Monthly Archives: October 2014

Nikon 800mm f/5.6E FL ED VR for Shooting Hummingbirds

Ruby Throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris)

Nikon D4 and Nikon 800mm f/5.6E FL ED VR @ 1000mm

1/1600s – f/7.1 – ISO 6400

 I apologize for my absence as of late, however I have been working on a number of very large long term projects that I hope will pay off for me and my website in the future. That being said, I have still been shooting (in fact more then I was previously was it seems) and I have a number of exciting reviews coming. I’ll briefly outline some of them at the moment, they include the Lytro Illum and Sony RX1r two new pieces of equipment I have, as well a number of other topics including using the Nikon D800e with tilt-shift lenses, a review of the Arca-Swiss RM3Di, and a review of my experiences as a Nikon shooter, shooting Canon 1Dx’s at the 2014 US Open Tennis championships and sort of in tandem with this a review of Photo Mechanic 5 a very powerful ingestion tool I was introduced to to sort through the 1000′s of pictures I took.

But lets face it, that was all very self aggrandizing and presumptuous as to the number of dedicated followers I have as compares to visitors who found me through google. Your here because well Nikon 800mm enough said right? I don’t own this lens, I rented it because I thought it would be fun to try out for my now annual summer hummingbird shoot at my house in Connecticut. I rented this through Lensrentals.com, I only mention this because they are where I chose to go for all of my online rental needs, I haven’t tried anyone else, but Lensrentals and their support has always been perfect, and to be clear they are not paying me to say that, but they totally should ;). Moving on, this article is going to be pretty short, because its about something pretty specific, this isn’t an overarching review of this lens, but rather a review of my experiences using it for a very specific task, shooting hummingbirds.

Both Canon and Nikon’s (though notably Nikon’s) 800mm lenses are very good, and they better be for their five digit prices. From a little bit of other playing around I did with this lens it offers superior sharpness and exhibits no aberrations to speak of. Unfortunately I shot these images with my Nikon D4, when my D4s arrived about a week later, I can only imagine with its improved AF this lens could have been an even more powerful image making tool in this situation. The Nikon 800mm comes with a very special 1.25x Teleconverter. This is no ordinary teleconverter for a number of reasons. First of all its a weird magnification size (most TC’s are 1.4 / 1.7 / 2) and brings the lens to a clean 1000mm which leaves it with a reasonably sized aperture of effectively f/7.0.  But what really makes this teleconverter stand out is how it is made. The 1.25x teleconverter is build from the same glass, and as if it is part of the Nikon 800mm lens that its been made in tandem with. That means it has been ground and tested as if its elements were elements of the lens itself. It also means DON’T EVER LOSE IT. Firstly, it can never be replaced. You can send back you lens and have a new one made but assume this will be very expensive and a yield less then ideal pairing then the original. The pairing of teleconverter and lens in production is absolutely genius, and something that you can do with a high-price low-volume product like this that makes it really stand out. Aside from being rather poetic, it also means that the image quality of the teleconverter when used in tandem with the its matching Nikon 800mm (also it should be noted, It can’t be used with any other telephoto lenses) yields insane results that you would never expect from a teleconverter. Practically speaking there is absolutely no degradation of image quality or introduction of risk to chromatic aberration when adding this teleconverter like there would be with almost any other teleconverter on almost any other lens. It’s simply stunning, maybe the autofocus is a hair slower but nothing noticeable like when adding other teleconverters.

The title image, is probably my favorite image from this year, and it happened partially by chance. I was attempting to pan with a moving hummingbird (no small feat) and was spraying and praying and upon review later found this really great image, it was in focus, a great position and well lit, triple score! Jumping from last years Nikon 400mm f/2.8 AF-S VR to this years 800mm was a bit of a jump. A 400mm, and even a 600mm lens can be reasonably used on a monopod (not in this situation but speaking generally), however using an 800mm on a monopod is exceedingly difficult for the inexperienced user (me) and it took some getting used to. You working with such a restricted FoV (duh) that sometimes you can get “lost” looking for your subject. Another issue with the 10 degree angle of view is that any slight movements you physically make move the lens (which can lead to the aforementioned problem) but also can make using the lens difficult since its hard to clearly see what your composing and shooting at if your not completely stable. The best solution I have found for this is to place my left hand on the lens hood to add stability. Now I was shooting on a large tripod with a gimbal head, and this was still necessary but worked very effectively.

Hummingbird-2014-Nikon-D4-800mm-f5.6-2

Ruby Throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris)

Nikon D4 and Nikon 800mm f/5.6E FL ED VR @ 1000mm

1/1600s –  f/7.1 – ISO 3200

In last years great hummingbird shoot I learned some very good shooting technique through research which I believe is worth a read since it synthesizes a number of online source into what I found to be true from my personal shooting experiences. I didn’t deviate from this technique much this year, other then I added a number of new feeders which helped to bring in more hummingbirds, and luckily a ruby-throated hummingbird which thrilled me since this is what I had wanted from last year but didn’t get. Other then that the system I developed worked pretty well. It’s unfortunate but the best way to get great hummingbird pictures (and I know its clichéd) is to put in the time. More so then just from the practice side of things, when you think about it considering how fast hummingbirds move, and how how long they stay in one place for only a few seconds usually, you have to be there for as many of those ~20 second episodes as possible. Finding out when the hummingbirds are most active for you will be pretty obvious after a day or two, then the only really limiting factor is how long you can spend out there and how long before its too dark for you to shoot at a fast enough shutter speed with good image quality (ISO wise). Hummingbirds seem to be most active in the later afternoon, and early evening. Also apparently they are active in the early morning, but I wouldn’t know because well I’m asleep then). 

In conclusion, is it necessary to use a $20,000 lens and an $8,0000 camera to get images of hummingbirds? no. But lets face it, its fun and it yields some unique results. There are many examples out there of people accomplishing amazing results with much more affordable equipment, most of which are as good or better then some of my images. Like anything specialization helps and if you commit yourself to it with whatever gear you have you can get amazing results. Not does a super-telephoto lens help? in my estimation absolutely. Does an advanced autofocus system in a Nikon D4 help? absolutely, but people once shot images of hummingbirds with manual focus lenses, so remember that whenever you question whether you can do this with your equipment. Buying a super-telephoto lens isn’t necessary (and 90% of the year would gather dust for me) but renting one is good fun and can also let you get some great images; I’m a strong proponent of encouraging people do try and rent things so that they can experience these sort of things for themselves. These sort of lenses can often seem out of reach however renting lets you access them and get some great experiences and most importantly some great images!