In the following I combine a very technical report with a series of pictures of winter birds. If you are less interested in technology, just scroll on, because at the very bottom there are new impressions from nature 😉
Today, for once, I want to cheer about a product, the Nikkor Z600 TC-S.
The following article is a little longer. This is mainly due to some questions I have been asked in the last two weeks since I posted my new lens once on Instagram. Since the product cycle is also very long for lenses like this and the question about the alternative 400/2.8 often comes up, I wanted to write it down in detail. The content for overview:
- For what?
- Advantages and disadvantages
- Do you need it?
- Comparison Z400 TCS
- Comparison Z800 PF
- “Test pictures“
1. For what?
So finally I have a 600/4 with a built-in teleconverter, which really pulverises many moments of frustration for me in wildlife photography 😀 I don't know how many times I complained to my photo friends over the last few years about how annoying I find the converter change. Especially in places with different sized or distant or agile animals it has always been annoying. Especially this year I noticed it again, see almost all the wildlife entries in my blog...
- In February at the winter hide, where I'm photographing a little tit and the next moment the woodpecker is sitting in front of me.
- In March with the water birds, where one second a Little Grebe shows itself, the next a Cormorant flies by.
- In April with the stonechat, which slowly got used to me and repeatedly appeared very close in front of my lens for short moments.
- In June, when I photographed lapwing chicks and the next moment larger parents or godwits approached.
- In August, when a kingfisher regularly came too close and it was difficult to change the converter under the camouflage net without scaring the bird away.
- In September with the Norwegian white-tailed eagles, which we were able to photograph partly very close to the boat, partly at a great distance.
With all these series, a quick pan between 600 and 840mm would have helped me a lot and I missed some scenes as a result.
For many years I could not understand the product policy in this respect, because: the technology was there. In smaller lenses. It wasn't until 2022 that Nikon also built it into the new Superteles, which in my eyes was long overdue. I think photographers of other brands will also benefit from this, as I am relatively sure that all future Superteles will have it as standard.
I really have been waiting for this for years and I am super happy 😍
Well, what else can I say about the lens? I'll give you my first impressions. Even though I've only been able to test it for 2 weeks, I've already been able to use it for 8 days from sunrise to
sunset (with > 30k exposures, which is unfortunately fast since 20fps 🤦♂️). I was lucky that it was dry on each of my days off...
First of all the info what I can compare with Nikon-wise: after switching from Canon I owned the Nikon 500/4 VRII as well as 600/4 VRII for several years, then the Sigma 500/4 sports for two years, since 2019 I have been shooting with the Nikon 600/4 FL for three years and the Nikon Z 800/6.3 PF for the last half year. I also had the Nikon Z 400/2.8 on loan from the NPS for several days about 2 months ago and was able to test it extensively. Since January I have been using the Nikon Z9.
2. Advantages and disadvantages
In the following, I compare mainly with the predecessor, the 600/4 FL, sorted by practical relevance of the points, from my point of view:
Integrated converter: The solution is really well implemented. The lever is easy to reach and operate without looking, even while
shooting. The lever is so well positioned that, for example, I have my thumb on the AF-on button, my index finger on the shutter release and without moving them I can pan with my middle
finger. It doesn't get any better than that in my eyes. It only took me 2-3 days to get the hang of it. What I noticed immediately after the first few days of use: how often you now pan.
Before, it was often a constant consideration whether to change the converter, because there was always the danger of missing a scene or it was unclear whether you would change your mind 30
seconds later anyway. This is finally over and the conversion is really good.
Image stabiliser: the image stabiliser is clearly ahead of the 600 FL - I was already enthusiastic about this with the Z800 and I am with
this sweetheart too. This gives you much more possibilities to "score" without a tripod, especially from the car, freehand or spontaneously somewhere. By the way, I think this is also
important when working with a tripod. Because in nature the tripod often helps me to hold the weight for a long time, but it doesn't always stand on solid ground, depending on the type of
animal and use. For example in the Norwegian Fjell, as I recently had to discover.
Weight and balance: especially in combination with the previous point, this makes a big difference in practice: the weight saving on
840mm is a whole 740 grams compared to the predecessor model, leaving aside the weight of the previously required FTZ adapter. But the perceived difference is greater: the weight balance is
clearly more advantageous compared to the FL version, as it is far more central.
Maximum range: In my eyes, the Z800 was the first Nikon super-tele that you could really use at focal lengths over 1000mm, with 1.4 TK it
was 1,120mm at f/9 open aperture. However, the AF was poor and the conditions had to be good. That is why I have hardly used this option in practice.
I feel much better now, with the Z600: I had hardly any rejects even freehand at 1.176mm (at close range!) and found the performance impressive. Even slightly stopping down to f/9 was not necessary, f/8 was strong. A small addendum, as I was asked about it a few times after publication: the AF performance is still noticeably slower than at 840mm. Therefore I would never use this focal length e.g. at normal to long distance with moving animals like waterfowl, here the rejection is still too high. In my experience, it is also not possible, for example in summer (flickering) or with larger animals (e.g. mammals), to use this advantage in range sensibly. However, with small birds at close range this will be a good option for me, with the (non-moving) kingfisher this worked well.
Dimensions: a very relevant point for me. Due to the much shorter lens hood and the slightly shorter design, the handling is much better.
Yes, it's also nice in a backpack, but it's mainly relevant for me when photographing from the car, which I do very often, see also my wildlife series this year from Mallorca, Norway and the
Netherlands as well as on my doorstep at home.
Performance at 840mm: I imagine that with my previous lenses there was always a difference between performance with or without a 1.4
converter (optically less, but in terms of AF). This difference was not great with the 600 FL, but at least noticeable in low light. And in my opinion, that is no longer the case. The
performance with the TC is great.
Autofocus*: I did not use both 600s in parallel. However, I can make cross-comparisons: After switching from the 600FL to the Z800, the
Z800 always seemed a bit faster to me, whereas I didn't find the adapted 600FL slow. This is to be expected from a native Z lens without an adapter. Then I was able to test the Z400/2.8 at
784mm. I found the Z800 to be slightly faster compared to the 784mm of the 400 (comparison ever with Z9 firmware 2.1). In my opinion, the new Z600 is a bit faster than the Z800 (it also has a
better motor), which I notice, for example, in the pre-focusing of the branches of the kingfishers, where I had a lot of sessions with the Z800 in dim light this year (both under Z9 firmware
3.0). Also in performance with an additional external 1.4x teleconverter.In the end, however, I have to give the autofocus topic an asterisk: firstly, even the AF of the Z600 is not yet the
holy grail, as I noticed, for example, on 3 days of sitting with fast winterbirds. And secondly, the AF issue is always strongly dependent on the camera, the settings and the next firmware
update and thus quite volatile.
Sharpness and resolution: no 😉 I have decided not to post any crops or similar here, that's silly. I don't think anyone has to seriously
worry in 2022 that a new super-tele from one of the big "players" will only have a mediocre sharp image 😅 (defect models and transport damage aside, but then we're no longer talking about
typical properties of a lens and in my eyes that doesn't belong in a test report but in a damage form). Yes, everything is as it should be with the sharpness. But I will go into this a little
further in the comparisons with the 400 TCS and Z800.
A small digression on the side: if you are interested, I have described in this article (sorry at the moment only available in German) why I no longer think much of test chart photography and 100% views....Excursion end 😉
Bokeh: to be honest I had no "conspicuousness" about this - in my opinion the bokeh of the 600 FL was already very good and is not really
better now in my eyes, see also my backlit shots below. It may be that highlights are a little better, but I need to find out more...
Volume: compared to its 600 predecessor, this is a boon. Both AF and VR are very quiet (not silent) - especially the VR of the 600 FL
could be annoying before, depending on the situation. Personally, I hardly noticed it when I switched, since I came from a native lens (Z800) anyway.
- Lens cover: finally a practical cover - I find this one (LC K-107) much better than the one of the Z800, now you don't have to buy such a thing from other manufacturers anymore.
What I don't like:
Lens base: is it so difficult to provide an Arcaswiss-compatible lens base? I still don't understand why, at such a price, you have to
use external companies (I myself use the Kirk LP-72, which I already used on the Z800).
Lens Hood clamp: or whatever you call it. I really appreciated that on the Z800 there was no longer a protruding clamp. Will certainly
have its reasons related to size and weight, but I would have liked it better without the protruding element.
Focus limiting: the limitation of the autofocus distance makes sense and increases the AF performance - other companies have even more
limiting options at close range; Nikon does without this, which I find a pity.
- Weight: Yes, I know, it's already mentioned above under the advantages - but this is my blog entry and I'm taking the liberty 😅 What I mean here: in the end, despite the great weight improvement, it's not a freehand lens. Neither is the Z400/2.8, both of which I find heavy despite all the improvements. It's different with the Z800.
Can you use it briefly for freehand photos? Sure, and it's better than the previous models. But I could use the Z800 for minutes at a time for hours.
3. Do you need something like that as a wildlife photographer?
Nope 😅 If you have a good knowledge of the species, can invest enough time, focus on animals or get very close through consistent camouflage, you don't even need any super telephoto in my eyes. You can build up a great portfolio with telephoto zooms up to 400, 500 or 600mm, for example, as many photographers regularly prove.
However, the above-mentioned characteristics only apply to me to a limited extent. I don't like to disguise myself, I don't focus on wildlife photography, I don't like to compromise on image quality/exposure and I only really shoot at critical exposure times because otherwise the light doesn't suit me. Under these conditions, this lens helps me and makes a lot of things easier and reduces waste; but that doesn't mean you can't do them with simpler means.
The long focal length of 840mm+ also helps to shoot animals from a greater distance and not have to get too close to them.
I like to take habitat shots with a bit more „free space“ and I can do this at 840mm from a very long distance, for example, or at 600mm with aperture 4, which is a lot of fun.
Here are two more detailed comparisons - if you don't need them, scroll down to the conclusion and the pictures 😅
4. Comparison Z 400/2.8
Complex topic. Despite the many advantages over the 600 FL, I wasn't sure for a while and wondered if the Z 400/2.8 might be better after all. Here are my thoughts on how the decision to buy came about.
First of all, I don't think there is a "better" or "worse". Each will be Nikon's best in its native focal length range, it depends on the personal use or user profile - mine looks like this for now:
I was tempted by the 2.8 aperture. But I don't need it very often. I think currently it would be about 5-10% of the shots (only wildlife), but I would probably also adapt my photographic habits and double this share, let's say, to up to 20%. Although I have to say that currently a good third of the 400mm shots are habitat shots anyway, which I can do without any problems with my Z100-400, which I always have with me. This picture from the Z100-400 (not even a habitat shot) wouldn't look much better with a Z400 2.8, for example.
Either way, there's still a good 80% that the Z 600 also images.
I use around 800mm most often, and around 600mm second most often. This is certainly also due to my enthusiasm for bird photography. The 56mm extra focal length doesn't really make much difference, but it's not completely irrelevant either - here, of course, I have to compare the 400 at 784mm with the 840mm of the 600, because it's precisely with these expensive, modern lenses that I want to make use of the possibility of swivelling and therefore the 2x TC is out of the question (I don't buy such advanced technology to end up screwing converters on and off.
The decisive factor for me was this comparison: as already mentioned above, I had put the Z 400/2.8 at 784mm through its paces for a few days alongside my Z800, as the NPS had made it available to me. I also tested it mainly at 784mm, because there is no question that the part is extraordinarily good in the lower focal length ranges. Here I noticed 2 differences:
- When I compared the image quality of the good images of a series under "real world" conditions (hand on the cam, stabiliser, continuous shutter releases, AF-C, soft light etc - i.e. no test chart conditions 😅), both lenses were about the same up. Especially in sharpness and contrast. Yesterday I looked again at a lot of pictures of this combination for this article (specifically at various kingfisher shoots that I had also shot with the Z800 from the same distance and the same point of view). In my eyes, the Z800 consistently shows a little more fine detail in all series, regardless of light and weather, only visible in the 100% view. When developing, for example, a 1600px image, no one would notice this.
- In many series on 784mm (20fps of the Z9) there were images with a slight "soft look" regarding sharpness. A sort of „waste“, except I don't think the term is appropriate as they are not really out of focus images. At a rate I was definitely not used to from the Z800. And that's even with static subjects, we're not even talking about moving objects.
That was not satisfactory for me. Clearly, I would have liked to have saved money, length and weight here and gone for the 400, but I had this effect with almost all series.
Now there are subjects where it doesn't matter at all. If, as recently in Norway, a bewildered moose stares at me for 2 seconds, I can shoot 40 pictures at 20fps - even with the 400 there are enough sharp and high-contrast pictures, despite the "waste". However, if I try to take pictures of birds in flight (I have done this quite often this year and would like to expand this), I usually only have one picture with 40 shots where the wing position is perfect. Then things look different and I would like to have mostly the fine details of the Z800.
A precise analysis of the cause is difficult for me. Optics? AF? Converter? Diffusion?
I suspect it is a sum of optics and AF, the additional (in principle second) teleconverter with the Z400 on 784mm will certainly not exactly improve the performance. One indicator was also the pre-focusing of sitting branches in dim light - here I noticed a slight difference in the speed of AF, per the Z800. But hey, we're not talking about a bad performance of the Z400 at all, just that the Z800 was a touch better in my eyes and as a reminder: the Z800 has a "simpler" AF motor than the Z600. Obviously, even with such lenses it makes a difference whether you use it on the native focal length or with an external converter. But the 400 is brilliant at 400-560mm and still very good at 784mm.
If I ever use less than say 30-40% around 800mm in the future, I would switch to the Z400 without hesitation, who knows what the future holds.
That's why I was very sure before ordering that the Z600 would perform even better at 840mm, as it was expected to be on about the same optical level as the Z800 at the long focal length. Anything else would be pointless and Nikon could have saved itself the trouble of developing the Z600. And my first impressions confirm this in practice, the imaging performance is brilliant even at 840mm, in the "real world" test I see no differences to the Z800. In my eyes, the AF is the fastest of the super-telephoto lenses mentioned (at the long focal length).
5. Comparison Z 800/6.3
This comparison, you can`t hear it now, makes my teeth grind a little 😉 I have to say, I will miss the Z800 regularly. There is no alternative to the switch for me, because I simply need the focal length of approx. 600mm on a regular basis and now and then also f/4, I noticed that directly in the half year of use. Frankly speaking, I noticed this for the first time when I received the shipping confirmation of the Z 800 in May 🤦♂️
Because at that time I was working on this black-throated series on Mallorca and quite honestly, I had the best situations at 600/4 from the car, which is rather unusual in songbird photography. I had the 600 FL with me at the time and was totally happy to have taken it with me.
For a while I thought the combo of Z400/2.8 and Z800 would be perfect, but I've been looking at it again explicitly in the last few months: it doesn't work at all for my photography, I can't handle two lenses this size and would always have to look into the crystal ball as to which one I leave in the car or at home. Especially when travelling. I need one good tele-lens.
I have already described above how the lenses relate to each other optically. It is super sharp. I'd rather emphasise the following: the compactness and lightness of the Z800. That's really miles ahead of the Z600. In this respect, my heart bleeds a little, because in situations or species where you mainly shoot at 800, I would regularly prefer that. For example, when photographing bluebirds on Texel.
I myself travel a lot and therefore regularly have good wildlife options, also for 600mm blank. But for bird photographers, for example, who like to wander through the neighbouring nature reserve on foot or by bicycle without camouflage and spontaneously want to capture what they see, the lens is ideal in my eyes.
Especially the price-performance ratio of this lens is almost sensational - in the early years of my photography (at that time with Canon 500/4 V1) this lens would have been ideal for me, because at that time I "chased" birds 99.9% of the time at 700mm and constantly had to carry around the 4.1kg 😮 (with TC). This lens would have been a dream; it's great how far technical development has come.
Let's be honest, many advantages over the previous model, for example in AF, stabiliser and weight, were to be expected. In the sense of the usual model maintenance of a new lens generation. The weight level, for example, has been state of the art with Canon for a long time. However, the fact that Nikon was able to shorten the length of the native Canon 600 by another 4 cm, even including the integrated converter, is something I would not have suspected before, given the physical length required for a 600/4. Including the lens hood it is even 10cm shorter, which is absolutely relevant for me, as described above.
In terms of sharpness, I think all 600s have been on about the same level for a long time, I can't see any clear advantages here.
Overall, however, I am thrilled with the implementation of the idea of the "flexible fixed focal length". The balance and handling are great, the AF and VR are absolutely quiet and perform well, the stabiliser is great and the panning function is just superbly built - so for me personally the lens is definitely more revolution than evolution. It's just so much fun to use. I hope you found my first impressions interesting.
7. “Test Pictures"
Below I show a few more pictures taken with the Z600 since 1.December. At first I took a lot of "technical test photos", but I think there are a few aesthetic ones. All the pictures show wild animals, taken in the „Sauerland“, western part of germany. I was particularly pleased that even the kingfisher was very gracious these days (normally a lottery), so the hours under the camouflage net were worth it. Literally froze my butt off for the series 😅
For once I'm showing them a bit bigger (1600px), so please don't look at them on your smartphone 😀, on your computer you'll have to click them first to see them in full resolution, depending on your browser.
All images are developed exclusively with Lightroom and the wildlife images have been denoised with DXO pureraw2. Some of them are clearly cropped, that's why I give the mp number. But now: have fun with the pictures 😀
I hope you enjoyed the series 🖐