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

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

Introduction:

Nikon announced the development of the AF-S 500mm f/5.6 PF back in mid June 2018 with the first copies of the lens shipping to NPS members in late September. This new 500 is the second lens in the PF line up, the first being the AF-S 300mm f/4 PF. PF stands for Phase Fresnel, due to its resemblance to the original Fresnel lens of the 18th century.  Very much like the Canon’s DO element, Nikon relies on microscopic gratings fabricated in the PF element. The gratings diffract the incoming light rays, producing a reverse chromatic aberration profile as shown in the cartoon below. The diffractive element can then be bonded to a standard refractive element in order to cancel its chromatic aberration.  The end result is that several standard elements can be replaced with a single PF element resulting in a much shorter, smaller and lighter lens. Both Canon’s EF 400mm f/4 DO IS II and the Nikon AF-S 500mm f/5.6 PF VR feature a single element with diffractive optics. Nikon do not specifically state if they have been able to eliminate the tiny air gap between the refractive and the diffractive lenses of the PF element in their bonding process. The air gap can cause aberrations and its removal was the major breakthrough that turned the  original lackluster Canon EF 400mm f/4 DO IS into the spectacular  EF 400mm f/4 DO IS II

The concept behind PF technology, from Nikon.

Size, weight and mechanical quality:

At first glance the AF-S 500mm f/5.6 PF is… small,  jaw-dropping small, it’s almost unbelievable. While the Canon EF 400mm f/4 DO IS was also a relatively light and short lens this lens is significantly smaller and lighter than that. Granted the 400 DO II is an f/4 lens, albeit only at 400mm.  Compared to Nikon’s own AF-S 200-500mm f/5.6 VR, the PF is  about 2 lbs (840 g) lighter, it is narrower and significantly shorter than the zoom when it is extended to 500mm. The PF is shorter than the zoom, even when fully retracted to its 200mm position. The AF-S 600mm f/4 E FL looks like a towering giant next to the 500mm  PF, to the point that is difficult to show them in one photo.  Basically there is nothing else on the market that comes close to the dimensions and the weight of the 500 PF at the time of writing this review. In the comparison below, I put the 500 PF next to the popular AF-S 16-35mm f/4 VR  wide-angle zoom and my favorite portrait lens, the AF-S 105mm f/1.4 E.

AF-S 500mm f/5.6 PF VR (center) next to AF-S 105mm f/1.4 E (left) and AF-S 16-35mm f/4 VR (right). The 500mm PF is about twice as long as a standard wide angle lens. At its widest section it is about the same diameter as the 105mm f/1.4 portrait lens.

AF-S 500mm f/5.6 PF (top) vs. AF-S 200-500mm f/5.6 VR extended to 500mm (bottom). The zoom is not only longer and wider than the prime, it is also 2 lbs heavier. 

The build quality of the Nikon 500mm PF is great. The body is made of magnesium alloy and is weather sealed. Unlike other super-telephoto lenses that take a soft cap, the PF comes with a standard clip-on front cap and also takes standard front screw-in filters (I never use filters on my super-telephoto lenses). This lens also includes a new foot that is easily removable: just loosen the lock screw, press the release tab and pull out the foot. The lens can still be mounted on a tripod, with the foot detached thanks to the tripod mount hole drilled in the base. I use the foot on my super-telephoto lenses primarily as a handle, for carrying in the field and hand holding. Unfortunately  the 500PF’s foot is too short for a conformable grip, so I usually carry the lens by just grabbing it in the middle, a bit awkward. With the simple slide-in design, I can see the third-party feet to hit the market soon and will hopefully address this issue. The lens is made in China but that has not had any visible effect on the craftsmanship or quality as far as I can tell. Time will tell about its durability in the elements, with Nikon’s 5-year warranty there is no reason to worry. I am not a fan of the plastic lens hood supplied with the lens, at this price point the lens should have shipped with a carbon fiber or magnesium hood. Nikon also provide a soft carry/storage case with the lens, better than those terrible pouches most of their lenses come in but still pretty much useless other than for storing the lens while not in use.

AF-S 500mm f/5.6 PF VR ( without hood)

The lens also features AF/MF switch, distance limiter, VR switch as well as focus preset/AF function buttons:

Lens’s control panel includes switches for focus limiter, VR, and memory function.

There are three AF modes, A/M , M/A and M. The last one is manual focus, the first two are auto focus. Nikon state M/A is more sensitive to the focus ring rotation, any slight rotation can change the focus. When set to A/M, a greater rotation is needed to change the focus, perhaps to prevent focus shift as a result of accidentally touching the focus ring. I never use manual focus so I will leave this on A/M.

The focus limiter has only two positions, full or far focus. I have found that  unlike other super-telephoto lenses, with the 500 PF it is possible to easily toggle the focus limiter switch on the fly, with your eye on the finder and while hand holding. This is a very useful feature since you can continue tracking a bird all the way to MFD (minimum focus distance) if it suddenly comes close. This can even be done with gloves. A small light lens is great for tracking small fast birds at close range (think songbirds in flight), it’s a shame there is no close focus limit (e.g. MFD-8m) like Canon super-telephoto lenses, this would give fast AF drive at close range.

If you use the lens hand hold set the VR to sport, it will prevent the finder image to “jump” when panning. Nikon tell us the VR mechanism can detect panning and also if the lens is on a tripod, regardless of the position of the VR switch.

The Focus function selector assigns function to the four buttons around the barrel, set this switch to AF-L and use the camera’s menu to assign the desired function (D850 menu shown below). I like to program these buttons to change the focus pattern from Group AF (Grp) to 9-point expansion (d-9) or single point,  when pressed. This is useful for shooting perched birds where you want more control over the exact location of the focus point.

The last switch silences the “beep” the lens makes when you press the “Memory Set” button on the other side (this is to save the focus distance, pretty much useless for me).

Go to Camera Controls menu (f)–> f*1 Custom control assignment –>Lens focus function buttons in order to assign a function to the 4 buttons on the lens.

Optical quality:

When Canon introduced the 2nd generation of their 400mm DO-the first one being quite underwhelming to justify its price tag-it became clear that the DO lenses could achieve as great sharpness as the traditional lenses. The EF 400mm /4 DO II proved to be a stellar lens in that regard with almost text book perfect optics, bare or with the TC, as I explained in my review.  Good news is that the Nikon 500mm f/5.6 is very similar in that regard when compared to the AF-S 200-500mm f/5.6 VR as well as the mighty AF-S 600mm f/4 E FL.

Below you can see 100% crops from RAW (click on each image to expand) comparing the AF-S 500mm f/5.6 PF with the AF-S 200-500mm f/5.6 VR mounted on the high resolution Nikon D850. Both lenses were set on tripod, live view focus with delayed release was used to give the sharpest image possible. the 5-dollar bill was about 8 yards from the camera. Note that prior to this test, no less than 3 copies of the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 VR were compared against each other to pick the sharpest sample of the zoom. (more on that in the up-coming review of the AF-S 200-500mm f/5.6 VR). RAW images where converted with Capture One Pro 11 using the optimal settings explained in my Nikon C1P guide. 

As you can see below the bare PF is sharper and has more micro-contrast than the bare zoom. These crops only show the center of the frame once you move to the edges the difference becomes much more striking.

Please also note all images are (c) copyright Arash Hazeghi Ph.D. no reproduction is allowed. 

Left: AF-S 200-500mm f/5.6 VR at 500mm f/5.6. Right: AF-S 500mm f/5.6 PF at f/5.6. 100% crop from RAW with Nikon D850,. RAW converted with Capture One Pro 11. Note that the 500mm PF has a higher magnification the the zoom, this is due to “focus-breathing” effect in the zoom, i.e. the focal length is not quite 500mm at shorter focus distances. Click on the image to RAW. 

The gap between the zoom and the prime widens significantly after adding the TC14E-III as expected. The zoom lens is soft and lacks micro-contrast while there is virtually no degradation visible in the image recorded by the prime. In actual field usage I found that using the zoom with a TC was a waste of time, I could not find a single frame among several thousands that was sharp enough to my standards. Most of my keepers with the PF on the hand, were with the TC.

100% crop from RAW with left: AF-S 200-500mm f/5.6 VR + TC14E-III and right: AF-S 500mm f/5.6 VT + TC14E-III. Nikon D850 with Capture One Pro 11. click on the image to expand.

I also compared the 500mm PF against my AF-S 600mm f/4 E FL which serves as the current bench mark of long lenses for the Nikon brand. The sharpness/contrast between both bare primes is virtually identical. Since both images were shot from the same distance, the crops below also demonstrate the difference in reach between the two lenses, i.e. 500mm vs. 600mm.

100% crop from RAW. Left: AF-S 500mm f/5.6 PF, right: AF-S 600mm f/4 E FL. Nikon D850, RAW converted with Capture One Pro 11. Click on the image to expand.

Last but not least I put 500 PF against the 600 with my teleconverter attached. Again the results are indistinguishable for this test in terms of sharpness.

100% crop from RAW, left: AF-S 500mm f/5.6 PF + TC14E-III, 700mm f/8 right: AF-S 600mm f/4E FL + TC14E-III, 840mm f/5.6. Nikon D850, RAW converted with Capture One Pro 11. Click on the image to expand.

While the $3600 AF-S 500mm f/5.6 PF is closer in price to the AF-S 200-500mm f/5.6 VR ($1400) than to the $12,300 AF-S 600mm f/4E FL, its optical performance, under controlled conditions, resembles the latter rather than the earlier. This is a pleasant surprise, as I was expecting this lens to sit somewhere in the middle between the zoom and the 600 prime, especially with the TC. I was proven wrong.

Field optical quality:

While many lenses perform just fine under controlled conditions, the real test is in the field when subject is often farther away and other factors are less than ideal. In the limited time I have spent with my 500 PF, I have mostly used it for photographing shorebirds and raptors. Both of these shoots were done where I had shot extensively before, for many years with Canon equipment and now with Nikon gear, so I have a good basis for comparison.  The 500 PF  performed very well shooting over the water with and without the TC where the bare 200-500 zoom was disappointing before (stay tuned for my review of the 200-500).

Shooting raptors is one example where using TC14E-III is almost mandatory as these birds are very skittish. The images with the 500 PF and the TC14E-III  are sharp, and virtually indistinguishable compared my 600mm f/4 FL+ TC rig when shooting with the 20 mega-pixel D5. With the 45-Mega pixel D850, sometimes there is a slight difference when shooting birds with soft low-contrast feathers such as the California white-tailed kite. The 600mm f/4 FL + TC has a touch more punch and micro-contrast to it, however these minute differences can be easily equalized when processing RAW’s using Capture One Pro 11 with the workflow that I have developed for Nikon users (see my Capture One Pro Guide). Overall the 500 PF + TC combo delivers sharp and clean images in any condition and I have no reservation in using it. Obviously the f/8 maximum aperture is limiting for low light conditions.

In the supplied “guide sheet” that looks like piece of a newspaper (wish Nikon has supplied a nice booklet instead), Nikon warn us about “color ring flare” that may be visible in some images as a result of the PF element. To this date I have not seen such artifact in any of my images, granted I have not taken any images with the sun in the frame. I believe it is very unlikely to be able to reproduce such artifact in normal field use. The lens handled sidelight with no issues (see the harrier image in the sample gallery).

AF performance:

A super sharp lens that cannot focus fast and accurately is useless for such subject as birds in flight. AF is a function of both the camera body and the lens. Nikon’s excellent AF system does a great job of holding focus on erratic BIF against complex backgrounds, and as such I was able to capture some challenging BIF frames even with the AF-S 200-500mm f/5.6 VR zoom, which is perhaps the slowest focusing long lens I have ever used. With proper pre-focus technique , the zoom can latch to birds flying parallel to the back of the camera. But, it will have a near zero chance of picking up BIF mid-field without pre-focus or track an incoming bird. This is true with both the mighty D5 and the gripped D850.

The bare 500mm f/5.6 PF feels a lot more snappy than the zoom and again much closer to the AF-S 600mm f/4 E FL  when mounted on either the D5 or the gripped D850. With the 1.4X TC attached, the AF speed does not slow down in a noticeable way with the D5, unless the scene is very dark. However, out of the 153 AF sensors, only 19 remain active (9 of which are selectable by the user and 5 are cross-type) at f/8. The AF pattern (for both D5 and D850) with a maximum aperture of f/8 is shown in the figure below. The very dense 153-point AF grid (compared to only 61 points in Canon pro cameras), is part of what enables Nikon’s “magic” AF performance when shooting BIF. A dense array guarantees that at least a couple of sensors  will land on spots with sufficient contrast on the subject. This stable signal enables the D5/D850 cameras to continuously track the subject as well as they do, even when the subject is off centered, small in the frame, or moving erratically from frame to frame. Some of the prowess diminishes at f/8 when the AF has only 19 points to collect data from. The active AF sensors at f/8 (shown below, from Nikon) are clustered at the center and horizontally to some extent. The cross-type sensors are dead centered. This means there is a higher burden on the user to keep the subject centered at all times for best AF tracking. With lens/TC combinations with f/5.6 or faster maximum aperture, the AF coverage is much wider and the camera can track the subject even when significantly off-centered.

Available AF sensors in D5/D850 (green area indicates cross-type sensors) with maximum aperture f/8 (500mm PF + TC14E-III)

In practice with Nikon D5, as long as the point above is noted, i.e. bird is kept centered the tracking remains accurate and solid with the combination of 500mm f/5.6 PF and the TC14E-III. the good news is that since the lens is tiny and feather-weight, keeping the bird centered is a piece of cake for an experienced photographer. Even fast birds are easy to keep dead centered while tracking. So overall the AF is great. I plan to shoot some songbirds in flight at close range with this combination.

With my gripped D850 the picture was a bit different. I noticed the AF was both a bit slower and also a bit less consistent once I added the 1.4X TC to the 500mm PF compared to the D5. It is still an effective combination, and performs more consistently than the combination of EOS-1D X MKII, the EF 400mm f/4 DO IS II and the EF extender 2X III which was somewhat a similar “f/8” rig I used for about 5 years, when I was shooting with Canon. The D850 should probably be compared to the EOS-5D Mark IV, a camera that was almost useless with f/8 combos for the type of BIF shots I like to take despite using its full array of AF sensors at f/8… no contest there.

On paper D850 and D5 have similar specifications when it comes to the AF system, the gripped D850 uses the same battery as the D5 as well, however in practice and when shooting BIF,  the D5 AF is superior and this is one of the instances where you can certianly notice the difference. Although again, this difference is not quite as significant as the gap between the Canon 1D and 5D series, it is there.

Given the modest focal length, I imagine most users will be using the 500mm f/5.6 PF with the 45-mega pixel D850 rather than the 20 mega-pixel D5, and with the 1.4X TC. It is great to see this combination can still deliver sharp BIF shots from challenging subjects.  As mentioned above, the key is to keep the BIF centered.

Sample images:

Below are some sample images taken with the AF-S 500mm f/5.6 PF, most of them with the TC14E-III. You will need to expand each image to view it sharp. Expand each image by clicking on it,  you will need a high resolution screen as I save my images at 1920 x 1080 (full HD). I will add to this gallery as I use the lens more. RAW files were processed with Capture One Pro 11 with optimal settings. Please see my Capture One Pro guide for the details of my processing workflow.

Willet in flight, Nikon D850 and AF-S 500mm f/5.6 PF + TC14E-III, ISO 800, f/8 at 1/3200sec. Hand held, processed with Capture One Pro 11. Click to expand.

Juvenile forster’s tern. Nikon D850 and AF-S 500mm f/5.6 PF + TC14E-III. ISO 1000 f/5.6 at 1/3200sec. Hand held. Processed with Capture One Pro 11. Click to expand.

Black skimmer, Nikon D850 and AF-S 500mm f/5.6 PF + TC14E-III. ISO 1000 f/5.6 at 1/3200sec. Hand held. Processed with Capture One Pro 11. Click to expand.

Rudy trunstone, Nikon D850 and AF-S 500mm f/5.6 PF + TC14E-III. ISO 1000 f/5.6 at 1/3200sec. Hand held. Processed with Capture One Pro 11. Click to expand. Heavy crop to demonstrate AF locking on a very small subject.

Marbled Godwit. Nikon D850, AF-S 500mm f/5.6 PF + TC14E-III. ISO 1000, f.8 at 1/3200 sec, hand held. Processed with Capture One Pro 1.. CLick on the image to expand.

Juvenile female northern harrier. Nikon D850 and AF-S 500mm f/5.6 PF + TC14E-III. ISO 800 f/5.6 at 1/3200 sec. Hand held. Processed with Capture One Pro 11. Click to expand.

Juvenile white-tailed kite with prey (vole). Nikon D850 and AF-S 500mm f/5.6 PF + TC14E-III. ISO 1250 f/5.6 at 1/3200sec. Hand held. Processed with Capture One Pro 11. Click to expand.

Female northern harrier, AF-S 500mm f/5.6 PF + TC14E-III. ISO 800 f/8 at 1/3200 sec. Hand held. Processed with Capture One Pro 11. The 500PF handled side light nicely with no flare from the gratings in the PF element. Click on the image to expand.

White-tailed kite with prey (vole), AF-S 500mm f/5.6 PF + TC14E-III. ISO 1250, 1/3200sec at f/8. Hand held. Processed with Capture One Pro 11. Click on the image to expand.

Juvenile female northern harrier. Nikon D5 and AF-S 500mm f/5.6 VR, ISO 4000, f/5.6 at 1/2500sec. hand held. Processed with Capture One Pro 11. Click on the image to expand.

Conclusion:

The Nikon 500mm f/5.6 PF is a very special lens. It is the smallest and lightest 500mm lens ever made that can deliver the critical image quality and the AF performance worthy of capturing professional-quality BIF images. At the time of writing this review, there is nothing on the marker to compare this lens to. The closest “competitor” is perhaps the Canon EF 400mm f/4 DO IS II which I reviewed several years ago. It has a higher maximum aperture and it gives more reach with the 2X extender (800mm f/8 vs. 700mm f/8), but Nikon’s 45-Mega pixel D850 plus its solid AF system makes up for the focal length difference. The Canon costs $6900 compared to Nikon’s $3600 price tag which makes it difficult to compare the two, but what is evident is that the AF-S 500mm f/5.6 PF delivers incredible value and leaves little to be desired in terms of field performance. The PF is so small and tight that it fits in the glove box of most standard vehicles, it can easily be carried in any kind of backpack. You can simply take it out anywhere, anytime without having to think about it, on a Sunday hike, to the local park, on weekend trips, etc. If you run into an interesting subject, you will be ready. It is also ideal for shooting from a vehicle, boat, kayak or a helicopter thanks to the small foot print.

The only gripe I have with this lens is why is it 500mm and not 600mm? Perhaps Nikon will address this issue soon. Other than that, highly recommended, full stop.

Pros

-Tiny, featherweight midget of a lens, almost unbelievable. Super easy to hand hold and maneuver for anyone. 

-Excellent optics , critically sharp images at pixel level, with or without 1.4X TC.

-Fast AF servo drive, can grab focus on fast fliers mid-field. 

-Excellent VR, consistent sharp images hand held down to 1/50 sec.

-Excellent value for money. 

-easily removable (slide-out) foot. 

Cons

-It is not 600mm. 

-No close range focus limiter 

-AF performance for BIF can take a hit with the TC when using a gripped D850. 

-No tabs for a shoulder strap. Cheap plastic hood. Cheap “guide sheet” looks like piece of a newspaper.