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Nikon at last matches Canon's most powerful super telephoto lens

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Posted 12-07-12 at 01:07 PM by Ian

This is Nikon's 600mm f/4 VR and later this year it will be joined by an 800mm f/5.6 VR

Nikon today announced that it is developing an F-mount FX 800mm f/5.6 VR super telephoto lens. To date, Nikon wildlife and sports photographers have been limited to Nikon's 600mm f/4 and 500mm f/4 lenses. So the announcement of an 800mm stabilised lens is undoubtedly going to put a spring in the steps of some Nikon fans.

It does seem rather odd that Nikon has taken such a long time to fill this gap at the top of their professional lens range. Canon has had an 800mm f/5.6 with stabilisation for some time now and Canon shooters have also enjoyed the use of stabilised 500 and 600mm lenses. Despite this, Nikon has steadily made inroads into the professional photographers' domain once dominated by Canon.

But this got me thinking. 800mm is a focal length that demands respect, but Nikon and Canon, and others, have produced longer lenses in the past, so why are contemporary super telephoto lenses limited to just 600 or 800mm?

Sheer weight and bulk may have something to do with it. For autofocus to work reliably, until recently, a maximum aperture no darker than f/5.6 was necessary. An 800mm f/5.6 lens is huge. Canon's example weighs almost 10lb and is a foot and a half long. Stick the lens hood on and it's another 7-8 inches longer. The laws of physics can't be bypassed and Nikon's new lens will be of similar dimensions.

Canon did produce a limited edition 1200mm f/5.6 back in the 1980s, originally for the old FD-mount Canon F1, but all examples were later converted to the Canon EOS EF mount. Only a couple of dozen examples are thought to have been made.

Another possible explanation for Nikon's tardiness in going for a lens longer than 600mm could be explained by its relative lateness in producing a full frame DSLR. With APS-C sensor DX format DSLRs you get a cropping factor of 1.5x so a 600mm lens has the same field of view as a 1.5 x 600 = 900mm lens on a full frame camera.

Nikon's lates D800 and D4 bodies can now reliably autofocus even when the brightness falls below f/5.6, meaning you can realistically use a 1.4x teleconverter with f/5.6 lenses. Such a converter would turn an 800mm f/5.6 into a 1120mm f/8. Fit that combo onto an APS-C Nikon D300s or D7000 and you have a whopping 1680mm f/8 telephoto. You might have to manually focus it, but I can imagine some paparazzis not minding that inconvenience!
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