First impressions: Nikon’s 200-500mm f/5.6 E lens provides a lot of performance for the price

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posted Wednesday, January 6, 2016 at 10:27 PM EST

 
 

Nikon's newest telephoto zoom lens, the AF-S Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR delivers great performance for a reasonably low cost of just under $1400 USD.

The 200-500mm lens is neither small nor light, but for its focal length it is a manageable size. It weighs in at 81.2 ounces (2,300 grams) and is 10.5 inches (267.5mm) long when at the 200mm focal length. The lens has a 4.2 inch (108mm) diameter and accepts 95mm screw-on filters, which is not a particularly common filter size. When using the lens at 500mm, it becomes quite a bit longer, but it remained well-balanced with my D800e.

The lens body itself looks nice and has typical Nikon styling, with gold branding and white focal length markings on the lens. The focal lengths (200, 300, 400, and 500mm) are painted on the zoom ring, but the markings on the lens barrel and tripod collar are engraved. Unlike many lenses, the focus ring is actually closer to the camera than the zoom ring, and I think that this is a good decision because it allows you to change the focal length while maintaining good balance and lens-holding technique. Manual focusing is useful at times, but the ring will certainly be used less regularly than the zoom ring for most users and is easily accessed.

 
 

One aspect of the zoom ring that I dislike, however, is that it requires about 180 degrees of rotation to zoom from 200 to 500mm. If it could zoom with a shorter range of motion, I think that the lens would handle a lot better. The focus ring rotates well, but it’s a bit loose-feeling. In my opinion, the tripod collar is an area of strength for the 200-500mm lens. It also features a very neat design for removing it; if you line up the white arrow on the tripod collar with the marking on the lens, you can unscrew and simply slide the tripod collar off (so long as the lens isn’t attached to a camera, that is). The 200-500mm also includes a screw-on lens hood that is quite large and does its job well. It can be reversed and put back on the lens when transporting. Additionally, there’s a switch on the lens to lock it at 200mm for ensuring that it doesn’t extend during transporting.

 
500mm, f/8, 1/1250s, ISO 400. This image has been modified.

[Clicking any image will take you to access to the RAW file and EXIF data.]

Now let's move on to performance. The 200-500mm lens has performed very well for me. I don’t mean that it has performed well for an affordable telephoto zoom either, I mean that it has performed well in absolute terms. The lens is sharp wide open across the entire focal length range and delivers fast, reliable autofocus performance. While a constant aperture of f/5.6 is not always ideal, especially when shooting in low light or shooting a fast-moving subject, a 200-500mm f/4 lens would be much larger, heavier, and more expensive (Nikon’s most recent 200-400mm f/4 lens weighs 7.4 lbs (3.36 kg) and costs nearly $7000 USD, for example). Even Nikon’s 80-400mm f/4-5.6 lens costs nearly $1000 USD more than the 200-500mm f/5.6.

 
MTF chart for the 200-500mm lens at 500mm.

The f/5.6 aperture has not proven to be much of an issue for me out in the field considering the high ISO capabilities of modern DSLR cameras, but it does mean that using teleconverters with the 200-500mm lens can be difficult. Using a Nikon DSLR capable of autofocusing at f/8, autofocus is possible with the TC-1.4 teleconverter, but it is not fast. Using any teleconverter beyond that will require manually focusing the lens and will not produce particularly good results nor be usable for most types of wildlife photography.

 
700mm (500mm + TC-14e III), f/8, 1/1600s, ISO 400. This image has been modified. 

When using the 200-500mm lens without a teleconverter, autofocus performance is really good. Compared to my 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II lens (my fastest autofocusing lens), the 200-500mm held up very well in good lighting conditions. The 70-200mm lens is a bit faster, but the 200-500mm isn’t far behind and its autofocus performance really impressed me. Autofocus speeds slowed down slightly at 500mm, but the lens remains very snappy. For increased speeds when photographing distant subjects, there’s a switch on the lens to limit the focus to 6m to infinity. With its full autofocus range enabled, the lens can close focus to 7.2 feet (2.2 meters) and it provides a maximum reproduction ratio of 0.22x.

Vibration reduction is impressive as well. In Sport mode (enabled via a switch on the lens, you can choose between ‘Normal’ and ‘Sport’), the 200-500mm provides around 4.5 stops of vibration reduction. I found it to be very effective and it allowed me to capture sharp images at shutter speeds I wouldn’t normally expect to be able to capture images at, especially at a focal length like 500mm. This good vibration reduction performance also helps alleviate some of the issues of using an f/5.6 lens in low light conditions.

 
250mm, f/8, 1/640s, ISO 400. This image has been modified.

Nikon will be shipping us a 200-500mm lens for testing in our lab, so a full review of the lens and its optical performance is forthcoming, but in the meantime I can say that I have not observed optical aberrations. Corner sharpness does fall off a bit, especially when shooting wide open at the extreme ends of the lens, but this is typically not an issue for wildlife photography anyway. This lens does not feature Nikon’s Nano Crystal coating, but I have not experienced issues with flare or reflections.

 
100% crop of RAW image with default Adobe Camera RAW sharpening converted to JPEG. 500mm, f/5.6, 1/1250s, ISO 400

Overall, I am thrilled with the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E lens. It isn’t perfect as its f/5.6 aperture limits its usability in low light and when using teleconverters, but it’s light enough for me to carry around all day, small enough to fit in my backpack, and it provides solid performance. This lens could easily be priced higher and still be a good value. If you are a Nikon photographer looking for a new telephoto zoom, I highly recommend this lens.

 
100% crop of RAW image with default Adobe Camera RAW sharpening converted to JPEG. 390mm, f/9, 1/400s, ISO 640

See more images from this lens in our Nikon D800e Gallery!