Nikon 500mm f/4 lens review
For a long time, I have been shooting wildlife with a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens in combination with one of those teleconverters. At some point, I started playing with the idea of upgrading my gear but wasn’t sure where to invest. It took me a long time until I finally decided to go with the Nikon 500mm f/4 lens. There are multiple models of the 500mm f/4 lens available and I am using the Nikon 500mm f/4 G ED VR. This article will consist of the reasons why I chose the Nikon 500mm f/4 over other lenses as well as a review of the lens itself.
Table of content
- The reason for my gear upgrade
- How to choose the right lens
- Nikon 500 mm f/4 lens review
- Final words
- Let me know your thoughts
The reason for my gear upgrade
I am not a person that believes in gear but rather in hard work and dedication. Having said that I didn’t want to upgrade my lens for a long time. I have been using the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 in combination with a Nikon D7000 body. My problem however was always focal length or better said the distance to the target species. Back then I was mainly focusing on birds of prey. These shy animals however didn’t let me get close enough and I always ended up with shots from too far away. I, therefore, started doing some research on my options.
The first thing I did was borrow out teleconverters and play around with them. The TC 1.4 III worked well whereas the TC 1.7 II and TC 2.0 III didn’t make me very happy. Maybe not necessarily the fault of the TC’s but just how I used them. Also, TC’s depend on the lens and camera combination. E.g. the 2.0 III converter has been designed for the 300mm f/2.8 lens in combination with the D3. Anyways, after a while, it became clear that I need to look into those super expensive telephoto lenses. For many of the below lenses are multiple versions on the market as every couple of years a new version has been introduced to the market. Tested in the below table, therefore, means that I have had hands-on the model that was on the market back in 2012. The links however point to the latest models available. All below models are Nikon lenses. There is a lot of other models on the market from Sigma, Tamron, or other producers. I haven’t had a chance however to test one of those but I am sure these are great lenses as well.
|300mm f/4||USD 1’400||1.4 kg||didn’t test this one|
|300mm f/2.8||USD 5’500||2.9 kg||tested, superb sharp lens, works well with TC’s|
|80-400mm f/4||USD 2’100||1.3 kg||tested, pretty bad AF speed|
|180-400mm f/4||USD 12’400||3.5 kg||didn’t exist back then|
|200-400mm f/4||USD 5’000||3.3 kg||didn’t test|
|400mm f/2.8||USD 11’200||3.8 kg||tested, super sharp lens, works well with TC’s|
|200-500mm f/5.6||USD 1’200||2.3 kg||didn’t exist back then|
|500mm f/5.6||USD 3’600||1.4 kg||didn’t exist back then|
|500mm f/4||USD 10’300||3.6 kg||tested, super sharp lens, works well with TC’s|
|600mm f/4||USD 12’300||3.8 kg||tested, super sharp lens, works well with TC’s|
How to choose the right lens
As you can see from the above table and taking the other models from other brands into consideration is a very difficult decision. There is not much advice I can give other than that you should consider the below items.
The main driver most likely will be budget constraints. Back in 2012 when I purchased the 500mm f/4 lens, I paid about 8k (new lens) so it either depends on the source where it’s being bought or the new lenses have become more expensive. The newer 200-500mm f/5.6, as well as the 500mm f/5.6, are lenses that for sure would draw my attention nowadays as they are much cheaper and also much lighter than the other prime lenses. The only way I could afford the lens back then is that I was able to smuggle it into our wedding budget that has been cut by 8k for some unknown reason that luckily has not been investigated any further.
First of all, you should ask yourself for what you will be using the lens primarily. If you shoot wildlife, you may or may not use hides. Most hides I have visited are optimized for 300mm – 400mm lenses. 500mm and longer lenses might be too long. I don’t use a lot of hides so this was not a big criterion for me. The target species may influence your decision. E.g. birds may raise different requirements towards a lens than large mammals do. I did an article about bird photography that may be interesting for you as well. In case you shoot handheld make sure the lens is equipped with a good vibration reduction system. Some older lenses may not come with VR at all and there it will be tricky without the usage of a tripod. There are many other things to consider but at one point one needs to make a decision. So did I and the only thing I ever regret was not getting the lens earlier. I own it for many years now and I am still in love with it.
Another thing to consider is weight because of three main reasons. If you are shooting handheld a lighter lens will certainly help stabilize the lens (VR is quite good nowadays but still) and will allow you to hold the lens for a longer time (before your arms fall off). Traveling is the next area where weight matters as you want to take such a lens carry on and airlines tend to have very strict regulations. Read here how I travel with my gear. The last thing where weight matters is hiking. If you plan to take your lens on longer hikes every kilo matters.
What was right for me back then
I have chosen the Nikon 500mm f/4 over the other lenses mainly because of the combination of focal length, weight, and prize. It’s cheaper and less heavy than the 400mm f/2.8 and the 600mm f/4. It took me a while however to choose the 500mm over the 300mm f/2.8. The 300mm lens is super sharp and nice in handling and with f/2.8 not only fast but also well prepared for TC’s. As said earlier, the TC 2.0 III has been mainly developed with the 300mm f/2.8 as a reference lens. If your shooting style requires a different kind of focal length and you don’t want to go with any of the zoom lenses the 300mm f/2.8 might be a good option. I think I still would take the same decision today but for sure test the 500mm f/5.6 and 200-500mm f/5.6 as they are much cheaper and lighter.
Nikon 500 mm f/4 lens review
I love my Nikon 500mm f/4 lens and think it’s superb glass. I am using it since 2012 and always have been very happy with it. In the first couple of years, I used it in combination with a Nikon D7000 body. Two years ago I upgraded to a D750. Both cameras support the lens fantastically whereas the D7000 had a crop factor of 1.5 as it’s a crop camera. The image on the left shows the Nikon 500mm f/4 lens next to the much smaller 70-200mm f/2.8 lens. Both attached back then to the D7000. I am using a lens coat to protect the lens against dirt and dust and of course also to camouflage it. I highly recommend these coats. They are very durable and I had never had to exchange or replace any of them. Multiple companies are providing them whereas I am using the ones from lenscoat.com.
I have copied out the specs from the Nikon website. Please note that filter size doesn’t mean that the lens has a 52mm front glass size as the filter is at the back of the lens (screw-on filter). The glass has a diameter of 125mm as it’s 500mm divided by 4.
|Mount Type||Nikon F-Bayonet|
|Maximum Aperture||f/ 4|
|Minimum Aperture||f/ 22|
|Maximum Angle of View (DX-format)||3°10′|
|Maximum Angle of View (FX-format)||5°|
|VR (Vibration Reduction) Image Stabilization||Yes|
|Nano Crystal Coat||Yes|
|ED Glass Elements||3|
|Super Integrated Coating||Yes|
|AF-S (Silent Wave Motor)||Yes|
|Minimum Focus Distance||4.0m|
|Focus Mode||Auto, Manual|
|Approx. Dimensions (Diameter x Length)||139.5 mm x 391 mm|
|Approx. Weight||3,600 g|
The Nikon 500mm f/4 is a very sharp lens. The MTF chart on the left (Modulation Transfer Function – you find some more information on how to read the chart here) compares the Nikon 500mm f/4E FL ED (left chart) with the older version (the one I have) 500mm f/4G ED VR (right chart). In MTF charts, the closer and flatter the lines are the better (in simple terms). Red stands for contrast the lens can produce. Blue stands for resolving power. The higher and straighter the lines are the better the results will be. The lines starting on the left side indicate the center of the lens. The more right the lines go the more they show the performance on the lens edges. This article is not to compare both Nikon 500mm f/4 lenses but one can see that the then-new Nikon 500mm f/4 lens shows a better performance mainly in respect of resolving power.
I picked three examples to show how sharp the Nikon 500mm f/4 G ED VR is. The image of a herring gull (Larus argentatus) has been taken handheld from a pretty close distance – according to the show focus point plugin 7.94m resulting in a depth of field of 0.11m. The second image of my favorite gull species, the black-backed gull (Larus marinus) is also very sharp. It might be a coincidence that both images have been taken at f/8 as I often shoot more wide open and sometimes even at f/4. However, with those long focal lengths, the depth of field can be quite shallow, and therefore it is always a good idea to stop down a bit. I have a feeling that my lens operates best at around f/6.3 or f/7.1 but this might just be a gut feeling. I mainly choose aperture depending on the distance to the target species. The closer I am the more I stop down to approx. f/8. However, I don’t follow any specific rule here. The third image of a great crested grebe (Podiceps cristatus) feeding its chick is another nice example of the sharpness of the Nikon 500mm f/4. As you can see in this example I have been shooting wide open at f/4. Not only is the bird’s eye very sharp but also the water drops at its head.
The Nikon 500mm f/4 lens is great in handling considering its size and weight. One of the main reasons I have chosen the 500mm over the 400mm or the 600mm is its lower weight. I would say that in 80% of all cases I shoot it handheld. I am carrying it also quite a bit around and for example, always have it with me if I walk the dogs. I did some larger hikes of 4-6hand carried it in my backpack. There are times when I regret to have it with me for such a long time walking as it gets quite a bit heavy over time. The situation emotionally escalates when coming back from such long hikes without having used the lens once. When shooting handheld it’s always a good idea to have something that supports the weight e.g. a tree where the lens can be pressed against or something where elbows can be squeezed in. The lens perfectly works fine on a tripod with a gimbal head of course. Just one needs to make sure the tripod is strong enough to support such a heavy glass.
Bokeh is kind of a personal thing as some like it that way and some the other way. I am pretty happy with the bokeh but one should keep in mind that bokeh is not only dependent on the lens but also many other things. Background quality is as important as light availability or distance between lens and object and object and background. I could go on here as I am a bokeh fanatic. I have picked two examples where I think the bokeh turned out quite nice. The first one shows a turkey vulture (Cathartes aura) and the second picture shows a great spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopos major). I am playing in both images with trees, leaves, and light. As you can see that both shots are pretty wide open that supports the quality of the bokeh. The MTF chart that we just looked at before also will tell something about the bokeh. The closer the solid and dotted line per color are together the smoother the bokeh will be.
The Nikon 500m f/4 autofocus performance works great. I know many people that are complaining always about autofocus (and I sometimes do too) but in many cases, it’s not the AF that fails but the photographer. I love to do birds in flight shots and their autofocus matters a lot. But I think lens handling and skills are likewise important (if not even more important). Having said that it’s very advisable to play around with focusing on fast-moving targets. The little goldcrest (Reglus reguls) is one of the smallest and lightest European birds and one can imagine that it’s quite tricky to follow that little guy. It is on the other hand a great animal to test AF skills.
The Nikon 500mm f/4 lens for sure is not meant for portraits but I am using it funny enough quite regularly to do some portraits. My all-time favorite image of my wife has been taken with the 500mm lens. I wouldn’t however use it on an event or a wedding for portraits though. That would be kind of silly but may be funny at the same time.
The Nikon 500mm f/4 G ED IF is equipped with a vibration reduction image stabilization functionality. You can read here what it can do for you in detail. From my experience, I think it works great and always supports me well when shooting handheld. When using the lens on a tripod one can switch the VR button from „on“ to „tripod“. I use „tripod“ whenever I am stationary either on a tripod or when shooting out of a car window or when supporting the lens somehow else.
Minimal focus distance
Most people need more focal length as they are far away from their target species. So why bother about the minimal focal length. I was thinking the same way until I met my little friend Bruno the mouse. I have built a little hide in my parent’s hen house and took some shots of Bruno. The Nikon 500mm f/4 lens has a minimum focus distance of around 4m so I had to make sure to build the hide not too close. But since the mouse is such a small mammal I also didn’t want to be too far away. I think that’s a good example of how things all of a sudden can change in terms of requirements. I usually also need more focal length but this time I wanted to be as close as possible.
I am not a big fan of teleconverters and don’t own one myself (anymore). I however borrowed now and then one from friends. I usually used the TC 1.4 III that’s kind of a no-brainer in terms of sharpness and also I don’t think there is too much loss in quality. I never used the TC 2.0 III in combination with the Nikon 500mm f/4 lens as it slows down the lens to f/8. I however have been seeing people using it and some say it works pretty well. What I did test is the TC 1.7 II in combination with the 500mm f/4 and the D750. I read a lot of bad reviews of the 1.7 II and maybe this is why Nikon never came out with a 1.7 III. A friend of mine owns one and so I decided to give it a try. The sample picture shows a coal tit (Parus ater) during migration. It’s not a perfect picture but also not that terrible as people always say. One thing I noticed is that the TC slowed down the AF quite a bit. I had similar experiences when using the TC 2.0 III in combination with the 70-200mm f/2.8 (that didn’t work well at all). Also, I failed with all the handheld shots and had to use a tripod as 850mm is just too much to hold still (at least for me it is).
I had a lot of fun writing this article as I remembered all the hustle I had in deciding on what lens I should go for. I also remember well the day the Nikon 500mm f/4 lens arrived and I for the first time hold it in my hands. I was like omg what have I done. I will never be able to use such a large lens handheld. Getting that lens has been one of my best decisions in photography.
Let me know your thoughts
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