• Ed Dozier

Nikkor 500mm f/5.6 AF-S PF ED VR Review


500mm and Nikon D850, mounted on Arca-Swiss foot


The first thing that strikes you looking at the Nikkor 500 PF is its size, or lack thereof. It seems like Nikon is defying physics in being able to make this long of a lens this small.


This lens is smaller than my Sigma 70-200 f/2.8 Sport, and weighs considerably less. How did Nikon manage this? The answer lies in the “PF” designation, for its phase-fresnel optics. It’s not exactly new science, since lighthouses have used PF optics for more than a hundred years. This technology lets lenses be really thin, and glass weighs a lot.


The 500 PF weighs 1460 grams (3.2 pounds) and is only 237mm (9.3 inches) long. Lots of gadget bags and backpacks could easily hold a lens of this size, in contrast to its’ 500mm f/4 lens cousins. The barrel is magnesium-alloy, yet the lens is still light.


For such a small size, Nikon crammed in 19 elements in 11 groups. The aperture has 9 blades. It uses 95mm front-mounted filters (no drop-in filters).


Speaking of 500mm f/4 lenses, the Nikkor 500mm f/4 costs about US $10,300 while this costs $3,600. That extra f-stop will cost you dearly, which also includes your spine. The f/4 weighs 3090 grams (or 6 pounds, 13 ounces), which is more than double the weight of this f/5.6 lens.


Camera sensors used to be poor enough that low ISO meant the difference between quality and garbage. Nowadays, though, higher ISO is usually not a problem. This means that f/4 lenses are much less of a necessity than they used to be. Camera auto-focus systems are also much better than they used to be, so slower lenses can now be used in conditions that used to only be f/4 territory. Both Nikon and Canon have realized this fact, and they’re starting to produce lenses that reflect this new reality.


Beware that this is an “E” lens, so many lower-end and old Nikons won’t be able to control the lens aperture. The electronic aperture is supposed to be a little more accurate and also capable of shooting at higher frames per second. The D2 and D200 or older cameras won’t work with E lenses, for instance.


This lens appears to be well-built and is weather-sealed, but those are quite murky terms. Nikon won’t refund your money if the lens gets water damage, and I haven’t disassembled the lens to see how well built its innards are, either. This same caution goes for the other lens manufacturers, and not just Nikon.


The front lens element does have a fluorine-based coating, which I know from experience with my Sigma lenses is really good at minimizing dirt, fingerprints, and smudges.



Lens Controls




Lens control switches


The 500 PF comes with just about all of the bells and whistles of Nikon’s “exotics”.


The A/M switch lets you manually override focus, and is a bit less sensitive than the M/A autofocus override mode. The M position will stop all autofocus behavior.


The FULL switch maintains the full 3-meters-to-infinity focus range, while the other position limits the near focus to 8 meters. The focus on this lens is so fast that focus-limiting isn’t really needed in many situations.


The VR switch offers both Normal and Sport modes.

The Sport mode is ‘smoother’, in that it doesn’t re-center the optics after a VR stop/start, so the subject doesn’t do a jump in the viewfinder. Sport mode offers about 4 stops of stabilization (1/30s), which I would get about 1/3 of the time. For moving subjects, this is the mode you’ll want.


The Normal mode will cause an image jump with a VR stop/start, but it’s much more efficient at stabilizing. I could get over half of my shots sharp at 1/15s, and when leaning against a wall I could occasionally even get shots down to 1/4s, which is about 7 stops! This mode is what you want for stationary subjects.


The Memory Recall switch works along with the MEMORY SET button on the opposite side of the lens barrel, near the lens mount. It will save the present focus position and you can then have any of the 4 focus buttons near the front of the lens focus to that distance whenever they’re pressed. You’ll also get a beep, if the bottom-most switch is in its forward “note” position.


If you slide the switch to the AF-L position, it will activate the focus-lock when any of the 4 focus buttons near the lens front get pressed.


If you use the AF-ON switch position, the 4 front buttons will focus just like the camera AF-ON button.



Accessories



Plastic HB-84 bayonet lens hood included




Lens case is quite nice, easy open, and padded


The lens case includes a shoulder strap and a belt loop as well.



Visual Comparison




Size comparison: Sigma 150-600mm versus Nikkor 500mm


The Sigma 150-600 C lens was zoomed to 500mm, to compare it to the Nikkor 500mm. The Nikkor only weighs 75% as much as this Sigma lens.


General Impressions


A minor gripe I have with all my Nikon lenses is NO Arca-Swiss mount on the tripod foot. The shot at the top of this article shows the lens with a separate Arca-Swiss plate that I mounted to the foot. Just about nobody mounts lenses like this on a tripod, monopod, or gimbal with just a tripod screw. Nikon still hasn’t caught on to this.


Vignetting is pretty much a don’t-care at any aperture; it’s easy to rid in a photo editor, if desired.


I didn’t notice any distortion, nor did I expect any.


There wasn’t any coma that I saw in any of my shots.


I also didn’t notice any focus noise. And speaking of focus, it focuses accurately at all distances and apertures after I calibrated it on a target that was about 50 feet away.


I have rarely noticed a bit of extra flare when point it at a subject backlit by bright lights, but I tend to avoid this type of scene in my photography anyway. Phase fresnel is more sensitive to this kind of lighting than regular optics. Problems of this sort are overblown; it’s rarely an issue, and typically a very minor effect.


I did all of my testing using the Nikon D850. Lesser cameras may show worse resolution and focus speed measurements. I did use an IR-converted Nikon D7000 when testing infrared performance. I did throw in a shot using my D500, too.



Focus Speed


I measured the focus speed by setting the lens at f/5.6 and minimum focus distance (about 3m, or 10 feet). I then timed how long it took to focus on infinity (using phase-detect of course) under sunny conditions. I measured 0.308 seconds. I used “slow-mo” video at 120 fps to review the focusing action (looking at the focus scale).


It would, of course, be crazy to be typically switching focus from 3 meters to infinity. In normal shooting, focus is extremely fast. It’s my understanding that the lens elements responsible for focus are lightweight, and can be shifted very fast.


I found the focus accuracy and repeatability to be excellent in good light. I wouldn’t recommend using this lens for sports or birds in flight when light levels get low.


Although it’s not really intended for use in poor light, this lens focuses well down to about EV 5. Subject contrast makes a big difference in how well it will focus without needing to ‘hunt’, and I found that it would start focus-hunting at about EV 4.


Teleconverter


I tried using Sigma’s TC-1401 1.4X teleconverter (700mm and f/8.0). I did this, because both Nikon and Sigma tell you to not do this.


I wanted to mention that you have to put the teleconverter onto the lens before you mount it on the camera, or else autofocus won’t work. I also need to mention that only the “f8” focus points will work, which is fairly limiting. Stick with the center point to avoid surprises.


I actually think this combination works pretty well. Autofocus and VR both work, as well as metering. Focus speed is decent in good light, but I don’t recommend this combination in poor light for moving targets. My D850 and D500 are supposed to have the same autofocus capabilities, but I’d swear that the D500 is better at focusing this combination in poor light.


I’ll be working on a separate article on this topic, but suffice it to say that the lens resolution is better than you might think. Focus calibration is required, of course.


I have read that the Nikkor 1.4X teleconverter causes the same low-light issues that I have observed with the Sigma.


Note that the EXIF data in the photos doesn’t register the actual f-stop and new focal length, because it can’t ‘see’ the Sigma teleconverter. Also, you can’t save a separate entry for focus calibration with the teleconverter. I always save a little note taped onto the inside of the lens cap that has the focus fine-tune values for both with and without the teleconverter. This may be a “don’t care” on mirrorless cameras.



500mm and Sigma 1.4X TC on D500 f/8





Infrared


I used my Nikon D7000, which was converted to 590nm infrared by Kolari Vision. The camera sensor also has their infrared anti-reflection coating on it.


The results are very, very good. I don’t see any problems using the lens at this infrared wavelength.




Nikkor 500mm PF at f/5.6 with 590nm infrared



Lens Resolution


This lens resolution “signature” looks very unique, probably due to the phase-fresnel lens design. It’s the only lens that I have measured that looks best wide-open. With a lens that doesn’t go any wider than f/5.6, that’s extremely good news; there’s no reason to stop it down, unless you want deeper depth of focus.


Incredibly, the resolution is nearly as good on the frame edges as it is in the central portion of the frame. As always, I am only reviewing a single lens copy.


Note that shots focused on infinity are limited by air turbulence. Don’t think that the lens isn’t sharp at long distance. Horizon shots are the worst.


I use the MTFMapper program to perform resolution and focus tests, which you can get here: https://sourceforge.net/projects/mtfmapper/


My resolution chart size is 40” X 56”. Big charts provide a more realistic working distance; the actual target distance is included in each plot below (nearly 17 meters).


All of my resolution tests are done using unsharpened, raw-format from my Nikon D850 (45.7 MP). I use live view and contrast-detect focus, to eliminate any concerns about focus calibration. I’m showing the best results from about 10 shots at each focal length and aperture tested.


I halted each resolution test after stopping down to f/16, because the diffraction effects ruin the resolution beyond this aperture. Even f/16 starts the resolution plunge, but sometimes you need the depth of field. The lens stops down to f/32, if you really need it.

The contrast plots are real contrast plots, and not the theoretical ones that lens manufacturers put out. They include the camera sensor effects, since you’re going to be using the lens with a real sensor.



MTF50 lp/mm resolution, f/5.6


Peak resolution, central = 58.5 lp/mm

Peak resolution, edge = 52.5 lp/mm

Peak resolution, corner = 49.6 lp/mm




MTF Contrast plot, f/5.6


Now that shows how little astigmatism these optics have.





Lateral chromatic aberration, f/5.6




MTF50 lp/mm resolution, f/8.0


Peak resolution, central = 54.3 lp/mm

Peak resolution, edge = 47.7 lp/mm

Peak resolution, corner = 47.8 lp/mm




MTF Contrast plot, f/8.0




MTF50 lp/mm resolution, f/11.0


Peak resolution, central = 47.1 lp/mm

Peak resolution, edge = 45.9 lp/mm

Peak resolution, corner = 42.7 lp/mm



MTF Contrast plot, f/11.0




MTF50 lp/mm resolution, f/16.0


Peak resolution, central = 40.3 lp/mm

Peak resolution, edge = 38.9 lp/mm

Peak resolution, corner = 37.3 lp/mm



MTF Contrast plot, f/16.0



Summary


This is rapidly turning into my favorite lens. I rarely bother with a monopod/gimbal or tripod, since it weighs so little. The VR-Normal works so well at slow shutter speeds, that hand-holding is realistic even in very low light.


This lens has enough resolution that you can do significant cropping, if needed. Ironically, more cropping is done on long-lens shots than any other type.



Sample Pictures



500mm 1/1000s f/5.6 ISO 640, cropped “distance” shot


The crater detail is amazing. I shot it high in the sky to minimize turbulence.



Looks like a telescope shot




Minimum focus distance, 1/2000 f/5.6




Pixel-level detail from the shot above. Enough said.




Bokeh sample, 1/2000 f/5.6 ISO 500




He just wanted his picture taken; I didn’t argue. 1/640 f/5.6






I had to throw in a bird-in-flight shot




1/2500s f/5.6 ISO 800










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