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Shooting with Nikon's new 500mm F5.6E PF in Kamchatka

Nikon D850 | 500mm F5.6E PF | ISO 320 | 1/1250sec | F7.1

Full disclosure: Roie Galiz is a beta product tester for Nikon Europe.

Wildlife photographers love millimeters – the more the merrier. But extra focal length comes with a cost, both literally and in terms of weight.

The new Nikon AF-S Nikkor 500mm F5.6E PF ED VR bucks that trend, including a PF ('phase fresnel') element to reduce the size and weight of what would otherwise be a large, heavy telephoto prime lens.

Nikon 500mm F5.6E PF key specifications:

  • Optical construction: 19 elements in 11 groups (1 PF, 3 ED)
  • Minimum focus: 3m (118 inches)
  • Aperture blades: 9
  • Vibration Reduction: 4EV (CIPA)
  • Dimensions:
    • Diameter: 106 mm (4.17)
    • Length: 237 mm (9.33″)
    • Weight: 1460 g (3.22 lb)

When I put my eager hands on the new 500mm F5.6 PF lens and put it next to the flagship 500mm F4E, it felt like a toy, being so small and light. Actually, to my eyes it looked adorable. I was a bit skeptical that it could deliver the same performance, so when I packed my gear for a recent bear photography workshop in Kamchatka, I packed the older lens too, just in case, alongside the new 500mm F5.6E PF and 180-400mm F4E.

Handling

A tale of two lenses: the 500mm F4 (left) and new 500mm F5.6E PF (right), with their included hoods attached.

Holding this lens feels weird at first and I’ve never held a camera with a 500mm prime in one hand like I can with the F5.6E PF. The lens is so light that it almost feels unstable compared to the F4E, and the shift in balance with the lighter lens, back towards the camera, takes some getting used to. After the first couple of bear shots though, and some initial discomfort, I began to really see the benefits. This lightweight lens allowed me to easily move around, lay on the ground, photograph from the water from a low angle and be much more flexible than I could with the older and heavier F4.

Focus

Nikon D850 | 500mm F5.6E PF | ISO 1250 | 1/1000sec | F7.1

When losing a stop of light, I expected to lose focus speed as well, but the F5.6E PF actually locks into focus very quickly. For bear photography, focus speed doesn’t have to be ultra-fast, so to really test the lens I went and photographed some Tufted Puffins flying around with beaks full of fish. The D850 + 500mm F5.6E combination delivered around a 70% hit-rate where the images were in sharp focus.

The minimum focus distance of the 500mm F5.6E is 3.5 meters, which is great for close-ups, but it's too close for bears!

Aperture

Nikon D850 | 500mm F5.6E PF | ISO 200 | 1/1000sec | F8

Would you rather have an F4 or F5.6? well, of course all photographers want that extra stop of light. Except for low conditions, though, I’d rather close the aperture to around F8 for extra depth of field. For this reason, most of the time I wouldn't care about a maximum aperture of F5.6E compared to F4. 'Most of the time' isn't all the time, though. In low light or when shooting fast-moving subjects, I would rather shoot at 1600 at F4 than 3200 at F5.6.

Vibration Reduction (VR)

Nikon D850 | 500mm F5.6E PF | ISO 200 | 1/800sec | F7.1

Typically when it comes to VR, the bar is raised with each new high-end lens that comes out. With the 500mm F5.6E PF I found VR especially useful since I didn't have the sheer mass of the lens to help absorb shake, as I do with the F4. I didn’t really get to long-enough exposure times during the Kamchatka workshop to test it thoroughly, but I'm eager to do so as soon as I can.

Image Quality

I didn’t expect this baby lens to be capable of the same image quality as the F4E, but it is! The D850’s 46 megapixels place a huge demand on any lens, and the 500mm F5.6E PF really delivers. Bokeh looks great, I couldn’t persuade it to flare while shooting against backlighting and I didn't notice any issues with chromatic aberrations.

All-in-all, I couldn’t find any drawbacks compared to the F4E when it comes to image quality.

Here is a sample comparison between the two, labeled as A and B. Both images were handheld, un-edited and un-sharpened and taken at F/5.6. See if you can tell which image was shot with which lens.

Still can’t decide? Here’s a 1:1 crop unsharpened.

And the answer is… A is the Nikon 500mm F5.6E PF and B is the Nikon 500m F4E.

Overall Impressions

Compared to the 500mm F4, the F5.6E PF lens is nice and easy to use handheld, especially with fast moving subjects I could easily keep the camera up and ready for hours on end and the image quality doesn’t seem to have been compromised at the expense of lightness.

I would love to have this lens in my backpack whenever I’m on a project in a sunny environment, just to avoid having to carry the weight of the faster lens. If I’m shooting in the jungles or the high arctic however, I would want every stop of light available, at which point I'd probably play safe and opt for the heavier F4E.


About

Roie Galitz is a professional wildlife photographer, public speaker, wildlife workshop leader and a Greenpeace ambassador to the Arctic.

Roie was in Kamchatka leading an expedition for photography tour company Phototeva. For more information and images visit his website www.roiegalitz.com and follow his Instagram - www.instagram.com/roiegalitz

Roie Galitz was not compensated for this article by Nikon or DPReview, and Nikon had no involvement in its publication.

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StopTheGAS

Those are the kind of tele primes I'd like to see Sony eventually introducing too!

3 months ago
IamJF

Would make a lot of sense! Also the price looks good.
But the 400f2.8 was an important lens, I bet they also will bring a 600f4. Maybe 500f5.6 and 800f6.8?

3 months ago
dgumshu
dgumshu

Don't hold your breath on that one. Perhaps, but I don't see it anytime soon.

3 months ago
IamJF

I don't need this lenses anyway - thanks good cause they don't fit my budget as hobby shooter 😊

3 months ago
quatpat

Sony should still have a 200-600mm f/5.6 in the pipeline, but we don't know if it will be a pipe dream... in any case, the weight would be nowhere near the Nikkor 500/5.6.

3 months ago
panther fan

@StopTheGAS
I would love that too. That said I think Sony will first produce the more classic 600mm F4. So they have the classic 100-400/ 400 prime / 600 prime setup of other systems.
After that they probably will work on the long rumored 200-600 F5.6 as a show off, to deliver a lens "no other system has". After that they will probably release some cheaper lighter lenses, but considering this probably not before mid 2019

3 months ago
starbase218

Nikon is being very smart about this, expanding into smaller, lighter and cheaper teles. Sony has a 400/2.8 now and they might expand into higher FLs to compete against, say, the 600/4. But now Nikon has an even lighter option. Sure, you loose a stop of light, but that may not matter too much for people who value compactness and low weight in the first place.

3 months ago
garyknrd

I have to agree. After handling this lens.
One stop of light is a small price to pay. Not to mention it is affordable!
Personally I am sick of huge bulky lenses. This will be a smashing success for Nikon IMO.

3 months ago*
dgumshu
dgumshu

This is a great Nikon addition. Good move. I want one.
Sony's are overpriced, so I don't think they will move many of their Big Whites. If they were smart, they'd take the Nikon approach.

3 months ago
PLShutterbug

Don’t be fooled by the article. It’s “lose.” “Loose” means a loose fit, I.e. not desirable in a lens because of potential for light leaks. Lose means to be deprived of (one meaning but hopefully you appreciate the difference).

3 months ago
starbase218

PLShutterbug The article? You mean my comment? But you're right. It already didn't feel right to write "loose". And I'm Dutch, so my English should be good. :)

3 months ago
MikeRan

Dgumshu I guess by your logic Canon's are overpriced too.

3 months ago
dgumshu
dgumshu

Aren't they all? :-) Some worse than others

3 months ago
MikeRan

Well you were the one that called out Sony. So I thought maybe in your mind $12,000 Canon dollars wasn’t the same as $12,000 Sony dollars.

3 months ago
dgumshu
dgumshu

Perhaps that’s because Sony lenses have been significantly higher. The Canon 400 F2.8 ll has been going for 10K. The Canon 500 F 4 ranges between $8200 and $8900. The Sony A mount 500mm was 13K.

The New Sony 400 F2.8 is at 12K and now, with Canon’s new release it is also at 12k with version ll still available at 10k along with the other teles Sony does not yet offer.

The Sony 100-400 goes for $2500 and the Canon for about $1800.

So yes, I did call out Sony for thier pricing. That’s just the way it’s been.

3 months ago
MikeRan

Well, the Sony 100-400 is sharper than the Canon. But yes, it's more expensive.
Newer technology, better lenses, more money. Yup.

3 months ago
dgumshu
dgumshu

Yada, Yada... yeah, heard all sharper nonsense before. You'd be hard pressed to tell the difference side by side even if that were true. Incremental differences at best. However, not bad for a Chinese made camera and lens combo where QC is questionable and not durability tested.

3 months ago*
Rajeshb

@Mikeran....could you point to any comparison review where it shows Sony 100-400 is sharper than the Canon?

3 months ago
MikeRan

“While there has been some slightly improved performance in more recent models, such as the Canon EF 100-400mm 4.5-5.6L IS II, Sony’s new FE 100-400mm F4.5-5.6 GM OSS stands out not only for its seismic shift in sharpness, but also for being not much different in size to the FE 70-200mm F2.8. Best of all, perhaps, is that for once there’s a tele-zoom that offers seriously impressive image quality at that prized 400mm focal length.”

Compared to the Canon EF 100-400mm 4.5-5.6L IS II, which has very similar specifications, the Sony FE 100-400mm F4.5-5.6 GM OSS surpasses it in overall performance, even if it doesn’t quite have the excellent uniform performance of the Canon over the focal range. Still, the Sony delivers significantly higher sharpness levels at both ends of the zoom range when wide-open, including the vaunted 400mm focal length and matches it in-between. Stopped down, the Sony is sharper at every focal length.”

3 months ago
garyknrd

I handled one yesterday with the Z7 attached.
Now waiting on price and availability in the country I am in?
If it holds up to the hype, it will be the best traveling photographers telephoto lens I have ever seen.
Small footprint and so light. Really amazing.

3 months ago*
jeminijoseph

"70% hit rate for focus". What's it with 500/4E and D850?

3 months ago
Impulses

That sounded low to me too, I thought DSLR (specially Nikons) often boasted a higher hit rate... But these focal lengths are very foreign to me.

3 months ago
RPJG

We'd be forgiven for missing it, because DPR inexplicably hid the news in the "In Other News" sidebar.

3 months ago
janist74

Ok, the bear photo maybe shows, that one lens is a bit sharper than the other, but it also shows, how pointless is to carry an f4 vs f5.6 lens. The background is virtually identical for a simple mortal humanoid. True, you get more light for focusing, but with the today cameras this does not seem to be a real reason...

3 months ago
J A C S
J A C S

The A background is noticeably worse.

3 months ago
whumber
whumber

That's because the 500 f/4 was stopped down to f/5.6. The PF lens has a bit busier bokeh but it's really not too bad at all.

3 months ago*
artnaz
artnaz

"Noticeably" when you have the two pictures side-by-side.

I'm pretty sure 95% of us will --not-- be much happier with the 500/4E image-wise.

3 months ago
J A C S
J A C S

I am the 5%.

3 months ago
zorgon

If anything, I'd say the PF had slightly smoother bokeh, but there's nothing in it really. Neither lens is particularly good in the bokeh department in this comparison.

3 months ago
Geomaticsman
Geomaticsman

I’ll lay odds there’s no way the 500PF is visibly sharper than the 500E. This “test” is useless in that regard.

And to me, f4 is a huge benefit....I need 1/5000 to stop most action on my D850, and the light is just not good enough around here to do that most of the time when shooting at f5.6.

3 months ago*
artnaz
artnaz

I think 1/5000s is extremely short. What are you shooting, if I may ask?

3 months ago
Geomaticsman
Geomaticsman

BIF — birds of all types and sizes...even Ospreys require 1/5000 when diving (i.e. ensuring the eye is sharp at the pixel level). I shoot a D850 and am often cropping heavily and can easily see any softness on my 5K monitor...anything less than 1/5000 often comes out soft...though it does depend on the circumstances somewhat.

3 months ago*
artnaz
artnaz

Ok, that is indeed a challenging shoot then, and you'll need all the extra light you can get! :-)

3 months ago
Fly18
Fly18

Side "A" looked better for me.

3 months ago
J A C S
J A C S

Unless you look at the whole photo.

3 months ago
Fly18
Fly18

Impressive.
I have the 300mm f4 PF and I love it. I don't have an immediate need for a 500mm prime, but it's still tempting.

3 months ago
arbitrage

I was told by a very reputable Canadian dealer that the first batch will only have 10...yes 10 copies for all of CANADA....wowzers...this might be a long wait....hopefully most people were mesmerized by debating single card slots of the Z cameras and forgot to order the 500PF as early as I did (which still was 24hours after I could have :( )

3 months ago
Impulses

I would've thought Canadia would be a big market for wildlife shooters!

3 months ago
J A C S
J A C S

The link above links to the 50/1.8 S.

3 months ago
zorgon

It looks sharper than the F4 lens, at least in that comparison shot. Maybe it is worth the money after all.

3 months ago
arbitrage

To my eyes the 500E looks slightly better but meaningless in the full shot....almost meaningless in the extreme crop....but if you look at the hairs coming out of the top of the bear's ear, the 500E looks more defined to me....YMMV....might just be that the 500PF shot is a little more blown out in that area....overall this lens is amazing....can't wait for mine to arrive next to my 500E....

3 months ago*
PLShutterbug

I saw the ear stuff too but were I in the market for a 500mm prime I would have a very hard time justifying the price of the E. My 200-500 does very well for what I do (irrelevant, I know).

3 months ago
Studor13

That lens in his right hand could come in handy.

Them bears seem awfully close. Yikes!

3 months ago
loafer

There's running with bulls and swimming with sharks. Now we see wading with bears - sort of the ultimate in danger as escape is impossible unless you can fly with the puffins.

3 months ago
emax

Not bad.

3 months ago
liquidstone
liquidstone

Quote:
"When loosing a stop of light, I expected to loose focus speed as well,..."

You mean LOSING a stop of light?

3 months ago*
arbitrage

Romy, when you are being chased by a male grizzly and trying to type a mini-review on your iPhone you sometimes make a mistake or two LOL

3 months ago
Xeexon

...or let loose your bowels

3 months ago
riknash

Wouldn't you lose focus speed? Isn't focus achieved with aperture wide open? An f/5.6 aperture would give less light to the phase detect focus sensor than an f/4.

3 months ago
riknash

Oops, never mind, I must be afflicted with autocorrectitis in my brain.

3 months ago
Total: 64, showing: 51 – 64
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