Recently I was asked about the ‘image quality’ (IQ) of the (very expensive) Nikon 600mm f/4E lens compared to the (relatively cheap) Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E telephoto zoom lens. Many photographers will probably think I’m close to insane even by bringing this subject up.The 200-500mm has not received the very best of reviews and the 600mm is considered to be the very best super telephoto prime lens out there; e.g. have a look at the lenscore.org website here: AF-S Nikkor 600mm f/4.0E FL ED VR
So why would anyone in their right state of mind think there could only be minor differences between the 2 lenses? I think I’ve figured out the answer to that question when I went on to take a couple of test shots with my D4S attached to my 600mm and my D750 attached to my 200-500mm, both hand-held and VR on both in ‘normal’ mode. I know, not a highly standardized test with too many different factors etc. but the results were quite satisfying, to me anyway.
Let’s first have a look at a very nice and sharp shot taken with the 200-500mm:
Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 E @ 340mm on Nikon D4S, f/5.6, 1/2500 s., ISO 3200, +1.0 exp. corr.
Nothing wrong with this one I would say: tack sharp and no sign of any lens softness (in areas where I don’t want it). However, note that this image is not cropped at 100%; it’s probably more around 20% or so, so there are a lot of pixels left to play with and give me the sharpness I need (only some minor/local sharpening applied with Nik software). In fact, most images I shoot with the 200-500mm on either my D4S or D750 look absolutely fantastic. So how can I measure the differences between a lens that costs around $13K and one at close to $1.5K, almost a tenth of the cost? I went back to my trusted test subject and took a number of test shots with my D750 and 200-500mm; however this time the images are cropped at 100%; no sharpening applied:
Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E @ 200mm on Nikon D750, f/5.6, 1/320 s., ISO 200, 100% crop
Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E @ 300mm on Nikon D750, f/5.6, 1/320 s., ISO 250, 100% crop
Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E @ 400mm on Nikon D750, f/5.6, 1/320 s., ISO 400, 100% crop
Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E @ 500mm on Nikon D750, f/5.6, 1/320 s., ISO 400, 100% crop
Not too bad. And now, the 600mm attached to my D4S (still no sharpening applied):
Nikon 600mm f/4E on Nikon D4S, f/4, 1/640 s., ISO 500, 100% crop
Ouch! The 200-500mm looks really nice in terms of IQ even up to 500mm, at 100% crop. Until the moment you compare it directly with the 600mm, also at 100% crop: some photograph enthusiasts may actually be close to crying if they only own a 200-500mm and see the difference. However all this sadness may evaporate in an instant when they realize the 600mm is close to 10 times the cost of their 200-500mm, and they will happily continue shooting with the 200-500mm and simply not crop at a ridiculous 100% :)
I was happy with my 600mm and I’m even a little happier now, knowing I have a lens with incredible IQ, sharpness and excellent contrast (even at a ridiculous cost). And when I shoot with my 200-500mm lens and look at my perfectly sharp shots I’ll again ask myself why on earth I bought that 600mm monster… Welcome to the wonderful (and sometimes a bit crazy) world of photography! :)
The image below was shot recently in an area around Amsterdam, The Netherlands, where we have deer and foxes (amongst other wildlife) freely walking around (I keep trying for the foxes…). It was taken with my D4S and 600mm, hand held, and I still have no regrets that I got the 600mm (while the 200-500mm is always there in my bag…).
Nikon 600mm f/4E on Nikon D4S, f/4, 1/640 s., ISO 320, app. 10% crop
Please note that these images are protected by copyright and are not allowed to be used in any commercial way. If you’re interested in personal use only (like using as personal desktop/tablet/mobile background) then that’s fine; however any other use is prohibited by law.
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