Nikon AF-S 600mm f/4 E FL ED VR lens review: part 1

nikon600mm

A super telephoto lens for a wildlife photographer is something like a scalpel for a surgeon, a car for a taxi driver, a computer for a programmer… well, you get the picture. Now there are super telephoto lenses in all sorts and sizes, but there are only a few that are up there in that ‘special group’. It’s a combination of image quality – and therefore price, aperture, weight, build, prime vs. zoom, etc. that define the rank within that special group.

Among the very best are the primes. There are great zooms as well, but the primes are unbeatable in terms of performance/quality. I used to have a Nikon 300mm f/2.8 and I loved it. The image quality was amazing; seriously outperforming my 70-200mm f/2.8 zoom, which is already a very, very good lens. However, 300mm is too short for wildlife (from a considerable distance) so I went on to buy a Nikon 400mm f/2.8 – the ‘previous’ version (and sold my 300). Lookup on the various websites on the quality of this lens and you’ll see it’s one of the very best in the world. Absolutely amazing. However… 400mm will do nicely when you shoot relatively large animals from a not-so far distance, but anything smaller will become troublesome (as your little birdies will simply fly away…). So, most wildlife photographers will either include a 500mm or 600mm within their wider collection of glass, and if they’re very serious indeed (budgets permitting…) they’ll go for the so-called ‘fast primes’; i.e. f/4.

Last year I captured a lot of grizzlies in Katmai, Alaska with a rented Nikon 500mm f/4 (I had sold my 400mm f/2.8 earlier), and every now and then I added a 1.4 extender, giving me 700mm which I stopped down to about f/7.1 for good balance between sharpness and ISO. However, I did miss shooting at f/4 which gives me better ISO and perhaps even more important, much better bokeh. So what I was missing was a prime without extender, that would give me reach and quality; ideally a lens that allows me to capture little birdies if & when I like to, but also to captures mammals from a large and relatively safe distance. The prime for this purpose is called the 600mm f/4, and the one I had my eye on for a long time was the ‘again previous’ Nikon 600 mm f/4, or to be exact: the Nikon AF-S 600mm f/4.0G VR ED. A couple of weeks ago I made the decision: I was going to buy this lens for my wildlife photography. Not more than 2 days later after making my decision, I read Nikon would be releasing their – finally – upgraded version of this lens and the 500mm one, in the same line as their latest 400mm and 800mm fluorite lenses. Given it takes Nikon about 8 years (or more) to upgrade these lenses, I decided to wait just a couple of weeks more, prepare myself even better for the highly unpleasant gap in my bank account this purchase would leave, and place the order with my local camera retailer, who happens to obtain the latest Nikon equipment first in line. So only after 2 days after its global release date, I was at my local retailer looking at (what I think was) the very first Nikon AF-S 600mm f/4.0 FL ED VR prime lens in The Netherlands. And yes, at the price of a nice middle-class car.

Initial impressions

I recall reading somewhere that this lens was not considered to be as ‘cool looking’ as its predecessor. However I can say with certainty that just by looking at it, you get the impression you’ve got something really special and highly valuable in your hands (not holding it for too long; more on that further on…). The first and obvious thing that strikes you is the reduction in weight; it actually weighs as much as the previous 500mm f/4 which is hand-holdable – to a certain extent. I have held the previous 600mm f/4 and have owned and used the 400mm f/2.8 which is similar in weight, and they were very, very heavy. The next thing that strikes you is the VR: I remember trying to shoot with my hand-held 400mm f/2.8 and if I got any sharp shots it was by pure luck. A tripod was mandatory. With this new 600, you can actually shoot hand-held and the shots are (mostly all) sharp! The VR is a clear upgrade from the previous version and it works very well. The only reason why I need a tripod is not so much of shots that are not in focus, but simply because 3.8 kgs (8.4 pounds) is still uncomfortable to hand-hold for longer than a couple of minutes. And wildlife photographers do tend to be busy in the field for a little more than a couple of minutes…

600mm-up-below

Setting up the 600mm f/4E FL

Nikon has greatly improved the foot which now has a nice rubber piece on top. However, for whatever reason Nikon is still not using the Arca-Swiss style plates, so if you want to focus on weight reduction of your overall kit (believe me, you do) you’re looking at replacing the foot with one that does follow the de facto Arca-Swiss standard. My personal favorite (and I’m not getting paid by them) has been for years Really Right Stuff. The stuff these guys (m/f) make is basically, ‘really right’! They already came out with a lens plate for the Nikon 800mm f/5.6 FL which then also was a fit on the 400mm f/2.8 FL model. So I though by myself: “no guts, no glory!” and I ordered the Really Right Stuff LCF-17 assuming it would also fit on the new 600mm f/4 FL.

When you compare the two, you can see the RRS LCF-17 is built ‘smarter’; i.e. less weight while able to carry the same/similar load. AND the LCF-17 is already Arca-Swiss-compliant so should fit straight on your ball or gimbal head without having to add an additional plate between the Nikon standard one and your tripod head.

rrs for 600mm

bottom-600mm

The standard Nikon foot is easy to replace and the RRS LCF-17 does indeed fit perfectly! I will actually use the 600mm on my Wimberley gimbal head rather than my RRS ball head while in the field, but the picture below gives a good impression of the new Nikon AF-S 600mm f/4E FL ED VR lens, attached to a Nikon D4s, a Really Right Stuff LCF-17 lens plate and a Really Right Stuff ball head.

Nikon 600mm FL side

Next steps… align before you align!

So what’s next? Actually, a lot, but let’s start with my favorite topic… lens alignment and focus!

As you may have read in my previous posts, I have not been lucky with Nikon’s D800(E)/810 DSLRs. I think there must be a curse somehow/somewhere in that any sample I get my hands on, is simply out of focus. That is, the dreaded left/right focus points are out of focus when I test them. My Nikon D4s is fine, my Nikon D4 was fine, my Nikon D3s was fine, my Nikon D750 is fine, my Nikon D610 was fine. All fine. Except the Nikon D800(E)/810. Very expensive cameras with flaws. Nikon could hire me and I will pick out all their flawed D800(E)/810 copies…simply by touching them.

So moving along to the new Nikon AF-S 600mm f/4E FL ED VR lens: surely this >10K lens will not have any flaws, right? It was time for my nice little LensAlign kit, attached to my D4s, take a couple of shots, and check the results.

600mm miss

This image was taken at f/4, hand held, and you can see the incredible thin Depth of Field (DOF). At the minimum focus distance of the Nikon 600mm you get just about 1cm of DOF! But you may also have observed that the focus is not on-target; i.e. there is a little front focus. I actually suffered a minor heart attack when I first noticed this…

What I obviously not should have done was to hand-hold this remarkable piece of engineering; instead it’s really important to carefully setup the entire set: lens, tripod, measurement card, and it’s key to be straight on the card (90 degrees) – like I actually do with all my lens/camera measurements. With the LensAlign set this means you must be able to see the red holes from the card in the back through the holes from the card in the front. This is quite a delicate task but in the end I got the alignment right (well nearly perfect):

600mm straight

And… we have a winner! It’s as perfect as can be. Now this was taken at about 4.5 meters and I could try again at let’s say 15 or 25 meters, but I’m quite confident Nikon has manufactured a high-quality product here. In fact, I have taken a lot of test shots at around 50 meters and they are all dead-sharp. More on that in a moment.

What else is needed?

You would typically want something that has cost you more than 10K (Euros or Dollars, not much difference anymore these days) and is brand new, to stay looking brand new in the years to come. Fortunately, another high-quality solution is available: LensCoat. I’ve been using LensCoat products for years now (and no, I’m not getting paid by them either), for example on my 70-200mm f/2.8 zoom and their ‘LegCoat’ on my Gitzo tripod which makes it much more comfortable to carry on your shoulders when walking long distances. So, all that is needed is LensCoat’s latest addition to their product line: a LensCoat lens cover for the latest Nikon AF-S 600mm f/4E FL ED VR lens!lenscoat 600mmEhh Houston, there’s just one small problem: it’s not there – yet (at the time of this blog’s writing: July 30, 2015). The 600mm FL is so new, LensCoat is only just starting the manufacturing process and the only sample lens covers they have are the hand-made/prototype ones shown on their website. And as I expect to use the 600mm FL (very) soon & often, I reached out to LensCoat for advice.

LensCoat was very kind to let me purchase their (I assume very first & only) hand-made sample cover in “Realtree Max4” pattern and colors. After priority shipment I received it only 2 days later and it fits like a glove! In fact, as you can see in the picture, there’s not much much left to see of the actual lens, but that’s only a small price to pay to keep your pricy toy free from dents and scratches…

(update: LensCoat has now started shipping this cover)

Sample images

Sample 1: Heron on the lookout on a sunny afternoon, Oostvaardersplassen, Netherlands.
D4s, AF-S 600mm f/4E FL ED VR @ f/4, 1/1000 s. ISO 160. VR ON, hand-held @ app. 50 m.

600mm sample1-2

Sample 2: Jumping humpback whale, Aialik Bay, Alaska.
D4s, AF-S 600mm f/4E FL ED VR @ f/4, 1/2000 s. ISO 140, VR ON, hand-held.

jumping humpback

Sample 3: Relaxing sea otter, Resurrection Bay, Alaska.
D4s, AF-S 600mm f/4E FL ED VR @ f/4, 1/1250 s. ISO 2500, VR ON, hand-held.

sea otter

In part 2 of my review of the new Nikon AF-S 600mm f/4E FL ED VR lens I will focus on the ‘real-life’ experiences; e.g. key considerations & lessons learned, do’s and don’ts etc. (around 3rd/4th week of August 2015).

Please let me know any feedback via: feedback@fliek.com

All images and content copyright © 2015 fliek.com

Nikon D810 focus issues (no…please…surely, not again…??!!)

When you’re out there shooting beautiful sceneries, landscapes, wildlife, or in other words Life/Nature :), you want to carry with you at least 2 camera bodies. For example one for the action and one for the landscapes, or the one as a backup for the other in case something goes wrong. Wrong? Yes, sometime something goes wrong… When I got the Nikon D4 not long after it was released I found that it ‘blocked’ at seemingly random intervals. The camera simply wouldn’t respond anymore to anything. In fact, the only way to get it working again was to remove the battery. Not very nice, to say the least…Nikon did release software patches that fixed the problem(s) but that did not stop some professional photographers out there to simply abandon Nikon – and their rather relatively poor Quality Assurance procedures – and move to a different brand (e.g. Canon). At the time I decided to take the plunge and get second body: a Nikon D800E, and I was really impressed with its incredible IQ and resolution. But, I did read what was going on with the D800 focus problems on all the reviews and blogs out there, so decided to check the focus points on my D800E as well. Lo and behold: they were off. Center was working fine, right and left were not. For such an expensive camera I just knew I wasn’t going to be comfortable with these know defects, so I returned the D800E. I would have to wait for the next generation Nikon D8xx… Fast forward… I currently own a D4S, which is absolutely great. However it’s my only DSLR and so I decided to take another plunge for a second body…and surely Nikon has by now repaired everything that has and/or may have gone wrong with the D800/E, so the choice was made: a D810! The only thing I had to do was simply, and quickly check the focus of the D810 on my  Spyder lens calibration tool and I can go shoot high-resolution mountains, rivers, valleys, and the occasional bird and bear at a close distance! So let’s compare the results… (All taken at f/2.8 with a Nikon 70-200mm, no sharpening applied AND 100% crop, so a little soft which is normal for f/2.8 with this lens; D4S and D810 shot with remote and mirror-up to avoid ANY shutter shake.) 1st shot: Nikon D4S, center focus point.D4S-center-full Yes, that’s in focus. It better be, it’s a $6000+ camera! Nikon D810, center focus point:D810-center-full Auch!!!  That hurts…!!! Wait a second…no I don’t believe it. It’s even the center point!! This is not a Nikon D800/E. This is its successor, the renowned D810! There can only be one explanation, it’s my fault. I’m an amateur and I’m doing something wrong! Let’s take another 20 shots! (which I did, different shutter speeds, different everything…with the same result…) Nikon D810, right focus point:D810-right-full Aj…still pretty bad. Again, there can only be one explanation: it’s my fault! Surely a high-tech company like Nikon with all those incredibly intelligent scientists and most complex machinery will not have any expensive cameras to be sent out and sold with these kinds of defects? Impossible, it must be me… Nikon D810, left focus point:D810-left-full Hang on, wait a second. This one’s clearly sharper than the other two! It’s not perfectly in focus, but it’s almost there! So… the left focus point (actually, second one from the far left) focuses better than the center one and the right one(s)!! But how can this be? Could it be that…no, surely Nikon did not again make mistakes with the focus points on the D810, did they? Surely, it’s my fault! ..but then why do I get good results with my D4S? And why did I get good results with the D610 I previously owned? Let’s see… the constant factor in those cases was …me. The varying factor in those cases was…the Nikon DSLR. Actually, there was another varying factor: D4S: Japan. D800/E: Japan. D810: Thailand. Oh my… Epilogue: I will return my D810 to my camera retailer and will ask for a new body, straight from the Nikon factories. In case that model turns out fine, I will be able to focus again on my photography despite this unpleasant experience. If however the new body will NOT be fine, I guess I will simply have to accept that the Nikon D8xx series is not for me, and will wonder how it’s possible that for others it is… Perhaps the D750 will then be a possible new candidate. To be continued… stay tuned!