A 400mm lens for a Nikon enthusiast

I have a host of enthusiastic Nikon lenses to go with my Nikon FF D600.

I have a AF-S 16-35mm f4 VR, AF-S 24-120mm f4 VR, and 80-200mm f2.8D screw-driven lens with which a TC is not usable except in manual focus. On the prime side I have the Nikon 50mm f1.8 and the Tamron 90mmm f2.8 Macro.

I wanted something further in reach beyond 200mm, so bought the very sharp 70-300mm VR lens. I then felt I needed further reach to 400mm or beyond to get wildlife and other photography.

I started a very frustrating trip for an amateur enthusiastic  photographer.

The obvious choice was the Nikon 80-400mm VR. I read so many reviews about how the MKI was very slow to focus and created a lot of tug while screw-drive focusing. The reviews also indicated it was soft wide open, especially at the 400mm end, which is what I would have got it for. They also indicated it suffered from focus breathing, especially at very near distances, producing a field of view similar to a lens <300mm. It is still being produced and a new one sells for around £900, while a used one is around £500. I decided to skip this option.

The next choice was the 80-400mm VR MKII. It seems to have all the above sorted except for the focus breathing, and for the fact that it is almost twice as expensive at about £1900, with hardly any used ones are available for a more reasonable price. This was beyond my budget.

The next thought was do I change systems from Nikon to Canon to get the Canon 100-400L IS, which is an excellent lens, not as expensive as the Nikon 80-400mm and is available as used around £800. I felt that changing systems is such a drastic measure, especially as I really like all my other lenses, and I love my Nikon cameras.

The next option was still within Nikon perhaps get a 70-200mm f2.8 + TC2.0 which would set me back £1800 and is huge and heavy, that was not an option, or a 70-200mm f4 + TC1.4, which is not terribly expensive but <300mm and f5.6, so no real improvement, or a 300mm f4 + TC1.4 and that is more than 400mm and f5.6. I kind of decided against the latter as my use is not necessarily for far away birds only.

The last option was a Tamron or a Sigma. There are quite a few of them reaching 300, 400 and even 500mm, but very big and heavy, and all their reviews indicated a not very sharp image at the far reach, which is my needed reach.

For now I settled for the 70-300 VR, hoping for the price of the 80-400mm MKII to come down and to find a well priced used one within my budget.

I would be interested in hearing people’s comments on the 400mm end on a Nikon ?

Philosophy of Lenses for Amateurs

Amateurs get a raw deal when it comes to lenses .. There are the professional built-like-a-tank big, heavy and terribly expensive lenses .. and there are the cheap consumer lenses .. In-between, most lens manufacturers make some amateur lenses .. So amateur lenses are probably double the price of consumer ones, and are better built in that they are weather sealed, have full-time manual focusing, silent ultrasonic wave motors and metal mounts.

Beyond that .. Amateurs have to think of the range .. a wide angle, a standard zoom and a tele-zoom, plus a macro lens.

In full-frame an example would be the Canon 17-40 f/4 L, 24-105 f/4 IS L and 70-200 f/4 IS L. In Nikon the equivalents would be the AF-S 16-35 f/4 VR, 24-120 f/4 VR and 70-200 f/4 VR or 80-200mm ED. I would also add a 50mm f1.8 of sorts and a 100mm f2.8 macro ..

To me the main and most important lens is the walk-about 24-105/120 lens, which I use 80% of the time .. I do cityscapes, landscapes, still life and portraits.

Those who do sports, racing, or wild-life may find this setup very short or slow for them .. I envy those photographers who do only one type of photography .. like a macro hobbyist only needs a 100mm f2.8 macro .. !!

Idea, design and composition

We agreed that design and composition are the hallmarks of photography .. and without them you end up with record photos or worthless photos.

I think that we tend to confuse three things .. ideas, design and composition .. where idea is the story, design is how to tell it, while composition is how to tell it well ..

So I have an idea .. I may be reading about the artistic effects of using perspective, driving across the country and see a scene that stops me, or I want to do a study about poverty .. the list is endless, from the mundane to the abstract .. I would then have to design how to tell the story .. still life, street photography, studio work, and so on .. and based on this choice I would choose my equipment .. and the last bit would be the composition .. i.e. shooting the scene using the equipment and technique most suitable ..

So for example .. the other day I wanted to photograph a historic site, that is always full of people, especially at the time of the day when the light was most appropriate for photographing it. I wanted an angled frontal shot with perspective that would show the glory and tell the story of the place, with no or very few or blurred people .. I decided to shoot just before sunset (site front is west facing), using long shutter speeds to ghost out the moving people (I needed a -8 or more ND filter), a tripod, and a shutter release. I set my tripod and camera at a place where I could get these angled frontal shots with perspective, using a wide angle lens. I took some shots on a clear day, with hard low sunlight, producing some harsh shadows. I also shot others on an overcast day, with diffuse light and little or no shadows. I used different shutter speeds and apertures to get as many shots as I can, so I can later choose the best ones .. Some shots (20-30 seconds) showed no people (completely ghosted out) and others had people in slow motion.

Studying what I did carefully you realise that the first step was the idea: photographing the site front, angled and with a perspective (ideally without people, few people, or blurred people) .. then the design: long stutter speed with ND filters and tripod and a wide angle .. then the composition: frontal with perspective using a wide angle lens and different shooting angles and positions, and different shutter speeds and apertures .. At the end of the day I chose only one photograph that I felt was good and fulfilled my idea and vision .. it was what I saw in my mind to start with, and was then physically produced, for me and others to see ..

So have a story, decide how to tell it, and tell it well .. Idea, design and composition

That’s how you make a good photo

Photo Processing

Most people, me included, are very excited after a shoot, and they want to use and show off their photos immediately .. what people usually miss is the excitement of going through the photos very slowly and processing them properly;

  • Renaming for organisation
  • Inserting keywords, tags and labels
  • Rating (stars and colours)
  • Discarding bad photos
  • Basic processing (White balance, exposure and contrast)
  • Intermediate processing (lens corrections, perspective corrections, colour corrections, noise and sharpening)
  • Advanced processing (area and spot corrections, vignette, graduated and colour filters)
  • Cropping and levelling
  • Creating several versions with different processing options
  • Artistic processing (Photoshop)
  • Exporting for sharing, printing, publishing, and archiving

35mm lens on a cropped frame

When I bought my first APS-C sensor DSLR I wanted to buy my first prime lens.

I was told 35mm lens is equivalent to standard normal view 50mm on a 35mm sensor .. and the 50mm will be the equivalent of 75mm ..

I therefore bought the 35mm just to get the surprise of my life .. the 35mm lens did not behave like a 50mm when it came to perspective and distortion .. it kept its usual wider angle perspective .. just being cropped meant the image appeared as if it was more zoomed in due to the cropping ..

I returned the 35mm lens straight away and replaced it with a 50mm that behaved as expected exactly like a 50mm lens and not a 75mm when it came to perspective and DOF .. only the DOF was more deeper compared to the same lens and aperture on a full frame as it took the same shot from further away !!

Full-Frame or not

The ultimate in photography is not full frame sensor cameras of course .. they are the medium format or large format cameras .. However, for all practical purposes and as the 35mm full frame sensor cameras are the mainstream format and are still affordable albeit expensive .. our discussion will be between 35mm full frame sensors and smaller sensors in DSLR’s and other smaller interchangeable lens cameras.

Full frame has many advantages .. cleaner pictures especially in low light due to lower noise ratio .. higher image quality .. usually higher megapixel count all compared to similar cropped sensors .. and the ultimate is a more blurred out-of-focus background (Bokeh) compared to smaller sensors using the same focal length and aperture which in some cases can not be matched by same lens/focal length/aperture .. They also allows using smaller apertures (larger f number) before diffraction sets in and softens the image, although on cropped sensors you don’t need to go really small to get the same DOF  .. and less wide lenses for the same angle of view (a 10mm lens would be equivalent to 15mm on a cropped sensor) ..

Advantages of smaller (cropped sensors APS-C, 4/3 etc) .. less expensive  .. longer focal reach for same focal length (smaller sensors have a crop factor x1.5, x1.6, x2 etc) more useful in wild life and nature shots .. deeper Depth of Field (DOF) more useful for cityscapes and landscapes .. smaller bodies and more importantly less glass .. so smaller, lighter and less expensive lenses .. also using full-frame lenses on a cropped sensor means you get the sweat central spot of the lens in action and discard the soft periphery ..

So what do you go for .. I would say if you have the money you need both .. two bodies, one each .. if you are on a budget then a cropped sensor body .. and add the full frame in the future .. simply because the full frame gives you higher IQ, better low light performance and shallower DOF

Simpler Glass is Always Better

People argue about zoom lenses and prime lenses and which are better ..

Here is the score .. Some really expensive Zooms can be quite sharp and high resolving as primes and are definitely more practical ..

Primes will remain cheaper, smaller, lighter, sharper, allow in more light for same aperture due to less loss of light in transmission, and need more discipline to use and more hassle to carry several lenses and change in the field ..

Basically if you are out photographing different things on the hop then zoom .. if you are photographing an occasion or a set piece or in a studio or macro then go for prime .. or if you are learning or if you are advanced and want to convey an artistic message or if you want to go really crazy with f1.2 and achieve a really blurred background with an extreme Bokeh .. or if you want maximum light for very exact focusing .. then prime ..

So for anything artistic and not in a hurry prime otherwise zoom