Wildlife Photography with the Nikon 500mm F/5.6 PF – One Year In

My reaction to holding the Nikon 500 F/5.6 PF for the first time was basically the same one I had with the 300 F/4 PF. The lens seems impossibly small and light for what it is – a 500mm full-frame super telephoto no bigger than a 70-200mm F/2.8.

While the lens doesn’t offer anything remarkably new in terms of focal length or maximum aperture, it does offer a high magnification, professional-grade, full frame super telephoto lens with a reasonably bright aperture of F/5.6 in an impressively small form-factor. As someone who likes to hike out in the wilderness to find subjects, I was immediately intrigued and saw the potential in this lens.

I always appreciate when the camera companies introduce new lens designs that push the boundaries. I can think of a couple other lenses released recently that meet this criteria. The Canon 28-70 RF F/2, 70-200 RF F/2.8, and Panasonic’s 10-25 F/1.7 come to mind as three other lenses that bring something totally new to the table. While Phase Fresnel lens designs are nothing new, one with this much magnification is.  It’s always refreshing when camera companies focus on innovation once in a while, instead of pumping out the usual bread and butter lens formulas and designs.

Head and feather detail on the already tight crop above

So what’s the catch? While portability was clearly a major priority with this lens, the good news is that it does not seem to sacrifice much in the way of image sharpness compared to Nikon’s larger 500mm F/4. You do give up a stop compared to the F/4 FL lens, which allows for both faster shutter speeds and shallower depth of field. 

I’ve found that it’s not hard to find good use cases for a lens like this as a wildlife enthusiast. I’ve taken it with me on many miles of hiking, out kayaking, and driving around country roads in search of wildlife. As opposed to a large prime like a 400 F/2.8 or 500 F/4, the 500 PF can be brought along “just in case”. I would never bring a 500 F/4 along “just in case”. The 500 PF disappears in my rucksack, is easy to use handheld, and it’s rather unassuming while out and about, and less of a liability compared to Nikon’s prohibitively expensive super telephoto primes. In the age of ever-restrictive baggage limits, this lens is also a great proposition for travel.

The small size is also conducive to shooting at all matter of odd angles, e.g., down on the ground, over the top of a fence, through a window of tree branches, things that would be exceptionally challenging if not impossible with a larger lens. When photographing with this lens, handholding is my usual go-to, though I do keep a small monopod on hand when my arms need a rest or when the light gets low. While the OIS performance is excellent, the D850’s high megapixel sensor is especially unforgiving, and I’ve found optimal sharpness handheld in lower light conditions is most obtainable at or around the reciprocal rule (shooting around 1/500th or faster) or with a tripod/monopod. The Nikon’s OIS, while fantastic, is not up to the same level as dual-IS systems like the Olympus 300 F/4 paired with the E-M1 (II or X). 

In terms of performance, image quality with the lens is, for the most part, stunning. Shooting with the high-resolution D850 means there is always ample room for cropping images while retaining impressive amounts of detail. Coupled with the D850, the focus speed of this F/5.6 aperture lens is plenty capable for capturing birds in flight. If you’ve ever shot with Nikon’s 200-500 F/5.6, you will be pleased to know that the focus speed is better with this lens. Unlike Nikon’s larger super telephoto glass, the 500 PF does not obliterate backgrounds that are close to the subject to quite the same extent, and the bokeh can at times be a little busy for this reason – but I never find it to be that distracting. Anecdotally, the lens also seems to have better micro contrast than the 200-500mm F/5.6, and the photos seem to require less editing in post to bring out contrast.

Use of the TC-14E III does not substantially diminish image quality, but focus speed certainly slows down (and “hunting” increases) in low light. If I were getting this lens and hoping to use teleconverters a majority of the time, I might be a little bit disappointed. It simply doesn’t adapt as well as it does to Nikon’s F/2.8 an F/4 super telephoto primes, which probably shouldn’t come as a major shock. For this reason, I don’t typically use it, except on the odd occasion that lighting is really good, the subject is relatively static, and the camera is supported by a tripod or monopod.

Build quality of the lens is for the most part excellent, almost as good as Nikon’s larger telephoto primes – about on par with 70-200mm F/2.8 FL. The focus ring is smooth and precise. The hood feels a little cheap, but it works.

The Nikon 500mm PF has a lot to offer. It is an impressively small full-frame super telephoto that is adaptable to a variety of shooting situations. While I wouldn’t buy the 500mm PF and expect it to perform quite like the 500 F/4 FL, there’s really no question that this lens is capable of impressive results. It can roll with the best glass in Nikon’s lineup – and, at least for the time being, there’s really nothing quite like it.

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