Nikkor 200-500/5.6 VR
2nd January 2019
Telephotos form images by bringing subject close to the camera. This changes certain aspects of the process and also the perspective of the image in a way that is unique to these lenses. Surrounding elements appear a little closer to the subject (their environment) as these also get magnified. We call it compression. Extreme settings can result in dramatic effects with objects of which apparent size in embedded in our minds such as the Moon or the Sun.
This focal length flexible telephoto zoom that goes from 200 to 500 mm (or from 280 to 700 mm with a TC 1.4) is an old-school F-mount lens. Its main feature is a maximum reach (magnification), but depending on the applications it’s the flexibility that can sometimes, or often, be essential. How often changes from case to case or even moment to moment but when there is the need the zoom function is critical for getting the shot.
This zoom lacks refinements of some higher-class lenses such as solid seals and fine mechanics, but it is a very nicely built lens that extends moderately with zooming. It operates well, though the zooming and focusing is somewhat Spartan experience. Its AF isn’t very fast on the current cameras, F or Z mount, but again, the VR works excellently hand-held and also on the tripod with the head relatively loose or fixed. For its power, it is priced very reasonably which is underlining its class within the line-up of the Nikon telephotos but also benefits that come with this package.
Optically it is a similar story. As a modern DSLR lens, it is virtually flawless for what it needs to do in the field, but it doesn’t give its owner any extras. This translates into two important properties for such a lens: very good to excellent sharpness that is consistent throughout its focal length range and the same for the quality of bokeh. The sharpest aperture (peak sharpness) is f6.3 which is only marginally sharper than f5.6. Where the lens is lacking is the border and corner resolution. But because the central region of excellent resolution is large, it is of a lesser to marginal importance if what you shoot are separate subjects - the subject shooting, as I call it. Better coverage for resolution across the image field can be found with some other new lenses, though that may come with specific limitations elsewhere. As for the border and corner resolution, it improves steadily as the zoom approaches its long end, it is worse at the short end where the drop in resolution and contrast is noticeable, improved at 300 and 350 mm and improved further with the best consistency achieved at the long end. That makes sense today although a long row of various telephotos of the previous generations will remind that pulling it off – optimising for the long end – wasn’t always straightforward. The resolution can be improved by stopping down to f8 at the short end, e.g. for a landscape shoot, one can need it. At longer focal lengths one can notice responding to stopping down (by any small increment) is better and faster with regards to the periphery. Covering this sort of inconsistency is a task reserved for finer and more expensive tools where considerably higher efforts need to be employed to manage it.
Unsurprisingly, the lens isn’t excellent at minimum focus distance as well. Something we can’t expect from a non-macro lens of this class. Neither can we expect it from every design in general. Though macro sharpness it is not, the sharpness is sufficient and puts no barrier in the way for achieving beautiful photography in the close-up realm with this lens. The lens maximum sharpness is achieved short distance out of MFD.
Besides the consistently high sharpness in the central image area, excellent bokeh is another defining aspect of this lens output. The out of focus areas play a critical role in the rendition of the telephotos to more and more people. Combination of these traits is a building block of this lens look.
Having seen colour results for some time, there isn’t anything that hits us as a deviation from an average Nikkor glass to warrant study of the colour in detail. White-balanced settings through the lens give in this case satisfactory colour that I have come to expect from a Nikkor lens without noticeable particularities that would go beyond the characteristic feel of the Nikon glass. Similar can be said about other potential optical flaws. The lens works exceptionally well with TC 1.4 III optically (we haven’t tried TC 1.4 II, but reports sound positive) on 24 MP if we ignore a slight increase in pincushion distortion above otherwise low-level distortion of the lens. The focusing takes some hit there but the resulting combination yields 700 mm and sharp f8. This focal length allows for effective reach and improves the rate of discrete shots of the wildlife. Combined with the 1.4 TC the lens has no peer within Nikon line-up and beyond. The 200-500/5.6 VR is close to perfect for photography on the move where one needs to react, follow the subject and operate lens quickly (as opposed to shooting prepared, e.g. in a hide). There were rumours that Tamron was involved in the design of the 200-500/5.6 VR, we may never know. Considering the role Nikon had to play in bringing the lens to the finale it would be more curiosity than meaningful information.
Lens set to 600 mm:
A slate-coloured hawk watching with interest anhinga struggling to swallow a fish she caught
(the hawk attacked and tried to steal the fish).
The 390 mm for the same (proportions of) framing:
The attention shifts to us as we drift in the canoe closer unintentionally; the bird puts more distance between us shortly.
This we consider a good portrait of the hawk, but the outcome is exception rather than rule which says that getting too close to the wildlife reduces the chance for capturing natural poses and expressions.
Note that neither shot would be possible without the ability to zoom.
The lens has its weak points. Its versatility is lessened by weak border resolution and focusing with the lens is a bit like its cumbersome zooming. However, the choice of strong points and their implementation make it a remarkable tool. And it is just as useful in a wide range of scenarios and conditions.
It will deliver highly for the picture quality in particular but will remind on occasion that you may want to pay for reliability with relativities such as cash, risk, zooming function, bulk and weight and it may well pay off - or not. As with any lens of technically lower specifications made to high standards and executed in superior design, the compact 200-500/5.6 VR (plus the TC 1.4 III option) has its cons and pros arranged in very strict relations. It means that if one needs the package the lens is offering, they have minimal options to get close to it elsewhere. It’s one of the highlights in F-mount line-up.
Crop to MFT (original resolution):
Crimson-crested woodpecker in a tree bending over the river working on the nesting hole (1/640, drifting downstream).
Sigma 100-400/5-6.3 OS C
2nd January 2019
Nikon has many F-mount telephotos in its line-up of professional, prosumer and enthusiast orientation, including the new releases and high-performance compact PF lenses. We can expect telephoto lenses to appear in Z-mount as well and similar to the situation with the 200-500/5.6 VR in F-mount, we can expect a 100-400 lens of a variable aperture that would reflect the appearance of new lenses from Sigma and Tamron. They manufactured 400 mm zooms that are easier to handhold and operate at this focal length as they are noticeably lighter, smaller and portable. Z-mount lenses tend to benefit from its larger mount, and one of the ways where this can be reflected is the size of the lens. Use of versatile zooms capable of and often used at 400 mm for close-up shot places demands on following of erratically and rapidly moving subjects, precise focusing and timing. A compact 400 mm lens helps with this and is allowing to handhold the lens for longer, have it ready for a successful shot for longer and the lens can be taken to locations where you would previously consider only shorter lenses. These advantages far outweigh fractionally brighter lens in the field, especially for close-up shots where the depth of field is very shallow, which is the typical and main application for this lens.
This is the first thing Sigma did well with this lens; taking full advantage of a fractionally slower lens that could be then transformed on essential fronts for the user.
The second good thing is that the lens is strictly optimised for wide open across the image filed. There are settings, including the borders, where wide open the lens resolves more than at f8 on spot focus. 400 mm zoom lens must be optimised for wide open sharpness, and this is what Sigma did. As for the curvature of field, the centre focus field curvature is always covered by Nikon D600 focus points spread (a modest spread) amounting to about 33% of flat focus plane at 100 and 200 mm and 29% at 400 mm with a slow, gradual increase of the curving towards the edges.
The wide open optimisation is continued by bokeh, the third thing done right with this lens. The bokeh drawing is less fat, it doesn’t blur as large and intensively, but that is a standard adopted more widely today, often resulting in superior transitions and quality of the blur as is the case with the 100-400 OS C. The lens is optimised for background bokeh. This results in very calm backgrounds where other lenses render more structured blur and double lines. Foreground bokeh, on the other hand, can be edgy and jittery in some settings with some elements, adding a “photographic spark” to the overall painterly rendition. The outcome is mostly neutral, but where applicable, I find the combination pleasant and interesting for about 80% cases whereas for the rest I would consider calmer representation for the foreground elements.
Elements of the foreground combined with the intensity of the blur lead to a smooth drawing of out of focus areas:
Added spark in the foreground that is positive for the image:
The lens has a slight red tinge we know from other Sigma lenses (e.g. 50-150/2.8 OS II). The colour set through the lens (white balance) is void of the shade, and the colour overall is exquisite, also in direct comparisons with other lenses. This isn’t a given as each lens’ glass colour profile is interacting with WB-setting methods uniquely. Despite the red tone, the glass is on the cooler side, perhaps surprisingly. In other words, the red tinge isn’t followed by the underlying warm (yellow) tone some Sigma lenses have (24-35/2, 50/1.4 Arts). Though we are not exactly keen on more noticeable colour deviations, we are unaffected by them in practice. For similar concerns people can consider, among other things like the white balance, using the lens calibration application that X-Rite rolled out recently.
As for the operation, I shall be brief. The only problem I found is focusing on the subject that is approaching towards the camera. The number of keepers is noticeably lower as the camera struggles to focus the lens in this particular scenario effectively. It seems to be the lens problem as this has been reported widely including the Canon DSLRs. The focus is otherwise very good in a wide range of situations we encounter in the field. Overcomplicated settings and description of OS modes should be mentioned as we found out that shooting on Dynamic Mode works best because this mode is stabilising the viewfinder well, which is very important with this lens, while very effective for the shot. The mode has no adverse effect on anything one can shoot (including while zooming).
This is a well built lens and to my mind, it deserves seals with which Tamron seems to have equipped their later coming version of very much the same lens. Still, the lens is inexpensive (as is the Tamron lens), so one can view its exchange as a valid option after a time, depending on the usage of the lens etc. In my experience though, photographers don’t like to part with lenses they know well for reasons of maintenance, so they are likely to use the Sigma’s service in many cases and hope it will come back in a similar form they were familiar with. With the help of the seals, the lens is preserved better for longer. So I would venture a guess that it makes sense for most that the high-quality slow lenses have adequate seals in their construction to underline the quality, even at the cost of some price increase. As I said the build is very good and when I first handled the lens this marked the moment I really wished the lens performed. That is I was impressed. My attitude was quite reserved at first, and I wasn’t sure about purchasing the lens unless it was able to replace reasonably 200-500/5.6 VR and 70-200/4 VR lenses. That means both the landscape shooting and the subject shooting close to standards of these Nikkors. That is why I had doubts. As I mentioned in several conversations, we had three samples of the lens. The first sample was very slightly decentred which I brought to the attention of the seller. It was mild and more borderline decentred than a clear example of decentring, but my landscape requirements needed better. The replacement arrived with a squashed corner of the box. I still tested the lens but asked for delivery with box intact. I didn’t discern a fault with the lens during a brief test (impact related or otherwise) but the third lens was slightly better at its long end, and it was the lens I kept. It was only later, after some use, when we started fully appreciate this lens for what it is and the capability of the package it offers and delivers and I have to say, we would now be keener on purchasing it today. Sigma has moved things on the front that helps photographers, and that is influential in photography again. To some extent, they have to do that if as a third-party manufacturer they want to be at the forefront of events in the field. We can thank them for their bold, often nonconformist efforts and not least for the creation of clever, innovative tools that move boundaries in what is possible.