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NIKKOR Z 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 VR


When I decided to go to Axalp Fliegerschiessen for the first time, I knew I would have to keep my choice of photo material limited since this military exercise takes place at an altitude of about 2,200 meters in the Swiss Alps. To reach this unique location, photographers and other spectators have to climb part of the Axalp mountain on foot which minimizes the weight you bring with you up the mountain. This quickly led me to the decision to bring the new Nikon Z 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 VR S zoom lens. This turned out to be the perfect choice!



Planes and mountains 


Within the world of aviation photography and plane spotters, Axalp Fliegerschiessen in Switzerland is an event that is at the top of many bucket-lists. The Axalp Fliegerschiessen event takes place at the Ebenflüh Shooting Range in the Swiss canton of Bern and is used by the Swiss Air Force as a military training ground. Since 1942, pilots of the Swiss Air Force have been practicing with their fighter planes in this beautiful area for shooting with real ammunition at various targets. This training area is located at an altitude of about 2,200 meters and is surrounded by beautiful, rugged rock flanks and mountain peaks whose highest peaks are just under 3,000 meters high. For Swiss military pilots, such shooting drills are crucial during their careers in this unique environment as the nearby mountain flanks and peaks provide an extra difficulty and they are expected to hit the targets without problems while their bodies are exposed to extreme G-forces.


So it goes without saying that such a unique event attracts a lot of spectators and photographers, and the Swiss Air Force knows that too. Once a year, therefore, the Ebenflüh Shooting Range is opened to the general public for several days. Photographers and other spectators are given the opportunity to observe these shooting exercises up close in public areas. During these public days, the Swiss Air Force also takes the opportunity to extensively demonstrate their planes and helicopters and their accompanying tasks in a unique environment. As a result, Axalp Fliegerschiessen has grown in recent decades into a very popular event that attracts several thousand photographers and spectators every year.

It must be said that the Axalp Fliegerschiessen particularly impresses with the whole adventure around it. You leave very early in the morning and take a bus to an altitude of about 1,500 meters, after which an open chairlift takes you in the dark to the start of the ascent. Once you start the tough climb, you get to see the first sunlight over the mountain peaks and get an unforgettable view of the Swiss Alps that get brighter and more beautiful every minute. Even when the air show ends in the late afternoon, the adventure begins again as everyone then has to descend the mountain while the warm autumn sun colors the mountain sides yellow and orange. As a photographer, you can certainly indulge yourself during the Axalp Fliegerschiessen, even if you don't like shooting fighter planes or low-flying helicopters.



A must-have zoomlens 


What personally attracted me to take the Nikon Z 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 VR S to Switzerland was its wide zoom range and the fact that this lens is also very light compared to other such zoom lenses. For example, the Nikon Z 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 VR S weighs only 1,245 grams while my other zoom lens I use for such events, the Sigma 150-600mm f/5.0-6.3 DG OS HSM Sports, weighs 2,860 grams. Also, the Nikkon Z 100-400mm is about a hundred grams lighter than the Nikon AF-S 80-400mm. The difference of 1,600 grams compared to my other telephoto zoom lens plays an important factor when you need to do a steep climb on a mountainside for several hours.


The zoom range of 100 to 400mm was also perfect since I knew that the planes in the Ebenflüh Shooting Range fly quite close to the public and this would not really require an extreme super-telephoto lens with a range more than 400mm. The maximum zoom (100mm) proved to be perfect for taking overview shots of the beautiful landscape or at times when several planes were flying side by side. But what personally surprised me the most about this lens was the extremely fast autofocus. When fighter planes dive into the Ebenflüh Shooting Range at a speed of about 700 kilometers per hour or more, an extremely fast autofocus is crucial since the passages of these planes take only a few seconds. The Nikon Z 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 VR S did this perfectly, and thanks to its perfectly good vibration reduction, the fast action photos turned out to be extremely sharp. Both in the corners of the image field as well as in the center, the sharpness of this lens proved to be very good, even at the maximum aperture. Also, this lens features excellent image stabilization up to 5.5 stops with a Nikon Z6II camera and even 6 stops with a Nikon Z9 camera.



Challenging conditions


As soon as the first fighters flew through the Ebenflüh Shooting Range in the early morning, it became clear that the light was going to be a real challenge. Because the mountain peaks we were facing were nearly 3,000 meters high, the light coming from the low autumn sun could only shine above the peaks for a few hours each day. As a result, large parts of the mountain sides and rocks were in shadow and it was not until late afternoon that the entire Ebenflüh Shooting Range received sunlight. It was therefore quite a challenge to correctly expose the fighters, small planes and helicopters flying through the Ebenflüh Shooting Range without under- or overexposing the subject or background. Thus, the fighters flew at high speed from dark areas that were in shadow to the other side of the Ebenflüh Shooting Range that was already in full sunlight. Added to this was the additional difficulty that the planes and helicopters came flying in from different directions so the camera settings had to be adjusted all the time. As always, I took the pictures taken at the Ebenflüh Shooting Range in the M mode of my Nikon Z6II camera and often also used exposure compensation and a slightly higher ISO value. Since I also put a lot of time into post-processing my captured RAW images, I mainly focused on the histogram after which I could later make adjustments in Adobe Lightroom.



Panning festival


Because you can photograph planes and helicopters flying along the mountain sides during Axalp Fliegerschiessen, the temptation to take photos using the well-known panning technique is therefore very strong. Using this technique, the photographer moves with the photographed subject and uses slightly slower shutter speeds so that the background in the photo becomes blurred. Consequently, this technique is especially popular in sports and action photography. Photographs taken with the panning technique therefore come out best when there is a high-contrast background such as trees or, in this case, mountain walls. Because fighter aircraft as well as small planes and helicopters flew at high speed in front of the Ebenflüh Shooting Range, this often led to a real panning festival.


Practicing this technique is highly recommended, and the use of a monopod or ball head tripod also ensures better results. For a good panning shot I always use this rule: take ten photos and there will always be one or two perfect shots! Because you are moving with the subject, the chance of motion blur is very high so you will have to take many pictures if you want one perfect image. To focus the camera with the panning technique, it is important that the camera keeps the subject in focus while it is being pulled along. You do this by setting the camera's focus mode to continuous auto-focus (AF-C). With this setting, when you point the focus point at the subject, you can "hold" it, so to speak, by half-pressing the shutter button. The camera will then continuously calculate the distance to this subject, keeping it in focus. Even while moving the camera along, you therefore get a fast subject. Also when applying the panning technique, the Nikon Z 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 VR S lens in combination with the Nikon Z6II camera delivered fantastic results. Because this lens is equipped with Inner Balance technology, the center of gravity of the lens is maintained when changing the zoom and offers more stability when you want to photograph moving objects.



Final conclusion


This lens is a great all-around zoom lens to carry around and delivers fantastic performance. Despite its high price tag, the price/performance ratio is very high due to its versatility and weatherproof body. Its user-friendly operation, compact design and light weight provide additional ease of operation which can be different with other super telephoto lenses. The ability to use teleconverters with this lens also provides a lot of additional features and benefits. The fact that this lens can be used perfectly for action, sports, nature and landscape photography will undoubtedly make it very popular with many photographers in the near future. I was very happy that I could use this lens for my first trip to the famous Axalp Fliegerschiessen in Switzerland.

Text & photos: Kris Christiaens/Nikon

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