2x) teleconverter.
A. What I Did: Exactly as above, but this time using a 2x TC.
B. What I Found: When performing the first set of tests (using Live View) my results paralleled what I found when using the 1.4x TC - pretty darned good optical performance. As before, I had to stop down one full stop to get to maximum sharpness - so in this case I had to stop down to f16. But...I won't bother showing you the results. Why? Read on...
When I started the second set of tests (photographing actual animals using optical viewfinder, standard shutter release, etc.) I quickly discovered my D600 would NOT focus with the teleconverter attached. Before thinking, I switched to a D800 (it has a more sophisticated and better AF system) and found the same thing. Wouldn't focus. Then I tried my D4. Still wouldn't focus. Then a lightbulb went on (slowly) in my head - right...even Nikon's best AF systems require an aperture of f8 or larger to work. Largest aperture with 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR at 400mm combined with 2x TC = f11. Duhhh.
After trying to photograph fast-moving small mammals and birds (that require pin-point positioning of of the AF brackets) using Live View for about 30 seconds - it took me that long to realize that was a totally fruitless exercise - I came to the conclusion that using the 2x TC with the 80-400 wasn't really a viable option for me. Would others find it useful? Possibly - as long as they are prepared to use Live View and stop down to f16 (as a start point!). But that doesn't work for me.
3. Use a Teleconverter or Upsize During Post-processing?
Time to throw a wrench into the works. A few years back I experimented with upsizing images (in Photoshop) and comparing the results to images shot with the same lens but with a teleconverter (1.4x) attached. Long story short - regardless of how I upsized the images (step-wise, varying the algorithm, using third party products like Genuine Fractals, etc.) the images shot with the teleconverters were sharper.
Fast forward to 2013 - and Adobe announces Photoshop CC. One of its headline new features is a new up-sizing algorithm called "Preserve Details (Enlargement)". According to Adobe, this new upsampling method allows you to:
"Enlarge a low-res image so it looks great in print, or start with a larger image and blow it up to poster or billboard size. New upsampling preserves detail and sharpness without introducing noise."
Does it work as claimed? Sigh...time to experiment (again!). Long story short...I have found that I can now get sharper images by upsizing an image shot without a TC to the exact image size that would be produced by adding a TC to the lens in question. And, contrast is better (besides slightly reducing sharpness, TC's also reduce contrast of an image). The downside - when you upsize an image you do not reduce the Depth of Field (DoF) of a lens - so if you're looking to use a TC to better isolate a subject from the background via using selective focus and a thin DoF, you won't do it with upsizing.
Confused? Just check out this example:
Teleconverter or Digital Upsizing? Download Image Comparison (JPEG: 618 KB)
4. Take Home Lessons? Will I start to shoot the 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR with a TC? Likely not, but that's largely because I'm fortunate enough to own a 400mm f2.8 VR (and a 600mm f4 VR) and the 400 prime does produce better results when paired with a TC than the 80-400 zoom does (the 400mm f2.8 VR pairs better with TC's than almost any Nikon lens). And, to effectively use the 80-400mm VR with the 1.4x TC you pretty much have to be carrying a tripod. And, if I'm carrying a tripod, odds are I'm carrying my 400mm f2.8 VR. BUT...in a pinch it's nice to know that I COULD use the 80-400mm VR with the 1.4x TC and get acceptable results. Or...I could just upsize the shots in Photoshop CC! ;-)
That's it - I'm done testing the AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR zoom. All I have to do now is write up my "formal" review - which I'll do as soon as possible. I'll tell you right now that I think this lens is a HUGE upgrade from its predecessor and that it will make many nature photographers quite happy. I'm keeping my test copy - and I will use it in the field (a lot). And...I know this lens - along with my blog entries on it - is already resulting in more than a few photographers placing their 200-400mm f4's up on eBay. If I still owned a 200-400 myself that's what I would do (there you go Dave F. from FL - the answer to your question!). The negatives of the 80-400mm VR? The biggest is the next-to-useless tripod collar...so, so wimpy. But that can be replaced with a 3rd party version that works better (e.g. one from Really Right Stuff) AND I suspect many or most users will be hand-holding this lens a lot (and, on the positive side, that useless tripod collar comes off real easy!).
What's up next? It's a surprise...but I have been field-testing some more Nikon goodies. Stay tuned!
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Yes, I'm being anal in testing the heck out of the "new" AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR zoom. Why? Mostly because I want to assure myself how it performs - when I should use it, when I shouldn't and - when I AM using it - how I can squeeze the most quality out of it? I'm also aware that a LOT of nature photographers will be considering purchasing this lens, and it will be helpful for them to know exactly how it has performed for me (and thus how it might perform for them).
This go 'round I compared the performance of the 80-400 with 5 other "solutions" to getting to the same focal ranges it offers (i.e., 80-400 mm), but this time over an even longer distance - about 1 kilometer (0.62 miles - or 1093 yards - or 3280 feet). The rationale for testing this lens over so many different camera-to-subject distances is that others have pointed out how some lenses (e.g., the popular 200-400mm f4 VR) preform well close-up but seem "soft" or "weak" at "longer" distances. While I realize this is a digression - I have to say that after all my "variable-distance" testing I am beginning to believe that this "good up close but poor-at-distance" claim about the 200-400mm f4 is a huge exaggeration and blown completely out of proportion in its seriousness (and the person - who shall remain nameless here - who first wrote about this "problem" did a LOT of 200-400mm f4 VR lens owners and prospective buyers a huge disservice). But I digress...
A. What I Did: I tested the following lenses for sharpness: 400mm f2.8 VRII, 200-400mm f4 VR, 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR, 70-200mm f2.8VRII, 70-200mm f4 VR (the two 70-200mm lenses were tested both with and without the 2x TC-20EIII attached, depending on the focal length being examined), and the 70-300mm f4.5-5.6 VR. I tested at the following focal lengths: 400mm, 360mm, 300mm, 200mm, 135mm, 80mm. I tested apertures from "wide open" through to f16 (but I only report the results below up to f11, as during most field shooting with a lens like this one only rarely stops down past f11). Over the first two stops from "wide open" I shot images at 1/3 stop increments. At smaller apertures (i.e., more than 2 stops away from "wide open") I shot images at 1 stop aperture increments. All images were using a Nikon D600 body and shot from a firm tripod, using Live View and a cable release. All images were shot at a distance of approximately 1 kilometer (or about 0.62 miles or 1093 yards or 3280 feet) from the subject. VR was shut off on all of the lenses (though other testing has shown that with SOME of these lenses the VR can be left on without impacting negatively on image quality). I examined and scrutinized all the images at full-resolution and 100% magnification (1:1).
To help readers get a handle on the type of sharpness differences I'm reporting on, I've produced one composite image that shows a 750x500 pixel crop from the central portion of sample images using the various lenses. I chose 400mm as the focal length for the composite image. Of course, as always it's best to view it at 100% magnification (1:1) to assess sharpness differences. Here's the composite image:
5 Ways to 400mm @ 1 Km: Download Sample Comparison image (JPEG: 1.3 MB)
B. What I Found: A whole lot of similarity to what I found at camera-to-subject distances of 40m and 80m. Meaning, at most focal lengths and most apertures the 80-400mm and 200-400mm zooms were very hard to tell apart in sharpness. Which is an impressive result for the dramatically lower-priced 80-400mm VR. How about the 70-200's with the TC-20EIII (2x) teleconverters (at focal lengths over 200mm)? The 70-200mm f4 VR (and, in this case, plus TC) continues to impress - it produced noticeably better output than the 70-200mm f2.8 VR plus 2x TC at most focal lengths and apertures. What about at focal lengths of 200mm and less (when the TC comes off the two 70-200's)? Well, at 200mm and below you're slightly better off shooting either of the 70-200's (and particularly the f4 version) than the 80-400mm. What about that 70-300mm f4.5-5.6 VR "consumer" lens? As I found at an 80m camera-to-subject distance it did unexpectedly well. Between 201mm and 300mm you're better off shooting it than either of the 70-200mm's with the 2x TC. And below 200mm you're slightly better off shooting it than the 80-400mm VR. And, when shooting under 200mm in focal length the 70-300 is quite close in sharpness to either the 70-200mm f4 VR or the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII.
And, for those concerned with the nitty-gritty specifics, here's exactly what I found at each focal length tested.
1. At 400mm? At every aperture tested the 400mm f2.8 VRII was noticeably/visibly sharper than ANY of the other lenses. As I found at the 80m distance, the 80-400mm VR was neck-and-neck in sharpness with the 200-400mm VR at all apertures EXCEPT f5.6 (where the 80-400mm is wide open). By f6.3 the two lenses produced virtually identical output, and it stayed that way all the way up to f16.
What about the shorter zooms plus TC's? Neither 70-200mm plus 2x TC matched the 200-400mm or the 80-400mm in sharpness (at any aperture). And, as I found at shorter distances, the 70-200mm f4 VR plus 2x TC outperformed the 70-200mm f2,8 VRII plus 2x TC at all apertures they could be compared at (f8 and smaller). By how much? Check out the comparison image linked to above to see for yourself.
2. At 360mm? Similar results as at 400mm. The 200-400mm and 80-400mm were virtually indistinguishable at all apertures EXCEPT f5.6 (80-400 wide open at f5.6), where the 200-400mm was noticeably sharper. The 70-200mm f4 plus 2x TC ranked third in sharpness (and was visibly softer than either of the "bigger" zooms). And the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII plus 2x TC came in last and was noticeably softer than any of the other lenses. For perspective, the only result at this focal length that I would personally consider unusable was the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII plus 2x TC when shot wide open (so at f5.6) - there's really no diplomatic way to accurately describe the result - it was simply very bad.
3. At 300mm? Now the issue is slightly complicated by the inclusion of the "consumer" 70-300mm f4.5-5.6 VR. But overall the picture isn't too complicated - the 200-400mm and the 80-400mm run neck-and-neck for first place in sharpness (at all apertures except f5.6 where the 200-400 is sharper), the 70-300mm is next (noticeably less sharp, but still quite sharp), followed by the 70-200mm f4 plus 2x TC, and...bringing up the rear once more...the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII plus 2x TC.
4. At 200mm? And now the TC's have come off! And, separating out which images were sharpest at all focal lengths at 200mm and below was far more challenging - the total range of sharpness difference decreased signficantly. So...I'm beginning to split hairs somewhat.
Anyway...to be brief, the two 70-200's now run neck-and-neck as the sharpest choice (e.g., at f4 the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII was slightly sharper than the 70-200mm f4 VR, but at f5.6 and f8 the opposite was true). Who's in third place? Surprisingly, the 70-300mm. Fourth? The 80-400mm. And the softest option (but still quite sharp) was the 200-400mm f4.
5. At 135mm? Now the 200-400 is out of the mix. And the two 70-200's are, to my eyes, virtually indistinguishable (and the sharpest of the lot). And the 70-300 and the 80-400 are almost indistinguishable from one another too - but both are slightly less sharp than the two 70-200's. Extreme pixel-peeping shows that the 80-400 is very slightly less sharp than the 70-300mm at this focal length, but the difference is so, so small as to be virtually insignificant.
6. At 80mm? An easy-to-describe result. The two 70-200's were tied for first. But now the 80-400 is next in sharpness, but only very, very slightly sharper than the 70-300. And it's important to realize that ALL shots were very sharp.
C. Take Home Lessons? What am I going to try to keep in mind from this test whenever I'm in the field shooting? First, if I'm going to shoot a very distant scene at 400mm and the success of the shot is based on maximum sharpness, then I should select my 400mm f2.8 VR. BUT, if "all" I have at my disposal is the 200-400mm f4 VR or the 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR, I won't be penalized too much at all! If I'm shooting a distant scene that requires a focal length between 201mm and 399mm, then the best option of the lenses tested would be either the 200-400 OR the 80-400 (yes, if one owns a 300mm f2.8 VR and that's what the scene requires, it would be a better choice). What if I'm shooting a distant scene that requires a focal length of 200mm or less? Then I'll grab either the 70-200mm f4 VR OR the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII first (and because it's lighter and smaller and has a better VR, odds are my choice will be the 70-200mm f4 VR).
To date I have found no real weakness in optical performance in the new AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR - it's been very impressive and has definitely exceeded my expectations. What's left to test with it? Oh right...how does it perform with a teleconverter? Stay tuned...tests with both the TC-14EII (1.4x) and TC-20EIII (2x) teleconverters coming soon!
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As discussed in my blog entry of May 23 ("Moving Back: Part 1") there's good reason to examine a new lens's performance at various distances. Previously (May 23 blog entry) I tested and reported that the new AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR zoom lens performed very well at a distance of just under 40 meters. This time I moved back to a distance of 80 meters (about 262') and compared the performance of the 80-400mm zoom to several other lenses (both at a variety of focal lengths and a variety of apertures). This distance is the sort of distance a wildlife photographer might use to shoot an "animalscape" shot where the subject is shown within a (hopefully) beautiful scene. It's also the type of distance a parent might shoot his/her child playing soccer, hockey , football (or whatever!). This go round I added one more lens to the mix at focal lengths of 300mm and less - the Nikkor 70-300mm f4.5-5.6 VR zoom (which many think of as a consumer lens, and is far less expensive than any other lens used in this comparison).
A. What I Did: I tested the following lenses for sharpness: 400mm f2.8 VRII, 200-400mm f4 VR, 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR, 70-200mm f2.8VRII, the 70-200mm f4 VR, and the 70-300mm f4.5-5.6 VR (the two 70-200mm lenses were tested both with and without the 2x TC-20EIII attached, depending on the focal length being examined). I tested at the following focal lengths: 400mm, 360mm, 300mm, 200mm, 135mm, 80mm. I tested apertures from "wide open" through to f16 (but I only report the results below up to f11, as during most field shooting with a lens like this one only rarely stops down past f11). Over the first two stops from "wide open" I shot images at 1/3 stop increments. At smaller apertures (than 2 stops away from "wide open") I shot images at 1 stop aperture increments. All images were shot from a firm tripod, using Live View and a cable release. All images were shot at a distance of 80 meters (about 262') from the subject. VR was shut off on all of the lenses (though other testing has shown that with SOME of these lenses the VR can be left on without impacting negatively on image quality). I examined and scrutinized all the images at full-resolution and 100% magnification (1:1).
In recent days I've received emails asking me just how noticeable the differences I have been reporting in this battery of tests really are. To help answer this question, I've produced a composite image (for your downloading pleasure!) shot at 400mm using all the lenses (excepting, of course, the 70-300mm f4.5-5.6 VR) which should give you a feel for the type of differences in sharpness I am talking about. This visual comparison is good in that it typifies the results I obtained at most focal lengths, i.e., that the 80-400mm zoom and 200-400mm zoom performed very similarly to one another and with the 70-200mm f4 plus TC-20EIII (2x) teleconverter nipping at their heels. The 70-200mm f2.8 VR plus 2x TC didn't fare too well at this distance. Here's the sample comparison - best to view it at 100% magnification (1:1):
5 Ways to 400mm: Download Sample Comparison image (JPEG: 1.4 MB)
B. What I Found: To begin with, a lot of similarity to what I found at 40m. Meaning, at most focal lengths and most apertures the 80-400mm and 200-400mm zooms were pretty much neck-and-neck in optical performance. This says a LOT for the new 80-400mm lens. Are the results as sharp as you'd get out of the "best-of-the-best" primes at key focal lengths (like 400mm or 300mm or 200mm). No - of course not. But the difference in sharpness between those two zooms and the "big" primes aren't as big as some might expect (see the downloadable sample comparison at 400mm linked just above). It should be noted that you don't buy those big primes JUST for sharpness - the big apertures and quality of out-of-focus zones are important too. How do the 70-200's with the TC-20EIII (2x) teleconverters fare at focal lengths over 200mm? Well, the 70-200mm f4 VR (and, in this case, plus TC) continues to impress me - it produced better output than the 70-200mm f2.8 VR plus 2x TC at most focal lengths and apertures. What about at focal lengths of 200mm and less (when the TC comes off the two 70-200's)? Well, at 200mm and below you're slightly better off shooting either of the 70-200's (and particularly the f4 version) than the 80-400mm at those focal lengths. What about that 70-300mm f4.5-5.6 VR "consumer" lens? It did surprisingly well. Between 201mm and 300mm you're better off shooting it than either of the 70-200mm's with the 2x TC. And below 200mm you're better off shooting it than the 80-400mm VR. And, under 200mm it is darned close in sharpness to either the 70-200mm f4 VR or the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII.
If you want more specific results, here's exactly what I found:
1. At 400mm? At every aperture tested the 400mm f2.8 VRII was noticeably/visibly sharper than ANY of the other lenses (see that downloadable sample comparison above). While some have made a big deal about how the 200-400 "softens up" at longer camera-to-subject distances, I have found this to be the case only when compared to the outstanding 400mm f2.8 VR. Compared to lenses most real humans own (I can say this because I'm one of the rare birds who DOES own a 400mm f2.8 so I'm in the "non-real" human group too!) the 200-400mm does real well at any distance. But, most importantly to this test, the 80-400mm VR was neck-and-neck in sharpness with the 200-400mm VR at all apertures EXCEPT f5.6 (where the 80-400mm is wide open). By f6.3 the two lenses produced almost indistinguishable output, and it stayed that way all the way up to f16.
How did the shorter zooms plus TC stack up? Interestingly, the 70-200mm f4 plus TC-20EIII (2x) teleconverter seemed to do better at this distance than at 40m. While the images shot with this zoom plus TC were softer than with either of the "bigger" zooms, they were pretty acceptable (especially if one applied careful sharpening to them). I can't say the same thing about the results with the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII plus teleconverter - at f5.6 the results were absolutely awful and they didn't get much better as one stopped down! That "new" 70-200mm f4 VR continues to impress me - and this is one more example of that.
2. At 360mm? Other than having only 4 lenses in the mix now, the results are pretty much the same as at 400mm. Meaning that the 80-400mm VR and the 200-400mm VR were almost indistinguishable (sharpness-wise) at all apertures ABOVE f5.6 (at f5.6 the 200-400 was slightly sharper). The 70-200mm f4 VR plus 2x TC wasn't far behind. And the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII plus 2x TC placed a distant 4th (and again was absolutely awful when shot wide open).
3. At 300mm? OK, this is getting boring - same overall result. BUT, at 300mm I was able to add the 70-300mm f4.5-5.6 VR to the mix. How did it fare? Visibly less sharp than either the 80-400mm VR or the 200-400mm VR, but slightly sharper than the 70-200mm f4 VR plus 2x TC. And considerably sharper than the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII plus 2x TC. So, while not surprising, this is pretty good performance for such an inexpensive "consumer" lens.
4. At 200mm? At 200mm I compared the two "bigger" zooms (the 200-400mm VR and the 80-400mm VR) against the two 70-200's shot native, i.e., without the 2x TC. And, of course, the 70-300mm was shot native as well.
And, of course, taking the teleconverter off made a big difference to the performance of the two 70-200's. Up to f8 the 70-200mm f4 VR was the sharpest of the lot, with the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII placing second (with the difference between the two 70-200's being incredibly small - i.e., one had to look very, very closely to see any difference). In third place? The 70-300mm f4.5-5.6 VR. Really. And tied for fourth? The two big zooms (the 80-400 and the 200-400). By f11 I could NOT separate out any sharpness differences between the lenses. One point I have to make here - at 200mm the differences between the sharpest lens and the softest lens was really small - shoot ANY of these lenses (carefully) at 200mm and you would be happy with the results. The only lenses I know that would produce sharper results at 200mm are the 200mm f2 VR and the 200mm f4 Micro (based on past testing I have found the 200mm f4 Micro nipping at the heels of the legendary 200mm f2 VR in sharpness at all distances).
5. At 135mm? Now the 200-400 is out of the mix. Easy to describe the results at this distance. The 70-200mm f4 was sharper than all the others (by an infinitesimally small margin) and all the others were tied for second.
6. At 80mm?Another easy-to-describe result. The two 70-200's were tied for first, with the 80-400 and the 70-300 were JUST behind in a dead-heat for second place. All were very sharp.
C. Take Home Lessons? What am I going to try to keep in mind from this test whenever I'm in the field shooting? First, that if I need to shoot a subject at 400mm and at a reasonably long distance, my best choice is definitely my 400mm f2.8 VR (assuming I am carrying it - which isn't a "minor" assumption). Otherwise, I'll be giving up almost nothing (other than one f-stop) in selecting the 80-400mm VR over the 200-400mm VR. And the same holds true down to 200mm. Once I'm below 200mm my best lens choice would be the 70-200mm f4 VR, unless the light is so low that I'd need the extra speed of the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII. And, to be honest, as an FX shooter I almost never need to go down to f2.8 due to lack of light (reasons of selecting a larger aperture than f4 to isolate a subject through use of a thin DoF is an entirely different matter, but may matter for some users). I guess for me the final lesson from this testing would be to avoid - at all costs - putting Nikon's 2x teleconverter on the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII when I'm working with a distant subject (but this just confirms what I have found before...and odds are I'd never put a TC on either 70-200 if I had any other option).
From a sharpness perspective the AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 continues to impress me. Combine that with its great focal range and very "carry-able" size (what a great travel lens!) and it will surprise almost no one that I have already decided to keep this lens - it has definitely earned its spot in my backpack...
One important caveat about ALL the 80-400mm tests I've done to date. While almost everyone thinks sharpness first, there is more to optical performance than just sharpness. The quality of the out-of-focus zones (that good ol' bokeh) is very important too. To date I haven't been discussing this. But, if you examine the downloadable sample image above you can see the quality of the out-of-focus zones does differ between the lenses, even at a distance of 80 meters. Closer up and the differences in bokeh becomes even more apparent. In my opinion, this is where the 70-200's plus TC's really show their limitations - adding a TC on to a lens impacts MORE on the out-of-focus zones than it does on the sharpness. How does the 80-400 stack up in terms of bokeh? Pretty good. Not quite as good as the 200-400 (at close distances), and definitely not as good as the 400mm f2.8 VR. But given the outstanding "convenience" of this lens, I can live with the small but significant bokeh penalty in most day-to-day use.
Up next? Hopefully a comparison of the 80-400 and other lenses at VERY long distances (think distant scenes). But I'm off to north of the Arctic Circle next week (muskox anyone?), so I won't be able to report on this until shortly after my return on July 5.
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One of the few criticisms of Nikon's 200-400mm f4 VR is that as one moves away from the subject it becomes a little softer (i.e., less sharp). For this reason, I'm testing the new 80-400mm VR against an array of other lenses at a number of distances. This excerpt looks at how the 80-400mm performs against a host of other lenses at a greater distance than the tests described below in previous entries. This time I chose a subject (another glamorous stump) at just under 40 meters (to be exact, 38 meters, or 125'). This is the type of distance many photographers would be photographing some larger subjects at, such as deer, elk, bears, wolves, etc. - so it has "relevance" in that regard.
A. What I Did: I tested the following lenses for sharpness: 400mm f2.8 VRII, 200-400mm f4 VR, 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR, 70-200mm f2.8VRII, and the 70-200mm f4 VR (the two 70-200mm lenses were tested both with and without the 2x TC-20EIII attached, depending on the focal length being examined). I tested at the following focal lengths: 400mm, 360mm, 300mm, 200mm, 135mm, 80mm. I tested apertures from "wide open" through to f16 (but I only report the results below up to f11, as during most field shooting with a lens like this one only rarely stops down past f11). Over the first two stops from "wide open" I shot images at 1/3 stop increments. At smaller apertures (than 2 stops away from "wide open") I shot images at 1 stop aperture increments. All images were shot from a firm tripod. Each lens/aperture/focal length combination was shot both using the optical viewfinder and VR in the appropriate mode when tripod mounted (and using appropriate "long lens technique") and using Live View with VR off (using a cable release). I examined and scrutinized all the images at full-resolution and 100% magnification (1:1).
B. What I Found: The broadest generalization of my results is that the new AF-S 80-400mm VR performed far better than I anticipated, especially in the 300-400mm focal length range - there it rivalled the 200-400mm VR in sharpness. In a sense, the 80-400mm VR and the 200-400mm VR "clustered together" in sharpness - meaning that at most focal lengths and apertures it was a toss-up as to which was sharper (and they were always very, very close). Similarly, when one paired the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII and the 70-200mm f4 VR with the TC-20EIII 2x teleconverter they performed quite similarly to one another, but were never as sharp as either the 80-400mm VR or the 200-400mm VR (again, when comparing overlapping focal lengths). One other result stuck out in all the tests with a greater than 200mm focal length (so when the 70-200mm zooms were paired with the TC-20EIII) - the absolute WORST results were always obtained with the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII plus TC-20EIII when shot wide open (so at f5.6). Just plain awful - you just can't shoot the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII with the 2x TC with the aperture wide open and expect to get decent results (interestingly, you CAN shoot the 70-200mm f4 VR plus 2x TC wide open - which is f8 - and get pretty decent results).
For those who are more detail oriented, here's exactly what I found:
1. At 400mm? At every aperture tested the 400mm f2.8 VRII was noticeably/visibly sharper than ANY of the other lenses. However, at f8 and smaller apertures, both the 80-400mm VR and the 200-400mm VR were very close to the "big prime" in sharpness. At f5.6 the 200-400 was slightly sharper than the 80-400mm VR (f5.6 is "wide open" for the 80-400mm), but at both f8 and f11 I found the 80-400mm VR to be very slightly sharper than 200-400mm VR. Which is really, really interesting (to me at least).
How did the shorter zooms plus TC stack up? Both of the 70-200mm zooms (the f2.8 VRII and the f4 VR) were noticeably softer than the 3 other lenses at 400mm - at all apertures. At f8 the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII plus 2x TC seemed very slightly sharper than the 70-200mm f4 VR plus TC, but at f11 the f4 version plus TC seemed slightly sharper.
2. At 360mm? I tested this focal length because with SOME Nikon zooms it seems like you get marginally sharper images if you "back off" the maximum focal length a little. But the results were generally unchanged - the two "big" zooms were considerably sharper than the shorter zooms plus TC. I found the 200-400mm to be the sharpest of the lot only at f5.6. At both f8 and f11 the 80-400mm VR was noticeably sharper than the 200-400mm VR - and dramatically sharper than the 70-200mm zooms with the 2x TC.
How did the two "shorter" zooms compare to one another at 360mm? At both f8 and f11 (the overlapping apertures with the TC attached) the 70-200mm VR f4 plus TC was noticeably sharper than the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII plus 2x TC.
3. At 300mm? Basically the same result - the only aperture where the 200-400mm VR was the sharpest of the bunch was at f5.6. At all smaller apertures the 80-400mm VR was noticeably sharper than any of the other lens or lens plus TC combos. One other thing stood out - at 300mm the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII plus 2x TC was just awful - absolutely shoddy results (as in really, really soft). And i found this to be the case on shots when I had the VR on and used the optical viewfinder and "appropriate" long lens technique AND on shots when I used Live View, VR off, and a cable release. Why? No real clue (sorry!).
4. At 200mm? At 200mm I compared the two "bigger" zooms (the 200-400mm VR and the 80-400mm VR) against the shorter zooms (the two 70-200's) shot native, i.e., without the 2x TC (other than getting "trapped with it on" there's zero reason to shoot a 70-200mm zoom at 200mm with a TC on - makes no sense at all).
Anyway...the results were very interesting here. The 200-400mm f4 VR performed very well at this focal length - it was the sharpest or second sharpest at all apertures. The 80-400mm fared less well - it was only the 3rd or 4th sharpest at 200mm. Overall, I found that when shooting at 200mm the lens ranked as follows (from sharpest to softest): 200-400mm VR, 70-200mm f2.8 VRII, 70-200mm f4 VR, and 80-400mm VR.
5. At 135mm? Now we're comparing ONLY the 80-400mm against the two 70-200mm zooms (couldn't figure out a way to shoot the 200-400mm at 135mm no matter what I did!). Anyway...the 80-400mm placed dead last at 135mm (at all apertures). BUT, it really wasn't much softer than the two 70-200mm's. The best at this focal length? At f4, f8, and f11 the 70-200mm f4 was marginally sharper than the f2.8 VRII while at f5.6 the f2.8VRII nudged it out at best. But this is REAL hair-splitting...in practical day-to-day terms all 3 of these lenses produced sharp, sharp images at 135mm.
6. At 80mm? This is the shortest focal length where the 80-400mm can be compared to the two 70-200mm's. The results? Almost indistinguishable - all 3 were extremely sharp. At f5.6 there seemed to be a slight edge to the 80-400mm (a bit surprising), but at f8 the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII seemed the sharpest. At f11? Sorry, I could NOT distinguish between the 3 lenses. So...all are tied for first (for cup half-fullers) or all are tied for 3rd (for cup half-emptiers).
C. Take Home Lessons? What am I going to try to keep in mind from this test whenever I'm in the field shooting? I guess the biggest take-home lesson is that at medium distances (in this case 38 meters or 125') and focal lengths OVER 200mm you'll do real well with the new 80-400mm VR. At 400mm you WILL do better with the big prime. At 200mm or below you'll do quite well with the new 80-400mm - tho' arguably not quite as well as with either of the two 70-200mm zooms. But this is actually quite amazing performance for the 80-400mm VR. One might reject using the 80-400mm at this distance for other reasons (i.e., you need/want the additional stop or two found on the 200-400mm or the 400mm f2.8 VRII - either because you need it for the light or you want a shallower DoF), but there's no real reason to not consider it based on sharpness of your final images...especially if you have the light to stop down just a tad (from wide open).
My two-sentence summary of my testing of the optical performance of the 80-400mmm f4.5-5.6 VR to date? Very impressive, if you ask me. And very, very versatile.
I still have more testing to do on this lens (at longer subject-to-camera distances), but unless images captured with this lens just "fall apart" at greater distances (which I think is highly unlikely), it's going to be darned hard NOT to recommend this lens as a great choice for an awful lot of folks.
Up next? Sharpness at a greater distance - this time in the 80m (or about 260') range. When? Sorry...I'm off now to the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Sanctuary for my annual pilgrimage (aka to lead two grizzly bear photo tours). So you'll be waiting until about the end of the first week of June before I post any additional results with the 80-400mm. I will be shooting the 80-400mm as much as possible while I'm in the Khutzeymateen (which is often a low-light environment) - so I'll have lots more to say about the lens in June!
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In my previous post I compared Nikon's new AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR lens to two high-end super-telephotos - the 400mm f2.8 VRII prime lens and the 200-400mm f4 VR zoom. These comparisons were at the long-end of the focal range and when focused on close subjects (like you would when photographing small mammals and many birds).
Another interesting comparison to make is how the new 80-400mm VR compares to two popular zoom lenses when they are combined with the TC-20EIII 2x teleconverter. The lenses I'm referring to are the Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8 VRII and the "new" (or newish) 70-200mm f4 VR. Should owners of either of these two zooms consider buying the 80-400mm VR or should they just buy the TC-20EIII teleconverter? And, what about shooters who own none of these lenses but want to get into wildlife photography - would they be better served by picking up one of the "smaller" zooms and the TC-20EIII or just buy the new 80-400mm VR?
Like with the previous entry, this comparison will be limited to close-range shooting (in this case 4.9m - or about 16'). Unlike the previous comparison, I tested additional focal lengths - and at the very short end of the range (i.e., 200mm and shorter) I tested the 80-400mm against the f2.8 and f4 versions when shot native (without TC's).
And for those who are wondering, I WILL be presenting my findings over longer distances-to-subject in the fairly near future (most of those comparisons have already been shot).
A. What I Did: Pretty much the same as on my May 13 entry - I took a whole lot of controlled shots of a stump that was situated 4.9m (around 16') from the tripod-mounted camera (a D600). For each camera/lens combination I shot images over a range of apertures from wide open to f16. For each camera/lens combination I shot images at 1/3 stop increments for the first two stops smaller than "wide open", and then at 1-stop increments up to f16. I shot images at 400mm, 360mm, 300mm, 200mm, 135mm and 80mm. Which means I almost went cross-eyed staring at and scrutinizing over 800 images (I shot two frame bursts for each lens/focal length/aperture combination).
B. What I Found: A dizzying array of "factoids" for keeping in my back pocket when I'm out shooting, but there were some very interesting trends that I think many may find useful. So here you go:
1. Comparisons Involving the 2x Teleconverter: When I compared the new 80-400mm VR at focal lengths over 200mm (i.e., where the two 70-200mm zooms needed to be paired with the 2x TC) the result was clear - the 80-400mm VR was noticeably sharper. Period. And this trend was obvious at all focal lengths (400mm, 360mm, 300mm) and apertures tested.
And, at the three focal lengths tested (400mm, 360mm, 300mm) and at most apertures, the 70-200mm f4 VR plus TC-20EIII 2x teleconverter was very slightly sharper than 70-200mm f2.8 VRII plus teleconverter. But I want to stress that with this "very slightly sharper" observation I was REALLY splitting hairs - unless one looks at these images at 100% magnification and does close side-by-side comparisons, one would almost never notice the sharpness difference between these two 70-200mm zooms when combined with the 2x TC. (BTW: the only exception to this trend was at 400mm and f8 - which is wide open for the 70-200mm f4 plus 2x TC combination - for this aperture ONLY the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII plus TC combination appeared very slightly or arguably sharper than with the 70-200mm f4 plus 2x TC).
2. Comparisons NOT Involving the 2x TC: At focal lengths of 200mm and shorter I compared the lenses shot "natively" (without a TC attached). I tested the lenses at 200mm, 135mm, and 80mm. What did I find? The most significant thing was this: there was almost NO difference in sharpness between the three zooms at any of the focal lengths (or apertures) tested. And there was certainly no trend. For example, at 200mm and f5.6 the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII seemed slightly sharper than the other two lenses. But at f8 the 80-400mm VR seemed slightly sharper. But major hair-splitting is going on here!
IMPORTANT NOTE: A major REAL WORLD caveat to the results above - especially those at 200mm and shorter focal ranges where sharpness differences were very small. It's important to remember that all these shots were captured when the cameras/lenses were shot from a large, firm tripod. I suspect that all 3 of these lenses (with and without a teleconverter attached) will often be shot hand-held, especially for wildlife. In this case, the effectiveness of the VR system could easily "overcome" the small differences in image sharpness I observed. In other words, the critical factor in "real-world" image sharpness could easily become determined by which lens offers the best VR system. Subjectively, it's my opinion that the best VR system is found on the 70-200mm f4 VR. The VR systems on the other two lenses seem very similar to me in performance, tho' I get the feeling that the VR on the new 80-400mm VR is slightly better than on the 70-200mm VRII (if you quote me on this, please include the "get the feeling" qualifier!).
C. Take Home Lessons? For me there's some pretty significant lessons here that I will apply to my own shooting:
1. If I'm shooting subjects (like small mammals and/or birds) at close range and I need a focal length of over 200mm I'll definitely opt for new AF-S 80-400mm VR over either 70-200mm VR with a 2x TC. It's noticeably sharper.
2. If I'm shooting subjects at close range and I need a focal range of 200mm or shorter my choice of lens will be driven by concerns OTHER than image sharpness differences, such as the amount of available light and Depth of Field (DoF) concerns.
3. If I was asked whether one should opt for the 80-400mm VR versus one of the 70-200mm lenses plus a 2x TC for shooting wildlife, I'm already thinking I would point them at the 80-400mm VR. But...the performance of the lenses at longer distances (coming soon!) must be answered before I'd be comfortable making a firm recommendation...
What's up next? Comparisons at mid-range distances - the kind you use when working with larger mammals like deer and elk (so about 30-45m or 100' to 150'). And with the 400mm f2.8 VR, 200-400mm f4 VR, 70-200mm f2.8 VRII plus TC-20EIII, and the 70-200mm f4 VR plus TC-20EIII. And if you think your head is spinning now... ;-)
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Many of the nature photographers who are considering purchasing the new AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR will at least occasionally use it to photograph small mammals or birds at close range. I know this is definitely something I would use the lens for. So this morning I took a few minutes to do a little head-to-heat testing of the 80-400mm VR against a few other Nikon lenses at "small mammal" range. The lenses I chose to compare the 80-400mm VR to were the 400mm f2.8 VRII and the 200-400mm f4 VR.
A. What I Did: I simply set up my camera on a tripod about 4.9m (16') from a stump that is known to have a squirrel visit it once in a while. The stump is a good subject simply because it offers fine texture and detail and there is nothing in the immediate background, thus allowing one to easily compare the quality of both the in-focus zones and the out-of-focus zones. All images were captured at 400mm using a D600 camera. I left the VR on (and used the appropriate "on-tripod" mode for each lens). For each lens I shot a sequence of images from "wide open" through to f16 (in 1/3 stop increments for the first two stops, thereafter in full stop increments).
B. What I Found: After scrutinizing several hundred images of a stump for way too long (borrrring!!!), some trends were readily and consistently apparent. In my final field test of this lens I will provide photographic evidence of each of these observations/conclusions - for now you'll have to take my word for it!
1. Significant Focus Breathing on the AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR: When I switched between lenses it was instantly apparent that at this close range (4.9m or 16') that the focal length was shortening significantly on the 80-400mm VR lens. This shortening of focal range at close focus distances is often referred to as "focus breathing? and is found on some other Nikon zooms (e.g., the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII). How bad was the focus breathing? Well, at a focus distance of 4.9m (16'), the 80-400mm was equivalent to about a 300mm lens (this was easily checked by zooming the 200-400mm lens until the stump was of equivalent size using both lenses). So, at this distance there was about a 25% reduction in focal length with the 80-400mm VR. Some won't care about this - others will be very concerned about it. Me? Not a big deal to me (I'll just move closer if I have to!). But...if someone is considering buying this lens they should be aware of this "issue".
2. Image Sharpness Comparison: The focus breathing issue confounded the process of comparing image sharpness somewhat, but not so much as to make differences in sharpness undetectable (when viewed at 100% magnification - or 1:1). At equivalent apertures the 400mm f2.8 VR was noticeably sharper than the two zooms (no surprise there). BUT, interestingly, at f7.1 and smaller (more about this aperture choice below) it was incredibly tough to see any sharpness differences between the 80-400mm VR and the 200-400mm VR (at f5.6 - which is "wide open" on the 80-400mm lens at 400mm - the 200-400mm f4 WAS noticeably sharper).
3. The Out-of-Focus Zones? One of the more important characteristics of a "great" lens (and one of the main reasons demanding photographers are willing to shell out thousands and thousands of dollars for "fast" primes) is how smooth and pleasing the out-of-focus zones are. And, this is another area where the results are confounded somewhat by the focus breathing on the 80-400mm VR (different focal lengths of lenses will have differing depths-of-field (DoF), which will impact on just "how out of focus" a background is). Anyway...again a trend was clear (even with the focus breathing): at the widest aperture at 400mm where all 3 lenses could be compared (f5.6), the 400mm f2.8 DEFINITELY had the smoothest ("creamy as butter") out-of-focus zones. Just super sweet bokeh. The 200-400mm VR placed second in this regard, and there was a noticeable difference in the out-of-focus zones between the 200-400mm VR and the 80-400mm VR. BUT, the 80-400mm VR still was surprisingly good.
4. Sharpness When Shot Wide Open? Another of the "hallmarks" of a great lens is that it is very close to maximally sharp when shot with the aperture wide open or, alternately, you have to stop it down very little before you get to maximal sharpness. The 400mm f2.8 VR is VERY sharp at f2.8 and you only have to stop down by about 1/3 of a stop before it is biting sharp. Similarly, the 200-400mm f4 VR is quite sharp (at close distances) at f4. It is slightly sharper at f4.5, but further stopping down makes very little difference in sharpness. The 80-400mm VR? At 400mm it's a bit soft when shot wide open (f5.6). And, it's still soft at f6.3. By f7.1 it's getting sharper, and close to maximally sharp.
So, outwardly that doesn't sound too bad - right? With the 400mm f2.8 VR and the 200-400mm f4 VR you stop down about 1/3 of a stop before getting close to maximize sharpness...and with the 80-400mm f5.6 VR you have to stop down 2/3 to a full stop before getting close to maximum sharpness. Heck, it's only a third of a stop difference! BUT, don't forget you're starting with a smaller aperture to begin with on the 80-400mm VR. So...with the 400mm f2.8 VR you get razor-shop images at f3.2, whereas with the 80-400mm VR f4.5-5.6 you get quite sharp images at f7.1 or f8. That's a BIG difference - and it can REALLY impact on the control you have over your DoF, how well you can separate your subject from the background, and the final appearance of your image.
OK - time for a reality check. Do the issues of focus breathing and the fact that you have to stop down a little more (from an already "narrower" aperture) before getting close to maximum sharpness "damn" the 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR to forever being an "amateur" or - at best - an "enthusiast" lens? I don't think so...my view is that it's more a matter of knowing the strengths and weaknesses of a lens (they ALL have weaknesses!) and dealing with the accordingly. Recall that I started this entry about talking about photographing small mammals and birds. Well...while I was playing with my stump this morning, a pesky squirrel shoved his snout into my viewfinder (so to speak) while I had the 80-400mm lens on. And, at the end of the day - it's about the images, right? Check this one out...
Red On Green: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 2.4 MB)
Is it sharp enough for you? That's your call to make. Right now I'm feeling that this lens's attributes (primarily its great focal range in a compact-enough and light-enough form to easily carry around) outweigh the slight trade-off in image sharpness and DoF control. When I encounter a pine marten attacking a squirrel on the top of a mountain I've had to hike 15 km up, the 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR that I have with me is going to take a better picture than my 400mm f2.8 VRII (or a 200-400mm f4 VR) that are sitting back at home because they were too darned heavy to carry up the mountain!
What's up next? Likely some comparisons at mid-range distances - the kind you use when working with larger mammals like deer and elk (so about 30-45m or 100' to 150'). Stay tuned...
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My "test" copy of the new 80-400mm VR zoom (which is formally known as the AF-S Nikkor 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR) arrived late yesterday afternoon. This long-overdue upgrade (the lens it was replacing is over 12 years old!) has been eagerly anticipated by many Nikon shooters, and especially by many Nikon-shooting nature photographers. Between its great focal range and reasonably compact size (for a 400mm lens) this lens has almost magnetic appeal and just so much potential. For day-to-day use. For hiking. For wildlife shooting. For sports shooting. And so much more. It's actually hard NOT to be excited about this lens!
Because of this appeal and great potential I will be thoroughly testing this lens over the coming months. It will be headed into the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Sanctuary with me in a few weeks - and I will have a chance to REALLY push the lens and see what it can REALLY do in there. And, it's already been with me on two casual walks where I've used it the way I anticipate using it a LOT in the coming months - as a walkaround companion that I will be regularly shooting hand-held.
Before I decide to permanently add this lens to my bag I will need to answer several questions, including: Is the lens sufficiently sharp to please me when shot wide open, especially near the long end of its focal range? Is the autofocus system adequate to capture sharp action shots of moving subjects (like birds in flight)? Is the VR effective enough to allow hand-holding of the lens at all focal lengths (and on all FX bodies)? How does it compare at overlapping focal lengths with the popular (but much more expensive) 200-400 f4 zoom? And so on...
What follows are my earliest impressions after "playing" with the lens in the field for only a few hours. Take it for what it's worth...
1. Some Real World Practical Considerations:
A. Packing it Around!
I mentioned above that the lens is quite compact. In real world terms it's not much bigger or heavier than the Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8 VRII. Actually, with hood reversed the 80-400mm VR is slightly shorter than the 70-200mm f2.8 VR. And it weighs only a little under 3 ounces more than the 70-200 (both weighed with tripod foot removed).
This size issue is more than academically interesting - at least to me. Because on my daily peregrinations around my home I can encounter many species of wildlife, I like to keep my cameras and lenses real handy and quick to access (as in "quicker-than-digging-it-out-of-a-pack quick"). I do it by using a Think Tank Steroid Speed Belt (info available here) combined with a shoulder strap system known as a Pixel Racing Harness (info available here) - and I often have a pro camera with 70-200mm lens in a water-resistant holster called a Digital Holster 50 (info available here) attached to the belt system. The great news is that the new 80-400mm fits into the same digital holster (when mounted on a pro body). And, it also fits into another good 200mm lens case (one that also happens to work with the Steroid Speed Belt system) from Lowepro called the Lens Exchange Case 200 AW (from their S&F Series).
In my real world, little things like conveniently carrying a camera/lens around makes a BIG difference in its usability. Of course optics are critical, but so is actually having the lens with you (What's that old saying again? Oh yeah..."F8 and BE THERE!").
So far - big check mark #1.
B. ARGHHH on the Lens Hood!
One of the reasons I (and I suspect many others) have been excited about the new 80-400mm is that it should be a great "always have it with you" lens. That's why I'm excited about it fitting into the system I use when I'm hiking. A related issue is getting that camera out of my holster and ready-to-go fast. The holster helps a ton with this. BUT, when you pull your camera out of the holster and go to shoot (as that perfectly posed elk at sunset gets ready to move), you quickly discover that it is impossible to access the zoom ring on the lens until the hood is either taken off or put in its extended position (specifically, when the hood is in the reversed position, it totally obscures the zoom ring). So before you shoot you have to stop and find the release button on the hood, take it off and either throw it to the ground in frustration OR take MORE time to carefully put it in its extended position. Little thing? Sure. But...bye, bye elk at sunset shot!
So chalk this up as Con #1. Makes me wonder if ANYONE actually tested a prototype of this lens in a real world field setting. So basic...
C. The Tripod Collar?
I'm still waiting for a Arca-Swiss compatible lens plate (from Wimberley) for this lens to arrive, so I have to reserve judgment on how well the tripod collar works. My gut says it's too wimpy and flexible to work effectively (i.e., it may flex/twist and bind up a little), but I may be wrong on that. On the positive side, it comes off easily! If it turns out that the collar is too flexible, at least one 3rd party manufacturer (Really Right Stuff) is in the process of developing both a replacement collar (the LC-A13) and a replacement collar with a foot with an integrated arca-swiss plate (the LC-A13 Package). Mine may be on order soon (but I'm hope I'm wrong on this).
So I'm still on the fence on this one, but that collar and foot seems pretty flimsy to me...
2. Uhhh...But How Does the Lens Perform?
Right - lens performance. OK...consider what follows as VERY PRELIMINARY - and subject to change and/or refinement with more structured and rigorous testing. So far all I've done is walk around with the lens and shoot 500 or so hand-held shots (and I've only had the lens for 18 hours!). But here's some very first impressions (all the shots below are full-frame (not cropped) shots - but I have cut them in resolution to 2400 pixels on long axis to speed download times):
A. Autofocus performance
OK - it absolutely annihilates its aged ancestor in the autofocus department (especially in autofocus SPEED). But...that wouldn't be too hard - the old 80-400 was a dog when it came to autofocus! But the new lens does seem snappy and fast, and I can already say that focus-tracking seems to be good and definitely adequate for most bird-in-flight shots. How do I know? Well, check out this "dog-in-flight" shot (best to view at 100% magnification - AKA 1:1):
Jose Running: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.9 MB)
B. Is it really hand-holdable at 400mm?
Yep, no problem. And, the shot used to illustrate this also shows how all those fancy Nikon letters (ED and Super ED elements; N or Nano Coating) DO help ensure that the lens holds contrast in tricky lighting conditions (in this case strong side-lighting). And, it also shows that you don't have to stop down much (if at all) from wide-open at 400mm to get decently sharp shots (best to view at 100% magnification - AKA 1:1):
Jose Sidelit: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 2.4 MB)
C. How is it at shorter focal lengths?
Hmmm...at just over 200mm it seems pretty darned sharp. And, at least at near the short end of the focal range (and when used with a 24 MP D600), edge-to-edge sharpness seems pretty good. As always best to examine sharpness on these shots when viewed at 100%:
Blue Kootenay Sunrise: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.1 MB)
Pre-dawn Light: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 959 Kb)
Seems kind of odd to be summarizing much after such preliminary testing - but I think it's fair to already say that the new version of the 80-400mm is much better than its ancient ancestor. And, while I still have a ton of questions to answer before deciding if this lens is a keeper for me, it HAS passed my first crude (but decidedly real-world) "tests" - and with flying colors. Except for that damned hood - that's going to drive me crazy! But, overall...still looking pretty darned good...
More real soon...stay tuned...
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At long last! Nikon has finally updated its original "super-zoom" - the 80-400mm VR. The new model is officially designated as the AF-S Nikkor 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR. Oddly, there was a full 12 years between version 1 and version 2 of this lens. Perhaps Nikon was waiting until they had just enough acronyms built up to describe this lens...if you go to any Nikon website you'll find this lens features all the critical bits of the alphabet, including "AF-S, ED, VR, SWM, IF, N, SIC, A/M, and M/A". ;-)
An 80-400mm zoom covers an absolutely great focal range for both general nature photographers and wildlife photographers. Add in the relative small size of this lens and you have - at least in theory - a fantastically versatile lens for many types of shooters, and one that doesn't break your back to carry around all day in the field. But, the original version had some very serious - and very limiting - shortcomings, including sharpness that was "iffy" at best (especially at the long end of the focal range), a very slow AF system, a poor (quite flimsy) tripod collar, a penchant for sucking dust into its innards (owing largely to the expanding nature of the zoom), and - at least by today's standards - a barely adequate VR system.
If you peruse the specs (available here on dpreview.com's website) and read a few of the descriptions of the lens that are already online, you'll find the lens offers a totally new optical design (which is promising), both ED (extra low dispersion) and Super ED lens elements, nano-crystal coating on some elements (this reduces flare and improves contrast on backlit scenes and/or subjects), and a 4 stop VR system that automatically detects and adjusts for tripods (which could be cool). And, not insignificantly, the new lens sports a 77mm filter thread - same as on the 16-35mm f4 VR, the 24-70mm f2.8, and the 70-200mm f2.8 VR (I and II). Which means a lot of buyers will already have the filters they need for use with this lens. Which is a very good thing.
But what is all this likely to mean in the real world (and once you get into the field)? I have no doubt at all that both the AF system and the VR system will be vastly superior to those on the previous version. Those two improvements alone will convince many to buy this lens.
My biggest concerns? First and foremost, image sharpness - especially at the longer end of the focal range. To date, I have not found a Nikon zoom with over a 3x total focal length zoom range that I have been happy with in terms of image sharpness. I don't really know why "maximum of 3x optical zoom focal range" (which. of course, includes such venerable and sharp lenses as the 24-70mm f2.8, 70-200mm f2.8 and f4 zooms, and the "hyper popular among wildlife shooters" 200-400mm f4 zoom) seems to be the "magic magnification range" for obtaining high quality imagery with a zoom lens. I just know that, to date, it has been an unwritten rule. I AM hoping that Nikon has found a way to break this rule with the new 5x 80-400mm zoom. I'd love it if this new lens turns out to be super sharp! But...I have to admit I'm more than a little skeptical about how sharp this updated version of the 80-400 can really be...especially when it's attached to the newer high-res, full-frame bodies, like the D600 and D800. Fingers crossed.
My other significant concern? I'm hoping Nikon has found a way to prevent this new extending zoom from sucking dust into its elements - this was a noticeable issue with the old one (if you put it to tough field use).
Yes, I will be testing this lens - with a completely open mind - as soon as I can lay my hands on one. And, I have to say I'm REALLY looking forward to putting this one through its paces - it has SO much promise! If it comes close to delivering on the promises supplied by all those acronyms, this could be one very sweet lens. ;-)
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When I test and write up my Field Tests on various camera bits I normally write blog entries as I proceed through the testing, then write up a single final Field Test. The field tests can be quite extensive and will always contain sample images. And, the very last thing I do is write up the Executive Summary for that product.
This time I'm going to change my approach and give you the "Readers Digest" version of my full field test (omitting, in this version, some of the detail and most of supporting images) right now. Why? Two reasons. First, my testing of Sigma's new 120-300mm f2.8 zoom lens came about quite unexpectedly - I had only a few days from hearing it was a go through to receiving the lens. And I could only keep it for 10 days or so. So I had zero time to write up blog updates on the various different comparative tests I did with the lens. Second, I'm about to head out on my "Humpbacks, Orcas, Sea Lions and More" Photo Tour and will be gone for a few weeks - and when I get back I know I'm going to be absolutely swamped. Thus it will be awhile before I'll be able to post those sequential blog entries describing my progress on testing the Sigma lens. More than a few folks have been emailing me asking about my thoughts on this lens (even without knowing I was testing it) and I'd prefer not to keep them waiting. So here's all many will need to help them decide if this lens is for them (or not)...
But wait! A tiny bit of background is needed before I go any further. Sigma's new 120-300mm f2.8 zoom lens (which is officially known as the 120-300mm f2.8 DG OS HSM S) is targeted squarely at professionals or very serious enthusiasts. It is officially in their "Sports" class, but Sigma's own website lists its typical uses as "Landscape, Nature & Wildlife, Sports & Action" (hmmm...not a lot left out of that description of uses!). And, the lens is priced at the professional market - it's listed on Sigma's website as going for $3599 USD ("marked down" from a MSRP of $5200, which to me appears more than a little on the tacky side - come on...this is a new lens, did ANYONE ever pay $5200 for it?). All technical details about the lens may be found right here on Sigma's website.
But make no mistake - this lens is designed to capture action. That could mean a sporting event - and especially an indoor sporting event where subjects tend to be closer than in many outdoor events - or, to a nature photographer, it could mean things like birds-in-flight or mammals in motion (sparring grizzlies anyone?).
How does the lens stack up? Here's the Reader's Digest version of my Field Test (supporting images and MANY more details to follow in the full version of the Field Test):
1. Build Quality:
Simply superb. When you first pick up this Japanese-manufactured lens you know that no shortcuts were taken in manufacturing this lens. Every ring moves smoothly, and its finish says "professional". Its heft (and there's lots of that) instantly says "rock-solid construction". And, unlike the new Nikon AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR, its tripod collar is stiff and hefty enough to offer rock solid support without ANY flexing. But there IS a price to pay for the speed and sturdiness of the lens: it is NOT light. When in "shooting mode" (meaning with hood on, tripod foot on with a Wimberley Arca Swiss lens plate installed, and lens caps off) the lens weighs 3725 gm (8.21 lb). In comparison, Nikon's 300mm f2.8 VR in the same shooting mode (with the same Wimberley plate installed), weighs over a pound less (in coming in at 3140 gm - or 6.92 lb - the 300mm f2.8 VR is 585 gm - or 1.29 lb - lighter). For Nikon shooters looking for another reference point to compare against, the popular 200-400mm f4 VR weighs in at 3360 gm (7.41 lb). There are some shooters (professionals and amateurs alike) that could find that the weight of this lens hinders their ability to hand-hold it. BTW - if you want to get the 120-300mm Sigma a little lighter, strip off the tripod collar (it does come off very easily) and you'll lose 360 gm (0.8 lb).
2. Optical Performance - Image Sharpness:
A real big thumbs up: this lens is very sharp at all focal lengths. And, when tested on Nikon's most demanding camera (the D800e) the images showed excellent edge-to-edge sharpness. How sharp is the Sigma lens? I'll provide details (and sample images) in the future, but suffice to say it is AT LEAST as sharp as Nikon's premium zooms at all overlapping focal lengths (including the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII and the 70-200mm f4 VR, the 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR, and the 200-400mm f4 VR). How does it compare to top Nikon primes at the same focal length? Really well - extreme pixel-peeping on D800e files viewed at 100% show very small differences between Nikon's sharpest telephoto primes (e.g., Nikon 200mm f4 Micro, 300mm f2.8 VR) in image sharpness (with the Nikon primes coming in slightly sharper). But the same thing can be said of ANY Nikon telephoto zoom too - they just aren't as sharp as the best primes.
I was unable to detect any noticeable issue with chromatic aberration on the Sigma lens.
I noticed one very minor negative in optical performance - the amount one had to stop down from wide open before approaching maximum sharpness. With most high-end Nikon lenses, one has to stop down about two thirds of a stop before approaching maximum sharpness. With the Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 (and at all focal lengths tested), I had to stop down one to one and one third (so to f4 or f4.5), before approaching maximum sharpness. This doesn't mean that the lens is "soft" when shot wide open (under most situations few would notice the "shot at wide open" sharpness loss), just that it gets a bit sharper when shot stopped down a little more than you have to stop down Nikon's premium lenses.
The take-home lesson on the sharpness of the Sigma 120-300mm zoom is this: I would be surprised if anyone would be disappointed with the sharpness of this lens, regardless of what lenses they are used to shooting (and, of course, those moving up to this lens from "kit" or consumer lenses would be absolutely stunned by its optical performance).
3. Optical Performance - Out-of-Focus Zone Quality (or Bokeh):
This is a very difficult thing to quantify and compare between lenses. But one who has shot extensively with a Nikkor 300mm f2.8 VR or a Nikkor 400mm f2.8 VR (and some other high end lenses) knows good bokeh when they see it. And the Sigma has fine bokeh - I could detect no real difference between comparable Nikons (meaning comparable focal lengths shot at the same aperture with subjects at same distance) and the Sigma in bokeh quality. Another check mark for the Sigma lens.
One final point on optical performance: For some reason, the Sigma lens produced slightly warmer images than any of the many Nikons I tested it against. Some may like this, some may not. I view this as a controllable (in post-processing) difference between the lenses I tested (i.e., between the Sigma and all the Nikon lenses), but not a flaw...
4. In-lens Optical Stabilization:
I haven't come up with a meaningful way to quantify this or come up with a quantifiable comparative test for Optical Stabilization (or Vibration Reduction). So here's what I'll say: The OS system appeared to work about as effectively as the VR system on the Nikon 300mm f2.8 VR ("old" version) and the Nikon 70-200mm f2.8 VRII (at 200mm) but not quite as effectively as the claimed 5-stop VR on the 70-200mm f4 VR (again at 200mm). Note that major differences in lens weight between the Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 and the 70-200mm f4 VR (which is several pounds lighter than Sigma lens) could have easily contributed to the observed difference in image stabilization between the 70-200mm f4 VR and the Sigma lens.
I could find no literature on the advisability of leaving on (or turning off) the OS system when shooting from a firm tripod (I wasn't sent an owners manual for the lens, and there is not a downloadable on the Sigma website - and there should be...are you listening Sigma?) or on which of the two OS modes I should use when the lens is on a firm tripod. So...I tested them. Result: No difference in sharpness (or bokeh quality) when shooting from a firm tripod regardless of whether the OS was on (or what mode it was in).
One more check mark for the Sigma lens.
5. Focus Breathing:
Does the lens exhibit focus breathing (i..e, shortening of focal length when focused near the inner limit of its focus range)? Yes. How badly? Noticeably - I'll show sample shots in my final field test and an estimation of the amount of the focal length reduction. Those who view this as a "problem" (I personally don't) may want to wait to see those sample shots.
6. Performance with Teleconverters:
At least some of the users of Nikon's 300mm f2.8 VR own it partly because of how well it performs with the TC-14EII (1.4x) and TC-20EIII (2x) teleconverters. How does the Sigma perform with these TC's? It doesn't - they're non-compatible (you simply can't mount the lens on them). Ouch! According to Sigma's website, the Sigma 1.4x and 2x teleconverters do work with both the Nikon and Canon version of this lens, but like many Nikon shooters I don't own the Sigma teleconverters, so I can make no comment on how well this lens performs with them. To some users this issue of incompatibility with Nikon TC's may be a concern or problematic.
7. Autofocus Performance:
This is another aspect of performance that can be challenging to compare between lenses. But I'll give it my best shot. And I'll divide it into three categories: Focus Accuracy, Initial Focus Acquisition Speed, and Focus-tracking.
A. Focus Accuracy: This one is easy - perfect (as far as I could determine in the field). When shooting targets (with objects placed in closely spaced intervals before and behind the target) or just "casually" in the field, the Sigma lens focused spot-in accurately with my D600, D800e, and D4 (and when using either live view or the optical viewfinder).
B. Initial Focus Acquisition Speed: I can only offer qualitative comments on this: the lens was "snappy" in acquiring initial focus. But, it was noticeably less snappy than the following Nikkor lenses I tested it against: the 70-200mm f4, 70-200mm f2.8 VRII, 300mm f2.8 VR, and the "new" 80-400 f4.5-5.6 VR. On the positive side, it was WAY faster at acquiring initial focus than the 200mm f4 Micro (on old but optically superb lens). The germane question to consider is this: Would this very slightly slower speed of initial focus acquisition result in missing critical images? In theory - yes. In practice in the real world - I doubt it. It's still darned fast.
C. Focus-tracking: Here I'm referring to the ability of the lens to keep a moving subject in focus regardless of the direction the object is moving (or whether one is panning or not). If the subject is moving towards or away from the camera and moving fast enough it requires a degree of predicative ability on the part of the imaging system (camera and lens). Situations where this predictive ability is needed occur when shooting subjects such as birds in flight, running mammals, race cars bearing down on one on a speedway, sprinters photographed from the end of a track, etc. You know what I mean...
Anyway...I tested focus tracking repeatedly with this lens - both under "spontaneous" shooting situations (with my dogs running around and with a cooperative herd of elk) and under careful controlled situations. I will give details of my testing protocol in my final field test (or future blog entries), but many are probably familiar with my "dog running full speed right at me" test (which is a great proxy for situations like birds in flight, or mammals running almost directly at me like in this shot).
What did I find? In situations where the subject wasn't approaching or moving away from the lens quickly (so moving parallel to the camera's image sensor or even up to about a 45° diagonal to the image sensor) the lens focus tracked as well as any of my Nikon lenses. However, when the subject was moving directly at me at a high speed (my running dog test), the focus tracking ability of the lens was much poorer than that of the two Nikkor lenses I tested it against (both the "new" 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR and the 300mm f2.8 VR). How much poorer? Here are the numbers:
Using Nikkor 300mm f2.8 VR: Percentage of tack sharp images (on leading edge of subject) ranging from 77% (at f2.8) through to 94% (at f5.6).
Using Nikkor AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 (at 300mm): Percentage of tack sharp images of 95% at f5.6 and 88% at f8.
Using Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 (at 300mm): Percentage of tack sharp images of 24% at f2.8, 41% at f4, and 44% at f5.6.
For each lens at each aperture there was a minimum of 75 images used to come up with the percentages above (yes, my dog Jose was VERY tired after this, but he was very happy with his belly full of treats and the number of cuddles he got between trials - besides Frisbee this is his favorite game!).
Note that in most of the out-of-focus shots produced by the Sigma lens, the lens simply "lagged" behind the leading edge of the subject - by about 15 cm (6") to 30 cm (12"). See the sample images below to assess for yourself the extent of the "problem".
Jose Running - With Nikkor AF-S 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 Zoom: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.4 MB)
Jose Running - With Sigma120-300mm f2.8 Zoom: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.4 MB)
It's possible that if I did this test over and over again that my numbers might shift a few percentage points either way. But, the trend was very clear and I'm sure it would remain clear - in this test (only) the Sigma lens performed far poorer the competition. And, in a way, this doesn't surprise me. The amount of technology behind producing an autofocus system that can meet a test like this is absolutely mind-boggling and I doubt Nikon is motivated to share their proprietary information and secrets with Sigma. So, while I don't know this for a fact, I suspect Sigma is forced to "reverse engineer" their AF system to work with the Nikon lens (and they would have to do the same thing all over again with the Canon version of this lens).
Time to call a spade a spade - just how significant is this problem? It totally depends on how one plans to use the lens. If one is shooting landscapes or animalscapes it's probably totally irrelevant and can be safely ignored. What if one is buying the lens primarily to capture action shots (like birds in flight)? Well...it might be a big consideration (or a big problem). I suppose a positive way to look at these results is this: When shot at apertures one normally uses for action (i.e., stopped down a little from f2.8), almost half of the images shot using the Sigma were very sharp (and we're not paying for film anymore).
NOTE TO CANON USERS: One should not assume that the focus-tracking "problem" discussed here is also found on the Canon version of this lens (different AF mechanics, and different engineering problems to overcome). So there is no reason to think this issue is generalizable across mount-types. The Canon lens could be far better or much worse in this regard than the Nikon version. This "Readers Digest" version of my Field Test (and the "problem" in focus-tracking) should be taken to apply ONLY to the Nikon version of the lens.
The final word? The Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 is well-built and offers stellar performance in almost all meaningful categories we use to measure lens value or worth - it's very, very sharp from edge-to-edge at all focal lengths, with its wide aperture it's great in low light and allows one to isolate their subject beautifully from their background, and in most situations its optical stabilization and autofocus system function effectively. It lags only in one aspect of autofocus performance that may or may not matter to a potential buyer.
Would I buy this lens? Given what I already own, probably not. But, I do find myself wishing that Sigma would have let me keep it for my coming Aquatic Mammals photo tour - based on what I know about the distance the subjects range over and their speed of movement, I can think of no other lens that would have been more ideal for this trip. Take that FWIW...
My thanks are extended to the Canadian distributor of Sigma camera equipment (GenTec International) - and particularly to "my guys" at Robinson's Camera in Calgary (Jeff and Conor) - for their collective efforts in getting this lens to me for testing.
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I have updated my TC-20EIII (2x teleconverter) Field Test with the addition of the results of the pairing of the new 70-200mm f4 VR plus the TC-20EIII. Regular followers of this blog will have already seen these results below (in the 15 and 23 January entries).
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Wow...already up to "installment 7" in my ongoing series of reports (which will lead to my final field test of the new Nikkor 70-200mm f4 VR). For those just joining the discussion now, the previous 6 entries on the new Nikkor 70-200mm f4 can be found with little difficulty by just scrolling down...
In this entry I compare the focus tracking of the new 70-200mm f4 lens when combined with Nikon's TC-14EII (1.4x) teleconverter against two other lenses combined with the same TC - the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII and the "legendary" Nikkor 200mm f2 VR.
What I Did:
Pretty much the same thing as during my previous focus tracking tests - I utilized the same "tried and true" focus-tracking test using my highly paid partners - my two Portuguese Water Dogs who like running at me at full-speed. Those wanting more detail about the testing should scroll down to the 23 January entry. In this case I used only my D4 (its higher frame rate maximizes "sample size"). All images were shot at 200mm (so 280mm factoring in the magnification of the TC). All images shot at 1/1600s (except one where where there was simply too much light for the aperture I was testing - f2.8 on the 200mm f2 - that one was shot at 1/2000s).
What I Discovered:
1. Focus Tracking Accuracy: One surprise here. There was no difference in the focus tracking accuracy when I was comparing the two 70-200mm zooms and the TC-14EII - over 90% of the images were in sharp focus (sample size for both lens/TC combos was in excess of 150 images). But that's not the surprise - this is exactly what I found when testing these lenses plus the TC-20EIII (2x) TC. But the Nikkor 200mm f2 VR plus TC-20EII had a slightly lower success rate on focus tracking - just under 85% of the images were tack sharp (again a sample size of over 150 shots). To me this is somewhat surprising. But "just under 85%" still isn't too bad!
2. Sharpness Differences?. Interesting results here. First - the most predictable result. The sharpest lens/TC combination was the 200 f2 VR plus TC-14EII - by f4 it produced visibly sharper results than either of the two 70-200mm zooms paired with the TC-14EII. But anyone looking at the sample images below will notice that the images shot with the 200mm f2 VR plus TC aren't THAT much sharper than those shot with the zooms. In itself this is pretty amazing.
Second - the 70-200mm f4 plus TC-14EII slightly out-performed the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII plus TC-14EII. The difference was only really noticeable at wider apertures. Images shot at f5.6 on the 70-200mm f4 (plus TC) were slightly but noticeably sharper than those shot at f5.6 on the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII (plus TC). So the f4 version of the lens produced sharper images when shot wide open than the f2.8 lens did when stopped down 1 stop. And it parallels what I found when testing both lenses with the TC-20EIII (2x) teleconverter. And to me this is truly amazing - the lighter, smaller, cheaper lens out-performs the bigger, heavier, and much more expensive 70-200mm "king".
At f8 and smaller apertures the differences in image sharpness between the two lenses (plus TC) was so small that I'd consider it totally insignificant for field shooting.
Sample shots? You bet. As always, it's best to view these images at 100% magnification (1:1). Images are about 75% of full frame and then reduced to 2400 pixels on the vertical axis. All critical information is included on the images.
Poncho Running - 70-200mm f4 VR plus 1.4x TC @ f5.6: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.1 MB)
Jose Running - 70-200mm f2.8 VRII plus 1.4x TC @ f5.6: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.1 MB)
Jose Running - 70-200mm f4 VR plus 1.4x TC @ f8: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.1 MB)
Jose Running - 70-200mm f2.8 VRII plus 1.4x TC @ f8: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.1 MB)
But Wait...There's More!
If one focused on image sharpness alone then it would be easy and logical to conclude that it makes no sense whatsoever to pay the big bucks for the fast (and big and heavy) super-telephoto prime lens - like the 200mm f2 VR, the 300mm f2.8 VR, 400mm f2.8 VR, etc. Why not just get a good lightweight zoom (like the new 70-200mm f4 VR) and a couple of teleconverters? Well...simply because if you go the zoom plus TC route you end up losing the wide apertures of those big lenses. This is partly because you can use them in lower light, though as the ISO performance of our cameras improves (and as the VR performance get better and better) this factor becomes less important. For me the big reason to pay the big bucks to have those large apertures at one's disposal is the increased control of the out-of-focus zones. A good image - and especially a good wildlife image - is a careful balance of sharply focused zones and out-of-focus zones. If you are using a lens that can open up no more than f5.6 (or f8 if you're using the 70-200mm f4 VR with the TC-20EIII), you have lost a lot of your ability to control your out-of-focus zones. Here's two more images - one at f2.8 and one at f4 - to demonstrate what I mean:
Jose Running - 200mm f2 VR plus 1.4x TC @ f2.8: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.0 MB)
Jose Running - 200mm f2 VR plus 1.4x TC @ f4: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.0 MB)
But if you're going hiking or doing anything with a weight restriction (e.g., flying)...the 70-200mm f4 plus TC's option is VERY compelling!
Those who have followed this series of posts on the 70-200mm f4 are probably beginning to ask "Why would anyone consider buying the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII when this new 70-200mm f4 seems so good?" Well...I have to say that unless someone absolutely needs the apertures between f2.8 and f4, I'm wondering the exact same thing myself.
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This is "installment 6" in my ongoing series of reports which will lead to my final field test of the new NIkkor 70-200mm f4 VR.
I've been receiving a fair amount of email recently asking me this: "OK, that new 70-200mm f4 lens seems to do well with the 2x teleconverter - but how does it perform with the 1.4x and the 1.7x?" I've just begun "playing" with the 70-200mm f4 VR plus TC-14EII (1.4x tc) combination. In the first phase of my testing I just "use" the product (or, in this case, combination of products) to get a feel for what it (or they) will do. So no comparisons yet with the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII. But I can already say this: the 70-200mm f4 VR and the TC-14EII pair up very well and can produce very good quality images, including when the zoom is used at its maximum focal length (200mm...so 280mm with the TC).
Here's a couple sample shots. It's best to view these images at 100% magnification (1:1). The images were shot with a D600 and are about 80-85% of full frame (but reduced to 2400 pixels on the long axis). They are sufficiently large to get a handle on image sharpness. Note that I shot both of these hand-held at a fairly slow shutter speed (1/80s) to get a bit more of a handle on how far the VR on the 70-200mm f4 can be pushed.
70-200mm f4 VR plus 1.4x TC at 164mm: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 965 KB)
70-200mm f4 VR plus 1.4x TC at 200mm:: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 970 KB)
In the near future I'll do some head-to-head testing comparing the results of the new version of the 70-200mm lens with the "old" f2.8 version when both are combined with the TC-14EII (both on static and moving subjects). Oh...and I won't be testing the 70-200mm f4 VR with the 1.7x (TC-17EII) teleconverter - I no longer own that one (and can't say I miss it!).
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This is "installment 5" in my ongoing series of reports which will lead to my final field test of the new NIkkor 70-200mm f4 VR. In two previous entries (January 9 and 15 below) I discussed the results I obtained when using the TC-20EIII paired with the new Nikkor 70-200mm f4 VR zoom lens on static subjects. I also compared these results to those obtained when using the same TC but with the professional 70-200mm f2.8VRII zoom. In those tests the new f4 version of the 70-200mm zoom performed at least as well as the f2.8 version and, surprisingly (at least to me), even slightly out-performed the f2.8 version when both were shot at f8 (which is wide open for the f4 version of the lens, and stopped down by 1-stop for the f2.8 lens).
But what happens when the action picks up and accurate and fast focus tracking is needed? Read (and look) on...
What I Did:
I utilized my "tried and true" focus-tracking test: I had my favourite test subject (one of my Portuguese Water Dogs) run at me at full speed and I rattled off shots as fast as the camera could. I used both my D4 and my D600. Both cameras were set as equivalently as possible - to continuous servo AF and either 51-point (for the D4) or 39-point (for the D600). And I used both my 70-200mm f4 lens and my 70-200mm f2.8 VRII lens - both native (no TC) and in combination with the TC-20EIII (2x) teleconverter. For initial focus I used only focus brackets that were f8-compatible. This was not done to accommodate the TC - the reality is that whenever I'm shooting images of moving animals (running dogs, birds in flight, etc.) I use focus brackets near the centre of the array (which happen to be the f8-compatible brackets). All images were shot at 200mm (so 400mm equivalent when the TC-20EIII was attached). All images - with or without the TC - were shot at f8 and 1/1250s.
This is a particularly tough test for a camera and lens - not only is the dog (Jose) moving very quickly, but he is bobbing up and down while running. So the focus point is not only approaching the camera (requiring predictive capabilities in the autofocus algorith), but it is moving from one AF bracket to another continuously. Past experience has shown that virtually all "consumer" lenses (e.g., the 70-300mm f4.5-5.6 VR) fail this test abysmally and produce almost no sharp images. Most importantly, this test mimics the type of action a wildlife photographer would be capturing in the "real world". And, for legal purposes I feel compelled to mention that Jose is in no way abused during this testing - he is fed lots of treats and this ranks second only to Frisbee catching on his "favourite things to do" list. ;-)
What I Discovered:
1. Both Cameras, Both Lens/TC Combos - Excellent Focus Tracking. To make a long story short, regardless of the camera or lens combination used (including both lenses with or without the TC) the focus tracking was excellent. Overall "in sharp focus" percentage was extremely high - over 90% (virtually 100% with the D4 and any lens/TC combination).
2. Only Very Slight Between-Lens Differences. Overall the sharpest images were obtained when using either the 70-200mm f4 VR or 70-200mm f2.8 VRII lens native (with no teleconverter). Hardly surprising. BUT, the images shot with the 70-200mm f4 VR plus TC-20EIII were very, very close in sharpness. Those shot with the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII plus TC-20EIII were slightly (but noticeably) softer than those shot with the f4 lens plus TC. It's important to remember that ALL shots were at f8. This is "wide open" for the f4 version of the lens (when the TC is in place), but stopped down one full stop for the f2.8 lens. Which makes the performance of the f4 lens (plus TC) even more impressive.
Sample shots? You bet. As always, it's best to view these images (which are all slight crops only) at 100% magnification (1:1), but the differences are visible even at 50% magnification. Of course, magnifications of 33% or 67% are not recommended for examining these shots - long story there...but just don't do it. ;-)
Jose Running - 70-200mm f4 VR NO TC: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.2 MB)
Jose Running - 70-200mm f4 VR plus 2x TC: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.2 MB)
Jose Running - 70-200mm f2.8 VRII plus 2x TC: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.2 MB)
I'm now near the end of my testing of the new 70-200mm f4 VR used in combination with the TC-20EIII teleconverter. I have to be honest and say that the results have really surprised me - the images produced by this lens/TC combination are almost shockingly good. Under the right conditions you CAN produce output that can compare head-to-head with the best-of-the-best primes (like the 400mm f2.8 VR). But I have to add a very critical point here: there are STILL major compromises when shooting with a TC (compared to using a top-notch prime lens), especially when shooting action sequences. First, you need a lot of light. When f8 is your maximum aperture and you're trying to capture sharp action shots you better not go out on a cloudy day. And, when f8 is your maximum aperture, you definitely begin to lose some ability to control your background - meaning there is a very real limit to how much you can throw it out of focus and isolate your subject from its surroundings. What do I mean? One image to show you - this one from my archives...check it out and note what sharp really means (and take note of the background as well):
Jose Running - 400 f2.8 VRII: Download 1200 pixel image (JPEG: 663 KB)
So...if you're the type who REALLY pushes the limits and likes to shoot action in low light or want ultimate control of your out-of-focus zones, then there's still nothing that beats a top-notch prime super-telephoto. I simply could NOT have captured the sequence of whale breaching images featured in my January 16 blog entry (below) if I was using a teleconverter paired with...well...any lens. BUT...under "more normal" conditions (i.e., those under which most real people normally shoot!) the output you can get out of a "mid-priced" outfit (like a D600 with 70-200mm f4 VR and TC-20EIII) are almost scary good.
What's up next? First test-shots with the 70-200mm f4 VR plus TC-14EII (1.4x) TC. Tomorrow. And...yep...you'll see more "beyond my expectations" results...
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This is "installment 4" in my ongoing series of reports which will lead to my final field test of the new NIkkor 70-200mm f4 VR. In my January 9 entry (below) I commented on the performance of the new 70-200mm f4 VR lens when paired with the TC-20EIII teleconverter - and shot with the D600. I commented on the fact that these results may be "camera-specific" and the positive results I obtained may not be reflective of the results one would obtain when using either the D4 or D800. So...I repeated the same tests with these two other cameras. I was particularly curious how the "lens-abusing" D800 would "react" to the new 70-200mm f4 VR and the TC-20EIII combination.
What I Discovered:
1. Same General Trend! Just like when I tested the the 70-200mm f4 plus 2x TC combination on the D600, I ended up with very sharp images when this same lens/TC combo was used on both the D4 and D800.
2. Little Need to Stop Down! And, like when I tested this lens/TC combination on the D600, there was very little need to stop down to get "acceptably sharp" images when shooting the 70-200mm f4 VR plus TC-20EIII on either the D4 or D800. Said another way - images shot with this lens/TC combination at f8 were surprisingly sharp. This was not the case when I tested the "old" 70-200mm f2.8 VRII with the TC-20EIII on either the D4 or D800 and with the aperture wide open (@ f5.6). Simply put, the images were noticeably softer (than when stopped down, or when compared to those shot wide open on the f8 version of the lens). What about when images from the f2.8 and f4 versions of the lenses (paired with the TC-20EIII) are shot at f8 on the D4 and D800? The images shot with the f4 version of the lens were slightly (but noticeably) sharper!
3. Good Autofocus Performance - on ALL Focus Brackets! When I tested the 70-200mm f4 lens plus TC-20EIII on the D600 I found the AF performance was better than I expected (and even better "than advertised" by Nikon). The only focus brackets that performed in a slightly sub-standard fashion were on the extreme outermost ones (laterally). The D600 has only 7 f8-compatible autofocus brackets, so this was good news. The D4 and D800 have 11 f8 compatible AF brackets and, in general, a better AF module. So one should expect even better AF performance out of the D4 or D800 when using the 70-200mm f4 with the TC-20EIII. And that's EXACTLY what I found - on static subjects I was able to use ALL the 51 AF brackets and there was NO hesitation in initial acquisition of focus (or accuracy). Like with the D600, the autofocus performance of the D4 and D800 when using the 70-200mm f4 plus TC-20EIII exceeded Nikon's claims.
IMPORTANT NOTE: I still have not yet tested focus-tracking/predictive autofocus (think birds in flight) with the 70-200mm f4 VR plus 2x TC combo. Soon. So no comment on that yet.
4. Bokeh and Focus Breathing. When I first started comparing images shot with the 70-200mm f4 VR with those shot with the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII (both with the TC-20EIII) I started noticing that the bokeh seemed better (smoother and more visually appealing out-of-focus zones) on images shot with the f4 lens, especially when I was looking at images shot at f11 or f16. This trend of nicer bokeh seemed even MORE pronounced when I started comparing D800 images. When I looked at small thumbnails of the images I noticed that the images from the f4 lens (and remember that ALL these shots were taken at 200mm) showed a slightly higher magnification than those with the "old" f2.8 lens. It's important to note that I was shooting at a distance where any focus breathing (the shortening of focal length when the lens is focused quite closely) exhibited by the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII version of the lens (which is a documented characteristic - and to some a documented "flaw" - with this lens) wouldn't be instantly noticeable. Anyway...long story short - this "better bokeh" and then correspondence with another photographer alerted me to the fact that the new 70-200mm f4 VR exhibited either no - or considerably less - focus breathing. Subsequent quick comparisons at closer distances using the 200mm f4 Micro, the 200mm f2 VR, and both versions of the 70-200mm VR lens told me this: there is no focus breathing at ALL on the new 70-200mm f4 VR.
Personally, with how I use a 70-200mm zoom, focus breathing was not much of an issue at all. I primarily use a 70-200mmm lens for landscapes, "enviroscapes" (wildlife shot showing animal in its environment) or "animalscapes" (wildlife in a massive landscape, with subject small), which means I'm rarely focusing too close. However, for many other types of shooters - portrait shooters and wedding photographers come immediately to mind - focus breathing was an issue. So for some this is another major positive about this new lens (it's becoming increasingly hard to find anything to dislike about this lens!).
How 'bout some sample shots? Sure...and these are ALL shot with the D800 (the D4 shots were - as expected - the best of all...but there's a whole lot more D800's out there than D4's). No apologies offered for using squirrels for these shots - they're convenient, fast-moving, and after how many nuts they've robbed from my jay-feeder, they owe me big time. Best to view the images at 100% (1:1). The images are crops - all are about 75% to 85% of full-frame image and then reduced in resolution to 2400 pixels on the long axis. But if you look at them at 100% each demonstrates what it is supposed to demonstrate! ;-)
Red Squirrel - 70-200mm f2.8 VRII plus 2x TC @ f5.6: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.2 MB)
Red Squirrel - 70-200mm f2.8 VRII plus 2x TC @ f11: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.4 MB)
Red Squirrel - 70-200mm f4 VR plus 2x TC @ f8: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.4 MB)
Red Squirrel - 70-200mm f4 VR plus 2x TC @ f11: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.4 MB)
For those of you waiting for my final field test before purchasing the new 70-200mm f4 VR - well...if you're in the market for this lens...I wouldn't wait any longer...this is just a great lens...
More coming soon? You bet - time for some focus-tracking testing with the 70-200mm's and the TC-20EIII (so many variables, so many combinations to test!).
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This is "installment 3" in my ongoing series of reports which will lead to my final field test of the new NIkkor 70-200mm f4 VR. Because I've received so many emails asking me about how the new lens performs with teleconverters (many folks seem to be basing their purchase decision on this aspect of the lens' performance), I decided to report my experiences with the new lens and TC's a bit earlier than I originally planned. And while I have more testing left to do (with other camera bodies, the 1.4x TC, and additional focal lengths), my early experiences with the 70-200mm f4 VR and the TC-20EIII (2x) TC are extremely positive and encouraging.
What I Did:
First, I shot a series of comparison shots of a static subject (my favourite stump) at a relative short distance (approx. 3.5m or 11.5 ft) - the sort of distance you'd commonly shoot images of small animals at (e.g., squirrels, some birds such as jays, etc.). The comparisons were all shot from a firm tripod (with head tightened down) and the following Nikkor lenses were used: the 400mm f2.8 VR, the 70-200mmm f4 VR plus TC-20EIII (@ 200mm) and the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII (again @ 200mm). With all 3 lens and lens/TC combos I varied the aperture from wide open through to f16 in 1-stop increments. I used a D600 for all tests. Why? Because I think (in comparison to D800 and D4 owners) more D600 users will be interested in using this particular lens/TC combination. Each shot was taken focused on the exact same point on the stump (using the central focusing bracket) and each image included the stump and background which included objects at various distances behind the stump.
After completing those comparison shots, I took several hundred shots of various small animals (red squirrels, Clark's Nutcrackers, Mountain and Black-capped Chickadees, Red-breasted Nuthatches, and Pine Grosbeaks) as they visited the stump. I alternated between shooting the f4 version of the lens (plus the 2x TC) and the f2.8 version - all shots were taken at 200mm (so 400mm equivalent). All images were shot from a tripod with the head completely loose (to facilitate ease of movement and composition) and at 1/400s with the VR on (and in "Normal" mode). With both lens/TC combinations I shot a full range of apertures from wide open through to f16. I used Auto ISO with shutter speed set to Auto (which set shutter speed at 1/400s). All images were shot using natural light - during the session there was light, thin cloud obscuring the entire sky. And, during the shooting I used/tested virtually all 39 focus brackets, including the outermost ones.
What I Discovered:
1. The 70-200mm f4 VR (@ 200mm) plus TC-20EIII is Surprisingly Sharp! The 70-200mm f4 plus 2x TC produced much sharper images than I expected. How sharp? Well...at all apertures tested the 70-200mm f4 plus 2x TC was sharper than the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII plus TC. As in NOTICEABLY sharper (when viewed at 100%). As sharp as the 400mm f2.8 VR? No - but closer than I would have expected. It's reasonably well-known that to get maximum sharpness out of the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII plus 2x TC you have to stop down at least one stop from wide open, which means you have to stop down to f8. Interestingly, you don't seem to have to stop down from wide open with the 70-200mm f4 VR to get images at (or closely approaching) maximum sharpness. In fact, in every instance where I could make a valid comparison, images shot with the 70-200mm f4 plus TC at f8 (wide open) were sharper than images shot with the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII at f8 (one stop down from wide open)! To me this is very surprising - but quite good news for those seriously considering purchasing the 70-200mm f4 VR.
Sample shot? Sure - the one linked right below was shot at f8 (wide open) with the 70-200mm f4 VR plus 2x TC. Best to view it at 100% (1:1). This IS a crop - it's about 75% of the full-frame image and then reduced in resolution to 2400 pixels on the long axis - but it is definitely large enough to give a feel for the sharpness of the image. All critical field notes are included on the image...
Red Squirrel - 70-200mm f4 VR plus 2x TC: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.5 MB)
2. AF Performance (with the D600) OK - this is (or should be) a huge potential concern for those considering buying the 70-200 f4 VR and using it with the 2x TC. The D600 possesses 39 AF brackets, but of those 39 only 7 (in a "cross pattern" in the middle of the array) are compatible with a maximum aperture of f8. What this means is that only these 7 are - more-or-less - "guaranteed" to work with a combination like the 70-200mm f4 VR plus the 2x TC. But...what did I find in the field? That in the real world the news is BETTER than guaranteed. I had no problem whatsoever in acquiring initial focus when using 21 of the most central brackets (i.e., using the central-most 7x3 grid). In fact, the only AF brackets that totally failed in initial focus acquisition were the 6 most lateral brackets (3 on each side). And, when focus was attained I did find I could toggle to even the outermost AF brackets to tweak focus (for instance, if I decided I wanted to focus on an ear rather than an eye and I had to toggle to an outermost bracket to do so) and get good performance. Bottom line - while the AF performance WAS impacted by the TC, there were fewer drawbacks/compromises than I expected.
AF Accuracy? Seemed absolutely spot-on to me - if I could use a bracket to acquire initial focus, the focus seemed absolutely spot-on (without any AF-tuning).
AF performance compared to the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII plus 2x TC combo. In MOST cases, no noticeable difference. One area where the "big brother" was more reliable was when attempting to acquire initial focus using the extreme outermost brackets - it always worked with the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII.
IMPORTANT NOTE: I have not yet tested focus-tracking/predictive autofocus (think birds in flight) with the 70-200mm f4 VR plus 2x TC combo. So no comment on that yet.
I wouldn't recommend extrapolating too much based on these early results. There IS between-sample variation on both lenses and TC's - so no guarantee that others' results will be identical to mine. And, it's my experience that it's hazardous to assume that lens/TC performance will be identical on different cameras - at this point I can't say definitively how this lens/TC combo will work on the D4 and D800. My GUESS is that it will perform well on the D4. I won't even guess how the high res sensor of the D800 will like this lens/TC combination. I DO think at shorter focal lengths (between 100 and 200mm) the 70-200mm f4 VR plus TC-20EIII will perform just fine when used with the D600.
And, it's always wise to remember that there other compromises when using teleconverters. For instance, with a maximum aperture of f8 the user starts to lose some direct control of their out-of-focus zones. And. when you START at f8 you need quite a bit of light (and/or a camera with very good high ISO performance).
But, when all is said and done, I have to say these results are really encouraging and I predict that a LOT of users will be very happy with how the 70-200mm f4 VR performs with the 2x TC-20EIII. And, it's my guess that the news with the 1.4x TC-14EII will be equally as positive.
Stay tuned...more field test results coming soon!
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Time for a very brief update on my progress on field testing the new 70-200mm f4 VR. Today a few comments on the VR system...
Nikon claims that the recently released 70-200mm f4 VR zoom lens has a VR system on it that provides 5 full stops of image stabilization. In comparison, the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII has a VR system that Nikon claims has 4 stops of image stabilization and the original 70-200mm f2.8 VR had 3 stops of image stabilization. In full honesty, I don't have the types of tools at my disposal to truly and conclusively verify the VR claims for any of these lenses. All I can offer is anecdotal comparative comments...
My own experience is that it is more challenging to hand hold the Nikon D800 (with any lens) using the same shutter speeds I would hand-hold either my D600 or my D4. My assumption is that is because of the very small pixel pitch of the D800 - and that any camera movement at all more or less "drags" the image over more pixels than on lower resolution bodies (that have larger pixel pitches). Hence the less sharp images. So...I've been experimenting with hand-holding the D800 with the new 70-200mm f4 VR using the same shutter speeds I would use with the D600 and D800 (using Auto ISO with Auto shutter speed enabled - with no shutter speed compensation).
What have I found? Yep...definitely getting sharper shots that I would obtained when hand-holding the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII at the same shutter speeds. Interestingly, the shots I'm getting with the new lens compare favourably to those I get when I hand-hold the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII with shutter speed set via Auto ISO with a compensation of 1 stop (i.e., a doubling of the shutter speed). This implies to me that the new 70-200mm f4 VR is ABOUT one stop "better" than that on the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII. Can I verify the "5 stops of image stabilization vs. 4 stops of image stabilization" claim? No.
How 'bout an example? Sure - just check out the image of the Raven (the portrait) in my Gallery of Latest Additions. All the important contextual information can be found by clicking the tabs below the image (e.g., the "In the Field" tab, the "Behind the Camera" tab, etc.). And clicking on the main image will show a larger version of the shot in a new window. That image will be somewhere in that gallery for a good 8 weeks, which should give me ample time to complete my full 70-200mm f4 VR field test.
I will keep monitoring the performance of the VR system of the 70-200mm f4 VR as I use the lens over the coming weeks and if I find out anything new I'll report it here. I can already say the new VR is very good, and it appears somewhere around 1-stop "better" than that on the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII.
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I've just begun field testing Nikon's latest FX lens offering - the AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm f/4G ED VR. This zoom is interesting for a lot of reasons - it's almost a thousand dollars cheaper than Nikon's fully professional AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II. And, being one stop slower than its big brother it comes in both smaller and lighter. It also offers a new VR system that, according to Nikon, offers up to 5 stops of image stabilization. My complete testing of this lens will take at least a month, but I have already developed a few impressions of it that are probably worth sharing. Oh, by the way - I'm going to be testing this lens in a totally selfish way - focusing first on issues of greatest importance to ME! Hey - my time, my blog!
So...what was the first thing I wanted to find out with this lens? This:
Is it sufficiently sharp for most (or ALL) uses when shot wide open (f4) at the long end of its focal range (200mm)?
Why is this important to me? For a number of reasons. First, over the years I've noticed that most Nikon zooms are sharpest at the SHORT end of their focal range - and softest at the long end. And, with MOST (if not all) Nikon lenses they don't approach maximum sharpness until stopped down by close to a stop. And finally, this nature and wildlife photographer often likes to isolate (separate) his subject from the background. This is easy to do with super-telephoto lenses, but much less easy to do with shorter telephotos, like a 70-200 zoom. And, if you can't shoot it wide open and get sharp images it becomes even HARDER to isolate those subjects from the background. By the way - if I haven't mentioned it - I use a 70-200 at 200mm a LOT. And, of course, I like sharp shots. So...when I initially heard about this new lens my first thought was this: "Hmmmm...it better be sharp at f4 (at 200mm) or I'm just not interested...
But I'm getting ahead of myself just a tad...before I get to the "is it sharp when wide shot open at 200mm" question a few bits of house-keeping first.
1. How's the build quality?
Well...you CAN tell it's not a Japanese-built lens (it's manufactured in Thailand). Which means it feels a little more "plasticky", but not by much. Based on build quality this is definitely NOT a consumer-oriented product...it does have that "pro feel" to it. Both the focus ring and the zoom ring are super smooth. The non-scalloped hood is nice and feels more robust than the crappy hood on the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII. All the gold "adornments" (the plates naming the lens and declaring it a "N" - or nano-coated - lens and a VR lens) are nice. Definitely built more robustly than the 70-300mm VR. And it has the requisite "environmental" (dust and moisture) seals on it. Will it hold up to years of hard use? Only time will tell. So far all I can say is mine is still working (after one day!). But overall the build quality is definitely high enough to please me.
2. Length and Weight?
Two thumbs up here. The new lens is 27mm (about 1.1") shorter than the f2.8 version. For me this means it fits into a smaller belt holster (when mounted on any pro body) than the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII. Which means it's more comfortable to carry with me on day-to-day hikes. Bonus. And, even more importantly, according to my scales it's 610 gm (about 1.34 lb) lighter than the f2.8 lens (I weighed my lenses as I normally carry them - with caps on both ends and with their hoods attached). You know...just a funny thing, but I've noticed that as those around me get older I appreciate carrying less weight. And losing 1.35 lb is NOT insignificant. Hang this lens (complete with any camera body) around your neck and you DEFINITELY notice that it's lighter than its "big brother".
3. OK, OK...but is it "...sufficiently sharp for most (or ALL) uses when shot wide open (f4) at the long end of its focal range (200mm)?
Short Answer: YES!!!!
Longer Answer: OK - here's what I did. I mounted the lens on my D4, set it at 200mm and at f4, took my two favourite "subjects on demand" (my Porties) into the woods behind my house and shot about a bezillion (well...about a thousand) images of them doing a bunch of things - including sitting, running, running at me when front lit, coming at me when backlit, etc. And then I carefully scrutinized the shots and processed a few of them up. And I learned a surprising amount about the lens, including the fact that this lens is really very sharp at f4 and at 200mm. And here's two "kinda half-resolution" shots for you to peruse - all field notes are on the shots themselves. Best to view this at 100% (1:1):
Jose in Snow Motion: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.4 MB)
Backlit Boy: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.2 MB)
So what else have I learned about the lens so far? Lots of things, including:
Fast and Accurate Autofocus! When I was shooting sequences of one of my dogs (the fast one) running right at me at 10 fps virtually ALL the images were tack sharp. While this is partly a function of the camera body I was using (a Nikon D4), I have no reason to believe that the autofocus performance of the lens would be less satisfactory on the D600 or D800. But I will be testing this shortly.
Good Flare Resistance. During my hour or so of shooting with the lens I had the opportunity to work with some blindingly bright back lighting. I was expecting some lens flare issues and/or a real contrast problem in the files. But when I looked at the images I was really pleasantly surprised by the contrast and colour (and total lack of flare) in the images. Normally zooms (given the number of elements in them) show far worse problems with internal reflections (thus the flare and "bleached out" look one can get with backlighting) than do primes, but I have to say that this lens performed as good as any of my primes under heavy backlighting. I presume that this is a function of the nano-coating. Big bonus here.
Nice bokeh! Not only are the out-of-focus zones produced by this lens very smooth and "buttery", but the transition from the sharply-in-focus regions to the completely out-of-focus zones is smooth and gradual, as it should be on a good lens (but isn't always). Check out the background in the image entitled "Jose in Snow Motion" to see what I mean.
I still have a lot of testing to do on this lens and am a long ways away from being able to judge all aspects of it. But...it passed its first test with flying colours.
What's up next? I'm not 100% sure, but I AM real curious about the edge-to-edge sharpness on this lens, particularly on the D800, and particularly on the long end of the focal range. Which, by the way, is one test that the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII does NOT pass with the D800 (the edge softness is noticeable and problematic). If it passes that one this lens may end up staying in my kit!
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Late yesterday I received the new Nikkor 70-200mm f4 VR zoom lens and the New Nikon 1 V2 mirror-less camera for field testing. I will be performing and, in time, posting full "real world" field tests on both these new products from Nikon. And, like with the D600, I will be posting interim results of various aspects of my testing as I complete them here on my blog. You'll see my initial findings on the 70-200mm f4 VR first...and likely real soon (possibly even later today - I found time to shoot about 1000 frames with it late yesterday afternoon).
My thanks are extended to the good folks at Robinson's Camera in Calgary, AB for facilitating the timely delivery of these new products to me for testing. Robinson's Camera is Calgary's newest full "Nikon Professional" dealer in Calgary and is the shop where I do all my own business. I've known the owner and other key players there for years (yep, those dudes are - like me - old codgers!!). They've always given me GREAT service and have always supplied me with what I need - not what THEY want or feel the need to sell. And yes, they do have both the 70-200mm f4 VR and the V2 in stock! Check 'em out here online...
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The information contained in this entry first appeared here on April 17, 2013. But, through some mysterious shenanigans that are still puzzling me, the entry disappeared. Because I've received a number of emails asking me about it...here it is again...
Like many users of the D800, I've noticed that it's more than just a tad demanding to use effectively. While it is possible to get extremely sharp, full-resolution images with a D800 (when viewed at 100% magnification - or 1:1), I have empirically found it more challenging to do so than with either a D4 or D600, especially when shooting hand-held shots. When I first saw the specs of the D800 I suspected it might be challenging to hand-hold this camera at the shutter speeds I was used to shooting at with lower resolution Nikon cameras. My guess was that the small pixel pitch (about 4.7 microns, compared to 5.95 and 7.21 microns on the D600 and D4 respectively) would mean that even a very small amount of camera shake would translate into "soft" full resolution images (when viewed at 100% magnification). With such small pixels (or, more accurately, photosites) it's darned easy for a little motion to "drag" an edge in the object you are focused on across one or more pixels, softening the image.
So...a few weeks back I found so time to finally perform a simple test to see if the D800 actually WAS more challenging to hand-hold than a lower-res camera. And, to keep this test real, I chose to use lenses that are commonly hand-held by a lot of users - the Nikon 70-200mm f2.8 VRII and the "new" 70-200mm f4 VR.
WHAT I DID:
I shot several series of hand-hold shots of a distance subject (with a very distinct edge running completely across the frame) using the following equipment: Nikon D600, Nikon D800, Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8 VRII zoom, and Nikkor 70-200mm f4 VR. All shots were taken with the lenses zoomed to maximum focal length (200mm). I chose to use Auto ISO for all shots, with the shutter speed set to Auto (which chooses a shutter speed based on the 1/focal length rule). With each combination of equipment I shot one series of images with NO compensation on the Auto Shutter speed, which translated to a shutter speed of 1/200s. And a second series of images (with each gear combination) were shot with a +1 stop compensation to the Auto Shutter speed - giving a shutter speed of 1/400s. In all cases the VR function of the lens was turned ON, and set to "Normal" mode - which mimics how I would use these lenses in normal day-to-day shooting.
It should be noted that with both my D4 and D600 I have shot thousands and thousands of shots (using lenses of various focal lengths) using Auto Shutter Speed with no compensation (so 1/focal length shutter speed) and, as long as I don't miss on the focus, have captured a very high proportion of sharp hand-held shots (with VR on and in normal mode). Of course, at times I do hand-hold cameras with shutter speeds lower than this and have often obtained sharp shots, but the proportion of sharp shots tends to fall in parallel with slowing shutter speeds.
WHAT I FOUND:
After spending hours painstakingly comparing the shots (at 100% magnification) I found two real clear trends:
1. With the D800 I consistently got a higher proportion of "tack-sharp" shots when I doubled the "normal" shutter speed I would normally shoot at (so, this means that at 200mm I got a much higher proportion of sharp hand-held shots at 1/400s than at 1/200s). This trend was clear when using BOTH the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII and the 70-200mm f4 VR.
2. When using the D600 and the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII doubling of the shutter speed (from 1/200s to 1/400s) made only a very small positive difference to the proportion of sharp shots captured. And, when the D600 was paired with the new 70-200mm f4 VR the doubling of shutter speed had no impact whatsoever on the proportion of sharp shots captured.
INTERPRETATION & TAKE HOME LESSONS:
Here's how I'll apply these results to my own shooting:
1. D800: I'm going to avoid hand-holding the D800 whenever possible. When I am in a position where I have no choice but to hand-hold the D800, I will be using higher shutter speeds than I normally do with either my D4 or D600. To be safe, I'll likely double the "normal" shutter speed I hand-hold specific lenses at (when using lower-res cameras). It should be noted that my test was "coarse" and that it's possible that simply increasing shutter speed by a smaller increment (e.g., only 50% or 0.5 stop) would be enough. I am still waiting for Nikon to refine the increments of the Auto Shutter Speed mode of their Auto ISO function (it currently is in one full stop increments).
As an aside: This field test really doesn't provide any insight into WHY one has to bump up shutter speeds to get sharp shots with a D800. My guess is that it is related to its small pixel pitch, but other factors (e.g., subtle differences in action required to activate the shutter) could be involved as well.
2. D600: With certain lenses (e.g., the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII) it is still probably worth for me to bump up shutter speeds a LITTLE beyond the 1/focal length rule to consistently capture sharp shots.
3. 70-200mm f2.8 VRII vs. 70-200mm f4 VR differences? Why did I get a higher proportion of sharp shots at 1/focal length shutter speeds when using the 70-200mm f4 VR on the D600 compared to the f2.8 VRII version of the lens? The simplest explanation is what Nikon says - the VR is better on the new version of the lens. But, it should also be remembered that the f4 lens is also 1.5 lbs lighter than the f2.8 lens - and this may have also contributed to the difference. But my gut says that it's the VR - and that it is considerably better on the new 70-200mm f4 lens.
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I've been using a Nikon 1 V1 as both a "walkaround" camera and as an accessory for my wildlife photography since shortly after it was first released. I'm sure everyone reading this knows what I mean by "walkaround" camera. But calling a V1 a "wildlife photography accessory" probably requires a bit of an explanation. I have found that the V1 produces surprisingly good image quality when it is combined with "real" Nikkor lenses using the FT-1 mount adapter. With its 2.7x crop factor you can make your "big glass" REALLY big! For instance, combine a 400mm prime lens with a Nikon 1 camera and it has an effective focal length (or field of view) of 1080mm, and a 600mm lens has an effective focal length of 1620mm. When it comes to my wildlife photography kit, my V1 is included as though it was a 2.7x teleconverter - I don't use it often, but once in a while (when I have sufficient light to shoot at lower ISO's and need that extra reach) it comes out of the bag. And on a few occasions it has "saved the day" for me. I've even used the V1 with my 400mm f2.8 lens to capture a few shots that have ended up in gallery exhibitions.
When Nikon came out with the "replacement" model (the V2) in late 2012 I was intrigued. Just by looking at some of the ergonomic and spec changes I was fairly sure I'd like it. But, I had one real big concern - the increase in resolution from the 10.0 MP of the V1 to the 14.2 MP of the V2. This resolution increase meant that the photosites on the sensor HAD to get smaller. And, as photosites get smaller two negative things happen. First, image noise at high ISO's goes up. Second, diffraction-induced image softening at small apertures increases (as many D800 owners who've found that they can't get tack sharp images beyond f11 can attest to!).
So...over the last few days I've done some simple tests. I connected a 70-200mm f2.8 VRII lens to a FT-1 mount adapter, mounted that combo on a firm tripod, and shot a large number of test shots with both the V1 and V2. In the first series of tests I simply fixed the ISO (at ISO 200 for both cameras), and shot a number of images of a stationery stump at apertures from f2.8 through to f16 (in one stop increments). In the second series of tests I fixed the aperture and varied the ISO from base (100 with the V1, 160 with the V2) up through ISO 6400. I captured both RAW and JPEG fine images, and did separate series with High ISO Noise Reduction both on and off.
I'll provide sample images when I publish my full V2 Field Test, but here's a quick and dirty summary of what I found.
Question 1: Are there visible differences in diffraction effects (i.e., diffraction-induced softening as aperture decreases) of the images produced by the Nikon 1 V1 and the Nikon 1 V2?
Answer 1: Nope. With both cameras I obtained very sharp images from f4 through f8 (the f2.8 images were only slightly less sharp). But, at f11 the images of both cameras noticeably softened up (across the entire frame). And by f16 they were quite soft (when full resolution images were viewed at 100% magnification).
Take Home Lesson 1: If you want sharp images with a V1 or V2, don't stop down beyond f8. But there's no significant between-camera differences in diffraction effects.
Question 2: Is there a noticeable difference in noise characteristics of images produced by the V1 vs. the V2?
Answer 2: Only very slight - with the V1 producing images that are slightly "cleaner" at ISO 800 and above. How much "cleaner"? Not much more than 1/2 stop - at most. They're really close.
Question 3: What about "High ISO Noise Reduction" - does it improve the quality of the in-camera JPEG's? Is the in-camera noise-reduction of the V1 and V2 comparable? And, how do the in-camera JPEG's compare to RAW images shot at the same ISO and carefully processed with a good raw converter (in this case, Phase One's Capture One Pro)?
Answer 3: Hey, that's no fair - that's 3 questions at once! Anyway...yes, JPEG shooters will find that if they use the built-in noise reduction feature they WILL - at ISO 800 and above with both cameras - get much less noisy images. But contrast takes a hit, and the images look both "over-smoothed" (that video-game look) and somehow "foggy". In short - for my own shooting I would NEVER be happy with the JPEG's produced in-camera and with High ISO Noise Reduction enabled with EITHER camera at an ISO beyond 400. And with the HIgh ISO Noise Reduction turned off the images at ISO 800 and above are pretty noisy...(too noisy for my taste).
What about RAW captures? The situation improves quite a bit. I found with BOTH cameras I could produce quite clean and acceptable images at ISO 800 (using the default/automatic noise reduction in Phase One's Capture One Pro) with both cameras. ISO 1600 images? They took a little more specialized noise reduction (i.e., they needed a little more noise reduction using Noise Ninja in Photoshop CS6). ISO 3200 images? More work yet...
Take Home Lesson 2: With both cameras I'll shoot regularly up to ISO 800. If need be and the conditions are right, I'll go up to ISO 1600 and if the image was unique enough (think Bigfoot) I'd even go up to ISO 3200. But at ISO's above 400, I'll only shoot RAW images - for me the quality of the in-camera JPEG's above ISO 400 just isn't there.
Finally - V1 vs. V2 image quality? The differences are insignificant to me. Which is good...it means that Nikon did manage to jam about 4 million extra pixels into the small CX sensor of the V2 without negatively impacting on image quality.
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When I first laid my hands on the 70-200mm f4 VR one of my first thoughts was "hmmmm...if the VR on this lens is as good as Nikon claims, it should be an awesome lens to use with a Nikon V1 or V2." I use the Nikon V1 as a "walkaround" camera on my daily peregrinations (AKA...forest reconnaissance...AKA walking my dogs). I've found that when the V1 is combined with quality Nikkor lenses (using the FT-1 mount adapter), it is a great walkaround camera. And, lately I've begun putting the Nikon V2 to the test. The Nikon 1 cameras have a 2.7x crop factor, so a 70-200mm f4 zoom ends up having an "effective" focal length (or, if you prefer, a field of view) equivalent to a 189-540mm f4 zoom. When one can randomly encounter elk, deer, coyotes, wolves, bears, cougars and more on any given dog walk from their home, there's little need to explain why always having a compact camera with a quality 189-540mm f4 zoom on your hip is an appealing concept!
Long story short - yep, the "new" Nikkor 70-200mm f4 works great with the V2. And, with that almost-3x-crop factor, it even works well as an impromptu macro lens. To see what I mean, just check out the crocus image entitled "Cradling the Cup" in my Gallery of Latest Additions (the image I'm referring to is currently in the 3rd position in the gallery, tho' it will shift over time).
Odds are there will be more and more V2 images in that "Latest Additions" gallery in the coming weeks (including more with the 70-200mm f4 VR), so if if you're curious about how you can use the V2 effectively for nature and wildlife photography - keep poking your head into that gallery over the next while!
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Because a lot of the folks visiting this website are wildlife photographers - and because the 400mm focal length is such a critical "threshold" to get to when shooting wildlife - my 4 Ways to 400mm Field Test has proven to be very popular. Although it's now a few years old, it's still being visited by over 3,000 people (AKA unique visitors) per month.
But, that review is now a bit long in the tooth (I'd say "sadly" - but it's probably GOOD it's out-of-date - especially now that we have some CHEAPER ways to get to 400mm!). Two particular configurations of gear need to be added to the comparison...the new (and excellent) 70-200mm f4 VR (in combination with the 2x TC-20EIII teleconverter) and the "brand new" updated version of the 80-400mm f4.5/5.6 VR.
So...in the coming days I'll be starting into the testing necessary to update this field report. Stay tuned - I will be updating my blog with interim reports on how things are going, especially with the new 80-400.
For those wondering about my progress on my D600 field test and my 70-200mm f4 VR field test (and based on emails I'm receiving there's a lot of folks who are waiting) - I have one word: soon! But by now, if you've been keeping up with this blog you know the shortest version of my summary of what I think of both of these two products - neither are absolutely perfect but, they're both great performers. And I can recommend both of them for novice through professional photographers (the pros will know if they NEED the 2.8 aperture of the "old" 70-200mm f2.8 VRII or if they can get by with f4 on the new zoom).
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Between email originating from this website and from those who have attended presentations or photo tours with me, I get a LOT of gear-related questions. And the absolutely most common question I get from Nikon wildlife photographers is this:
"I'm a Nikon-shooting wildlife photographer, and like so many I own the 200-400mm f4 VR zoom. But now I want the best prime lens for wildlife shooting - should I buy the 400mm f2.8 VR, the 500mm f4 VR, or the 600mm VR?"
Most who are asking me this question aren't looking for a spec-spew or to have me quote MTF charts. They want to know what I actually think (based on field experience). So...I've put a few thoughts together on the subject. And you can find them in the commentary associated with my latest image addition. All you have to do is click the "In the Field" tab under the image entitled "Alien @ Sunrise". And you can find that image in two places on this website (with the same commentary). For the next few days it will be the lead-in image in my Gallery of Latest Additions. And, the image also has a more permanent home - for the next year or so it can be found right here in my Birds of Prey Gallery...
And I know that this commentary will have the opposite effect of the intended - rather than reducing my email load it will generate even MORE questions! C'est la vie!
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There has been an immense amount of online chatter regarding the penchant of the image sensor of the Nikon D600 to accumulate dust and/or oil. I have seen the chatter, and I have received an inordinate amount of email about the issue, including from folks who've said they may not buy the camera because of the "problem". I was going to leave my comments on this for my coming D600 field test, but that has been delayed by the time-consuming-but-very-worthwhile wolf neck snare issue I became embroiled in during February. So...here you go - my experiences with the huge problem of dust on the sensor of the D600...
YES, I experienced the "problem" with the sensor of my D600 accumulating some unidentified gunk on it. IF my experience with my copy of my D600 is representative of the magnitude of the problem others are experiencing, it is one of the most overblown non-issues I have ever seen.
YES, during my testing of the D600 I noticed the dust spots on some images shot with the D600. But, during testing I swap lenses ALL the time. And the other cameras I was testing against (the D4, D800) also showed enough sensor specks that I needed to clean them. The D600 WAS slightly worse than the other 2 cameras. So I cleaned the D600 sensor - using a swab and sensor fluid - and I would not consider myself an expert in the cleaning of image sensors. It took me about two minutes. Since then I have shot thousands of images with the D600 and have not had to clean the sensor again. I have the feeling that this is a "when-the-camera-is-new-and-breaking-in" issue, but I do not know that for a fact.
For me, this issue is unbelievably trivial compared to the many strengths and fantastic value of the camera - for almost all uses this camera outperforms the D3x! And, in most cases you don't even notice the spots unless you stop way down (beyond f8) AND have a clean, continuous background (e.g., like a sky). In my opinion, on a bullet list of pros and cons this "issue" should be relegated to the absolute bottom of the list (if not lower). I'm anal about camera performance, and I don't even THINK about this issue on a day-to-day basis. Further, I think if anyone chooses to NOT buy this camera based on this issue they are hurting (handicapping? penalizing?) only themselves.
Have I made my opinion clear on this issue? ;-)
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My tardiness in putting out my D600 field test (sorry...but I'm a busy guy!) has resulted in a lot of email flowing into my in-bin. Much of it has been of this nature:
"Help! I'm tiring of waiting for your D600 review and I want to buy a new Nikon for nature shooting NOW! But I'm really confused about which full-frame model to buy - there's so much conflicting information and crap on the inter-web. I shoot a bit of everything - what do you recommend? And PLEASE don't just spew specs at me - what do you actually THINK?"
OK, I have some comparatively strong opinions relevant to this conundrum. But it's important to remember they ARE opinions, and they are coming from the perspective of someone who is, first and foremost, a wildlife shooter. I am not without bias. But I shoot with ALL 3 of Nikon's current full-frame cameras (the D4, the D800, and the D600) and have had a lot of opportunity to shoot them head-to-head. I know you can find alternate viewpoints "out there", and I'm sure I'll hear lots back on this one. But here you go - a short summary of my thoughts on each of Nikon's current full-frame cameras...what I think they're best suited for, and who should buy them. And I know this one is going to draw some flak, but at least I'm honest!
The Nikon D4:
OVERVIEW: Big, heavy, and expensive. But the best action camera you can buy, bar none. Tough as nails, very high frame rate, and with an amazingly fast and accurate autofocus system - the best AF system Nikon has ever offered. Excellent ergonomics - both when held in horizontal or vertical orientations. ISO performance is excellent and, in a way, "interesting" - if you're shooting at high ISO it has close to the same amount of noise ISO's as the perceived high ISO king (the D3s), but definitely holds better tonal range in the darks and lights - so much so that high ISO shots with this camera simply don't LOOK like high ISO shots. In what's almost a paradox - this is Nikon's most forgiving full-frame camera - it's darned hard to point this camera at something and shoot and NOT get a sharp, well-exposed image!
Drawbacks? Big, heavy, and expensive. And a stupid approach to memory cards (two slots, two different card types) - which means you carry extra needless gear (and card types) into the field.
Best Suited For? Sports shooting. Serious or professional wildlife shooting - especially for wildlife shooting where low light and/or action is likely to be encountered. Overall the ultimate camera for shooting wildlife.
Who Should Buy One? Serious sports shooters and wildlife shooters who want the best and are willing to spend the money.
For More Information: Check out my D4 Field Test.
The Nikon D800/800e:
OVERVIEW: A tremendously powerful yet enigmatic photographic tool. Best dynamic range of any camera available today - and it's noticeable in the field. The uber-high resolution (and associated very small pixel pitch) has both positive and negative consequences. It's the best solution for large-to-huge prints. But that high res sensor beats up lenses - you'll get the most out of this camera ONLY if you use the best of the best Nikkors. Example? Shoot the 70-200mm f2.8 VRIi at 200mm on the D4 or D600 and you have very acceptable edge-to-edge sharpness. Shoot that same lens on the D800 and the edges are noticeably soft (at all apertures). And don't stop down beyond about f11 (or even f8 with some lenses) if you don't want to start softening up your images because of diffraction. Small pixel pitch also means that camera shake is a bigger issue on this camera than on Nikon's other full-frame cameras - so if you're a "hand-holder" prepare to bump that shutter speed about 1/2 stop faster. AF performance - excellent (and way better than needed for landscape work!). ISO performance? Incredible for a 36 MP DSLR, but not nearly as good as the D4, or even the D600. At the end of the day this simply isn't a forgiving camera in any way - but treat it with medium format-like shooting discipline and it can produce beautiful images. But make no mistake - this is Nikon's LEAST forgiving full-frame camera - unlike the D4, it's REAL easy with this camera to point it at something and get a blurry, out-of-focus shot!
Drawbacks? Already mentioned and, oh yeah...a stupid approach to memory cards (two slots, two different card types). At least Nikon is consistent in their stupidity. And the camera is kinda slow (in frame rate) - too slow for serious wildlife shooting.
Best Suited For? Landscape shooting and studio work. Also great for "animalscapes" if conditions are just right. Excellent implementation of Live View also turns this into a GREAT camera for macro and closeup work - so next time you need a 36 MP image of a flower or bug...this is the camera of choice (read sarcasm into that if you want to). How 'bout for wildlife shooting (including in DX mode)? Argh...I was hoping you would NOT ask that. In my opinion it's tied for about 6th as a wildlife camera - trailing behind the D4, D3s, D600, D3, and D700 (with battery pack). But about as good as a D3x for serious wildlife shooting!
Who Should Buy One? Serious landscape shooters who don't want the expense and/or bulk of medium format equipment. And studio shooters. And, those who are prepared to spend the money on a camera dedicated to animalscapes. Not recommended by me for action shooters or serious wildlife shooters.
For More Information: Check out my D800 Field Test (it includes more on why I can't recommend this camera for serious wildlife photography).
The Nikon D600:
OVERVIEW: Probably the best "balance" of features available in a camera for nature photography at any price. High enough resolution (and enough dynamic range) to challenge the D800 for landscape shooting, yet not so high that it beats up lenses very badly or shows nearly as much diffraction-induced softening at small apertures. Slightly faster frame rate than D800 is noticeable (and appreciated) in field shooting. Excellent ISO performance - not quite a D4 but surprisingly close! Autofocus performance does not match that of the D4, but again I'd rate it as surprisingly close in real-world terms...easily handles shooting birds-in-flight with a 600mm f4 lens. Overall phenomenal real-world performance for $2k or less...seriously out-performs a D3x in the field. While not quite as forgiving to use as a D4, this camera is much more forgiving than a D800 and is quite easy to produce excellent shots with in day-to-day use.
Drawbacks? Lacks some critical connections for many studio lighting setups. But at least the two card slots are the same!
Best Suited For? All-round use for nature photography: Not-quite-a-D4 for wildlife shooting, and not-quite-a-D800 for landscape work, but not very far off either of them. And a superb back-up camera for either a D4 or a D800. Unless I'm going to do "serious" wildlife shooting (in harsh and/or low light conditions) or landscape work, THIS is the camera I grab first. Really.
Who Should Buy One? Only about 90% of the world's Nikon-shooting nature photographers (including MANY who bought D800's BEFORE the D600 was released)! Most versatile DSLR in Nikon's lineup and definitely the best value proposition.
For More Information: My D600 Field Test is coming soon...
There you go - hope it helps...
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As most Nikon-o-philes will know by now, way back on January 28 Nikon officially announced its new 800mm lens - officially dubbed the "AF-S Nikkor 800mm f/5.6E FL ED VR". For a cool $18k you can have Nikon's longest lens that has ever sported autofocus - and have VR to boot! And you can have it in April! Because of the price-point of this lens - and its exceptionally specialized use - I wasn't going to bother dealing with it here. But...email has been rolling in asking me what I think of it. So I guess I should say something. And, In general, I've received two categories of questions, which I'll attempt to answer here:
1. What do I think of the lens? Will I be getting one? Is the cost of the lens justified?
I haven't seen, touched, or used the lens - so I can't comment directly on what I think of it. If you look at the published literature about the lens, it does appear that Nikon has poured a huge amount of effort and technology into it (probably the best repository of all available info on the lens is here on the "Nikon National Enquirer"). It's likely a great lens. I won't be buying one (more on that in a minute)...but if someone happened to GIVE me one (to test or have) I wouldn't turn them down. But that's very, very unlikely!
Is the cost of the lens justified? Well...given the technology behind it and the small numbers that will be produced - yes, the cost probably is justified. In fact, it could be argued it's amazingly cheap (and Nikon is likely making ZERO money on it). But...for me the question is slightly different - as a professional wildlife photographer can I justify the price of the lens. Or, more accurately, can I build a logical and rational business case for "investing" in this piece of equipment? No. But some could...let me explain further...
Some wildlife photographers consider the challenge of getting "close enough" to their prey to be their single biggest obstacle to getting "good" wildlife shots. You know - those "full frame" shots. And for certain types of elusive prey this might be the case - so there may be justification for that "...the more reach, the better" argument. It's a variation on the "...if something is good, more is better" way of thinking. But my approach to choosing equipment for wildlife photography differs. When it comes to focal length and lens choice I think in real-world "optimization of all variables" terms. I'm always trying to balance off reach vs. fine control of my out-of-focus zones (depth-of-field concerns). And carrying the lens. And the shutter speed I need to get a sharp image. And I have also found that in MANY real-world situations what I'll call "airborne/atmospheric spatial heterogeneities" (think dust, fog, mist, thermal currents, rain, etc.) can make mitigate against using even a 600mm lens effectively. What do all these variables translate into in the field? The fact that I use my 400mm f2.8 VR at least five times as much as my 600mm f4 VR. And, I know I would use an 800mm lens even less. But this is just ME - I will not argue with others if they say they need this lens or that they will use it regularly. I CAN see some sports photographers (and maybe even some news photographers??) benefitting from this lens. But the amount of benefit I would get from this lens wouldn't justify the expense. And, in my opinion, there aren't many serious wildlife photographers that have a strong enough need for this lens to justify its purchase. In my neck of the woods you'll be most likely to see this lens in the hands of retired oil patch executives. ;-)
I said one thing above that may need a little more explanation - about how the "need for more reach" isn't always critical for a wildlife photographer. For me "getting close enough" (and thus lens reach) is rarely the main challenge in the field. And here's a timely example - about a week ago I posted an image in my Gallery of Latest Additions where the subjects were TINY in the frame. It was shot with a 70-200mm lens at 135mm on a full-frame camera. And, in the discussion associated with the image (the "In the Field" tab) I discuss the issue of shooting good wildlife shots at a distance. The image and discussion I'm referring to can be found here right now (but be aware that the image will be shifting in position within that gallery soon). AND, just yesterday, this very image was chosen as the Pick of the Week by the Nature Photographer's Network...so at least some others share my viewpoint about reach not being the main issue to a wildlife shooter! You can read what others are saying about the image right here on the Nature Photographer's Network website (and you will find a link to a 2500 pixel version of the image).
2. Will I be field-testing the lens?
Well...I'll use one of my favorite malaprops to answer that: only if Nikon decides to send me one "au gratis". So likely not. ;-)
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In all my tests on focus tracking capabilities of various lenses and cameras (including entries in this blog and in several of my Field Tests) I have left out a bit of information that may be useful for some readers. In all current FX Nikon cameras Custom Setting A1 lets you determine the "AF-C Priority Selection". This means that when using continuous servo AF mode (the setting you MUST use for serious focus tracking) you can tell the camera to give priority to focus (so it will only fire if subject is in focus) right through to priority to release (meaning the camera will fire whenever the shutter release is depressed, regardless of whether the subject is in focus or not). The number of AF-C Priority Selection option varies with the camera - two with the D600, three with the D800, and four with the D4. In day-to-day shooting with my D4 I always use the "Release & Focus" option. BUT, for all focus tracking tests (regardless of the camera used) I select the "Release" option. This removes any bias towards the camera shooting in-focus shots only (and thus does not inflate the "in-focus" ratees that I report).
Thanks are extended to Sergey for pointing this omission out.
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During seminars, slideshows, lectures, or even casual conversations with other photographers I'm often asked which of my images is my all-time favourite. I usually reply with something like..."the next one". And there's some truth to this - one of the great things about wildlife photography is that there's always strong anticipation and enthusiasm about that "next" image! It's also equally true that while I normally do have ONE favourite image at any one instant in time, but it changes ALL the time. But I have less trouble giving a definitive and non-varying answer to the question "Which is your all-time favourite sequence of images?" For me there's absolutely no doubt - it's a 7-image sequence I shot of a breaching Humpback Whale back in August 2011. I call the sequence "Celebrating the Wild Life" - simply because the graceful leap of these massive animal seems so darned joyful! I processed the first image in the sequence shortly after capturing the sequence. And then I got busy and...well...didn't find the time to process the remaining 6 images until this past weekend. But now they're all up on this website...
The first shot in the sequence is the lead-in image to my Gallery of "Other" Mammals - it can be viewed right here. All the gory details concerning the image capture (and of course processing and more) can be found by clicking on the tabs below the image ("In the Field", "Behind the Camera", etc.).
The six new images that complete the sequence begin here.
While this whole sequence captures less than a second of my total lifetime and life experiences, it's indelibly imprinted in my mind and seeing this sequence of images never fails to bring a smile to my face. I hope that some day I can say I have a sequence I like better than this one. But if I don't...well...I could live with that.
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Another excerpt from my coming D600 Field Test - this time touching on the autofocus (or AF) performance of the Nikon D600, including when used with super-telephoto lenses.
But first - some relevant context. When I heard that the AF system of Nikon D600 was based upon (not identical to, but based upon) that of the Nikon D7000 I was concerned. Why? Because I had found that while the AF system of the Nikon D7000 performed very competently with "short" lenses (which, in my book, means "up to and including the 70-200mm f2.8 VR"), at least MY D7000 performed very poorly with "larger" lenses. By "performed very poorly" I mean that it was simply inaccurate at anything but very short focal distances and that in any Dynamic Area AF mode it struggled badly with initial focus. I found this to be the case on the 200-400mm f4 VR, the 400mm f2.8 VR, the 500mm f4 VR, and the 600mm f4 VR. SO...my very first concern was this: Does the AF system of my D600 perform better with "big glass" than my D7000 did? Thus, will my D600 be more suitable as a wildlife camera than my D7000 was? Thus the examples I'm giving today...a few shot with "big glass"...
And, for those who only want the "Quick and Dirty" answer...YES, the AF system of my D600 performs far better with "big glass" than my D7000 ever did. So I consider it - at least from an autofocus perspective - a better wildlife camera than the D7000.
IMAGE NOTES: Since beginning to post high (and often full) resolution test images for your perusal I have received a lot of email thanking me for doing so. However, I have received a few emails asking me to post full resolution images only when it is necessary to do so (to fully demonstrate the point I'm making). Seems like a reasonable request to me. So...in today's case I'm quite sure even "half of full resolution" will be enough to make my points. So...today you get "standard" web-sized images (1200 pixels on long axis) and "half-resolution" (3008 pixels on long axis) images.
1. Static (ish) Subject; REAL Big Glass: I found my D7000 was quite inaccurate in focus with virtually any super-telephoto prime lenses or zooms unless the subject was VERY close. This was NOT a function of lens tuning - no matter how hard I tried to tune the AF system of my D7000 it regularly produced soft images. So...here's one recently captured image of a rare Spirit Bear taken with my D600 and 600mm f4 lens.
White Bear, Muddy Face: Download 1200 pixel Image File - complete with all field notes (JPEG file: 759 KB)
White Bear, Muddy Face: Download Higher-Res (3008 pixel on long axis) Image File - complete with all field notes (JPEG file: 3.1 MB)
2. Autofocus Tracking - My Standard Test! Yep, my standard "Jose the Portuguese Water Dog Running Straight At Me" test. The value of this test is that I have been doing it for a number of years and have comparative "stats" for several cameras, my dog loves it (lotsa treats, albeit healthy ones), and it's a damned tough test to pass - Jose is real fast and, like any dog, he bobs up and down like crazy while running! All results are discussed on the images, but here's the critical finding - with my 400mm f2.8 VR the D600 performed almost as well in focus-tracking as my D3s, not quite as well as my D4, and WAY better than my D7000 (which did NOT pass this test with a 400mm lens).
Jose on the Run: Download 1200 pixel Image File - complete with all field notes (JPEG file: 509 KB)
Jose on the Run: Download Higher-Res (3008 pixel on long axis) Image File - complete with all field notes (JPEG file: 2.1 MB)
3. Autofocus Tracking - Bird in Flight: How 'bout birds in flight with Nikon's longest readily-available (sort of) super-telephoto lens? No problem with the D600. This one was a "forget it" with my D7000.
Jonathon Livingston: Download 1200 pixel Image File - complete with all field notes (JPEG file: 294 KB)
Jonathon Livingston: Download Higher-Res (3008 pixel on long axis) Image File - complete with all field notes (JPEG file: 794 KB)
Other aspects of the AF performance of the D600 - like "do those 39 focus brackets cover enough of the viewfinder?" - will be discussed in my coming D600 Field Test...
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Not surprisingly, since posting some high ISO shots taken with the D600 back on November 11 I've received a number of emails asking me to post some D800 examples (why did I think this would be coming??). I will be posting a number of comparisons between the D600, D800 and D4 when I've completed my D600 Field Test, but for now here's two versions of a ISO 3200 D800 image - both a web-sized (1200 pixel wide) sample and a full-res (7360x4912 pixel) sample. This image was taken very close to the same time (and under very similar conditions) as the previously posted D600 images (from November 11). All processing on this image identical to that performed on the ISO 4500 D600 image. Same "Important Image Notes" as on November 11 posting (so if you want to read them...scroll down a little!). While the D800 trails the D4 (and the D600) in high ISO performance, for a 36 MP DSLR it has pretty amazing high ISO performance. And...here ya go:
Red Squirrel - Classic Pose (D800; ISO 3200): Web-sized:
Download 1200 Pixel Image File with all Field Notes (JPEG file: 581 KB)
Red Squirrel - Classic Pose (D800; ISO 3200): Full Res:
Download Full Res Image File with all Field Notes (JPEG file: 16 MB)
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Since posting my comments and images re: the ISO performance of the Nikon D600 yesterday I've received two emails asking me virtually the same thing (so I'm thinking many others may have the same question and I should address it here): What was the relative contribution of the image sensor vs. the raw converter in producing those relatively noise-free images? And, what would they look like if they were processed in another raw converter, such as Lightroom or ACR? Good questions, compliments of Sergey and Manuel.
While I really like Capture One Pro as a raw converter (and the latest iteration of it - version 7 - adds a lot of new features and some excellent improvements) - the noise-free nature of those images is a function of the image sensor of the D600. When noise reduction is turned totally off (in Capture One Pro) the ISO 3600 and ISO 4500 images still look really, really clean. And, I DID play with them in Lightroom (version 4.2) and it's possible to produce output that looks as noise-free as the images I posted yesterday - albeit with more clicks/steps, and not nearly as nice colour! And there goes any hope of me ever being sponsored by Adobe...
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I'm in the midst of methodically field-testing the ISO performance of my D600 - and how it stacks up against both the D4 and the D800. Prior to beginning testing I had assumed that the D600 would do well in ISO performance and likely come out somewhere between the D800 and D4. In that regard I can already say I was right - it is between the D4 and D800. BUT - and to me this was very surprising - the D600 is really nipping at the heels of the D4 (i.e., is much closer to the D4 in ISO performance than it is to the D800).
I'll provide multiple comparisons (including of different scene types) when my full D600 field test comes out (in a few weeks), but will share a few examples of what I mean right now. The following shots were captured a few minutes after I had done some systematic testing of ISO (comparing the D600 with the D4 and D800) and I decided to simply push the ISO up and do some high ISO shooting of convenient subjects (red squirrels). I sat down near a stump where the squirrels regularly visit (one of their favourite stop off points when they're about to try to steal food from my jay feeder) and set up my D600 paired with the Nikkor 400mm f2.8 VR. I stopped WAY down (these are f16 shots) to limit the light and bump the ISO up (which, of course, gave me a sufficient depth of field to work with these subjects close-up - and keep the critical bits in focus). With Auto ISO enabled I shot away...
IMPORTANT IMAGE NOTES: I am providing both web-sized (reduced to 1200 pixels on long axis) and full resolution uncropped versions of the images for your perusal. These represent quite extreme examples of what you would do with the images, and many uses they would be put to (e.g., making decent sized prints) would fall somewhere between these extremes in terms of resolution requirements. I am doing this because simply giving you resolution-reduced images purporting to show ISO performance can be very misleading - the act of reducing resolution can mask image noise and make even quite noisy images look clean. I would recommend viewing both members of each image pair at 100% magnification (1:1). Note that there was only minimial noise reduction performed on these images, i.e., only during raw conversion (and I used LOWER than the default noise reduction values that are provided by my favourite raw converter - Phase One's Capture One Pro). Critical field notes have been added to the images themselves.
1. ISO 3600 Examples:
Simply Irresistible: Web-sized: Download 1200 pixel Image File with all Field Notes (JPEG file: 667 KB)
Simply Irresistible: Full-resolution, Uncropped: Download Full Resolution Image File (JPEG file: 11 MB)
2. ISO 4500 Examples:
Red Squirrel - Classic Pose: Web-sized: Download 1200 pixel Image File with all Field Notes (JPEG file: 828 KB)
Red Squirrel - Classic Pose: Full-resolution, Uncropped. Download Full Resolution Image File (JPEG file: 12.4 MB)
My final field test will include a more detailed discussion as to why high ISO performance (with only limited consequences on image quality) can be so useful to a nature photographer (such as the ability to shoot in low light, gaining increased control over your aperture and depth-of-field, being able to shoot at higher shutter speeds and consequently hand-holding bigger lenses, etc.). But for now all I'll say is that D600 owners will not have to envy the ISO performance of virtually any camera on the market. The ISO performance of this camera is simply outstanding!
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Yesterday I made the comment that I have found that it's possible to upsize Nikon D600 image files shot at f16 to the resolution of D800 images (also shot at f16) and the resulting images are almost indistinguishable. Specifically, I said "...but when I upsized the D600 images to match the resolution of the D800 images, they were as sharp as, or even slightly sharper, than the D800 images."
Apparently this statement hit a nerve with some folks (presumably D800 users, but that's speculation on my part) - I received a surprising amount of email that diplomatically (and in a few cases, not so diplomatically) suggested I was well...let's just say "full of beans." Fair enough - it's easy enough to just SAY things - I always believe in backing up what I say with images shot in the field. So here you go...
IMAGE NOTES: Images shot at identical settings about 5 minutes apart. All processing identical EXCEPT that in each case I sharpened the final output to provide maximum sharpness (without introducing sharpening artifacts) for that particular image. In other words, I attempted to make each image MAXIMALLY sharp. On the up-sized D600 image (which EXACTLY matches the resolution of the D800 file): I up-sized it using Photoshop CS6 in a single step using Bicubic Interpolation. I experimented with 3 interpolation methods: Bicubic, Bicubic Sharper, and Bicubic Smoother (this last algorithm being the one Adobe recommends for enlarging - or upsizing - an image). In this case the best method definitely appeared to be simply Bicubic Interpolation. Note also that there were a few branches overlapping the creek (and one ugly disposable coffee cup) and rather than cutting them off in the field (or using ropes to tie them back) I chose to digitally remove them after raw conversion (using Content-Aware Fill in Photoshop CS6). Cropping on both images is identical - extremely minor on the horizontal axis, with slightly more vertically (simply for compositional purposes). Finally - although these images are quite large (and more than fill any monitor at 100% magnification) - comparisons between them are best made at 100% magnification (AKA 1:1, or 1 image pixel = 1 display device pixel).
FULL Resolution D800 Image (Autumn Gold): Download Image File with all Field Notes (JPEG file: 6.2 MB)
UP-SIZED D600 Image (Autumn Gold): Download Image File with all Field Notes (JPEG file: 7 MB)
Let the pixel-peeping begin! ;-)
It's important to note that these images were captured at f16 - which is in the zone where diffraction-induced softening of D800 images is known to be prevalent. So...I'm comparing a "handicapped" D800 image with an upsized D600 image (which is "handicapped" a little by the up-sizing and MAY also be handicapped by diffraction-induced image softening). So this little experiment has produced at least a couple more questions. First...what about at wider apertures where neither of the cameras face diffraction issues - can you upsize THOSE D600 files and still match the quality of the D800 files? If the answer is "yes" then a new question comes to mind: why the heck buy a D800? And that's a very good question - I want to know that answer too. So...in the very near future I'll be testing and comparing D600 and D800 files (including up-sized D600 files) shot with a number of lenses and over a range of apertures. So stay tuned for that. AND, of course, there's one other critical question I have: Does the D600 suffer less (and how much less?) from diffraction-induced image softening than the D800? If it does, and if you can upsize the D600 files and pretty much equal the quality of D800 files...well that D600 just might be one VERY hot landscape camera. Which is - at the end of the day - what I really want to know myself...
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I'm still busy testing the D600 (and prepping images) for my D600 field test (which is coming later this month), but at this point it's probably worth letting a little more of the "...cat out of the bag." So I'll say this...my fondness for this camera is growing more each time I use it.
Why (you ask)? Good question. While I still have more testing to do to "quantify" (and provide visual evidence for) my comments, I'm finding that...
1. You can stop it down! One frustration I have with the Nikon D800 is that when I'm shooting landscapes you have to deal with diffraction-induced image softening when you stop your aperture down. With most lenses the images begin to noticeably soften up by f11 (and even at f8 with a few lenses) and by f16 the softening has become a major problem. So far I'm finding this diffraction-induced image softening to be MUCH less prevalent with the D600 - I have not been able to detect ANY noticeable image softening at f11 using ANY Nikkor lens and so far it seems to be pretty much a non-issue at f16 (tho' admittedly I need to do more testing on this). And...I have shot identical shots with the D600 and the D800 at f16 to compare the results. What did I find? Well...this may be hard to believe, but when I upsized the D600 images to match the resolution of the D800 images, they were as sharp as, or even slightly sharper, than the D800 images. I will provide several examples of this in my final field report, but I do have a few sample images shot with the D800 (over this past weekend) to give you a hint of what I'm talking about. The 1200 pixel images below have all the field notes on them, and the hi-res files (close to full-frame with very minor cropping) will show what I'm talking about a little better...
A. D600 with Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8 @ f11:
Beaver Meets Man; Beaver Wins: Download 1200 pixel Image File with all Field Notes (JPEG file: 819 KB)
Beaver Meets Man; Beaver Wins: Download Hi-Res (6018 x 4063 pixel) Image File (JPEG file: 10.6 MB)
B. D600 with Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8 VRII @ f16:
Autumn Gold: Download 1200 pixel Image File with all Field Notes (JPEG file: 819 KB)
Autumn Gold: Download Hi-Res (5950 x 3587 pixel) Image File (JPEG file: 5.0 MB)
NOTE: On the image entitled "Autumn Gold" there were a few branches overlapping the creek (and one ugly coffee cup) and rather than cutting them off in the field (or using ropes to tie them back) I chose to digitally remove them after raw conversion (using Content-Aware Fill in Photoshop CS6)
2. VERY Good ISO Performance. This is another area where I have more testing (and image processing) to do, but I have processed a number of D600 images in the ISO 2000 to ISO 3200 range and I've been extremely happy with what I'm seeing. I'm still in "gut-feel" terrain, but I'm already quite sure the D600 fits into the "better than the D800 but not quite as good as the D4" category. I'll post a few images showing what I mean later this week and lots more when my D600 field test "goes live" in a few weeks.
3. VERY Good Autofocus Performance. This is another place where I've been pleased (yet still need to run a few more field trials). The AF system in the D600 is based upon that which was first used in the D7000, but at this point I CAN say that it handles the "bigger lenses" (both in terms of accuracy of focus and focus-tracking of moving objects, like birds in flight) than my D7000 did. I don't know if this is because Nikon has improved the AF module (above that in the D7000 module) or if it's simply because it works better on a full-frame sensor, but it's working way better for me than my D7000 ever did. A few sample images to follow within a week or so, with even more in that coming field test...
Stay tuned - more on the D600 coming soon!
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Since I returned from the Great Bear Rainforest a few days ago I've received dozens of emails asking me what my "verdict" is on the D600. To be honest, at this point I don't have a concrete answer to that question - during my two weeks in the Great Bear Rainforest I simply shot with the D600 (as opposed to systematically testing it). And, I haven't had a chance to process many shots taken with it yet. But I do have some impressions and SUBJECTIVE "gut feels" for it. Please bear in mind that these comments and thoughts are very preliminary and subject to change/evolution as I systematically test the camera and critically assess the output.
So...here ya go - my first impressions...
Overall Impression: I'm really liking the D600. Its build quality, overall responsiveness, ISO performance, autofocus performance and, most importantly. image quality, all exceeded my expectations (for a $2000 camera). And here's what I feel is an important comment on the overall quality and usefulness of the camera: I found myself preferentially turning to my D600 (over my D800) by the second day of shooting with it.
Build Quality: There are several places on this website where I make the statement that I much prefer the feel and overall build quality of Japanese-produced Nikon cameras over those built in Thailand. Well, the D600 is Thailand-built and the D800 is Japanese-built, but the gap in build quality between them is pretty minor. Which is a good thing (and may force me to modify my own views on the correlation between build quality and country of origin). The D600 is surprisingly and pleasingly solid. And, over the past few weeks I did use it in very wet conditions (albeit iwth a rain cover on MOST of the time, but I DID get it quite wet more than once) and it performed flawlessly. It's important to note that the same can't be said of all the other cameras on this trip - some didn't fair nearly as well. Notably, more than one C-branded camera with a 7 in their model name experienced problems/failures in these wet shooting conditions (in fairness, after drying out they resumed working). The D600 simply kept working. No, it's not as robust or bombproof as a D4 - but it doesn't cost $6k or so either...
Overall Responsiveness: In general terms the camera feels quite "quick" - and I'm used to shooting with a D4. While the maximum frame rate while shooting full-frame raw files is only 1 frame per second (fps) faster than the D800 (5 fps for the D600 vs. 4 fps for the D800) - that one extra frame per second is noticable in the field. And 5 fps isn't too darned bad for a 24 MP camera (don't forget that the D3x could only muster about 2.6 fps with full-frame raw files).
ISO Performance: I need to do more testing on this to really get a handle on how high I'll push the ISO on the D600, but a quick perusal of images I shot in the Great Bear Rainforest seemed consistent with what I expected (and seems completely logical) - better ISO performance than the D800 but not as good as the D4. Which makes it considerably better than on Nikon's last 24 MP camera - the D3x. Stay tuned for more details on this...
Autofocus Performance: The AF system of the D600 is based on that used in the D7000. Some viewed this as a good thing. I didn't - I found the D7000 AF system lacking with telephoto lenses longer than 200mm, particularly when using Dynamic Area focusing. During my time in the Great Bear Rainforest I played around with shooting gulls and eagles in flight (mostly with long teleophoto lenses, including the 600mm f4, and mostly using Dynamic Area AF) and I can definitely say that the AF system out-performs that of the D7000 (or at least MY D7000). How much better? I can't say yet, but it seemed to perform extremely well with all the lenses I tried it with (wide angles plus 70-200mm f2.8 VRII, 400mm f2.8 VR, 600mm f4 VR). So overall good news here...
Video Quality and Performance: Not my thing - I have no clue about video and will probably never even bother to figure out how to capture video with this STILL camera. You'll have to go elsewhere for that information (sorry).
Image Quality? Another area where I do need to shoot (and process) more images before I can say too much, but with the images I've looked closely at to date I'll just say this: SWEET!
Sample images? I guess I can't end this without giving you at least SOMETHING to look at...so here's a few full resolution D600 vs. D800 comparison images.
IMAGE NOTES: These images were captured in RAW format using a D600 and a D800 paired with a 70-200mm f2.8 VRII lens. Images below were captured at ISO 100, 1/160s, and at f8. Tripod mounted. Images were converted from RAW using Capture NX2 and all processing on the images was absolutely identical. Image sharpening during raw conversion set to minimum and NO image sharpening was performed after raw conversion. Note that there were a few branches overlapping the bottom left corner of the image (including slightly overlapping the left-most portion of the reflection of the mountain) - I could have broken them off and shot a "clean" image but chose to save the trees and do the clean-up using the clone tool instead! I thought some might be interested in comparing how an up-sized D600 image compared to a D800 image, so I included an up-sized version of the D600 image (and, to be complete, a down-sampled D800 image, tho' odds are most won't care too much about this image!). Oh, and BTW - this scene is definitely NOT from the Great Bear Rainforest - just something I stumbled upon on my return trip home that seemed to be perfect as a comparison shot! Download away - and best to view these images at 100% magnification.
Image 1: D600 full resolution (6016 x 4016 pixels) image - Download Image File (JPEG file: 5.7 MB)
Image 2: D800 full resolution (7360 x 4912 pixels) image - Download Image File (JPEG file: 7.5 MB)
Image 3: D600 image UPSIZED to D800 resolution (7360 x 4912 pixels) - Download Image File (JPEG file: 7.4 MB)
Image 4: D800 image DOWN-SAMPLED to D600 resolution (6016 x 4016 pixels) - Download Image File (JPEG file: 5.6 MB)
Take this information for what you judge it to be worth. I'm still reserving final judgement on the D600, but I am thinking it was smart of Nikon to introduce the D800 BEFORE the D600, otherwise they wouldn't have sold too many D800's! Is my D800 for sale? You know, it just might be...stay tuned...
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