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Birding with Z7 & Nikkor 500/5.6 PF

David H. Roberts (dhroberts)

Keywords: z6, z7, z50, d700, d800e, ftz, 300mm, 500mm, birds, bif, costa_rica, dhroberts, mirrorless

The Nikon Z 6, Z 7, & Z 50 mirrorless cameras bring most of the power and sophistication of recent Nikon DSLR’s to more compact packages. Add to this the innovative Nikkor 500/5.6 PF telephoto lens, and one has a very attractive wildlife photography combination that is lighter and more manageable than one based on traditional DSLR’s and telephotos. In this brief article I describe and illustrate my experience using the combination of a Z 7 and the 500/5.6 PF to document birds and other wildlife of the northwest coast of Costa Rica. This is not intended as a comprehensive review of either the camera or the lens, but hopefully it will serve to give the reader a feel for the capabilities of the combination when used in bird photography.

I should state up front that I am not a traditional birder (no life list, etc.), and am only modestly experienced with bird photography. My previous efforts involved either a D700 or D800E DSLR and a Nikkor 300/2.8 G telephoto, all excellent pieces of equipment, but not ideal for bird photography due to the rather short focal length of the lens. On occasion a TE 1.4 II teleconverter was used to produce an effective 420 mm focal length at f/4; this worked well. Some of the time I used a Wimberly gimbal on a sturdy tripod, other times I shot from a car. These combinations, however, were heavy and not terribly portable, and the 300mm focal length was limiting except for large or very nearby birds. They were awkward and frankly difficult to use hand-held. Nonetheless, in the right circumstances they could produce excellent results. Figures 1 & 2 show two examples from these setups, the first using the D700 on the gimbal and the latter using the D800E hand-held from inside a car. 

A group of Sandhill Cranes in the early morning in the Bosque del Apache NWR in New Mexico, taken with a D700 and a 300/2.8 G telephoto on a Wimberley gimbal at f/2.8, 1/3200 s, ISO 3200.
Click for an enlargement


An Osprey with its meal, taken near Davis, CA, with a D800E and a 300/2.8 G telephoto, hand-held, at f/5.6, 1/1250 s, ISO 200.
Click for an enlargement


As I grew older, the weight and bulk of these combinations became too much for comfort. Thus I sold the D800E and my 24-70/2.8 G lens and replaced them with a Z 7, a 24-70/4S zoom, and a FTZ adapter. I chose the Z 7 over upgrading to a D850 because the former is significantly smaller and lighter while they have equivalent image quality and resolution. I then ordered the innovative new Nikkor F 500/5.6 PF (Phase Fresnel) telephoto, and after a seven month wait it arrived just in time for a long-planned trip to Costa Rica during the last week of February 2020.


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Penny Rand (Penra) on September 2, 2020

Thanks for this article! I just purchased a Z6 with 24-70mm because I carry my D500 with 500mm PF and that combo is just not suited for close shots or landscapes. I love the Z6; lightweight, almost silent shutter is a real boon, and I've tried shooting the 500mm PF with it and got a few good shots. As noted in the comments though, the Z6 is not the D500 when it comes to speed of shooting. I also get frustrated that I have to wait a few seconds for the Z6 to come to life when it's in sleep mode. My D500 is always ready to go. The all electronic camera is certainly the future but it will take some time to match up with the DSLR options we have now for bird photos. Oh btw the 500mm PF is the BOMB, I used the 200-500mm for about six months before getting the 500 and it was hard work.

Thomas Sicora (tsinvest) on June 12, 2020

Hi Richard, Although your bird photos are okay I personally think a DX camera like the D7500 or D500 would produce a much higher image quality with that lens. I do a lot of bird photography and get a higher IQ with the D7500 and the Sigma 100-400 lens than what is pictured in this article. I recently ordered the Z6 and have accepted the fact that I won't be taking many bird photos with it unless I could get a 600mm or over setup. I think the FF Z's are good for many other things than birds...such as landscapes, street photography and portraits. Anyone looking to do bird photography at a reasonable cost should consider using a crop sensor. Just my opinion. My regards, Tom

David H. Roberts (dhroberts) on May 26, 2020

Hi Richard, I agree with everything you say in your comments. Surely the D850 is a better birding camera than the Z7, but the purpose of my article was to demonstrate what you *can* do with the Z7 & 500/5.6 PF. I switched from a D800E and F lenses to a Z7 and f/4 lenses primarily for portraits and landscapes because of size and weight. As my article demonstrates (I hope) it is also possible to get great bird photos by adding a 500/5.6 PF. And I imagine that with more practice with BIF that will be improved, even if it never reaches D850 or D500 levels. Dave

Richard Roth (ricardo00) on May 25, 2020

Ribbon awarded for his win in the 2018 Best of Nikonians Annual Photo Contest

Thank you David for an interesting post and some beautiful photos from your trip to Costa Rica (I particularly like your lesser nighthawk). As primarily a wildlife shooter (unlike your background) I am always interested in hearing about wildlife photography with the mirrorless cameras since it seems likely I will end up with one sooner or later. And the 500mm pf f/5.6 lens is a dream come true for an aging photographer like myself (mine will be 2 years old in September). However as I am sure you are aware, a better comparison would be the D850 and 500mm f/5.6 versus your gear. To me, the 10% decrease in overall weight of your setup versus the D850/500mm f/5.6 must be balanced by the shorter life of the battery in the Z7, the decrease in buffer in the Z7, having to add and take off an adapter (I presume you had another body and some Z lenses) and possibly most importantly, not as good focusing abilities of the mirrorless for birds in flight or rapidly moving wildlife? You mention the in body image stabilization of the mirrorless but it isn't clear that at least with the photos you posted this would be much of an advantage (all of them were shot at 1/500 or faster)? Also, the mirrorless would have the advantage of a quieter shooting experience? Did this come into play with the wildlife? Any other disadvantages you find with the mirrorless versus a traditional DSLR?