Nikon 200-500mm f5.6 VR for Wildlife & Landscape Photography

I'd been eye-ballin' the Nikon 200-500mm f5.6 VR lens since it was released a couple years ago. I finally decided to add it to my collection fairly recently after receiving some good feedback on it from a trusted friend. Since moving up to the Canadian north, I've been photographing wildlife pretty much every week, so relying solely on my 70-200mm with a 1.7x teleconverter wasn't going to cut it much longer. I'm glad I made the leap to this versatile and relatively light super-tele. In a short amount of time, it's already become an integral tool for my wildlife photography. My only regret is that I didn't get it sooner!

This is not a technical review, there are plenty of those out there. If you want the full specs and list of features that the Nikon 200-500mm VR has, you can find that here. I don't waste my time shooting brick walls or telephone poles to test sharpness. I'm not a "pixel-peeper." I like seeing how gear holds up in real-world conditions and looking at image samples from the field rather than charts and graphs (I'm a photographer, not a scientist!). 

PROS:

Some folks on the web say this lens isn't sharp enough. That's simply not true. Plus, sharpness depends largely (especially when it comes to large telephoto lenses) on the photographer's technique and experience. When I asked my photography mentor, David Hessell, a travel and nature photographer with decades of pro-experience how he liked his 200-500 VR, he said, "It's sharp. Period." In further research I found that some of my favorite wildlife photographers were using this lens and leaving their larger exotic 500mm and 600mm primes behind. Photographers like Morten Hilmer (he has an awesome YouTube Channel) and the legendary Thomas Mangleson use this lens. 

That isn't to say the Nikon 200-500mm is "better" than the 500mm f4 VR or whatever, it's not going to be quite as sharp or fast focusing. But it is more versatile, lighter, and FAR less expensive than those big expensive fixed teles (or even the 200-400 f4 VR). When using proper long lens technique, shooting on a tripod, or VR and proper hand-holding, I've had no problem getting sharp images.

  • Sharp throughout focal range from 200mm to 400mm at all f-stops (softer at 500mm wide-open at f5.6, but still very good)
  • Lightweight and easy to hand-hold versus larger prime telephotos
  • Compact versus larger prime lenses
  • Well-made, feels good in your hands
  • Fast autofocus
  • Vibration Reduction works great, up to 4 stops for still subjects
  • Weather-sealed (except the part that zooms out, rain cover is recommended)
  • Smooth focus and zoom rings
  • Much closer minimum focus distance than large prime wildlife lenses
  • Costs is very reasonable, averaging $1,200 - $1,400 USD

CONS:

It really is difficult to come up with any negatives. I really enjoy using this lens and can't wait to take it to the Khutzeymateen and the Canadian Rockies this summer. Here are some considerations, however:

  • Lens gets longer when zooming out. The exposed portion needs cover against rain and dusty conditions.
  • Even though it's pretty lightweight, use on a tripod is best as it can get tiring to hand-hold for a long shoot.
  • Not as sharp at 500mm wide open (stopping down to f6.3 or f7.1 improves this)

Image samples:

 White-tail Jackrabbit in winter, Edmonton, Alberta (Nikon D750, 200-500mm VR - 500mm, ISO 800, f7.1, 1/320 sec)

White-tail Jackrabbit in winter, Edmonton, Alberta (Nikon D750, 200-500mm VR - 500mm, ISO 800, f7.1, 1/320 sec)

 Bull Elk in deep snow, Banff National Park (Nikon D750, 200-500mm VR - 440mm, ISO 1400, f7.1, 1/1250 sec)

Bull Elk in deep snow, Banff National Park (Nikon D750, 200-500mm VR - 440mm, ISO 1400, f7.1, 1/1250 sec)

 Rocky Mountain Bighorn Ram, Jasper National Park (Nikon D7200, 200-500mm VR - 500mm, ISO 500, f8, 1/1000 sec)

Rocky Mountain Bighorn Ram, Jasper National Park (Nikon D7200, 200-500mm VR - 500mm, ISO 500, f8, 1/1000 sec)

 Bison grazing near Astotin Lake, Elk Island National Park (Nikon D750, 200-500mm VR - 310mm, ISO 1400, f7.1, 1/640 sec)

Bison grazing near Astotin Lake, Elk Island National Park (Nikon D750, 200-500mm VR - 310mm, ISO 1400, f7.1, 1/640 sec)

 Bison crossing a snow-covered lake in a heavy snow storm, Elk Island National Park (Nikon D7200, 200-500mm VR - 500mm, ISO 640, f8, 1/1000 sec)

Bison crossing a snow-covered lake in a heavy snow storm, Elk Island National Park (Nikon D7200, 200-500mm VR - 500mm, ISO 640, f8, 1/1000 sec)

 Hoar frost, Elk Island National Park (Nikon D750, 200-500mm VR - 200mm, ISO 500, f8, 1/800 sec)

Hoar frost, Elk Island National Park (Nikon D750, 200-500mm VR - 200mm, ISO 500, f8, 1/800 sec)

I recommend shopping around for the best price from the following trusted retailers: B&H Photo, Amazon, and Henry's (Canada). For my full photo gear list, click here