Natural Art: The Photography of Brad Hill

 

Field Test: 10 Days With the Nikkor Z 800mm f6.3 VR S

• Post Date: August 11, 2022

In late June of 2022 Nikon Canada loaned me a copy of the Nikkor Z 800mm f6.3 VR S lens (hereafter referred to as the Z 800mm PF) for evaluation purposes. During the 10 days that I had it I was able to field test and shoot with the lens extensively. As an owner of both the Z 400mm f2.8S and the Z TC-2.0x I was able to perform head-to-head comparison tests in both the optical and VR performance of the Z 800mm PF and the Z 400mm f2.8S plus the Z TC-2x teleconverter. What follows is an account of my experience with the Z 800mm PF and how the two Z-mount 800mm "solutions" compared to one another under systematic field testing.

Sections:

The Quick and Dirty (Executive) Summary
Physical Characteristics, Build Quality, and Handling
Notable Technology Features
Optical Performance
VR Performance and "Hand-holdability"
Autofocus Performance
Sample Shots
The Final Wrap-up

Caveats, Qualifiers, and Limitations of My Results:

Everything I did in this field test - and everything you'll read here about the Z 800mm PF and the competing lens I compared it against - comes from the perspective of a WILDLIFE photographer. There will likely be LOTS of what I have to say that will apply to photographers of other genres (e.g., sports photographers), but I readily admit my wildlife photographer "bias". And, I tested ONE copy of each lens only. While one would like to assume that lenses costing almost $10,000.00 or more (in any currency) are built with a high degree of quality control and there is little between-sample variation in quality, it's possible that the results I obtain MAY differ a little from what others find with their own copies of the lenses.

I test my gear quite extensively in an effort to discover how it will perform for me (using my own shooting style) in a field situation. I do these field tests to reveal the strengths and weaknesses of a lens in a field setting so I can understand how I can use the product to better create images of the best quality possible. For instance, I may go into the field with gear that will allow me to get to 800mm in two different ways - by using a Z 400mm f2.8S plus 2x teleconverter or using the Z 800mm PF. But which of these two lenses produces the sharpest image when shooting a close subject at an aperture of f6.3 and while hand-holding the lens? This is the EXACT type of question I want my testing to answer.

I test gear under field conditions only (absolutely no lab work) and use the same techniques I'm likely to use when I'm shooting the particular item in the field. While much of my testing is done very methodically and under uniform conditions, a portion of it is simply pure "field shooting". I do not shoot images of targets under rigidly controlled lab conditions - I shoot images of wildlife (or "proxies", such as dogs) in the field. It's not critical to me to produce results that are generalizable or that are rigorous enough to be published in a peer-reviewed journal - I care about how I can use the gear in the field and how to get top-shelf results. While some "lab tests" have a real-world correlate that translates into a limitation (or advantage) in the field, I find an increasing number of tests quite esoteric and the "differences" between two products are real only in a statistical sense (and they are unrelated to producing a quality image, which is NOT a pure science). So you won't see any MTF charts in this comparative field test! It's my view that the level of discipline required to capture images in the field that are of the quality where differing MTF values would be even visible in the image quality of two competing products is a very rare (or non-existent) event. I believe that a mix of other characteristics (e.g., lens balance plus VR performance plus AF performance) often go MUCH further towards determining the quality of what you capture in the field than do MTF values.

Statement of Objectivity:

I'm a HUGE skeptic of what I read or see online myself. And I always wonder about the "corporate influence" on so-called product reviews (which are often little more than spec spews). While Nikon did loan me (as an NPS Platinum member) the Nikkor Z 800mm PF lens, they placed absolutely no constraints on what I could do with it, what I could say about it, or what I could test it against. The other lens featured in this review is the Nikkor Z 400mm f2.8S - my own copy of this lens. If I do choose to purchase a copy of the Nikkor Z 800mm f6.3S I will not be receiving any incentive (e.g., a discount) from Nikon to do so.

Enjoy...and cheers!

Brad


Quick & Dirty (Executive) Summary

The Quick and Dirty (Executive) Summary

The Nikkor Z 800mm PF opens up professional quality very long focal length photography to a larger group of photographers than ever before. The relatively low weight and smaller size greatly contribute to the portability and overall usability of the lens. Optically the lens produces top-notch images, both in terms of sharpness and the quality of the out-of-focus zones (or bokeh). Moreover, you can shoot it absolutely wide-open with no sharpness "penalties". Its VR system contributes significantly to the lens' "hand-holdability", and I was able to obtain sharp, hand-held shots down to 1/30s. While I didn't systematically test the lens' autofocus system, it was exceptionally accurate and fast enough to meet all my demands (including delivering very high hit ratios of a dog running rapidly directly at me). Owners of the still new Z 400mm f2.8S can combine that lens with the Z TC-2x to deliver an 800mm lens that is comparable in image quality to the Z 800mm PF at almost all apertures, though the heavier weight and somewhat slower autofocus of the Z 400mm f2.8S plus TC combination leave the Z 800mm PF as the most usable 800mm solution in Nikon's (and possibly any manufacturer's) lens lineup.


Physical Characteristics, Build Quality, and Handling

Physical Characteristics, Build Quality, and Handling

LENS SIZE

After the release of the 300mm f4E PF and the 500mm f5.6E PF the PF lenses earned a reputation for being almost "tiny" compared to "traditional" lenses of the same focal length. But, no one in their right mind would describe the Z 800mm PF as "tiny". With a total measured length (sans hood) of 38.8 cm (15.28") the Z 800mm PF does come in at 7.3cm (2.87") shorter than Nikkor 800mm f5.6E, but it still looks and feels like a "big super-telephoto" in your hands. Another comparison that may have relevance for some shooters: the Z 800 PF is very slightly longer than the Z 400mm f2.8S (by about 0.5 cm). OF course, if you add the Z TC-2x to the Z 400mm f2.8S to "turn it into" an 800mm lens then comes in a few cm longer than the Z 800mm PF. But the key point I'm trying to make is that those who are familiar with the size of either the 300mm f4E PF or the 500mm f5.6E PF may be somewhat surprised when they actually see how large a Z 800 PF is. Yep, noticeably shorter than the F-mount 800mm f5.6E, but still a full-size super-telephoto that won't fit into a holster on your waist (unless that holster reaches all the way down to your knees or beyond) or in a small "sling" style pack - in the field you'll be carrying this lens in a full-size pack.

LENS WEIGHT

Better news here - the Z 800 PF is close to half the weight of the 800mm f5.6E (2385 gm or 5.25 lb vs. 4590 gm or 10.1 lb according to Nikon's published specifications). And, if you compare the measured shooting weight* of the Z 800 PF (2622 gm or 5.78 lb) against that of the Z 400mm f2.8S plus the Z TC-2x (3434 gm or 7.57 lb) you'll find it comes in at 812 gm (1.79 lb) lighter. These are BIG weight differences, and strikingly noticeable in the field.

*Shooting weight is defined as lens plus hood plus stock tripod foot, but without lens caps - you know...the state it would most likely to be in when you're holding and shooting it.

BUILD QUALITY

Manufactured in China, but with the apparent quality of Nikon's Japanese lenses. And by this I mean that the exterior finish is indistinguishable from lenses like the Z 400mm f2.8S, and all buttons, switches, and rings work as you'd expect - smoothly rotating focus, control, and tripod foot rings along with positive action on the buttons, et cetera. And, even the hood is of acceptable quality (and considerably better than the one on the 500mm f5.6E PF). The greater than $10,000 difference in price (in Canadian dollars) between the Z 800 PF and the 800mm f5.6E doesn't come from obvious differences in build quality!

HANDLING

This is a completely subjective characteristic, but I personally loved how the Z 800 PF handled. It balanced very well with the Z 9 (the only body I will be shooting it with for at least the foreseeable future). I personally found it extremely easy to hand-hold in the field (while still getting tack sharp images) - I'll say more about this on the section below on VR Performance and Hand-holdability. But please note that the perceived ease of hand-holding a super-telephoto lens varies dramatically between users. I have hand-held super-telephotos for years and definitely found this lens easier to hand-hold than my Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E, my Z 400mm f2.8S, and many of the other Nikon super-telephotos I used to own. However, someone "graduating" up to this lens whose previous biggest lens was a 70-200mm f2.8 may have a very different view about how easy the Z 800mm PF is to hand-hold.

For me the striking thing about the handling of the Z 800mm PF became obvious when I put it on my Z 9, attached a strap to the camera, and walked around our property in search of wildlife with it slung over my head. Nope, it didn't feel like I had a 70-200mm f2.8 or a Z 400mm f4.5S around my neck, but it absolutely was not challenging to carry that way - on several early mornings I walked around with it this way for 3 or 4 kilometers. In fact, I absolutely LOVED these walks and nabbed quite a few good shots (some below in the Sample Shots section). Note that when I'm carrying a camera and lens this way I'm not supporting all the weight by the camera strap (or having the full lens weight pulling on the lens mount). Rather, I use my sling strap almost fully extended and I flip and grab the tripod foot and bear part of the camera/lens weight with my hand and part of it on my hip. So a large part of the weight of the camera and lens is supported by my hip, with the remainder of the weight being borne by my hand. The strap is just there to catch the camera if I trip on a rock or root and need to use my hands.

Anyway...during these walks I found I had excellent mobility and could easily and smoothly go down on one knee to shoot - or whip the camera up to shoot a bird. And, if I had to scramble over deadfall or a fence line I had no issue at all. In short, I was quite unencumbered by the camera and lens and had a high degree of freedom of movement - and much more that I have when I try to do the same thing with a Z 400mm f2.8S or a 600mm f4E. Of course these are highly subjective experiences and I have no doubt someone larger, stronger (and younger!) than me could probably do the same thing with a 800mm f5.6E (or 600mm f4E) on a D6. And, on the other end of the spectrum, there would be a group of photographers who would find it challenging to carry even a 70-200mm f2.8 on a strap around their neck on these excursions. The key point is that for me it was dramatically easier to move around with the Z 800mm PF around my neck than any other "standard" (non-PF) super-telephoto I have ever used.

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Notable Technology Features

Notable Technology Features

Without going into an alphabet-soup listing of all of the acronym-earning technology features of the Z 800mm PF, suffice to say that it has the vast majority of features that all of Nikon's super-telephoto lenses have had up to the Z 400mm f2.8S. So, if we compare the feature list Z 800 PF to that of the 800mm f5.6E you'd see that the only real differences are in their constituent lens elements (with the 800 PF having both a phase fresnel - or PF - lens element and a short-wavelength refractive - or SR - lens element while the F-mount 800 has a fluorite element) and the types of autofocus motors (a STM or "stepping" motor on the Z 800 PF and a SWM or silent wave motor on the 800mm f5.6E). And note that some of the features that appear to be "in-common" between the two 800's actually favor the Z 800 PF. For instance, both have VR's (of course), but it just so happens that the VR on the Z 800 PF is better than that on the 800mm f5.6E (and even more so if one shoots the Z 800 PF with a Z 9 and gets to take advantage of its Synchro VR that - to date - only appears when paired with a Z 9). The take home point - anyone looking for a deficiency in technology features on the 800 PF (possibly to justify their continued ownership of a 800mm f5.6E!) will be sorely disappointed!

Now that said, those who've closely examined the technology features on the still new (and still very rare) Z 400mm f2.8S will notice a slew of features that are not found on the 800 PF. These include the built-in 1.4X TC, the Silky Swift Voice Coil AF Motor (VCM), the Meso Amorphous and Arneo lens elements coatings, and the very useful Function Ring. As an owner of the Z 400mm f2.8S (and one who has tested it extensively) I can say that many of these features show themselves most clearly when shooting "on-the-edge", such as when shooting into direct sun or when absolute AF precision in repeated bursts of shots is needed. Given the vast price difference between the Z 800mm PF and the Z 400mm f2.8S (almost $10,000 CAD) I don't think many Z 800mm PF owners will be complaining about not having those features.

As a purely speculative aside, I personally suspect that the "ground-breaking" technology features of the Z 400mm f2.8S will be found only on their new "premium quality" prime lenses for the foreseeable future. So I suspect we'll only see these features on the still unannounced Z 600mm f4S and not other new "long lenses" that Nikon offers up soon (e.g., on a Z 600mm f5.6 or 6.3S that is to the Z 600mm f4 what the Z 400mm f4.5S is to the Z 400mm f2.8S...specifically much smaller, lighter, and cheaper).

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Optical Performance

Optical Performance

I tested and/or shot the Z 800mm PF natively at 800mm plus with both the 1.4x Z teleconverter (so at 1120mm) and the 2x teleconverter (so at 1600mm). At both 800mm and 1120mm I was able to compare the image quality of the Z 800mm PF against the Z 400mm f2.8S plus teleconverters or teleconverter "stacks".

I. At 800mm (vs. the Z 400mm f2.8S + Z TC-2x)

At 800mm I assessed the optical performance of the Z 800mm PF two ways. First, I conducted systematic field-based tests that compared the image quality of the Z 800mm PF against the Z 400mm f2.8S plus Z TC-2x (in both sharpness and the quality of the out-of-focus zones or bokeh) at two distances - 11.0m (36') and 31.0m (101'). The shorter test distance represents the type of distance one would commonly be at or near when photographing small birds (many songbirds) or small mammals such as squirrels or chipmunks. The longer test distance one would commonly be at when shooting somewhat larger birds (larger owls, large birds of prey like hawks or eagles) or mid-sized mammals like a coyote or fox. In my optical testing I normally also test for edge sharpness with distant subjects, but in this case (and for reasons of expedience) I saw no reason to test for edge sharpness with these two 800mm options (I know of no one that uses a 800mm lens to shoot distant scenes requiring razor sharp edges).

While my optical performance tests are performed in the field, they are under rigidly controlled conditions and the resulting images can be thought of as "the absolute best images one could possibly obtain in a field setting". Here's a quick overview of the testing protocol:

• Image format: Raw lossless compressed (captured with a Z 9)
• Camera/lens mounted on firm tripod (Jobu Algonquin) with a locked down gimbal head (Jobu HD MkIV)
• Shutter triggered with cable release
• Images captured in 1/3 stop increments from wide open through to f11
• 3 images captured at each aperture setting, with the lens defocused and then re-focused between each shot (though this turned out to be largely a waste of time as almost all images in each 3 shot sequence were identical)
• All test images (at each of the two distances) captured in a single setting with even lighting (uniformly overcast skies)
• VR turned off on all lenses

The resulting raw images were evaluated and scrutinized (for both sharpness and bokeh) on a calibrated Eizo CG-279X display (110 ppi) and using Capture One Pro.

Note that my original plan was to run comparative optical quality tests of three different 800mm options - the Z 800mm PF, the Z 400mm f2.8S + Z TC-2x, and the F-mount Nikkor 800mm f5.6E. Unfortunately the 800mm f5.6E I was going to borrow from a colleague for testing purposes got sold before the Z 800mm PF got into my hands. Bummer.

The second means of assessing image quality involved doing what photographers do with a lens - just shooting it in a field setting! Almost all of the images I captured when just shooting the Z 800mm PF (and for that matter the Z 400mm f2.8S + Z TC-2x) were hand-held, which is a reflection of the way I normally work in the field (i.e., normally sans tripod). I find high value in "just shooting" with a lens to assess image quality for at least a couple reasons. First, they reflect "real world" use and the resulting images naturally show an interaction of optical performance, autofocus performance, VR performance, and even available (and always changing) lighting. Second, the results when "just shooting" give me a feel for how close I can get - with a specific lens - to the "absolute best images one could obtain in a field setting" (i.e., how close I can get when "just shooting" to the results I obtained when systematically testing the lens under rigidly controlled conditions). So, if I find a lens amazingly sharp when systematically testing it and then find I get soft or blurry images when "just shooting" with it then I know the lens has some failing (e.g., crappy AF or VR systems) that will prevent me - and likely a lot of other users - will struggle to get high quality images out of the lens in a field setting.

1. Results From Systematic Optical Performance Testing @ 800mm

My results were absolutely identical at both test distances (so expect no further references to performance differences at short vs. longer distances).

And the results are exceptionally easy to summarize: There was only ONE aperture (f6.3) at which there were noticeable differences in either image sharpness or bokeh between the Z 800mm PF and the Z 400mm f2.8S + Z TC-2x. Those differences? At f6.3 the Z 800mm PF was very slightly sharper than the Z 400mm f2.8S + Z TC-2x, but the bokeh of the Z 400mm f2.8S + TC was slightly better (slightly smoother out-of-focus zones, especially the out-of-focus zones closer to the focal plane). I want to stress these were very slight differences...you'd notice the sharpness difference only when pixel-peeping on a lower-resolution display that maximizes image sharpness differences (you'd never notice them on a retina or other HD display). And almost no one would ever notice the bokeh difference unless they were specifically looking for it.

In absolute terms, the optical quality of the Z 800mm PF was excellent, both in terms of image sharpness and bokeh. And, very importantly to me (and I think a lot of shooters), there was absolutely no need to stop down the lens to increase sharpness. In other words, the lens exhibited aperture-independent sharpness (often referred to as AIS).

The primary take home lesson: At almost all apertures the Z 800mm PF and the Z 400mm f2.8S + Z TC-2x combo produce images that are virtually indistinguishable. Which means VERY sharp and with great bokeh.

2. Results From "Just Shooting" @ 800mm

Long story short - both of these 800mm options can produce outstanding images in the field. And, even though almost all my images captured when "just shooting" were hand-held, the quality matches up very well to that I obtained when doing systematic field testing. Have a look at the images in the Sample Shots section to see what I mean.

II. At 1120mm (vs. the Z 400mm f2.8S + "TC-stack")

I also performed systematic field tests and spent time "just shooting" both lenses at 1120mm. With the Z 800mm PF this meant I shot it with the Z TC-1.4x. With the Z 400mm f2.8S this meant I shot it with its internal 1.4x TC engaged and I added in a Z TC-2x (so a "TC-stack"). The systematic testing was performed using the same protocol as described above in the 800mm tests, except I only tested the 1120mm combinations at the longer test distance (31m). Here's what I found:

1. Results From Systematic Optical Performance Testing @ 1120mm

While now differences are showing up, they weren't as great as I expected (and I expected the Z 400mm f2.8S with the "TC-stack" to falter here). If we consider overlapping apertures only, at both f9 and f10 the Z 800mm PF + Z TC-1.4x was noticeably sharper than the Z 400mm + TC-stack. And, to be clear, the Z 800mm + 1.4x TC shots were VERY sharp (and the Z 400mm f2.8S + TC-stack shots were quite good as well). I could see NO bokeh difference between the two 1120mm options.

2. Results From "Just Shooting" @ 1120mm

OK, here's where I noticed a BIG difference between the two 1120mm options. When just shooting in the field I commonly got excellent results with the Z 800mm PF + Z TC-1.4x, including when hand-held (see Sample Shots section for a few 1120mm shots). In contrast, I have yet to get a high-quality 1120mm image out of the Z 400mm f2.8S plus TC-stack when just shooting in a field setting. While I suppose it IS possible to get a really good 1120mm image out of the Z 400mm it appears to require disciplined shooting technique (including shooting from a tripod and/or at high shutter speeds) and stopping down to the f10 or f11 range.

Between my systematic testing and time spent just shooting the clear take-home lesson for me is that if I find myself needing to shoot at 1120mm then the Z 800mm PF plus 1.4x TC is a far better option than the Z 400mm f2.8S plus a TC-stack.

III. At 1600mm (with Z TC-2x)

While I did combine the Z 800mm PF with the Z TC-2x and shot it at 1600mm, I did no systematic testing at this focal length. So consider my following comments anecdotal. While "just shooting" at 1600mm I did get some acceptable - or even "more than acceptable" - images (see images in the Sample Shots section). That said, I also had a lot of abysmal failures. A couple of things to keep in mind. First, when you combine the Z 800mm PF with the Z TC-2x its maximum aperture is f13. This can be very limiting and often means you have no choice but to shoot it off a firm tripod (or at an ISO so high that the image may not be worth shooting). And, when shooting ANY lens at 1600mm, the laws of physics tend to intervene and you have to deal with all sorts of "atmospheric heterogeneities" such as heat haze (AKA heat shimmer...which refers to the inferior mirage observed when viewing objects through a mass of heated air, such as when viewed across asphalt roads, etc.), upwelling dust, and more. These effects usually increase with distance to subject, so if you're thinking of sitting 500m away from a herd of bison and shooting them at 1600mm and getting sharp shots (after cropping of course)...well...think again!

This doesn't mean you CAN'T get very good and unique images when shooting the Z 800mm PF at 1600mm, simply that the range of conditions (and distances to the subject) under which those images can be captured will be quite limited. So in at least my own group of variables associated with the decision to purchase or not purchase a Z 800mm PF the ability to shoot at 1600mm is right at the bottom of the list. But...in those very rare situations where everything is just right, I WILL use the Z 800mm PF with the Z TC-2x and shoot at 1600mm.

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VR Performance and Hand-holdability

VR Performance and "Hand-holdability"

One of my primary concerns when I'm buying a super-telephoto lens is how "hand-holdable" it is, meaning how slow of a shutter speed can I go down to and still reliably get sharp shots when hand-holding the lens. Of course, the effectiveness of the lens VR system is a huge determinant of this, but it isn't the sole determinant. Other factors, including lens weight and lens balance impact on lens hand-holdability. Interestingly, and at least for me, some of these variables contribute to hand-holdability in an almost counter-intuitive fashion. For example, I often can hand-hold a heavier lens at a slower shutter speed than a lighter lens (of the same focal length). I felt this was the case for years, and I recently proved it to myself when I tested how slow of a shutter speed I could hand-hold the 1418 gm (3.1 lb) Nikkor Z 100-400mm f4.5-5.6S @ 400mm vs. how slow of a shutter speed I could hand-hold my 3167 gm (6.98 lb) Z 400mm f2.8S at (both with the VR off). Yep, I could hand-hold the Z 400mm f2.8S at far slow shutter speeds than the Z 100-400mm f4.5-5.6S.

One other issue is worth mentioning. It's important to distinguish between how slow of a shutter speed you can hand-hold a lens to for a few seconds vs. the duration of time you can continuously hand-hold that lens for. Sometimes you just need to hand-hold a lens for a few seconds to snap off the shot you want. Other times you have to hand-hold it for minutes or more while waiting for your subject to give you the right look, pose, etc. I suspect most folks would find lens weight to be absolutely critical in determining the duration you can hand-hold a lens at...

In examining the VR performance and hand-holdability of the Z 800mm PF I did two things. First, I did systematic field-based tests comparing the shutter speeds I could hand-hold the Z 800mm PF at vs. the shutter speeds I could hand-hold the Z 400mm f2.8S + Z TC-2x at (in all VR states - VR OFF, VR Sport, and VR Normal). Second, I simply shot the Z 800mm PF at a wide variety of shutter speeds and compared the "hit ratios" of sharp shots at each shutter speed.

Here's a quick overview of the testing protocol when I performed my "systematic" field-based hand-holdability tests:

• Bursts of 5 hand-held shots were captured at shutter speeds beginning at 1/1600s down to 1/30s in 1/3 stop increments
• Subject distance = 20m
• All images were captured at f6.3
• Each lens (or lens/TC combo) was tested in all VR states - VR OFF, VR Sport, and VR Normal
• All raw images were evaluated for sharpness on a calibrated Eizo CG-279X display (110 ppi) and using Capture One Pro
• All Images were slotted into 1 of 6 sharpness categories (1 = sharp; 2 = slightly soft, 3 = softer, etc.) and the results were tabulated. Note that in my normal shooting only categories 1 & 2 would be images I would consider to be "keepers" - all others would be discarded

Those wanting more details about my testing protocol should feel free to contact me.

1. Results From Systematic VR/Hand-holdability Performance Testing (vs. the Z 400mm f2.8S + Z TC-2x)

What did I find? Probably my biggest surprise was that in all tests (and in all 3 VR states) the slowest shutter speed I could hand-hold the two 800mm options at were extremely (actually shockingly) similar - despite the 1.8 lb weight differential between the lenses. Consequently I have lumped the results together immediately below. Note that these tests provided reams of data, and what follows are only the highlights:

A. VR OFF

All shots in each 5-shot burst were keepers (i.e., in sharpness category 1 or 2) only down to 1/1250s
• I obtained at least one keeper in 5-shot bursts down to a shutter speed of 1/250s.

B. VR Sport

• All shots in every 5-shot burst were keepers down to 1/200s. This was a 2.67 stop improvement over VR OFF.
• I obtained at least one keeper in 5-shot bursts down to a shutter speed of 1/60s. This was a 2 stop improvement over VR OFF

C. VR Normal

• All shots in every 5-shot burst were keepers down to 1/80s. This was a 4 stop improvement over VR OFF.
• I obtained at least one keeper in 5-shot bursts at ALL shutter speeds in the test, i.e., right down to 1/30s. This represents AT LEAST a 5 stop advantage over VR OFF.

2. Results From Just Shooting

What did I find when I simply looked at my hit ratio of hand-held shots captured when "just shooting" the Z 800mm PF? When "just shooting" I typically shoot bursts of 2-5 images and do whatever I need to do to capture a sharp shot (like balance the camera on my knee if I can sit down, or lean against a tree, etc.). Anyway, after tallying up and assessing all the hand-held images I captured with the lens at 1/400s or less (3079 images) here's what I found:

@ 1/400s over 95% of my hand-held shots were "tack sharp" (which would equate to sharpness category 1 in my systematic tests above).
@ 1/200s my hit rate of sharp shots was 85%
@ 1/100s the hit rate of sharp shots was 65%
@ 1/60s the hit rate of sharp shots was down to just under 50% (49.4% to be exact)
@ 1/30s the hit rate of sharp shots was 22%

Note that at shutter speeds of above 1/400s I invariably selected VR Sport (owing to how steady the shots were in the viewfinder during burst shooting). At shutter speeds of 1/400s or less I almost always used VR Normal.

Summing up, the hand-holdability of both the Z 800mm PF and the Z 400mm + 2x TC was simply excellent. It's pretty mind-boggling that I could obtain sharp shots with either of these two 800mm options at shutter speeds down to 1/30s (and possibly slower...if I had tested them at even slower shutter speeds). This adds dramatically to the overall usability of both of these lenses. Anecdotally I did find that the weight differential of these two lenses (812 gm or 1.8 lb) added to the duration of time I could hand-hold the Z 800mm PF (and/or I felt less fatigued after hand-holding it for an extended duration), though I wasn't able to quantify the difference.

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Autofocus Performance

Autofocus Performance

Unfortunately I didn't have the opportunity to systematically test the AF performance of the Z 800mm PF in the 10 days I had it for testing. But here's a few anecdotal observations:

• The AF felt very snappy and responsive and I was left feeling that it would have no trouble keeping most species of birds in focus during flight (when paired with a Z 9). No, I can't say what the hit rates of it would be when shooting Tree Swallows vs. Vaux's Swifts...but I'd be surprised if those hit rates wouldn't be as high as that when shooting an 800mm f5.6E.

• I did get the opportunity to shoot several sequences (under non-standardized conditions) of a friend's dog running directly at me and the hit rate of those shots was extremely high (hit rates of sharp shots in excess of 90%)

• After shooting the Z 400mm f2.8S for many months I have the perception that when shooting it with its integrated 1.4x TC its AF performance hardly impacted (if at all). However, when the Z 400mm f2.8S is paired with the Z TC-2x my gut says its initial acquisition speed (and possibly its ability to keep a rapidly moving subject in focus) is noticeably impacted (i.e., slowed down). How much? Hard to really say...but if everything else is equal I would give the AF advantage to the Z 800 PF over the Z 400mm f2.8S + Z TC 2x.

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Sample Shots

Sample Shots

Here's a few sample shots taken with both the Z 800mm PF (including with teleconverters) and the Z 400mm f2.8S with teleconverters or teleconverter stacks. Keep in mind I only had the Z 800mm PF for 10 days during a mid-summer period where species diversity around my home was declining and/or most wildlife was less conspicuous than in the spring (so you'll see lots of Mountain Bluebird images!). I've owned my Z 400mm f2.8S for significantly longer...so you'll see more species diversity in shots with this lens. Primary tech specs for each image are included on the border of the image. Image size is quite large (4800 pixels on the long axis) to help you get a feel for image quality.

I. Z 800mm PF @ 800mm

Curious Mountain Bluebird: Download 4800 pixel image (JPEG: 3.6 MB)

(This image included simply to show general quality (and subject-isolating power) of the Z 800mm PF. Note that this image was captured hand-held at 1/200s.)

Nighthawk on Nest: Download 4800 pixel image (JPEG: 3.1 MB)

(Nighthawks are sensitive to disturbance, especially when on their nests on the ground. So in this case the long focal length helped me keep a respectful distance yet still get a "tight" close-up shot)

King of the Castle: Download 4800 pixel image (JPEG: 3.6 MB)

(When working close to subjects with the Z 800mm PF - or any 800mm lens - it can be challenging to find sufficient DoF to keep critical parts of your subject in focus. In this case I did manage to get the head and paws of this chipmunk in focus by stopping down to f10)

Marley in Flight: Download 4800 pixel image (JPEG: 4.5 MB)

(While I didn't formally test the AF of the Z 800mm PF, I did shoot multiple sequences of this running dog coming at me at full speed. The hit rate of sharp shots in these sequences was extremely high - in excess of 90%)

White-tail Fawn - Peekaboo: Download 4800 pixel image (JPEG: 3.9 MB)

(While this scene was quite chaotic, the Z 800 PF helped me isolate the subject quite effectively. In fact, early on I nicknamed the lens "The Isolator". Hand-held at 1/400s)

II. Z 400mm f2.8S @ 800mm (with Z TC-2x)

Mountain Bluebird @ Sunrise: Download 4800 pixel image (JPEG: 4.1 MB)

(One of the first shots I captured with the Z 400mm f2.8S plus the Z TC-2x. My DoF was thin but there's great detail in the in-focus regions.)

Shaking off the Blues: Download 4800 pixel image (JPEG: 3.3 MB)

(This one captured hand-held @ 1/80s with the bird shaking just as I released the shutter.)

Harbour Seal - Cruisin': Download 4800 pixel image (JPEG: 3.3 MB)

(I was dubious about how images@ 800mm would turn out when shot hand-held from a floating Zodiac. This Harbour Seal surfaced for only a few seconds beside our boat, but I was able to focus on it and snap off a quick burst of shots before it dove.)

Pausing to Reflect: Download 4800 pixel image (JPEG: 3.7 MB)

(This grizzly was another "hand-held from Zodiac" image capture. In most instances I am finding that stopping down to f7.1 is a good rule-of-thumb when shooting the Z 400mm f2.8S plus TC-2x. That said, I have obtained very sharp shots at f6.3 as well)

Spring in the Southern Great Bear: Download 4800 pixel image (JPEG: 5.9 MB)

(Another hand-held grizzly shot, this time from land. This image captured during my Spring in the Southern Great Bear photo tour.)

III. Z 800mm PF @ 1120mm (with Z TC-1.4x)

Female Mountain Bluebird @ Sunrise: Download 4800 pixel image (JPEG: 4.1 MB)

(When shooting relatively close subjects at 1120mm you're often "searching" for DoF - thus I stopped down to f11 for this shot.)

The Poser - Male Mountain Bluebird: Download 4800 pixel image (JPEG: 3.8 MB)

(Many users may find that shooting the Z 800 PF plus Z TC-1.4x is best done from a tripod...but this shot captured hand-held @ 1/200s.)

Mountain Bluebird - The Morning Stretch: Download 4800 pixel image (JPEG: 4.7 MB)

(While the in-focus areas of this image are plenty sharp, I just couldn't find sufficient DoF to sharply render the whole subject, even at f13.)

IV. Z 400mm f2.8S @ 1120mm (with internal TC engaged plus Z TC-2x)

Harbour Seal - Chillin' on Water: Download 4800 pixel image (JPEG: 2.5 MB)

(I've had very limited luck shooting the Z 400mm f2.8S at 1120mm - this result is among the best I have obtained in a field setting. I won't say it's impossible to get high-quality shots with the Z 400mm f2.8S @ 1120mm, but it is darned tough...)

III. Z 800mm PF @ 1600mm (with Z TC-2x)

Mountain Bluebird @ 1600mm: Download 4800 pixel image (JPEG: 3.9 MB)

(Yes, the Z 800mm PF can be used with the Z TC-2x @ 1600mm and produce pretty good results, but most users will find the range of conditions producing quality imagery @ 1600mm are pretty limited.)

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The Final Wrap-up

The Final Wrap-up

When you combine its relatively small size and low weight with its excellent optical, VR, and AF performance, there's simply no denying the Z 800mm PF is a super-appealing long lens option. What Nikon has really achieved with this lens is that have made a pro-quality 800mm lens dramatically more usable, and dropped it in a price range that is accessible to far more shooters than its F-mount predecessor. While the term "game-changer" is really over-used these days, a good case could be made for this lens being a legitimate case of it! I have received personal emails from a small number of non-Nikon users who have decided that THIS lens is the straw that broke the camel's back - and they are switching (and in one case switching back) to Nikon because of the Z 800mm PF.

What about existing Nikon shooters (like me) who already own the Z 400mm f2.8S and are very happy with its performance at 800mm (i.e., when combined with the Z TC-2x) - is it worth it for them to purchase a Z 800mm PF? In both my systematic testing and while "just shooting" both 800mm options I have shown (at least to my own satisfaction) that in terms of the optical quality and hand-holdability there is little difference between the two lenses. The lighter shooting weight of the Z 800mm PF (812 gm or 1.8 lb) does lift its usability a little higher than that of the Z 400mm f2.8S plus 2x TC. And, at least anecdotally, I have the perception that if you're shooting very fast action you'll do better with the Z 800mm PF. And, of course, if you have need to shoot at 1120mm (or even 1600mm) the Z 800 PF definitely gets the nod. So it will not surprise me at all if a number of owners of the Z 400mm f2.8S will also end up with an Z 800mm PF in their kit.

So what type of shooter is the Z 800mm PF made for? Well, Nikon has clearly marketed it at the bird photography crowd. And, I personally can't think of a better high-end lens for bird photography, especially if one is into shooting small songbirds. But the more I used the Z 800mm PF the more I liked it for shooting things like portraits of larger mammals (like deer and elk) and for capturing candid shots of small mammals like squirrels and chipmunks. And, of course, if you like to give ANY of your subjects a little more breathing room...the Z 800 PF is great!

At this point I think I have to rain on the parade just a touch. ANYONE considering buying an 800mm lens should be aware that ALL of them (even the most usable of them like the Z 800mm PF) can be tricky to use. With this much focal length you do begin to run into limitations imposed by the laws of physics, including the effects of heat haze. Additionally, with any 800mm lens controlling your depth of field (DoF) can be challenging - whether that's ensuring you have sufficient foreground sharpness or even finding enough depth of field for your wildlife portraits. If someone is "graduating" to this lens from a 600mm f4 they probably will have little problem in adapting to it. But, if the longest lens you've owned before getting the Z 800mm PF is a 70-200mm or even a 300mm lens...shooting at 800mm will take some getting used to. So I DO expect to hear some online review of this lens that say things like "No matter what I did I could not get a sharp shot of nudes laying on a hot sandy beach from a distance of 300 yards with this lousy lens". Ummm...no kidding...you couldn't do that with ANY 800mm lens!

As to a next-to-final word about the Z 800 PF I'm going to say something that's almost uncharacteristic of me. I'm not fully sure why, but one of the things I noticed about the Z 800mm PF was just how much fun it was to shoot with. When I was testing it I woke up each morning thinking "Oh boy...I get to play with the 800 some more today!" Really. And I can honestly say when my time allotment with it was up I really did NOT want to send it back!

My final word: My own Z 800mm PF is now on order.

Cheers...

Brad

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Field Test Index


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