NIKKOR Z 180-600mm f/5.6-6.3 VR
Because fast fighter jets and helicopters often fly at far distances from the public, as an aviation photographer I very often use super-tele-zoom lenses. Despite the fact that I also often use prime lenses, my personal preference is still for supertele-zoom lenses since it gives me more options as a photographer. When Nikon announced the Nikon Z 180-600mm f/5.6-6.3 VR in August 2023, I, along with many other photographers, was very much looking forward to testing it extensively since its huge zoom range, compact size and yet competitive price (1,999 euros) appealed to me. I finally got the chance to test this new super-telephoto zoom lens extensively at the Radom Air Show in Poland, which in recent years has become one of the biggest aviation events in Europe.
The Radom Air Show in Poland was organized for the first time in 2000. This giant event takes place every two years on the grounds of Radom airfield, about 100 kilometers south of the Polish capital Warsaw. During this air show, mainly all historical and operational aircraft and helicopters of the Polish Air Force are displayed. Numerous other countries are also present at Radom, giving various demonstrations with fighter aircraft. Due to its size and many impressive demonstrations, the Radom Air Show therefore grew to become the largest air show in Poland. During this 17th edition of the Radom Air Show on Saturday, August 26, they exceptionally organized a sunset show and even a show at complete darkness. In Poland it is also allowed to take pictures around the airfield during an air show. Due to the fact that there is backlight from the public area for almost the entire day, it is certainly worthwhile for a photographer to stand on the other side of the airfield, in the open field, with the sun in the back. Reasons enough, to travel to Poland with the Nikon Z 180-600mm f/5.6-6.3 VR and test it extensively.
What struck me immediately about the Nikon Z 180-600mm f/5.6-6.3 VR was that this lens was relatively compact and light. Supertelephoto zoom lenses tend to be large and weigh a lot which means that these are not always the most convenient lenses to take with you when you travel far. This lens has a weight of 1.955 kilograms and this is relatively light for a lens with such zoom range when we compare it to, for example, the Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG DN Sports lens with its 2.100 kilograms or the Nikon AF-S 200-500mm f/5.6E VR ED with its 2.300 kilograms. What is remarkable about the Nikon Z 180-600mm is that it is equipped with an internal zoom which eliminates the visibility of extendable parts. This is especially useful when taking pictures in dusty or sandy environments since no dust or sand is sucked in by the internal zoom mechanism.
In addition, an internal zoom mechanism also ensures that the balance of the lens and the camera is always the same and this is particularly useful when shooting fast objects or if you want to take pictures with longer shutter speeds. The zoom ring is quite short (70 degrees) and turns particularly smoothly, allowing you to go from 180mm to 600mm very quickly. This new lens is fully water resistant and thanks to a locking mechanism, the lens hood or tripod mount cannot come off easily. These features will no doubt be greatly appreciated by wildlife photographers who often shoot in wet and dusty weather conditions. Also, this lens has four customizable function buttons. You can assign one function each to these buttons via the menu. The Nikon Z 180-600mm is also compatible with the teleconverters from the Z-series so you can increase the zoom range to an impressive 1200mm.
In clear weather conditions, I quickly noticed that the Nikon Z180-600mm lens focused quickly and provided very quality images. I used this new lens in combination with a Nikon Z9, among others, and when I used the 3D tracking function with plane detection, the images turned out to be razor sharp. The autofocus system of this lens uses STM (silent-stepping-motor) technology which makes focusing barely audible. It goes without saying that when we compare the Nikon Z 180-600mm with the Nikon Z 400mm 2.8 TC VR S lens, the latter focuses even faster, but it also costs eight times as much. What I also noticed is that the Nikon Z 180-600mm could also be used to take pictures at close range. I could already take sharp images thanks to a shortest focusing distance of only 2.4m at 600mm and 1.3m at 180mm.
Because an evening show was also scheduled during this edition of the Radom Air Show, I was very curious to see how the Nikon Z180-600mm lens would perform in low light and slower shutter speeds. Nikon's Image Stabilizer (VR) compensates for vibration with an advantage of up to 5.5 stops, so this lens still managed to produce sharp images in low light or while shooting at slow shutter speeds and doing so freehand. I took some freehand photos with slower shutter speeds up to 1/60sec or even longer of stationary hovering helicopters and still managed to take sharp photos easily. However, while taking pictures in low light, during sunset or darkness, I noticed that the lens suddenly took a little longer to focus at 600mm or even failed to focus properly. When I zoomed out again to 180mm or 200mm, focusing worked again quickly. Because the zoom ring is quite short, I did not find this really disadvantageous and I could always zoom from 180mm to 600mm very quickly. I also found little or no chromatic aberration when viewing RAW images at 200%.
For me, the Nikon Z 180-600mm f/5.6-6.3 VR is the perfect lens for those who want to do sports, wildlife or aviation photography and do not want to use heavy and extremely expensive lenses. Because this super-telephoto zoom lens for Nikon's Z-series is in a very good price range and it delivers very sharp images, this lens will undoubtedly become hugely popular among wildlife, sports and aviation photographers in the near future. Therefore, this lens will become a great competitor to the Nikon AF-S 200-500mm or the Sigma 150-600mm lenses. Of course, there are lenses that offer better quality in certain conditions such as prime lenses but these are of a different price order. The fact that this lens has an aperture of f/5.6 to 6.3 made me hesitant to ever use or buy it myself but after extensively testing the lens in Poland I found absolutely no disadvantages. Its quality, weight, short zoom ring in combination with the internal zoom are enough reasons for me personally to buy this new Nikon Z 180-600mm f/5.6-6.3 VR.
Text & photos: Kris Christiaens/Nikon