Photographers are always looking for new tools and techniques to help improve our work or to facilitate the exploration of new subject matter. For me, it was the latter scenario—I recently purchased a new telephoto lens with the intention of taking a stab at wildlife photography. As a long-time Nikon shooter and, as one not prone to splurge on gear, I settled on the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR telephoto zoom and the Nikon 1.4 tel-extender. When combined, they theoretically provide the capability to take a shot at 700mm. That’s a big jump from my previous maximum of 340mm using a 1.7 extender with my 70-200m f/2.8 lens.
Weight is also a consideration. The weight of the f/5.6 zoom lens is 5.1 lbs., while the weight of the 500mm f/4 prime lens is 8.54 lbs. And for those who consider the weight of their wallet, the price difference is more than $5,000.
But how does it perform? The answer to this question is still open, but some preliminary findings can be made. In my view, it’s usually wise to take small steps while becoming familiar with a new piece of equipment. So, I decided to start in my own backyard where the presence of a several bird feeders attracts a decent variety of birds, especially during the winter months.
Pileated Woodpecker (male)
(Nikon D800E with Nikon 200-500mm lens on tripod; 1/400th sec @ f/5.6, ISO 3200)
The image above was not cropped and there was no sharpening in Photoshop. Due to the large size of original file, it would come out as a 16 X 24” print without any upsizing. Given the low light situation, a high ISO was necessary so there probably would be a bit of noise evident in a full-sized print.
Pileated Woodpecker (female)
(Nikon D810 with 200-500mm lens & 1.4 extender on tripod; 1/125th sec @ f/8, ISO 1600)
Adding the extender brought the subject really close. But I found that the D800E had difficulty resolving focus with the extender. Switching to the Nikon 810 brought better results but it had become clear the extender has limited utility in low light situations. As before, this is an uncropped image. A full stop was lost due to the extender, but by dropping the shutter speed, it was possible to use a lower ISO. This speed, however would far too slow without a tripod, let alone a bird in flight.
Avian Food Fight #1
(Nikon D810 with 200-500mm lens & 1.4 extender on tripod; 1/1600th sec @ f/9, ISO 1600)
Avian Food Fight #2
(Nikon D810 with 200-500mm lens & 1.4 extender on tripod; 1/1600th sec @ f/8, ISO 1600)
The feeder in the two images immediately above is about twice as far away and the birds are much smaller. But it was well illuminated by sunlight so a faster shutter speed was possible and focusing was not a problem.
Having tested the lens in a familiar environment and with full knowledge of knowing exactly where to point the camera before the birds arrived, it was now time to try for something a little more difficult—birds in flight. I spent a bit of time practicing on a flock of buzzards at the nearby Great Falls National Park. I will spare you samples of the results. They turned out fine, but buzzards??
We need something more impressive. Something regal and majestic, like a bald eagle.
Luckily, there is a location about two hours away where a large number of bald eagles gather in the winter. It is the Conowingo dam in Darlington Maryland and I learned of it from Jim, a photographer colleague who had been there. More information about it can be found here.
So, with a forecast of sunny weather on Wednesday, Jim and I drove up in the teeth of the morning rush hour traffic. Jim was correct—there were many eagles to see and, as noted in the referenced link above, there were many photographers there as well. But the weather man had lied—a heavy cloud cover arrived as we drove into the parking lot.
In addition to large numbers of eagles and photographers, there were also numerous vultures (buzzards). Not a problem I thought, until I saw this sign.
But, there were so many cars in the lot, what were the chances? We rolled the dice and decided to stay. (That part worked out as we hoped–they did not attack my car) Here are two examples of the results.
Bald Eagle in Flight
(Nikon D810 with 200-500mm lens handheld; 1/1600th sec @ f/6.3, ISO 800)
Bald Eagle with Fish
(Nikon D810 with 200-500mm lens handheld; 1/5000th sec @ f/11, ISO 1600)
In sum, more testing is needed and hopefully there will be another chance at Conowingo before the eagles depart in late January. Updates will be included in future posts. In the meantime…