600mm VR first experiences, observations, ramblings, etc
I have rekindled my appetite for bird photography. I have been yearning for some time for longer glass.
Prior to renting a 600 mm I wanted to make sure I was getting the best out of my existing equipment, so I would have a baseline to decide if the 600mm was worth it for me. My previous equipment included a 300mm 2.8 and teleconvetors 1.4 and 1.7. I have D800, D3, D2X. I have a Gitzo 1325 tripod with RRS ballhead, good solid tripod in its day. This post is corollary to post in "800e with 300mm with surprising results." See that discussion if you are interested in optimizing your performance in terms of ultimate image sharpness.
I rented the nikon 600mm VR from our local camera rental for the weekend. Note there is a 600mm and a 600VR. When you look at the nikon web page they advertise a VRII. To save some confusion, on your part, there is only one VR unit released. The camera you rent will say VR not VRII.
The 600mm VR is big, but you knew that going into this. It needs a gimbal support. I rented a wimberly 200. I took images with my relatively less solid, by today's standards, Gitzo 1325 with legs not distended. I did not try to evaluate the VR function, left it set to off.
My primary concern was how do I transport this from my car to set up 1/4 mile away. The rental lens had the nikon foot base that makes a good handle, tripod in the other arm. Imagine that your arms will be full. You will need to set something down to get to your car keys to lock up. Done that, not too bad, I needed a bit of a workout anyway. So buying a 600 vs 500mm lens in my case is feasible. Seems like most are replacing the nikon foot. I have some concern of replacing the nikon foot attachment for the smaller wimberly version and losing the handle.
First day of shooting was in Skagit flats. Good supply of Great Blue Herons, eagles, etc. Tried some car shooting, on tripod, but eagles in trees were too far away. Beautiful pheasant, as it ran away, got picture of only documentation quality. Then off to pond scene with wood ducks, cat tails and red wing black birds. Finished day one of weekend with processing. Image results were ok, not great. The birds up close had rings around eyes from motion. Images not the sharpness that I was hoping for. Hey! This isn't going to be simple.
Next day, set up image target at 60 ft. Tested lens for front/back focus with lens wide open on oblique target. Think you can buy focusing device but cant imagine how that would work better than a screen set at an angle. Focus off 1-2 inches. Not an issue. I can manual focus or stop down. For focus tests I use my already in pocket, colorchecker passport. Has colors, blacks for contrast, and some small writing. I placed this over a printed NRA target. That target has a bar code on it that was very sensitive to moire, alternating red and green bands between the lines, that I noticed on previous testing with my 300mm, as per another post. You can use anything. Have used stuffed animals and feathers in the past.
Tested the 600mm VR with D800e with various F stops for optimal sharpness, contrast and noise. Previously have decided for myself that ISO 400 is sweet spot for D800. I placed my pocket "color checker" as target at 60 ft. F9 was what I found to be sharpest. Not so impressed with wide open, but acceptable is relative/subjective. Started to lose sharp at F16, similar to my 300mm results. Finished testing with TC 1.4 and 1.7. Image quality at fixed distance improved with TC's. 1.7 was best, so not much reason for me to use 1.4. For me this time spent was well worth it.
Back to pond. Spent morning shooting ISO 400, F9, speed 1/200 to 1/320. I expose manually and focus with AF camera button or manual focus. Wimberly head was locked down this day prior to shots. While looking through viewfinder you will see lens motion that can take several seconds to disappear. Arbitrarily, I decided to lock up mirror for five seconds then cable release. This worked very well with the black birds. Every time the bird posed appropriately, I would drop the mirror with the cable release.
Results of day two with above technique were very good. No issue with motion. Sharpness was what I was expecting when stopped down.
So the big question remained. How did 600mm VR compare to combination of 300mm with 1.7 TC at F14? 600mm tests shot at 1/400 vs 1/125 for 300/1.7. Looking at 100% jpegs side by side, with tripod images under almost identical conditions, the 300mm/1.7/F14 combo was superior to or equal to the 600mm up to F 7.1. Better meaning sharper and better contrast. The 600mm at F9 was a strong winner. For me small differences become important when considering cropping images.
This will be sure to get the response of must be some bad technique or bad copy. The set up was the same for testing of both lenses. Well I could post my images, but better for people to test and come to their own conclusions.
For me the 600 would not be left at home.
I would be delighted to hear that there are 600mm lenses out there that are sharper wide open than the one that I rented.