500VR vs. non-VR

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Some thoughts on a non-VR 500mm vs. the 500VR:

I think it comes down to your shooting style and intended subjects! In September 2008, my 500VR arrived and I have been appreciating the lens ever since, except for a nagging feeling that perhaps a nice AF-S 500mm would have been sufficient and saved me a bundle (3 to $4,000 on a used one?). Hey, that would pay for a 14-24 and a 24-70!

Here are my subjective impressions of some of the shooting situations I encounter and the 500VR advantages or not:

- pure handheld on a BIF, I don't think the VR makes a ton of difference assuming you, like me, are also trying to achieve a fast shutter speed. My minimum goal is 1/1600 second for handheld on a bird in flight subject. I would prefer 1/2500 and when I get some more light, I'll go into 1/4000 and see how that shakes out. At these shutter speeds I believe other posters advice is VR may not be making all that much difference, perhaps little to none in the finished image with some feeling a negative effect. Only advantage here is steadier viewfinder image allowing you perhaps better holding of the lens onto the target and therefore better AF tracking and one could argue sharper resulting image since AF was able to nail it. Call it small advantage for the VR but not a show stopper? 

- handheld on a BIF at slower shutter speeds, there are a lot of things "wrong" here so unsharp shots can result due to combined subject motion, large angular motion of the lens at high focal lengths (sometimes 850mm!), and so luck comes more into play. E.g. fire a burst and hope for one or two. Keeper ratio far lower regardless of VR or NOT so again call it a small advantage for the VR but not a show stopper? Personally I really do not like subject motion blur so I avoid this scenario given any choice.

- non-pure handheld, balanced on a fencepost, car hood, car roof, or other objects yes VR has an advantage, especially on a perched, slowly walking or swimming bird. I'll include shooting from inside the car, balanced on a window or door jamb in this category too. I always try to rest my lens on something if I have half a chance when handholding. Here you can also maybe trade off lower shutter speeds for better ISO and the VR helps.

- on monopod, my highly preferred method for a bird that is not flying, I think the VR is conferring its greatest advantage to me anyway. In this shooting situation (and the previous one too) I suspect the VR is conferring some decent advantage, again dependant on shutter speed and some of the other variables such as angle and speed of travel of the subject. Though if able to get high shutter speeds then less VR advantage here.

- not locked down on a tripod, for example a gimbal, sidekick, or on an unlocked ballhead I believe posters indicate a decent advantage for the VR lens. I now am shooting this way a little more often and generally been using 'tripod-mode' VR (although Nikon recommends normal-mode VR) since I am generally pretty steady when shooting this way, so it's almost like shooting locked-down. Very difficult for me to tell whether VR is conferring any advantage  in this shooting situation.  I get such a high percentage of keepers this way it is hard to imagine a non-VR lens doing much worse.

- locked down (not loose) on a tripod, one could quibble pros or cons but tripod-mode VR or not should be a small victory either way? I rarely shoot any subjects fully locked down, so I don't really have a lot of feedback, but again perhaps not a big win for the VR again.

On balance for me, having now formulated my thoughts about my own primary shooting methods, I am OK with having spent the extra on the VR. Especially with me not getting into too many tripod shooting situations, I think VR can make some sense. For those disciplined tripod folks I would think an AF-S may be just fine. 

Anyhow, just some thoughts based on my own experience and 2 cents worth as they say!

Shooting the 500VR

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This is just a work in progress - I hope to capture the salient points on shooting the 500VR and what makes it a good tool and how to decide if it is the right tool for you.

First of all, the 500VR is probably a bird-specialist tool more than for other subjects, but it also does very well on wildlife if you can combine it with both a DX and an FX camera at the ready.  I haven't personally tried the 500VR for sports.

In my opinion, the big thing about deciding between buying a 500VR and a 600mm is handling (weight and size) not optics.  There is only a 20% field of view difference, so you should make your decision based on a careful review of exactly what shooting situations you plan to use your super-telephoto.  

Get the 500VR if you want to handle it in a variety of shooting situations from handheld, prone, monopod, and some tripod usage.  

Get the 500VR if you plan to get into all kinds of situations with it from instant jump out of the vehicle and shoot situations, casual hikes handheld or on monopod, shooting out the car window (using the car as a blind), all the way to static situations staked out in a blind.

My personal favourite ways to shoot the 500VR is sitting cross-legged with lens on a tilt-swivel on top of a monopod or on a ballhead from a ground pod (laying prone on the ground). Results are excellent.  Full-gimbal on a tripod is probably the most comfortable but you do miss some shots due to less flexibility and not being able to get into (or adjust) position in time.

A 500mm f4 lens in my view is purchased for shooting with the TC14E and TC17E.  It's because it lets you get out to 700 and 850mm that makes it so valuable - "now that is what I'm talking about" when it comes to birds!!

If you "only need 500mm" then a 300mm with TC17E is probably more practical.  But if you are a bird-shooter, "only needing 500mm" doesn't happen all that often 

I personally wonder whether VR in a 600mm lens is as necessary as on the 500, since it is much more likely you'll shoot the 600mm beast on a full tripod and gimbal rig? In the case of the 600mm, it moreso comes down to Tripod-mode VR and how much value that adds.

I could see owning a 500VR for mostly native use without TCs (and not on a tripod) alongside a 600 with TCs on a tripod.  Or my own dream is a 300-800mm to go with my 500VR!

For complete flexibility in shooting a long prime like the 500VR, for larger subjects such as wildlife, you need to have an FX and a DX body!  In that case let's discuss combining the 500VR in usage with other lenses: 

- OK, say you have the D300 and D700 and add the TC14E and TC17E and a 70-200.

- Then the 500VR is a great flexible tool for wildlife and with TCs on both cameras. Expressed in DX FOV terms (i.e if you are already used to "DX FOV"):

- The 500VR in combination with the two cameras and two TCs this gives you equivalent to 333mm, 466mm, 500mm, 566mm, 700mm, and 850mm (expressed in a DX FOV mindset). 

- I.e. the 500 becomes a "333mm" for someone used to DX FOV when you mount it on FX.

- Mix in a 70-200 and you also have 70-200, 105-280, and 120-340mm. So you have each focal length covered multiple times.

- I use the above mentioned combos and have no complaints and don't really feel the need for a 200-400, 300, or 400 for my wildlife shooting. 


For sports, you might consider the 200-400 as more flexible. In which case I would add a used non-VR 600mm for a very nice combo.

Other observations:
You don't so much as mount the 500VR lens on a camera as you do mount a camera onto the lens.

Carrying the 500VR is generally by lens foot or on monopod, but also on tripod, and sometimes laying it on the ground, or clenching it between thighs while you use binoculars to scan the horizon.  No strap is necessary on the camera or lens, it just gets in the way of this big rig!

Yes you still have to sharpen 500VR images in post to get the most out of this tool.  In fact, owning a multi-thousand dollar lens has almost the opposite effect on your post-processing skills - one feels obligated to develop PP to ever higher-levels commensurate with this fine lens. 

The lens collar may be a design weak-point, mine broke completely through on one side after only 5 months usage.  Repair at Nikon Canada took almost two months (IIRC my baby was away 7+ weeks). 

I got the monster GT5541 tripod mostly because I may add an 800mm some day, but I think the GT35nn series is probably a lot easier to carry (or I need to do some weight lifting).

The Manfrotto 681B monopod is "too tall" when fully collapsed at 24", rendering it difficult to use from a cross-legged position.  I should have got the smaller 680B, which has one more segment, but collapses 4" lower.

I think a full gimbal (as opposed to a SideKick) makes sense for the big heavy glass like this.  The sidekick calls for you to mount the lens sideways, and there is some danger you might drop it during this procedure.

In summation the differences of a 500VR from a 600mm: handling, handling, and handling!  So think really carefully about those shooting situations you intend to get into.

Hope this helps your own decision-making process.

"I do want to tackle focus tuning, but am very aware of the need for obtaining repeatable test results, so for the moment I have not tackled this." 

Update one year later: I began to notice front-focusing (I think through better understanding of the 500mm lens and the images it produces) and embarked on quite a journey.  I initially tuned using a freebie focus chart and knowledge that based on real-life images it was front-focussing.  I think this produced some better images but it also created a ton of uncertainty on how much I should set the tuning value to.  And don't forget this is with the lens naked plus two teleconverters therefore three different values to set.

So I finally broke down and got the Lens Align Pro Plus tool (which is not cheap) and have been using this like a banshee on all my lenses and bodies, which let me tell you is a huge huge exercise ;-)  (especially when I am tuning 2 teleconverters plus 2 telephotos times two bodies, that is 12 combinations right there, plus 2 bodies and each of my other lenses where I don't use TCs, so probably about 22 combinations in total have been fine-tuned.  Egads, I am about to get another body ;-) )

I now feel I am in a more repeatable zone in terms of getting a correct AF tune value and I critically/constantly evaluate all my images  to see if I think I am on the right track.  Focus tuning is what I would call a DIFFICULT rewarding process, especially suited for the fast primes, f2.8 zooms, and super-telephotos where depth of field can be razor-thin.  And just to be clear you are adjusting the default zone of focus backwards and forwards.

For focus tuning I would now describe it as the journey continues...



Detailed Equip. List

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Bodies

D700, D7000, D300, and MB-D10


Lenses

10.5mm f2.8 G

16-35 f4

24-70mm f2.8

28-105mm f3.5-4.5 AF

50mm f1.4 (Sigma)

70-200mm f2.8 VR II

105mm f2.5 AI

500mm VR (arrived Sep-18, 2008 - took 5.5 months from time of order)


TC14E I

TC17E II


Other

Kirk Flash Extender IV

77mm Canon 500D close-up filter for 70-200 for casual VR close-ups (this plus my 28-105 are my current macro tools).

77mm and 72mm polarizers that don't get used much


Speedlights

SB-800


NikonGear

D700 for my wide-angle and normal work, plus low-light. D300 for my fisheye and especially for telephoto work (I plan to continue to own a DX body more or less forever, I like the FOV!). With the way sensors are being continuously improved, I believe DX will continue to be very viable indeed, in which case DX offers a very nice telephoto FOV advantage - and especially for my supertelephoto to which it is more or less permanently mounted!


My camera progression was Fuji 1/2 frame rangefinder, Minolta XE-5, XE-7, Nikon F2AS (black), Pentax film 28-90 rangefinder, wfe's Pentax ME-Super, Coolpix 5000 (unfortunately broke it), D200, D300, D700


Capture NX 2.2.3

MB-D10 (with NiMh)

Two Coolpix S51 for family


Sold Items

SB-600 (shouldn't have sold it, would make a nice second flash)

D200 (sold when I got my D300)

10-20mm f4-5.6 Sigma (liked it, sold due to FX)

12-24mm f4.5-5.6 Sigma (not very sharp unless stopped down to f16)

18-200mm f3.5-5.6 version 1 (loved this lens, but due to FX was not getting much use)

50mm f1.8D (great bargain and very sharp stopped down)

70-200mm f2.8 VR I (I was actually quite happy with this on a D700, but VRII is better)

70-300mm f4-5.6 G (cheapo non-ED, non-VR, purchased as a stop-gap)

85mm f1.8D (mistake to have sold it anticipating the 'just around the corner' AF-S f1.4 which of course took several years to arrive and now I have other priorities ;-) )

135mm f2 DC (loved this lens, sold to fund my upcoming first pro body)

180mm f2.8 AF (non-D, metal barrel - great lens just not getting much use due to 70-200)

TC20E I (see me sub-gallery within birds for 70-200 + TC20E images.  With a little effort one can wring some decent images out of this combo.  Still 2x teleconverters are a big compromise) 


Sold back in the early nineties

F2AS & MF 20mm, 24mm f2.8, 28mm f2, 50 f1.4, 80-200 f4.5, 300 f4.5, tokina 500mm f8 mirror


OtherGear

iMac 24" (intel dual core 2.4Ghz), 4gig memory & 750 Gb hard-drive and 500Gb/1Tb external drives (all chock-full)


Jason Odell's two e-books: The Photographer?s Guide to Capture NX and NX2

Photomatix Pro 3.2.6


Thom Hogan's D700 eGuide book


Phottix Cleon N8 wireless remote


Tripods

Gitzo GT5541LS and a bunch of other goodies from PhotoProShop here at Nikonians (please buy your tripod and other gear here to support Nikonians!)


Manfrotto 681B monopod with Manfrotto 3232 tilt-swivel head and RRS Clamp

(note I recommend the 680B instead for shorter collapsed height)


old Linhof Tripod, and a reflector stand for gold/white reflector and speedlights


Heads

Jobu Design Black Widow Gimbal (heavy duty model) and Grande Plate

Jobu Design gimbal flash bracket

Kirk LP-47 replacement foot for the 500VR

Kirk BH-3 Ballhead soon to be mounted on a Jobu Design Ground-Pod

old Leitz Ballhead

D300 Markins BI-DIRECTIONAL camera plate for use in 'forward' orientation on my monopod clamp and on my gimbal


Bags

Think Tank Photo - Urban Disguise 40 (fits an amazing amount of kit but is overstuffed these days!) so have now added a TTF Airport International


FavouriteGadget

LumiQuest Soft Screen flash diffuser for my built in flash used as a commander for off-camera flash


MostUselessGadget

Clock - need more time of late to for post-processing!  I have a ton of unprocessed raw kicking around and full hard-drives everywhere I look ;-)





Gear Wishlist

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---- Camera WishList ---- DX
Could we someday have a DX sensor with the high iso performance of the current D3 or D3S (or even better when post-bayer arrives?). For now I will plan to order a D400 as soon as it is announced on the assumption that I will get better or same resolution as the D300 but more important to me, better high ISO. Note - now that the D3S is out and seeing what Nikon did there, it is too bad they did not apply the same voodoo to the D300S. A D300S with one-stop improvement over the D300 would have caught my attention!
FX
How about in five years time a high megapixel FX sensor (maybe post-bayer), more frame covering focussing points than current models, and a better than D3-level high iso performance? Lets say an FX camera with D700 size, D3X sensor detail, and D3S high ISO ;-) Oh right, and D-movie with very good AF capability on both my DX (wildlife) and FX (theatre) cameras! To sum up, due to continuing sensor improvements that I find very useful, I expect to continue to upgrade both my cameras for years to come. I find the price difference when selling the previous model and buying the new one tolerable. And the monthly cost of ownership (factoring in new price less sold price of old model) is reasonable measured against the great pleasure of shooting these cameras!
--- Long-term Lens WishList ----
- Nikon 14-24mm - what a lens! - a 24mm PC-E (by the time I'm ready, one that tilts in both orientations) - a 24-105mm f4 N VRII might be nice, but then again if I'm going out shooting with one lens only, perhaps a 28-200mm f3.5-5.6 VR makes more sense? Maybe a Tamron 28-300mm VC, I tested one once and I felt the resulting images were very good! Plus I like to spread my business out to the odd third-party supplier too, even though I generally love my Nikon gear. - 85mm f1.4 AFS and I would like it to be VR for theatre and portraits - Tokina 100mm macro perhaps as a reasonable stop-gap?
- longer-term a 200 f4 VR micro and a Kirk macro focussing rail (was about to order a used 200, but I don't have enough shooting time right now to truly devote to macro, maybe when I retire...) - And you know, I would love that 200mm f2! It is such a great image making machine, but I don't have the shooting time/opportunities to justify that price unfortunately, whereas I get out and and use my wildlife stuff all the time. - 300-800mm OS (Sigma). Before the currency crashes this was an absolute bargain! But they need to add tripod-mode OS perhaps to make it a can't miss lens?
Have you noticed there are a LOT of agonizing decisions in trying to assemble an all around lens kit ;-) I need a Kirk FatBag or BLUBB beanbag or similar ---- Software I need to add over time ----
Vincent Versace Capture NX2 instructional DVD
NIK Software Color Efex Pro and Silver Efex Pro

(the following need to develop stand-alone or Capture NX plug-in versions since I don't use Photoshop)
Topaz filters (especially Simplify and NR)
Portrait Professional
Genuine Fractals

Plus I want to try out pano/stitching at some point too!

Meanwhile I am a committed Capture NX2 user still with lots to learn. Also I just got Photomatix Pro for HDRs, so will be shooting a lot of 5-shot bursts from here on in ;-) ---- Lighting Wishlist ---- - Nikon's A Hands-on Guide to Creative Lighting DVD
- I also would like to add an SB-900 and future SB-700 (for a total of 3 units including my SB-800), plus an umbrella and softbox and other strobist stuff. I am always very impressed with mastery and control of artificial light, and would love to learn this side of photography!