Facebook Pixel Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 Review: The Most Versatile Wildlife Lens You Can Buy?

Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 Review: The Most Versatile Wildlife Lens You Can Buy?

Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 review

Wildlife photography is as exciting as it is challenging. Picture yourself on an African savannah, photographing a grazing herd of elephants, followed by a beautiful eagle on the nearby tree…

Just encountering these subjects is exhilarating – but capturing a top-notch photo requires patience and technical skill, not to mention a quality lens. Because here’s the unfortunate truth: Photographing distant wildlife can’t be done with a wide-angle zoom or a standard prime. If you want to capture lots of detail, you need significant reach (generally 300mm at minimum). And if you want to capture a variety of subjects, both small and large, skittish and tame, you need a lens that can zoom in and out as the moment demands.

Fortunately, Nikon’s 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR lens seems to be the perfect wildlife photography glass. It’s versatile, it has plenty of reach, and it’s available for a very reasonable $1400 USD. It weighs about 2300 g (81.02 oz), and the best part is that it boasts a fixed maximum aperture of f/5.6. In addition to a fixed aperture, there are three extra-low dispersion glass elements (ED) and powerful vibration reduction (VR), plus the lens comes with a tripod collar. The 200-500mm f/5.6 is stable when mounted on a tripod; it also works great with both full-frame (FX) and crop-sensor (DX) Nikon cameras.

But is the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR as great as it sounds? This field review of the Nikon 200-500 f/5.6 lens considers it from the perspective of a nature and wildlife photographer. I’ve spent plenty of time testing the lens, and below, I explain how this lens performs in the wild; I also share my thoughts on the lens controls and ergonomics. (Ergonomics are important, especially if the lens has to be used from dawn to dusk in the wilderness!)

Ready to find out whether the 200-500mm f/5.6 should be your next lens purchase? Read on!

Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 lens specifications

Let’s kick things off with a look at this lens’s impressive specifications, starting with:

Focal length

Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 review

The focal length of the lens is from 200mm to 500mm. As an FX lens, the effective focal length on FX bodies is 200mm to 500mm, while on DX Nikon bodies, the effective focal length is approximately 300mm to 750mm.

Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 review
The lens is capable of photographing small objects such as this ground orchid (captured at a focal length of 310mm).
Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 review
Image of large elephant approaching from a distance of around 300 ft at a focal length of 200mm.
Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 review
The same elephant as above, this time photographed at a 500mm focal length.


The Nikon 200-500mm’s maximum aperture is f/5.6, and the minimum aperture is f/32. This is an E-type lens (electromagnetic diaphragm mechanism), which gives better control over the aperture blades as compared to mechanical linkages. This feature is compatible with newer cameras; however, when using older DSLR cameras, the aperture will be fixed to f/5.6.

Extra-low dispersion glass elements

The lens has 3 ED glass elements. ED glass element helps reduce chromatic aberration and offers better image quality overall.

Minimum focusing distance

This is the minimum distance between the lens and an object at which the lens focuses. The Nikon 200-500 f/5.6 has a minimum focusing distance of 2.2 m (7.2 ft). For wildlife and bird photography, this is a perfect minimum distance. With a minimum focusing distance of 7.2 ft, the lens acquires perfect focus in most cases.

Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 review
A small Indian white-eye photographed at 8 ft with a focal length of 500mm.


Thanks to Silent Wave Motors (SWM), the lens focuses quietly and accurately. When focusing, you can instantly override autofocus with manual focus and vice versa (M/A). The lens can be focused manually (M), as well.

Teleconverter support

The Nikon 200-500 f/5.6 is compatible with TC-14E III (1.4X) series teleconverters when used with DSLR cameras that can autofocus up to f/8. During low-light conditions, the autofocus performance of the lens when using the TC-14E III is satisfactory and usable.

With the TC-17E (1.7X) and TC-20E (2X), the aperture goes beyond f/8, hence autofocus is not possible. For this reason, I don’t recommend using the Nikon 200-500 lens with TC-17E and TC-20E teleconverters.

Camera compatibility

Full-frame (FX) cameras, crop-sensor (DX) DSLR cameras, and Nikon mirrorless cameras (with the FTZ mount adapter) are compatible with the lens. However, on older Nikon cameras, such as the Nikon D200, you cannot change the aperture; it’ll be fixed at f/5.6.


The Nikon 200-500 f/5.6 accepts 95mm screw-on filters. When carrying this lens into the wilderness, I recommend you have a filter. It protects the front glass element from dust, mild drizzle, and minor scratches. I use a filter while photographing and do not see any significant loss in image quality. However, make sure you use a high-quality lens filter to ensure minimal loss in quality.

Vibration reduction

Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 review
A barking deer photographed at 1/30s from the safari vehicle.
360mm | f/5.6 | 1/30s | ISO 1600

This lens has excellent vibration reduction performance. I have achieved sharp images at 1/30s in low-light conditions. Nikon claims the VR offers an extra 4.5 stops of handholding.

There are two VR modes: Normal and Sports. Normal mode works fine for me while hand-holding the lens on the ground as well as the safari vehicle, so I tend to keep it set to Normal mode.

Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 review
Image of Warbler bird with VR off. Feathers are not clearly visible.
500mm | f/5.6 | 1/400s | ISO 2000
Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 review
Image with the VR on. Feathers are sharp, despite my handholding.
500mm | f/5.6 | 1/400s | ISO 2000


Weighing in at approximately 2300 g (81.2 oz), the lens initially feels somewhat heavy. However, as you start handholding this lens regularly, you get used to the weight. I am now able to handhold this lens for two to three hours without any issues.

Lens hood

The included HB-71 hood is made from plastic. It’s a decent hood but on the big side. However, I do use a hood on the lens, mainly to protect the front glass element of the lens from minor bumps, tree twigs, and rain.


Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 review
The Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E lens mounted on a camera and zoomed to 500mm.

The lens diameter is 4.2 in (108 mm), and the length is 10.5 in (267.5 mm) at 200mm. The lens fits perfectly in midsized camera bags such as the Lowepro Flipside 400 with the body attached. You can invert the lens hood so it fits, too.

Controls and ergonomics

Now that we’ve got the specs out of the way, let’s take a look at the Nikon 200-500mm’s controls and ergonomic performance:


Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 review

The Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E has five switches (see the photo displayed above!):

  1. M/A | M. M/A means while autofocusing you can override with manual focus if required; M gives fully manual focus.
  2. FULL | Infinity-6m. FULL allows the lens to focus across the entire focusing range. I use FULL all the time and have never missed the focus. The Infinity-6m option limits the focusing range of the lens so it will only focus from 6m to infinity. Any object that is closer than 6m won’t be in focus, so I do recommend generally using the FULL option.
  3. VR ON | VR OFF. This activates the Vibration Reduction. Set this to ON. I set it to ON even when mounted on a tripod.
  4. NORMAL | SPORT. This sets the type of Vibration Reduction. I recommend setting the VR type to NORMAL. For wildlife and birds, NORMAL mode works great.
  5. LOCK 200 | UNLOCK. The LOCK 200 button locks the lens to 200mm. You cannot zoom the lens when it is locked, so the lock switch is perfect for when you are traveling and your lens is packed. It avoids unintended zooming during travel.


The lens is a bit heavy, but as you continue to use it, you will be able to easily handhold it. However, hiking with this lens can be hard due to its weight, especially when carrying it up the mountains.

The zoom ring is smooth with an excellent rubber grip. The zooming feels smooth and is precise. The manual focus ring feels slightly loose, but I do find the quality of the manual focus to be excellent.

The Nikon 200-500 f/5.6 fits in a midsized camera bag if it’s first dismounted. However, to accommodate the lens and camera, a larger bag is required. The lens hood makes this awkward; either you can invert the lens hood and keep it in the bag or use a slightly bigger bag. I use this lens with the Lowepro Flipside 300, but when my camera is attached, I use the Lowepro Flipside 400 instead.

Weather sealing

The weather sealing of this lens is quite decent, and I have used this lens in a moderately dusty forest and some drizzle. Just make sure you clean the lens after using it in rougher environments. (I carry a Nikon Lenspen Pro kit for cleaning, which is user- and travel-friendly.

The overall construction of the lens is good. It can definitely handle minor bumps, but some parts are made up of plastic, making the lens construction not as rock-solid as pro-grade lenses.

Using the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 for nature and wildlife photography

Now it’s time for the good stuff: How does this lens perform when used in the field? Since I use this lens to photograph wildlife, and since most of you will do the same, that’s what I’ll discuss!

Focusing speed

Wildlife actions happen in a few seconds, so focusing speed is critical for wildlife photography. Happily, the speed of focus with the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 is good. When the lighting is solid – such as during morning and early evening – this lens focuses fast and accurately. I have tested this lens’s focusing in a wide range of conditions: in forests, on safaris, in grasslands, and in drizzle. Here’s my breakdown of how it performs:

The lens focuses superbly when used in/with:

  • Bright light (e.g., the light during the morning and evening)
  • Drizzle and normal dusty environments
  • Birds in flight (moving at a slow-to-medium pace)
  • Animals and birds behind other objects (e.g., trees, grass)
  • Animals in action (moving fast or slow)
  • Smaller birds and wildlife such as sunbirds, frogs, and grasshoppers (when they are slow-moving or stationary)
Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 review
A hawk-cuckoo in the rain. Photographed from a safari vehicle in low light.
Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 review
The flight of fast-diving paradise flycatcher. My Nikon 200-500mm lens focused on this fast-moving bird in good lighting.
Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 review
There was significant clutter in front of this bird, yet the lens focused accurately!

Focus performance was average in/with:

  • Early morning or late evening light. This is the time when the action occurs for leopards, tigers, owls, and nocturnal creatures. You may need an external light such as flashlights or headlights (not a camera flash).
  • Rainy or dusty weather.
  • Very fast wildlife action, such as a kingfisher diving for fish or a swallow flying over the water.
  • Very small wildlife that’s moving (e.g., crabs, bees)
Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 review
When photographing a kingfisher flying from a distance, the focus performance was average.
Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 review
I photographed this peacock in moderate rain and low light, and the lens managed to autofocus decently well.

Focus performance was poor in/with:

  • Nighttime lighting or in heavy rain.
  • Birds in flight at a very long distance against a plain and cluttered background. Here, the lens struggles to focus. I’ve also experienced this type of focus hunt while photographing birds in flight against blue sky at longer distances.
Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 review
An eagle chasing a heron. The birds were at a longer distance and photographed during very low-light conditions, so the lens’s autofocusing performance was on the poor side.
Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 review
This tern was flying far away gainst a plain blue background. In this type of scenario, the lens struggles to focus on the main subject.

Low-light performance

This is a tricky one, as it depends on how your camera performs in low light and how you photograph. Many of the latest cameras by Nikon are good enough to shoot in low light, however, so it’s the lens performance (and your technique) that you’ll want to consider.

Overall, I’d say this lens’s performance is somewhere between good to average in low light. But if you follow the below techniques, you can achieve awesome images in low light:

  • Use a bean bag or tripod.
  • Use an f/5.6 aperture.
  • Use shutter speeds from 1/30s to 1/60s.
  • If the lens is struggling to autofocus quickly, focus manually.
  • Shoot in RAW so that you can recover detail and process images effectively.
  • Shoot at a reasonably high ISO. This depends on your camera, but ISOs in the 2000-4000 range can provide a great balance between image quality and exposure.

Here is an image I shot in near-darkness during a late winter evening. I used a bean bag, the aperture was set to f/5.6, and the shutter speed was 1/30s. The ISO was around 2500.

Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 review
A leopard on a late winter evening. Focus performance was decent during low light.
480mm | f/5.6 | 1/30s | ISO 2500

This type of shot I was able to repeat multiple times.

In short, in very low light scenarios the lens performance is average. But if you combine it with the techniques I shared above, you can achieve stunning images.

A range of focal lengths

The Nikon 200-500mm is a hugely popular lens, and its focal length is one of the prime reasons. This range is perfect for wildlife photography and works well on both full-frame and crop-sensor cameras. 500mm is great for birds, while the 200-400mm range is great for wildlife.

If you are using a full-frame camera, you will get a focal length of 200mm to 500mm, and if you are a DX shooter, the effective focal length you will be getting is around 300mm to 750mm. In my experience, 750mm is superb for bird photography, and 300mm is great for animals and other wildlife. I use my Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 on a crop-sensor (DX format) body. When I am on a safari, I can easily photograph eagles, woodpeckers, small forest birds, tigers, elephants, and snakes.

Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 review
A rat snake appeared in the bushes, which were very close to me. I zoomed out the lens to capture this beautiful snake at 200mm.
Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 review
Flamingos are very sensitive to boats. Hence, I have to keep a good amount of distance from them. The long zoom range helped to photograph this distant yet beautiful scene, which I captured at 480mm.

The one caveat is that you can’t capture wildlife when they get too close. I switch to a shorter telephoto lens in such scenarios.

Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 review
A tigress in the dusty grassland, captured with my 200-500mm f/5.6 lens.
Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 review
As the tigress approached, I switched to my 80-200mm f/2.8 lens.

Lens image quality

When the lens is wide open, the aperture is f/5.6 from 200mm to 500mm. At 200mm, the f/5.6 aperture is a bit slow, but at 500mm, f/5.6 is excellent. This is where you are going to use it the most.

I use the lens wide open 70% of the time, primarily for slow-moving birds and wildlife. If the objects are relatively close, I get sharp images using f/5.6.

In some scenarios, such as birds in flight, fast-moving wildlife, and wildlife at a distance, I stop down the lens to f/7.1 or f/8. This is mainly to extend the depth of field, which in turn prevents a loss of sharpness due to front- or back-focusing.

Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 review
A shoveler in flight, photographed at f/8.
Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 review
A shoveler captured at f/5.6. Sharpness at this aperture is great!

If the objects are at a shorter distance and not moving very fast, an f/5.6 aperture produces nice colors and sharpness. If the objects are moving fast, however, I’d recommend using f/8 to achieve sharp images. While you adjust your aperture for image sharpness, also ensure you have enough shutter speed to freeze the action.

Here are the techniques I use to get sharp images with this lens every time. I have applied these techniques in the wild and repeatedly captured crisp photos:

  • Set the lens aperture to f/5.6 or f/8 depending on the subject.
  • Set the shutter speed to at least 2x times the focal length (for example, if you are at 500mm, use a shutter speed of at least 1/1000s).
  • If you can’t use a fast shutter speed due to low light, use Vibration Reduction along with stable support such as a tripod or bean bag (I’ve found that, with VR activated, my shutter speeds can be as low as 1/30s and I can still capture sharp photos).
  • Use AF-C with dynamic focus areas or AF-S with the focus area set to the center point.
  • If needed, increase the ISO. For most of the latest Nikon cameras, ISO 2000 to ISO 4000 is the sweet spot!

Manual focus override can come in handy!

The manual focus override feature is useful when the lens struggles to autofocus. Usually this happens if there is clutter in front of the main object (e.g., grass or leaves in front of a bird). In this case, use the manual focus ring to focus. As I mentioned above, the manual focus ring does feel a bit loose, but the precision is good.

Manual focus override is also useful in low-light conditions. You will end up getting perfectly focused images every time!

Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 review
Initially, I tried using autofocus to capture this jackal. Since there was a lot of clutter in the foreground, I used the manual focus override. The transition was smooth, and the precision of the manual focus worked well.

Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR verdict


  • Maximum aperture of f/5.6 for the entire zoom range
  • Excellent Vibration Reduction
  • Focal length is perfect for wildlife and nature photography
  • Good focusing speed and image quality
  • Affordable price for a super-telephoto lens


  • Hood is on the large side
  • Some people may find this lens a bit heavy
  • Bigger filter thread (95mm) makes for pricier filters

The Nikon 200-500 f/5.6E VR is a beautiful all-around lens. It is perfect for animals and birds. If you are looking for the most versatile lens for wildlife and nature, the Nikon 200-500m f/5.6 E ED VR is for you! Given the $1400 price tag, no other lens comes close.

Compatible with all current Nikon DSLRs and mirrorless cameras, this lens is your best friend in the wilderness. You will certainly enjoy photographing the wildlife – and you’ll capture some amazing shots!

Which telephoto lens do you use? What do you think about Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 lens? Let us know in the comments below.

Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 review

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Shreyas Yadav
Shreyas Yadav

is an engineer, wildlife photographer, and nature photographer from India. He is also a writer and lifelong adventure explorer. Through his writings, he teaches about digital post-processing and nature photography. He shares field techniques about nature photography, post-processing, and wildlife photo stories on his website.

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