Kudos to Nikon, or a 70-200mm VRII 5-foot drop test

There are a lot of reviews out there on the web about cameras and lenses, Canon vs. Nikon, point-and-shoot vs. SLR etc. I probably should not contribute to the endless discussions but I thought I would share a personal experience, obtained today through, unfortunately, an accident.

The Green Flash on a frosty wing
The Green Flash on a frosty wing

It was a beautiful frosty morning in Christchurch, and among the haste of working on the instruments I couldn’t help but take a few pictures of the frost on the wings of the Gulfstream (above) and also of this and that. In all the hurry I left the unzipped camera pack under the air stairs, with camera and lenses in it, ready to shoot. Later in the day we gathered our things to go for a drive and an unsuspecting friend picked up my pack and flung it on his shoulder. I turned to the sound of a crash just in time to see my Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 VRII landing nose first on the asphalt of the tarmac, in a brilliant flash of glass shards, and tumbling end over end for another 5 feet before coming to a stop.

Wallaby at the Willowbanks
Wallaby at the Willowbanks

I recall myself saying something not worth repeating here and picked up the lens with shaking hands to see what is left of it. To my amazement and in a rising wave of hope I saw that the glass that now lay all over the tarmac was all from the Hoya HMC Super UV filter, a nice piece of glass by itself but certainly not in the price range of the lens. The filter gave its life protecting the lens, its aluminum ring and the lens cap took the brunt of the impacts, and aside from a few minuscule marks on the coating of the front element from the glass fragments, there was no other damage to the lens! A quick test verified that the lens is auto-focusing, zooming and VR-ing as it did before its unfortunate acrobatic number.

Now that is build quality! I think that my plastic 55-200mm would have become a middle school science project material after an impact like that, and my grieving friend would need to scoop up not just filter remains but also the USM motor, matrix chip and the diaphragm blades from the tarmac. With the 70-200 I can see only one small scuff on the body, bent filter ring and scuffs on the lens caps. I shot pictures on this page with the lens the same evening, and it appears to be working properly.

Filter ring removed, folded inward
Filter ring removed, folded inward

I happened to have a spare 77mm Hoya HMC Super filter with me and wanted to put it on the lens, having seen how great those work for what I seem to use the lens for (like, throwing it around). However, the remains of the old filter were stuck in the lens threads for good. The filter ring just would not unscrew from the lens, and the dented area was clearly visible, so the ring in effect turned into a self-locking nut. To remove the ring I grabbed it with a pair of vice grips, locked them onto the dented part of the ring making sure not to grab the edge of the lens barrel and with the lens in my lap, slowly twisted the vice grips, while holding the opposite side of the ring with my other hand, preventing it from hitting the glass should it snap loose. The ring is fairly soft and working slowly, I was able to fold it inwards without much trouble. I re-positioned the vice grips to the other side of the bend I made and twisted again, and the ring easily pulled out without turning it in the threads. Filter threads in the lens barrel were not damaged, which could happen if a dented ring is forcefully unscrewed, and after a careful removal of all glass dust from them using an air blower and a lens pen brush, the lens now has a new Hoya HMC Super on it. The picture of the sacrificial filter ring is taken with the victim lens.

I gained a lot of respect for the Nikon lens build quality, especially in the light of all the comments that people have like “the build quality of today’s lenses is not nearly as high and in the past”. If this is not good enough, I don’t know what is. If you want you can find a lot of technicalities and detailed information on this excellent lens here or here, but I would like to summarize my experience with the 70-200mm in a few short bullets:

  • if you are looking for a medium telephoto zoom for your Nikon SLR;
  • want to use your medium telephoto in the morning or evening in fading light (when the colors are the best);
  • want the best full frame quality and absolute best DX quality;
  • like brilliant color and contrast with no detectable chromatic aberrations, green or purple fringing;
  • notice poor bokeh in pictures and want not to have it;
  • do not mind that your lens weighs more than your submachine gun with 30 rounds of ammo;
  • and foresee occasionally throwing your four-digit-price lens on the concrete here or there,
The drop tester
The drop tester

then you can not go wrong with a Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 VRII. I used all of the above listed qualities and the Nikkor passed with flying colors.

In retrospect, the only thing that hurt more than seeing that lens tumble on the asphalt was seeing the face of my friend who felt so guilty that I was more sympathetic for him than for my potentially damaged lens. You know, once it happens it is done and can not be undone, and there is no point in accusations, lamenting or finding out who’s fault it is. It was not intentional, he just meant to help but it just happened. Get over it.

You can (maybe eventually) replace a broken lens; you can’t replace a broken friendship.

Part four: Christchurch

We will stay in Christchurch for two days if all goes as planned. Both days will be work days and we have a lot of things to take care of, including a broken instrument. Oh well; all we can do is do our best today, then try to do better tomorrow, so that’s it. I am sure it will be fine, the problem is not that bad.

Mountains near Christchurch as seen from the GV
Mountains near Christchurch as seen from the GV

The first night in Christchurch there was a small 4.4 magnitude earthquake at 1:21 in the morning, which fortunately for me, was in the horizontal direction and the motion was across my bed and not very strong. Sleepy, I felt it and it seemed like the rocking and rolling of a mother, lulling her child to sleep, so I tucked in and slept on. My room was as cold as a thousand year old permafrost layer with a frozen woolly mammoth inside it (myself), so the sleep was very good and by 6 am I was up, refreshed, fully dressed in 20 seconds and ready to wash my face, having put on a sweater and boots and everything, thinking that I could use another sweater if things kept on going this way. Later, my friends said they opened the windows and it warmed up inside a little bit since it was 4ºC outside. I may try that; figuring out how to use the temperature controls in my room would be another, but kind of a defeatist and much less adventurous, option.

Flight to Christchurch

We are on the road again. Figuratively speaking of course, since there are no roads where we are going. We will be flying from Rarotonga nearly due West to avoid entering the forecast ash cloud contour, then turn South and, descending to 16,000 feet, we would proceed to Christchurch, flying below the ash cloud, which has been slowly rotating and spreading in the Southern hemisphere. As the result of this unfortunate nature’s crop dusting effort, dozens of flights were canceled in Australia and New Zealand lately, and the airports are full of angry and tired travelers who were stuck there for the last week or more.

Rainshaft over the Pacific
Rainshaft over the Pacific

We were very concerned for the well being of our aircraft and monitored our aerosol instruments continually through the flight. We have never encountered ash, which we were very happy about. Finally we landed in Christchurch at about 4 pm local time, after flying over some stunning mountain ranges located to the East of the city.

You may have noticed that this post is dated June 26. We actually left on June 25 from Cook Islands but since we crossed the dateline, we arrived a day later. A whole day is now missing from our lives! How unfair is that. Oh well, we will get it back when we get two 4th of July’s on the way back North.

Day off on Rarotonga

A day off is a nice thing. One can sleep in, then have a relaxed breakfast, read a newspaper and then stroll out onto the lawn grass and call his buddy to talk about fishing or a game of golf. One can do many things, all of them recreational and interesting, and most importantly, unhurried and therefore thoroughly enjoyable.

Needless to say sort of I heeded to this general line of thinking on the day off. Up at 7 am instead of the usual 5:30, I was checking on the ash cloud status without trying to make a decision in the next 30 minutes, there were full 10 hours for that! Now that’s relaxed. I dared to replace the newspaper reading with reading and replying to E-mail but that is the only diversion from the ideal day off described above that I have allowed myself. So far, anyway.

Breakfast at the Sanctuary
Breakfast at the Sanctuary

Breakfast of fruit and toast with some coffee was quite pleasant. Papayas here were the best ingredient for me: I think those are simply phenomenal. If you judge the taste of papaya based on one bought in a store in the continental U.S., it is similar to thinking that beer tastes like Budweiser. Papaya you have on the islands is out of this world. It is aromatic, juicy and simply unbelievably good. Convinced? No? Go to the Big Island of Hawaii, stay at the Keauhou Beach Resort and you will find out first hand what I am talking about (Kona is more practical to reach from the U.S. than Rarotonga if tasting great papaya is your only purpose of going). Of all the places we stayed on the Global Projects I personally think that Keauhou Beach Resort has the best breakfast. It is also included with your stay for no extra charge but it would be worth paying for, actually.

By mid morning I was more or less done with the warm-up part of the day off and ready to go and get sunburned, or pictures taken, or whatever else the big wild out there held in stores for me. Se we gathered with my good friends from Harvard, loaded into what looked like a 1988 vintage Nissan and headed East along the shore of Rarotonga. The car sounded like some front suspension work would not do it any harm and the old tires made me worry a little but it was transportation, and that beats walking for 20 km.

The fiery beast of a car
The fiery beast of a car

For your information, there are two roads on the island, both go in a circle around it. None cross the island, for its interior is too steep and impractical to build a road through, considering that the furthest you can be from any other point on the island is 10 km.

The Seven Canoes
The Seven Canoes

We went to look for the launching place of the great Polynesian expedition that founded New Zealand as we know it, when 7 tribes launched 7 canoes from Rarotonga, heading south, who found the land and settled on what we now know as New Zealand.

Not a worry in the world...
Not a worry in the world...

We found the spot with little trouble. It is a small public park, well visible from the main road. We spend some 20 minutes there, just relaxing and taking pictures of the best looking subjects around, which included a local kid, who played on the lava pebble covered beach without a worry in the world. The breeze whispered in the palm leaves overhead and the waves crashed on the distant reef ledge, with only the small ripples reaching the protected shore that we were standing on.

We passed by the Kings Palace. It is uninhabited presently. Last time in 2009 we were lucky to get a tour of the Palace and see its interior rooms, the way the Kings of the tribes lived and visit their burial sites. This time I just stood there quietly for a little while, saying hello in my mind to those who might hear, and bowing my head invisibly again to those invisible ones who might see. Simply put, I just did what is called paying respect to the sacred place that people unknown to you treasure.

Rarotonga coast with the lagoon in the distance
Rarotonga coast with the lagoon in the distance

Continuing forward we reached the main tourist area on the island. With its several busy restaurants frequented by tourists and locals alike, the area is probably the busiest on the island. I get tired of noise and crowds very easily lately but in the middle of the day it was not too bad. The food at the Trader Jack’s was good and had some unexpected twists that connoisseurs may or may not appreciate, depending on how much beer the said connoisseur would consume before trying, for instance, a salad with a miso dressing or a pot of raw marinated fish with flavorful vegetables. In my personal opinion more beer in this case is better because it makes one more predisposed to fatalistically accept the reality of the meal you have been served, rather than being judgmental.

In another 10 minted we reached the airport, where our familiarization with the island started for the first time over a year ago. With our access cards we walked through security onto the ramp and took pictures of our closed up airplane, then left for the hotel as the Harvards wanted to try going on a horseback ride (which turned out to be completely booked, after all). I returned to my room to look again at the exciting newly updated ash cloud forecast maps. Just as I settled my phone rang with an invitation to take a seat on a small airplane doing pilot proficiency flights for an airborne tour of the island. Needless to say I immediately agreed, called our own pilots and we were on board the small craft in less than an hour.

Preparing for the air tour
Preparing for the air tour

This 30 minute flight was so different from our procedure oriented IFR operations with the Gulfstream. The small airplane that we flew on took off after what looked like 200 feet of runway, then circled and banked over the blue lagoon, the favorite tourist spot; spiraled up and down over the most beautiful beached on the island and finally over our own airplane at the airport. It was a nice half an hour that gave us another glimpse at Rarotonga from an angle we have not had a chance to see before.

Work day in Rarotonga

As usual in tropical paradise, we work. Since we flew in so late, we start off the work day late too and we are at the plane side by 10:30 am. The day is going to be hot, and humidity is high too. Now, humidity is something typical for Rarotonga and in comparison Hawaii are dry (with the exception of, perhaps, Hilo, which is drenched daily by the rain). When we landed here last night the airplane got so covered with condensation, water was running down the sides of the fuselage and dripping on the ramp. I have only seen one other place that compares in this regard to Rarotonga: Solomon Islands. In Honiara, when we landed there in November 2009, this went further; I have never before felt condensation form on my own hands. I was not dead and cold I don’t think, but after getting out of the airplane there I felt water condense on my hands and face. Granted, it was cold in the cabin but not that cold.

Working on instruments - Rarotonga
Working on instruments - Rarotonga

In any case, I would recommend this to anyone, generally speaking: if you arrive to a tropical island by an airliner and it was cool inside, put your cameras and sensitive electronics into bags for a couple of hours or keep your point-and-shoot in a pocket next to your body to keep it warm, or you may find what I found when I excitedly pulled out my wife’s D-40 (on another work day in 2009) on Easter Island: water dripping off the lens. Guess what? The camera does not focus very well when it is sopping wet. Morale: let it acclimate. I ended up keeping photo equipment outside the hotel room actually, since the air conditioning in the room cools it enough to condense water when you carry it outside later.

Back on track. This morning we had visitors to our Gulfstream, who consisted of several representatives of environmental organizations and ministry of marine resources, Cook Islands’ newspaper and television station. Discussion, answering questions and visiting the airplane took a couple of hours but the people were interested and it was a pleasure to answer their questions and tell them what our work is all about. I am always amazed how can reporters jot down a conversation without slowing you down or missing parts of it; now I have the answer, they do miss parts of it for out of our crew of 10 they listed ten people but described only nine, leaving out our irreplaceable mechanic. When you catch these oopses it makes you wonder how many of those are present in every single newspaper article you read daily? I bet, many, and we (sometimes) read them for the truth.

After this exciting social episode was finished and I was parched as a fish that had been out of the water for two hours, I was able to process the flight data, which were anxiously awaited back in the U.S. and drove back to the hotel. The Sanctuary at Rarotongan where we are staying is a very nice adult-only part of the hotel. We initially worried a little about what exactly “adult-only” means here but turns out, exactly that: in the main part of the hotel there are many families with children and the place can get a bit on the noisy side, especially near the pool and during meals. In the Sanctuary it got a bit noisy only when our crew finally descended on the bar in the evening, buying each other drinks and trying to relax after the long day of work.

Volcanic ash map - Australian side
Volcanic ash map - Australian side

I had an interesting task on hand of trying to figure out whether or not to fly to Christchurch the following day. It would have been an easy one had it not been for the continuing volcanic ash presence in the Southern Pacific and the Southern Ocean, coming from the Cordon Caulle volcano in Chile. Flying a turbo jet airplane through volcanic ash severely damages the jet engines, and we are not willing to take that risk. However, New Zealand being on the edge of the warning area, plus Air New Zealand flying in and out, plus the ability to go in at low altitudes made the flight seemingly possible. After pulling my hair out for three hours, pouring over maps, charts, live infrared cloud top temperature loops and satellite imagery I finally called the forecast support team in Boulder, Colorado and woke them up. They frantically got to work and another hour later came to the same conclusion I did earlier but wanted a second opinion on: we should not go, the conditions are likely to improve the following day.

Therefore, we are declaring a Hard Down Day tomorrow, meaning no work, just rest. Another day off in Paradise, how is that possible? By the time that decision was reached at 5 pm I was so tired that I didn’t even want a drink. However, that should never stop a person from having one at the end of the day for when you are very tired, a drink can help shrug the load that otherwise can subdue you, so we hung out at the bar and had one or two. Oh, who’s counting. It was all good.