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Try finding it used here.
There are two versions of the 600 f/5.6 ED-IF AI-s manual focus lens.
The first version was made from 1976 - 1986. This is the version I owned and review here. It has a built-in telescoping, locking lens hood and a 122mm front filter thread. It has its identification markings engraved and filled with white paint on the barrel and weighs less than the newest version. It has the Royal Golden Ring around the lens, signifying the use of the magic ED glass. It's the smallest and lightest 600mm ever made by Nikon, period.
The newer version, made from about 1986 - 1999, has an annoying detachable hood, a clever rubber bumper in place of the filter thread, and a permanently installed flat optical dust protection plate on the front. I also hear that it may have a built-in retracting hood as well, although I've never seen it. This lens has its identification information on a plate glued and screwed to the barrel. It's a tad bigger and heavier than the earlier version. It comes with a metal trunk case while the older one I had came in a more useful tubular fake leather one.
The 600/5.6 AI-s probably works better on the new AF cameras than it did on manual focus cameras. If you can handle the slow f/5.6 speed, then this very small (compared to a 400/2.8) lens is the ticket to portable power.
There were earlier versions of 600mm lenses that used modular focusing attachments. Those old lenses were big and heavy and didn't focus close. I have not tried them.
Compatibility: See Nikon Lens Compatibility. This is an AI-s lens.
Optics: It has seven elements in six groups. Uses ED glass.
Diaphragm: Nine-bladed diaphragm stopping down to f/32.
Filters: 122mm front, 39mm internal. Comes with 39mm NC (clear) filter (Nikon part number 2478NASI), 39mm internal filter holder and internal gel filter holder.
Lens Cap: Draw-string sock front cap, conventional rear cap.
Fake Leather Front Sock Lens Cap.
Tripod Collar: Very nice, permanently attached, rotating tripod collar.
Focus: Internal. Noting moves except the focus ring.
Focus Index: It has a focus index device that allows you to set the focus ring to "click in" at a certain distance you can adjust. That way you can set it on, say first base or an animal's favorite perch, and just flick the focus immediately to that point if the subject moves there quickly.
The gold band, engraving and the focus index ring (with set screw).
Size: 5.3" (134mm) diameter. 15" (382mm) long.
Weight: 2,700g or six pounds.
Case: CL-62 Tubular hard fake leather.
It's just about perfect.
It focuses with the tip of one finger.
It has no distortion or ghosts.
At f/5.6 it has some falloff and is very sharp all over.
At f/8 the falloff gone, and it is sharp as a lens gets.
The reason I have little to say is that this is a very, very good lens. Lenses are supposed to be this good; I only have to write a lot when there are defects to discuss.
Use on AF and Digital Cameras
The 600/5.6 AI-s probably works better on AF cameras than manual focus because 1.) The viewing screens of the AF cameras are optimized for slow f/5.6 lenses common today with the garbagy zooms people seem to love, and 2.) the electronic rangefinders in the AF cameras ought to be easier to use than the microprisms and split-image rangefinder of manual focus cameras that always blacked out at f/5.6.
Forget the split image rangefinder on a manual focus camera: it blacks out. Use the microprism collar instead. Be careful to position your eye in the center of the finder to be able to see all the microprisms; some will black out if your eye is uncentered.
This lens was designed in the era of manual focus cameras.
I found that I was not good enough with my focusing to photograph moving subjects with this lens. Be it moving animals or surfers, I just didn't have the virtuosity to get the focus where it needed to be fast enough. This lens is so sharp and has such a tiny depth-of-field that you may only have a foot of depth-of-field at a quarter mile away. If you focus a foot away from where you need to be, you've wasted the shot.
Tripod Collar (top) and 39mm Filter Holder.
You will almost always be using this lens at f/5.6 or f/8, except when shooting landscapes on a tripod. It doesn't get sharper stopped down; but you do increase your chances of getting the subject in focus.
Use on Tripods
I always got great results on a tripod with still subjects.
I also never had any problems with camera a vibration on a tripod with my Nikon FA and its magic mirror prerelease when used with the self timer. The matrix metering of the FA let me make wonderful shots straight into the sun, as you see in my Mono Lake Sunrise photo. Note the lack of ghosts. The sun was so bright that I couldn't look through the viewfinder and I was worried about burning my focus screen. Matrix metering made the perfect exposure for me.
It is OK for hand holding. I never could believe just how slow I could hold it. I think I tried at 1/125 and even 1/30 and got results so good that I couldn't believe I did it. I hypothesize that because all the weight is at the very front that the camera and lens have a very high moment of inertia (all the weight at either end) so that it acts to stabilize the system, unlike a 500mm mirror lens that has little inertial resistance to shake.
It is supposed to be used with the expensive and recommended TC-300 or TC-301 teleconverter intended for use with these long lenses.
You can cheat and use it with the common and inexpensive TC-200 or TC-201 teleconverters. It has a little bit of falloff, and is certainly usable if you are using fast enough film to use a 1200mm f/11 lens!
If you'd like to see many photos made with this lens in book form, see "Guide to Bird and Nature Photography," by Laurie Campbell, published by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, David & Charles, London, 1990.
How to Get One
Unfortunately this is still not an inexpensive lens, nor easy to find. The used ones you will find (especially via eBay) are all beaters from rental stock and newspaper loan pools. As of 2004 they seemed to go for around $1,800 US, used. They usually have gouges in the glass that the sellers try to convince you "won't affect your pictures." Baloney; just move on to a reputable dealer.
I sold this one in 1999 in pretty much unused condition for $2,800. It then resold in 2003 for about $2,000.
These were never popular among amateurs new because they cost thousands and thousands of 1980s dollars. I doubt if you can find a decent one used. I got lucky when I found mine (un)used from a rich amateur, as did the fellow who bought mine from me when I went to autofocus. I sold mine for $2,800 in 2000, and as the illustrations show, it was in essentially unused condition complete with the included case, special front cap and 39mm filter and internal holder. I have seen dealers bold enough to ask $3,200 for beaters, and beat up ones really seem to go for about $1,500.
Also consider the 600/4 AI-s, which does not sell for that much more used (about $2,200 in 2006). It's bigger and heavier, and the f/4 speed is something I wish I had when I owned this lens.
These are all rare, so you'll have to take what you get.
In any case, you should be able to sell a used one for about what you have to pay for it, so there is no reason not to get one if you can't afford a 600/4 AF lens yet. Use this and sell it when you want to take the next step.
Of course you could buy a 300/4.5 ED-IF AI-s and a TC-200 and get a much smaller lens assembly that's slower (f/9), but gives decent results for one-eighth the price.