Vintage Super Telephoto Lens

Wildlife photography really does benefit from investing in good glass, yes there are plenty of circumstances where wandering around with a 55-200 kit lens can yield fantastic results but what if you want to capture the mist on a lake at dawn as the wildfowl feed or foxes at dusk then you are going to need a big lens with good low light performance. If like me you haven’t just won the lottery then the latest 400mm f2.8 from your preferred manufacturer is going to be a bit out of budget. At the time of writing Nikon’s 400mm bad boy is listed on amazon at just under £10,000, so how can you get similar optical performance without selling a kidney?

One option for Nikon users is going vintage. Second hand lenses are always worth considering and Nikon have been making fantastic fast glass since the 1970’s. What do I mean by fast glass? Well if you want to shoot in low light levels you are going to need a lens that allows in as much light as possible, paired with a modern DSLR body you will need to look for a lens with an f stop of f4 or lower. This will allow you to keep your shutter speed up hence the term “fast glass”.
My current camera body is a D7000 it is a crop sensor body that can be purchased very cheaply second hand. The crop sensor give the added advantage of adding reach to any lens you attach. For Nikon crop sensors add a 1.5 x magnification to lenses so a 55-200 is roughly equivalent to an 80-300mm lens on a full frame camera. After investing in a used 70-200mm f2.8 VRII lens along with a TC-17E II teleconverter I was a little disappointed. The 70-200 was fantastic, superb sharpness and amazing VR, my frustration was whenever I used it with the teleconverter it just wasn’t producing sharp enough images. I convinced myself I needed a longer lens and hatched a plan.

Nikon 300mm f2.8 ED
I managed to secure on ebay a second hand lens with some serious pedigree for just under £500. As with most ebay purchases I took a bit of a punt that the sellers description was accurate and they knew what they were talking about. Turned out the lens was optically in great condition, a bit battered elsewhere but good where it counted. I then spent some time getting to know the lens and here are my findings. Manual focus was tough, especially at f2.8, once stopped down to f5.6 I was getting much more success. Part of the challenge I was having was the way in which I was trying to use the lens, for some reason I thought I could just head out same as always big lens in hand and take photos. Think again, to get the best out of this lens I had to get serious and start using my tripod. I was however still frustrated by the manual focus, but I had an idea up my sleeve.

Nikon TC-16A (modified)
Back in the mid 80’s Nikon were struggling to keep up with the competition (same old story), they had some stellar optics available but had been caught out by the competitors bringing out fancy new auto-focus lenses. Their answer was a stopgap solution of a 1.6 x teleconverter with build in autofocus. You could attach this to a wide range of Nikon lenses and gain not only extra reach but also autofocus capabilities. Nikon very shrewdly nobbled the TC-16A so it only worked with a few of their best film cameras of the time, however the teleconverter can be modified to work with many DSLR bodies. The D7000 is one camera a modified TC-16A will work with and after a month of ebay hunting I manager to get one for under £100.

Nikon 480mm f4.5 ED AF (720mm equiv.)
So this is the lens I have ended up with, a 480mm f4.5 ED AF that is the equivalent of 720mm on my D7000. It is important to note at this point the autofocus doesn’t cover the entire range of the lens. With the lens set at infinity I get autofocus from 30m to infinity, adjusting the manual focus closer give you autofocus capability in the zone of the new manual setting.

So how well does this combination work? The TC-16A is not the sharpest of teleconverters available so results wide open can be a little soft, once stopped down however the lens combination starts to work well together. For near subjects (less than 10 metres) f5.6 gives good results further away a smaller aperture can help a lot. A strange anomaly I have noticed is a tendancy for the lens exposure to be slightly off. I find I have to manually adjust the exposure by between 1 and 2 stops as the lens is stopped down from f4.5 to f8. I have not really shot beyond f8 at this stage to know if further adjustment would be required. I suspect this may be due to the 300mm lens I am using being an AI rather than AI-s lens, also on my D7000 it reads the lens combination as a 145mm f4, this is probably a limitation of the chip that is in the teleconverter. You have to remember the kit is being used in a way it was never designed to support.

Vintage Telephoto Setup

Vintage Telephoto Setup (selfie from phone camera)

Your technique has to be top notch to get sharp results. I have tried operating this lens hand held and given enough light so you can get the shutter speed up to at least 1/1000sec you will start to see good results. I didn’t invest in this combination with bright conditions in mind however so I have found use of a sturdy tripod essential. I even found that selecting the Q (quiet) shutter release mode helped prevent camera shake induced by the mirror movement. As I have got used to using the lens and teleconverter combination I have learnt that better results are achieved with the lens stopped down slightly, sharpness improves at 5.6 and further still up to f8 then there is no noticeable improvement beyond this. This is definitely related to a loss of sharpness introduced by the teleconverter. I can be sure because I have taken pictures with the 300mm lens on it’s own at f5.6 which are fantastically sharp. The example below of a Canada Goose followed by an un-sharpened 100% crop straight out of Nikon ViewNX software.

Nikon D7000, Nikon 300mm f2.8 AiS with TC-16A (720mm equiv) f5.6 ISO-400 1/400 sec.

Nikon D7000, Nikon 300mm f2.8 AiS (450mm equiv) f5.6 ISO-400 1/400 sec.

Nikon D7000, Nikon 300mm f2.8 AiS with TC-16A (720mm equiv) f5.6 ISO-400 1/400 sec.

100% crop of same image (no sharpening)

So what sort of results can be achieved? Well the 1st real use of this setup was at one of my local fishing lakes. I spent a lot of time trying to catch a pair of Great Crested Grebes with their young chicks, but there were plenty of opportunities to shoot the other wildfowl on the lake in pretty challenging conditions. I will cover the Grebes in a post later this month but for the moment I here’s an example of a coot on the lake backlit in the morning sun. The lens does a good job of controlling chromatic aberrations, with care you can take some very dreamy images into almost direct sunlight.

Nikon D7000, Nikon 300mm f2.8 AiS with TC-16A (720mm equiv) f5.6 ISO-400 1/400 sec.

Nikon D7000, Nikon 300mm f2.8 AiS with TC-16A (720mm equiv) f7.1 ISO-500 1/400 sec.