Nikon 600mm f/4E FL ED VR review

Nikon 600mm f/4E FL ED VR review
Review

Monday October 24, 2016

By Paul Carroll

One of the longest focal length options in the Nikkor line up, the Nikon 600mm f/4E is a high performance telephoto lens for professional sports and wildlife photographers.

Launched as an updated version of the currently still available Nikkor 600mm f/4G ED VR, the new model brings a number of improvements to ergonomics, performance and image quality.

Nikon 600mm f/4E FL ED VR Build & Handling

A new optical arrangement, including lighter Flourite lens elements, has allowed Nikon to reduce the overall weight by a staggering 25%, down to just 3810g.

Not only that but by shifting a lot of the lens’s weight towards the lens mount, the balance between lens and camera has been significantly improved.

It’s the first thing that strikes you when using the lens. It’s physically massive, but it doesn’t feel particularly heavy, about the same as using a 300mm f/2.8G in fact.

During testing I was quite comfortable carrying the 600mm f/4E around and shooting hand held for several hours, which is a big deal.

If you need to use a 600mm f/4 lens regularly, lumping it round between sports venues or wildlife locations, your back and shoulders are going to thank you for the reduced weight, better balance and easier use.

Shifting the weight closer to the camera has also allowed Nikon to swing the tripod mounting arm around and position it closer to the back of the lens, which is another improvement on the old 600mm f/4G design.

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Nikon 600mm f/4E FL ED VR review: Performance

Nikon 600mm f/4E FL ED VR Performance

The new 600mm f/4E features a number of performance enhancements including improved autofocus, additional Vibration Reduction (VR) controls and an Electromagnetic Diaphragm as denoted by the E in the lens name.

The VR system has been upgraded to offer up to 4-stops of vibration reduction compared to 2.5 stops on the 600mm f/4G and features a new SPORT VR mode for use when panning.

Although the vast majority of sports or wildlife subjects shot with a 600mm will demand use of a fast shutter speed, the enhancement to the VR system up to 4 stops is a welcome, especially considering the reduced weight and better weight balance mean you’re more likely to use the 600mm f/4E handheld.

I predominantly handheld during testing and was able achieve sharp portraits using a flash sync shutter speed of 1/200th and of sedentary birds with shutters as slow as 1/160th.

The old VR ring from the 600mm f/4G has been replaced by a new VR switch on the lens barrel, another welcome improvement, and now offers an additional SPORT mode.

In SPORT mode the VR system recognises panning motion during subject tracking to provide more accurate camera shake compensation in these scenarios. This could be useful for sharper shots when panning moving subjects with slow shutter speeds but I predominantly left it in NORMAL mode.

As you’d expect for a lens of this stature the autofocus is impressively quick and accurate under all but the worst lighting conditions. Used on both the Nikon D750 and D3s set to AF-C 51-point 3D tracking, the autofocus stayed locked onto fast moving subjects giving me a high hit rate of sharp shots.

In poor lighting conditions more hunting occurred but when there was some contrast to lock on to the focus was rapid.

The Focus Limiter switch remains to limit focus between 10m to infinity, thus preventing the lens trying to lock onto anything closer to the lens – such as a things passing in front of the lens you’re not interested in.

If you’re shooting wildlife over 10m away for example it’s a useful feature, but the addition of say a 10m – 20m limiter would also help prevent the lens trying to focus on something far in the distance, which would be handy with high contrast backlit scenes.

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The 600mm f/4E minimum focus distance has also been reduced from 4.8m to 4.4m allowing you to get closer to small subjects.

I wasn’t able to completely fill the frame shooting small birds at the minimum focus distance, but with the 24Mp D750 there was pretty of resolution to crop in for a high quality 12x8in print.

If you need to get closer in camera all three Nikon TC-14E III, TC-20E III and TC-17E II teleconverters are compatible and will extend the focal length without increasing the minimum focus distance.

In fact I used the Nikon AF-S TC-17E II to extend the focal length to 1000mm with a maximum aperture of f/7.1, and on both the Nikon D750 and Nikon D3s autofocus was still available, if a little slower.

Stopping down to f/8 with the teleconverter attached produced some reasonably sharp results, too.

The lens’s Memory Recall feature remains with well-placed buttons on the barrel for locking the focus to a particular distance and then recalling it quickly to that position when required, an invaluable feature in fast paced environments where you want to quickly and easily reset your focus without any faff.

The final enhancement, the Electromagnetic Diaphragm – or more simply a little motor in the lens to operate the aperture mechanism, is designed to improve the consistency of exposures during continuous high speed shooting.

Having shot a number of high-speed bursts, in a range of different lighting conditions during the field test, I was pretty impressed with the results recording very consistent exposures of up to 20 frames in a burst.

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Nikon 600mm f/4E FL ED VR Sample Photos

Nikon 600mm

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Nikon 600mm f/4E FL ED VR Image Quality

The image quality of the Nikon 600mm f/4E is outstanding with stunning sharpness at both the centre and edges of the frame. The inclusion of 4 Extra-low Dispersion (ED) lens elements minimises chromatic aberration, and having shot a number of high contrast and back-lit scenes there was no fringing to be seen.

Nikon’s Nano Crystal Coating and the large HK-40 lens hood helps reduce lens flare, which didn’t occur on any of the early morning side lit scenes or heavy side flash shots I captured and even shooting directly into the sun it was well controlled.

JPEGs straight out of camera offer good levels of contrast and excellent sharpness with fine details such as single strands of horsehair and eyelashes clearly visible.

Nikon 600mm f/4E FL ED VR review: Verdict

Nikon 600mm f/4E FL ED VR Verdict

With a £9649 / $12,297 price tag the new Nikon 600mm f/4E falls squarely into the pro or extremely serious enthusiast category but you get an awful lot of lens for your money.

The improvements to the optical arrangement, including the use of lighter Flourine lens elements and the re-balancing of the weight towards the rear, make the lens lighter and easier to use.

For pros using a 600mm regularly this is going to be the most attractive enhancement and quite possibly enough to justify an upgrade from an older 600mm f/4 model just on its own.

Performance and image quality are superb too though. The upgrades to a 4-stop VR with new SPORT mode for panning open up new creative possibilities and the inclusion of a Electromagnetic Diaphragm to control the aperture mechanism ensures more consistent exposures during high-speed continuous shooting, ensuring more of your frames can be used.

Autofocus is lightning quick in all but the worst lighting conditions and focus tracking a variety of subjects from birds to car to canoeists, my focus hit rate was more than acceptable.

Over the course of two weeks shooting in a range of different locations and subjects I found the 600mm f/4E a joy to use and was delighted with the results. If your photography can justify the cost, Nikon’s new 600mm will become a serious asset to your photographic arsenal.

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