Review: Nikon 500mm f/4 and Nikon D800 for Event Photography

When event photography like sports photography or live music photography, where the action can often happen far back from where official media photographers are positioned, even professional photographers can be put in situations where their go-to photo gear simply isn't enough.

Enter the super-telephoto lens rental. My choice is with my friends at LensProToGo.com.

This is a hands-on review of using the Nikon 500mm f/4 VR in combination with the Nikon D800 for event photography. When you absolutely must deliver killer files from a distance, how does this combo stack up? I'll give you the answer and plenty of 100% crops.

The Nikon D800 DSLR

A D800 isn't normally the first camera one thinks of for event photography. For one, it's a relatively slow camera at 4.5 FPS. In addition, the 36 megapixel files are a beast to process in any great number, especially in the quantity that can be produced by event photography. In short, it's overkill in terms of resolution and kind of weak on speed.

Still, for all the camera's slowness, it does feature excellent AF and fantastic image quality – even at high ISO. Add in those big 36mp, and you have a camera that can pair exceptionally well with telephotos for distance shoots.

The Resolution Advantage

The benefits of resolution on a distance shoot are many. For one, you can crop massively into an image and still maintain exceptional detail. This boon is all without the need for a teleconverter that decreases the effective aperture, so you can shoot at higher shutter speeds and lower ISOs than you might if using a TC on a lower resolution camera that is designed for events, such as the Nikon D3s or Nikon D4.

Another advantage of shooting a high resolution camera like the Nikon D800 is that the ability to crop gives you framing flexibility that faster, lower resolution camer does not. With an excess of pixels at one's disposal, it's simple to shoot loose and simple crop as needed to a subject without worrying about losing critical resolution.

The Nikon 500mm f/4

The Nikon 500mm f/4 is a lens that retails for $8,389.00 from fine sellers like  BHPhotoVideo.com and Amazon.com. It's a premium lens that comes at a premium price. Of course, it has the performance to match. It's got VR II, nano coating, a state-of-the-art computer generated design – everything you'd expect for the price of a small car.

Most importantly, it's a 500mm lens that gets you there.

Naturally, most of us could never dream of affording to purchase such a specialized lens. That's where LensProToGo.com have got you covered. I've rented from these guys for years and years, and not only do they deliver, Paul Friedman and his crew are some of the nicest guys around.

 (Todd Owyoung)

Supporting A Super-Telephoto

First off, this lens is a beast, but it's still at what I would consider it on the very very limit of being handholdable should you need to in a pinch. You could swing it with the help of VR if need be, but camera shake is going to be a huge issue. I recommend using a monopod or tripod as a first option with a lens like this whenever possible.

If using a monopod, I'd suggest a simple tilt head, which will limit movement of the lens and camera to the vertical axis on the head, while obviously you can turn horizontally by pivoting on the monopod.

If using a tripod, the head is a gimbal style head is the ideal type of head to use. This type of head transfers the point of pivoting to the side of the lens, and centers the lens over the tripod.. The reason that this shift is important is that means that there's no possibility of the lens toppling over, and it eliminates the need to support the lens even when the vertical and horizontal movements are freed.

Short of a Gimbal head, it's still possible to use a traditional ballhead or tilt head with a super-telephoto, it just requires more support from the user while using the lens.

AF Speed & Performance

For a tremendously huge lens, the AF speed of the Nikon 500mm f/4 is actually great. All I can think about is how much battery power this lens must be sucking from the camera when I'm using it, especially when VR is engaged. But I digress.

AF speed is very swift and with the Nikon D800, very fast and precise. Trust me, if this lens can keep up with hip hop performers bouncing around a stage, I think it's doing pretty well.

AF hunting with this lens is almost non-existant. The Nikon D800 locked on like a magnet in almost all instances.

Vibration Reduction

VR on the Nikon 500mm f/4 works and it works well. It features a dedicated tripod mode for shooting with the camera stabilized that eliminates unnecessary VR corrections.

Sample Images

This is what you're after – the sample images. Because everything else I've written before this could be crap. Full frame images followed by 100% crops from the scene.

Sample Image #1 – 2 Chainz

Rapper 2 Chainz performing in support of Nicki Minaj on the Pink Friday Tour 2012 at the Peabody Opera House in St. Louis on July 31, 2012. (Todd Owyoung)

Sample Image #2 – Nicki Minaj

Second sample. If this doesn't convince you, nothing will.

Photos of Nicki Minaj performing on the Pink Friday Tour at the Peabody Opera House on July 31, 2012. (Todd Owyoung)

Again, these are 100% crops at high ISO from a 36 megapixel sensor shooting wide open with super telephoto lens. For me, this second sample was really what sold me on this combination.

Specifically, that first crop. I mean, come on. That's stupidly sharp, and for several of reasons.

  1. The subject is really far away.
  2. The subject is moving.
  3. The crops are from the very edge of the frame, where performance should be worst.
  4. The crops are on the unforgiving, optic-humbling 36mp of the D800, which makes most normal lenses weep.

All things should add up to sub-par image quality. But they don't. Not with the Nikon 500mm f/4 VR. And that is why it's a $8k lens.

End Notes:

Sure, for a total of over $11,000 for the camera and lens, you'd expect nothing less. But that doesn't make the sharpness of the Nikon 500mm f/4 any less impressive, especially when you're considering the detail it's rendering wide open on a sensor as demanding as that of the Nikon D800.

In terms of the camera itself, the high ISO performance is excellent and I would not hesitate to use it for most event photography. It's good up to ISO 6400. Yes, you will get noise, but not at levels any greater than the Nikon D3 or D700. In fact, in real world testing, the D800 seems to perform just a little better at high ISO than both of these cameras. When you add in the extra pixels and the fact that at the same print size digital noise in the D800 will be less prominent than that of the D3/D700, the D800 may even get the hat tip for image quality.

For flexibility, where the D800 and a prime telephoto really shine is in the flexibility of cropping. There's just so much resolution at one's disposal, cropping instead of using a teleconverter is now a very real and very viable option.

All in all, the D800 and Nikon 500mm f/4 are a killer, high performance combo. High price, but if you have an assignment where you need to get there, this setup has got you covered in all kinds of ways. Hit up my friends at LensProToGo.com next time you need a telephoto on assignment—I know I will.

My Camera DSLR and Lenses for Concert Photography

Nikon D750:
I use two Nikon D750 for my live music photography. Amazing high ISO performance in a compact body with tons of pro features.
nikon-24-70mm-f28-lens-squareNikon 24-70mm f/2.8:
For most gigs, the 24-70mm is my go-to lens. Exceptional image quality at wide apertures and super-functional range.
Nikon-70-200-squareNikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR:
A perfect pair to the Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8, I can basically shoot any job with the midrange and this lens. Superb image quality.
nikon-14-24mm-f28-lens-squareNikon 14-24mm f/2.8:
Ultra-wide perspective, ridiculously sharp even wide open at f/2.8. I love using this lens up-close and personal, where it excels.
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