Backyard Shootout: Nikon 500 f/4 VR vs. 200-500 f/5.6 VR

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:

Optical Performance

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.

The 500mm f/4 Nikkor (right) is able to resolve fine details better than the 200-500mm Nikkor, but it's pretty close (200% crop). Click to enlarge.
The 500mm f/4 Nikkor (right) is able to resolve fine details better than the 200-500mm Nikkor, but it’s pretty close (200% crop). Click to enlarge.
Autofocus performance

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.

The 500mm f/4 Nikkor cannot focus closer than about 4 meters.
The 500mm f/4 Nikkor cannot focus closer than about 4 meters.
The 200-500mm f/5.6 can focus down to about 8 feet.
The 200-500mm f/5.6 can focus down to about 8 feet.
Conclusions

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.

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

two + six =