Judging by the name and specifications alone, the new AF-S Nikkor 200-500mm ƒ/5.6E ED VR from Nikon doesn’t seem like it’s going to be an exceptional lens—with a minimum aperture of ƒ/5.6 and a street price of under $1,400, even Nikon’s own press release doesn’t talk up the power of this new super-tele zoom. While the company often praises the internal optics of their lenses and the various optical tricks used to improve resolving power with great flourish, the press materials for this lens refer only to the “adoption of ED glass elements [that] achieves superior optical performance with which chromatic aberration is suppressed.” In fact, Nikon’s big talking point for the lens is the Vibration Reduction technology, which is quite impressive, but not the whole story.
The Nikon 200-500mm ƒ/5.6E ED VR is so impressive because it combines excellent image quality and incredible image stability in a price that’s surprisingly affordable for such a versatile lens. While the company is obviously positioning it as a long lens for sports photography (which it’s decidedly not too adroit at capturing, more on that below), it’s actually a nearly perfect portrait lens with the ability to capture wildlife and outdoor images while eliminating the need, in many situations, to use a tripod.
The 4.5 stops provided by the VR stabilization enable shooting the lens—even when the barrel is fully extended—comfortably and with surprisingly good results. That the closest similar lens in the Nikon lineup, the FX-format AF-S Nikkor 80-400mm G ED VR, is $1,000 more expensive than the 200-500mm makes it even more attractive.
In our tests, the images captured by the 200-500mm are surprisingly free of imaging artifacts, as is the case with many low-price zoom lenses ($1,400 may not seem like a low price, but in the super-tele range, it’s a bargain). Normally, zoom lenses that don’t boast a design based around a high-end optical path tend to have vignetting and a distinct lack of edge sharpness. That’s not the case with this lens, which yields a clean, crisp image edge-to-edge.
I tested the lens in a variety of conditions and with a variety of subjects, and found excellent image quality, which is the secret sauce of the 200-500mm. The lack of vignetting and the good optical sharpness make it a perfect lens for portraiture, as well as “macro” work. Portrait photographers often use telephoto lenses for the look they provide and to isolate the subject. The wider the angle of the lens you shoot with, the more it will distort the roundness of a face. Many people shoot portraits with lenses in the 85mm-105mm range because it reduces the optical distortion inherent in wider lenses, and the 200-500mm does the same.
Many of the go-to portrait lenses have a wider aperture than the Nikon 200-500mm VR, which gives the more pleasing background blur, but the long reach of the lens makes it ideal for environmental portraiture, where it’s possible to control the distance between the subject and the background.
In the photograph of the skateboarder, we see the limitations of the ƒ/5.6 minimum aperture, with the cars and the building behind the skateboarder still full of (distracting) elements. The cars in the background are around 100 feet from the subject and the buildings in the background are about a quarter of a mile away.
In the quick portrait of my wife, the background is clearly isolated, even though it’s not that much farther away than the building was from the skateboarder, but the subject, in this case, is much closer. My wife was standing at the minimum focusing distance for this focal length to work, whereas the skateboarder was dozens of feet away from me across the skatepark. It’s an example of how successfully this lens can blur background with good thought to positioning.
The image of the bird on the ground is a great example, though, of the lens’ actual depth of field, and its ability to foreshorten an image is apparent. The foreground and background here are clearly thrown to soft focus.
There are a few drawbacks to this lens, as you’d expect with this low of a price tag, of course. The first issue with the lens is focus speed. This is not the fastest-focusing lens in Nikon’s arsenal; in fact, it’s not even in the top tier of performing lenses. While tele lenses always focus a bit slower than their shorter counterparts, this lens feels more like the speed of a kit lens.
The Vibration Reduction works well, but Nikon has included a “Sport” setting for the image stabilization, which I think is incorrectly named, as it implies that this lens is good for sports, which it definitely is not. It would be a great lens to shoot a faraway group of players on the gridiron, but not for an end zone shot where the objective would be to capture a player making a beeline for a touchdown. While the VR may keep up with the erratic action, the focusing would not.
Another issue with the lens is size and weight. At the smallest zoom setting, not including the hood, the lens extends around 10 inches from the body, but at the longest setting, it comes out to be around a foot and a half. Add the hood, and there’s another five inches of lens. With a weight of just over five pounds, this lens is pretty forward-heavy. The VR certainly compensates for the weight, but it’s a factor to be aware of.
The last issue is one of saturation and exposure. While the images are bright and clean, the lens seems to have relatively flat color rendition, at least compared to other Nikon lenses. I shot the 200-500mm side-by-side with the new 24-70mm ƒ/2.8E ED VR and the same scene was noticeably more vibrant in the 24-70mm’s eye. The 200-500mm seems to underexpose a bit, as well, so I ended up getting in the habit of cranking up the exposure compensation when shooting with it and tweaking the vibrancy in post. This, again, is especially apparent when compared to shooting with the 24-70mm.
Any drawbacks aside, the AF-S Nikkor 200-500mm ƒ/5.6E ED VR looks to be one of the sleeper hits of the Nikon lineup. Photographers who add it to their arsenal will have both a great wildlife lens and a great portrait lens that happens to be long enough to capture some sports. It’s a great tool to have for the telephoto “look” perfect for so many subjects, without having to drop a fortune. If you’re willing to do a bit of postproduction tweaking, this lens produces exceptional images at a bargain-basement (for its size) price at $1,399.95. Contact: Nikon, nikonusa.com.
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