Telephoto Today

I’ve had a series of articles on this site that have stepped through the options in the telephoto realm as Nikon has continuously updated it. It’s time to once again check in with my thoughts on the individual lenses.

Before we get started with the individual lenses, let's summarize the telephoto situation as I write this:

At 70mm you have seven ways to get there.
At 100mm you have six ways to get there.
At 200mm you have five ways to get there.
At 400mm you have four ways to get there.
At 600mm you have three ways to get there.
At 800mm you have one way to get there.

That's all without using teleconverters (and allowing for a bit of focal length rounding). Notice anything about that progression? Yes, this has to be almost a deliberate approach by Nikon: fewer options as you get longer into the telephoto range. However, at anything other than 800mm, you have multiple options (and technically, you have more options if you include the built-in and add-on teleconverters.

So the first thing you need to figure out is exactly how much telephoto focal length you actually need. That's going to define the lens options available to you (again, without teleconverters). 

I'm going leave off lenses such as the 24-120mm f/4 S and 24-200mm f/4-6.3 VR from my specific comments, as these are really multi-purpose lenses, not telephoto ones. 

Here's my quick thoughts on the clear telephoto choices currently available:

  • 70-180mm f/2.8 — A lens that isn’t given enough credit because it’s a first generation Tamrikon (e.g. not a G2) and doesn’t have lens-based VR. I don’t care about those two things because, here in safari-land where I’m writing this article, it just works. Yes, at 180mm and f/2.8 vignetting is noticeable by a two-year old who needs glasses. Yes, 180mm is not as well stabilized (by the image sensor) as it could be, but it's still reasonably stable using sensor VR. This lens travels small and light, it makes excellent images, and it even comfortably focuses nearer than you’re likely to need (short of small insects). While I’ve recommended the lens in my review, I’m liking it more the more I use it, and again, it’s very travel friendly.
  • 70-200mm f/2.8 VR S — A very sharp lens with virtually no flaw. Well, no flaw other than it’s big and heavy compared to the competitors' offerings. When absolute image quality counts (on a 45mp camera), this lens comes out of the gear closet and pushes the Tamrikon I just mentioned aside like a sumo wrestler challenging a horse jockey. But the penalty you pay for that is significant in terms of price, size, and weight. I’m using this lens less and less as the other options have revealed their benefits.
  • 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 VR S — If you’re photographing sports or wildlife and aren’t using one of the above two lenses, I’ll bet this is your “short lens.” It’s really well rounded in its benefits, with no particular downsides (other than perhaps price to some of you). Sharp, takes converters decently, excellent stabilization, all in a lens not significantly larger than the 70-200mm f/2.8 VR S (told you the 70-200mm was big and heavy). Of course, you’re at f/4.5 to f/5.6, so edge of day photography means higher ISO values. Still, it’s a solid choice to pair up with your “long” lens. I've never been disappointed with this lens since I first started using it.
  • 180-600mm f/5.6-6.3 VR — The second “consumer” lens in our list (70-180mm was the first; note that focal length handoff). From an image quality standpoint, it simply doesn’t seem very consumerish at all. While my review points out that 300mm is its best (and really great stopped down a third of a stop) focal length, even 600mm is really solid. A bit down in contrast from the exotics, but the edge definitions are very close if you can stop down that third of a stop. If you liked the 200-500mm f/5.6E in the F-mount, you’ll absolutely love the 180-600mm f/5.6-6.3 VR in the Z-mount at f/6.3-7.1. Like the previous lens, though, edge of day starts to be a problem due to the smaller aperture. Don't be too worried about backgrounds, though. At 600mm f/6.3 distant backgrounds fade to full blur. 
  • 400mm f/4.5 VR S — The little lens that could. For a traditional 400mm it’s very compact and light. But it’s also very sharp and contrasty, fast to focus, and takes a teleconverter with aplomb. You’re giving up a stop and a third to the expensive exotic (next lens), but not a heck of a lot else. You’re gaining less money taken from your bank and an easier to handle lens that travels really well too. I like this little powerhouse a lot. It's the everyperson's exotic, for sure. 
  • 400mm f/2.8 TC VR S — OMG. This lens just delivers, period. Tons of control customization (but not always in a hand-friendly place) and the best results you’re going to see from a Nikkor telephoto at 400mm. And clearly so. This lens renders beautifully. The 560mm results with the teleconverter flipped in are pretty darned good, too. The reduced weight (from F-mount versions) makes it surprisingly hand holdable for shorter periods, but your wallet will also feel lighter. Quite a lot lighter. No one that uses this lens complains. Okay, I do, about the position of some controls. But I mean even I feel like maybe I’m a bit on the nit-picky side when I see the images I’m getting from this lens. I thought my F-mount 400mm f/2.8 was great, but this lens is better, and more versatile with that teleconverter built-in.
  • 600mm f/4 TC VR S — A tiny bit less OMG than the 400mm, but if you need this focal length, you’re not going to find a better choice. Really strong optics that aren't really matched at this focal length. Again, Nikon will drain your wallet and max out your credit card before handing you this lens. However, unlike the 400mm TC, you’ll find that the added size and weight of the extra focal reach takes a little away from wow factor. You’re also probably out of hand holdable range, certainly for any length of time. 
  • 600mm f/6.3 PF VR S — The latest Nikkor, for which I have no real experience with yet. Looking at early results and commentary from a few pros I know who've used it, you need to pay attention to it, though. The tricky part to reconcile: it's 1.7" longer than the 400mm f/4.5 (already a small lens), and a few ounces heavier. That combo is going to have a lot of folk questioning which lens to get. Well, you asked for choice. Nikon's now giving it to you, so stop complaining. 
  • 800mm f/6.3 PF VR S — If you need 800mm, this is the best way to achieve it, at least in the optical results. No questions asked about that: 800mm done beautifully. However, 800mm is a tricky focal length by itself. Finding the subject starts to become a real issue due to the narrow angle of view. Personally, I prefer to be at 560mm and flip to DX on my Z8 or Z9 if I need something in the 800mm focal length. That’s because 560mm becomes my wider “finder,” and the Switch FX/DX button customization then snaps me into the subject. Sure, I’m down to 19mp, but I found the subject faster. Also, if I lose it, I flip back out to FX to find it again.

So what two lenses for safari? As it turns out I’ve used most combos except those that involve the 600mm or 800mm prime lenses.

For example, on my most recent Africa trip I took the 70-180mm f/2.8 and 180-600mm f/5.6-6.3 VR with two Z8 bodies. Other than working at higher ISO values at the long end, I didn’t really feel like I was losing out on anything. The images I captured are excellent and certainly up to my standards, particularly after a bit of processing or by stopping down a third of a stop on the long lens. I would travel again with this pair again in a heartbeat, plus a side benefit is that the two lenses and two bodies fit easily in my 19L backpack (with a bunch of batteries and accessories). I repeat: an entire safari outfit with a lot of reach in a 19L pack. That's nearing m4/3 and APS-C territory for travel.

My previous two trips I took two Z9 bodies, the 400mm f/2.8 TC VR S, and either the 70-200mm f/2.8 VR S or the Tamron 35-150mm f/2-2.8. I have to say, the faster apertures all round gave me more choices for what to do with background, helped with low light situations, and all three lenses just render really, really nicely. This makes for a big kit, and barely fits in my 30L pack. 

On this most recent trip my teaching partner Tony Medici took the 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 VR S and the 400mm f/4.5 VR S, a combination I’ve also used in the past (mostly for sports). That pair travels more friendly than the 70-200mm/400mm f/2.8 combo, for sure, but you sacrifice little other than maximum aperture. Again, the images are well above my standards.

While I haven’t come to Africa yet with the following combo, the 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 VR S and 800mm f/6.3 PF VR S make an interesting choice, as well. I’ve used these two lenses together in my neighborhood nature preserve, and it produces excellent images; my only concern is framing up subjects at 800mm. That works if the subject isn't moving, but you really need to practice and master narrow angle alignment if the subject is moving. 

Finally, a note: in virtually every case I travel with the 1.4x teleconverter, just in case I’d prefer a bit more reach. All of the above lenses other than the 70-180mm f/2.8 work well with that teleconverter.

All of which pretty much means this: any of the current Nikon options deliver excellent images. Price, travel friendliness, and maximum aperture are probably the way you get to the choice that works for you. 

I don’t think Nikon’s close to done with the telephoto offerings for the Z-mount (witness this week's 600mm f/6.3 PF VR S). That said, what we already have is pretty fantastic. Used well, you should come back with excellent images pretty much no matter which choice you make. 

Yes, I know it’s difficult figuring out which two options you should probably own. Hopefully my words above will help you make the best decision for you.


Bonus #1: Tamron has starting adding telephoto options under their own brand for the Z-mount. We currently have the 70-300mm f/4.5-6.3 and the 150-500mm f/5-6.7. I'd say the former is a potential solution for the Z5/Zf type user who wants to supplement their 24-70mm f/4 with something that covers a full telephoto range. It's not a bad lens, but it does have a number of compromises to it. The 150-500mm looks more promising, in that its MTF ratings look good and it packs/travels smaller than the Nikkor 100-400mm and especially the 180-600mm. 

Bonus #2: I've noticed many folk asking for 500mm lenses in the Z-mount. I suppose it's possible that one will eventually come, but it's clear to me that Nikon has targeted 400/600/800 in the Z-mount. I expect multiple entries to cover those focal lengths in a variety of ways (already true of 400mm, and starting to be true for 600mm). Some might say there's a "gap" at 500mm, but we're talking about the "gap" between a 6°10' angle of view and a 4°10' angle of view, which is a pretty small gap. I'd argue that 300mm is the more important focal length for Nikon to fill first, and I suspect it will be filled by a fast zoom (e.g. 120-300mm f/2.8 VR S), or perhaps another lens with a built-in teleconverter (e.g. 200mm f/2 TC VR S). That you can use three different 500mm F-mount choices on a Z-mount camera also plays a part in Nikon's decision making, I'm sure. Personally, I like Nikon's choices so far. They seem clear, targeted, and useful.

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