I have been using the Nikon 200-500 F5.6 E since its launch in India a few years back. The fact that I use it along with my other telephoto primes like the 600 F4.0 and the 400 F2.8 speaks a lot about how this lens can keep up with some of the greatest and best lenses out there.
On Indian Tiger safaris, I usually use my 400 F2.8 with my 70-200 f4.0 as this is the one of the best combos to use for large mammals. The sharpness and subject isolation one can get with 400 F2.8 makes this a perfect lens for most situations, as long as you can frame the subject with it.
The 600 F4.0 is used on birding trips where I have to walk short distances with a tripod + Gimbal head + camera or have a safari vehicle to use. This is a specialized birding lens that takes TCs very well and is my preferred shore, desert and plains bird lens.
The 200-500 F5.6 is my trekking, forest and bush birding lens. It also does very well on Indian Tiger safaris when I do not want to pack my heavy lenses and use it as a single, light, small lens, when there are many people to share a single safari vehicle and bigger lenses are tough to use.
Usage as a trekking lens:
I use this lens exclusively as a trekking lens on my D7200, that is a brilliant crop camera for all kind of animals and birds. This combination worked beautifully on long and tiring Himalayan treks/long walks of Chopta ,dry sandy regions of Taal Chhapar and even wet ocean beds of Narara. The lens is usually slung across my shoulder with my tried and tested F1 sling strap which makes it possible to carry this combo for long periods at a time without much of a problem.
The biggest plus of this lens again is the amazing VR. With good technique and decent light, it is very difficult to spoil images due to camera shake. In early morning winter light and heavy, dark canopies, getting a good shutter speed at low ISOs is big challenge for a F5.6 lens at 500mm. But so good is the VR on this lens that I set my auto ISO to 400, 1/100 as minimum shutter speed and shoot at 500mm without any problems. 95% of the shots are sharp with no camera shake.
Many including me have spoken about the slow focusing of this lens. But in all these days of shooting with this lens, I have never lost a single shot due to slow target acquisition. As mentioned before, the AF is slow, but is sure and once locked stays locked. Shooting all these small, flitting Himalayan birds, who hardly ever stop on a branch for long enough time to really compose and shoot at leisure, was never a problem for my 200-500 F5.6 E.
In the marine wildlife sanctuary of Narara, Jamnagar, walking in ankle deep water with a heavy prime lens plus a camera on a tripod is just not fun enough. The beautiful corals, sponges and the other lovely aquatic life like octopuses, sea cucumbers, puffer fishes, crabs and birds like crab plovers, waders need a lot of attention to enjoy and a heavy camera rig is the last thing on my mind here. I walked here for aroun 4-5 hours and had some of the best wild life shooting of my life just walking around with my D7200 + 200-500 F5.6 E combo.
Even Taal Chappar was a great revelation walking around with a light rig while my heavy prime + tripod companions were nowhere nearly as mobile as me thus enabling me to get a lot more keepers than them.
Usage as a safari lens:
Till about a few years back the Canon 100-400L was the most seen and used lens on Indian Tiger safaris. But since the launch of the 200-500 f5.6 E, this is easily one of the most popular lenses seen on a safari. Yes, it does not have the razor sharpness or the subject isolation of expensive, faster primes lenses but being a zoom its hugely practical, versatile and very usable on the field.
The small size allows me to quickly point and shoot in any direction that I want and reaction times are way superior to a camera with a prime lens which allows me to capture that particular moment that very often gets lost in setting up your big prime.
In a crowded vehicle this is particularly of great importance as one can shoot from any tiny bit of space that is available.
No lens is perfect and the 200-500 f5.6 E is no exception. It suffers from the biggest bug bear of most Nikon telephoto zooms and primes of not being adequately sharp at a distance. But its way better than the 80-400 F4.0-5.6 G and the 200-400 F4.0, who are its nearest competitors. The lack of nano coating does seem to affect its ability to produce a good contrast for subjects shots against the light. But thanks to the excellent DR of my D800E, I was able to extract a decent image out of a completely washed out image as shown below.
This lens has replaced my 300 F4.0 D lens and I don’t really miss it at all except for its ability to focus close. This is my biggest complaint of the 200-500 F5.6 which makes it a tough lens to use for butterflies. I really wish Nikon made it focus closer than it currently does.
Not particularly a negative, but there is no doubt that IQ is much better on a FX camera than a DX and this is something that is easily visible if you shoot on both bodies.
The Nikon 200-500 F5.6E is my most used lens and is easily one of my best lenses whose positives easily outweigh its negatives. Other lenses may change around it but this is one lens that always gets a place in my bag.