Nikon 200-500mm lens review

To: 'Birding Aus' <>
Subject: Nikon 200-500mm lens review
From: Paul Dodd <>
Date: Mon, 22 Feb 2016 08:53:28 +0000
Hi birders,

I noticed with great interest that Nikon released a 200-500mm f/5.6 zoom
lens last year. This was obviously pitched directly at purchasers of the
Sigma 150-500mm f/5-6.3, the Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 family and the Tamron
f/5-6.3. The Nikon sells for around $1,879, the Sigma 150-500 for $1,059,
the Sigma 150-600 "Contemporary" for $1,186, the Sigma 150-600 "Sport" for
$2,245 and the Tamron for $1,199, so the Nikon is considerably more
expensive. On the other hand, the Nikon 500mm f/4 sells for $13,899 - so the
Nikon zoom is only 14% the price of its larger cousin. More on the technical
differences between the lenses and the cost justification later.

I must be getting old, I think, but it can be quite a struggle managing a
500mm f/4 lens on a small boat in the Southern Ocean, so I've been
interested in an alternative for a while. Whilst I have Nikon's wonderful
300mm f/2.8 lens, I do miss the reach of 500mm for pelagics. Unfortunately,
where the 500mm f/4 struggles is when the birds are really close to the boat
- both in terms of close-focussing distance and also trying to frame a bird
flying across you at close proximity with 500mm focal length is very
difficult! The other issue with the 500mm f/4 is the sheer weight of the
lens (the Canon equivalent is considerably lighter).

There are any number of lab tests available for lenses and they'll all tell
you pretty much the same thing - the lens performs very well at all
apertures and all focal lengths, notably out-performing Nikon's other
"affordable" telephoto zoom the 80-400mm. Interestingly, the lab tests also
indicate that the Nikon 200-500mm also outperforms both the Sigma and the
Tamron 150-600mm lenses. Full lab test details can be found at

My test of the lens involved wandering around with it all day and shooting
different subjects, so to that end I took it to Serendip Sanctuary at Lara
in Victoria on Saturday. I shot at 500mm, 200mm and very occasionally,
somewhere in between. I did not try the lens with a teleconverter, and nor
am I likely to. Oh, I have already customised my lens by replacing the Nikon
collar and foot with a Kirk Photo Arca-Swiss compatible mount. I do this
with all my lenses because I have exclusively switched to Arca-Swiss tripod
mounts and I also have straps with Arca-Swiss clamps attached. Details here

The first thing I noticed was the weight, or lack of it. This lens weighs in
at 2.3kg, compared to 3.1kg for the 500mm f/4. It is only a 800g difference,
but it just feels so much lighter! The second thing that I immediately
noticed is the size - the 200-500 is 268mm long, compared to 387mm for the
500mm f/4 - the 200-500mm lens is 2/3 the length. I think this is why the
lenses feel so different - the 500mm f/4 has the bulk of its weight at the
front of the lens body, primary caused by a huge chunk of f/4 glass, whereas
the 200-500 has a much smaller chunk of glass at the front with the balance
distributed reasonably evenly throughout the lens - this means that it is
less of an effort to move the lens around, especially important when
following birds in flight (think of trying to hold a hammer up and rotate it
to follow something in the air).

Of course, the 200-500 only opens up to f/5.6 which is one complete stop
slower than the 500mm f/4. One stop doesn't seem like much, and it isn't on
a bright sunny day, but in low light, such as a forest, or on a dull day,
the 500mm f/4 would excel. In addition, f/4 allows you to "isolate" the
subject from the background more than f/5.6 - but in reality, the difference
is negligible in this regard. One thing about this lens is that it is f/5.6
across its entire zoom range, compare this with the Sigmas and Tamron which
have maximum apertures of f/5 at 150mm through to f/6.3, which is 1/3 stop
slower - that probably makes little difference in bright light, but does
preclude the Sigmas and Tamron from using a teleconverter and maintaining

Perhaps the most significant thing that I noticed about the lens, though, is
its close-focus. This lens focusses to 2.2m compared with the Nikon 500mm
f/4 which has a close-focus of 3.6m. This is actually a considerable amount
- especially when photographing birds from a hide, say. This compares very
favourably with the Sigma 150-600mm "Sport", which has a close focus of 2.6m
(the Sigma "Contemporary" close-focusses to 2.8m).

I took quite a number of shots during my day - you can see them at
-2016/. The first few shots are just me firing off some shots with this lens
for the first time. After that I settled in to doing some close-ups with the
captive population at the park. I also revisited some shots I had previously
done with the 500mm f/4 on some of the ponds. Note that the wide shots were
not taken with this combination, but you should be able to figure them out
(just click the "i" next to the images to give you the detail if there's any

Do I have any negatives about this lens? No, not really. It seems uniformly
sharp across its entire zoom range and there is little or no light drop off
to the edges or corners of the image. If I'm being picky, the most
significant negative is that the lens is not the fastest at focussing, so
that means that birds in flight, or moving targets, will take some practice
as you will need to track whilst the lens is focussing. The other potential
negative, and certainly something to be aware of, is that the lens is not
weatherproof or sealed like the 500mm f/4 - so be careful of using it in the
rain (and on pelagics!) This can be managed by using LensCoat (or similar)
rain protectors, if you think there's any likelihood of getting the lens

I can't really offer my personal opinion about the merits of this lens over
the Sigmas or Tamrons as I haven't shot with those lenses and am unlikely to
do so. I would point out that those lenses do extend to 600mm, which is a
considerable advantage (I do also shoot with a Nikon 600mm f/4, and that
extra 100mm is a vast difference). Most reviews do point out that the Sigmas
and Tamron are a little soft at 600mm and suggest shooting at around 500mm
for best results. The Sigma 150-600mm Sport lens is also considerably
heavier at 2.9kg.

Whilst I normally shoot with the large primes, I also use the Nikon 14-24mm,
so am not averse using zooms. I have previously owned the Nikon 80-400mm
(not the current model) and I absolutely hated it - probably one of the
worst lenses, of any brand, that I've ever owned. This lens is leagues
beyond the old 80-400mm - much more in keeping with the current
ultra-telephotos. The 200-500mm is considerably heavier than the new
80-400mm, but wins out on two fronts - firstly it is considerably cheaper
(the 80-400mm is around $3,443!) Secondly, 500mm certainly trumps 400mm!
Reviews would indicate that the 200-500mm is actually sharper than the
80-400mm too. Would I recommend this lens to someone looking for an
"affordable" entry into bird photography - absolutely!

Paul Dodd
Docklands, Victoria

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