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Shooting with the Big Boy

The Nikon 600mm f/4 AF-S

By: Tom Hill

If the camera companies had navy fleets, their flagships would be the super-telephoto lenses — super-teles. Both Canon and Nikon make huge 600mm lenses that stand heads and tails — size and capability wise — above the rest of their arsenals. Use one of these out in the general public, and your quiet nature photo expedition becomes a question-and-answer session. “My, that’s a big lens”. “Can you see really far with that?” “I bet that cost a lot of money, didn’t it?” Geez… it’s annoying being interrupted by such inquiries, but it’s the price of doing business. Sure, someone is thinking to himself or herself, we shouldn’t be flaunting this kind of equipment around at the risk of attracting attention of the unwelcome sort. It kind of makes you wonder? Is there a low-key way to use equipment this big? I’m not sure. If someone out there does know, drop me a line. I’m very interested. Anyway, back to the lens.

Bolsa Chica Nature Preserve
Nikon D100, 600mm f/4 AF-S, TC-20e, Matrix Metering, 1/1250sec, f/11, ISO 400, Gitzo 410, Wimberly Head

Why does anyone need such a beast anyway? Why do photographers find it necessary to take a second mortgage on the house to schlep a 14-pound weight out to the field? The answer is simple — to get closer, Duh! Unfortunately, animals generally aren’t that keen on being approached by us two-legged fellows. Even though we nature photographers may have the greatest intentions, we all look the same to a critter. Stealth, guile, and cunning can be used to overcome this fact of nature but even that’s not enough most the time. Basic power is required; a 600mm lens has that in spades. There’s a cost literally and figuratively for this power, by the way. You can’t get something for nothing.

The Nikon 600mm f/4 AF-S lens is street priced well into the $8,000 range, brand new. Except for cars and houses, this lens might be the single most expensive thing you will ever buy. Optimistically, some will term buying these things as an “investment” to support their profession or passion. Still, it’s a lot of money obligated to anything. This Nikon lens has huge capability but is it worth the money? That’s something we’ll address in a bit.

Wait, just when you thought the spending was over, it’s not! The acquisitions can’t stop with the lens. You can’t operate it alone. If you’ve never owned and operated a super-telephoto lens, there are other accessories you have to acquire to safely use your investment. I spent at least an extra $1,000 bucks on support equipment to safely store, transport, and support my lens. A sturdy tripod, tripod head, and lens bag were all necessary tools to safely and effectively use my gear. I could write an entire series of articles about tripods, their accessories, and why we need these high tech super-tele marvels. That’ll have to wait for another day. Suffice it to say, these accessories are absolutely necessary when making such a big lens purchase.

The bottom line: If you’re planning to buy a brand new super-tele like the Nikon 600mm f/4 AF-S and have never owned a super-tele before, expect to spend between $8,000 to $10,000. There’s no way around it. If you haven’t guessed, it takes a lot of investment to play with the big boys.

Bosque Del Apache NWR
Nikon D1h, 600mm f/4 AF-S, TC-20e, Incident Metering, 1/1250sec, f/8, ISO 200, Gitzo 410, Wimberly Head

Now, why does anyone need such a big, expensive piece of equipment? As I said before, if you can’t get close enough to your quarry, get it closer to you. Super-teles are the solution.

Note: Let’s look at what kind of magnification we can expect with such a huge lens. If we assume the ubiquitous 50mm lens as providing a normal Field of View (FOV) for 35mm sized cameras, then the 600mm gives you 12 times the magnification right? Wrong! It magnifies what you see by 144 times—12 multiplied by 12. While this is counter to intuition let me give you a simple explanation. If you photograph an image with a lens combination but don’t like the FOV, you can easily use one of those tele-converters to get closer without moving your feet. If you compare the FOV without a 2x converter and then with a tele-converter, you’ll see the FOV of the lens with 2x converter occupies 1/4 the view of the original configuration without the converter. That means we got 4 times the magnification with only a 2x converter. The same thing is happening between 50mm and 600mm. While the long lens is 12 times the focal length of the normal, it provides 144 times the magnification. That’s a big number and, yes, a big number means faraway subjects will be a lot closer.

As a comparison, a 500mm lens is 10 times the focal length of a normal 50mm lens and only 100 millimeters less than a 600mm. While 100 millimeters doesn’t seem like much, the magnification of the 600mm lens is 44% more than the 500mm. If you’re pining for more magnification, every millimeter is important. A 44% increase in magnification will make your images look different. That 100 millimeters is significant if you are all about getting closer.

Will these lenses get you closer, you may be wondering? Yes they will. In fact, the 600mm lens will drop the distance you need to approach by over an order of magnitude (more than 10 times) from the 50mm. If you’re used to using a 300mm lens, the 600mm will let you be twice as far from your subject and still get the same perspective. Let me also add, if you’re savvy enough about depth of field (DOF), you’ll note longer lenses tend to significantly reduce the apparent DOF over the shorter, normal lens. This is particularly useful if you’re like me and like to isolate your subjects from distracting background elements. With long lenses like the 600mm, it’s very easy to render the background completely out of focus and thus leave a nice, uncomplicated background beyond your extremely sharp subject. Not only do you bring your subject closer, you also isolate him from the background through the magic of basic optical physics. It’s a nice effect.

Bosque Del Apache NWR
Nikon D1h, 600mm f/4 AF-S, Incident Metering, I/500sec, f/5.6, SB-28DX, -1.7ev fill, ISO 400, Gitzo 410, Wimberly Head

So, how do you operate such a long lens? That’s a kind of complicated question, and there are as many opinions on the subject as there are long lens photographers. I figure the biggest challenge dealing with such a lens is the tendency toward slightly soft images due to camera movement. I’m talking both kinds of movement — the unintentional and inadvertent variety. For those who didn’t know, in the aviation world, which I’m extremely familiar with, by the way, the term unintentional means “I” caused the movement though unintended. While inadvertent means “I” didn’t cause the movement and it happened anyway. Regardless, both types of movement are bad, and there are many techniques out there to minimize their effect.

In our case, vibration of the unintentional variety is caused by simply using poor long lens technique. If you were like me, you probably were slightly unsteady holding your camera before using the 600mm f/4 AF-S without realizing it. Because your camera gear never required you to be rock steady, you never had to exercise excellent technique. Perhaps you weren’t holding a balanced stance. Maybe you weren’t holding your gear appropriately. The point is while your previous technique was totally passable with your shorter lenses, it wouldn’t be acceptable with a super-tele like the 600mm f/4 AF-S. Every imperfection in your technique is magnified tremendously. What was a small and totally acceptable imperfection before may be totally unacceptable with the long lens. Honestly, that’s the nature of long lens photography.

On the other hand, vibration of the inadvertent variety is caused by the mechanics in the camera shaking the entire combination when you press the shutter. You may be thinking “how can a little mirror slap can move that 14-pound behemoth around?” Valid question. It’s not the magnitude of the shake that may be killing your images. Small movement when shooting at slow speeds can be just as deadly to your images. There are a couple of theories on how best to avoid this problem. The best technique is shoot at higher speeds, 1/60 sec or greater, for example. If that’s not possible, I seem to have acceptable results by using my best long lens technique and avoiding the 1/10sec to 1/25sec range. You need impeccable technique to eliminate problems you may make when shooting that slow. It’s the challenge of not having a Vibration Reduction or Image Stabilization capability where your lens would damp out these little movements for you.

Did I already say why I’m willing to suffer through such pains to take pictures? It’s to get close. Completely, 100% of the reason is to get close. Even a 600mm f/4 AF-S isn’t enough and you’ll wish you had more lens. More lens?! Yup, there will be times you will wish you had more if you’re anything like me. Fortunately there’s a solution without taking a third mortgage on the house and while maintaining most of the quality you’ve come to expect from paying such big bucks. Teleconverters are the solution. The matched set of teleconverters designed specifically for the Nikon’s AF-S style telephoto lenses includes the TC-14e and TC-20e. Nowadays, the most recent models are “mk II” versions. Although they are cosmetically different on the outside, these models are optically identical to the original TC’s on the inside. These accessories provide 1.4 and 2.0 focal length extensions respectively for relatively reasonable prices. That’s 840 and 1200 millimeters with a 600mm f/4 AF-S lens—wow! There is a tradeoff using these. Remember, you can’t get something for nothing here. A 1.4x and 2.0x converter will reduce by one-half or one-quarter the amount of light coming through the lens, which in photographic terms represents a one or two stop reduction in the lens’ maximum aperture. Add to that, the optical quality of your combination is certainly reduced. The contrast isn’t as great and the sharpness is reduced with these things. This is more obvious with the TC-20e than its little brother, the TC-14e. Why would anyone want to deal with these drawbacks? Well, as I said before, the point of this is to get closer and that desire may outweigh some of the drawbacks. Honestly, while some shooters will absolutely look sideways at a 2x converter like the TC-20e and resist the urge to use a 1.4x converter like the TC-14e in the name of maintaining optical quality, I totally believe using these can produce completely acceptable images if you apply your best long lens techniques when shooting under good conditions. They aren’t perfect — especially the TC-20e — but you may get a shot that otherwise would’ve been impossible. The key here is to use Nikon’s matched teleconverters versus another manufacturer’s. The quality is significantly different between the two.

You long lens, close-up fanatics out there may consider one other thing if you’re on the fence about purchasing a digital camera. All of Nikon’s digital SLRs have sensors with smaller surface areas than regular film. You’re essentially cropping the image without adjusting the optical formula of your gear. This characteristic results in a 1.5x equivalent magnification factor of your lens. A 600mm f/4 AF-S mounted with a Nikon D1h is a 900mm f/4 equivalent lens. That’s huge! Now add on your teleconverter, and you’ve got something really big. That’s the same as a 1260mm or 1800mm lens with the TC-14e or TC-20e respectively. For those who understand things in terms of magnification, these focal lengths are effectively magnifying your subjects by 635 and 1295 times.


Sunrise, Huntington Beach
Nikon D1h, 600mm f/4 AF-S, Matrix Metering.1/640sec, f/4, ISO 400, Gitzo 410, Wimberly Head

Where are we now? So far, I think we’ve determined that the 600mm f/4 AF-S is a highly specialized piece of photography equipment well suited to bring faraway things to you when you can’t get to them. As a result of such unique qualities, the lens can be quite challenging to properly employ. Also, additional costly equipment is required to effectively support this huge piece of glass. What else does anyone need to know? How about out how fast this lens is. I’m not talking just how quickly you can set the thing up, but how fast is it at taking pictures – its basic ability to see a subject and focus.

One of the beauties of the Nikon’s AF-S series lenses is their built-in focusing motor. The camera only provides the power, while the little motor provides the motive force to focus the lens on what the camera sees. The lens is super quick as a result. I think with the right conditions it can be quicker than normal human eyes at focusing — this isn’t always the case, but it can be quicker based on my experience. This ability to focus quickly is huge in the wildlife photography department, especially with flying birds. In many respects, it’s kind of magical how you can point the lens toward an out of focus subject, press the shutter, then immediately it pops into tack sharp focus. Another cool thing is this capability isn’t lost when using the TC-14e. Conversely, the TC-20e isn’t advertised by Nikon as an usable Auto Focus (AF) configuration with the 600mm f/4 AF-S. The aperture is simply too small. In practice, the AF does work under the right conditions with this lens. Bright, contrasting situations are necessary. While this isn’t perfect, it is useful when you consider how hard it is to focus a 1200mm lens in the first place, let alone auto focus such a monster.

The real reason anyone wants to buy the 600mm f/4 AF-S is to get Nikon’s best at getting close to a subject. Sure, its size is imposing. OK, maybe living in the poor house is kind of less than perfect because you spent all your money on this thing. On the other hand, after learning how to manage such a beast, think of what you get: super-sharp images, incredibly close subjects, amazing speed. The end result is a winning combination.

Cheers,

Tom

© 2003 Tom Hill

Tom is an avid photographer who spends his days teaching others how to test airplanes. At night, he decompresses by becoming a rabid nature photographer. He has been a big user of Leica and Nikon equipment since starting in photography 30 years ago when his dad introduced him to B&W developing in their basement. Nowadays, he uses Nikon’s best digital cameras, including the D1h and D100. You can see more of his work on his Web site.


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Concepts: Focal length, Telephoto lens, Photographic lens, Digital single-lens reflex camera, Angle of view, Magnification, Normal lens, Wide-angle lens

Entities: Nikon, Canon, navy, AF, Michael Reichmann, Gitzo, D100, D1h, SLRs

Tags: long lens, Nikon, images, long lens techniques, magnification, camera, focal lengths, best long lens, big lens, normal 50mm lens, ubiquitous 50mm lens, Nikon lens, poor long lens, long lens photography, big lens purchase, AF-S lens, huge lens, super-telephoto lens, lens combination, equipment, normal lens, millimeters, equivalent lens, brand new, inadvertent variety, huge 600mm lenses, big number, right conditions, auto focus, optical quality, Bolsa Chica Nature, equivalent magnification factor, gear, tech super-tele marvels, AF-S series lenses, quiet nature photo, AF-S style telephoto, Nikon D100, focal length extensions, tack sharp focus