Nikon 300mm f/4 vs. Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6: The Great Lens Showdown for Sports and Wildlife Photography Enthusiasts

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Lights, camera, action! If you’re a photography enthusiast looking to freeze the breathtaking leap of a gazelle, capture the perfect touchdown at a high-speed football game, or portray the elusive emotions of nature and wildlife in their candid glory, you know how pivotal the role of a quality lens is. That’s precisely where our comprehensive comparison of the Nikon 300mm f/4 and the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 comes into play, two coveted contenders in the realm of sports and wildlife photography.

The 300mm and the 200-500mm lenses are not just glass and metal, they are the eyes through which your camera sees the world, and each offers a unique perspective. The 300mm lens, with its compact size and superior low-light performance, brings the far-off close, making it a popular choice for many professionals. On the other hand, the 200-500mm lens, boasting a versatile zoom range and excellent aberration control, offers the flexibility to frame and capture your subject from varying distances with striking detail.

Yet, you may wonder, why compare these two seemingly distinct lenses? The answer lies in your quest to find the perfect fit for your photographic journey, be it capturing the dynamic world of sports or the alluring mysteries of wildlife. These lenses, despite their unique attributes, compete in the same arena and are often the subject of debate among photographers of all skill levels.

By delving into this comparison, you will not only gain in-depth knowledge about each lens’s features and performance but also learn how these attributes translate to real-world photography. We will cover everything from their usability in different lighting conditions, depth of field, weight, environmental resistance, to factors like focusing performance, aberration control, and more. This information will empower you to make an informed decision based on your unique photographic style and requirements.

As we journey together through the world of aperture and focal lengths, the captivating narrative of these two lenses will unfold, revealing the subtle and not-so-subtle nuances that could elevate your photographic game. So, tighten your camera straps and put on your photography caps, because we are about to delve into a world where art meets science, and the ordinary becomes extraordinary.

Hold onto your passion, and let’s explore the limitless possibilities that the Nikon 300mm and 200-500mm lenses offer!

Overview

Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 300mm F4E PF ED VRNikon AF-S NIKKOR 200-500mm F5.6E ED VR
Max ApertureF4.0F5.6
Aperture TypeFixedFixed
Focal Range (mm)300200-500
Mount TypeNikon F (FX)Nikon F (FX)
Max Format35mm FF35mm FF
Zoom Ratio (X)12.5

The Nikon 300mm f/4 and the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 each come with their own unique set of features and trade-offs, making them suited for different photographic scenarios.

The 300mm lens stands out for its larger maximum aperture of f/4.0, as compared to f/5.6 in the 200-500mm lens. A larger aperture provides better low-light performance by allowing more light to enter the camera, thus enabling faster shutter speeds or lower ISO settings for cleaner, sharper images. This is particularly beneficial in wildlife and sports photography, where lighting conditions can be unpredictable and you often need to freeze fast-moving subjects. Furthermore, a larger aperture creates a shallower depth of field, enhancing the subject-background separation, which can bring your subject into sharper focus against a blurred background. Despite these advantages, the 300mm lens lacks zoom flexibility, which might limit its versatility in capturing different types of shots.

In contrast, the 200-500mm lens, as a zoom lens, offers a wide focal range from 200mm to 500mm, providing more versatility for framing and composing shots. This can be advantageous in wildlife and sports photography, where the distance to the subject can vary significantly. The zoom ratio of 2.5 implies a greater range of zoom, which can help frame subjects better at varying distances. Despite having a smaller aperture, this lens is capable of maintaining the maximum aperture of f/5.6 throughout the zoom range, thanks to its fixed aperture design. However, the smaller aperture might limit its performance under low light conditions and affect the depth of field, leading to less subject-background separation compared to the 300mm lens.

In summary, if you often shoot in low-light conditions, need a shallower depth of field, and can work within a fixed focal length, the 300mm lens might be the better option. However, if you require greater versatility in framing your subjects from varying distances, the 200-500mm lens, with its broader focal range, would be more suitable. Choosing between these two lenses largely depends on your specific needs and shooting scenarios. Although both lenses excel in different areas, the 200-500mm lens stands out due to its superior flexibility in focal range, making it a versatile tool for wildlife and sports photography.

Design and Ease of Use

Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 300mm F4E PF ED VRNikon AF-S NIKKOR 200-500mm F5.6E ED VR
Diameter x Length (mm)⌀89×147.5mm⌀108×267.5mm
Weight (gr)7552300
Filter Thread (mm)7795
Weather SealingYesNo
Zoom MethodNo ZoomRotary (extending)
Distance ScaleYesYes
DoF ScaleNoNo
Hood SuppliedYesYes
Hood CodeHB-73HB-71
Tripod CollarNoYes

Comparing the Nikon 300mm f/4 and the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 based on their physical attributes, we find some interesting differences.

The 300mm lens is significantly smaller and lighter than the 200-500mm lens, with dimensions of ⌀89×147.5mm and a weight of just 755 grams. This makes it a more portable option, easier to carry around, particularly for longer periods or during travel. Its compact size contributes to better balance on the camera, preventing a front-heavy feel that could lead to handling difficulties or discomfort during long shoots. Additionally, the small size and weight would simplify the process of swapping lenses quickly in dynamic shooting environments.

On the other hand, the 200-500mm lens is a considerably larger and heavier lens, with dimensions of ⌀108×267.5mm and a substantial weight of 2300 grams. This bulk could potentially be a hindrance in terms of portability and balance. Carrying around this lens for extended periods could be tiring due to its weight, and the size could unbalance your camera setup, making it feel front-heavy. This larger lens would also take up more space in your camera bag and be more conspicuous in public settings, potentially attracting attention when you’d prefer to blend in. However, the large size is often indicative of the lens’s zoom capabilities, suggesting that this lens provides greater versatility in framing and composing shots.

In summary, the 300mm lens shines for its compact size and lightweight design, making it more comfortable for extended use and travel. The 200-500mm lens, while significantly larger and heavier, may offer greater flexibility in framing your shots due to its zoom range. So, if portability, balance, and discretion are your top priorities, the 300mm lens is the superior option. However, if you require a broader focal range for diverse shooting scenarios and can accommodate the added weight and size, the 200-500mm lens could be your lens of choice.

Lens Mount and Barrel

The Nikon 300mm f/4 boasts a robust metal lens mount, fortified with a rubber sealing to shield against dust and moisture. This sturdy construction ensures a reliable and steady connection to the camera body, while the rubber sealing extends a protective layer against intrusive elements like dust, providing a clean environment for your camera’s inner workings and the image sensor. This rubber gasket plays a pivotal role in moisture resistance, minimizing the risk of water damage, thus enhancing lens and camera performance.

The lens barrel of the 300mm lens primarily consists of top-tier plastic, furnished with a semi-rough black finish. This not only adds a robust feel to the lens but also ensures a non-slip grip, advantageous in challenging weather conditions or extensive use.

Switching focus to the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6, its mount is built with metal and enriched with a rubber gasket as a barrier against dust and moisture. While the specifications are similar to the 300mm lens, it is not explicitly mentioned whether the gasket shields the entire mount area, as with the 300mm lens.

As for the lens barrel, the 200-500mm lens demonstrates a blend of metal and high-quality plastic, with an outer metal barrel encased in a plastic shell and an inner plastic barrel. The design includes a telescoping feature when zooming, elongating the lens physically, but with the addition of a lock mechanism to hold the lens steady at the shortest 200mm length. Despite this change in size during zooming, it maintains a balanced alignment with the camera.

In conclusion, if your priority is robustness, comprehensive dust, and moisture protection, and a secure grip, the 300mm lens has a slight edge with its detailed protective features and the semi-rough finish on the barrel. Conversely, if your photography requires frequent focal length adjustments, the 200-500mm lens with its telescoping feature and lock mechanism offers a compelling case. Despite its length variation during zooming, the lens ensures a steady balance with the camera, a critical factor in wildlife and sports photography.

Weather Sealing

The Nikon 300mm f/4 and the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 come with different levels of weather sealing, a vital feature that enhances the resilience of lenses against unfavorable environmental conditions.

Starting with the 300mm lens, it incorporates several protective measures to resist the intrusion of dust, moisture, and light water splashes. It features a rubber gasket at the lens mount, specifically designed to obstruct dust and debris from compromising the camera’s internals. The lens’s sturdy construction underlines its capacity to endure challenging environmental circumstances. An interesting add-on is the Fluorine coating on the front element, repelling water, grease, and dirt, facilitating easy cleanup. Additionally, the lens cap’s rubberized front end further enhances its sealing when attached. Nevertheless, while the lens might sustain a drizzle, severe weather conditions may demand extra protective actions.

On the contrary, the 200-500mm lens lacks comprehensive weather sealing. Although it sports a rubber gasket at the lens mount for partial water resistance, there’s an absence of internal seals at critical points, like rings, switches, or the barrel front. Furthermore, it doesn’t feature a Fluorine coating on the front element, which would have been instrumental in water repulsion and ease of cleaning. While the lens can manage minor cold, dust, and moisture exposure, it isn’t equipped for extreme weather or heavy-duty use.

Considering the details, the 300mm lens offers superior weather sealing, promising more robust protection against environmental elements. While both lenses provide some level of protection, the additional Fluorine coating and rubberized front end on the 300mm lens underscore its enhanced weather resistance, providing a better safeguard for your equipment under variable weather conditions.

Rings

The Nikon 300mm f/4 and the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 display different configurations of rings, integral to lens manipulation and precise control in photography.

Delving into the 300mm lens, it comprises a single focus ring situated near the lens’s front. Its substantial 22mm wide profile is garnished with a raised, rubber surface, enhancing grip and seamless operation. The broad, textured surface bolsters its ergonomics, rendering it highly manageable during both swift and fine adjustments.

Despite being somewhat stiffer than required, its well-dampened, responsive feel aids precise control over minor focus changes. Lacking hard stops, the focus ring permits movement beyond the closest focus point and infinity, albeit with a bit more resistance. Its recessed, windowed distance scale indicates measurements in feet and meters, offering utility for pre-focusing or manual focusing tasks. However, the absence of depth-of-field and infrared index indicators somewhat limits focus control. The lens affords a manual focusing distance or throw of about 135 degrees, providing ample range for precise focusing, even at wide apertures.

Conversely, the 200-500mm lens boasts two rings – a ribbed zoom ring and a textured rubber focus ring, devised for a smooth rotation and a premium feel. The zoom ring, placed towards the lens’s front, requires almost a 180-degree rotation to zoom from 200mm to 500mm.

The focus ring, located closer to the camera body, facilitates an effortless change of focal length while ensuring an optimal balance and grip technique. Interestingly, the lens suffers from no zoom creep and features a zoom lock switch at its shortest 200mm length. It also equips a focus limiter function and allows for full-time manual focus override in M/A mode. Additionally, a windowed distance scale is present.

Ergonomically, both lenses incorporate textured surfaces for a secure grip and easy maneuverability. The 200-500mm lens offers both focus and zoom adjustments, offering versatility, while the 300mm lens prioritizes precision focusing. While aesthetics are subjective, both lenses exhibit well-designed rings contributing to a quality appearance. The tactile feedback on the 300mm lens may be more appealing to photographers who prefer a bit of resistance, while the 200-500mm lens offers smooth and easy rotation. The 200-500mm lens provides better ring placement, ensuring no accidental adjustments, while the 300mm lens focuses on a single ring’s precise operation.

In conclusion, deciding which lens has superior rings is subjective and heavily dependent on individual preferences and usage. The 200-500mm lens, with its dual rings, offers more versatility and may be better suited for those who value smooth zooming capabilities and easy access to both focus and zoom rings. On the other hand, the 300mm lens, with its well-damped focus ring, provides superior control for precision focusing, making it a preferable choice for those who need to make rapid and fine focus adjustments.

Switches/Buttons

The Nikon 300mm f/4 and the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 both include distinct switches and buttons that enhance functionality, with a few differences in their design and operational aspects.

Looking at the 300mm lens first, it incorporates 3 significant switches positioned strategically on the side of the lens for ease of access and operation. The uppermost switch serves as the control for focus operation and presents three settings: Auto/Manual (A/M), Manual/Auto (M/A), and Manual (M). These settings allow for seamless autofocus capability with the added flexibility of manual focus override by rotating the focus ring, or a complete manual focus in the M setting. The second switch, a range limiter, enhances focus performance based on the distance of the subject, providing the option to engage the full focus range or to limit the focus to subjects beyond 3 meters. This mechanism aids in boosting autofocus performance and eliminating any unwanted focus hunting. The third switch is the Vibration Reduction (VR) control, enabling the VR feature to be turned on or off, with additional settings for NORMAL or SPORT modes catering to various shooting scenarios.

Turning to the 200-500mm lens, it features a total of 4 switches on the side of the lens. These include an AF/MF switch for full-time manual focus override, a focus limiter switch that confines the autofocus distance to a particular range, an IS switch to turn on or off the vibration reduction system, and a VR mode switch for toggling between normal and sport mode. These switches are designed to be easily located and used, with the focus ring and zoom ring also meticulously designed and textured for comfortable handling.

In comparing these two lenses, both present switches that are conveniently located and easy to use, enhancing both the functionality and user experience of the lenses. However, the 200-500mm lens, with its 4 distinct switches, offers a slightly greater level of control and customization compared to the 300mm lens, which comes with 3 switches.

Filter Thread

Starting with the Nikon 300mm f/4, it utilizes a filter thread size of 77mm, a commonly found size that caters to a wide array of filters available in the market. The unchanged size from its predecessor, the D version, presents an advantage to users possessing 77mm filters already or those considering an upgrade from the older model. The filter thread is typically composed of sturdy metal, enhancing its resistance to the occasional wear and tear during filter attachment and removal. An important feature of this lens is its internal focusing, which ensures that the front element and filter thread remain static during focusing. This is notably useful for photographers employing polarizing or graduated filters, as the position of these filters remains undisturbed while adjusting the focus.

Conversely, the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 comes equipped with a filter thread of 95mm, a less prevalent size. Nevertheless, it’s crafted from a resilient metal material, promising durability and a solid fit for filters. Similar to the 300mm lens, the 200-500mm lens also boasts a non-rotating front element and filter thread during focusing, simplifying the use of filters like polarizers and graduated neutral density filters. Even though the 95mm filter size might be rarer, high-quality filters from esteemed brands, such as B+W and Hoya, are available and offer excellent performance and protection over numerous years.

Comparatively, both lenses feature a metal filter thread and a non-rotating design during focusing. However, their filter thread size differs. The 77mm filter thread on the 300mm lens is more standard and likely to offer wider filter options at a more affordable price, beneficial for photographers who regularly use filters. The 200-500mm lens, with its 95mm filter thread, might require more specialized and potentially costlier filters, though it can still accommodate high-quality ones.

In conclusion, if versatility and cost-effectiveness in filter use are priorities, the 300mm lens, with its standard 77mm filter thread, provides a superior choice. However, both lenses cater well to photographers’ needs, each offering durable materials and convenient non-rotating design during focusing.

Lens Hood

Both the Nikon 300mm f/4 and the 200-500mm lenses come equipped with a lens hood, an accessory that plays a crucial role in preventing unwanted light from entering the lens, reducing glare and lens flare, and offering some level of physical protection for the lens.

The 300mm lens is packaged with an HB-73 bayonet lens hood. This lens hood, constructed from lightweight plastic similar to the lens barrel, is designed to effortlessly attach to the lens and securely lock into place. Its thin construction is purposed to minimize weight, aligning with the overall design goal of the lens. One noteworthy feature of this hood is its reversibility, allowing for convenient storage directly on the lens, thereby increasing its practicality and portability. Despite the plastic construction, the hood enhances the overall sturdy feel of the lens, providing a beneficial accessory for photographers.

On the other hand, the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 comes with a one-piece plastic bayonet lens hood included in its package. It can also be reversed and attached to the lens for easy transportation. The hood’s size, with a 5″ diameter and 4″ length, ensures its effectiveness in blocking stray light and protecting the lens. Its smooth rotation and finish enhance the user experience, while the plastic build, similar to the 300mm lens, helps maintain a balanced weight for the lens.

Comparatively, both lens hoods are made of plastic and employ a bayonet mount system, ensuring a secure fit and easy attachment and detachment. They also both feature a reversible design, enhancing their practicality during transportation. However, the 200-500mm lens hood is larger, offering potentially improved protection from stray light and physical impact.

In conclusion, while both hoods serve their purpose well, the larger size of the 200-500mm lens hood gives it a slight edge in terms of performance, offering potentially better protection against flare and physical damage.

Tripod Collar

In the realm of telephoto lenses, particularly for applications like wildlife and sports photography, the feature of a tripod collar can significantly impact a photographer’s shooting experience, offering varying degrees of support, stability, and convenience.

Starting with the Nikon 300mm f/4, it’s interesting to note that it does not come equipped with a tripod collar. The rationale for this design choice is rooted in the lens’s lightweight characteristic, suggesting that the lens can be comfortably used handheld without necessitating additional support from a tripod. For photographers on the move or those preferring a more mobile and agile shooting style, this can be an appealing aspect, allowing them to shoot unencumbered by additional equipment.

Contrarily, the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 is endowed with a tripod collar, providing a solid support structure when the lens is mounted on a tripod. However, the collar’s single connection point, located considerably towards the lens barrel’s rear, might not offer optimal stabilization compared to systems employing two-point stabilization. Despite its lack of direct compatibility with Arca-Swiss, a renowned quick-release system, many photographers choose to upgrade the stock collar with an aftermarket one for enhanced support and compatibility. Importantly, this tripod collar is removable, offering flexibility for handheld use when a tripod isn’t required.

In conclusion, while the absence of a tripod collar on the 300mm lens promotes handheld shooting ease, the 200-500mm lens’s collar offers greater support and adaptability for tripod-assisted shoots.

Focusing and Optical Stabilization

Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 300mm F4E PF ED VRNikon AF-S NIKKOR 200-500mm F5.6E ED VR
AutofocusYesYes
AF MotorSilent Wave MotorSilent Wave Motor
Rotating Front ElementDoes not rotate on focusingDoes not rotate on focusing
Min Focus Distance1.4m2.2m
Max Magnification (X)0.240.22
Full-Time Manual FocusYesYes
Focus MethodInternalInternal

Focusing Performance

Comparing the focusing performance of the 300mm and 200-500mm lenses provides us with intriguing insights into their suitability for different shooting scenarios, particularly in dynamic fields like wildlife and sports photography where swift and precise focusing is critical.

The Nikon 300mm f/4 showcases fast autofocus performance, achieving the transition from infinity to 3 meters within a brisk timeframe of 0.35-0.5 seconds. It’s worth noting, however, that it shares a similar tendency with its predecessor, the 300/4.0D, in resisting focus when the subject is too blurred. In terms of operation noise, the 300mm lens generally offers a nearly silent autofocus experience, except when it adjusts focus gradually, which might create some audible noise. While its autofocus is efficient, manual adjustments might occasionally be necessary, which can be conveniently accomplished via the lens’s smooth focus ring. There is some focus breathing, albeit moderate, which is unlikely to disturb videographers significantly. The lens’s autofocus accuracy and consistency are commendable, effectively retaining focus on moving subjects and reacting promptly to sudden movements. Lastly, it’s equipped with a focus limiter switch to avoid unnecessary focus hunting, enhancing the lens’s focusing efficiency.

In contrast, the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 is armed with a Silent Wave Motor (SWM), enabling quiet autofocus operations and providing the possibility of manual focus override. Its autofocus speed is robust, taking about 1 second to focus from close to infinity at 500mm, and about 0.7 seconds at 300mm. Although, it’s worth mentioning that its low-light focusing performance could slightly diminish at 500mm. One of its strong suits is its consistent and precise focusing, ensuring repeatability. The wide focus ring ensures a smooth manual focus action, facilitating precise focus adjustments. Moreover, this lens employs an internally focusing design, keeping the length constant and the front element stationary during focusing, which is advantageous when using polarizing filters.

Considering the above, both lenses perform admirably in terms of focusing performance, each with its unique strengths. The 300mm lens excels in swift autofocus, especially beneficial in shooting scenarios with rapidly moving subjects. On the other hand, the 200-500mm lens shines in delivering quiet and accurate focusing with excellent repeatability, along with the advantage of an internally focusing design.

Thus, determining a superior lens in terms of focusing performance largely depends on your specific needs. If speed is your prime concern, especially in capturing swift movements, the 300mm lens holds the upper hand. However, if your priority leans towards quiet operation, accuracy, repeatability, and the convenience of an internally focusing design, the 200-500mm lens takes the lead.

Optical Stabilization

Starting with the Nikon 300mm f/4, it boasts Nikon’s latest generation Vibration Reduction (VR) system, which claims to offer up to 4.5 stops of compensation. However, testing reveals that this might be somewhat overestimated, with the VR more realistically providing an effective range of 3 to 4 stops under typical conditions. Impressively, with VR enabled, the lens can still yield sharp images at shutter speeds as slow as 1/40 second, comparable to those taken at a much faster 1/320 second with VR turned off.

Furthermore, the lens offers VR modes including OFF, NORMAL, and SPORT. Notably, the SPORT mode enhances tracking performance for moving subjects and is particularly beneficial for capturing panning shots. An additional advantage of the VR system is that it mitigates the jittery viewfinder image at extended focal lengths such as 300mm, caused by slight hand movements, thereby facilitating subject tracking and image composition.

Switching to the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6, it features a proficient Vibration Reduction system that delivers up to 4.5 stops of stabilization, facilitating sharp image capture even at slower shutter speeds. Importantly, the VR operates quietly, rendering it suitable for both photo and video work. This lens offers two stabilization modes, Normal and Sport, the latter being optimized for tracking high-speed subjects. At the lens’s longest reach of 500mm, images can remain usable at surprisingly slow shutter speeds, down to 1/60 and occasionally 1/25 seconds, a testament to the potency of the lens’s VR system.

Comparatively, both lenses exhibit effective optical stabilization systems, though they manifest different strengths. The 300mm lens offers effective stabilization across a variety of shooting conditions, especially beneficial when capturing handheld at slower shutter speeds. The SPORT mode and its role in subject tracking and image composition at longer focal lengths is a clear advantage. On the other hand, the 200-500mm lens stands out with its ability to maintain sharp images at remarkably slow shutter speeds, even at 500mm, and its silent operation is a significant benefit for video work.

In conclusion,if quiet operation and the ability to capture sharp images at extremely slow shutter speeds are of paramount importance, the 200-500mm lens would be the preferred choice. However, if you’re looking for a lens that performs robustly across various conditions, with an effective SPORT mode that enhances subject tracking and image composition, then the 300mm lens would be the more suitable option.

Image Quality

Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 300mm F4E PF ED VRNikon AF-S NIKKOR 200-500mm F5.6E ED VR
Special Elements1 ED element 1 phase fresnel element Fluorine coating Nano crystal coating3 ED elements
Diaphragm Blades99
Circular ApertureYesYes

Aberration

Commencing with the Nikon 300mm f/4, it shows remarkable prowess in mitigating chromatic aberration, both longitudinally and latitudinally. Latitudinal chromatic aberration is marginally present, yet its insignificance implies post-processing correction may not be necessary. Longitudinal chromatic aberration is meticulously handled, being nearly indistinguishable in most real-world applications. When considering coma, the lens does exhibit the cat’s eye effect, more pronounced at the borders and corners of the sensor, a typical occurrence for larger aperture lenses due to optical vignetting when light enters the lens at an angle. In terms of spherical aberration, the lens is proficient at curbing it, albeit with minor artifacts noted in the out-of-focus rendering, appearing as slight distortions in the shape of out-of-focus light points or minor discontinuities in the transition between in-focus and out-of-focus areas. However, these effects are subtle and usually don’t impact the overall image quality significantly.

Transitioning to the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6, it shows admirable restraint in chromatic aberration, even on highly contrasted edges, rendering color fringing almost non-existent even at 200% crop. At shorter focal lengths of 200mm and 300mm, chromatic aberration remains low, though it tends to increase slightly as one moves towards 400mm and 500mm. This lens also displays the cat’s eye effect toward the sensor’s edges, coupled with noticeable coma towards the corners. Additionally, the bokeh has an “onion-ring” effect, a type of optical distortion that can occur in images with out-of-focus areas. However, spherical aberration is efficiently reduced, thanks to the inclusion of extra-low dispersion elements in the lens design, which enhances overall sharpness and contrast.

In comparison, both lenses display effective aberration control, each excelling in different aspects. The 300mm lens triumphs in managing chromatic aberration and spherical aberration, despite minor out-of-focus artifacts. The 200-500mm lens showcases its strength in chromatic aberration control across different focal lengths and in mitigating spherical aberration, although the presence of coma and the “onion-ring” effect in bokeh should be considered.

In conclusion, determining the superior lens for aberration control largely depends on specific shooting conditions and requirements. If low chromatic aberration at all focal lengths and minimized spherical aberration are paramount, the 200-500mm lens would be the better choice. However, if almost negligible chromatic aberration and subtle handling of spherical aberration are more important, the 300mm lens might be the preferred option.

Sharpness

Analyzing the Nikon 300mm f/4 first, it shines with its remarkable sharpness, most notably in the image center. While there’s a slight decrease in sharpness towards the edges and corners, the overall quality remains impressively high. Even at its widest aperture, the lens performs exceedingly well, especially when paired with sub-frame (DX) camera bodies that accentuate the lens’s most capable central portion. However, as the lens is stopped down from its wide-open setting, there’s a minor reduction in sharpness. Optimal sharpness is achieved at apertures of f/5.6 and f/8, but beyond f/11, there’s a slight decrease due to diffraction, with a more pronounced softness visible at f/16. Nevertheless, this lens maintains a commendable level of sharpness, even if it doesn’t reach the ultra-precise sharpness exhibited by certain other lenses. When coupled with a teleconverter, the lens still retains its sharpness, albeit with a trade-off in subject isolation at 420mm f/5.6.

Moving to the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6, it demonstrates superb center sharpness across the zoom range, though it does display some softness in the corners at longer focal lengths and wider apertures. Stopping down the lens, particularly around f/11, enhances corner sharpness. At 200mm, the lens displays admirable center sharpness at f/5.6, improving even further at f/8. As you zoom in, however, sharpness begins to decline, with a notable decrease at 500mm, albeit still at a usable level. Note that introducing a teleconverter could potentially affect autofocus precision and further diminish sharpness.

Comparatively, both lenses exhibit a strong performance in sharpness, yet in different manners. The 300mm lens maintains impressive sharpness from center to edges, though it sees a decline when stopped down beyond f/11. Conversely, the 200-500mm lens shows exceptional center sharpness, with some corner softness at longer focal lengths, but its sharpness decreases notably at its maximum zoom.

In the end, if your priority lies with maintaining consistently good sharpness across the image frame, the 300mm lens would be an excellent choice. However, if your work requires versatility in focal length with an emphasis on center sharpness, the 200-500mm lens would be the better contender.

Bokeh Quality

Examining the Nikon 300mm f/4 first, it is known to deliver a pleasing and smooth bokeh quality, an essential feature in sports and wildlife photography for creating striking subject isolation. The lens commendably handles the bokeh balls’ outlining with minimal longitudinal chromatic aberration, enhancing the aesthetic appeal of the blurred areas. It impressively presents both the foreground and background bokeh, with the latter being particularly smooth, creating a vivid depth in images.

However, the foreground bokeh might not always meet high expectations and can occasionally appear ordinary. Additionally, under certain lighting conditions, particularly when capturing bright background highlights or intense light sources, the bokeh quality could decline. This is typically due to the Fresnel lens element rings causing irregular shapes within the highlights, which may not be to everyone’s aesthetic liking. Similarly, blurred background lights might result in uneven bokeh balls or unpredicted subject rendering. Nonetheless, these situations are usually rare and should not significantly impact typical shooting conditions. As such, with a nuanced understanding of these conditions, one can fully leverage this lens to produce captivating images.

Switching focus to the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6, it also exhibits pleasing bokeh quality, showcasing smooth and aesthetically appealing out-of-focus areas. The lens utilizes an iris diaphragm with 9 rounded aperture blades, a factor contributing to its attractive bokeh rendition. It adeptly handles specular highlights and background isolation, achieving attractive bokeh without the presence of onion-shaped highlights or distracting patterns. The bokeh balls manifest minimal longitudinal chromatic aberration, and although the cat’s-eye effect is present, it is not overly intrusive and thus maintains the bokeh’s appealing quality.

Comparing the two lenses, both offer a generally pleasing bokeh quality, a vital aspect in sports and wildlife photography for subject emphasis. However, they exhibit slightly different strengths and weaknesses. The 300mm lens renders a smooth background bokeh and handles bokeh ball outlining well, though it can struggle under certain lighting conditions. Conversely, the 200-500mm lens provides an attractive bokeh with effective background isolation and specular highlight handling, with a slightly noticeable cat’s-eye effect.

In summary, the 300mm lens performs impressively under normal conditions but may falter under intense light. The 200-500mm lens offers consistent bokeh quality across different conditions, making it a versatile choice.

Flare/Ghosting

Analyzing the Nikon 300mm f/4 first, it demonstrates a noticeable susceptibility to flare and ghosting, especially when directly confronting a potent light source such as the sun. Such exposure can lead to a reduction in contrast and formation of vividly colored ghost images, substantially affecting overall image quality. This issue intensifies when there are bright highlights within the frame, creating potentially disruptive halos around these light points. The Fresnel elements included in this lens can amplify the flare effect if pointed directly at a strong light source. Even though Nikon asserts their proprietary software might aid in this situation, the outcomes vary and often the flare isn’t completely alleviated. In fact, the Fresnel elements, marked by their circular patterns, can result in unique, sometimes unwanted types of flare.

In extreme cases, the flare can wash out the entire image, making the main subject almost invisible. This can pose an issue when there are bright highlights within the image, resulting in quite visible and potentially distracting halos around them. However, with proper techniques and awareness of lighting conditions, flare and ghosting can be managed. Also, post-processing software might help in reducing these artifacts, although effectiveness can vary based on the flare and ghosting severity. Therefore, while this lens possesses many favorable attributes, it’s important to consider the significant issue of flare and ghosting, especially in conditions with intense lighting or highlights.

Moving on to the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6, it generally exhibits good resistance to flare. Nonetheless, ghosting and flare can still occur if a strong light source is directly within the frame or near the image edge. As long as the light remains clearly outside the frame, no artifacts are produced. Moreover, the flare patterns created by this lens are simple and devoid of additional coloration. It is essential to be cautious about strong light sources directly outside the frame, but apart from that, the lens performs well in terms of flare and ghosting.

Comparing the two lenses, both exhibit different behaviors concerning flare and ghosting. The 300mm lens demonstrates a higher susceptibility to these effects, particularly when exposed to strong light sources or when there are bright highlights within the frame. On the other hand, the 200-500mm lens, while not entirely immune to flare and ghosting, manages to maintain good resistance, especially when the light source is outside the image frame.

In the end, if the criterion for superiority is better flare and ghosting resistance, the 200-500mm lens would be the better choice. Its ability to manage flare and ghosting, particularly when the light source is outside the frame, gives it an edge over the 300mm lens in situations where flare and ghosting could be a concern.

Vignetting

Starting with the Nikon 300mm f/4, it demonstrates a commendable ability to control vignetting. When the lens is fully open, you may observe a slight darkening towards the frame corners, which is a common characteristic of most lenses. However, the beauty lies in the fact that by stopping down the lens, you can substantially reduce this effect. Infinity focus might intensify the darkening a bit more, up to a maximum of 1.7 EVs in the extreme corners. But the good news is, by the time you step down to an aperture of f/5.6, the vignetting effect is halved, and by f/8, it virtually disappears. If there’s still some discernible vignetting, it can easily be mitigated using post-processing software like Lightroom. Although some vignetting may be present, it’s not severe enough to significantly affect image quality and can be managed in most shooting scenarios.

Transitioning to the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6, it shows admirable command over vignetting. A slight darkening of the edges can be observed when shooting at focal lengths beyond 300mm while focusing at infinity. However, this is relatively minor, and at shorter focal lengths, the vignetting is virtually absent. Despite the presence of some vignetting, it can be easily rectified in post-processing, and in certain instances, it might even lend a pleasing quality to the images.

Comparing the two lenses, both manage vignetting quite well. The 300mm lens displays minor corner darkening at maximum aperture and when focusing at infinity. But with a moderate step down in aperture, the vignetting effect is drastically reduced. On the other hand, the 200-500mm lens displays impressive control over vignetting, only showing minor darkening of the edges at longer focal lengths. At shorter focal lengths, the vignetting is almost non-existent.

In conclusion, while both lenses handle vignetting effectively, the 200-500mm lens shows a slight advantage due to its impressive control at both shorter and longer focal lengths. It is able to keep vignetting at a minimum, adding a charming quality to the images while allowing easy corrections in post-processing when necessary. This makes the 200-500mm lens superior in terms of managing vignetting.

Distortion

Beginning with the Nikon 300mm f/4, it stands out with an impressive display of low distortion levels. Testing results imply only a minuscule barrel distortion, standing at -0.6, a level so insignificant it is barely discernible. Any linear distortion that might occur also leans towards pincushion type, but it remains so minute it would not typically call for any post-production corrections. However, on rare occasions when photographing straight lines, a slight correction might be required, but the extent of adjustments would still be marginal. Overall, this lens maintains an exemplary control over distortion, keeping it at a level that’s almost imperceptible.

Moving on to the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6, it does exhibit a minor pincushion distortion across various settings and distances. However, this distortion is typically unnoticeable in everyday photography situations. Thankfully, most Nikon DSLRs have an inbuilt mechanism to automatically correct this type of distortion, making the job easier for photographers. Moreover, for instances where it might be noticeable, you can conveniently remove it using tools like Photoshop’s Lens Distortion tool. Despite these slight imperfections, the lens holds its reputation high by producing sharp images with minimal linear distortion. In essence, any distortion with this lens is usually manageable and easily corrected in post-processing.

Comparing both lenses, the 300mm lens presents itself as an exceptional performer with extremely low distortion levels, both in terms of barrel and linear distortion. On the other hand, the 200-500mm lens, though having slight pincushion distortion, makes up for it with an inbuilt correction mechanism and the ease of correction in post-processing. Despite the minor distortion, it ensures the production of sharp images with minimal linear distortion.

In the final analysis, both lenses handle distortion effectively. However, the 300mm lens slightly outperforms the 200-500mm lens due to its negligible levels of barrel and linear distortion, making it the superior lens in terms of distortion control.

Final Verdict

The Nikon 300mm f/4 outperforms in low light conditions, produces a shallower depth of field, and is lightweight and compact, making it suitable for prolonged use and travel. Its superior weather sealing ensures more robust protection against environmental elements. Also, it excels in speed focusing, making it a good choice for capturing swift movements. It comes with an effective SPORT mode that enhances subject tracking and image composition. When it comes to aberration control, it handles spherical aberration subtly and has negligible chromatic aberration. It maintains good sharpness across the image frame and has superior control over distortion.

On the other hand, the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6, due to its broader focal range, offers great versatility in framing subjects from varying distances. This lens can handle larger and heavier components and offers a compelling case for those who require frequent focal length adjustments. Despite some length variation during zooming, it ensures steady balance with the camera, a critical factor in wildlife and sports photography. It operates quietly, captures sharp images at extremely slow shutter speeds, and handles chromatic aberration well at all focal lengths. Its consistent bokeh quality across different conditions, superior flare, and ghosting resistance, and better control over vignetting, all make it a versatile choice.

For beginner photographers, the 200-500mm lens would be more suitable due to its versatility, broad focal range, and quiet operation. Intermediate photographers could opt for either lens, depending on your specific requirements. You may appreciate the superior weather sealing and speed focusing of the 300mm lens or the better aberration control and flare resistance of the 200-500mm lens. For professional photographers, the decision would depend on specific shooting conditions and needs. If you frequently shoot in challenging lighting conditions and require swift focus, the 300mm lens would be a better choice. However, if they require a lens that offers versatility in focal length, handles chromatic aberration well across all focal lengths, and demonstrates superior flare and ghosting resistance, the 200-500mm lens would be more fitting.

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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