On my last safari I left my 200-400 f4 and decided to try out the new Nikon 200-500 f5.6. Coming in at 81.2 oz (2300 g) its certainly is lighter, should be easier to handle and has a newer VR system. Given the price point this lens is designed for a prosumer market. I expected it to fall short on weatherproofing and of course speed and quality.
My usual safari kit consists of an 80-200 f2.8 and a 200-400 f4.0. Both perform excellently under all conditions but the weight of the latter makes it difficult to use. In the wild animals can easily move from one side of the vehicle to the other and all the way round the back. Big cats like cheetah and lions can come as close as 3-4 feet. For this reason I frequently switch from a standing to sitting position to maintain eye level contact. This flexibility is crucial so supports like monopods and clamps are a hindrance. Typically I use a window frame or roof rack for to brace the lens.
Pairing it with a D4 would be overkill as the majority of uses would be on a more common body, probably a DX format. However, I wanted to see how it would perform on a Full Frame high resolution body that would really allow me to zoom into the files. I decided to go with the D810 providing 36 megs of FF resolution, and a chip that has more than enough dynamic range.
The lens is perfectly balanced with this body, I suspect with something like a D5300 it might be a little heavy. I added a high quality B&W UV filter for protection.
On the first day of safari I take guests to a local park where we can practice techniques and go over any gear related issues. This gave me a good opportunity to try out the lens before heading to the mara.
Every lens irrespective of cost is sharper one or two stops from being fully open. Online only the Nikon site shows two MTF charts for wide and tele at 5.6 there doesnt appear to be any other published curves. With pro lenses the quality drop off is very low and more coatings are used to prevent things like fringing. My concern with this new lens is that it should be sharpest at around f7.0 this slow speed presents our first problem when shooting in safari conditions.
My ideal setting with this lens should be iso 100 and f6.3. Combined with as fast a shutter speed as possible (min 1/500). If an animal is in full sun or if your shooting something like a soccer match outside this should be possible. Unfortunately most predators are at their most active around sunrise and sunset, during the day many spend their time in the shade.
Out of around 4000 images I have very few at this ideal setting. I had to rely on the active vibration reduction to allow shooting at a slower shutter speed coupled and iso of 200. This leads to our second problem. VR systems allow you to hand hold and avoid camera shake but do nothing to help you raise your shutter speed to capture moving objects when your shooting fully open and want to keep the iso low.
Conclusion 1: You dont need to take a single shot to realize full sun is required for this lens to perform at its best when capturing moving subjects at 500mm.
For all initial 100% crops the RAW files have been imported and any default sharpening applied by Lightroom/photoshop is manually set to zero.
Static subject under full midday sun at 24 meters
f5.6 1/1000 200 iso 500mm with active VR:
100% crop from the RAW file (all sharpening set to zero) yields average results.
For me this is too soft:
Under ideal conditions at f5.6 I have to apply 50% post production sharpening:
On Safari with this lens you are forced into a higher iso and shooting fully open. Close to 75% of my shots were iso 400 at f5.6, 1/1000 + to freeze the subject and avoid camera blur.
Lets have a look at how it performs at f6.3
Subject is 30 meters away
1/1000 at iso 200, 500mm with active VR:
Focus is achieved and Image looks good viewed full size:
100% crop image is slightly soft:
77% post production sharpening in Lightroom yields a better result:
Here is a much closer example with no risk of camera shake or subject blur!
Focus achieved subject at 12 meters.
F6.3 1/1600 400 iso 500mm with active VR:
100% crop shows slight softness:
With 89% sharpening and curve correction in lightroom
Image sharpness is improved:
The trend in these 3 examples carries through to all the images.
Irrespective of aperture, using a full frame high megapixel body the lens is soft at 500mm. Images viewed at 100% without any default software sharpening.
Let look at lens performance at 400mm, starting with a higher shutter speed and iso, again full midday sun.
Focus achieved, subject at 23 meters.
f5.6 1/1000 iso 500, 410mm
image is soft at 100%
Image adjusted in lightroom 89% sharpening
46% noise reduction to compensate for the iso:
Focus achieved, subject at 12 meters.
f5.6 1/1600 iso 400, 410mm:
image is soft at 100%:
70% sharpening and curve adjustments in lightroom improves the image:
Full frame final image:
Lets look at another example this time stopping down to f6.3
Focus achieved, Subject at 20 meters
f6.3 1/200 iso 320, 400mm:
Using f6.3 At 100% the RAW image is only slightly soft butÂ much sharper than those taken at 500mm and those taken at 400mm using f5.6:
65% sharpening added in lightroom plus curve and other adjustments:
Final image cropped for a better composition:
Shooting at 400 even with a higher iso renders a sharper image than 500mm.
The lens is soft at 5.6 but improves at 6.3
Lets take one final look at how the lens performs at 300mm with a more distant subject.
Focus achieved, Subject at 133 meters
f5.6 1/800sec iso 400, 320mm
Image is only slightly soft at 100%:
65% percent sharpening and curve adjustment added in Lightoom improves the image:
With a subject at 13 meters and stopped down for sharpness
f10 1/400 iso 200, 300mm
Image is slightly soft at 100%:
With 86% sharpness in lightroom:
At 300mm the lens performs very well but still suffers from softness when viewed 1:1 on a high res body.
Fringe and Chromatic aberrations
The lens doesnt handles atmospheric haze well especially with small distant objects but it does keep fringing to a minimum so any issues that occur are easily fixed in post:
Subject at 133m
f7.1 1/1000 iso 200 500mm
With a Full Frame high res camera you are really pushing this lens beyond its comfort zone. This is especially true when shooting wide open at 500mm. Results are acceptable until you zoom into a 1:1 view where the softness becomes noticeable. This is easily fixed in post but is not required on a higher quality lens.
Using a DX body or a body of around 20 megs is more suited to this lens and should give impressive results with no post production.
For shooting at 200mm I would switch to my 80-200 for a better result and more dof flexibility.
Consider covering the 200-500 range with another zoom and a prime
VR performs well, but keeping the shutter speed high is still advisable.
The 300-450mm range gives the best performance if you have to shoot at f5.6
Subjects under 20 meters produce great images
The f5.6 aperture is disappointing. In theory and also in practice this lens is sharpest around f6.3/f7.0
Fringe and other lens distortions are well handled even with small distant objects. However like many tele lenses this one susceptible to atmospheric haze.
For Best Results use my 400 Rule:
Shoot under 400mm with a minimum 1/400 at 400 iso
Some of my favorite shots:
So will I keep it or leave it?
The Nikon 200-500 f5.6 is great value for money. Without any post-production the images are more than good enough for the majority of users who only post pictures on the web at low res. Shooting in DX mode will also give you a boost to the focal length increasing it to a 300-750mm range. If your work is used editorially/printed large scale, or if you use it in less than ideal conditions you might find it doesn’t always give you perfect results at every combination of focal length and aperture. For more professional use I recommend going for a 500mm prime or perhaps a used 200-400 f4 and keeping this lens as a back-up or for use on a second body.
As a primary lens for capturing birds in the back garden, the kids playing soccer, etc. or as a secondary lens for more professional assignments its a KEEPER.
2018 – Update
For my February 2018 safari I decided to add this lens as a backup. I paired it with the new Nikon D850 to see its performance when really pushed to its sharpness limits.
In general my earlier findings still carry through. The only faults I can find are related to the f5.6 aperture and in particular the specific conditions in the wild.
Firstly, of course the lens is a little slow except in full sun (even when using VR) so hand holding was limited to above 1/320 with the majority of shots at 1/1000 followed by 1/640.
Secondly, and more of a personal style note. Except when the subject is cleanly isolated from its background ie against a sky, on a mound with an even background, etc I found at 5.6 the depth of field still renders distant items too sharp and the resulting bokeh is not as smooth as this lenses bigger and more expensive f4 cousin.
One additional positive point I discovered was that the lens handles high key, golden light, subjects very well. So if you are looking for a contemporary feel to distant subjects and a little flare doesn’t bother you, try it out!
Want to get shots like this? Join me on my next Photo Safari!