Maximizing 80-400vr IQ

Started Jan 27, 2011 | Discussions thread
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PHXAZCRAIG Forum Pro • Posts: 13,279
Maximizing 80-400vr IQ

I'm looking for other's techniques for getting the most IQ out of an 80-400vr, primarily for wildlife, on a tripod. Specifically shooting birds in nests, so not BIF.

Basically, the best long lens techniques, shutter speeds, apertures, etc, that have worked for you.

I've got quite good results from mine at 300mm, a lot less at 400. However, I've gotten some - almost random - good results at 400mm that tells me I'm probably missing something in my shooting technique.

Here's what I've been doing:
1. Gitzo 3530 tripod with BH-55 ballhead. Legs fully extended and splayed.
2. 80-400vr tripod collar replaced with RRS, and clamped down tightly.
3. Mirror lockup (often)

4. Remote release, both corded and radio-controlled (Phottix). Sometimes I've used the Phottix while quite a ways from the camera, approaching birds to get them to look up at me.

5. Aperture set to F8-F11. Seemed like F9 did noticeably better than F8 though.
6. ISO (on D300) usually set to 400. In good lighting I've set lower.

7. Shutter speed allowed to vary. (More concerned with not going over ISO 400 than dropping shutter speeds, on tripod).

8. Single point AF, and AF fine tuning has been done (-4 seems right, based on field results plus Lensalign)
9. VR off

10. Often will burst 2-4 shots in the hope that one or more will be better, but that's not seeming to make a difference with VR off.

11. I'm not hanging weight from the tripod (it has no hook), and I'm not touching the lens when shooting.

I'm trying to find improvements for this spring's owl shooting. I have an owl's nest in a cactus near my house, and each spring they've raised 3 chicks there. I can shoot directly into the nest at sundown with excellent lighting, but I'm pretty limited to shooting at 400mm across a creek bed to get a good angle.

Here's an example of good sharpness at 300mm with these techniques:

I can achieve that sort of result consistently at 300mm.

Here's an example of a decent shoot at 400mm (F10, 1/400th, ISO200, about half the frame cropped out):

I cannot get that sort of IQ consistently, and I'd like it to be better than that as well. (Better feather definition). I took numerous shots and cherry picked the best one for that image, and many were noticeably softer.

Is there room for improvement with my lens, or is this just the best one can do with an 80-400vr (or at least my copy?)

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