‘Tarsier teachings’ – day 1: Nikon D850 & 600mm f/4E FL, Nikon D500 & 200-500mm f/5.6 & 70-200mm f/2.8E FL combos

On the first day of my little tarsier adventure I was going to ‘target’ them with the new Nikon D850 and the excellent 600mm f/4E FL prime. As a backup I was carrying the D500 with 200-500mm f/5.6E zoom attached. I also had the new Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8E in my bag, but wasn’t really planning on using it as I thought it wouldn’t get me close enough to the tarsiers…

Speaking of which, tarsiers are the smallest primates in the world, about the size of a human fist. I didn’t really know upfront what the best camera/lens combo would be to get these little critters framed in the best possible way; my only previous experience had been the D4S/200-500mm f/5.6E.

So, I decided to simply bring all my main gear with me this time: 2 DSLRs, 1 mega prima and 3 large zoom lenses. And as carry-on to the plane, I decided to try and fit it all in the F-stop Tilopa bag. Miraculously the whole set actually fits!

But this is not the one reason why I really like these camera bags from F-stop. Om my trip to Bohol, the ground stewardess decided that my bag was too heavy; despite I was going to board an Airbus A320 with ample space in the overhead bins. Anyway, she wasn’t going to let me through with such a ‘heavy bag’…

I thought I’d show her some ‘F-stop magic’ and offered her I could take out the inner camera unit (“ICU”) and carry it with me separately if that was going to make any difference. And so I did… She then weighed the separate bag and the ICU again, which obviously weighed exactly the same, and… I was allowed to pass! Not sure what she had had for breakfast, but I just smiled and carried on; this time with the almost empty bag on my back and the rather heavy ICU in my hand.

I went to see the tarsiers in the afternoon on the first day, with relatively low light. Would the D850 with 600mm f/4 easily outperform the D500 with 200-500mm f/5.6?

Nikon 600mm f/4E FL on Nikon D850, f/4, 1/320 s., ISO 2000, -0.3 exp. comp.

Nikon 600mm f/4E FL on Nikon D850, f/4, 1/200 s., ISO 2000, -0.7 exp. comp.

I don’t think I’d ever shot tiny fluffy furry creatures before with my Nikon 600mm f/4E FL prime lens. It’s hard! Biggest problem is the minimum focus distance: it’s well over 4 meters (US spelling :)) and it’s hard to get up close and personal with tarsiers that way. Then there is the 600mm focal length and while the 600mm has excellent VR; you’re taking risks with shooting at 1/60 sec. or so trying to keep your ISO low… So I got some nice shots, but I found myself going for the D500+200-500mm f/5.6 quite soon…

Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E on Nikon D500 @ 420mm, f/5.6, 1/80 s., ISO 1400, -0.3 exp. comp.

With the D500 you immediately see the 1.5 crop advantage (i.e. in the case of wildlife photography): this shot was at an effective 630mm focal length but I could get a lot closer than with the 600mm prime. The other thing I noticed had to do with the 200-500mm: it ‘hunts’; i.e. struggles to focus in low light, which is simply due to its f/5.6 minimum aperture. An aperture of f/5.6 simply won’t work in situations where a little tarsier is hiding in the (relative) dark, under some leaves, while what remains of the sun is shining through all sorts of gaps in between and your camera likes all those spots a lot more than the totally dark spot you’re trying to focus on…

So, my D850/600mm combo wasn’t really giving me what I had expected, and the D500/200-500mm was even worse. As I still wanted to keep the D850/600mm combo ‘just in case’, I chose to attach the 70-200mm f/2.8 to the D500. Would the 2 stop increase in light save the day?

Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8E on Nikon D500 @ 200mm, f/2.8, 1/80 s., ISO 200, -0.7 exp. comp.

So this is what a larger aperture brings you: lower ISO, no problems in focusing and a better dynamic range which allows you to bring back shadows without bad noise popping up – the D500 and D850 perform very well in this area (same for the D4S, not for the D5… sorry couldn’t help it).

“world champion cuteness”
Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8E on Nikon D500 @ 200mm, f/2.8, 1/100 s., ISO 360, -0.7 exp. comp.

The 70-200mm f/2.8 allowed me to come up much closer than the 600mm f/4 (1 meter minimum focus distance compared to over 4 meters) and you gain an additional stop compared to the 600mm (+ another one compared to the 200-500mm f/5.6 who had already retired for the night). So the D500 + 70-200mm f/28E turned out to be the clear winner; completely against my expectations. The ‘tarsier teachings’ I got from that first day of shooting:

  • The 600mm f/4 is more suited for larger objects (mammals), at larger distance. The relatively long minimum focus distance makes tiny creatures harder to frame.
  • F/5.6 doesn’t work too well in low light! This is why expensive/pro-grade lenses have higher/larger apertures, and cheaper/consumer-grade lenses have smaller ones.
  • The moment I saw the shots taken with the new Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8E lens I remembered what an incredible lens that is: the bokeh is just absolutely stunning, it’s very very sharp wide open, and so on. It’s the absolute #1 zoom lens in this range out there at the moment (as stated by most if not all relevant websites, no other lens (in this category) comes close at the moment (sorry Sony/Canon).

The day had come to an end, and I was wondering if the 70-200mm would be doing even better with the D850 attached. How would those 46 megapixels look like on that amazing lens? Stay tuned for my next post where I’ll be discussing my experiences with this combination. In short… I was stunned.

On a different note: Nikon has just released its brand new 180-400 f/4 zoom lens with built-in 1.4 TC. What I found interesting in the context of the findings discussed in this article, is that you’ll be shooting at f/5.6 when you want to use the 400-560mm range. Now this will work fine in scenes with lots of light but not so much when you’re trying to frame tiny little tarsiers hiding under bush leaves. In that case, you may find yourself having spent well over $12,000 when having to put your expensive toy away to replace it with a larger aperture lens instead. Over $12,000 for a lens with an f/5.6 aperture at a zoom range you’ll be using it the most… something to think about :)

As usual, for any questions, comments or feedback, simple add comments below (preferred) or otherwise drop me a note at: enquiry@fliek.com

Please note that these images are protected by copyright and are not allowed to be used in any commercial way. If you’re interested in personal use only (like using as personal desktop/tablet/mobile background) then that’s fine; however any other use is prohibited by law.

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