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 ?

Auto ISO .. Nikon or Canon

Of course one of the most irritating things with Canon cameras is the way they set their auto ISO speed which is something you use all the time .. In Nikon it is the logical choice .. auto ISO tries to get a shutter speed >= 1/focal length with a pre-set minimum .. so if I use a 200mm it is 1/200+ .. if I set the minimum as 1/60sec and I use a 16mm lens then it won’t drop below 1/60 to 1/20 for example .. in Canon it is not the case .. they use an obscure algorithm and so it is very random and has no relation to the focal length you are using which is absolutely crazy and goes against all photography rules .. but Canon users have got used to living with it by setting a maximum and minimum ISO and minimum shutter .. this obviously is not good because if I set a minimum 1/60 for a 70-200mm lens I may end up with 1/60 at 200mm because the camera thinks so ..


Something else Nikon does well with auto ISO is that it sets Auto ISO to be up to 2 stops either quicker or slower than the focal length .. i.e. if you have VR and want a slower shutter speed than 1/FL you can have 1/100 @ 200mm or the opposite 1/400 or 1/1000 at 200mm if you are shooting something moving .. this doesn’t exist in Canon .. you have no control over what Auto ISO is at all and that is a major flaw that people keep moaning about all the time ..


The third thing is that inspite of Auto ISO .. if you are in A or S modes you can still vary the other variable i.e. A in S or S in A just by turning the main dial to vary the ISO without having to press any ISO buttons as well .. so it is the opposite variable on the opposite dial always .. and that is very useful and quick because you don’t have to take your eyes off your target you just turn one of the dials and hey presto the other variable changes .. so if I am at f4 and the speed according to Auto ISO is 1/200 and I want it to be 1/1000 I just turn the dial and I have high speed .. this is not in Canon either .. so Nikon cameras have better practical controls that you use all the time .. they are extremely user friendly once you go deeper than the shell or the skin as they say ..


Also, if you use Manual Aperture and Shutter then Auto ISO sets in to keep the exposure right for the set A/S .. i.e. if it becomes cloudy or sunny during the shoot yet I want all the pictures to be f4 and 1/60 then the ISO varies to keep the exposure right for these settings as much as possible .. of course if you set it in cloudy weather and becomes suddenly sunny or the opposite then you will have to change your basic settings .. but it is important if you are shooting a group of photos and want them all to have the same DOF and speed for the same look and effect .. Canon does not do that in Manual .. in manual you have to set your ISO as well .. So whether 6D, 5D or 1Dx they are all the same irritating settings .. baseline I would like to have a Nikon camera with a Canon L lens ??

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

How to choose a photo printer

I did a lot of research to decide which photo printer to go for.

A4 or A3+. I decided that an A3+ printer would be ideal, especially as prices of A3 printers have gone down.

Dye or Pigment ? I understand that for Glossy paper dye is better, while for Matte, pigment is better. However in the real world I personally prefer the dye gradations to the contrasty pigment inks. I went for a dye + second pigment black. If you use CISS (continuous ink system) or re-fillable cartridges, you can obviously vary the type of ink, although I understand you have to then use some cleaning cartridges between type changes. I have never personally used an ink type (dye and pigment) that is not recommended by the manufacturer, and I do not know whether that voids the warranty.

How many inks. Most have CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow and black). Some have two extra lighter cyan and magenta. Some have Red and blue, and others have different blacks or greys.

Droplet size makes a difference to both gradations of colour tones and resolution, and they vary between 1-5 picolitre, with most new printers between 1-3. Type of paper makes a big difference to result though, and one has to use recommended or original papers or paper from long-standing manufacturers using standardised  products.

What resolution. Most photo inkjet printers nowadays have enough resolution to print very high resolution prints on up to A3+, and the resolution is also very much dependant on the droplet size and the print algorithm. I still lean towards the higher resolution machines for a more natural print.

Epson, HP or Canon. The three big players in photo printers. Epson use Peizo-electric heads, with a longer print cycles than the bubble or thermal heads used by HP and Canon. On the other hand, HP has head in cartridge, so every cartridge change includes a new head, and therefore more expensive. Canon has a very accessible and removable print head that can be easily changed, and costs about one third the price of the printer. Here the choice is difficult, although I personally tried all three.

Wi-Fi and network connection or not. This is now getting to the practicalities. I have 10 USB ports on my computer, and therefore went for the cheaper option of USB only, but for some, go for the network connection (Ethernet or Wi-Fi) if you need it.

Glossy or Matte paper. I prefer Matte for artistic effects. I also like textured paper and canvas. But for many users (portraits, weddings and the like) glossy is a better option.

Original or compatible cartridges, or CISS. For serious work I prefer original ink and paper to get the best results, although compatibles and CISS (continuous ink systems) are good for proofing and draft work.

Printing is a very serious business, if it is to be done properly, and requires a lot of calibration of equipment and standardisation of inks and paper, at least to get a consistent result.


Have you calibrated ?

Calibration and colour management are very critical to all photographic activities, from the second you take your photo, to the time you process it and display or share it either in print or digital form.

Most people are not initially aware of colour management, until the picture in the camera doesn’t match the scene, the picture on the computer screen doesn’t match the camera, or the print doesn’t match what they see in either or both.

The least that can be done by any photographer is to have a monitor calibration device that calibrates the colours, brightness and contrast of their computer display. In this way they are at least sure that what they see on the screen will be matched by professional prints, and by any calibrated display.

To get the right colour from the scene requires either shooting a test shot at the scene using ideally a photographic grey card, or at least a white sheet of paper, and maybe a colour chart. This calibrates the camera at the scene or works in post-processing for RAW files.

The last bit is calibrating the printer, as the colour profiles change with change of paper and ink, and the generic manufacturer profiles don’t usually do a very accurate job. The spectrophotometers for scanning prints are not as cheap as the display ones, but once a colour profile is produced for the printer/ink/paper combination the result should match either the original scene or at least what has been captured in JPEG or RAW, before or after computer processing.

So have you calibrated your workflow yet ?

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