Can a $1400 zoom compete with a $8000 prime telephoto lens?
That’s the $64k question, isn’t it? When I saw that the new Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E VR was announced at under $1400 (check price here), I figured that either: a) I read that wrong, or b) it must be a compromise. Seeing as how I own the 500mm f/4 AFS G VR Nikkor, I figured I’d do the obligatory comparison, so here’s my backyard shootout:
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As you might expect, the 500 f/4 resolves fine details better than the 200-500mm zoom. But not that much better. In fact, unless you’re viewing at 200% or making extreme enlargements or crops, the 200-500 f/5.6 is very good! You’ll get slightly better bokeh with the prime, especially if you shoot it wide-open at f/4. I also discovered that the 200-500mm behaves more like a 480mm lens at the longest setting. That’s really not anything to get concerned about. The 200-500mm VR gets slightly sharper at f/8, but you can still feel comfortable using it wide-open.
Here’s another area where the 500 f/4 is better. The faster aperture and internal focus design allows this lens to snap into focus faster than the 200-500mm zoom. The 200-500mm is no slouch, though. In my tests, focusing from infinity to 30′ (~9m) took 0.21 seconds with the prime and 0.375 seconds with the zoom in good light. In lower light, or with a poor contrast target, expect the 500 f/4 to do even better.
Ability to use a teleconverter
You can use a teleconverter with either of these lenses (Nikon TC-14EIII), but with the 200-500mm, I don’t recommend it. You’ll get an f/8 lens and will be limited to the central AF point.
Handling and other features
The 500 f/4 is an 8 lb lens that pretty much requires a tripod and gimbal head to manage properly. It can accept drop-in filters and has a very sturdy and smooth collar. It also has cool features like focus memory preset. The 200-500mm f/5.6 on the other hand, weighs about 5 lbs, and is a simpler design. You can use front filters but they are huge (95mm). It’s a heavy lens, but it’s not too hard to hand-hold it. You can use it on a tripod with a gimbal or a Wimberley Sidekick on a standard ball head.
While the 500mm f/4 prime delivers on fast focus and deadly sharpness, the 200-500mm is a far more versatile lens. Not only does it allow you to zoom, but it can focus down to under 8 feet. The 500 f/4 can’t do either of those things, and for some situations such as shooting from a blind (where you can’t back up), the zoom is clearly the better choice.
If your subject is frequently tiny birds, or you use an FX (full frame) Nikon body, the 500mm f/4 is a great choice, provided you have the cash. However, when cost and versatility are factored in, it’s impossible not to highly recommend the 200-500 f/5.6E VR, especially on a good DX body like the new Nikon D500, where you’ll effectively have a 300-750mm zoom lens.