Friday, March 29, 2013

Nikon 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G lens: A hands on review

The eagerly awaited update to Nikon's 80-400mm lens has finally arrived with a completely new optical and body design along with an impressive list of new features that will have long lens officionados drooling with envy. The older model was first introduced back in 2000 and was also the first lens to feature a VR (vibration reduction) system. A lot has happened to digital lens design in twelve years, and the new model comes with all the latest innovations. Of course this also means it comes in at with a heftier price tag, almost double the price of the earlier model. Naturally, this begs the question: What do you get for the additional price?

The new Nikon 80-400mm G lens shown here at full 400mm extension on a Nikon D600 camera.
For starters, Nikon has added an internal auto-focus motor so the lens no longer needs to use the camera motor. This feature alone extends the use of the lens to camera models that do not come with internal motors. The motor is also quicker, smoother, and quieter than its predecessor. The VR system is now rated to four shutter speed equivalency. This is important for a long lens of this type that can be easily carried around and is tempting to use hand held. Many of the test images in this post were taken hand held.

The optical system has been completely redesigned and now includes four ED lens elements and one Super ED element along with Nano Chrystal Coating for added reduction of flare. We will see in some of the test images below just how impressive this new design really is.

The body of the lens has also been redesigned. Although a bit longer (8.1" vs 6.7" for the former model), the body is sleeker and doesn't have the pregnant guppy look of the older model. At full extension the lens measures 10.25" (26cm) without the massive lens hood, which adds another 3.75" to the overall package. The filter size is still 77mm in keeping with most Nikon pro lenses. A lock has been added to the lens body to keep it in the 80mm position and prevent it from sliding open when carried on your shoulder.

Interestingly, in closed position the new 80-400mm lens is similar in size and weight to the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 lens.

The lens set to its 80mm position is almost the same size and weight as the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 zoom shown lower right for comparison in the above photo.

Once the lens is fully extended to 400mm and a hood is added, its size increases from 8.1" to 14". Even so, it seems much less bulky than the older model 80-400mm.
A major plus for this new model lens is that it can accept the Nikon tele-converters, and with the 1.4x converter attached its focal length is increased to 550mm (825mm on DX) with an f/8 aperture, while still maintaining autofocus capability. If you want to see just how good this combination of tele-converter and lens is, download the full res version of the photo below.

This image of a terracotta detail on the Flat Iron Building was taken with a 1.4x Nikon tele-converter mounted on the 80-400mm lens resulting in a maximum aperture of f/8. The lens was hand held at 1/1000 second for this shot.  You can download the full resolution version by clicking here.
The most anticipated aspect of this new lens is its performance in terms of its resolution, and whether that can also be carried into the corners of the image. To that end I conducted a series of practical ("hands on") tests to access its abilities. I am also including images taken with the 1.4x tele-converter because having Nikon include it as part of the lens design is big news and very important.

Below is a series of test images that illustrate the resolution of various focal lengths at their widest lens aperture. The bottom image has the Nikon 1.4x tele-converter attached to deliver 550mm. When you look at all these images, I feel confident that you will see what I saw, namely that considering the price and conveniences of this lens design, the results are very impressive, and probably best of class.

185mm f/5.3  Download high res here.
270mm f/5.6  Download high res here.
400mm f/5.6   Download high res here.

550mm (with 1.4x tele-converter)   Download high res here.

While I wouldn't expect anyone to use a lens like this for close-ups, it is nice to know that it can auto focus closer than would be expected for this focal length  5.74' (1.75m) or 4,92' (1.5m) in manual focus mode with a reproduction ratio of about 0.2x.

I took this photo to illustrate how close this lens can focus. While impressive, the close focus ability of this type of lens is not too important because there are far better and more convenient options available if you want to get this close.
Focusing was quick and accurate with the new internal motor. The lens has both M/A (autofocus with manual ovreride priority) and A/M (manual override of autofocus with priority given to autofocus) autofocus modes.  Because the lens is no longer reliant upon a camera motor it can function on many of the latest Nikon consumer cameras that do not have this feature.

This image of New York's finest wildlife is tack sharp with very quick autofocus and good tracking ability at 400mm despite the fact that the squirrel was moving very rapidly up the tree..
Of major concern is how much the optical performance has been improved. My own tests, which you can download below, demonstrates a very high resolution with and extra surprise of good corner sharpness.

At a median focal length of 160mm the lens performance is excellent. Click here to download a high res version of this image.

This image taken at 400mm and wide open aperture of  f/5.6 demonstrates the edge and corner sharpness of the lens. Look at the right side of the building only, as the left side is receding away from us and would never be in focus at this aperture. Check out the corners in particular to see just how good this lens is, even wide open. Stopping down by even one stop improves it further. Click here to download the high res image.
This is the building from the photo above shot with the zoom set to 80mm. I think you will agree that at its shortest focal length the performance of this lens is excellent. Click here to download a high res version.
As mentioned, the new VR system provides a four stop latitude for hand held shooting. This would be a bulky lens to hand hold without motion blur,  even at fairly high shutter speeds. Many of the photos in this "hands-on" test were shot hand held. I boosted the ISO to obtain shutter speeds in excess of 1/1000 second where possible. Normally, tests should be done in optimum, tripod mounted conditions, but the purpose of my reviews is to demonstrate the performance a photographer could actually expect in normal usage and in less than ideal circumstances.

This photo was shot hand held at 1/100 second, a very slow speed for a lens of this size and weight. Click here to download a high res version.


I own the older version of this lens so I know where we are coming from. I own the Nikon 200-400mm lens so I know the standard to which we can aspire. Throughout these tests I could not help but compare the results I can achieve with the other two lenses. There is no question this lens is a giant leap forward from its predecessor in terms of resolution, build, autofocus, VR, and physical design. Coupled with the advances of the newer digital cameras this lens is a very convenient alternative to the huge, fast aperture teles and 200-400mm zoom. This is not to say the image quality is better than Nikon's largest glass, but it does mean that in practical uses the new 80-400mm provides an excellent alternative, particularly where portability, convenience, and spontaneity are taken into consideration. I am giving serious thought to whether I even need to keep the redundancy of my 200-400mm. Newer cameras with excellent results at higher ISO ranges, coupled with the improved VR technology of the latest lenses tend diminish the need for super fast aperture optics. Admittedly, faster apertures mean better selective focus, but at such long focal lengths even f/5.6 or f/8 tend to be sufficient.

This lens is nearly double the cost of its predecessor, but the improvements I have seen are well worth the extra cost, particularly when you consider that this lens can be a replacement for much more expensive telephoto optics. At 80-400mm full frame FX camera  (120-600mm on a DX camera) with an ability to push out to 550mm (825mm on DX!) when coupled with the 1.4x tele-converter, this may be the only super tele anyone would ever need.

At full focal length extension this is one impressive looking piece of glass.

Even at f/11 and full 400mm extension selective focus is achievable.
The Manhattan Bridge and Empire State Building at 400mm f/7.1
Topping off the new World Trade Center at 400mm and f/7/1. Click here to download the high res file.
Since writing this review, DxOMark has completed their tests of the this new 80-400mm zoom and compared it to the older version and Sigma 120-400mm -- all tests done on a Nikon D800. Essentially, they agree with what I said here.  You can read their test results and review here: DxOMark.

If you are planning on purchasing this lens, you can help support this site at no extra cost to you by purchasing from one of our affiliate sellers listed below -- and thanks for your support.

Nikon AF-S 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR Lens can be ordered from:  BH-Photo  Amazon   

Thursday, March 28, 2013

The importance of good dynamic range

In these color versions of the shoot of the Empire State Building from yesterday I was shooting the subject back lit on a very bright sunny day with no fill. Sensors in the newest DSLR cameras are good enough to be capable of covering a broad light differential where both extreme highlights and extreme shadows have detail. This is the dynamic range of a camera and is particularly important to landscape photographers or anyone working with harsh daylight. Dynamic range can be given as the number of f/stops a camera can cover and still maintain detail. This is sometimes referred to as EVs, or exposure values, where each EV represents one stop exposure difference of double the amount of light.

In the days of low ISO color slide film dynamic range was limited to about 1 1/2 stops. Many of the newer professional digital cameras, such as the Nikon D800 or D600, can now cover as much as a 14 stop exposure range. In some situations when shooting with a Nikon D800 I have been able to record the actual round shape of the sun and still have detail in the shadow areas in the same scene.

Recording extreme dynamic ranges still means doing some post processing to open up the shadows and bring down the highlights. But the important thing is that when this is done, detail is still present in these areas so they do not come out as pure white or pure black.

Another factor that will diminish dynamic range is using high ISO settings. For the best results it is important to keep a low ISO setting and keep the camera set as close as possible to its "native ISO" where it is calibrated to produce its best results.

You can use an HDR (high dynamic range) technique that combines several images each with a different exposure of the same scene. To do this, however, the camera must be on a tripod so that each exposure overlaps the other perfectly. This is not always possible in casual shooting. Personally, I find the many of the results of HDR photos to have a very false look, especially as it is a technique that is often overdone.

Taken with the new Nikon 18-35mm lens on a Nikon D600. The only difficulty of this shot was tying to line up the sun so it was peeking through the tiny space of the building and still have the full top of the Empire State Building framed in the window. A photograph such as this shows the excellent dynamic range of the new Nikon cameras when you consider that full tonality is held from the bright highlight of the sun and the back lit shadow areas of the buildings.
Here the foreground building was in deep shadow while the Empire State Building in the background was in open daylight. Nonetheless, full detail is preserved in both areas, and, although not quite apparent in this small, low res version, there is also detail in the bright sky.

The Empire State Building is framed by a window from inside the library, two very extreme lighting situations, yet full detail is preserved in both the brightest highlights and deepest shadows. Dynamic range does tend to decrease as ISO is raised so it is important to try and maintain a low setting whenever possible. It this scene the ISO was only 200. In the days of low ISO slide film a shot with this much detail would have been impossible.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Today I took a few more photos for possible inclusion in the limited edition black & white portfolio I am doing on the Empire State Building.

I like this one because it reminded me of the visual drama (or melodrama) of the Art Deco photography in the 1930's -- very much in keeping with the style of a building that was completed in 1931. To emphasize the drama I used an infrared technique that blackened the dark blue sky and set of the brightly lit building and clouds in stark contrast.

This photo was taken from inside the New York Public Library. The only trick here was maintaining an exposure that balanced the interior of the library with the bright sunny exterior scene. What I like about this image is its bright airiness contrasted with the dark shape of the window frame.

The building might be a bit too much off kilter, but I positioned it that way because I was creating more of an abstract composition of lights and darks.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Capturing time

A strong breeze was blowing in Manhattan causing the clouds to move rapidly through the city. I decided to try something I have been wanting to do for some time, namely take a photo of the Empire State Building with the moving clouds blurred behind it. The day was sunny. This meant that even with the lens set to a low aperture the correct exposure would not allow a shutter speed slow enough to blur the clouds. So I had to resort to some other means of lowering the exposure.  For this I used a variable neutral density filter with enough density to allow at least a 6-8 stop decrease in exposure.

With the filter in place, I did some trial-and-error experiments to determine the shutter speed that would give me the look I wanted. I tried everything from 5-30 seconds, and settled in on 10-15 as looking the best. With the aperture set to f/16 I adjusted the variable neutral density filter by dialing it down until it gave me a 15 second exposure. The image below is the result. I also used an infrared post-processing technique to further darken the blue sky and accentuate the contrast between it and the clouds.

Shot with the Nikon D600, Nikon 24-120mm f/4 lens at ISO 100, f/16 and 15 second exposure using a black and white infrared technique.

This photo is intended to as part of a limited edition portfolio of ten black & white prints I am doing of the Empire State Building. Some others being considered for inclusion in the portfolio are below.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Nikon D600 - Hands on review

DSLR cameras have improved to a high water mark with the current crop of new models hitting the market since 2012. Sensor technology has progressed to a very high level, with high megapixels, extensive dynamic range, high ISO capabilities. and  exceptional resolution. Nikon's D600 has surpassed the capabilities of its older high end D3x model, and for only a fraction of the cost.  The D600 has a 24.3mp sensor, can shoot at 5.5 frames per second, is small (6.3"W x 6.2"H x 3.6"D) and light (only 2.95 lb with battery and cards), has built-in remote control capability via the WU-1a plug-in accessory, along with all the other familiar features of a professional grade Nikon camera.  All this and it costs around $2000.

The real question is: how does it perform? I have been using this camera along with a D800 and D4 ever since they all came out. I waited to write this review because, as a "hands-on" review, I feel I should give myself some time to become familiar with the camera. What I can say before I go any further is that I find myself more and more reaching for the D600 as my preferred choice.

Why? First of all, the camera does not disappoint in terms of image quality. As I am a professional photographer, this is a primary requirement. The DxOMark sensor rating for the D600 is only slightly lower than for the D800 with both cameras being rated at the best in the world.

Second, the D600 is comfortable to use. It is a bit smaller and lighter than the D800 and often the 24.3mp of the D600 sensor is more than what I require for my job. At a frame rate of 5.5fps I find it fast enough for most situations. Its ISO is rated as 100-6400, but I try not to use any camera much beyond 1600. I find I can take the D600 to 3200 by using some easy noise correction.

As with all Nikon pro cameras the control layouts are very similar -- comfortable and intuitive. This aids in switching from one camera to another. Something I like about Nikon is that once you know how to use one Nikon camera, you pretty much know how to use all of them.

Keep in mind that Nikon classifies the D600 as a consumer camera. This means a lighter body with less metal, some missing niceties that pros expect, two SD card slots instead of a larger CF slot,  and  controls that are closer to the consumer camera types than the pro camera types.That said, this camera is something of a wolf in sheep's clothing, and feels and performs in a very professional manner.

Perhaps the thing I miss most about this camera model is the larger 51 focus points of the auto-focus system in the D800 and D4. The D600 has a 39 point system, which is really not bad in itself. What does matter is the actual size of the total focus area.

In a shot like this where the model is composed off to the left of the frame, the D600 just barely put a focus point on the models eye. In this case both the model and I were stationary. So there would not have been much of a problem if I had to grab focus and move the camera, but it sure makes life easier to compose a frame when the focusing area is larger.

On the left is the smaller focusing area of the D600. On the right, the much larger area of the D800 and D4.
Left = D600                                      Right=D800 & D4

Left = D600                                                Right=D800 & D4
When photographing people I like to put a focus point on one of the eyes. In the samples above you can see that the D600 just makes the focus, but then only when the face of the subject is off the one side. If I cannot place a focus point directly on an eye, I have to take the camera off of its "C" continuous focus mode and put it into "S" its single-servo mode. The latter means that I have to pre-focus (grab focus) with a half press of the shutter, and, while holding the shutter half way, move the camera to compose the shot. This works sometimes. Often as not the model has moved, I have moved, or both, and the shot is soft. This is why I like the larger focus area of the pro model cameras.

While I am complaining, I should also mention that I find myself changing menu options by accidentally hitting buttons on the camera. One thing I do all the time is put the camera into bracket mode, something that is easily done by pressing the BKT button and turning the rear dial.

Note where the BKT bracket button is placed. This is very easy to hold in accidentally as you hold the camera with the left hand. Neither the D4 nor D800 have this button. I'm not sure why it even needs to be placed in such an accessible location. 
One feature the D600 does have that the other pro models do not, is a very convenient and inexpensive wireless capability. You can plug in the tiny WU-1a transmitter into the side of the camera, download the app for your cell phone, and control the camera from the phone. I have found this very handy even in the studio when I have to place the camera in high, overhead locations where I cannot use the viewfinder or see the live view screen.

The small WU-1a wireless transmitter plugs into the side of a D600 and transmits a live view image to your cell phone from which you can take the picture.

For the two photos above the camera was centered high over the models and the viewfinder inaccessible. By plugging a WU-1a wireless transmitter into the side of the D600 the live view was transmitted to my cell phone where I was able to move the focus point where I wanted it placed and then take the photo from the cell phone by tapping a button. I will be doing a hands on review of the WU-1a in a later blog post.

Another accessory that can be added to a D600 is a second battery pack. This unit (the MB-D14) holds a second battery similar to the one in the camera or set of double AA's and extends the battery life of the system considerably. The grip also adds a second set of shutter release and focusing controls when the camera is held vertically. This is similar to what is found on a D4 body.

In this view of the MB-D14 battery accessory you can see the second shutter release and front control knob.

In this rear view you can see the focus point control, auto-focus lock button, and second rear control wheel. If you are used to using a pro body and work very fast, this accessory is an added convenience. While this attachment does bulk up the system, it can always be removed when you want to lighten your camera bag load for traveling.
Missing is the window block found on Nikon pro models. Otherwise, I think any pro user would find this camera familiar and comfortable to use.
I find the auto white balance of the D600 to be about the best of any camera I have ever used. Although I always shoot a gray card for color adjustment afterwards, the D600 comes closest to nailing the correct and most pleasing balance in all situations.

A D600 set up in one of my favorite walk-around setups with a Nikon 24-120mm f/4 lens.

 Bottom line: this camera is the most pro-version "consumer" camera I have ever used. It feels rugged enough, delivers absolutely stunning images, and comes at a good price point. It makes not only a good second body, but a main body in its own right. I sometimes like to walk around with it set up with the Nikon 24-120mm f/4 lens as a one-lens camera outfit. Come to think of it, Nikon had originally introduced the 24-120mm as a high end consumer lens. Maybe the camera and lens were simply meant for each other. You could do a lot worse than this combo, but you would be hard pressed to find better performance at any price. 

Subtle detail and color was preserved beautifully even on this dull, overcast, snowy day.

The detail in this image is astounding, a testament to both the D600 and new 70-200mm f/4 lens combo that took the photo.