Gear Review: Nikon 200mm F/2G VR

in Gear Review, Lens Review by on September 9th, 2013

I’ve owned this lens now for 5 years, and have been meaning to provide a write up for a long time. I guess I just haven’t used the lens enough, for reasons I will explain during my blog, to do it full justice, but enough is enough, it’s time to write up my experiences…..

DNRT April 2011, Circuit Zandvoort

DNRT April 2011, Circuit Zandvoort

This short review is based upon the v1 lens. It has since been replaced by a v2. The main differences between v1 and v2 are the addition of Nano coating, to help reduce flair/ghosting, and VRII. The optics on both lenses are exactly the same, so I believe this review still holds a lot of relevance to those considering the purchase of this fine optic.

Blossom

Blossom

I bought the lens on a whim – I was traveling through Schiphol airport one afternoon, and noticed they had a rather large lens on the shelf in the electronics section of the duty free. On closer inspection I noticed it was the venerable Nikon 200mm f/2G VR lens, an optic that had been getting rave reviews and was subject of the longest thread on NikonCafe (so long in fact it had to be split into two threads to prevent the forum software from crashing) at http://www.nikoncafe.com/vforums/showthread.php?t=61674 and http://www.nikoncafe.com/vforums/showthread.php?t=261618. One thing struck me immediately about the lens – the price – it was listed for €2500 when everywhere else was selling it for over €3000 (in fact if you look for the best price today you’ll see the newer version two trading for closer to €5000).

So, thinking that I could always sell it again for what I had paid later if I didn’t like it, I bought the lens.

Amsterdam Gay Pride

Amsterdam Gay Pride

5 years on, this is a lens that I don’t use that often. I think the main reason I don’t use it is simply down to the size of the lens. In order to provide a f/2 maximum aperture on a 200mm lens, the front optic has to have a large diameter – around 120mm/5inches. This makes the lens big and heavy, and not something that gets chosen to go in the day bag (if you can indeed find a reasonable day bag that will fit it!). Especially when I have a 70-200mm which is a lot more flexible. It’s a great portrait lens, as it really blows the background, but the focal length means the model to photog distance is a little bit too long, so I typically resort to my other cream machine, the 85/1.4, or the 24-70/2.8 in the studio. For wildlife, the lens is a bit too short, and the 300/2.8 or 200-400/4 get chosen in favor of the 200/2.

Giro D'Italia

Giro D’Italia

However, the 200/2 does have a place, and it’s a nice lens to use when the opportunity arises. The autofocus is lightning fast, and combined with the f/2 aperture, it doesn’t miss a shot. So I have used this lens a number of times as a sports lens – most recently at the DNRT race days at Zandvoort, and a couple of years ago when the Giro passed through Amsterdam. With the shots of the cars in this post, I dropped my aperture to f/4, to give me a bit more depth of field tolerance for the fast moving vehicles, but with the cyclists I shot every bike at f/2, and the autofocus was dead on every time.

Giro D'Italia

Giro D’Italia

The lens weighs just under 3kg, so it is heavy, but it balances nicely on a pro body such as the D3, and sits nicely in the hand. Although it is a lot more comfortable to use it with a monopod, it is definitely possible to shoot hand held for extended periods of time, and the Giro shots are testament to this – I shot handheld for the whole afternoon, and didn’t feel any strain on my back.

Tabatha

Tabatha

Perhaps the biggest disadvantage of the lens though is the sheer bulk. It’s certainly not a lens that you can use inconspicuously when shooting on the street or in public for example. So it remains a very specialist lens, and one that unfortunately doesn’t see much time on my camera. But the pure quality of the images that I end up with when I do use it mean that I won’t be selling this beautiful lens without a very good reason……

DNRT April 2011, Circuit Zandvoort

DNRT April 2011, Circuit Zandvoort

 

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Gear Review: Nikon 24mm f/1.4G

in Gear Review, Lens Review by on July 23rd, 2010

I’ve been using the Nikon professional zoom lenses for a while now, and have built up quite a nice kit. However, when combined with a full frame body such as the D3, it becomes a heavy outfit to use when traveling. So for my recent trip to Japan, I decided to travel lightweight (by my standards, at least) and take a couple of primes.

Green Tea ceremony at the Golden Pavilion, Kyoto. Shot at f/1.4

I initially settled on taking the 24/2.8D, along with the 50/1.4G and the 85/1.4D, but shortly before I left I was able to pick up the 24/1.4G at a reasonable price, so I decided to replace the 24/2.8. I also packed the 70-200/2.8VR for some shots I was planning to take of the snow monkeys at Jigokudani, but I decided I would leave that one behind in the hotel when we were out on day trips.

Shooting an entire trip with primes requires a different thought process than shooting with a zoom would. Although a 24/50/85 combo covers a similar range to the 24-70/2.8 that I normally travel with, I would obviously only ever have a single focal length on the camera at any one time, so any ‘zooming’ I would need to do would have to be done by foot. Since a lot of our trip would be spent inside the city (initially Tokyo, and then later Kyoto) I needed wide, so the 24mm f/1.4G stayed on the camera for probably around 80% of the shots. This blog post covers my experiences thus far with the lens.

Prayer boards at a Japanese shrine. Shot at f/1.4

When I was convincing myself to buy this lens, I looked at my lens collection so far, and realised that I had a number of lenses that covered the 24mm focal length already – 24/2.8D, 17-35/2.8D, and the 24-70/2.8G. All of these lenses serve their purpose very well, and at around f/8 it is very difficult to tell the difference between shots taken with each lens. However none of them give me the flexibility that the 24/1.4G gives me – and that is the ability to shoot at f/1.4. This makes the lens very flexible if I want to shoot at night, or when I want to provide some separation between the subject and the rest of the shot. Combined with the high ISO performance of the D3, I can shoot in very low light conditions without having to rely on flash for illumination. And to me, that makes the lens worth the price you have to pay to get one.

Buddha at shrine. Shot at f/1.4

The 24/1.4 is a fairly bulky, but lightweight, prime. This is down in part to the material used for the barrel construction – plastic. At first I was surprised that a 2000€+ lens would be constructed from plastic, but after using the lens for a couple of months, I am more than happy with the build of the lens, and it balances well in the hand when mounted on the D3. Being from the pro line, it is also a plus point that the lens shares the same 77mm filter thread, allowing filters to be shared with the other lenses in the series.

The lens is a G lens, meaning it doesn’t have an aperture ring, as is the case with pretty much all of Nikon’s recent new lens releases. This isn’t a problem for any of the Nikon Digital SLR range, but should be taken into consideration if the lens is intended for use on an older film body which doesn’t have the ability to adjust aperture in camera. The lens does however have a depth of field scale in the focus distance window.

Golden Pavilion, Kyoto. HDR shot at f/7.1

Talking about depth of field, this is one of the great things about this lens. With it being a wide angle, depth of field is a lot deeper at any given aperture when compared to a longer lens, but when used close up at f/1.4, the lens provides pretty good subject isolation. At the same time, focusing at further distances when using f/1.4 still gives enough depth of field for this to be a very useful low light lens. The next two shots were both taken at f/1.4 at night – note the difference in apparent depth of field due to the distance I focussed at:

Tokyo Night Lights. Shot at f/1.4

Kyoto Tower. Shot at f/1.4

The lens appears sharp at every aperture, and although I have taken a high percentage of my shots with this lens at f/1.4 to take advantage of the creativity this offers, it also provides excellent results when stopped down a bit (all the HDR landscape shots in this post were made at f/7.1 or f/8). I have noticed a slight amount of vignetting wide open occasionally, but in most cases this adds to the atmosphere of the shot, and can be corrected in post if necessary.

All in all, the lens is very versatile, providing an excellent solution regardless of whether it is being used for portrait, night/low light, landscape, or architecture photography. Whilst the price point makes this lens inaccessible for many photographers, for those that do get a chance to shoot with it, the results are worth the money.

Flowers, shot close to minimum focus distance at f/1.4

Waterfall at Golden Pavilion, Kyoto. One shot HDR, shot handheld, 1/10s @ f/7.1

Tabatha. Shot at f/1.4

Nagano Mountains. HDR shot at f/8

Kyoko. Shot at f/1.4

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Gear Review: Comparing the Nikon 300mm f/2.8G VR to the Nikon 200-400mm f/4G VR

in Lens Review by on December 29th, 2009

A question that comes up often on various Nikon oriented internet forums is which lens is more suitable, the Nikon 300mm f/2.8G VR, or the Nikon 200-400mm f/4G VR? Obviously this is a very loaded question, as it depends what the photographer is intending to use the lens for, but I will use this blog post to try and answer the question from my experience with these lenses, which is predominantly nature based. This is not intended to be a technical review, simply comments based upon my own experiences.

I have owned the 200-400/4VR for 3 or 4 years now, and earlier this year picked up the 300/2.8VR as well. I use both lenses on the D3, and have previously used the 200-400 and the 300 on the D200.

Of course, being a zoom, the 200-400 wins here. On DX, the effective focal range of 300-600mm means the 200-400mm is a very effective lens for using for general nature photography, and I used it with success on a number of field trips over the past couple of years. Perhaps the time I was most thankful for the lens was when I took it with me on a safari in Africa. One of the main ‘problems’ with safari photography in Africa is the amount of dust that finds its way into the camera. This is further amplified by lens changes, so the ideal solution is to have a single lens that covers all eventualities. I found the 200-400mm to be just this, and it was pretty much the only lens I needed to use when shooting out of the safari jeep:

Cobra

I also took the lens with me on a trip to photograph puffins in Scotland and Northern England, and again the 200-400 on a DX body came into its own, allowing me to shoot birds all day without switching lenses.

Bird with Sand Eels, Staple Island

The flexibility that the 300/2.8 offers is slightly different. Although hand held shooting is not too much of a problem with the 200-400, the lens does tend to get heavy after a while. The 300/2.8 is a slightly smaller and more lightweight lens, and the ergonomics mean that walking around with it in the hand or on the shoulder is comfortable, and can be used for an extended period of time, such as in the shot below where I had been tracking the deer through the woods for some time.

Roe Deer Doe<

Especially since turning to full format, I have been using my telephoto lenses more and more often with teleconverters. This is an advantage of the fixed aperture pro telephotos that do allow the use of teleconverters whilst maintaining all functionality.

However it is with teleconverters that the 300/2.8 has advantages. It is a full stop faster than the 200-400, which means that the light loss caused by the tc-14e and 17e still leaves the photographer with a usable combination – either a 420/4 or a 510/4.8. This should really be compared to the 200-400 together with the 1.4, which, at the top end, becomes a 560/5.6.

With the tc-14e:

Both lenses work fine with this tc, but the focus on the 200-400 does seem to suffer slightly in terms of speed, especially in duller light. In good light the image quality on the 200-400 is fine, but in slightly worse light, the 300mm with tc leaves the 200-400 behind. The following shot was taken with the 300mm on a D200 with the tc-14e, in early morning, overcast light:

High Fives anyone?

With the tc-17e:

The 200-400 works, but has occasional AF problems, and can not be trusted in low light. The 300/2.8 works fine, and AF is still spot on. Image quality wise, the 300 beats the 200-400 here.

Handling:

Both lenses offer the build quality and usability of every Nikon pro lens. Most switches (for example focus limiters AF on/off) are in the same place on each lens. One notable difference between the two is that with the 300/2.8 the VR is turned on using a ring, whereas the VR on the 200-400 is activated by a switch alongside the other switches. From experience this is a lot harder to see, and a lot easier to knock on and off without noticing.

Image quality:

Both lenses are capable of excellent quality images, both with and without teleconverters. However I have always had a bit of a love hate relationship with the 200-400. I sometimes get the feeling that it really is a good weather lens – if the light is a bit grey and dreary, the 200-400 will amplify that and I will come away with unsatisfying images. The 300/2.8 on the other hand never fails to impress me. Even in lower light, I can still get spot on focus, and sharp contrasty images, such as the following image taken from a boat.

Sea Eagle

Conclusion:

To be honest, if I had to sell one of the two lenses, I would keep the 300/2.8, and sell the 200-400. Although the 300 isn’t a zoom, what it lacks in flexibility, it makes up for in speed and image quality, and with the teleconverters it is almost as flexible. Especially when paired with the 600/4, it provides the wildlife photographer with an excellent tool set. But remember, both are pro quality lenses, and I am just picking faults. Either lens is capable of top images.

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Gear Review: Nikon 50mm f/1.4G lens

in Lens Review by on December 19th, 2009

30 or so months ago I wrote a blog reviewing the Nikon 50mm f/1.8D prime lens. When I wrote the article I was still shooting with a DX crop body, and I summised that the 50mm on a DX body was a great portrait lens, and ideal for use at live gigs.

Now I’ve moved full format with the D3, the 85mm f/1.4D has become my weapon of choice for gig photography, and I find the 24-70mm invariable for using in the studio due to the flexibility of the zoom.

Still, I maintain that the 50mm is an ideal focal length for the above type of photography on a crop body. For a while there was a bit of a gap in the Nikon lens lineup though, as some of the newer crop bodies (like the D60 and most of the newer entry level SLRs) are unable to autofocus with the lenses that don’t contain a focus motor, and require an AF-S lens for full functionality.

However, at Photokina in 2008 NIkon updated their prime lens range to also include the Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G lens. Not only did this update the optical formula of the old 50mm f/1.4D lens, it also added an internal motor, making this an AF-S lens, and putting it within the reach of people starting out with the entry level SLR.

The main criticism that internet pundits had of the new 50/1.4 was the price – at around €350 at introduction (can be picked up for €300 now), it was almost three times the price of the 1.8 variety, and for only a slight improvement in light sensitivity, was thought to be a bit expensive.

It was this reason that also stopped me from picking up the 50/1.4 initially – after all, the 50/1,8 had never given me any problems, and with all the other lenses in my arsenal, I wasn’t missing out on anything by not having it.

So, fast forward 12 months, with the imminent arrival of our baby, Tabatha (born October 18th 2009!), I’m thinking out my camera strategy 🙂 The 24-70mm is a great general purpose lens on the D3, but it’s big, wieldy, and pretty scary to a new born. Add to that the business travel I do, it’s a lot easier to take a body and a couple of small primes (think 24mm, 50mm, and maybe either a 16mm fish or an 85mm) than a big zoom lens.

So I decide the 50mm will become my solution for quick, around the house, shooting, and to begin with, the 50/1.8 was working fine, and gave me fine results such as the following:

Tabatha Ayumi

But then, the NAS demons began playing in my head, and, on the way back from visiting hours at the hospital, I passed the camera store, and the rest, as they say, is history…….

Som how does the 50/1.4 compare to the 50/1.8? Well, to be honest, they are both very fine lenses. Both are small, light, and can be tucked away into a corner in a camera bag very easily. There are a couple of advantages of the 50/1.4 that I have noted:

– Firstly, the lens is provided with a lens hood. Although this is only a fairly lightweight plastic, it does provide protection should the lens get knocked or dropped. (of course a lens hood is also available for the 50/1.8, but this is extra cost)
– Next, it has an AF-S motor. With such a small lens, this doesn’t help so much with focusing speed, but I have noticed a definite improvement over the amount of time it spends searching for the focus point in low light, compared to the 50/1.8. And of course this makes the lens compatible with some of the newer Nikon cameras
– Finally the lens has the advantage of going down to f/1.4, giving you that extra bit of flexibility when shooting in low light, as well as a nice bright viewfinder. To be honest I have probably spent most of the time shooting with this lens wide open, despite a fair number of people suggesting it is soft until it is stopped down a couple of shots (in fact all shots taken by the 50/1.4 in this blog entry were taken wide open at f/1.4, and I find results more than sharp enough)

Tabatha Ayumi

The 50/1.4 has a plastic lens body, the same as the 50/1.8, although I must say in defense of the 1.8, it does feel slightly more sturdy. It’s a 58mm filter size compared to the 52mm on the 1.8, although I have not bothered mounting a filter on this lens, due to the protection the lens hood gives.

Tabatha Ayumi, 5 weeks old

This lens has been mounted on my camera pretty exclusively on the occasions when the D3 is sitting at home and I am not using it on a job. I’ve found it an ideal lens for (baby) snapshots, and it makes the D3 a lot less imposing than one of my larger pro lenses.

So, do I recommend this lens? That’s a difficult one, as the 50/1.8 is such great value for money, so it really boils down to whether or not you need the extra lens speed, and the built in focusing motor. If you have the money, go for it! But if you already have the 50/1.8, you might want to think carefully about upgrading…..

Tabatha Ayumi

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Gear review: Nikon 600mm f/4G VR lens

in Lens Review by on January 25th, 2009

Kingfisher
Originally uploaded by DigitalHeMan


I’ve been the proud owner of the new Nikon 600mm f/4G VR telephoto lens now for over six months, so I thought it was about time I wrote about it on my blog. I’ve already posted a number of images taken with the lens, so if you look further down in my blog you will find some additional shots I have made.

First the reasoning behind my acquisition of the lens. I have owned the 200-400mm f/4G VR lens for a couple of years, and have always had a love-hate relationship with it. The reach was very nice on the DX format (equivalent to 600mm on full frame) but when I switched to the D3, I found myself missing the reach of 600mm. Of course I could use the 200-400 with the tc-14e to give 560mm, but the loss of a stop meant that I often didn’t have enough light (especially in the Netherlands), and I wasn’t impressed with the results.

I had also set myself the target of photographing a kingfisher in 2008, and shortening my effective range by going full frame wasn’t helping me achieve that goal. So in February I decided to place an order for the 600mm, shortly after it was released. I placed my order with Nivo Schweitzer in Amsterdam. They’re a really friendly, knowledgeable shop, and I wish I could make more of my purchases there, but alas their prices are normally too high when compared to the ever competitive internet retailers, so I don’t. But this time they were prepared to give me a good price on the lens, so I gave them my custom.

It wasn’t until June that Nikon was able to deliver the lens to Nivo Schweitzer, due to the worldwide lens shortage that was caused by the Olympics, but when I finally received it I was amongst the first people in the Netherlands to get hold of it (if not the first, excluding the press). The first thing that struck me about the lens was the size. I was used to Nikon Super Teles, with my 200-400mm experiences, but the new 600 was in a class of it’s own. As you can see by the attached photo, the dual lens hoods make this into a monster. (photo credit Patrick de Paepe)

Even with the lens hoods turned around in their storage position, the 600 is a big item to transport, and Nikon deliver it in a hard case. I have already discussed my choices for a new camera bag in a previous blog post. In terms of handling, though, the 600 also brings its own challenges. It’s not really hand holdable. Anyone that tells you it is, is either a) Iron man, or b) lying 😉 Of course it is possible to take the occasional shot from the hand, as the lens does have VR, and I can hold it for a couple of minutes before it gets tiring, but for real stability, the lens needs to be resting on something. For the 200-400 I was satisfied with a Gitzo Series 3 with Markins M20 ballhead and a Wimberley Sidekick, but for the 600 I wasn’t sure that this would be stable enough, so went for the Gitzo 5540LS, together with a Manfrotto 519 fluid video head. This gives me more than enough stability, and is flexible enough for panning when needed.

It is worth noting that the standard lens foot that Nikon provides with the 600 is very ‘tall’, and in my opinion not really stable enough for a lens of such a size. Although I have not done any scientific testing, to me it looks like it would be a lot more prone to flex than some lower alternatives, so one of the first things I did was replace the Nikon foot with a Kirk LP-46, available from Nikonians PhotoProShop – not only is this a lot lower profile, but it also includes an integrated arca swiss plate, so it can be mounted on a full size Wimberley for example without any additional lens plate. I would recommend anyone considering the 600 to switch to this lens foot as soon as possible.

However I have found that often I am in situations where using a tripod is not practical, and then it is possible to get enough support by resting the lens on a bean bag – the shots of the kingfisher (shot from a hide) and the buzzard (shot from a car) in this blog are testament to this. (Note: often when shooting with the bean bag I tend to leave the second of the two lens hoods unmounted, simply to make the lens a little more easy to handle)


Buzzard
Originally uploaded by DigitalHeMan


Since this is a big, heavy, and not to mention expensive, lens, I decided that I would protect the lens from day one, and bought the LensCoat neoprene lens covering, to avoid any scratches to the lens and to help maintain the resale value (not that I ever intend to part with this lens). The LensCoat covers also provide me with basic camouflaging, should I wish to remain incognito when tracking a subject.

Although I was expecting a bit of a learning curve with this lens, I was pleasantly surprised that I was quickly able to adapt my long lens technique to use the lens, and was able to get good shots from day one. I am still continually impressed with the quality, sharpness, and contrast of the images that I am able to shoot with this lens. It’s one of the sharpest I own, and is up there with the 200mm f/2G VR, which is a lens known for superior sharpness. Providing the shutter speed is kept to a reasonably high value, it is possible to get great shots, even when used in combination with the tc-14e teleconverter (I have even had good shots with the tc-17e). The following shot is such an example, taken with the D3, 600mm F/4VR with TC-14e, 1/800s, f/5.6, 400iso.


Deer Stag
Originally uploaded by DigitalHeMan


Based upon my usage of the tc-14e with the 200-400, where I had not been so impressed, I was very surprised with only a minor (hardly noticeable) loss of quality when the teleconverter was used together with the 600mm, and I find myself using this combination more and more often.

Those of you who are existing users of Nikon VR telephotos will be familiar with many of the functions on the lens – it has a focus limiter, which restricts the focusing range between 10m – infinity, instead of the normal minimum focus distance which is around 5m. It provides buttons that can be used to program a focus lock, can be used in M, A/M, and M/A focus override modes, and supports touch focusing for any last minute changes and to override the AF. It uses the familiar ring VR ON/OFF control, which seems to be the Nikon standard for fixed focal length VR lenses, as opposed to the slide switch on the 200-400.

In fact the only major change in controls over the earlier VR lenses is the VR mode switch – there is now a choice between ‘Normal’ and ‘Tripod’ mode – previously this was either ‘Normal’ or ‘Active’. I guess Nikon engineers that a lens the size of the 600 is less likely to be used in situations that the Active mode was designed for, and instead decided to optimize the lens to work well when mounted on a tripod. In any case, this mode seems to work very well.


Buzzard
Originally uploaded by DigitalHeMan


So in summary, I am very, very pleased with the 600mm lens. Whilst it is an expensive acquisition and I accept it is not for everybody, if you can afford to buy it and are into wildlife shooting, this is the ideal lens to use for bird and animal photography. One thing to note, even at 600mm smaller birds will not fill the frame unless you are fairly close, but this can be helped by using a teleconverter. The sharpness, colors, and contrast of this lens make it a pleasure to work with, with the traditionally excellent Nikon build quality, I hope this is a lens that I will be able to continue to enjoy for many years to come.

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