Nikon AF-S 600mm f/4 E FL ED VR lens review: part 2 (‘long lens technique’)

600reviewpartii

So, you’ve finally made the purchase of your (photography) life, and from now on you’ll be capturing the very best images in the whole world, outperforming everyone, right? Sometimes you hear about people buying a Ferrari and wrapping their beautiful little toy around a big old oak tree that didn’t move when the driver wasn’t sure what he was doing and that tree was approaching at high speed…

Well, a Nikon 600mm requires some special handling as well, or any long lens for that matter. After my second trip to Alaska I noticed, or at least felt that the number of (tack) sharp shots was lower than after my first trip. Which didn’t make sense as I often had an effective 700mm with a 1.4 teleconverter attached to my 500mm prime lens during my first trip. So what was different?

First, I had the previous model of Nikon super telephoto primes, which had a ‘tripod’ mode. The new models don’t have that setting anymore. During my second trip I always had the VR settings on my lens switched to “ON”. Second, I used a Really Right Stuff Long Lens Support package (no, I’m still not getting paid by them) to support my 500mm. During my second trip I didn’t use it as I thought my latest state-of-the-art VR would surely take care of any camera shake and lens vibrations. And then there may have been other differences as well that can affect image sharpness, like if/how you hold your hand on your lens while your other hand is busy shooting.

So I decided to spend a couple of my precious weekends figuring out the mysteries of how to capture sharp images with a long lens (perhaps better if I had done that before leaving on my second trip to Alaska…), in this case not just any long lens but the very latest and supposedly (one of the) best of Nikon’s primes. Browse through the web and you’ll see a lot of articles, opinions (but not too much actual research) on whether to use VR (vibration reduction) in combination with the use of a tripod, or in combination with high shutter speeds, or even a combination of the two. In fact, I’ve been looking at the following ‘parameters’ that can affect images sharpness:

  • Camera
  • Shutter speed
  • Tripod vs hand-held
  • VR ON, SPORT, or OFF
  • Single or burst shot
  • “long lens technique”/(RRS) lens support or not

When you’re out there playing with a 600mm super telephoto lens you typically are out to catch action. Not always, but usually. And action requires a camera that can take a lot of shots in a very short time. So I decided to first check my Nikon D750 in singe shot mode for any interesting differences with my D4S, which I almost always use in burst mode (11/sec.). For each measurement with both the D750 and D4S I took a number of shots ranging between 10-25. My ‘target’ was a small electrical transformer box at app. 100 meters/yards distance:

transformer

Nikon D750, 50mm, f/5.6, 1/200 s., 100% crop

DSLR: Nikon D750

  • 1/320 sec., VR ON, tripod, single shot, no RRS support: app. 10% sharp
  • 1/320 sec., VR OFF, tripod, single shot, no RRS support: app. 30% sharp
    Observation: VR ON in combination with a tripod is not good…
  • 1/500 sec., VR ON, tripod, single shot, no RRS support: app. 0% sharp
  • 1/500 sec., VR OFF, tripod, single shot, no RRS support: app. 40% sharp
  • 1/500 sec., VR SPORT, tripod, single shot, no RRS support: app. 40% sharp
    Observation: VR SPORT in combination with a tripod is better than VR ON
  • 1/1000 sec., VR ON, tripod, single shot, no RRS support: app. 0% sharp
  • 1/1000 sec., VR OFF, tripod, single shot, no RRS support: app. 50% sharp
  • 1/1000 sec., VR SPORT, tripod, single shot, no RRS support: app. 60% sharp
    Observation: VR SPORT in combination with a tripod is definitely better than VR ON
    Observation: image quality increases slightly when VR is OFF with increased shutter speed
  • 1/1600 sec., VR OFF, tripod, single shot, no RRS support: app. 0% sharp
  • 1/1600 sec., VR SPORT, tripod, single shot, no RRS support: app. 60% sharp
    Observation: The D750 doesn’t like long lenses too much (without long lens support)…and/or vice versa
600mmblog-750_1015

Nikon D750, f/4, 1/1000 s., 600mm f/4 FL, tripod, VR OFF

600mmblog-750_1023

Nikon D750, f/4, 1/1000 s., 600mm f/4 FL, tripod, VR ON

DSLR: Nikon D4S

  • 1/1250 sec., VR OFF, tripod, single shot, hand loosely on lens: app. 60% sharp
  • 1/1250 sec., VR OFF, tripod, single shot, hand not on lens: app. 20% sharp
    Observation: hand-on-lens technique with VR OFF improves IQ
  • 1/1250 sec., VR OFF, tripod, burst, hand loosely on lens: app. 50% sharp
  • 1/1250 sec., VR OFF, tripod, burst, hand not on lens: app. 60% sharp
  • 1/1250 sec., VR SPORT, tripod, burst, hand not on lens: app. 35% sharp
    Observation: hand-on-lens technique is unpredictable; VR OFF without hand on lens improves IQ
  • 1/1250 sec., VR OFF, tripod, burst, RRS support: app. 60% sharp
  • 1/1250 sec., VR SPORT, tripod, burst, RRS support: app. 85% sharp
    Observation: RRS support really works; VR SPORT is pretty good on a tripod with support!
600mmblog-D4S_7825-(VR-OFF)

Nikon D4S, f/4, 1/1250 s., 600mm f/4 FL, tripod, RRS support, VR OFF

600mmblog-D4S_7852-(VR-SPORT)

Nikon D4S, f/4, 1/1250 s., 600mm f/4 FL, tripod, RRS support, VR SPORT

  • 1/125 sec., VR SPORT, tripod, burst, RRS support: app. 100% sharp
    Observation: VR SPORT works miracles at slow shutter speeds
  • 1/1250 sec., VR OFF, tripod, burst, RRS support: app. 80% sharp
  • 1/1250 sec., VR SPORT, tripod, burst, RRS support: app. 55% sharp
    Observation: with luck, you can get more sharp shots with VR OFF at high shutter speeds
  • 1/1250 sec., VR OFF, tripod, burst, RRS support: app. 25% sharp
  • 1/1250 sec., VR SPORT, tripod, burst, RRS support: app. 35% sharp
    Observation: …but you’re not always lucky

As I was getting a little disappointed, I decided to switch my autofocus setting to “Focus” in the continuous shooting mode on my D4S. Hopefully that would increase my number of keepers…

  • 1/1250 sec., VR OFF, tripod, burst, RRS support, AF-C Priority: Focus: app. 69% sharp
  • 1/1250 sec., VR SPORT, tripod, burst, RRS support, AF-C Priority: Focus: app. 48% sharp
    Observation: VR can indeed impact sharpness at higher shutter speeds
    Observation: setting VR AF-C Priority to <Focus> increases chance of sharp images
  • 1/1250 sec., VR OFF, tripod, burst, RRS support, AF-C Priority: Focus: app. 27% sharp
  • 1/1250 sec., VR SPORT, tripod, burst, RRS support, AF-C Priority: Focus: app. 70% sharp
    Observation: with VR OFF you have to be lucky; with VR SPORT you need less luck!
600mmblog-D4S_8482-VR-OFF)

Nikon D4S, f/4, 1/1250 s., 600mm f/4 FL, tripod, RRS support, VR OFF

600mmblog-D4S_8516-(VR-SPORT)

Nikon D4S, f/4, 1/1250 s., 600mm f/4 FL, tripod, RRS support, VR SPORT

  • 1/2000 sec., VR OFF, tripod, burst, RRS support, AF-C Priority: Focus: app. 47% sharp
  • 1/2000 sec., VR SPORT, tripod, burst, RRS support, AF-C Priority: Focus: app. 40% sharp
    Observation: at higher shutter speeds, VR OFF takes the edge
  • 1/2500 sec., VR OFF, tripod, burst, RRS support, AF-C Priority: Focus: app. 17% sharp
  • 1/2500 sec., VR SPORT, tripod, burst, RRS support, AF-C Priority: Focus: app. 50% sharp
    Observation: however VR SPORT is your safest bet
600mmblog-D4S_8690-(VR-SPORT)

Nikon D4S, f/4, 1/2500 s., 600mm f/4 FL, tripod, RRS support, VR SPORT

600mmblog-D4S_8718-(VR-OFF)

Nikon D4S, f/4, 1/2500 s., 600mm f/4 FL, tripod, RRS support, VR OFF

  • 1/8000 sec., VR OFF, tripod, burst, RRS support, AF-C Priority: Focus: app. 34% sharp
  • 1/8000 sec., VR SPORT, tripod, burst, RRS support, AF-C Priority: Focus: app. 34% sharp
    Observation: the dilemma will continue…

Now let’s try and bring this test to some form of conclusion:

  1. Unless I’m hand-holding my new Nikon 600mm f/4 FL the whole time/day (yeah, right) I will not use VR ON. If I want VR, I’ll select VR SPORT. In fact, I may never use VR ON anyway…
  2. If I can, I will shoot at low shutter speed, which will not only give me better ISO but will increase my number of keepers.
  3. I’ll shoot with multiple, short bursts. These increase your chances of getting sharp images. A D4S will therefore increase your chances compared to s D750 for example where you will not have the benefits of the fast frame rate.
  4. Try to avoid 1/1000 s. shutter speed, at least when shooting on a tripod. The sample frequency of the VR runs at 1000 Hz. and the results can be very unpredictable.
  5. The sharpest image with VR OFF is always sharper than the sharpest image with VR SPORT. However, your chances of getting sharp images with VR OFF seem to vary. If everything’s perfect, use VR OFF. If not; e.g. you shake, your car shakes, the wind blows, or whatever else, use VR SPORT and your chances are a little better compared to VR OFF.
  6. I’ll be using VR SPORT going forward at most shutter speeds. If the situation allows, I’ll try and take double shots/series: a few bursts with VR SPORT and a few with VR OFF just to increase my chances of keepers. However there will probably not be too many of these situations. Time will tell… (and I’ll be sharing my experiences!)

Here in The Netherlands we just had ‘de bronst’ where male red deers are fighting for their female partners. This shot was taken 2 weeks ago (September 2015) with the D4S, 600mm f/4 FL and VR SPORT on a tripod and with the RRS support package. Definitely one of the keepers!

Red deer (Cervus elaphus)

Red deer (Cervus elapses) at the ‘Hoge Veluwe’

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