I recently bought the Nikon 800mm f/5.6E VR (see Nasim’s review) and took it out for my first field test. It turned out to be extremely poor light and rough snowy weather, but sometimes that’s when you get some great photos. I have some samples to show here and even though they are not tack sharp because the conditions didn’t really allow that, they are moody and show nature in its true beauty. I also wanted to talk about gimbals on tripods versus hand-holding on large lenses to get flying or action shots. I hear so many times you cannot hand-hold that 600mm, but I do and some of my best shots are because I hand-held.
Since the snowy owls have moved to the Seacoast of New Hampshire and Massachusetts because of a shortage of food on the tundra, we have been travelling down to photograph them and here are some sample images taken with the new Nikon 800mm f/5.6E VR lens. This first photo is taken on a tripod with the Wimberley II gimbal, there was no real panning involved and the conditions for photography were pretty terrible. The light was low, the snow was in the way but I would try anyways because the Nikon D4 has shown me it can handle tough situations. It was captured at ISO 2000 @ f/5.6, resulting in 1/1000th second speed. I needed at least a thousandth of a second to stop motion as I was hoping for a landing pose:
I think the 800mm did an amazing job under these conditions and because there was no real panning involved, it was not really a problem shooting from a tripod and gimbal.
The second image put the 800mm to work – same poor light and snow conditions, but now we are panning as well. The owl was perched on an old, broken bird house and launched to grab a rodent from the marsh. I did my best to pan and track it with the gimbal head and while I did get a beautiful image, I was not able to capture it as good as I could have, because the gimbal was restricting my natural movement:
The above image was taken at ISO 2000 @ f/5.6, resulting in 1/1600th shutter speed. I think the beauty of these images is not how sharp they are, but rather the mood and setting they convey.
So the 800mm handles these poor conditions very well. Shooting from a tripod is OK, but there are many situations, where hand-holding works best for me. I find it hard to pan on a gimbal, because it’s unnatural to me. You are trying to move around the tripod while panning, rather than naturally twisting when hand-holding. While the below image is not an action shot, it is taken with the Nikon 800mm f/5.6E VR hand-held:
I think it handled the situation excellently! Just look at the grass – it is blowing at about 16-20 mph, pushing my lens around and making it tough to stay focused on the eyes. I could have used a tripod here, but we hiked two hours to find this owl, so carrying a huge tripod with a gimbal head would have probably killed me.
So now a final note about hand-holding large lenses versus using tripods and gimbals. I think both have a place and not everybody can man handle a large lens. As soon as I get the chance, I will test the 800mm hand-held in good lighting conditions, although after using it in such harsh conditions and getting relatively good results, I am sure it will do very well…
So I was photographing another owl at Rye, NH and the light was even worse than shown in these images (and again snowing). This image was taken hand-held and I am glad I did, because I wouldn’t have gotten this shot. I had to rotate approximately 270 degrees as the bird flew – the tripod would have stopped me from having fluid motion. You judge for yourself – the photo is as sharp as I think I can get it under the conditions it was taken in:
Last, but not least, is another 600mm f/4 VR photo, also hand-held, but in much better light conditions that will allow better judgment of sharpness:
There is something you have to understand about this last image. We were originally photographing this owl at about 150 foot distance sitting in the marsh. The bird launches and flies towards me. It catches a rodent and circles around me. I am twisting my body at all sorts of angles to capture a shot hand held. I missed a lot of shots not because I was hand holding, but because the owl was moving so fast and at close quarters. There is no way in the world I would have gotten this image on a gimbal; the movement on a gimbal to me is slightly jerky and not fluid. Also you are moving around the camera and tripod, versus the camera and body moving “as one” while hand-holding.
Hand-holding large lenses like 800mm and 600mm is a challenge, but the rewards are high when it all comes together. There is a place for both methods, but whenever I can, I prefer to hand-hold for fast moving subjects like birds of prey. It is just more natural to me.
I will leave you with this one final hand-held shot with the 600mm and trust me, it is sharp!
All images copyright Robert Andersen.