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This month’s newsletter is written by Charles Gangas about his experiences photographing with the new Nikon Z 800mmF6.3 lens in the Pantanal of Brazil.

recently had an opportunity to travel to Brazil and meet up with Javier Zurita, where the two of us spent several days photographing in the Pantanal.  As it turned out I had just  received my Nikkor Z 800mm f/6.3 VR S a few days before I left for São Paulo, so I was very excited to put the lens to work with the Z9.

We came upon this Jabiru by boat one afternoon at Rio Claro Lodge. The driver maneuvered fairly closely to the bird and with the Z 800 a headshot was the only option. Nikon Z9/Nikkor Z 800mm /6.3 VR S// 1/1000s @ f/ 6.3 ISO 1100 Handheld from a boat.  The Jabiru is the biggest stork in the world.  This one had a full crop.

Several Ringed Kingfishers were having a territorial dispute when I captured this bird chasing away another during a boat trip at Rio Claro Lodge. Nikon Z9/Nikkor Z 800mm f/6.3. 1/4000s @ f/6.3 ISO 5600. Handheld from a boat.  I made sure I had a super-fast shutter speed as they guys really move.  I found the Z 800F6.3 lens very good for flight photography as long as the birds were far enough away (at 800mm the field of view is quite narrow), the lens combined with the Z9 acquired focus very quickly most of the time.

For those of you that don’t shoot Nikon, or just haven’t been following Nikon’s Mirrorless Lens developments, this lens is the newest Prime Telephoto and longest reach Z mirrorless lens offering to date.  It is also the latest in Nikon’s stable of Phase Fresnel, or PF lenses, and the first PF lens for the Z mounted mirrorless cameras. Earlier Nikkor PF lenses, the 300mm f/4 PF and the 500mm f/5.6 PF were both designed for DSLR F-mounted cameras. These earlier lenses however, can still be used with the Nikon mirrorless lineup with the FTZ converter.

On our second morning on the river we followed Giant Otters making their way up the Rio Sao Lorenzo.  Photographing these amazing animals is always one of the highlights of a trip to the Pantanal. Here one is trying to catch up with its playmates. Nikon Z9 Nikkor Z 800mm f/6,3. 1/1000s @ f/6.3 ISO 720 Handheld from a boat.  

The Z 800 is comprised of 22 Lens Elements in 14 Groups.  The front element is 5.6 inches in diameter and the camera is 15.2 inches in length. The lens weighs 2385 grams, or 5.25 pounds and has an aperture range of f/6.3 to f/32 and a minimum Focus Distance of 5 meters, or 16.4 feet. It features 5 stop VR (vibration reduction), capable of 5.5 stops with the in-camera IBIS (In Body Image Stabilization).

Red-crested Cardinal foraging along the ground at Pousada Piuval. Nikon Z9 Nikkor Z 800mm f/6.3. 1/1600s @f/6.3. ISO 3200. Laying prone on the ground-handheld.

The very first thing you notice when unboxing this lens is its weight. At 5.25 lbs. it is noticeably lighter than the other primes in my kit, the 300 mm f/2.8G (@ 6.4 lbs) and the 500mm f/4E (@6.8lbs). It is exceptionally well balanced, and coupled with the Z9 allows handheld shooting with little, if any, fatigue. The image quality, in my opinion, is stunning, and allows greater reach and compositional opportunities when used with full frame mirrorless cameras. In comparison with the Nikkor 800mm f/5.6 f-mount, the lens is half the weight and about one third the cost. Yes, you do give up 1/3 of a stop in speed, but the weight advantage, let alone the price differential, is well worth the trade off, in my opinion.

The Hyacinth Macaw, the largest parrot in the world, is another one of the highlights of any trip to the Pantanal.  We photographed this one in its nest cavity at Piuval Lodge, Nikon Z9 Nikkor Z 800mm f/6.3. 1/2000s @f/6.3. ISO 1600, ev+0.3, handheld. I added a bit of positive exposure compensation here because of the sky in the background.

The lens features Auto/Manual Focus Modes, a Focus Limiter, a Memory Set Button for pre-focus, a Manual Focus Ring, and a Control Ring that offers 3 selections; 1) Aperture Selection, 2) ISO Selection, and 3) Exposure Compensation. A selection in the camera menus allows one to choose between these above-mentioned options, allowing you to change those camera settings with the Control Ring without resetting the corresponding setting on the camera.  However, in practice, I didn’t end up using this control ring after trying it because I found that when handholding the lens I would often inadvertently hit the control ring and thereby accidentally change my settings.

The Hyacinth Macaw isn’t the only beautiful Macaw in the Pantanal.  We found this gorgeous Blue and Yellow Macaw perched in a tree next to the swimming pool at Piuval Lodge.  The techs for this shot were Nikon Z9 Nikkor Z 800mm f/6.3. 1/1600s @f/6.3. ISO 360, ev -0.3, handheld.  I reduced the EV here to try and keep detail in those difficult yellows against a green background.  

I found the lens autofocus was fast, accurate, and quiet, and the VR was very impressive.  I took numerous shots handheld with speeds as low as 1/500 of a second from a moving boat, for many of the shots I was sitting on the boat deck.  Here is a Jaguar on the prowl along the Rio San Lorenzo, in Porto Jofre.  Nikon Z9, 800f/6.3 1/500s f/6.3, iso 180.   By this point I had already taken a lot of excellent Jaguar images so I was playing around with how low of a shutter speed I could get away with handheld in the boat.  I think the sharpness on the face of the Jaguar turned out excellent.   All my images during the trip were handheld, and even at relatively slow shutter speeds most came out tack sharp.  In fact, I packed my monopod for the trip and it never left my luggage bag.

I also found that the Z 800 F6.3 was very sharp when shot wide open at F6.3.  This made it possible to keep my speed up for action images even when it was getting quite dark.  I photographed this Jaguar vocalizing to another cat across the river as dusk was descending upon us.  The techs for this shot were Nikon Z9 Nikkor Z 800mm f/6.3. 1/1000s @f/6.3. ISO 8000, ev+0.7, handheld.  I took this image at iso 8000 wide open and with the combination of the Z9 with the 800F6.3 I was still able to achieve very good image quality partially because I was confident shooting it wide open.  If you contrast this lens with for example the Canon RF800 F11 lens, it would have been impossible to make this image as the iso would have been off the charts or I would have had to drop my shutter speed a lot.  And comparing it to the monster Canon or Nikon 800F5.6 lenses it would have been difficult for me to handhold the shot from the boat.  (Nate’s note: we can only hope that Canon comes up with similar lenses).  

Jaguar wrestling a Yellow Anaconda on one of the tributaries of the Rio Sao Lorenzo. Nikon D500, Nikkor 300mm f/2.8. 1/4000s f/5.6 ISO 720, handheld from a boat.  Notwithstanding the fact the Z 800 is a fabulous piece of glass, there are occasions when we need another option. As we all know long glass can offer us excellent opportunities to get more intimate with our subjects without imposing on their space. But there are circumstances where a longer lens isn’t the best choice.  The image above was such a case and required a much shorter lens.  Due to our close proximity to the cat, I picked up my trusty D500 coupled with a 300mm f/2.8 to capture some shots.  As we followed this cat along the river edge we weren’t sure what it was up to. There were no sign of caiman or capybara, so what was it looking for?  As several of the boats tracking the cat lost interest, we stayed on the jaguar and were rewarded for our efforts with an incredible encounter. Our driver, who had 20 years of experience on the river, identified the cat as a pregnant female. That might answer, in part, how the serpent was able to escape…she might have felt wrestling with this snake could put her at risk of injury, and was less than keen to aggressively attack. Just a guess on how the snake managed to escape the cats’ grasp. Regardless, it was an experience I’ll long remember. Here, patience paid off.

In conclusion, if you’re in the market for a long telephoto prime and you are a Nikon shooter, you need look no further than the Nikkor Z 800. With excellent Image Quality and very light weight, most folks will be very capable of handholding this lens-and acquire it for a very competitive price for a Super Telephoto Prime. If you are a wildlife photographer shooting birds you’ll love this lens, and if large mammals are your primary subjects, you’ll be able to capture compelling images at much greater distances. Nikon has hit a high mark with this lens, as it will offer us terrific opportunities at more comfortable distances without sacrificing IQ, or flushing our subjects.

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