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Nikon 600mm f/5.6 P
(1964-1974)
© 2008 KenRockwell.com. All rights reserved.

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Nikon 600mm f/5.6 P

Nikon 600mm f/5.6 NIKKOR-P on CU-1 Focus Unit. enlarge. The fellow who loaned this to me got it used from Adorama. It helps me keep adding to this site when you get yours from that link, too.

July 2008    More Nikon Reviews

Optics:
Ergonomics:   (manual-focus, non-meter-coupled aperture)
Usefulness:
Availability: (used only)
Overall:

Ideal Uses: Cheapskate super telephoto.

Not for: Anyone who needs autofocus, anyone who needs simple exposure setting, or anyone who needs to photograph moving subjects.

Introduction       top

Intro    Specifications    Performance    Recommendations

Compatibility    History    Production

This is a huge, old supertelephoto lens. It was Nikon's very first 600mm lens.

This lens is actually two pieces: the 600mm f/5.6 optical head, and the CU-1 rear focusing and diaphragm unit. Nikon also made 400mm f/4.5 and 800mm f/8 heads which could be interchanged on the same focus unit to save money and system carry weight if you used more than one lens.

CU-1 and 600mm f/5.6

Nikon 600mm f/5.6 head (above) and CU-1 Focus Unit (below). enlarge.

 

Compatibility       back to intro     back to top

If you can live with manual focus and no meter coupling, it seems to work with every Nikon SLR ever made. I had no problems mounting it on a D3, D300, F4, N90s, F100 or N75; good luck!

The manual-focus 600mm f/5.6 P does not meter couple, but you can get metering.

With the D3, D700, D300, D200, D2 and F6, use the "Non-CPU Lens Data" menu option to set 600mm and f/5.6 to get full matrix metering and some EXIF data.

You're not done. Since the diaphragm is automatic, but the meter is uncoupled, you need to set exposure compensation to get the correct exposure unless you're using f/5.6. Here's a table:

Set lens to
Set Exp. Comp. to*
Finder Reads
EXIF Reads
f/5.6
± 0
f/5.6
f/5.6, ± 0.0
f/8
+1.0
f/5.6
f/5.6, + 1.0
f/11
+2.0
f/5.6
f/5.6, + 2.0
f/16
+3.0
f/5.6
f/5.6, + 3.0
f/22
+4.0
f/5.6
f/5.6, + 4.0

* Add this value to any other needed compensation.

If you can do this, you just got color matrix metering with a 40-year old lens. You need to use this trick to get proper Matrix metering. If you try to get smart and program different Non-CPU Lens Data settings for each aperture, you won't get the correct exposure at the smaller apertures.

The meters of cheaper digital (D80 and below) and cheaper film cameras (N80 and below) will not work at all with this lens. You'll be on your own guessing exposure using the rear LCD or an external meter.

With film cameras, use the stop-down mode (see your manual or ask Nikon at (800) NIKON-US), or use the table above.

Rear, Nikn CU-1

Rear, CU-1 Focusing Unit. Note protector for auto diaphragm lever.

History      back to intro     back to top

1964: Nikon Introduced this lens, which is one of a set of lenses, including a 400mm f/4.5 NIKKOR-Q and a 800mm f/8 NIKKOR-P, which use a separate CU-1 rear focus and diaphragm assembly. Since half the expense of a lens is in the mechanics, you could buy the other heads and swap them out less expensively than having to buy several complete lens systems.

1974: A multicoated version on the same thing appears, the Nikon 600mm f/5.6 NIKKOR-P•C.

1975: The first 600mm f/5.6 with ED glass arrived.

1976: Nikon added internal focusing for the first modern 600mm f/5.6 ED-IF. This is the oldest lens I'd suggest for any non-masochistic photographer.

Production       back to intro     back to top

Nikon made about 2,000 of these 600mm f/5.6 NIKKOR-P lenses. Nikon made about 1,000 of the multicoated NIKKOR-P•C version.

Through 2008, Nikon has only made about 20,000 600mm lenses of all kinds, including the newest 600mm f/4 AF-S VR.

This particular sample shown here is historic, being among the first few hundred 600mm lenses ever made by Nikon.

Controls

Controls, CU-1 Focusing Unit. enlarge.

 

Specifications with Commentary        top

Intro    Specifications    Performance    Recommendations

Optics: 5 elements in 4 groups. The "P" stands for five elements, as in "penta." In this case, the letter P has nothing to do with AI-P or the P in your pool. This one is single-coated in blue and amber.

Close Focus: 35 feet, not marked in meters. 35 feet is 10.7 meters.

Maximum Reproduction Ratio: 1:16.

Hard Infinity Focus Stop? No.

Depth-of-Field Scale: No.

Infra-Red Focus Index: No.

Diaphragm: 9 traditional blades, stops down to set aperture automatically with each exposure just like modern lenses. Stops down to f/22

Aperture Ring: Metal, full-stop clicks. It also has a setting for f/4.5 for use with the 400mm f/4.5 Q head; if you set it to f/4.5 with this lens all you get is f/5.6.

Filter Thread: 122mm, just like the newer 800mm f/8, 600mm f/5.6, 400mm f/3.5 and 300mm f/2.8 ED-IF lenses. Doesn't rotate.

Size: Nikon specifies 20.04" (509mm) extension from flange (20.33" [516.5mm] overall) by 5.31" (135mm) diameter including the CU-1 focus unit and focused at infinity. The lens gets longer as focused more closely.

Weight: 8 pounds, 4-1/4 oz. (3,760g), with strap but no caps, measured. Nikon specifies 127.0 oz. (7.9 pounds or 3.6kg), without strap. The 600mm head only weights 5 pounds, 3-3/4 oz (2,380g). The CU-1 focus unit with strap, but no head, weighs 3 pounds, 1/2 oz. (1,380g).

Hood: Built-in 4" (10cm) deep telescoping hood.

 

Performance       top

Intro    Specifications    Performance    Recommendations

Overall   Focus    Distortion    Falloff    Filters    Ghosts    Hand-Holding

Hood    Color Fringes    Mechanics    Sharpness     VR  

Comparisons

Overall      back to Performance    back to top

The 600mm f/5.6 P is a big, long clumsy beast. It's not as good as the ED lenses, but this was state-of-the-art for the 1960s.

If you can deal with the ergonomics, it can give great results on an FX camera.

It works better on today's D3 than it ever could have on the film cameras of its day, because:

1.) Today's digital cameras have much more precise electronic manual focusing

2.) Modern cameras have much brighter finders optimized for these slow lenses. The film cameras of its day needed special interchangeable finder screens, or had finders which were just too dim when used with their standard screens.

3.) The Nikon D3 automatically corrects the secondary lateral chromatic aberration. This is why Nikon had to invent ED glass back in the 1970s.

4.) Film looks crummy above ISO 200. With the D3 and D700, you can shoot at high speeds to be able to hand-hold this cannon and still get great results.

 

Focus     back to Performance    back to top

Manual focus is smooth. Its a huge lens, but the distinctive pattern of the rubber ring makes it easy to find without looking.

Since the focus helicoids are a foot (30cm) ahead of your camera, focusing on a tripod is easier if you lift your camera a little to reduce the leverage on the helicoids. If you don't, the focus ring becomes more difficult to turn.

Manual focus is much more precise than the newer ED-IF or today's 600mm AF lenses. This makes the new lenses better for moving things like sports, but makes the focus of this old lens better suited to still subjects like sunsets, surveillance, remote sensing and distant landscapes.

Focus is easier with today's AF cameras than film cameras because of their brighter screens and electronic focus aids.

Good Autofocus Cameras

The D3, D700, F4, F6 and most professional AF cameras have three very precise electronic manual focus indicators that work great with this lens.

It works great on the N90s, too.

Lesser AF Cameras

Lesser digital cameras, like the D300 and down, usually have just one "OK" focus dot, which is not as precise as two arrows and a dot. It's tough to get perfect focus at f/5.6 on the D300 and similar cameras.

Manual Focus Cameras

Manual focus cameras are a pain because their screens are very dim, and the central microprism and split-image rangefinders usually black out. With pro cameras like the Nikon F, F2, F3, F4 and F5, you can buy other screens optimized for long teles.

Because most Nikon SLR finders with standard screens (this includes all digital SLRS) are optimized for shorter lenses, the sides of the viewfinders can look dim, fuzzy, and even have double images. This is just a defect of the finder system; the image on-film or on-sensor is fine.

The best film camera to use with this 600mm lens is the F6, which will give you matrix metering if you set it in the menus, and excellent electronic focus indicators.

Finder Black-out

Most finders, even the D3, will black-out the top and/or bottom of the frame because the camera's mirrors aren't big enough. Not to worry, there are no black borders in the photos.

Many cameras will show blurry sides or nasty double images. Don't worry; these are artifacts of viewfinders being optimized for use with more normal lenses; the images are fine even if they look screwy through the finder.

Oddly I haven't tried all my cameras, but the finder of the old N90s and F4 looks much better, sharper and complete than the finder of my D3 does with this 600mm lens.

 

Distortion    back to performance     back to top

The 600mm f5.6 P has no distortion, at least as tested at 40 feet (12 meters).

 

Falloff (darkened corners)    back to performance     back to top

The NIKKOR-P 600mm f/5.6 has no visible falloff, even wide open, on FX or DX. In fact, it has less falloff than any other lens I've ever tested this way.

I've exaggerated this by shooting a gray field and placing these on a gray background. Even with exaggerating this, it's still completely invisible by f/11. You don't need to worry about falloff with the 600mm, which is good, because you're usually shooting wide open.

 

Nikon 600mm f/5.6 NIKKOR-P falloff on FX and film at infinity.

f/5.6
f/8
f/11
f/16

 

 

 

 

Filters, Use with   back to Performance    back to top

You have to use expensive 122mm screw-in filters. There is no rear filter drawer.

 

Ghosts  back to Performance    back to top

Sunset

Sunset. 600mm f/5.6 NIKKOR-P, f/5.6 at 1/2,000, D3, Aperture priority, matrix meter.

I can't see any ghosting. This ancient 5-element, 4-group design has far fewer ghosts than the newer, sharper 400mm f/3.5 ED-IF (8-elements, 6-groups) and TC-14B (5-elements, 5-groups) combination below.

Sunset

400mm f/3.5 ED-IF with TC-14 (equals a 560mm f/5).

 

Hand-Holding      back to Performance    back to top

While not for the faint of heart, it works great hand-held. The balance is perfect, so you find your left hand holding it with your fingers right at the controls. Most of the lens' weight is the front glass section; the other skinny 3/4 of the lens is just air.

The biggest inconvenience is that focus isn't always easy, but it's no easier on a tripod.

With a D3, the lens and camera weigh 11.6 pounds (5,252g) together. Don't whine; teenage girls carry a lot more than this around all day and night when they're pregnant.

 

Hood      back to Performance    back to top

Nikon 600mm f/5.6 P on an F4

The Nikon 600mm f/5.6 NIKKOR-P with extended hood and an F4 hanging on. enlarge.

The hood is built in. It's four inches (10 cm) deep. It's the best built-in hood I've ever seen.

It screws to lock in both open and closed positions.

 

Lateral Color Fringes   back to Performance    back to top

Used on film or an old digital camera like the D200, you're probably going to see strong secondary (green-magenta) fringes. You can see them through the finder of film cameras.

There are no lateral color fringes on the D3, which automatically corrects them. (Raw shooters beware: non-Nikon brand software doesn't correct this.) The D3 does a great job of fixing color fringes.

 

Mechanics    back to Performance    back to top

The Nikon 600mm f/5.6 P is built like a tank.

Barrel Exterior: Metal, black crinkle-coat paint.

Filter Threads: Anodized aluminum.

Hood: Thick sliding aluminum, twist-locking. Outside is black crinkle-coat, inside is black flocking. There's a diamond-pattern rubber grip ring to help moving it..

Focus Ring: Metal, ribbed rubber covered.

Focus Helicoids: Feels like brass: smooth and silky with no play or need for damping grease.

Depth-of-Field Scale: None.

Internals: Metal.

Aperture Ring: Aluminum, anodized and enameled. Engraved markings filled with paint.

Mount: Dull-chromed brass.

Markings: Engraved into the metal and filled with paint.

Identity and Serial Number: On front of lens inside filter ring, engraved into the metal and filled with paint.

Ass-Gasket (dust seal at mount): No.

Noises When Shaken: Very few, so long as you don't let the strap lugs rattle.

Made in: Japan.

 

Sharpness    back to Performance    back to top

Warning 1: Image sharpness depends more on you than your lens.

Warning 2: Lens sharpness doesn't mean much to good photographers.

On an optical bench, there is strong axial secondary chromatic aberration (focus-related green-magenta fringes in the center) at f/5.6. These get much better at f/8, and are gone at f/11. The ED lenses are far superior for this, which is why ED glass was invented.

On FX Digital

If you're a worry-wart, this 600mm lens is much better at f/8 or f/11 than at f/5.6 wide-open.

The newest ED lenses are better, but its unlikely you'll be able to find conditions clear enough to discover this. Lenses this long magnify atmospheric issues like heat shimmer and haze so greatly that unsharp images are rarely the lens' fault.

With those caveats, the 600mm f/5.6 NIKKOR-P isn't at all bad on a modern FX digital camera like the D3, which does an excellent job of correcting the chromatic issues.

At f/5.6: The 600mm isn't that bad, it's mostly better than my seeing conditions. It isn't that great either, if you do have great conditions. You need to be very careful with your focus, since even at 600 feet on a D300, the depth-of-field is only 30 feet in each direction. The D300 can't focus that precisely.

At f/8: It's better.

At f/11: Its as good as its going to get. Newer ED lenses don't need to be stopped down for the best results, but this old lens is best at f/11.

At f/16: Looks the same as f/11.

At f/22: Looks the same as f/11.

On DX Digital

This 600mm lens is much worse on a D300, whose higher per-millimeter resolution due to its smaller DX format magnifies any sharpness problems, and whose inferior manual focus system isn't likely to land you in perfect focus anyway.

I'd pass on this lens for DX cameras.

On Film

On Fuji Velvia 50, even at f/5.6 it's not so bad. Green-magenta fringes (the secondary lateral chromatic aberrations that ED glass was invented to fix) at the sides are very minor, and it's reasonably sharp at f/5.6 if you don't feel like spending $2,000 and up for an AF or ED-IF lens.

 

VR Measurements    back to performance     back to top

There is no VR. In 1964, Nikon would have had to use tube electronics and iron-ring gyros!

This lens is so heavy at the front and so long that, with a camera attached, it works like a barbell to stabilize itself due to its own weight. Because of this, I can hand-hold it at slower speeds than I'd expect based on the old-wives' formula of 1/focal length (1/600 second).

By "sharp shots" I mean perfect tripod-equivalent sharpness when viewed at 100%, as shot on a D3 by me. For most uses, one can use much slower speeds. See Why VR Matters for more.

Percent perfectly-sharp shots, hand-held

1/60
1/125
1/250
1/500
15
30
80
100

Thus, 50% of my shots will be perfectly sharp (presuming no subject motion) at 1/180 of a second. this is 1-3/4 stops slower than 1/600, so marketing people would claim that this 600mm f/5.6 P has a VR system that gives "Up to 2 stops improvement!"

Used on Tripods

If you use a tripod, this same effect helps stabilize mirror slap. I only shot as slow as 1/125, and all the shots were fine. Good luck in the danger zone of 1/30 - 1/2 second where mirror lock-up is usually a big help.

 

Compared to other Nikon 600mm lenses

back to Performance    back to top

Sorry, I had no other 600mm lenses around when I borrowed this. For fun, I rigged up a 400mm f/3.5 AI (1978-1982) and a TC-14 teleconverter, the optical cousin of the newer TC-14B. This makes a 560mm f/5 ED-IF.

As expected, the newer ED-IF lens is sharper wide-open, and is free from green-magenta fringes (secondary chromatic aberration.) when used with the Nikon Lens Scope Converter.

This older lens has simpler optics, and has less ghosting for use pointed into the sunset.

The simpler optics also put the rear nodal point (the point at the back of the lens from which the light rays appear to emanate) much further forward. This leads to dark bands at the top and possibly the bottom of many viewfinders, as well as very fuzzy corners as seen through the finder. The ED-IF lens has its rear nodal point much closer to the camera, so there is no finder cutoff or potential for double and fuzzy images in the corners of the finder. This has nothing to do with the final image, but greatly affects the finder image.

Leather Cap

Leather caps aren't just for scooter trash. This cap is now half duct tape.

 

Recommendations       top

Intro    Specifications    Performance    Recommendations

If you've got ten grand, buy the newest 600mm f/4 VR. If you've got only a couple of grand, buy an ED-IF 600mm f/5.6. Its not just the optics; the worlds-better ergonomics will save you from going crazy with this old lens' lack of meter coupling.

If you find one of these original NIKKOR-P lens for a grand or less, and don't mind all the gyrations required to get it to meter well with modern cameras, you can get great images.

Focus of this lens is too slow for birds and wildlife. If you're trying to track living things, at least get an ED-IF lens.

If you're doing surveillance from a fixed location, or photographing stable things like sunsets, this ancient lens is fine. If you can stop down to f/8 or f/11, it's also much better than at f/5.6. It has the advantage of less ghosting for sunsets.

Optically, if you're on a DX camera, you probably want to skip it since the optics can't quite cut it unless stopped down. If you're on a D3 or D700, give it a try.

I wouldn't go out of my way to get one of these. For not much more money used, get a modern manual focus ED-IF lens which you can focus with the flick of a finger and will couple to your meter.

These old super tele lenses are no longer a deal used because collectors have bid up the prices from what they are worth for practical photography.

The $10,000 600mm f/4 VR is worlds beyond this lens, but with any of these, atmospheric conditions are a bigger limitation to sharpness, contrast and color than the lens itself.

If you can work though the focus and metering issues, this old beast works just fine on a D3, which corrects whatever chromatic aberration it might have had back on film. Most people, including myself, lack the patience required to work this lens.

 

Deployment

I don't know that I'd bother with a 122mm L37c protective filter on the front, since the deep, solid metal hood ought to protect the glass from anything other than a bullet with your name on it.

Monopods, not tripods, are the way to support a super tele if you're nuts enough to try to photograph action. Don't let me put you off: before we had AF and VR, this old beast is what pro photographers used to shoot action.

 

More Information: Be sure to read my CU-1 Focus Unit Review.

 

PLUG

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Thanks for reading!

Ken

 

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