Thinking about a mega zoom? Here’s a Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 lens review
If you’re a wildlife photographer, nature photographer or sports photographer, sometimes you want to fill the frame with your subject. Problem is, you can’t always get closer to your subject. That’s where a super-telephoto lens or a mega zoom like the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 lens comes into play.
So is this big dog of a lens worth the price? I’ll give you my thoughts on the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 lens after renting it for a long weekend of birding and wildlife watching in Wyoming and Colorado.
Why I rented this lens
I’m a professional photographer, but when it comes to wildlife photography, I’m really more of a hobbyist. I love spending a morning in the field trying to capture sandhill cranes or wild turkeys. But I don’t make a living with wildlife photography, so I’m limited in my equipment.
I’ve been looking into buying a used super-telephoto lens for a few months now. I want something for birding and our trips in the field when our family goes hiking, hunting, fishing or camping. I’m also doing more sports photography where I need a bit more reach. I lens that could double for wildlife and sports would be ideal.
A few weeks ago, my husband proposed a trip to Rocky Mountain National Park to watch the elk rut. I agreed and decided it would be a great time to rent a big lens. First on my list to try? This Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 lens.
This review will give you my overall impression of the lens and how it handled. I’m not going to throw up a lot of charts and graphs because I’m more concerned with how it performs in real shooting conditions. If you’re looking for those, you can find a more technical review here.
And remember, this is a rental lens that I had for less than a week. I didn’t do any calibration or micro-adjustments and I’m certainly not proficient at it. Those disclaimers aside, let’s get to my review of the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 lens. I wanted to get some overall impressions of the lens and answer the following questions:
- Can I shoot the lens handheld?
- Can I shoot sports with the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 lens
- Is the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 lens sharp?
- How does it perform with portraits?
The bad news is we missed the elk. The good news is, we saw some deer, had a great time as a family and I enjoyed my time with the lens.
Specifications of the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 lens
Name: Nikon AF-S Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 lens E ED VR
Price: About $1300 new, around $800 used in good condition
Lens mount: F
Aperture range: f/5.6 to f/32
Vibration reduction: Yes, up to 4.5 stops
Auto Focus: Yes. Silent Wave Motor AF System
Minimum focus distance: 7.22 feet
Glass: Three Extra-Low Dispersion elements; 19 elements in 12 groups
Weight: 5.1 lbs
Filter size: 95mm
Weather sealing: No
Other features: Rotating tripod collar, lens hood, focus limiter switch, manual focus override ring
I rented this lens from LensProToGo.com. It can be purchased from any authorized Nikon dealer like your local camera store (be prepared to do a special order, this might not be in stock), or online at B&H Photo, Adorama or Amazon. Always use a Nikon authorized seller and ensure your lens comes with the Nikon warranty card.
I used this lens on my Nikon D500 and Nikon D750. I used it the most on the D500, as that’s the camera I’m most likely to use shooting sports or wildlife.
Build quality and size
First impressions out of the box were that this thing was a beast. The Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 lens is longer, heavier and girthier than my 70-200mm f/2.8 lens. And that’s saying something.
The exterior housing is mostly plastic, but it doesn’t feel flimsy or cheap. The lens isn’t weather sealed. And it’s an external zoom, so the end of the lens moves in and out as you zoom in and out. If you shoot in very dusty or wet conditions, that’s something you want to be aware of, as dirt and other debris can get trapped in the small spaces in the lens barrel.
Its size was a problem fitting into my camera bags, however. Neither my messenger-style camera bag nor my backpack style bag could accommodate the lens and my camera body at once.
The zoom moved smoothly and easily. It’s a big barreled lens, though. I had to use my whole hand to zoom the lens, whereas on my 70-200 mm f/2.8 or my 24-120mm f/4, I can zoom in and out with just my thumb. I didn’t notice any creep or slipping once I zoomed to my chosen focal length.
Full zoom from 200mm to 500mm requires almost 180 degrees of rotation on the zoom ring. I found I couldn’t zoom in and out completely without resetting my grip on the lens.
Autofocus was quiet and felt fast and accurate. The lens would lock on focus well at all focal lengths.
The Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 lens has a manual focus ring, located at the back of the lens, closer to the camera body. The ring is narrower than the zoom ring. I prefer that location of the focus ring because I’m not going to accidentally bump it when shooting. Manual focus was smooth and precise.
This lens also has a focus limiter switch that goes from close focus to infinity (full range) and 6 meters to infinity. Turning that on limits your camera from hunting for focus across the full range. I mostly left it turned to the full range position.
This is a big, beefy lens. But it’s well balanced and doesn’t feel overly heavy or cumbersome when hand-held. It also balanced well on my tripod, using the collar and my D500 with the external battery grip. Once I took that battery grip off, though, the lens and camera became a bit clumsy in my hands. If you’re shooting a camera with a bigger profile, I think lens would balance better than say a small crop or mirrorless body.
The Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 lens will accept teleconverters. I didn’t use any with it, but other photographers report mixed success. Most report a reduction in AF speed and accuracy and a loss of sharpness.
Tripod collar and foot
The Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 comes with a rotating tripod c0llar. I used the tripod foot with a Manfrotto quick release plate on my tripod with no issues. But the tripod foot isn’t compatible with the Arca-Swiss tripod clamps, which might be an issue for some.
One of the features that drew me to this lens was a fixed aperture. I like that I can maintain my settings regardless of where I’m shooting in the 200-500 focal range.
I was pleased with the overall image quality. No, this isn’t the same kind of image quality you’ll get with the 300mm f/2.8 lens. But the bokeh was pleasing, there was little noticeable falloff and chromatic aberration wasn’t a significant problem. Lateral chromatic aberration was non-existant at the closer focal lengths, but I did start to notice some at 400 and 500mm.
Because this lens lacks nano-coating, I did notice a small amount of flare when shooting in backlit conditions. The lens hood helped.
Lens hood & filters
The lens hood is plastic. Mine slipped on and off easily, but I did have it pop off occasionally when I bumped it. Don’t lose the darn thing, or it will cost you around $50 to replace.
The lens takes 95mm filters, which aren’t cheap. If you use filters on your lenses, budget for $125 or more for a quality filter for this lens.
Can you shoot the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 lens handheld?
At 5.1 pounds, this lens isn’t exactly lightweight and inconspicuous. It’s a big, beefy lens and everyone will know exactly what you are aiming at. But despite its apparent size and heft, I did find I could comfortably hand-hold this lens and shoot sharp images.
The lens offers up to 4.5 stops of vibration reduction. I was able to shoot a portrait of my daughter at 1/80 of a second, hand-held, with fairly sharp results.
To be honest, I wouldn’t want to stand and hand-hold the lens for an entire wedding or football game. After a few minutes of constant shooting, I’d get fatigued. But in a watch-wait-shoot scenario, like in a bird blind or on the trail, shooting hand-held wouldn’t be a problem.
Can the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 lens shoot sports?
I can’t answer this question definitively. I had planned to take the lens to a high school football game and try it out. But as we headed to the stadium, the clouds rolled in and the rain started. I wasn’t willing to risk a non-weather sealed rented lens in the rain, and my existing rain cover was on my 70-200mm f/2.8 lens. So the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 lens stayed at home.
But I did work with the lens in dry conditions, trying to shoot pictures of flying birds, running dogs and trotting horses. I missed a lot of shots, but not because of the lens’s mechanics. I simply had a hard time swinging the camera and tracking my subject. When I had the subject in frame, the camera found and nailed focus quickly and easily.
I’m confident with some practice (and a monopod) this would be a pretty fantastic budget superzoom for sports. I would feel comfortable shooting this lens for outdoor baseball, football, rodeo, motorsports, etc.
Low light performance
Where this lens would struggle is indoors or in low light. At a 5.6 aperture and action-stopping shutter speeds (1/1000 or a second or faster), I’d need to raise my ISO to compensate for the low light. I don’t think I’d have usable images in our local gym or football field at night. Of course, your gym, arena or field might be lit properly…ours is not. So this lens wouldn’t work for me for volleyball or basketball or night football games or rodeos. But baseball or soccer? Absolutely…with some practice on my part.
Is it sharp?
One of the biggest knocks of these less expensive super-telephoto lenses like the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 lens is it’s lack of sharpness.
I was pleasantly surprised at the sharpness of my images, especially hand-held. Zoomed in to the full 500mm, I did lose some sharpness, especially toward the corners. The lens was sharpest at about 300mm for me. But even at 500mm, I felt like I had good-enough for me images.
And that’s what you’ll have to decide for yourself. This lens isn’t as shapr as my 100mm f/2.8 macro lens. Nor is is going to be as sharp as the Nikon 300mm f/2.8 or 600mm f/4. But this lens is a fraction of the cost of the latter two and offers the benefit of a zoom.
If you’re shooting cheetahs or snow leopards on assignment for National Geographic or selling images for huge prints, the sharpness of this lens is going to be a sticking point. But as a casual wildlife photographer and shooting high school sports, it’s sharp enough for me.
I’ll also mention that reading other’s impressions of this lens sounds like sharpness can be a bit hit or miss, depending on your copy of the lens.
How does this lens handle portraits?
When talking about portraits, a lot of photographers want super wide apertures like f/1.4 or even f/1.2. But creating bokeh and getting creamy backgrounds isn’t just about shooting wide open. By using the focal length of the lens to my advantage, I can render the background into creamy oblivion even at f/5.6. And because I can hand-hold it with confidence for short amounts of time, this could be an awesome portrait lens. It’s not the first one I’d reach for, but in certain circumstances, it could be exactly what a portrait photographer needs.
The image below is of my daughter as we waited for the elk that never came. Sad face. Ignore the grass in her face…I was trying to operate in stealth mode but she caught me!
Lenses similar to the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 lens
It really is an amazing time to be a photographer. Manufacturer’s like Tamron and Sigma were the first to introduce budget friendly super-zoom options. After seeing the success of its competitors, Nikon followed suit with this 200-500mm f/5.6 lens. But it’s certainly not the only lens out there worth considering. Here are some others you might want to take a look at before finalizing that online shopping cart:
Tamron SP 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Di VC USD G2 (about $1,300 new)
- Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM Contemporary (about $900 new)
- Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM Sports (about $1,700 new)
- Canon EF 100-400mm ƒ/4.5-5.6L IS II USM (about $2,100 new)
- NIKKOR VR 70-300mm ƒ/4.5-5.6
The big dogs (and big price tags)
- Canon EF 600mm ƒ/4L IS II USM (around $13,000 new)
Canon EF 800mm f/5.6L IS USM Lens (also around $13,000 new)
Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 300mm f/2.8G ED VR II Lens (about $5,500 new)
- Nikon 600mm ƒ/4E FL ED VR (about $12,000 new)
If you’re relying on wildlife or sports photography to feed your family or build your retirement account, it makes sense to invest in the best glass with the most reach. The limitations of the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 lens’s 5.6 aperture and lack of sharpness will be a sticking point with anyone expecting high-end, top-of-the-line performance.
But if you’re a casual wildlife or sports photographer or need to travel fast and light when you’re in the field, this lens is definitely worth looking into. This lens is a fraction of the cost of the power telephotos sports and wildlife professional use, making it within reach financially of more photographers.
I was pleasantly surprised at its versatility, overall image quality and ease of shooting. If you’re in the market for a relatively affordable mega zoom, consider the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 lens. After spending a few days shooting it in different conditions, I plan on adding it to my photography wish-list for good!
Happy (close-up) shooting!