Reviews > Ramblings of the Fierce Bear of the North

The new fluorite generation: AFS 600 mm f/4 Nikkor FL E

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Bjørn Rørslett:
One by one, Nikon have added fluorite (FL) elements to the optical designs of their longer telephoto lenses. Currently we have a complete series designated 'FL' from the 400 mm f/2.8 to the 800 mm f/5.6, so most if not all needs of demanding users should now be amply covered. All of them carry the "E" designation to signal their electronic aperture mechanism: there is no stop-down lever in contrast to all AI/AIS/G lenses so far. The "E" lens is functionally the equivalent of "G" lens and thus has no aperture ring. You set the aperture through the camera's dials.

These are all fast (400 mm f/2.8, 500 & 600 mm f/4,  to 800 mm f/5.6, the latter is fast for its focal length) and massively expensive lenses. You might be faced with the choice between a new, smallish car, or one of these cannons. A true photographer follows his or her heart of course and happily purchase the lens with a suitable focal length.

All lenses share a common construction principle by being made lighter from the judicious use of magnesium and carbon fibre alloys, plus the overall weight benefits from the fluorite elements which are lighter than more normal glass. The lens barrels are slimmed down quite significantly as well. The weight loss compared to older versions is appreciable. Thus, my first 600/4 (AIS, manual focus) tipped the scales at nearly 6.5 kg, whilst the new 600/4 FL is a mere 'featherweight' at 3.8 kg. Pretty amazing.

It is immediately evident when you lift any of them that they are made with press and sports photographers in mind. The cantilevered tripod feet are optimised for carrying the actual lens around, not for giving the utmost solid support on a tripod. Likely they on most occasions are put atop a monopod or similar, and the photographers is shooting the lens more or less wide open to get the shortest possible shutter speed in order to freeze the action and  to maximise the isolation of the subject from its surroundings. So one naturally is inclined to ask whether these lenses can be used say for landscapes or close-ups of details as well.

The present report focuses (!) on the AFS 600 mm f/4 FL E Nikkor, kindly lent me for an extensive field review by Nikon Norway. I'm not a sports photographer so probably won't do much shooting targeted at such subjects, but might look for the occasional bird during the testing period.

Anyway, here it is in all its glory. The construction and workmanship are what we come to expect from Nikon's pro-segment lenses. Weather sealing should allow one to work even under inclement ambient conditions (if the photographer can stand it, so probably also the lens).

The lens design is cutting edge with 16 elements in 12 groups, of which 4 are ED and 2 are fluorite.

Unsurprisingly, the MTF curve is reflecting the sophisticated optics;

Bjørn Rørslett:
A couple of snapshots to learn what the lens looks like in the wild.

First, a size comparison to the new AFS 200-500/5.6 Nikkor. The difference is quite visible.

Next, the 600 mounted on a *real* tripod. In this case the Sachtler ENG 2 CF HD with Video 20 Fluid Head. I regularly use this setup as a test bench to assess tripod functionality of long lenses, as the tripod + head combination is mercilessly exposing any tendency to lens shake due to inadequate tripod support.

Bjørn Rørslett:
Now, what can you expect from such an expensive beast? In fact, a performance commensurate with its astronomical asking price.

Nothing more and nothing less. Images are outstandingly crisp and clear, colour artefacts almost undetectable (unless you put a TC on, but even then CA issues are insignificant), scene contrast is very high, and of course it has all the pulling power of a long lens. AF apparently is very fast as well. I need more field time in order to evaluate that feature properly, however.

The scene I used for the next examples is seen below. This residential area was at a measured  distance of 3.9 km from the camera position shown in the previous post. I selected this scene because it has a lot of sharp transitions from almost pure white into a darker surrounding and thus any chromatic issues would be triggered to the maximum. Besides, I like using long lenses for landscapes.

The autumn air was crisp and clear and ambient temperature nice around +7 to 8 deg.C. Add sunshine and what more can one ask for?

Bjørn Rørslett:
I captured the above scene with two different camera, Nikon D3S and D800.

Is there a major difference between the two when used together with the new 600? Basic instinct would say *yes* as we have 12 vs 36 MPix. Compare yourself from this A:B 100% crop below.

There are detectable differences, no doubt. However, would one expect a more massive difference? In no way have I tried to make the 12 MPix output "better" as one normally would if the aim is making a huge print from the file.

Ilkka Nissilä:
I guess the long distance atmospheric effects reduce the advantage of a high pixel count camera in this type of application. There is some improvement in the definition some of the vegetation, and the wavy lines in the building due to atmosphere are more sharply defined (whether they add to the image quality is debatable ;-))

How do you find the tripod mount, do you have to avoid certain shutter speeds with the 600mm? Thanks.


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