This is an overview of the Nikon 500mm f/5.6E PF VR lens. It has been four years since I sold my favorite Nikkor AF-S 300mm f/4D lens. Since then, bird photography for me was just a waiting game until I got a new lens. My only lens which allowed me to taste bird photography in the mean time was the Nikon AF-S 70-200 f/2.8G VR II along with 1.4x TC II – a makeshift combo for larger birds. When Nikon announced the 300mm f/4E PF VR lens, I thought about getting it together with the 1.4x TC III, but knowing that reach is always an issue with little birds, my dream was to get the exotic 500mm f/4E FL VR. However, budget was an issue for such a hefty purchase, and on top of that, the weight of 3.1 kg was also a rather big negative factor. Although a number of budget-friendly lenses with good reach potential like the Nikon 200-500mm, Sigma / Tamron 150-600mm came out in between, none of them were able to match the quality I am used to getting from my Nikon 300mm f/4D. So, it was more a waiting game and I continued to try to survive in the genre with my makeshift combo…
Then come August 2018, Nikon announces the 500mm f/5.6 PF VR wonder lens – one stop slower than the conventional 500mm f/4 model, yet only 1460gm in weight and about 9.5 inches in length! This time, it was a PF lens, similar to Nikon’s 300mm f/4E PF VR lens. The specifications, as well as the price excited me greatly, but I was very skeptical about the Phase Fresnel element and diffractive optics in general. “Generally they are not as good as, refractive lenses” – this is what I have been told.
After reading a few reviews, I decided to purchase the PF lens over the 500mm f/4E FL VR. But availability of this lens was a great problem. After waiting 6 months, I managed to get one with the help of my good friend. So I decided to share my thoughts about the lens on Photography Life after happily using it for a month. For a more scientific review with data, graphs and other useful information, I suggest to wait until Nasim gets a sample in his hands. But in the meantime, I hope you find my field experience with the 500mm f/5.6E PF VR useful.
Table of Contents
1. The Combination Used
First of all, I would like to point out that my thoughts are based on my hand-held set up with the Nikon D810 and the lens, without any teleconverters attached. Performance with newer bodies like Nikon D5, D500, D850 and with TC 1.4 III is yet to be seen on my end to come to any serious conclusion. I am not a full-time professional and I haven’t been spoiled by such exotics as the 400mm f/2.8, 500mm f/4, 600mm f/4 and 800 f/5.6, so do accept my review of the lens with a pinch of salt.
2. Build Quality / Cosmetics
The build quality is very good just like all modern pro lenses. The lens looks gorgeous! The curves on the lens remind of its big brother. To me this is one of the few best-looking lenses in Nikon’s line up.
This lens has all the nifty features from other gold ring telephotos, such as memory lock button, 4 focus buttons up-front in different directions, AF-L and AF-ON switch etc, though I have not used these buttons yet.
The lens is claimed to be fully weather sealed, it has a rubber gasket on the rear mount and has fluorine coating on its front element to keep the debris and droplets away. Although I haven’t used it yet in very rugged and tough conditions, it should be able to handle those conditions very well. I like to mention here I opt not to put any protective filter (95mm) up-front for two reasons: first, due to probable impact on lens IQ and second, with this lens being a PF lens, another glass element might add more flare to images.
The hood is actually very good and has a lock mechanism like the 70-200mm f/2.8 but more robust than that. Having said that, I have seen pretty bad hoods like that of the Nikon 200-500mm, which is so frisky that it comes out on its own sometimes. The hood in my opinion is enough to protect the front element, if used carefully.
The tripod collar is the same old Nikon technology without Arca-Swiss compatibility. From the reports of few photographers, I came to know about the loose tripod collar, but after I tightened it with quite a bit of force, I have not seen it loosen once. I will see if it happens after prolonged use in the future, but in the mean time, I am taking precaution regarding that issue and I keep checking the collar intermittently.
The focus ring is buttery smooth. Sometimes it accidentally rotates while handling, so I prefer to switch to A/M mode instead of M/A.
The lens is a joy to use! After using it for a few days, my Nikon 70-200 f/2.8G VR II seemed heavy like a brick. The design makes it feel lighter although this lens is just 80 grams lighter than my 70-200mm. The diameter of the barrel of the lens near the mount is narrower and gradually broader to its end, whereas the 70-200 is the same diameter throughout. The lens makes you more agile as a photographer and working with this lens makes you faster in the field. Until now, I have used it for hours on stretch and hiked for hours without any fatigue. Even when I wait for the moment to capture action, I can hand-hold it for a longer period of time than any other lenses I have used before. Only in certain conditions like in a hide or where repetitive action happens, you might need to use a tripod. For general day-to-day use, I don’t feel like the combo needs a tripod or a monopod for support.
4. Autofocus Speed
Autofocus is blazing fast in good light. How fast? By my rough estimates, it is as good, or better than the old 300mm f/4D and far faster than the 200-500mm when used without the limiter switch (Full i.e. ∞ to 3m). Both focus acquisition and tracking are excellent, as well as the focus accuracy. To be honest, I was not expecting an f/5.6 lens to focus this fast. When the focus limiter is set to ∞ to 8m the focus speed is blazing fast, particularly in group AF focus on the D810, both in terms of acquisition and tracking (although not as good as the 70-200mm f/2.8, but still very close). The accuracy seems perfect for birds in flight in the distance, although I have not yet gotten an opportunity to test any close action yet. I have not experienced any hunting whatsoever.
In less than ideal conditions, I mean in overcast / poor light, contrasty backlit object or when shooting under very shaded and dense canopy, the focus accuracy suffers and the focus speed gets slower, as expected. The lens also tends to hunt when shooting through grass blades or in extreme backlit conditions, just like any other lens would.
My only reservation is in regards to the minimum focus distance of the lens – 3 meters is bit too far for my taste. However, long super telephoto exotics have even worse minimum focus limitations. Sometimes when the subject comes too near, I just cannot shoot – I struggle to fill the frame at or just above 3 meters with smaller sparrow-sized birds with my full frame camera.
5. Vibration Reduction
One word: amazing! I previously read some reports regarding VR problems when shooting at slow shutter-speeds with the 300 f/4E PF VR, so I was bit worried if the same issue was present on the 500mm PF VR as well. Here is my quick report on the lens VR. There are three modes of VR: 1. Off, 2. Normal, 3. Sport. When shooting at high shutter speeds say 1/1000th of a second, VR Off is not a problem for me. Sports VR is superb. At 1/60 sec and above, even at 1/2000th, Sports VR does not impact IQ. That’s amazing and it really works flawlessly. Normal mode is where I guess one could encounter problems, which I noticed and this also echoes the same observation in the review of E. J. Peiker. In normal mode, 1/60 sec and less, it works like a charm when used carefully. The lowest shutter speed with which I managed to get a sharp photo was at 1/25th of a second – that’s amazing for a 500mm lens. But above 1/60th of a second to up to 1/240th of a second, Normal VR produces inconsistent results in my experience. As a result, I decided to keep Sports VR on by default. Anyway, that range of shutter speeds on a 500mm lens probably warrants the use of a tripod and freezing of a subject is not possible, so it is not a big issue for me.
6. Image Quality
As expected from a modern Nikon super telephoto, this is a very sharp lens. Though the term sharpness of a lens is relative and multi-factorial, I want to point out a few things. The lens is very sharp wide open at f/5.6. I could not find any reason to stop down to achieve maximum sharpness. The only time I stopped down was in good light and to increase the depth of field.
Though corner sharpness is not an issue for me in this type of a lens and for its intended use, I found corner sharpness to be superb for distant shots where the whole frame is in focus, like a distant landscape.
Near subject: From near focusing distance to about 50 feet. The lens is tack sharp depending upon the subject and shooting discipline! The acuity is very good and so is the micro-contrast. It renders fine feather details of birds so good that at times I have to think twice to enhance edge contrast in post-processing.
Far subject: I wonder how this lens renders details of distant subjects further than 50 feet distance. I have never witnessed such sharpness of far away objects in other lenses I have used, provided there is no atmospheric haze, heat distortion and fog.
But I have observed in overcast condition and in contrasty-backlit condition the acuity and contrast seems to be a bit less than the lens is capable of.
I am a sharpness freak and believe the 300mm f/4 to be a very sharp lens. Also, I expect that the 500mm f/4 would be bit sharper than this PF at 100%. I have a mixed experience regarding the sharpness of the 200-500mm. Out of two copies I have used, I found one copy to be not sharp enough to satisfy my taste and the other was “just good enough”. Having said that, this PF lens is ahead of the 200-500mm in sharpness, but definitely not three times better as the price.
In my opinion, it’s a little sharper than the 300mm f/4 bare and considerably better than the 200-500mm when seen at 100% zoom. But social media spoil those details so much that you have to depend on the subject separation from the background to see the difference of f/4 and f/5.6 lenses.
One observation I have never experienced with any other combo is that the 500mm PF with the D810 body at times produces moiré in some particular pattern in the micro-details of feather. Not always, but on more than a few occasions:
This lens produces well saturated, neutral color, like all other modern lenses from Nikon in my observation. I personally like warmer tones from the old G type lenses, but images have very good contrast.
6.3. Out of Focus Highlights / Bokeh
This lens produces very smooth background when used properly. When the background is at infinity and far away from the subject, the Nikon 500mm f/5.6E PF VR produces buttery-smooth, uniform background. But when there are highlighted objects, like dried stems or any other contrast pattern in the background nearer to the subject, the rendition becomes harsher for my taste:
In my little use I found specular highlights to be not that smooth in some shots. Highlight have marveling pattern in the body and have a dark highlight circle on the edges. In the center of the image, the bokeh shapes are circular and on the edges of the frame they are like cat’s eyes. This observation does not affect the final frame as this is visible once you want to see the bokeh balls at 100%.
Overall, I found bokeh and out of focus rendering to be quite pleasing and a tad smoother than what the 200-500mm produces. I found bokeh to be much better than what the 300 f/4 with the TC 1.4x combo can produce from the same distance, which is expected.
Although PF lenses are prone to flare, I have not yet witnessed it in normal shooting scenarios. Once I deliberately point the lens directly towards a bright subject like the sun, I do find ugly polychromatic flare, but that’s not a very realistic shooting scenario.
The lens vignettes at its edge wide open, which is easily corrected in Adobe Camera Raw, version 11.2 with a single click.
6.6. Chromatic Aberration
I have not seen any signs of lateral chromatic aberration.
I could not find any distortion issues to be worried about.
Though these are my initial days of use, if I have to be very critical, then I only have two negative points to bring up. Number one is the one stop slower aperture of light gathering capability, which can be an issue when shooting in low-light conditions. Number two again has to do with the aperture – the f/4 lenses have better subject separation capabilities in comparison to this f/5.6 lens.
But I am immensely impressed with the overall output of this feather-weight telephoto. It is a lightweight champion with fast autofocus, great build quality, fantastic image quality, it is a joy to use and it has wonderful out of focus rendering at f/5.6. Truly amazing and definitely worthy of very high praises.
There are better pros in the world to recommend lenses and I will wait to see what Nasim says in his upcoming review. I can only say that I found the lost zeal in bird photography after getting this lens. Every lens purchase is a compromise and no lens is perfect. But for a person like me who wants a lightweight, and cheaper (yes, not that cheap folks) lens, yet one that has the most features of f/4 exotic super telephoto lenses in a small and portable package, there is simply no competitor on the market as of now. The only issue is, you have to wait, because the lens is nowhere to be found – Nikon just cannot make enough of these! But trust me when I say that the wait is totally worth it… It’s a great little super-tele in its own right.
Like you, the 300/f4D (I got it used) was my first taste of a serious long lens. It’s seen off the 80-400 and 200-400. I’m now waiting to get a used 500 PF. I’m hoping it will complement rather than replace my 300.
I’m a fan of the Nikon D850+Nikon 70-200 f/2.8G ED FL VR combo which I use mainly for macro of insects. I have been looking for a longer lens with the same acuity as the above and ideally on the light side. Your review is fantastic and the quality of the images you’ve captured with the D810+500PF combo is superb! I am hiring the 500PF lens and will try it out on the D850 perhaps w/ or w/o a TC14EIII extender.
Thank you so much for sharing your experience!
Thanks for praising !! That combo (with D850) is awesome.
Thank you very much for your excellent review of the Nikon 500 mm lens. I use this lens now for more than 3 years and I am very pleased with it. There is, however, in my opinion one serious drawback and that is stability of the lensfoot/tripod mount. I have had the terrible experience that the lensfoot/tripod mount came loose from the lens while hanging on my shoulder. The camera and lens dropped on the street and lucky for me it was not broken. Please let me know whether you know about this serious shortcoming of the lens.
I am aware but till date no issue for me. Sorry for so late reply.
Thank you for your informative review of this amazing lens. Your photographs are captivating and so beautifuly composed. After a long wait, I received my copy of this lens yesterday, and I’m eagerly awaiting hummingbird season here on the South Texas coast.
Nikon should use your images for marketing, Chandan. Love the way you’ve used the lens and it’s almost convinced me to buy this instead of a used 600mm f/4 (which will break my back carrying it around all day). I see from your photos that in good hands, even a f/5.6 lens can become better than a f/2.8 lens in 80% of the photographers out there. Excellent and thank you for this.
I wonder why autofocus is so slow with a 300mm f/2.8 + TC-20E III when this 500mm lens with the same effective maximum aperture (f/5.6) is so fast.
I wanted to thank you for posting your review of the Nikkor 500PF and for sharing your bird images from Pangolakha Sanctuary. Your images are stunning. So are the birds themselves. They are distinct from those in Oregon, USA where I live.
Your experiences with your 500mm f/5.6 PF lens corresponds with mine. It is a very sharp lens, sharper than the 300mm f/4 PF and the sharper and quicker to focus than the Nikkor 200-500mm. The f/5.6 minimum aperture helps keep the lens small and light compared to the faster Nikkor 500mm f/4, but at the expense of subject separation, higher ISOs, dim light focus acquisition, and, teleconverter utility. The 500mm f/5.6PF lens is revolutionary and compelling; its upsides far outweigh its downsides for users needing a light, portable, sharp telephoto that is hand holdable. It is a game changer for many wildlife photographer.
I’m glad that you emphasized how well the lens handles compared to the Nikkor 200-500; the 500mm PF’s lighter weight AND the tapering design (with much narrower grip diameter) make it nicer and easier to hold in the hand than the 200-500 lens and very quick and easy to use in the field.
The major drawbacks of the lens construction of the 500mm f/5.6 PF is that it has a fragile, two-part barrel and has a failure-prone, quick release tripod foot. This lens, in particular, should not be dropped, but design of the stock tripod foot makes it likely that it will be. The 500mm PF tends to separate at the joint between the two parts of the barrel when dropped; the joint is located about 1cm behind the switches on the lens.
I recommend that the stock tripod foot either be removed entirely (if the lens will be hand held exclusively) or replaced with a non-quick release, Arca-Swiss compatible aftermarket tripod foot. The best that I have used is the newly released Hejnar H129-500. This Arca-Swiss compatible foot will not disengage unintentionally from lens like the stock foot (and other brands of quick-release feet). The H129-500 is the only foot that extends backwards far enough to balance the heaviest Nikon bodies (with teleconverter) on a gimbal head. The H129-500 also extends farther forward than the stock foot, making it easy to grip and carry this lens by foot. The Hejnar H129-500 is made in the USA and is available direct from Hejnar Photo: www.hejnarphotostore.com/produ…29-500.htm
Portland, Oregon, USA
Thanks a lot Alan. Really glad to know that your findings matches mine.
@ PL / Nasim:
I am following your website since it was recommeded to me by a photographer some years ago and I want to say thank you to you and all the guys putting so much time and energy in PL and for everything I learned from you starting from photography basics thourhg to purchaisng decisions.
Nevertheless I would like to ask you a question that might correlate with other people’s thoughts here:
May be I am wrong but for quite some time PL ssems to focus on all kinds of new stuff like mirrorless cameras and the corresponding lenses, which I can fully understand because it is a technology getting more and more into focus. However, there are quite a number of comments on the website saying more or less that for the nature and wildlife fraction the DSLR will most likely remain 1st choice for quite some time.
We all know that you are incredibly busy with all the things around PL and your “normal life” as a photographer, but against the background mentioned above it would be really great, if a PL test of the 500 PF would be done and published. After even normal nobodies like me can get the lens within days, it shouldn’t be a problem for a reknowned PL photographer to get hands on the required copies these days …
I just want to thank you for this article, because to me it was the one of the first available resource for reliable information about this lens from a user perspective that seemed worth being taken in consideration. As you I am still looking forward to see test results from PL itself.
I rewarded myself for the work on a project that kept me away from home and phtotography for quite some time and by buying this lens an – believe it or not – between the decision to do it and holding it in my hands it took just three days. Sometimes the old school way of taking the phone and calling local delers in the surrounding really helps :-)
Because I got it shortly before XMAS the time to test it was limited. But all I can say is, that it is is a REALLY nice lens and a breeze to use. I own the 500 f4 G as well and all lenses go through AF fine adjustment with both of my D750 bodies before getting to serious use and the results are great. Putting the image quality in relation to the weight and handling of the lens I would actually prefer the 500 PF in most situations, because – as John Sherman wrote – the priority it is often to get the shot rather than to might have got the shot with perhaps 3% more image quality. The only limitation is that the lens is 1 full stop slower than its big brother which in dim light conditions drastically reduce the number of working AF sensors on the D750 once you have to got to f8 – either by stopping down or when using the use of the TC14 on it,
Regarding picture quality with TC 14 I haven’t had the chance to do much testing, but it looks like the picture quality is still very, very good. The only downside of it is that the number of keepers goes down when lighting conditions become difficult as the lens starts hunting earlier than it f4 counterpart with TC.
I know that this is very subjective and very much depends on the way somebody is using her/his equipment. But I had the 200-500 f5.6 and the 500 f5.6 PF here trying them side by side and I have sent back the 200-500 straight away after a couple of days. The 500 PF is my Xmas present 2019 :-)
Nice write up Chandra. After waiting for 1 year my dealer in Hyderabad, Indian rang me up few days back to say that he can deliver the 500 PF by 06 Oct.I can not wait to get my hands on it for the birding season which has juts started .We just returned from Great rann of Kutch ,India after shooting the passage migrants.Wish we had the lend before that.Both (self & wife) always like to move around for observing & shooting birds & this lens is exactly meant for that