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NIKKOR Z 600mm f/4 TC VR S

 

When I received word from Shoot magazine and Nikon Belgium that I could test the new Nikon Z 600mm f/4 TC VR S super-telephoto lens with fixed focal length, I was really looking forward to this and my expectations were particularly high. As an airshow and aviation photographer, you are often millimetres short as fast fighters fly far away from the audience, so 400mm or 500mm is often just a little too little. The arrival of the professional Nikon Z 600mm f/4 TC VR lens for the Z-series full-frame system cameras could change this as this lens also came with a built-in 1.4x teleconverter, so you suddenly have a lens with a range of no less than 840mm in your hands. So the time has come to test this professional lens at an airshow in France.

 

Meeting Aérien International du Grand Est 

 

I finally had the chance to test the Nikon Z 600mm f/4 TC VR S extensively in combination with the Nikon Z9 at the Meeting Aérien International du Grand Est in Chambley, France. This airshow was organised at the former US Air Force Chambley-Bussières Air Base, 20 kilometres west of the French city of Metz. Until 1967, this airfield was used by the US Air Force after which the French Air Force took over this air base. Today, this airfield is no longer used for military operational purposes and hosts the now famous Lorraine Mondial Air Ballons festival every two years. As this was a former military airbase, the air show programme therefore consisted of many military participants from the French air and land forces, including the famous French formation team Patrouille de France and the Dassault Rafale. In addition, this air show also featured some demonstrations of beautiful old aircraft such as the Klemm Kl 35, the Nieuport 28 double-decker and the Morane-Saulnier MS.317. A day before the air show, a spotter's day was organised where about 100 photographers had the chance to take pictures of the participants' arrivals and training sessions.

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Lightweight in its category 

 

What first struck me when I got my hands on the Nikon Z 600mm f/4 TC VR was its weight. Despite the fact that this is a very large lens, it weighs 'only' 3.2 kilograms and that is a whopping 14% lighter than the Nikon AF-S 600mm f/4 lens which weighs 5 kilograms. Similar super-telephoto lenses from other manufacturers, such as the Canon EF 500mm f/4 weighing 3.8 kilograms, are also heavier. Since wildlife, nature, and aviation photographers often go out on foot, every kilogram you can save is very interesting. 

 

The fact that this lens has a built-in teleconverter is also a plus as external converters add weight. Moreover, you will be less likely to encounter dust and dirt on the optical elements. This, in turn, is a huge advantage for photographers who want to shoot with this lens in humid or dusty conditions such as during a safari. The lens' robust seal also ensures that it can be used perfectly in adverse weather conditions. While the Nikon AF-S 600mm f/4 is 44.5 centimetres long, the new Nikon Z 600mm f/4 is just slightly smaller at 43.7 centimetres. This allows you to carry this super-telephoto lens in a large camera bag that meets the hand luggage requirements of most airlines. The centre of gravity of this large lens is in the middle of the tripod mount. This makes this lens very stable to handle and extremely suitable for use with a tripod or monopod. Please note that the tripod nacelle Nikon supplies with this lens is not Arca-Swiss compatible and this should have been different for such an expensive lens.

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Optically, this lens consists of 19 elements divided into 16 groups, including two lightweight fluorite elements. The built-in 1.4x converter provides another 7 elements divided into 4 groups. The Meso Amorphous Coat anti-reflection coating counteracts ghosting and distracting flare, making this lens also very useful when shooting in backlight or with light sources directly in view. The buttons on this large lens are all in places that are easy to reach, making operation almost intuitive. This therefore ensures that you never have to look away from your camera's viewfinder. On this lens you will also find some L-Fn buttons that can be set via the camera's menu. Thus, these L-Fn buttons can be set to configure subject tracking, AF lock and image. The Nikon Z 600mm f/4 lens also features a new function ring that serves as a Memory Set/Recall function. Turning this ring to one side allows you to set or recall a focus distance. When you release the ring, the it snaps back to the centre and the focus distance returns to where it was before. I do have to admit that this took some getting used to, but once you get used to this, you no longer favour extra buttons. The lens does not have a screw filter at the front, but it does have an internal holder for 46mm insert filters.

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Outstanding image quality

 

I noticed very quickly that the image quality at 600mm was very good. Combined with the Nikon Z9, focusing worked extremely fast and the automatic aircraft recognition function worked very well. Nikon built a new autofocus motor (Silky Swift Voice Coil Motor) into this lens. This uses magnets instead of gears to move the focusing groups at higher initial speeds and with greater accuracy and smoothness. This also ensures that the autofocus of this lens is very quiet, an advantage for those who want to use this lens for video purposes. Especially at 600mm, images appeared to be very sharp from corner to corner. When using the 1.4x converter (840mm), sharpness in the extreme corners of the image decreased slightly, but overall these images were still very high quality as well. Across the entire aperture range, even at the extreme edges and corners of the image field, there was no colour fading, and even at 840mm, colour fading was hardly present.

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Two lenses in one

 

One of the special features of this pricey lens is the ability to change very quickly between 600mm f/4 and 840mm f/5.6 using a handy lever on the right side of the lens. The lever for the teleconverter can also be attached. My personal experience taught me pretty quickly that shooting with a focal length of 840mm is best done from a tripod or monopod, as motion blur became very apparent very quickly when shooting from hand with slightly slower shutter speeds. Taking photos of fast fighters at very high shutter speeds was no problem and the built-in vibration reduction did its job perfectly. Switching from 600mm to 840mm and back again does require constant refocusing and this was sometimes detrimental when shooting fast objects like fighters. In the end, this just took some getting used to and did not change the fantastic image performance and usability of this lens. Even when using the 1.4x converter, the images taken proved to be razor-sharp. Nikon also made it possible to attach another external converter to this lens so that you get a lens with an impressive focal length of, say, 1620mm (in combination with a 2x external converter).

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Final conclusion

 

Due to its very high price tag (just under 17,250 euros), the Nikon Z 600mm f/4 TC VR is obviously not for everyone. Still, this price is justifiable in large part because such fixed-focal length lenses from other manufacturers do not have a built-in converter and are often heavier as well. So for this price, you actually have two very high-quality super-telephoto lenses for Nikon Z. The impressive performance of the built-in converter means that wildlife, sports, and nature photographers don't need to invest in a second super-tele or external converters. In terms of image quality and sharpness, this lens is already superior and unseen for me. From fast planes to racing cars to lions in the wild, those who can afford this lens will undoubtedly capture impressive images. 

Text & photos: Kris Christiaens/Nikon

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