Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 vs. Nikon 500mm f/4: The Ultimate Telephoto Showdown for Sports and Wildlife Photography Enthusiasts

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Are you an avid photographer with a passion for capturing stunning wildlife moments or freeze-framing the thrilling action of your favorite sports events? Stay tuned for a thorough examination of two exceptional telephoto lenses: the versatile Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 and the razor-sharp Nikon 500mm f/4 prime lens.

We understand that sports and wildlife photography demand exceptional performance in terms of subject isolation, low light capabilities, and autofocus speed, among other factors.

In this article, we’ll dissect the strengths and weaknesses of these two lenses, offering valuable insights into their performance across various parameters, from image quality and bokeh to weather sealing and handling.

As you delve deeper into our comparison, you’ll discover how these lenses cater to different priorities and preferences, making them suitable for various types of photographers.

Whether you’re a professional seeking the highest performance or an enthusiast looking for a more versatile and affordable option, we’ve got you covered.

So, buckle up and join us as we explore these remarkable telephoto lenses and help you make an informed decision to elevate your photography game to new heights!


Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 200-500mm F5.6E ED VRNikon AF-S NIKKOR 500mm F4E FL ED VR
Max ApertureF5.6F4.0
Aperture TypeFixedFixed
Focal Range (mm)200-500500
Max Format35mm FF35mm FF
Zoom Ratio (X)2.51

Comparing the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 and the Nikon 500mm f/4, we can see some key differences that affect their suitability for sports and wildlife photography.

The 200-500mm lens has a variable focal range of 200-500mm and a maximum aperture of f/5.6. On the other hand, the 500mm lens has a fixed focal length of 500mm and a larger maximum aperture of f/4.0. Both lenses have a fixed aperture type and are designed for 35mm full-frame format.

The larger aperture of the 500mm lens allows more light to enter the camera, which is beneficial for low light performance and faster shutter speeds. This is especially useful in sports and wildlife photography, where capturing fast-moving subjects is crucial.

The larger aperture also results in a shallower depth of field, which is great for isolating subjects from their background. Additionally, the 500mm lens is likely to have better overall image quality and autofocus performance.

On the other hand, the 200-500mm lens offers more versatility with its variable focal range, allowing you to adjust the composition and framing according to the scene. This can be advantageous in sports and wildlife photography, where the distance to the subject can change rapidly. However, the smaller maximum aperture of f/5.6 may limit its low light performance and depth of field control compared to the 500mm lens.

In summary, both lenses have their strengths and weaknesses, and the choice depends on your specific needs and preferences. If you prioritize low light performance, subject isolation, and overall image quality, the 500mm f/4.0 lens may be the superior option. However, if versatility and the ability to adapt to changing scenes are more important to you, the 200-500mm f/5.6 lens could be a better fit.

Design and Ease of Use

Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 200-500mm F5.6E ED VRNikon AF-S NIKKOR 500mm F4E FL ED VR
Diameter x Length (mm)⌀108×267.5mm⌀140×387mm
Weight (gr)23003090
Filter Thread (mm)9540
Weather SealingNoYes
Zoom MethodRotary (extending)No Zoom
Distance ScaleYesYes
DoF ScaleNoNo
Hood SuppliedYesYes
Hood CodeHB-71HK-34
Tripod CollarYesYes

The Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 has dimensions of ⌀108×267.5mm and weighs 2300 grams, while the 500mm lens has dimensions of ⌀140×387mm and weighs 3090 grams.

The 200-500mm lens is more compact and lightweight, which makes it easier to carry around, especially for extended periods. This lighter setup can be less tiring and allows you to shoot for longer without feeling weighed down. Additionally, the 200-500mm lens is less likely to make your camera feel front-heavy and unbalanced, which could lead to discomfort or difficulty in handling the camera.

On the other hand, the Nikon 500mm f/4 is larger and heavier, which could make it more challenging to carry around and handle. It might also make your camera feel more unbalanced, especially during longer shoots. However, the extra weight and size could potentially indicate better build quality, sturdiness, or more advanced optical elements.

In conclusion, the 200-500mm lens seems to be the superior choice for most photographers, especially for those who prioritize portability and ease of handling. Its more compact and lightweight design will make it easier to carry around, maintain balance, and shoot for extended periods without fatigue. However, the 500mm lens may still be a viable option for photographers who require specific features or capabilities that the larger and heavier design might offer.

Lens Mount and Barrel

The Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 features a metal lens mount with a rubber gasket for protection against dust and moisture. Its lens barrel is composed of a metal outer barrel with a high-grade plastic shell, and a plastic inner barrel.

The lens telescopes when zooming, becoming longer but remaining well-balanced with the camera. It also has a lock to keep it in place at its shortest 200mm length to prevent accidental focal length changes due to gravity.

In contrast, the Nikon 500mm f/4 has a metal lens mount, also including a rubber gasket for added protection. Its lens barrel is made of weather-resistant magnesium-alloy, giving it a professional and durable appearance. The front third is covered in a fixed rubber grip for improved handling, and its ergonomic design ensures comfortable use and seamless interaction with the camera body.

Plastic lens barrels, like that of the 200-500mm lens, are generally lighter and more affordable, making them suitable for those who prioritize portability and budget. However, they may not be as durable as metal barrels. On the other hand, the magnesium-alloy barrel of the 500mm lens offers a more robust build and a professional feel, though it may be heavier and less portable.

In conclusion, the superior lens mount and barrel would depend on your specific needs and preferences as a photographer. If portability and affordability are your priorities, the 200-500mm lens with its plastic barrel might be the better option. However, if durability, a professional feel, and enhanced handling are more important to you, the 500mm lens with its magnesium-alloy barrel would be the superior choice.

Weather Sealing

The Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 offers partial weather sealing, providing some protection against the elements with a rubber gasket at the lens mount. However, it lacks internal seals at the rings, switches, or front of the barrel, and does not have a fluorine coating on the front element. This lens can handle some cold, dust, and moisture, but is not designed for heavy abuse or extreme weather conditions like a pro-level lens.

On the other hand, the Nikon 500mm f/4 boasts comprehensive weather sealing, including a gasket at the lens mount and internal seals at the rings, switches, and front of the barrel. A fluorine coating on the front element repels water, dust, and dirt, making it easier to clean and maintain. This lens is suitable for various shooting conditions and environments, giving photographers the freedom to capture images without worrying about adverse weather conditions affecting the lens.

In conclusion, the 500mm lens has superior weather sealing compared to the 200-500mm lens, providing enhanced protection and durability for photographers who frequently shoot in challenging environments. This added assurance allows photographers to focus on their craft without concern for potential damage to their equipment.


The Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 features two rings: a ribbed zoom ring and a focus ring covered in textured rubber, both designed for smooth rotation and a quality feel. The zoom ring, located towards the front of the lens, requires almost 180 degrees of rotation to go from 200mm to 500mm.

The focus ring, closer to the camera body, allows for easy changes in focal length while maintaining balance and grip. The lens also offers a zoom lock switch at 200mm, a focus limiter function, and full-time manual focus override when set to M/A position, along with a windowed distance scale.

In contrast, the Nikon 500mm f/4 has a wide focus ring near the front, covered in a fixed rubber grip for comfortable operation. Its smooth, well-damped rotation enables precise manual focus adjustments.

A focus distance indicator window displays focus distance in feet and meters. Although lacking a control ring, the lens features multiple focus function buttons and selector switches for customization, providing a generally good tactile experience.

In conclusion, both lenses offer unique advantages in terms of their ring designs. The 200-500mm lens excels in versatility with its zoom and focus rings, providing smooth operation and an array of features like focus limiter and manual focus override.

The 500mm lens, on the other hand, focuses on precision and comfort with its wide focus ring and easy-to-find position.


The Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 is equipped with four switches on its side, including an AF/MF switch, a focus limiter switch, an IS switch, and a VR mode switch. The AF/MF switch enables full-time manual focus override, the focus limiter switch restricts autofocus distance within a specified range, the IS switch controls the vibration reduction system, and the VR mode switch toggles between normal and sport mode. These switches are easy to locate and use, complemented by well-designed and textured focus and zoom rings for comfortable handling.

In contrast, the Nikon 500mm f/4 features five selector switches on the front third of the lens barrel. These include a topmost switch for changing focus modes (M/A, A/M, and full manual focus), a focus limit switch (full focus range or infinity to 8m), a switch for VR settings (Off, normal VR, and Sport mode), a Focus Function Selector, and a beep on/off switch.

Additionally, there are four focus function buttons between the rubber grip and focus ring. These buttons offer three functions: AF-L for focus lock during autofocus, Memory Recall for storing a pre-set focus distance, and AF-ON for simple focusing without using camera body controls. Although strategically placed, some users may find it challenging to locate specific switches without taking the camera from their face, particularly when they are lined up next to other switches. The VR switch is slightly offset, making it less intuitive to locate, and some users may find the Focus Function buttons a bit far out on the barrel to access when handholding.

In conclusion, both lenses provide a set of switches and buttons tailored to different preferences and shooting styles. The 200-500mm lens offers an intuitive and straightforward layout, while the 500mm lens provides a more comprehensive and customizable control set. If you prefer simplicity and ease of use, the 200-500mm lens might be the better choice. However, if you value customization and a wider range of options, the 500mm lens would be the superior choice despite its minor usability challenges.

Filter Thread

The Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 features a 95mm filter thread, which is a less common size. This metal filter thread ensures durability and a secure fit for filters. The front element and filter thread do not rotate during focusing, making it convenient to use with polarizers and graduated neutral density filters. Despite the uncommon size, there are high-quality filters available from reputable brands like B+W and Hoya, offering excellent protection and performance.

On the other hand, the Nikon 500mm f/4 doesn’t have a traditional front filter thread due to its large size. Instead, it employs an internal filter carrier system that accommodates 40.5mm Nikon filters. The filter holder is located at the back of the lens, directly in line with the Memory Set button.

The drop-in filter system even features a dial on the top for rotating circular polarizers, allowing full utilization of their functionality while inside the lens. The front element does not rotate during focusing, as it has an internal focusing mechanism, making it easier to use filters since they remain in a fixed position inside the lens.

In conclusion, both lenses have unique approaches to filter thread design. The 200-500mm lens provides a more traditional filter thread with a less common size, while the 500mm lens opts for an innovative internal filter carrier system.

Lens Hood

The Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 comes with a one-piece plastic bayonet lens hood included in the package. With a 5″ diameter and 4″ length, this large lens hood effectively prevents unwanted light from entering the lens. Its smooth finish allows for easy rotation, and it can be conveniently reversed and mounted on the lens for transportation.

On the other hand, the Nikon 500mm f/4 includes a lightweight carbon fiber lens hood in the package. This 7″ long hood reverse mounts on the lens and features a grippy rubber surface, enhancing the visual impression of the slender lens barrel. The carbon fiber material offers a unique aesthetic while keeping the weight low.

In conclusion, both lens hoods provide effective protection against unwanted light and can be reverse-mounted for transportation. The 200-500mm lens hood has a smooth, plastic design, while the 500mm lens hood stands out with its lightweight carbon fiber construction and rubber grip. If you prefer a classic, smooth finish, the 200-500mm lens hood may be the better choice. However, if you value a more distinctive appearance and a lightweight yet sturdy material, the 500mm lens hood is the superior option.

Tripod Collar

The Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 features a tripod collar designed to support its weight and provide a stable platform when using a tripod. With a single connection point located far on the back of the lens barrel, the collar could benefit from a two-point stabilization system, like those found in Kirk and RRS replacement lens collars.

Though not directly compatible with Arca-Swiss, many photographers choose to replace the stock collar with an aftermarket one for better support and compatibility. The tripod collar can be removed when not needed for more comfortable handheld use.

In contrast, the Nikon 500mm f/4 includes a rotating tripod collar with roller bearings, allowing for a smooth transition between horizontal and vertical orientations. The long lens foot has a grippy rubber surface, and large mounting points are available for the included LN-2 lens strap. A security slot at the base of the collar lets you attach a security cable. However, the collar lacks Arca-Swiss dovetails in its tripod feet, requiring either the addition of a dovetail plate or an aftermarket replacement foot.

In conclusion, both tripod collars provide support and stability for their respective lenses, with the 500mm lens offering smoother rotation and additional features like a security slot and lens strap mounting points. However, neither lens collar is directly compatible with Arca-Swiss, requiring aftermarket modifications for improved compatibility.

Focusing and Optical Stabilization

Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 200-500mm F5.6E ED VRNikon AF-S NIKKOR 500mm F4E FL ED VR
AF MotorSilent Wave MotorSilent Wave Motor
Rotating Front ElementDoes not rotate on focusingDoes not rotate on focusing
Min Focus Distance2.2m3.6m
Max Magnification (X)0.220.14
Full-Time Manual FocusYesYes
Focus MethodInternalInternal

Focusing Performance

The Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 is equipped with a built-in Silent Wave Motor (SWM), ensuring quiet autofocus operation and allowing full-time manual focus override when set to the M/A position. The autofocus speed is impressive, with initial focus acquisition faster than many f/1.8 Nikon primes. The lens takes about 1 second to focus from close to infinity at 500mm and about 0.7 seconds at 300mm.

Low-light performance is generally decent, though it may slow down slightly at 500mm. The lens focuses accurately and consistently, with excellent repeatability. The manual focus action is smooth, featuring a wide focus ring for precise adjustments. With an internally focusing design, the lens length remains constant and the front element does not rotate during focusing, making it convenient for polarizing filters.

On the other hand, the Nikon 500mm f/4 boasts a Silent Wave Motor AF system, which is quick, accurate, and nearly inaudible. The focusing speed is lightning-fast, making it ideal for action, sports, and wildlife photography. Its internally focusing design ensures constant lens length regardless of the focus setting, and the front element does not rotate during focusing.

In low-light situations, autofocus performance remains reliable. The initial autofocus acquisition speed is impressive, and the lens focuses accurately on subjects. Manual focus override is available through the wide rubberized focusing ring, which is smooth and well-damped for fine adjustments.

In conclusion, both lenses demonstrate strong focusing performance, with the 500mm lens having a slight edge due to its lightning-fast autofocus speed, making it better suited for action, sports, and wildlife photography. However, the 200-500mm lens still offers impressive autofocus capabilities and excellent repeatability, making it a strong contender in its own right.

Optical Stabilization

The Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 features an effective Vibration Reduction (VR) system that provides up to 4.5 stops of stabilization, allowing for sharp images even at slower shutter speeds. The system operates silently, making it ideal for photography and video recording.

The lens offers two stabilization modes: Normal and Sport, with Sport mode optimized for tracking fast-moving subjects. At 500mm with VR enabled, shutter speeds as slow as 1/60 seconds can produce usable shots, and even down to 1/25 seconds in some cases, showcasing the impressive performance of the stabilization system.

In contrast, the Nikon 500mm f/4 is equipped with Nikon’s Vibration Reduction (VR) technology, providing up to 4 stops of image stabilization. This allows for hand-held shooting at shutter speeds up to 4 times slower than without stabilization.

The VR system operates silently and has two modes: normal VR and Sport mode. In Sport mode, the lens can shoot at faster frame rates, making it ideal for capturing fast-moving subjects. Hand-held shots at 1/30 sec are possible around half the time, which is around 4 stops slower than the usual rule of thumb would recommend. This stabilization system is highly effective for photographers shooting wildlife, sports, or other subjects requiring long telephoto reach.

In conclusion, both lenses offer remarkable optical stabilization, but the 200-500mm lens has a slight advantage, providing up to 4.5 stops of stabilization compared to the 4 stops offered by the 500mm lens. This allows for even slower shutter speeds while maintaining sharp images.

Image Quality

Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 200-500mm F5.6E ED VRNikon AF-S NIKKOR 500mm F4E FL ED VR
Special Elements3 ED elements3 ED, 2 fluorite. Nano Crystal and Fluorine coatings.
Diaphragm Blades99
Circular ApertureYesYes


The Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 demonstrates minimal chromatic aberration, even on highly contrasted edges. Aberration levels are low at 200mm and 300mm but increase slightly towards 400mm and 500mm focal lengths.

The lens exhibits some cat’s-eye effect towards the borders/corners of the sensor and obvious coma as you move towards the corners. The bokeh has a bit of an “onion-ring” effect. However, spherical aberration is significantly reduced by the extra-low dispersion lens elements, contributing to the overall sharpness and contrast of the lens.

On the other hand, the Nikon 500mm f/4 exhibits extremely low chromatic aberration, with levels barely exceeding 0.5 pixel widths towards the edges of the frame when stopped down to f/22. This minimal fringing is hard to spot even in high contrast areas near the frame edges.

Coma is not a significant issue with this lens, as it is designed for excellent edge-to-edge performance, particularly on DX bodies. Spherical aberration is well controlled due to the use of special glass elements, such as fluorite and extra-low dispersion elements, which help maintain sharpness and clarity while minimizing aberrations.

In conclusion, while both lenses perform admirably in terms of aberration control, the 500mm lens has the upper hand, exhibiting extremely low chromatic aberration and better coma control. The use of special glass elements in the 500mm lens contributes to its superior performance in minimizing spherical aberration, maintaining sharpness, and clarity. Therefore, the 500mm lens takes the lead in terms of aberration control.


The Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 exhibits excellent center sharpness throughout the zoom range, with some corner softness at longer focal lengths and wide open apertures. Stopping down improves corner sharpness, often peaking around f/11.

At 200mm, the lens has very good center sharpness at f/5.6, which reaches excellent levels at f/8. The sharpness tends to drop as you zoom in, with a noticeable drop at 500mm, although it is still usable. Using a teleconverter may impact autofocus accuracy and further reduce sharpness.

In contrast, the Nikon 500mm f/4 exhibits remarkable sharpness, with outstanding center sharpness and excellent clarity towards the edges from the maximum aperture. The center sharpness remains consistently high from f/4 to f/22.

Corner sharpness is slightly reduced at f/4 but improves significantly at f/5.6 and reaches its maximum at f/8 through to f/16. At f/22, corner sharpness is slightly softer due to diffraction. When using a teleconverter, the lens may lose some sharpness, but the performance will still be commendable, especially when combined with proper technique and stabilization.

In conclusion, the 500mm lens outshines the 200-500mm lens in terms of sharpness. With its outstanding center sharpness and excellent edge clarity, the 500mm lens delivers consistently high performance throughout the aperture range. While the 200-500mm lens has commendable sharpness, its performance drops slightly at longer focal lengths. Therefore, if sharpness is a priority, the 500mm lens emerges as the superior choice.

Bokeh Quality

The Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 produces pleasing bokeh quality, with smooth and beautiful out-of-focus areas. This lens features an iris diaphragm with 9 rounded aperture blades, which contributes to the attractive rendition of the out-of-focus areas.

It handles specular highlights and background isolation effectively, resulting in appealing bokeh without any onion-shaped highlights or distracting patterns. The bokeh balls exhibit very low longitudinal chromatic aberration, and the cat’s-eye effect is present but not too intrusive.

On the other hand, the Nikon 500mm f/4 also produces smooth and beautiful bokeh, with a 9-blade rounded diaphragm contributing to the pleasing effect. The background separation is enhanced thanks to the lens’s excellent sharpness and constant f/4 maximum aperture at 500mm.

In conclusion, both lenses deliver impressive bokeh quality, creating smooth and visually appealing out-of-focus areas. However, the 500mm lens offers slightly better background separation due to its superior sharpness and constant f/4 aperture, giving it an edge in terms of bokeh quality. Thus, if bokeh quality is an essential aspect for your photography, the 500mm lens would be the better choice.


The Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 demonstrates good flare-resistance, but ghosting and flare can still be a problem if a strong light source is directly in the frame or near the edge of the image. However, when the light is clearly outside the image-frame, there are no artifacts produced.

The flare patterns produced by this lens are simple and without additional coloration. It is important to be cautious of strong light sources directly outside the frame, but overall, the flare and ghosting performance is good.

In contrast, the Nikon 500mm f/4 features advanced technologies such as Nano Crystal Coat and Super Integrated Coating, which help reduce flare and ghosting. These coatings provide crisper, higher-contrast images straight out of the camera when compared to non-Nano-coated lenses.

However, when the sun enters the lens hood and comes close to the front element, some flare may still occur. Generally, the lens handles flare and ghosting quite well, providing sharp and clear images in various lighting conditions.

In conclusion, both lenses perform well in terms of flare and ghosting resistance. However, the 500mm lens has a slight advantage due to its advanced coating technologies, which help to reduce flare and ghosting more effectively.


The Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 demonstrates impressive control over vignetting, with only minor darkening of the edges at focal lengths beyond 300mm when focused at infinity. At shorter focal lengths, vignetting is practically non-existent. Although there is some vignetting present, it can easily be corrected in post-processing and often adds a charming quality to the images.

On the other hand, the Nikon 500mm f/4 exhibits minimal vignetting, even at its maximum aperture. As you stop down the aperture, vignetting becomes less noticeable and is practically negligible by f/5.6. This impressive performance can be attributed to the lens’s advanced optical design and construction, making it suitable for various shooting conditions where even illumination across the frame is essential.

In conclusion, both lenses exhibit good control over vignetting, but the 500mm lens has a slight edge due to its minimal vignetting even at its maximum aperture. This advantage makes the 500mm lens more suitable for shooting scenarios where even illumination across the frame is crucial.


The Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 exhibits minor pincushion distortion across various settings and distances, but it is usually not noticeable in real-world scenarios. Most Nikon DSLRs can automatically correct this distortion, and if not, you can easily remove it using Photoshop’s Lens Distortion tool. Despite these imperfections, the lens produces sharp images with minimal linear distortion. In summary, distortion is generally manageable and easily corrected in post-processing.

On the other hand, the Nikon 500mm f/4 has excellent control over distortion, with Imatest only detecting 0.6% pincushion distortion, which is uniform across the frame. While this low level may not be noticeable in normal photographs, it is particularly useful if you require straight lines in your images. Applying corrections in post-processing software should be straightforward thanks to the uniform distortion pattern.

In conclusion, both lenses perform well in terms of distortion control, but the 500mm lens has a slight advantage due to its exceptionally low and uniform pincushion distortion.

Final Verdict

Taking into account all the conclusions made, it is clear that both the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 and Nikon 500mm f/4 have their respective strengths and weaknesses, catering to different priorities and preferences.

If you are a professional photographer who prioritizes sharpness, bokeh quality, low light performance, weather sealing, and distortion control, the 500mm lens is the superior option. This lens is particularly suitable for sports and wildlife photography, where capturing fast action, subject isolation, and overall image quality are crucial.

On the other hand, 200-500mm lens is a more versatile and affordable choice, with impressive autofocus capabilities, portability, and ease of handling. This lens is better suited for photographers who require adaptability to changing scenes and conditions without sacrificing much in terms of image quality.

In conclusion, your specific needs and priorities as a photographer should guide your decision. The 500mm lens is the ideal choice for professional photographers who demand the best performance and are willing to invest in a more expensive lens. However, the 200-500mm lens offers a great balance of performance and affordability, making it a strong contender for photographers who want a versatile telephoto lens without breaking the bank.

Meet the Author

Wei Mao

Wei was a cruise photographer who worked at Disney Cruise Line. He is a lucky traveler who has been to more than 20 countries with his camera while working on an around-the-world cruise. Photography has changed his view of the world forever. Now he wants more people to benefit from photography through his blog.

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