The New Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E

Notwithstanding just posting about using shorter lenses to get more context into my photos, I have a confession.  I had all this time had a pre-order in for this new lens.  

This is the way it was going.  I was slowly coming to the realisation that my existing long lens set up (a 300mm f/4 plus 1.4TC) was just a bit limiting.  That got me to I’ve hankering over a 500mm.  To be precise the new 500mm f/4 which, at a shade over 3Kg, was finally looking both reasonably light and handleable while being a fantastic lens.  I was even beginning to believe I could justify the crazy price.  

Fortunately, at about the same time, Nikon announced the 200-500mm f/5.6E.  This looked like a realistic alternative.  For the first time ever, I preordered the lens on the day it was announced.  Then I spent six weeks hoping it would meet my expectations and wondering if I should cancel the order.  I didn’t and the lens was delivered on Saturday.    

What I was really hoping for was a lens that worked at 500mm and f/5.6 at least as well (i.e. very well) as at my current lens 300mm f/4 with teleconverter; an effective 420mm.  Anything else would be a bonus.  I also really liked the flexibility of a zoom, wanted decent autofocus and good VR could be handy.  With a great performance at 500mm and f/5.6, I reasoned that I could give up the one stop difference with the f/4 super tele.  

I’ve now spent a day taking a few hundred of test shots (none of them very interesting so I’m not putting them up here) but here are my own personal first impressions.  

-  First, that performance.  Yes, it performs great at 5.6.  Better than I’d really hoped for and I’ve spent a bit of time hunched over a monitor peeping at pixels.  I’m sure there will be super detailed reviews around soon with loads of 100% crops but fundamentally, it is a fantastic performer.  My basic test is whether I pull the image up at full screen and then at 100% and it ‘pops out’ and hits me with “wow, that’s sharp” impression.  It does this convincingly and consistently so it will absolutely do the job I need on the D7200.  That was all I needed to decide to keep it.  

- As an aside, the lens performance seems to be as good from close to mid far focus (e.g. 200m).  I’m not sure about true infinity because I rarely use there because haze / environment generally degrades the image at these magnifications anyway.  

And the rest:

- I’ve seen some comments about slow autofocus.  Well, its not super fast focussing from closest focus to infinity but I don’t use it like that.  I’ve found it plenty quick to find focus from similar range (the 6m to infinity range setting helps) and then hold it on moving objects.  The very good D7200 autofocus performance probably helps here too.  So overall it is more than acceptable!

- VR.  Very, very good.  I’m usually shooting with shutter speeds of 1/800 plus so it’s not so much of a big deal but I’ve found it really can help handheld shots.  

- Build.  Actually, very good and solid.  No, it’s not ‘pro’ level, knock it around and expect it to survive anything but treat it with a bit of respect and it will be fine.  The zoom ring is quite stiff but smooth and sure; that’s rather good because there is no lens creep when the barrel is tilted up or down.  The manual focus is lighter well positioned and, as a result, you can quickly adjust focus and won’t confuse it with the zoom.

- Weight. At 2.3Kg you know where that solidity comes from but it’s ok.  Handles fine, especially when carrying by the lens foot and it’s not such an issue as I thought it might be (having now already carried it for several miles together with a monopod).

- Size.  Ok, it is big, very big but, obviously not super tele big.  What surprised me is that zoomed to the 200mm end it fits, with the body attached, into my existing messenger bag along with throw hide.  Watch out for the barrel diameter.  I have medium hands and I need to make sure I have a good hold when lifting it onto a tripod or monopod head.  The lens hood is really big. It reverses onto the lens and finding a home for it is going to be my biggest issue when travelling.  No way that’s going to fit into my normal airline travel backpack (a Think Tank Airport Essentials which is really designed for DX bodies and gear).   

- 200mm to 500mm range.  Yes it really is very handy to be given that range, especially when ‘stuck’ in a fixed position (e.g. a hide) photographing.  I’m not seeing any diminished performance issues at the shorter end. I like it.  Nevertheless, I’d be using a 70-200mm f/4 if expecting to shoot only at the lower end. 

- Bokeh (out of focus highlights). Very good.  Actually, a lot better and softer than the 300mm plus TC.  I’m very happy with this.  

- Use with a teleconverter.  I’ve used it with the TC1.4E II.  It works ok with the D7200 which has the latest generation of low light (f/8) focusing capability.  Nevertheless, autofocus is slower and it hunts a bit in poor light which it didn’t without.  So I’m unsure here.  I suspect at 700mm (1050mm equivalent on DX) it’s a tripod only option.  My testing so far was hand-held and monopod and I struggled technique wise so I’m less sure about absolute sharpness. Without doubt, most of the problem was with me - why would you reasonably expect to handhold a 1000mm lens. 

- Lens foot.  Nikon seem to be incapable of making decent lens feet.  This one seems to be a bit more solid than others I’ve seen (I gave up on the one for my 300mm f/4 and bought the Kirk replacement - big difference).  But there are a couple of problems.  First, it only has one tripod screw point.  Adding an Arca Swiss plate really needs a second as the balance point is a good way forward.  I can see some slight movement between foot and plate - not good.  I think I will be drilling and tapping a second hole further forward.  A bit extreme but necessary.  Second point is that with a D7200 and zoomed out to 500mm, the balance point is in front of the supplied foot.  If you are using an arca swiss mount, it’s going to need a longer plate than the foot length (hence the adding an extra hole).  Perhaps Kirk will build a better lens foot.  

In summary, my first impression is that this isn’t just a good lens it is an excellent lens.  At the price point it’s an outstanding one.  

Yes, a new 500mm f/4 prime is going to be a bit better in absolute image terms but not probably enough for many of us.  The image quality looks more than good enough for (pure pixel peepers aside) the most discerning photographer.  Where the prime will stand out is in flexibility to get the photo in the most difficult conditions; that extra stop in poor light, maybe better contrast (nano coating) directly into the light, a little more subject isolation when needed (though I usually want more depth of field) and, possibly most usefully, better/full usability with a teleconverter.  But it misses out the flexibility a zoom gives, costs £7000 more, and (even it’s latest incarnation) weighs 1.5 pounds more and is much bulkier. There are always compromises but I think I can live with the compromise on the 200-500mm side and will happily spend the difference on a trip to Africa.   

I suspect Nikon will be very very successful with this lens and I’d expect it will be difficult to get hold of one for sometime.  I’m really happy that I took the chance with a pre-order.