Tri-X and a Nikon F

The dependable zoom: Nikon 70-300mm f4-5.6 AFS

The big one: Nikon 600mm f5.6 Ai-S ED

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.

Support

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.

Atmospheric Conditions

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.

Final Thoughts

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.

The cheap telephoto that started it all for me: Sigma 70-300mm DG f4-5.6

Adventures with the Nikon 300mm f4 AF-D

This is a post I started wrote early 2018 and never ended up publishing. I thought after my previous post with my initial experiences with the 300mm Ai-S IF-ED manual focus lens this would be interesting to put out there.

A little earlier this week I sold this lens and I thought I'd review some of the shots from its use in the last 3 and a half years of ownership. Originally purchased to accompany me on a trip to capture the bears, wolves and bison of Yellowstone I intended to pair it with either a 1.4x or 2x teleconverter to get more reach than my existing 70-300mm G lens could get me. I knew there would be significant trade offs there in image quality but this lens and converter cost me around $650 in total which was all I could afford so I figured I'd give it a go.

Shot with the Kenko 1.4x Tele 300 ProAs you can see the shot is slightly out of focus. This turned out to be a recurring issue.
Shot with the Kenko 1.4x TC 300 ProThese cute pups were so small that this lens and TC were no where near the optimal tool for the job. I'd guess the guy stood next to me with a 600mm f4 + 1.7x TC did better.
Shot with the Kenko 2x TCThis photo looks OK when its small, but when you zoom in and you can see how the 2x teleconverter turned the detail here to mush. My regret was not realising quite how bad this TC was until I got home and so I left it on far too often. There's no such thing as a free lunch and in hindsight its of surprise this effective 600mm f/8 didn't perform.
Shot with the Kenko 1.4x Tele 300 ProThis was a shot I had to move quickly for as the bear soon moved back into the trees as I photographed from the road.
Shot with no TCThis image is soft but it was shot at 1/250 and wide open at f4. The jungle is a challenging place to shoot! No surprise the image has come out relatively soft.
Shot with the Kenko 1.4x Tele 300 ProI found the lens to perform better at subjects nearer than further away. This was shot at ISO 1600 and shows how that extra stop of light on a 2.8 lens would really have been beneficial.
Shot with the Kenko 1.4x Tele 300 ProWith lots of available light this lens does perform much better. This shot is wide open at f4 (effective f5.6) with the TC and the quality doesn't seem so impacted.
Shot with no TCThis Yellow Eyed Penguin shot is one where I feel like I've got a glimmer of the true potential of this lens. Even at ISO 1250 there is plenty of detail here when pixel peeping. Perhaps assisted by being stopped down to f8.
Shot with no TCThis was an incredibly lucky shot to see a leopard after the safari jeeps in front had driven right by it. This is wide open f4 at ISO 1600 and the focus again could be alot better. I'm still very happy with the image but it made me realise this was not the lens I had hoped it was.

For Yellowstone I accompanied this lens with a 2x and 1.4x Kenko teleconverters. I knew the IQ would be affected but I questioned how much and if I'd care. This was deluded. The loss in quality was severe and it turns out I did care. The results with and without the 1.4x converter were nearer the same level but I felt both showed issues with nailing the focus. Regardless I decided to take the lens with me to Glacier National Park to test it out the field further however the first time I came to use the lens though the focus mechanism had ceased. Upon my return I debated whether to sell the lens as faulty or pay for a repair with an authorised Nikon service center. I chose the latter, which fixed it, for around $400.

Now repaired I chose the lens to accompany me to New Zealand, via Borneo on the way there and Sri Lanka on the way back. It was an important tool for helping me capture the Orangutan, Elephant and Leopard shown above. But even though I really enjoy these photos it became apparent to me that this lens really isn't the best tool for what I required. The release of the new Nikon 200-500mm f5.6 AFS lens got me thinking that this would probably be a better suiting to my needs and so on eBay this lens went. Perhaps this lens was better suited to a pro level DSLR with a stronger screw-drive motor than the D7100. Or maybe I could've tweaked the fine-AF feature to get better results? Who knows, but the best lens is the one you have, and these shots are proof of that.

Update April 2019

Its fair to say I don't really miss this lens. The manual focus Ai 300mm f4.5 lens I have now I think plugs the gap pretty well and I have also just acquired a manual focus 600mm f5.6 for the extra reach needed for much wildlife photography. Some people may think I'm crazy for wanting to use manual focus in 2019 to capture wildlife shots. The cost savings are obvious and to be honest I think I'm pretty good at manual focus and fortunately have good eyesight to assist. Sure there might be significant challenges with fast moving subject but to date most of my wildlife and bird photography has involved slower moving creatures so I'm optimistic on my future photography prospects with these tools.

Foxes in London with the 300mm f4.5 Ai

Wildlife photography has been a pipedream of mine for many years now and I have had some success getting some shots I'm reasonably proud of. The telephoto lens situation though has always been a challenge - even if I could afford a 600mm f4 behemoth it would be a bit of a waste given the high cost and low frequency of the possibility of my travel to places where wild animals hang out.

The first lens many Nikon shooters would reach for is the 70-300mm zoom that is very reasonably priced, works on a full frame camera and frankly delivers pretty good results for the money. With AF-S and VR its a great tool to wet the appetite of a beginner. What I soon found though is that 300mm is rarely enough reach to get shots of wild animals or birds, and so when the opportunity to visit Yellowstone national park arose, I figured I had to find a way to get a longer lens. The answer I came up with was the 300mm f4 AF-D prime lens with a Kenko 1.4x and 2x TC although this was before the 200-500mm f5.6 Nikon lens came out, so I guess I would have chosen this instead if it were available. The results were good enough but I felt the AF kept letting me down with backfocus leading to images that I felt were always slightly out of focus. I persevered, trying to tweak the AF fine tune and lugging this lens with me to Sri Lanka and New Zealand, but ultimately it had to go.

Last Christmas I got a bargain on a Nikon 300mm f4.5 ED Ai lens and the initial results on film were great. To call the focus movement on this fully manual lens buttery would be an understatement - the quality of workmanship on this lens is incredible. I've had this suspicion that I'm now a competent enough photographer that using more manual methods would actually help me become a better photographer. I worry automation makes me lazy and not think enough before pressing the shutter. There is also no ambiguity who is at fault with fully manual operation. If its out of focus or badly exposed, that's my fault.

There is a plethora of city foxes in London now, living off the scraps from human waste. Personally I think its a shame as although they thrive in number, their fur often dilapidated and mangy, due to the garbage they consume. That being said one will have far more ease in photographing a city fox that its country bumpkin brethren, largely down the the sheer density and tameness of the city slickers. The 18+ years I lived in Shropshire I rarely saw a fox, but in London its a weekly if not daily experience.

I was in luck. Looking out of my window yesterday morning I was started to see what I thought was a "bloody big cat" only to realise a split second later it was a fox, sunning itself in the garden. I grabbed my Nikon D610 and F3 (with Tri-X pushed to 800), attached my 300mm Ai to see what results I could get. I also got some shots with the 70-300mm to benchmark the performance. The 300mm f4.5 was used with a monopod attached to its tripod collar. Below are some 1:1 crops for a rough comparison of sharpness.

Nikon 70-300mm f4.5-5.6 VR @ 300mm f8

Nikon 300mm f4.5 Ai ED @ f8

Nikon 300mm f4.5 Ai ED + Kenko 1.4x Teleplus Pro 300 @ f5.6

Conclusion

The three examples above are all pretty good although the subject was static and the lighting was good so it wasn't too challenging achieve this. Manual focusing worked surprisingly well with most of my shots being in focus and unsurprisingly this was easier with the D610 than the D7100 due to the bigger viewfinder. I was also surprised that the TC worked well with this lens, as previously I hadn't been too impressed with it paired with my old 300mm f4 AF-D lens - although that could have been due to it challenging the autofocus system or perhaps accentuating the back focus issues I seemed to have with that lens. So overall I had alot of fun with this manual focus telephoto and I can't wait to get some more use out of it!