So, if you landed on this page you’re probably interested in the Nikon 200-500 OR the Nikon 300PF OR maybe just can’t decide which one is the best choice. Well, you’ve come to the right place. In the video below, I go over the two lenses in all kinds of detail, comparing and reviewing them simultaneously.
Also, this isn’t like many of the reviews you stumble across out there in the wilds of the internet where the photographer plays with a lens for a few hours (or worse, just reads about it online) and then does a (cough cough`), “comprehensive” review. Nope, my review was done after extensive field use of both optics in multiple locations under varying conditions.
Finally, you’ll notice that under the video there are some of the comparison photos from the video. Please note – looking at the photos without the benefit of the information in the video will cause you to come to the wrong conclusions. Trust me on this – watch the video first, and then check out the images below.
Also, if you’re planning to purchase one or both of the lenses, please consider doing so via the Amazon links below. It won’t cost you anything extra but it will help support this site and allow me to continue to provide free articles and videos.
Nikon AF-S FX NIKKOR 300MM f/4E PF
Nikon AF-S FX NIKKOR 200-500mm
Important note on the photos below
The photos below are downsized to fit on this page. Click the photo and it will open in a new window and enlarge. When that happens, hover over the image with your mouse. If you see a magnifying glass, then click again to see the full size image (if there’s not a magnifying glass, then it’s already full size).
Indoor test shots:
Outdoor distance + heat distortion
Note that this image should be thought of as a relative comparison, not a sharpness test. These were shot at 1/125th and the truth is my hands simply aren’t that steady so these aren’t as tack sharp as I’d like. However, they were all shot at the same speed by the same hands, so it does allow you to see the relative differences between the lenses and setups.
Note – As I continue to use both of these optics, I’ll post any updates here on this page.
UPDATE # 1
I’ve had a lot of questions about the sharpness of the first two copies of the lens – and how I could tell there was a problem. The thing is, it’s really tough to give you a sure-fire way to make sure your lens is up to spec in the sharpness dept.
(NOTE: all test shots are done via live view and focused via live view – so AF tuning isn’t a factor. That said, note that every lens was carefully AF fine-tuned before field use, a procedure I’ve done successfully with dozens of other optics.)
For me, I’ve been shooting telephotos for the last 30 years, so I know exactly what a sharp photo looks like (OK, at least I like to think I do). When I saw the images the first lens was regurgitating, it was obvious that it just wasn’t up to what I expected nor was it up to the level of sharpness I’d observed from the 100% crops posted on various forums. In fact, it was so bad I’d wager that even if you had never touched a shutter release in your life you would have seen it. However, at the time I wasn’t sure if this was just typical for the lens (hey, it’s a cheapie by telephoto standards). In the end, I sent it back, knowing I would never use it.
Here’s a test I did back then. This was a cool day with the sun going in and out and I was at a bit closer range than the tests above. Since the intermittent sun wasn’t actively warming the ground, I don’t think there was any heat distortion present for this one. Also, this was the typical level of sharpness I was seeing with this lens under a wide variety of conditions in the field. Click it and see for yourself – just not sharp…
(100% crops, Nikon D7200)
After sending the lens back, I thought I was done with the whole fiasco, but then I kept seeing frustratingly great results with the lens from other photographers. So, about 5 months later, I tried again.
The second lens was tricker and the truth is I have a feeling most people would have kept it. I had the advantage of testing it against another known sharp lens in the same focal range (the 300PF) and I knew from other tests I’d read that they should be at least in the same ballpark – with the 300PF having an edge. However, when I looked at the tests, that just didn’t seem to be the case. Additionally, (and more importantly) I just wasn’t happy with the sharpness I saw from my test shots in the field. I really expected more detail and acuity from the lens and I wasn’t seeing it.
The truth is on the second copy, I was thinking that maybe that was as good as it was going to get, but decided if that was the case then this lens wasn’t for me. It just didn’t have the level of sharpness I needed in my images. So, I sent it back.
However, this time I wasn’t so easily deterred. I thought I’d try it one last time and if I got another copy that just wasn’t up to par, that would be how I did the review. In fact, when I purchased the third copy, I was already thinking that the 200-500 was going to take a bit of a beating in the video. Happily, that wasn’t the case and the third time proved to be the charm.
When I tested it against the 300PF, it was close (as you saw in the photos above). More importantly, when I used it in the field and examined my images, I saw the sharpness and acuity I had been expecting all along from this optic.
Also note that I do like this lens better at close range than from a distance, and I think that is at least partially due to the way it handles atmospheric distortion compared to the prime. So, if you’re not getting tack sharp images with the subject at a good distance, I wouldn’t sweat that too much. As long as you’re seeing good fur and feather detail when the subject is taking up 25% or more of the frame, I think you’re safe.
One last sets of conflicting thoughts for you 🙂 I still think I was just unlucky getting two bad copies. After all, if there was really some kind of rampant sharpness issue with this lens, you’d think we’d see it more often on forums and such. On the other hand, when Photography Life did their review, they tested five lenses and found that two of the copies were of poor quality. So, I don’t know what to think!
So, my advice is simply this: If you like the sharpness you’re seeing from the lens, then I wouldn’t worry too much about it.
Thanks for stopping by!
If you enjoyed this article, I think you’ll REALLY like my e-books, Secrets To Stunning Wildlife Photography and Secrets To The Nikon Autofocus System. They’re filled with hundreds of pages of information just like this. Check it out – click here (hey, it’s free to look 🙂 )
I bought this lens about 18 months ago and was initially impressed with it. Then with more experience I started getting more than I expected soft photos. I sent it in to Nikon service and it came back to me tack sharp and I was impressed with whatever they did to it. After about 10 months using it, I finally sold it on Ebay and replaced with the 300 PF, primarily due to weight. I’ve noticed that the 300 is slightly faster to focus as well, even through the FTZ adapter (I use a Z6). For me the weight was… Read more »
I just watched your video. I’m a newby to these big lenses, and in January I’m going down to Antarctica on my first ever expedition. Thinking the 200-500 will be great for this – whales. penguins etc. Its heavy, but a ;pt of reviewers say the weight is manageable. apart from this my longest lens s the dx 18-300.
I shoot with the D7500 dx.
any thoughts or advise you can share?
Hi, I saw your 300 f4 vs 200-500 f5.6 video on YT a while ago and came back to it because I have a bit of a dilema; I’d like to get more seriously into wild life photography (doing mostly landscape now) and I can get a USED 300 f4 PF, an old but very good AF-S 300 f2.8 D ED or a NEW 200-500 f/5.6 at the same price, notably 1500 USD (1350 EUR). Now, the dilemma isn’t so much between the two primes, I guess I have to chose between hand-helding flexibility or mono/tripod precision; for me the… Read more »
I’m confused about why two lenses shot at the same focal length and aperture would be any different in handling heat distortion. Isn’t the effect of heat distortion entirely outside of the lens, i.e. due to turbulence in the air path between the lens and the subject?
Ah, trying to answer my own question; maybe it’s due to differences in AF speed?
It’s a combination of the way the lenes are stacked and the coatings they put on them, as to how well they deal with the distortion.
Hi Steve, first of all, thanks for the great ebook ‘Secrets to Nikon autofocus systems’. I learned bunch of new stuff, the amount of information in that ebook is unbelievable.
I have been hearing about some people (you included) experiencing bad copy of the 200-500 lens, and I’m a bit worried if my copy of the lens is a bad one, so I’ve been pixel peeping since I got the lens. At 100% magnification the image is slightly blurry correct? I just want your opinions on some of the pictures with my 200-500.
Hi Steve, thanks for your great videos – I find them very helpful. I currently own a Nikon D7100, a Nikon 18-200mm f3.5-5.6, Nikon 17-55mm f2.8 & a Nikon 70-200mm f2.8. I’m doing two trips later this year – one will include wildlife photography and the other will include a lot of landscape/travel photography. My long term plan is to buy both the D500 & the 200-500mm lens, but I can only afford to buy one of these before my trips this year. Which do you think I should buy first – the camera or the lens? I’m torn between… Read more »
Thanks for great coverage of relevant topics.
In your autofocus book you cover the shutter speed/VR issue. Have you performed any tests of the sharpness of the 200-500 with VR on/off at higher shutter speeds? Any guidance?
Hi Steve, Have followed your videos a bit (I love that lens/filter crashing bit), and learned a lot! I had the AF-S 80-400 VR II and had a lot of that AF chatter, not least when used with a CX body, so eventually I sold it and got a AF-S 70-200/4.0G for it, and later a Sigma 150-600 Sports. Totally in another ballpark that lens is, wow! The only drawback is its weight, and that it shifts it CG a lot, as you zoom out. Other than that, no issues: it focuses very fast (a bit slower with TC on,… Read more »
I agree with you that the collar on the 200-500mm is only “okay”. I don’t like the plastic knob or the finicky tension. Can you tell me where to find the Kirk replacement collar for the 200-500mm that you mentioned? Even if it is only slightly better, that would be an improvement. Thanks for your awesome review, and thanks for all of your videos, they are always helpful and overall excellent.
Here you go:
Again, though, it’s only a very minor upgrade IMO.
Steve, do you have opinion on the Nikon 80-400 latest version compared to the 200-500 for use on the D500? I have the 80-400 and the TC-II 1.4.
I have the new version of the 80-400 as well. I like both lenses, but I do prefer the 200-500. It’s as sharp or sharper at all focal lengths and has less AF “chatter” plus better VR. However, I keep the 80-400 for when I need to travel light and cover a large range (like when I’m taking a single body, the 14-24, 24-70 and the 80-400). Otherwise, I stick with the 200-500 when I need a big zoom.
Did u get a chance to try out the Sigma 150-600 Sport lens?? How does it compare to the Nikon 200-500?
Never did do a comparison. I’d like to, but the truth is I generally only test lenses that I intend to use in my everyday shooting and I do favor primes for my wildlife work. The 200-500, while a nice lens, tends to get very little action from me compared to the 600mm. The truth is, I just don’t use the super zooms all that much. Still, I have to admit the Sigma is an interesting lens. I may rent one of these days…
Steve, First of all may I say I LOVE your site and videos. They are extremely helpful. I recently purchased a D500. I am very happy with it when using my Nikon AF-S 18-55mm 3.5-5.6GII lens for close up shots. (I do a lot of very close hummingbird shots.) My zoom lens is a Tamron SP 150/600 5-6.3 with VC (vibration control). I have not been able to get a super clear shot no matter what I do with it. I am using the back button focus and really like it. Thank you for that tip! I tried a monopod,… Read more »
I’d test the Tamron with the D500 before making any decision. Keep an eye on this site, I’ll be posting an article about how to test in a few days (hopefully). 🙂 As for lenses, there’s just no perfect answer. No matter what you pick, there will always be times where you wished you had gone another way. If the Tamron was working well, the Nikon 200-500 might be a good choice – and it should be sharper than the Tamron, even if the Tamron is perfect. For wildlife, I’d stick with the 200-500 or the 300PF, skip the 80-400.… Read more »
Steve, Thank you for your response. Since posting this, I went back to the store I purchased my D500 and they tested it. It turns out, there was something wrong with the camera body and they gave me a new one and immediately it was like night and day! My photos are better than I expected. No doubt, the more I learn this camera, it will continue to improve. I will be buying a new lens but I have decided to wait a bit for now and practice with what I have. I purchased your book and look forward to… Read more »
Hi i have a d500 now as well as a d7200 since last 1.5yrs, i am facing a over exposure problem with my d500… No matter what i do i cant get that white feather details as i get on my older d7200… Its so frustrating experience for me..m since was planning on selling my d7200 and keep the d500, but with the blown highlights and burn problem on white birds under direct sunlight makes it lose all tje details. I shoot in Manual mode with iso locked values, and try to bring the EV to zero or towards -.3… Read more »
Hi Rahul – Honestly, it’s really hard to say without seeing pics, and even then it could be hard to say if it was just conditions or something wrong with the camera. My suspicion is that the D500 meters differently than the D7200 (which I think it does) and that maybe it’s a matter of getting used to the camera. It sounds like you may be shooting in very hard mid day light and if that’s the case it’s a tough way to go. One thing I do when faced with higher contrast light is to underexpose with the D500… Read more »
I realize you posted this almost a year ago but I would love to purchase the 200 to 500. I hesitate because I feel we pay a premium for Nikon equipment and we should not have to play Russian Roulette with the copies of the lenses that we receive. The lens is within my price range but I don’t want to have to exchange several copies to get a good one. Has Nikon address this problem yet?