Big Lens, Fast Cars

July means Silverstone and Formula One cars once more pounding the green fields and lush asphalt of Northamptonshire. With the restrictions on testing in F1 these days chances to test are at a premium and a two-day test is organised at Silverstone the week after the Grand Prix. Last year it was dubbed a young driver test, but this year it is a pure vanilla test session with the main drivers.

For £25 it is a good opportunity to see the cars up close, and listen to them. You have free range through a variety of the grandstands. This year the International Pits were used, so we could use any of the stands from Vale to Abbey. We had good views of the Pit building although not most of the pitlane, and some good views of the cars as they accelerated onto the straight from Club. We spent the morning at the start/finish line and then the afternoon session at the Club corner onto the pit straight and saw the likes of Seb Vettel, Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas putting their cars through the paces during the test.

Last year I had my trusty 70-200 lens with a 1.7x teleconverter, giving 340mm zoom max. This year I thought I’d try something different and approached Calumet in Tilbrook, Milton Keynes about hiring a 400mm f/2.8 prime lens for the day.  Rental cost was about £55 for the day, and was easy to sort out first with an online form and then the trade of a couple of quick emails and a phone call. As a first time hirer I needed three proofs of ID, and the small matter of a £4,500 deposit. Yes you read that right, £4,500. Gulp.

The Beast

The Beast: Nikon 400mm f/2.8. Incredibly sharp, incredibly heavy!

Collection from the Tilbrook office was straight forward and took a mere 5mins, at which point I was handed a huge case with the worlds biggest lens in. The lens alone weighed 4.5kgs and the case must have added another kilogram onto that. I hefted it into the back of the car and set off.

How do you describe using a 400mm lens that big for the first time? Heavy. It is so big and so heavy at the far end the camera is always trying to tilt forward. I took a hitherto rarely used monopod and attached it to the lens, and started off trying to get still shots at 1/4000s shutter. Wow the quality was good. So sharp, so crisp, nice and quick to focus. Panning was another thing altogether, I couldn’t pan for toffee with it at any speed less than about 1/400s but that still gave some nice movement on the image.

Why did I struggle with the panning? It probably wasn’t the lens so much as me, I’ve never been very good at panning to be honest. Using a familiar lens (my 70-200) I can get the shutter down to about 1/100s but rare is the shot that is sharp throughout the subject.

I did for a giggle try hand-holding the 400mm lens while panning and it worked a little better than on the monopod, but not by much. I couldn’t do it for long anyway before exhaustion would set in and my arms would droop. The monopod I took was just that – a pole. It really could have done with some sort of gimbal head to allow me to move around more freely with it, something to ponder if I ever hire such a big lens again. I loved the quality overall of the lens, but I won’t be shelling out £6,500 on it – it would be very rarely used and is completely impractical in reality, hence the benefit of being able to hire.

Lewis Hamilton

Returning the lens was straight-forward at Calumet, a quick check of the lens from the friendly staff and a signature. Plus – and most importantly a stamp which if you hire enough you get discount on a future hire!

I say most importantly, because as I write this blog the deposit hasn’t been returned, so the credit card looks a little on the high side. I’ve sent an email to Calumet and hopefully they’ll be crediting it back soon. Assuming they give me the deposit back swiftly I can highly recommend them for hiring the more unusual lens you may wish to try before shelling out a lot of money on a purchase!

As for the cars and stuff, it was an interesting day with all the teams operating at some point. Max Chilton seemed to be constantly on the circuit, but in the final count Kevin Magnussen in the McLaren ended up doing the most laps. The shot on the right is Lewis Hamilton exiting Club Corner in his Mercedes W05, shot with the 400mm lens.  I’m still sorting through the 1,433 pictures that I kept with both my lenses, so the gallery on here will be updated over the coming weeks – please check back and have a look in the next week or so.

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