Medium-sized, big, bigger, biggest: Nikon has four full-frame super-telephotos for the professional market: a 400 mm, a 500, a 600 and a (rare) 800 mm. Each one a big, heavy lens on which no concessions have been made on quality. They are therefore also all expensive lenses that will not be purchased by amateurs very often. This 600 mm f/4 ED-IF VR is available (webshop) for € 12,999. Aside from focal length, it does not differ much from the 500 mm (which we reviewed previously), but it is even bigger, heavier and more expensive. Is it worth it to put this expensive full-frame lens on an APS-C body? We tried it out with a D7200, and we think so. Read why…
Nikon AF-S 600mm f/4D ED-IF II – AN OPTICAL HEAVYWEIGHt
If someone had asked us two years ago whether it made sense to put an expensive full-frame lens on a body with an APS-C sensor, then some of the editors would have written them off as nuts. The APS-C cameras (in Nikon terminology: DX format) were namely far removed in terms of quality from what full frame had to offer. Today, that is no longer the case. The DX top models have just as many pixels as the FX top models (with the exception of the D810) and give nothing up in terms of image quality if you stay out of the area with very high ISOs. The DX models perform better in any case than an FX model that is set to DX shooting mode. In addition, you get a free telephoto factor of 1.5 to boot. The 600 mm that we had for this test behaved on an APS-C body like a 900 mm. Then you really have a very strong telephoto lens that seems to us to be particularly suited to nature and bird photography, and less for sport photography.
Perhaps an effective 900 mm is a bit too much telephoto for you. You can then think about the somewhat less expensive 500 mm. How much more telephoto do you get when you go from 500 mm to 600 mm on an APS-C camera? We calculated it in field of view (longest) side at a distance of 50 meters:
- 500 mm 240 cm
- 600 mm 200 cm
It doesn’t make a shocking amount of difference, and the price difference is a good two thousand euros. That is already a good chunk out of the price of a Nikon D500: perhaps the best DX camera for these lenses because of the ultramodern AF and the big buffer.
The 600 mm looks different than the 500 mm: the front lens is bigger, and the front extends conically like a midwinter horn. The number of lens elements and groups is identical; it’s really the same design as the 500 mm, except that the diameter of the lens elements is larger. The dimensions are 432×166 mm (at 500 mm, that is 387×140), and it weighs 3810 grams (3090 g). Filters fit in the back, in a removable filter holder. You can also insert a polarized filter that you can turn with a gear while it remains in the lens.
Screwed to the lens (with real Phillips head screws!), there are two sturdy strap eyes. It’s smart to carry a camera on which such a heavy lens is mounted by the lens and not by the body; the bodies are strong, but not really made for that. Of course, there is a robust tripod collar and a connection for a cable lock. That’s not always unnecessary: a professional photographer told me a horror-story of a D4-plus-600 mm stolen in a stadium, a set worth about twenty thousand euros. Of course a large carbon lens hood is also included in the package; you can store it backwards on the lens. Over that fits a padded nylon cover that protects the front part of the lens and that you can quickly and easily install and remove.
The operation of the 600 mm is identical to that of the 500 mm; you can interchange the manuals.
There are 5 switches on the lens. Next to the usual—in this price class—buttons, you also find two remarkable features (sound off and AF memory). In the first place, there is naturally the AF/MF switch. Next to the MF setting, there are two settings in the AF mode, one of which you have to turn the focus ring further before anything happens. This is to prevent turning “by accident.” You can always “turn through the automatic” with the focus ring. With the focus limit switch, you can limit the focus area to 8 meters and beyond. This prevents the dreaded wandering when focusing. With the AF function button, you can fix the AF, to have it go to a pre-set (memory) distance. With another button, you can turn the beep that is made after focusing on or off, so that the birds do not take off when the camera indicates that the focus is complete. You can see the set distance on a window. The aperture can only be set via the camera body; there is no separate aperture ring. That of course also has to do with the electromagnetic aperture motor. Everything is done “by wire.” The shortest set distance is 4.4 meters.Vibration reduction is no unnecessary luxury with a lens of this size. Without that, sharp shots by hand would hardly be possible. Nikon claims an improvement of 4 stops; we have not measured that, but we assume that it is correct. The VR switch has an “off” setting, a “normal” setting and a “sport” setting. The sport setting is for subjects with a lot of moving action, where you are also moving the camera, and it is intended for continuous shooting. The VR works in both the normal and the sport setting when tracking the subject (“panning”); then it only corrects perpendicular to the direction of the panning. The “off” setting is recommended for working from a tripod.
SPORT AND NATURE
This lens has two target audiences: Sport and Nature. For nature and bird photography, you can easily be bothered by haziness and atmospheric vibrations. Heading out early works best. For bird photography, you can never have too much telephoto, since the subject is often only a decimeter in size! For large mammals (safari!), a 600 mm is often too long. For a lot of sport photography, a long telephoto is indispensable. But too much can be a bother. For football, for example, you want to capture the player and the ball in one frame. That often works better with a bit larger field of view and cropping afterwards. For tennis and indoor sports, you are better off with a 200 mm than a 600. But if you want to capture the concentration of Daphne Schippers at the start of her Olympic race, then you never have enough telephoto. In addition, at many sporting events, you cannot get close to the athletes, or that is simply too dangerous (auto sports!). Professional photographers often use a 1.4 or 2.0 extender with their 500 of 600 mm. Then the auto focus only works if you start with a bright lens, and this top model meets that requirement. For sport photography, do not automatically choose the shortest shutter time! A limited amount of motion blur amplifies the suggestion of speed, and you can also stop down a bit more. The extra focal depth that you gain is often needed.
Working with a large telephoto lens is not as easy as it appears. In the first place, this 600 mm is very big and heavy; a single-foot tripod is the minimum that you need. At long shutter times, a heavy tripod is not an unnecessary luxury, and if you want to do really well, choose a tripod that supports both the body and the lens. We have even seen a photographer working with two tripods: one under the body and one under the lens. In addition, you have to deal with atmospheric vibrations, especially if it gets a bit warm, and with haze. The photo above gives an example of that: real deep black is hardly to be seen, the color saturation decreases, and the color balance shifts to blue. You can edit all that on the computer, but rarely does it really turn out beautifully. With a view direction perpendicular to the sun, a polarization filter sometimes works wonders. The best nature photos are made early in the morning or late in the evening.
Auto focus AND IMAGE STABILIZATION
The auto focus quality of any lens is naturally closely related to that of the body. We assume that the user of this expensive telephoto lens also has a body with adequate AF options, such as plenty of AF points and a tracking mode to be able to follow moving subjects well. The sequence below shows not only the perfect sharpness of the lens, but the auto focus of the D500 that follows the running dog perfectly.
Vibration reduction is no unnecessary luxury for a lens of this size. Without that, sharp shots by hand would hardly be possible. Nikon claims an improvement of 4 stops, we did not measure that. The VR switch has an “off” setting, a “normal” setting and a “sport” setting. The sport setting is for subjects with a lot of moving action, where you also move the camera, and this is specially intended for continuous shooting. Because you use a short shutter time for sport shots, the image stabilization in the sport setting only works for taking the picture, so that you benefit both from a quiet viewfinder image and the sharpest possible shot. The VR works in both the normal and the sport setting for tracking the subject (“panning”); it then only corrects perpendicular to the direction of panning. The “off” setting is recommended for working from a tripod.
The 600 mm f/4 is an absolute top lens with a resolution that many lenses with a much shorter focal length can only dream about: 3500 LP/image height. The center sharpness is a bit higher in the measurements than that in the corners, but it is not a difference that you will see in the practice shots.
VIGNETTING, DISTORTION, FLARE AND CHROMATIC ABERRATION
Lens errors such as vignetting, distortion, flare and chromatic aberration were only measurable in the laboratory with some effort. Using a full-frame lens on an APS-C body naturally means that you only use the best part of the image, and the part where the lens errors occur is cut off. There is thus vignetting of less than a half stop at full aperture and several tenths of one percent of pincushion-shaped distortion. Lateral chromatic aberration is as good as absent. So… exceptionally good.
500 mm oR 600 mm?
The biggest competitor of this Nikon 600 mm f/4 is the Nikon 500 mm f/4. If you are prepared and able to put down more than 10,000 euros for a lens, wouldn’t you rather have a 600 mm than a 500 mm for two thousand euros extra? If you are a bird or nature photographer, the answer is probably yes. For sport photography, we would not know: in this branch of photography, the enormous size of this 600 mm can be a handicap.
There are lenses from other brands in this focal length range, but they do not match the quality level of this top model. Zoom lenses with a range of up to 500 mm do exist, but they are less bright and cannot match this level. You also never see a professional photographer with a long telephoto lens working with a “strange brand,” and that says plenty.
ConclusiON: Nikon AF-S 600mm f/4D ED-IF II REVIEW WITH D7200
- Flawless build quality
- Unmatched optical performance
- On DX, a field of view that corresponds with 900 mm on FX
- Fast and accurate AF
- Handy features: Sports VR, AF memory & “sound off” switch
- Not overpriced, but a good deal of money
- Big and heavy
This Nikon AF-S 600 mm f/4E FL ED VR is the best for sale in the area of long telephoto lenses. That applies for the build quality and for the image quality. On an APS-C body, you effectively have a 900 mm telephoto; that is pretty extreme telephoto! Various handy dedicated features, such as Sports VR, AF memory button and “sound off” switch are distinctive characteristics that you will find on few other lenses. We actually did not find minus points. High quality naturally comes at a price. Thirteen thousand euros is a great deal of money. Is this lens overpriced? Not for anyone who earns their money with it. Someone who spends three weeks in the Himalayas waiting for a rare snow leopard will be glad they chose this 600mm and a DX camera like the Nikon D500…