Nikon 500mm f/5.6E PF VR Initial Impressions

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…

Nikon 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

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.

Black Faced Laughingthrush
Black faced Laughingthrush
NIKON D810 + 500mm f/5.6 @ 500mm, ISO 1000, 1/1000, f/5.6

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.

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.

Red Vented Bulbul
Only image with D850, Red Vented Bulbul
NIKON D850 + 500mm f/5.6 @ 500mm, ISO 360, 1/320, f/5.6

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.

Himalayan Monal
Himalayan Monal, One of the most beautiful looking birds.
NIKON D810 + 500mm f/5.6 @ 500mm, ISO 1600, 1/200, f/7.1

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.

Golden Bush Robin
Golden Bush Robin in it’s habitat. Pangolakha Wild Life Sanctuary, India
NIKON D810 + 500mm f/5.6 @ 500mm, ISO 1000, 1/1000, f/6.3

3. Ergonomics

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.

Indian Palm Squirrel
Indian Palm Squirrel
NIKON D810 + 500mm f/5.6 @ 500mm, ISO 800, 1/800, f/5.6

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.

Rock Pigeon super-close action
Rock Pigeon in action
NIKON D810 + 500mm f/5.6 @ 500mm, ISO 1600, 1/1000, f/8.0

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.

Shikra in flight
Shikra in flight, heavily cropped image
NIKON D810 + 500mm f/5.6 @ 500mm, ISO 200, 1/2000, f/5.6

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.

Greenish Warbler
Greenish Warbler, Pangolakha Wild Life Sanctuary, India
NIKON D810 + 500mm f/5.6 @ 500mm, ISO 900, 1/1000, f/5.6

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.

Spotted Owl
Spotted Owl, a very long distance shot, hence cropped.
NIKON D810 + 500mm f/5.6 @ 500mm, ISO 450, 1/800, f/5.6

6. Image Quality

6.1. Sharpness

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.

Mighty Khanchenjungha
The Mighty Kangchenjunga, from Old Silk Route, Sikkim, India
NIKON D810 + 500mm f/5.6 @ 500mm, ISO 200, 1/1000, f/8.0

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.

Fire tailed Myzornis
Mouthful. Fire-tailed Myzornis
NIKON D810 + 500mm f/5.6 @ 500mm, ISO 1000, 1/1000, f/6.3

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.

Brahminy Starling on nature's grip
Brahminy Sterling around 60 feet distance shot
NIKON D810 + 500mm f/5.6 @ 500mm, ISO 200, 1/800, f/5.6

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.

Dark Breasted Rosefinch
Dark breasted Rosefinch in contrasty backlit condition.
NIKON D810 + 500mm f/5.6 @ 500mm, ISO 1250, 1/1600, f/5.6

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:

Showing Moire on the feather patten of Grey Hornbill image. Cropped to show the moire without any processing.
Grey Hornbill, see the moiré pattern in the wings feather.
NIKON D810 + 500mm f/5.6 @ 500mm, ISO 800, 1/1250, f/5.6

6.2. Color

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:

Grey Bushchat (Female)
Grey Bushchat (Female)
NIKON D810 + 500mm f/5.6 @ 500mm, ISO 1800, 1/640, f/5.6

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%.

Fire tailed Sunbird (Female)
Fire tailed Sunbird (Female), see the specular highlights.
NIKON D810 + 500mm f/5.6 @ 500mm, ISO 1600, 1/800, f/5.6
Highlight Bokeh
Highlight Bokeh
NIKON D810 + 500mm f/5.6 @ 500mm, ISO 200, 1/5000, f/5.6
Cropped to show the pattern of Bokeh
Cropped to show the pattern of Bokeh.
NIKON D810 + 500mm f/5.6 @ 500mm, ISO 200, 1/5000, f/5.6

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.

6.4. Flare

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.

6.5. Vignetting

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.

6.7. Distortion

I could not find any distortion issues to be worried about.

7. Conclusion

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.

 Rufous-breasted Bush Robin
Rufous-breasted Bush Robin
NIKON D810 + 500mm f/5.6 @ 500mm, ISO 1250, 1/1250, f/5.6

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.

8. Recommendation

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.

Fire tailed Sunbird (Male)
Gorgeous colours. Fire tailed Sunbird (Male)
NIKON D810 + 500mm f/5.6 @ 500mm, ISO 1600, 1/1000, f/7.1
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