Gear Appreciation: Nikon 200-500 f/5.6




For most of my life, the words “affordable high quality 500mm lens” would have provoked outright prolonged laughter. “Affordable” and “quality” are relative terms, but this $1400 lens feels like an incredible value so far. It’s been on one of my cameras every day since it arrived six months ago, and my favorite photos so far this year were made with this lens.


I use this lens on both DX (D7100) and FX (D610) cameras. This is an appreciation, not a review. I haven’t even mounted the dang thing on a tripod yet. I’m having too much fun shooting handheld with a 500mm lens!

200500 test handheld-4925

In day-to-day, handheld use, the lens is sharp enough, offers pleasing out-of-focus areas, and produces good contrast and colors. It focuses similarly to my other Nikon S lenses: It is often fast and accurate and sometimes slow and infuriating. I don’t let it bother me, because it’s still better than I ever was at tracking action.


The big surprise feature of the 200-500 is its minimum focusing distance of 7.22 feet. This is a great boon to backyard birders, who can now create tack sharp portraits of small birds with lovely blurred backgrounds.


For me, the biggest challenge presented by the 200-500 f/5.6 is which camera to attach to it. I started out using it exclusively on my DX body, the D7100. The cropped sensor of the D7100 offers additional “reach,” making the lens seem like a 300-750 f/5.6. That sounds great, but it requires higher shutter speeds on a camera that already gives up a stop of exposure to the D610. My owl friends don’t get active until I’m at ISO 6400, and ISO 6400 definitely looks better on the D610 than it does on the D7100.


The D7100 focuses and tracks better, especially in lower light. Isn’t that ironic? I’m sure the DX vs. FX equation for this lens changes with the recent release of Nikon’s D500, but it’s a real puzzler for me today. For the first few months I prioritized reach and shot mainly with the D7100, but I like the look of the D610 images over those made with the D7100, and now choose the full frame camera more often.

200500 meadow-5244

If you’re like me, and I know I am, when you get your first really long lens, you will be tempted to photograph things that are too far away. This will be frustrating. Then you will remember the mantra every photographer eventually internalizes: Get Closer. Get Closer. And you will get closer, and this lens will reward you.

I need a lot more practice with birds in flight, but who doesn't?

I need a lot more practice with birds in flight, but who doesn’t?