Review Nikon AF-S 200-500 mm @ D810
The packaging of the Nikon AF-S 200-500 mm f/5.6E ED VR will not easily go unnoticed. That is a colossal, gold-colored box of more than half a meter tall—and with a significant girth—that will make the hearts of many photographers beat more quickly. In that enormous box sits an affordable (list price of €1599), bright (f/5.6) Nikon super-telephoto zoom (500 mm!) for outdoor sports, action or nature photography. A reasonably compact zoom lens that is designed for cameras with an FX sensor, but can be used at least as well on cameras with a DX sensor. The Nikon 200-500 mm is significantly less expensive than the Nikon 200-400 mm f/4G ED VR II and Nikon 80-400 mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR and looks like it can become a solid competitor for the Tamron 150-600 mm and both Sigma 150-600 mm (Sports and Contemporary) super-telephoto zooms. After we previously tested the Nikon 200-500 on a Nikon D7200, we look at the performance this time in combination with a Nikon D810.
Nikon AF-S 200-500 mm: High-quality glass
|Not only the packaging, but also the 95-mm filter size is impressive. The large front lens is provided with an innovative Fluorine coating, which offers extra protection against grease and moisture. The function of this coating, which is currently still only applied to very few, and mostly also more expensive, lenses, is demonstrated in this video from Nikon Europe.|
|Even more fun than this image excerpt from a shot of a deer at dusk on the high Veluwe made with a Nikon D810 @ 500 mm f/5.6 would have been a shot made with a wide-angle lens of the dozens of photographers who gather every evening in the parking lot in order to capture this beautiful spectacle.|
Build and auto focus
The complex lens design of the Nikon 200-500 mm consists of 19 elements, of which 3 are extra-dispersion ED elements (shown in yellow), in order to prevent color separation (chromatic aberration), in 12 groups. The lens comes with a tripod collar, with which you can transition the camera from landscape-position to portrait position without having to remove it from the tripod—and a soft lens bag.
The AF works—not surprisingly for a super-telephoto lens—faster at the shortest focal lengths (in 375 ms from infinity to 4 meters) than at the longest focal length (more than one second from infinity to 4 meters). The AF also does better at shorter focal lengths in low light: At the longest focal length and low light with the Nikon 200-500 mm, the camera focused to infinity instead of the kingfisher 3 meters in front of my lens. Then the camera stopped focusing. When I then focused manually, for example at 10 meters, then the AF went towards infinity (to stop focusing there) instead of toward the shortest distance. Only when I manually overruled the AF and turned the focus ring all the way to the shortest focal length did the AF focus on the subject.
There is a significant change in the name of the Nikon AF-S 200-500 mm f/5.6E ED VR, that you can recognize by the E after f/5.6. An electromagnetic aperture can more consistently open and close quickly than the mechanical shutter that Nikon used until now. During fast continuous shooting, more precise exposure thus becomes possible. The disadvantage of an electromagnetic aperture is that this only works on modern Nikon cameras. On an older camera, only f/5.6 is available to you. Even that is not an insurmountable objection for an extreme telephoto lens with very good sharpness at full aperture.
Vibration reduction: extremely effective
The newest generation of Nikon’s technology for vibration reduction (VR), according to the specifications, makes it possible to photograph sharply with shutter times that are up to 4.5 stops longer. Nikon’s new vibration reduction is extremely effective. A shot made at 300 mm with a shutter time of 1/125 sec and image stabilization is just as sharp as a shot made with a shutter time of 1/1000 of a second without image stabilization. That is a profit of 3 stops and appears to contradict the 4.5 stops that Nikon claims. The shots made at a shutter time of 1/60 of a second with image stabilization are measurably less sharp than a shot made without image stabilization with a shutter time of 1/1000 sec. Even so, many photographers will still judge the shot with image stabilization as being sharp if they do not see the shot made with a much faster shutter time right next to it.
The VR SPORT mode is a solution for following your subject during fast actions. It is at long focal lengths that you do not want image stabilization when taking pictures with a fast shutter time. Then image stabilization can even lead to less sharp pictures. Even so, you do want to have image stabilization when you are following a subject. That is exactly what the VR SPORT mode offers. The VR SPORT mode is not at the cost of the number of shots that you make per second, and it has an image speed with continuous shooting that is comparable with what you have with VR turned off.
The Nikon 200-500 mm does not have a large filter diameter (105 mm) without reason: vignetting is—partly thanks to the large lens surface of the front lens—striking low at full aperture; only between 400 mm and 500 mm with the half stop of vignetting be visible. After 1 stop stoping down, there is a bit less than a half stop of vignetting present only at 500 mm. That is just very good. We regularly encounter more than two stops of vignetting when testing lenses on a camera with an FX sensor.
Flare, distortion and chromatic aberration
With direct backlighting, or if you do not use the lens hood, you can see green ghosts and a decrease in contrast with strong backlighting. If you compare the Nikon 200-500 mm with Nikon zooms that are fitted with Nano Crystal Coat, like the Nikon 200-400 mm, then you notice that the Super Integrated Coating that is used in the Nikon 200-500 mm is less effective than the Nano Crystal Coat. Always use the included lens hood with backlighting.
Contrast and center sharpness are high starting at full aperture. In comparison with the performance of the Nikon 200-500 mm on a camera with a DX sensor, the sharpness is a bit less evenly distributed. Not surprisingly, given the high resolution of the Nikon D810 36-megapixel sensor without anti-aliasing filter, the sharpness in the corners is lower than in the center. Even so, the sharpness in the corners is still good: always more than 1500 lines per image height (MTF50 of an unedited and unsharpened RAW file). That is just as good as many other lenses achieved for center sharpness in earlier tests. With 1 stop stopping down, the highest center sharpness is reached and the sharpness in the corners visibly increases.
|Image excerpt from a corner of a shot (@ 500 mm) of a subject at a couple kilometers’ distance: f/5.6 vs f/8. Click on the illustration for a larger version.
Bokeh Nikon AF-S 200-500 mm @ D810
|It is not fair to compare the Nikon AF-S 200-500 mm f/5.6E with—much more expensive—bokeh champions like the Nikon 300 mm f/2.8, Nikon 400 mm f/4 or Nikon 200-400 mm. The long focal length, the 9 rounded aperture blades and a good lens design give the 200-500 mm with a beautiful bokeh and a fluid transition from sharp to blur. A sharp light point in the background sometimes creates a bokeh with an edge.
Conclusion: Review of Nikon AF-S 200-500 mm @ D810
|Look in our list of reviewed lenses in order to compare this lens with other lenses.
WYSIWYG score: This table shows the performance of this lens if you save the files in the camera as jpg, 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".