I recently acquired a 200-500 F5.6 E and being one of the early adopters, had to face some glitches as has become the norm with most new products from Nikon. I had a peeled off rubber gasket near the lens mount and my lens was also part of the global recall for fixing some AF issue during zooming, both of which especially the first issue was satisfactorily resolved proactively from Nikon while I did not really think that the second issue was relevant to me as I never zoom and AF simultaneously. I always zoom and then AF after getting the needed composition. After the AF update, I need a +6 AF fine tune compensation on my D7200 at 500mm, the focal length I am most likely going to be using with this lens.
Anyway, I had a short stint with this lens at Karnala but I wanted to fully use and then make a judgement about this lens in the dense jungles of Dandeli, North Karnataka, India. This is a tough place for any lens considering the small fidgety forest birds, dark canopies and busy back grounds to comprehensively test any AF system of a camera system .
This was a going to be a long trek based shooting, so I was going to have a tough 3.5 days ahead, to carry an APSC DSLR with a 2.3 kg lens, all day in humid conditions of Indian jungles.
Dandeli is a heaven for bird watchers like me and we had a sightings of more than 125 species in just over 3.5 days including some lifers for me like the Indian Nuthatch, Nilgiri Flower pecker, Grey headed bulbul, Crimson fronted Barbet and many more. But Dandeli is really famous for a healthy population of Hornbills (Malabar, Pied and Great Indian) and the super elusive Black Panther. Yes, I saw many Hornbills, but no such luck with a black panther.
I packed my D7200 and the Nikon 200-500 f5.6 in my old but now tried and tested Lowepro Mini Trekker classic. I carried the lens in my hand using the tripod mount which fortunately is a nice big one and my fingers easily fit around it, though I would have preferred carrying it using my F1 shoulder strap. I also had my 8X43 binoculars slung around my neck and at times a Pentax 65ED spotter on a Sirui T-1204X/Tiltall BH-07 combo on my shoulders. My Lowepro had my phone, my GX-7 with Olympus 9-18 zoom and all the batteries and covers and caps. This sure was a lot of equipment that I carried on me for long spans of non stop bird watching and photography for up to 4 hours at a stretch. Yes, it did get tiring after a hectic day that started at 6:30 AM and ended at around 7 PM everyday with 2 breaks in between.
So how did the lens perform? In general, quite superbly though the weight was quite obvious after half a day of shooting. The VR really impressed me and never before have I got so many keepers in a jungle which were mostly ruined by camera shake due to inadequate shutter speeds in low light and dark conditions. The Normal mode VR is way more effective than the Sport mode in my early observations though of-course they have different uses.
The tall teak and other trees provide an excellent habitat for woodpeckers in Dandeli and here we got to see Heart spotted, Brown capped Pygmy, Yellow crowned pied, Flamebacks, Specled Piculet and the white bellied woodpecker.
The challenge in shooting woodpeckers is that they are constantly moving and always on a tree trunk or some branch that is usually dark, so this confuses most AF systems. Most of the times the 200-500 plus D7200 combo was able to lock on to these subjects, but it did struggle on more than one occasion and completely missed focus and focused on a distant subject and refused to come back. Fortunately the focusing ring was easily reachable to over ride this and bring it back in the range where I needed it and then the AF took over without issues. This was true especially for dark subjects.
In good light the AF performance was as good as it gets. I used the focus limiter switch and I have no complaints of slow focusing.
Shooting birds in flight (BIF) was a challenge whenever I forgot to change the VR mode to Sport or totally turn it off when shutter speeds were adequate. In Normal VR mode I found that the shutter release was un-pressable till the VR stabilized and I did lose a few shots due to this. I need more practice and presence of mind to switch to Sport VR mode when shooting BIF but still managed a few shots. I used D21 on my D7200 with AF-C for all BIF.
I have already commented that this is not a close focusing lens and so is not very useful for close up shots and I still maintain that this is true but the 500mm focal length does provide a little relief for this and it indeed is possible to take some shots of subjects that usually are the domain of close up lenses.
The best feature of the lens other than the VR is how good it is wide open. I did 99% of my shooting at F5.6 and never really had much to complain about sharpness wide open. Not only is the sharpness really good, but even the bokeh is quite incredible and in spite of the busy backgrounds almost every time, I did get a decent amount of subject isolation most of the times thanks to shooting wide open at 500mm.
Long distance shooting that has been the bug bear of most Nikon lenses, seems to be a thing of the past and this lens is very sharp even at long distances.
Overall I am extremely pleased with this lens and other than some AF issues that I faced, the not so close focus ability and the heavy weight, I think it is a perfect jack of all trades wild life lens, that does almost everything quite nicely. I am sure I am going to keep this one for a very long time 🙂