Nikon 500mm f/4E FL ED VR Review

In March 2013 Nikon started shipping the AF-S 80-400VR lens, and I quickly got a copy and did a brief review.

I got the 80-400VR because it allowed me to do some wildlife photography I couldn’t do before, handheld and more spontaneous than tripod mounted photography.  And it has really been an excellent lens, sharp & durable.  I have really given it a workout, with around half of all the wildlife photos over the past two years taken on this lens.  The other half on my staple tripod mounted 600VR.

And then in July 2015, Nikon started shipping the new AF-S Nikkor 500mm f/4E FL ED VR; and again I quickly picked up an early unit.

Nikkor 500mm f4E

While the 80-400VR has been a great tool it’s a bit short for many small birds.  With the 500 f/4E and a TC-14EIII, I can be at either 500 f/4 or 700mm f/5.6 in a hand holdable weight.  In the dim light of the rain forest were I often photograph wildlife, having the option to get to f/4 was important for me and made slower f/5.6 optics less appealing.  Others looking at the new lightweight Nikon series might choose the 400mm f/2.8E or 600mm f/4E, but for me the 500E was the right combination of focal length and weight!

Besides the friendly weight, the 500E is very well balanced.  The G lens with all ED glass are very front heavy.  And the 500E sports the latest refinement of Nikon VR technology, on paper up to 4 stops of improvement.  And small details like putting VR on/off on a switch rather than the cumbersome rotating collar is a welcome step.

Just two minor niggles.  I wish they had a three stage focus limiter with one choice being minimum focus distance to 6 meters.  There are definitely times you are working with close subjects and you don’t want the lens to rack out to infinity.  And I wish for the good old days of the lens focus mode switch being simply M, M/A, A rather the new fangled M, M/A, A/M.  There are times you are on a bean bag, and you simply don’t want any movement while on the bean bag to affect focus, so you would rather be in pure Autofocus Mode with no manual override.  Both of these features used to exist on Nikon superteles.

Okay, so much for various features, how does it work!  First I put it through it’s paces with LensAlign and the bare lens, and with the TC-14EIII and with two camera bodies.  I was astonished, it needed no AF Fine Tune for any combination!  This is my first Nikon telephoto lens that has not required any AF Fine Tune!  Nikon quality control is to be congratulated!

Next up a simple test I always have done on any new telephoto lens.  I take a series of test shots of an aircraft warning light tower, atop a hotel which is 675 meters from my apartment window.  My rational being if it isn’t sharp at a distance, it’s not going to be sharp close.  I always take these shots in the early morning with the relatively soft light at this time of day and no heat turbulence yet.  All shots from a tripod, mirror lock up, high shutter speed, cable release and now with the D810 electronic front-curtain shutter.  Neutral picture control, all defaults.  No post processing, all 100% crops.

Over the years I have tested two 200-400 f/4 VRI, three 300 f/2.8 VRI, 600mm f/4D, 600mm f/4G, 80-400mm G, and now the 500 f/4E.  It’s really only a test for centre sharpness, and fairly subjective at that, but I have some comparative experience.  The only result I’ve published before is for the 80-400mm G.  So you’ll either have to take my word for it, or rush out and buy your own copy of Imatest (USD420), or wait for the big websites to publish test results such as DXO, DPReview, and so on.  Even then test scores will be debated, and it takes a long time for a lens to develop a reputation, but eventually a consensus forms, and I expect the 500 f/4E will fully merit it’s gold ring.

First the 500 f/4E bare lens.

Nikon 500mm f/4E

Next the 500 f/4E with the TC-14E III.

Nikon 500 f/4E with TC-14E III

And lastly the 500 f/4E with the TC-20E III.

Nikon 500 f/4E with TC-20E III

 Note I didn’t test with the TC-17E, not my favorite TC.  For me all the photos in the series look good, slightly sharper one stop closed down from wide open and with some diffraction softening as expected by f/16.

Now for some real world photos, always more important than test shots. All photos taken handheld which was the main idea in purchasing this lens. The new VR unit really delivers excellent results. Even with a TC14 I can get a very high rate of keepers at 1/125s, 1/160s and higher shutter speeds. But below 1/100s the keeper rate falls off, of course at these shutter speeds subject motion is a major factor. Without a TC the keeper rate improves as expected with a shorter focal length. Brief tech specs, either TC or no TC and shutter speed are given in the samples gallery. Note that my target environment is the rainforest, so I’m really interested out of necessity how the lens performs wide open.
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Nikkor 500 f/4E Samples

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11 Responses to “Nikon 500mm f/4E FL ED VR Review”

  1. Howard Banwell says:

    Looks like one hell of a lens. But most impressive is the steadiness of your hands to get these shots handheld at speeds as low as you have used! I know it has a great VR (I think that’s what Nikon calls IS), but even so! Very impressive indeed

  2. Ramli says:

    Con, you are killing my wallet!!!!, thanks, informative review and as always great images

  3. mikeschmeee says:

    Great little review. What’s your take on the new 600mm f/4E FL? Will you be reviewing one?

    • Con Foley says:

      Hi Mike, I don’t think I’ll be reviewing the 600, budget already spent on the 500 !

      • mikeschmeee says:

        Thanks for the quick reply Con. I completely forgot to check back much sooner.

        Would you be so kind in shooting some real world photos with the 500mm f/4E FL ED VR attached to the TC-20E III?
        I’m looking for a new super telephoto lens, either the new 400mm f/2.8 FL, 500mm or 600mm f/4 FL. But I’m having a tough time choosing which one would be best for my needs. I’d like to know how well each lens performs with the TC-20E III teleconverter in real world situations, mainly wildlife photography. So far your review of the new 500mm FL tests the lens with two TC’s which I also own and I can see by the sample images that the 2x is not that great but I’m interested to see how it performs in the real world. I know the results should be similar to the test shots but it would still be neat to see. I currently use the 300mm f/2.8G ED VRII with the 2x teleconverter attached to my D4s and it’s a great combination but sometimes I need more reach without scaring off the subject.

        Thank you kindly,
        Mike

        • Con Foley says:

          Okay Mike, I’ll try to make some real world images with the 2x TC. May take a few days though.

          • mikeschmeee says:

            Thank you very much Con!
            Yes, please shoot some real world images such as the beautiful photos of the birds you have posted in this wonderful review. This will really help with the decision. Also might be neat to see what the results are like.

            Thanks again!
            Cheers,
            Mike

  4. JL Vallee says:

    Hi,
    What’s your body camera used for the test? D810?
    Thank you
    Jean

  5. David Shier says:

    Con,

    Great review. Thank you. Curious, what happened to the guy wires in the TC-14EIII series? They are not visible on my screen, whereas they are visible in the other series.

    Regards,

    David

    • Con Foley says:

      Hi David, the hotel with the aircraft warning lights has two sets, for some reason one with guy wires, and the other without guy wires. My series of photos shows both. I was too lazy to reshot to show only the set with guy wires.

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Wildlife Photography is My Passion