It seems somewhat of a natural progression to end up trying out a 600mm lens, or at least that's what I'm telling myself. I find photographing wildlife and birds fun for many reasons: the curiosity to see different creatures in their natural environment, the peace and solitude in the time it takes to get a shot and last but by no means least the technical challenge of capturing the image. Its this last part this post will mainly focus on, with a bit more detail on the photographic side in a forthcoming entry.
As mentioned on my previous few posts realised a 300mm wasn't going to cut it. Upgrading to an 300mm f4 prime to achieve 420mm f5.6 had left me feeling a tad disappointed in Yellowstone. I wasn't too interested in a Sigma or Tamron zoom lens like the 200-600mm, but then Nikon released their 200-500mm f5.6. This gave me pause for thought and had got some pretty good reviews. I may try this out still in the future but for now I decided to try something a little different.
To many it may seem nuts to buy one of these manual focus exotic super telephoto primes. The depth of field for these lenses are razor thin at most working distances and optically they were designed for the film era. Still they are what the pros used two decades ago so image and build quality are excellent so I was pretty intrigued when a very good condition copy of this lens turned up on eBay, particularly after being impressed with using my 300mm F4 Ai-S ED lens to capture the fox in my garden.
Sure manual focus isn't for most people in this day and age but this is Nikon's lightest 600mm prime lens, its pro build and image quality (the latter somewhere circa 1976-1986 as mine is the earlier copy), and of course the price is a very important factor. This lens is around 4x cheaper than a 15 year old AF 600m f4 and over 10x less than a new contemporary f4 (a new f5.6 AF-S lens is rumored and I'm intrigued to see where the price of that will land). Sure I was prepared to miss shots that otherwise AF would have helped me catch, but I am also confident I can become experienced enough with this lens to get me good enough results (for me that is, as I am no Nat Geo staffer).
Achieving Critical Focus
Critical focus is the point the lens actually is focused on and when zooming in on a 1:1 pixel crop its like night and day comparing to another image that appears acceptably sharp (to me) on an uncropped reasonably sized print. Achieving critical focus is challenging with this lens due to the very narrow depth of field and using this lens on a full frame DSLR can easily result in shots that you thought would be in focus actually not being. Naturally good eyesight is required but I am also exploring a couple of options to assist me: the Nikon DG-2 2x viewfinder magnifier which doubles the magnification of the central portion of the viewfinder and also the DK21M which fixes to the non-pro Nikon bodies to provide 1.2x magnification. However without these tools I obtained pretty good success rates of acceptable focus after getting used to the manual focus action. Below are the uncropped images both shot on a monopod at 1/2500s f11 iso 1600. Of the series of 6 images I took of this bird the first (shown on the left) and the last (not shown here) is out of focus. The bird caught me off guard flying away so the latter can be excused and checking the timestamp the second image was 8 seconds after the first. So focusing is not fast (and I'm sure I wasn't rushing here as I knew the bird would stick around for a bit,) but for subjects that are relatively slow moving or stationary this is perfectly fine in my opinion. For pros I guess it wouldn't be.
Swans and Geese provided some slow moving subjects to practice on. Focus accuracy was also relatively good, although I was punished for lapses in concentration: when a goose went to flap its wings dry I was not paying attention and did not react quite quickly enough to obtain the critical focus. I'm sure I would have got the shot with auto-focus and I did not observe the bird do this again whilst I was there. So if you really need to get the shot under any circumstances then this lens probably isn't going to work for you.
Birds that have a favourite perch are also easier to focus on. This lens has a focus minimum lock ring that you can set at the focus point of your bird's favourite perch. Then you can focus out from infinity back to this pre-set stopping point very quickly.
Birds in Flight
Buzzards are often about on my parents property and photographing them has been a challenge so far. Despite often perching on the hedge by the drive they are very skittish and will typically fly away before you even realise they are there. Their pace means they accelerate far and high away, but at least when they are circling for prey they have a predictable path. As you can see from this image and 100% crop (D610 at 1/3200 f8 800 iso) its been possible for me to focus in on this soaring bird. The limitation on a better image here is not the lens but my planning and positioning to photograph this bird closer.
The buzzard is somewhat easier as it was further away as often with a lens like this is the narrow field of view to locate and track a fast moving subject. Sand Martins provided a good challenging subject to test out how I'd fare as they were so fast and small. Filling the frame was naturally a challenge and obviously there were many missed shots, but I started to get the hang quickly of tracking the semi-regular flight patterns and I was surprised to actually be able to capture some decent shots that were in focus enough to enable me to crop the image in post processing slightly as you can see below.
This is a lens that you will need support for, in good light a monopod will do but as the light fades a very sturdy tripod is required. As mentioned previously this is Nikon's lightest 600mm which is pretty useful for carrying the lens around but for shooting you will need that support to keep steady and enable you to focus well. Its a great joke I think when Ken Rockwell says he hand held at 1/30s with good results. It say this is very unlikely. Buying this lens did entice me to upgrade my tripod legs to a Gitzo Systematic which I'd been putting off for a while which provides great stabiklity and a price tag to match. The tripod foot on this lens though is a weak spot my opinion coupled with a swiss arca plate. I used a Jobu JR3 Gimball head too which seemed to work ok.
So you've focused well, got the steady support, what else could go wrong? Well the hot air between you and a distant subject can become very apparent and there isn't much one can do about it except get closer. Here is an example caused by a rare English sunny day.
This is quite an exotic lens, particularly today as you eschew so much technology developed since the 80s in helping you get better photos easier. Nevertheless I still find it to be of remarkable value and the challenge to use was not as great as I feared. On the contrary I think this challenge made me enjoy the process of creating these images more than if the focus were automated. Sure some shots were missed which could be a deal breaker for some but my success rate was high enough for me to keep this lens and look forward to another opportunity to capture some wildlife with it. I'll finish this post with a 1:1 crop of a sparrow puffing out its feathers.