For some people, even a 500mm telephoto lens on a camera with an FX sensor is not enough. Couple a bright f/4 telephoto lens to a camera with a DX sensor, like the D7200 for the highest possible resolution or the D500 for action, and you have a field of view that corresponds with an 800mm telephoto lens on a camera with an FX sensor, while you still benefit from the high brightness. And for many telephoto lens shots, the extra focal depth in comparison with an 800mm on FX is a plus point if you are capturing a fast-moving subject in a photo. The Nikon AF-S 500mm f/4E FL ED is equipped with the newest lens technologies: nano-coating, two fluorite elements, multiple vibration reduction and an electromagnetically driven aperture. We tried this super-telephoto on a Nikon D7200 and a D500 DX / APS-C body.
Nikon AF-S 500mm f/4E FL ED? YummY!
A Full-Frame lens oN AN APS-C body?
The target group for such an expensive piece of glasswork (around € 11,000) is twofold: sport and nature photography. Nikon writes: a workhorse in the stadium and in nature. It seems strange, mounting a very expensive full-frame lens on an APS-C body. This amazement is probably because many people consider the APS-C format (in Nikon terms: DX) as inferior, something for the average amateur. We dare to claim that this is no longer the case. The newest APS-C bodies, whether from Nikon or another brand, have just as many pixels as many full-frame colleagues; they have the same options and the same specs. Yes, the pixel density per mm2 is higher, so that you might expect more noise, but because of the significantly improved sensors, that is not an issue as long as you stay away from the very highest ISO settings.
You buy a telephoto lens for the telephoto effect, and with an APS-C sensor, you get a factor of 1.5 in focal distance to boot for free. This 500 mm thus behaves like a 750mm. You can also say: you save on a 1.4 extender. In addition, with an APS-C sensor, you use the best part of the image, namely the middle. Should there still be lens errors observable in full-frame, they will be eliminated in the DX format. In short, we assess the tested 500 mm on a good APS-C body, preferably a D500, as a mature combination, even for a pro.
WORKING WITH A supertelEPHOTO
This 500 mm f/4 is an expensive lens, made with the professional photographer in mind. So: bright, extremely solidly built, everything well sealed, a wide rubber focus ring, buttons in the right places. Two sturdy eyes for attaching a carrying strap and a “security slot” with which you can chain up the lens. Filters do not fit on the very large front lens, but in a special filter holder close to the body. There is even an (expensive) polarization filter for sale that you can turn from the outside (see photo). 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 prevent soiling, and you can polish this glass without damaging the nano-coating.
Anyone who thinks that with the purchase of a lens like this, they will immediately come home with the “golden goal” or that very 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 high weight. With the carbon lens hood installed, the lens is more than half a meter long. Without at least a one-footed tripod, it’s hopeless. We use a Gimbal head with which you can support the camera-lens combination precisely under the center of gravity. Even then, it takes a while before you can make quick movements effortlessly, and you have to watch out that you don’t smack your neighbor in the head.
When working at great distances, atmospheric vibrations start to play a role. A nationally known auto sport photographer told one once that in warm weather, the really great shots are only possible at the early free practices; in the afternoon, everything jumps around and distorts. Even with only the most limited haziness, you get hopeless images without deep black; you can fix that up a bit in image editing, but it will never be really beautiful. The focal depth is very small, so that you have to focus very carefully. That means you really need to master the various AF capabilities of your camera body. It will be a couple of months before you are really on top of that in stress situations.
The (in the Netherlands) extremely rare Osprey, photographed with Nikon AF-S 500mm f/4E FL ED @ Nikon D500
Sport AND natuRE
We said it already: this lens has two target audiences—sport and nature. For nature and sport photography, the problems of haziness and atmospheric vibrations quickly come into play. Working early works best. For the large mammals (safari!), a 500 mm is often too long. For much of sport photography, a long telephoto is indispensable. But too much is sometimes a bother. 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 is determined in advance and assumes a 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 often use their 500 or 600 mm with a 1.4 or 2.0 extender. Then the auto focus only works if you start with a bright lens, and this top model meets that condition. With an APS-C body, you automatically have a crop factor of 1.5; throw an extender of 1.4 on that and you have a lens with an effective focal length of 1050 mm. Even the most spoiled bird photographer would have to be extraordinarily happy with that!
The lens has various operating buttons. In the first place, there is naturally 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 turning “by accident.” You can always “turn through the automatic” with the focus ring. With the focus limit switch, you can limit the focal area to 8 meters and beyond. This prevents the dreaded wandering while focusing. With the AF function button, you can secure the AF or have it go to a distance set in advance (memory). With another button, you can turn the beep when focusing on or off. 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 is done “by wire.” The shortest setting distance is 3.6 meters.
The quality of the auto focus of a lens naturally depends on the body that you use it on. Preferably the body should have the capability for subject tracking, and multiple AF points. The focusing is also especially important because of that, since the focal depth is very small, certainly with the aperture wide open. We did our testing with the D7200. The auto focus works lightning fast and precise. The repeatability of the AF was more than 95%.
Vibration reduction is not unneeded luxury with a lens of this size. Without that, sharp shots by hand would hardly be possible. Nikon claims an improvement of 4 stops; we didn’t check that, but we assume that it’s right. The VR switch has an “off” mode, a “normal” mode and a “sport” mode. The sport mode is for subjects with a lot of moving action, where you also move the camera itself and is 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 panning. The “off” mode is recommended for working from a tripod.
Actually, there aren’t any. Sigma has a fixed focal length of 500 mm for a great deal less money, but that lens does not match the optics of this Nikon. There are various zoom lenses with 500 mm as the maximum range at a fraction of what this 500 mm costs. Those are not as bright, are rather disappointing in the corners in terms of image quality and are not really resistant to rough daily practice. You always see professional photographers with telephoto lenses of their “own brand,” and that is of course not without reason.
DISTORTION, chromatiC aberratiON & FLARE
The Imatest measurement confirmed what we already thought we saw in the practice shots. This lens is completely distortion-free on a camera with a DX sensor (-0.04%). Lateral chromatic aberration is kept very nicely limited to a maximum of half a pixel in the corners (uncorrected RAW files). In jpg files, lateral chromatic aberration is automatically corrected, and then it is also completely absent.
The sharpness (resolution) of this lens is of a very high level. We measure that in the lab with Imatest.
ConclusiON Nikon AF-S 500mm f/4E FL ED REVIEW WITH Nikon D7200
- Flawless build quality
- Unmatched optical performance
- Fast and accurate AF
- Handy features: Sports VR, AF memory & “sound off” switch
- Not overpriced, but a good deal of money
- Big and heavy
This 500 mm f/4 is the best thing for sale in this area. 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 other lenses. A dream lens!
A price has to be paid for that quality, of course. Is the lens overpriced? No, but 11 thousand euros is a great deal of money.