Looking for angular “rocks“ on a white terrain (15.04.2016)
Text and photos: Timo Palo
In 1974, a national park was established at the highlands of central Norway that today bears the name of Dovrefjell-Sundalsfjella. Dovrefjell’s altitude is approximately 1000 metres and it is kind of an arctic enclave where you can find many real arctic plant and animal species like the reindeer, arctic fox and ptarmigan. But the heraldic animal of the national park is a musk ox that was situated there from Eastern Greenland after the II WW. Today, their population is about 300 animals.
In February, is packed my skiing equipment and went on a skiing trip to Dovrefjell. I also planned to look for the musk oxen and photograph and film them in a winter environment. It is not easy to find them on that mountainous terrain, even during the winter time. It is hard to tell from the distance whether it is a rock or an animal. Sometimes you need to look through the binoculars for a long time to see whether the rocks move or not. I had seen the musk oxen before in Greenland and I knew that I had to look for more angular and darker rocks.
There is always a camera in my hiking bag but this time, I also decided to take up another assignment – do a video story for Estonian Public Broadcasting’s show Osoon. Relying on my previous experiences, I knew that the musk ox is not an animal to get close to. When this ordinarily peaceful animal feels threatened, it can attack at 60 kilometres per hour. Human being does not have a slight opportunity to escape them. There have being fatal accidents in Dovrefjell. Thus, I needed a long telephoto lens for safe working.
The focal length of the longest lens in my camera bag is 200mm. This is not enough though when you want to capture these animals on a more personal note and catch details. Fortunately, I AM PHOTOGRAPHER Pro Shop helped me out here and gave me Nikon’s super telephoto lens AF-S Nikkor 600mm F/4E FL ED VR that is a newly released version of this lens. I had worked with the older version of this lens at least once and I had a clue what to expect. But already the first look at the compact and light weight suitcase of this lens made me realise that the successor is bringing a totally new standard into the playground of super telephoto lenses. When I took this lens into my hand I immediately knew what the most important advantage of the new lens is compared to its predecessor. Today’s technology and materials have enabled the Nikon’s 600mm F4 lens to lose almost 1.3 kg of its weight! On a hike where you have to drag everything along, it is a significant advantage. On a skiing hike, it is equivalent to one day’s food portions. After putting the lens in front of the camera (D810), it became clear that the weight loss is not the only positive update and this lens is also technically powerful.
600mm F4 is still not a lens to easily crab and take with you on a hike in your backpack. On a skiing hike though, my equipment is usually on a sleigh and since this hike was not overwhelmingly long, it was possible to pack this super telephoto lens into my bag. I moved my camping gear from one place to another on a big sleigh. But for seeing musk oxen, I took one-day-long hikes from the camping site and I took the whole photographing gear with me. For transporting the lens, I used a small plastic sleigh that I had brought along just for that. I took the telephoto lens out when I had completed the pre-work which means that I had determined the location of the musk oxen and watched them for a while. From there on, 600mm F4 made the experience of capturing the animal very enjoyable.
Musk ox is the nowadays version of the mammoth – they are somewhat the predecessors of the prehistorical mammals and can be thus considered as the living bridge to this period thousands of years ago. The musk oxen also look prehistorical – long and matted hair, scary horns, and stocky body. The real artic and even sort of gloomy nature of the musk oxen is revealed in the snow storm that the animals successfully defy. During its long evolutional journey, the musk oxen have stubbornly defied all the other changes in the world as well. Nikon’s 600mm F4 turned out to be a suitable lens for plunging into the nature of these animals and looking them in the eye. It helped to really get to know the nature of this animal.
The mountainous terrain with its characteristics often defined the shooting location and there weren’t many options to move front or back. Sometimes it happened that 600mm focal length turned out to be even too long to fit the actions of these animals into the frame. I had space between 200mm and 600mm although I could also use the 1.7x converter when necessary. Even if it is possible to move backwards while using a long lens, it is sometimes worth to use a shorter focal length. The less air there is between the subject and the camera, the sharper is the image. In winter, getting a sharp image is especially problematic in the snow storm or when strong air flicker occur. These tend to become problems mostly when photographing from a low angle against the falling light.
The sharpness and detailness that 600mm F4 offers is great and that is also true in low light conditions and difficult weather conditions. AF worked fast and perfectly even in the snow storm. Even as I am used to trust manual focusing in snow storm; this time, the accuracy and speed of the autofocus surprised me and there was no need to switch on manual focusing. While I was filming, I still used manual focusing though. When often it is problematic to manually focus with autofocus lenses in the movie mode, the focusing ring of the new 600mm F4 is nicely smooth and its gear is long enough. This enabled me to play with the focus between foreground and background. Besides filming, manual focus also helped to focus in the Live View mode during night time.
I used this lens on a stout video tripod head. But while shooting at moonlit night, I needed very long shutter speeds (up to 1/8). In a strong wind, it is inevitable that a telephoto lens this long vibrates and it is hard to produce sharp photos. Here, VR is very helpful – it works quietly and does a good job.
While filming with 600mm focal length, the slightest tremble of the lens is noticeable. The tripod and its head may be as good as possible but in a strong wind, one lens support plate is not enough. For a stabile video, the lens needs to be fixed to the tripod from at least two places. One support place should definitely be at the front of the lens. Taking the hood away somewhat decreased the vibration through decreasing the wind drags. I did not use VR when I wanted to get a clean sound.
When there’s a strong wind, there’s usually a snow storm. When I removed the hood, I was afraid that I had to clean the front lens of the lens all the time. But to my surprise, I noticed that even though the weather was quite warm, the snow did not stick on the front lens and it stayed clean. Later, I found out that it might have been the water and dust repellent fluorine surface put on the new front glass of the new lens.
Nikon’s 600mm F4 worked perfectly in all kinds of weather conditions. While camping in the winter one needs to be careful that the camera and whatever lens are not kept in places with very different temperatures. If so, condensate occurs. I had a 1.7x converter with me and the focal length reached 1000mm. Although I didn’t use this combination often, I didn’t notice any difference in AF performance.
I spent almost two weeks in Dovrefjell, and the musk oxen offered a memorable experience. Nikon’s new 600mm F/4E FL ED VR is definitely a top notch accomplishment of today’s engineering science. This lens enabled to follow the musk oxen and capture their activity from the front row without getting dangerously close to the animals.