Nikon AF-S 200-500 mm f/5.6E ED VR, list price: €1599.-.
For those who photograph birds, the focal length can never be long enough. The new Nikon 200-500 mm has a constant brightness of f/5.6 and offers a very large range that can be further expanded with a 1.4x converter with the option to retain AF. That is not possible with a lens with a brightness of less than f/5.6, because for most cameras, AF is disengaged if the brightness of teleconverter and lens is less than f/8.
As Nikon’s most affordable super-telephoto lens of more than 300 mm, this new 200-500 mm lens is an interesting option for several reasons. First of all, it is not a bad idea to choose a super-telephoto lens instead of a fixed focal length because you can almost never adjust the framing—by coming closer to your subject—without chasing off your subject. A second argument is the high image quality that this lens has to offer, according to Nikon. The new Nikon 200-500 mm is also chockfull of the newest lens technologies, including the grease- and moisture-repellent Fluorine coating on the front lens, which is only applied to much more expensive lenses.
The zoom lens in our test had no problems from “creeping”; the dropping of the zoom if the lens is pointed downward. The Nikon AF-S 200-500 mm f/5.6E ED VR is equipped with a zoom lock that secures the lens at the shortest focal length when it is not in use. Two buttons are for focusing: next to an AF/MF switch, there is a switch with which the focal range can be limited, which benefits the AF speed. In addition, there are two buttons for the vibration reduction (on/off and sport/normal). With the removable tripod connection, you make landscape and portrait shots without removing the camera from the tripod. A removable lens hood and a soft bag are included.With a shortest setting distance of more than 2 meters, you need a big spider for a close-up shot.
Build and auto focus
This is a sturdily built lens, with the high quality that we are accustomed to from Nikon. It is an impressive lens to look at, with a length of 45 cm at the longest focal length and a filter size of 95 mm. There are photographers who find a lens of more than 2 kilos too heavy for shooting by hand, but I found it to work surprisingly well.
The complex lens design consists of 19 elements in 12 groups. Thanks to three elements of high-quality ED glass, chromatic aberration is limited to a minimum. As the largest zoom lens with a fixed aperture in the current NIKKOR assortment, the NIKKOR 200-500 mm also has the newest generation of Nikon’s technology for vibration reduction (VR). This impressive system makes it possible to photograph sharply with shutter times that, according to Nikon, are up to 4.5 stops longer. The VR SPORT mode is ideal for following fast actions.
Nikon’s Silent Wave Motor (SWM) focuses fast and silently. That also makes this lens very suitable for video. The electromagnetic aperture (thus the addition of an E after the aperture in the name of this lens) makes more stable exposure during fast continuous shooting possible. Manual focusing—certainly interesting for videographers—goes very nicely with this lens. The zoom ring and the distance ring are nicely broad, feel nice and are pleasantly dampened. Manual focusing is just as comfortable as with the Sigma 150-600 mm Sports and more comfortable than with the narrow focus ring on the Sigma 150-600 mm Contemporary.
Little distortion, no chromatic aberration or vignetting
Like most telephoto lenses, you will not be bothered when using the Nikon 200-500 mm by visible distortion. At all focal lengths, the distortion measured with Imatest—without in-camera or software corrections—was half a percent or lower, pincushion shaped. Lateral chromatic aberration—colored edges at sharp contrast transitions in the corners—is completely absent. Because you only use the center of the image on a camera with a DX sensor, vignetting is also completely absent.
The Nikon 200-500 mm is delivered including lens hood, and that is good, since this lens is not equipped with NanoCrystal coating. That coating is an effective way to prevent internal reflections. With bright backlighting, you can have trouble with lowered contrast and ghosts. On this point, the 200-500 mm was not as good in our test as the Nikon 80-400 mm.
High sharpness from corner to corner
Click on the illustration above for a larger version. Sharpness is high at all focal lengths and even the sharpness in the corners barely lags behind the sharpness in the center. At the longest focal length, the contrast is lower than at other focal lengths, and it pays off to stop down 1 stop. Fantastic performance.
Vibration reduction at long shutter times (1/15 sec) delivers a profit of 4 stops. Great performance by Nikon!
In order to test the vibration reduction, I took a series of 35 shots with and without image stabilization on a Nikon D7200 at 300 mm focal length and various shutter times. The sharpness of the test shots was measured with Imatest. Anyone who thinks that an experienced photographer can get equally sharp pictures by hand or from a tripod with a 300 mm lens on a camera with a DX sensor at a shutter time of 1/500 of a second or shorter is in for a disappointment.
Event at a shutter time of 1/1000 of a second, the shots made with image stabilization were sharper than the shots made without image stabilization. A shot made without image stabilization and a shutter time of 1/1000 sec is just as sharp as a shot with vibration reduction and a shutter time of 1/125 sec. That is a profit of 3 stops. At longer shutter times, the difference in sharpness was even greater: a shot without image stabilization and a shutter time of 1/250 sec is as sharp as a shot made with 1/15 sec with image stabilization.
The difference in the distribution of sharpness is also striking. A series of 5 shots made with image stabilization and a single shutter time, anywhere between 1/100 and 1/60 sec, hardly differed (less than 5%) from each other. For a series made without image stabilization and a shutter time of 1/500 sec or longer, there were enormous differences. Photographing without a tripod? Turn on the image stabilization if you are not using shutter times shorter than 1/1000 sec.
Click on the illustration for a larger version.The Nikon 200-500 mm delivers a beautiful run from sharp to blur and a beautiful bokeh. Just a bit less beautiful than if you use the same lesn on a camera with a full-frame sensor, but better than many other lenses on a camera with a DX sensor. In this shot of dewdrops in a spider web, made at 500 mm f/5.6, it can be seen that the bokeh rings have a small edge without color wash.
Conclusion Nikon AF-S 200-500 mm review @ D7200
- Extremely high image quality
- High image quality: high sharpness, beautiful bokeh, no vignetting or color separation
- Fluorine coating on the front lens
- f/5.6 across the entire zoom range: retention of AF with 1.4x teleconverter (on an f/8-compatible camera)
- Sensitive to backlighting
- Smaller zoom range than the 80-400 mm
The Nikon 200-500 mm is ideal for photographing birds, whether they are sitting still or flying past.
The “normal” vibration reduction works perfectly if the subject is not moving. The Sports vibration reduction—ideal for action or sport photography—delivers a perfectly stabilized viewfinder image when following moving subjects.
As we said, a telephoto lens cannot be long enough—as far as focal length is concerned—for most photographers. Thanks to the crop factor of a DX sensor, the D7200 works like a “free teleconverter” and then 500 mm is more than enough in most cases. The field of view at the longest focal length corresponds with the field of view of a 750 mm telephoto lens on a camera with an FX sensor. With the retention of AF, you can further extend that to a field of view that corresponds with a 1000 mm super-telephoto on a camera with an FX sensor. An additional advantage of the use of an FX lens on a DX camera is that you only use the center of the image, so that the image quality at full aperture is already high: from corner to center. You have no trouble at all from lens flaws like chromatic aberration, distortion or vignetting. For less expensive telephoto zoom lenses, the image quality at the longest focal length is sometimes a disappointment. That is absolutely not the case here.
I can imagine that there are photographers who find a lens of more than 2 kilos to be too heavy. Try the Nikon 200-500 mm out once first at the photo shop, before you buy it. I did not find it to be a problem to work for a long time without a tripod, and the fantastic image quality—visibly better than that of the Nikon 70-300 mm or the more expensive Nikon 80-400 mm—make this super-telephoto zoom an absolute must-have.