Nikon 200-500mm zoom vs. 500mm prime comparison

February 16, 2016  •  3 Comments

I know from comments on various photography forums that there’s a lot of people wanting to know if the new Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 can live up to the hype, and how it measures up to the “big brother” prime versions.

We all know that the 200-500mm zoom lens is just a fraction of the price of the prime (about 20%), and weighs about half of it. But what many don’t know is what kind of IQ (image quality) does it produce, and how it will perform at various apertures, compared to the 500mm f/4 – the previously “go-to” lens for many wildlife photographers.

Since I have both lenses in my closet, I thought I would make a direct comparison. My method is as follows. I use the same body for all shots in this test – Nikon D4S – and I shoot in Manual mode, keeping all settings constant between the two lenses. I chose a ‘typical’ distance (similar to an average distance to your subject when you shoot birds), which is around 100 ft. After shooting one lens at various settings, I switch lens and shoot it using those exact same settings again.

The photos were shot in RAW, then using View NX to batch-convert them into JPEG, straight, with NO slider adjustments at all. All EXIF data are preserved for anyone wanting to peek. They have been uploaded at full resolution (Medium size) so you can view them at Full screen to see all details.

The shots have been grouped in sets, so you can easily draw direct comparison between them.

Here we go:

 

A wide shot to show you the first test "subject". Distance to the KFC sign = 264 ft. OK, it was MUCH MUCh bigger than a bird. 
A wide shot to show you the first test "subject". Distance to the KFC sign = 264 ft. OK, it was MUCH MUCh bigger than a bird. A wide shot to show you the first test "subject". Distance to the KFC sign = 264 ft. OK, it was MUCH MUCh bigger than a bird.

 

The first set was taken at f/5.6 on both lenses. The zoom was wide open (left), and the prime was 1-stop down (right).
 

 

At f/8 on both
 

 

At f/11 on both
 

 

At f/16 on both
 

 

VR test, all at shutter speed 1/25 hand held: first (200-500mm with VR off), second (200-500mm with VR on), and third (500mm prime with no VR)
   

 

Second set of tests, again, a wide shot to show at 200mm

A much wider shot, taken with my cell phone, showing you the whole surrounding.

 

Shot at f/5.6,  200-500mm on left, 500mm prime on right
 

 

Shot at f/8
 

 

Shot at f/11
 

 

Shot at f/16
 

 

Conclusion:

I literally “pexel peeped” and viewed each photo at 400% magnification, the results I found might be surprising to many since they’re the opposite of what you might expect. First of all, the light(er) weight zoom seems to be SHARPER than the prime, at all apertures that I tested (f/5.6, f/8, f/11, f/16). Secondly, even with the VR turned ON with the 200-500mm, it looks like it’s “softer” than the prime which Doesn’t have any VR in the first place! Odd, eh?

What I also noticed though, is that consistently the 200-500mm’s white areas look more like light gray, while its black areas look truer to real black, than the prime, even though all exposure settings are the same for both.

 

The verdict:

If you’re a budding wildlife photographer who’s looking to pick up your first super-tele photo lens, the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 is your best choice considering all. First, the price is way more affordable for the “average Joe photographer”. Second, its lighter weight is makes handholding more possible, and after a long day of shooting (or hiking), your back will Thank You! Not to mention, its IQ is not too far behind the 500mm f/4, surprisingly, given that you’re shooting in well-lit situations (same as when I performed the test). The autofocus, which I didn’t cover in this article, is … adequate for moderate action (such as big birds flying, and objects moving in a predictable path), but anything faster (such as race cars zooming by at close distance, or small birds flying in an unpredictable pattern) might make it “sweat” to keep up. Furthermore, if you add a teleconverter (TC-14EI I), you can almost forget about shooting BIF, unless you are a very SKILLED photographer. But then, you get what you paid for. J It’s not so bad. I still think it’s worth every penny.

Now, if you’re a pro, or can afford top-of-the-line stuff, there’s no question the prime is cream of the crop. I’ve seen so many photographers using the 500mm f/4 with tripod and a gimbal head (usually Wimberley), and that’s all fine. Some use the handheld method, but I guess you must be physically able. Its AF acquisition speed is second to none. IQ here matters the most if/when you enlarge your photo (again, I said if you’re a PRO). You can’t go wrong if lugging around 9 lbs. and $8500 is a peace-a-cake to you.

Lucky me, I don’t have to make a choice. J


Comments

3.Sinh Nguyen(non-registered)
It is good idea to comparison. I have one 200-500mm. It is good new lens. But more important that: "its lighter weight is makes handholding more possible, and after a long day of shooting (or hiking)..."
Thanks Andy Nguyen
2.Babar Asghar(non-registered)
very nice review
brief and to the point for all those pixel peepers
one cant compare two different lenses with huge price difference especially when they r tele photo so this is the best thing one can do to sate the pixel peepers
how someone can judge such a telephoto lens especially when he is just starting this new field of wildlife its almost impossible for a new guy like me who has never used a lens longer than 70-300 which is half the weight of 200-500 so i think ur article is amazing i just bought mine last sunday n so far havent captured any worthwhile thing other than my cats running in my yard or few odd trees just to marvel on image quality n sharpness
i hope u wll soon share a more field test report how it performs in the field, how quick it is grabbing BIF etc
1.Tony Johnson(non-registered)
Thanks for the review. I've found my 200-500mm 5.6 to be a great choice. Mine hasn't seen a tripod yet. What a great tool from Nikon. I'm currently using my D800e, but can't wait to try it with the upcoming D500. I was hoping for a 500mm 5.6 prime, but this lens is very good throughout the range and I'm finding myself using it at 200mm a good bit more than I anticipate.

What do you think is going on with the 500mm 4.0 not picking up the hotter red box in the KFC sign. Slightly different angle? Given the sensor is the the same, I can't figure it out.

Thanks again,
Tony
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