Puffins, and a Nikon 300mm f/4 PF field review - Alexander Becker

Puffins, and a Nikon 300mm f/4 PF field review

Published 06/25/2018

Introduction

I recently was in the UK as part of my PhD and decided to head up to the Farne Islands (as well as Bempton Cliffs) to see the puffins (as well as razorbill and guillemots, and gannets at Bempton). Puffins are one of my favorite birds, and having previously photographed them at the Farne Islands, I was really excited to get another crack at them. In particular, I was hoping to get more shots of them head on and banking, with sandeels of course to send it over the top. 

Since I was traveling around for work, I wanted to go light on the camera gear, so I just brought a gripped D500, a Nikon 300mm f/4 PF, and a 1.4 teleconverter, all which fit inside a small camera bag in my regular work backpack. While the 300 PF has been out for about 2.5 years now, it's a recent addition to my kit and one I was really curious about as in my mind it could make the perfect shorebird / seabird in flight lens provided you're in a situation with a number of opportunities as it is small (5.8 inches), fast (f/4), and light (1.67 pounds). For it to actually live up to that, it has to have fast autofocus (AF), have top notch image quality (IQ), be responsive, be balanced physically, and take a teleconverter well both in terms of IQ and AF. With that said, if I was aiming to photograph raptors in flight, especially with limited passes, I would opt for the longest focal length I could muster, so YMMV.

As mentioned, the 300 PF has been around since 2015 with a number of really great reviews already written, so I won't dwell on the technical specifications very much, but I haven't seen a detailed review on using this lens for bird in flight, a genre of photography I'm interested in and get a lot of questions about, so hopefully this will be useful to some.

In the sections that follow I'll present a ton of images (click to see them larger), some 100% unsharpened crops (1:1 pixel to pixel images) of the corresponding RAW files with no noise reduction applied, and then my general thoughts on the lens based on just the trip for Farne Islands. I've tried not to cherry pick 100% crops based on just the sharpest but rather a representative sample of the images posted, while not bogging it down too much. If you're just interested in the images, skim and scroll though and feel free to ignore the 100% crops and technical musings.

All images were processed in Nikon Capture NX-D and Photoshop CC 2018. If you want to know how I process my images starting at the RAW point, you can read a short tutorial here.

Field results

As soon as you land on the islands you immediately see how close you can get to the Puffins, generally within about 10 feet if you want without implementing much field craft (i.e. you can walk right up to them). This gives ample opportunities to get head shots and really work the proper sun angle if you don't have an overcast day.

This puffin here had no issues with a close approach using just the bare 300mm lens. Here, the background was the ocean. 

Even closer approaches can be had pretty easily, although not as often with the sandeels as gulls will attack the puffins to steal them. Here is a different puffin, but in a similar spot.

This is not a particularly tricky AF scenario for a camera lens or body, but shown below is a 100% crop (aka 1 pixel captured on the sensor is 1 pixel shown in the image) where you can make out loads of fine detail and texture. These images also highlight the performance of the D500's sensor with regards to noise. While the D500 still has the physical limitations of the crop sensor (1.5x APS-C), I find the body and Nikon's own Capture NX-D software handle noise pretty well.

While portraits are nice, I think most folks who see these puffins are really after in flight shots, and I'm no exception there. Puffins can fly at about 50 mph, and fairly erratic flyers at that. In addition, overcast and windy weather (as I experienced during most of my trip) make for challenging conditions for an autofocus system. You obviously don't get free images just because the conditions are less than ideal, so you still want the kit to perform well, which I'm happy to say the 300 PF did. Here is one of the first in flight images I got on the trip. It was relatively dark, very windy, and slightly drizzling. You can actually see some rain on the puffins head, and water drops from the sand eels falling.

Despite those conditions the AF held pretty well in a tricky head on scenario, as shown in the 100% crop below. At ISO 2500 the file shows some noise here, although it is relatively tight and can be removed with some additional noise reduction in photoshop without much problem, as seen in the high resolution file above.

This pose below reminded me a ballerina for some reason. Here you can again see water drops on the head from the rain. The background here is water and a start of the cliff where this puffin landed. I didn't experience any fogging with the lens or the body in the slight drizzle which was nice.

The islands also offer a range of different backgrounds. From cliff sides

To grassy fields

And below is the 100% crop. I didn't notice much of a change in image quality at f/4 vs f/5.6 and higher. I have no problem shooting this lens wide open, although stopping down when light allows certainly helps to ensure the face is sharp.

The islands also have a couple spots with some beautiful flowers which can make really nice backgrounds, like below.

I found the 300 PF again to be a good performer in these situations, as shown in the 100% crop below.

Another shot I was hoping to get was a fanned wings pose. This is a pretty hard shot since 1) the bird is coming right at you and 2) it's really easy for the AF to slip off the head and onto the body or feet. I tried this shot a couple times and while not each one was tack sharp, the ones that weren't were mostly user error (either in keeping the focus point on the head or setting up the body poorly for that scenario). Here is one I was happy to get.

While all these shots are showing single puffins, they don't really show the full scope of how many birds are on these islands. I didn't take many photos of that since I only had the 300 PF, but this shot below somewhat shows that. The background is an ocean cliff and each of the 'blobs' is a bird or a cluster of birds below. I thought it was a cool background.

I wanted to really put this lens through it's paces under a number of difference scenarios (head on, profile, etc) and one pose I really wanted was the puffin looking back slightly. This is a tricky shot as you almost have to wait for the puffin to slightly fly by you, and then hope it looks back at you, all while keeping focus on the head (as opposed to the wing or butt). This is not all the lens of course, and how you calibrate the Nikon AF really matters here. I found Steve Perry's Nikon Autofocus Guide to be a really amazing resource for this aspect. I was able to get a number of this pose though, with the AF only really slipping when I messed it up and then it would lock onto the ocean background by mistake.

A corresponding 100% crop below (almost last one I promise!). 

While the lens can handle the 1.4 teleconverter version III (TC) (giving a focal length of 420mm and an aperture of f/5.6) quite well, in difficult low-light conditions, the AF does take a hit. It's hard to quantify this in a field setting, and since I was aiming for difficult look-back shots of these puffins which certainly didn't help (in which you have a lower success rate anyhow), I would say the TC gave about a 15% reduction in keepers, this was primarily due to a more tentative AF lock. I wouldn't hesitate to the use the 1.4 TC, but with that said if I could get the same shot without the TC I would go for that first. Here is a banking shot using the teleconverter against an ocean background.

And below is the corresponding 100% crop from the RAW. This level of detail is what I would say is typical from using the 300 PF + TC at this range under these conditions and ISO (the high resolution JPG above represents about 65% of the original frame, or about 14 MP).

Overall there is a slight hit in IQ in my opinion, but that (along with the AF reduction) is expected and I'm happy to take those hits in order to get a shot like this as the puffins were primarily banking further away than 300mm gets you. The noise here can be removed using additional reduction in photoshop.

Another banking shot with the TC attached, this puffin had a much lighter backside than the others I've seen. No idea why, but thought it was interesting.

Another shot with the TC, I had to raise the exposure about .5 stops on this one, but Nikon's software can handle that decently.

If you've been to the Farne Islands you're well aware of the Arctic Terns, and if you haven't been, well these birds just screech and peck at you if you look at them funny, so be warned! Despite that, they can be very photogenic, even mid yell.

Another common bird on the islands are guillemots. I'm not sure what fish is in this ones mouth, but possibly a sand eel. Unlike puffin, I only ever saw them with at most one fish. These birds are slightly more predictable flyers than the puffins, but I generally wasn't able to get as close to them, making use of the TC an attractive option for this species. The AF with the TC generally didn't have much problem keeping up with the guillemots, but again felt less certain than the bare lens in these conditions.      

Also unlike puffin, I mostly saw them without any prey items in their mouths, like this one below.

Although I didn't get many flight opportunities with razorbills at this location, I got some nice static shots of them. I rarely go vertical but was glad I did here.     

This razorbill allowed a close approach (again, read: was just close to the boardwalk). Their eye is super cool with a star type pupil. Here was another situation where the TC was very helpful.

Conclusions

Overall, my impression of the 300 f/4 PF is exceedingly positive. The IQ, AF, and especially the size are all excellent. IQ with the 1.4 TC is strong, but for fast moving flyers in low light I found the AF to be more tentative with the bare lens (no surprise). With that said, I've used the 1.4 TC extensively in other challenging scenarios (for example: black skimmers skimming; high resolution image here and 100% crop here) in better light and did not notice much of a reduction in AF or IQ from the bare lens. Either way I wouldn't think worry about using the TC if you need the extra reach. I didn't touch on this in the field report, but the 300 PF lens has had a much discussed issue of "VR shake" at low shutter speeds (around 1/160 s) that some say was fixed with an update and others still report having this problem. I haven't noticed this issue at low shutter speeds, but have not really tested this out that much. I have gotten sharp shots of birds at 1/100 to 1/200 s before though.

In terms of other options, I also own the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 lens, and although I didn't bring it here this year due to travel, I can offer some indirect comparison as I used that lens last year with these puffins (see here). While the 200-500 gave a lot of excellent shots, I can say pretty confidently that the 300 PF has much better AF and gave a much higher number of keepers this year. In the overcast and windy conditions that I had, the AF on the 300 PF was more reliable, the handling of the lens better due to it's small size, and having f/4 was really useful. In comparison, if I was using the f/5.6 lens, ISO would have been much higher on many of these shots, resulting in less than ideal IQ at times. When the 1.4 TC is introduced to the 300 PF, things get a lot closer, although I would still say the 300 PF edges the AF on the 200-500. In terms of IQ, either lens is excellent, and you can't go wrong with either, it would just depend on what you shoot generally. It's also my feeling that the 200-500 has better VR than the 300 PF. Steve Perry has an excellent 300 PF vs 200-500 comparison on his website (I promise he's not paying me!). 

Moving forward, I'm excited to see what Nikon can do with their PF system, especially if there is a 600mm PF produced at a reasonable cost.

All in all, it was an excellent trip to the Farne Islands with a lot of great activity. I also highly recommend a visit there if you're in the region. You can see more puffin images here and more razorbill / guillemot images here.

Feel free to contact me with any questions or comments!

(C) Alex Becker, 2018, no reproduction allowed without explicit permission.