July 11, 2020 ~ I’m over the moon with my new lens. It is the Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR. Nikon lens codes are famously cryptic. But the important one for me in this case is PF, which stands for Phase Fresnel (say freh-nel). The Fresnel technology has been known since the 1820’s; it was originally used to create lighthouse lamps without the enormous weight in glass that would be required by a conventional lens of the same brilliance and focus. The “phase” aspect in the Nikon lens refers to focusing different wavelengths of light to different degrees, minimizing chromatic aberration, as illustrated in this story from Moose Peterson, Nikon Ambassador.
I couldn’t wait to take it out, so sunshine-be-darned, out I went.
I spotted this juvenile Green Heron on a low tree branch over the water, at Elm Lake, in Brazos Bend State Park (BBSP). The juveniles have those distinctive chartreuse lores, and a geometric spotted pattern on their wings. Their bodies and necks are not as filled out and robust as the adults.
I glanced away (I suspect birds know when you’re not looking) and he flew low under the lotus leaves now hovering above the surface of the water. Crouching down, I was able to spot him again as he walked under the leaves, and I caught this juvenile Green Heron in his tropical green world.
I thought that the most important characteristic of the PF lens would be its light weight. It weighs 3.2 pounds, as opposed to my 200-500mm zoom lens, which weighs 5 pounds. This lens is only 9” long, compared to my old zoom lens, which was 14” long at 500mm. The lighter weight and shorter length meant that I could shoot without a tripod. I could shoot under the pier. I could swivel on one foot to shoot birds flying by, mere dozens of feet away. I could squat down to get eye-level with a bird. Shooting hand-held is liberating. And, since my old lens requires the use of the tripod, all my trips required carrying a minimum of 14.5 pounds of gear (camera, lens, tripod, gimbal head), compared to a minimum of 5.5 pounds for the camera and new lens.
Here are my two 500mm lenses, side by side. The one on the left (the big one) is my old 200-500mm lens, and the one on the right is my new 500mm PF lens.
At BBSP, I recognized the call of the Black-bellied Whistling Duck, and was able to follow it to the very edge of the path (checking first for lurking alligators), swinging the camera up to catch this beauty, right before he flew into the trees over my head. My improved reaction speed caught the shot.
And there you have it. That shot highlights the aspect of this lens that is truly superior – the drool-worthy clarity of the image. If you click and zoom in, you can see the trees reflected in his eye, the delicate veins in the webbing of his feet, the tiny square edges of the feathers on his cheek. This is as much the result of the Fresnel technology as the fact that this is a “prime” lens, meaning that it has only one focal length (500mm), and cannot zoom in and out. A zoom lens’s versatility requires extra glass, and every additional lens element and extra moving part decreases image accuracy.
Following smaller birds that flit about in pursuit of the insects they eat is much easier with the hand-held camera. This Red-winged Blackbird was zipping from one lotus pod to another, flying up underneath lotus leaves, catching bugs. As he darted into and out of view, I was able to easily follow him with the hand-held 500 PF.
Compare the above photo with this Red-winged Blackbird taken at Anahuac. This image might be a more handsome image of the bird, with fresher greenery and less-worn plumage, but the lack of definition in his feathers and eye when compared with the image above is noticeable.
Likewise, here are two photos of Little Blue Herons. The first one, facing left, was taken last week at Cullinan Park with the 200-500mm lens. The second one, facing right, was taken this week out at BBSP with my new 500PF. Both were taken in the early afternoon, in nearly full sun (just a thin haze). While the 200-500 lens does a respectable job of rendering the texture of feathers and the nuances of color variations, the 500PF is clearly a step up. The silky soft texture of the feathers is clear in the 500PF photo, and by comparison, the plumage in the 200-500 photo looks somewhat flat.
Of course, I will have to learn to be faster on my feet. The above shot would not have fit in the frame at 500mm, so I would have had to step back… but that will be much easier when my feet aren’t tangled up in tripod legs.
How did I land upon this specific lens? Well, bird photographer Linda Murdock has been extremely happy with her 500PF, and she invited me to test drive hers during an early June visit to BBSP. Our camera bodies are identical, so I popped one of my chips into her camera and shot for a few minutes with her lens. During that session, I took this photo of a Cattle Egret. It was warming up to be a blazing sun-storm, but the early morning light caught the bird’s wing at just the right angle to highlight the texture rather than washing out. The detail of the barbules (the individual fibers that make up the flat vane of the feather) is visible and, in this one instant, created a moiré pattern in some of his feathers. I was astonished… and sold. Yes, I understand that the moiré pattern is generally undesirable in a photo… but the fact that the camera and lens could capture enough detail to create the pattern in the first place gave me goosebumps.
So, for me, the advantages of my old Nikkor 200-500mm were respectable wildlife photography performance for an entry-level price tag, and its ability to zoom, backing out of full magnification to handle larger or closer subjects. The advantages of the 500PF are its light weight and superior visual quality, rendering images with real sharpness. I won’t be getting rid of my tripod – it is still invaluable for long-distance shots, and for long-exposure shots. And I don’t regret purchasing the 200-500mm zoom lens; it has been a sturdy workhorse and faithful friend during the first 18 months of my photographic learning journey. Now all I need to do is make sure my skills are worthy of my lovely new lens.