I was excited to received the new Nikon 600/F4 FL VR lens from Allen camera recently. Many people ask “why get the bigger 600mm and not the lighter 500 or 400mm lens”? The choice depends on so many factors including the subject that one shoots. The famous Canadian nature photographer Brad Hill wrote an excellent article about this on his blog site.
Scroll down to the July 9th 2015 blog post where he talks about pros and cons of all three super telephoto lenses.
I like to photograph song birds that are very small and the Nikon 600mm works well for me. Since I have only full frame sensor cameras, I need all the reach I can get. Once you get spoiled by the quality of full frame Nikon sensor files, it is hard to go back to a crop sensor camera. My old 600VR is excellent but heavy at 11.5 LBS making it very difficult to handhold. When Nikon announced the new lens that was only 8.4 lbs ( that is 3 lbs. lighter than the older one), I was very excited. Nikon claims that this is the world’s lightest 600mm super telephoto lens.
You can read all about the specs of the lens on many websites and I am not going to go over that here.
The new lens came in a custom made case which is light and modern compared to the wooden box of the older lens.
The new Nikon lens is lighter than the newest Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM .
As soon as I lift the lens from the case I felt a difference. The lens was lighter and I knew I could handhold the lens at least for few shots. This is a big deal. I used one of the third-party straps ( Peak Design) to secure the lens and carried around my shoulder without much of a discomfort. The next day I walked closed to 2 miles at my local nature center carrying the lens. I took nearly 300 shots handholding the lens at various shutter speeds. Keeper rate was very high. I was surprised how well I could handhold the lens for extended periods. Kneeling down and resting the elbow on my knee while holding the lens makes low-level shots easier to make.( Rabbit and the Green Heron images). When upright, I press my elbow against the body to steady the lens.( Butterfly shots). With practice and good technique, sharp images are easier to come by. Holding the lens pointing up to get an image of a warbler, way up on a tree top is much more difficult. I still could get a sharper image, but after few seconds I was shaking.
I also like the one piece lens hood instead of the two piece one in the older version. However the smaller part of the older hood can be placed inside the larger one for travelling thus saving space.
The monopod collar is placed towards the back of the lens compared to the older lens. When a camera is attached, holding the lens from the monopod collar feels well-balanced. The monopod collar comes with a rubberized top for better grip. I attached a Wimberley P-50 plate to the monopod collar so I can mount the lens on a tripod. This plate feels large and P-40 plate may fit better. I don’t think I am going to replace the original foot with a third-party one as I did with the older lens. This lens going to be more versatile with a monopod.
The biggest surprised for me was how well the new VR mode works. It is supposed to compensate for 4 stops of light and it does. It is possible to handhold the lens and take a sharp shot of a stationary subject at 1/30th of second. In my book that is just amazing.
I came across this rabbit while photographing the butterflies. I kneeled down and supported the elbow and lens on my knee and got this low-level shot. With my older lens I had to adjust the tripod to lower level to get this shot and the rabbit would have gone by then.
This Green Heron was photographed handholding the lens.
How does it pair with the 1.4TC II teleconverter?.( I don’t have the latest Version III ). Quite well. The autofocus is slightly slower compared to the bare lens but the IQ is maintained.
White Breasted Nuthatch at my feeder. Click on the image for bigger version.
Another improvement is the electromagnetic aperture mechanism of the lens. With the older lens if you shoot at 9FPS with my D3, some of the frames have different exposures. This is much improved with the new one and I could notice the uniformity of the exposure during a rapid fire.
The new version is little shorter compared to the older version. (432mm Vs 444.5mm). This negligible difference makes a significant impact in portability. When I travel, I couldn’t pack the older lens with a camera attached to my Gura gear Kiboku 32L backpack. With the length difference, now I can pack 600FL VR lens with a D800 attached to one compartment of the bag.
VR implantation has changed as well. It is a switch instead of a ring/slider that can accidentally get turned off in the older lens. There are two VR modes. Normal mode is for everything except when the subject moves erratic or you’re on a moving platform like a boat when sport mode is used.. Sport mode is also recommended for panning. I have not had the opportunity to use the sport mode yet but normal mode is very effective.
The drop in filter size has changed to 40.5mm. The Circular polarizer I had for older lens cannot be used on this one.
The minimum focusing distance of the new lens is 14.4 feet compared to 15.7′ of the older lens. The difference is only 15″ but that is noticeable and useful. This Hummingbird was photographed very close to the minimum focusing distance. I used the 1.4TC II for this shot.
I came across this deer while I was walking to the car at the nature center. Taken handheld.
So what about the image quality compared to the old lens? I have used the 600VR lens for about three years extensively and am very familiar with it. The IQ of 600VR is stunning and it is going to be very difficult to top that. I feel that the IQ of the new lens is at least as good or slightly better. The AF acquisition may be a touch faster too. The 1.4TC II works very well with it. The AF with the TC may be slightly better too. The lens vignetting in the corners are improved. I feel the corner sharpness is better.
Is it worth upgrading? That is a very difficult question. If you use the lens mainly from a vehicle or on tripod and are not planning to walk carrying it, I would keep the older lens. However weight reduction, ability to hand hold for a short period and the very effective VR makes this a lot more versatile lens than the older VR version. If you’re looking for a 600 super tele, now may be the time to get the older lens at a great price from a person upgrading to the new one.