The Nikon AF-S Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR lens has been sold out nearly nonstop since its launch in September 2018. That’s a very long time to experience regular backorders. There are a couple of primary reasons for this shortage. One, the 500mm f/5.6E PF lens is difficult to produce in large quantities. And two, the quality of the lens has resulted in large demand.
I’ve used the lens on various Nikon cameras since its release and it is a fantastic telephoto lens. The lens is also impressively compact and light. Due to the adoption of a Phase Fresnel (PF) lens element, the lens weighs a mere 3.2 pounds (1,460 grams).
Key features of the Nikon AF-S Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR lens
- Full-frame Nikon F mount telephoto lens
- Weighs 3.21 pounds (1,460 grams)
- The maximum diameter is 4.17 inches (106 millimeters) and the length is 9.33 in. (237mm)
- 95mm front filter thread
- Removable rotating tripod collar
- Fluorine coated front element for protection against the elements
- Weather-resistant construction, including a rubber gasket at the mount
- Vibration Reduction is rated for up to four stops of shake reduction
- Electromagnetic aperture mechanism for better exposure stability during continuous shooting
- Silent Wave Motor autofocus with full-time manual focus override
- The minimum focus distance is 9.84 feet (3 meters), which results in 0.18x maximum magnification
- 19 lens elements in 11 groups, including a Phase Fresnel (PF) element and three extra-low dispersion elements
- Nano Crystal Coating
- Super Integrated Coating
- $3,600 USD suggested retail price
Design and handling
One of the highlights of the Nikon 500mm f/5.6 PF lens is its Phase Fresnel (PF) lens element. The lens is very lightweight for a 500mm prime lens. At just over three pounds, the 500mm PF lens is about the same weight as a 70-200mm f/2.8 telephoto zoom lens. Comparing the 500mm PF to Nikon’s 500mm f/4 lens, the 500mm f/4E FL ED VR lens weighs over twice as much as the 500mm f/5.6 PF lens while also being about six inches longer. There is also the $6,700 price difference between the two lenses to consider. Of course, the 500mm f/4 is also a faster lens.
While being much more affordable than the 500mm f/4 lens, make no mistake, the 500mm f/5.6 PF lens is built to professional standards. As such, it has a magnesium-alloy lens barrel and is dust and moisture resistant. It has a well-built removable rotating tripod foot as well.
The lens has four programmable buttons along the end of the lens barrel. These buttons can be set to trigger focus or to enable focus distance recall. This is particularly useful for sports photographers regularly shooting consistent areas of action, such as a goalkeeper in a soccer net or a batter at home plate during a baseball game. The lens has five switches on the barrel, which control focus mode, the focus distance limiter and Vibration Reduction modes.
The Nikkor 500mm f/5.6 PF lens includes 19 elements across 11 groups. Among these elements, there’s a Phase Fresnel (PF) element and a trio of extra-low dispersion elements. The lens also includes Nikon’s Nano Crystal Coating and Super Integrated Coating to maintain high contrast and reduce ghosting and flare.
It is worth looking closer at the PF element because there is a trade-off to consider. The lens is more susceptible to ring-shaped flare in your images when there’s a bright light source within or near the frame. I never experienced this issue during my time with the lens, but it is worth considering. If you experience the flare, Nikon’s own inCapture NX-D software includes a PF Flare Control feature.
In terms of sharpness, the 500mm f/5.6E PF is a very sharp lens. Even when shot wide open at f/5.6, the lens captures very good detail and produces images with impressive contrast and color.
The performance at f/5.6 is very important. Ultimately, f/5.6 is not a very fast aperture, which means that when doing wildlife photography in low light or shooting sports at night, you will need to shoot at a higher ISO even while shooting wide open.
The f/5.6 maximum aperture is occasionally limiting in terms of bokeh performance and getting good subject separation. You need to get close to your subject and try to keep the background free from distractions in order to get the best results. You won’t be able to easily get a blurry, soft background behind your subject like you may achieve with the 500mm f/4 lens. With that said, you can still get nice subject separation, especially when you get close to the subject.
The Nikon 500mm lens is equipped with Nikon’s Silent Wave Motor AF system, which results in quick and quiet autofocus performance, even in low light. A downside of the lens’ focusing system is that its minimum focus distance is 9.84 feet (around 3 meters). The maximum magnification is 0.18x, meaning that it can be difficult to fill the frame with a small subject.
The built-in Vibration Reduction system is rated for four stops of shake correction, which is pretty good. On a Nikon D500, which results in a 750mm equivalent focal length due to its APS-C sensor, I could shoot handheld at around 1/25s. It’s unusual that I would want a shutter speed that slow with this type of lens, but the VR performs well. It also helps to keep the viewfinder image stable when trying to follow action.
In the field
My experience with the Nikon 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR lens was very positive. It balanced nicely on each camera I used and its lightweight design made extended photography sessions more enjoyable. You can easily handhold the lens, which offers more flexible shooting than a heavy lens that requires a monopod or tripod. Compared to my Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 lens, the 500mm f/5.6 PF lens is much lighter and feels much easier to use. It is difficult to overstate how much of a breath of fresh air it is to use the 500mm f/5.6 PF lens compared to a non-PF telephoto lens.
The Nikon 500mm f/5.6 PF lens is an excellent choice for wildlife and sports photographers who don’t need a very fast aperture. It is also a great choice for photographers who want a high-quality telephoto prime lens but cannot spend around $10,000 for Nikon’s flagship telephoto lenses. The 500mm f/5.6 PF is also an appealing option for any photographer who doesn’t want to carry a heavy lens.
As is always the case with lenses, even the excellent 500mm PF lens is not well-suited to every situation. It doesn’t excel in low light situations due to its maximum aperture being f/5.6. Although it is compatible with Nikon’s 1.4x, 1.7x and 2x teleconverters, it will struggle when using them compared to Nikon’s f/2.8 and f/4 telephoto lenses. The lens also doesn’t produce images with the same smooth background as Nikon’s faster telephoto lenses.
Nikon AF-S 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR lens hands-on summary
- Lightweight design
- Very good sharpness, even when shooting the lens wide open
- Fast autofocus performance
- Great build quality
- Minimum focus distance can be limiting
- The Phase Fresnel element can produce an odd flare in certain situations
- Maximum aperture is limiting, especially in low light
It is an impressive feat of engineering to produce a 500mm full-frame prime lens that is easily handheld. The Nikon 500mm f/5.6 lens is excellent to use and delivers great performance across the board. The lens is built to last as well, which is great, as you won’t want to put it down. Ultimately, it’s an excellent option for wildlife and sports photographers who don’t need the extra stop or two that an f/4 or f/2.8 telephoto lens offers.