Handling and Features
The AF-S Nikkor 600mm f/4 E FL ED VR is a monster of a lens, certainly not something the faint-hearted will want to carry far. However, it has huge potential for sports and nature photographers and is a fast lens for its focal length. Let's see how it performs and how it handles in practice.
Nikon AF-S Nikkor 600mm f/4 E FL ED VR Handling and Features
The Nikkor weighs in at a hefty 3810g, and make no mistake is a very large and unwieldy optic. It is quite front heavy, but adding the Nikon D750 supplied for this review does help to balance things up a bit. The lens is supplied in a very solid lockable trunk case and is unlikely to suffer any damage in transit. It should survive aircraft holds perfectly well if necessary. The immense lens hood locks firmly into place and can be stored in the case reversed onto the lens. The lens cap is actually an oversized nylon wrap that fits securely into place.
The VR system has normal and sport modes, the latter dealing with action subjects. They can be used when the lens is mounted on a monopod, for which a short collar is provided. There is a standard, very solid tripod foot that ensures secure tripod mounting. Four stops benefit are claimed, although, as always, high shutter speeds will still be needed for fast moving subjects, to arrest their movement.
The Nikkor focuses relatively close, to a useful 4.4m, thus opening up the possibility of shooting more variety of subject matter. Maximum magnification is 0.14x. There is a switch to limit the AF range to 10m to infinity if desired. This will speed up AF in the given range. The silent wave motor gives us fast, silent AF performance.
The manual focus ring is smooth and can be engaged at any time. Focusing is internal, so there is no change in lens size as we focus closer. The front element does not rotate, and as regards filters these are placed in a small slot at the back of the lens. The filter size is a modest 40.5mm. There is a plain filter supplied as standard to ensure the optical performance is maintained.
Weather resistance is a welcome feature, almost essential for a lens of this type which will be used principally outdoors.
Nine diaphragm blades make an almost perfectly circular aperture and stop down is achieved electromagnetically, thus ensuring very predictable and accurate aperture values. Lens construction is 16 elements in 12 groups. There are 2 Fluorite, 4 ED (extra-low dispersion) and 1 protective glass elements, plus Nikon's Nano Crystal Coating. This complexity is to reduce CA (chromatic aberration) and flare to ensure the crispest images possible. The Fluorine coating repels grease and moisture on the front element, thus making cleaning easier.
There are various unmarked buttons on the lens, and these are intended to make possible various programming features that can be stored in memory. For example, a focus point can be memorised and then returned to whenever needed, perhaps to return to a branch that birds routinely land on.
Handling all of this is not easy as the kit is large, cumbersome to carry and heavy. However, once installed at pitch-side or maybe in a hide then the lens is very easy to use. Meticulous technique yields the best images of course, as the high magnification means that even the slightest vibration can take the edge off the sharpness of a shot. A knurled knob on the tripod bracket assembly enables us to rotate the lens into portrait format whilst on a tripod, a time saving and very useful feature.
The sheer size of the lens can have some unexpected consequences. Arriving at a bird hide at Pennington Flash I found that the lens was physically too wide to actually push through the windows to line up the lens on the birds. Removing the lens hood helped, just. There were no such problems at Martin Mere, a WWT site, where larger windows are provided.
The substantial tripod foot makes a very satisfactory handle for carrying and generally handling the lens. There is a high-quality padded strap that attached to two lugs so that the lens can be carried leaving the hands free. In practice, this means that transporting the lens a fair distance is not so onerous. Tripods and monopods have their place and may help with many shots, if for nothing else but to avoid having to hold the lens for long periods. However, handheld shots are possible and the tripod foot can be used as support on hide windows, walls and any other handy surface. The VR system makes sure that images remain sharp.
Nikon AF-S Nikkor 600mm f/4 E FL ED VR Performance
Sharpness is excellent, especially in the centre of the frame. All apertures from f/4 to f/16 show excellent sharpness at the centre, remaining good even at f/22, although that smallest aperture is clearly not the best option unless depth of field is the major requirement. This makes the widest aperture totally usable, which is very useful where higher shutter speeds are required.
The edges reach a very good standard of sharpness from the start, rising to excellent at f/11 and f/16 before diffraction takes its toll and we drop to good levels at f/22.
All of this would be in vain if camera shake were to take the edge off the sharpness, but fortunately, the VR system is highly efficient. Shutter speeds are possible that would have been unthinkable before the technology was available. At least four stops advantage from the conventional wisdom is very realistic, meaning a shutter speed of not 1/600 sec but perhaps even 1/30 sec is a reasonable expectation. This is fine for still subjects, but with moving ones a high shutter speed will still be needed to arrest movement.
How to read our charts
The blue column represents readings from the centre of the picture frame at the various apertures and the green is from the edges.
The scale on the left side is an indication of actual image resolution as LW/PH and is described in detail above. The taller the column, the better the lens performance.
For this review, the lens was tested on a Nikon D750
Technically, the lens is free from flare and distortion. Imatest measured just +0.356% of barrel distortion. CA (chromatic aberration) levels were extremely low and not visible in even quite demanding shots. This is very superior to long telephoto lenses of the past, which tended to suffer from CA.
How to read our charts
Chromatic aberration is the lens' inability to focus on the sensor or film all colours of visible light at the same point. Severe chromatic aberration gives a noticeable fringing or a halo effect around sharp edges within the picture. It can be cured in software.
Apochromatic lenses have special lens elements (aspheric, extra-low dispersion etc) to minimize the problem, hence they usually cost more.
For this review, the lens was tested on a Nikon D750
The Nikkor 600mm f/4 E FL ED VR lens delivers very sharp images, with beautiful, smooth bokeh. This is reinforced by the total absence of flare, which is hardly surprising given the enormous lens hood provided. In all the shots out in the field flare could not be induced and images were full of contrast and sharpness regardless of the direction of the light. Pictorially, a very satisfactory optic.
Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 600mm f/4E Sample Photos
Value For Money
At £9650 this lens will be beyond the price bracket of many of us. VFM becomes a moot point in some ways as professional sports and wildlife photographers will simply seek the best tool for the job, and arguably this is it. There will be some amateurs who can also afford this, and if they do so they will have a very special optic in its own field. Canon users have their own equivalent, the EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM at £8895.
Alternatives abound if it's the focal length that is the requirement and Sigma offer two versions of their 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG HSM OS lens, one in the contemporary range at £739 and one in the sports range at £1199. The Tamron 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Di VC USD is priced at £749.
Sigma also offer two prime lenses, the 500mm f/4.5 APO EX DG HSM (£3599) and the 800mm f/5.6 APO EX DG HSM (£4299) although none of these match the fast f/4 aperture of the Nikon.
Looking at smaller formats, the MFT users have two very fine Olympus lenses that offer the same field of view as the Nikkor 600mm. The 300mm f/4 IS PRO is as bright and priced at just £2199. The older 300mm f/2.8 is actually a faster lens again, priced at £5689. For more options have a look at to Top 5 Best Nikon Lenses of 2015.
Nikon AF-S Nikkor 600mm f/4 E FL ED VR Verdict
The AF-S Nikkor 600mm f/4E FL ED VR lens is a very classy optic, beautifully engineered and delivering excellent high-quality images. It is a gorgeous lens for photographing sports and wildlife, but at the cost of weight, bulk and the inevitable price tag. It performs impeccably, and if you want a lens of this type and can justify the cost, then it will not disappoint.
The Nikon 600mm f/4 E FL ED VR is a superb lens for sports and wildlife photographers, at a price.
Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 600mm f/4E Specifications
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