With a long zoom range at a tempting price, Nikon’s AF-S Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR lens could be outstanding. Phil Hall tries it out on a wildlife photography trip
Despite advances in camera resolution that offer the option to crop images more aggressively, anyone who has tried to shoot wildlife or action will tell you there’s no substitute for filling the frame with your chosen subject.
In the past, this has meant using a large and expensive prime telephoto lens which, unless you have very deep pockets, is only really for the realm of the professional. Moreover, the likes of a more affordable 100-400mm or 80-400mm zoom still doesn’t have quite the desired reach for many subjects. Both Sigma and Tamron have spotted a gap in the market and released 150-600mm superzoom lenses, and not wishing to miss out on this potentially lucrative market Nikon has also come up with its own solution.
While not having quite the same staggering range as the third-party alternatives, the AF-S Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR looks as if it could hit the sweet spot for many photographers wanting a far-reaching telephoto lens that’s not going to break the bank.
Nikkor AF-S 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR review – Little owls
The Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 is undoubtedly a lens that’s going to appeal to wildlife photographers, so when award-winning nature photographers Elliott Neep and Richard Peters invited me to Eastbrook Farm in Wiltshire – the 1,400-acre home of Helen Browning Organic – to try out one of their professional wildlife photography hides, I jumped at the chance.
Nestled among staggeringly picturesque countryside, the farm teems with wildlife of all shapes and sizes, inspiring Elliott to launch ProHides (www.prohides.com). Offering custom-built and comfortable photographic hides that can be positioned around the farm, ProHides offers photographers the chance to shoot a range of species all year round, both day and night.
I’d be setting up camp in the PhotoHut Mini hide that’s located outside a derelict farmhouse and perfectly positioned to capture the little owls that visit. Numerous perches are positioned in front of the hide and have been set up for perfect photo opportunities suitable for focal lengths from 400mm to 600mm – and that’s not forgetting the photogenic old farmhouse, too.
I wanted to put the lens through its paces on both DX and FX-format cameras, so with the D500 arriving in the office the day before and the D5 having been tested, I was lucky enough to have both these fabulous cameras at my disposal.
Nikkor AF-S 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR review – Specification
Once I’d been shown around the farm, I grabbed something to eat at the nearby Royal Oak (great food – and they offer rooms for those who need to be on site before sunrise or for those finishing late). I was then ready for the long afternoon and evening ahead. Waved off by Elliott and Rich, I set myself up in the hide and waited for the little owls to make an appearance.
This gave me a some time to acquaint myself with the lens. Undoubtedly, tipping the scales at 2.3kg, this is a beefy lens. Despite its weight, it is possible to shoot handheld, thanks to the addition of Nikon’s Vibration Reduction anti-shake system, which claims handheld shutter speeds of up to 4.5EV slower than normal. As seen with a few other Nikon lenses in the past year or so, there’s also the inclusion of a Sport mode, designed for shooting moving subjects (including panning), which delivers a smoother display in the viewfinder, and allows you to shoot at a faster burst rate.
Unlike some recent Nikon telephoto lenses we’ve seen, the 200-500mm comes supplied with a substantial tripod collar, so for my time in the hide it was firmly attached to a gimbal head for maximum stability, while I could quickly swap between portrait and landscape orientations with the lock on the tripod collar.
Interestingly or a lens of this type, rather than featuring a variable maximum aperture, the 200-500mm features a constant maximum aperture of f/5.6 through the range. This might be a little slow for some, but for those who want something that’s a stop faster, but with the same flexibility of a zoom, there’s the AF-S Nikkor 200-400mm f/4G ED VR II, which costs £5,375. And while an extra stop of light hitting the sensor is always welcome, the latest Nikon DSLRs – particularly the D5 and D500 – have an impressive high ISO performance, so this restriction becomes less of an issue.
When transporting the lens, there’s a useful lock on the side that locks the lens at 200mm, avoiding the risk of ‘zoom creep’. The lens also features Nikon’s electromagnetic diaphragm (hence the E designation in the name) that delivers highly accurate control of the nine-rounded diaphragm blades, giving enhanced stability of auto exposure during continuous shooting.
Nikkor AF-S 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR review – Build
Compared with the 200-400mm, or even the AF-S Nikkor 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR, the 200-500mm f/5.6 on test here doesn’t have quite the same premium feel. Even the thin gold ring around the lens towards the front element is omitted, which gives it a slightly dowdier appearance than its counterparts. Overall construction is mainly high-quality plastics and metal.
If this sounds a little negative, it isn’t meant to be. The 200-400mm costs considerably more, so a higher level of construction is only to be expected. In all honesty, the 200-500mm, with its pleasing ‘splatter’-effect finish, still feels very well put together.
While Nikon doesn’t make any claims to the lens being weather-sealed, it’s encouraging to see that the lens mount includes a rubberised gasket to prevent dust and other unwanted elements making their way into the camera. Working our way down the lens, on the left-hand side you’ll find numerous switches to set focusing and VR, followed by a rubberised manual-focus ring. Further down is the zoom barrel, with the front element sporting a 95mm filter thread.
Nikkor AF-S 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR review – In use
At first, I chose to pair the lens with the D500, giving myself the option to swap to the D5 once the light levels began to deteriorate. With the crop sensor of the D500, the lens delivers an equivalent focal length of 300-750mm. If you were shooting with a full-frame DSLR and wanted something with this kind of reach, then your only other option would be a £12,990 AF-S Nikkor 800m f/5.6E FL ED VR.
After three hours of waiting for a little owl to appear (thankfully, the seat in the hide is incredibly comfortable), one landed on a feeding post. By this time, the light wasn’t as strong as it had been, but the warm tone hitting the side of the owl was worth the sacrifice of having to boost the ISO a touch. And I didn’t experience any issues with the AF, either, despite the fading light. Combined with the D500, the AF snapped into focus very quickly, and very accurately – I’ve used the AF-S Nikkor 200-400mm f/4G ED VR II and AF-S Nikkor 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR in the past and have to say that the 200-500mm didn’t feel like a poor relation when it came to focusing performance. You don’t want any audible whirs or buzzes from the focusing when shooting from a hide, but thanks to Nikon’s Silent Wave Motor, focusing is whisper quiet. It’s possible to focus down to 2.2m, but this can be limited to ∞-6m to improve performance.
One little niggle is the throw of the zoom ring from 200mm to 500mm, which requires more than a single twist of the hand to quickly shift through the focal range. This isn’t a deal-breaker, but if you need to work quickly it can be a bit of a pain.
An hour later, I swapped over to the D5. Even using the gimbal head, the addition of the vertical grip on the camera made handling that much more pleasing. It’s something that, if I were shooting handheld, I’d definitely want to have on my camera to improve the overall balance between camera and lens.
Nikkor AF-S 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR review – Image quality
With the light almost gone, and despite the D5’s high ISO performance impressing greatly, it was time to pack up and head home.
It was then that I had the chance to assess the image quality of the photos I had taken, and I have to say I was impressed. Sharpness was very good throughout the range, even when shooting wide open at f/5.6, although you may want to step it down a stop or two for optimum results, especially at the longer end of the focal range. That said, I was more than happy with my results at 500mm and f/5.6.
There was very minor pincushion distortion, but in real-world tests this is hardly noticeable. Minor vignetting was present, too, but again, this wasn’t to the detriment of the image. If you’re a Lightroom or Photoshop user, I recommend using the correct lens profile, and you should be more than happy with the corrections applied.
Finally, if you’re worried about the quality of the bokeh compared to a faster lens, don’t be, as the long focal lengths keep the background nicely out of focus when shooting wide open.
Nikkor AF-S 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR review – Final thoughts
I must admit, I was a bit sceptical about this lens when I first heard about it, thinking there must have been one compromise too many to keep the lens at a competitive price point, but have to say I’ve been very pleasantly surprised.
Nikon has put together an excellent telephoto zoom lens at a superb price of £1,179, without sacrificing performance. More portable than the AF-S Nikkor 200-400mm f/4G ED VR II and a quarter of the price, it might not quite match it for optical quality, but it certainly punches well above its weight. If you’re a Nikon user wanting to shoot frame-filling wildlife or action, then this lens should be towards the top – if not right at the top – of your list.