Field Impressions: Nikon Df with 80-400mm lens

Morkel Erasmus All Authors, Morkel 7 Comments

I have just returned from hosting the last of our Mana Pools photographic safaris for 2014, and boy does this place never cease to provide a raw, authentic, mind-blowing African wilderness experience…plus you can get some lovely photos (but to me that is actually just a cherry on top of the delicious Mana cake). More on the trip and our sightings later, though. I thought I’d kick my Mana postings off with a bit of a field review. I was fortunate to be able to use the relatively new and decidedly retro Nikon Df and the updated Nikkor 80-400mm lens for my trip to Mana, thanks to the folks at Nikon South Africa.

The main reason for choosing this combo: light weight for walking safaris (we spent probably 95% of our photographic time in Mana out of the vehicle in various postures – walking, sitting, crawling, lying down).

Another reason for choosing this lens: versatility – a focal length range that covers much of what I expect to be able to photograph in Mana.

Another reason for choosing this camera: the Nikon Df just looks so funky, like a throwback to the days of film.

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This will by no means be a major technical review: I will merely reflect on my experience with this combo as it pertains to the use I put it to in the field and the resulting image quality of the files I came back with.

1. The Camera

I’ve just always wanted to try this camera out since its release. Many people don’t like the retro look, but I love it. I was hoping to use a silver one, because awesome, but got a black one instead.

Initially when holding the camera it felt a bit foreign to my hands and fingers, and the mechanical buttons were something to get used to for this “digital-only” photographer (I decided to skip out on the whole film thing for some reason). However after playing around with it before we left for Mana Pools, I felt more comfortable with making quick changes to settings as and when needed. I don’t read manuals. Ever. Unless I break stuff. Then I read the table of contents and perhaps the troubleshooting section, haha. 😉

The thing that I enjoyed about this camera is that it made me think more. It made me anticipate more. Let me explain…

The dials being mechanical and linked to old-school film values for ISO and Shutter Speed, meant that I really had to weigh my exposure options up for every available situation of light – and the light was quite variable. I don’t mind being totally on cue with my familiar gear and instinctively dialing in values and shooting as things happen, but this was a refreshing change of approach to me. I also had to anticipate the shot since the framerate is even slower than my D800, clocking a whopping 3 frames per second in the Continuous-High mode. It only takes SD cards, so perhaps card speed is an issue at play here as well…but overall this camera made photography fun, it made it challenging, and made me more aware of my choices in the moment. I think making photography more fun was one of the main aims of this camera when it was dreamed up in the corridors of Nikon HQ in Japan…Did I mention that it looks cool?

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2. The Lens

It’s no secret that the older version of the Nikkor 80-400mm lens was slow (as in parked, stationary, dreadful) compared to other modern superzoom lenses. Sharpness was also touch-and-go. This replacement lens forces you to forget about the old model forever. It also forces you to forget what price you could get the old model for! It’s not cheap, but I believe that this lens which costs just under half of what the Nikkor 200-400mm f4 VR-II will set you back, is about 70-80% as good as the latter (both in terms of autofocus speed and image sharpness/contrast). So it really is a viable option if you really cannot fork out the cost of a prime end telephoto. Plus, this lens is quite light compared to the 200-400mm, which makes it a great choice for a walking safari. The range of 80-400mm also gave me plenty of variety in terms of composition. Having used this lens in Mana last year as well, I decided to more often than not shoot it stopped down to around f7.1 or f8 this year, just for better clarity, DOF and sharpness. Most of these lenses (think the Canon 100-400mm as well) do a tad better if you stop it down somewhat. That doesn’t mean that you can’t get sharp images at the wide open aperture setting – I’ve got a quite a few. It’s just a personal choice given the images I reviewed from using it last year. Reviewing my images this year confirms that my choice was good. I made up for the loss of light by pushing the Df ISO (which it can handle).

These two images are from the same sighting, minutes apart. The first image was taken at 135mm, and the second at 400mm.

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This image was captured using a slow shutter speed (0.5 seconds) and zooming the lens out while the shutter is being tripped.

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When we were walking around in Mana Pools I was carrying the Nikon Df paired with the Nikkor 80-400mm and my Nikon D800 paired with my Nikkor 24-70mm, and this gave me most of the focal range I needed. Now I just need a Blackrapid strap and a huge Stetson hat to look like a wildlife photographic cowboy!

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In summary – if you were thinking about a Df because the retro look and camera operations appeal to you – try one out! I found it a fun camera and it sort of made me enjoy my photography more, in a weird way. Plus the image quality rocks…likewise the 80-400mm lens is GREAT value for money if you want a portable high quality lens for wildlife photography that gives results that lean more toward high end primes and superzooms than toward midrange zoom lenses of the same sort of focal range. I will certainly be trying to use the 80-400mm every time I go to Mana Pools (if my wife is reading, I want one for Christmas!).

Morkel Erasmus

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Comments 7

  1. sandra erasmus

    Hi Morkel

    Hi Morkel
    I love your wildlife facebook page, awesome photos, comments and reviews. May I ask what you think of the Sigma 150-500mm lens. I believe the Tamron 600mm lens will be available shortly at the same price. I would really appreciate your views regarding these lenses and whether it is worthwhile purchasing any of these. I am currently work with 70mm -300mm and canon 28mm-80mm. It is now time for better!

    Look forward to hearing from you.
    Regards
    Sandra

  2. Julie

    Hi, I was in the Mara 2 weeks ago, actually went to a lot of places in Kenya and SA…had my nikon D800 plus the 80-400 and funnily enough the exact same wide…my question for you is have you tried it out with the 1.4TC? I used it quite a lot but due to the dust around the place I couldn’t keep chopping & changing so ended up leaving it off..AF…performed OK though I thought! Busting to come back now as I didn’t go on a photographic tour…so probably drove some of my travel companions mad!

    1. Morkel Erasmus

      Hi Julie. I must admit I never used this lens with a 1.4x TC and I would be hesitant to do so. I am not a big fan of slapping a teleconverter on a zoom lense that has a higher max aperture than f2.8 or f4. That being said, I’m sure in a steady pair of hands you could get some good results this way. Glad you enjoyed the Mara! You should really make a plan to join a specialised photographic tour next time – being in the company of likeminded photographers makes a world of difference (inspiration, learning from each other, and being able to spend as much time with a subject as you like).

  3. sandra erasmus

    Hi Morkel
    I love your wildlife facebook page, awesome photos, comments and reviews. May I ask what you think of the Sigma 150-500mm lens. I believe the Tamron 600mm lens will be available shortly at the same price. I would really appreciate your views regarding these lenses and whether it is worthwhile purchasing any of these. I am currently work with 70mm -300mm and canon 28mm-80mm. It is now time for better!

    Look forward to hearing from you.
    Regards
    Sandra

    1. Morkel Erasmus

      Hi Sandra. Thanks for your kind words.
      The Sigma 150-500mm has long been a staple “budget” wildlife zoom telephoto lens. I have seen some good results with it, but I would put it’s quality and performance on a level lower than this 80-400mm from Nikon (and also on the Canon side I rate the 100-400mm L IS USM higher than the Sigma). My dad just got the new Tamron 150-600mm and I have tested it briefly – I was VERY impressed! Sharpness is good and focus performance seems very decent. I think Sigma has also now announced a competitor 150-600mm which should make the battle of the wildlife superzooms quite interesting…

  4. Jakes de Wet

    Great to see this review. I bought a used Df almost new and tried it on my 300f2.8 and other lenses. The IQ is stunning and the ISO performance very good, as we know,. It has become my pet camera. I am also after the 80-400 to use them as a second setup and when photographing training dogs and stuff where a zoom is beneficial. However, the D810 with the 300f2.8 with TC are just very good. The D810 is a stunning camera.. Thanks for the post, I value your opinions as it is based on real life, where it counts.

    1. Morkel Erasmus

      Hi Jakes. Thanks for chipping in.
      I would take a D810 in a heartbeat – but my wife will not look too fondly on my selling a perfectly working D800 and paying double what I will get back for it to get the D810. So I will have to wait. The Df is a great camera for a lightweight travel camera and it has that look. Test out the new 80-400, I think you’ll like it as a 2nd wildlife lens!

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