Nikon D500 & 200-500mm f/5.6: The Ultimate Budget Wildlife Combo

Tips & Techniques

There’s a song from my childhood that says, “Don’t you leave the old things for the new ones, though the paint is graying and sizzling. They were once shiny; they were once chromed. And now they’ve gone in the trash.” This melancholy song is playing in my head as I travel on my South America expedition. The reason is that, for the first time in a while, I left my trusty Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 lens and Nikon D500 camera at home and absconded with mirrorless instead. So, in this article, I wanted give this pair a little reflection and appreciation for their faithful service.

Nikon_D500_Macro

Table of Contents

Reflections on the D500 / 200-500mm Combo

I got both the Nikon D500 and the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 in 2017, and they have worked without a single issue since then.

Actually, that’s not quite right – maybe fondness makes it easy to ignore little problems. The heavily (ab)used joystick on my D500 probably needs a replacement. Likewise for the lever to close the viewfinder curtain, which I’ve almost never used, so it eventually got stuck. Most of all, I had to replace the D500’s rear LCD at one point, since it did not withstand a (shockingly accurate) monopod hit from my son. He should play baseball.

But aside from that, the combo has worked without a single issue. My D500 has 140,599 shutter actuations at this point, which is still less mileage than that of my Toyota. According to Nikon’s specs, the shutter should be somewhere around three-quarters of its life. (I know how that feels!)

One interesting fact. The number of times I’ve cleaned the D500’s shutter? Pure zero. It seems as though the mirror and shutter curtains have served as a pretty good barrier against dirt. I hope that the curtain on my Z9 will do a similarly good job.

These days, you can find used Nikon D500 bodies on eBay for about $900. Used copies of the 200-500mm f/5.6 sell for about the same. (New D500 cameras aren’t sold any more, and new 200-500mm lenses are $1400.) Basically, photographers on a budget can get this highly-capable setup for around $1800, leaving you room to get a good monopod and monopod head, and still spend less than $2000. In my opinion, it’s the ultimate budget combo for wildlife photography.

Tomas Grim_D500
NIKON D500 + 400mm f/2.8 @ 400mm, ISO 3600, 1/500, f/4.0

And now let me go through some of the strengths and weaknesses of this camera and lens, as I’ve experienced them over the years.

Nikon D500 Strengths

Autofocus

The Nikon D500’s 153-point focusing module (99 of which are cross-type) is shared with the focusing system of the much more expensive Nikon D5. It’s essentially the pinnacle of autofocus technology – or, at least it was in 2016. And the capabilities still hold up well today; they beat the AF system found on most other DSLRs and mirrorless cameras, even much newer ones.

Still, you need to set up the camera correctly. After experimenting with different AF modes, I concluded that Dynamic Area was the best fit for my shooting style. This is where you choose a single focusing point that you prefer, and the camera uses surrounding focus points to help keep the target in focus as it moves.

Dynamic AF-Area Mode

In one aspect of the autofocus, the Nikon D500 even beats the Nikon D5: the amount of the viewfinder that’s covered by focus points. On full-frame DSLRs like the Nikon D5, the AF points are usually bunched together in the center. On the other hand, APS-C cameras like the D500 cut out much of the empty space along the edges, giving you an AF system that can follow subjects almost anywhere in the frame. Only mirrorless cameras surpass it.

european nuthatch_01
NIKON D500 + Nikon AF-S Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR @ 500mm, ISO 900, 1/400, f/6.3

Continuous Shooting Speed

With a continuous shooting speed of 10 fps and a buffer capable of absorbing up to 200 14-bit lossless RAWs, I rarely found myself hitting the D500’s limits. It’s true that my new Z9 and other mirrorless cameras can fire faster, but the question is how often you’ll need such a fast continuous shooting speed. For me, the answer is only rarely, even for bird-in-flight photography.

Sensor Size

The gold standard for camera sensors is generally considered to be full-frame. While I don’t dispute that bigger means better, bird photography can be a different story. Some birds are so small that they turn into little specks in the photo unless you’re very close. I like to say that the best teleconverter is a crop-sensor camera. With the D500, my equivalent focal length is 1.5x what I’d get on full-frame. A 500mm lens has the reach of a 750mm lens. Small pixels rule the world of bird photography.

Only with high-res cameras like the Nikon D850 or the Nikon Z9 does the advantage go away. (With those cameras, cropping the images by 1.5x gives you about the same amount of pixels as the D500.) Once Nikon releases a mirrorless replacement for the D500, hopefully with more than 24 megapixels, the advantage will be back in APS-C’s corner. I’m looking forward to that day.

Treecreeper_01
NIKON D500 @ 500mm, ISO 2000, 10/5000, f/6.3

Ergonomics

The D500 is Nikon’s last DSLR of its kind. That’s why it has already fixed most of its predecessors’ growing pains. The buttons are where your fingers expect them to be, and they’re backlit, which comes in very handy when you’re in a dim hide or when shooting after dark. It also added a joystick! (How did I shoot without one before?)

The shape of the camera grip fits the hand perfectly, resulting in a sure grasp at all times. There is also no rubber peeling off the grip, which annoyed me a lot with previous cameras. The tilting display is very helpful for shooting from odd angles, although shooting in live view does hamper the AF performance.

Besides the physical ergonomics, I also like the ergonomics of the menu. Yes, photographers can habituate to almost any menu, but I find the setup of the D500 very human-friendly.

Image Quality

Cameras have made some big leaps in recent years, but not so much in the field of image quality. Even by today’s standards, the files from the D500 compare quite well. The camera’s 14-bit, lossless compressed RAWs have great dynamic range, great color, and – even at high ISOs – relatively low noise. With proper processing, up to ISO 10,000 is very usable. Full-frame cameras are further along in this regard, of course, but not by miles.

If your only motivation for buying a full-frame camera is to have low noise at high ISOs, try one of the de-noising applications like DxO PureRAW or ON1 NoNoise AI first. With proper processing, even large prints at high ISOs can look good with your nose to the paper.

Common moorhen_01
NIKON D500 + Nikon AF-S Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR @ 500mm, ISO 560, 1/800, f/5.6

Durability

Humidity of the tropics? Not a problem for the D500 (a bigger problem for my underwear). I regularly lay the D500 in dust, dirt, wet moss, and mud. No issues. The camera sealing apparently works.

With this camera, the occasional rainstorm never stopped me from shooting. Likewise, I found that extreme temperatures bothered me much more than they bothered the camera. The Nikon D500 doesn’t need to be handled with gloves on.

Crested tit_01
NIKON D500 + Nikon AF-S Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR @ 500mm, ISO 1250, 1/400, f/6.3

Nikon D500 Weaknesses

Autofocus

A few paragraphs above, I praised the Nikon D500’s autofocus, and now I want to throw dirt on it? Well, I kind of do. Granted, most of my issues with the D500’s focusing are directed at DSLRs in general, not so much this particular camera.

I basically have two complaints. The first relates to focusing via live view. Anyone who has ever attempted live view autofocus on a DSLR will probably agree with me that it is a frustrating process. For static subjects? Maybe. On anything that moves? No way. Even a target as simple as a slow-moving duck on a park pond becomes a challenge comparable to photographing a hunting falcon while using a viewfinder. Actually, I’d rather bet on the falcon.

The second, somewhat unfair criticism, relates to the D500’s lack of subject recognition and eye-tracking autofocus. The truth is that if any feature of today’s top mirrorless cameras can be called a game-changer, it’s the eye-following focus tracking.

Black-winged Stilt_01
NIKON D500 + Nikon AF-S Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR @ 500mm, ISO 2000, 1/800, f/5.6

Sensor Size

Even the sensor size has its trade-offs. I have lauded the APS-C format for its ability to crop tighter on a distant subject. But compared to full-frame DSLRs, APS-C cameras like the D500 have a harder time getting a shallow depth of field in the background. A full-frame camera with a fast lens attached can whip up the background like cream in coffee. For cameras with a smaller sensor, the background must be more distant in order to achieve similar smoothness.

And of course, APS-C cameras do have more issues in low light. As I said before, it’s not a big problem if you use good noise reduction techniques in post-processing. But overall, full-frame beats APS-C by about 1.3 stops of light. So if I’m able to get usable results at ISO 10,000 on the D500, that implies I could get usable results at ISO 25,600 on a full-frame camera.

Lenses

Before the Nikon Z system was launched, I wouldn’t have complained about Nikon lenses in any way. But appetite comes with eating. The new Z lenses are simply so good that some of my F-mount lenses start to look outdated.

This isn’t as much of an issue for telephoto-based wildlife photographers. Nikon has always been great at designing telephotos. But if you want more general-purpose lenses for the D500, you may start to have some Nikon Z envy. It doesn’t mean the F-mount lenses have gotten any worse, but there’s no fun in watching a trainload of great Z lenses speed by, without being able to use them on your camera.

Common merganser with chick_01
NIKON D500 + Nikon AF-S Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR @ 500mm, ISO 1600, 1/2500, f/5.6

And now we move onto the lens, the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6.

Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 Strengths

Versatility

There’s nothing wrong with fixed focal length lenses, but zoom lenses with their versatility can often save the day. For example, say that you’re sitting in a shelter taking pictures of small songbirds. You have a 500mm prime lens, and your photo tent is positioned accordingly. Suddenly, a Hawk or a Woodpecker perches on a nearby branch, and you have a problem.

Your only options are to switch lenses, or creep backwards like a bog ghost through the swamp to change your position. Well, I’ve definitely done that before, and I think I looked pretty comical doing it.

Libor_camo_01
NIKON D300 @ 280mm, ISO 400, 1/640, f/7.1

On the other hand, with a zoom lens, you can just turn the zoom ring and be done. Yes, you have to take into account that the character of the background and bokeh will change. But on the other hand, you’ll get a photo of the whole animal instead of just its foot.

Since it covers a broad range of focal lengths, the 200-500mm f/5.6 is great for these spontaneous situations.

Optical Performance

With the 200-500mm f/5.6, there’s no need to cry too much that you don’t have, say, a 500mm f/5.6 prime lens attached. I’m not denying that the fixed glass is sharper – it is, especially in the corners. But keep in mind what camera I’ve been talking about this whole time! The D500 is a crop-sensor camera, so you’re cropping out the “corner” performance of the lens anyway, and only using the sharper center. (Even on a full-frame camera, the corners of most wildlife photos are out-of-focus or unimportant anyway, so a bit of sharpness loss is hardly a big deal.)

Blue tit_01
NIKON D500 + Nikon AF-S Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR @ 500mm, ISO 2000, 1/250, f/6.3

I think the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 E ED VR lens is roughly in the sweet spot of price and performance. You can spend thousands of dollars more to get a bit better resolution and bokeh, but you’ll get better results by spending those thousands of dollars on travel. I’ve never had an issue making big prints from the 200-500mm f/5.6.

Wood Warbler_01
NIKON D500 + Nikon AF-S Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR @ 500mm, ISO 280, 1/800, f/5.6

Shortest Focusing Distance

The Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 has a close focusing distance of 2.2 meters (7.2 feet). That doesn’t make it a macro lens, but let’s compare it to Nikon’s 400mm f/2.8 and 500mm f/4.0 fixed lenses. The former lens lets us get within 2.6 meters of the subject, and the latter to 3.6 meters. In terms of magnification, that’s an impressive 1:4.5 on the 200-500mm, and a pedestrian 1:6.3 on the 400mm f/2.8 and 1:7.1 on the 500mm f/4.

This difference won’t usually be a problem, but if you want to photograph hummingbirds or small songbirds, these values are important. Even more so if you photograph bugs or other small creatures like lizards. Mount the 200-500mm f/5.6 lens on the Nikon D500, and you can fill the frame with something that’s about 11 centimeters / 4.3 inches wide. Even the world’s smallest hummingbird will take up a comfortable portion of the frame at that magnification.

Goldcrest_01
NIKON D500 + Nikon AF-S Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR @ 500mm, ISO 1600, 1/160, f/5.6

Dimensions

The 200-500mm’s lens length of 267.5mm (10.5 inches) and weight of 2.3 kg (5.1 pounds) can’t be described as feather-light. But compared to some exotic super-telephotos, it’s not so bad. My favorite Nikon 400mm f/2.8G VR weighs 4.6 kg (10.2 pounds). That’s literally twice as much!

On the other hand, there are lenses that are significantly lighter. The absolute star in this regard is the Nikon AF-S 500mm f/5.6E PF. That lens weighs 1.46 kg / 3.2 pounds. But keep in mind that it also costs $3600 compared to the 200-500mm f/5.6 at $1400.

Constant Aperture

Some competitors to the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6, such as the Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 C or Tamron 150-600mm f/5-6.3 VC, start at f/5.0, but change to a narrower aperture of f/6.3 around the 400mm focal length. The constant aperture of the 200-500mm f/5.6 by comparison is nice for shooting in manual mode, filming videos, or simply not having to worry about different low-light performance at different focal lengths.

Durability

To help my 200-500mm lens survive the hardships of life, I dressed it in a protective neoprene LensCoat right from the start. While this won’t provide protection against rain, it works reliably against dirt, scratches, and minor bumps. Beneath its clothes, the lens looks pristine despite years of use.

According to Nikon’s own claims, the 200-500mm f/5.6 lens is not weather sealed. Many times, I have watched with concern as water droplets ran down the lens – worst of all when I’m zoomed to 500mm, and the barrel is extended – but so far, it has bravely endured everything I put it through. Unlike me, it has never developed any water damage during a trip to the tropics.

But that does bring me to the point that the lens changes its length when zooming. It sucks in ambient air, and although I have yet to notice excessive dust particles in the lens, it’s not as durable as a design that doesn’t extend when zoomed. One other issue with durability is the lens hood, for some reason. I’ve had three copies of this lens hood, and all of them have a cracked hood-locking mechanism. This sometimes causes the hood to roll off somewhere in the vegetation.

Still, on balance, the 200-500mm f/5.6 has performed above my expectations in terms of durability.

Wood Duck_01
NIKON D500 @ 500mm, ISO 1600, 1/2000, f/5.6

Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 Weaknesses

Autofocus

As much as I like the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 lens’s optics, one feature brings its quality down a bit. What is that? The autofocus speed. The motor can’t focus as fast as on some telephoto lenses – not on the Nikon D500, nor even the D5.

When photographing larger birds or mammals, you might not even notice this problem. However, fast-moving small birds will often be beyond the focusing capabilities of this otherwise great zoom. Sometimes, the lens hesitates in the initial phase to really start focusing. It’s as if it needs some convincing that you really, seriously want to photograph the flying bird.

The problem is much worse with a teleconverter. At that point, the AF speed stops mimicking an aging family car and starts to resemble a bicycle. And that’s only assuming there’s enough light. In shady forests, you’d better forget about the teleconverter altogether, because only the center sensor is usable in those conditions – and even then, not always.

Green woodpecker_01
NIKON D500 + 200-500mm f/5.6 @ 500mm, ISO 220, 1/640, f/5.6

Lens Brightness

The f/5.6 aperture can be considered a sensible compromise that keeps the physical dimensions, weight, and price of the lens within reasonable limits. And to get even one stop faster, you’re looking at a price distance of about $9000 (since the newest Nikon 500mm f/4 costs $10,300).

Still, that doesn’t change the fact that f/5.6 isn’t suited to very low-light conditions. It’s another reason why I keep the heavy, expensive 400mm f/2.8 around. Sometimes, you’ll want something brighter than f/5.6.

Lens Design

The Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 has some compromises in the lens design, some of which I’ve already mentioned. At the time I’m publishing this article, everyone is waiting for the Nikon Z successor to this lens (the 200-600mm on the roadmap). I would be very pleased if the following design issues were addressed:

  • The aforementioned lens hood’s lock can easily break.
  • The tripod foot isn’t Arca-Swiss shaped, and it only has one thread for the tripod plate. The plate needs to be tightened with extreme force to prevent it from loosening.
  • The tripod collar can’t be tightened or loosened so easily. The existing one is pretty small and hard to tighten completely. I’d also like to see a 90-degree indicator.
  • It needs some function buttons for saving and recalling the focus distance.
  • I’d love an internal zoom to improve the lens’s weather sealing (and balance when using gimbal tripod heads).
Atlantic Puffin_01
NIKON D500 + Nikon AF-S Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR @ 450mm, ISO 3200, 1/2500, f/5.6

Summary

Even today, in the age of the massive rise of mirrorless cameras, I find the combo of the Nikon D500 and the Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 lens to be a great choice for those interested in wildlife photography. And you can’t beat the price. For the cost of the Nikon Z9, you could buy the Nikon D500, Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6, and several round-trip plane tickets to photograph wildlife around the world.

Here’s how I would summarize the combination:

  • Very solid autofocus. Although the lens itself is rather average in this respect, the D500 is still in the premier league even years after its introduction. Great focus point coverage and tracking capabilities.
  • The D500 has a very capable sensor that has enough resolution for most applications, excellent dynamic range, and good performance at high ISOs.
  • Fast continuous shooting (10 fps) coupled with a large buffer are great for birds in flight.
  • Weather sealing hasn’t been an issue, even with the 200-500mm f/5.6 that isn’t rated for such difficult conditions.
  • The combination of the APS-C sensor and the relatively long focal length of the lens gives you a lot of reach.
  • The short focusing distance (2.2m) and the versatility of the lens means that most wildlife subjects are easy to capture with this combo.
  • The D500 is a professional body and has great handling. Backlit buttons, good ergonomics, a useful joystick, a large viewfinder, a tilting LCD, and an easy-to-understand menu.
  • Very good battery life compared to most of today’s mirrorless cameras.
  • Impressively low price of the kit. DSLRs are an unbeatable value these days. Used, they total about $1800, and even if you buy the lens new, the duo is about $2300.

I have recommended this kit to a number of friends to their satisfaction and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to you.

Originally, this article was meant to be a small look back and a brief assessment of the service that the Nikon D500 and Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 E ED VR lens combo has done for me over the past five years. But just try to summarize such an important five-year relationship in a few paragraphs!

I’ve tried not to leave anything out of my assessment, both pros and cons, but it’s quite possible that I have forgotten something. If you want to add to my comments or share your experience with this combo (or a different budget combo for wildlife photographers), I’d be happy if you leave me a message below.

Common Chaffinch_01
NIKON D500 + Nikon AF-S Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR @ 500mm, ISO 640, 1/500, f/5.6

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