Posted on April 24, 2018
Over the years as a Nikon ambassador I have been able to test a lot of new gear that has come out and some of it I have reported on, like the 200-500mm f/5,6 (https://roymangersnes.wordpress.com/2015/09/25/field-test-nikkor-200-500mm-f56e-ed/) and the 500mm f/4 (https://roymangersnes.wordpress.com/2015/07/28/field-test-nikon-500mm-f4e-fl-ed-vr/). After my contract with Nikon was terminated they still trusted me with new gear to test in collaboration with my partner Stavanger Foto (www.stavangerfoto.no), like the D850 (https://roymangersnes.wordpress.com/2017/09/26/field-test-nikon-d850-gone-wrong/). After the latest mishap with brand new equipment I wasn’t expecting to be testing anything for a while, but there I was hosting a 8 day winter expedition to the Norwegian Arctic archipelago Svalbard with my company WildPhoto Travel, testing a spanking new AF-S NIKKOR 180-400mm f/4E TC1.4 FL ED VR.
As before I don’t do technical analysis or in depth tests of all features. My main concern is – does it work for me in the field? After hosting over 20 boat expeditions for WildPhoto Travel (www.wildphoto.com) to Svalbard, and the last three years some in winter conditions, I knew that this was the perfect place to take this new lens to the test. During these trips we work on a moving ship in relatively low light, with temperatures sometimes dropping below minus 20 degrees Celsius. I normally bring a tripod, but on this tour I shot everything hand held. For reference I tried the lens with the Nikon D5, D850 and D500, with the D5 being my preferred body. During this expedition we had temperatures ranging from minus 5 to minus 20 degrees Celsius, with severe wind chill on some occasions. I left my photo equipment outside in the cold throughout the trip to prevent condensation issues. On the coldest days I did experience slowing down of the LCD screens but all other features of my cameras seemed to be working just perfectly, so it shouldn’t affect the performance of the lens.
My first impression is that this is a solid built lens in the same category as my favourite 400mm f/2,8 and other prime Nikon lenses. Nikon say that the 180-400mm f/4E TC1.4 is built to replace the 200-400mm f/4. The way I see it this is something completely new! I never really liked the 200-400mm, but this lens is going in my bag.
The 180-400mm f/4E TC1.4 is relatively heavy (3,5kg), but there is a lot of good glass in this package. The lens features 1 fluorite and 8 extra-low-dispersion elements (ED glass) plus fluorine, Nano Crystal coatings. It is well balanced and feels really good with the D5, but even with the light D500 it is stable and comfortable in the hand. One thing that was bothering me with the 200-500mm was that you would have to turn the zoom ring very far to move from shortest to longest. This causes a lot of problems when shooting hand held because you will have to adjust your grip, but this is much better on the 180-400mm, and I believe it is well within what is acceptable. The new lens obviously also has an internal focus like the 200-400mm. In the future I would however love to see a servo on the lens, perhaps one you can turn on and off, that enables you to go from 180mm to 400mm with just a small adjustment of the zoom ring. At least the way I was using the lens; I rarely did fine adjustments to the focal length, but rather took if from 200mm to 350mm in one go. In such a case a servo would have been perfect. Anyway, that’s for the future.
When it comes to use in the field there where several things I was curious to test. Sharpness obviously being one feature, but also focus speed, backlight, vibration stabilization and just how it handles was of importance. I was also curious to see how the built in extender performed and I must say I got used to it very quickly and it’s positioning seem to be good for my grip and hands. I can easily take it on and off while still shooting. It also seems the lens keeps focusing while you add the extender and also while adjusting the zoom. (Keep in mind that Nikon has a disclaimer saying you should not use the extender while focusing. I did this all the time, and didn’t have any issues.) There was an early problem with the 200-500mm where it stopped focusing when the zoom was used, but it does not seem to be an issue here. The problem mentioned was quickly solved with a firmware upgrade after it was pointed out by the first users.
To get the full potential of this lens, and your other lenses, make sure to have the latest firmware in your camera, including the Lens Distortion firmware.
The first point I want to make is about the flexibility that this lens gives me. On this expedition I brought the three bodies mentioned above, but limited my lenses to the 14-24mm f/2,8, 24-70mm f/2,8, 70-200mm f/2,8 and the 180-400mm f/4 TC14. My normal prime lens is the 400mm f/2,8 and I have also been using the 800mm f/5,6 on these expeditions previously.
For me photography is about telling stories and with this lens I can easily go from shooting close portraits and interaction to including the surrounding landscapes to add a sense of place and scale like I like to do, without having to bring another body and shorter lens. My 70-200mm f/2,8 was hardly used on this trip.
I also want to make a point about the close focus range, which is 2 meters (6.5′) at any focal length. This will make this lens a perfect lens for close up photography of critters like reptiles and butterflies, and also a very good portrait lens.
The positioning and handling of the extender switch was a bit awkward in the beginning, probably also due to the fact I was working with thick gloves, but after a little while I was turning the extender on and off like a champion. It is very easy to use the ring finger on you right hand to operate the switch, and you can easily do this while your index and thumb is busy shooting (note the disclaimer mentioned above), and without taking your eye of the viewfinder. The switch feels stable and falls into place in a comfortable and natural way. I think the positioning of the switch is much more logic than the one found on the Canons equivalent lens, especially when hand holding.
Like many wildlife photographers I am obsessed with lens sharpness, especially for my fine art work. I also have stock agencies that demand a certain level of technical quality in the files I submit. Now this is one of the reasons I never liked the 200-400mm f/4. I heard other people that where happy with it, so maybe I got a “Monday-lens”, but I honestly never felt it delivered the crisp files I was looking for. Therefore the 200-400mm spent most of its time at home when I was travelling.
On this tour I was mainly using the D5, but I also tested the lens on the D500, which is a slightly forgiving camera that also gives me another 1,5x reach, and also the not so forgiving D850. I was very pleased with the result even on the high resolution files produced by the latter.
The 180-400mm with its fluorite front element delivers high quality result, as you would expect from a camera giant like Nikon. Like the 200-500mm this new lens is sharp at both the extremes all the way to the corners. I did experience some vignetting on my shoot, but I did also shoot on a D5 with firmware version LD 2.015. When I updated the firmware to LD 2.017 the vignetting more or less disappeared. With the built in extender in use there is no vignetting visible anymore, and the sharpness is still very good.
I must admit I was sceptical to a built in extender as it adds another element of glass, that’s even moving, but when it came to the field I found myself using it all the time. The optical quality of the lens with the extender in use is not as good as when its not use, as expected, but it is definitely good enough for my taste.
During my Svalbard expedition in the beginning of April it was still early for most birds, but the Northern Fulmars where constantly following the ship. These are not the fastest of fliers but they toss and turn on the wind, close to the water surface below. When in addition the light was low and the ocean surface where covered by pancake ice it made for a challenging subject. Again the flexibility of this lens came into play as the birds come in towards the ship at changing distances, depending on the wind direction and wind speed. If there was a lot of wind they would come really close and I would fill the frame at 180mm, but sometimes I wanted to frame the bird against a beautiful background in the distance and needed the extra reach. With a small finger movement I would be able to switch the 1,4 extender on and shoot at the lens full reach to get my shot.
I tried different focus settings, like the Single point, Auto and my favourite Group Mode. I must say that the accuracy of the Auto settings keep surprising me, but with the contrasty ice on the ocean I found the Group Mode setting to be the best one. After shooting from the back deck for a while I found my groove and just like with my preferred 400mm f/2,8 lens I didn’t even bother checking my files as I was shooting – I just knew they where sharp!
Many people are afraid to shoot backlight, and always try to shoot with the light in an angle from behind to get “perfectly lit” subjects. With the dynamic range of the modern cameras you really shouldn’t worry. The backlight will give you a much more atmospheric image and you will still keep details in the subject. One of the challenges for many lenses when it comes to backlight is ghosting or flares. Nikon has developed lenses that has Nano Crystal coating that takes away most of this flare, but not all lenses has this. The new 180-400mm does. Therefore shooting backlight is no problem and the resulting images have close to no flare or ghosting.
Over the years the Nikon Vibration Reduction technology has become better and better. According to some the new lens VR technology reduces camera shake equivalent to 4 stops. This is difficult to test in the field, especially as all my work was hand held from a more or less moving ship. All I can say is that it works for me in the conditions I was facing. My VR was constantly on during this shoot. On a couple of occasions I found myself shooting landscapes and Polar bears in late evening light at speeds down to 1/320sec, handheld with the 1,4 extender on. The ship was not moving at the time, but still… I also spent some time panning Fulmars flying next to the ship with speeds down to 1/30sec. I was using both Normal and Active mode on the lens VR, and in my experience Normal gives the best result in these panning situations, as recommended by Nikon support.
With the AF-S NIKKOR 180-400mm f/4E TC1.4 FL ED VR, Nikon hasn’t only got the lens with the longest name I have ever seen, but they have also brought out an extremely flexible tool that will produce superior images in a variety of situations. A client on my tour asked me what lens I would bring to future Svalbard expeditions with WildPhoto Travel if I could only choose one – my answer is the 180-400mm f/4E TC1.4.
Posted on September 26, 2017
First of all I want to give a shout out to the best photography store in the world. The service found at my local pro store Stavanger Foto cannot be matched by anyone, and the knowledgeable people working there will always make you feel like their most important client. Check out www.stavangerfoto.no and give them a try, they deserve it!
OK, so now on to my Nikon D850 field test. I was very excited when I first read about the new Nikon D850 and I knew that this camera would be exactly what I had been waiting for. The larger file size is welcomed from a fine art perspective and in combination with a highly improved focus system, fast processors and better ISO capabilities I could easily see myself using this camera also for wildlife. Unfortunately Nikon have not been able to ship as many cameras as expected in the first batch and I was not able to get my hands on one before departing on a WildPhoto Travel photo tour to Alaska. That is when my local pro store, Stavanger Foto, stepped up and asked me if I would like to take their one and only demo camera with me to test in the field. Obviously they didn’t have to ask twice and arrangements where made so they would have it back in Norway as soon as I returned from Alaska, as I was travelling on to another assignment in Mexico and they needed the camera in store.
The Alaskan wild is a rewarding place for a wildlife photographer, but it is an unforgiving environment for fine technology, so this would be a perfect place to test the new camera. Like I have mentioned in previous field tests I prefer to try my cameras and lenses in the environment where I actually do most of my work rather then testing it in a lab or on a random location. For this field test I stayed 7 nights in a tented camp with only a portable solar panel for charging. For the first three solid days it was raining constantly before the weather cleared on the forth day. During those rainy days I used the Nikon D850 mainly as my short lens alternative, shooting with a 24-70mm/2,8E ED VR.
Some of the features I very quickly recognized and enjoyed was the possible diagonal tilting of the LCD screen. This feature is very handy when shooting low to the ground, composing my images without the use of an angle viewfinder. I also noticed that the built in flash was removed, which I completely understand as it was a weak point in the previous models. During my 7 years as a Nikon ambassador (which I am not any more) I have been asking for the possibility to set the fn2 button to change between the different shooting bank menus without having to go into the menu system. Previously the response has been that the D800 and the D810 were not pro bodies and should not have the same features as the D4/D5. Finally it seems Nikon has acknowledged that the D800 series is the only professional option after the D3X was discontinued.
During my test I did shoot with ISO way above what I would normally shoot with the D810, and closer to what I use on my D5, and the converted DNG files look amazing. The lack of noise and also the colour dynamics at high ISO is several levels above the previous models, and can easily be compared with the D5 if corrected for the larger file size. I also enjoyed the new focus system, also found in the D5. I am especially impressed with the Group focus, which I use a lot while tracking fast moving subjects, but recently I have also learnt to love the Auto AF mode. It is super fast and very intelligent. The frame rate is also impressive, considering the size of the sensor, with 7 fps, and a possible increase to 9 fps with the added MB-D18 battery grip.
As my preferred editing tool Adobe Lightroom has still not released an update for viewing and editing the D850 files I have not been able to review them properly, but from what I see so far the converted DNG files seem to have amazing dynamic range.
One feature I was really looking forward to test was how well this camera performs during night photography. The first night we had a clear sky I set up the camera on my tripod at the high water mark, and fitted it with the new Nikon 8-15mm lens. Being so far from civilization the entire Milky Way was visible and this night there was no moon so it was perfect for a test. I made use of the interval shooting option in the menu and found my frame to the west where the Milky Way would be most visible. I set my camera to take a picture every 15 minutes for five and a half hours starting at 23:00. My settings where 25 sec, f/4,5 at ISO3200. When all was ready I went to bed.
Next morning I came down to find wet grass on my camera thinking a bear came by to taste it. We did have bears around our tent regularly. The battery seemed to be empty, which was a surprise, but when I opened the chamber to change it reality hit my like a fist in the guts. During the night we had a record high, 13,7 feet tide and the entire camera setup had drowned!!! I just killed one of the very few Nikon D850 that was delivered in Norway and possibly the only one found in Alaska…
There where so many more features that I was looking forward to test, but now it seems I will not get the opportunity. Based on what I did see, and also the few files that I have converted to DNG using Adobes converter, I am extremely impressed with this camera and I am sure I need one in my bag!
PS! Just to make it clear the Nikon D850 does come with a fully weather sealed construction, but it is not a underwater camera…
Posted on September 25, 2015
Due to efficient logistics and a good friend I was lucky to receive the new Nikkor 200-500mm f/5,6 lens a couple of days after I arrived in the Arctic. The next morning, September 14th, I embarked on a 10 days photographic expedition around the Svalbard archipelago. Like many times before I was hosting photographers from around the world to this magical destination on top of the world for our travel company WildPhoto Travel. I was really looking forward to using the new lens in these conditions and my expectations were very high. I realize the 200-500mm lens is not competing in the same league as my preferred long lens, the 400mm 2,8, or other high-end lenses from Nikon, but I was expecting it to perform just as good as the competing brands with equivalent zoom ranges.
The entire test was done using the 200-500mm lens together with the Nikon D4s handheld.
According to the official Nikon website “the AF-S NIKKOR 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR is a 2.5x super-telephoto zoom lens that supports the 200-500 mm range of focal lengths with a maximum aperture of f/5.6. Adoption of ED glass elements achieves superior optical performance with which chromatic aberration is suppressed.
In addition, the lens is equipped with a vibration reduction (VR) function that exhibits the highest level of camera shake compensation available with a NIKKOR lens—equivalent to a 4.5-stop increase in shutter speed”
So how does it work in the field?
At first I was taken by the size of the lens. Obviously being a 5,6 aperture lens it was rather compact and light weight (2,09kg). Still it feels like a really solid built lens. I am usually a bit worried about zoom lenses with external zoom as they have a tendency to suck in dust and moisture. I did however not experience any of this even though I was shooting in moist weather and temperatures fluctuating around zero degrees, producing a lot of condensation. I have previously been surprised by the Nikkor 28-300 f/3,5-5,6 lens, and how it could withstand fine sand from the Kalahari and also moisture in the Bolivian rainforest. The 200-500mm seem to have been constructed in a similar way.
The lens feels a little heavy towards the front when zooming all the way out to 500mm, even when shooting with a Nikon D4s body. However, the over all light weight of the lens makes it easy to handle and I did find the range to be very handy for the situations I encountered.
Shooting from a moving ship or a Zodiac rubber dingy it was very useful to be able to adjust the framing without the need to alter the position of the boats. Especially in situations when the subject suddenly changes behaviour and we had interaction is was great to be able to get a wider frame and include the action or the landscape.
Obviously the optical quality of the lens is extremely important and it was the first thing I wanted to test. If the lens did not perform to my expectations I would most likely not use it in many situations during the trip, as I would have hated to miss shots because of bad optics. I was happy to see that the lens was very sharp throughout the range. As a matter of fact I could not see any difference in the sharpness though the zoom range. During the next 10 days I would shoot roughly 2000 frames with the lens, capturing subjects like Polar bear, Walrus, Arctic birds, icebergs and landscapes. I had no second thoughts about choosing the 200-500 as my preferred lens in most situations.
I was also very happy to see that the lens preformed well in the whole focal range available. Many zoom lenses struggle at the extremes, but I could not see any changes when shooting at 500 or 200 compared to other focal lengths.
The only situations I turned to my 400mm f/2,8 was when shooting backlit subjects or in low light. Obviously the extra stops gained with an f/2,8 lens did come in handy when the light was low. When it came to backlight, the lens handled most situations well, but with a lot of ice and reflections I did experience some flare that I usually don’t see in my prime lenses with nano-coating.
However, it is worth noting that the 200-500mm does handle harsh light very well and I did get very little chromatic aberration, if any at all. This is very impressive considering the pricing and built of this lens.
The 200-500mm is not your typical action photography lens with an aperture of 5,6, but for most of the stuff I was shooting on this trip it worked quit well. Most of the time I find myself stopping down to 5,6 and 8 when shooting wildlife anyway, and with the ISO capabilities of the cameras today I have no problem with a 5,6 lens for action.
There was however a tendency for the lens to perform slower in low light and I struggled to follow the birds after the sun had set, especially when they were flying over the ocean surface. Not an easy autofocus situation for any lens, but my experience with the 400 f/2,8, and other prime lenses, is that it should be possible. Group-AF was used for all the action shots. That being said, in “normal” light situations the lens performed very well and I was able to produce some images I did not expect to get with this kind of zoom lens.
During the trip I was shooting a lot of backlit wildlife and I was surprised by the performance of the focus in these situations. The Group AF mode was following the subject with ease and the sharpness was beyond expectation.
The VR was also impressive and as I was shooting everything handheld, or resting on a moving Zodiac I was really testing the VR to the limit. Even in a moving Zodiac I was able to produce sharp images with the lens at 500mm and a shutterspeed of only 1/200 second. That is very impressive!
I left the VR on most of the time, except when panning at 1/40 sec or slower. I was not able to conclude on how the VR works while panning, but I did experience some ghosting when it was active at this speed and slower. This usually also appears when shooting with prime lenses.
To conclude I can say I would be happy to have this lens in my bag, and I find it extremely handy for many situations. When shooting from a fixed position like a safari vehicle or a hide the zoom is perfect. I also find the range from 200mm to 500mm sufficient for this kind of lens. I have requested this for some time, actually since Canon released the 200-400mm with built in 1,4 extender. I couldn’t see why they didn’t just produce a 200-560mm for that matter and make it a 5,6. Now it seems Nikon have followed my thoughts and produced a great zoom lens at a great price!
+ : Light weight, solid built, handy range, super sharp, precise focus, impressive VR and good price.
– : Slightly off balance at 500mm, flare when shooting backlight and a little slow in low light.
I will recommend this lens to many!
Thanks to Nikon Norway for lending me the lens on our expedition to the Arctic.