Review by Mark and Leslie Degner
We were quite surprised, for a couple of reasons, when Nikon announced its new AF-S NIKKOR 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR back in late summer of 2015. The first reason was because Nikon already produces two well-respected super telephoto zoom lenses that have somewhat similar focal lengths: the AF-S NIKKOR 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR and the AF-S NIKKOR 200-400mm f/4G ED VRII. The second reason, and biggest surprise, was its price, especially when compared to the Nikon 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR ($3,149.95) and the Nikon 200-400mm f/4G ED VRII ($8,199.95). The new 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR appears to be a real bargain at $1,649.95. However, it’s only a great deal if it performs really well, which it does.
The Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR is an FX lens, which means that it’s designed for use with full-frame, or FX, sized sensor digital cameras. It can also be used with APS-C or DX (1.5X crop sensor) cameras as well, giving it a full-frame equivalent focal length of 300-750mm, making it great for wildlife and sports photography.
Its build quality is very good, but not quite as rugged as the pricier 200-400mm f/4.0G ED VR II and 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR lenses. Both the lenses are weather sealed, whereas the new 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR is not. During our tests we used it unprotected in a lot of less-than-ideal conditions, including light rain and blizzard conditions with driving snow and -15 C temperatures, and it performed flawlessly. We feel it should hold up very well to the rigours that most outdoors photographers will put it through.
The 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR is shorter, has a smaller diameter, and is significantly lighter than the 200-400mm f/4.0G ED VR II. However, it’s longer, has a larger diameter, and is heavier than the 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR. Make no mistake about this lens; at 2,300 g (5 lb) it’s a fairly heavy lens, and because of its size (267.5 x 106 mm) you’ll need a large camera bag. But even with its bigger size, we did find it fairly comfortable to hold and operate. It has a built-in vibration reduction (VR) system, which Nikon claims to enable shooting handheld at shutter speeds up to about 4.5 stops slower than what would be otherwise possible. The VR system is indeed impressive and will definitely allow you to get sharper handheld images while using shutter speeds slower than you’d be able to do without the VR function. If you want to get the sharpest possible images that this new lens is capable of producing then you’ll want to use a tripod. To make this easier, the lens has a dedicated rotating tripod collar that keeps the camera and lens centred over the tripod to reduce vibration and makes switching from horizontal to vertical composition much more convenient and quick.
The auto focus is relatively fast, quiet and accurate, snapping to focus quickly thanks to the built-in Silent Wave Motor (SWM). In addition, the auto focus can be manually overridden so you can fine-tune your focus to get the perfect result. The focus ring is large enough to make manual focusing easy. The internal focusing system allows the lens to focus without changing its length and the front of the lens doesn’t rotate when focusing or zooming. It has a respectable minimum focusing distance of 2.2 m.
When zooming, the lens’ length changes; at the minimum focal length of 200mm the lens is about 267.5 mm (10.5″) long, but at 500mm it extends out to about 340 mm (13.4″). To fully zoom the lens you need to turn the zoom ring almost a half turn. Luckily both the zoom and focus rings rotate smoothly. The large zoom ring is positioned in front of the focus ring, which is opposite to most zoom lenses that we’re familiar with. This does have some impact on the handling of the lens while handholding it since you have to stretch your fingers forward to turn the zoom ring while trying to keep the camera and lens properly balanced.
Optically, the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR lens has 19 elements in 12 groups with three extra-low dispersion (ED) glass elements. It has Nikon’s Super Integrated Coating, however, it’s lacking the Nano Crystal Coating that’s found on many of the Nikon’s higher quality lenses. Overall, the image quality is very good to excellent, both on full-frame sensor cameras and APS-C sensor cameras. It’s very sharp through most of its entire focal length range, being ever so slightly softer at the 500mm end. It’s also very sharp wide open (ƒ5.6) and gets slightly better at ƒ8. By ƒ16 we began to see a little diffraction starting to affect the sharpness, but even stopped down completely it still had very good sharpness. The lens handles chromatic aberration well and has great colour rendition, good contrast and essentially no distortion.
In our opinion, the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR lens is a wonderful super telephoto zoom lens. Its image quality and sharpness is very good to excellent throughout its entire focal length range, and it performs really well wide open. This lens isn’t perfect as it has a small handling issue when handheld. It’s large and heavy, and may not be as rugged and durable as some of Nikon’s other more expensive super telephoto zoom lenses, but should hold up very well to the rigours that most photographers will put it through. When you factor in its price tag of $1,649.95, it’s one of the best deals that we’ve seen in quite a while. We have no reservations about highly recommending this lens.