I have already mentioned the reasons for acquiring the 200-500 5.6 E ED VR lens here and this is a short initial impressions cum field review after using it once on the field.
As I have mentioned earlier, the 200-500 F5.6 E is a surprising product from Nikon. But I guess competition from third party lens makers forced it to release this lens which puts it very close in performance and maybe even better in some respects to the pricey 200-400 f4.0 VR, the 80-400 F4.5-5.6 VR, and if I may dare to say, the mighty 500 F4.0 VR.
Build and Ergonomics
The 200-500 F5.6 E lens does not get the Nano coat or the gold ring but has the super integrated coat and weighs in at a hefty 2.3 kgs. There is no built in hood, rather a large plastic one called HB-71, that can be reversed and mounted on the lens for storage. There are the usual switches for M/A -M, VR ON – OFF, Full – Infinity to 6m focus limit and VR Sport – Normal. The zoom ring is big and is easy to use. It is extremely smooth, well damped and does not creep at all. If it does creep after some extensive usage, there is a lock at 200mm to prevent unwanted extension of the zoom.
A special mention for the tripod collar. I think this will be the first Nikon oem collar that I will not be replacing. It’s very well built, has a long mounting base to connect to QR plates and is extremely smooth to operate. It is also a relatively low profile collar that IMHO does not need a replacement. But I will need more extensive testing and field usage to confirm this.
It is a wide lens and at 2.3 kgs it may not be something that you may be able to carry around your neck or in your hand for a considerable amount of time without getting tired. I used it on a Focus F1 strap along with my 8X43 binoculars for a 3 hour trek and I did not even notice it. A monopod may be another good way of carrying this lens and being relatively mobile at the same time.
The lens seems quite well built, but all the lenses of the batch that were delivered to my dealer had the rubber gasket near the lens mount peeled off. My dealer is in talks with Nikon India and will provide me with a solution soon.
So what does the ‘E’ designation imply on the lens. It should not be confused with the budget E series lenses that Nikon introduced some years ago, rather it stands for an Electronic diaphragm/aperture control. You will not see that little tab that opens and closes the aperture like you see on a G lens or an older lens, as now the aperture is controlled electronically. The Canon EOS mount has had this feature for eons now and now that Nikon also has this, it eliminates the biggest failure point of Nikon lenses i.e the aperture tab. Now with complete electronic aperture control, shooting at faster FPS is also less problematic and you will also have reduced instances of a few shots in a burst that have incorrect exposure just because the aperture tab opened or closed the aperture incorrectly.
Features, Optical Performance and Usage in the field
I took my Nikon 200-500 F5.6 E mounted on my D7200 for a short hike to Karnala near Panvel on the Mumbai Goa highway. I had the lens screwed via the tripod mount to my F1 strap and did a 3 hour hike without breaking into a sweat and did some low light testing of the lens in the forest. First and foremost, the focusing is extremely silent. Initially when I tried using the lens, I thought that the lens focusing is not working. But on closer examination I found that it is working fine and focusing silently. It is easily the most silent lens that I have used.
Even the VR works extremely silently. On my 600 F4.0 there is a loud whirring and clicking when VR is active. The 4.5 stop VR that has been advertised seemed to work very well. Initial impressions are that it works better than the best VR that I have used so far on my Nikon 70-200 F4.0. I have consistently been able to take sharp shots at 1/100 at 500mm. I did not get get a chance to test the Sport VR mode.
I did a quick comparison to my 300 f4.0 to see if there was any significant focus breathing. The 300 F4.0 focuses much closer than the 200-500 F5.6 so I compared at the minimum focusing distance of the 200-500 5.6 and found that image sizes were nearly identical.
So this brings up the topic of close focusing. I think its not that great. More than once I had to move back to get my shot in focus. When I looked up the specs, it is 7.2 feet so I do not consider this lens as a close up lens at all even at 500mm.
So how does this lens perform optically. In a single word, great. I bought this lens to use at 500 5.6 and I am extremely satisfied with its performance at 500 5.6. I really do not need to stop down this lens for better sharpness because it’s that good at 5.6.
The rounded 9 blade aperture gives a very pleasing bokeh and at 500mm I am able to obliterate a lot of backgrounds when shooting wide open.
So who is this lens for
I think Nikon has hit one out of that park with this lens. If you already have 70-200 lens, then this is a perfect next lens up to 500mm, unless you need the speed and subject isolation of the 500 F4.0. I still see my 600 F4.0 very relevant to what I shoot. When I am doing serious birding without long hikes, I still see the 600 F4.0 as a very good lens to have for all birds that you could encounter. I think the 200-500 F5.6 is the perfect safari lens for shooting large mammals and combined with a 70-200 will cover almost every situation that you could encounter on a safari except maybe extremely bad light.
So where does this leave the pricey but still very good 80-400 F4.5-5.6 VR. If you can have just one lens, then the 80-400 is perfect lens to have to do any kind of birding and safaris. Yes, it will do its job most of the time but may not be the best tool for that job.
This lens has fulfilled my dream of a light 500 5.6 lens that has VR and does not cost a bomb. My plan is to use it on a safari with large groups or birding and trekking trips when it is not practical to carry my 600 F4.0 on a Gitzo 5541LS tripod and Jobu pro gimbal head.
The biggest advantage of this lens over say a Tamron 150-600 or even a Sigma C or S 150-600 is that it’s very good even wide open. I have seen extremely good shots with both these third party alternatives but shooting all day at 5.6 vs stopping down to gain optimum sharpness is a significant advantage with the Nikon. Also I do not need to worry about future and present compatibility which is always a concern with third party glass.
I will update my blog with more pictures and trip reports as I know this is going to be my most used lens in the days to come 🙂