Lessons Learned

I wrote earlier that I was taking a set of gear to the Galapagos to try to figure out some of the camera/lens bits that I was still struggling for answers with. 

I found answers. Here they are:

  • DX or FX 70-300mm AF-P? FX, even on the 20/24mp DX bodies. Clearly a better lens. Clearly a better lens than the older 70-300mm FX lens, too. No, it's not as sharp as a 300mm f/2.8 (you didn't expect that, did you?). It's nearly as sharp as the excellent 300mm f/4, though. I found myself using the 300mm f/4 less than expected because of this (you prefer the zoom flexibility over aperture when birds are flying literally at your face). Better still: this lens performs perfectly fine on the D850. Not exceptional, but I can recommend it, so it's going on the list.
  • Midrange zoom for D850? Well, there's the 24-70mm f/2.8E. No need to discuss that more. But I wasn't happy with the 24-120mm f/4 on the D850 (and haven't really been with the D800/D810, either). Surprise: the 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5 is a better choice than the 24-120mm f/4. Yep. Better choice and cheaper, too. Who would have guessed? I'm going to put that on my "conditional D850 lens list." By that, I mean that you'll give up just a bit of acuity in some aspects for a well-rounded performer that's small, light, and inexpensive (I picked up a refurbished copy).
  • 80-400mm? Okay, I'm serious confused by this lens. We had several more copies on board this trip. I'm calling Serious Sample Differences on Nikon on this lens, something I've not done before. I've now tested something like two dozen copies, across a number of bodies. I see two clear sample differences between what should be identical lenses: (1) Live View autofocus performance. Some 80-400's seem to focus just fine in Live View, some simply don't focus correctly in Live View. My copy doesn't. My teaching assistant's copy doesn't. Two student copies on this trip? They focused in Live View on my camera when mine wouldn't. I'm seeing almost half of the 80-400mm's I test have some form of poor Live View autofocus. I have no idea how that's even possible. (2) Sharpness. No 80-400mm has the level of acuity at 400mm that a D850 wants. I'm okay with that. But many don't have anywhere near the level of acuity at the telephoto end that you'd want with a 24mp camera, let alone the 36/45mp cameras. They're just unsharp. And yes, that's after AF Fine Tune testing. I'm tempted to add a (3) Tunability. The 80-400mm is the one lens that often generates large AF Fine Tune changes on cameras. More so than any other lens we've encountered at these workshops. One student's version was so bad and untunable I just leant him my 80-400mm for most of the trip, as mine is decently sharp (I'd put that particular copy on my "conditional D850 lens list", but obviously I'm seeing multiple copies that wouldn't make that list, so the 80-400mm is off the list until something gets resolved at Nikon's end). I also told that student to have Nikon look at the lens, as it clearly was one of the worst samples I've encountered, and I've encountered some poor ones previously. Given how good the new 70-300mm AF-P is, I think you forego the 400mm the 80-400mm gives you. Yes, that's harsh. But NikonUSA never responded to my initial inquiries about this lens's performance, and at this point I'm 100% confident that there's something wrong with at least some of the 80-400's that are out there, maybe even many of them. This is now a lens I wouldn't buy without testing the sample I was offered.
  • D7200 or D7500? Tossup. There's nothing wrong with either camera. The D7500 has perhaps a slightly better focus and buffer performance, and the 8 fps is nice to have. Not enough to justify the price differential, though. As much as Nikon tried to screw up the D7500, I found it to be a very good performer and enjoyed shooting with it. Of course, only one card, no grip, no AI indexing, only 20mp, worse Wi-Fi, fewer shots per battery charge, and a host of other things are complaints you hear about the D7500 "upgrade." But realistically, it's still a good camera, and there are a few pluses, like the new metering capability, the touchscreen, and that 2 fps faster frame rate. But frankly, Nikon fumbled this one. At the current holiday pricing, I find it really difficult to recommend the D7500 over the older D7200. What would be the compelling reason? 4K and no crop 1080P video? Take the discount and buy a better lens.
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