In August 2015, Nikon announced three new lenses that would soon be available to the photographic community. Introduced that summer day were the AF-S 24-70mm f/2.8E ED VR, the AF-S 24mm f/1.8G ED and the AF-S 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR.
The featured player of this trio was the eagerly anticipated refresh of Nikon’s well-regarded AF-S 24-70mm f/2.8G ED zoom lens. The 24-70 f/2.8G is a popular wide angle zoom among both professional and enthusiast photographers. It is considered by many wedding and portrait photographers to be among the Holy Trinity of fast Nikon zooms, including the 14-24mm f/2.8G ED and the 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II. The new lens, the AF-S 24-70mm f/2.8E ED VR features Nikon’s electronic aperture mechanism and also adds vibration reduction (VR) technology to the venerable optic.
The biggest surprise of the day – in more ways than one – was Nikon’s introduction of the AF-S 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR telephoto zoom lens. What made this lens so surprising were its focal length range and price. Nikon and Canon are known around the world as the leading manufacturers of telephoto lenses for professionals and serious amateurs. From the 200mm f2 to the 800mm f/5.6, Nikon’s line of fast long focal length primes are coveted by sports, wildlife and action photographers. Two professional grade zooms, the AF-S 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR and AF-S 200-400mm f/4G ED VR II, bring zoom flexibility to the system.
These are professional quality lenses and priced, accordingly. With a manufacturer’s suggested retail price of about $2,700 US, the 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G is the least expensive of the bunch. The fast primes are priced at from $6,000 to $17,900 US. The 200-400mm f/4G weighs in at a hefty $7,000 US.
By contrast, the new 200-500mm f/5.6E is priced to be accessible to the consumer: just under $1,400 US. The zoom range and constant aperture suggest this lens was designed and released to compete directly with consumer-priced zooms manufactured by Tamron and Sigma. Tamron introduced the 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Di VC USD in November 2013. Priced at about $1,100 US, the Tamron 150-600 brought quality long telephoto zoom performance squarely within reach of the enthusiast photographer. While sports shooters balked at the relatively slow aperture range, wildlife photographers lined up to add this new lens to their arsenals.
Less than a year later in September 2014, Sigma entered the fray introducing two 150-600mm f/5-6.3 telephoto zooms. They were labeled “Contemporary” and “Sports.” The 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM Contemporary was introduced at about $1,100 US and had the Tamron zoom squarely in its sites. Though the highest priced of the trio at about $2,000 US, the Sigma 150-600 f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM Sports is still well under the entry level fee for a high end Nikon or Canon zoom.
I spent the better part of a year contemplating whether or not I should add one of these three lenses to my collection. My growing interest in sports and wildlife photography had created a need for more reach in my lens collection. The Tamron and Sigma zooms certainly addressed that interest. However, their relatively slow focal ratios introduced just enough hesitation that I never pulled the trigger to place an order. Then, Nikon’s August 2015 announcement happened.
Within 48-hours, I had done something that was a first for me: pre-ordered a lens. I’ve never been much of a first adopter of tech. Rather than live on the bleeding edge of consumer technologies, I generally prefer to stand back, observe and wait for good deals to emerge on established quality kit. The Nikon AF-S 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR, however, is a different story.
I have to be honest, the Nikon name immediately intrigued me. I’m a Nikon shooter, having owned five Nikon camera bodies and numerous lenses over the last 25 years. When I placed the pre-order, I did so trusting that Nikon would deliver a quality product. Time will tell if that is the case.
Setting aside brand loyalty, there were several performance specifications that also caught my attention. The first and most immediate was the 200mm to 500mm focal length zoom range. At the short end this lens picks up where the excellent Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8 Di VC USD leaves off. At the long end of 500mm, the lens offers more than enough reach for quality sports photography and also for wildlife. The constant f/5.6 aperture through the full zoom range makes this lens a half-stop faster than the Tamron and Sigma zooms. It may not seem like much but that difference in light-gathering means my Nikon D610 camera should be able to use all 39 autofocus points at any focal length. At f/6.3, the D610 starts dropping the outermost AF points.
Another intriguing feature was the latest generation VR technology packaged with this lens. Nikon describes the 200-500 f/5.6E as being capable of delivering up to 4.5 stops of vibration reduction. The general rule of photography has, for generations, been that a photographer using good handholding technique should get sharp results using a shutter speed of 1/focal length. In the case of a 500mm lens, a 1/500-second exposure should not require VR. (This is not to say that VR would not aid a handheld exposure at that speed, merely that good handholding technique with a 500mm at 1/500-second should produce a sharp image.) A 4.5 stop improvement with VR translates to a minimum exposure time of between 1/20- and 1/30-second. That’s amazing!
The above MTF (Modulation Transfer Function) charts illustrate the theoretical performance of the Nikon AF-S 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR zoom lens. The top chart illustrates theoretical performance of the lens at 200mm f/5.6 while the bottom chart shows theoretical performance at 500mm f/5.6. Interpretations of MTF charts are always at least somewhat subjective. That said, I believe a reasonably objective translation would be as follows:
The red lines illustrate contrast performance while the blue lines illustrate resolution performance. The vertical scale measures performance in both areas with better performance being higher on the scale. The horizontal scale measures distance from the center of the lens. At 200mm f/5.6, the lens should deliver excellent contrast (0.9 or higher) across the entire angle of view. Resolution should also be excellent from the center to roughly two-thirds the distance to the edge of the angle of view. Very good resolution performance can be expected across much of the rest of the angle of view with good performance at the very edge. At 500mm, f/5.6, the lens continues to deliver excellent contrast performance across the full angle of view. The slight separation of the sagittal (solid) and meridional (dashed) lines suggests a subtle though largely imperceptible loss of contrast. Resolution performance continues to be excellent at 500mm, f/5.6 across half the angle of view and remains very good to the edge of the field. The separation of sagittal and meridional lines suggests a possible though subtle astigmatism. This lens should control for chromatic aberration, quite well.
The excellent theoretical performance of the lens was the deal-maker for me, giving real confidence in the decision to pre-order. Then, the waiting began.
On the evening of September 23, UPS delivered my copy of the Nikon AF-S 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR zoom lens. It was too late on that day to do much more than record an unboxing video for my YouTube channel and take a few photos of the new lens. A month has now passed during which time I have made a bit more than 2,600 exposures with the 200-500. What follows, is a Short Term Review based on the first month’s use. This isn’t a final review and, despite having formed some strong initial impressions, will not include any final conclusions. This review will include my initial observations about the performance of the lens and my own development as a photographer working at super telephoto ranges.
I’ll begin with the vital statistics:
- Length at 200mm (no lens hood; no lens caps): 10 1/2″
- Length at 200 mm (w/ lens hood): 14″
- Length at 500mm (no lens hood; no lens caps: 13 1/2″
- Length at 500mm (w/ lens hood): 17″
- Diameter (front of lens): 4″
- Circumference (front of lens): 13″
- Diameter (front of lens with lens hood): 5 1/8″
- Circumference (front of lens hood): 16 1/2″
- Weight (w/ lens hood, lens caps, tripod collar): 5 lbs. 6.5 oz (86.5 oz.)
- Weight (w/ lens hood, tripod collar): 5 lbs. 5.0 oz. (85.0 oz)
- Weight (w/ tripod collar): 5 lbs. 1 oz. (81.0 oz)
- Weight (w/ tripod collar and Oben mounting plate): 5 lbs. 2.5 oz (82.5 oz)
- Weight of Lens only (no tripod collar, no lens hood, no lens caps): 4 lbs. 10.0 oz. (74.0 oz.)
- Weight of tripod collar: 7.0 oz.
- Lens Hood dimensions: 3 3/4″ length x 5 1/8″ diameter
- Weight of lens hood: 4.0 oz.
The left side of the lens is where you will find the various controls:
- M/A – M: Autofocus switch. In M/A, lens autofocuses with instantaneous manual focus override as an available option. In M, the lens manually focuses, only.
- FULL / ∞ to 6m: When focusing on subjects nearer than 6 meters (20 feet) distant, set to FULL. When focusing on subjects at greater than 6 meters distance, set to ∞ to 6m.
- VR On / VR Off: Vibration Reduction (VR) On/Off switch. VR should not be turned on until camera body is on. VR should be turned off before camera body is turned off.
- NORMAL / SPORT: With VR on, you may choose either NORMAL or SPORT mode. In SPORTS mode, Nikon VR recognizes a panning motion and compensates for camera shake while preserving intended motion blue due to panning.
- Lock 200: This switch locks the lens at a 200mm focal length during transportation and storage. With the lock disengaged, the lens may be zoomed to any point in the focal length range.
After shooting with this lens for a bit longer than one month, I would describe the construction and controls as of good to very good quality. The collapsed lens feels hefty and solid in the hands. There is plenty of plastic in the external shell but the lens does not feel, cheap. There are no odd internal sounds when shaking the lens, and not clicking or grinding sounds when rotating either zoom or focus. The tripod collar is sturdy with the mounting foot serving perfectly as a handle when carrying just the lens.
The zoom ring, located near the end of the lens, is rubberized and has smooth motion with just the right degree of tension. I would describe the sound made by the rotating zoom ring as smooth zippy. The throw (angle of rotation through the complete zoom range) is fairly long at approximately 155 degrees and this makes it difficult to quickly zoom from one end of the range to the opposite. The focus ring, located near the back of the lens just in front of the control cluster has a hard plastic feel and loose rotation action. It makes a whispery sound when rotated and has a throw of about 190 degrees. I typically shoot with the lens focus control set to M/A (Auto with instantaneous manual override) and have not had any instances where I unintentionally brushed against or rotated the focus ring to lose focus.
The 200-500mm f/5.6E ships with a lens hood and soft case. These are, quite frankly, fairly cheap low quality items. The lens hood locks in place with a quarter turn. It is not a firm, confident lock. Rather, the hood issues a soft click when locked in position and can be easily rotated to unlock. There have been a couple of occasions when I’ve inadvertently bumped the lens hood enough to either rotate it or flex it just enough to loosen the connection. The soft case is just that. The only padding is a thin sheet at the bottom of the case.
Just a couple of weeks after the lens started shipping, Nikon Europe announced a firmware upgrade to address and correct a bug in the lens’ autofocus performance. In summary, when simultaneously engaging autofocus while zooming, autofocus will occasionally shift to manual mode. Autofocus can be restored by releasing the shutter, AF-ON or AE-L/AF-L button and then re-engaging so, this is not a catastrophic issue. I would describe it as an annoyance. In online discussion forums, some photographers have questioned the value of the firmware upgrade saying they never simultaneously zoom while engaging autofocus.
Others, myself among them, say the technique is one they employ on a more or less regular basis. When photographing sports or wildlife, I will often adjust zoom and focus, simultaneously, in order to maintain both good composition and focus while tracking a fast-moving subject. Rather than wait for Nikon to send me a personalized invitation, I visited the Nikon USA website and found their statement about the firmware upgrade. Nikon treats this, not as a service under warranty issue, but rather as an optional upgrade which is available to their US customers. Nikon paid for expedited 2nd day shipping to and from their Los Angeles facility. The lens was in their possession for two business days and Nikon kept me informed via email of the status of the work being done.
UPS delivered the upgraded lens on October 15. The following morning, I tested the autofocus performance by using back button focus to keep AF engaged while simultaneously panning and zooming between two trees in my backyard. Autofocus continued to work while I panned and zoomed from one tree to another more distant tree, repeating this motion twenty times.
The autofocus bug continues a trend for Nikon of shipping new products with performance issues. It is a problem that dates back at least to 2012, including the D800/D800E camera bodies (2012-left side autofocus), D600 body (2012- dust and oil on sensor), D750 body (2014-dark banding when shooting backlit subjects), D810 body (2014-bright spots in image during long exposures), 24-70mm f/2.8E ED VR zoom lens (2015-shipping date delayed) and now the 200-500mm f/5.6E. It is an annoying and disturbing development for a company that used to be known for producing and delivering high quality products. Nikon has now developed a reputation of poor quality control during product development and of using early adopting customers as beta testers. If there is a silver lining in this, it is that Nikon has been more proactive and acknowledging and responding to problems with new products over the last year or so.
If you are unfamiliar with Nikon tripod collars, figuring out how to remove the collar from the tripod can be a bit confusing. The collar is not hinged and does not open fully for removal. Rather, when the locking mechanism is loosened, the collar open just enough to slide over the back of the lens. However, the collar features an interior channel which slides over four locking screws on the lens. To align the locking screws with openings in the collar channel, rotate the loosened collar until the indicator with the carrot is aligned both with the F-mount indicator dot and with the collar alignment indicator on the camera. With the collar rotated as shown in the above photo, it should slide easily off the back of the lens.
Well, now that the housekeeping is taken care of, let’s focus on the central question: is the AF-S 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR lens a quality optic? Does it, for want of a better metaphor, punch above its weight class to deliver performance exceeding what one typically gets when shooting with a sub-$1,500 telephoto zoom? Let’s look at some sample photos. Full-sized JPEG’s of the below images are available for viewing by right-clicking on the image.
After my first month shooting with the AF-S 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR telephoto zoom, I find the lens to be very sharp, delivering crisp detailed images of nature and wildlife. If you open the above image of the Eurasian eagle owl (the last in the sequence) in a new tab and zoom in, you’ll see my silhouetted form clearly defined in the owl’s pupil. You’ll see similar results in the full-size JPEG images of the peregrine falcon and in the first photograph of the Eurasian eagle owl.
The detail in the lunar photos is very sharp. At 500mm, the lens easily resolves craters of approximately 10 kilometers diameter and partially resolves 1 kilometer wide craters on the Moon’s surface. Details such as bright ejecta rays and dark maria are also easily discerned. Chromatic aberration along the lunar limb is negligible and quite easily eliminated with the click of a button in Lightroom.
Check out the detail in the Abert’s squirrel photo. I shot this from a forest path with the squirrel about 30 feet up in a tree. Focus is on the squirrel’s hind leg but, at f/5.6, there is enough depth of field that the eye is acceptably sharp. The best detail in this image is in that hind leg, in the toes, claws and padding on the bottom of the foot. And check out the small bit of green – a freshly sprouted branch – on the bark below the squirrel’s bushy tail.
The photos of the dark-eyed junco show good focus on the eye, fine detail in the feathers and a very pleasing creamy bokeh. This lens handles background blur in a wonderful manner. The bokeh is smooth and soft, and more than adequate to create the desired separation between the subject and background. The junco photos were made from a distance of about 50 feet. The photos of the American coots were made at various distances, ranging from about 20 feet to a greatest distance of nearly 80 feet. The eyes and water droplets are crisp and well-defined. The feathers show good detail and texture. When you consider this high level of performance is made available in a lens priced thousands less than the Nikon telephotos that most closely compete with it in terms of sharpness, contrast and general image quality, the 200-500mm f/5.6E is truly an astounding value.
If you can’t make outstanding images with this lens, it’s not the lens’ fault.
The photos from the football game illustrate the most significant limitations of the lens. Those are its limited – in comparison with high end professional telephoto primes and zooms – light gathering ability and less-than-nimble autofocus performance. Let’s talk first about the light-gathering ability of the 200-500mm f/5.6E lens.
The game was played in the J. L. Walkup Skydome on the campus of Northern Arizona University. This is not a well-lit venue. The above photo of a game-winning touchdown reception was taken during a 2014 game in the Skydome. Shooting with a Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8 Di VC USD lens at 70mm f/2.8, my Nikon D610 camera body used ISO 8063 (Hi 0.3) to make a properly exposed image at 1/1000-second. This should give you an idea of the generally dim light level (for photography) in this venue.
The 200-500mm f/5.6E delivers a constant f/5.6 focal ratio, which is two full stops slower than an f/2.8 lens. To manage the ISO and retain a minimal degree of noise-free clarity, I chose to use exposures ranging from 1/200-second to 1/500-second. Shooting at 1/200 to 1/500-second won’t come close to freezing the action of a college football game. The ISO’s chosen by the D610 at these exposure lengths generally ranged from ISO 6400 to ISO 8063 (Hi 0.3).
Starting about midway into the 3rd quarter, I shot with the 200-500 from the north end zone and photographed the action until midway through the 4th quarter. I would describe the autofocus performance as good but not impressive. This is not a lightning fast focusing lens.
I also need to acknowledge that my long telephoto lens skills are still in development. Prior to getting the 200-500, my longest lens had been the Nikon AF-S 70-300 f/4.5-5.6 ED VR. This is a consumer quality telephoto zoom. It is not impressively sharp but does offer good reach at a reasonable price. It’s also nicely portable and lightweight. In July 2015, I used the 70-300 to photograph a battle between two bison bulls for herd dominance on the North Rim of Grand Canyon. It was an exhilarating moment and the lens performed, well. However, it was that experience that got me seriously thinking about adding a long telephoto zoom to my kit. The 300mm maximum reach just wasn’t enough for that moment.
Anticipating the size, weight and magnification of the 200-500 would exceed my capacity for handholdable comfort, I purchased an Oben model CTM-2500 carbon fiber monopod to support the lens. Pictured above, is the Nikon lens mounted to the Oben monopod and VH-R2 monopod tilt head. I’ve used this combination extensively during this first month of ownership and I have to admit the monopod was a great investment. It’s carbon fiber construction makes the monopod very light, weighing in at just 1 lb. 10 oz with the attached VH-R2 head. It is a five-section design which collapses to a respectable and compact 19 3/4″ length including the tilt head. Every photo in this article taken with the 200-500 was made with the lens mounted to the Oben monopod.
There is one major criticism I have of the Oben CTM-2500 monopod. I don’t like the mounting plate that comes with the VH-R2 tilt head. It is not a standard size plate. As a result, I can’t attach a Peak Design mounting plate to the 200-500’s tripod collar foot. Also, the Oben mounting plate has a spring-loaded second pin that doesn’t have a matching companion hole in most tripod collar feet. The bottom of the 200-500’s tripod collar foot is lined with channels that provide some degree of purchase for the Oben pin. However, after a few days, the Oben plate inevitably becomes loose enough that I have to tighten the primary 1/4×20 threaded bolt to establish a secure connection.
One significant area of personal development over the first month of ownership of this lens has very little to do with photography. It is simply the challenge of becoming comfortable handling a lens of this size and weight. It’s only been in the last week or so that I’ve started feeling at ease carrying and handling the lens. It is much larger and heavier than any other lens I’ve owned or used. During the first few weeks of ownership, I was constantly worried about banging it against a wall, into a door frame or even hitting a person.
I’m also developing the ability to get close to wildlife. The challenge is to get as close to your subject as possible without encroaching such that your presence causes unnatural behaviors in the animal. Getting close is as much an art form as a skill. It requires a knowledge and skill set that has nothing, per se, to do with photography. It has everything to do with being invisible and/or perceived as a non-threat to the animal.
Once in position, achieving good results comes down to your skill in employing basic and advanced techniques of doing photography at super telephoto ranges. While the 500mm reach of the new lens has allowed me to achieve images I could previously only have imagined, I am not yet fully comfortable working at such a long focal length. This lens challenges my ability to anticipate and follow action, maintain good composition and employ good focusing technique. The margin of error in these areas is much wider when using shorter focal lengths. When working at 300mm, 400mm or more, precision in composition, tracking and technique is essential. While my skill and comfort working with this zoom range is improving, I am not yet where I want to be.
One photographic skill that is critical to successful photography at super telephoto lengths, is autofocus technique. I have experimented with a variety of modes available on the D610 body. I always use AF-C mode when photographing moving subjects and have been hopping about between single-point, 9-point and 3D modes. Depending on the situation, each offers its own advantages. I’m also experimenting with AF settings defining the length of time the lens will hold focus before resetting.
This brings me to a comment about the most-cited weakness of Nikon’s newest super telephoto zoom; its “poor” autofocus performance. This is, according to experts in online fora, the biggest weakness of the lens. Many of the self-appointed experts haven’t shot with the 200-500 and are relying on the comments of their favorite expert photographer…typically, a photographer who expresses a view they’ve predetermined to be correct. As mentioned previously in this review, the 200-500 does not have lightning fast autofocus. Nonetheless for many photographers, the biggest limitation impeding the quality of results achieved with this lens will be their own lack of experience working at such long focal lengths. Before blaming the lens, be sure it isn’t your own poor technique that costs you the cover of National Geographic.
Since I’ve only been using the lens a month and am still learning to master the challenges that come with shooting at super telephoto range, I’m going to suspend my final judgement on the AF performance of the 200-500 until I’ve eliminated user error as a significant contributing factor. I know for a fact that my own poor technique has cost me potentially good shots. When those instances have been eliminated – or at least, nearly so – I’ll be in a better position to comment with some degree of expertise on the inherent AF performance of this lens.
And with that, I’ll bring this Short Term Review to a close. These are my thoughts on the Nikon AF-S 200-500mm f/5.6 E ED VR lens after one-month’s ownership and use. As my time and experience with this lens increases, I will return to this blog with additional observation and thoughts on this super telephoto zoom. For now, I would sum up my observations and impressions, as follows:
The 200-500mm f/5.6E is fantastically sharp, wide open at 500mm and delivers outstanding VR performance. Priced at just under $1,400 US, this lens does not have the equivalent build quality or autofocus performance of the top professional Nikon telephoto primes and zooms. That said, this lens is an incredible value and can be a tool helping to elevate your wildlife, nature and outdoor sports photography to new levels.
Now, get out and shoot!
Bill Ferris | November 2015