Monday, April 4, 2016

Thoughts on the Nikon 200-500 f/5.6 Lens

Since shortly before Christmas, I have been photographing with the new Nikon AF-S Nikkor 200-500 f/5.6E ED VR lens. I have been happy shooting with my old 300mm f/4 with teleconverters for the past few years but found the new lens too irresistible to not at least try out. I am not a professional photographer or reviewer but will give my thoughts on this lens after using it almost exclusively for wildlife photography the past three plus months.

For a little back history, I have tried two different copies of the Tamron 150-600 lens and came away overall unimpressed. My main beef with this lens is the random loss of autofocus that comes and goes without rhyme or reason. To regain  autofocus one must temporarily disconnect and then reconnect the lens. That was unacceptable to me. In addition to that, the lens at 600mm was fairly soft and needed to be stopped down to at least f/8 to get usable results. The low light results from the lens were not the greatest and even decent shots in decent light seemed as if you were shooting through an extra pane of glass.

The experience with the Tamron left me with no desire to try the new Nikon lens when it first came out and the samples on photo sharing sites didn't really impress me either. Still, a few respected reviewers had high praises for the lens which left some intrigue in the back of my mind. Eventually I gave in and my copy arrived the week before Christmas. My first overall impression was that the build quality was better than I was expecting for a consumer super zoom. The lens is mostly plastic but it has a very solid feel to it, the zoom ring seems to have just the right amount of resistance and does not feel stiff or too loose. The VR and MF/AF switches are solid and would not be easily moved by accident. The lens is big, and fairly heavy, much more so than my 300 f/4.

Nikon D610 + 200-500 f/5.6 @ 500mm, ISO 3600, 1/400, f/5.6
The autofocus on the new lens is not quite as fast as my 300 f/4, with or without teleconverters, but it is not far off. It seems smoother and less 'chattery' when in continuous focus mode. There also seems to be less hunting for focus. Even with the 1.4 TC II attached, there was not a real noticeable drop in AF performance, though it then becomes and f/8 lens.

Nikon D610 + 200-500 f/5.6 @ 650mm (1.4TCII), ISO 1250, 1/500, f/9

The VR (Nikon speak for image stabilization) on this lens is nothing short of incredible and is the best by far on any lens I have shot with to date. Even with the 1.4 TC II attached, giving 700mm of reach, it is fairly easy to get sharp results with shutter speeds of 1/250 or below...handheld. With the bare lens at 500mm I have got tack sharp results with shutter speeds as low as 1/40 handheld. Your mileage may vary based on technique and steadiness.

Nikon D610 + 200-500 f/5.6 @ 500mm, ISO 500, 1/500, f/5.6

Image be blunt, considering that this is a consumer super zoom, I am blown away. This lens is sharp wide open at every focal length. With the 1.4 TC attached, which makes the lens an f/8 lens, it is a bit soft wide open but sharpens up nicely by simply stopping down to f/9. In fact, at f/9 and 700mm this lens is better than the Tamron lenses I tried. The colors, contrast, sharpness, and clarity of this lens are excellent for what it is. Compared to my 300 f/4 I would say that there is a small micro-contrast penalty but it is very small. The zoom is sharper than my prime at 500mm when using the 1.7 TC on the prime. At 300mm and 420mm the zoom is very close in image quality, very close.  The bokeh of the zoom lens is very nice. I slightly prefer the bokeh of the prime but there is not a big difference.

Nikon D610 + 200-500 f/5.6 @ 280mm (1.4 TC II), ISO 500, 1/1000, f/9

These are just some of my general thoughts on the lens, it is late and I'm not going to go into too much detail. At this point, to me, this lens offers more than my 300 f/4 in terms of versatility and being ready for just about any situation that will be encountered. Even at 300mm with the prime, there have been times when it has been too much lens, even on full frame. The older I get the more I try to keep it simple. The thought of not swapping out teleconverters is appealing. The kicker in all of this is that there is barely any penalty, if any, in terms of image quality. There is still a difference in rendering between a prime and a zoom, with this comparison it is there but I am hard pressed to pinpoint what the difference is. To me, the photos from the prime have more of a film look to them, I guess...

In the end I really only need and want one wildlife lens and at this point I have yet to come to a decision. It is turning out to be harder than I thought it was going to be. 700mm on full frame with very good image quality is very addicting, at times you get so caught up in that kind of reach that you can forget just how good the bare lens is. I guess that's a good problem to have. If you would like to see these and more of my images with this lens in a bit larger size they can be found here.

This is not the review I had planned on but it was now or never. I'll check this post in a day or so to see if it was put together coherently enough, again, it is late.