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

Blue iceberg on Svalbard – – Nikon D4s, 200-500mm @ 260mm, 1/1600sec, f/8 and ISO 1250 Wave after sunset – Nikon D4s, 200-500mm @ 480mm, 1/200sec, f/5,6 and ISO 1000
Walrus in the ice – – Nikon D4s, 200-500mm @ 340mm, 1/1600sec, f/5,6 and ISO 1250 Northern Fulmar in flight – Nikon D4s, 200-500mm @ 400mm, 1/40sec, f/7,1 and ISO 400
This field test report on the new Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR lens is by Roy Mangersnes (Facebook | Twitter | Instagram, click on images for larger view):

Due to efficient logistics and a good friend I was lucky to receive the new Nikkor 200-500mm f/5,6 lens a couple of days after I arrived in the Arctic. The next morning, September 14th, I embarked on a 10 days photographic expedition around the Svalbard archipelago. Like many times before I was hosting photographers from around the world to this magical destination on top of the world for our travel company WildPhoto Travel. I was really looking forward to using the new lens in these conditions and my expectations were very high. I realize the 200-500mm lens is not competing in the same league as my preferred long lens, the 400mm 2,8, or other high-end lenses from Nikon, but I was expecting it to perform just as good as the competing brands with equivalent zoom ranges.

The entire test was done using the 200-500mm lens together with the Nikon D4s handheld.

Polar bear north of Svalbard – Nikon D4s, 200-500mm @ 420mm, 1/2000sec, f/8 and ISO 800

Polar bear north of Svalbard – Nikon D4s, 200-500mm @ 420mm, 1/2000sec, f/8 and ISO 800

SPECS

According to the official Nikon website “the AF-S NIKKOR 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR is a 2.5x super-telephoto zoom lens that supports the 200-500 mm range of focal lengths with a maximum aperture of f/5.6. Adoption of ED glass elements achieves superior optical performance with which chromatic aberration is suppressed.

In addition, the lens is equipped with a vibration reduction (VR) function that exhibits the highest level of camera shake compensation available with a NIKKOR lens—equivalent to a 4.5-stop increase in shutter speed”

So how does it work in the field?

FIRST IMPRESSION

At first I was taken by the size of the lens. Obviously being a 5,6 aperture lens it was rather compact and light weight (2,09kg). Still it feels like a really solid built lens. I am usually a bit worried about zoom lenses with external zoom as they have a tendency to suck in dust and moisture. I did however not experience any of this even though I was shooting in moist weather and temperatures fluctuating around zero degrees, producing a lot of condensation. I have previously been surprised by the Nikkor 28-300 f/3,5-5,6 lens, and how it could withstand fine sand from the Kalahari and also moisture in the Bolivian rainforest. The 200-500mm seem to have been constructed in a similar way.

Walrus in the ice – – Nikon D4s, 200-500mm @ 340mm, 1/1600sec, f/5,6 and ISO 1250

Walrus in the ice – – Nikon D4s, 200-500mm @ 340mm, 1/1600sec, f/5,6 and ISO 1250

Blue iceberg on Svalbard – – Nikon D4s, 200-500mm @ 260mm, 1/1600sec, f/8 and ISO 1250

Blue iceberg on Svalbard – – Nikon D4s, 200-500mm @ 260mm, 1/1600sec, f/8 and ISO 1250

The lens feels a little heavy towards the front when zooming all the way out to 500mm, even when shooting with a Nikon D4s body. However, the over all light weight of the lens makes it easy to handle and I did find the range to be very handy for the situations I encountered.

Shooting from a moving ship or a Zodiac rubber dingy it was very useful to be able to adjust the framing without the need to alter the position of the boats. Especially in situations when the subject suddenly changes behaviour and we had interaction is was great to be able to get a wider frame and include the action or the landscape.

Polar bear on a seal kill – Nikon D4s, 200-500mm @ 500mm, 1/2000sec, f/8 and ISO 800

Polar bear on a seal kill – Nikon D4s, 200-500mm @ 500mm, 1/2000sec, f/8 and ISO 800

Polar bear with seal kill in the ice – Nikon D4s, 200-500mm @ 200mm, 1/2000sec, f/8 and ISO 1000

Polar bear with seal kill in the ice – Nikon D4s, 200-500mm @ 200mm, 1/2000sec, f/8 and ISO 1000

Kittiwakes in the landscape – Nikon D4s, 200-500mm @ 200mm, 1/1600sec, f/6,3 and ISO 1250

Kittiwakes in the landscape – Nikon D4s, 200-500mm @ 200mm, 1/1600sec, f/6,3 and ISO 1250

Kittiwakes in the landscape – Nikon D4s, 200-500mm @ 200mm, 1/1600sec, f/6,3 and ISO 1250

Kittiwakes on a small piece of ice – Nikon D4s, 200-500mm @ 500mm, 1/1600sec, f/6,3 and ISO 1250

OPTICAL QUALITY

Obviously the optical quality of the lens is extremely important and it was the first thing I wanted to test. If the lens did not perform to my expectations I would most likely not use it in many situations during the trip, as I would have hated to miss shots because of bad optics. I was happy to see that the lens was very sharp throughout the range. As a matter of fact I could not see any difference in the sharpness though the zoom range. During the next 10 days I would shoot roughly 2000 frames with the lens, capturing subjects like Polar bear, Walrus, Arctic birds, icebergs and landscapes. I had no second thoughts about choosing the 200-500 as my preferred lens in most situations.

I was also very happy to see that the lens preformed well in the whole focal range available. Many zoom lenses struggle at the extremes, but I could not see any changes when shooting at 500 or 200 compared to other focal lengths.

Baby Walrus – 100 % crop to 1920 px.

Baby Walrus – 100 % crop to 1920 px.

The only situations I turned to my 400mm f/2,8 was when shooting backlit subjects or in low light. Obviously the extra stops gained with an f/2,8 lens did come in handy when the light was low. When it came to backlight, the lens handled most situations well, but with a lot of ice and reflections I did experience some flare that I usually don’t see in my prime lenses with nano-coating.

However, it is worth noting that the 200-500mm does handle harsh light very well and I did get very little chromatic aberration, if any at all. This is very impressive considering the pricing and built of this lens.

Kittiwake preening on ice – Nikon D4s, 200-500mm @ 300mm, 1/2000sec, f/7,1 and ISO 400

Kittiwake preening on ice – Nikon D4s, 200-500mm @ 300mm, 1/2000sec, f/7,1 and ISO 400

FOCUSING

The 200-500mm is not your typical action photography lens with an aperture of 5,6, but for most of the stuff I was shooting on this trip it worked quit well. Most of the time I find myself stopping down to 5,6 and 8 when shooting wildlife anyway, and with the ISO capabilities of the cameras today I have no problem with a 5,6 lens for action.

Kittiwake take-off – Nikon D4s, 200-500mm @ 500mm, 1/2000sec, f/7,1 and ISO 400

Kittiwake take-off – Nikon D4s, 200-500mm @ 500mm, 1/2000sec, f/7,1 and ISO 400

There was however a tendency for the lens to perform slower in low light and I struggled to follow the birds after the sun had set, especially when they were flying over the ocean surface. Not an easy autofocus situation for any lens, but my experience with the 400 f/2,8, and other prime lenses, is that it should be possible. Group-AF was used for all the action shots. That being said, in “normal” light situations the lens performed very well and I was able to produce some images I did not expect to get with this kind of zoom lens.

Northern Fulmar against the Spitsbergen mountains in evening light – Nikon D4s, 200-500mm @ 500mm, 1/640sec, f/7,1 and ISO 1250

Northern Fulmar against the Spitsbergen mountains in evening light – Nikon D4s, 200-500mm @ 500mm, 1/640sec, f/7,1 and ISO 1250

During the trip I was shooting a lot of backlit wildlife and I was surprised by the performance of the focus in these situations. The Group AF mode was following the subject with ease and the sharpness was beyond expectation.

Arctic tern feeding the chick – Nikon D4s, 200-500mm @ 370mm, 1/6400sec, f/7,1 and ISO 1250

Arctic tern feeding the chick – Nikon D4s, 200-500mm @ 370mm, 1/6400sec, f/7,1 and ISO 1250

Backlit Polar bear walking on the beach – Nikon D4s, 200-500mm @ 460mm, 1/2000sec, f/8 and ISO 125

Backlit Polar bear walking on the beach – Nikon D4s, 200-500mm @ 460mm, 1/2000sec, f/8 and ISO 125

The VR was also impressive and as I was shooting everything handheld, or resting on a moving Zodiac I was really testing the VR to the limit. Even in a moving Zodiac I was able to produce sharp images with the lens at 500mm and a shutter speed of only 1/200 second. That is very impressive!

Wave after sunset – Nikon D4s, 200-500mm @ 480mm, 1/200sec, f/5,6 and ISO 1000

Wave after sunset – Nikon D4s, 200-500mm @ 480mm, 1/200sec, f/5,6 and ISO 1000

I left the VR on most of the time, except when panning at 1/40 sec or slower. I was not able to conclude on how the VR works while panning, but I did experience some ghosting when it was active at this speed and slower. This usually also appears when shooting with prime lenses.

Northern Fulmar in flight – Nikon D4s, 200-500mm @ 400mm, 1/40sec, f/7,1 and ISO 400

Northern Fulmar in flight – Nikon D4s, 200-500mm @ 400mm, 1/40sec, f/7,1 and ISO 400

CONCLUSION – GOOD AND BAD

To conclude I can say I would be happy to have this lens in my bag, and I find it extremely handy for many situations. When shooting from a fixed position like a safari vehicle or a hide the zoom is perfect. I also find the range from 200mm to 500mm sufficient for this kind of lens. I have requested this for some time, actually since Canon released the 200-400mm with built in 1,4 extender. I couldn’t see why they didn’t just produce a 200-560mm for that matter and make it a 5,6. Now it seems Nikon have followed my thoughts and produced a great zoom lens at a great price!

+ : Light weight, solid built, handy range, super sharp, precise focus, impressive VR and good price.

– : Slightly off balance at 500mm, flare when shooting backlight and a little slow in low light.

I will recommend this lens to many!

olar bear mum and cub – Nikon D4s, 200-500mm @ 330mm, 1/2000sec, f/8 and ISO 800

Polar bear mum and cub – Nikon D4s, 200-500mm @ 330mm, 1/2000sec, f/8 and ISO 800

Author in the field on Svalbard – photo by WildPhoto Travel guide and friend Frede Lamo.

Author in the field on Svalbard – photo by WildPhoto Travel guide and friend Frede Lamo.

Thanks to Nikon Norway for lending me the lens on our expedition to the Arctic.

This post first originated here and is published with permission. If you have an interesting idea for a guest post, you can contact me here.

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  • Al Richardson

    An excellent review – great work, and thanks for the beautiful shots. They are testament to a photographer who really knows what they’re doing, and thus an opinion worth listening to…

  • Photobug

    Agree, excellent review. I was planning on buying the Tamron 150-600mm lens next year but now I am thinking if this new 200-500 would be a better buy for my style of shooting. Tough position to be in.

  • AKH

    Really some great images. Thanks.

  • lichtsucher

    thanks for this beautiful pictures –
    excellent photographs from a passionate photographer who really knows what when where and how to photograph.

    but i think you can give Roy Mangersnevs also a cheap third party lens and after one day of photowork he`ll also come home with great pictures… but

    the new lens looks very interesting – for me this post could move me forward to start in nature photography with an affordable multitool.

    thanks for this review

  • Ryan

    A review I read till the end! Thank you for testing this lens in a real life senario. It may be my next buy!

  • fanboy fagz

    Wonderful review.that lens looks like a “whats the catch ‘? Good price good performance. Weird the lowish price

    Bet that seal tasted yummy nigiri seal sounds nice a little ginger and wasabi mmm

    • Seal? Probably tastes like bald eagle.

      • fanboy fagz

        and the eagle tastes like chicken. so seal=chicken.

    • David

      Someone said they were able to to keep the price down by limiting the focal length.

      • That’s a good point. It is often compared with 150-600mm from two major of the third-party manufacturers. They are 4x lenses yet this is only a 2.5x zoom. oersonally, given that some of the lenses compared with suffer at 600, 200-500 was a wide choice, coming as it does at the end of the popular 70-200 range.

  • Thomas

    I agree with this review completely.

    I’ve had mine for a few days now and shoot predominately aviation subjects for a magazine and tried it out over this weekend on some typical subjects including with the TC14E III and it produced excellent results. Much lighter to use than my 200-400mm F4 with or without a TC14 attached!

    As I was shooting mainly prop driven aircraft with a D4 and D810, I was shooting as slow as 1/200″ hand held at up to 700mm and these were as sharp as I have had from my 500mm f4 with TC attached and again much lighter and with the flexibility of variable focal length.

    It appeared to produce results equal to my 80-400mm AF-S zoom; just a little slower on the AF.

    I am very happy and will be using it a lot more as it is so easy to carry around. Just a little long when zoomed out to the 500mm length though!

    • VikingAesir

      Is it better with the TC 1.4 than just cropping? Usually with consumer zooms you don’t really gain any resolution with a TC.

  • tedtedsen

    f5.6 at 500 is not bad but my sigma 150-600mm Sport is also at f5.6 at 500mm but drops to 6.3 at 600mm i sold my tammy 150-600 to purchase the siggy, was it sharper o yes at al ranges even at 600mm it is Sharp and even at f6.3 it stays Sharp on 600mm the downside for the siggy is the weight more than 3kilogram 105filters

    • EarlFargis

      Yep, nice summation of the Sigma 150-600 Sport. I own this lens too. If the Nikon had come out 1st, I would have gone that route but the extra 100mm is worth the price premium. I also have the new matched Sigma 1.4x telecoverter which works well with the caveat you go 1 stop down. Sure, it’s a pretty slow at that point but it’s still good for many situations and oh-boy the reach!

      For a pro like the reviewer I’m betting the Sigma has better weather sealing to boot. The only quip I have is the Sigma isn’t quite as good on the short end as the long end but then how often do I use the short end? Not very.

      I await a shoot-out between the 2 lenses but I expect the Sigma to have the edge. Maybe it’s me or just the few pics I’ve seen thus far shot with the Nikon but they look a bit meh to me IQ-wise.

      • tedtedsen

        My bigg Sigg is optimal Sharp from about 150-450mm and drops onley slightley on 600mm hardley visibel at all im using and i can recomend it to you use the sigma USB docking station you wil geth Maximum out of Your Nice lens it deservs it sorrey for my bad inglish im Norwegian and Thanks for Your reply

    • David

      I returned mine. Sharpness was acceptable, evne good, AF was fast. Bokeh was terrible and the reason I returned it. It was busy, nervous, and just too distracting. Look at the soccer net. The bokeh was like that on many shots, like a mulitude of onion skins. This has very little LR editing and shot RAW. 1/1500, f/5.6, ISO 360, 290mm shot on a monopod. This crop is about 1/5 of the image D800E.

      • Steve

        Looks suspiciously like you shot through a tight wire net or something. Why else would there be that weird pattern in the trees above the net? Bokeh looks pretty good on plenty of the shots in this article. It’s not gonna be 135mm f2 DC bokeh though.

      • There is some sort of crosshatch in the tree line background blur. Can you explain that? Looks like it’s been shot through a stocking.

        • David

          I can’t explain it except for busy glass. I was sitting right on the sideline. Attached is another image 100% crop. It’s not terrible but look at that tree on the right.

    • Josh Levinson

      I owned the Sigma 150-600mm Sport briefly, and it dropped to f6.3 by 500mm. In fact, from what I recall, it dropped to f6.3 just after 300mm. I’m only pointing this out because I remember thinking it was a significant negative for the lens (comparing it to my previous Canon 400mm f5.6 lens, the Sigma couldn’t even match that in terms of being f5.6 at 400mm).

      Before I’d gotten the lens, I remember thinking that f5.6 vs. f6.3 wouldn’t be a big deal, but after using the lens for a while, I decided it actually did make a significant difference, combined with the fact that I preferred to stop the lens down 1/3 stop to improve the sharpness/contrast. Instead of being able to shoot at ISO1000 or 1250 in many situations, I had to shoot at ISO1600 or 2000 – and once you get to that ISO range, every stop counts in terms of image quality.

  • Zoot

    Thank you for such an informative article, accompanied by great pictures. Please would you confirm that you left VR on all of the time, except when panning. Does this mean even when the pictures were at such high shutter speeds (eg the tern feeding a chick is 1/6400 of a second, and other pictures are at 1/2000 of a second)?

  • i was considering to byu this lens based on the parameters… now i am convinced … 🙂 Thanks for practical review.

  • FountainHead

    One of the most useful reviews on this site.
    Lots of helpful, practical info–and great images besides.
    Thank you.

  • Morris

    but most of images are not shot at 500, such a lens should be tested and tested ALMOST exclusively at the far end ?

    • Jonathan Björklund

      Why? The lens was tested in the field. The different focal lengths show that a zoom comes in handy, you can adjust the frame as you like. 500mm for 500mm situations and so on.

    • Hardcore_Fanboy

      I agree – wierd kind of wildlife in this review – a polar bear filled framed of D4S (only a 16mpix FullFrame) in sub 500mm – under normal conditions that would mean big trouble (picture was taken like under 60 yards away from a polar bear :O “in wild” – probalby some kind of specialized vehicle in national park)… Here – everything is framed so nice and tight even with that 16mpix FullFrame – you will never ever reproduce something like that (thus review of a unrepeatable results – nice to watch – but nothing that can be usable in normal wildlife shooting)

      • ITN

        I haven’t been to Svalbard but I’ve seen comparable results from others who have taken a similar tour. The shots are made from a small ship or a zodiac boat so even if the polar bear is close, the passengers are not in danger.

  • David

    Returned my Sig Sport for this. Bokey on the Sigma was unacceptable. The Nikon is arriving Tuesday. Thanks for the review.

  • Jorge Campa

    Great review. I was planning to buy the Sigma 150-600 Contemporary too, but I think I will go with this Nikon. What do you guys think would be better, shooting with the Nikon 200-500 and the 1.4 TC or just cropping from a D810.
    Thanks!

  • verytoxic

    Sounds like its a winner for Nikon.

  • Purchased a couple of days ago and can support that the lens meets expectation and more, an excellent piece of glass.

  • Andy

    Excellent review and great portfolio. Buying a latest (and even earlier) generation 400mm or longer focal length super teles or zooms is beyond my budget and the budget of most. Until this lens, the 80-400mm 4.5-5.6 was the most affordable option — but even the new version is still soft. I bought this lens earlier this month and already am very pleased how quick and sharp it is. I took it out recently on a rainy/overcast day to shoot the deer after the rut and was very pleased with the results.

  • Praveen G Nair

    this is very good review.. grate images.. thank you

  • Argh! first world problems. Gotta love them.

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