For Nikon full frame (FX format) shooters, getting a 500mm focal length in the NIKKOR lens family without a teleconverter has entailed parting with some serious cash, maybe even a kidney. Even the company’s 200-400mm f/4 lens costs a cool $7,000. So we’re pretty confident that Nikon loyalists let out an audible cheer when the company announced that its AF-S NIKKOR 200-500mm f/5.6 lens would hit the market at just $1,400.
Granted, this f/5.6 lens isn’t as fast as the aforementioned glass, but it puts an amazing amount of optical reach into a lot more hands. Mount this lens to a DX format camera like the D500 or D7200, and your effective focal length tops out at 750mm.
For our review, we paired the 200-500mm with Nikon’s 24-megapixel full frame D750.
The 200-500mm’s f/5.6 maximum aperture stays constant throughout the zoom range and stops down to f/32. It has a minimum focusing distance of 7.2 feet—that’s closer than two of this lens’s biggest likely rivals, Tamron’s 150-600mm f/5.6 and Sigma’s 150-600mm f/5.6 Sport and Contemporary. Like most new NIKKOR lenses, the 200-500mm offers an electromagnetic aperture diaphragm for more consistent exposures during continuous shooting.
The lens features built-in vibration reduction (VR) that’s good for a CIPA-rated 4.5 stops of correction—though note that the CIPA rating is for FX camera bodies only. There’s a VR Sports mode, which helps to optimize stabilization during camera pans as you track quickly moving subjects.
There are three ED glass elements for combatting optical aberrations and a Silent Wave Motor for autofocusing. The lens accepts 95mm filters.
At roughly 5 pounds, the lens is a monster but relative to other telephoto lenses in this class it’s not unduly heavy. Though we shot mostly on a tripod, we did use it handheld throughout an hour-long youth basketball game without discomfort. While it’s a lower cost option in the NIKKOR telephoto family, it doesn’t feel cheap or flimsy. Outdoor photographers take note: it’s not weather sealed and lacks the fluorine front coating that other NIKKOR lenses boast to make the front elements easier to clean.
The focus ring turns smoothly, if a bit noisily, as it travels from the close focusing point out to infinity. Both the focus and zoom rings have ridges so they’re easy to grip, even if you’re wearing gloves. Focus distance markings are shown through a tiny window on the top of the lens barrel.
The exterior of the lenses has a switch to set the lens to full-time manual focusing or to MA, where you can manually tweak focusing when the camera is set to AF. Beneath that are switches to adjust focusing range (full and 6m-infinity), VR on/off and VR Sport/Normal. The lens ships with a rotatable and removable tripod collar, though we found that screwing the collar back on after you remove it is a bit of pain.
IMAGE QUALITY AND PERFORMANCE
The 200-500mm delivered outstanding image quality and very sharp images through the focal range. We didn’t see any light fall off even wide open. The nine-bladed aperture diaphragm does produce some nice bokeh when the lighting is right and while we weren’t blessed with great sunlight, we spotted very little flaring. Chromatic aberration was also a no-show.
What really impressed us about the lens is the VR. We were able to produce sharp handheld shots at 1/50 sec. at 200 and 300mm and even some 500mm shots were pretty sharp at 1/80 sec. when VR was engaged. At higher shutter speeds, you should have even greater confidence of getting sharp images out of this lens. For our stint at the basketball game, we shot handheld exclusively, usually around 1/500 sec., alternating between normal and Sport VR with no sign of motion blur.
We were less impressed, though, with the autofocus which seemed to hunt frequently when there was a strong source of backlighting. While AF wasn’t super-speedy, it mostly kept pace with the darting young athletes. Fortunately, for less frenetic subjects the lens’ manual focus override makes it easy to dial in focus adjustments just by turning the focus ring.
For Nikon shooters in need of a long reach, there are a few other lenses to consider outside of the 200-500mm, including the aforementioned Sigma 150-600mm Contemporary and Tamron’s SP 150-600mm. While both of those third-party lenses have variable apertures, stopping down to f/6.3 at the telephoto end, they’re less expensive and have greater focal length versatility at the wide and tele ends. You’ll enjoy image stabilization on both lenses as well. The Sport variant of the Sigma 150-600mm lens has weather sealing, though it costs more than Nikon’s lens.
Nikon’s 200-500mm is an all-around excellent addition to the NIKKOR family and while its f/5.6 aperture may put off some serious sports photographers we think many more will be attracted by its excellent VR and attractive price tag. Wildlife photographers too should be putting this lens at the top of their shopping list.
PROS: Great value; excellent image stabilization; closer focusing distance than rivals; constant aperture throughout zoom range
CONS: Slow focusing in low light and backlighting; less zoom range than comparably priced competitors