Let me be clear: I am not a sports photographer. I had the chance to photograph my alma mater’s homecoming football game, so I said sure, why not? After all, what better place to test Nikon’s new, budget-friendly, 200-500mm super-telephoto lens than in the crucible of NCAA Division III football? So I grabbed the lens and a Nikon D4s and headed out to Forest Grove, where I was graced with an atypical sunny October afternoon with temperatures in the low 70’s. It was a surprisingly comfortable introduction to my first football photography experience, and it seemed to just get easier from there on out—in fact, I had it almost as easy as the Pacific University Boxers had it against the visiting Pacific Lutheran Lutes, but I digress. (Sidebar: Two teams from schools named Pacific is confusing for announcers.)
I’ve heard many old-school photographers lament how new technology makes it effortless for just anyone to take a decent picture, and after my time with the 200-500mm, I’ve learned one thing: they’re right. The fact that I can walk onto the sidelines of a football game for the first time, plop my monopod down, switch the camera to aperture priority, fire away at 11 frames-per-second, and actually get decent results is a testament to how good modern cameras and lenses have become—and how spoiled I am to have free access to such gear through Pro Photo Supply’s rental department.
However, as I am so spoiled, I also know what it’s like to shoot with lenses that aren’t budget-friendly. I know what a $4000 Zeiss Otus 55mm can do on a Canon 5DS R. I know how insanely fast the autofocus is on a $6000 Nikon 200mm f/2.0. So while I was amazed with what I was able to capture with Nikon’s 200-500mm, I was also all too aware of its limitations. But let’s keep this in perspective: this is a budget lens.
Budget super-telephotos are all the rage these days, after Tamron introduced the 150-600mm a little over a year ago, followed closely by the Sigma of the same focal length (or was it the other way around?). Both lenses were priced just shy of $1100 and promised the same things: powerful telephoto reach, the flexibility of a zoom, and a price that could put them in the hands of casual birders and little league parents everywhere. While Nikon is certainly no stranger to telephoto zooms, even its “budget-minded” 80-400mm sells for $2700, a number well outside of most consumers’ comfort zones. So when Nikon announced the new AF-S 200-500mm at a price of just $1399, it seemed to be in direct response to third-party manufacturers trying to dominate the low-end, super-tele lens market segment. Which is a thing, apparently.
So how does the Nikon differ from its third-party rivals? The numbers tell the story: at a constant aperture of f/5.6, it is 1/3 stop slower at the wide end and 1/3 stop faster at the telephoto end compared to the variable-aperture 150-600s from Tamron and Sigma. That constant f/5.6 means it’s fully compatible with Nikon’s TC-14E teleconverter (which gives you 1.4x the reach at the expense of losing one stop of light) on modern cameras with f/8 autofocus capability. The zoom range is shorter, sacrificing 50mm on the wide end and 100mm on the telephoto end. Now, most people considering this type of lens are probably looking more critically at the telephoto end, but I would argue that it’s the wide end that is more limiting. The difference between 500 and 600mm (even the difference between 400 and 500mm) is just about negligible, especially with the crop capabilities of today’s DSLRs. The difference between 150mm and 200mm, however, can make or break a shot, at least in sports. I found myself butting up against that 200mm limit far more often than I hit 500mm. That said, being inexperienced, I shot wider than I wanted to most of the time just to be able to track the action, and 200-500mm is a very usable range for sports. Even when I was on the opposite end of the field, I had plenty of reach.
Attached to the powerful D4s, I was simply blown away with how easy it was to shoot this lens in an environment I’d never been in before. For an f/5.6 lens, the autofocus is surprisingly fast and spot-on; it never once hunted for focus. I shot the whole day in continuous AF at 11 FPS and got more usable shots than not. Granted, it likely wouldn’t have performed so well indoors or at night, but in daylight I had zero issues keeping subjects in focus, even as they ran toward me. The only focus errors occurred when another player or official would cross paths with my subject, although I did mitigate this somewhat by adjusting the AF settings in the camera. I haven’t shot the Tamron or Sigma to be able to compare, but typically AF performance is where third-party lenses are lacking, and they’d be hard pressed to do as well as this Nikon did. There were, of course, plenty of errors related to me simply not being fast enough to pan the camera or see where the heck the ball had gone, but those are on me. (Turns out, I’m way more thrown off by fakes than the defense is.)
F/5.6 is not a fast aperture by any means, but for daylight use, it’s fine. I shot wide-open the entire day, and I did bump the ISO up to 200 just to ensure my shutter speeds stayed around 1/1000 second. I know I can confidently shoot up to ISO 6400 on the D4s, so the f/5.6 aperture wouldn’t have been a huge issue even if the game had gone into triple overtime (it didn’t—the 34-7 score was rather decisive). However, I also know this lens is going to appeal to photographers with cameras that aren’t the D4s; if you’re looking for a lens to shoot your kid’s night game on your decade-old D70, well, “results may vary.”
I walked away from this shoot exhausted but content. I played back the images on the camera and was relieved to find several images that weren’t just usable, but actually good. I’ll be honest: I was worried I wouldn’t get enough decent shots to be able write this review, as I really had no idea what I was doing (I’m not even much of a football fan, although I admit I did have a great time at this game). When I got home and loaded the pictures on my computer, however, my excitement waned. Again, because I know how good the good lenses really are (and because regardless of how much a lens costs, I get to use it for free) it makes it difficult for me to not be harsh on these “lower-end” lenses. I can’t say I was altogether surprised, but I was still a little bummed out to find that my images were not tack-sharp when viewed at 100%. There is a subtle softness that suggests a slight mis-focus or motion blur, but it’s there even on completely stationary subjects at high shutter speeds. But this is, all things considered, a worthy sacrifice. I’d rather have the excellent AF performance than tack-sharp results, because sharpness doesn’t matter if you can’t achieve focus.
I would further argue that pixel-level sharpness is less important in sports photography than in, say, bird and wildlife photography. Feel free to call me out on this if you think it’s bunch of malarkey, but I feel that, generally, sports photos are going to be used online or in small-format print media like newspapers and magazines. Wildlife photos are more likely to be printed and displayed in a gallery. Moreover, wildlife is often farther away or smaller than your average running back, so cropping is imperative—and you can’t crop much without pixel-level sharpness. My point is simply this: how and what you plan to shoot (as well as how discerning your eye) determines how valuable this lens will be to you.
Let’s conclude by putting this back into healthy perspective: Nikon’s 200-400mm f/4, a superb, pro-level lens, may be noticeably sharper—but it costs $7,000. Somehow, Nikon made a lens that has more range, loses only one stop of light, maintains great AF performance, and sacrifices a bit of sharpness… for 5,600 fewer of your hard-earned dollars. So long as I’m renting it for free, I’ll still take the 200-400mm f/4. But if you don’t work for a camera store and you need a lens good enough to follow your kid all the way from pee wee to his or her (hey, it will happen eventually) rookie season in the NFL, then I’d choose the 200-500mm f/5.6 over being in debt for that same period of time. That said, if your kid makes it to the NFL, maybe that 200-400mm f/4 won’t look so expensive anymore.