Nikon AF-S 500mm f/5.6 PF « Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

Nikon AF-S 500mm f/5.6 PF


We made it to Ushuaia, Argentina without any hassles. It is cold and dark and windy here. As we do not get on the ship until Friday afternoon, I will spend most of my time working on blog posts for the time I am gone. Do consider joining me on an IPT 🙂

Arash and the 500 PF. And Me.

As regular readers know, I was quite determined to get my hands on a Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR lens before my Antarctica trip. That after originally not even considering the lens. But when I read Arash Hazeghi’s review (below), I realized the almost 1 1/2 pounds lighter than my 200-500mm was a 33% reduction in weight. Not to mention that the 500 PF is tiny and thus much easier to travel with and much easier to hand hold! And when looking at my flight shots from the Fall DeSoto IPT — most created with the hand held 200-500, I realized that nearly all of them were created at 500mm and when I zoomed out I usually should not have! And there were a few times, such as when photographing the bathing Willet (see here), that my left shoulder just plain hurt.

To learn how I managed to get my hands on one see the Last Minute Miracle blog post here.

For the complete article, and to see all of the gear and other images that are in the original post as it was published on Arash’s blog, click here. I have made a very few comments in the version below that was adapted for the BAA Blog (with Arash’s blessings).

To say the least, Arash is quite a bright young man. He is a senior electron device engineer. He received his MS.c. degree and Ph.D. degrees in Electrical Engineering in 2006 and 2011, from Stanford University. His pioneering research on Carbon Nanotubes and quantum capacitance have been cited many times. He is currently focused on the development of cutting edge memory technology. And on top of all that he is clearly one of the world’s best flight photographers. For many years, he has hand held a 600mm f/4 telephoto lens most often with a 1.4X teleconverter. Now that is easy for me to say … Arash is a skilled moderator in the Avian Forum at BPN (BirdPhotographers.Net). I have edited/co-authored several e-Guides for and with him. You can find those here.

Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR (top) compared to Nikon AF-S Teleconverter TC-14E IIIat 200mm (bottom). The prime is shorter and narrower. Click on the image to enlarge.

AF-S Nikkor 500mm f/5.6 PF Preview

by Arash Hazeghi

A few days ago, I received the new Nikon AF-S 500mm f/5.6 PF. This is the lightest and the smallest Nikon long telephoto lens to date. It uses Phase Fresnel (PF) optics that are similar to Canon’s DO (Diffraction Optics) optics. Upon delivery, I first thought I had been sent the wrong lens as the box seemed too small, smaller than the shipping box used for Nikon AF-S 70-200 f/2.8 VR II, and much smaller than the box my AF-S 200-500mm f/5.6 VR came in. I could not believe a 500mm lens, soft case and padding material could fit into such small box, but this was indeed the new AF-S 500mm f/5.6 PF! Small and light are both understatements when you compare this lens to any other modern 500mm lens. It even looks compact when you put it next to Nikon’s 16-35mm f/4 VR ultra-wide angle lens.

Above, you can see that the new AF-S 500mm f/5.6 PF is shorter and narrower and smaller than the AF-S 200-500mm f/5.6 VR zoom at its fully retracted (200mm) position. If you extend the zoom to 500mm it is simply no contest. The prime is a whopping 2 lbs lighter than the zoom. (Note from artie: the 200-500 weighs in at 5.07 pounds; the 500 PF is 3.21 pounds. So the weight difference is a huge 1.87 pounds. No matter how you look at it, the 500 PF is a feather.) The lens much easier to hand hold. The build quality of the lens is excellent; it feels very solid.

Another interesting feature of this lens is the slide-in removable foot. To remove the foot press the small lever and just slide the foot out to save a few more ounces. The lens can be tripod-mounted even with the foot removed thanks to the tripod mount hole drilled into the base. This lens also features “the ring of fire” buttons around the barrel, these can be programmed to lock AF or switch to a different AF patterns when used with D5/D850 bodies. (Notes from artie: mounting the lens via the screw hole is not a good plan. And I have never once used any of the buttons on a telephoto lens.)

The AF-S 500mm f/5.6 PF has a super telephoto-style control panel. There are three AF modes, A/M , M/A and M. The last one is manual focus, the first two are auto focus. Nikon state M/A is more sensitive to the focus ring rotation: any slight rotation can change the focus whereas is A/M a greater rotation is needed to change the focus, perhaps to prevent focus shift as a result of accidentally touching the focus ring. I never use manual focus so I leave this on A/M. The focus limiter has two positions, full-range or far (8 meters to infinity). The latter is ideal for birds in flight at 500mm. While the far MFD is greater than with the AF-S 200-500mm f/5.6 VR (6m), it will almost surely make initial focusing acquisition faster. VR can be set to normal and sport (both can detect panning, but sport gives a more stable finder image while panning). Memory recall controls the functions of the “ring of fire” buttons. AF-L locks the AF, Memory Recall recalls last focus distance set using the button on the other side of the lens and AF-ON will perform the same function as AF-ON on the camera body. The AF-recall confirmation beep can be disabled using the last switch.

The 500mm f/5.6 PF VR is a winner from a size, weight and build quality point of view. My only gripe is that the hood is made of plastic instead of carbon fiber that is used in the larger super-telephoto lenses. There might be after-market magnesium hoods available at some point. The lens uses a 95mm snap-on cap and takes 95mm screw-on filters. The lens ships with a soft case rather than a pouch! Of course my final judgement and recommendation will be based on the image quality and AF performance in the field, especially with the converter TC-14E III” that gives you 700mm full frame at f/8.

My Comment on Arash’s Blog Post

Arthur E Morris · September 20, 2018 at 03:48:59

Hey Arash, Good job with the review. It leaves me with some questions and one comment.

Since you have done the majority of your flight photography with the 600mm and a 1.4X teleconverter, and since you like to use high shutter speeds, how do you see the 500 PF fitting into your kit? Will you be using it naked all the time or trying flight with the TC-14E (and going to double the ISO)?

With the amazing size and weight gains I would love to see a comparable but of course larger 500 f/4 P.

with love, artie

Arash’s Reply

Ari · September 20, 2018 at 07:55:39

Hey Artie, I am hoping to use it with the TC 1.4 X (700mm at f/8) the same way I used my 400DOII with the 2X III (800mm at f/8), but it depends on how the AF performs. I certainly would like a 600 f/4 PF!

And More

Arthur Morris · September 23, 2018 at 03:28:19

Thanks Arash, I am still not sold. 🙂 I was not aware that you used the 400 DO II with the 2X III much for flight. What sort of shutter speeds (and ISOs) were you using in good light? In poor light?

I do agree 100% that the lack of an f/4 telephoto lens is a big hole in the Nikon line-up.

with love, artie

Ari · September 23, 2018 at 10:34:18

Hi Artie, Some of my all time favorite images were made with that combination; check out the shots here. I used this combo mainly in
the winter in Canada when the word “poor” for light is an understatement!

I was using ISO 1600 and higher which the 1DX II could handle easily with Canon DPP4 software. Now with Nikon I can get similar results with my D850 and even better results with my D5 when using Capture One Pro so I can crank up the ISO without hesitation.

My initial impression of the 500 PF is very positive, AF seems snappy even with the TC and critical sharpness is there too, and with Nikon’s superior Group AF, I’d pick the 500 PF over 400 DO II. It gives 700mm at f/8 as opposed to 800mm at f/8 for 400 DO II but it is significantly lighter, smaller and cheaper plus the D850 makes up for the shorter focal length. I think Canon would have a hard time justifying the 7K price tag of the 400DO II as compared to 500PF if your main subject is birds.

Hope this helps.

This spectacular flight image was created by Arash with the hand held Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR lens, the Nikon AF-S Teleconverter TC-14E III, and the Nikon D850 . ISO 800. 1/3200 sec. at f/8. Processed with Capture One Pro.

Willet in flight.
Image courtesy of and copyright 2018: Arash Hazeghi Photography

Arash’s First Flight Image with the 500 PF/1.4X TC-E 17III/D850 Combo

Arash was quite pleased with the sharpness and fine feather detail in his first flight keeper with the new lens and the 1.4X TC. Arash is a master flight photographer. As I recall, he tried Nikon for flight a while back but stuck with Canon. When I switched in January 2018, we spoke a lot on the phone and he wound up making the jump to the dark side. You can view the image larger still and see what others had to say in the Avian Forum on BPN here.

My Initial Comments

Prompted by Arash’s blog post, I realized the error in my thinking. I was very lucky to get one before my Emperor Penguin trip. The 500 PF is amazingly light and amazingly tiny. When Jim met the UPS driver in town early on the morning of October 15, he called and told me, “I don’t think that this is the right box; it is much too small and light for a 500mm lens …

I actually like the plastic lens hood as it is very light and snaps neatly into place. As far as the specs go, my only disappointment is with the minimum focusing distance of the 500 PF. While it focuses much closer than any other 500mm lenses in production, the MFD of 9.84 feet is not as good as the 7.2 feet of the 200-500mm at 500mm. That assuming that the MFD was measured at 500mm not at 200mm. I will check on that when I get back home.

I am interested in learning about Arash’s choice of the D850 to go with the new lens and the TC-14E III; he was championing the D5 for a long time while I was and am totally in love with my two D-850 bodies.

Careful readers will note fully that I did a 180 on this lens. I am however glad that I have it with me on this trip and look forward to using it soon.

Unsolicited DeSoto IPT Comments

Via e-mail from Jim Miller

I can’t stop thinking about how much fun the DeSoto Fall IPT was, and how much I learned. There were so many things that suddenly made perfect sense after I had been confused for so long. Thank you very much for the wonderful trip, and for being a great teacher. As I worked through the raw files last week, I realized what a fantastic lens the 600 IS II is. Thanks for the rental! Maybe some day I will be able to afford one. Some images for critique are attached.

By the way, the plant we were looking at along the sidewalk in Gulfport is Blue Porterweed. It is worth a few minutes on the internet to read about it: native of Florida and the Caribbean, used for medicine in The Bahamas, etc. We have it in a large pot in the front yard and it takes a lot of water, but it blooms spring through fall. Thank you again, Artie. It was really wonderful to be with you and learn from you.

Via e-mail from Lee Sommie

I want to thank you for making the Fall 2017 Ft. DeSoto IPT such a fun and educational experience for me. I truly did not want the adventure to end. I now look through the viewfinder with an artist’s mindset. And the real bonus was making new friends with fellow students. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and enthusiasm for wildlife photography. I had a great time with you and look forward to more adventures on future IPTs.

Note: after the not-so-recent death of his wife Rene, Lee has fallen in love deeply again and rarely gets out to do any bird photography at all. Good on him!

Followed by this one

BTW. I downloaded Photo Mechanic and started using it in my workflow. Since I like using Lightroom for my adjustments, I found a way to incorporate Photo Mechanic and Lightroom together. Lightroom was driving me crazy with how slow it is to import and preview photos. I was impressed with how fast you could review photos and start editing your photos on the DeSoto Fall IPT. Life is too short to wait for applications to import and preview photos and Photo Mechanic solves that problem.

Thanks again for everything Artie. Your knowledge keeps on giving well after the IPT!

Via e-mail from Muhammad Arif

I had a great time at Fort DeSoto. Thank you for all the instruction, for your help and pointers; my photography has already improved tremendously and I’ve never made such good bird photos before. I wish I could’ve joined you on Monday and Tuesday morning as well but work got in the way. It was also nice to meet everyone on the IPT; sorry that I missed you Ray. Thanks again for everything and I hope to join you at a future IPT sometime again.


Fort DeSoto in early winter is rife with tame birds. Click on the composite to enjoy a larger version.

Clockwise from upper left to center: Long-billed Curlew, Marbled Godwit, Caspian Tern, Great Egret, Sandwich Tern with fish, Willet, Black-bellied Plover threat display, Snowy Egret, 2-year old Yellow-Crowned Night-Heron, juvenile Yellow-Crowned Night-Heron.

The 2018 Fort DeSoto Early Winter IPT/Thursday December 7 through the morning session on Monday December 10, 2018: 3 1/2 DAYS: $1549. Limit 8/Openings: 7.

Fort DeSoto, located just south of St. Petersburg, FL, is a mecca for migrant shorebirds and terns in early winter. There they join hundreds of egrets, herons, night-herons, and gulls that winter on the T-shaped peninsula. With luck, we may get to photograph two of Florida’s most desirable shorebird species: Marbled Godwit and the spectacular Long-billed Curlew. Black-bellied Plover and Willet are easy, American Oystercatcher almost guaranteed. Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Great Blue Heron, Tricolored Heron, and White Ibis are easy as well and we will almost surely come up with a tame Yellow-crowned Night-Heron or two. We may very well get to see and photograph the amazing heron/egret hybrid that has been present for three year. And we should get to do some Brown Pelican flight photography. In addition, Royal, Sandwich, Forster’s, and Caspian Terns will likely provide us with some good flight opportunities as well. Though not guaranteed, Roseate Spoonbill and Wood Stork might well be expected. And we will be on the lookout for a migrant passerine fallout in the event of a thunderstorm or two.

On the IPT you will learn basics and fine points of digital exposure and to get the right exposure every time after making a single test exposure, how to approach free and wild birds without disturbing them, to understand and predict bird behavior, to identify many species of shorebirds, to spot the good situations, to choose the best perspective, to see and understand the light, and to design pleasing images by mastering your camera’s AF system. Most importantly you will surely learn to evaluate wind and sky conditions and understand how they affect bird photography. And you will learn how and why to work in Manual mode (even if you’re scared of it).

There will be a Photoshop/image review session after lunch (included) each day. That will be followed by Instructor Nap Time.

As with the fall IPT, this one will run with only a single registrant. The best airport is Tampa (TPA). Once you register, you will receive an e-mail with the hotel information. Do know that it is always best if IPT folks stay in the same hotel (rather than at home or at a friend’s place).

A $500 deposit is due when you sign up and is payable by credit card. Balances must be paid by check after you register. Your deposit is non-refundable unless the IPT sells out with eight folks so please check your plans carefully before committing. You can register by calling Jim or Jennifer during weekday business hours at 863-692-0906 with a credit card in hand or by sending a check as follows: make the check out to: BIRDS AS ART and send it via US mail here: BIRDS AS ART, PO BOX 7245, Indian Lake Estates, FL 33855. You will receive a confirmation e-mail with detailed instructions, clothing, and gear advice. Please remember that the meet and greet will take place at 7:30 on the evening of Sunday, September 23. Please shoot me an e-mail if you plan to register or if you have any questions.


Obviously folks attending the IPT will be out in the field early and stay late to take advantage of sunrise and sunset colors. The good news is that the days are relatively short in late September. Click on the composite to enjoy a larger version.

Clockwise from upper left to center: Long-billed Curlew, juvenile Tricolored Heron, Marbled Godwits, Great Blue Heron, juvenile Pectoral Sandpiper, Wood Stork, smiling Sea Scallop, Ruddy Turnstone scavenging needlefish, Great Blue Heron sunset silhouette at my secret spot, and southbound migrant tern flock blur.

Early and Late

Getting up early and staying out late is pretty much a staple on all BIRDS AS ART Instructional Photo-Tours; on this particular trip we will get lots of sleep as the days are short. Being in the field well before the sun comes up and staying out until sunset will often present unique photographic opportunities, opportunities that will be missed by those who need their beauty rest. I really love it when I am leaving the beach on a sunny morning after a great session just as a carful or two of well-rested photographers arrive.

2 comments to Nikon AF-S 500mm f/5.6 PF

  • Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

    Muchos gracias Señor.

    with love, artie

    ps: the average OCT temps at Snow Hill are 25-30 degrees; they should be easily manageable most of the time.

  • David Policansky

    iBuena suerte, amigo! The lens sounds good. As you know, we Canon users have lusted after a 500 mm version (f5/6) of the the old toy lens, with IS, for a long time. Maybe that will happen. Enjoy Ushuaia and of course the penguins, and the environment. As for cold and windy, I am in central New Mexico and it’s in the 30s with strong winds and occasional periods of snow and drizzle. No, that’s not normal for mid-October.