Less than 5 hours from being home from a workshop in Portugal, I was driving up the winding roads of Big Thompson canyon on my way to Rocky Mountain National Park. September brings yellow aspens, fresh snow and rutting elk in RMNP. I really wanted to spend a day in the field with the new Nikon 500mm 5.6 PF and see how it performed. I also brought my 600mm F4 along as a loose comparison to the 500mm.
Clouds blocked the sun in Moraine Park, which meant low contrast light…perfect for a lens test. Images bathed in warm morning light always looks good; great contrast, sharp details and saturated colors. There were plenty of elk in the meadows, and a lot of photographers with big glass as well. And the reason I bought the 500mm PF became obvious; you can quickly walk around and shoot hand held using this lens. While most photographers were grabbing their tripods and big glass, I was already ahead of the elk and snapping away.
I shot using both a D500 and D850. The light was really low in the morning, but I was pleasantly surprised to see the 500mm snapped into focus in low contrast low light. 5.6 is only one stop less light from f4, but this makes a difference with autofocus. I shot my 600mm F4 for a few frames in this murky light as well; the focus did seem a little quicker, which makes sense considering it is a F4 prime and costs $10000 versus $3500 for the 500mm.
Already I have seen some reports about VR not performing well around 1/125 of a second, a similar issue that had been reported using the 300mm PF. I can say with both the 300mm and 500mm PF I have never had this issue. VR on the new 500mm performs beautifully, and gives you both Normal and Sport mode. I really like Sport mode, there is no delay in focusing and it is easier to track a moving subject in the viewfinder.
The 500mm PF also has memory recall, a very handy feature Nikon uses on high end prime lenses. Memory recall allows you to set a focus point. Touch one of the lens barrel focus buttons and the focus is instantly acquired at the preset point. Imagine focusing on hummingbirds at a feeder. You will want to focus quickly where the birds land to feed, so you set that as your focus point. You can track birds in flight in-between feeding; when a birds lands at the feeding perch, you just hit the lens barrel focus button and instantly refocus at this point.
What about sharpness? Simply put, this lens is very sharp. I shot a lot of images wide open at 5.6 with excellent results. Closing down to F8 rendered even better results. I was also happy to see elk both near and distant were sharp in the low contrast light. The biggest learning curve was remembering I was using a 500mm lens. Attached to my D500, field of view is 750mm; that is a lot to hand hold at 1/250 even with great VR. This lens is so light you forget what you are shooting. I locked it down on my tripod for better results in the low light. As the day got brighter, I started shooting hand held almost exclusively. At one point we saw a red tailed hawk in a meadow. It was easy to jump out of the car and get a few frames before the bird took off. I would have missed this shot setting up my 600mm. Bokeh was nice and soft photographing elk at a low angle through the grass. Images were contrasty with good color in the low light. When the sun came out later, the acuity and contrast were stunning.
The build quality of the 500mm is similar to the 300mm F4 PF; metal parts combined with moulded plastic. I have found this type of construction to be very durable, and stands up well to heavy field use. It’s not a tank like the 300mm 2.8 or 600mm F4, but at 3.2 pounds, the 500mm is much lighter than either of these lenses. The lens is sealed against dust and moisture. The 500mm is going to stand up to lots of rugged field use.
Who should buy this lens? The biggest question I have been hearing is how does the 500mm 5.6 compare with the 200-500mm. First, the Nikon 200-500mm F5.6 is an excellent lens, and at $1400, this is an absolute bargain. The 200-500mm offers the flexibility of a zoom, and is very sharp. But like many super zooms, the 200-500mm looses some sharpness on the long end. The 500mm is approximately $2000 more expensive, and not a zoom. But being a prime lens offers many advantages. Sharper images, faster autofocusing, better weather sealing and two pounds lighter. But I have not done a side by side comparison of the 200-500mm and 500mm, I only own the 500mm. Both are great lenses.
The Nikon Z7 is getting most of the press right now. While so many photographers are looking for a lighter camera system, Nikon created a beautiful super telephoto that is lighter than any 500mm on the market. If you want a beautiful prime telephoto without the weight, look no further.