Now that I have owned the 200-500 F5.6 for a fairly long time and have used it extensively on trips across India, I thought I should write this piece to share my long term experiences with the lens and if there is any change from my initial thoughts of this lens.
Build, Handling and Physical attribute observations:
As we already know its mostly plastic and so far it has held up well to extended use in the tropical forests and the dry deserts of India. I have put on a Lenscoat neoprene forest camo cover to further protect the lens.The lens is light enough to hand hold for extended periods of time but after a few hours you do feel tired. So I carry it on a Focus F1 strap slung across my shoulder attached to tripod foot and then totally forget that its there. I have walked and trekked for hours without noticing the lens slung from my shoulders attached to my camera. The only word of caution is that you must ensure that the screw and the buckle of the strap are fastened securely to the lens foot before every usage and not loose or else its disaster waiting to happen.
The hood is PITA. It has a mind of its own can come undone anytime with the slightest pressure. I am afraid even the threads that hold the hood will wear out in the very near future. So now we know where Nikon saved money on this lens. Thankfully it is very light but it looks to be engineered as an after thought.
The tripod foot is surely one of the better ones designed by Nikon in recent years and IMHO there is no need to replace this with an expensive after market one. There is no flex or bending and nor is it awkward in design and can be used to mount the lens on your monopod or tripod without any problem. Its also long enough to roll your fingers over and carry the lens.
The switches on the lens are all holding up nicely and nothing to worry about them so far.
The water proof rubber gasket that was replaced under warranty is still holding well and I haven’t seen any dust particles inside the lens even though it extends considerably at full zoom even after using it in dry dusty deserts and plains of India like Taal Chhapar, Bikaner and the Rann of Kutch.
Surprisingly the zoom mechanism has not started creeping so far as is so common with inexpensive zoom lenses and I don’t even use the zoom lock switch very often. My Panasonic Lumix creeps so much that its always at 300mm within a few minutes when slung with my F1 Strap. I expected similar behavior with my Nikon but I haven’t seen it yet, so full marks to Nikon here.
Specific IQ observations:
Thankfully IQ is where Nikon have invested heavily in this lens. The overall IQ, as I have already mentioned, is more than stellar especially for the price that it is available here in India. I can shoot this lens wide open all day without really needing to stop down for additional sharpness at 500mm where I use it, 99% of the times. I have had a chance to compare the lens to my 600 F4.0 recently in Gujarat and let me tell you the lens is close to my 600 F4.0 in IQ. Where the 600 F4.0 is ahead is in the micro contrast, better sharpness at F4.0 than the zoom’s sharpness at 5.6 and overall high resolution smoothness (can’t think of a better word) that somehow is absent in the zoom. Now the OOF areas and the subject isolation of the 600 at F4.0 just cannot be compared to the 5.6 of the zoom, its that much better. But seriously the 600 F4.0 is nowhere nearly seven or eight times better that the price seems to suggest.
Another thing is that the 200-500 F5.6 E likes my D800E much better than my D7200 for sharpness and IQ. Not that the D7200 is bad but the D800E is spades better. Even the AF accuracy especially in low light is better with the D800E, even though the D7200 has an AF that focuses in lower light than the D800E.
The AF is slow no doubt about it, but the focus limiter from 6m-infinity speeds up things. Even the earlier observation of missing focus on dark subjects and focusing on distant objects behind the subject without returning back to the subject in low light remains, but this is a lot less in good light. The MF ring is really useful to get it back in the range you want and then the AF takes over.
At 500 F5.6, one gets reasonable amount of subject isolation and even the quality of OOF areas is really good, though not super telephoto prime good. Birds in flight are very much possible with the AF on the 200-500 F5.6E and I have successfully been able to take some decent shots of BIF. Mind you I am comparing AF speed of this slow consumer/enthusiast zoom to top the line Nikkor telephotos.
The VR continues to impress me and its better than every other lens I have. Its silent and better than even the VR on my 70-200 F4.0 VR which was my reference so far. I easily get 3-4 stops stabilization when needed quite consistently.
Nikon has hit one of of the park with this one and it is now a very viable alternative to the multiple Canon and third party offerings of 400-600mm zooms with full OEM support. Most of the reviews that I have read, say that it is sharper than the Sigma sport wide open at 500mm where it really counts and the Sigma is much slower at 600mm. I know many people from Canon who have shifted to Nikon just for this lens. A lot of people who own expensive Nikon zooms like the 80-400 F4.0-5.6 and the 200-400 F4.0 have sold their lenses have added this lens to their kit and are happy. I personally just can’t see too many reasons to buy the super expensive 500 F4.0 VR over this lens coz you don’t gain much in sharpness. Only use with TCs and subject isolation remain the real tangible benefits. Such has been the cost performance ratio of this lens and I know at least one guy who has decided to sell his 500 F4.0 G to get this lens for his D4s. Sometimes I think that someone at Nikon upper management must be really mad at the designers and product engineers, who made this lens optically so good for such little money. I love this lens and when ever I am unable to carry my 400 F2.8 and the 600 f4.0 lenses I carry this lens, fully knowing that I will not lose much in IQ and will be much more mobile, which is so important on the field.