June 7th, 2012



The Long and Short of It

Apologies for a somewhat technical discussion -- you can skip most of this and just look at the pictures of The Big Lens and I won't be offended. (grin)

A couple of weeks ago I reported about achieving part of my "bucket lens" dreams with the purchase of the oddball Sigma 12mm f8 Fish-eye (DW), giving me a full-frame fisheye lens for my Nikon D1/D1X/D1H.

But before that I had acquired the #1 objective on my bucket lens list and had found the last version of the world's first superzoom lens -- the Nikon 200-600mm f9.5 AIS Zoom-Nikkor on eBay. Yes, I said f9.5. This version has the improved lens formula with 19 elements in 12 groups and both the AI meter coupling link and the AIS programmed coupling prong for the Nikon FA -- which has the added benefit of having a linear response on the automatic aperture link, which means if I ever have the lens CPU chipped, it will shoot perfectly with all the modern Nikon digital cameras.

According to my Nikon serial numbers source, there were 5167 of all versions of the 200-600mm made over a remarkable 20 years, but by numbers the rarest is this last model, with only 525 of the AIS version produced. Good news for me is that most collectors want the earlier lenses -- I wanted one to shoot. Way to go me.

Front end of 200-600mm f9.5 AIS Zoom-Nikkor. The front of the lens takes an 82mm filter and the HN-10 lens hood splits in half to hold similarly sized Series IX filters. I also managed to snag the 82mm/Series IX unmarked Close Up Attachment lens, which changes the focusing range from ∞-13 feet, down to 13-7.5 feet. Don't know when I'll have a use for that, but most of these got separated and lost.

What's a superzoom? It's a zoom lens that falls into the supertelephoto range. For me, that's 400mm or longer -- 300mm lenses are on the border and qualify for supertelephoto only if they're the big 300mm f2.8 or f2 lenses. The thing about supertelephoto lenses is that they're a pain to use. And some are frightfully expensive -- nearly all are more that I paid for the 200-600. You really need to choreograph using them. Their high magnification amplifies any motion or vibration, many are heavy and difficult or impossible to handhold and their shallow depth of field makes them hard to focus. Harder still when it's f9.5 wide open.

Nikon came out with their first 35mm SLR, the Nikon F, in 1959. Two years later in 1961 they introduced two zoom lenses -- there'd been only one zoom lens for 35mm cameras before that -- the 8.5-25.0cm f4-4.5 and the 20-60cm f9.5-10.5. A clean AI-converted 85-250mm f4 Zoom-Nikkor is on my bucket lens list partly because it matches the 200-600 and uses the same filters and hood. For that matter, so does the 500mm f8N Reflex-Nikkor. For a while I owned a Sigma 500mm f8 Mirror lens in a Nikon mount, but it had this setscrew for rotating the camera to vertical which scratched both my Nikon F2 Photomic and F2SB Photomic finders. And before the 200-600, I could go to 400mm f8 with the 200mm f4 and the TC-200 2× teleconverter, which is the closest I could get to supertelephoto in my arsenal.

Not only is 600mm longer than 400mm -- I have advanced degrees in Physics and Applied Physics, you know -- but (a) that's an effective focal length of 900mm on the DX Nikons and (b) I can use the TC-200 *** to make it a 400-1200mm f19 lens, which yields an effective focal length of 1800mm in DX.

So why am I reporting this now in June? Well, it took a little while to get the filters I needed -- and I am not taking a piece of glass that large outside without some protection up front and because of the magnification, an 82mm Nikon L37c UV filter at that. And then it gets carried around in a Nikon CT-F1 aluminum lens crate, so I didn't bring it home until I really had time to lug it and use it. Could not get a proper solar filter in time for the solar eclipse -- which was a bust anyway -- but I had my eyes on the Transit of Venus at sunset in West Michigan...

So I brought it home on Friday, finally, and lugged it out into the garage to test it on Monday evening. Yes, these are boring pictures. I was testing it before trying to lug it out into the field.

Kodak DCS Pro SLR/n and 200-600mm f9.5 AIS Zoom-Nikkor. (Click on photo for larger.)

FX camera at 200mm.

FX camera at 600mm.

Nikon D1X and 200-600mm f9.5 AIS Zoom-Nikkor (Click on photo for larger.)

DX camera at 200mm (EF 300mm).

DX camera at 600mm (EF 900mm).

For comparison, this is the same boring driveway shot with the Sigma 12mm f8 Fish-eye.

Why did Nikon produce this lens for twenty years, even after they had "replaced" it with the 180-600mm f8 ED Nikkor? In part because it was far cheaper than the replacement. In part because I've been told that it can take fantastic photos -- it's why I've wanted one.

I was working for the Northwestern yearbook when the first big fast supertelephotos came out. I remember the guys shooting football games renting a 300mm f2.8 from time to time. We used to joke about iron and glass -- cameras and lenses -- and using Cold War terms like throw weight to talk about the big glass. This lens has some serious throw weight. It's heavy for sure, but it is beautifully balanced and the focusing and zooming ring is so smooth and easy, it has to have a lock setting.

But I'm gonna need a bigger tripod...

Dr. Phil

*** -- Technically there is a chance of vignetting with the TC-200, but since the Nikon D1-series are DX cameras, they only use the center of the image and it's not a problem. If I really want to use a teleconverter with the FX sensor Kodak SLR/n, I should go with the TC-14B, or the TC-300/301.

Nothing So Rare As The Clouds Of June

Tuesday 5 June 2012

We were scheduled to have the Transit of Venus at sunset on Tuesday. After the weather disaster of the solar eclipse (DW), it was nice to see a sunny forecast for Tuesday. Er... a partly cloudy forecast. Partly cloudy with a chance of rain in the evening. Finally, part cloudy. Ah, weather forecasting. (grin)

Driving in to K-zoo late on Tuesday morning was spectacular -- at least for the veritable parade of fluffy little clouds scooting across the sky with wispy whiteness in some of the bright blue interstitial areas. Not great for transit watching, perhaps, but that wasn't for hours. When I got to the office, I had the ersatz fisheye lens, so did some shots of the sky. Note that there is no way to attach any filters to the Sigma 12mm f8 Fish-eye, and one certainly can't put a polarizer on that huge domed front element, so I messed with the contrast and brightness to mimic some of the lovely sky I was seeing with my polarized sun glasses.

Noontime, East towards Rood Hall and Everett Tower. (Click on photo for larger.)

North. (Click on photo for larger.)

Northwest. (Click on photo for larger.)

Southwest. (Click on photo for larger.)

When I came out at five o'clock, it had changed somewhat, but still had me a bit worried. Now the transit was scheduled to start for West Michigan around 6pm, with sunset around 9pm, and Venus appears as just a small dot against the sun, so we're not going to see some dramatic eclipse type darkening. And I could take some light hazy clouds at sunset, too. Just not big ones.

Northwest at 5pm. The high white blob is the overexposed sun in cloud. (Click on photo for larger.)

On the way home, I ended up driving under a big dark cloud, but it cleared up a lot by 8pm. So I certainly got some dramatic cloud shots already -- next up was the sunset.

Dr. Phil

The Transit of Venus

Half-Assed Shooting

As mentioned earlier, my intention was to try to shoot Tuesday June 5th's transit at sunset with the new-to-me 200-600mm f9.5 AIS Nikkor (DW). Now I'm not an idiot. I've taught astronomy courses and have done a little dabbling with telescopes. So I'm not planning to take a high magnification lens and just aim it at the sun and look through the viewfinder. It's not good for the eye(s) and it can be bad for the lens, too, if it heats up too much from being saturated with sunlight. Hence the "shoot the transit at sunset" part.

True story -- once during the various Summer Youth Programs and Summer Institutes at Michigan Tech, I had a bunch of students out at the AMJOCH Observatory built by Physics professor Dave Chimino, and we were looking at sunspots with the Questar telescope outside, while Dave Lucas was running the Celestron in the dome. The Questars are very nice little machines -- my father always wanted one -- and it had a lovely solar filter. Alas, there's a little spring loaded lever which flips a mirror so that the eyepiece looks down to another mirror and becomes an under-the-tube built-in spotting scope. And if that lever, which was loose on the telescope, flips while viewing the sun, you get spotting scope sunlight right smack in the eye. Talk about photo shock eye blink reflex! Ouch! Definitely a design flaw. We put a black plastic film can over the spotting scope port to keep that from happening again.

Anyway, in addition to the UV filter already on the big lens, I'd also acquired a pair of Series IX reflective-type neutral density filters for the big lens. I'll get a proper solar filter at some point, but when I thought about it, I was unable to get the one I wanted in the size I needed in time. Plus the ND filters have some usefulness of their own. Now your typical ND filters are like ND4 and ND8 -- they cut the light by 1/4 (two f-stops) and 1/8 (three f-stops). And they're black absorption filters. But by getting the reflective style, it cuts down both the visible and IR light. And I could get them in stronger sizes. So I got an ND 0.9 (ND8) and ND 1.50 (ND32, five f-stops), sized to fit in the HN-10 lens hood. Which, as I mentioned before, could also work with some other lenses on my bucket lens list. Cheap and frugal doesn't not negate efficient and practical. (thrifty-grin)

Here's the thing. The Nikon D1X plus 200-600mm lens is big and heavy. My tripod isn't the best and I was going to be shooting from the back deck -- not only did I not want to leave it unattended, it's not exactly vibration free either. Now I knew from some shots I've seen taken with other supertelephotos that I could shoot right at the sun at sunset at between 1/1000th and 1/10,000th of a second, so that should help with the unsteadiness. The 200-600 is NOT an ED lens -- Extra Low Dispersion glass -- which means that it has a hard infinity focus stop, i.e. the glass doesn't change with temperature. So my plan was to line things up, set the lens at infinity and 600mm, and not try to focus through the dim f9.5 plus ND32 viewfinder.

Alas, the results were not quite a good as I hoped. This is where those little LCD displays on the back of cameras make things look like you're getting a better picture than you really are. (grin)

Now, one of the issues that comes up is "where is Venus going to be"? This is not so simple, because many telescopes give you inverted images AND transits of Venus come in pairs, and this pair were going to give transit lines on opposite sides of the sun. As near as I could figure out with my prelab of sites, I was expecting Venus in the upper right quadrant. This is vindicated by two images I caught on the web:

Transit data for Tucson AZ -- the image would be rotated clockwise slightly for West Michigan.

From Mlive.com, this shot was from the roof of one of the Grand Rapids downtown parking garages, where the local astronomers had one of their viewing sites. This was from around 7-8pm EDT, about an hour or two before my shoot.

From the Sky & Telescope website, Brian Arnold of Brookfield WI at 6:15pm local (7:15pm EDT), Nikon D90 with a 70-200mm lens @ 200mm, with a Thousand Oaks Solar filter. Two hours before my shoot. (Click on photo for original site.)

The sun was glaringly bright for quite a long time. I had the lens mounted, but sitting inside for an hour. Even at 8:30pm, the sun was too bright to mess with. Finally, right around 9pm, the low angle and cloud layer cut it back enough to try and I quickly assembled things.

Looking at several photographs, I think that the blob by the arrow is Venus and not an artifact. (Click on photo for larger.)

Another shot. (Click on photo for larger.)

Not great by any means, and the images are certainly not telling me anything useful about the quality of the 200-600 lens. But by gosh I had fun -- and that's what matters. (big-sunny-grin)

Dr. Phil