Time for Big Glass

If you remember my trip to Alaska, last year, I determined I needed some longer reach because I didn't have a lens that could capture a decent frame of the distant wildlife.  This year, I rented the 200-400mm F4 Nikkor zoom, one of Nikon's super-telephotos, often called "big glass."  Nikon also makes both 500mm and 600mm, fixed focal lengths (still F4), but I wanted the flexibility of a zoom.  And, although the 200-400 weighs in at a hefty 6.4 pounds, the 600 weighs more than 12 pounds.  That gets to be quite a load to carry all day long.  Here is the 200-400 next to my 70-200 (usually the longest lens I carry).  I carried a monopod for stability, as you saw in Tuesday's shot from my brother-in-law.

size comparison of Nikon 70-200 and 200-400

Using big glass is a different experience.  It takes a little practice getting used to it.  You have to know where you're aiming that thing because the field of view is so narrow.  Your subject can rapidly move in and out of your viewfinder with just minor camera movement.  Proper holding techniques and the fastest shutter speeds possible are important to get a sharply focused image.

Wolf in the wild of Denali National Park, Alaska.

This wolf was moving towards us at a leisurely pace, but I still had trouble keeping him in the viewfinder.  I like this shot, but I cut off the wolf's paws at 380mm.  Also, notice that his tail is not sharp because I had the aperture wide open at F4.  Regardless of the shallow depth of field, the most important thing in wildlife photography is to get the eyes in sharp focus.  Happily, I did manage to do that.

The wolf got so close to the bus, I had to dial down the zoom to 200.  Even then, I could only get part of him into the viewfinder.  This dude was close.  Everyone was very silent on the bus.

Wolf close up in the wilds of Denali National Park, Alaska.

Besides getting used to the narrow field of view, the weight of this lens can also be contentious.  Hand-holding is not easy, so you should use a monopod or, ideally, a tripod.  I had both, but, when I was out on the boat in Kenai Fjords, the rolling of the boat rendered them useless.  In Denali National Park, we were on a bus with no room for tripod or monopod.  In both cases, I had to hand-hold the camera, braced against the boat cabin or using the bus window for support.  I guess I could have put the lens away, but I didn't carry that thing all the way to Alaska to have it sit in the case.

Glaciers in Kenai Fjords National Park, Seward, Alaska.

I spent two days on the boat, so I used the 200-400 on the first day when the seas were relatively calm.  The next day was overcast and windy, and I switched back to the 70-200.  There was just too much motion for me to use the big lens.

Sea otter in Resurrection Bay, Seward, Alaska.

On the way to Anchorage, we came across mountain goats on the cliffs.  We pulled into a wide spot in the road and ran along the Cook Inlet drop-off to get a closer view.  With stable ground, the monopod was a blessing.  These goats were on the cliffs about 1,000 feet above the highway.  The 200-400 was made for this kind of photo.

Mountain goat on the cliffs, south of Anchorage, Alaska.

Mountain goat on the cliffs, south of Anchorage, Alaska.

All in all, I loved the lens, and anyone looking for a nice Christmas present should feel free to buy it for me.  (I've seen it priced as low as $6,400.)  I wanted more than the two weeks I had it to get more proficient with it, even though I shot it almost every day.  Although I don't often go after wildlife, I will rent it again if the occasion arises.  If you are going somewhere where big glass would help you bring in a distant subject  - like wild animals - consider renting some big glass for your camera.  This lens really enhanced my photographic fun.

Ptarmigan, Alaska's State bird