REVIEW : Nikon AF-S Nikkor 200mm-500mm f/5.6E ED VR

Nikon's AF-S Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 E ED VR lens isn't tiny, but it is certainly versatile

Nikon's AF-S Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 E ED VR lens isn't tiny, but it is certainly versatile

The space of long reach zooms at affordable pricing has long been the realm of third party lens builders such as Tamron and Sigma.  And, they've done a really great job producing very good glass at pricing that serious amateurs can afford.  Nikon surprised the marketplace this past fall with the announcement of their entry in this space, that is priced very competitively with the third parties, so folks want to know, is it good, and is it better than the alternatives.

Ok, let's be clear.  I'm not putting up focusing charts and resolution charts here.  There are sites that do that and they do a great job, and the world doesn't need yet another chart.  I'm certainly concerned with the quality of an optic, but I also want to consider what it's like to use in real life and while I know that my use cases aren't the same as everyone else's, I hope for sufficient intersection to make reading my reviews worthwhile.

Last spring during the eval of the D810, my friend, and former TV co-host, Bryan Weiss shot the D810 with Tamron's 150-600 and we were both blown away by how good that lens was in practical use, in that scenario, a very dusty rodeo where we were on the inner fence.  When I saw the news about the new Nikon, I wanted to try it to see how it would fare.  

First Impressions

First thing I noticed is that the range is not quite as great as the competing Tamron and Sigma offerings.  I also noted that the maximum aperture is fixed at f/5.6.  Both competitors start at f/5 and rapidly move to f/6.3 as you move through the zoom range.  By 300mm, the Nikon has the lens speed edge.  The Nikon design is simpler, the specifications are at the bottom of this article, with fewer elements and groups than the competition, which should make for more consistency in optical performance.  The Nikon lens has 3 Extra-low dispersion glass elements and Nikon's new electronic diaphragm (that's the E in the name.)  Sigma uses a combination of SLD and FLD elements, while Tamron uses their proprietary coating system for light control.

The Nikon lens has the closest focus at 2.2m vs 2.6m which can be handy for closer work.  It weighs more than the Tamron but less than the Sigma Sport.  Sigma's sport also takes a larger 105mm filter vs the Nikon and Tamron's demands for a 95mm, and has weather sealing.  Nikon does not specify that the 200-500 is weather sealed.  I did not shoot it in a rainstorm but was over 1km into the woods with it when the snow started coming in very heavy.

At 2.3kg, the Nikon lens is handholdable, but if you aren't accustomed to holding this at your eye for an extended period, you are going to get tired and start to shake more.  Fortunately there is a tripod foot on the lens, although as my primary use case for this lens would be sports, I will be shooting it handheld and off a Really Right Stuff MC-34 monopod with MH-02 head.

Field Work

As I received the lens just before the Christmas break, my goal of putting the lens through its paces for hockey had to wait a bit.  I did take the lens with me on a couple of photo walks and found it very usable.  The weight wasn't as demanding as I expected and while I shot it both handheld and on a tripod, I found carrying it in the woods to be relatively simple.  The focal length range is wonderful, starting where the 70-200 stops and going nice and long.  Some would say that the fixed maximum aperture of f/5.6 would make the lens less useful in low light and it is absolutely true that you will likely need to push an extra stop of ISO in the camera, but at less than 1/2 the weight of my 500/4 and in a much smaller package, this lens was quite usable in a variety of shooting situations.

Right off the bridge, Holland River Canal

Right off the bridge, Holland River Canal

Because the lens has a foot on a rotating collar, I mounted an Arca Swiss style plate to the foot and when doing so, find the camera lens combination very well balanced whether on a tripod or a monopod.  When shooting handheld, I simply rotate the foot 180 degrees and cradle the lens in my left hand.  I have average sized hands and I was able to manipulate the zoom ring from the cradle position without problem, although the extended range meant that I couldn't sweep for widest to shortest focal length in a single move.  I did not find that to be a problem at all walking around, but when shooting hockey, there were a couple of times I would have liked a shorter throw on the zoom, but being aware of the compromises doing so would entail in the construction, I can definitely work with the lens as it is built.

There is a lens correction algorithm available in Lightroom CC 2015.3 for this lens, but I found that Lightroom really slowed down when it was applied.  I do my editing on a new Mac Pro with 32GB of RAM so this is not a computer issue, it's YALI (yet another Lightroom issue) that I hope will be rectified.  Adobe experts do state that the lens correction module is very demanding on the computer, but I have never seen it be this slow.  Working without the correction enabled is much quicker and to be fair, the correction doesn't do all that much.

Close focus is very decent and while the lens surely does not replace a macro lens, if you are looking for a closer shot, you can pull it off with this lens as you see in this example.  The thing to remember is the razor thin depth of field at the closest focus point.

At 500mm 1/13 and f/13 depth of field is still very shallow but colour rendition and overall sharpness is excellent

At 500mm 1/13 and f/13 depth of field is still very shallow but colour rendition and overall sharpness is excellent

One of the things that sometimes gets missed with bigger telephotos is their applicability to perspective compression in landscape shots.  I ran a 5 shot bracket for the next example, shooting with the intent to see how the lens delivered for the purpose of a hyper real High Dynamic Range.  I heard the other day that over processed HDR is "over".  I'm not a big HDR person myself, but on occasion I will go out to shoot with the intent to HDR, plus I am super impressed by the capabilities shown by Aurora HDR from my friends at Macphun.

  Looking down the walking trail at Rogers' Reservoir.  Shot on the D4s at about 270mm from a tripod and processed in Aurora HDR Professional from a 3 image merge

 

Looking down the walking trail at Rogers' Reservoir.  Shot on the D4s at about 270mm from a tripod and processed in Aurora HDR Professional from a 3 image merge

Pushed fairly hard in AuroraHDR, I really liked what the lens delivered and when printed very large, this looks terrific on the wall.  I also went out on New Year's Day to a different set of woods and while the light was really lousy with a native dynamic range of less than five stops, a little post processing helps.  It was also a really good test of how the lens and camera AF would work together.  I was surprised at the accuracy of the D4s AF in keeping the snowflakes sharp in these two examples.  

Looking north, trail post on the left.  1/320 f/5.6 ISO 400 at 200mm

Looking north, trail post on the left.  1/320 f/5.6 ISO 400 at 200mm

Heading back, 1/800 f/5.6 ISO 800 at 220mm

Heading back, 1/800 f/5.6 ISO 800 at 220mm

The next real test of the lens was at an Ontario Junior Hockey League game between our local Newmarket Hurricanes and the visiting Cobourg Cougars.  I really enjoy photographing the OJHL.  The players really want to be there and the games are fast paced and well played.  Normally I tend to shoot from up in the stands to avoid the glass, which being in an amateur arena, does not get the level of investment in maintenance as one would find at an NHL venue.  This time I wanted to test to see if Lightroom CC's Dehaze would help with the haze created when shooting through the glass (short answer, it doesn't) so I did a number of shots from behind the glass.  

Newmarket Hurricanes vs Cobourg Cougars January 2016 at the Ray Twinney Centre

The hockey game nailed it for me.  This is an absolutely awesome lens for sports.  I don't use Auto-ISO very much at all, preferring to set a usable ISO and then shoot in aperture preferred using the aperture to drive depth of field and indirectly shutter speed.  I like sharp images, but for hockey want a little bit of motion blur so the images aren't completely frozen.  Colour and sharpness delivered were excellent and the lens responded extremely quickly to the continuous AF instructions from the D4s.  I set the aperture to f/5.6 and the ISO to 3200 and then just shot.  There were some images where I blew it with too low a shutter speed or photographer movement, but the majority came out sharp and well exposed.  Apply some significant culling to get the count down to keepers only in Photo Mechanic and here we are.

If you have ever shot in amateur arenas, you know that these facilities are not awash in cash so the lighting tends to be a white balance nightmare.  What Auto White Balance sees as white in one part of the rink could be orange, green, purple or red in another part.  These rinks also tend to be not very bright.  These aren't NHL rinks set up for live television broadcast so luminance is not the top priority.  

All those things in consideration, I loved the lens.  It's a bit long for shooting behind the glass, I would have been better served by a 70-200 or 70-300 in those spaces (shooting a full frame Nikon D4s) but from the stands area, the focal length range was perfect.  I shot the entire game with the camera/lens on the RRS monopod and left with no pain or fatigue at all as well as a good number of keepers worth taking into the edit process.

Because the lighting in arenas is far from optimal and because I only shoot in RAW, every image has been processed, all of them using Lightroom CC 2015.3  I did try the Dehaze function to deal with shooting through the glass but it was no help at all.  Using my general workflow however, I was able to negate the negative aspects of shooting through the highly scarred glass and come away with good images.  The lens does excellent delivery of light so when I lifted the shadows, I didn't discover a noise fest and pulling down the highlights did not result in a pixel smashup as I have seen with third party glass on Nikon's excellent full frame sensors.  Was I a bit spoiled by shooting the D4s?  Certainly I was.  This is a pro camera built for photographers shooting high speed action and sports in poor light.  It's not a megapixel piggy and handles low light very well.  It has also been around for a while and having tested both the D750 and the D5500 in 2015 would be comfortable shooting either in the same situation and would expect very high quality in either case, although I think that the 200-500 would be too long in focal length in this shooting scenario on a crop sensor.  If I were limited to only shooting from the back of the stands, I would not have that concern.   Having shot High School football in the fall using a 400/4, I think that the 200-500 would also do a great job there so long as the camera sensor could deliver on higher ISOs.  In a couple of scenarios I was shooting at ISO 25600 under the lights at night and while I am confident that the D4s or D750 could handle those ISOs, fear that the D5500 would be pushing itself a bit hard in that regard.  I look forward to trying the forthcoming D500 crop sensor in crappy sports lighting for that reason.

One of our club members was asking what I do for noise reduction when shooting in these lighting conditions.  Three years ago, I would have been doing the Nik roundtrip with Output Sharpener and then Dfine.  All of the hockey images I shot on the 200-500 were sharpened solely in Lightroom and then a little bit of Lightroom luminance noise reduction was applied.  Lightroom has a superb masking control so you can manage what parts of the image get sharpened so when used properly, sharpening doesn't look like splatter.

Conclusions

This is an excellent lens.  As I write this, it is selling for $1599 CDN in stores near my home.  When I look at the nominal uplift over the third party lenses, even given that the Nikon lens does not go out to 600mm as both the Tamron and the Sigma do, if I were making the buy, I would still go with the Nikon lens.  Nikon lenses have a look and this lens preserves that.  I would not need to create a separate profile for the camera as the ones I already have work with this lens.  I do wish that the Adobe corrections did not slow Lightroom down as much as they do, but that's fixable as Adobe evolves Lightroom.  I like the weight and handling of the lens very much.  I like that I can carry it for hours without fatigue, even with only a neck strap, a mode I don't typically use.  I like that it has a constant aperture and I like that the hood is big and deep providing good protection for the front element.  The lens can take a 95mm filter so you can put a polarizer on it when you need one or even a protective filter if you use that sort of thing.  I no longer advocate protective filters but some folks swear by them so do what you like.  I also like that I could mate this lens with Nikon's superb TC-14E teleconverter and preserve AF on any camera that can do AF at f/8 maximum aperture.  I also appreciate that I could use it with either of the TC-17E or TC-20E teleconverters if I wished, albeit without autofocus. Converter use on third parties in this range is usually a "not going to happen" scenario and I believe strongly in the use of teleconverters for the few times the average photographer needs that extra reach because while I love and respect the Nikon 800/5.6, it is so far out of my budget that I could never get there.  With the announcement of the D500 at CES in January of 2016, it's my opinion that this lens on that body will be a killer wildlife option and I hope to be able to try the two together once the D500 is shipping in quantity.  This is a terrific lens and a great buy for any Nikon shooter who needs reach with speed and accuracy.  Do I recommend the 200-500?  If this focal length addresses a use case for you, and you shoot a Nikon body, then absolutely yes.

Specifications

Mount Type Nikon F-Bayonet
Focal Length Range 200 - 500 mm
Zoom Ratio 2.5 x
Maximum Aperture f/ 5.6
Minimum Aperture f/ 32
Format FX/35mm
Maximum Angle of View (DX-format) 8°00'
Minimum Angle of View (DX-format) 3°10'
Maximum Angle of View (FX-format) 12°20'
Minimum Angle of View (FX-format) 5°00'
Maximum Reproduction Ratio 0.22 x
Lens Elements 19
Lens Groups 12
Compatible Format(s) FX
DX
VR (Vibration Reduction) Image Stabilization Yes
Diaphragm Blades 9
Distance Information Yes
ED Glass Elements 3
Super Integrated Coating Yes
Autofocus Yes
AF-S (Silent Wave Motor) Yes
Internal Focusing Yes
Minimum Focus Distance 7.2 ft. ( 2.2 m)
Focus Mode Manual
Manual/Auto
E-type Yes
Filter Size 95 mm
Accepts Filter Type Screw-on
Compatible with Nikon AF-S Teleconverters Yes (refer to the product manual for details)
Approx. Dimensions 108 x 267.5 mm (Diameter x Length)
Based on CIPA Guidelines
Approx. Weight 2300 g
Based on CIPA Guidelines