The Big Fix

Photo made with Nikon D610 and Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/16, ISO 100, 1/250-second

Photo made with Nikon D610 and Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/16, ISO 100, 1/250-second

I can clearly recall the exact moment when I realized there was a problem with my Nikon 200-500mm, f/5.6E telephoto zoom lens. It was on the afternoon of Wednesday, November 11, 2015. I had the day off from work and was setting up in the backyard to make some test photos demonstrating the effectiveness of the new lens’s vibration reduction (VR) feature. It was the above photo that caught my eye and started me down a challenging, sometimes frustrating road that would take nearly six weeks to complete. I’m some respects, I’m still on that road.

The above image caught my attention because it is so obviously overexposed. It was also totally unexpected. I had been using a hula dancer toy as a photographic subject to test the vibration VR of the 200-500mm lens. Reviewing the rest of the images in the sequence, the image shot at f/5.6 appeared to be properly exposed but the images made at f/8 and higher were overexposed. It also appeared that the degree of overexposure increased in proportion to the increase in f-stop setting used. The above image was made with a setting of f/16 and is about 2 stops overexposed.

In a nutshell, what I had discovered was that my Nikon D610 camera body was not able to control the electromagnetic diaphragm of the 200-500mm lens. The diaphragm determines the aperture of the lens, which controls the amount of light hitting the sensor. Lens aperture (f-stop) along with ISO and shutter speed form what is commonly referred to as the exposure triangle. A compatible trio of settings produces a properly-exposed image. If one of the settings is off, the resulting image will look either over- or underexposed.

That same day, I called Nikon USA’s service and support line and spoke with a call center agent. I described the problem and, ultimately, was advised to send in the lens for evaluation. Just a month earlier in October 2015, I had shipped the lens to Nikon for a firmware upgrade. The shipping and upgrade were covered under warranty for that service center visit. The UPS charge for this shipment would come out of my pocket.

The lens went out via UPS on Wednesday, November 11 and arrived at Nikon’s Los Angeles service center on Friday, November 13. (I chose not to take that as an omen.) The following Monday, November 16, I received an email from Nikon with an estimate for service to the lens. Nikon intended to address the problem with a firmware upgrade, which would be covered under warranty. After reading this, I contacted Nikon via their online service and support site, asking if this was the same firmware upgrade which had already been performed, a month earlier. The email reply to my query read, “Thank you for contacting Nikon. This is covered under warranty and this is the appropriate firmware update. If you have questions or concerns, please call or e-mail us.”

Well, OK then.

The upgrade was done and the lens shipped back at Nikon’s expense, arriving via UPS on November 23. It didn’t take more than a couple of minutes to confirm that the firmware upgrade had done nothing to correct the problem. To more fully document this issue, I made a series of exposures of my favorite test subject to demonstrate the increasing degree of overexposure at larger f-stop settings. Below, are several of the images I uploaded to the Nikon USA service center site for a technician to review.

Photo made with Nikon D610 and Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 300mm, f/5.6, ISO 100, 1/640-second

Photo made with Nikon D610 and Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 300mm, f/5.6, ISO 100, 1/640-second

Photo made with Nikon D610 and Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 300mm, f/8, ISO 100, 1/400-second

Photo made with Nikon D610 and Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 300mm, f/8, ISO 100, 1/400-second

Photo made with Nikon D610 and Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 300mm, f/11, ISO 100, 1/200-second

Photo made with Nikon D610 and Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 300mm, f/11, ISO 100, 1/200-second

Photo made with Nikon D610 and Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 300mm, f/16, ISO 100, 1/100-second

Photo made with Nikon D610 and Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 300mm, f/16, ISO 100, 1/100-second

Tuesday, November 24, I had another phone conversation with a call center agent. I again described the problem and explained that it appeared my Nikon D610 camera was unable to control the lens’s electromagnetic diaphragm. I also shared that I’d made test exposures with four other F-mount lenses: the Nikkor 16-35mm f/4, Tamron 24-70mm f/2.8 VC, Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8 VC and Nikkor 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6. There was no overexposure problem with these lenses and it appeared the problem was isolated just to the 200-500mm f/5.6E lens.

The day before Thanksgiving, November 25, I received an email from a Nikon technician who’d reviewed the above images. In his message, the technician asked that I ship both the D610 camera and the 200-500mm lens for evaluation and possible service. A UPS shipping label was attached. As reluctant as I was to be without my primary camera and the new lens, I wanted to get the problem resolved as quickly as possible. So, I boxed up the D610 and lens, drove to the nearest UPS shipping center and sent my babies off to LA for some TLC.

December was a long month. I had the privilege of serving on a jury for a criminal trial the first week of the month. Several major work projects were due for completion over the next two weeks and I would be traveling with family for the holidays, beginning December 22. Needless to say, I was anxious to have the camera and lens back, both in good working order, in time for the family trip to California. The month was further disrupted when I received news that a close high school friend had passed away. Travel to the Midwest for the funeral took out of town for several days.

I arrived home the afternoon of Sunday, December 20 to find two packages from Nikon sitting on the dining room table. One, was my D610 camera. The other, was my 200-500mm lens. After unpacking my suitcase and getting settled, I fetched a cutting tool from our kitchen utility drawer and opened the packages. A few minutes later, the 200-500 was firmly affixed to the D610 and ready to make images.

To my great relief, the camera and lens made properly-exposed images at a range of apertures. It appeared that Nikon had successfully repaired the problem. What repairs did they make? It’s not entirely clear but, according to the packing slip accompanying the lens, Nikon did the following work:

  • Repaired aperture operation
  • Replaced diaphragm and ring
  • Replaced a lens group
  • Adjusted aperture operation
  • Checked focus and VR operation.
  • Did a general exam and cleaning of the lens

My D610 camera body was also evaluated and found to be in good working order. It was checked and cleaned before return shipment.

Since receiving the repaired lens back from Nikon and during trips to California and New Mexico, I’ve made nearly 3,500 exposures at a range of apertures from f/5.6 to f/16. All appear to be correctly exposed. Below, are a few samples.

White-tailed Kite. Photo made with Nikon D610 and Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/8, ISO 500, 1/2000-second

White-tailed Kite. Photo made with Nikon D610 and Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/8, ISO 500, 1/2000-second

Alcatraz. Panoramic stitch made with Nikon D610 and Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/10, ISO 800, 1/2000-second

Alcatraz. Panoramic stitch made with Nikon D610 and Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 200mm, f/10, ISO 800, 1/2000-second

Javelina on parade. Photo made with Nikon D610 and Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/13, ISO 4500, 1/200-second

Javelina on parade. Photo made with Nikon D610 and Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/13, ISO 4500, 1/200-second

Eagles on ice. Photo made with Nikon D610 and Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/16, ISO 640, 1/250-second

Eagles on ice. Photo made with Nikon D610 and Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/16, ISO 640, 1/250-second

I am, of course, thrilled to have my lens back in good working order. Though some additional time is needed before I’ll have full confidence that the repair to the lens completely resolves the diaphragm-control problem, I have been extremely satisfied with the lens’s performance over the last several weeks. I also understand that equipment sometimes fails. That’s what warranties are for. I don’t fault Nikon for the mechanical failure to their product and am genuinely grateful that they addressed the problem in a forthright and timely manner.

I would like to take this opportunity to share some advice I’ve offered Nikon through email communication. In a nutshell, I’ve recommended Nikon update their service and support system to provide…

  • customers email updates about the status of their repair and estimated time of completion.
  • customers access to a Nikon technician who can explain in plain language the problem being addressed.
  • call center staff access to a customer database with detailed information about past and ongoing product service and repairs.

While I am satisfied with the outcome of this service and repair experience, there were times during those six weeks when the lack of information and the inability to communicate with a technically-proficient Nikon employee added to my level of frustration. The experience could have been made less stressful if I’d been provided regular updates on the status of my repair, had the opportunity to communicate by phone or instant messaging with a technician about the symptoms I was experiencing, and if I had not needed to explain the problem to four different call center staff members, none of whom appeared to have access to a detailed history of this particular repair.

I love using and doing photography with Nikon products and welcome the opportunity to remain a Nikon customer for many years to come. That said, their customer support could use some work. Whether you’re a Nikon employee, a fellow photographer or a friend, please take this blog entry in the spirit in which it is offered: an objective recounting of a recent customer service experience and an effort to provide constructive feedback to a company whose products I truly enjoy using.

Well, I’ve been rambling on about this far too long. It’s time for me to get out and shoot!

January 2016 | Bill Ferris

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