Review Nikon AF-S 600 mm f/4E FL ED VR @ FX
Medium-big, big, bigger, biggest: Nikon has recently brought four super-telephotos for professionals to market: a 400 mm f/2.8E, a 500 mm f/4E , the 600 mm f/4E that we are discussing now and a (rare) 800 mm f/5.6E. Each and every one big, heavy lenses, where no concessions are made on quality. They’re therefore all expensive lenses, that will not be purchased very often by amateurs. The Nikon AF-S 600 mm f/4E FL ED VR is available for € 12,999. What could be more fun that heading out with a monster like this? Except in focal length, it does not differ much from the 500 mm (which we reviewed previously). It has a longer focal length, the same brightness, but is also bigger, heavier and even more expensive. Is it worth the difference in price?
Nikon AF-S 600 mm f/4E FL ED VR: Optical heavyweight
First of all, the field of view. How much more telephoto do you get when you go on a full-frame camera from 500 mm to 600 mm or even 800 mm focal length? We calculated it in field of view (longest) side at a distance of 50 meters:
Going from 500 to 600 mm at a distance of 50 meters thus gains you 60 cm field of view. That costs you an extra € 2000. If you choose the 800 mm, then you’ve spent 7000 euros for that 75 cm field of view! For many photographers, the 500 mm f/4E—as needed supplemented with a teleconverter—will be the most attractive choice as far as the price-to-quality ratio is concerned. It would not surprise me if the 800 mm is not often sold. Although, to our surprise, there are Dutch webshops that can deliver all three out of inventory. So... apparently that aren’t that exclusive.
The 600 mm lens looks different from the 500 mm: the front lens is larger, and the front extends conically, like a kind of midwinter horn. The number of lens elements and groups is identical; it is simply the same design as the 500 mm, except that the diameter of the lens elements is greater. The dimensions are 432x166 mm (for the 500 mm, that is 387x140), and it weighs 3810 grams (3090 g). Filters fit in the back, in a removable filter holder. A polarized filter that you can turn with a gear while it is in the lens fits in there as well. Because you often have trouble with haze when using extreme telephoto lenses, a polarized filter like that is often a solution for landscape and wildlife photography.
Screwed onto the lens (with real Philips-head screws!), there are two sturdy strap eyes. It’s smart to carry a camera on which such a heavy lens is mounted by the lens and not by the body. Professional camera bodies are strong, but, if possible, it’s better not to hang 4 kg on them. Of course there is a sturdy tripod collar and a connection for a cable lock. Not always unnecessary. A professional photographer told me the horror story about having a D4-plus 600 mm stolen in a stadium, a set worth a good 20,000 euros. Of course there is also a large carbon lens hood in the standard package; you can store it backwards on the lens. Over that fits a padded nylon cover that protects the front of the lens and that you quickly and easily put on and take off. This extreme telephoto lens, just like the 400 mm f/4E and the 500mm f/4E, is delivered in a sturdy matching case.
The controls of the 600 mm are identical to those of the 500 mm; you can interchange the manuals. There are five switches on the lens. Next to the usual buttons –for this price class—you will also find two remarkable features (sound off and AF memory). First of all, there is of course the AF/MF switch. Next to the MF mode, there are two AF modes, with one of which you have to turn the focus ring further before anything happens. This prevents turning “by accident.” You can always “turn through automatic” with the focus ring. With the focus limit switch, you can limit the focus range to 8 meters and beyond. This prevents the much-feared wandering when focusing. With the AF function button, you can lock in the AF, or switch to a preset distance (memory). With another button, you can turn the beep that is emitted during focusing on or off, so that they birds are not chased off when the camera beeps to indicate that it is focused. You can see the set distance on a window. The aperture can only be set via the camera body; there is no separate aperture ring. That naturally also has to do with the electromagnetic aperture motor. Everything happens “by wire.” The shortest setting distance is 4.4 meters.
Vibration reduction is no idle luxury with a lens of this size. Without that, sharp shots by hand would hardly be possible. Nikon claims an improvement of 4 stops. We did not check that measurement. The VR switch has an “off” setting, a “normal” setting and a “sport” setting. The sport mode is for subjects with a lot of moving action, where you also move the camera, and it is especially intended for continuous shooting. Because you use a short shutter time for sport shots, the image stabilization when taking an action shot can lead to a less-sharp picture. The image stabilization in the Sport mode therefore only works for taking the picture, so that you get both a quiet viewfinder image and the sharpest possible shot. The VR works in both normal and sport mode when tracking the subject (“panning”) as well: it then only corrects perpendicular to the direction of the panning. The “off” mode is recommended for working from a tripod.
Auto focus is lightning fast and spot on. The repeatability of the AF is less than 5% (measured with Imatest), which is very good given the focal depth of this telephoto lens.
Sport and nature
This lens has two target audiences, Sport and Nature photographers. For nature and bird photography, haziness and atmospheric vibrations quickly play a part. Heading out early works best. For bird photography, you can never have too much telephoto, since the subject is often only a decimeter in size! For large mammals (safari!), a 600 mm is often too long. For a lot of sport photography, a long telephoto is indispensable. But too much is sometimes a pain. For football, for example, you want both the player and the ball in one frame. That often works better with a bit larger field of view and cropping afterwards. For tennis and indoor sports, you’re better off with a 200 mm than a 600. But if you want to capture the concentration of Daphne Schippers at the start of her Olympic race, then you never have enough telephoto. In addition, with many sports, you cannot get that close to the athletes, or that is simply too dangerous (auto sports!). Professional photographers often use a 1.4 or 2.0 extender on their 500 or 600 mm. Then the auto focus only works if you start with a bright lens, and this top model meets that condition. Do not automatically choose the shortest shutter time for sports photography! A limited amount of motion blur amplifies the suggestion of speed, and you can also stop down a bit more. The extra focal depth that you get is often needed!
|The field of view of the moon (and the sun, which is the same size) is about half a degree. The field of view (longest side) of the 600mm on full-frame is three and a half degrees. For a frame-filling photo of the moon, you need more than a 600 mm. Crop, or use an extender. Tip: do not use a long shutter time, since the moon moves!
Actually, this lens has no competitors. The heavy telephoto models from that other big Japanese manufacturer of SLRs do not fit on a Nikon camera, but we still want to test those in time. Sigma has a fixed-focal length 500 mm for a good deal less money, but that is an older lens design, and it probably doesn’t match the optical quality of this Nikon. There are various zoom lenses with 500 mm as the maximum range, at a fraction of what this 600 mm costs. Those are not as bright, are rather disappointing in terms of image quality in the corners, and they cannot really stand up to the rough daily practice of the professional photographer. The only serious competitor is the Nikon 500 mm f/4E; for the price difference, you can buy a good full-frame body as well!
It is a legitimate question: if you are prepared and able to put down more than 10,000 euros for a lens, wouldn’t you rather have a 600 mm than a 500 for 2000 euros extra? If you are a bird or nature photographer, the answer is probably yes. For sports photography, we don’t know yet: in that branch of photography, the enormous size of this 600 mm can be a handicap.
Distortion, vignetting, flare and chromatic aberration
Lens flaws like vignetting, distortion, flare and chromatic aberration are only measurable in the laboratory with some effort. There is vignetting of half a stop at full aperture, and half of one percent of pincushion-shaped distortion. Lateral chromatic aberration (0.3 pixels in unedited RAW files) is kept limited. So... exceptionally good.
The maximum sharpness of the Nikon 400 mm f/2.8, 500 mm f4 and 600mm f/4 differ little from each other. All three are the absolute top lenses with fantastic resolution that many lenses with a much shorter focal length cannot even dream about. Above is the data for the 600 mm. In all cases, the center sharpness in the measurements is higher than that in the corners, but it is not a difference that you see in practice shots. Sharpening has made the resolution of the in-camera JPEGs even better in comparison with the unsharpened RAW files. With careful sharpening of the RAW files, even better scores are possible.
Conclusion Nikon AF-S 600 mm f/4E FL ED VR review with D810
Use the Lens Comparison or look in our overview of reviewed lenses in order to compare this lens with other lenses.