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Backlit White-tailed eagle. Nikon D4s, 600mm FL. 1/2000sec, f/5.0, ISO 640

A few weeks ago I received the new Nikon 600mm FL lens, delivered by Kjetil at Stjørdal Foto. Having used both the previous version of the Nikon 600mm as well as the new Canon lightweight tele lenses, I was excited to get out in the field to test the performance of the new Nikon lens.

I will not go into technical details about the new lens in this review, for those of you interested in such details, more information can be found here: http://imaging.nikon.com/lineup/lens/singlefocal/Telephoto/af-s_600mmf_4e_fl_ed_vr/.
I decided to take the new lens out in the field for a real world test under conditions I know very well. Together with a couple of other people I run a company called Smøla Naturopplevelser, guiding nature photographers on the island of Smøla, mid-Norway. We specialize in eagle photography, both from boat and from high-end photo hides. The island actually holds the densest White-tailed eagle population in the world, making it the ideal place for eagle photography. This field test was done during a one-week period in August, all images where shot using a D4S and all images were shot hand held from a boat. This choice was made because I have shot a huge amount of images of eagles and other birds under these conditions, using most telephoto lenses from both Canon and Nikon, and thus know very well how a lens should perform under such conditions.

Weight and built

As soon as I picked up the lens the difference compared to the previous Nikon 600mm was obvious; the weight of the lens has been significantly reduced, actually it is a 25% reduction compared to the old 600mm. To me this is very important as I do most of my photography hand held. Also, the lens feels very robust, as one of course should expect from a lens with this price tag… The reduced weight together with the new design of the tripod mount gives a more balanced handling of the lens.

Gull attack, Nikon D4s, 600mm FL. 1/2000sec, f/4.0, ISO 800

Auto focus performance

Although not done with scientific approach, I clearly felt when mounted on the D4S that the d9 setting with the centre AF-point selected was most accurate and gave the highest proportion of images in focus when shooting birds in flight. AF-speed were very fast as expected, in particular under good light conditions. However, also under very poor light conditions I found the AF to be better than the previous version of the lens. I was able to hand hold the lens in a boat at shutter speeds down to less than 1/100 of a second and still get sharp images.

Full moon and Cormorants, Nikon D4s, 600mm FL. 1/80sec, f/4.0, ISO3200
Moonshine Cormorant, Nikon D4s, 600mm FL. 1/100sec, f/4.0, ISO 4000
Frontlit White-tailed eagle, Nikon D4s, 600mm FL. 1/3200sec, f/5,6, ISO 800

VR

The VR system is now controlled with a switch instead of a ring, making it feel more robust compared to the previous version. I was able to get a higher proportion of sharp images hand-held in low-light situations than with other 500mm/600mm lenses I have used. Nikon has also expanded the VR-settings to include a “sport mode” especially made for panning. I have still not done a lot of panning (do to some broken ribs and pain when hand holding a 600mm lens for prolonged periods…), but so far the results seems very promising, the proportion of sharp images when panning birds in flight is higher compared to all other 500mm/600mm lenses I have used.

Herring Gull, Nikon D4s, 600mm FL. 1/50sec, f/4.0, ISO 800

Shooting backlit

To me the biggest advantage of this lens compared to all other comparable lenses I have used is when shooting backlit. The new 600mm FL lens has a lens hood design compared to the previous version; Nikon has switched from a two-part hood to a single hood that gives better shade when shooting backlit. Also, the new 600mm has significantly less flare compared to the old version. With the new 600mm lens, I am able to keep the AF locked to birds flying through high-contrast backlit areas like with no other tele lens I have used. This is an improvement over the previous version Nikon 600mm, and notably better compared to the new series of tele lenses from Canon.

Into the sun, Nikon D4s, 600mm FL, 1/8000sec, f/4.0, ISO 800
White-tailed Eagle with fish, Nikon D4s, 600mm FL. 1/2500sec, f/4.5, ISO 1600
Backlit adult White-tailed Eagle, Nikon D4s, 600mm FL. 1/1600sec, f/5.0, ISO 800

Conclusion / final notes

I find the new Nikon 600mm f/4 FL VR lens to be the best ever long tele photo lens I have used. In particular the backlit-shooting capabilities is fantastic. The weight reduction and the improved AF and VR systems makes it possible and comfortable to hand hold the lens for prolonged periods. To my mind this is THE best lens I have ever used for bird photography. If you would like to photograph eagles and other birds from boat or from high-end professional photo hides contact Smøla Naturopplevelser for the ultimate eagle experience.

Disclaimer: I did pay for the lens myself and I am NOT connected to Nikon or any other camera gear producers in any way.