It’s been a tempting couple of years for sports and wildlife photographers, with a flurry of very affordable super-telephoto zoom releases. First Tamron impressed with its game-changing 150-600mm f/5-6.3, then Sigma released its own brace of widely acclaimed 150-600mm f/5-6.3 lenses. Not wanting to miss out on the action, Nikon has now released its budget full-frame option, the new AF-S 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR. Priced at £1179, it’s much cheaper than the brand’s telephoto primes, as well as the £1799 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6 G ED VR zoom. In a sector of the market with so many attractive options though, have the Japanese giants done enough to prove that first-party should be first choice for buyers?
Relatively compact for a lens with such reach, this 200-500mm measures just under 27cm with the barrel retracted. Weighing 2300g, it’s not exactly light but could be used handheld when required. Manufactured to a high standard, its solid metal/plastic construction means it should withstand frequent use with ease. The lens has Nikon’s Super Integrated Coating to minimise ghosting and flare.
The 200-500mm focal range is slightly narrower than its main competitors at both ends, although when used on an APS-C body users do, of course, get a slightly longer reach of 300-750mm. Fitted with a Silent Wave Motor, the lens’ autofocus is quiet and reliably accurate. While not the quickest super-telephoto we’ve reviewed, it is still speedy enough to cope with most moving subjects. There are switches for focus mode selection and distance limiting (infinity to 8m) on the barrel, and thanks to its vibration reduction system (VR) the lens can compensate for an impressive 4.5 stops of camera shake. This further increases its suitability for handheld use at longer focal lengths. Featuring nine blades the bokeh produced by the lens’ aperture is very good, however I didn’t find it as attractive as that produced by some rivals. This is subjective though. An electromagnetic diaphragm means autoexposures remain highly accurate during continuous shooting.
Constant maximum aperture
Maintaining a maximum aperture of f/5.6 across its entire focal range, this Nikon lens is one-third of a stop faster than its closet rivals at 500mm. While this may not seem a dramatic difference, the advantage of being able to use even a slightly faster shutter speed when shooting speedy subjects shouldn’t be underestimated. It’s certainly a rare bonus at this price point.
Featuring a 19-element construction, including three ED (Extra-Low Dispersion) elements, the lens puts in a solid performance that places it roughly on par with Sigma and Tamron’s offerings. Even wide open at 200mm it produces sharp results across the frame, minimal vignetting, acceptable chromatic aberration and only minor lens distortion.
A similar performance is on offer at 300mm, but at 500mm it’s less impressive. Here, while chromatic aberration and vignetting still remain minimal, images become softer across the frame, though they are still useable. Optical performance peaks between f/11 and f/16, but then diffraction causes a lack of sharpness at narrower apertures.
Nikon’s 200-500mm f/5.6 is a highly competitive optic that should give users a well-built and reliable alternative to third-party super-telephotos. Like its rivals, it’s at its weakest when at its longest, but with excellent sharpness at 200mm, a constant aperture, and an impressive VR system, there’s still an awful lot to like. However, with the Tamron now only £799, and the Sigma C-model at £849, those that don’t feel an allegiance to the brand may still be tempted by the wider focal ranges and substantial savings available elsewhere.
- Lens: Nikon AF-S 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR
- Price: £1179 (As of July 2016)
- Aperture: f/5.6-32
- Focusing: AF-S (Silent Wave Motor)
- Min. focus distance: 2.2m
- Sensor format:
- FX (DX compatible)
- Lens construction: 19 elements/12 groups
- Diaphragm blades: 9
- Filter size: 95mm
- Image stabilisation: Yes
- Size (DxL): 108x268mm
- Weight: 2300g
- Visit: www.nikon.co.uk
This review was first published in the March 2016 issue of Practical Photography - download back issues here.