With all the incredible new camera gear hitting the market, you hear words like game changer, revolutionary, innovative and ‘dreamy’ a lot. I know I have used a number of them. Well, the new Nikon 600mm F4 Z with built-in 1.4x is worthy of them all. I’ve owned a number of Nikon 600mm F4 lenses through the years, starting with manual focus versions when I used to live in Alaska. I shoot a lot of wildlife, months every year, and many of my assignments and commercial image sales depend on this lens. Thankfully I was able to get my hands on an early copy of this lens, and I have been shooting it for three weeks now. I could rave all day about using this beautiful lens, but I will hit the main points below.
Weight. Let’s start with weight. I’ve always struggled to hand hold previous versions of the 600mm, but this new 600mm Z version is more than a pound lighter than the previous version, and better balanced. What’s more, even being a pound lighter, this 600mm includes a 1.4x built-in teleconverter (more on that later). I have been hand holding this lens a lot, and getting tack sharp images using the Z9 and SPT VR mode (see coyote image at top of post). What’s more, I don’t hesitate to start walking down a trail hand holding the lens while I look for wildlife. It just feels a whole lot lighter…
Built-in 1.4x teleconverter. This is where I use a few of those adjectives above….game changer…brilliant…dreamy. Think of this 600mm as two lenses. A 600mm F4 and a 840mm F5.6. Nikon really showed their innovative approach by building in this teleconverter on big primes like the 600mm and 400mm F2.8. If you have ever tried to attach a converter in the field you know how it goes. You stop what you are doing, open up the camera to all sorts of dust (or blowing snow last week in Wyoming), and by the time you get the converter attached the animal has left…or then you want to take it back off. Not with this lens, just flip the convenient switch with your right hand and never take your eye away from the viewfinder. I photographed great gray owls last week in a blizzard…you couldn’t take your lens off to put on a converter without snow blowing into the camera. And being able to get that extra reach at 840mm is a big deal for me, especially photographing birds which always seem to be far away.
Autofocus. Nikon has put a new autofocus motor into the 600mm F4 and 400mm F2.8, and let me just say it is in a class by itself from all previous Nikon lenses. The new Silky Swift VCM autofocus is lightning fast, even racking through the whole range of the lens instantaneously . I’m a big user of focus limiter switches on large primes. By limiting the focus range you get faster autofocus. But after using the 600mm with the new autofocus system I doubt I will ever worry about the focus limiter switch…the lens just focuses faster than you can imagine. Accuracy is stunning. Take a look at this great gray owl image above. This owl flew past in a snowstorm, flying through the tall grass hunting mice. Not only did this lens (along with the Z9 in wide area-large/animal detect) autofocus flawlessly in the blowing snow, the 600mm/Z9 tracked the owl perfectly, never struggling…even shooting through the grass. Unreal! I’ve never seen such autofocus performance. Generally snowstorms wreck havoc on autofocus…the camera/lens gets confused and won’t focus on your subject. But I’m happy to report the Z9 and 600mm focused fantastic in blowing snow, much better than any previous camera/lens I’ve used.
Sharpness. This is really a ‘given’ considering the 600mm F4 is the latest top prime from Nikon. At F4 the lens is tack sharp…how else can I say this…pin sharp, cuts paper, laser sharp…you get the idea. But what about with the 1.4x converter engaged at 840mm? Tack sharp…you will probably not even see a difference in image quality. I have shot thousands of images at 840mm F5.6…they are crazy sharp. You can increase acuity a little if you close down to F8, but I didn’t really worry about this since 5.6 is sharp. Look at the feather detail in the headshot above.
Autofocus birds in flight in a snowstorm…no problem.
Durability. I just spent a week in very cold conditions often photographing in heavy snow. But with Nikon’s new coatings on the front element, and tight weather sealing, I wasn’t worried about damaging the lens. This lens is meant for rugged professional use. The front element often had lots of snow pile onto it…blowing snow is tough when you need to shoot into the wind…I just wiped off the glass with a lens cloth and kept shooting.
The lens foot. I replaced the Nikon lens foot with a Really Right Stuff lens foot that has an Arca Swiss groove built into it. I just don’t like to use lens plates that seem to always loosen, especially using a large lens. I used my RRS TVC-3 tripod and RRS gimbal with the lens…buttery smooth panning and solid support.
Price. As you would expect for a top prime, this lens is expensive…$15,500. Comparing with similar primes from other brands, this lens is slightly more expensive, but you get two lenses in one; 600mm F4/840mm F5.6. Obviously this is a serious investment, and many photographers may be happier with lenses like the 400mm F4.5 or the 100-400mm. If you are in the market for this type of top tier lens, you won’t be disappointed. F4 at 600mm on a full frame camera melts backgrounds creating stunning bokeh. Combine this with a built-in 1.4x at 840mm F5.6, blazing autofocus and the lightest 600mm Nikon has ever made…well, you get the idea…a game changer for sure.