Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E zoom vs. the 500mm f/4E prime lens comparison

Nikon-200-500mm-f5.6E-zoom-vs.-500mm-f4E-prime-lens-comparison
Andy Nguyen (website | flickr | facebook) compares the $1,396.95 Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E zoom lens to the $10,296.95 Nikkor 500mm f/4E prime lens:

I know from comments on various photography forums that there’s a lot of people wanting to know if the new Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 can live up to the hype, and how it measures up to the “big brother” prime versions.

We all know that the 200-500mm zoom lens is just a fraction of the price of the prime (about 20%), and weighs about half of it. But what many don’t know is what kind of IQ (image quality) does it produce, and how it will perform at various apertures, compared to the 500mm f/4 – the previously “go-to” lens for many wildlife photographers.

Since I have both lenses in my closet, I thought I would make a direct comparison. My method is as follows. I use the same body for all shots in this test – Nikon D4S – and I shoot in Manual mode, keeping all settings constant between the two lenses. I chose a ‘typical’ distance (similar to an average distance to your subject when you shoot birds), which is around 100 ft. After shooting one lens at various settings, I switch lens and shoot it using those exact same settings again.

The photos were shot in RAW, then using View NX to batch-convert them into JPEG, straight, with NO slider adjustments at all. All EXIF data are preserved for anyone wanting to peek. They have been uploaded at full resolution (Medium size) so you can view them at Full screen to see all details.

The shots have been grouped in sets, so you can easily draw direct comparison between them. Here we go:

A wide shot to show you the first test "subject". Distance to the KFC sign = 264 ft. OK, it was much much bigger than a bird.

Test_4363
The first set was taken at f/5.6 on both lenses. The zoom was wide open (left), and the prime was 1-stop down (right).

Shot at f/5.6:

Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 zoom lens at f/5.6 wide open

Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 zoom lens at f/5.6 wide open

Nikon 500mm f/4 prime lens at f/5.6 1 stop down

Nikon 500mm f/4 prime lens at f/5.6 1 stop down

Shot at f/8:

Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 zoom lens at f/8 1 stop down

Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 zoom lens at f/8 1 stop down

Nikon 500mm f/4 prime lens at f/8 2 stop down

Nikon 500mm f/4 prime lens at f/8 2 stop down

Shot at f/11:

Nikon 200-500 f/5.6 zoom lens at f/11 2 stop down

Nikon 200-500 f/5.6 zoom lens at f/11 2 stop down

Nikon 500mm f/4 prime lens at f/11 3 stop down

Nikon 500mm f/4 prime lens at f/11 3 stop down

Shot at f/16:

Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 zoom lens at f/16 3 stop down

Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 zoom lens at f/16 3 stop down

Nikon 500mm f/4 prime lens at f/16 4 stop down

Nikon 500mm f/4 prime lens at f/16 4 stop down

VR test, all at shutter speed 1/25 hand held with VR off:

Nikon 200-500mm f:5.6 zoom lens 1:25 handheld VR off

Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 zoom lens 1/25 handheld VR off

Nikon 500m f/4 prime lens at 1/25 handheld no VR

Nikon 500m f/4 prime lens at 1/25 handheld no VR

Another one with the same setup:

Nikon 500m f/4 prime lens at 1/25 handheld no VR

Nikon 500m f/4 prime lens at 1/25 handheld no VR

VR test, shutter speed 1/25 hand held with VR on:

Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 zoom lens at 1/25 handheld VR on

Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 zoom lens at 1/25 handheld VR on

Second set of tests, again, a wide shot to show at 200mm. A much wider shot, taken with my cell phone, showing you the whole surrounding:

Nikon 200-500mm f:5.6E zoom vs. 500mm f:4E prime lens comparison at 200mm

Overview of testing location Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 lens at 200mm

Overview of testing location Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 lens at 200mm

Shot at f/5.6:

Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 lens at 500mm f/5.6 wide open

Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 lens at 500mm f/5.6 wide open

Nikon 500mm f/4 prime lens at f/5.6 1 stop down

Nikon 500mm f/4 prime lens at f/5.6 1 stop down

Shot at f/8:

Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 lens at 500mm f/8 1 stop down

Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 lens at 500mm f/8 1 stop down

Nikon 500mm f/4 prime lens at f/8 2 stop down

Nikon 500mm f/4 prime lens at f/8 2 stop down

Shot at f/11:

Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 lens at 500mm f/11 2 stop down

Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 lens at 500mm f/11 2 stop down

Nikon 500mm f/4 prime lens at f/11 3 stop down

Nikon 500mm f/4 prime lens at f/11 3 stop down

Shot at f/16:

Nikon 500mm f/4 prime lens at f/16 4 stop down

Nikon 500mm f/4 prime lens at f/16 4 stop down

Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 at 500mm f/16 3 stop down

Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 at 500mm f/16 3 stop down

Conclusion:

I literally “pexel peeped” and viewed each photo at 400% magnification, the results I found might be surprising to many since they’re the opposite of what you might expect. First of all, the light(er) weight zoom seems to be SHARPER than the prime, at all apertures that I tested (f/5.6, f/8, f/11, f/16). Secondly, even with the VR turned ON with the 200-500mm, it looks like it’s “softer” than the prime which Doesn’t have any VR in the first place! Odd, eh?
What I also noticed though, is that consistently the 200-500mm’s white areas look more like light gray, while its black areas look truer to real black, than the prime, even though all exposure settings are the same for both.

The verdict:

If you’re a budding wildlife photographer who’s looking to pick up your first super-tele photo lens, the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 is your best choice considering all. First, the price is way more affordable for the “average Joe photographer”. Second, its lighter weight is makes handholding more possible, and after a long day of shooting (or hiking), your back will Thank You! Not to mention, its IQ is not too far behind the 500mm f/4, surprisingly, given that you’re shooting in well-lit situations (same as when I performed the test). The autofocus, which I didn’t cover in this article, is … adequate for moderate action (such as big birds flying, and objects moving in a predictable path), but anything faster (such as race cars zooming by at close distance, or small birds flying in an unpredictable pattern) might make it “sweat” to keep up. Furthermore, if you add a teleconverter (TC-14EI I), you can almost forget about shooting BIF, unless you are a very SKILLED photographer. But then, you get what you paid for. J It’s not so bad. I still think it’s worth every penny.

Now, if you’re a pro, or can afford top-of-the-line stuff, there’s no question the prime is cream of the crop. I’ve seen so many photographers using the 500mm f/4 with tripod and a gimbal head (usually Wimberley), and that’s all fine. Some use the handheld method, but I guess you must be physically able. Its AF acquisition speed is second to none. IQ here matters the most if/when you enlarge your photo (again, I said if you’re a PRO). You can’t go wrong if lugging around 9 lbs. and $8500 is a peace-a-cake to you.
Lucky me, I don’t have to make a choice.

If you have an interesting idea for a guest postyou can contact me here.

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  • Ken Elliott

    I didn’t expect this result. I thought it would be like racing a Prius against a Sport Bike. I assume you use the autofocus system. Might the 500/4 be slightly out of calibration? What is your tripod setup?

    • Hi Ken,

      The 500/4 was calibrated properly, as I shoot birds with it regularly. I use AF and handhold for all my shots. The 200-500mm sure has its limits (every lens does, even the $18K ones), but it’s up to us to know what those limits are and not go beyond that.

      • Ken Elliott

        Ah, so the test is really about comparing the lenses for hand-held shooting. Now it all makes sense. I could see the lighter weight compensating for lower quality optics. Thanks for a very interesting and useful test.

        • Yes, weight is very much a factor here, as well as the cost, since many people just cannot afford the primes.

          • +1 on the cost factor – can’t tell you how many questions I’ve fielded for “is the 200-500 a good lens”? 😛 Funny thing is I have the prime 😛

            • I had the same questions before I got the 200-500 in hand. But let me tell you… as good as the primes are, they lack the ability to “zoom out”. For example, when you’re shooting a bird at a very close distance, and your subject starts walking towards the camera.. you have two options, either take closeup shots and “suffer” cutting off wings, heads, feet, tails… or you can zoom out and get a full-frame shot. Same goes for aviation photography (which I also shoot with a passion). When an aircraft approaches from a distance, you’ll need the full focal length of the lens, in this instance, a prime will serve you much better. But when the aircraft flies past you, you’re at the shortest distance between you and the plane, so you end up cutting off parts of the aircraft. That’s where a zoom lens comes in handy.

              So, really it depends on the situation. Sometimes I take out my 800mm f5.6 (yes the $18K version), sometimes I use smaller primes, and sometimes I go for the 200-500mm. And then there’s the weight factor for when you’re out in the field all day, especially in tropical forests, or in the sub-arctic north. 🙂

            • Mmm I know the zoom out issue – I have the 200-400 as well 😉 🙂 Speaking of which I am just on your profile page now looking at a very sweet pic of a B1-B Lancer 😉

            • Thanks! That very image was taken with this lens (200-500mm). In fact, I will write another, more in-depth, test report on this lens soon.

          • Taka

            You just need to give up a brand new car to get a prime. It’s a matter of priority, IMHO.

      • JXVo

        I am a physically active guy and take part in several sports on a weekly basis. With this I do not rate my 500 f4VR as a practically handholdable lens.

        Although I have had a few successes handholding it, the keeper rate is far higher on a gimbal, beanbag or other support. So I can imagine that in a test based on handheld shooting that the 500 f4VR might suffer a bit. Used with decent support though, no zoom comes close. Same goes for poor light when many birds and other wildlife are active early or late in the day. This is when the money you paid for an extra stop comes into play. You can shoot earlier or later than others, with faster AF and faster SS…….oh, and the results almost always have more detail too.

    • I although had the chance to test the 200-500 and although the Tamron and Sigma Sport 150-600. None of them were as sharp as the 500 G neither the 500 FL. Even with the TC-14E II both primes were sharper already wide open.
      The AF speed is the next big thing, were the primes are much faster. In low light situations you will notice the difference even more.
      But of corse all of these new telezoom lenses are really good and great tools to capture wonderful images!

  • Wow, that’s interesting. It would be great if you can cover AF too. Now you pay around 7 times for one more stop of light and faster AF. Unfortunately both of them are important for action shooters. Good thing is the zoom is so cheap. So it’s OK to have as a portable alternative.

    • Hey I’m a bird photographer also.
      I have now had the 200-500 for over a month to learn about all of its strengths and weaknesses, in actual shooting conditions in the field (chasing birds in flight, etc.). I intend to write a more thorough report soon. Hopefully it will get published here.

      • Thanks Andy. I have 80-400mm and didn’t get 200-500 just because of the AF comments I’ve been hearing bout it. I may try the lens some time. Your comments will be really appreciated.

  • animalsbybarry

    I am seriously considering purchasing
    Nikon 200-400 f4 ii
    Plus tc-20e-iii
    Plus D810

    I am interested in what everyone thinks about this combination ?

    • I have the 200-400 and use it with a TC-14E II, you can forget using it with a 20E III. I’ve tried and it doesn’t like it very much. AF is slow and unpredictable

      • animalsbybarry

        How is the tc-14e-iii
        And other than AF performance how is optical quality with the 2x ?

    • Spy Black

      My $.02, skip the TC and crop.

      • Jeff Hunter

        Yes! If resolution is important never use a TC.

        • Spy Black

          …and if you want to keep your light levels up…

          • Hardcore_Fanboy

            …so basically you are telling him capture that subject, take it in the studio, take a prime lens – like 85mm (cuz we are telephono here) stop it down 2-3 stops, put on tripod, set up strobes, take remote, lift the mirror… and then you will get some decent resolution of that combo… good advice

            • Spy Black

              Not sure where you’re getting that from my comment.

      • Scott M.

        Agreed. Especially with a D800/10

      • I’ve wasted a lot of money on TCs in the past but the TC14E III on the AFS 80-400 and D7200 actually works pretty well. This is a first in my case.

    • Thom Hogan

      I’d say stop, don’t do it.

      First, the fact that you’re trying to get to 800mm effective means that you’re not close to your subject. The 200-400mm is just not a good lens at distance. Up close (<50m) it's terrific, but Nikon has always tended to have a problem with the exotics as you get towards infinity, and the 200-400mm is, by far, the worse culprit.

      Then you're going to lower contrast (more air/glass surfaces), add astigmatisms (TC design), and add mount tolerances that can cancel or multiply any issues that already exist.

      To get to nearly the same thing, but with fewer pixels, just put the 200-500mm on the D810 and use DX crop. In my experience, that's going to be a better result (and the 200-500mm is probably the best of the long Nikkors in terms of near infinity performance).

      But the real answer to your question is an 800mm f/5.6, frankly.

      • Rolf

        Very helpful info thanks. I’m looking for similar setup as Barry. What about the sigma 150-600mm + tc14 on Nikon d810? Going to Rwanda and Tanzania at the end of this year and like to get closer to the animals. Last trip to Botswana couple years ago I used Sony a77 and 75-400mm and wished that I could get a little closer for a few shots.

        • Thom Hogan

          IMHO you’re going the wrong way. If pixel density is the goal–which it is–then all else equal the D7200/D500 is a better choice than the D810 with a TC. Not because the density is up, but the integrity of the captured density is up.

          In essence, you are sticking a 1.4x on instead of going to DX crop in your example to retain pixel density. But you’re probably well up into diffraction range, plus you’re lowering contrast with more glass/air surfaces, plus you’re adding astigmatisms, plus you’re adding potential tolerance issues.

          What happens is your edge acuity tends to go all to hell. Especially true if you have to go to high ISO values.

          Personally, I’d rather have the best DX camera with the best lens with no TC in this case, as opposed to the D810 with the same lens and a TC. The loss of light with DX and TC basically balance each other out. So it really is about integrity of the data.

          • Thom Hogan

            I should point out a few other things, too.

            One reason why you hear differing opinions when we get to these discussions is that–outside the Canon and Nikkor exotic primes–there’s a lot of sample variation that enters into the picture. I’ve found very little sample variation in the Canon/Nikon 200/300/400/500/600/800 primes. But then again, at the prices you’re paying, you shouldn’t. These are hand assembled, and hand inspected so many times and in so many ways, the sample variations just aren’t meaningful.

            As we go down in lens cost to the US$1000-2000 range, I’m seeing lots of sample variation. Not as much in the Nikkor 200-500mm as some of the others, but it’s there. Then there’s the TCs. I absolutely see sample variation there, often just in the mount tolerances, which will impact focal plane position. But there are other sample variations that don’t get talked about. You’re using a TC that isn’t optimized to a particular lens optical design most of the time (the 800mm f/5.6 and its TC, plus the Canon 200-400mm f/4 and its built-in TC are exceptions). Do you REALLY expect that a generalized design is going to work the same with a 70-200mm as it does with a 200-500mm as it does with a 500mm prime? No, it won’t. These lenses are presenting slightly different optical paths to the TC, you should expect differences.

            So when Writer A says “great combo” and Writer B says “not so great combo” they both very well may be right.

            Moreover, this is an expensive proposition to test. You can’t rent the gear and decide on a verdict, not at the less-than-exotic-prime level. The sample variation in the zoom you rent and the TC you rent could be different than what you’ll end up buying.

            Finally, there’s this: you may not see the problems today, but as you get better both in shot discipline and in examining images post mortem, you’ll start seeing things that were “good enough” for you previously, but now aren’t.

            • Rolf

              Thank you for your helpful response! What you said makes sense and I appreciate opinions from someone with experiences. I will rethink my camera and lens choices.

            • Spy Black

              “You can’t rent the gear and decide on a verdict…”

              The exception to that is to rent from an outfit like lensrentals, and if you like the combo, you have the option to buy that specific gear from them.

            • Thom Hogan

              I almost wrote that, but it’s a somewhat expensive way to get satisfaction. It shouldn’t have to be that difficult or expensive.

            • Spy Black

              Well, in the case of lensrentals.com, it would’ve been slightly less than full new price which, while high for a used piece of gear, gives you gear which has been checked out and works as one would expect it to. So essentially your paying “extra” to get the gear you should be getting in the first place. 🙂

              However it does avoid the Easter Egg hunt for proper functioning gear, which becomes more attractive when you are mixing multiple components, like some here want to do with lenses and TCs. Ultimately of course this isn’t something we should have to be doing, but this is the unfortunate state of things.

            • Adam Fo

              I used to have a Nikkor 300mm f/2.0 EDIF which had it’s own matched converter the TC-14C. Worked very well.

            • Thom Hogan

              Matched converters should be the way camera companies do this, and those should be assembled/tested with the lens they go with. Instead, they’ve all now mostly succumbed to general purpose converters, and that means that we as users have to put up with “not quite” perfectly matched most of the time, and sometimes “badly matched.”

        • animalsbybarry

          I am interested in Thoms response to that same question

      • animalsbybarry

        I do have Sigma 800mm f5.5 and both teleconverters in Nikon mount
        It is huge, not really handhold able or easily carried no oss and need to use manual focus with focus peaking on a7rii
        I do not yet have a Nikon body to put it on but it will …according to Sigma tech rep… only autofocus without tc because it is an older version and will only AF to f5.6 .
        It is not ideal, but then I paid a lot less than the $18,000 the ideal lens would have cost me

        I also have the Tamron 150-600 but it is just not sharp enough for the a7rii
        If I get close it is ok but when I need to use every crop the pixels are not crisp

        I was considering the Sigma sport 150-600 with 1.4 x and am wondering how they would compare

        Interestingly I have been asking around and am getting widely differing opinions on the lens… I have the opportunity to get one at a very good price
        The close focus would make this very versatile…especially for zoos where I am constantly moving from indoor to outdoor exhibits

      • animalsbybarry

        Thom
        I notice you say terrific at <50m
        Even at 800mm further than that would result in too small a subject to be useful
        So my primary goal is always too get as close as possible and fill the frame with the animal
        Does that change the equation?

        • Thom Hogan

          Maybe, but not with TC 2x. Just too much compromise there, even though it was clearly better with the latest model than previous (but see what I write about sample variation elsewhere). Focus tracking is compromised with TC 2x, and you’ll be restricted to focus sensors that you can use at f/8.

          • animalsbybarry

            It is the latest lens model and the latest tc plus d810 which is rated to AF at f8
            Perhaps newest 1.4x would be good?

            • Thom Hogan

              Ratings are easy to write in marketing documentation ;~).

              Reality is a bitch, though, as f/8 simply isn’t as reliable for focus as f/4 on a D810, especially in low light. And then there’s the footnotes marketing doesn’t want you to see (page 423 of Nikon US manual for D810): you’re down to 11 autofocus sensors the TC20E on an f/4 lens.

      • 24×36

        Seems to me the real answer is more like the Sigma “Sigmonster” 300-800 f5.6. Provides the reach, the zoom flexibility, and lacks the near infinity performance issues, all for half the cost of the 800 f5.6 Nikkor. 😉

  • Drwillix Sg Alliance

    I am serious hobbyist but have only shot with primes. Call me silly and my concerns are probably the last on anyone’s mind. Is the pump action zoom going to be a magnet for dust.

    Technically, it’s certainly priced, performs and versatile enough for any non – pro without a doubt.

    • So is the 24-70 so far so good with that and I’ve used it at dustier places for far longer then the 200-500 has been out.

      Hell even my filtered 105 f/2 DC has dust in it somehow. That has a 72mm front filter attached since the dawn of time and a rear glass ‘protective’ element. So dust gets in everything.

      • silmasan

        Same here–microscopic dust particles in my DC.

        In dpreview iirc, someone reported success vacuuming dust particles from the rear of a lens while moving the zoom mechanism back and forth. I might try it with a cheap lens first.

        As for the DC, the focusing movement alone is probably enough to pull in dust (it is rear focusing and has no weather gasket).

  • yrsued

    Great Review, thanks!!

    If it wasn’t that I already have the first Gen 200-400, I would jump on this lens!!

    VR?? My VR is called a Tripod or a Monopod, I get Dizzy with VR on, the other day I was shooting a Spring Training MLB Game from the Media Pit and halfway through the first inning I was about to puke, then I noticed that my VR was on… Of course, I was using a Monopod, but I’ve never used VR since I first used this lens almost ten years ago.

    I might just have to call NPS and borrow one, just to play with it.

  • L ee

    When you shoot these still subjects testing with D810, D800 or D800e, you will see the difference.
    admittedly, d4s was an excellent pro camera whereas it doesn’t line-up with those high resolution sensors.

    with its(4ds) pixal you can hardly expect to find significant difference.

    • Thanks,

      That may be true. But how many people practically blow up their photos to 400% (or even 100%) magnification, unless you’re a working pro? I wrote this article with an “average Joe photographer” in mind. Actually, that’s where the affordable price matters most.

      Cheers,
      Andy

  • RMJ

    Point being : if you shoot reasonable priced glass, you won’t get any behind “pros”. (gear wise)

  • point

    I wonder where the Tamron 150-600 zoom fits in here? Cheaper but variable aperture. The images I have seen with it are incredible.

    • I think the Tamron is less sharp at the longer focal lengths (300+). I’ve been told by friends that the Sigma Sport is the sharpest of the lot but I cannot directly compare myself.

    • I’ve shot with both the Tamron and Sigma 150-600 (contemporary). Like coloretric said, sharpness on the Tamron starts to go away when you approach the long end. However, the Sigma doesn’t have that problem. I often shot at 600mm and it was still acceptably sharp. Now I’ve sold both of them since I got the Nikon.

      I have not shot with the Sigma (sport) but considering the performance I got out of the ‘C’ version, there’s no need to carry two extra pounds, and pay almost double the price; unless you really need that weather sealing.

    • Spy Black

      There’s a review of the 200-500 over at Photography Life that compares it to the Sigma and Tamron lenses.

  • Mr_Miyagi

    Sorry, but I am thoroughly confused by what you wrote in the first paragraph of your Conclusion section. In the second sentence you wrote that the 200-500mm lens is sharper than the prime lens at all apertures. In the third sentence, which follows, you say just the opposite, that the prime lens was the sharper one. Those appear to be contradictory statements. Can you please clarify for me what you meant there?

    • Mr_Miyagi,

      Thanks for asking. I will try to answer as clear as possible.

      The keyword in the second sentence is “seems”. At first glance, it looks like the zoom is sharper, but when you put two images side-by-side and blow them up real big, you will see that images taken with the zoom are darker and not as clear (probably due to losing one stop of light and having lower quality of optics). This result is also true for the VR test. When I said “soft”, I meant what I just said in the above sentence (darker and not as clear). So the bottom line is, there’s no way you can match a $1400 lens with a $10000 lens. But consider the big difference in price, the performance levels are a lot closer.

      I hope that helped. Sorry about the confusion.

      Andy

      • I think the T stop for both lenses are about 1 EV different. The prime is always brighter.

        Another thing I note is that the prime has smoother bokeh at all matching apertures. Perhaps with an increase in contrast (a cheap way to get ‘sharpness’) that bokeh suffered in the zoom… This is probably going into complex optical theory but I would say at the expense of the zoom’s f/5.6 aperture that contrast was increased and therefore smooth bokeh decreased. That will confuse many. I apologise in advance haha

      • Mr_Miyagi

        Thanks very much for the follow-up. I understand now.

    • PabloNY

      I’m with you on this one, even after i read it a second time…

  • Chuanxiao Li

    useless test, every lens is almost same at mid-day. maybe Sigma is sharper than nikon. test them at lower light

    • You have a legitimate point, in theory. Be sure to check out my next blog entry, found on my website, in which I will write up a much more comprehensive practical field test, including in extreme low light (AFTER sun down, and BEFORE sunrise). 🙂

  • Rod Foster

    I don’t shoot many bird photos at 100ft with a 500mm lens, normal working distance depending on bird size is between 15 to 40ft. Be interesting to see the comparison done at these real working distances where feather detail and accurate reproduction of colours is paramount.

    • Sorry, I’m just so used to shooting really wild birds, which are very skittish and will not stay within a 100 ft of humans. I’m guessing you’re shooting birds at a feeder, or you shoot from a blind, or you must have incredibly good stalking skills. 🙂

      To be honest, just a couple of days ago (long after this test was written), I shot a duck family at a local park, and the mom took her babies foraging in the pond not far from where I was. I guess distance was approx. 25-30 ft. Here’s a shot at aperture f5.6 (wide open)

      • Rod Foster

        Andy, much of the stuff I do is from a blind of some sort, I shoot from the car window quite a lot, (makes a good mobile blind). Here’ a couple of shots, the Redstart is taken from a blind, the Diver (Loon) is taken from the car window lens on a beanbag. Both shots on a Tamron 200-500. If the Nikon 200-500 is better then I’m definitely interested.

  • Wesley

    God damn it! Looks like I’m going to KFC tonight…mmmm
    Well played Andy Nguyen.

    • LOL. I couldn’t find any other big sign nearby for the test. haha Thanks Wesley.

      • silmasan

        Luckily I already have a bowl of KFC right now, what a coincidence. 🙂

        Anyway, you have some very picturesque compositions there! I’m looking at your Hummingbird collections right now.

        (And I just realized the irony of me eating a hot crispy wing while admiring these little creatures)

  • Jeff Hunter

    Check out Andy’s website. Top notch bird photography!

    • Thanks so much Jeff. I will lead a workshop to Costa Rica in a few weeks. Check out the galleries for any new updates. 🙂

  • koenshaku

    This guy should have a tripod, but why inner portion of the kfc sign a different color red? I can see the F4 lens allows for light despite down stopping it and the better bokeh, but the F/5.8 is no slouch either.

    • Sunlight changes colors when slightly covered by thin clouds. 🙂

      • koenshaku

        Yeah, that is quite dramatic though. I didn’t know it would changed that much.

        • Ohh.. now I see what you mean. It looks like ALL images taken with the 200-500mm have a more prominant darker “frame”. For reasons unknown to me. The camera was the same, no settings were changed. I only changed lenses for the test. I can only guess that the 200-500mm has a different contrast calibration than the prime (and lower IQ), and the “darker” part is due to it losing one stop of light.

          • Gael C.

            could it be some kind of polarization filtering ?

  • j45

    The big question for me is a) how much better is the Sigma Sport b) how is the Sigma Sport with a TC I know its heavier and somewhat more expensive than the 200-500 Nikon but if its noticeably better……..

    • whisky

      photographylife.com did an Imatest comparison of the 200-400mm, the nikon 80-400mm G, and both Sigma’s.

      the tests indicated the Sport was sharpest of the bunch — but also the heaviest.

      • 24×36

        Heh the phrase “no free lunch” comes to mind.

  • Jaroslav Charvát

    It seems to me that the prime is actually like a third brighter. The sky, the difference in red in KFC sign getting lost in overexposure… all pictures by the prime seem brighter and there can be slight light changes, but this much consistently?

    My Sigma A 50/1,4 does the same compared to Nikkor zooms. And Sigma A 18-35/1,8 as well in the 24~28-ish region.

    • Please read my second reply to koenshaku’s comment.

  • MSC

    No matter which lens you use the chicken sucks and the garbage stinks.

  • Bob Bridges

    It’s a great shame that something as vital as focus tracking
    speed is not quantifiable and remains a purely subjective judgment. Obviously it must be much easier to move a smaller and cheaper f/5.6 glass element about than a much larger and more expensive f/4 one. This information is vital for sports and wildlife photography but direct comparisons remain one of the great unknowns.

    • It really comes down to how well you know your equipment in actual use, in the field, and it also depends on your style of shooting, and the subject you’re shooting. There is simply no “one best lens” for everything. We can only try to estimate which lens will get a higher percentage of the job done, and bring it, accordingly.

  • aria

    It seems that the light tranmission in the 200-500 lens is 1/3 of a stop less. I wonder what happens if exposure compensation were used.

    • No, the camera settings for both lenses were the same. The photos were taken within minutes apart, so lighting couldn’t have changed much.

      • TheInconvenientRuth

        I think what Aria means (I’m thinking the same thing) is that the photos taken with the 200-500 seem to be about 1/3 stop darker than the 500 prime photos, even though they are set at the same manual exposure. Look at the sky. This could make contrast appear differently. What if the test was redone with 1/3 stop exp. comp. for one of these lanses to even them out. How would that change the perceived sharpness/contrast?

        • I see what you mean. I suppose that’s a good idea, although it won’t be possible. I’ve sold the 500mm prime. I guess that tells which lens I chose? (However, I still have other primes: 600/4, 800/5.6, 400/2.8, 300/2.8) There’s a certain niche that the 200-500mm fills for me. Doesn’t mean it’s for everyone.

        • Thom Hogan

          Correct. The t/stop of the 500mm f/4 is closer to 4 than the t/stop of the 200-500mm f/5.6 is to 5.6.

          But, in theory, the meter should catch that. So you have to ask why the difference? First thing that comes to my mind is whether we’re comparing a lens with modern coatings with one with older coatings. Second thing that comes to mind is that the aperture activation arm on the 500mm or the D4 isn’t quite right. I suppose that it could be that the electronic aperture activation on the 200-500mm is off, but that seems far less likely.

          • TheInconvenientRuth

            Thom, I have noticed this on some of my lenses (regardless of brand), to the point where these lenses have a little sticker on the lens cap that say something like +1/3 or -1/2. This is so that in situations where I work with a fixed manual exposure (like Studio flash work) and change lenses, I get a batch of consistent exposures, making post faster and easier. Do you think this may have to do with the way Aperture stops are rounded off in the display? Having had a look at my bag (I don’t have all lenses with me) it seems that the ones with ‘odd’ stops seem to have it. According to my notes, the 50/1.4G at 8.0 equals the 50/1.8G at f/8 +1/3. The AF-S 85/1.4G at 2.8 is the 85mm/1.8G at 2.5. the lenses that start at “full stops” seem to be all the same, but when a lens starts on a half or third stop, it doesn’t qite match the actual stop as displayed.

            • Thom Hogan

              Since Nikon uses different aperture activation arm mechanisms in the low cost cameras than the pro cameras, I’d even guess that you might see a difference between cameras.

              But yes, it probably has to do both with the precision of the arm position and the interpretation of them (rounding as you call it), coupled with the fact that apertures on lenses (like focal lengths) are all rounded to the nearest number, too.

              One of the things that’s appeared in the digital age is just how inaccurate the analog age was, and in almost every way we measured it. The closer you look, the more you’re going to find these little imprecisions.

              A friend just recently forwarded me some information about a digital sensor that’s got an error in the underlying data being interpreted, which means that many of its ISO values are producing ever so slightly wrong numbers in the data values. Not particularly consequential to virtually all shooters, but the thing is that if you’re trying to collect optimal data and then process it optimally, as Ansel Adams tried to do, even the smallest errors have this tendency to keep getting bigger downstream as various assumptions and roundings take place.

            • PhilK

              I think in recent decades the almost universal shift to and dependency upon TTL light-metering has to a great extent disconnected many photographers from these sorts of equipment details.

              Most of the cameras that Adams worked with during his career had no meter, much less a TTL meter, so he pretty much had no choice but to document and compensate for things like lens transmission, optical coating efficiency, light-meter non-linearities, etc etc… if he wanted to produce results to the degree of accuracy and repeatability he desired.

              The digital photography era has made it all that much worse, and I find myself getting lazier about the process too, since there is not quite the same sort of “you have one chance to get it right” scenario as when you are shooting sheet film in the fading twilight in New Mexico and the sun goes behind the clouds as you try to slide in a 2nd sheet-film holder to make a “backup” shot. 😉

          • TheInconvenientRuth

            Yes, the meter should catch that, but if you set the exposure manually by the first lens and then shoot the other lens without compensating, it happens. see my long-winded post below..

          • 24×36

            Well, the author did say he used “same settings,” so I don’t think metering differences were taken into account. I too suspect a T-stop difference being the difference, but TIR makes a good point – adjusting the image brightness of the images so that they match may well make up for any perceived IQ deficit as described (the “darker and less clear” comments).

      • aria

        I know that the settings must have been the same, but not all f5.6lenses give you the same amount of light transmission. If you check the DXO lens review, they give the actual light transmission through each lenses. Most f1.4 lenses give around T1.6 or more, while F2.8 lenses gives T3.2 or so. The 500 f4 lens gives images appeared to be brighter then the 200-500 lens. That is what I am saying. I actually got a chance to use the 200-500 lens yesterday and I was surprised by its sharpness and richness of color.

  • John Sibley

    Hi,
    The contrast of the 500 prime seems lower than the 200-500 zoom here.
    Did
    you use the lens hood in this test with the 500 prime? If I leave the
    lens hood off on my 600 f4 I get this low contrast type of effect.

    • Yes, both lenses had the hood mounted on. Either way, it won’t matter, since I was shooting with the sun behind my back, so no direct light can shine into the lens.I think the prime seems to have lower contrast is because it’s a brighter lens, better IQ, better glass. If you notice in the white areas, they’re whiter on the prime than on the zoom.

      • Thom Hogan

        Reflected light can cause veiling flare.

        A faster aperture wouldn’t be the cause of lower contrast. Moreover, I’m not sure it’s capture contrast that’s the issue here. It looks more to me like exposure differential.

        • Eric Calabros

          or difference in glass transmission?

  • Captain Insane-O

    Wow, the contrast on the prime of the kfc sign sucks. You can’t even tell there is two different shades of red. But the blue can looks better on the prime.

    Af must be a huge difference. One gets twice the light to focus on.

    To me the question is the 200-500E or sigma 150-600C

    • I think they’re neck and neck. But the real advantage of the Nikon is the better performance when a TC is attached!! No question!

      So you get 600mm @ f6.3 vs. 750mm @f8 with much better clarity and sharpness. If you put a Sigma 1.4x on, you get 840mm, but the AF is just …… hunting.

      • Captain Insane-O

        That’s a great point. I don’t plan on needing more that 500mm. But expandability is always a plus. I mainly want one to shoot out door sporting events that my family participates in.

        I wonder if a 2x tc and my 70-200 f2.8 would be alright in all honesty. But that will take away the pleasure of a new lens :). Either way, cropping down and using my d5500 isn’t something a like to do. It’s buffer and af make things a pain.

  • What strikes me the most, is that with the same depth of field, the prime seems to offer a blurrier background ! Quite an important difference in my opinion.

    • And you’re paying an extra $8,500 for it. 🙂 j/k

      Seriously, if that’s important to people then the 200-500 is out of the question.

      • I totally agree. I’m not a wildlife photographer, but as a pleased viewer of this kind of work, detached subjets thanks to a blurrier background are nicer for me.
        Anyway, it’s interesting, such a difference at the same aperture….this is the proof that DoF can’t be compared only by numbers. Experiment on the field is always the way to go.

        • Please take a look at my website to see some of my wildlife work. The photos with blurred background were shot in different settings, with different lenses, and different apertures, but they all have the same OoF background. It goes to show that there are many factors involved other than just lens to lens comparison. And like you said, it’s the fieldcraft that matters more.

          • Federico Gallinari

            I don’t agree, if you need little lens and/or you have not enough money, the chip zoom (that or other ones) is the only choice.
            But…the difference is not only some shot (where we can’t see postproduction….and I don’t believe in same resolve power) that shows similar contrast on subject.
            The supertele gives options to use with TC, have more fast and stable AF, you have 1 stop more to shot in difficult situation, and …as all can see on shots, the DOF is different and gives more 3d effect without postproduction and background blurring (typical in many amateur wildlife photos).
            Is that enough for all that money? no one can tell it because if you say that I can tell you that with some superzoom compact camera you can shot the same spending a fraction…
            No sense comparing, it’s just a test for curious people or people that want to feel better about them chip lens.

            It’s like to compare an Audi Allroad with an Audi A1, and say: I use to go from my house to my office…it’s better the A1…
            Obviously, but thats not the true..is one true.

            • Patrick O’Connor

              I don’t think Andy was saying they’re equal. If he thought that, he wouldn’t own his other Super-teles. But, and this is absolutely true, a lot of the differences between these two lenses, and similar comparisons, can be negated with the photographers field skills. Knowing where the birds will be and placing yourself at the optimal location, in advance, will often make more difference than that of those two lenses.
              Other than that, your points are valid.

          • Background blur is a result between lens F-stop, focal lenght, distance between the camera and the subject, distance between the subject and the background.All these things at the same time.So yeah, a 200mm f8 can have the same bokeh as 600mm f4 in certain situations.Its never the lens alone.

            • SpecialMan

              I’ve gotten great blurred background and nice bokeh with my iPhone6; admittedly, the subject was less than 6 inches from my lens, but still, it all goes to show that if you put your faith in physics, you can do amazing things.

            • Exactly.

          • You have some pretty stunning pictures 🙂

    • Thom Hogan

      I sense a slight back focus on the 200-500mm in these examples. But yes, the focus-to-defocused transition on the 200-500mm is different than the primes. Moreover, OP says this was a 500mm without VR, right? Those old lens designs are a bit different in how they handle the light, particular at the optical center. As I’ve been trying to tell people for some time, the way Nikon does VR absolutely has an impact on bokeh, even when off, but especially when on.

      • Eric Calabros

        Why even when off? The element isn’t perfectly still?

        • Thom Hogan

          That’s a tricky one. Nikon uses a floating VR element in their designs (that’s what they sued Sigma over). But they place that element essentially as close to optical center as possible. As far as I know, turning VR off does not automatically guarantee that the element recenters perfectly. Only a shutter release triggers a recentering that I can see, but if VR is off, it does not appear to be retriggered.

          I could be wrong on the reason why there’s an impact, but having looked at many of the design changeovers from non-VR to VR, the designs that stayed pretty much the same suffered from the addition of VR elements in the optical path.

  • brian valente

    i would love for the 200-500mm to be a reasonable alternative, but for wildlife i always shoot 600mm f4 wide open, and even then my shutter and iso is way up. the extra stop is critical to me for AF and noise. 200-500 seems like a great entry level into super teles where there wasn’t really one before (and i include the sigma in there too. tamron i’ve never had any luck on)

  • Thom Hogan

    Well, okay. Basically, the longer focal length you zoom to, the closer the 200-500mm is to the prime.

    200mm? The 200mm f/2 is probably the best lens we’ve ever had at 200mm, so, no, the 200-500mm doesn’t equal it.
    300mm? Nope, still doesn’t match the 300mm f/2.8.
    400mm? No, not close. The 400mm f/2.8 is right up there with the best Nikon’s done.
    500mm? Yes, getting close. That’s partly because the 500mm f/4 isn’t Nikon’s best effort, IMHO. It and the 600mm f/4 seem weaker than they should be.

    I had this very long discussion with my teaching assistant when we were choosing which new long primes to invest in. I bought the 400mm f/2.8 because it just simply is a marvelous lens (though heavy). It’s really hard to find an optical fault with it, and it’s never ever let me down even as the megapixels ramped up. He bought the 500mm f/4 because he (in my opinion) overemphasizes reach and he emphasizes (correctly) weight/size. It’s a darned good lens, but it’s not at the level of the 400mm. Moreover, every new version of the 500mm I’ve tested since the 500mm f/4P has been ever so slightly worse in absolute resolution. I almost regret selling that (manual focus) lens.

    • AnotherView

      Thom, I’ve read your thoughts before on this matter and I’m in total agreement with the ‘VR’ super telephoto versions, but do you still think the 500E and 600E are the weak sisters of the lineup?

      • Thom Hogan

        Yes. In order of optical quality:

        200mm f/2
        400mm f/2.8
        300mm f/2.8
        800mm f/5.6 (may be higher, haven’t used enough)
        500mm f/4 and 600mm f/4
        200-400mm f/4

  • Virindi

    Pointless without original size images.

    • vousplaisentezouquoi

      Absolutely agree. Lately we see too much of these tests meaning nothing. Image quality can be appreciated only with an original file seen at 100%.
      And I laughed a lot when I read “and viewed each photo at 400% magnification”. What can you see at 400%? Pixels!!

      • True that you do see some mosaic pattern. But you can also get a pretty good idea if the image is sharp or “soft”.
        The attached photo was blown up to 400%. At this magnification, you can clearly see the ring around the eye is in focus, regardless of other parts of the image. And this was taken with the 200-500mm and a D3200 “cheapie” camera. BTW, the bird was flying, shot handheld. I don’t bring a tripod with me when I go shoot birds.

        • Virindi

          When I saw the title I got really excited since I’m starting to save money for a used big prime. I wondered how much better than a 200-500 can it be. How incredibly sharp is it?

          I was really expecting a 100% crop sharpness comparison. 🙁

          • You can always download the files and view them at 100% as you want.

          • Jeff Hunter

            Check out lenscore.org for the numerical evaluations of the various Nikon lenses. The 200-500mm is very similar in terms of resolution to the Nikon “trinity” zooms. Nikon’s super-telephoto prime lenses are their very best lenses.

  • RX78

    When I saw the 200-500 surfaced last year, I just purchased the Tamron 150-600mm to be my 200-400/4 companion. with various review and feedback, I have no doubt the new 200-500 perform great in every way.

    Compare to a prime lens, hmm not saying the optical technology isn’t evolving but physics don’t change. is this 200-500 gonna survive harsh shooting condition ? or the worst object/background combination?

    if already choice a “budget” lens, why not even save more by choice the Sigma or Tamron and save another 500 bucks for the better body or even top of the line memory card ?

    but still, thanks for the comparison, down the road I might still gonna pick up a 200-500, just don’t know when.

  • Bill Ferris

    Andy, you do wonderful work. The photographs on your website are gorgeous.

    I downloaded one of the photos from your above article and dropped it into exiftool. The lens is ID’d as an AF-S Nikkor 500mm f/4D IF-ED prime. I’m not sure if the article title was suggested by you or created by NR, however, I would recommend correcting the title (assuming the exiftool information is correct) and clarifying early in the article which version of the 500mm f/4 was used for the comparison.

    I’ve been shooting with the AF-S 200-500mm f/5.6E for several months and there’s no question it delivers very good IQ. Priced under $1,400, this lens is a great value. That said, it would be a shame if readers would question the reliability of your results due to a lack of clarity in identifying the “competitor” in your testing.

    • russ

      Exactly my thoughts. It took me to the point in the conclusion section at which the author says that the 500mm prime didn’t have VR in the first place to figure out that the title of the piece and the pics of the two lenses are seriously misleading. The author is comparing the new 200-500mm to a 13-year-old 500mm prime, both shot hand held without VR. For me, there isn’t much to be learned from that for someone trying to decide if they should buy the 200-500 or the 500mm E. In any case, I wish I hadn’t had to figure out for myself which lenses were being compared.

      • L ee

        There are two versions of nikkor AF-S 500mm prime lens.
        AF-S f/4D IF-ED II which was introduced in 2003; whereas Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 500mm f/4D IF-ED was manufactured between 1997 – 2001.
        But may be I am wrong.

        • Bill Ferris

          Lee, I’d be inclined to think the author used the original lens manufactured between ’97 and ’01. I’m leaning that direction based on the assumption exiftool is able to distinguish between all the versions of the 500, f4 and would have identified this lens as the IF-ED II, if indeed that was the lens used.

          However, we won’t know the answer until the author and site admin correct the misleading article title, the header art and caption.

    • d2xman

      it is interesting that neither the author nor the NR Admin care to respond to your finding. Appears just a ploy to generate internet traffic by both parties.

  • saywhatuwill

    Not that it matters much since you can always fix the raw photos, but the exposures with the 500mm prime was consistently lighter than than the zoom which was consistently darker.

    • Jeff Hunter

      I wonder if the 200-500 is contrastier or if the exposure is 1/3 off from the 500mm lens?

      • PhilK

        I think if you look at the previous comments the general consensus is that the light transmission on the prime is better (No big surprise, really) and the author didn’t compensate for it.

        One of the very first things I noticed when I looked at the shots was the exposures were not the same, which almost disqualified the comparisons for me, without downloading the files and adjusting them myself.

  • Wow, interesting results. I have the original 500 F4 AFS (non VR) and it really isn’t impressively sharp on my D7200 or D810. However, my Sigma 150-600 S is so I don’t use the 500 any more. I thought it was an aberration that my 500 was less than stellar.

  • Basil Brush

    Did you AF fine tune?

    My AFS 500 VR G needs +11 on my D810. Target at 20m.

  • Thanks for doing this comparison! A couple of things I noticed:

    “the 200-500mm’s white areas look more like light gray, while its black areas look truer to real black, than the prime, even though all exposure settings are the same for both.”

    It’s probably a difference in the T-Stops. I would bet the 500mm prime is close to T-5.6 when it’s at f/5.6, and the zoom is somewhere lower than that because the light transmission isn’t as efficient. This T-Stop difference is REALLY important, because it means you’d be using a lower ISO with the prime lens, which would give you cleaner and more detailed images.

    A couple of points to consider when looking at these results:

    * This test is done with an 18MP full-frame body. For wildlife stuff, most people will be using a 24MP APS-C body, which has *3 times* the pixel density. Also the D4S has an AA filter, which we’ve found reduces detail by 15-25%. Almost any other body would extract more detail out of both lenses.
    * Most wildlife photography is done wide open. Shooting at f/4 lets you use an ISO that’s a stop cleaner (or maybe more, depending on the T-Stop), and lower ISOs (or faster shutter speeds) definitely get you more detail in the real world.

    But with all that said, the 200-500 looks like a great lens!

    • Chelsea Northrup

      all you do is whine and complain all day long. why are you here now…arent you supposed to be cleaning the sewer leak in the bathroom toilet?

      • Kim

        His facts and figures didn’t sound much like whining to me.
        You, on the other hand…

        • outkasted

          well damn Kim…

      • outkasted

        Bawhawhahahahaaaa….Get to work Tony.

  • Adnan

    Very nice at F8

  • Vic Zubakin

    Interesting test of image quality, but you don’t buy these lenses to shoot stationery objects like signs or garbage bins.

  • Stan Chung

    The prime has better transmission and bokeh. Sharpness is comparable for both of them.

  • Kim

    I don’t believe that the image under the headline: “Another one with the same setup:” is shot with a 500mm lens at 1/25 second shutterspeed HANDHELD!

  • Jim Guy

    Im a little confused. In the first paragraph of the “conclusion” I read “First of all, the light(er) weight zoom seems to be SHARPER than the prime, at all apertures that I tested (f/5.6, f/8, f/11, f/16). Secondly, even with the VR turned ON with the 200-500mm, it looks like it’s “softer” than the prime which Doesn’t have any VR in the first place! Odd, eh?” ….So which is it….is the zoom sharper of softer than the prime?

  • outkasted

    Okay Okay So check this. I want to purchase a Big Boy lens. A 500mm or 600mm Nikon f4 E. I currently use a D3 and D700 but I will be getting a D500 eventually. The event that I’m saving for with my Big Boy lens is the ‘Americas Cup’ due to take place here in Bermuda in 2017. Now I have experienced this event already last year on one of the chase photo boats and shooting along side http://www.sandervanderborch.com and http://www.eagleimpressions.com. I watched and learned how they used these Big lenses to capture some extraordinary images. The one thing I’m a stickler for is image quality. I don’t mind shelling out the $$$ for what I need and want if it will deliver the goods. Perhaps the biggest challenge is what to buy. I intend on doing birding photos and other stuff with the lens I will choose including sports like soccer and racing. I’ve used the 200-400mm/f4 but its definitely not long enough. I Also like taking soccer match images and shooting at either end of the field. So help me out here Big Lens shooters. I also LOVE to shoot in low light. Its a great Challenge.

    • Fdfas Jlkjl

      According to the EXIF info, this test was performed with a 500 f4 D prime, which was never well regarded. The IQ of the new 500E destroys either the zooms or the old primes. The title of the article is deliberately misleading. They are hoping to generate clicks to the B&H photo link for the 200-500 and make money fraudulently. It’s a tactic pioneered by Ken Rockwell.

      • outkasted

        Well
        i have been looking hard! But the image quality of the NEW 400mm |2.8 FL is now calling my name. With a 1.4x tele extender it becomes an f4 with great image quality. The reason I like the 400mm| 2.8 FL coupled with a D500 I’ll have the reach i’m looking for at 2.8!! The 400mm | 2.8 seems to give me more OPTIONS!

  • 24×36

    OK, having a little trouble with the internal contradictions, and the observations that don’t match the pictures.

    “First of all, the light(er) weight zoom seems to be SHARPER than the
    prime, at all apertures that I tested (f/5.6, f/8, f/11, f/16).”

    vs.

    “Not to mention, its IQ is not too far behind the 500mm f/4,
    surprisingly, given that you’re shooting in well-lit situations (same as
    when I performed the test).”

    Huh?!

    And

    “even with the VR turned ON with the 200-500mm, it looks like it’s
    “softer” than the prime which Doesn’t have any VR in the first place!
    Odd, eh?”

    YES, especially when the pictures look like they contradict the text!

  • Joel Coster

    If I understand correctly, you stated that the 500mm E “…has no VR to test” and furthermore, in an earlier test of the 500mm E you said “with 30th of a second there is no improvement with VR on”

    Neither statement makes sense because this is a VR lens and if the VR doesn’t make a difference at a 30th, something is wrong with the lens…or photographer 😉

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