A few weeks ago, I received the new Nikon 200-500 f/5.6 AFS G VR zoom Nikkor lens. My initial impressions were quite good for a lens of this design and price point. I had a chance today to take it to the local nature center and try my hand at some bird photography; something that I think that the target market for this lens is quite interested in.
I set up the 200-500mm on my Nikon D810 DSLR and I used my Gitzo 3-series tripod with a Really Right Stuff BH-55 Ball Head and Wimberley Sidekick gimbal adapter. This is a relatively lightweight setup that is very sturdy. The only disadvantage of the Sidekick is that the placement of the gimbal arm makes it a little awkward to reach the focus and zoom ring while shooting, but in most cases that’s not a big deal. I considered using the Wimberley head, but I didn’t want to carry the extra weight.
This time of year, there aren’t a whole lot of interesting birds in Colorado Springs, but the house finches, sparrows, and juncos were plentiful. These are small birds, and I was photographing them from about 30 feet (10m) away. The way I see it, this was a good test for this lens; small targets on an overcast, low-contrast day. These conditions push the focus system to its limit.
As I expected, the 200-500 focused well but not lightning fast like the 500 f/4 AFS G VR. However, in most situations it was perfectly acceptable in acquiring focus. Focus accuracy was quite good. I had calibrated the lens using the AF Fine-Tune menu in my D810, and I found that focus was pretty much dead-on.
Sharpness was good at f/5.6 (wide-open), even at 500mm. There was a slight improvement in image quality at f/7.1 but you can be comfortable shooting wide-open if need be. I found bokeh to be surprisingly pleasing, even with situations that presented cluttered backgrounds. I still need to test the lens with the TC-14EIII teleconverter, but in most cases I probably won’t need it with the D810, as I can simply use the crop mode to get an effective 750mm angle of view (with a 15 megapixel image).
My overall conclusion is that while this lens isn’t quite as fast or sharp as the Nikon 500mm prime, it’s outstanding for a lens at this price. There were times when the focus system hunted, but mostly that was when I was shooting into cluttered scenes with branches obstructing my view. Because the lens changes length when zoomed, it’s not going to be perfectly balanced on a gimbal head unless you don’t zoom it while shooting. However, I think these are minor nits considering that in most cases, wildlife shooters will be using it at the maximum focal length most of the time.
At under $1400, if you’re a Nikon enthusiast interested in bird and wildlife photography, the 200-500mm f/5.6 AFS G VR Nikkor is a no-brainer.