Lens Envy and the D800

Polar Bear with Piggy-back Cub, Svalbard

I had my first chance this past week to field-test the new Nikon D800 on a trip to Svalbard in the Norwegian arctic. Knowing that I would be shooting from the deck of a ship, and hand-holding my camera a lot, I decided to pair the D800 with the Nikkor 300mm f2.8, probably the sharpest lens I own, along with the TC14x teleconverter. This would have to serve as my "big lens" on this trip.

To be honest, I felt sure that the huge 36MP sensor on the D800 would also allow me to shoot in DX format, with the apparent magnification that this offers. The combination - lens, teleconverter and sensor - should be able to get me as close to anything as I would need to be.

I was wrong. The single best photo opportunity we had during those ten days was a situation which called for a lens in the roughly 2000mm range. It was a mother polar bear, carrying her young cub on her back as she swam to shore - a beautiful and tender moment that cried out to be recorded. But even with my effective 600+mm lens, it was still tiny in the frame - in fact, see if you can find this image in the full-frame picture below.

Was I able to get a picture?  Strictly speaking, yes, but blown up so big that I think you could count the number of pixels in the bear on one hand. But the fact that I got anything at all is testimony to both the monster resolution of the D800 and the sharpness of the 300mm.

I still think I made the right call: some pictures are just hard to get...

To learn more about this event, take a look here.

Nikon D800, 300mm f2.8 lens, TC1.4x


    OK, that is amazing. After seeing the story in the newspaper one would never guess that they are cropped so heavily. Makes me think about a system change. What a scene that must have been and I think in this case any photo is better than no photo. I’ve heard from different places that there are actually not really any lenses that will allow for the true resolution of the sensor to be utilized, but that crop sure is pretty good quality.

    Hi Kevin,

    Wonderful shot! I have a D800 and literally just purchased the 300mm F2.8 for a trip I will be taking to the Grand Tetons/Yellowstone in Aug. Let me ask you…would your fix next time given your choice be to bring the 1.7 and 2.0 TC’s with you?

    Only asking since I have a 1.4 and 1.7…will certainly need reach in Yellowstone but don’t have any longer lenses.



    Hey Ryan, To be honest, I have never had good luck with the TC 2.0, and rarely carry it. It’s often too dark, and slows down AF to the point of uselessness. I would shoot the D800 in DX mode with the TC1.4x whenever possible, and the 1.7 one if you absolutely need it. The 300mm is a super-sharp lens and works well with either. Good luck on your trip!


    Great shot. What was the aperture (f/4?) & the shutter speed?

    The Canon 300/f2.8 is a similarly excellent lens as well. I’m debating which of the long ones (300/f2.8, 400/f2.8 or 500/f4) to get and portability and situations like this one you had come to mind. Could you have used a (carbon fiber) tripod or a monopod if you had one?

    I’m leaning towards the 500/f4, though the 400/f2.8 is a gem as well. Decisions, decisions… Any comments appreciated. I often do birding.



    Incredible what shooting in DX mode on a 36Mp camera can achieve. To your point Kevin about the TC20: I often use this TC in combo with the D700 and the 70-200mm f2.8 VRII. I find that being limited of a maximum aperture of 5.6 is rarely a problem in daytime nature photography. I have been able capture some interesting bird shots this way. Mostly hand-held or with the help of a CF monopod. Going the DX route is a toss up between less pixels per inch and cropping a great deal out of the frame. I’ve been promising myself to test which is more advantageous.

    Christian, Thanks for your comments. I agree that the 5.6 aperture with the TC20 is not a significant problem – a camera like the D700 can easily be bumped up to ISO 500 or 1000 with good results which more than makes up for the smaller aperture. My problem is with the autofocus esp. with longer lenses. I find that the 300mm f2.8 and 500mm f4 struggle with the darker image, resulting in a painfully slow response time – e.g. lots of zooming in and out. Nor can the sharpness compare with that of the TC14, in my opinion. In the end, however, you use what you have; in some situations, like my piggy-back bear, I couldn’t lift a lens big enough to get those bears in full-frame.

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