Shooting the Blue Angels with the NIKKOR Z 800mm f/6.3 VR S super-telephoto
Time to read 4 min
Time to read 4 min
I have been looking for a good excuse to shoot with the new NIKKOR Z 800mm f/6.3 VR S with my newish Nikon Z 8 body and the Blue Angels jetting to Seattle for a grand performance above Lake Washington was just the ticket. I've photographed the Angels off and on for years with mostly my trusty 200mm 2.8 NIKKOR. Last year, I tried out the AF-S NIKKOR 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR which was pretty great. This year, I wanted to experiment with the extra reach of an 800mm.
Lake Washington is a perfect spot for a high-speed, high-altitude jet performance. The jets can dive low and engage the afterburners without risking people on the ground. The lake stretches 20 miles from north to south with over 50 miles of shoreline, perfect for large crowds to get unobstructed views. To the north is a nice view of Mount Baker and to the south Mount Rainier can be seen. I have great photos of those mountains with the Blue Angels from 2022.
In all past years, I found locations along the west side. The planes use a barge as a marker to center their performance ove. The barge was close enough to the I-90 floating bridge that traffic was blocked during the show. Now, the barge has been moved south to keep the bridge open.
This year, I found myself with my friend, Barry, on a private dock on the east side of the like pointed right at the barge. I knew I was in for a treat! Was the NIKKOR Z 800mm going to be TOO powerful? The 200-500 from last year rarely framed the jets to the Nikon D750 sensor's edges but the dock this year was closer to the action.
The B-17 and B-25 WW2 bombers arrived first and performed several orbits above the lake and out to Bellevue to the east. Next was Fat Albert, the Blue's Lockheed Martin C-130T Hercules with the classic blue and yellow livery to match the jets.
Fat Albert made several passes over the lake then completed the introduction. As the plane headed away, the Blue Angels roared onto the scene. For 34 years, the Blue Angels flew the F/A-18 Hornet. Now, they have upgraded to the more-powerful F/A-18 Super Hornet and boy are these loud.
I wouldn't call this a lens review due to my brief use of the NIKKOR Z 800mm lens, but I do have some takeaways. First, this lens is light! I hand-held it for the entire 2-hour performance. My arms got a bit tired at times usually after extended shooting but the breaks in the maneuvers was enough time to recover. The focusing was snapping on the Nikon Z 8 using a medium focus box and continuous focus drive function and “airplane detection” enabled. However finding focus was incredibly difficult with the NIKKOR Z 800mm. Being a prime, I wasn't able to zoom out and find the jets then zoom in for tracking and shooting. The speed at which they arrived left me struggling a bit and I did miss shots. I bet some sort of hotshoe dot-sight might help here.
Was the NIKKOR Z 800mm lens too much magnification? For the most part, I found myself cropping in while editing the photos even with those shot with DX mode engaged on the full-frame Nikon Z 8. DX is a 1.5x crop of the 46MP sensor giving me an effective field of view of a 1200mm lens. Those DX raw files were just over 19MP which is fine for web and medium-sized prints. I found that all of the images upscaled well using Topaz Photos AI. I did notice some off-center (top-leftish) vignetting in the images which I sorta compensated for with a radial adjustment brush in Adobe Lightroom. Many of the closer passes filled the whole full frame sensor and beyond. I think next year I will try out the new NIKKOR Z 180-600MM F/5.6-6.3 VR to regain that ability to find targets I loved from the 200-500mm last year.
Do you have experience with NIKKOR Z 800mm and body combination? Questions about my day with theis lens that I didn't' cover here? Comment below!