Nikon’s Biggest Gun: A Review of the New 800mm f/5.6E FL ED VR LensGear Talk
Until recently, Canon’s 800mm f/5.6 lens has been about the longest lens currently in production by one of the big manufacturers. The longest lens on the Nikon side has been the 600mm f/4, which I took out for a spin not too long ago.
Now, Nikonians have their own cannon (yes, pun intended) to play with. The Nikon AF-S 800mm f/5.6E FL ED VR lens is finally shipping, and we’ve got them in our inventory for rental. I took this behemoth out for a test to see just what Nikon packed into it. Last week, I posted sample images from that shoot; here’s the full review.
A Bad Start
My experience with the 800mm began poorly. I took the lens out with a D4, an Induro AT–413 tripod and a Custom Brackets gimbal head to one of my favorite birding spots in the Redwood Shores region of the San Francisco Bay Area. Every spring, these black-and-white birds call Black Skimmers show up around here, and make for some excellent photo opportunities.
They gather around the shoreline, and fly low over bodies of water, letting their lower beaks dip into the water as they fly, trying to snap up small fish. Get lucky, and you can walk away with an image of one with its beak creating a wake through water, which is what I was aiming for.
Well, things didn’t start out well. I set up everything, balanced the lens on the gimbal, and started shooting.
Immediately, I noticed that the lens was incredibly slow to focus. For static subjects, it was fine – you could zero in on them and shoot from here to kingdom come. But try and focus on moving subjects – especially fast-moving ones like birds in flight — and I was lucky if I achieved focus at all, let alone keeping it locked on a swooping Skimmer.
It was an exercise in frustration. No matter how I adjusted the AF settings on the D4, I could not get the 800mm lens to focus properly. I was ending up, on average, with perhaps 30% of my shots in focus.
I knew I was doing something wrong. No way Nikon would let loose such a poorly performing lens. No freaking way.
As it turns out, I wasn’t doing something wrong as far as my technique goes, but I did figure out what I needed to do. These modern cameras and lenses are veritable computing machines, every bit as they are imaging machines. My D4 needed a firmware update to cope with the new lens. I was running v1.02, whereas the latest firmware was v.1.05, which specifically added support for the 800mm lens.
So, I updated the firmware on the D4, and headed back out.
The difference was night and day. Suddenly, the lens and camera was locking and tracking onto subjects moving faster than I could swing that gimbal around to keep up with them, increasing my accuracy to more than I’d hoped.
In the burst of 33 images below, there is one that’s definitely out of focus and only two more besides that aren’t acceptably sharp to my eyes. That little duck was hauling butt while the combo of the 800mm and D4 kept up with it even when it crossed in front of dense foliage might have otherwise fooled an AF sensor.
Form-factor and Handling
At over 10 pounds, this isn’t a lens you’ll be hand-holding. I tried, once. Didn’t bother doing it again. Even with VR, you’re not gonna be getting many sharp images with it.
The 800mm is built like Nikon’s 600mm f/4 lens – lots of smooth plastic and rubberized surfaces. There are the standard AF memory buttons and switches to set VR and focus modes and distance limits. The unit ships with both, a standard tripod foot that adapts well to the long plates used by gimbal heads, as well as a lower-profile foot that reduces the mounted height of the lens.
In what is definitely a departure from the norm, the 800mm also ships with a 1.25x teleconverter specially designed for this lens. This teleconverter, which turns the 800mm f/5.6 lens into a 1000mm f/7.1 lens, is not meant for use with other Nikon lenses — or so Nikon says. I didn’t try to test the veracity of that statement.
Once the firmware issue was resolved, the lens performed like a champ. It was every bit as snappy as the 600mm f/4, and perhaps a hair more so, when it came to locking onto a subject. With the D4 driving it, it nailed focus accurately and kept it locked, even when the subject crossed in front of foliage, which can sometimes break focus.
With the teleconverter, there was a barely noticeable slowdown in focusing speed. Some really fast subjects did cause me to loose focus for a second as the lens compensated, but I soon learned to adapt to that.
The biggest issue I found was that after having gotten used to a 600mm lens, the additional reach of the 800 – to say nothing about the 1000mm reach with the teleconverter – was a bit tricky to work with. Tracking subjects is just a bit harder due to the narrower field of view, and you have to work even harder when the teleconverter is on.
Even more important than the reach issue is the depth of field. At 800mm and f/5.6, it’s thin – almost razor thin. I’m glad the lens’ focus is dead-on accurate and fast; if it weren’t, that slim DoF would be a total killer. You can, of course, close down to f/8 or higher, but thankfully, unless your subject requires a deeper DoF, you don’t need to.
Since I had the lens on a gimbal head and was shooting at a reasonably high shutter speed, I turned Vibration Reduction off for the most part. However, it still came in handy when I was shooting the San Francisco skyline from Treasure Island. There, despite locking the gimbal down completely, vibrations from passing cars and the footfalls of large crowds of tourists caused a bit of shake in the setup.
Switching Vibration Reduction on to “Normal” solved this issue for me. The 800mm can detect when it’s mounted on a tripod, and and reduces vibration from shutter release and other minor interference, solving that problem for me. The resulting images were sharp as they get – and, as you’ll see in a bit, sometimes scarily so.
Image quality from this lens is about as good as it gets. To my subjective eye, my shots were, perhaps, slightly sharper in general with the 800mm than they were with the 600mm f/4. That’s a subjective judgement, of course, and it could that the additional reach just helped capture more detail, but I couldn’t find anything to fault with this lens. There’s a bit of vignetting with the aperture wide open, but that’s easily fixed in post.
Adding the teleconverter does, as I mentioned, seem to slow the focusing speed down just a hair, but it’s not all that noticeable. I was still able to lock and track reasonably fast-moving subjects. The max aperture drops by about 2/3 of a stop to f/7.1 with the teleconverter attached.
What surprised me is just how powerful a 1000mm f/7.1 lens can be. Take a look at the shots below. The 800mm shot is on the left, the 1000mm one on the right. These are taken from Treasure Island in the San Francisco Bay and are of the very top of the Transamerica Pyramid building. As the crow flies, that’s a distance of about 2.25 miles.
From that distance, with a little tweaking, I can see into one of the windows at the top of the building well enough to distinguish the green glow of what looks like an exit sign, some recessed lighting, and a piece of artwork hanging on the wall.
Yeah. It’s that good.
Nikon has been missing an 800mm lens in their lineup for some time now, which is something Canonistas have been crowing about for just as long. Nikon has responded to those calling for it to make that super tele with a lens that really exceeded my expectations. The 800mm f/5.6 is a beauty of a lens, and is perhaps one of the finest super-tele optics I’ve had the pleasure of shooting with. And, at a roughly $18,000 purchase price, I’m glad that we’re carrying it for rental.
I set out to capture an image of Black Skimmer just as it dipped its beak into the water, creating that cook wake. With the D4 and the 800mm lens at my disposal, I did just that.
All images, except where stated otherwise, are © Sohail Mamdani, 2013.