Natural Art: The Photography of Brad Hill

 

Brad Hill: Blog: Photography. Nature. Gear. Software. Conservation. Whatever.

Not so short-winded blatherings on whatever is currently occupying the part of my brain that deals with nature photography and related concerns. Updated sorta weekly.

On this page you'll find all my 2021 blog listings (immediately below). And, further down this page you'll also find some key (and very popular) gear-related blog entries from 2021 (jump to that section now).

And, finally, if you're looking for a directory to ALL my blog listings EVER - just follow this link.


I. 2023 Blog Entries...

04 Feb 2023: Cool Tool: Evaluating the Environmental Cost of Your Food

As one who likes to make informed decisions relevant to my own impact on the environment, I was quite pleased this morning when I ran across this very cool tool that provides dynamic comparisons of the environmental impact of the food I eat. And I thought others might find it interesting/useful as well. So here you go:

Which food is better for the environment?

Yes, I'm aware that there are a lot of assumptions that went into the modelling that produced this tool, and there are definitely some environmental costs (that may vary geographically) that have been omitted (at least for some of the foods), but it's still an interesting and useful tool.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

01 Feb 2023: Continuing to Post Comments on the Z 600mm f4S

Just a quick FYI to let all-y'all know that I am continuing to post comments on the performance of the Z 600mm f4S in the commentaries of the images in my Gallery of Latest Additions. And, as a further FYI, to access the commentaries for EACH image in any of my galleries you simply have to click on the "In the Field" tab below the main image window. Within that commentary you'll also find links to much larger (higher resolution) sample images.

My most recent post discusses how the image quality of the Z 400mm f2.8S with its TC engaged (so at 560mm) stacks up against the Z 600mm f4S when it is shot native (sans TC, so at 600mm).

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

26 Jan 2023: Current State of the Union: 2023 Photo Tour Availability

After what seemed like an interminable process, I have completed placing all those who were on 2023 Priority Booking lists on their 2023 photo tours. Which means I know exactly how many spots are still up for grabs on my 2023 photo tours.

The one-sentence summmary: All spring photo tours are sold out (not surprisingly), but there are a few spots available on my late summer and early autumn photo tours.

The DETAILS:

1. Summer in the Southern Great Bear Exploratory Photo Adventure 2023 - The SUPER VOYAGE!

• WHEN: August 24 - September 3, 2023
• 1-SENTENCE DESCRIPTION: My longest and most in-depth photo tour of British Columbia's incomparable Great Bear Rainforest - with a spectacular diversity of wildlife subject matter!
• CURRENT NUMBER OF AVAILABLE SPOTS: 3
• FOR MORE INFO: View trip web page
• FOR THE MOST INFO: Download trip brochure (PDF: 8.6 MB)

2. Into the Great Bear Rainforest Exploratory Photo Adventure 2023

• WHEN: September 20-29, 2023
• 1-SENTENCE DESCRIPTION: Travels into the amazing Great Bear Rainforest during the peak of the salmon run and thus focuses slightly more on bears (including Spirit Bears) than the Summer Great Bear Super Voyage.
• CURRENT NUMBER OF AVAILABLE SPOTS: 1
• FOR MORE INFO: View trip web page
• FOR THE MOST INFO: Download trip brochure (PDF: 7.7 MB)

3. Autumn in the Queen Charlotte Strait Exploratory Photo Adventure 2023

• WHEN: October 12-19, 2023
• 1-SENTENCE DESCRIPTION: This one is about Marine Mammals (Humpback Whales, Killer Whales, Sea Otters, Sea Lions...and more) with amazingly scenic backdrops - nirvana for "animalscape" lovers!
• CURRENT NUMBER OF AVAILABLE SPOTS: 2
• FOR MORE INFO: View trip web page
• FOR THE MOST INFO: Download trip brochure (PDF: 7.1 MB)

I will be leading all of these photo tours myself.

These remaining spots will be allocated on a first-come, first served basis...so if you're interested you should probably make your move pronto! Contact me at seminars@naturalart.ca to nab one of these spots!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

22 Jan 2023: About the 1.00 to 1.10 Z Super-telephoto Lens Firmware Update

Earlier this week Nikon issued a lens firmware update for their four super-telephoto Z lenses - the Z 400mm f4.5S, the Z 400mm f2.8S, the Z 600mm f4S, and the Z 800mm f6.3S. This update (from version 1.00 to 1.10 for all 4 lenses) brings the Nikon big glass up to par on their firmware with most of the other Z lenses.

So what does the new firmware actually do? Well, if you own a Z 6II, Z 7II, or a Z 9 (and any of the four lenses) it "activates" two custom menu items that can be really handy. Especially if you regularly hand-hold these lenses. Here's a quick run down of what each of the two updates actually gives you:

Focus ring rotation range (custom function f9 on the Z 9): You can now control how far you have to rotate the focus ring on the lens to go from closest focus to infinity. The shortest rotation range is 90° (one quarter of a rotation of the focus ring), the longest rotation range is 720° (two full rotations of the focus ring). This means you can functionally adjust the sensitivity of the focus ring, with a longer throw giving you more "fine control" than a shorter throw. Of course, you still have the "non-linear" setting, which automatically changes the sensitivity of the focus ring based on how fast you turn it - turn it fast and the focus ring rotation needed to move the focus a large distance decreases, turn it slow and you need MORE focus ring rotation to move the focus position a given amount.

Switch focus/control ring roles (custom function f11 on the Z 9): This function does exactly what it says - if this function is turned "On" then your focus ring takes on the role of the control ring, and the control rings becomes your focus ring.

For me, as a still wildlife photographer, these firmware updates are actually a pretty big deal. Why? Well...I like to hand-hold all my super-telephoto lenses near their distal end (here's a recent shot of me hand-holding my Z 800mm PF to show what I mean). Even though this hand-holding method means I have to support the full weight of the lens with my left arm (which I am sure some won't like or will think is "wrong"), this leaves my left hand and my left thumb near the Fn button(s), the function ring (if the lens has one), and the control ring. But it leaves my thumb quite a ways away from the focusing ring. However, if I turn custom function f11 "On" then the control ring becomes my focusing ring, and I CAN easily reach that ring with my left thumb (while shooting). SO...if I have the need to quickly override the autofocus system on any of my super-telephoto lenses, I can now do so without changing my grip on the lens (which invariably will shake the lens).

I know some may be thinking "Yeah, but how often do you actually override the AF system of a super-telephoto lens to fine-tune your focus?" Well, to be honest, only very rarely. However...if you find yourself focusing on a small-ish distant subject (think of a bird in flight) and the AF system grabs and sticks to the background (which any wildlife photographer will know DOES happen - and not nearly as infrequently as we'd like!) then you can bring the AF system into the right distance range quickly and easily by spinning the control ring with your left thumb. And, for the record, this is very fast to do if you select "non-linear" in custom setting f9 (which you can probably guess is my preferred setting for that option).

So, at least in my books, this is one of those "small but surprisingly useful" firmware updates. Now if Nikon would give us some additional control ring options I'd be even happier! ;-)

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

13 Jan 2023: So...What's Left on My Z-lens Wishlist?

18 January 2023 UPDATE: The Nikkor 500mm f5.6E PF lens that is referred to below as "up for grabs" has been sold. So it is no longer "up for grabs"! ;-)

Recently I've made a few references to my Z-based wildlife photography kit being almost or "pretty much" complete. Now that I have the Z 100-400mm f4.5-5.6S, the Z 400mm f4.5S, the Z 400mm f2.8S, and the Z 800mm f6.3S in my possession I am well-stocked in wildlife lenses. And I do have a fairly full range of shorter Z-mount lenses that I occasionally use for wildlife as well, including the Z 24-120mm f4S, the Z 85mm f1.8S and a few more. At this point I really only have two remaining F-mount lenses that fit into the "wildlife lens" category - the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E and the Nikkor 500mm f5.6E PF. So what Z-mount lenses are still on my wishlist (and that I'd be willing to fork out money for)? It's a pretty short list:

1. Z 120-300mm f2.8S (and I strongly hope its FULL name is the "Z 120-300mm f2.8 TC VR S!")

While I know many wildlife photographers would consider this lens "too short" (in focal length) for their needs, I just love this lens. Yep, it's just beast - not only is it very heavy (with a shooting weight of 3468 gm [or almost 8 lb] on my scales), but it's also very "dense". Which makes it a bit of a pain to travel with or carry in the field. But I like the results I get with it so much I am willing to put up its weight.

What changes would I like to see in a Z-mount version of this lens? I'd LOVE IT if it had a built-in 1.4x TC. And, if Nikon could figure out a way to shave 500 gm or so off its weight (I'd like more, but let's stay real) I'd be tickled pink! In a perfect world I'd love it if the lens had a Function Ring on it - and if Nikon had to remove the Control Ring to make room for the Function Ring I wouldn't lose any sleep at all (which tells you what I think of the Control Ring).

Do I think this lens is coming soon? Well, I really hope I'm wrong on this, but NOPE...I think it will be quite some time (two or more years?) before the 120-300mm gets "zeddified". Compared to many other telephotos it is a niche lens (though loved by many sports photographers)...and there probably just isn't a big enough market for it for Nikon to prioritize its development. But...I sure hope I'm wrong about this.

2. Z 200mm f2S

I think my strong preference for fast lenses is beginning to show! One of my pandemic projects was cleaning up my wildlife image catalog and I began with culling my Brown Bear collection. During this process I ran across a section filled with bear images shot with the Nikkor 200mm f2 VR. And they just stood out instantly! I just love the look. With the reality of the transition to Z I really don't regret selling my F-mount 200mm f2 VR, but if Nikon came out with a Z 200mm f2 VR I'd instantly order one. And, for my uses, it doesn't need to have a built-in TC (but I would like it to have a Function Ring!).

Do I think this lens is coming soon? Well, I wouldn't be surprised if we saw it before the Z 120-300mm f2.8S...but I doubt it's right around the corner. Maybe in the next year to 18 months (fingers crossed)?

And, to anticipate emails asking me "But what about..."

1. But What About A Z 500mm f5.6 PF?

Despite how well-received - and how good - the 500mm f5.6E PF is, it's not a priority for me to have a Z-version of it (as a matter of fact, I've placed my own 500mm PF up for grabs). Why? I've found that the Z 400mm f4.5S functionally replaces it for me. Not only is the Z 400mm f4.5S noticeably lighter, when you combine it with the Z-TC 1.4X its image quality at 560mm goes toe-to-toe with the 500mm PF. So a Z 500mm f5.6S PF doesn't get on my wishlist.

2. But What About the Z 200-600mm?

I fully appreciate why a lot of folks are keen to get that Z 200-600mm that has been on Nikon's Z lens roadmap for quite some time. But, as one who has tried very hard to like and use super-zooms (but failed miserably at doing so!)...well...not on my own wishlist.

Is there anything at all on my "pure speculation but could be interesting" list? Yeah, there is. As one who has come to REALLY appreciate how good the Z 400mm f4.5S is, I'm left wondering if Nikon couldn't do the same thing thing (and might be thinking about) a 600mm version of it. So perhaps a small(ish), lightweight(ish) Z 600mm f5.6S that is to the Z 600mm f4S what the Z 400mm f4.5S is to the Z 400mm f2.8S? And, of course, priced appropriately/proportionately (like about 25% of the price of the Z 600mm f4S). Heck, if Nikon did come up with this Z 600mm f5.6S I think it would go directly to my wishlist - it would be great addition to my "alternate" lightweight wildlife kit (AKA my wildlife "commando kit") I use when I have to hike longer distances with my gear. Given the relatively short timeline between when the Z 400mm f2.8S started shipping and the announcement of the Z 400mm f4.5S, we could theoretically hear about this lens (the Z 600mm f5.6S) in the next 6 months or so? Again, this pure speculation and/or wishful thinking on my end...I have NO inside info that this lens is in the works.

That's it...I'm not hard to please, eh? ;-)

Enjoy!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

09 Jan 2023: Testing the Z 600mm f4 TC VR S

Back on December 19 Nikon Canada sent me a brand new Z 600mm f4 TC VR S (production model) for testing. I had the lens for a little over two weeks so I had ample time to go over it - and test it, and shoot with it - extensively. Like much of the rest of North America my region had some pretty grim weather over the time I had the lens, so I couldn't really travel to any wildlife hotspots to shoot "exotic" wildlife with it. But I had ample opportunity to rigorously test it against a host of other lenses and shoot some local wildlife with it. The lenses I was able to test it against (including in some cases with teleconverters) included the Z 400mm f4.5S, the Z 400mm f2.8S, and the Z 800mm f6.3S.

I've now sent the the Z 600mm back to Nikon and have thousands of images to pour over - both those captured during systematic testing and others shot while just photographing local wildlife (and, in some cases, some very cooperative and helpful dogs).

After I've had a chance to carefully scrutinize all my test images (and tally up all the results) I will be writing up a detailed review of the Z 600mm f4S. When will this appear? As soon as possible, and very likely in Q1 of this year. Because I had so many other key lenses to test against, I'll also be writing up at least a few other more specific reports on how the lenses compared at various focal lengths (in several regards, NOT just optical performance). So you can also expect a report detailing how the "4 ways to 800mm" using Z lenses compare. Yep, I'm going to be busy!

Because it is going to take me a while to put these reviews and reports together (and because I know some want the information FAST) I am going to be continuously releasing key "tidbits" of information about what I learned during the testing in the "commentaries" in my Gallery of Latest Additions. In fact, I have already begun doing this - right now you'll find a few test images in there and with each of them there are discussions of key findings during my testing. The commentaries of the current images discuss the optical performance of the Z 600mm f4S at 840mm (with its built-in TC engaged) and the AF performance of the Z 600mm f4S @ 600mm. For some, the tidbits of info contained with the images in my Latest Additions gallery will be all the info they'll ever need (including for some assistance in making purchase decisions).

While most regular visitors to this blog and my various image galleries probably already know this, to access the "commentaries" for EACH image in any of my galleries you simply have to click on the "In the Field" tab below the main image window. Within that commentary you'll also find links to much larger (higher resolution) sample images.

Enjoy!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

09 Jan 2023: A Belated HNY!

Yes, I know it's January 9 and New Years was a little more than a week ago. But...what the heck - here's hoping all those who follow this blog a very safe, healthy and prosperous 2023 (however you choose to define that!). One of the things I'm most looking forward to in 2023 is...wildlife photography! By that I mean "shooting in the field". I can't remember a year where I was more excited about spending time in the field! Why? Well...it's largely because I honestly feel I now - and for the first time in my life - have close to the perfect wildlife kit! Or at least perfect for my style of wildlife photography. I am covered SO solidly from 24mm up to 1120mm...

On a related note, something else that excites me is that now my transition to Z and my Z-based wildlife kit is as complete as it ever will be, I shouldn't have to spend nearly so much on gear in 2023!! That is truly exciting! ;-)

And that's it for now...I'm starting 2023 off with a short and sweet first blog entry!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca


II. Selected and Popular 2022 Gear-related Blog Entries

04 Dec 2022: Some Necessary(?) Bling for Your Z Super-telephoto...

Nikon has always made very good super-telephoto prime lenses and, at least in my opinion, they appear to have upped the ante considerably with their new Z-mount super-telephotos. At present, Nikon is producing three Z super-telephotos - the Z 400mm f2.8 TC VR S, the Z 600mm f4 TC VR S, and the Z 800mm f6.3 VR S. I own two of these lenses - the Z 400mm f2.8 and the Z 800mm f6.3 and can state without reservation that they are absolutely excellent lenses. I have no reason to believe the Z 600mm f4 won't be equally as good. But...despite their quality, you can make them a little better (or at least "more usable") by investing in a few 3rd party accessories (AKA lens bling!). Here's a few thoughts on the bling I've added to my own two Z super-telephotos...

1. ARCA-SWISS COMPATIBLE LENS FOOT. Of course, Nikon's Z super-telephotos come with a tripod foot. But, for reasons I and thousands of others can't understand, the tripod feet AREN'T Arca-Swiss compatible. Which means that you can't mount your Z super-telephoto on virtually any tripod head or gimbal head until you add "something" to the existing tripod foot. And that "something" is either an Arca-Swiss compatible lens plate (that you screw onto the bottom of the existing tripod foot) or you just go the whole way and replace the stock Nikon tripod foot with 3rd party tripod foot offering Arca-Swiss compatibility.

In the past I always quickly replaced the OEM Nikon tripod foot with a 3rd party one (I've used feet from Wimberley, Really Right Stuff and Jobu). When I got my Z 400mm f2.8S I initially decided to stick with the OEM foot and just "bolt" a lens plate onto it. Why? Largely because I found the stock tripod foot to be reasonably comfortable when using it for its second major role - acting like a handle to carry the lens. And, when I was going into situations where I KNEW I wouldn't be using a tripod (like on my Khutzeymateen Grizzlies photo tours where we shoot exclusively from a Zodiac and must hand-hold all lenses we use) I'd just take the plate off before the trip. But when shooting closer to home I often found it was a pain to be always adding (or removing) the lens plate. So...I decided it was time to invest in a whole new tripod foot. After reviewing the specifications of several available brands I decided to go with the carbon-fiber Italian-made Zenelli LFZ model (based largely on its weight, length of plate, and the amount of gap it left between my hand and the lens when using it as a handle). In fact, I bought two of them - one for my Z 400mm f2.8 and one for Z 800mm f6.3. I was a little leery of this foot initially, partly owing to its price and partly owing the "sometimes" tendency of Italian products being high on form factor but lower on real-world functionality. But...after using them for a few weeks now I am quite pleased with my Zenelli LFZ's - when used as a handle (admittedly my primary use of a tripod foot) they fit comfortably into my hand. And they ARE very light (slightly lighter than the OEM Nikon tripod foot BEFORE you add a lens plate to it). Expensive? Yes. But still a minor expense compared to the cost of buying any Z super-telephoto!

NOTE: I have been told by a couple of sources that all 3 Nikon Z super-telephotos have the same tripod foot bolt pattern (and that the OEM foot is identical for all 3 of them). I can confirm that the Z 400mm f2.8 and the Z 800mm use the exact same OEM tripod foot (so the same Zenelli LFZ foot fits on both lenses), but I haven't had a Z 600mm f4 in my hands yet. So I can't confirm that its lens plate is identical quite yet...

2. REAL LENS CAPS! Anyone who has owned an F-mount or Z-mount super-telephoto (zoom or prime) lens will know that Nikon supplies a lens cap (of sorts) for the large front element with them. While there's nothing really wrong with these lens caps (which are really more like open-ended bags), they are both heavier and bulkier than they need to be. But don't despair - high-quality "pinch-style" lens caps similar in design to Nikon's caps for smaller lenses ARE available! Where? Through Zemlin Photo. You can check out the Zemlin super-telephoto lens caps right here. I love these caps and now have them for my Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E, my Z 400mm f2.8, and my Z 800mm f6.3. Great for traveling photographers.

Note that Zemlin Photo makes MORE than just great lens caps - he also offers replacement lens hoods that are FAR more affordable than the OEM ones from Nikon (and they ARE available in different lengths) and that work extremely well. I've actually got TWO Zemlin lens hoods for my Z 400mm f2.8 - one standard length (matching the length of the OEM one from Nikon) for day-to-day use and a longer one that offers better protection from rain that I use when leading photo tours on BC's we(s)t coast (I have found that even if you have the presence of mind to always hold your lens level in hard enough rain you will get some "splatters" on your front lens element if you are using a "standard" length lens hood). Zemlin also offers several different eyepieces for the Nikon Z 9, including two models that are compatible with ThinkTank or AquaTech rain covers and one "standard" model with a built-in molded silicone eye-cup. I'm liking what Mr. Zemlin is doing...

Finally, please note that if you check out and purchase ANY of the products above, I make ZERO commission on them (even if you use the links supplied above). I am simply pointing these products out because I have tried them and they all have offered "something" to me above and beyond what the stock Nikon bits offered. And, I'm OK with sharing this info without being paid to do so.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

24 Nov 2022: Z 800mm f6.3 VR S "Falls Into My Lap!"

Regularly followers of this blog and website already know I tend to be an early adopter of new technology, and specifically of new camera gear. In most cases this is simply because I order it shortly after it's announced and I have a good relationship with my local Nikon dealer (which is The Camera Store in Calgary). And in some cases I get "priority purchase" privileges from Nikon because I am a Canadian NPS member.

In the case of the still rare Z 800mm f6.3 I played it cautious and decided I would not order one until after I had the opportunity to thoroughly test one. I got that chance in late June of 2022 when Nikon sent me one for a 10-day period (with no constraints on what I could do with it). Long story short, I loved the lens - I wrote a "mini-review" on it that you can read here: 10 Days With the Nikkor Z 800mm f6.3 VR S.

So...after testing the lens I DID promptly order one in early July. And that put me WAY back in the queue to get one. With the rate that these lenses are being shipped (glacially slow) I had resigned myself to not seeing my own copy until at least next spring, if not later.

So...how is it I now have a nice shiny Z 800mm in my possession now? Funny story behind that. Just over a week ago I gave an online presentation to a group of Canadian photographers on the topic of managing the transition from Nikon's DSLR's to their mirrorless cameras and lenses. During that talk I had a slide that showed my current collection of Z-mount lenses. The last line on the slide was this: "On Order (and still waiting): Z 800mm f6.3 VR S". Well...the very next day I received an email from a fellow Canadian photographer who viewed the presentation and who recently took delivery of their own Z 800mm (I'm guessing he went on the waiting list for a Z 800mm at his store very early on). And, he just up and offered his 800 to me! Between us we worked out a plan to get it in my hands so I could test it (before purchasing). Which I did and, as expected it tested out just fine. So I now have a shiny new Z 800mm f6.3 VR S! You may be wondering why he would give up such a "hot commodity". Well...it looks like he's decided that he wants/needs one of the long Z primes with a built-in TC (so either the Z 400mm f2.8 VR TC S or the Z 600mm f4 VR TC S).

So...if anyone who sees me posting new images shot with the Z 800mm or reads new commentaries about it is wondering how I "jumped the queue" and got my Z 800mm so quickly (only 4 months after ordering one!) - well...that's how! I just got lucky.

With my acquisition of the Z 800mm I am now extremely close to being "fully" transitioned over to Z-mount for my entire wildlife photography kit. In fact, the only F-mount lens I regularly still use for wildlife shooting is my Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E. I can't believe it is a priority for Nikon to produce a Z-mount version of the 120-300mm f2.8E - not only is it a niche lens, but it's a darned expensive one to boot. So I may be shooting my F-mount 120-300mm f2.8E for quite some time...which is just fine by me.

As a final note, I have asked to borrow a Z Nikkor 600mm f4 TC VR S from Nikon for testing purposes. Because I already own the Z 400mm f4.5S, the Z 400mm f2.8 TC VR S, and now the Z 800mm f6.3 VR S (and both Z-TC's) I'll be in great position to test and compare all sorts of permutations and combinations of Nikon's Z super-telephotos. That will include testing the Z 400mm f2.8 TC VR S with its built-in TC (560mm) against the Z 600mm f4 TC VR S at 600mm, testing the Z 600mm TC VR S with its built-in TC (840mm) against the Z 800mm f6.3 VR S, and so on (the number of comparisons I'll be able to make will be almost endless!). So anyone pondering which Z-mount super-telephoto is right for them might want to wait a bit (until I get to perform the tests and post the results). But...keep in mind that I currently can't say (or even guess) when I'll see the loaner copy of the Z 600mm f4 and can begin the testing. So...stay tuned!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

11 August 2022: My 10 Days With the Z 800mm f6.3 VR S

I've just posted a "mini-review" of the Nikkor Z 800mm f6.3 VR S super-telephoto lens. Nikon loaned me a copy of the Z 800mm PF for a 10-day period back in late June and I was able to shoot with it and test it extensively. And, as an owner of the Z 400mm f2.8S (and a Z TC-2x teleconverter) I was able to do a lot of head-to-head testing of the Z 800mm PF against Z 400mm f2.8S + 2x TC.

Here's the Quick & Dirty (Executive) Summary from the mini-review:

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.

The ENTIRE mini-review (which really isn't too "mini") includes tests of the optical and VR performance of the lens, sample images and more. Here's where to go to see it:

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

And, if anyone wants to link directly to the review, here's the full link:

www.naturalart.ca/artist/fieldtests/fieldtest_Z800mmPF.html

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

17 May 2022: Nikkor Z 400mm f2.8S Field Test - An Interim Report

As many know, I am in the midst of field testing the Nikkor Z 400mm f/2.8S TC VR S (hereafter referred to as the Z 400mm f2.8S). My field-testing of this lens includes a mix of shooting with the lens in a field setting plus a lot of systematic field-based testing where I compare various aspects of the Z 400mm f2.8S's performance against several other lenses. This means I am testing optical performance, AF performance, VR performance, and more against the following lenses: the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E (which Nikon Canada loaned me for testing purposes), the Nikkor Z 100-400mm f4.5-5.6S, the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E (when paired with a TC-14EIII 1.4x teleconverter), and the Nikkor Z 70-200mm f2.8S (when paired with a Z-TC 2.0x teleconverter).

At this point I have completed virtually all the field tests I need to do and have quickly skimmed over the resulting images (but I have NOT finished methodically scrutinizing them in extreme detail...which takes a huge chunk of time). I have also shot about 5,000 images in the field with the Z 400mm f2.8S, including about equal numbers of images when shot native at 400mm and with the built-in 1.4x TC (@ 560mm) and with a Z-TC 2.0x (@ 800mm). I leave on Thursday (May 19) for a few weeks of leading photo tours in British Columbia's Great Bear Rainforest during which I will be shooting extensively with the Z 400mm f2.8S.

SO...rather than making everyone wait until after I get back from my coming photo tours (and I can find the time to put together my final and very comprehensive review of the lens), here's an interim report on the broad strokes of my findings and experiences with the Z 400mm f2.8S to date. I've looked at my test images closely enough to know that none of these findings will differ in my final review, but that review will go into a whole lot more detail and discuss performance nuances that I know are important to some shooters. Hopefully today's entry will be sufficient for those waiting to hear my thoughts on the lens before making their own decision on whether to purchase it or not.

Today I'll start with an overall summary and then say a few words about several performance characteristics of the lens.

I. THE QUICK AND DIRTY SUMMARY:

I purchased the Z Nikkor 400mm f2.8S with lofty expectations - that it would be in every way as good or better than the excellent Nikkor 400mm f2.8E when shot at 400mm, that it would be an absolutely excellent 560mm f4 lens, and that when combined with the Z-TC 2.0X it would be a very good 800mm f5.6 lens capable of completely professional-level output. My expectations have all been met or exceeded. And, equally as importantly, a large weight saving on the lens relative to its precursor, the integration of a 1.4x teleconverter, its improved Synchro VR, and its completely new magnetically-driven AF motor have collectively resulted in a dramatically increased overall usability and, at least for me, an increased hit ratio of sharp, top-shelf images. With my shooting style (that includes a lot of hand-holding of super-telephoto lenses) and preferred subject matter (think large mammals, many with sharp teeth and probably not as many birds as many other wildlife photographers) this is as close to the perfect lens as I have ever shot with or tested. That doesn't mean it IS perfect...but holy smokes is this lens ever amazing! ;-)

II. PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS, BUILD QUALITY, AND HANDLING:

LENS DIMENSIONS?

No 400mm f2.8 is a small lens. And in linear dimensions the Z 400mm f2.8S is close to a clone of the 400mm f2.8E. Overall length (when the lenses have their stock hoods in place) is only 4 mm different (with the Z 400mm actually shorter than the 400mm f2.8E). But don't forget, the Z 400mm has a built-in TC that adds length to the lens...but Nikon found a way to add-in the TC without making the lens any longer when you're actually shooting it in the field.

LENS WEIGHT?

Now we see a big advancement, with the Z 400mm f2.8S coming in very significantly lighter than the 400mm f2.8E. How much lighter? Well...I don't know how Nikon weighs their lenses (like whether or not they exclude the lens hood and/or caps), but on my digital scales and when the lens is in "shooting state" (no lens caps, but with hood included) the Z 400mm 2.8S is 986 gm (2.17 lb) lighter than the 400mm f2.8E. In absolute terms, when in shooting state the Z 400mm f2.8S comes in at 3167 gm (6.98 lb) and the 400mm f2.8E at 4153 gm (9.16 lb). This makes a HUGE difference when carrying it in the field...it simply feels dramatically lighter. And, for me, it translates into being able to hand-hold it for LONGER than I can hand-hold the 400mm f2.8E (and here I'm referring to how long I can hand-hold it continuously before having to put it down). Interestingly, if I turn the VR off and shoot both 400's hand-held I can get sharp shots down to almost identical shutter speeds. I'll comment more on this in my full review of the lens.

LENS CONTROLS?

Here again there is a significant difference between the Z 400mm f2.8S and the 400mm f2.8E. In sum, on the Z 400mm we gain a second L-Fn button, a control ring, a Fn ring (which, with Z 9 firmware 2.0 can be programmed to do a LOT of different things). And, of course, Nikon added a lever to activate the built-in 1/4x TC (complete with a locking switch). We also now have "just" A (autofocus) and M (manual focus) on a single switch (and without the A/M and M/A options) on the Z 400mm. The only other switch is the AF limiter (giving you two options - full or 6m to infinity). There is no VR switch - this is controlled by a menu item in your Z camera body.

BUILD QUALITY?

Well...both 400mm's are top-quality Japanese-built lenses. Stylistically they're a little different, with the new Z 400mm coming in with an almost Sigma-like more "industrial" look and feel (kind of in the spirit of Soviet-era utilitarianism). But, if anything, the rings (like the tripod collar) move smoother on the Z 400mm than the 400mm f2.8E (they almost feel like they are smoothly gliding on needle bearings).

TRIPOD FOOT?

On the positive side, it is smaller and with less space between itself and the lens barrel (but it's easily large enough for hands of close to any size). Also on the positive side it makes a GREAT handle...for my hands it's the best handle Nikon has ever put on a super-telephoto lens.

On the negative side...well Nikon should just give up and quit calling this a tripod foot and just call it a handle. For the vast majority of users of this lens a tripod foot means "Arca Swiss compatible" and, of course, the handle is NOT an Arca Swiss compatible tripod foot. Making things worse, Nikon decided it needed to have two threaded mounts on the foot, but they made them different sizes (one has a 1/4" thread and one has a 3/8" thread). SO...if you want to put an Arca Swiss lens plate on the handle you have to get a 3/8" to 1/4" adapter.

The net result? Anyone wanting to convert the handle to an Arca-Swiss compatible tripod foot has to either add a lens plate to it or replace the entire handle with a 3rd party tripod foot. In the past I have always replaced Nikon super-telephoto handles with 3rd party tripod feet, but in this case I have to say I like the feel of the handle so much (it is nicely padded and happens to fit my hand very well) I will probably (and for the first time) just add a lens plate on those occasions where this lens needs to be mounted on tripod.

I am still shaking my head over how Nikon can produce such an amazing lens with ALL the latest technologies and yet not understand the difference between a handle and a tripod foot.

BALANCE POINT/CENTER OF GRAVITY

Nikon has done a good job on balancing this lens - if you place it on a gimbal head with a Z 9 body attached you'll find the balance point is just in front of the lens collar (very close to the focusing ring), which means it's almost directly underneath the handle/tripod foot. And that means you when you convert the handle to a tripod foot using a lens plate you don't need a long one! I'm using an older Wimberley plate that's under 10 cm (under 4") long and even if I throw on a Z-TC 2x I still have sufficient "groove space" to get to the balance point.

HANDLING?

OK...this has the potential to be a bit of a hot potato, but I have to call it like I see it. I am not unaware that another Nikon pundit (Thom Hogan) has produced a review of this lens that really pans the handling of the Z 400mm f2.8S. His argument boils down to the fact that he doesn't think the lens controls aren't correctly positioned for hand-holding the lens. Here's exactly what he says (italics mine):

"Which brings me to the problem: the controls on the 400mm f/2.8 S aren't positioned for hand holding. Not even close. The point where the lens balances in your left hand palm cradling its underside puts your fingers nowhere near any of the controls you'll want to use."

And...he further states:

"I note in Nikon's literature that they keep showing images of people holding the lens near the front, on the knurled area that widens out to the front element. Those folk can at least reach the L-Fn2 buttons with a finger, but they're still a long way from any of the other controls on the lens. Moreover, I don't think that's really where they want to be holding the lens. I'm holding it at the center of gravity, which means that I can rotate it more easily when following fast moving subjects."

I am quite sure Thom believes this to be true and it's an accurate reflection of his experience. Without trying to get into a squabble, I'll just say that MY EXPERIENCE DIFFERS DRAMATICALLY. Someone who read Thom's review of the lens recently asked to produce a quote about my own thoughts about the handling of the lens. Here's what I said:

"When it comes to lens handling you'll almost always find different users have very different experiences. Differences in long-held habits, body size, arm length, strength, and more all play a role. In the specific case of the Z 400mm f2.8S my hand naturally goes to further out on the lens than it may for other shooters. This puts me in a comfortable position to hand-hold the lens for an extended period of time, and I can hold the lens steadier than if my hand is under the lens balance point (i.e., closer to the camera body). When in my preferred hand-holding position my thumb is perfectly positioned to operate the Fn-ring and my pinky finger can rotate the focus ring. Additionally, my thumb is right beside the L-Fn button (L-Fn2) and can access it without any shifting of the hand."

"For me, handling is spectacular on the Z 400mm f2.8S. I have never worried about or felt the need to seek out the balance point on a lens when positioning my left hand (and I have no problem whatsoever shifting from horizontal to vertical shooting positions)."

I suppose it's entirely possible that some may think I am holding the lens "wrong", just like I have been told it is "wrong" to use the shutter button for AF operation. But, I strongly believe lens handling is a subjective thing and what's right for one shooter may be wrong for another. But I'd never state that the lens was poorly designed simply because my chosen way of hand-holding it wasn't optimal for that lens. So, to be clear, I won't say the handling of the Z 400mm f2.8S is superb, average, poor or awful for anyone else - THEY have to decide that. But for me the handling of the Z 400mm f2.8S is excellent, even if some think I am hand-holding the lens wrong! ;-)

III. OPTICAL QUALITY:

I'm going to leave the real meat of this section from my final review, but for suffice to say that the optical performance of the Z 400mm f2.8S is exceptionally close to that of the 400mm f2.8E (they are close to optical performance clones) but I have found two areas where the optical performance of the Z 400mm f2.8S slightly exceeds that of the 400mm f2.8E. First, I have found it very slightly sharper when shot wide open. Which means you have less need to stop it down to get to maximum sharpness. When I owned the 400mm f2.8E and wanted the absolute best balance between "tack sharpness and buttery out-of-focus zones" I'd shoot it at f3.2. I see no need with the Z 400mm f2.8S to stop it down at all (so for me I'll shoot it at f2.8 for the best balance of sharpness and bokeh). There is an absolutely special - almost magical - quality to the images from this lens when shot at f2.8...and I love it.

Second, in my testing the extreme edges of the image (when shooting distant scenes and at all apertures) were sharper on the Z 400mm f2.8S than on the 400mm f2.8E.

What about when teleconverters are involved? Note that ALL my optical testing was done with a Z 9 body, and it's becoming almost dogma that you'll get (on average) better performance out of your TC's (even F-mount TC's on F-mount lenses) when shot on a Z-body. That said, and even though the built-in TC on the Z 400mm f2.8S contains an ED element and is specially designed for the 400mm lens, I could find no differences in optical quality between Z 400mm f2.8S and the 400mm f2.8E when their respective teleconverters are added to the mix. So, at 560mm (built-in 1.4x TC for the Z 400mm f2.8S and TC-14EIII for the 400mm f2.8E) and at 800mm (both 400's with their respective 2x TC's) the image quality, including both sharpness and bokeh, was a dead heat between the two 400's. And, most importantly, that image quality was EXCELLENT. Feel free to jump into my Gallery of Latest Additions to see some examples of 800mm images shot hand-held with the Z 400mm f2.8S (and at some pretty slow shutter speeds) to see what I mean. And while this make tick off some DSLR shooters, the kind of image quality I am talking about is far better than what you'd get in almost all instances if you were shooting the 400mm f2.8E with the TC-14EIII or the TC-20EIII on any Nikon DSLR (including D6's and D850's).

Note that my final review will give an exhaustive comparison of results with TC's, including how shooting a 1.4x TC stack on the Z 400mm compares to shooting it with the Z-TC 2.0x, etc.

IV. AUTOFOCUS PERFORMANCE:

One of the biggest technological changes on the Z 400mm f2.8S is the use (for the first time that I am aware of) of a new AF mechanism driven by magnets (that Nikon refers to as a "Silky Swift Voice Coil Motor" or, if you prefer, a "Silky Swift VCM" in short). The AF system also uses an optical ABS (absolute) encoder, reportedly to "...detect and communicate lens position information with extreme accuracy - key to fast, accurate autofocusing."

What does Nikon claim that these AF advancements mean in the field? In sum, they combine to deliver "...higher initial speed, higher accuracy, and the smoothest, most silent operation of any Nikon AF drive system. Additionally, vibration within the mechanism has been reduced with an innovative guide bar and minimal space between moving parts, allowing for maximum speed during autofocus."

Ok...what have I found? Overall...Nikon's claims appear to be valid. Specifically:

AF Speed: Well, subjectively initial focus DOES seem snappier on the Z 400mm f2.8S, but if I am being totally honest these lenses BOTH focus so fast I haven't been able to come up with a test that can separate them. Both are simply blazing fast.

AF Sound: This one is a no brainer - the Z 400mm f2.8S is DRAMATICALLY quieter than the 400mm f2.8E. Unless you're in a sound-proof room you are unlikely to ever hear the focus of the Z 400mm f2.8S. And when you are in that sound-proof room all you will hear is a super soft "zzzttt" when it refocuses.

AF Accuracy and Precision: Without getting into a long diatribe about the difference between accuracy (proximity to the actual true value) and precision (the reproducibility of a measurement or action like autofocus) I can say that I did create a test to check for these attributes (for now all I'll say is that it involved a LOT repeated short bursts on a fixed target with a de-focusing of the lens between each short burst). And guess what? The Z 400mm f2.8S did produce noticeably more consistent and accurate focus in my tests. And, most importantly, it mirrored what I was seeing in the field with the Z 400mm f2.8S - a higher proportion of in-focus shots (especially when shooting bursts) whether the subject was static or moving.

V. VR PERFORMANCE:

Again, all the tests here were done using a Nikon Z 9 . And, because it is the ONLY current Z body that offers Synchro VR (where the VR of the lens and the IBIS of the body combine for a "synergistic" VR experience) anyone repeating my tests with a different Z body may not get the same results.

Anyway...long story short, I was actually measuring hand-holdability (i.e., the lowest shutter speed that I could get predictably sharp shots when hand-holding the lenses) and I DID find that I could hand-hold the Z 400mm f2.8S at much slower shutter speeds than I could with the 400mm f2.8E. Note that my methodology allowed me to remove any effect of weight differences between the lenses and the difference in hand-holdability is very likely due solely to the improved VR of the Z 400mm f2.8S. Note also that there are a LOT of interesting nuances in my results from these tests...and those WILL be available in my final review. I will give numbers later, but I am almost stunned how slow of a shutter speed I can hand-hold the Z 400mm f2.8S at and still get tack-sharp shots. For me (and I suspect many other wildlife photographers) this difference in VR performance alone makes the Z 400mm f2.8S way more usable than the 400mm f2.8E.

VI. THE INTERIM CONCLUSION? ;-)

The Z 400mm f2.8S simply rocks. It offers both incredible image quality (at 400mm, 560mm, and 800mm) and MUCH higher overall usability than the F-mount lens it is functionally replacing. Of course, at the price of the lens it SHOULD rock. But if you can look beyond the price, in absolute terms this lens can offer something totally unique and completely impossible just a couple of years ago - you can lug (all by yourself, without a sherpa) a top-notch 400mm f2.8, 560mm f4, and an 800mm f5.6 into the field at the same time - and you can almost instantly switch between these 3 options. All this, and it comes with a great handle! ;-) For me this "three-in-one" prime WAS worth the purchase price. For others? Well...that's up to them to decide. ;-)

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#Z400_interim

10 May 2022: Zemlin Photo - A Good Find!

I will be leaving next week to lead back-to-back "Spring in the Southern Great Bear" photo tours. Because these trips head deep into British Columbia's Great Bear RAINforest it behooves one to ensure they have rain covers for their cameras. I use both AquaTech Sport Shields and ThinkTank Hydrophobia rain covers - and BOTH require specialized "dedicated" eyepieces. SO...when I discovered that neither ThinkTank or AquaTech were offering eyepieces for the Nikon Z 9 I was more than a little concerned. After all, I am taking only Z 9's on this trip.

Enter Zemlin Photo (zemlinphoto.com). Zemlin Photo is owned and operated by Karl Zemlin - a part-time professional photographer and retired mechanical engineer. Zemlin Photo has a small range of products but, like with the Z 9 eyepieces I needed, they tend to be things that are very valuable to real photographers. His products include:

• Replacement hoods for telephoto and super-telephoot lenses for Nikon, Canon, Sony, Fuji, and Sigma lenses - all at very reasonable prices.

• Replacement lens caps for super-telephoto lenses from Nikon, Canon, Sigma, and Sony lenses.

• Two different replacement eyepieces for the Nikon Z 9 - one with a modified DK-19 rubber eyecup and one designed to work with AquaTech and ThinkTank rain covers (which also include a modified DK-19 rubber eyecup).

I ordered and have taken delivery of the rain cover-compatible eyepieces. The quality of them seems excellent and they'll be thoroughly field-tested over the next 3 weeks. Based on the eyepiece quality - and a personal communication from a buyer of a Zemlin lens cap and hood - I have just ordered a new (and lighter) Zemlin hood for my Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E plus a lens cap for the same lens. I don't expect these last bits to arrive before my spring Great Bear photo tours, but I should have them in time to test them during the June "Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen" photo tour I am leading. Expect a report on how they worked for me after that trip.

Cheers...

Brad

PS: If anyone is interested in going on a FANTASTIC photo tour with me, I still have a few spots left on my Summer in the Southern Great Bear Instructional Photo Tour this coming August!

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

02 May 2022: The Nikkor Z 400mm f2.8S Fn Ring & Z 9 Firmware 2.0 - Very Cool!

The launch of the Z 800mm PF and the release of Z 9 firmware 2.0 have created a flurry of excitement among many Nikon-shooting photographers, including (or perhaps especially) among wildlife photographers. The firmware update had so much in it for both still photographers and videographers that some very significant features were easy to overlook or miss altogether. One feature associated with the update is currently limited to such a small audience that the vast majority of Z 9 owners may have had no clue about it, though if they looked closely at the new listing under custom setting f2 - Custom controls (shooting) - and scrolled all the way down to the 2nd and 3rd last "customizable buttons/dials/rings" they'd have seen a whole slew of new options for the lens Fn ring. Like I mean a huge number of options...36 in total!

Hold it, hold it, hold it (you say)! What the heck is a Lens Fn ring? Well...it's a new "twistable" lens ring that's found (to the best of my knowledge) on only ONE current Nikkor lens - the new Z 400mm f2.8S. It's NOT the control ring...it's a new ring - and on the Z 400mm it's the twistable ring that's most distant from the camera body...and in my case it falls directly under where my hand sits. It also has a very different textured surface, making it super easy to distinguish by feel alone. And, there's something else different about this ring - it only moves about 1 cm clockwise and 1 cm counter-clockwise. When released, it snaps back to its original (centered) position as though it is spring-loaded.

Prior to firmware 2.0 this Fn ring did one thing and one thing only - when you twisted it it would "...recall your saved focus position". Now I'm sure there's some photographers that need and use this feature and they may love it. But it's not a feature that is very important to me (a similar feature has existed on many of the Nikkor super-telephotos I've owned over the years and I think I've used it once or twice).

BUT...enter Z 9 firmware 2.0 and...presto...this ring can control a huge number of camera operations (as I mentioned above the list includes 36 camera functions). And, for many of them it does it in a very unique way. Here's just a couple of the more unique functions:

Exposure compensation +: Select this option and rotate the dial clockwise (and then let go) and the exposure is increased by 0.3 stop. Rotate the dial counter clockwise (and then let go) and exposure is decreased by 0.3 stop. Rotate the dial and continue holding it and the amount of exposure compensation increases (or decreases) steadily as you continue with your twist of the ring. And, unlike Easy Exposure Compensation this is a hard exposure compensation that sticks (even if you turn the camera off).

ISO sensitivity (increase): Select this option and ISO increases with a clockwise twist and decreases with a counter-clockwise twist. When you get to your desired ISO just let go of the ring and you're at your new setting (assuming you have Auto ISO off). Again, this is a hard ISO setting.

Other high value functions (at least IMHO) you can control with this button include AF-area mode, AF-area mode + AF-On, Preview, Recall Shooting functions (RSF) and RSF (hold), displaying a grid or virtual horizon in the EVF, Starlight view, Playback zoom on, Silent mode, yada, yada, yada! Best of all, between the location of the button and how it returns to its centered position this ring isn't prone (at all) to being inadvertently changed through bumping or grabbing the lens (which is definitely a potential issue with the Control ring).

My take on the worth of this new ring on the Z 400mm (in conjunction with firmware 2.0)? It's awesome...I love it! And, I wish I had this ring on ALL my Z-mount lenses.

How do I currently have mine set up? For now I have mine set to switch my AF-area mode and turn AF on. My default AF-area mode on my two Z 9's is 3D-tracking. If I twist the Fn ring on the lens clockwise it changes to Single Point mode and focuses and if I twist the AF ring counter-clockwise it changes to Dynamic-area (M) and focuses. If I let go of the ring the AF mode goes back to 3D-tracking. Of course, because I'm controlling the AF-area mode and AF-On with my left hand, my right hand is free to do whatever it wants, including toggling the focus point around (in my world if I'm using either Single Point or Dynamic-area mode there's a good chance I want to toggle the point around).

Does the Z 800 PF have this ring? Nope. Why not (given it came out AFTER the Z 400mm)? My best guess is that for the foreseeable future the Fn ring will be found only on Nikon's new top-end "traditional" (big and fast) super-telephoto lenses (like the Z 400mm ) as a form of added value for forking out the huge bucks these lens cost. Next lens with a Fn ring? My best guess is that it will be the Z 600mm, assuming its a traditional "big and fast" f4 lens that may or may not have a built-in TC. Yep, lots of speculation in this paragraph...but I that's how I'm seeing the line of Z super-telephotos evolving.

Note that at the time of this writing Nikon's online literature and marketing web pages don't include information on the new functions associated with the Fn ring that was introduced in Z 9 firmware 2.0. For instance, if you look at the page featuring the Nikkor Z 400mm f2.8S it just states that the Fn ring recalls the saved focus position.

It's nigh on impossible to associate a dollar value with a new feature like the Fn ring on the Z 400mm or how much impact it will make in driving the sales of lenses that have it. But I have to say that with Z 9 firmware 2.0 my Z 400mm became significantly more useful than it was just over a few weeks ago! That leaves me with a warm and fuzzy feeling. Sweet.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

19 April 2022: The Nikkor Z 400mm f/2.8 TC VR S - Just a Few First Words

My Nikkor Z 400mm f/2.8 TC VR S arrived in my hands late last Wednesday...and since then I've stolen whatever time I can free-up to shoot with it and begin systematically testing it. Before long I'll be posting a rather in-depth "First Impressions" report. But because I'm getting a lot of those "Well...what do you think?" emails I'll say a few things right now (and present a few images).

Long story short - up to this point the Z 400mm f/2.8 TC VR S has met or exceeded all my rather lofty expectations of it. What were those expectations? You can read them in detail in my blog entry of 21 January 2022 entitled "A Few Thoughts on the Nikkor Z 400mm f2.8 TC VR S" (jump to that entry here), but the short version is this:

From an optical perspective I expected it to be an outstanding 400mm f2.8 prime, an excellent 560mm f4 (with the internal TC-engaged), and a very good 800mm f5.6 (when combined with the Z-TC 2.0x). And, compared to the 400mm f2.8E, I expected better VR performance from it when used with the Z 9 along with a quieter and faster AF system. And, like I just said, it has met or exceeded all my rather lofty expectations of it.

Sample photos? Sure...here's a few...all are full frame or the next thing to it...but reduced to 4800 pixels on the long axis. All are processed with Capture One 22.2. Tech specs included with each photo.

1. @ 400mm

This is one of my favourite local field-based scenes (visible from our property) to use for checking edge-to-edge sharpness on multiple positions on the frame. This one was captured hand-held at f4.5, but the shot at f3.2 was indistinguishable - and the one shot at f2.8 can only be distinguished with extreme pixel-peeping.

April Sunrise in the East Kootenays: Download 4800 pixel image

2. @ 560mm

This shot utilizes the built-in 1.4x teleconverter which was specially designed to match the optics of the Z 400mm f2.8 (it even contains an ED lens element). I can't imagine a 600mm f4 being much sharper!

Female Hairy Woodpecker: Download 4800 pixel image

3. @ 800mm

OK...I have to admit that I was REAL curious how the Z 400mm f2.8 would perform when paired up with the Z-TC 2.0x. So here's three hand-held images captured at 800mm.

I captured this female elk on our property just as the first light beams of the day hit it. Shot wide open at f5.6.

Female Elk - First Light: Download 4800 pixel image

Hooters (Dusky Grouse) breed on our property every spring - and the males do the show-off routine! This one captured at f6.3.

Happy Hooter: Download 4800 pixel image

Our Mountain Bluebirds are JUST beginning to think about building nests. This male was hanging out near a bluebird box trying to convince his partner to quit looking and just settle in! Hand-held at 1/250s (using VR Normal).

Dawn Bluebird: Download 4800 pixel image

More on the Z 400mm f2.8 coming soon...

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

07 April 2022: Some Thoughts on the Nikkor Z 800mm f/6.3 VR S

Most Nikon-shooting wildlife photographers will know by now that Nikon officially announced the Nikkor Z 800mm f6.3 VR S yesterday. Since the development announcement (a development announcement is kind of like a pre-announcement of a product...basically Nikon saying "We are announcing that we will be announcing a new lens in the near future"!) of the new Z-mount 800mm lens a lot of Nikon-shooting have been really excited. If anything, yesterday's announcement - and especially the price of the lens - got them even MORE excited! And for good reason. Nikon is about to deliver to us a high-quality, quite fast, and very small, light and hand-holdable 800mm lens at a price that isn't nearly as far out in the stratosphere as most "real" super-telephotos are. For many nothing could be better!

This post isn't intended to be a spec spew...those wishing to see ALL the specs can check out any official Nikon website or go here on dpreview.com. But here are the most critical details:

It's an S-Line lens...which means it's in Nikon's TOP mirrorless line of lenses and meets Nikon's highest quality and performance standards (don't ask me what those standards are, but it meets them!).

It's a PF (Phase Fresnel) lens, which is the primary reason it is so light and small. Oddly, it's the first PF lens that doesn't have the letters "PF" in its name. What's with that? It WILL be known as the 800 PF! ;-)

It comes in at 2385 gm (5.25 lb), which is real close to HALF the weight of the F-mount Nikkor 800mm f5.6E after you add a mount adapter FTZ to it to use it on a Z-body. For reference, the 800 PF is about 925 gm (2 lb) heavier than the 500 PF.

It is 385mm (15.2") long, which is 76mm (3") shorter than the F-mount Nikkor 800mm f5.6E.

It's an f6.3 lens, which is only .3 stops slower than the F-mount 800mm f5.6E

It retails in Canada for $8,499.00 CAD; the F-mount Nikkor 800mm f5.6E retails for $19,999 CAD (2.3 times as much).

If you examine the specs in detail you'd conclude that this lens is chock full of Nikon's recent and standard "high-end" mix of technology and optical standards...so overall its specs are rock solid. About the only super-telephoto lens in Nikon's lineup that significantly exceeds it in specifications is the new Nikkor Z 400mm f2.8 TC VR S which, even if you forget about the built-in TC, is like a "showcase lens" highlighting all of Nikon's latest and greatest ideas and technologies.

How does it perform? To be clear...I have NOT tested, tried, or even touched a 800mm PF yet. But, the anecdotal reports that are rolling in, including from high-credibility independent photographers (like Steve Perry) are very promising. My own expectation...based partly on how well the F-mount 500mm f5.6E performs on Z-bodies and based partly on how good ALL S-Line lenses are...is that it will be simply excellent. I do HOPE to test one ASAP, but I'm not sure yet when I'll be able to get my grimy hands on one.

Is it destined to be a "game-changer"? Well...to be honest...I'd bet on it! At least for the right crowd (more on that in a moment). I'm convinced it's going to be a HUGE winner for Nikon and, more importantly, a huge win for "the right crowd" of Nikon-shooting wildlife photographers. It is going to be REALLY, REALLY hard for some wildlife photographers to resist the allure of this lens. And this is the type of lens that may cause some Canon and Sony shooters to switch to Nikon. I know of more than one wildlife photographer who switched from Canon to Nikon because of the 500mm PF...and for some the draw of this lens will be even stronger than that of the 500 PF (which is just a great wildlife lens!).

Who is it actually for? I'll limit my discussion here to its use in wildlife shooting and let others chat about this lenses suitability for sports or other uses. And, within the wildlife photography genre the most easily identifiable group that are squarely in the target market for this lens are bird photographers. Heck, just look at the layout of the product page for this lens on the Nikon.ca or Nikonusa.com websites - they're filled with images of birds! Of course, it will also be a great lens for other wildlife subjects that, for whatever reason, you aren't able to closely approach (or even relatively closely approach). But as corny as it sounds...bird photographers should (and likely will) flock to this lens! ;-)

How will it compare in image quality to the Nikkor Z 400mm f2.8 TC VR S plus the Z-teleconverter 2.0? I'm bringing this topic up because I've already received several emails asking me that exact question. Truth is, I can't answer this yet (and I doubt anyone else really can either). A few years back this would have been almost a nonsensical question with the obvious answer being "Of course a 800mm prime will outperform a 400mm plus 2x TC". BUT...as many have discovered, even F-mount TC's perform REALLY well when shot on Z-bodies. And, the Z-TC's are producing stellar results on lenses like the 70-200mm f2.8S and 100-400mm 4.5-5.6S. So, when paired with a lens like the 400mm f2.8S that should be optically excellent, it IS conceivable that the 400mm f2.8S plus the Z-teleconverter 2.0x will compete well in overall optical performance with the 800mm PF. It will be .3 stop faster! And I wouldn't be surprised if the bokeh of the 400mm plus TC is even a little better than that of the 800mm PF. Note that early anecdotal results (e.g., a recent YouTube video by Matt Granger) of the 400mm plus Z TC 2.0 are very encouraging. I do hope to have the opportunity to systematically test these two 800mm "solutions" against one another in the near (or not-so-distant) future...but that's out of my hands (sorry...no promises!).

Will I be buying a 800mm PF? Well, this may surprise some, but my answer is a clear "no". This in no way should be interpreted as me saying anything negative about the lens, but not every lens is right for every photographer. Here are the two primary reasons I won't be ordering a 800mnm PF:

1. With my preferred subject matter and style I just don't need the 800mm focal length very often. I always think "animalscape" first (check out my Animalscape Gallery if you doubt me!) and I LIKE the wider view. I don't subscribe to the "closer is better" school of wildlife photography.

2. When I simultaneously owned a 400mm f2.8, 500mm f4, and a 600mm f4, I used the 400m the most and the 600mm the least (by far). For ME the sweet spot in focal length is in the 400-500mm range. And I am quite confident that if I got a 800mm PF I would use it only rarely.

And, of course, keep in mind that I am getting the new Nikkor Z 400mm f2.8 TC VR S. And I am very hopeful that this lens will pair up so well with the Z-teleconverter 2.0x that in the few cases where I DO need a 800mm I'll have a very good one at my disposal!

Anyway...even if the 800mm PF isn't joining my own wildlife kit I think Nikon HAS hit a home-run with it. If you're a Nikon-shooting wildlife photographer it's pretty hard NOT to have a smile on your face right now! ;-)

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#800PF_thoughts

06 April 2022: Now Coming to You From...my Mac Studio!

This short post is the first coming from my new computer...a spanking new Mac Studio. While I tend to keep my wildlife photography kit very current, the same can't be said for my computers...I try to squeeze every bit of use out of them I can. This Mac Studio is replacing my iMac 5K from 2014 - a computer that served me exceptionally well for 8 years.

When it comes to computers I tend to spec them out quite high-end, largely because I want them to be fast enough (and with enough capacity) to last for years. In the distant past, that meant going to the top-of-the-line machines. However, the top of the line machines these days are built to efficiently edit large video files and are almost overkill for photo-editing and image management (at least for my needs). So, I didn't see the NEED to buy the absolute top-of-the-line Mac Studio. Because I know I will be asked if I don't supply the information, here's the key specs of the Mac Studio I picked up:

Chip: M1 Ultra (with 20-core CPU, 48-core GPU, 32-core Neural Engine)
Unified Memory: 64 GB
Storage: 2 TB SSD

Because I lost use of my iMac 5K display when retiring my iMac, I also picked up a new Studio Display with the Mac Studio (and I went for the standard glass on the Studio Display in that my office has good lighting control and no sources of glare). I am using this in conjunction with my primary "editing" display, which is an Eizo CG279X...so I sit in front of twin 27" displays. Rounding out the critical bits of hardware I use...I had my iMac - and now have my Mac Studio - connected to two 16TB Promise Pegasus external Thunderbolt drives (used as RAIDs).

Will I be reviewing the Mac Studio for its suitability as a photo-editing and management "environment"? Nope, not a hope - while a BIT of a geek, I am simply not qualified to produce a meaningful and credible review of a state-of-the-art computer. Stating "Golly...this sucker is a whole lot faster than my 8-year old iMac" is about the full extent to which I can comment! ;-)

That said, I have no issue relating my experience in transitioning to the new machine (along with my absolute earliest impressions of the new machine). So...here you go...

1. LIKES:

• As stupid as this sounds, the boxes of both the computer and the display were nothing short of works of art. Irrelevant to performance (of course), but it does show attention to detail that I appreciate. Opening up one of these products might be the first case where an "unboxing" video might even be worthwhile (but you won't find one of those here!).

• Data migration and setup: The data migration was flawless and reasonably fast (took about 2 hours using peer-to-peer wireless data transfer). Once this was done, it was like sitting down in front of my old computer and everything just worked! Initial setup for ALMOST everything (but see "DISLIKES" below) was glitch-free...including primary and secondary display setup, et cetera.

• Speed using critical apps? Well both Capture One AND Photoshop are performing at levels that I couldn't even imagine before, including when working with image catalogs with over 120,000 images in them. Golly...this sucker is a whole lot faster than my 8-year old iMac! ;-)

2. DISLIKES:

• My Promise Pegasus external thunderbolt drives were an absolute PAIN to be "made compatible". On initial setup they simple wouldn't mount, and while investigating the problem I was told by multiple representatives at both Apple and Promise that my external drives were simply incompatible and I was hooped. Eventually (3 days later) I finally found someone at Apple willing to go "off-script" and dig around for a solution, which turned out to be a pretty straightforward "fix" (after we found a very well hidden driver...which required a pretty complex installation way beyond "double-clicking" and re-starting).

Anyway...I'm now a very happy camper with an image-editing and image-management environment that just rocks. And, hopefully, it will be another 8 years before I do another blog entry on computer hardware! ;-)

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

25 March 2022: Nikkor 100-400mm f4.5-5.6S or 70-200mm f2.8S Plus Teleconverters?

Shortly after I received a Nikon Z 9 and a 100-400mm f4.5-5.6S lens for testing in November of 2021 I started getting emails asking me how the optical quality of the Z 100-400mm compared to that of the excellent Z 70-200mm f2.8S plus the Z-mount teleconverters. Not long ago (in the "before mirrorless" times) this would have been almost a nonsensical question, with the answer being "Of course the longer zoom without teleconverters kicks the butt of the shorter zoom with teleconverters". And, shortly after getting into the hands of photographers reports (including my own) started rolling in outlining just how optically strong the Z 100-400mm lens was, further suggesting that the 100-400mm would easily out-perform the 70-200mm plus Z-TC's. However, not only do ALL teleconverters tend to perform better with Nikon's Z (mirrorless) bodies than they did on Nikon's DSLR's but, as many shooters have found, the Z-mount 70-200mm f2.8S is a simply outstanding lens AND it pairs up exceptionally well with both the 1.4x and 2.0x Z-teleconverters.

So...the question of whether shooting the Z 100-400mm produces significantly better results than the Z 70-200mm f2.8S plus the two Z-mount teleconverters is actually a pretty good one. Of course, other similarities between the lenses (and lens/TC combos) make the comparison even more interesting - both offer a maximum focal length of 400mm (at f5.6) and the short end of their focal range is quite similar as well. Moreover, the lenses are very similar in length and in weight. So, I thought a comparison of these lenses could be be worthwhile and quite useful to some. So here you go! ;-)

I. WHAT I DID

The Big Picture:

I field-tested the 100-400mm f4.5-5.6S against the 70-200mm f2.8S plus teleconverters under controlled conditions at two distances and a wide aperture range (from wide open through to f11) and three focal lengths - 280mm, 300mm, and 400mm (280mm was included so I could bring the 70-200mm f2.8S plus the Z-teleconverter 1.4x into the mix). Almost for kicks (and partly to help justify my purchase of it!) I included one other lens into the mix at the focal lengths of 280mm and 300mm - the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E.

A Few More Details: Here's what I mean when I say that I field-tested the images under "controlled" conditions:

• All images were captured as lossless compressed raw files using a Nikon Z 9 mounted on a Jobu Algonquin tripod equipped with a Jobu HD MkIV gimbal head. The shutter was triggered using a Nikon MC-20 cable release. For each lens, distance, aperture, and focal length combination I captured 3 images and slightly defocused (and refocused) the lens between each shot. All images were captured using AF-S set to pinpoint AF area mode (which uses a highly accurate pure contrast-detect autofocus method). During each 3-shot sequence I waited 10 seconds after re-focusing before capturing the subsequent images. For ALL image captures the VR mechanism was turned off on the lens and/or camera.

• For each lens, distance, and focal length combination I captured images in 1/3 stop increments beginning at wide open (maximum aperture for that lens and focal length) through to f11.

• The "short distance" tests were performed at 6.8 meters from the subject, which is the sort of distance you'd use lenses in this focal range to capture things like smaller birds (from jay or robin size and down) or small mammals. At 6.8 meters the subject was an old weathered stump I've used for similar lens tests about a zillion times. This stump has very fine texture on it which facilitates assessment of image sharpness. Its upper backside provides a great "near out-of-focus" face on it and, and the background has objects in it varying in distance from approximately 5 meters through to 40 meters plus a distant slope approximately 1.5 km away - this background allows me to easily assess the quality of the out-of-focus zones (OOF)...AKA the "bokeh" of the lens. Anyone wishing to see an image of the stump scene can contact me.

• The "mid distance" tests were performed at 17 meters from the subject - the sort of distance you'd use lenses in this focal range to capture larger wildlife such as eagles, medium-sized mammals (e.g., coyotes), and the like. At 17 meters the subject was a weathered life-sized carving of an eagle, complete with very fine texture covering its body. In the background of the scene are tree trunks at approximately 4 meters behind the subject, a rake standing upright at 2 meters behind the subject (yup, placed by me to assist in assessing bokeh), and conifer trees at approximately 50 meters behind the subject. Again, anyone wishing to see an image of the carved eagle scene can contact me.

• After image capture all images were visually scrutinized using Capture One Pro on an iMac desktop computer and a calibrated Eizo CG279X display (109 ppi). During image import ALL images were subject to the identical capture sharpening (which is part of the Capture One profile for the Nikon Z 9). I use Capture One to assess images in tests like this because t has excellent light-table features, including the ability to view up to 12 images simultaneously at 100% magnification (removing the need, inaccuracy and inefficiency associated with doing multiple pair-wise combinations). Additionally it has excellent image filtering tools, allowing one to quickly sort and peruse/compare images by focal length, aperture, lens used, etc.

• For each aperture, focal length, and distance combination I compared/examined the lenses (and/or lens/TC combinations) for sharpness and bokeh. Both of these characteristics were ranked from 1 to 4 (there are up to 4 lenses and/or lens/TC combinations in this test...depending on the focal length examined), with 1 being the sharpest image and 4 the softest (least sharp) and with 1 being the smoothest bokeh and 4 the least smooth (and least visually appealing) bokeh.

II. WHAT I FOUND

I'll present the results in two ways - the shortest encapsulation of the major trends (the "sound-bite" version for those who want no more than YouTube style detail!) and then a more detailed view of the results for those that appreciate nuance and are looking to have the information they need to use their gear as effectively as possible.

BUT FIRST...let's get the issue of how the 120-300mm f2.8mm performed out of the way and then forget about it. At the two focal lengths it covered in my tests (280mm and 300mm) the 120-300mm f2.8E was the CLEAR winner in sharpness and in the quality of the out-of-focus zones (or bokeh). And that's at all apertures and both distances. It simply kicked the butt of the other lenses and lens/TC combinations. Period. And it should have - not only is this lens dramatically more expensive than the others in this test (we're talking more than 3x the price of the other lenses) but it is one of those "special" lenses in the tradition of the 200mm f2G VR or the 400mm f2.8E. Got $12K CAD or so burning a hole in your pocket? Get yourself a 120-300mm f2.8E.

1. RESULTS - The Sound Bite Version:

If all you care about it is getting to 280mm, then the Nikkor 100-400mm f4.5S and the 70-200mm f2.8S plus the Z-teleconverter 1.4x produce images extremely similar in both sharpness and bokeh. Both lens options are excellent.

However, you don't buy a 100-400mm lens and never shoot it above 280mm! At 300mm the 100-400mm was perceptibly sharper at short distance than the 70-200mm f2.8S plus Z-teleconverter 2.0X (but the bokeh of the two lenses was very similar). However, the sharpness difference between the two lenses diminished and was nearly indistinguishable at the mid distance I tested (17 meters). And at this mid-distance the bokeh hardly differed between the two lenses.

What happens at 400mm? An interesting thing - the sharpness difference between the two lenses shrinks to the point where it is virtually indistinguishable. But, the bokeh difference (with the 100-400 offering superior bokeh) increases, especially at shorter distances (where you get considerably better bokeh out of the 100-400).

Am I saying there is NO discernible difference in image quality between the Nikkor 100-400mm f4.5-5.6S and the 70-200mm f2.8S plus the Z-mount teleconverters? Nope. But the differences are small and of a magnitude that many shooters probably wouldn't notice (or care about). But see also my comments in the "But wait, there's more..." section and my Final Discussion section.

2. RESULTS - More Details:

i. At 280mm

Image Sharpness: At this focal length (and both test distances) it was ALMOST impossible to find any sharpness difference between the 100-400mm f4.5-f5.6S and the 70-200mm f2.8S plus the Z-teleconverter 1.4x. The only discernible difference I could find was when both the lenses (or lens/TC combos) were shot at f5.6 - at this aperture the 70-200mm plus TC was slightly sharper (at both distances) than the 100-400mm. This sharpness difference disappeared by f6.3 and did not reappear at smaller apertures.

Note that at 280mm I also tested the 70-200mm f2.8S plus the Z-teleconverter 2x (so with the 70-200mm "zoomed back" to 140mm). This combination produced slightly - but discernibly - softer (less sharp) images at both distances and all apertures.

Bokeh: Again, very, very similar results when the 100-400mm are compared to the 70-200mm f2.8 plus the 1.4x TC. But at most apertures the "near" out-of-focus zones (only about 30 cm behind the subject) of the images captured with the 70-200mm plus 2x TC were "busier" and less smooth than those shot with the other two lens (and lens/TC combos).

ii. At 300mm

Image Sharpness: At 300mm and at short distance the 100-400mm was slightly but noticeably sharper than the 70-200mm plus the 2x TC from f5.6 through to f8. From f9 through f11 I could see no sharpness difference between the lenses. At longer distance-to-subject this sharpness difference favoring the 100-400mm wasn't evident.

Bokeh: Pretty much a saw-off EXCEPT in one instance - at the shorter distance-to-subject and when shot wide open - here the bokeh of the 100-400mm was smoother and more appealing than that of the 70-200mm plus 2x TC.

iii. At 400mm

Image Sharpness: At 400mm I could not detect any sharpness difference between the 100-400mm and the 70-200mm plus 2x TC (at either distance). This likely suggests that the 70-200mm (which is undoubtedly the best 70-200mm that Nikon has ever made) holds it's sharpness at maximum focal length a little better than the 100-400mm does.

Bokeh: Now we see something interesting - from wide open through to f7.1 the bokeh of the 100-400mm is DEFINITELY better (smoother and more visually appealing) than that of the 70-200mm plus the 2x TC. From f8 on the difference in bokeh is negligible.

SO...overall...the optical performance of the 100-400mm DOES exceed that of the 70-200mm plus the two TC's, but not by a dramatic amount.

III. BUT WAIT...THERE'S MORE TO CONSIDER!

If you define lens quality SOLELY on image sharpness and bokeh you might read my results and think that the 100-400mm and the 70-200mm plus Z TC's are close to equivalent (with only a small edge going to the 100-400). But there's other factors to consider, such as:

1. Convenience, Cost, and Usability?

For the 70-200mm f2.8S to come close to rivaling the 100-400mm f4.5-5.6S you definitely need to have BOTH of the Z-teleconverters. There are lots of consequences of this. First, while excellent in quality, they aren't cheap. At the time of writing buying both of these TC's would set you back a little over $1500 CAD. Yep, still cheaper for those who already own a 70-200 than buying a 100-400, but not chicken feed. And for those who DON'T already own the 70-200mm and the two TC's, a photographer (and especially a wildlife photographer) might well be better off overall by passing on the 70-200mm f2.8S altogether and investing instead in the 100-400mm AND the excellent 24-120mm f4S (for close to the same total expenditure).

And...then there's the usability issue. If you do go down the 70-200mm plus two TC's route, you will be spending more time swapping things around (taking lens off, adding TC needed at the time, then doing it again when the shooting scenario changes) rather than simply zooming your 100-400 to a different focal length. Not only is this continual lens/TC swapping a general PITA, but in some environments it can lead to more dust getting inside your camera. I know many shooters who travel to Africa regularly, and they tend to hate switching lenses in that dusty environment. Yep, the sensor shield of the Z 9 helps somewhat, but that doesn't help Z 6 or Z 7 users.

2. Autofocus?

Ok...I did NOT do any systematic testing of how the AF speed of the 100-400mm f4.5-5.6S compares to that of the 70-200mm f2.8S plus Z-TC's so my comments are completely subjective. I have shot the 100-400mm extensively - the 70-200mm f2.8S (with our without TC's) somewhat less. But differences in AF speed between the two lenses (with and without TC's) weren't apparent to me, and both are very fast at re-focusing between subjects at moderately different distances from the camera (which is what matters to me when I'm in a field situation). I place no value in measurements (however accurate) of how fast a lens goes from closest focus to focusing at infinity...I don't believe this "measurement" is highly correlated (if correlated at all) with the AF characteristics that matter to me in a field setting.

IV. FINAL DISCUSSION

If I call a spade a spade, the 70-200mm f2.8S works amazingly well with BOTH of the Z-teleconverters. For the first time (at least in my opinion), a zoom lens with external teleconverters IS worth considering as a "high-quality" option, even for discerning photographers. On the other hand, the 100-400mm f4.5-5.6S is an EXCELLENT lens. My testing has convinced me that the difference in the optical performance of the Nikkor 100-400mm f4.5-5.6S and the 70-200mm f2.8S plus the 1.4x and 2.0x teleconverters IS subtle but it's real - with the 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 edging out the 70-200mm f2.8S (plus TC's) in overall optical performance. For shooters that only rarely need to go beyond 200mm (which would exclude almost all wildlife shooters) - or for shooters that already own the 70-200mm and that don't want to fork out the bucks for the 100-400 - going down the 70-200mm plus TC's road may make good sense. Different strokes for different folks!

Even though a 70-200mm f2.8 lens has been long-considered a "staple" part of most wildlife photographer's kit, it's my view that the majority of wildlife shooters would be better served overall with the 100-400mm rather than relying on a 70-200mm plus TC's. In fact, as an owner of the 100-400mm and the excellent 24-120mm f4S, I am actually beginning to wonder how a 70-200mm f2.8 legitimately fits into my wildlife kit. And, recently I've had a number of other wildlife photographers contact me asking the same question: "If I own the 24-120mm AND the 100-400mm why do I need a 70-200?" The pat answer is (of course)...for those low-light situations OR when I want the background-blurring "power" of a f2.8 aperture. And for some shooters that answer may be valid. But in my case (and as an owner of the superb 120-300mm f2.8E that has even BETTER subject-isolation power than any 70-200mm f2.8)...the presence of the 70-200mm f2.8S in my wildlife kit may end up being very time-limited! ;-)

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#100-400_or_70-200PlusTCs

05 March 2022: The Nikon Z 9 - Tidbits & Trivia #2: Understanding RSF

This is my second installment of my Z 9 - Tidbits and Trivia series. My previous entry was on the Z 9's Wide-area AF area mode (see it here...).

Recall Shooting Functions (hereafter = RSF) is a powerful assignable button function found on the Nikon Z 9. Based on feedback I'm getting from a lot of Z 9 users (as well as from folks I have been helping setting up their Z 9 via my online tutoring service), it seems like it's very poorly known and poorly understood. In a way that makes complete sense - RSF made its first appearance in rudimentary form in the Nikon D5 and then re-appeared in a far more usable form in the Nikon D6. I don't know too many users of the D5 who used it, and...to be honest...the pool of users of the Nikon D6 isn't really huge, and of those not all of them really "got" the value of RSF. So...it's not surprising that the awareness and understanding of the power of this "almost hidden" feature is low. But now, with a LOT of Nikon shooters getting (or waiting for) a Z 9 it's high time this feature to come out of the shadows and get some attention! Thus this blog entry. And, I'm also probably going to scream if one more person emails me and says "I wish I could push a single button to turn subject detection off (or on)" or "I wish I could push a single button to change from subject detection = People to subject detection = Animals". With RSF you can do either of these things, and a whole lot more...

BTW...if you're a Z 9 owner it's probably best to go through this blog entry with camera in-hand.

1. SO WHAT ACTUALLY IS RSF?

RSF is simply one of the many functions that Nikon allows you to assign to one of many buttons on the Z 9. That means it's in the Custom Menu - specifically it's in custom setting f2 which is labelled "Custom controls (shooting)". To find it you have to go to one of the buttons that supports it and scroll down the button options list to find it. Which buttons support RSF? There's up to 9 of them, depending on the lens in use. Here's the list:

• Fn1 through to Fn3
• AF-ON
• Sub-selector center
• Vertical multi-selector center
• AF-ON Vertical
• L-Fn and L-Fn2

2. BUT WHAT DOES IT ACTUALLY DO?

Well...that depends on how you set it up. When you navigate into the RSF menu (so that means going into custom setting f2 > Recall shooting functions on one of those buttons listed above) you'll find it can control up to 12 shooting functions. So you can configure it to change all 12 functions with the push of a button. Or, you can configure it to ANY SUBSET of those 12 functions with the push of a button, including just ONE of the 12 functions. The 12 functions that can be controlled by RSF are:

• Shooting mode (Manual vs. aperture priority, etc.)
• Shutter speed
• Aperture
• Exposure compensation
• ISO sensitivity settings
• Metering
• White Balance
• AF-area mode
• Subject detection options
• Focus tracking with lock-on
• AF-ON
• Release mode (frame rate)

To fully appreciate the power and flexibility of RSF you HAVE to remember that EACH of these 12 functions CAN be controlled by RSF but THEY DON'T HAVE TO BE controlled by RSF (i.e., you have the option of toggling each of the 12 functions ON or OFF). So...as an example...if you don't want your RSF button push to change the Shooting mode you're in (say aperture priority) then just toggle Shooting mode off.

So...returning to the question of "What does it actually do?" - it can do the following types of things:

A. Change (at the push of a button) your current settings from being in a classic landscape collection (e.g, manual exposure with a fixed low ISO with the aperture stopped down and on single point AF-area mode) to a group of settings better suited to shooting high-speed action (e.g., manual exposure at a high shutter speed with Auto ISO on with aperture wide open [regardless of the lens in use!] using 3D-tracking with subject detection set to Animal).

B. Change (at the push of a button) your default setting of having subject detection on to turning it off. Or vice-versa. Or swap from subject detection = Animal to subject detection = People (or Vehicles, or Auto).

C. Change from matrix metering to spot metering with the push of a single button (I've had a few people email me complaining that they can't do this with the Z 9...uhhh...yes you can!).

If you think creatively you should be able to figure out a LOT of highly useful other things you can do with RSF. With a little thought one could probably produce an entire book full of different and very handy-dandy RSF configurations - along with use cases for each of them. Hmmm...I just got an idea. ;-)

3. CAN YOU ASSIGN MORE THAN ONE BUTTON TO RSF?

Yes, but ALL of those buttons will have the same RSF configuration (while in the same custom settings menu...see the next point).

4. SO DOES THAT MEAN YOU CAN HAVE ONLY ONE RSF CONFIGURATION STORED IN YOUR CAMERA?

NO! But this is a place where a lot of Z 9 shooters get a bit lost. The critical thing to remember is that you set up your RSF in your Custom menu settings. And the critical thing that a lot of people don't know is that a Z 9 (and a D5 and a D6) have FOUR different custom settings banks. So that means your Z 9 can store up to 4 different RSF configurations. NOW...that means to go from one RSF configuration to another you have to switch from one custom settings bank to another custom settings bank. At present this CAN'T be done using a button-dial combination (like you can with shooting menu banks). About the fastest way I know of switching between custom settings banks (and thus between RSF configurations) is to put custom settings banks in your iMenu.

5. SO...WHERE ARE FOLKS STUMBLING IN UNDERSTANDING RSF?

Here's some areas where I've found folks struggling to understand the setup and use of RSF:

• Understanding what custom settings banks are. More and more photographers are figuring out what shooting menu banks are and how setting them up can help them in the field, but it seems the concept of also having multiple custom settings banks is tough for many to wrap their head around. It DOES represent a jump up in complexity.

• Understanding and remembering that shooting menu banks and custom settings banks are independent of one another. So, if you are in your default custom settings bank (which is called bank "A" by default) it applies no matter what shooting menu bank you are in. Once you switch to custom settings bank B it then applies to ALL your shooting menu banks.

• Realizing that EACH of the 12 functions found within RSF can be toggled ON or OFF independently of the other 11 functions. This fact has huge repercussions in terms of what you can make RSF do for you.

6. DO YOU HAPPEN TO HAVE ANY HINTS OR TIPS FOR SETTING RSF UP?

Yup, there's lot of little nuances to figure out when you're using RSF. Here's my current list of tips and tricks:

• You must fight off the impulse to use Nikon's WORST EVER labeled menu option! Huh? When you go into RSF and set it up the way you want you'll eventually get to the last item and then, just below it, see the option to "Save current settings". Any normal person would think this would save all the adjustments they've just made to the 12 functions above. I certainly did! But after selecting that option umpteen times and wondering why ALL the settings you just put in disappeared, it will slowly dawn on you that this "Save current settings" actually means "Save current camera settings as RSF settings". Instead you just hit the Done button to save the settings you painstakingly added to RSF.

• Want to make sure EVERY lens you use will always shoot wide open after invoking RSF? To do this just set the Aperture function of RSF to slightly larger than your fastest lens. So...my fastest lens is the Nikkor 50mm f1.2S...to ensure this lens is shot wide open (as well as every other lens I have) is switched to wide open when using one of my RSF configurations I have set the aperture to f1.1. So that means when I put my 400mm f2.8S TC on my Z 9 and invoke RSF it will shoot at f2.8. And my 500mm f5.6E PF will always shoot at f5.6 when RSF is invoked.

• Baffled by how Auto ISO works when using RSF? Ok...this one gets a BIT complicated. The critical thing to remember if you have the ISO sensitivity settings in RSF adjusted to turn Auto ISO on is that the VALUES for Auto ISO (like the maximum ISO value you want to limit it to) are inherited from the shooting bank you invoke RSF from. So if you are in Shooting Bank A and you have the Auto ISO set to go no higher than ISO 6400, this is the ISO ceiling that RSF will inherit when you invoke it. That's straightforward and easy-to-understand. But what happens if you invoke RSF (and your RSF configuration has Auto ISO turned on) from a shooting bank that has Auto ISO off? Well...It STILL inherits the values for Auto ISO that are set in that shooting menu. So even though Auto ISO is OFF, if you look in the Auto ISO settings (for that shooting bank) there is still a value for base ISO and for the highest you'll let it climb to - and THOSE are the Auto ISO values RSF will inherit. You may have to read this one twice to get it!

• If you change any camera settings when RSF is invoked (i.e., you're still holding down the button assigned to RSF) then almost all of those changed settings stick (they become the NEW settings for RSF). So the RSF configuration I use the most uses manual exposure mode with a shutter speed of 1/2000s and a wide open aperture. But if I rotate the back dial and change the shutter speed while my RSF button is held down the new shutter speed is what is stored in RSF.

• IF you are setting up RSF in multiple custom menu banks, it is likely you will want to set it up with EVERYTHING in the custom menus banks the same EXCEPT the RSF settings. The easiest way to do this BY FAR is to set up your first custom settings bank exactly how you want it and then copy it over to the next custom settings bank (the Z 9 allows you to do this via the Manage option in the listing of the custom settings banks) and then change ONLY the RSF settings. To do the 3rd and 4th custom settings banks just repeat this process twice.

• Preferred button for RSF? Well...that's going to vary between users and there's no right or wrong on this one. But, after experimenting with a bunch of different button setups, I have settled out on using the L-Fn buttons (both of them on lenses that have two L-Fn buttons) for RSF. Why? To leave my thumb and fingers free to make other changes (e.g., to the shutter speed as described immediately above) while I am pushing the RSF (L-Fn) button. Note that virtually ALL the lenses I would use RSF with have L-Fn buttons. Why BOTH L-Fn buttons? That's a long story and will be the subject of a future minor rant on my part, but it's so both my F-mount lenses with L-Fn buttons and my Z-mount lenses with L-Fn buttons will have the button that is in the same location (distal to the camera body) invoke RSF. Those confused by this should look at how L-Fn and L-Fn2 buttons on Z-mount lenses are positioned relative to how they are positioned on F-mount lenses. I explain more fully at a later date...

7. IS RSF PERFECT?

Nope (what a dumb question!). I can think of at least two ways to improve it:

A. Add a RSF (Hold) version of it (just like on the D6). This means that when you push a button assigned to RSF the RSF setting holds until you push it again. That's so you don't have to keep holding the button to have RSF invoked. This would free up the finger or thumb that's holding the RSF button. This item is already on my Z 9 firmware update wishlist.

B. Allow the storage of multiple RSF configurations (e.g., RSF1, RSF2) within a single custom menu bank - and make them each assignable to different buttons. This would dramatically increase the button customization options available to Z 9 users. How many RSF configurations would we need? A few weeks back I plotted out what would work for me (in terms of all the different things I'd like RSF to do for me) and came up with 4 RSF configurations per custom menu bank. And with 4 I'd only need to use two custom menu banks (for a total of 8 RSF configurations).

There you go...simple as pie! Now go away and think about and play with your RSF configurations. And please don't send me any more emails grumbling about how you can't turn off the Z 9's subject detection with the push of a button! ;-)

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#Z9_Tidbits2

22 Feb 2022: Follow-up On: The Z 9's Wide-area AF Mode

Based on feedback I've received, my blog entry of 20 Feb called "The Nikon Z 9 - Tidbits & Trivia #1: Wide-area AF Mode" went over very well. Thanks to all who sent me feedback.

In that entry I made the following statement:

"...it has already been suggested by "insiders" (and I'm pretty sure it was first suggested by the helpful guy known as "Nikon Ricci", but don't quote me on that) that it won't be long before we see a firmware update that adds more patterns/shapes of the Wide-area modes...likely along the lines of how the D6 has 17 configurable patterns for its excellent Group Area AF area mode."

I want to make it clear that I have no inside information on this - what I said was based on publicly-available information. It does makes sense to me that Nikon would add additional patterns or configurations for the Wide-area AF area modes, but that doesn't mean it WILL happen!

BUT...IF Nikon does what has been strongly suggested and gives us more wide-area patterns/configurations, I am hopeful that they give us the option of having one or two Wide-area modes that are smaller than the current Wide-area (S) mode. This would allow us to more precisely pick our subject upon which it will then do its thing (i.e., search for an eye/head/torso attached to that subject, including outside the Wide-area focus box)...and would be useful when shooting scenes with multiple subjects in them (especially if they are quite close together). While these "very small" Wide-area AF area modes with subject detection on would operate very differently than 3D-tracking (with subject detection on), I think it would be a nice complement to it - especially for the control freaks, like me!

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

20 Feb 2022: The Nikon Z 9 - Tidbits & Trivia #1: Wide-area AF Mode

Today I'm starting an informal series of blog posts that will discuss a potpourri of topics and/or "issues" relating to the Nikon Z 9. Most of what will be covered in this series will also be later found in my final review of the Nikon Z 9, but I will not be publishing that review until late June (at the earliest)...so I thought there would be value in getting these tidbits and trivia (much of which won't be trivial to some users) out earlier. The inspiration and content for this series of blog posts comes partly from my own testing, studying, shooting, poking and prodding the Z 9, and partly from email exchanges I've had with photographers from around the world about the Z 9 (much of which owes its origin to reader-submissions to my ongoing Nikon Z 9 Firmware Update Wishlist).

Today's topic? The Z 9's Wide-area AF area modes. Why? Well...while I am sure there are LOTS of Z 9 owners (or soon-to-be-owners...they hope) who fully understand how the two current Wide-area AF area modes work, based on a whole lot of feedback and questions I have received, there's definitely folks out there who don't full understand these very cool and very useful AF area modes.

So...here's the key things you need to know about the Z 9's AF area modes:

1. At present the Z 9 has TWO Wide-area AF area modes - Wide-area (S) and Wide-area (L). The S version has a focus box that is smaller and square; the L version is larger (around 3x as large as S) and rectangular. Why did I start the first sentence off with "At first..."? Because it has already been suggested by "insiders" (and I'm pretty sure it was first suggested by the helpful guy known as "Nikon Ricci", but don't quote me on that) that it won't be long before we see a firmware update that adds more patterns/shapes of the Wide-area modes...likely along the lines of how the D6 has 17 configurable patterns for its excellent Group Area AF area mode.

2. The focus-priority of both Wide-area AF area modes is dependent on whether or not Subject Detection is ON or OFF! And, by this I mean the actual behaviour of AF changes a LOT if Subject detection is on or off. Kind of like a Henry Jekyll vs. Mr. Hyde thing, except in the case of Wide-area AF mode BOTH characters are good guys (just different).

If subject detection is OFF (or if subject detection is on and there is no detectable subject under the focus box), then the focus priority of the Wide-area AF area modes is the closest object within the focus "box". This means it acts JUST LIKE Group Area AF area mode of the last few generations of mid-to-high end Nikon DSLR's. Yes, the shape of the focus box is different (it's no longer a diamond), but it acts just like Group Area AF. As the legions of lovers of Group Area AF area mode know, this is a highly useful AF area mode, but it doesn't have any form of AF tracking - the subject must be maintained under the focus box to stay in focus. When do you use it? Lots of places, especially in action sequences where you want the leading edge (or bit, or part) of your subject in focus. When can it cause you grief? When there is something within the focus box (like foreground!) between you and your subject.

If subject detection is ON and your subject "type" (think Auto, People, Animal, Vehicle) falls wholly or partly under the Wide-area focus box, then the focus priority becomes your subject (and NOT the closet object). So if a person or an animal is wholly or partially under the Wide-area focus box, it will automatically search for an eye, head, or torso (in that order) and will almost instantly shift focus to the bit it finds (and you'll see only a smaller focus box on the eye, or head, or torso of your subject). Now there ARE some idiosyncrasies about how this works that I will discuss in a moment, but the key thing to keep in your mind is that the Wide-area focus box will constrain where the Z 9 will search for the subject type your camera is set for (Auto, People, Animals, or Vehicles).

Want to test this yourself? Well...you don't need a complex setup to do so...just a scenario like this: Download Simple Focus Priority Test Image (JPEG: 1.5 MB)

3. The subject-detection focus box is NOT constrained by the Wide-area focus box! OK...you have to read that carefully and think about it. When shooting in either Wide-area AF mode with subject detection on the only constraint is that the SUBJECT must be wholly or partially under the Wide-area focus box. But, the focus-detect focus box can jump WAY OUTSIDE the Wide-area AF focus box. Huh? Think of this scenario: You're super close to your subject (be it a model, a bride, Michael Jordan, a bird, an elk) and you're using Wide-area (S) AF area mode and it only covers a small part of the subject. What happens? Well the system is smart enough to know that the chest or neck of the subject (which is all the Wide-area AF (S) box is covering) is your subject and it will look for an eye, head or torso attached to that subject EVEN IF IT IS WAY OUTSIDE THE WIDE-AREA FOCUS BOX!. Still confused? Just check out this image and it should all make sense: Download Sample Image with Subject-detection Focus Box WAY OUTSIDE the Wide-area Focus Box! (JPEG: 1.2 MB)

4. OK...what do you mean by "...If subject detection is ON and your subject "type" falls wholly or partly under the Wide-area focus box"? It means that you DON'T have to get the full Wide-area focus box over your subject to have it recognize it.. Still confused? Just check out this image and again it should all make sense: Download Sample Image with Wide-area Focus Box on Partly Overlapping the Subject (JPEG: 1.2 MB)

5. What happens if you get the Wide-area focus box close to your subject's head - but it's not overlapping the subject...will the subject-detect focus box jump over to the eye? Nope...you're hooped (remember...the idea of Wide-area AF area mode with subject detection on is to constrain where the camera will look for a subject). Don't get it? Just check out this image and again it should click: Download Sample Image with MISSED Wide-area Focus Box (JPEG: 1.1 MB)

So...there you have it. Now you understand enough about the Z 9's Wide-area AF Area mode to successfully use it in the field. And, once you start playing around with this AF area mode you should realize how well it is thought out (and you'll begin to understand ALL the scenarios where this AF Area mode works just great). And...the fact that your Wide-area focus box needs to only partly overlap your subject, combined with the fact that the subject-detection focus box will jump WAY OUTSIDE the Wide-area focus box, means you likely don't have to figure out how to dynamically switch from Wide-area AF area mode (with subject detection on) to 3D-tracking when your subject closes in on you.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#Z9_Tidbits1

21 Jan 2022: A Few Thoughts on the Nikkor Z 400mm f2.8 TC VR S

By now most Nikon-shooting wildlife photographers and sports photographers know that Nikon has just announced their first super-telephoto Z-mount lens - the Nikkor 400mm f2.8 TC VR S. I'll avoid getting into a spec-spew about the lens - those wishing those kind of nuts-and-bolts details can visit any Nikon website or places like dpreview.com. From my perspective as a wildlife shooter who specializes in large carnivores and marine mammals (and not so much in small birds) here are what I perceive to be the most critical headline features of the new Nikkor 400mm f2.8. I have ordered these features from most to least important to me, and only the first 4 features below impacted on my own purchase decision for this lens.

1. The Built-in Teleconverter:

In integrating a 1.4x TC into the lens (along with designing a method of instantly turning it on or off, even when looking through the viewfinder) Nikon has given us pretty much two super-telephotos in one - a 400mm f2.8 and an "almost 600mm" (560mm to be exact) f4. Based only on Nikon's published MTF charts it looks like the lens when shot at 400mm (with the TC NOT engaged) is going to be exceptionally sharp from center to edge (no surprise there). And, when shot at 560mm (with the TC engaged) the lens is still going to offer excellent central sharpness with only a slight fall-off in sharpness on the edges (and has there ever been anyone who cares about extreme edge sharpness when shooting a 500mm or 600mm f4?). Based on my own experience shooting TC's with a Z-mount body - whether F-mount TC's or Z-mount TC's - and based on my own experience with Nikon's "other" lens offering a built-in TC (the 180-400mm f4E), I personally expect that in the field the 560mm f4 "version" of this lens will deliver results in the field in almost all ways comparable to a Nikkor 600mm f4 (less 40mm of focal length of course). In other words, my own expectation is that when carrying this new 400mm lens into the field it really will be equivalent to having two top-notch super-telephotos with you.

2. Compatible with both the 1.4x and 2x Z-teleconverters:

Normally you'd just assume that a prime super-telephoto was compatible with the appropriate Nikon teleconverters. However, there was a very large online American camera retailer that flatly stated that the new 400mm f2.8S was NOT compatible with external teleconverters...and that caused some people some angst. Well...the good news is that the new 400 IS compatible with both the Z-teleconverters. So combined with the Z-teleconverter 2.0x the 400mm f2.8S becomes a 800mm f5.6. Historically (back in the DSLR and F-mount era) serious shooters might have said "so what?" (because they felt that no serious shooting was done with a 2x teleconverter). However, based on i) how well ALL teleconverters work when shot on a Z-body and ii) the great performance the Z-teleconverter 2.0x offers on both the 70-200mm f2.8S and the 100-400mm f4.5-5.6S, I am expecting excellent (and professional quality) results when the 400mm f2.8S is shot with the Z-teleconverter 2.0x. So, in a sense, you could argue that if you go into the field with a 2x TC the 400mm f2.8S functionally acts like THREE super-telephotos - an extraordinary 400mm f2.8, an excellent 560mm f4, and a very good 800mm f5.6. And that is pretty darned cool...

I feel compelled to make a few further teleconverters comments, based largely off what I have learned when I have shot and compared the results of the 180-400mm f4E when using its internal TC vs. external TC's on a Z-body (these comments don't necessarily reflect what you'd find if shot on a Nikon DSLR):

• You'll commonly hear people say online that if a TC is "built-in" Nikon does something special in "optically matching" the TC to the lens. This isn't my experience. I have shot and compared the results of shooting the 180-400mm with its built in TC to shooting it with an external TC (the TC-14EIII). I could find no differences in image quality whatsoever (both were excellent). I expect this to be the case with the new 400mm f2.8S as well...leaving the primary advantages of having the TC built-in being the ease and speed of engaging and dis-engaging it as well as the fact that you never have to take the lens off the body to "insert" the TC (which in dusty or rainy environments can be a really big deal).

• Adding the TC-20EIII (2x) to the 180-400mm f4E (without the internal TC engaged) produces visually identical results to shooting it with TC-14EIII (1.4x) plus the internal 1.4x TC engaged (and don't forget that a 1.4x TC is actually a "square root of 2" TC, meaning that a stack of two 1.4x TC's is equivalent to using a single 2x TC). IF this same result is found with the 400mm f2.8S (and you can bet this will be one of the first things I'll test!), then it means you can go into the field with "just" a 1.4x TC plus the 400mm f2.8S and have your 3-in-1 super-telephoto lens.

3. The Weight Loss!

The new 400mm f2.8S comes in at 2950 gm - the 400mm f2.8E weighed 3800 gm. This 850 gm (1 lb 14 oz) weight loss is really significant...and will definitely be noticeable in the field. So the lens will be easier to transport and carry and, more importantly, easier to hand-hold. Cool.

4. The Synchro VR (when shot on a Z 9):

As a "most of the time hand-holder of all lenses" I'm a huge VR fan, and having up to 5.5 stops of VR is a really big deal to me. With Synchro VR the IBIS of the Z 9 interacts with the VR of the lens to get to that 5.5 stops of total image stabilization. In comparison, the 400mm f2.8E offers about 3.5 to 4 stops of image stabilization. For low light shooters (like me) that extra 1.5 to 2 stops of image stabilization can make or break image quality when you're pushing the limits of slow shutter speeds in low light settings.

5. All the "Other" New Technologies:

The 400mm f2.8S offers a lot of other technological advances, but it's hard to judge their value until the lens in hand. Those include:

New Voice Coil Motor (VCM) AF Motor: This new AF motor system uses magnets to move the lens focus groups. Nikon claims this VCM AF motor delivers "higher initial speed" (presumably the initial acquisition of focus?), higher AF accuracy, and near silent performance. Sounds great to me...and let's hope it performs as advertised. The 400mm f2.8E focused awfully fast, but who's going to complain about an even faster and quieter AF system?

Meso Amorphous Coat - a new lens coating that Nikon claims is even better than their Nano Crystal Coat or even the still-new ARNEO coating to reduce flare under harsh lighting conditions (like strong backlighting or even shooting with the sun in the frame). Again, another impossible-to-judge-until-lens-is-in-hand new feature, but if it delivers as it's supposed to...great!

SR Lens Element: This new-ish lens element isn't unique to the 400mm f2.8E, but the two other lenses that have an SR element (the 120-300mm f2.8E and the 70-200mm f2.8S) deliver amazing optical performance (I own both of them and love them). Of course, it's impossible for me to judge just how much the single SR element contributes to the image quality we see, but according to Nikon this element helps ensure colours in our images are more accurately produced. Ok with me...

New Fn Ring: Besides the Control Ring we're coming to expect on most S-Line Z-mount lenses, the 400mm f2.8S also gives us a separate Fn ring on the barrel of the lens. With this ring you simple twist it to recall a saved focus position. I can easily envision situations is sports photography where this feature could be very useful, but I see it being less useful for most wildlife photography scenarios. So, at least for me, this feature had absolutely no impact in my decision to purchase this lens or not.

So what exactly are my expectations for this new lens? Well...that it will be slightly superior optically to the excellent Nikkor 400mm f2.8E, and I expect that slightly better optical performance to be most noticeable when shot wide open. I also expect that when shot with the built-in TC engaged it will be slightly better optically than the 400mm f2.8E was shot with a TC-14EIII. In this case I mean I expect it to be slightly sharper at 560mm (especially when shot wide open). Note that this is not faint praise...the F-mount 400mm f2.8E performs exceptionally well with the TC-14EIII and is the ONLY lens/TC combination that (historically) I never hesitated to use.

Further I fully expect the 400mm f2.8S to compete very favourably against the 600mm f4E in optical quality (albeit at a focal length 40mm shorter). And...I DO expect it to be a very good 800mm f5.6 when combined with the Z-teleconverter 2.0x (and possibly if shot with the Z-teleconverter 1.4x plus the internal TC engaged).

Is that it? Nope. Between its lighter weight and better VR (when shot on a Z 9) I expect it will be MUCH easier to obtain sharp hand-held shots at very low shutter speeds. As a wildlife shooter who shoots a lot on BC's beautiful but rainy coast - and often from Zodiac inflatable boats - this is HUGE for me.

What about the elephant in the room? Yep, I was expecting this lens to be expensive, but I have to admit that I was almost knocked out of my chair when I saw the lens was going for $18,199 CAD. I recall feeling the exact same way when I first saw the price of the 180-400mm f4E and the 120-300mm f2.8E, two lenses that I ended up purchasing...and I have not regretted those purchases. And the fact that I view the 400mm f2.8S as pretty much getting 3 super-telephotos for the price of one (even a VERY BIG price for one), I can justify (rationalize?) the cost of the 400mm f2.8S.

So...yes I have ordered my own 400mm f2.8S and I will be testing it as soon as I get my hands on it (don't ask me when that will be). Because I know I will asked "How will the 400mm f2.8S fit into your kit?"...my intention is to sell my 180-400mm and keep both my 100-400mm f4.5-5.6S and my 120-300mm f2.8E (which, incidentally, works spectacularly well on a Z 9 when shot with the TC-14EIII). So, depending on the logistics and subject matter, I will be pairing up the 400mm f2.8S with either the 100-400 or the 120-300mm f2.8E when shooting (be that on a photo tour I am leading or during any of my own shooting or expeditions). In most cases you'll probably also see me with a 24-120mm f4S in my kit...giving me great coverage from 24mm to 400mm, and then also at 560mm and 800mm (and all this with just 3 lenses and TC's).

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#anchor_400mm_Thoughts

6 Jan 2022: The Nikkor 24-120mm f4S: Early Impressions and Thoughts

This blog entry focuses on my early impressions and thoughts on the "other" S-Line lens announced and introduced at the same time as the Nikon Z 9 and the Nikkor 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR S - the Nikkor 24-120mm f4S. To a large degree this new wide angle-to-short telephoto zoom was kind of overshadowed by the other new Z gear that was simultaneously announced, but in at least my opinion it's a lens that, in theory, should have a whole lot of appeal. I think you'd have to look long and hard for someone who doesn't think a single lens covering a focal length from 24mm to 120mm wouldn't be highly useful, assuming that its image quality holds up over that entire focal range. But I'm getting ahead of myself...first a little background info is needed.

I. PREAMBLE & BACKGROUND

I have always loved the IDEA of a 24-120mm zoom with a fixed aperture...and I've purchased every iteration of the F-mount 24-120mm Nikon has ever produced, including the "old" variable aperture model (the 24-120mm f3.5-5.6 AF-D). Each time it's been with the hope that I am going to get a lens that is optically strong throughout its entire focal range. And, if I'm being honest, they ALL disappointed me - and they certainly didn't become even semi-permanent residents of my kit. Why? Invariably the central region sharpness was...well...OK (not great), but the edge sharpness at the "longer" end of the focal range was...well...it wasn't (it would be best described as "edge softness", not "edge sharpness"). Yes, over time each successive model DID get better, but even with the latest F-mount version (the AF-S Nikkor 24-120mm f4G ED VR) the edges were quite soft from about 95mm through to 120mm. This statement is based on my own testing and it WAS more noticeable if it was shot on higher resolution bodies (I sold my copy of the "G" version immediately after I tested it on a D800E). But as one who shoots a fair number of landscapes and animalscapes in the 90-120mm range a 24-120mm lens with soft edges from 95mm to 120mm has little appeal.

But, that all being said, when I heard that Nikon was going to do a Z-mount 24-120mm f4 in the S-Line I was quite excited. This was primarily because every S-Line Z-mount lens I own (6 in number before getting the 24-120mm and the 100-400mm) has very sharp edges - and certainly sharper than their F-mount counterparts. So I was at least reasonably confident that Nikon would solve the "primary problem" of the previous 24-120's. And, more importantly that we'd finally have a 24-120mm lens that fully lived up to its theoretical promise of high versatility and usefulness. Of course, as an aging nature photographer, the thought of going out in the field on a hike while carrying only two lenses (the 24-120mm f4S and the 100-400mm f4.5-5.6) and still very competently covering the vast majority of landscape and wildlife opportunities one might encounter is super appealing...

So...in today's entry I'll first cover the "mandatory" (and boring) physical characteristics of the lens and then get into what I have found out about the image quality of the 24-120m f4S. On that note, the very first thing I did with the lens was to test its central region and edge sharpness against a few key lenses at 70mm, 100mm, and 120mm. I've now also shot the lens quite a bit in the 24mm to 70mm range and thus can comment on how it performs in that range. So while these are early impressions, I think I have a pretty good handle on how this lens performs. And please note that I will NOT be producing a detailed stand-alone review of this lens - you'll get this blog entry on it, very likely some future blog entries on it, and definitely image samples (beyond those supplied today) in either my Gallery of Latest Additions or in my Z 9 Collection Gallery.

II. BUILD QUALITY & PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS

Like most of the other S-Line Z-mount lenses the 24-120mm f4S is manufactured in Thailand. All rings (zoom, focus, control) rotate very smoothly and the single toggle switch (Auto vs. Manual focus) clicks positively into its two positions. I can't imagine anyone being unhappy with its finish and the overall quality of construction. But then again, there seems to be a lot of things that people say online these days that I can't imagine them saying! ;-)

• Size & Weight: While not a "miniature" lens, the 24-120mm comes in on the "small and light" side of the spectrum. At 630 gm (Nikon's specs and confirmed on my scale) it's 80 gm (almost 3 oz) lighter than the F-mount version. Width of the lens is identical to the F-mount version (both are 84mm) and the Z-mount version is about 15mm longer than the F-mount version.

• Controls: The controls on the lens are what we're coming to expect on an S-Line Z-mount zoom - a zoom ring, both a focus ring and a customizable control ring, a customizable L-Fn button, and a single toggle switch (letting you choose autofocus or manual focus). About the only thing missing compared to some of the other S-Line zooms is the EL (Electroluminescent) lens information panel.

• Lens "Extension": Extension when zooming is about what you'd expect - going from 24mm to 120mm (in a quarter turn or slightly less of the zoom ring) extends the lens about as much as the 100-400mm f4s does in going from 100-400mm. Unlike the 100-400mm you can feel a slight shift in balance when you zoom the lens from 24mm to 120mm, but it's certainly not an issue with any significance in the field.

• Filter Thread: For most lenses this tends to be a "it is what it is" thing, but I have to admit I really like the filter thread size of the 24-120mm: It's 77mm filter size is the exact same as both the 70-200mm f2.8S and the 100-400mm f4.5-5.6mm VR S. So if you're carrying any two (or all three) of these lenses at once the same circular polarizer (or variable ND, or whatever) will fit all of them without step-down rings. Little thing, but a nice thing (especially when hiking with your gear).

• Some "Unseen" Physical Characteristics: A few things that you don't know about how the lens operates until you actually get it in your hands (or read about it). Such as...

Fully weather sealed! This is again one of those things that you don't see, but can be critical for some users. Like me. While I never advocate that ANY camera and lens should be left unprotected in the rain (or wet snow), sometimes it happens. It's nice to know that when this happens you're likely to be fine with the 24-120mm. This is also nice if you're shooting in a dusty environment.

Multi-focus system: Like with many of the other top-end S-Line lenses the 24-120mm uses TWO stepping motors in sync, meaning no single element has to be moved as much to go from closest focus to distant focus. Nikon claims (and I have no reason to dispute the claim) that this leads to increased edge-to-edge sharpness (which I'll discuss below).

Closer close-focus: At 120mm the lens focuses down to 34 cm (1.15'), which is 12 cm (over 4") closer than the F-mount version. Nice if you like to shoot "macro-style" with the lens.

Okey dokey...let's get into the more interesting things!

III. OPTICAL QUALITY

I've completed both some systematic tests on the 24-120mm f4S (vs. other S-Line lenses) as well as spending time shooting the 24-120mm on a production Z 9 in a field setting...

1. Systematic Tests

As mentioned above, the first thing I wanted to assess on the 24-120mm f4S was edge-sharpness in the upper end of its focal length range. As with all my lens testing, I systematically test lenses with as many variables controlled as possible (with the lens on a tripod, using a cable release, VR off, full electronic shutter, etc.), but I do so in a field setting and not in a lab. I care about how field-based images look, not targets shot in my basement. While I normally test lenses at various distances-to-subject, in this case I tested only with distant subjects, thus mimicking the performance one would get when landscape shooting. Like with all my previous lens tests, I was primarily interested in how the 24-120mm stacked up against other lenses that overlap it in focal length and aperture. Here's a little more info on my testing protocol:

Test Distance: The distant scene I used contained a treeline running edge-to-edge at a distance of approximately 1.6 km from the camera. The treelike runs parallel to the camera's image sensor and facilitates edge-to-edge (or even corner sharpness depending on where you place the treeline in the frame). The background extended to about 30 km. Focal point was on the treeliine.

Focal Lengths Tested: 70mm, 100mm, 120mm.

Test Lenses: Here are the lenses against which I compared the Nikkor 24-120mm f4S:

@ 70mm: The Nikkor 24-70mm f4S and the 70-200mm f2.8S
@ 100mm: The Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8S
@ 120mm: The Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8S

Apertures Tested: From wide open to f11 in 1/3 stop increments for each lens.

Test Camera: Nikon Z 9 (production model)

Image Assessment: Image assessment was done on the lossless compressed raw files as viewed in Capture One Pro 22. Images were assessed in the central region and both edges at 100% magnification on an Eizo CG297X (109 ppi).

Results: Here's the essential result followed by a little more detail:

The ESSENTIAL Result Unlike ALL the F-mount versions of the 24-120mm, the 24-120mm f4S pairs exceptional central region sharpness with very sharp edges (at all focal lengths and almost all apertures).

Additional Details: Nikon Z 9 (production model)

@ 70mm: Central region sharpness of the 24-120mm f4S, 24-70mm f4S, and the 70-200mm f2.8S were absolutely indistinguishable at all apertures. Edge sharpness was highest on the 24-120mm f4S with the 24-70mm f4S producing only very slightly less sharp edges. The excellent 70-200mm f2.8S's edges were actually the least sharp (but still awfully sharp) of the 3 lenses.

@ 100mm: Central region sharpness of the 24-120mm f4S and the 70-200mm f2.8S were indistinguishable at all apertures. The edges of the 70-200mm f2.8S were very slightly sharper than those of the 24-120mm from f4 through to f7.1, and at smaller apertures the edge sharpness of the two lenses were indistinguishable.

@ 120mm: Central region sharpness of the 24-120mm f4S and the 70-200mm f2.8S were indistinguishable at all apertures. At all apertures the edges of the 70-200mm f2.8S were very slightly sharper than those of the 24-120mm. However, the difference was only noticeable with extreme pixel-peeping and even very mild sharpening during post-processing would easily negate the differences.

2. Results from "Just Shooting"

I've now captured a little over 2,000 images in the field with the Nikkor 24-120mm f4S (all shot with a production Z 9). While admittedly anecdotal, two consistent characteristics really stick out for me. The first is the far superior overall sharpness (in both the central region and the edges) compared to all other versions of the 24-120mm Nikon has offered previously. This is one very sharp lens! The second is its excellent contrast in virtually all lighting situations, including back-lit scenes.

For additional information on other aspects of the optical performance of the 24-120mm see the comments associated with the sample images below.

IV. AUTOFOCUS PERFORMANCE

Given the greater depth of field and other optical differences between a zoom like the 24-120mm compared to super-telephoto lenses it's hard to really assess autofocus performance of a lens like the 24-120mm f4S. What I can say is that the focus feels extremely "snappy" at all focal lengths and in the hundreds and hundreds of action shots I've captured with it (using mostly my own or borrowed dogs) the in-focus hit rate (when shot with a Z 9) is exceptionally high. I can't imagine anyone (who actually uses the lens and/or is a photographer!) finding fault with the AF performance of the Nikkor 24-120mm f4S.

V. SAMPLE IMAGES

Here's 6 sample images captured with the 24-120mm f4S at a variety of focal lengths. Keep in mind these aren't "gallery images" but rather testing images where I was looking to assess a particular characteristic of the lens while snowshoeing around our cabin in southeastern BC. All are hand-held shots captured with a production Nikon Z 9. All were captured as lossless compressed raw files and processed (and converted to JPEG) using Capture One Pro 22. All are reduced down to 4800 pixels on the long axis and should be easily large enough to assess the point I'm showing. The landscape shots are uncropped and the dog shots are either full frame or next to it. Critical shooting data is included on the shots themselves. These samples will be more useful if you read the comments associated with each.

1. @ 27mm: Looking to the North. This one gives a good idea of the overall sharpness in both the central region and edges at the "short end" of the focal range. The snowy ridge in the central part of the image (which is actually a glacial feature known as an esker) is covered in elk tracks that are highly visible (and detailed) at 100% magnification. Note that this image was shot at -25C and there IS some ice fog in the air that softens the image slightly at or near the distant horizon. Download 4800 pixel image (JPEG: 10 MB).

2. @ 35mm: Rockies to the East. I captured this "typical" winter scene (for my neck of the woods) with edge-to-edge foreground trees primarily to "get a handle" on edge-to-edge sharpness of the lens at both closer distances AND shorter focal lengths. Another cold weather shot (captured at around -25C) but because of the angle of sunlight hitting the distant mountains ice fog isn't softening the mountains too much. Download 4800 pixel image (JPEG: 10.1 MB).

3. @ 39mm: What Are You Doing Down There? This back- and side-lit shot (of Poncho licking his nose while trotting at me!) shows a few things. First is the nice contrast the lens exhibits even under suboptimal lighting conditions. Second is AF speed - this is one in a sequence of a little over 100 shots that began with Poncho VERY SMALL in the frame and continued until he was licking me...but the point is ALL were tack sharp. Obviously AF performance is related to BOTH the camera in use and the lens in use, and this was shot with a Nikon Z 9...but if either lens or camera offers sub-standard AF performance you don't get ALL sharp shots of a running or trotting dog! For those that may be interested, this was shot using 3D-tracking with subject recognition on and I was holding the camera on the ground and using the vertically-tilted LCD to frame the shot. Download 4800 pixel image (JPEG: 4 MB).

4. @ 120mm: Mount DeSmedt @ Sunrise. Before anyone sends me an email saying the distant background is out of focus...I know...and it's a DoF issue, not a focus or lens sharpness issue! ;-) I captured this very frosty shot (captured at -30C) to examine (and show) the edge sharpness on foreground objects when the 24-120mm is shot at 120mm. In this case I was stopped down to f8 and likely could not have stopped down enough to get both the foreground tree line and the distant mountain in focus (without shooting a focus stack). Download 4800 pixel image (JPEG: 6.4 MB).

5. @ 120mm: Coming in Low. In this one Poncho is decidedly not pleased to be doing multiple runs at -25C (but he sure liked the treats he got on each run). Like with the previous shot of Poncho above this is a side-backlit shot and nicely shows the contrast of the lens under less-than-ideal lighting. But more importantly, this f4 shot shows the bokeh you CAN get if you position your subject and background appropriately with the 24-120mm f4S. Of course, if you were shooting a 70-200mm f2.8S here (or a 120-300mm f2.8E) at the same 120mm focal length but at f2.8 you could produce even more pleasing bokeh, but that's one of the limitations that you have to live with when shooting an f4 lens. My BEST lens for maximizing bokeh on a 120mm shot like this? Definitely my Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E...but that one costs over 8 times as much and the shot wouldn't look 8 times better! Download 4800 pixel image (JPEG: 3.5 MB).

6. @ 120mm: Poncho Caught Mid-lick. This one speaks to AF again...this is part of a 50 frame sequence of Poncho coming at me pretty darned fast and EVERY FRAME in the sequence was tack sharp. Neither lens nor the camera's AF system let me down at all. Note that the background trees are MUCH closer to the subject and thus even at f4 they couldn't be softened as much as one would probably prefer. Hey...it's a small and light f4 lens! ;-) Download 4800 pixel image (JPEG: 4.0 MB).

VI. FINAL DISCUSSION

If I'm being honest I have to say that I am just thrilled that we finally have a 24-120mm Nikkor lens that lives up to the theoretical promise of a 24-120mm! Obviously the focal range of the lens makes it extremely versatile and with appeal to a lot of very different types of photographers (and in time I think that will translate into Nikon selling a LOT of copies of this lens). But in a way this lens is even better than I what I hoped it would be - I always think of a versatile zoom as, you know, "...a jack of all trades, but master of none." But the 24-120mm f4S gives away almost nothing to the best of the S-Line lenses that it overlaps with in focal length and aperture, including the excellent shorter focal length S-Line prime lenses. Yes, of course, if I am pixel-peeping I will see some very small differences in image quality if I compare the 24-120mm @ 50mm to the incredible 50mm f1.2S at, say, f5. And, of course, if you shoot the 50mm f1.2S at f1.2 you get bokeh that the 24-120mm just can't match. But for the overlapping focal lengths and apertures the difference in image quality is just so, so small. Once the limitations inherent in ANY F4 lenses are accepted I would be surprised if any photographer, regardless of how picky they are, wouldn't be just tickled pink with this lens.

If I narrow down the discussion to nature and wildlife photographers another HUGE positive about the 24-120mm f4S is how well it can complement other key lenses in their kit. The most obvious example for those who have transitioned to the Z system would be the new 100-400mm f4.5-5.6S - in carrying JUST the 24-120mm and the 100-400mm in the field a tremendous range of photographic scenarios (covering landscapes, animalscapes, and even tighter work with wildlife) can be more than competently handled. While right now the 100-400mm is still a rare lens (so not too many can take advantage of this lens "complementarity" quite yet) in a year or less it WILL be a common lens and lots of Nikon-shooting nature photographers will be able to take advantage of this "dynamic duo" (yeah, I know, kind of corny...but true). For those using a hybrid mirrorless-DSLR system the 24-120mm will complement many lenses in their kit, be that a 70-200mm f2.8 (or f4), the old 80-400mm workhorse, or...you get the picture.

Because there are so many different types of photographers out there (each with differing standards and needs) and I am only ONE shooter with my own quirks and idiosyncrasies, I always hesitate to recommend ANY lens to ANYONE. Instead, I'm simply going to say I am thrilled to have this lens in my own kit and wouldn't mind one bit if I didn't see it in any of my competitors kits! If you want to interpret this as me giving this lens "my highest recommendation" go right ahead.

Finally, while I don't have a slew of gallery-quality images shot with the 24-120mm to show you yet, I will be posting shots taken with this lens in both my Gallery of Latest Additions and my Z 9 Collection Gallery in the coming weeks and months. So keep an eye on those galleries if you want to see more images shot with the 24-120mm.

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#anchor_24-120mm_EarlyImpressions

2 Jan 2022: The Nikon Z 9: Some Observations on Its Cold Weather Performance

One of the "specs" of the Z 9 that those who don't live or visit cold climates may have missed is that Nikon officially lists the Z 9's operating environment to be from -10℃ to 40℃ (that's +14℉ to 104℉ for the 4% of the world still holding onto that scale!). Those photographers who experience "real" winters will know that -10℃ isn't very cold, and IF the Z 9 stopped operating at -11℃ it would be very limiting. Of course, most of us know that Nikon tends to publish VERY conservative ratings on things like battery life (i.e., shots per charge) and temperature operating range...and they very likely assumed that the Z 9 would work just fine at temperatures FAR below -10℃. Nonetheless, I have to admit that "not so cold" published temperature operating range left ME feeling a little cold...

So...you can imagine how thrilled I was when a Christmas-to-New Years cold snap was forecasted for my region. And...best of all...the forecast came true...the warmest temperature we saw from Dec 25 to Jan 1 was -18℃, and for much of the time it was much colder than that (down to -30℃). And, I was able to get out shooting the Z 9 a LOT during the cold snap, including several multiple hour sessions at -25℃. During one of these -25℃ sessions my Z 9 was exposed to the elements (sitting on a tripod) for 4 hours, with the camera left powered on the entire time (note that I primarily use "Viewfinder Priority", so I'm not saying the LCD was on for the entire 4 hours). On another occasion I was positioned with my eye to the viewfinder and breathing on the camera long enough (in -22℃) that when I next checked the back of the camera it was fully covered in frost and ice (I should have snapped a shot of it with my iPhone, but I can never remember how the complex camera on that thing works ;-)

Anyway...I can now confidently report that my Z 9 never faltered once during its cold weather use and that Nikon's stated temperature operating environment IS very conservative. I was left feeling that I would falter (owing to cold weather) before the Z 9 would.

How did the EN-EL18D battery hold up? I did no systematic testing of this, but I can offer up this anecdote: At the beginning of the 4 hour shooting session at -25℃ the battery's charge was at 87%. At the end of the 4 hours (and about 500 shots later) the battery showed a 71% charge. The Z 9 was on the entire time (with the EVF set to "Viewfinder Priority" and the Standby timer set to "Limitless"...both of which are my go-to default settings).

Bottom lines: I think very few users will have a problem with the cold weather performance of the Nikon Z 9. And...I would be very surprised if someone else goes out and tries to replicate my results! ;-) Hey...I'm a Canadian who LIKES cold weather (but even my curiosity about this issue is satisfied enough that I won't be doing any more cold weather testing of the Z 9).

Cheers...

Brad

Feedback to: feedback@naturalart.ca

Link directly to this blog post: http://www.naturalart.ca/voice/blog.html#anchor_Z9_ColdWeather



Blog Archive - not so fresh but still very readable and relevant...

2022 - It's ALL here!
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