Sunday, April 24, 2011

A New Era Begins! - 24 Apr 2011

I've been shopping for a replacement lens for my Sigma 400mm/f.5 APO, which has started giving up the ghost in the past few days.  I've wanted a ~400-500mm carry around lens that would allow me to capture birds in flight, but w/ the caveat that it had to have 'fast' autofocus capabilities.  Unfortunately, Nikon refuses to update it's ancient 80-400mm f/5.6 lens, which is notoriously slow-focusing, but produces some marvelous images.  Sigma discontinued its 400mm lenses years ago, and finding a replacement has been difficult.  And, until recently, my dream lens, the Nikon 300mm f/2.8 VRII, had been out of reach $$$-wise.

The best review of this lens can be found on Nasim Masurov's blog.

I'd finally saved enough pop bottles and was given permission by the Corporate Financial Officer to buy the 300/2.8, but was unable to find a copy anywhere on-line.  Demand, and the recent tsunami in Japan have combined to make the Nikon 300/2.8 VRII unobtainable.  On a lark, I called Woodward Camera in Birmingham to see if they might have a 300/2.8 in stock.  I was shocked when I was told that they had a 300/2.8 VR copy, unopened, in the store.  The 300/2.8 VR (2004-2009) offers 3-stop vibration reduction (versus 4-stop w/ the VRII) but costs up to  ~$1K less versus its slightly heavier, newer version. 

Robin and I took a ride up to the store last Saturday afternoon and bought the lens from good friend Jerry Sadowski. I was so excited to handle this beast of a lens, I didn't bother to even look at the version.  So I was even more surprised when I got home and realized that I had a VR II copy in my posession.

I played w/ it a bit Saturday evening, trying out the vibration reduction feature on a tree in the backyard.  The first image was taken from 60', through the back window, of the tree without vibration reduction.  The second was taken a moment later with!  1/20 sec. at ISO 400 and f/2.8.  Wow!

I then photographed this female House Sparrow a few minutes later from about 10' through the window.  Pretty good capture at dusk on a cloudy evening. 

Sunday, unfortunately brought 40 mph winds and just lousy cold, so I couldn't get out to play w/ the lens.  I had hoped to get out to Grosse Ile to photograph the returning Common Terns, but worried about getting blown off the bridge.  So I stayed in.

This week brought no good weather.  Clouds, rain and high winds reduced my play time to the back yard.  So, I spent the time focus calibrating the lens on the Nikon D300s.  Good thing, 'cause I found that the lens back-focused about 1/2 inch.  Now calibrated its producing even sharper images. So, having just received the TC1.4 II, I now had to try the combo (420mm before the 1.6X crop factor on the D300) in the back yard.  This Black-capped Chickadee made a brief appearance and offered a quick photo.  I was using a monopod at the time, which helped take some of the weight off the 6+ lb. combo.

My little Asia offered to model for photographs, and tested my focusing skills by trotting at me everytime I turned the camera her direction.  It wasn't until today that I realized the camera was set for single focus-lock (I've now switched to continuous-focusing).  Still, at f4 (w/ TC14II), the lens creates a sharp focus point and silky-smooth bokeh (background blur).

Did I mention weight?  Yes, this lens is a bit on the heavy side.  At 6+ lbs. a monopod is recommended, but it is hand-holdable.  Users of 'heavy' telephoto lenses should seriously consider getting a Cotton Carrier vest - it takes the weight of the camera/lens off the neck and holds it securely to the chest.  I hiked/biked all over Pt. Mouillee yesterday and had no issues with weight. 

I spent Friday walking around Central Lake testing my hand-holding capabilities.  It was still heavily-overcast, so I took many a silhouette image, but I was more interested in seeing how sharp images were.  I was happily surprised.  Thanks to a tip from Vic Berardi on how to hand-hold a large lens, I had no problems capturing sharp images, even in low light.  Having VRII helps, of course.

For some wonderful examples of how well this lens performs, check out http://www.nikoncafe.com/ and their Lens Lust Forum.  This thread has hundreds of pages of stunning user captures.  My contribution to this list is shown at left: a Caspian Tern snatching a Gizzard Shad out of Lake Erie yesterday afternoon.

The 30mph+ winds coming off of Lake Erie allowed me to practice some flight shots as the Caspian and Forster's Terns were working the shoreline.  A bit more tweaking may be needed w/ the focus calibration (w/ the TC1.4 II), but I think I'm ready to begin a new era in bad bird photography!
Time to tackle the warblers...

1 comment:

dwaynejava said...

Congrats Jerry. A great blog deserves great optics!

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