We dragged Nikon’s new 500mm f/5.6 PF out to the Galapagos islands, up over the Andes, and down into the Amazon jungle to put it through its paces — as well as through numerous rain showers, muddy trails, and squadrons of mosquitos. None of it fazed the lens a bit, though the mosquitos at times drove me a little mad.
We’d taken Nikon’s nearly twenty-year-old 300mm f/4 IF ED on a recent trip to Africa, where we'd almost always used it with the TC-14E II teleconverter. The combination led to less reach, slower autofocus, and softer images than would have been ideal (I blame the latter two solely on the teleconverter). Needless to say, when we returned, I began looking into alternatives for the next trip, something that would extend the reach a bit, include the latest generation of Vibration Reduction (the 300mm f/4 IF ED has none), yield sharper images, and hopefully do all that without significantly increasing the size or weight. We do a lot of hiking — and somehow always seem to end up spending a lot of time in small boats — so whatever we took needed to remain easy to carry and handhold. Oh, and we were headed to Ecuador at the end of the rainy season, so we pretty much expected to be wet from the time we landed. Serious weather sealing was a must.Enter the Nikon 500mm f/5.6 PF ED VR, the second telephoto lens Nikon has produced that includes a Phase Fresnel lens element — similar to Canon’s Diffractive Optics technology. Phase Fresnel lens elements can be paired with standard elements to correct for chromatic aberration more space and weight efficiently than standard elements alone. This allows for shorter, lighter lens designs while still retaining excellent performance. Nikon’s 300mm f/4 PF ED VR, for example, is three inches shorter and half the weight of its predecessor, the 300mm f/4 IF ED, yet a touch sharper overall. The comparison between Nikon’s 500mm offerings is a little less apples to apples. The 500mm f/5.6 PF also gives up a stop of light when compared to its (much bigger brother) the 500mm f/4 FL ED VR, so the size and weight reduction appears even greater.
Size and Weight
So, just how does the 500mm f/5.6 PF stack up? It doesn’t weigh nothing, but it doesn’t weigh all that much, either, particularly for a lens with so much reach. It clocks in at 3 lbs. 3 oz. (or 1,460g). That’s just 40 grams more than the 300mm f/4 IF-ED, and only 30 grams more than the 70-200mm f/2.8 FL ED VR. It’s also a pound less than the Tamron 150-600mm f/5-6.3 G2, almost two pounds less than the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E ED, three pounds less than the Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Sport, and a little shy of four pounds less than the Nikon 500mm f/4 FL ED VR.
Seven pounds is about where I, personally, draw the line at what I’m willing to (try to) handhold. The Nikon 500mm f/4 FL ED, at 6.8 pounds, would be right at the top end of that. By contrast, the 500mm f/5.6 PF is a lightweight. And that weight savings can be a huge deal after a few hours on the trail, climbing in and out of zodiacs, ascending into the rain forest canopy, doing repeated squats to try and get that perfect angle, etc. We covered a lot of miles on foot over the course of the trip, including following jaguar prints along a muddy ridge line in Yasuni National Park. I had a small backpack I could have thrown it in, but because we never knew when we’d want it, I ended up hand-carrying it almost everywhere, even when that meant tugging on vines with one hand while the other had the lens/camera by the tripod collar. It was light enough that even after being on the trail for most of the day, I didn't feel strained. Just because it’s relatively lightweight, however, doesn’t mean it’s cheaply built. This is a sturdy lens that feels as rugged as any I’ve used. I wouldn’t hesitate to take it anywhere — at least anywhere I’m willing to go myself.
Nikon indicates that the 500mm f/5.6 PF has seals at all the joints and rings, as well as at each of the myriad buttons and switches. It also has a fluorine coat on the front lens element. I’m a big fan of the fluorine coating on our Tamron 15-30mm f/2.8. The protruding front element prevents the use of a traditional UV filter, so we’ve had ample opportunity to test the coating out on that lens. The fluorine keeps the front element a good bit cleaner than bare glass and makes it far easier to remove what dust and moisture does end up on it. The 500mm f/5.6 PF, however, allows a 95mm filter to be screwed on the front, and given the amount of abuse it was likely to take on this trip, it seemed like a very good idea to use one for safety’s sake. We were, thus, left smearing rain drops around as usual on this trip. (Why doesn't anyone make a fluorine =-coated UV filter?)
And we did encounter a lot of raindrops. We hiked for hours in steady downpours on multiple occasions in the Galapagos, shooting nearly constantly. We also moved from an air-conditioned boat cabin into warm, humid, equatorial air multiple times a day while in the islands. A few days in the Andes saw us caught out in downpours more than once. And a week spent in the Amazon basin basically afforded no climate control whatsoever, everything dripping wet everywhere constantly. We had no troubles whatsoever with the weather sealing on the 500mm f/5.6 PF. It worked flawlessly with no evidence that any moisture ever made it anywhere inside the barrel. Nor, in fact, did we have any issues with the Nikon Z7 or the Nikon 24-70mm f/4 S (which saw all the same weather the telephoto did and, perhaps, then some). Our D810 body did appear to get a bit of moisture into the on/off switch at one point, causing it to effectively stick on for a few hours. It was still useable, however, and once it dried out, everything returned to normal.
The 500mm f/5.6 PF was paired with the Nikon D810 body almost exclusively for the duration of the trip. The two together performed very well, with the D810 nearly always in continuous 3D Focus Tracking mode. The autofocus on the lens is faster than many I’ve used, though not quite on the same level as, say, Nikon’s 70-200 f/2.8 FL ED. We also took a TC-14E III, the third generation of Nikon’s 1.4x teleconverter, with us. This does slow the autofocus down a good bit. Further, the combination of the two yields a maximum aperture of f/8. At that point, only the central five focus points of the D810 are sensitive enough to be used for focusing. It’s therefore not possible to use 3D Focus Tracking with the teleconverter on this lens. For most of the circumstances we were shooting in, the utility of the focus tracking outweighed the benefits of the extra reach, so the teleconverter largely remained in the bag. That said, the images we did shoot with the teleconverter were tack sharp.
This one is a little interesting from the standpoint of this trip. We didn’t get many opportunities to test out the vibration reduction in the traditional sense: “Just how slow a shutter speed can you handhold?” Nikon lists the Vibration Reduction on the 500mm f/5.6 PF at 4.0 stops, but most of the time, the fact that we were shooting wildlife necessitated shutter speeds of between 1/500th and 1/2,000th of a second to minimize motion blur from the animals' movement. That’s not to say, however, that the Vibration Reduction wasn’t a huge help. The shot above, for example, was taken handheld with the 500mm lens while shooting over my shoulder from a zodiac moving at 3-4 mph at an angle to the shore and bouncing up and down in two-foot seas. Without the Vibration Reduction engaged, it was difficult to keep the bird in the frame. With it, I was able to keep it steady enough to lock focus on the head/eye and then let 3D Focus Tracking keep things on target while getting off a few shots. I can’t imagine getting that shot without the combination of Vibration Reduction and focus tracking.
Nikon’s MTF curves for the 500mm f/5.6 PF are relatively uninteresting, which is to say they show a set of virtually horizontal lines overlaid on each other and pegged at nearly 1.0. That said, the MTF curves are essentially a theoretical calculation of how well the lens could do assuming perfect materials and manufacturing processes. In practice, though, I’d say the lens comes pretty close. The images we got were consistently tack sharp from the center to the edge: exquisite feather details on the birds, tack sharp irises, superb texture in the facial features of the marine iguanas.
I also took a few shots with it on our Z7 body before we left home using the 1.5-inch wide vertical posts of a neighbor’s deck as a test grid. The challenge is that their home sits on a ridge line just over two miles away. By my calculation, at that distance, the lens should have an 818’ horizontal field of view; dividing that by the 8,256-pixel resolution of the Z7 suggests that each pixel represents just a hair over 1 inch. Sure enough, the 1.5-inch posts are clearly visible, each about one pixel wide, and they can easily be counted from two miles away.
What's good? This lens hits a sweet spot for the travel, wildlife, or adventure photographer that doesn’t want to be saddled with seven or eight pounds of glass, yet still wants to be able to bring home stunning images. Some of the standout features include:
- Impressive sharpness
- Compact size and light weight (for such a long lens)
- Fast autofocus that works very well with Nikon’s 3D Focus Tracking
- Overall ruggedness
Where is there room for improvement? As with most of the lenses that utilize diffractive elements, there can be a bit of flare in backlit scenes. It’s not horrible, but doesn't seem to be nearly as good, for example, as the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 FL ED.
I would suspect that many professional wildlife and sports shooters who have the luxury of using a tripod will continue to shoot with the 500mm f/4 just for that extra stop of light. But for wildlife, adventure, and travel photographers that want to remain fleet of foot while hoofing it through the bush or down some remote river, the 500mm f/5.6 PF seems absolutely bursting with potential. The only way it won’t end up on our next trip is if Nikon really does come out with a 600mm f/5.6 PF before then.
If you're interested in picking one up, the 500mm f/5.6 PF currently lists for $3,596.95.
(Note that higher resolution versions of the images can be found on the website linked to in the About the Author section just below.)