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Review Nikon AF-S 500 mm f/4E FL ED @ FX

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To be honest: when I get to test the umpteenth 18-55 mm kit lens, it takes effort to get enthusiastic about it. It’s a whole different thing when the Nikon importer gives you the opportunity to try out one of their professional telephoto lenses. The Nikon 500 mm AF-S f/4E FL ED. This is a monster of a lens. It weighs more than 3 kilos and is equipped with the newest lens technologies: nano coating, two fluorite elements, multiple vibration reduction and an electromagnetically driven aperture.

172384 AFS 500E FL angle1 140cba original 14357636
The target audience for such an expensive piece of glasswork (around € 11,000) is two-fold: sports and nature photography. Nikon calls it a workhorse for the stadium and in nature. We tried both, with a D800 for the body. For Imatest, we tested the Nikon AF-S 500 mm f/4E on a Nikon D810.

Nikon AF-S 500 mm f/4E FL ED: mercilessly sharp

Details

The Nikon 500 mm AF-S f/4E is designed for the professional photographer. So: bright, very (very) solidly crafted, everything well sealed, a wide rubber focus ring, buttons in the right place. Two sturdy eyes for attaching carrying straps (given the weight distribution, better than on the camera) and a “security lock” with which you can chain on the lens.

Filters do not fit on the very large front lens, but in a special filter holder that sits close to the body. There is even a polarization filter for sale that you can rotate from outside (photo above). All the optics meet the highest standards. Two fluorite elements, three elements of ED glass (extra-low dispersion) and Nano Crystal Coat guarantee minimal chromatic aberration and artefacts. Fluorite coating on the front glass element keeps the lens from getting dirty. And due to this extra coating, you can wipe the front lens clean without damaging the nano coating.

Anyone who thinks that purchasing this lens means they will immediately come home with the shot of the “golden goal” or of that extremely rare Crested Snipe will be disappointed. You really have to learn to work with this lens. That is first of all because of the big dimensions and the high weight. With the carbon lens hood installed, the lens is more than half a meter long. Without a single-foot tripod at the very least, it’s hopeless. We used a Sirui Gimbal head with which you can support the camera-lens combination precisely under the center of gravity. Even then it takes a while to be able to make quick movements without difficulty, and you still have to look out that you don’t smack the guy next to you in the head.

 
Specifications
Nikon AF-S 500mm f/4E FL ED VR
Image Stabilization:+
lenses/ groups:16/12
length x diameter:387 / 140
filter size:41
Weight:3090
Lens hood:+
 JOP5570mm500
Handy AF memory set button within reach increases the chance of a successful shot.  

Controls

There are 5 switches on the lens. Next to the usual—in this price class—buttons, you also find two remarkable features (sound off and AF memory). Of course there is the AF/MF switch. Next to the MF mode, there are two settings in the AF mode, in one of which you have to turn the focus ring further before anything happens. This is to prevent effects of turning the ring “by accident.” You can always “turn through automatic” with the focus ring. With the focus limiter switch, you can limit the focus area to 8 meters and beyond. This prevents the feared wandering during focusing. With the AF-function button, you can secure the AF, or let it go to a previously set (memory) mode. With another button, you can turn the beep for focusing on or off, so that the deer are not chased off by the beep from the camera indicating that it’s in focus. You can see the set distance on a window. The aperture can only be set via the camera body; there is no separate aperture ring. That naturally also has to do with the electromagnetic aperture motor. Everything happens “by wire.” The shortest set distance is 3.6 meters.

Vibration reduction with a lens this size is not an unnecessary luxury. Without that, getting sharp shots by hand would be practically impossible. Nikon claims an improvement of 4 stops; we didn’t measure that, but we take it that it’s correct. The VR switch has an “off” mode, a “normal” mode and a “sport” mode. The sport mode is for subjects with lots of moving action, where you move the camera itself as well, and it’s specially intended for continuous shooting. The VR works in both the normal and the sport mode, even when tracking the subject (“panning”); then it only corrects perpendicular to the direction of the movement. The “off” mode is recommended for working from a tripod.

Auto focus is lightning fast and dead accurate. The repeatability of the AF is less than 5%, which is also very good given the limited focal depth of this telephoto lens

Humidity throws a wrench in the works When working from a big distance, atmospheric disturbances start to play a role. A nationally known auto sport photographer told me once that in warm weather, the really great shots are only possible during the early open practice runes; in the afternoon, everything trembles and is distorted. And with the slightest haze at a big distance, you get lifeless images without deep blacks. You can liven those up with image editing, but they will never be really beautiful. The focal depth is so small that you have to focus extremely carefully. For action shots, you therefore have to have good control over the different AF options of the body as well. It will take a few months before you really have that mastered in stress situations.

Sport and nature

DSC 4253mm500
Low light? There are few lenses and cameras with which you can use high ISO values under poor lighting conditions (twilight and low contrast) and still come home with good shots, even though you deal with those conditions regularly as a nature photographer. At that moment, telephoto zoom lenses, with a full aperture of f/5.6 or more, that you also have to stop down 1 or 2 stops for the best result, are not the best choice. This shot was made at 1600 ISO and f/4. The edited RAW file ultimately produced a high-contrast image without disruptive noise.  

We mentioned it already: this lens has two target audiences, Sports and Nature. For nature and bird photography, the problem of haze and atmospheric disruptions quickly play a part. Heading out early works best. For the big game (safari!), a 500 mm is often too long. For a lot of sports photography, a long telephoto lens is indispensable. But too much is sometimes a hassle. For football, for example, you want to capture the player and the ball in one frame: that often works better with a bit larger field of view and cropping afterwards. For tennis and indoor sports, you are often better off with a 200 mm than a 500. According to Nikon, the 500 mm is a real Formula 1 focal length. The places where the photographers are allowed to stand are determined in advance and assume 500 mm. But if you want to capture the concentration of Daphne Schippers at the start of her Olympic race, then you never have enough telephoto. Professional photographers therefore often use a 1.4 or 2.0 extender on their 500 or 600 mm. Then the auto focus only works if you start with a bright lens, and this top model fulfills that condition. For sports photography, do not automatically choose the shortest shutter time! A limited amount of motion blur strengthens the suggestion of speed, and you can stop down a bit more. The extra focal depth that you get is often needed!

Competitors

Actually, this lens has no competitors. Sigma has a fixed focal length 500 mm for a great deal less money, but that is an older lens design, and it probably can’t keep up with this Nikon optically. There are various zoom lenses with 500 mm as the maximum range, for a fraction of what this 500 mm costs. Those are less bright, are disappointing in terms of image quality and do not stand up as well to the rough daily practice of the professional photographer. If your budget permits, the Nikon 600 mm f/4 (review appears in a few weeks) is probably the most obvious competitor.

Chromatic aberration, vignetting, distortion and flare

The Imatest measurement confirmed what we thought we already saw in the practice shots. This lens is completely free of distortion (-0.0488%). Lateral chromatic aberration is very nicely limited to a maximum of half a pixel in the corners. At full aperture, you can spot vignetting (Imatest: 1 stop) in non-corrected RAW files. After stopping down 1 stop, that is already no longer visible (0.25 stop). The jpg files (with vignetting correction on Normal) stored in the camera already have less than 0.25 stop vignetting from full aperture.

The more lens elements and the larger the lens elements, the greater the chance of internal reflections in a lens, with flare and ghosts as a result. And this lens consists of many, large lens elements. Nikon has therefore also applied internal coating. To limit flare and ghosts even further, a hefty lens hood is included as standard. 

Sharpness

DSC 4033

Sharpness and the contrast of the Nikon AF-S 500 mm f/4E are high from full aperture. The image quality of this lens is among the absolute top for telephoto lenses with extremely long focal lengths. Honestly, we expected nothing less. 
 

Bokeh

This bright telephoto lens offers high sharpness and a very limited focal depth at full aperture. High contrast coupled with a great bokeh.  

Reviews


Conclusion Nikon AF-S 500 mm f/4E FL ED review with Nikon D810

Use the Lens comparison overview of reviewed lenses to compare this lens with other lenses.

WYSIWYG score: This table shows the performance of this lens if you save the file in the camera, where you have applied all available in-camera lens corrections. This score gives you for this lens/test camera combination: "What you see is what you get".

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Focal Length
mm @ FF
Total score
Resolution
lat. C.A.
Vignetting
Distortion
AF accur.
AF speed


500
500
9.5
8.9
9.8
9.0
8.6
8
Pure RAW score: This table shows the performance of this lens if the file is stored in the camera as a RAW file. This score approaches the intrinsic quality of the combination of lens and test camera. If you make use of Photoshop, Lightroom or SilkyPix for converting RAW files, then the RAW scores are equal to the jpg scores.


Focal Length
mm @ FF
Total score
Resolution
lat. C.A.
Vignetting
Distortion
AF accur.
AF speed


500
500
9.2
9.1
9.7
9.2
8.8
8

Pros

  • Flawless build quality
  • Unparalleled optical performance
  • Fast and accurate AF
  • Handy features: Sports VR, AF memory & "sound off" switch

Cons

  • Not more than it’s worth, but a great deal of money
  • Big and heavy

This 500 mm f/4 is the best for sale in this class. That applies for the build quality and for the image quality. The moisture- and dirt-repellent fluorite coating on the front lens is a valuable addition to the sealing against dust and splashwater. Various handy dedicated features, such as Sports VR, AF memory button and "sound off" switch are distinctive characteristics that you will find on few lenses. 1 stop of vignetting at full aperture is the only point of improvement that we could come up with as far as the image quality is concerned. But there are very few full-frame lenses that can match that.

High quality carries a hefty price tag. Does the lens cost more than it’s worth? No, but eleven thousand euros is a great deal of money.

Jop Steenhof de Jong
Author: Jop Steenhof de Jong
Photography has been a hobby of mine for many years. For me, it's about the joy of creating. I like to find and share knowledge in depth topics again. After years of having fun with contributions made to the Dutch magazine "Camera Magazine", I test now with at least as much pleasure for CameraStuffReview.

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