Reviews > Ramblings of the Fierce Bear of the North

The new Nikkor 800 mm f/5.6 ED IF E telephoto lens

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Bjørn Rørslett:
[ Original publishing date  07 August 2013 Edited and reposted by agreement ]

I just returned from my trip up to Arctic Norway, to encounter subtropical weather down here in Oslo. As it happens I also had a reservation for a review sample of the new 800 Nikkor that became available at the same time. So, I loaded up the car and started to explore this newcomer.

First impression is that it is very well made (but see later) and fairly light weight for its focal length and speed. The dedicated 1.25X TC is really cute and very tiny so an item I for one probably will lose in a short time.

The caveat is the tripod collar - again. I understand Nikon has a policy here that does not include what I personally consider a viable design. The foot is made in two pieces and material is pared down to the bare minimum in order to shave off a few grammes of weight. On the other hand the tripod foot doubles as a convenient carrying handle, well padded too, and has a decent 3/8" hole in addition to the usual (and for a lens this size, way too weak) 1/4" mounting holes.

I quickly found out what I feared a priori: this lens is not really helped by giving it the best possible tripod support as the poor tripod mount makes any difference to a bog standard flimsy unit nearly moot. Obviously Nikon thinks tripod == VR on is mandatory. Not my preferred choice of operation to put it mildly.

Well, 'nuff said about that. For the initial testing I attached my trusty D3X (the D800 is currently in for NPS service - it crashed in the Arctic). D3X has not the superspeed AF module of current top cameras like the D4 and thus AF speed was slowed down a bit, but provided enough light is present the lens still focused pretty fast. With the TC the AF, as expected for the D3X, was more a hit or miss and in lower contrast situations the camera refused to focus at all. I got a D4 NPS loaner so will repeat the AF testing with that model and expect a substantial improvement.

Today's commitments brought me down the Oslo Fjord and I availed myself of a nice vantage point to shoot the remote view of the city of Oslo with the 800. This would show the feasibility of using such a long lens for landscapes. As it turned out, I left the 1.25 TC on so in effect shot the scene with 1000 mm f/7.1.

Here is what the scene looks like (50 mm)

And a 100% crop of the sail vessel (seen as a tiny white dot in the first frame) with the City Hall of Oslo as a backdrop. The City Hall is the two-pronged brown building "immediately behind". In reality the boat is 5 km away and the City Hall is 19 km away. So, the gap between the two subject is no less than 14 km. The houses in the very background sit on a foothill about 25 km away. Do note that heat waves and turbulence are not evenly distributed as the more remote details (higher elevation) are rendered more distinct than the seafront buildings.

Suffice it to say that you do get what you pay for, in optical terms. Just wish Nikon would alter their thinking on tripod support.

Bjørn Rørslett:
For the Oslofjord scene, curvature of Earth comes into play. Looks like the global warming has caused the seafront of Oslo to be partly inundated .... but relax, it's pure geometry.

Distances reported, by the way were measured on a digital topographic map. As the landmarks are easily identifiable, one can achieve better than 50 m precision from a map 1:50 000 scale. I've rounded to the nearest km here. Thus, the City Hall is 18.95 km away.

It goes straight against the text book to shoot distant scenes across a large body of water, in particular on a hot and humid day, because one can be assured of a maximum of air turbulence to degrade image quality. Thus I'm pretty surprised results were this good. One can easily discern details on individual trees along the hill ridges that encircle the city centre. These details are between 25 and 31 km away.

To illustrate and show the amazing performance of the 800 lens, this is a hill ridge about 26 km away. Elevation is around 400 m so these hills are partly above the major turbulence layer (however, I'm still shooting *through* the most turbulent air as I'm at sea level). Also note that the low contrast entails an increase in image noise. The trees are mainly Norway Spruce.

(100% crop from the full frame jpg)

Bjørn Rørslett:
Did a lot of dedicated test shots today to determine how susceptible the 800 or 800+1.25X is to unwanted vibrations when placed atop a decent tripod. I may produce the underlying shots later if called for (they are pretty boring as is the nature of such matters). Suffice it to say I now am convinced the 800 is specifically made for VR usage with or without tripod support. You get variable results when VR is not engaged almost no matter what speed up to at least 1/400 sec. With VR the situation improved. All this assumes the tripod is high quality, head likewise (I used a Sachtler ENG 2 CF HD tripod and heavy-duty fluid head that handles my 360-1200 Nikkor with ease), and Mirror Lockup and cable release are mandatory.

I was able, with care, to get adequate sharpness at speeds down to 1/3 sec (lowest feasible under today's weather conditions) provided VR is engaged and the utmost care in tripod/camera/lens handling is applied. Thus touching the lens is a no-no. Still, the test shots lack the ultimate fine detail we all know this lens is capable of providing.

(not all photographers have a blazing sun shining and using an 800 for landscapes simply demands it can deal with slow shutter speeds without undue vibrations).

Bjørn Rørslett:
This is a Tansy at close focus with 800 + 1.25X. Wide open at 1/160 sec. 100% crop of central frame (D4). Please view large.

Despite VR on, sharpness is only just acceptable.

Needless to say, the tripod support in this case was impeccable and I have shot much longer focal lengths without any trouble before using this setup.

Bjørn Rørslett:
To see the influence of VR. here are two 100% crops of the tailrace walls of a nearby run-of-river power plant. Distance to subject about 250 m. The beefiest Sachtler ENG 2 CF HD and the Video 20 fluid head supplied massive support.

800/5.6 + 1.25X, f/22, 1/3 sec, D4.

Without VR

In my book, this is nowhere the sharpness one has the right to expect from such an expensive optical tool.

Now, let's see how VR might influence the capture.

With VR

The difference is pretty obvious.

Many long lenses can be stopped down more than we normally consider "safe". Thus even at f/22 or f/32 you can have quite satisfactory sharpness. My 800/8 ED non-IF does pretty well at f/45. I regularly use it at f/22.

It goes without saying that you never get any  real "deep focus" with a long lens so the stopping down potential is largely academic. In most cases you'd be better off going just one or two clicks down in order to have the shortest possible shutter speed. But if your intention with a shot requires a slow shutter speed, extra stopping down may be required.


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