Nikon 500mm f/5.6 PF: Report from the Field

Tis a well know fact that this blog does not do equipment reports. It’s not as though there aren’t enough opinionated sites to trash the best of hardware. However I’ve had a few enquiries regarding this lens, and rather than rehash what Uncle Google can find in a minute, I thought I’d rather share a few paras and pictures on my use with the lens so far.

If you own Canon gear, don’t proceed any further, you have the wonderful DO 400mm f/4.  Be happy!

I hummed and hahed when the lens was first released.  The big bikkies involved was probably the first stumbling block. And I was working with the Simga Sport 15-600mm f/6.3 and it was working well for me.(more to follow below)

But the low weight and small size were an attraction, and in the end, I placed an order with Ross at Camera Exchange in Box Hill, in October 2018. I also planned to trade the Sigma at that time.
Eventually, got a note from Ross. “It’s here!”. March 29 2019. The wait-time worldwide has been astounding. So I motored over to collect the lens. Thanks Ross.

What follows is where it fits with my current work.

Time for the Pixelpeepers to click away now, as there are no charts, no ranking scores, no graphs and definitely no lens test charts to pour over. No dudes riding bicycles, or shots of the building over the road, or some obscure mountain in the distance.
Just how does it work for me.
Also please remember that these are all JPEG images made out of Lightroom to 1600pixels at 90% Qaulity. A few are crops, some almost full frame. Shot on both D810 and D500.  I’ll note the data with each shot.

All the ratings are against My Expectations of the lens, coupled with use of previous lenses in the field. 100 % is just that. I’m completely happy with that aspect.

  1. Price: No % Score, but I’d have no hesitation in buying it.
    Gotta get that out of the way.
    It’s a pro piece of kit, Nikon are asking big bucks. If that doesn’t fit with your bankbalance, then click away now. For those who want to save some money, the Nikon 200-500, Sigma Sport 150-600, and the Sigma Contemporary are all good value for money, and sharp. Canon users have the DO 400mm or a pretty nice 100-400 f/5.6 Zoom and a neat 400mm f/5.6 without image stabilisation. Any one of those lenses would be a reason for me to change to the Canon System.
    My reasoning was to amortize the investment over the next 10 years or so, and a couple of bucks a week is a reasonable.
  2. Size: 100% Meets my expectations.
    It is about the same size as a 70-200 f/2.8. Which makes it imminently handhold-able.
  3. Weight: 100% Meets my expectations.
    Having been using the 300mm f/4 PF from its introduction, I had a definite idea about how the weight would be. I’m confident I could carry it all day in normal use without needing a porter.
  4. Handleability: 100% Meets my expectations.
    I’ve thrown around some big lenses in my time, but this one just feels right. The balance on the camera and handholding is very comfortable. Mr An Onymous will tell you I once fell in love with a 10-30mm zoom for the Nikon 1 system, just from picking it up off the benchtop. I ordered one the next day. If it feels right, the chi is working, and it is pointless to fight nature.
  5. Focus AF: Exceeds my expectations. This is such a fast lens to focus, especially on the D500. Sometimes I think it finds the subject before I get it sorted out in the frame. Big plus. And it locks and follows. If I compare it to the 300mm f/2.8 or the 70-200mm f/2.8, which are my go to ‘speedsters’ for action, then it’s right up there as good as, if not better.  I can’t compare it to the 400mm f/2.8 as I’ve never owned one, but that is the gold standard in fast focus.  I reckon this lens would give it a pretty good run.
    The other feature is like all pro lenses, its sharp all the way from the closest point to infinity. Unlike most consumer zooms that lose interest in focusing after about 30m. I’m looking at you 18-200mm and 80-400mm.
  6. Sharpness: 100% of my expectations.
    Just have a look at the photos below.  I don’t do comparisons, but looks equal to the 300mm f/2.8, and has more contrast than the 300mm PF.(My copy.  EE’s copy is a little better than mine I think).
  7. Unsharp fuzzy bits.
    My photos don’t have bokeh, (never pronounced so a Japanese would know what these people are talking about), mine have fuzzy out of focus bits.
    So against a smooth backdrop 100% of expectation. Milky smooth as it should be.
    Against busy high contrast backgrounds, 75% of expectation. But then my expectation wasn’t that high. Digital sensors are the real problem here. Most lenses struggle with those clunky blobby bits of branch and bush and the like.
  8. That Removable Foot. 100% meets my expectation.
    I’ve seen some remarkable nonsense written about the foot. It’s like “OH wow, something to complain about”.  If the only reason not to buy this lens is the foot, then my advice would be trade in the camera gear and buy a set of golf-clubs. It is the same foot used on the 70-200 f/2.8 zoom.  I’ve owned three of them over the years, and not once has it worked itself loose, and those lenses travelled lots photographing car events.  If the user is so clumsy as to loosen it off then forget to tighten it, I don’t see that as a feature fault, I see that as incompetence!
    For my hand the end of the foot rests nicely on the edge of palm of my hand, and my fingers sit well just before the lenshood, near the programmable buttons (coming up soon). A good fit for me. I’ve used it without, and my preference is with the foot.  I’ve also no intention of buying third party Arca mount foots.  I simply don’t intend to ever put it on a tripod again. (Coming up soon).
  9. Programmable Buttons. 95% meet expectations. I use these a lot. Just wish they were a little bigger so my finger doesn’t need to hunt for them.  They can be set for a specific distance and the lens will return to that spot. About 30% of my use. Or programmed out of the D810 and D500 menus to do a range of activities. Mine is usually an AF function about 70% of the time.
  10. Tripod use. Balances well with the D500 on a Wimberley.  If you can’t get it to balance on a Wimberley, then read the instructions. On the Markins Q20 that I use a lot, it’s a treat. But now, the problem is you have to take a lightweight lens, and sally forth into the field with a whacking great tripod. Don’t see the point.  End of discussion
  11. VR 100% of my expectations.  Image stabilisation is so much better implemented than on the 300mm f/4 PF. I found myself handholding at much slower speeds than I anticipated. See below. {edit} For Inflight, I usually turn VR off. I have a paranoia that the VR interferes with focus acquisition, and while it might only be a microsecond as the VR settles down, it just might be enough to move the focus from the eye, to a wingtip. Besides for inflight, (regardless of the lens I’m using), I want the fastest shutter speed I can get. Give me 1/8000 please.  No need for VR there.
  12. Lens Hood. Guess what!  100% meets expectations. It fits, it locks, it’s lightweight. And in my world. It goes on the lens, and is never removed. (except to clean the lens). I use a bag that fits the lens with the hood attached. (and its taped in position so doesn’t go wandering off on its own in the field.) That is the way all my lenses are fitted.
  13. What about Teleconverters. Met my expectations 100%, and perhaps exceeded them.
    The results with the TC 1.7, were what I expected. And I won’t be using it again with this lens any time soon, or later.
    Haven’t had a need to try the TC 2.0, but I know it will be slow to focus and that won’t work for me too well.
    With the TC 1.4 I found it needed some focus Fine Tune Adjustment.  Using the D500 in camera, it gave a result of -6.   When I tried it I found the focus position was just not right.  So I played around, and hit on +6. Can’t fault that.
    I often get asked about Teleconverters as if they will help get a pin sharp shot of a duck on the far side of the lake.
    Nope.
    Here are 3 helpful points for that sort of shot. 1/ Learn to Swim, 2/ Buy a kayak, 3 Develop better bush craft.
    TCs are best for giving a little bit of extra magnification closer up, say in the 15-30m range. After that for the birds I work with, both heat haze and tiny size make it impractical.
    Acquisition can be a bit ‘iffy’ in lower light.  And the tendency to hunt is always likely.  But it’s a solid performer once the focus is there. Side by side I doubt I could pick sharp, with and without the TC 1.4

Beginning to sound like a ‘fan boy’, so let’s see if some of this makes sense from my field experience.

This is the first image I made with the lens.
1/320 f5.6 ISO 400
Tai Chi Pigeon
Spotted Dove
Early morning overcast.
1/640 @ f/5/6 ISO 400
Superb Fairywren
Morning Sunshine, near full frame.
1/800 @ f/5.6 ISO 400
Black Swan
1/500 @ f/5.6 Just a hint of sunshine coming through the trees.
Eastern Osprey
1/200 @ f/6.3 ISO 400
Eastern Yellow Robin
Late Evening Sunshine
1/2000 @ f/5.6 ISO 800
White-bellied Sea-eagle
1/200 @ f/5.6 ISO 400
Tawny Frogmouth
1/400 @ f5.6 ISO 800
Hazy indirect light through overhanging trees
Eastern Spinebill

What about the soft out of focus bits

Late evening. 1/640 @f/5.6.
Creamy out of focus bits.
Juvenile Whiskered Tern
1/1600 @ f/5.6 ISO 400
Very late afternoon rich light.
Brown Falcon.
Messy out of focus bits because of messy background
Brown Falcon, messy out of focus bits. This is mostly the result of sesor issues rather than the lens design.

How good is VR. I don’t shoot many in low light but here’s one from the back fence.

Checking VR or Image Stabilisation
1/50 @f/5.6 ISO 400. Handheld.
The sun had set, but there was still light in the sky.

Then off course the always asked question.

Oh, but what about Teleconverters. I’ve got to see it with Teleconverters.  See my point 13 above.

TC 1.4 700mm
1/3200 @f/9.0
Handheld. Bird worked its way toward me on the water line.
Red-kneed Dotterel
TC 1.4 700mm 1/500 @f/5.6 ISO 400
Soft out of focus bits and plenty of detail on WIllies beak whiskers.
TC 1.4 700mm 1/1250 @f/9.0
Handheld, overcast day. Lightened up 1/2 Stop in Lr.
TC 1.4 700mm 1/2500 @f/9.0
Full sun. It is no macro lens, but the detail is certainly there.

Accessories.
I was going to really annoy myself and write ‘accessorising’, but restrained. 🙂
I added a B+W UV filter. Not a great believer in UVs as the Sensor already has a UV component, but let’s face it, this an expensive piece of glass.  My first B+W UV was with the Sigma Sport, at first I was hesitant, now, I’m a convert. The B+W shows no visible image degredation, I wish I’d come across them years ago.
Added some Lenscoat to protect the lens, I really like the Kevin Kealty ones from the Wildlife Watching Supplies in the UK, they are a bit thicker and don’t seem to shrink like the US based mob.
Also work with a LensWrap, that I had for the 70-200mm, fits like a glove and gives added security for travelling. Simply velcros off when I’m ready to go in the field.

Conclusions.
I think the price is well justified for the work I am doing. It is indeed my go to lens at the moment.

Alternatives.
The Sigma 150-600 Sport worked well for me. In the end just to heavy for carry around field work. {edit} And, while it was very sharp, the focus was often a little to slow for me for inflight. Once acquired it stayed locked. Even using the Dock to set a faster focus acquire rate, it still left me wishing for a bit more speed.
The Nikon 200-500 Zoom. Is a sharp, well-balanced lens. I would have purchased it if the Sigma had not been on the showroom floor. I do find it a bit bulky to carry as the barrel is nearly twice the diameter of the 500m PF.
The 300mm f/4 PF and a TC 1.4 420mm @/f5.6  EE’s go to lens. Solid performer, I find mine with the TC has a little chromatic aberration in highlights, easy to fix in Lr, but detracts sharpness a little.  It is a lovely walk about for hours lens. Sharpness side by side with the 500mm PF would be hard to pick, and as I’ve used it for over three years, it’s a lens I have a high regard for.

Downsides.
Yes, there are a couple.
I tend to take a lot more pictures as it gives me a chance for good framing for inflight birds.
The lens makes my 300mm f/2.8 look a bit redundant. Not sure what I will do with that.
The 300mm f/4 PF is also going to take a back seat.  It sits in the lens cupboard and like a dog waiting to go “Walkies”, sort of quivers at me when I open the door.  Perhaps a D7200 or D7500 and use it for wider shots from the vehicle. Certainly can’t take both to the field.

And here are two more from a shot this morning.  The White-winged Terns are still around, and I spent the best part of 2 1/2 hours with them, one long session of about 90 minutes.

1/8000@/f5/6 ISO 800
Grab Shot. Got out of vehicle, lens grabbed focus, I framed next. Swamp Harriers do not give second chances.
1/2500 @f/5.6 ISO 400
I was working with these terns for about an hour and half, took several hundred frames. Lens didn’t feel tiring to hold. Had I not run out of time, and the birds out of patience, I could have easily done another hour or so, the lens is unbelievably easy to handhold.

 

So there you go. Thanks for taking the time to read to the end.
It is a keeper for me, and I’ll probably extend myself to get the best from it in the coming weeks.

Keep takin’ pictures we do.

(I’m hoping EE does not read this as I’d hate to have to wait another 5 months for the next lens.:-) )

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10 thoughts on “Nikon 500mm f/5.6 PF: Report from the Field

  1. Thanks for sharing all those stunning photographs too, David. Reckon i’d sum up the lens same as you. I’d add one more positive: there’s not even a hint of purple fringing when shooting against a harsh white sky… not in my experience so far. And that alone puts it head and shoulders above everything else i’ve ever used to photograph birds. Only negative i’ve found so far is that it occasionally takes longer to engage the VR than the 200-500mm. I think the 200-500mm had the best VR I have ever used. This isn’t far behind though. And then it’s better in all other respects except it can’t zoom 🙂 BTW I love your Swamp Harrier shot there. Wow!

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  2. G,day Derek,
    Thanks for the input, There is so much more to writing a decent report, and in the end, I opted to leave out as much as I put in. 🙂
    When I do work with inflight, invariably I turn off the VR. I think there is a little hesitation sometimes as the VR fiddles with the image and the focus gets a tad confused, and will go infront or behind. Interestingly I have had no reason to change AF Fine Tune using it at 500mm. I intend to shoot it wide open as much as possible.
    All in all worth the wait, and it is singing such a good song for me at this early stage.
    Agree with the blue fringing, I can’t see it in anything I made so far.

    All good.
    Talk more.

    DJ

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  3. Always good to read a ‘real person’s’ review of gear. Sometimes the pro reviews get too bogged down in technical minutiae, relevant information but I want to know how it performs in the field. And whilst I am not using Nikon I know many who do and I would not hesitate to refer them to this blog! Fine images to demonstrate the text too.
    DN

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    1. G,day David,
      Me too, I’m not all that interested in two paras on the colour of the box, and the packing material, nor how shiny it is on the outside. Tech Specs, help. Particularly on the longer ‘super teles and zooms’.
      But I mostly want to know what the thing feels like when I’ve been lugging it about the past two hours and how quickly it then gets on to the bird that has just broken from the srub.
      You’ll note there is NOT a report from the field on the Nikon 80-400, as it didn’t last too long at our house. But that’s another story.

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  4. Wow David! I can understand why you always have such crisp and detailed shots after reading your journey with lenses. I guess I am not as techno as you are in this field, and like EE my wife would consider it overly indulgent if I were to upgrade, so I make do and OO AH at your amazing captures, which are always inspiring. Your tips and sharing are helpful, as I am hoping one day when I fully retire I may get to live your dream, ie. my own version thereof. Thanks for sharing it is always appreciated.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Hi AB, EE is more likely to want the lens than not 🙂 She does have a weight carrying issue, so the 300mmPF and TC are a really good option.
    Thanks for the comments. I rarely, if ever do the gear thing on the blog, too much info on the net and one more piece only adds to the clutter. I am a photographer, by background and training, and a former TAFE photo teacher, so its inevitable that the gear gets in there somewhere!
    It is true to say that most of the images shared on this page could have been achieved with quite less expensive equipement. Its more about being there, then the amount of money sitting in the hand.
    I read so many ‘reviews’ that never really get to show photos from the field. And as it turns out I’ve had a nice run of light the past couple of weeks, some easily accessible birds and the time to spend getting it together.

    I spent the morning yesterday with the White-winged Terns. A blog is forthcoming.

    Thanks again
    DJ

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  6. Despite having Canon gear, I read through to the end, and of course loved the images, especially that Swamp Harrier! I did laugh out loud at the bit about the ducks on the far side of the lake and your suggestions for dealing with that problem.

    I always enjoy reading your blogs, so thanks again for sharing your thoughts and experiences.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Eleanor, Yep, a bit of a ramble for those in the Canon camp. But never fear, I won’t be doing it again anytime soon
      I think the Swamp Harrier few minutes were among the most enjoyable behind camera I can remember for a long time.

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  7. Well, David, i must admit that i was intentionally deferring reading this review until I could not hold off anymore after seeing your new posts on Flickr. Until now I have expected my 300/2.8 to be my last extravaganza in the topic of photography and my ultimate lens forever. Now there is a new goal to aspire to. It may be tough but I’m patient. For now I’ll keep on admiring your work.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Hi Adam, I didn’t really put this together to help people bend their mastercard or stretch out the budget. It is not a cheap lens, and like the 300 f/2.8, is a long term investment for me.
    The two things that make it so appealing is the small size, lightweight and the professional features— Fast focus, very impressive VR and the programmable controls. (I use them on the 300 f/2.8, 70-200 and formerly 500 f/4 to do a lot of the focus setting and AF settings. (One less thing to think about).

    My advice, Hang in with the 300mm f/2.8 With at TC 1.4 it is a very solid performer, and mine with the TC 2.0 is a ripper. Second best 600mm f/5.6 lens I’ve ever owned (Hint: I’ve only ever owned one other 🙂 )

    I also genuinely believe that most of the images that I’ve shown above, I have pretty much equivilant from both the 300mm f/2.8 and the 300mm f/4 PF +TC 1.4 combo. Point I think I was making is the new lens is no slacker in the sharp department.

    My biggest challenge gear wise now is what to do with the 300mm f/2.8 as it is pretty much a shelf sitter.

    Good luck, and keep working the light.
    Seeya
    DJ

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