Nikon Nikkor 500mm f5.6E PF ED VR Review
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What is a Phase Fresnel Lens?
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The concept of Fresnel glass is commonly attributed to French scholar, mathematician cosmologist, and encyclopédiste, Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon. Buffon made his mark in the French intellectual community by introducing differential and integral calculus into probability theory and applying it to solving what became know as Buffon’s needle. As a result of the calculations he devised, he was later admitted into the French Academy of Sciences.
If you really must know, look him up! Suffice it to say, he was a deep thinker and came up with the concept of a thinner lens using a series of annular steps! Brilliant! What is even more brilliant is that Nikon has taken this concept and has applied it to a prime lens. The results are outstanding! All the images you see in this review that have Meta information attached to them are taken with this brilliant lens.
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Not to beat the science on this new lens technology to death, what Fresnel glass does basically, is concentrate light that is passing through it more effectively using less lens material, thereby reducing weight. In the example below you can see how light is collimated through a normal lens element and how it is collimated through the new Fresnel cut element.
Fresnel lenses are typically found in Lighthouses and in Flash Extenders, just so you have a reference to where this glass has typically been used before. It is also used in some forms of magnifying glasses. Interested readers may find all sorts of information on the technology by doing a simple Internet search.
The New Nikon Nikkor 500mm f5.6E PF ED VR
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Upon first handling this lens you immediately realize this is a top end, Nikon quality build. It is light, but feels solid in your hands. I was also surprised at the feel of the barrel itself as I was expecting it to be much thicker, but it was instead, slim and well balanced. It also comes with all the purposeful buttons you would expect to find on the barrel of a Nikon Nikkor lens: Memory Set, Memory return, Auto Focus/Manual, VR controls, Sound ON/OFF and Memory Recall. The tripod collar is functional and smooth. My only nit with the lens is the size of the tripod foot. For my taste, it is too small. I like to carry my gear using the tripod foot as a handle and this one is about two fingers too small. However, it appears to be easily removable and replaceable.
The lens hood on this lens is plastic and has a nice clip on it similar to the 24-70mm Nikkor lens. It snaps in and feels solid. Why plastic? Well, this is a two edged sword. If you like inexpensive and light, you go plastic. It is solid, I don’t feel it is cheap and it does feel and look durable enough. If you want more weight, it could have been metal, and it would also be more expensive. If you want carbon fibre, well, then you get more expensive and lightweight, the best of both worlds at a higher price. I am undecided either way, so in my opinion, it is fine.
The most important criteria I had for this lens was focusing speed, maintaining target lock and sharpness. The lens easily surpassed my expectations. Let the images included in this review speak for themselves. My go-to lens for years has been the Nikkor 200-400mm f4 VR. A simply marvelous creature, designed for sports, nature and almost anything else you want to use it for. It is my gold standard. The 500mm PF lens easily surpasses focus lock and comes to the same standard in image quality at a fraction of the weight!
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The image you see above is one of over 2,000 images I took at the VARAC Vintage Grand Prix at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park. On a typical event like this, I will discard easily, 300 images at first glance because they are soft focus. I will typically blame the camera or lens on not being able to lock on the subject fast enough and a properly focused image did not result from the effort. However, with the 500mm f/5.6E PF ... wow... I may have deleted 5-10 that did not properly focus lock. I remember taking some of those images and I blame half on my technique, as I simply fired the shutter before giving the camera and lens any opportunity to find the target properly. Any race images you see in this review are all challenging images as the subject is moving at speed. I found absolutely nothing to complain about the performance of the lens. I found the lens to be prograde at every level.
Due to the fact this is a small footprint prime lens, it handles much like a 300mm lens. You really don’t get the feeling you have a 500mm prime in your hands. Note that my sample images are all handheld. Let the images be your proof that this really is an amazing piece of glass. At first, I was very skeptical of this product and especially because of the price! Five minutes in my hands and I very quickly fell in love. The maximum aperture of f5.6 wasn’t an issue in my test. I shot the race images you see in this review on a heavily overcast day. The lens is more than up for the challenge. Modern cameras/sensors adjust very nicely to changing conditions and I certainly felt no hardship losing the one stop.
In regards to VR, I have to admit, I didn’t comparison test this feature. I put it on Sport VR most of the time and my HIT ratio for keeper images was the highest it has been on any sport shoot I have been on. I have purposely chosen in this review to go more image heavy than word heavy. Again, I defer to the quality of the images posted as your guide.
In summary, I could find little if next to anything I didn’t like about this lens. The performance was exceptional, exactly what I would expect from Nikon pro-level equipment; tack sharp images, super fast focus, excellent tracking, superior image quality output, a durable feel and the super lightweight bonus pretty much sealed the deal for me. The lens does come with a hefty price tag, however, but when compared to the top of the line 500mm prime, this checks in at almost one-third the price with almost two thirds less weight!
If you are into Sports or Nature photography, this lens was built for you. Kudos to Nikon for the genius of this design. Expect to see many more lenses using this design. Having used both the 300mm PF and not the 500mm PF, I am 100% sold on the genius of this design. I believe this is the next step in DSLR/Mirrorless lens technology.
Note, I didn’t want to fill the review with a lot of information that is readily available to you at your fingerprints. Take
a look at the Nikon official site for more detailed information on the lens. I will list a small, relevant summary here:
Focal Length: 500mm prime
Maximum Aperture: f5.6
Weight: 1460 grams
VR Image Stabilization: Yes (4EV!)
Nano Crystal Coating: Yes
Price (CDN$): $ 4,899.95
This lens has many more standard features included in most new Nikon glass. For example, silent wave motor, ED low dispersion glass, electromagnetic diaphragm mechanism, Fluorine Coating etc. What makes this lens special and unique of course, is the Phase Fresnel lens element!
This lens will accommodate a screw on filter that is 95mm in size. The threading on the lens itself appears to be plastic so care should be taken when threading a filter. Again, this is a feature that can be argued to be inferior or purposeful. If you are primarily interested in saving weight and expense, this is suitable. If you have more lofty needs, then this could be a source of issue. With some care when putting on a filter, I see no issue here. Nothing is designed to be forced and you should easily be able to avert stripping the threads.
I found no inconvenience what so ever shooting with this lens on a very overcast day. The fact there is no f4 was of little consequence. Remember, most likely you have a high-end DSLR/Mirrorless camera attached to the lens that more than compensates for the lack of a stop. Consider as well, you will be paying an additional $8000 to gain that extra stop if you go with the 500mm f4 prime! From what I have experienced, this lens will very quickly become my new go-to lens or, at the very worst, be included in my bag as an additional carry.
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This gorgeous old racer in the image above is a Lotus XI circa 1956. It participated in the VARAC Vintage Grand Prix hosted at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, coming out of turn 5b (Moss Corner).
Image was originally taken in color and then processed in NIK Analog FX Pro 2, adding blur, hair, and scratches and made to look like it was taken with an analog camera. Once saved, the image was open in NIK Silver FX and sepia and fading were added with the Antique Plate II preset and then adjusted manually.
This image was taken while I was track level, just behind a crash barrier and the emergency vehicle opening to the track. An excellent vantage point for racers making the turn onto the Mario Andretti Straightaway and for racers coming up over turn 5a on Moss Corner.
A special acknowledgment to Nikon Canada and Nikon Professional Services for providing the gear. All race images used in co-operation with Speed Circuit News. Special thanks to Canadian Tire Motorsport Park.
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IMAGE GALLERY [ all images below are taken, hand held, with either a Nikon D5 or a Nikon d850 and the Nikkor 500mm f5.6E PF ED VR lens]
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NOTE: This review will be turned into a PDF format suitable for download from FACEBOOK on the PLANETNIKON PHOTOGRAPHER group. The images will not be scaled down so you will get a more accurate representation than the 1000px width you see here.
All comments welcomed.