So, I walked in and plunked down the money for this lens, a UV filter and a faster CF card. It was slightly painful, but I got over it very quickly. First, let’s talk turkey. I got this for nature photography and intimidating neighbors. Well, mostly nature photography. So, I wanted to get out right away and play with my new, expensive, heavy, toy. It was overcast. Not slightly overcast where at ISO200, you can still meter in at 1/125 or better at f/6.3. No, this was 1/20 at f/6.3 … No rain, just dark and dreary. Did I let that stop me? NO! Should I have? Probably. It was also 35 with 25 mile-per-hour winds off the lakes I visited. Brr.
So, I attach everything that needs to be attached to the lens, which took all of a minute. It was very intuitive. I like that. I also list the “effects/attachment” ring that allows you to attach filters such as polarizers, which require you turn them to be effective, and still use the hood. VERY cool. Now, it was time to mount this beast to the Nikon D70. It snapped on with a satisfying “click” and while it felt a little loose, initially, it was fine for the duration of the afternoon. The next task was attaching it to the tripod, which was easy as panna cotta (as these things go, it’s easier than both pie and cake, so…), and then I set out to see what I could do with this thing.
I went out to the beach at Ceasar Creek Reservoir. It was very cold and there were 10 birds, total. A crow, a Canada Goose and 8 skittish Ring-billed Gulls. Whee. That didn’t stop me from trying, though. To my chagrin, the wind was blowing pretty steadily and stiff, to boot, and the large lens on the tripod acted much like a very heavy sail. My main complain with the lens at the point was it was pretty heavy. Then again, my tripod isn’t light, so the two together…I’ll start lifting again, this spring, and that should help… The main challenge, here, was that I was in as bright “sun” as the day had given me at I was still metering at 1/30 f/5.6 @ ISO200. I thought I’d give it a whirl, since it was on a tripod. Birds move too quickly. However, the AF did a great job of focusing on the birds (or so I thought – more on that in a bit). It was quick and only did any “searching” when I went from extremes – light background to dark background or trying to pick something up 20 feet away instead of 50 yards. I stayed for close to half an hour, despite not having much feeling left in my hands. I rattled off close to 100 shots, including pictures of the gulls, a bizarre Canada Goose, a flock of Starlings and an American Crow who was remarkably still for me, despite having been almost blown out of the tree by wind gusts a couple of times. After the crow left, I felt compelled to leave, as well.
My next stop was Spring Valley Nature Preserve. I stopped at a little pull off about 200 yards before you get to the blind, which is about 1/2 mile out from the lake-front parking area. This is where *all* the action was. For a quick birding report, I spotted around 15 Northern Cardinals, 20 or so American Goldfinches, MAYBE 2 Pine Siskins, a slew (20+) of American Tree Sparrows and a Downy Woodpecker. Of all these, I shot, handheld, at ISO 200, 500mm, f/6.3 and managed between 1/60 and 1/80. There was very little searching, but on looking at the pictures when I got home, the focal plane is exceedingly shallow and the difference between the bird being in focus and the blade of grass 2 inches in front of the bird being in focus…I couldn’t tell you — because that cropped up a lot. If it weren’t for the lack of sun, I would have tried stopping down to make it so that I could have BOTH the bird and grass in focus, but didn’t have time to get the tripod out — these birds are skittish!! After 5 minutes, they had all disappeared back into the brush, deep enough that *I* couldn’t see them, let alone the lens try to pick them out from within the brambles. I handled moving birds pretty well. Handheld, it was lighter than on the tripod, for sure, and I didn’t really feel any fatigue in my arm when I was done, there. I continued on to SPNV, proper, but seeing no activity on the lake nor hearing any in the trees, I left, heading to a different section of Ceasar Creek.
At the Observation Tower, I got to shoot some plant life, rather than birds, since the birds were nowhere to be seen. I take that back — I saw 1 Field Sparrow. At any rate, with the high winds, I didn’t stick around very long and I had to pick and choose what I shot. The lens did a VERY good job of keying in on what I wanted and was quick about it. It shot a number of photos and left. That concluded my cold, grey, sunless outing.
My overall impressions of this lens are as follows: It’s heavy, but not unwieldy. I have used heavier, though not attached to my heavy tripod. While it’s a formidable combination, it’s not completely unwieldy and shouldn’t deter anyone who can lift and carry bags of sugar around. Don’t let the weight scare you away from this lens. You’re not going to find a quality 500mm lens that weighs less — the 500mm f/8 mirror lenses don’t count. I love the range. The 200mm was gorgeous, snappy and at f/5.0, bright. The 400mm setting was fast, sharp as a tack and advancing to f/6.0, bright as well. At 500mm, the f/6.3 didn’t seem to detract from the overall brightness and while here is where I ran into focus troubles, it was still fast and did little searching. I didn’t notice any chromatic aberration, to speak of, but there wasn’t a lot of sun and/or weird reflections to test it against. Usually any fringing I get is shooting birds in the canopy against the sun…that obviously didn’t happen, here, and will have to be tested, this morning, probably.
I said I’d talk about my problems with the focus. Well, they’re pretty simple. I’m not used to this lens, at all, and spent a lot of shots focusing just in front of or just behind the subject in question, which left me with questionable results. This is merely something I’m going to have to get used to and thank my luck stars (or financial stars) that I was shooting digital on this outing — out of 197 photographs, 2 were “useable” in my opinion. Not really good odds, but that should improve once I figure out how to do everything I want to do…and be left-handed at the same time. Dear Nikon — I’ll offer all my services as, well, whatever you need, to help you design a LEFTY model of these cameras so I don’t have to criss-cross arms to focus comfortably AND release the shutter. That said, it’s an exceptionally easy lens to use and the tripod mount is very solid — heck, everything about this lens is solid. It feels like a quality lens and, from what I’ve seen so far, it is a quality lens.
I met my friend at the cemetery so I could hammer out some depth of field pairing for my homework. I took the digital along with the lens, just because. I wish I had taken it out with me while I was shooting with the film camera, as the Red-tailed Hawk was exceedingly accommodating — almost as if he knew the longest lens between us was a 300mm. That said, with the bright sunshine, it was impossible not to take it out for at least SOME shots, and it performed amazingly. Even at ISO1600 (remember kids, check your ISO settings before every shoot, especially after letting your 9-year-old play with it for a few shots…), the shots were crisp, clean — negligible noise — and, as I mentioned earlier, the AF was snappy and there was almost NO searching in the “good light” situation. Of course, you want to secure yourself some dirty looks, take this lens, with hood attached, to a cemetery…I don’t know why people get so uptight about this, especially at a cemetery where the Wright Brothers, Paul Dunbar, Irma Bombeck and a few other notables are buried…the only people we encountered in the cemetery proper were taking pictures…they just looked intimidated by the lens. THAT’s the response you want, and, unless the person you run into is carrying a 400mm f/2.8 or larger, is what you’ll get. As a side bonus, besides being a rock solid lens that performs very well for nature/birding, if you’re walking the sidelines at the local game, you will be able to hang with the “big time” photographers. Heck, you’d be able to hang with them even at a semi- or even pro game. Granted, it’s not going to overshadow the monster teles, but at the 500mm f/6.3, you’re only a stop and a half off from the $6K lenses and you walked away, even with the UV filter, for under $1,000. For another $200, you can get a 1.4x teleconverter and, even with the f-stop loss, you’re still looking at 625mm (before DSLR crop factor) at f/8. Considering the Nikon 600mm f/4 AF lens will set you back close to $9,000, not a bad tradeoff. The bottom line is, if you’re on a budget, which most of us are, and/or don’t want the massive lenses for whatever reason, this is probably the lens I would pick, 9 times out of 10. The other time, I’m not sure why I wouldn’t pick this…I think I was just being contrary.
I know — the important question: would I recommend this lens to my best friend, who would come after me with a large flail if I steered him wrong? Absolutely, I would.
Focal range: 200mm-500mm
F-stop Range: f/5.0 – f/32
Filter size: 86mm
Weight: 43.6oz (1237g or 2 lbs. 11.6oz)
Minimum focus distance: 2.5m or 98.4″ or 8′ 2.4″
Warranty: 6-year Factory warranty
Retail: $879.00 — until 3/31/2008, there is a $30 factory rebate on this lens
UV Filter cost: $80