Shooting an airshow with the Nikon AF-S Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR lens

October 17, 2015 210 [KMCAS Air Show] October 17, 2015 596 [KMCAS Air Show]-2
October 17, 2015 300 [KMCAS Air Show] October 17, 2015 316 [KMCAS Air Show]
This Shooting an airshow with the Nikon AF-S Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR lens post is by Jason Chu:

Greetings NR readers!  My name is Jason and I have been a Hawaii based photographer for the past 6 years.  A month ago I decided to see an airshow as I haven’t been to one in many years.  Since the local photo gear rental shop I frequent just got their delivery of the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E lens I was very keen on testing out this lens on fast but predictable moving targets.  I was also interested in testing out the lens since I was seriously considering it as a future lens purchase.

October 17, 2015 002 [KMCAS Air Show]
A Marine CH-53E Super Stallion cargo helicopter transporting an artillery piece.

October 17, 2015 229 [KMCAS Air Show]
An F-16 Falcon taking off.

October 17, 2015 035 [KMCAS Air Show]
A Boeing C-17 Globemaster III making a sharp right bank.

A bit of background, I am primarily a landscape and night photographer with a lot of good, large aperture wide-angle glass so I usually don’t use anything in the 200mm and above range.  However I’ve always wanted a lens that can go beyond 300mm that won’t break the bank.  Before the 200-500mm lens came out, choices for photographers in similar situations were limited to only a few possibilities in what Nikon had to offer, but now given the $1400 price tag the super-telephoto range is much more accessible now.  Despite this (welcomed) low price, it still has some of Nikon’s latest technologies, including the E designation which stands for electromagnetic diaphragm.  Instead of using a mechanical aperture lever, the aperture blades are controlled electronically so as to greatly improve exposure accuracy.  Since I was shooting at the highest frame rate possible at fast shutter speeds (~1/1000 sec.) on the D750 (6.5 FPS) the electromagnetic diaphragm came in very handy.

October 17, 2015 192 [KMCAS Air Show]
The United States Navy Parachute Team, commonly known as the Leap Frogs.

October 17, 2015 300 [KMCAS Air Show]
An F-16 with some blowback, which happens for only a moment when water vapor condenses around a fast moving jet.

October 17, 2015 647 [KMCAS Air Show]
The US Navy Blue Angels fly past in a delta formation.

October 17, 2015 166 [KMCAS Air Show]
The Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter, which is best known in the real world events of “Black Hawk Down.”

I had the lens attached to my BlackRapid straps which made it possible for me to walk around with that lens for a solid 6 hours!  As others have said the lens is quite heavy, but I was still able to hand-hold it the whole day even though I’m not a weightlifter.  The tripod ring was mounted at a convenient part of the lens barrel such that I can zoom without any trouble.  The focus ring is however further back and in cases where manual focus was needed, it would take a few seconds for me to shift my hand back a bit to grab the focus ring.  Fortunately I didn’t really have to do that as I relied on autofocus the whole time.  When extended at 500mm the lens gets really long, so long that I have to be careful and not hit other spectators during the airshow!

October 17, 2015 012 [KMCAS Air Show]
Air show performers walking back to the staging area.

October 17, 2015 706 [KMCAS Air Show]
A Boeing B-52 Stratofortress bomber makes a flyby.

October 17, 2015 520 [KMCAS Air Show]
The Blue Angels flying by in a diamond formation.

October 17, 2015 096 [KMCAS Air Show]
A flyby of the US Coastguard version of the C-130 transport aircraft.

I pretty much shot the entire show at the f/5.6 setting since it gave me the fastest shutter speeds on my D750.  The weather was overcast for the most part so I had less light to work with than most of the other airshows I’ve been to.  I also wanted to see how the lens performed when stretched to the max.  Unfortunately since I was renting the lens I did not have any time to fine tune its autofocus, so I believe some of the shots I got were slightly out of focus because I didn’t calibrate it.  However in cases where critical focus was achieved, the lens sharpness is simply amazing.  By the way, although the lens I used had a serial number that is included in Nikon’s service advisory, I didn’t have any issues with the AF turning off while zooming and half-pressing the shutter release.  I’ve noticed Nikon recently has been making very good quality lenses that can be handled on higher megapixel sensors such as the D750 and D810.  On the other hand the lens’ bokeh was also quite pleasing to my eye, with no real hint of outlining or nervousness anywhere.  Chromatic aberration was also virtually nonexistent.

October 17, 2015 210 [KMCAS Air Show]
Close up of one of the pilots.

October 17, 2015 255 [KMCAS Air Show]
Upside down F-16 flies past the crowd.

October 17, 2015 458 [KMCAS Air Show]
Close up of one of the Blue Angel pilots.

The lens’ vibration reduction was also very useful in keeping the frame steady especially when tracking aircraft executing their demonstrations.  Although I didn’t specifically test how many stop of VR it provided, it was definitely enough especially at 500mm.  I had the VR set to normal mode the whole time since I was panning and tracking the whole time, and can predict where the aircraft will go.  On the other hand distortion was barely noticed at all, and vignetting was easy to correct.  Since I don’t have the latest Lightroom version I couldn’t use my usual automatic lens correction tool for correcting vignetting.  However I did find the best correction setting to be +36 with a midpoint of 11 throughout the entire zoom range.

October 17, 2015 557 [KMCAS Air Show]
The Blue Angels with their carrier arresting hooks down.

October 17, 2015 316 [KMCAS Air Show]
F-16 executing a very tight turn with some blowback.

October 17, 2015 596 [KMCAS Air Show]
The Blue Angels in tight formation.

October 17, 2015 596 [KMCAS Air Show]-2
Close up 100% view of the pilots from the previous shot.

The zoom range is just perfect, picking up where my 70-200mm f2/8G lens leaves off, this lens extends my range all the way out to 500mm and at f/5.6.  Most other high-powered zooms usually have max apertures down to f/6.3.  I personally would rather have a constant aperture zoom at f/5.6 than have a variable aperture zoom that’s larger on the short focal length side.  The lens is also great in that it lets me capture close ups of the individual performers, but at the same time I can also easily zoom out when the aircraft get really close to the flightline.

October 17, 2015 687 [KMCAS Air Show]
The wife took a picture of me with the lens at 500mm with the hood while I was shooting the approaching B-52 bomber.

Size comparison of the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E and 70-200 f/2.8 lenses
Size comparison of the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E.  Even at 200mm it looks like it will eat my 70-200 f/2.8 lens.

October 17, 2015 712 [KMCAS Air Show]
“Look ma!  No aperture ring!”

So in conclusion, the zoom range of the lens is excellent, vibration reduction works really well, the bokeh is excellent in my opinion, and the sharpness I was able to achieve (despite not AF-fine tuning) was impressive.  The focus was very snappy and didn’t have any troubles with my D750.  The vignetting was also easy to correct.  There aren’t many drawbacks to the lens in my opinion, other than the fact that it is a very large and heavy lens, and the fact that the filter size is 95mm which is very expensive.  The price is also very attractive I believe as well.  I highly recommend this lens!

Thanks to Hawaii Camera for lending me the lens!

If you have an interesting idea for a guest post, you can contact me here.
The Nikon AF-S Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR lens is finally in stock in the US.

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