Hands-on: Nikon 200-500mm VR

The Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 AFS G VR (foreground) as compared to the 500mm f/4 VR Nikkor.
The Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 AFS G VR (left) as compared to the 500mm f/4 VR Nikkor.

Ah, the joy of receiving a gold box from Nikon! I just received the new 200-500mm f/5.6 AFS G VR zoom Nikkor from B&H Photo. As someone who enjoys shooting wildlife, especially birds, I figured I should check out this new lens. Since I’ve had the lens for less than 24 hours, these are simply my first impressions.

Build & Handling

This lens feels solid. The lens extends in size when zoomed and it uses a zoom ring. The focus ring is closer to the lens mount than the zoom ring; a characteristic shared by most consumer Nikkor zooms. Personally, I prefer the focus/zoom ring orientation the other way around, but that’s a minor quibble. The lens has two focus modes, A/M (auto with manual override) and M (manual focus). There is a lock switch on the side of the lens that prevents lens creep when you set the lens to 200mm. There is a switch for VR (on/off) and VR modes (normal/ sport), and a focus limit switch (full/ 6m- ∞).

Switches and controls on the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 AFS G VR zoom Nikkor.
Switches and controls on the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 AFS G VR zoom Nikkor.

The lens includes a plastic bayonet mount hood. It’s not super-thick but it is lightweight and does the job. The lens comes with a simple pouch for carrying instead of a case. Frankly, I’m fine with that as most of my lens cases end up unused in my closet anyway.

The lens has a removable tripod collar, which I replaced with a Kirk collar that has a built-in Arca-Swiss style plate. The lens collar appeared reasonably sturdy, although Nikon’s recent history of lens collar design suggests you’ll be better off with a replacement version. If you want to use filters with the 200-500mm, you’ll need to use a 95mm front-filter. My advice: skip the filters.

Handling

The first thing that struck me about the 200-500mm was it’s size. It’s big, but not ridiculously so. Weighing in at 4.6 lbs (2090g), the 200-500mm is heavy but you can certainly hand-hold it. By comparison, the 80-400 VR is just over 1 lb lighter (3.45 lbs), and I have no trouble hand-holding it. My guess is that while I’d prefer using a tripod or monopod with this lens, hand-holding is certainly a viable option. The lens also balances well in my hand when I had it on my Nikon D810 with battery grip attached.

Optical Performance & VR

Ok, so I’ve had the lens for less than a day so I haven’t been able to put it through real-world testing. However, I was able to test the two things that I’m sure everyone is interested in: Sharpness at 500mm and VR performance hand-held. The following images were taken from RAW images and exported from Adobe Lightroom. I didn’t make any RAW adjustments other than to enable lens profile corrections and my normal sharpening amount.

My initial testing was limited to my trusty stuffed critter, who sits 5″ tall. Before I did any testing, I checked the focus calibration. I had to dial in a minor (+6) AF Fine-tune adjustment on my D810 and then I seemed to nail focus every time. Here’s test shot #1, captured from about 25′ away, which is my typical subject distance when working from a blind:

5" test subject from 25 feet away. Nikon D810 with 200-500mm f/5.6 AFS G VR Nikkor lens on a tripod @500mm. 1/800s f/5.6 ISO 64, VR off.
5″ test subject from 25 feet away. Nikon D810 with 200-500mm f/5.6 AFS G VR Nikkor lens on a tripod @500mm. 1/800s f/5.6 ISO 64, VR off (click for a larger version).

And here’s the 100% crop:

100% crop of the previous image. Nikon D810 with 200-500mm f/5.6 AFS G VR lens. 1/800s f/5.6 ISO 64.
100% crop of the previous image. Nikon D810 with 200-500mm f/5.6 AFS G VR lens. 1/800s f/5.6 ISO 64 (click to enlarge).
Vibration Reduction (VR)

Nikon says that the VR system in the 200-500mm is equivalent to using a shutter speed 4.5 stops faster. I took out my other trusty subject, my parrot, and captured this photo of him indoors with window light at 1/80s wide-open & hand-held:

Nikon 200-500mm f.5/6 AFS G VR lens; hand held with VR on (normal). 1/80s f/5.6 ISO 1600
Nikon 200-500mm f.5/6 AFS G VR lens; hand held with VR on (normal). 1/80s f/5.6 ISO 1600 (click to enlarge)

And a 100% crop:

Nikon 200-500mm f.5/6 AFS G VR lens; hand held with VR on (normal). 1/80s f/5.6 ISO 1600 (100% crop)
Nikon 200-500mm f.5/6 AFS G VR lens; hand held with VR on (normal). 1/80s f/5.6 ISO 1600 (100% crop; click to enlarge)

Whoa! That’s really amazing performance if you ask me. The only softness in the image is mild luminance noise at ISO 1600 with the D810. At normal print size, however, this image is really sharp. That means I not only stabilized the shot, but the lens was able to focus well indoors with marginal light. Remember that no matter how good your image stabilizing system is, it won’t freeze a moving subject.

The two VR modes (normal and sport) can both be used with a tripod or monopod. Nikon recommends using sport mode if you’re tracking erratically moving subjects or panning. I’d keep the VR set to normal in most situations.

My impressions so far

I’ll have the opportunity to fully test this lens in a few weeks down in the Florida Everglades. Until then, here are my take home thoughts as to how I think this lens performs.

The Nikon 200-500 f/5.6 AFS G VR is a surprisingly good lens at a ridiculously awesome price. If you are a wildlife photographer and like to photograph birds, you just cannot beat this lens, especially when you factor in that it costs nearly $1000 less than the 80-400mm VR Nikkor. That comparison is a no-brainer when you look at other 500mm lenses, which cost upwards of $5000. The Nikon comes in at only slightly more expensive than similar 3rd-party options in the same range (see below).

The only real drawbacks of this lens are the f/5.6 aperture, which puts you at f/8 if you use a 1.4x teleconverter. Only newer Nikon DSLRs are rated to autofocus at f/8. The other downside is that because the lens barrel physically moves, you’ll have a more challenging time balancing it on a Wimberley head. I recommend balancing the lens at the 500mm setting.

Check prices and specs on the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 AFS G VR zoom Nikkor lens

Other options you may wish to consider
  • Nikon 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6 AFS G VR
    I’d recommend this lens for Nikon DX wildlife shooters or for landscape photographers who want extra reach. The 80mm focal length on the wide end can be useful sometimes. This lens is also smaller and lighter to pack than the longer ones, but it costs significantly more ($2300 USD).
  • Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM
  • Tamron 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Di VC USD
    The Sigma and Tamron lenses offer 600mm reach, but at the expense of 1/3 stop of light (f/6.3). Chances are they will be difficult to use with a teleconverter. They are, however, slightly less expensive (around $1100) than the Nikon lenses. I’ve not tried them but I’ve heard positive reviews.

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