Field Test: Nikon 200-500 f/5.6 AFS G VR

Male house finches from approximately 30 feet away
Male house finches from approximately 30 feet away, captured with the Nikon 200-500mm AFS G VR zoom lens.

A few weeks ago, I received the new Nikon 200-500 f/5.6 AFS G VR zoom Nikkor lens. My initial impressions were quite good for a lens of this design and price point. I had a chance today to take it to the local nature center and try my hand at some bird photography; something that I think that the target market for this lens is quite interested in.

I set up the 200-500mm on my Nikon D810 DSLR and I used my Gitzo 3-series tripod with a Really Right Stuff BH-55 Ball Head and Wimberley Sidekick gimbal adapter. This is a relatively lightweight setup that is very sturdy. The only disadvantage of the Sidekick is that the placement of the gimbal arm makes it a little awkward to reach the focus and zoom ring while shooting, but in most cases that’s not a big deal. I considered using the Wimberley head, but I didn’t want to carry the extra weight.

White-crowned sparrow
White-crowned sparrow from approximately 20 feet away. (click to enlarge)

This time of year, there aren’t a whole lot of interesting birds in Colorado Springs, but the house finches, sparrows, and juncos were plentiful. These are small birds, and I was photographing them from about 30 feet (10m) away. The way I see it, this was a good test for this lens; small targets on an overcast, low-contrast day. These conditions push the focus system to its limit.

Dark-eyed junco
Dark-eyed junco

As I expected, the 200-500 focused well but not lightning fast like the 500 f/4 AFS G VR. However, in most situations it was perfectly acceptable in acquiring focus. Focus accuracy was quite good. I had calibrated the lens using the AF Fine-Tune menu in my D810, and I found that focus was pretty much dead-on.

Sharp-shinned hawk from over 100 feet away with the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 AFS G VR lens.
Sharp-shinned hawk from over 100 feet away with the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 AFS G VR lens.

Sharpness was good at f/5.6 (wide-open), even at 500mm. There was a slight improvement in image quality at f/7.1 but you can be comfortable shooting wide-open if need be. I found bokeh to be surprisingly pleasing, even with situations that presented cluttered backgrounds. I still need to test the lens with the TC-14EIII teleconverter, but in most cases I probably won’t need it with the D810, as I can simply use the crop mode to get an effective 750mm angle of view (with a 15 megapixel image).

House finch; 100% crop view from D810.
House finch; 100% crop view of the top image from  the Nikon D810. 1/1000s f/6.3 ISO 1100 (click to enlarge).

My overall conclusion is that while this lens isn’t quite as fast or sharp as the Nikon 500mm prime, it’s outstanding for a lens at this price. There were times when the focus system hunted, but mostly that was when I was shooting into cluttered scenes with branches obstructing my view. Because the lens changes length when zoomed, it’s not going to be perfectly balanced on a gimbal head unless you don’t zoom it while shooting. However, I think these are minor nits considering that in most cases, wildlife shooters will be using it at the maximum focal length most of the time.

At under $1400, if you’re a Nikon enthusiast interested in bird and wildlife photography, the 200-500mm f/5.6 AFS G VR Nikkor is a no-brainer.

10 thoughts on “Field Test: Nikon 200-500 f/5.6 AFS G VR”

  1. I just got one for a trip to Tanzania and Kenya next year. It just arrived the other day but I have yet to test it, I need to take a day off to go to the zoo for a good photo session. Based on your review it looks very promising. Thank you!

  2. Jason,

    Being a long time landscape photographer, but being new to wildlife I have just purchased this lens and agree with all your above comments. Shooting on a D800 I was really surprised by the quality of this lens, even at f5.6. Its AF in bright conditions works really well, but as you said it doesn’t like overcast days, but I’ll learn to work around this.

    For the money, focal length and fstop, this is a great lens, esp when put against the prices I’ve paid for landscape lenses! 🙂

    It would be great to hear your feedback on the quality once a 1.4 TC has been added.



  3. Jason,
    Thank you for posting this review! I currently use the Nikon 200-500 on a gripped D7100. I have had a blast with this lens. I do, however, want to know if this combo needs fine tuning. You mentioned doing it for this lens (I believe) in a previous post. Is this difficult to do? Thank you for helping us become better photographers and Happy Holidays from St. Petersburg, Fl.
    With Gratitude, Tal Pipkin

  4. I am the target market, I suppose, and have been using the 300 f/4 D + 1.4 TC eII and have also used the 80-400 v2. Thoughts on comparisons to these two alternatives?

  5. Jason,
    I plan on purchasing this Nikon 200-500 lens to use with my D7100. Have you tested this lens with a cropped sensor camera such as this?
    Thank you, Don

  6. I haven’t tested the Sigma, but I’ve used them in the past. My experience is that the maximum aperture of f/6.3 of the Sigma causes significantly slower autofocus performance.

  7. I don’t currently own any DX Nikons, but my experience says it should work just fine. The main drawback (depending on how you view it) would be that the lens may be too long in some situations. At the short end, you’d be looking at a 300mm equivalent angle of view. On the other hand, if small animals are your preferred subject, my guess is that you’ll be very pleased. I used the 200-500 in DX crop mode with my D810 and found it to be excellent.

  8. The lack of VR in those alternatives will make the 200-500 or even the 80-400VR very attractive. The newer lenses will also focus much faster.

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