Nikon AF-S Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR lens review

Kingfisher-with-cricket kingfisher-with-centipede
Nikon AF-S Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR lens review by Mohammed Ahmedullah:

I am a writer-photographer based in India and contribute articles to local travel magazines and newspapers on wildlife. I recently bought a Nikon 200-500 F5.6 lens and used it for an assignment on bird photography. Below are my observations:

Ergonomics: The 200-500 F5.6 balances well on my Nikon D800 camera. You can use the tripod mount as a grip while walking. I usually place the camera in front and the lens at the rear so that the lens does not get scratched against thorny bushes. The weight of the lens plus camera is around 3 kilos but the perfect weight distribution in front and rear of the tripod collar/handgrip feels like a lot less. I have walked for 4-5 hours in the jungle with this combination.

Image quality: Having shot hundreds of frames with the 500mm F4, I can say for sure that the 200-500 is no match to it in image quality (IQ). When images from both shot at similar apertures are blown up 100%, the difference is clearly apparent. While F 5.6 on the 500mm F4 gives razor sharp images, the same aperture on the 200-500 is distinctly soft (in comparative terms, but good if you nail a correctly focussed, well-lit shot).

Portability: What you lose in IQ over the 500 F4 you gain in portability. With the 200-500 you can walk much further than with the 500 F4, bring the lens up to shooting position much quicker and hold the lens steady with far lesser pitch and yaw movement compared to the Nikon prime. I have got images with the 200-500 which I could not have gotten with the heavier and bulkier Nikon prime lens. For the rest I will explain with a series of images.

Focussing, VR and slow shutter speed: The 200-500’s focus and VR are fast with minimal hunting. With the VR on I have got clear shots at 1/25 of second at 200mm! This picture of the Ceylon Frogmouth was shot at 200mm F 5.6 at 1/25 second. The mating pair was in dense undergrowth with very little light getting to them. I cranked up the exposure compensation to +1.3 to get clarity in their eyes and beak which meant a very low shutter speed with VR on.

In good light: The 200-500 F5.6 is a good light lens. When shot with the sun behind you at an angle of about 60 degrees, provided you make best use of its portability, you can get photos that could shame the 500mm F4. The image of the kingfisher with a centipede in its beak was shot at F5.6 and 1/2500 at ISO 800. Notice the detail in the legs of the centipede and the eye and open beak of the bird. I am quite certain I would not have gotten this close to the kingfisher at breakfast time with the 500mm F4.

I followed the bird for about an hour, tip-toeing a foot at a time with the camera/lens held at a horizontal position just below my eye. In my experience, the sudden movement of bringing the camera/lens up from a vertical position to a horizontal position is enough to scare away most birds, even if you make no sound and hide behind foliage.

Stopping down: Sharpness, contrast and depth of field improves enough to be noticeable when stopped down to F8. There is no difference when stopped down to F6.3, some noticeable difference at F7.1 and clearly visible difference at F8. The picture of the kingfisher perched has details in the beak and face with appear sharper than images shot at F5.6.

With 1.4 TC II: The 1.4 TC increases the focal length to 700mm at the loss of 1 F stop. For small birds, I often use the 1.5x crop mode and my regular shooting is in the 1.2x crop factor to gain that extra one frame per second (FPS) on the D800 along with a smaller RAW file of 24 mega pixels. The picture below of the pied kingfisher was shot when it just dived from an electric wire with the 1.4 attached to the 200-500.

In dull light: The picture of the woolly-necked stork was shot in diffused light with the sun well-hidden behind clouds. The image through the viewfinder was duller than when viewed with the naked eye. As I was approaching it from behind thick bushes, I sensed that it had noticed my presence and quickly cranked up the shutter speed expecting it to take off, which it did. The black wings of the crane against the white background of the lake yielded a less than desired exposure. I consider this a bad shot.
The photograph of the eagle with a fish catch was taken on a misty morning with barely enough to frame the image. The focus acquisition worked very well in this case and I was able to track the bird and squeeze quite a few shots as it flew across in front of me.

In conclusion: The combination of 200-500 F5.6 and D800 plus TC1.4 gives me a focal length range of 200mm in full frame to 1050mm in 1.5x crop factor by attaching the 1.4x TC. For this assignment I used the entire focal length range both with and without TC. Performance with the VR is a pleasant surprise. The VR stabilizes the image no sooner than you are able to get focus. This is the closest one-size-fits-all focal length lens for birding I could ever find.

Its weaknesses are soft images when compared to the 500 F4 prime, poor visibility in low light as the F5.6 maximum aperture makes the image through the viewfinder dull compared to F4 tele lenses.

All images have been converted from RAW to JPG with no post-processing whatsoever except for cropping. I never do any post-processing as publishers demand the largest size untouched images so that their art directors can make the changes themselves.

Below is the EXIF data of all the images displayed:

Eagle with fish_misty morning
Eagle grabbing fish: F6.3, 1/2500 @ISO 1250, 500mm

Woolly necked stork
Woolly necked stork: F5.6, 1/3200 @ ISO 1600, 500 mm

flame throated bulbul
Flame throated bulbul: F5.6, 1/1600 @ISO 1250 500mm

Common kestrel
Common Kestrel: F5.6, 1/2500 @ISO 800 500mm

Little Ringed Plover
Little Ringed Plover F5.6, 1/2000 @ISO 800 500mm

Lankan Frogmouth
Ceylon Frogmouth: F5.6, 1/25 @ISO 2500

Pelican takeoff
Pelican take-off: F5.6, 1/2000, ISO640 500MM

Kingfisher perched_F8
Kingfisher perched: F8, 1/1000, ISO800, 500mm

Kingfisher with cricket
Kingfisher with cricket: F6.3, 1/1250, ISO500, 500mm

kingfisher with centipede
Kingfisher with centipede: F6.3, 1/2000, ISO1000, 500MM

Pied kingfisher diving_1.4x
Pied Kingfisher diving: F8, 1/4000 @ISO 1000 700mm (with TC 1.4)

Sparrow: F8, 1/2000 @ISO 1000 700mm (with TC 1.4)

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  • Eric Calabros

    Not sharp as 500 f/4? Well, primes are always sharper than zoom lenses 😉

    • Sure, the question is more along how much worse.

      Also… 14-24 f/2.8 and “always worse”. Enough said 🙂

      • Or… Nikkor 58mm F1.4 G and “always sharper”?!? Enough said 🙂

        • Do you own 58 f1.4? I do and it is sharp ! You just have to know how to use it to its best portrait capabilities :)… amazing glass !

          • Yes. I own the Nikkor 58mm F1.4 G
            I’m comparing it to the Sony/Zeiss 50mm F1.4 Planar lens for Sony’s A-Mount system, which, by comparison, is much sharper wide open at F1.4
            I just recently switched to Nikon from SONY (cause I didn’t want to be forced into using a body with an EVF) and the 50mm Sony/Zeiss lens was the only one that I was unable to part with when I sold all my gear.
            Instead, I’ve taken its mount off and replaced it with the F-Mount from an old kit lens from my film days with the Nikon FM10, so it is now a manual focus only, very sharp normal prime for my new D750 with really beautiful bokeh! (a poor man’s Milvus if you will!)
            It’s not to say that I don’t love the 58mm lens too though. It’s a great look. But no. It’s not as sharp. I’m sure the Canon 50mm F1.2 L wouldn’t have been sharp enough for my now spoiled standards either though, had I switched to Canon!

            • Never had a Sony/Zeiss so I do not want to doubt its capability, but have seen many people batching about 58f1.4 non sharp looking images. Yes it does not cut like a razor through the paper such Sigma Art series, but it does something which Sigma or Sony do not do,… ads very smooth softness to the edges of the frame while still keeping centre untack and very sharp! You just have to really nail the shot so for moving subjects this is not a great choice of a lens but for still portraits images the 3D look and bokeh it does create is stunning :)… I am not a bokeh editorial style junkie and it took me more then 2 years to decide to buy one, and honestly I am absolutely thrilled to attach it to D810 or my old D3s because the looks I am getting out of it are simply so unique and cool I can not imagine I hesitated so long. And yes, my copy is amazing no issues with it! And yes it is sharp ! 🙂

  • Photobug

    Good review. This is the second review in two days I have read.

  • WBR

    Thanks for the review. Much appreciated. I have the 500 f4 (not the newest version, but the one before) and really like it. If I want lighter (but not faster), I’m going with the new 300 mm F4PF, with the 1.4TC, a really great combo (I’m shooting the D7200).

    • Spy Black

      There’s a review over at Photography Life that compares this Nikkor to the 150-600 Tamron and Sigma lenses if you’re curious.

      • WBR


      • Moo

        yeh nice biased test.. most images he shows are from the nikon. i thought this should be a comparisation between lenses not a review for the nikon?
        look at the testshots from The Digital Picture.
        they tell a different story.

        • Spy Black


  • Kyle Medina

    I guess I am not switching. 1dx it is!!

  • CommonPleas

    Thank you, Mohammed, for these great shots of birds from India. So different to those in Canada. The bulbul is a mystery, kind of like a certain cartoon character here (Woody the Woodpecker). The kingfisher has such beautiful colours. And the frogmouth to the right looks so sad whilst his (?) counterpart to the left looks so annoyed.

    You captured a lot of character in birds from your locale, and that is what photography is all about. Equally importantly, your tips are most welcomed. Thank you for sharing a bit of India and your knowledge.

    • I agree, this is what photography is all about and this is why I am a big fan of those guest post.

    • m ahmed

      Appreciate your comments about the pictures and that you seem to be looking at birds from a human perspective. The frogmouths are a mating pair and the one on the left is the male.

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  • My combo would be D500+70-300mmVR.That 70-300mm VR is not a bad lens at all and I am not a professional photographer.

    The big question is if the same editors would accept these images for publication.

    • I submit images to various magazines and newspapers and get accepted all the time. I’ve gotten several glossy covers and double trucks. I shoot with a D300s. If they’re good pictures, the camera makes little difference these days.

    • FroBro

      Hmm I don’t mean to cause offence here, but this is an excellent demonstration of when people have more money than knowledge. For someone to pre-order a Nikon D500, and then have to question if their paired lens and body is good enough to be accepted by an editor just shows that the camera is too much machine for the user at this point in time. The D500 is going to make no difference to your images that you currently make with your existing dslr-body, That money would more likely be better spent on a new lens or a workshop/training course/actual experience, rather than sitting on forums asking for advice, or utilising a lens which is at it’s peak at 70mm even though you probably shoot most of the time at 300mm and at best a resolving power of 15MP.

      • Patrick O’Connor

        I wouldn’t have worded it so strongly but I was thinking along the same lines.

      • No offence taken, I really meant if buying 200-500 was a clever idea. I was getting good enough images with 70-300 with Nikon Df which doesn’t refute your lack of knowledge assessment entirely 😉

      • Pixelkeeper

        Actually you are the one that just outed himself as not beeing at that point, if you think that a value provided by DXO states how good an image is technicallygoing to be!

        Even though I would recommend a 300 f4, it’s not because of the sharpness, but rather light gathering, Af, micro contrast and color rendition.

        Take that from somebody that actually has shot a 70-300 with crop sensors and owns also a D4s and longer lenses 😉

        • PhilK

          Yeah, I have a 70-300 AF-S and while it’s perfectly decent for the size and price, it’s definitely a bit ‘dull’ on the long end. Which is a key reason why I have my eyes peeled for something better in the 300+ range. I have an old 400mm prime but it’s not very flexible and it’s old tech.

          I’ll probably end up with one of these 200-500s. Seems like pretty good value for what it offers.

    • Oliver

      The only issue with the 70-300mm VR is at 300mm its considerably softer than at 200mm

  • bharat

    I think the bird in the mist is not an eagle, but a kite……….I too bought this 200-500 lens and going to 3 bird sanctuaries to do a testing…hope it will be fulfilling. ……..

    • m ahmed

      It’s a kite, thanks.

  • PhilK

    The results from this lens continue to impress me, especially at that price.

  • vousplaisentezouquoi

    “I have got images with the 200-500 which I could not have gotten with the heavier and bulkier Nikon prime lens”

    And what if you had a 300mm f/4E PF ED VR + TC 17 ?

    • FroBro

      Is the 300mm f/4e PF ED VR heavier and bulkier and the 200-500? ……. well there’s your answer!

      • vousplaisentezouquoi

        300mm f/4E PF ED VR > 755 g
        TC 17 > 250 g
        Total > 1005 g

        200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR > 2300g

        • PhilK

          Perhaps for birding it would be fine, but based on the samples I’ve seen, the wierd diffractive optic flare when shooting into light-sources or bright spectral highlights is annoying to me.

    • Steve Perry

      I had a 200-500 and was unimpressed. Traded for the 300 F4 PF – with and without TC that lens is outstanding and very nearly as good as my 600 F4. (although I also concede that I may have had a bad copy of the 200-500)

      • PhilK

        What didn’t you like about it?

        • Allan Smith

          I can’t believe someone would say that after shooting with the 200-500. I shoot motor racing usually with a 300 2.8 and a 600 F4. The last meeting I was at I only used the 200-500. Plenty sharp and no need for a mono pod. Also, at that price point it is fantastic.

        • Steve Perry

          I shoot in a lot of low light situations, and I just couldn’t get images that were sharp enough. I’ve used all sorts of tele and zooms over the years (300 F4, 300 2.8, 500 F4, 600 F4, 80-400, etc etc) and never had a lens that performed as poorly. I also wasn’t a fan of the AF speed, kinda slow compared to what I’m used to. Again though, I may have had a bad copy of the lens. Or the lens just likes sunny days. I don’t know…

          • PhilK

            Although I don’t like the price as much, I think I’m starting to lean towards the new 80-400 more now. Faster at the short end, smaller/lighter, but can still use a TC with it if needed. And fits my needs better as I’m not primarily a wildlife/sports type of photographer.

            And from a very unscientific perusal of photos submitted by B&H reviewers, the IQ looks a bit better too. (Unfortunately a lot of the samples uploaded by 200-500 users suffer from really poor shooting or post-production technique, which doesn’t help, but I tried to account for that.)

  • QuantalQuetzal

    Thank you very much. This is actually one of the best reviews I ever read. Well-balance, authentic, informative and easy to read.

    I may be getting one for 2 weeks in summer. Last year I had the 80-400mm and I didn’t like the build quality so much.

  • LangerHans

    Nikon 200-500: I AM next to your kid’s playground.

  • Nilanjan Ray

    Nice review. But no point in comparing this lens to the 500mm f/4, which costs 5X more. One doesn’t compare a Honda Civic to a Porsche 911, even though both can be driven at 180 kmph ++.

    Yes, IQ is a little inferior than the long primes, but flexibility and portability can make up for it, depending on priorities. For birders, a long prime (with or without TC) is better. For mammal shooters, a telezoom could make more sense, if one cares about animalscapes and environment shots.

    A couple of pelican shots with the 200-500mm.

    • m ahmed

      Its a focal length to focal length comparison. I have got sharper shots with the 500 f4 but with the 200-500 I seem to be getting more expressive images. I am able to get to the right place and in the right position far more quickly.

      Your pelican shots are cool!

      • vousplaisentezouquoi

        A 300mm f/4E PF ED VR + TC17 is very lighter (1 kg less) and has a so much better quality than the 200-500.

        • Piooof

          But if you want to include a bit of the animal’s environment in your shot, then you’re happy to have a 200 mm.
          Comparing zoom and prime IQ is interesting only as it allows you to measure how much IQ you trade for flexibility/versatility.

          • vousplaisentezouquoi

            I can always take a 105 mm that will become a 180 with the TC 47. So, occasionally I can do some good macros too 🙂

    • outkasted

      Dude these images are great. Maybe you can post a review too!!

  • Useful review

  • whisky

    surprisingly “good enough”. thanks for sharing.

  • LangerHans

    Jeez, please don’t discount this nice piece of kit too much or the rapefugees we’re importing by the truckload could afford one and scope out their next victim with one.

    • Moo

      yeh please make it so only dumbfuk nazis like you can afford it….

  • yepits me

    Mohammed thanks for putting up your leans review greatly appreciated by me.

  • nicolaie

    Great pictures, dude!

  • Moo

    the tamron 150-600mm is better than the nikon.
    better optically and better warranty… and it costs less.
    looking at reviews the nikon has ugly fringing at 500mm and is not sharper than the tamron at 500mm.

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