Decisions, Decisions...

July 20, 2008  •  Leave a Comment

p1029542307-2
Richard Formato, SE Competitor from Wytheville, VA, dips his cap into the cool Poudre River to cool off during the 2007 Trout Unlimited National Fly Fishing Championships. Shot with the Nikon 400mm/f2.8

I'm at the brink of making a rather important, large decision in terms of kit. After shooting the Nikon 400mm/2.8 in last year's National Fly Fishing Championship I've been forever smitten with big glass. I read on DPReview aftterwards a guy saying, "don't ever, ever rent big glass until you're ready to buy it." Big glass, for the un-initiated in photo-speak, for our purposes here equates to the line of "super telephoto" lenses Nikon puts out. They're big, beautiful and very, very expensive.

Having tucked away budget for such a purchase one rainy day, beautiful clouds are beginning to form overhead and I'm smelling that rain smell. That day is drawing near. Based on the type of shooting I do - if one could classify such a thing - I'm attempting to draw some logical conclusions. However, I'm also keenly interested in what the "illogical," passion-evoked voice of my heart has to say, and eager to distill all that noise and information down into some semblance of an actionable decision. In other words, wants and needs, left and right, heart and mind, must come to some sort of agreement.

I've narrowed it down to 4 primary contenders, with a long shot 5th contender if my Powerball ticket comes in big (just kidding-I don't gamble), presented here in order of favored consideration:

  1. Nikon 200-400/f4/VR

  2. Nikon 300mm/2.8/VR + TC

  3. Nikon 200mm/2/VR + TC

  4. Nikon 400mm/2.8/VR +TC

  5. Nikon 600mm/4/VR

Yesterday before heading to the ballpark for the Rockies/Pirates game, I made a deal with my son. The deal was, we were heading to the camera store to do some research first. The goal was to get my hands on the 2 front runners and do a side-by-side comparison using my primary camera, the Nikon D300. If he'd be patient with me while I did my "research," I'd make sure he  had a wonderful night at the ball park (read below's entry for how this promise was fulfilled).

The camera store in this case was downtown Denver's Wolf Camera, on California Street. Wolf Camera downtown has been an excellent partner over the years. Corey Anderson, the manager has been extremely helpful whenever I've needed gear, and Chris, one of my favorite salesmen, is always willing to help however he can when I come down. 

Nikon 300mm f2/8 test imagep740142117-2

Nice, young couple enjoying a pleasant Saturday afternoon stroll down California Street, downtown Denver.

 

I prefer to purchase my gear new when I can, and to purchase it from a brick-and-mortar store when I can. The reasons are the following:

  1. I like to get my hands on something before committing to purchasing it. When you order on-line, you of course can't do this unless you actually purchase, then return it if you don't like it. I prefer not to do this. Shipping costs, restocking fees, opened boxes for other buyers, delays in refunds, hassles back and forth, risk... all tip the scales for me. It's just not my way of doing things.

  2. If a brick-and-mortar store is going to go through the expense of keeping an item on the floor so I can come down and inspect it before purchasing, I feel it right to help support their ability to do so any way I can. Walking into a store to inspect an item, then walking out and buying it on-line isn't something I'll normally do. I value the knowledge and wisdom of the experienced sales force and am more than happy to help support them. After all, we're all in this together. Andy Horton at Mike's Camera in Boulder is another great resource. Andy helped me through my NPS membership and has been very helpful in other areas as well.

  3. New gear comes with a warranty, used gear does not. New gear doesn't have ebay woes associated with it. New gear has the highest probability of being "perfect" right out of the box (if there is such a thing). Used gear-well, you never know what you're gonna get.

  4. I tend to buy a piece of gear and keep it forever. I'm not a turn-and-burn guy. Uh-oh, I hear the "sensitive artist" creeping up to the keyboard here-hold on a moment...

    "hi-I'm John's aesthetically-enabled alter ego. While he's off commiserating about the practical, logical, sensible stuff (someone has to do it), I'm considering things like look & feel, touch, weight, smell, usability, overall impressions, gut feelings, wow-factor, X-factor, "just plain coolness," and other more subjective aspects of such an important decision. Tying this in with the gear point, let's just say for now that it's not unusual to build an attachment to a piece of gear. Especially when you use it - a lot. Think about it... When you use a camera you hold it up to your face, it presses against your nose, often times bending it to the side slightly... and now your LCD display (or back of your film camera) has an oily nose-print on it. Eyelashes sometimes find their way into the viewfinder, and when it's cold and your nose is running... well, just plain eewwww...

    On a long lens, you heft and balance its weight in an attempt to get it to sit still and cooperate; when transporting it you might cradle it in your arms because it's valuable; you feel it with the tips of your fingers and the palms of your hands bare its weight - it has temperature, mass. Brassing and rub marks adorn heavily used items like badges and battle scars. On the used market these are detriments, but when they're caused by your hands and oily nose they mean something positive-bring back memories, evoke feelings.

    Your gear has a unique piece of identification associated with it. A birth certficate (warranty sheet), a serial (SS?) number. It's unique. Yes, it may be one of 10,000 or so created in a manufacturing run, but this one is special. It's yours. It has micro differences in coatings, alignment, AF motor noise and vibration, exterior features and other subtle differences that, if you put it in a group of its peers, you might just be able to pluck yours out and say, "here it is."

    Equipment becomes familiar, predictable. When it needs repair, you send it off to the doctor. When it returns, you're glad it's back, healthy again. "Put me in coach, I'm ready to play," it says proudly as you unpack it and the bubble wrap & peanuts fall away. All this to say, I tend not to part with kit once I make a spot in the crate for it. Think I'm kinda nuts? Let me ask you this: have you ever asked yourself why you like something? Think about it. Gotta go"
    ...

  5. OK-sorry about that. He's gone now-drives me crazy sometimes... Back to the practical stuff: the last reason is that if something goes wrong with it after getting it home, I can hop in the car, drive it down and get a new one. Just like that. Here's an example. When I bought my 105VR, I got it home and upon inspecting the rear element closely, noticed there was something dislodged and floating within the lens barrel that looked like some sort of "flake." I called the store, they said bring it back, they had a new one on the counter ready to swap out. Just like that. I like that.

So all that to say, I'll buy new if I can, and buy from a local store if we can come to some sort of agreement on price (everything is negotiable). I don't expect them to match the on-line guys penny for penny, but I do appreciate some willingness to work with me, especially because I still need to pay sales tax on top of that cost (you should also pay sales tax to the city whenever you buy on-line, but can get away with not doing so if you're shrewd. Buying from a store and paying the sales tax like you're supposed to is a good way to keep your nose clean with the tax people).

I tend to not by after-market brands. I tend to buy the brand version of something. For example, when I bought the 12-24mm DX (AF-S DX Zoom-NIKKOR 12-24mm f/4G IF-ED) wide angle before heading out this spring, I looked at the (highly-regarded) Tokina 12-24 right along side the Nikon. I held them both in my hands, judged the build, feel, quality, and came up with a draw. There was about $450 price difference between the two. I stood at the counter in tremendous turmoil, I'm sure much to the amusement of the clerk (at Jax Outdoor Gear, Fort Collins), and finally walked out with the Tokina. "That's a lot of money you're saving," I kept telling myself on the drive home. It almost worked. Jax is on the north end of Fort Collins, and I live on the south end. It takes about 20-25 minutes to travel from one point to another on a Sunday afternoon. I made it to the Foothills Fashion Mall light, roughly 15 minutes into the 25 minute journey, and turned around. "I'm coming back," I told the clerk on the cell phone. "I just can't do it." Today, I never think about how much that lens cost. It's a superb lens and well-used. A permanent addition to the kit. I digress-and I'll never get to the point of this post if I keep it up.

Here's the point: I love the 200-400/f4/VR (AF-S VR Zoom-NIKKOR 200-400mm f/4G IF-ED) and have pretty well made up my mind that's what I'll get.

There can be no mistaking this for a piece of serious-calibur equipment. Often times zooms are poo-poo'd by the purists for their softness-as in, not quite as sharp as primes. OK, I think there is some validity to this. But more so in the past, and I've seen what this lens can do in the capable hands of others, and have put that issue to rest once and for all: sharpness is more than adequate. My only hesitation with this lens is that it's F4. F4 is good-not as good as 2.8, but not variable ap. F4 is the standard amongst super tele's with the exception of the blazing fast, rediculously expensive 400/2.8. None the less, I wish the 200-400 were f2.8. It's that separation between a sharply isolated, perfectly focused subject and the beautiful, soft, blurry background bokeh of quality glass that I crave. Would f4 get me there? Could I shoot it wide-open? Would contrast hold up? Edge-to-edge sharpness? CA? Color frigning? Could I hold it steady at 400 (EFL 600mm). Only one way to find out and that's to shoot it.

I took both lenses out of the store (many thanks, Chris-not many would let a guy take $10,000 worth of brand new exotic lenses out onto the streets of Denver leaving only my 70-200VR and my 85/1.4 as collateral behind the counter) onto the sidewalk and started shooting. Not having my tripod, doing any kind of serious application comparison wasn't feasible. Instead, for this outing I wanted to learn what I was up against in hand-holding these guys. After all, most of the time I use a tripod/monopod. The rest of the time, I want to be able to get it out quickly and shoot hand held.

Out on the sidewalk in front of the store in Denver, on California Street, I dropped to one knee, propped my left elbow on the up-knee, cradled the foot of the lens in my left hand, and started shooting with the right.

Nikon 300mm f2/8 test imagep725679413-3

Here are some first impressions of the 200-400VR:

  1. The 200-400VR is a BIG LENS. When I looked at in the store display case it had the hood reverse mounted, covering the front end portion of the lens. In my mind I thought, "yeh, but when you take the hood off, the lens is really a lot smaller and shorter." Wrong. This was both enticing and problematic. I wasn't comparing it direclty to the 400/2.8 I shot last fall, but it seemed not quite as fat and a little longer. Extremely well-built, extremely well-appointed in terms of finish detail. I didn't inspect it closely-I was there to shoot it, not critique the design. But it's gorgeuos-making my artist friend extremely happy.

  2. Because it's so big, the nose tends to dip. I didn't notice this until I switched to the 300/2.8 which was considerably shorter, a bit fatter, and not as nose-heavy. Yes, holding this thing would take some practice.

  3. It's AF is fast, even on my D300. I'm sure it will focus even faster on the D3.

  4. VR is fairly smooth and quiet on this lens. Again, I didn't realize this until I mounted the 300/2.8, which had a noticeably noisier, more vibration-prone feel to it. When you look at the shots with the 300/2.8VR you'll see this has no affect on the image, it's a usability thing.

  5. 400mm on a DX sensor is the equivalent focal length (EFL) of a 600mm lens on a 35mm piece of film. If you don't understand what this means right now, don't worry about it. In a few years it probably won't matter as much because DX sensors I'm predicting will go by the wayside and FX sensors will gradually replace them. But for now, I get more reach from this lens on my D300 than I do on the D3. I like that. 400mm (600mmEFL) is out there.

  6. Cool factor. Now this is purely subjective, but on a 1-10, in my book, it's an 11. The hood is carbon fiber, the finish is a beautiful semi-gloss/matte classic Nikon black with micro-bumps. Just the right size of zoom and focus rings with just the right size/amount of raised ribbing to grip. Focus is smooth and easy, and my hands just loved being in contact with the barrel. The VR and AF had a soft, supple pulse that was sure and predictable. No hunting, near instant AF and sublime handling. Its control panel-while complex enough to require some getting acquainted with-is well designed and adds visual interest to the lens, without cluttering it up. It's really, truly a gorgeous beauty of a lens. Super cool. A+. I liked it. A lot.

Nikon 300mm f2/8 test imagep780094436-3

First Impressions of the AF-S VR NIKKOR 300mm f/2.8G IF-ED (aka: 300mm/f2.8)

  1. It's notably smaller than the 200-400, and therefore handles much easier (better).

  2. The dimensions are not only shorter, but a bit larger in diameter. Its proportions with the hood are aesthetically pleasing-a nice balance of power/reach/usability in a somewhat compact and highly usable package.

  3. Same aesthetic comments as the 200-400 in terms of finish, control panel, ribbing, focus/zoom rings, etc.

  4. It's VR was a bit noisier, and I was able to feel it a bit more, as mentioned already above.

  5. It focuses amazingly fast, and is dangeroulsy sharp. The color rendition is superb, as is on the 200-400. Just beautiful.

  6. At 300mm, obviously, it doesn't have the reach the 200-400 does. There can be no meaningful comparison to me in terms of image quality with this lens and a TC. The 200-400 would kill it.

  7. wide open it shot very well, though these test were done with this lens stopped down to 4, and the 200-400 is only 4. Thus, the 300/2.8 has the advantage here in being stopped down a bit, while the 200-400 has the disadvantage of being wide open. That could account for the minor differences in sharpness noted below.

Nikon 300mm f2/8 test imagep444789495


100% crop of Nice, Young Couple. Notice some minor CA on her shoulder.

 

Final analysis: I walked away from the store yesterday favoring the 300 for its handling ease, sharpness, fast focusing and overall speed. Truely a magnificent, world class chunk of glass, truly worth every penny of its $4K +price tag. No more superlatives. Just gorgeous. But in the back of my mind, I was reserving final decisions until I saw the full resolution results on the computer monitor. Which was this morning. Looking at the two images side by side, I dare not try to tell them apart at 300/f4. Now add to that the flexibility of shooting at 200 when you need to, and of course the extra reach of 400mm and the decision becomes quite a bit easier.

In many ways it's unfair to compare these two lenses. They have different intents. But given their price point, reach and size, it's something I needed to do regardless.

Nikon 200-400mm f4 test imagep294065549

Nikon 300mm f2/8 test imagep151380708

I saw 3 differences in the above images. (disclaimer: the same focal point was used, the same ISO, the same exposure, and both were shot within 30-60 seconds of each other. Images are RAW converted in CNX2, exported as 16-bit TIF's, then JPEG'd in Photoshop CS3. No sharpening, leveling or any other post is applied to these images either in CNX2 or Photoshop CS3).

 

  1. First, the image shot with the 300/2.8 had slightly better edge/micro-detail. Not by much, but it was there. If you look closely at things like the separation between the light, vertical reflection and natural color of the fender, for example, you can see a difference. This could be attributed to various things, but I'm going to consider it a characteristic/quality of the lens. You can also see it in the red tail light. As per above, my guess is it's the difference between shooting the 200-400 wide open vs. shooting the 300 stopped down to f4. But that's just a guess.
  2. Second, the 300 exhibited minor color fringing or chromatic aberation-not sure what this is (see the magenta line separating her shoulder from the bright background?). From what I could tell, the 200-400 did not exhibit this-but I didn't test it with the same shot so I can't say for certain.
  3. The histogram for each image was slightly different from one image to another. Overall it was "lighter" (my 10-year old son even caught it, unsolicited, when I asked him if he saw any differences between the 2 images). Now this (different histogram) could be because one image recorded a car passing by on the extreme right of the frame and the other didn't. It could be a cloud passing overhead changing the light... who knows (the images were shot within seconds of each other). But it could also be different characteristics of the lenses, which is what I think. The 300 lets in just a bit more light. Not much, again, but some. If you read the specs on the nikon site, the 300 has fewer elements (11 elements in 8 groups) for light to pass through than the 200-400 (24 elements in 17 groups).

 

While I can't deny the purist in me wants to shoot just primes and boast to others about it in an obnoxiously snobby, elitist and condescending way, I've decided on the 200-400VR/f4 with no doubt or regret in doing so. Besides the fact you'd need a llama or a sherpa to carry all your primes on any kind of outdoor adventure (what price vanity?), the zoom is unquestionably more convenient-especially for wildlife, especially when your position is confined due to circumstances where the slightest movement would scare the animal and blow a shot. 

The other lenses all have their pluses and minuses (there's not a bad lens in that bunch), and some day, PowerBall willing, I may have the privilidge of adding (one of) them to the kit as well. But for now, lens lust and pragmatism pat themselves on the back in their ability to work across the aisle as they go walking off into the sunset with a rather self-congratulatory gate to the camera shop, happy to deliver the news to the newest member of the family.

Until next time, thanks for reading.


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