Points in Focus Photography

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Thinking about Nikon’s new AF Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR

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I don’t know what it is about Nikon, but when they decide to introduce a new zoom with a new focal range it always seems to just make sense to me. In this case, I’m talking about their new Nikkor 200–500mm f/5.6E ED VR. I’m not sure what it is about this lens that just sits right to me. Okay sure, it’s not a professional lens—no gold band—but it sure looks like one at first glance. At least in every way save the price tag.

I find the range to be fascinating in a lot of ways, and like many things Nikon does it seems to just make sense when you stop and think about it. In a lens like the 80–400, the focal range down close to 70mm makes it possible to take the 80–400 instead of, and not in addition to, a 70–200. Sure, the 70–200 is going to be faster, but if you’re shooting outdoors you might not really need the speed.

On the other hand, once you start getting into 100mm + ranges, it becomes much harder to simply use the big telephoto zoom instead and not in addition to a 70–200. I can kind of get away with it with my 100–400, but something like a 150–600—well starting at 150 means you’ve already lost the vast majority of the 70–200 range. If you’re going to do that, giving up the final 50mm to move the wide end out to 200, at least reduces the complexity involved in optimizing the lens design.

The biggest thing the Nikkor 200–500 seems to have going for it to me, is the fixed f/5.6 aperture. And here too I have to admit to being a bit baffled. Okay, I know a lot of people don’t like variable aperture lenses. I think a lot of that is a matter of perspective though. Most people seem to treat say an f/4–5.6 lens as an f/4 lens that slows down instead of an f/5.6 lens that can be faster in some cases. Sure the distinction might seem meaningless, but if you set the lens to f/5.6 in aperture priority or manual, the camera isn’t going to open up more if you zoom out.

At the same time, if this had been a variable aperture lens, it’s likely it could have been an f/2.8–5.6 given the size of the front element and the required apertures involved. It certainly could have been an f/4–5.6.

And really there’s another way to look at something like this. In my experience most people look at zooms as zooms, that is continuously variable lenses and not necessarily a package of primes. Consider though, to have an f/5.6 aperture at 500mm, you have a 90mm aperture (okay 89.28 and change mm). If you apply that to the rest of the zoom range, you end up with whats show in the table below.

Focal Length Aperture
200mm f/2.25
300mm f/3.36
400mm f/4.48
500mm f/5.6

Woah! Even rounding up a bit, you ought to be able to do a 200/2.8, 300/4, and 400/4.5 out of this kind of lens. Of course, doing the math there really might explain in party why this non-gold band lens has a fixed aperture—something that’s very much an exception to the rule. If this had a variable aperture, especially one that’s even remotely close to the values the math dictates, Nikon would have a $1200 zoom on its hands competing against several $1000 and up primes. I mean, aside from weight, why would I buy a 300mm f/4D at $1500 or 300mm f/4E PF at $2000 when I could get similar focal length and aperture performance in a hypothetical 200–500mm zoom?

Which brings me to my final thought, price. The 200–500 Nikkor is $200 more expensive than the Tamron or Sigma contemporary 150–600, and aside from being slightly faster from 388–500mm it doesn’t appear to offer all that much. And really this just raises the question. How many people buying a lens like this in the $1000–1500 range are going to care that it’s a Nikkor and not that the range is shorter and it’s heavier, has a shorter zoom range, and is more expensive than most of the alternatives?

All told, I really like the look of this lens. The zoom range seems like a real smart choice, and quite solid unless you’re looking for a one lens super telephoto wonder. The only nagging question for me is will it end up selling well given what the competition is.

Nikon USA AF-S Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR Product Page

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