A long telephoto lens like the Nikon 200-500/5.6 is a significant piece of kit. It has the potential to open up areas of wildlife and landscape photography not previously encountered. But it also requires some fine and careful technique to get the most out of the lens. High magnifications mean greater potential for unsharp images, particularly in less-than-ideal lighting situations. The additional size and weight also demand a commitment to photography beyond casually walking around with a camera slung over the shoulder. So it is with trepidation that one considers such a significant addition to one’s lens collection.
For me, photography is a passion, not a vocation nor anything close to a full-time job. As my day job does not generate enough extra cash to finance this passion, I fund it through the sale of photographs, running workshops, and giving presentations. Recently, I made a fairly significant sale of photographs to Saatchi Art in the US which has provided the funds to purchase the AF-S Nikkor 200-500 f/5.6 lens. Why am I telling you this? Well, for many of us, money doesn’t grow on trees. We scrimp and save, hoping to upgrade our equipment. Some photographers work as I do: sell a bit, buy a bit, gradually building up their equipment “arsenal’. We don’t take our equipment for granted. When you’ve had to work and save, it certainly raises the appreciation and value of the equipment you are able to purchase.
I checked online for pricing and found Henry’s to be competitive with Amazon with the added bonus of being a Canadian company with bricks-and-mortar stores. To me, this makes a difference. How many people walk into a store, check out the goods and the prices then walk out and purchase the same things from different online sources such as Amazon? Me? I’d rather give my business to Canadian companies that employ the people who live around me. So, on Wednesday evening I checked the availability of the lens at my nearest Henry’s – in Kitchener. Sadly, it was out of stock, so I ordered the lens from Henry’s online, chose the free shipping option, and on Friday it arrived! Talk about quick service!
Saturday morning, Laura and I were up and out by 6:30am to her favourite local birding haunt – Ignatius Jesuit Centre just north of Guelph – to try out the new lens. While walking there over the past couple of weeks, Laura has seen all the regular birds – cardinals, robins, blue jays, various sparrows and tree swallows – but also species we don’t regularly see at the Arboretum or the Little Tract, including bluebirds, meadowlarks and bobolinks. Ignatius Jesuit Centre has a great diversity of habitats including an organic farm, community plots, unmowed fields (critical to bobolinks and meadowlarks), cedar forests, deciduous forests and wetlands, and is open for walking at all times. BTW: In winter, it’s also a great local area for Nordic skiing with trails formed by the Guelph Nordic Ski Club.
Now, there’s no getting around the fact that the 200-500mm is a big lens. It weighs in at 2.3kg (5 pounds) and has a 95mm front filter size. At 200mm, with the lens hood on, it is 34cm long (13½”). When zoomed out, add another 8cm or 3 inches. Thankfully, it comes with a sturdy tripod collar allowing me to attach it to my ages-old monopod. It’s not a lens I could hand-hold confidently for any length of time, at least not without a few trips to the gym! Although, that being said, I will try it as I want to see how well the VR works. It is reported to be excellent.
Despite it’s relatively low price (CAD $1600) – compared to typical Nikkor lenses of this focal length – the quality is top notch. No, it won’t compete with Nikon’s finest telephotos like the 300/2.8, 400/2.8 or the 500/4, but they are also 4 to 9 times the cost. Even the new 300/4 VR is a $1000 more. So, what the 200-500/5.6 gives up in speed, price and quality it more than makes up for in versatility. And it really hasn’t given up much despite it’s price. I was very careful to check this out in some detail before hand with some of the most honest reviewers online (Thom Hogan, Will Nicholls, and Dan Carr)
In the field, the lens did not disappoint. It focussed smoothly, quickly and quietly with just a bit of extra sound from the VR. I shot front lit, sideline and backlit shots and all had crisp contrast with fine feather detail, which is what counts. I was able to quickly raise the camera+lens, focus and shoot, although Recognize, I still need to work on my technique. Was it heavy to carry around? Yes, and no. I found carrying it by the tripod collar the easiest and well-balanced, but I did feel the extra weight. Except for the 300/4 PF lens (at CAD $1000 more expensive), there is no avoiding the weight of any significant telephoto lens.
So with a summer free of international travel, I will be spending my time capturing Ontario wildlife in ways that I’ve always wanted to: quietly, at first light and with a proper telephoto lens. I still have much to check out and learn about this lens so stay tuned.