Long Sighted

AF-S NIKKOR 800MM F5.6E FL ED VR SUPER TELE PHOTO

Nikon’s new autofocus 800mm super tele embodies a lot of current lens technology to enhance both its performance and handling. Report by Paul Burrows.

Super tele photos don’t come up for testing all that often, firstly because they’re fairly specialized and secondly because just about every example that rolls off the production line already has somebody’s name on it. We’ve seen a few over the decades, but basically they’re a rarity and, if ever made available for evaluation, usually come with conditions… in this case, having just a day to play, it was mid-week so there were no sporting events happening, the surf was flat and there wasn’t time to head for the bush… sports and wildlife being the obvious applications for an 800mm. Nevertheless, it was interesting to see what can be achieved when a host of contemporary lens design techniques and technologies are applied to the super telephoto.

Nikon hasn’t had an 800mm in its Nikkor line¬up since the manual focus Ai-S mount model was discontinued in 2005 and Canon’s EF 8C0mm f5.6 L-series lens has been around since mid-2008. That said, it still needs to be noted that canon was offering an autofocus 800mm with built-in optical image stabilisation five years ago… what’s more, the two are actually very similar in dimensions, weight and physical construction (plus, to a lesser extent, the optical construction), conversely, of course, the 800mm is very specialised indeed and for many photographers with super tele photo requirements, a 400mm or a 600mm matched with i.4x and/or 2.0x converters is going to be a more flexible arrangement. interestingly, though, the new 800mm is only marginally bulkier overall than Nikon’s 600mm f4.0.

Handling

For starters, there’s the logistics associated with using such a big lens. Nikon’s 800mm f5.6 is a tad over 46 centimetres in length and although, at just under 4.6 kilograms, it’s nowhere near as heavy as expected, it’s still a handful… well, actually hand- holding is pretty well out of the question.

Even with Nikon’s Vibration Reduction’ optical image stabilisation doing its stuff — with up to 4.5 stops of correction — the sheer physicality of this lens means it needs to be mounted on either a tripod or a monopod. The good news is that using a monopod is actually feasible here, and a suit¬able tripod doesn’t need to look like it was built in a ship yard. We used a mid-sized Manfrotto fitted with a bailhead to optimise the manoeuvrability of camera-and-lens and, apart from needing to be exceptionally careful when loosening off the ball’s clamp, we could have been shooting with a 300mm f2.8. Given the price tag, it also pays to double, triple and even quadruple check that, whatever type of mounting plate is being used, it’s properly seated and securely locked before letting go of the barrel.

Using the supplied shoulder strap, the 800mm is also surprisingly easy to carry around even with a tripod and perhaps a backpack containing what ever else is needed for the shoot, it comes in its own heavy-duty custom hard case which is great for storage or even for the back of a 4WD, but some sort of soft case would probably be more useful overall, especially if air travel is involved (the logo- emblazoned hard case does pretty well scream out ‘expensive lens inside!’).

A Big Build

The AF-S Nikkor 800mm f5.6E FL ED VR — to give it its full and grand title — has magnesium alloy barrel tubes fully sealed against the intrusion of dust and moisture. The tripod mounting bracket is fully integrated and the barrel rotates within its collar to enable quick switching between the horizontal and vertical orientations. A locking knob prevents any accidental shifting and the long foot — which accommodates gimbaltype tripod heads — has three mounting points (one 3/8 inch in the centre with two % inch).

The optical construction comprises 20 elements in 13 groups with two of these elements being fluorite types and two being made from extra-low dispersion (ED) glass. These are designed to minimise chromatic aberrations, but the FL types also contribute to a reduction in the lens’s weight as one does the work of several conventional ED elements, interestingly, the 800mm is a G-type lens which, in modern Nikkor terms, means it doesn’t have a manual aperture collar and f-stops have to be set from the camera body.

In reality, this arrangement is probably going to negatively impact on virtually nobody who buys this lens, but it still seems a bit strange not to leave the option of conventional aperture control available on what is very much a pro-orientated product. As a consequence, however, the diaphragm is electro- magnetically controlled (rather than mechanically) which ensures greater uniformity in exposures when shooting at faster frame rates.

Taking Control

The autofocusing drive is Nikon’s ultrasonic ‘Silent Wave Motor’ (SWM) and the focusing group is located amidships so nothing moves externally. Obviously it’s a requirement that the host D-SLR’s

AF system can operate when a lens’s largest aperture is f5.6 which, in the current Nikon line-up, means D4, D800/800E, D700 and D6C0 (although all require a firmware upgrade in order to support the lens). The focusing range can be set to either Full or so that the minimum ‘close up’ distance is set at ten metres rather than the normal 5.9 metres.

It’s a long stretch to the manual focusing collar and there’s the option of selecting ‘M/A’ control which allows for a full-time manual override of the AF system. Simply turning the focusing collar immediately switches the operating mode. ‘M/A’ differs from ‘A/M’ in that the latter requires a more pronounced movement of the focusing collar before operation will be switched from auto or manual.

There are, in fact, a total of five switches on the side of the 800mm; and these are for focusing mode, focusing range, image stabilisation mode, focus function and audible signals. The focus function switch works in conjunction with four buttons located at 90-degree intervals around the barrel and located just ahead of the focusing collar. These execute the selected function… namely focus lock, focus memory recall (there’s a separate button for setting the focus memory) and AF start. The audible signals serve as confirmation of each action.

The ‘VR’ optical image stabilisation has two modes called Normal and Active. The Normal operation is designed for when the lens is essentially static — and automatically detects when the camera is being panned to cancel correction in the horizontal plane — while Active is for use when shooting from a moving platform such as a car or a boat… assuming such a feat is actually possible!

A slot-in filter holder is located at the rear of the lens — close to the camera body for convenience — and it accepts 52 mm diameter screw-thread types, but only one at a time. There isn’t any provision for adjusting a poiariser from outside the lens.

In The Field

As noted at the outset, the Nikkor 800mm f5.6 is a big lens in terms of its length and width, but it’s not excessively heavy so handling isn’t quite the work¬out that might be expected, in fact, the lens on its own (i.e. minus its custom case) isn’t such a huge chore to carry around which is just as well given that all its main applications require photographers to be on their feet for a lot of the time. Of course, add the other items of equipment that need to be carried and the total weight certainly starts to mount up, but the point is that lugging this lens solo is feasible, importantly too, the use of the fluorite elements helps with the balance so the lens’s centre-of-gravity is now more to the rear and it doesn’t always want to pitch violently forward the moment the tripod head is unlocked.

As hand-held shooting is out of the question, the mam role of the image stabilisation is to counter any vibrations — which will be magnified many times otherwise enabling shooting at much slower shutter speeds. It’s especially beneficial when using a monopod.

it’s also a great convenience to have autofocusing even if it’s only used as an electronic range finder to establish a starting point for any subsequent manual adjustments With the D4, for example, the full 51 points — which includes 15 cross-type sensor arrays in the centre are available. Even when the 1.25X converter is fitted to create a 1000mm f7.1, the D4’s AF system is still operating with 15 points (nine of them acting as cross-type arrays). I laving such super-fast AF operation with a super tele is a real advantage when shooting moving subjects, especially as the depth-of-field with this lens is wafer thin. However, the nine-blade diaphragm gives beautifully smooth out-of-focus effects.

And this is a big lens that’s big on performance. The optical quality is hard to fault with exceptional sharpness from corner-to-corner across the aperture range, excellent contrast and negligible distortion. Consequently, very tiny details are crisply resolved which is particularly welcome in wildlife photography where defining feathers and fur is a particular challenge. Chromatic aberrations are also effectively corrected and, while there’s a hint of vignetting at f5.6, it’s gone from f8.0 onward, it’s not an exaggeration to state that the imaging performance is more akin to that of an excellent

Features: ‘Vibration Reduction’ optical image stabilisation, ‘Silent Wave Motor’ ultrasonic focusing drive, two FL (fluorite) elements, two ED (extra low dispersion) glass elements, nine-blade diaphragm with electromagnetic control, internal focusing, magnesium alloy barrel sealed against dust and moisture,

‘Nano Crystal’ coating, ‘Super integrated Multi¬coating’, adjustable focusing range, focus setting memory. Matched AF-S Teleconverter TC800-1 25E ED included (1.25x). Metal lens hood, carry strap and custom hard case also included.

Price: $23,699 (estimated street price).

The Verdict

Nikon’s 800mm f5.6 autofocus super tele photo is a beautiful… no, exemplary example of the optical engineer’s art, but the focal length makes it a highly specialised item, it’s beautifully made and a stunning performer, but there are other ways of getting to 8C0mm which wouldn’t be quite so expensive. Whether they’d deliver a comparable image quality is highly debatable though, so if nothing less than technical perfection is demanded then this lens is money well spent.

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