Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E: VR Performance

Controls on the side of hte Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E. (Bill Ferris)

Control cluster, including the VR On/Off and Mode switches, on the side of the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E. (Bill Ferris)

When Nikon released the AF-S Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR telephoto zoom lens, one of the features which gained immediate attention was vibration reduction. I know, I was immediately impressed with both the immediacy and the effectiveness of this technology.

Controls for vibration reduction (VR) are located, as shown in the above photo, on the left side of the lens. VR is activated with an on/off switch. There are two mode options, normal and sport. According to Nikon’s literature, normal mode is recommended when photographing stationary subjects and sport mode is recommended when photographing moving subjects, especially subjects moving erratically or quickly.

In either normal or sport mode, the lens compensates only for vertical shake and does not compensate for panning motion. VR can be used when shooting from a tripod or monopod, although the literature Nikon provides with the lens does caution against using VR in certain scenarios involving tripods. Interestingly, Nikon offers no real explanation of what tripod types or shooting conditions may produce better results with VR off.

In my experience shooting at 500mm (by far, my most used focal length with this lens) with vibration reduction engaged in normal mode, pushing the AE-L/AF-L button (assigned as AF-On for my Nikon D610) immediately stabilizes the image in the optical viewfinder. The same is true when the shutter release button is half-depressed. Used in sport mode, there is no loss of immediacy in the stabilization. The quality of the viewfinder image, however, is a bit more fluid. This is a reflection of the algorithms controlling VR in sport mode, which allow greater latitude in a photographer’s vertical motion.

I’ve not been able to discern a difference in image quality between normal and sport mode. Nor have I noticed any image degradation when VR is engaged a shutter speeds of 1/1000-second and faster. I’ll often leave VR on, regardless of shutter speed, just to enjoy the benefits of a more stable viewfinder image. This makes it easier to track birds, athletes and other fast, sometimes erratic moving subjects.

By far, the most discussed feature of the 200-500’s VR reduction, has been Nikon’s claim that it delivers up to 4.5 stops of stabilization. What does that mean?

There is a longstanding truism in photography that, to produce an acceptably sharp image when shooting handheld, a photographer should use a shutter speed no slower than the inverse of the focal length. For example, if shooting handheld with a 50mm normal lens, use a shutter speed no slower than 1/50-second. If shooting handheld with a 200mm telephoto, your shutter speed should be 1/200-second or faster. Doing photography with the 200-500mm f/5.6E at full extension, your shutter speed should be 1/500-second or faster.

The reasoning behind this guideline is that a fast enough shutter speed will effectively negate the inherent unsteadiness of handholding a camera. Experienced photographers who employ good technique are often able to exceed the “inverse of focal length” standard. In recent years, lens and in-body stabilization technology has evolved, considerably, making it easier for pros and novice photographers alike to make clear, detailed images at slow shutter speeds.

I should note, that vibration reduction technology compensates for the inherent shakiness of the photographer but does nothing to freeze or hold motionless the subject. If your subject is moving, that motion will be be captured when you press the shutter release. Engaging VR to steady the image with the intent of using a slower (longer) shutter speed will enhance the subject’s motion. This intentional dragging of the shutter can produce some cool images. It can also be the source of frustration, if a photographer expected the VR would freeze the action happening within the frame.

If we assume a photographer using a 500mm lens will be able to make a sharply detailed handheld photograph using an exposure of 1/500-second, a 1-stop improvement would be a halving of that shutter speed. In other words, 1-stop of VR improvement would allow a photographer to make sharp images at 1/250-second. Another halving of shutter speed (1/125-second) translates at a 2-stop VR advantage. If I’m able to make good, detailed handheld photos at 1/60-second, that would demonstrate a 3-stop VR enhancement. Shooting at 500mm, 1/30-second and getting acceptably sharp results translates to a 4-stop gain. Anything longer than 1/30-second delves into that area of approximately 4.5 stops of vibration reduction Nikon promotes for this lens.

To demonstrate the effectiveness of Nikon’s vibration reduction technology, I set up a home test using my favorite model, a hula dancer toy. The dancer was set up on a folding tray table outside on a sunny day. Using the 200-500 on my D610, I took a several series of exposures. For all exposures, the focal length was held constant at 500mm. Sensitivity varied between ISO 125 and ISO 160 for all exposures. I used aperture (f-stop) to control the image brightness on the sensor. This, in turn, required longer exposures (slower shutter speeds) to create properly exposed images as each shot sequence progressed.

I shot in two different handheld modes during this test: seated and standing. In each mode, I made exposure sets with VR turned off, turned on in sport mode and on in normal mode. Here’s the breakdown of my test:

Shooting Handheld and Seated

  • I shot first with VR on in sport mode, then with VR off and then with VR on in normal mode.
  • For each of these three sequences, I started with the lens at 500mm, f/5.6 making three exposures at 1/1000-second.
  • I then made changes to the f-stop to close the aperture in 1-stop increments, making three exposures at each setting: f/8, f/11, f/16, f/22 and f/32.
  • Shutter speeds were adjusted to compensate for the smaller apertures. At f/8, I shot at 1/500-second; 1/250-second at f/11; 1/125-second at f/16; 1/60-second at f/22 and 1/30-second at f/32.

Shooting Handheld and Standing

  • I shot first with VR off, then with VR on in sport mode, then with VR on in normal mode.
  • For each of these three sequences, I started with the lens at 500mm, f/5.6 making three exposures at 1/1000-second.
  • I then made changes to the f-stop to close the aperture in 1-stop increments, making three exposures at each setting: f/8, f/11, f/16, f/22 and f/32.
  • Shutter speeds were adjusted to compensate for the smaller apertures. At f/8, I shot at 1/500-second; 1/250-second at f/11; 1/125-second at f/16; 1/60-second at f/22 and 1/30-second at f/32.

Here, are the resulting images. I selected the best exposure from each three-exposure set for display and am presenting full frame views followed by 100% crops. I’ll begin each sequence with the 1/250-second exposure as that is where the potential benefits of vibration reduction kick in. On a philosophical note, I will refrain from coloring your evaluation with my personal conclusions. Judge for yourself how good the VR performance of the AF-S Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR lens is.

 

 

Handheld Seated with VR Off

Handheld Seated: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/11, ISO 125, 1/250-second with VR off

Handheld Seated: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/11, ISO 125, 1/250-second with VR off

100% Crop: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/11, ISO 125, 1/250-second with VR off

100% Crop: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/11, ISO 125, 1/250-second with VR off

Handheld Seated: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/16, ISO 125, 1/125-second with VR off

Handheld Seated: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/16, ISO 125, 1/125-second with VR off

100% Crop: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/16, ISO 125, 1/125-second with VR off

100% Crop: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/16, ISO 125, 1/125-second with VR off

Handheld Seated: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/22, ISO 125, 1/60-second with VR off

Handheld Seated: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/22, ISO 125, 1/60-second with VR off

100% Crop: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/22, ISO 125, 1/60-second with VR off

100% Crop: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/22, ISO 125, 1/60-second with VR off

Handheld Seated: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/32, ISO 125, 1/30-second with VR off

Handheld Seated: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/32, ISO 125, 1/30-second with VR off

100% Crop: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/32, ISO 125, 1/30-second with VR off

100% Crop: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/32, ISO 125, 1/30-second with VR off

 

 

Handheld Seated with VR On in Sport Mode

Handheld Seated: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/11, ISO 125, 1/250-second with VR on in Sport mode

Handheld Seated: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/11, ISO 125, 1/250-second with VR on in Sport mode

Handheld Seated: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/11, ISO 125, 1/250-second with VR off

100% Crop: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/11, ISO 125, 1/250-second with VR off

Handheld Seated: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/16, ISO 125, 1/125-second with VR on in Sport mode

Handheld Seated: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/16, ISO 125, 1/125-second with VR on in Sport mode

100% Crop: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/16, ISO 125, 1/125-second with VR on in Sport mode

100% Crop: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/16, ISO 125, 1/125-second with VR on in Sport mode

Handheld Seated: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/22, ISO 125, 1/60-second with VR on in Sport mode

Handheld Seated: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/22, ISO 125, 1/60-second with VR on in Sport mode

100% Crop: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/22, ISO 125, 1/60-second with VR on in Sport mode

100% Crop: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/22, ISO 125, 1/60-second with VR on in Sport mode

Handheld Seated: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/32, ISO 125, 1/30-second with VR on in Sport mode

Handheld Seated: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/32, ISO 125, 1/30-second with VR on in Sport mode

100% Crop: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/32, ISO 125, 1/30-second with VR on in Sport mode

100% Crop: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/32, ISO 125, 1/30-second with VR on in Sport mode

 

 

Handheld Seated with VR On in Normal Mode

Handheld Seated: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/11, ISO 140, 1/250-second with VR on in Normal mode

Handheld Seated: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/11, ISO 140, 1/250-second with VR on in Normal mode

100% Crop: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/11, ISO 140, 1/250-second with VR on in Normal mode

100% Crop: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/11, ISO 140, 1/250-second with VR on in Normal mode

Handheld Seated: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/16, ISO 125, 1/125-second with VR on in Normal mode

Handheld Seated: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/16, ISO 125, 1/125-second with VR on in Normal mode

100% Crop: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/16, ISO 125, 1/125-second with VR on in Normal mode

100% Crop: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/16, ISO 125, 1/125-second with VR on in Normal mode

Handheld Seated: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/22, ISO 125, 1/60-second with VR on in Normal mode

Handheld Seated: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/22, ISO 125, 1/60-second with VR on in Normal mode

100% Crop: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/22, ISO 125, 1/60-second with VR on in Normal mode

100% Crop: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/22, ISO 125, 1/60-second with VR on in Normal mode

Handheld Seated: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/32, ISO 125, 1/30-second with VR on in Normal mode

Handheld Seated: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/32, ISO 125, 1/30-second with VR on in Normal mode

100% Crop: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/32, ISO 125, 1/30-second with VR on in Normal mode

100% Crop: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/32, ISO 125, 1/30-second with VR on in Normal mode

 

 

Handheld Standing with VR Off

Handheld Standing: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/11, ISO 140, 1/250-second with VR off

Handheld Standing: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/11, ISO 140, 1/250-second with VR off

100% Crop: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/11, ISO 140, 1/250-second with VR off

100% Crop: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/11, ISO 140, 1/250-second with VR off

Handheld Standing: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/16, ISO 140, 1/125-second with VR off

Handheld Standing: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/16, ISO 140, 1/125-second with VR off

100% Crop: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/16, ISO 140, 1/125-second with VR off

100% Crop: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/16, ISO 140, 1/125-second with VR off

Handheld Standing: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/22, ISO 140, 1/60-second with VR off

Handheld Standing: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/22, ISO 140, 1/60-second with VR off

100% Crop: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/22, ISO 140, 1/60-second with VR off

100% Crop: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/22, ISO 140, 1/60-second with VR off

Handheld Standing: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/32, ISO 140, 1/30-second with VR off

Handheld Standing: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/32, ISO 140, 1/30-second with VR off

100% Crop: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/32, ISO 140, 1/30-second with VR off

100% Crop: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/32, ISO 140, 1/30-second with VR off

 

 

Handheld Standing with VR On in Sport Mode

Handheld Standing: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/11, ISO 140, 1/250-second with VR on in Sport mode

Handheld Standing: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/11, ISO 140, 1/250-second with VR on in Sport mode

100% Crop: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/11, ISO 140, 1/250-second with VR on in Sport mode

100% Crop: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/11, ISO 140, 1/250-second with VR on in Sport mode

Handheld Standing: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/16, ISO 160, 1/125-second with VR on in Sport mode

Handheld Standing: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/16, ISO 160, 1/125-second with VR on in Sport mode

100% Crop: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/16, ISO 160, 1/125-second with VR on in Sport mode

100% Crop: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/16, ISO 160, 1/125-second with VR on in Sport mode

Handheld Standing: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/22, ISO 160, 1/60-second with VR on in Sport mode

Handheld Standing: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/22, ISO 160, 1/60-second with VR on in Sport mode

100% Crop: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/22, ISO 160, 1/60-second with VR on in Sport mode

100% Crop: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/22, ISO 160, 1/60-second with VR on in Sport mode

Handheld Standing: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/32, ISO 140, 1/30-second with VR on in Sport mode

Handheld Standing: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/32, ISO 140, 1/30-second with VR on in Sport mode

100% Crop: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/32, ISO 140, 1/30-second with VR on in Sport mode

100% Crop: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/32, ISO 140, 1/30-second with VR on in Sport mode

 

 

Handheld Standing with VR On in Normal Mode

Handheld Standing: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/11, ISO 140, 1/250-second with VR on in Normal mode

Handheld Standing: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/11, ISO 140, 1/250-second with VR on in Normal mode

100% Crop: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/11, ISO 140, 1/250-second with VR on in Normal mode

100% Crop: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/11, ISO 140, 1/250-second with VR on in Normal mode

Handheld Standing: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/16, ISO 140, 1/125-second with VR on in Normal mode

Handheld Standing: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/16, ISO 140, 1/125-second with VR on in Normal mode

100% Crop: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/16, ISO 140, 1/125-second with VR on in Normal mode

100% Crop: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/16, ISO 140, 1/125-second with VR on in Normal mode

Handheld Standing: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/22, ISO 140, 1/60-second with VR on in Normal mode

Handheld Standing: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/22, ISO 140, 1/60-second with VR on in Normal mode

100% Crop: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/22, ISO 140, 1/60-second with VR on in Normal mode

100% Crop: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/22, ISO 140, 1/60-second with VR on in Normal mode

Handheld Standing: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/32, ISO 140, 1/30-second with VR on in Normal mode

Handheld Standing: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/32, ISO 140, 1/30-second with VR on in Normal mode

100% Crop: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/32, ISO 140, 1/30-second with VR on in Normal mode

100% Crop: Nikon D610 with Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E at 500mm, f/32, ISO 140, 1/30-second with VR on in Normal mode

 

 

Conclusion

Well, there you have it. What are your thoughts? As I said, I’m not going to color your perceptions by offering detailed comments. I think images and VR performance speak for themselves. What I will offer is this, I was pleasantly surprised at the image quality that can be achieved when shooting handheld without VR from a seated position. I rested my elbows on my thighs to enhance the stability of my handhold and I think it paid off. The slower exposures are good enough for certain uses, such as low resolution display on a website.

Let me know what you think. Share your comments, below. Then, get out and shoot.

Bill Ferris | January 2016

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