Hands on with the AF-S NIKKOR 800mm f/5.6E FL ED VR This is not a subtle lens. It tips …



Hands on with the AF-S NIKKOR 800mm f/5.6E FL ED VR

This is not a subtle lens. It tips the scales at nearly 4.6 biceps-building kilos, comes in its own suitcase and requires a heavy duty tripod. But for those who need every millimetre of telephoto reach they can get, the AF-S Nikkor 800mm f/5.6E FL ED VRø­s imposing bulk just goes with the territory.

The unit I had the opportunity to see was only in Australia briefly. Indeed, when I picked it up from Nikon Australiaø­s Rhodes offices on a Friday morning, the representatives underlined the importance of getting it back to them first thing Monday for its flight back to Japan.

As someone who’s been shooting surfing for more than 40 years, I had hoped that there might be some swell around during my brief hands on. Alas, it was pretty unspectacular that particular weekend, so while I took a few pictures of people on little waves, I also tried my hand at photographing bird life (a photographic speciality dominated by exotic long lenses such as this one).


Little Pied Cormorant, Narrabeen lake
Using a Nikon D7000 delivered an effective focal length of 1200mm.
Nikon D7000 and AF-S Nikkor 800mm f/5.6, 1/800s, ISO 400

Whilst my sturdy old Manfrotto 144 tripod is a professional model, it would have been much better to have had something like a Miller fluid head with a nice long handle mounted on a cine tripod.

Truth be told, many users of the 800mm will be matching it to the likes of Nikon’s flagship D4. I was reluctant to ask for a D4 loaner, but since I did want to try it with an FX body (in addition to my own DX format D7000), Nikon Australia kindly provided a D600.

After picking up the lens and the D600, I drove straight to the nearest beach to see if I could find any surf shooting opportunities before the swell died away completely. There were a few people in the water at Sydney’s south Narrabeen beach, so I muscled the 800mm to one of my favourite angles and set up.

The 800mm comes with its own 1.25x TC-800 teleconverter (which transforms it into a 1000mm f/7.1). Nikon says the TC-800 is tuned to the lens and wonø­t in fact work with their other telephotos (which was why I couldn’t fit it to my 300mm f/4). I decided to shoot without out it as I was relatively close to the action.

Although I’ve read that the Nikon F4 (at least) needs to be running the latest firmware to obtain optimal autofocus response from this lens, I did not encounter any significant problem shooting surfing with the D600. I put the lens in VR mode and shot one stop back from wide-open at an ISO of 500 in aperture priority.

Depth of field is always a challenge with long lenses, and this is as long a lens as I’ve ever used, so it felt like a real leap of faith to be shooting so wide with subjects that were filling the frame (i.e. were comparatively close). There was a fair amount of backlight too when I was shooting the surfing, so I was impressed at the sharpness and contrast when I later brought the images up on screen. I don’t know if it’s the Nano coating, the big deep lens hood or just the superb glass, but the test lens was, subjectively, as contrasty and sharp as any telephoto I’ve used. Bokeh, as you can see from some of the illustrations, was also quite beautiful. This is an exceptional lens.

Fair enough too, because the 800mm’s likely to set you back at least 18 grand. You’re going to need to be a reasonably successful professional or an exceptionally keen and well-heeled enthusiast.

Switching to my D7000 for a flower shot bumped the telephoto reach up to the 35mm equivalent of 1200mm. Again I didn’t notice any particular AF issues, but that extremely shallow depth of field meant that the in-focus zone was only a matter of millimetres deep.

As the surfing photo options died away with the fading swell, I decided to have a go at some bird photography.

Shooting handheld is out of the question with the big 800mm. This isn’t the tool for spontaneous work. Even with the extra three stops promised by the VR, I don’t think there’d be too many photographers who could hold this in a shooting position for even a minute.

Not having a big tripod with a fancy gimbal mount at my disposal, I found trying to catch birds on the wing was essentially impossible. Between the tiny field of view and the madly hunting autofocus, I couldn’t get a thing. But then again, this isn’t something I do all the time and a more experienced shooter would doubtless have obtained better results.

On the two occasions when I did manage to capture bird pictures, one was of an egret plodding hesitantly about in Dee Why lagoon and the other happened when I was able to get close to a group of cormorants roosting in a tree on Narrabeen lake. In each case, the animals were either moving very slowly or sitting still – and thus not taxing the limited flexibility of my tripod set up.

If I owned this lens, Iø­d spend some serious time tuning it to my preferred camera body and tripod. Like all objects, tripods have a resonant frequency, so the more massive they are, the less likely they are to create image degrading vibrations.

The AF-S NIKKOR 800mm f/5.6E FL ED VR is by any measure a superb optical instrument. And though it is of necessity massive, the build quality is such that you know it will stand up to decades of use.


The AF-S Nikkor 800mm f/5.6E FL ED VR and Nikon D600 perched on the Manfrotto.


Nikon D600 and AF-S Nikkor 800mm f/6.3, 1/3200s, ISO 500


Nikon D600 and AF-S Nikkor 800mm f/6.3, 1/1000s, ISO 500


Beach flower
The subject was approximately four metres from the camera and the lens was barely stopped down, so the depth of field was only millimetres deep.
Nikon D600 and AF-S Nikkor 800mm f/6.3, 1/1000s, ISO 500


Pixel peeping
Detail of Little Pied Cormorant at 100%, note the creamy bokeh.


Little Egret, Dee Why lagoon
Switching the D600 into DX mode effectively increased the focal length from 800mm to 1200mm. In camera image size was therefore decreased from from 6080 x 4028 pixels to 3968 x 2636 pixels.
Nikon D600 and AF-S Nikkor 800mm f/6.3, 1/3200s, ISO 500