For many years, Nikon has been limiting affordable super telephoto zoom lenses above 300mm to the 80-400mm VR lens, while keeping its high-end super telephoto line of zoom and prime lenses available only for those with deep pockets. With Tamron and Sigma pushing great budget-friendly 150-600mm options, Nikon finally decided to release its first constant-aperture super telephoto zoom competitor in August of 2015. Specifically designed for beginner and enthusiast wildlife / sports photographers, the new Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR became the first hand-holdable Nikon lens to reach 500mm at a relatively low price point of $1,399. This offering, coupled with the upcoming Nikon D500 DSLR, makes a killer combination for action photography. With an equivalent field of view of 300-750mm and the capability to shoot fast action at up to 10 frames per second on the D500, the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E VR is definitely going to become one of the most popular lenses in Nikon’s lens line-up, thanks to its versatility and reach. Although our team at Photography Life has not had a chance to test this particular combination due to unavailability of the D500 in the US, we have been actively using the lens on camera bodies like the Nikon D7200, D750, D810 and D4S for this particular review. We are planning to write a follow-up article covering the use of the lens on the Nikon D500, once we get our hands on the camera. Meanwhile, please enjoy the review of the Nikon 200-500mm VR lens, along with comparisons to Tamron 150-600mm VC, Sigma 150-600mm C / Sport and Nikon 80-400mm VR lenses.
Special thanks to Tom Redd and John Lawson for sharing their beautiful images for the review.
1) Lens Overview
The Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR is designed very differently than the 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G VR or the 150-600mm variable aperture lenses from Tamron and Sigma. With a total weight of 2,300 grams, it is noticeably heavier than the 80-400mm at 1,570 grams, the Tamron 150-600mm f/5-6.3 VC at 1,951 grams, and the Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM at 1,930 grams. Weight-wise, it is probably more appropriate to compare it to Sigma’s Sport version of the 150-600mm lens, which is 560 grams heavier in comparison. Despite the fact that it is the only lens with a fixed aperture of f/5.6 in this group of super telephoto zooms, it does not have the same reach opportunities – those 100mm on the long end surely do make a difference! However, let’s not forget that the 150-600mm lenses don’t do particularly well optically at the long end and cannot be used with teleconverters, while the Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E VR can be. This begs the question – can the 200-500mm f/5.6E VR match the optical quality of the 150-600mm lenses with a 1.4x teleconverter? While we would be dealing with 700mm vs 600mm on the long end, this was one of my main questions when I got a hold of the 200-500mm VR. True, there would be some loss of light (f/8 vs f/6.3), but if it was as good optically at 600mm with a teleconverter, I would probably opt for the 200-500mm instead of the third party options, mainly because of autofocus reliability. Having tested a number of 150-600mm lenses, I was also a bit worried about quality assurance and reliability issues, thinking that Nikon would be better in that department overall. Sadly, as reported further down in this review, that did not turn out to be the case…
In terms of lens design, Nikon threw in quite a bit of its modern optical technologies into the lens. Although it does not come with Nano Coating, the lens does feature a Silent Wave Motor, up to 4.5 stops of Vibration Reduction / image stabilization compensation, internal focus design and 3 extra-low dispersion lens elements. One by one Nikon has been slowly replacing its old-style designed lenses featuring mechanical diaphragms with the newer, superior electromagnetic diaphragm. I wonder why some of the modern lens designs by Nikon, such as the Nikkor 24mm f/1.8G, still feature mechanical diaphragms using an aperture lever on the lens mount – those lenses were probably in the making for a long while.
It is impressive that Nikon was able to come up with a constant aperture lens design for such a long zoom lens. Lenses of similar class we have seen in the past from Tamron (SP 200-500mm f/5-5.3 Di LD) and Sigma (150-500mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM), as well as the newer 150-600mm variants, all have variable apertures from short to long end of the range (f/5 to f/6.3), so the Nikkor 200-500mm is the first of its kind. Although modern DSLRs do quite well with slower lenses (thanks to their superior AF systems capable of handling lenses all the way up to f/8), earlier models struggled with lenses that went past f/5.6, providing unreliable and inconsistent focusing experience, particularly in low-light situations. The Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E VR does not have such issues, because of its brighter maximum aperture of f/5.6 at all focal lengths, which is why the lens is actually suitable to use with the 1.4x teleconverter.
Let’s take a look at the lens in more detail.
2) Lens Specifications
- Compact super telephoto zoom lens for birding, wildlife, motorsports, events and more
- 500mm of zoom power on FX-format DSLRs; 750mm equivalent on DX-format DSLRs
- Fast f/5.6 constant aperture for beautiful out-of-focus backgrounds and low-light performance
- ~4.5 stops of Vibration Reduction with Sports mode
- AF compatible with optional TC-14E series teleconverters and DSLRs that offer f/8 support
Here is the summary of the technical specifications of the lens:
- Mount Type: Nikon F-Bayonet
- Focal Length Range: 200-500mm
- Maximum Aperture: f/5.6
- Minimum Aperture: f/32
- Angle of View (FX-format): 12°20′ – 5°00′
- Angle of View (DX-format): 8°00′ – 3°10′
- Lens (Elements): 19
- Lens (Groups): 12
- Compatible Format(s): FX, DX
- VR (Vibration Reduction) Image Stabilization: Yes
- Diaphragm Blades: 9
- ED Glass Elements: 3
- Super Integrated Coating: Yes
- Autofocus: Yes
- AF-S (Silent Wave Motor): Yes
- Internal Focusing: Yes
- Minimum Focus Distance: 7.2 ft (2.2 m)
- Focus Mode: Manual, Manual / Auto
- Filter Size: 95mm
- Accepts Filter Type: Screw-on
- Compatible with Nikon AF-S Teleconverters: Yes
- Dimensions: 4.2 in. (108 mm) x 10.5 in. (267.5 mm)
- Weight (Approx.): 81.2 oz. (2300 g)
Detailed specifications for the lens, along with MTF charts and other useful data can be found in our lens database.
3) Lens Handling and Build Quality
The Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E VR is built quite well and should last many years without service if it is properly handled. Despite its mostly plastic barrel construction (the tip of the zoom ring where the focal lengths are engraved, along with the tripod foot and the mount are made out of metal), one could tell that there are plenty of metal components inside the lens, since it is a pretty hefty lens. With a total of 19 elements in 12 groups, the lens obviously has quite a bit of glass inside as well, with three fairly large elements stacked up in the front part of the lens:
While these are not the super lightweight fluorite elements we see on the latest high-end super telephotos, two out of the three elements on that front are extra-low dispersion lens elements, which help improve the overall sharpness and contrast of the lens by significantly reducing spherical aberration. Another ED element is placed in the middle part of the lens, which belongs to the group of elements that does not extend when the lens is zoomed in.
Speaking of zooming in, the 200-500mm VR has a very large and thick zoom ring, similar to the one on the 80-400mm VR. All three copies of the 200-500mm VR I have handled so far had very nice and smooth zoom rings, coming to abrupt stops at both 200mm and 500mm marks.
Additional handling notes from John Lawson: Full zoom from one end to the other requires almost 180 degrees of rotation on the zoom ring. That is too far to go without stopping and resetting your grip. And that is not what you want to be doing when trying to maintain correct framing on a fast approaching subject such as a bird in flight. The best technique then is to grip the front of the lens barrel and use it as a push-pull zoom. That works for the most part but it can sometimes be difficult to keep a good grip on the barrel, especially with gloves on. Points off for that oversight.
When traveling, one can lock the lens at its shortest length of 200mm using a switch on the side of the lens barrel, as pictured below. Similar to the zoom ring, the focus ring is also nice and thick, which can be particularly useful when manually overriding focus. What I like about the placement of the focus ring, is that it is located at the back of the lens, which is an advantage when hand-holding the lens, since you never actually touch the focus ring in the process. When compared to the flimsy focus ring on the Sigma 150-600mm, the focus ring on the Nikkor 200-500mm VR is actually very smooth, allowing for more precise focus acquisition. Just like all other modern AF-S lenses, the lens will go beyond infinity and continue to rotate once the minimum and maximum limits are reached.
As seen above, the lens features a total of four switches on the side of the lens. From top to bottom, there is a focus mode switch that allows switching from autofocus with manual focus override to manual focus, focus limiter switch that goes from close focus to infinity (full range) and 6 meters to infinity, vibration reduction (VR) switch and lastly, vibration reduction mode switch that allows switching between Normal and Sport mode.
When it comes to hand-holding, although as I have already said above, the three largest glass elements are located on the front of the lens, it still does not make the lens front-heavy. Whether shooting at 200mm or fully extended to 500mm, the lens feels nicely balanced on hand.
The same cannot be said about the use of the lens on a tripod. Unfortunately, Nikon continues screwing up the tripod collar on such lenses. First, we are still dealing with the same single threaded tripod foot that requires attaching a tripod plate. Why can’t Nikon make its tripod feet compatible with Arca-Swiss? With so many Arca-Swiss compatible tripod clamps and accessories out there, it is pretty much a standard now, especially among sports and wildlife photographers. I can’t blame only Nikon for this, since all other lens manufacturers follow a similar practice of providing useless tripod collars and feet, but perhaps if one moves towards that direction, others would follow. Second, there is only one point of connection to the lens collar, located far on the back of the lens barrel, which means that most of that 2.3 kg of weight basically pushes into a single area. A better way to design a tripod collar in my opinion, would be to stabilize the lens at two points, similar to what a number of Kirk and RRS replacement lens collars do. I would personally replace the stock lens collar with this one from Kirk and if I used a standard ballhead or a gimbal head that mounts the lens in a landscape orientation, I would also get this extra accessory to support the weight of the lens in two areas. As a word of caution, never let lenses this heavy just dangle off the camera mount, as applying too much pressure might tilt or damage the camera mount and potentially even break it. There is a reason why such lenses are shipped with a tripod collar!
The Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E VR is not weather sealed like some of the high-end super telephoto lenses are, but it does a pretty decent job at withstanding extreme cold, dust and moisture. I used the lens at Bosque del Apache when the outside temperature was below freezing and I did not experience and lock-ups or other related issues. I carried the lens with me in the car while driving through pretty dusty roads of Joshua Tree NP and Death Valley NP and it did not seem to attract too much dust. Still, I would certainly refrain from abusing it like a pro-level lens – the lens will suck quite a bit of air in when zooming in and out, so if you expose it to too much fine dust, you might eventually need to deal with a Nikon service center for some deep cleaning. Although dust does not normally impact image quality, it will eventually reduce lens contrast. The good news is, the rear of the lens is somewhat protected with a non-moving optical element, so you should not need to worry about too much dust making its way into the lens from the mount / camera side. In addition, the mount itself is protected with a rubber gasket. However, there is a small gap between the rear element and the lens, so if you do decide to change lenses in a dusty environment, make sure that you lock the zoom ring at 200mm before you do it. Otherwise, you risk sucking more dust into the lens through that opening.
Overall, the build quality of the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E VR is very good for its price and in my opinion slightly exceeds the quality of the Tamron and Sigma counterparts.
4) Quality Assurance / Sample Variation
When a lens with such a huge zoom range and low price point is made, it is safe to assume that there are always going to be compromises. Lenses can suffer from all kinds of problems – from de-centering of lens elements and focus accuracy issues, all the way to poor construction practices, which can go undetected during the quality assurance process. We have seen this with the Tamron and Sigma 150-600mm lenses, which can be a bit of a gamble in terms of sample variation. Good samples can produce excellent results, while bad ones will make the experience of owning a lens pretty frustrating. Since sample variation is a big problem for properly evaluating and testing lenses, our team at PL always strives to test at least several copies of the same lens. In the case of the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E VR, we used two brand new samples of the lens to measure its optical performance in a lab environment, while using a total of 5 lens samples to test them in the field. My personal goal was to see how much variation there is on the 200-500mm VR and how it compares to the experience our team had with the Tamrono and Sigma counterparts.
Unfortunately, the 200-500mm VR did not turn out to be any better than the 150-600mm competitors in terms of consistency. The lens sample that John Sherman used for his testing turned out to be quite poor when shooting at infinity (as reported in his detailed super telephoto zoom lens comparison), which I did not experience with mine. Tom Redd’s first sample of the 200-500mm was “horrible” in terms of sharpness, so he had to swap his out for another sample, which turned out to be quite a bit better. My sample, along with John Lawson’s sample were quite decent from the get-go. So out of the 5 total samples, two turned out to be duds from the start, which is not a particularly encouraging statistic. Perhaps we have had bad luck, but like I have said earlier, at this zoom and price ranges, there will always be compromises. Hence, you should not pick one brand over another based on build quality – looks like they are all built in a similar fashion, with potential variance issues from sample to sample. As I always recommend, make sure to test each lens you purchase before fully committing to it – a simple focus test or a de-centering test can quickly reveal serious optical issues…
5) Autofocus Performance and Accuracy
Similar to other modern Nikon lenses, the 200-500mm f/5.6E VR comes with a fast and quiet silent wave motor (SWM). While the lens might not be as quick as some of the high-end pro-level lenses, it is still pretty fast for photographing action, especially when used on the latest generation Nikon DSLRs. I have used the lens at all focal lengths and I did not notice any performance degradation at any particular focal length in terms of autofocus speed, which is great. Unlike the 150-600mm lenses, the aperture of the 200-500mm VR does not get any smaller than f/5.6, which means that the lens should work great on older camera bodies limited to f/5.6 maximum aperture as well.
Autofocus accuracy and reliability are also quite good. I did not see any serious issues with AF accuracy and the lens seemed to lock on to subjects very well at all focal lengths, something you don’t always see on similar-class lenses. The same cannot be said about the Tamron 150-600mm, which is known to occasionally lock-up and freeze, requiring a disconnect and reconnect to the camera body. And the Sigma 150-600mm C also demonstrated focus inconsistency issues, particularly at closer distances, as noted in my Sigma 150-600mm C Review. When testing the Nikon 200-500mm VR in my lab, I tested focus acquisition speed and reliability at different focal lengths and distances to the target. I did not notice similar problems, which shows that the Nikon 200-500mm VR certainly does outperform the 150-600mm counterparts in both AF accuracy and reliability. Another good news is that I also did not experience any “AF chatter” issues I previously encountered with the Nikon 80-400mm VR – the lens did not seem to make continuous and annoying AF adjustments when the subject was still.
Additional notes on AF from John Lawson: What about tracking fast moving subjects? I would say most of the time, autofocus is fairly good for tracking birds in flight. However, it is still not as good as the super telephoto primes, which snap into focus instantly. Photographing small, fast subjects with erratic movements is quite frustrating and challenging. The lens simply does not acquire focus quickly enough. However, focus tracking for larger and more predictable subjects is much less of a problem. In fact it does quite well. As soon as I got my copy of the lens, I went to a model airplane field to test autofocus tracking. The planes move quite quickly but are fairly predictable. And there was lots of light and high contrast edges to lock onto, so focus acquisition and tracking worked well in those conditions.
Overall, the AF speed and accuracy on the 200-500mm VR are both very good. You can find additional commentary in regards to AF performance when using a teleconverter in the “Teleconverter Use” section of this review. Our team is looking forward to re-testing autofocus performance when coupled with the D5 or the D500.
6) Low-light Performance
It was interesting to compare the autofocus performance of the Nikon 200-500mm VR to that of both Sigma and Tamron 150-600mm lenses in low-light situations – at its longest focal length of 500mm, the Nikon 200-500mm VR focused with a bit more precision compared to the 150-600mm lenses at 600mm. This makes sense, since the lens receives more light (yes, f/5.6 vs f/6.3 does make a difference) and hence suffers a bit less in very dim environments. However, the real differences are pretty minor, especially when shooting with the latest Nikon DSLRs that have a -3 EV detection range and can maintain focus all the way to f/8. Still, even f/5.6 can be rather limiting in extremely low-light conditions, causing the lens to “hunt” for focus, back and forth. And that’s expected. If you constantly shoot in dim conditions, you would have to move up to exotic telephotos – in comparison, those can let a lot more light through for the camera’s autofocus system to acquire focus better.
7) Lens Sharpness and Contrast
When it comes to lens sharpness, the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E VR performs admirably. Similar to what we see on other super telephoto zoom lenses, the lens starts out pretty strong at 200mm and its performance degrades towards the long end of the zoom range, which means that at 500mm, the lens suffers the most optically. Let’s take a look at our lab measurements using the Imatest software at various focal lengths.
Here is the lens at its shortest focal length of 200m:
The lens starts out fairly sharp in the center, but its mid-frame and corner performance are pretty average wide open – not a huge concern, as the lens would rarely be used to photograph flat subjects.
Let’s take a look at what happens when the lens is zoomed in towards 300mm:
The lens peaks in sharpness at 300mm, delivering excellent center performance and pretty solid mid-frame and corner performance. As we zoom in beyond 300mm, the sharpness starts to drop a little:
This is very impressive, as most similar super zooms drop their sharpness beyond the 300mm mark pretty rapidly. The Nikkor 200-500mm VR is holding up pretty well here! And lastly, here is 500mm:
From the above chart we can see that the lens experiences a pretty drastic drop in sharpness at 500mm and not just in the center frame. Stopping down to f/8 helps a little, but not all that much.
Please note that the above test results are derived from running tests on two different lens samples. It is also important to point out that the numbers are not inter-mingled between the two lens samples – I published the better results for all focal lengths from the same lens sample.
However, there is one issue I would like to talk about. Specifically, it is regarding the sharpness uniformity issues that John Sherman noticed on his sample of the 200-500mm VR lens, as reported in his Nikon 200-500mm vs Sigma 150-600mm vs Tamron 150-600mm article. His sample behaved quite badly in the corners at infinity, yielding visibly blurry results. When John reported this issue to me, I was traveling in Joshua Tree NP and as soon as I hung up the phone, I found a test subject at infinity and took a shot. Below is the full image, down-sampled to 2048 pixels:
When looking at the photo at 100%, the sharpness does not seem to be dropping as severely as John noted in his article. In fact, my sample demonstrated fairly good sharpness towards the extreme corners. Take a look at the below crop, taken from the right bottom side of the above image (no additional sharpening was applied):
As you can see, the sharpness looks just fine, without noticeable blur. This shows how big differences can be between different lens samples – my copy did really well at infinity, but produced significantly worse results at close focus, as shown in the above charts. John’s copy might have been the other way around, or perhaps he had a de-centered lens element that drastically affected the corners.
The biggest question is, how do the above numbers fare against the 80-400mm and the 150-600mm lenses from both Tamron and Sigma? You will find the answers further down in the review.
8) Teleconverter Use
Super telephoto zoom lenses typically don’t couple well with teleconverters, because they are usually already slow (f/4-f/5.6) and teleconverters only reduce the amount of light passing through the lens, leaving little light for the phase detection system to work with. Because of this, the biggest source of frustration is usually not sharpness (which obviously is impacted, as explained in my image degradation with teleconverters article), but rather the inability to lock on to the subject and properly acquire focus. Longer teleconverters can severely impact autofocus accuracy! Also, because teleconverters effectively increase the focal length of a lens, there is also the added problem of the longer focal length – one has to know how to handle such issues as atmospheric haze, camera shake (see article on reciprocal rule), image stabilization and proper camera + lens handling. In short, the longer the lens, the more the potential problems.
Nikon TC-14E III (280-700mm): When testing the 80-400mm lens, I personally did not like how the lens performed with the 1.4x teleconverter – AF speed and accuracy suffered a lot. Before I slapped the TC-14E III on the 200-500mm, I wondered if I would get similar results. To my surprise, the Nikon 200-500mm actually did quite well! While both AF speed and accuracy took a little hit, the lens did not seem to suffer as bad as the 80-400mm + 1.4x TC combo. In daylight environment, the lens performed really well, making it a nice 280-700mm f/8 combo. It is important to point out that I was shooting with the Nikon D750 and D810 DSLRs, which have excellent AF systems that can focus with f/8 lenses using the center focus point (if one were to use an entry-level or an older generation Nikon DSLR, the results would not have been as good). What about the impact of the teleconverter on sharpness? Let’s take a look at the results below:
As expected, there is a pretty drastic drop in overall sharpness across the board, especially at the longest end of the zoom range. However, the overall sharpness is still pretty decent – in fact, as you will see further down in the review, the lens outperforms the Sigma 150-600mm Contemporary at 600mm and gets pretty close to the Tamron 150-600mm VC. Not bad!
Nikon TC-17E II (340-850mm): The 1.7x teleconverter has always been a mixed bag for me, because aside from a handful of expensive super telephoto lenses and the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II, it rarely ever couples well with most lenses. This is especially true for slower f/4 and f/5.6 lenses. Because of this, I personally did not do a lot of field tests using my 1.7x teleconverter. However, John Sherman reported pretty good results when using the TC-17E II on his Nikon D4s, which shows that one can potentially get decent AF accuracy and sharpness when the light conditions are good. This combo will lock on the subject fairly well in good light, but tracking movement becomes a real challenge. Let’s take a look at how the TC-17E II impacts the sharpness of the lens at the longest end of the zoom range:
To be honest, I expected to see much worse results with the TC-17E II than the above, which confirms that one can get acceptable sharpness when the subject is in focus. Still, we are talking about an f/9.5 combo @ 850mm, which presents a lot of challenges. Personally, I would avoid using the 1.7x teleconverter with this lens, since AF tracking is unreliable.
Nikon TC-20E III (400-1000mm): Slowing down the maximum aperture of the lens to f/11 and significantly reducing the amount of light passing through the lens, it is expected that the TC-20E III would be a bad candidate for the Nikon 200-500mm VR. While being able to reach 1000mm sounds appealing, autofocus is basically dead and you would have to use the manual focus ring to focus on the subject. Sharpness is so greatly impacted with this combo, that I did not bother testing the rig using test charts. I would strongly discourage using this particular combo, because it will only lead to frustration.
9) Vibration Reduction / Image Stabilization Performance
Shooting with such lenses as the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E VR hand-held requires a solid image stabilization system, because you are dealing with a relatively slow aperture and long focal length, which puts a heavy burden on the shutter speed and ISO performance of the camera. To be able to keep up with fast shutter speeds, you will find yourself pushing your camera’s ISO quite a bit if you don’t take advantage of image stabilization, which is why it is so important. In my field and lab tests, I found the vibration reduction of the Nikon 200-500mm VR to be very effective. The lens provided sharp results even when shooting 3-4 stops below the reciprocal rule recommendation, which is what one would normally get with the latest generation Vibration Reduction system on Nikkor lenses. As usual, letting the lens stabilize and using a solid hand-holding technique were important in reducing the number of blurry images due to camera shake.
As the review images suggest, the Nikon 200-500mm VR handles out of focus areas quite well when the subject is close and there is a good isolation between the subject and the background. In addition, if one has specular higlights in the background, the lens does a great job in rendering those beautifully. Going through images, I did not notice any images with distracting bokeh. Since Nikon did not utilize any aspherical elements as part of the lens design, you do not have to worry about seeing ugly onion-shaped highlights in images.
The Nikon 200-500mm VR handles vignetting really well, pushing at most close to 1.7 EV in the extreme corners at 500mm when focused at infinity:
As you can see, vignetting is practically non-existent at short focal lengths. Only when pushed beyond 300mm, do we start seeing darkening of edges and only at infinity.
12) Ghosting and Flare
Ghosting and flare is something to watch out for, since super telephoto lenses generally cannot handle it well due to long focal lengths. There is a reason why the Nikon 200-500mm VR comes with a long hood – keep it mounted on the front of the lens at all times and avoid shooting against bright sources of light.
Distortion is generally a non-issue with most telephoto lenses as well and as we can see from the graph below, the Nikon 200-500mm VR only exhibits a slight amount of barrel distortion that you will never see in images:
14) Chromatic Aberration
What about lateral chromatic aberration levels? Let’s take a look:
As you can see, chromatic aberration levels are fairly low at 200mm and 300mm, but start to get worse towards 400mm. At 500mm, lateral chromatic aberration reaches 2.29 pixels at f/5.6, which is rather high.
15) Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E VR vs Tamron 150-600mm f/5-6.3 VC
How does the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E VR optically compare to the Tamron 150-600mm f/5-6.3 VC? Let’s take a look at the two at 500mm:
It is pretty clear that the Nikon 200-500mm VR outperforms the Tamron 150-600mm VC at 500mm in the center. Where the Nikon suffers a bit in comparison is the corners, particularly when stopped down. Here, the Tamron seems to be a bit better in comparison. Still, considering that these are sports and wildlife lenses, it is not very likely that one would be shooting a flat subject, so the center performance is more important in my opinion.
The real question, however, is to see how the Nikon 200-500mm VR does at 600mm with the 1.4x teleconverter when compared to the Tamron 150-600mm at 600mm:
Now this is interesting. At its maximum aperture of f/8 with the 1.4x teleconverter, the Nikon 200-500mm VR outperforms the Tamron 150-600mm at f/6.3! However, when stopped down to the same aperture, the Tamron is just a tad sharper, as shown in the graph above. The difference is not drastic, but it is there.
So which one is better overall, the Tamron 150-600mm or the Nikon 200-500mm with the teleconverter? Keep in mind that the above test on the Nikon 200-500mm was performed roughly at 430mm to yield 600mm with the 1.4x teleconverter. The Nikon in this case can actually go all the way to 700mm with this combo, giving a 100mm more advantage. If you are wondering about the performance at 700mm, take a look at the below chart:
As you can see, the performance of the lens at 500mm with the teleconverter is only slightly worse than at 430mm, which definitely gives the advantage to Nikon 200-500mm. In my opinion, the Nikor 200-500mm VR is a bit more versatile than the Tamron, not only because it delivers sharper results pretty much at every focal length (particularly at 500mm), but also it can be used with a teleconverter, adding another 100mm of focal length advantage. Therefore, I would personally go with the Nikon 200-500mm over the Tamron 150-600mm.
16) Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E VR vs Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Contemporary
Now let’s take a look at how the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E VR optically compares to the Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Contemporary. Here are the two lenses at 500mm:
The Nikon 200-500mm VR comes out sharper than the Sigma 150-600mm C, particularly at the maximum aperture. While the difference in performance diminishes at f/8, the 200-500mm still looks better all the way across the frame. Here are the two lenses at 600mm (200-500mm + 1.4x TC):
Once the teleconverter is used on the 200-500mm VR, its maximum aperture is reduced to f/8 and its performance obviously drops. However, we can see here that the Sigma 150-600mm cannot keep up with the Nikon 200-500mm in sharpness at its maximum aperture. Even stopped down to f/8, the Nikon 200-500mm is still sharper. Only when both are stopped down to f/11, the performance differences pretty much disappear.
17) Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E VR vs Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Sport
The Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Sport is a beast of a lens, but once you factor in its cost and compare it to the Nikon 200-500mm VR with the teleconverter, the two get fairly close in price range. The Sigma 150-600mm Sport is still heavier and bulkier in comparison, but still should be included in this comparison. Let’s take a look at the two at 500mm:
It is pretty obvious that the Sigma 150-600mm Sport is a visibly better lens than the Nikon 200-500mm. At 500mm, we can see that it performs really well, even wide open. It goes without saying that the Sigma 150-600mm Sport will obliterate the Nikon 200-500mm at 600mm:
The sharpness difference is very obvious in images – the Nikon 200-500mm looks much worse in comparison. Images from the Sigma 150-600mm Sport look very crisp, fairly close to what we see on some high-end super telephoto zoom lenses. If you are trying to decide between the Sigma 150-600mm Sport and the Nikon 200-500mm VR, the Sigma is obviously the way to go.
18) Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E VR vs Nikon 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G VR + 1.4x TC
Let’s now compare the 200-500mm f/5.6E VR with the Nikon 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G VR, with and without a teleconverter. Here is what happens with both lenses at 400mm:
Since the Nikon 80-400mm gets much softer towards its long end, while the Nikon 200-500mm shines at 400mm, we can see the drastic difference in performance, with the 200-500mm looking much better at f/5.6. Stopped down to f/8, the differences start to disappear, but the 200-500mm still outperforms the 80-400mm in the mid-frame and the corners.
To compare the 80-400mm at longer focal lengths, we have to use the 1.4x telconverter for testing. At the longest end of the zoom range + 1.4x teleconverter, the 80-400mm yields a focal length of 560mm. While it is not directly comparable to 600mm we cam get on the 200-500mm VR with the same teleconverter , it is still worth comparing the two:
Here, the 80-400mm seems to be doing a little better in terms of overall sharpness. However, there are two important points to keep in mind. As stated earlier, the 1.4x teleconverter reduces AF speed and accuracy pretty drastically on the 80-400mm, making the combo not so usable in the field. Also, we are looking at 560mm vs 600mm here and the 200-500mm can go all the way to 700mm, which is something the 80-400mm cannot achieve (its performance with the 1.7x is very bad).
Overall, the 200-500mm VR is a noticeably better lens than the 80-400mm.
The 200-500mm f/5.6E VR is Nikon’s first attempt at going beyond 400mm on an enthusiast-level super telephoto zoom lens. Priced aggressively at $1400 MSRP, the lens is clearly targeted at competing directly with the third party lens options we have seen in the recent years from both Tamron and Sigma. By making the lens with a constant aperture of f/5.6 and using a complex optical design that is optimized for excellent overall sharpness, the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E VR proved to be a worthy competitor to the third party 150-600mm lenses. As you can see from this review, the 200-500mm VR outperformed both Sigma 150-600mm Contemporary and Tamron 150-600mm VC at 500mm. What’s more impressive, is how the lens behaves when coupled with the Nikon TC-14E III 1.4x teleconverter. Unlike the 80-400mm VR, the 200-500mm VR worked admirably with the 1.4x TC, with fast and relatively accurate autofocus performance. This means that the lens could be compared to both Sigma 150-600mm Contemporary and Tamron 150-600mm at 600mm as well. And as I have demonstrated, the 200-500mm VR with the 1.4x teleconverter is capable of actually challenging the two lenses in sharpness, something I honestly did not expect to see. In addition, with the 1.4x teleconverter, the Nikon 200-500mm VR can actually reach 700mm on the long end, providing pretty decent results, something the other two lenses cannot match. For this versatility, more reliable autofocus operation and other reasons pointed out in the review, I would personally choose the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E VR over the 150-600mm counterparts.
However, there is an exception – the Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Sport. If one evaluates a lens that can provide excellent resolving power at 600mm, the Sigma 150-600mm Sport is simply unmatched. It delivers excellent sharpness and definitely stands above the whole group. If I did not care for the bulk and weight (the Sigma is noticeably larger and 560 grams heavier), I would pick the Sigma 150-600mm Sport over the whole group of super telephoto zooms. At $1,999 (currently discounted to $1,799), it is still more expensive overall, but once you factor in the cost of a 1.4x teleconverter, the Sigma 150-600mm Sport actually delivers better overall value in my opinion. This makes me wonder, why didn’t Nikon considering making a more advanced version of the 200-500mm f/5.6E VR like Sigma did? If it was priced a little above $2K and delivered outstanding sharpness, it would be of consideration for many photographers out there.
The biggest issue with lenses like the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E VR is sample variation. As discussed in this review, two out of five tested copies of the 200-500mm VR exhibited disappointing sharpness at the long end of the zoom range. We saw pretty large discrepancies during lab testing as well, with one lens performing below average at 500mm, especially with a teleconverter. If we limited testing to a single lens copy, our results could have been potentially misleading, especially if we ended up with the inferior lens copy. Unfortunately, given the zoom range and the low price point, sample variation is always going to be an issue, irrespective of the manufacturer. This explains why some photographers out there highly praise the 200-500mm VR, while others are rather disappointed. My recommendation would be to test the lens for sharpness as soon as you receive it, so that you could exchange it for another copy, which will hopefully be better. We have written a number of articles and guides at Photography Life on how to properly test lenses, so I would recommend to give those articles a thorough read, so that you don’t end up getting frustrated.
Overall, the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E VR looks like a great lens for its price. If you are looking for a relatively lightweight lens to get closer to action, you should definitely look into buying this lens.
20) Where to Buy and Availability
21) More Image Samples
Article Copyright Nasim Mansurov. Images Copyright Nasim Mansurov, Tom Redd and John Lawson, all rights reserved. No use, reproduction or duplication including electronic is allowed without written consent.
Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E VR
- Optical Performance
- Bokeh Quality
- Build Quality
- Focus Speed and Accuracy
- Image Stabilization
- Size and Weight
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