Image by Ken Rockwell
Nikon has been getting a lot of bad press lately for questionable investments (360 key mission cameras) and decisions about it's products (cancellation of DL compact cameras) as well as a total no-show at the latest CP+ camera show in Japan in early 2017, the year of their first century - not out. The interchangeable lens camera (ILS) and compact camera markets are shrinking year on year as more and more people buy smart-phones...
Pity, because at it's core there are some pretty good lens and camera designers that have given us hits like the D3 full frame in 2007, the D700 (the D3 wolf in sheep's clothing) in 2008 and lately (2014) the D810, a camera so phenomenal that two years after it's release it is still considered by many as one of the best all-round cameras out there. And that's saying a lot as since it's release both Canon and Sony have upped the mega-pixel wars and released worth adversaries.
As to lenses Nikon has also been quietly productive coming out in recent years with some ground-breaking designs such as the 14-24 f2.8 wide angle zoom lens that redefined what a zoom lens could or should do. It was so spectacular that it totaly eclipsed Nikon's own prime 14mm f2.8 lens. A zoom better than a prime you say?! Yes, I can confirm from personal experience that this was indeed the case. Since then with a few wobbles along the way (Nikon 70-200 VRII focus breathing debacle anyone) they have managed to quietly come up with some stellar lenses such as their line of f1.8 consumer lenses (20mm, 24, 28, 35) which seemed just as good as their trice more expensive f1.4 versions, or the unique 105 f1.4 portrait lens and let us not forget the insanely expensive but well received 70-200 f2.8 E lens that resolved the focus breathing issue, focuses closer and has finally got it's focus buttons back. And that lens comes with a particularly well-designed lens foot.
Glad you brought that up about the lens foot.. Because THAT seems to be an area that Nikon has not been at the top of it's engineering game if this man is to be believed. "This man" is Bjorn Rorslett and he has criticized just about every lens foot design that came out of Nikon since it's transition to AF-S motors and basically has said that they are all cow's manure. There is now a whole new industry started by people like Really Right Stuff and Kirk and Wimberly that created alternative foot supports for lenses to a) be used in Arca-swiss style clamps, the defacto standard in photography and b) to resolve the issue of less than stellar support in some cases. We'll get back to RRS in a little while. Suffice it to say that for around 20 years these manufacturers and now a slew of Chinese copycats have been improving on OEM designs and making money.
If you've reached this far into my post you may be wondering what the whole point of this history lesson has been. And you would be right in asking that. So let's now turn away from history in general and focus on my personal experience. A little over a year ago I went out and bought my very own Nikon 200-500 f5.6E lens (released in 2015). For any of you uninitiated in the world of camera lenses a 500mm lens is quite a beast, the gold standard for nature photography and pap-style shooting. Nikon had finally come out with a zoom lens that reached out this far and in a very budget-friendly price of $1395 or thereabouts. This lens intrigued many reviewers who immediately set the hoards of nature photographers out onto online retailers with the exhortatation of "Buy, buy, buy".. in the vein of Hollywood movies about Wall Street. And I dutifully obeyed.
And when my lens arrived I was astounded at a) it's size, b) it's weight and c) it's image quality. It was so good that I nearly threw my 28-300 superzoom away in disgust! (Later I traded that lens for a 20 year old 80-200 f2.8AF-D, but that as they say is another story).
However all the A + B meant that getting any decent C out of the lens meant proper support. On a tripod. A very big and stable tripod. Which fortunately I had. When used in static positions with a Wimberly sidekick gimbal mount (remember the lens plate guys I mentioned above - this is one of them) the lens worked a treat and though top heavy, especially when extended out to 500mm, it still worked ok.
Where the lens didn't work was when hand-held, or when travelling and then walking around with the lens. For example as I might do at the top of a mountain on a 3 day hike taking pictures of rare birds. Or at an airshow with planes swooping everywhere. Or out a window taking pictures of the couple across the road... Ok scratch that last one! In those situations it was a real pain in the rear end.
Well, the badly designed lens foot. Besides being a cantilevered design, shown by the gentleman I mentioned previously to be thorougly inadequate for locking down a lens to avoid vibrations, there was nowhere to support the lens when you weren't using it. You either had to sling it onto your shoulder while keeping a hand on the camera or keep it in a bag... a very BIG bag. Having it hanging from the camera straps around your neck was inviting disaster as both lens and camera mounts were likely to sag and bend from the strain.. Also because Nikon (unlike Tamron in 2017) doesn't build in the arca-swiss dovetail design into their lens feet meant I had to add a plate from, yes, you guessed it RRS from above. That plate worked fine for fixing the lens to a clamp on a tripod, but there was no-where to attach a strap on the lens itself, as Nikon's more expensive lenses have as standard. Ok, I won't moan here.. I'm getting a $1395 lens that is pretty close optically to a $6500 lens.. I can't expect the same level of finishing. Still... Nikon could have put just a little more thought into the design..
Now more than a year into the len's release Kirk, then Chinese copycat guys and finally our trusty friends from RRS have come out with some solutions. But do they solve our problems? Let's have a look. First up is the Kirk/Chinese solution, which I found first about 2 months ago on Ebay.
The Chinese ($50) is an close copy of the Kirk ($150) although the plate is not as long - They essentially remade the whole mount including lens collar and integrated an arca swiss dovetail into the foot. Up to here all is good as it resolves having a lens plate and at $50 (if you're ok with the Chinese copy, which I am) is not excessive considering you'd have to pay around 15-20$ just of the lens plate... and you eliminate the risk of the lens-plate coming loose at any time (it has happened though thankfully no disasters ensued!).
However one glaring design flaw is that they've made the cantilivered design even more fragile and prone to introduce vibration into the lens. I come to this conclusion only by looking at the images online in the ebay advert.. although this very good review in the DPREVIEW forum counters my claim... I won't belabour the point, but for me it's a case of 1 step forward and 1 step back.
Then a week ago I saw a RRS tripod colar for this lens advertised on B&H! For the modical amount of $250! Yes, RRS is not shy of their prices, but I can attest to their quality. But $250???????! Anyway, let's examine the soundness of the design. They too include an arca-swiss dovetail into the lens foot but improve on the Kirk version by setting the foot all the way back and eliminating the cantiliver aspect thereby making a support that is sure to be more stable (though testing would be required to see how stable). A nice touch is that they've recreated Nikon's own foot release (from their 70-200 line of lenses) which makes taking of the foot child's play. However in a display of truly not understanding HOW some of us photographers work out in the field, they've added a lens strap to a lug screwed into the bottom of the plate (this may not be included in the package and was in the B&H photo section for the lens).
Why is that not a good thing? For one it makes carrying the lens on a strap and using it on a tripod or monopod mutually exclusive, as you have to unscrew the lug before you can slide the foot into a clamp. The whole POINT of arca-swiss style plates and clamps is that they are fast to use! Secondly and more importantly those lugs can come unscrewed very quickly, especially if you're running along with the lens flopping along behind you.. That can spell big trouble.
So although a much more stable design when used on a tripod, the RRS basically negates it's usefulness by not having an adaquate CARRYING solution..
And the solution?
Well I present my MacGyver workaround that hopefully will inspire a lens plate manufacturer to come up with something a) economical b) that solves the cantiliver stability problem c) includes an arca swiss plate into the foot and d) includes a solid carrying connection solution built into the lens plate by placing lug mounts on either end of the lens plate that distributes the weight of the lens on two points and allows the use of comfortable carrying straps such as the Optech. Phew... I can breath now after that long sentence!
I have taken a $20 chinese clamp (great quality by the way) with dual slots for straps to be mounted, threaded through Optech quick release straps, put a plate onto the Nikon lens foot (about $10 for a chinese knock-off, or around $50 for my RRS plate) and now have a stable solution to carry the lens thus and for the modical amout of $30 (or $60).
When I want to use a monopod or tripod, I simply loosten the chinese clamp and voilá!
I'm a bit saddened that a company like RRS that supposedly only manufacture lens and camera solutions hadn't thought about the need to hand-carry a lens so obviously designed for hand-carrying. Makes me wonder what we're paying the big bucks for?! The Chinese solution is a little bit less thought out although it does solve one fundamental issue (arca-swiss clamp) and with Vibration Reduction (VR) in this lens it is debatable whether the cantiliver issue will be a problem in anything but the longest or shortest exposures.. and at the price they are truly competitive. RRS does have an elegant design with a removable foot, I do admit. But elegance is trumped by practicality, and there is not enough of it going on here.
My solution is not without it's flaws. A plate bolted onto the Nikon lens collar can become dislodged.. the lens clamp I've attached to the plate can also work it's way loose if not tied down properly. But overall and for short periods of time it makes hand-carrying this beast of a lens quite enjoyable. It's there in your hand when you need it, and you slide it back behind your shoulder when you're walking looking for an image.
So the call is to you plate manufacturers! Can you make a one-piece solution?