Photographing Birds with Nikon's 500 mm VRII Lens
by Dr. Robert Berdan
June 2, 2014
Black-necked Stilt (Himantopus mexicanus), Nikon D300s, 500 mm @ f/5.6 ISO 800, 1\5000 sec, taken on a mono pod. East of Calgary.
I recently purchased a Nikon 500 mm f/4 VRII lens for $8000. I didn't just waltz in the store and buy it, I have been researching and saving for a bigger lens for almost 2 years now. My biggest lens up to now has been the Nikon 300 mm f/2.8 lens with 1.5X and 2X Teleconverters. This has been my go to wildlife lens for about 10 years now and it is incredibly sharp and fast focusing. However, I knew if I was going to get better and closer photographs of smaller birds I needed something bigger. I researched and tested Nikon's 400, 500 and 600 mm lenses. Nikon's 800 mm at $17,000 is too expensive for my budget and frankly it's too big to travel with on airlines and I was looking for a lens that was portable and that could be hand held for brief periods of time. My goal is to use this lens for wildlife (caribou) and bird photography. "The Handbook of Bird Photography" by M. Varesvuo et. al., (2013) recommends the 500 mm as the best overall birding lens. After testing three different Nikon lenses I decided to purchase the 500. Attaching the 500 mm lens on an APS-C (Advanced Photo System ) camera gives me the equivalent of a 750 mm focal length lens or 15X magnification. Add some teleconverters and the lens can go from 500 mm to 1500 mm (30X magnification) - equivalent to a telescope.
House Finch (Carpodacus meicanus). Nikon D300s, 500 mm, f/7.1 1/250 s, ISO 800, Fill flash and tripod.
Common Grackle (Quiscalus quisclula) on my backyard fence. Nikon D300s, 500 mm, f/4, 1\1800 sec, ISO 800 hand-held.
Whenever I buy a new lens I often start testing the lens in my backyard on birds that come to my feeders and water bath- so yes some of these birds have been baited with seeds and corn meal - the ones in my backyard. I photographed house sparrows, house finches, robins, grackles, pine siskins, magpies, crows and chickadees that stop in daily. First I use the lens by hand holding as I want to see how steady I can hold the lens. I used a Nikon D300s camera with a 1.5X sensor to get an equivalent 750 mm focal length. Then I attached 1.4X, 1.7X and 2X teleconverters for some test shots. I found I could not hold the lens steady with the 2X teleconverter so used a tripod. All the Nikon teleconverters resulted in sharp images by hand holding except the 2X TC which I had to mount on a tripod (see Chickadee photo below). Often I will also photograph a fence or the aluminium siding on the side of my house to see if the lens has any distortion and test if the lens is sharp at the edges. I also have test charts but I prefer testing with real subjects when ever possible. The fence appeared sharp right out the edges when I examined the photos enlarged in Adobe Photoshop.
Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) perching on my bird bath. Nikon D300s, 500 mm + 2X TCII, equivalent focal length 1500 mm, tripod. ISO 800. f/8, 1\160 s. On close inspection the birds feathers are crisp and sharp when enlarged.
After testing my lens in the backyard and back alley I wanted to get out and test the lens in the field. The first thing I needed though was a bag to carry my camera and lens in. The lens comes with a hard case but I wanted something I could pull the camera out of quickly and carry on my back. After testing several lens bags I purchased the Lowepro Lens Trekker 600 AW II camera bag for $180. 'The bag includes shoulder straps to carry it like a backpack and my Nikon D300 and lens fits inside with the lens and lens hood attached. If I attach a teleconverter the combo won't fit. A friend of min, Dave Lilly carries his camera and lens in a padded Manfrotto tripod bag which I tried, but I prefer the ability to carry the camera and lens in a backpack. The weight of the Trekker 600 with camera and lens is much lighter than my normal Tamrac Expedition 8X camera bag which weighs close to 50 lbs with all my gear. The Nikon 500 mm lens will fit inside the Tamrac bag with a camera attached if I reverse the lens hood. I have used the Tamrac bag for over 7 years and it's rainproof and rugged. When one of the zippers failed, the Tamrac company sent me a new bag - that's the kind of service I like. I also own several other Lowepro bags that are good in quality, but at the time the Tamrac was the only bag big enough to fit all my gear. In the future I may need to buy a bag with bicycle wheels and pull it behind me similar to those buggies used to move canoes and kayaks ;-).
Top left is my main camera backpack that can weigh up to 50 lbs when full, and my new Lowepro Lens Trekker 600 AW II backpack to carry my 500 mm lens and camera body. A pouch in the front of the Trekker lets me carry a flash and a teleconverter as well. The Trekker pack with lens and camera weighs about 10 pounds which feels light in comparison to my normal camera back pack. The Nikon 500 mm lens alone weights 8.5 lbs (3.9 kg).
Nikon 500 mm f/4 lens without lens hood attached. When I first tested this lens in my basement I took several hand held photos at f/4 and 1\4 s shutter speed and to my pleasant surprise some of the images were sharp! The VR or vibration reduction is an amazing feature. I first experienced how helpful this feature was when I purchased the Nikon 70-200 mm f/2.8 lens more then a decade ago. VR on telephotos is worth the extra money. If you have the choice go for VR even if it costs a few hundred more. Even on a tripod VR is helpful when using faster shutter speeds. If you use long exposures 1\4 sec or more then I would recommend turning the VR off when the lens is attached to a tripod, if you don't you will get lens drift. Some lens manuals tell you to turn VR off on a tripod, but I have found the best thing is to test the lens on a tripod with VR ON and OFF and then you determine what is best for the type of shooting you do. The minimum focusing distance of this lens is 12.6 ft (manual focusing), 13.1 feet (autofocusing) 3. 85 m.
Field Testing the Nikon 500 mm lens on Birds
There are several articles on the web that analyze the Nikon 500 mm lens for sharpness - see links at the end of the page. I usually read lots of reviews before purchasing a lens and sometimes these reviews are helpful and sometimes not. I was interested in how suitable this lens is for photographing birds. Typically I need a few months to properly test and evaluate a lens before I understand its strengths and weaknesses - and I have only had this lens for three weeks. If a lens gives me poor performance I typically sell it or trade it in after about 6 months (e.g. Nikon's 24-120 mm lens was soft). I don't think I will be getting rid of this lens for a long time because I am already happy with my initial results. Things I look for when taking photographs of birds and other wildlife are: 1) sharpness 2) bokeh 3) handling and autofocus speed and 4) the ability of the lens hold up in wet weather and cold. I will have to wait a few months before testing it in cold weather, but I can wait.
My first impression is that the lens is capable of taking very sharp pictures - no complaints here. I love the bokeh - the aesthetic quality of the blur produced in the out-of-focus parts of an image produced by a lens. I am also liking how the 500 mm lens handles though I can see I need to practice more if I am going to get better shots of birds in flight by hand holding. It definitely feels heavy if I am just walking around with it unsupported. A fast shutter speed and higher ISO speed helps make sharp images which is why most of the photos in this article were taken at ISO 400 to 800 and shutter speeds faster then 1\500 sec even in bright light. I will see if I can use lower ISO speeds in the future when using a tripod. Below are some of my first images of birds taken in my backyard and around Calgary with my new 500 mm lens.
The photos below show the bokeh (out of focus background) the 500 mm lens creates.
Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus) Nikon D300s, 400 mm f/7.1, ISO 400, 1\1600 sec photographed hand-held from my jeep window.
Male Red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus). Nikon D300s, f/5.6, ISO 800, 1\3200 sec on a monopod.
Female Red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus). Nikon 500 mm f/5.5, ISO 800, 1\4000 sec on a monopod.
Male Red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus). Nikon D300s, f/5.6, ISO 800, 1\3200 sec on a monopod.
Male Yellow-headed black bird (Xamthocephalus xanthocephalus) Nikon D300s, 500 mm, f/5.6, 1\4000 sec on monopod.
Wilson's snipe (Gallinago delicata) Nikon D300s, F/4, 1\2000s, ISO 400.
Black-necked Stilt (Himantopus mexicanus) in flight. Nikon D300s handheld, f/5.6, 1\5000 s, ISO 800.
Tree swallow ( Trachycineta bicolor). Nikon D300s, f/7.1, 1\1600 sec, ISO 400.
One of the things I like most about the 500 mm lens is the beautiful bokeh which makes the bird pop out of the background. The shallow depth of field however also makes focusing more challenging. When small birds move about on the ground they quickly go out of focus. I found myself using the back focus lock on the camera to prevent the lens from trying to focus on the background when the focus point momentarily moves off the bird. The narrow field of view also makes it more challenging to find birds in flight. I tried capturing some black terns and after about 50 shots I was able to get just a few good shots - this is something I need to practice more.
Black Tern (Chlidonias niger), Nikon D300s, 500 mm, f/7.1, 1\1000 s, IS0 800 hand-held. The terns move and change direction quickly though sometimes they will hover in place for a few seconds. This one just picked up some food (insect) on the surface of the water.
I found a monopod allows me to move the lens quickly and keep the lens relatively steady. It also takes the weight of the lens off my arms. For this reason monopods are popular in sports photography where photographers also need mobility and speed.
Above a friend Jack Leung has his Nikon 500 mm lens balanced on a monopod and to protect the lens uses lens coat which also helps camoflauge the lens and protect it from bumps. I have not yet decided whether or not I will cover my lens this way, however if I owned a white Canon telephoto lens I probably would.
Male and female Horned Grebe (Podiceps auritus) Nikon D300s, 500 mm, F/7.1, ISO 800, 1\1000 s.
American Coot (Fulica americana) , Nikon D300s, 500 mm f/5.6, 1\3200 s, ISO 800 on monopod.
Male Eared Grebe (Podiceps nigricollis), Nikon D300S, 500 mm, f/7.1, 1\4000 sec, ISO 800.
Killdeer (Charadriuxs vociferous), Nikon D300s, 500 mm, 1\3200 s, ISO 800 on a monopod.
Horned Grebe ( Podiceps auritus) at the nest, Nikon D300s, 500 mm + 1.4XTC, 700 mm equivalent, 1\4000 sec, ISO 400,
fill flash (Nikon SB800) and camera attached on a monopod.
Wilson's Phalarope (Phalaropus tricolor) Nikon D800, f/8, 1\2000 s, ISO 400 on monopod.
Wilson's Phalarope (Phalaropus tricolor) Nikon D300s, 500 mm, f/5.6, 1\3200 s, ISO 800
Muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) Nikon D300s, 500 mm f/4 lens - hand held.
When ever I am photographing I try to remind myself to photograph other things as well the main subject I am after such as this muskrat, and even my fellow photographers. I also need to remind myself to shoot some vertical oriented photos as well if I want to sell pictures for magazine cover shots.
Franklin's Gulls (Larus pipixcan) Nikon D300s, 500 mm, 1\4000 s, ISO 800 hand held
Roadside marsh (McElroy Slough) at 7 am on Sunday, June 1. Fog was beginning to lift as the sun grew higher in the sky. Nikon D300s, 500 mm lens. It was a beautiful summer morning - just being outside and listening to the birds was exhilarating.
The 500 mm lens has a narrow angle of view so for the picture above I switched to my 70-200 mm lens to capture a few additional scenes of the marsh. I probably should have taken a few shots with my wide angle lens as well, but my goal on this morning was to test out the Nikon 500 mm lens.
Fellow photographer Kamal Varma walks along the road next to a slough in the morning fog.
Nikon D300s, 70-200 mm f/2.8 lens.
I sometimes hear photographers say equipment doesn't matter, and for some types of photography it might be true; vision, timing, being at the right place at the right time and hard work are often more important. However, when ever I get a new piece of equipment like this Nikon VR II 500 mm lens and see how it helps me capture better photos of birds - I wish that I owned one sooner. RB
Additional Links & Resources
One of the best bird photography books I have read - availalbe at Amazon.ca
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