Nikon AF-S Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR Telephoto Zoom Lens Review

I really can’t recall the last time I became so emotionally involved with a lens. This affordable AF-S Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR telephoto zoom is sharp, easy to hold, and at under $1400 you simply cannot go wrong. If I sound excited, I am!

For a photographer making a living with magazine, book and fine art photography, I’m used to packing a heavy 400mm, 500mm or 600mm prime lens and a hefty tripod. With this powerful Nikkor zoom, keeping in mind the limitations of fixed focal length lenses, I find it invigorating and stimulating to be free of a large tripod when photographing wildlife. Sure, a monopod is a great accessory to take along, and the constant f/5.6 aperture isn’t really handicap.

Like other Nikon lenses, all the controls are on the left flank of the lens barrel. They include slide switches for focus, focus limiter, Vibration Reduction off/on and how you want to apply the VR depending upon the situation at hand. Zoom lock is to the left. ©Stan Trzoniec

Keep in mind this is an “E” lens and does have some limitations for use on various cameras starting around 2007. According to the spec sheet, the lens can be used on the D4 and D3 series, Df, D810, D800, D750, D700 and all modern cameras of recent manufacture.

On some earlier models you can use it without concern, although it will only shoot at f/5.6. This also applies to Nikon's F6, F5 and F4 film SLRs with various restrictions related to the aperture remaining constant or wide open. When purchasing a lens like this it is always wise to contact the manufacturer for any concerns you might have.

Nikon’s 1.4X tele-extender brings the total focal length up to 700mm. ©Stan Trzoniec

Out of the box you’ll notice this is a big lens—not as large as a fixed 500mm or 600mm, but with the lens shade attached you‘re looking at 14.25 inches in length at 200mm and 17 inches at 500mm. The front element measures 95mm in diameter, meaning your popular 77mm filters and polarizers are out of the game.

On a very cold morning, a paper mill in western Massachusetts was setting up quite a stir while drying the paper stock. The sky was enhanced in using Nik software for contrast. ©Stan Trzoniec

Build Quality
The overall build quality is superb; the lens is made in China and owing to its length and girth there’s a lot of plastic for weight savings. At just over five pounds, I can’t imagine this lens with a metal body. The tripod collar (removable) and camera mount are metal with the former finished to match the lens body while the latter is chromed for durability and weather-sealed against the elements.

As luck would have it, I caught this once-a-day train as it was coming into Millers Falls, MA. This is beginning of a sequence starting with the train as it approached the bridge on the other side of the river. By zooming back to 220mm, this is the composition I wanted complete with the whistle sign in the foreground. ©Stan Trzoniec

The physical makeup is pretty standard for Nikon: The M/A (manual/autofocus) with an instant override to manual when needed, and M (manual) focus controls with a Focus Limit Switch underneath. You have the option of rendering the lens for full travel or from infinity to 6 meters (about 20 feet).

Jumping one slide switch down is Vibration Reduction. At the bottom is the VR selection; normal for most of the time, sport if your subject is or you are panning. On the same panel you have the specifications of the lens with the filter size, internal electronic makeup and the serial number. Finally, just ahead of the focus ring is a zoom lock that can be set to 200mm.

This repeating truck pattern caught my interest after a few shots. Focus was on the first truck, but even at f/7.1, the focus seemed to carry to the far vehicle. Lens was set at 200mm, 1/200 at ISO 400. ©Stan Trzoniec

Manual focus is smooth as silk. Placing your hand on the wide band between the focus and zoom ring allows fingertip control with the right amount of drag. Handholding the lens, the zoom control requires a complete half turn to bring it from 200mm to 500mm.

When holding the camera and lens and zooming out to 500mm it helps to hold the lens in place, and by rotating the camera to the right you can move smartly from minimum to maximum focal length in one quick motion. Holding the lens is no problem as its diameter of 4.25 inches at its largest point assures a grip.

Bells & Whistles
With a Nikon lens of this pedigree all the bells and whistles are included. While this lens is designed for FX (full frame) sensors, with 19 elements in 12 groups DX users will find this to their advantage by now holding optics worthy of 300-750mm. A lens of this type demands the addition of the Nikon Silent Wave Motor for quick subject acquisition.

The improved Vibration Reduction mode is equivalent to 4.5 stops and quality images are assured if you do your part. The constant f/5.6 maximum aperture is a plus in the field (versus a variable aperture) and going through a wide number of subjects wide open proved the lens capable of producing sharp images regardless of ambient lighting.

These old gravestones called me from the side of the road. I love backlit subjects and applying the D-Lighting feature in the Nikon D4s, the result is better than I expected even without post processing. ©Stan Trzoniec

Three ED (extra-low dispersion) glass elements reduce chromatic aberrations to the barest of minimums. Nikon’s Super Integrated Coating has been applied to the elements to diminish reflections, ghosting and flare.

If you mount a 95mm polarizing filter at the current average list of around $235, the lens has internal focusing so the filter will stay put regardless of focal length. Finally, to keep up with the current and future cameras with reference to high continuous shooting rates, a new electromagnetic (the “E” part of the name) aperture mechanism has been designed into this lens with nine rounded blades and the ability to stop down to f/32.

Stopping by at the Great Falls Discovery Center in Turners Falls, MA. I had a chance to use the lens and its VR feature indoors at high ISO settings. My first subject was this carved Meadow Lark and under ambient lighting conditions, With the lens set at 320mm, I shot this wide open at 1/50 at ISO 3200 handheld. ©Stan Trzoniec

Results In the Field
I put this lens through its paces in varied conditions. First off, let me say this lens is sharp. Really sharp!

My sole purpose was to avoid using a tripod whenever possible. I did have the Gitzo in my Jeep, but avoided it like the plague.

Naturally, you have to equate long lenses with atmospheric conditions like heat or mirage, but wildlife photographers typically don’t attempt headshots of animals at long distances when these factors might come into play. I did my shooting in late fall/early winter so I was a very happy camper while reviewing my photographs. I tried to vary shutter speeds, f/stops and ISOs to give the reader a well-rounded test report.

This coyote proved a worthy subject and at 230mm, f/5.6, 1/60 at 3200 it’s really sharp. ©Stan Trzoniec

My impression is that the Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR lens has very little distortion and not much falloff. The only tease I got was when I zoomed out to 500mm shooting at a nondescript background; there was some indication in the corners, even when varying the f/stops. That’s it.

I did employ my TC-14E teleconverter that brought the lens up to 700mm, and while handholding the camera and lens, the images were outstanding. I could not have been more pleased. In short, this is a lens from the future, available right now.

Current list price is $1397 and includes the lens with tripod collar, 95mm front lens cap, rear lens cap, HB-71 lens hood, a protective sack, instruction sheet and warranty card.