Nikon 500mm F4 FL VR - lightweight companion (02.04.2016)


Text and photos: Sven Začek

Unbelievable headline, isn't it? I would not believe it myself if only it was year 2005 or even 2010. But it is the truth – in 2016, we can call one of the super telephoto lenses a lightweight companion and its name is Nikon 500mm F4E FL ED VR. Fortunately the length of its name does not affect its weight :)

You used to only work with super telephoto lenses when you happened to work with a tripod or at least, a monopod. When you left you tripod or monopod at home and only had hands to hold on to the camera, those hands always chose something lighter to work with. This came with a price of range and optical power but at least you were alive after your photographic trip. New Nikon 500mm F4 has now been moved from the stay-at-home stack to the take-with-you stack because it has lost 790 grams of weight and turned into the sharpest Nikon telephoto lens at the same time. (Look at the  MTF graphics from here)

So far, the following saying tended to be true: „One has to change bodies after every 2 to 4 years but the lenses stay.“ Lens purchase seemed especially sustainable after VR was added to long telephoto lenses. Now, it seems that it is worth to change the lens after only 7 years due to the development of material technology if the weight of the camera is important to you. Also, I have not heard that anyone using a telephoto lens would say no to extra sharpness.

About numbers
My camera bag has contained two telephoto lenses: 300mm F2,8 VRII and 400mm F2,8 VR FL. The latter has lost 860 grams of its weight with its renewal but with its total weight of 3800 grams, it still remains the lens of spying trips and it is hard to shoot from the hand with it. 300mm F2,8 VR II on the other hand, weighs only 190 grams less than the new 500. Yet, at 300mm it rarely works without a converter. 80% of the time, the converter helps to expand the range of the lens 2x and 10% of the time, it helps to expand the range 1,4x and that raises the weight of the camera correspondingly to 3090 and 3230 grams. The first number is equivalent to the weight of 500mm lens but with 80mm shorter focal length. The other number gives 600mm of length and F5,6 as aperture but it also raises the weight. If you now change 500mm F4 lens to F5,6 lens with the help of 1,4 converter, you get the length of 700mm and the its weight is only 50 grams heavier than the weight of the combination of 300m m F2,8 + 2x converter. Its biggest advantage is that the results are remarkably sharper.

The other side of the numbers is something that cannot be changed because these fall under the current laws of physics. These are the measurements of the lens. Putting a “small“ 300mm F2,8 lens next to a big 500mm F4, I still cannot believe that these are the same weight. When talking numbers – the length of the 300mm F2,8 together the hood is 37 cm (without the hood it is 27 cm) and the length of the 500mm F4 is 55 cm (with hood) and 39 (without hood). Fortunately the distribution of weight is fair and when handling a lens with bigger measurements, it doesn’t feel different. Maybe only when trying to get through the bushes.

A little about other not-so-positive numbers
So far so good and I believe that many of you already thought of going to the store. But you need to be prepared to give up on other stuff to get a sweet boy like 500mm F4 into your camera bag. This is because the best material and lens technology cost quite a lot. Its sales price at Fotoakadeemia store is 10,500 euros. You can get an older, heavier model that produces images not that sharp for 7950 euros but then, most of the arguments presented above are going to waste. The price of 300mm F2,8 VRII is 5495 euros. The price of 400mm F2,8 VR FL is 11,999 euros. It is worth mentioning that both 500mm F4 and 400mm F2,8 have lost weight and this has caused the prices to go up significantly. There is another VR version of 300mm F2,8 but this has not lost weight. If that was going to happen, the price would go up. But then again, the weight would go down. So why has this update not been done? Maybe it could not be done as effectively as with others but there might be another reason.

To who is 500mm F4 meant?
To who is this lens that costs quite a fortune but is the superb creation of today’s top notch technology, meant? I think that it is meant for a person who wishes to maximise his/her equipment and whose photographing style tends to be more moving. This maximising gives you superb sharpness and light weigh. Light weight, in turn, allows you to be mobile. This lens is definitely suitable for a nature photographer who yearns for a long focal length. In addition to 500mm focal length, 500mm F4 offers  700mm F5,6 focal length with the help of 1.4x converter and 1000mm F8 focal length with the help of 2x converter. The latter turned out to be unbelievably sharp because while using the older version of 500mm, the image tended to get soft and autofocus slow even when using 1.4 converter. With the new one, there was no problem with the focus even with 1.4 converter ( I tested with D810 and D4s bodies and Nikkor TC-14EIII converters), 2x was a bit slower but remained sharp.

In addition, I think that this lens is also suitable for a sports photographer who mainly focuses on daytime sports (motor sports, athletics, football) and does not need F2.8 optical power. When exchanging the optical power for the length and weight, photographers do not have to be married to their monopods and stick to one set – they can be mobile and when necessary, shoot from hand because in addition to the pleasable weight of this lens, its VR is also very good.

Table of comparison




+ 1,4x converter

+2x converter

Closest focal length

New Nikon 500mm F4E FL ED VR



700mm F5,6

1000mm F8


Old Nikon 500mm F4 VR ED



700mm F5,6

1000mm F8



Nikon 300mm F2,8 VRII



420mm F4

600mm F5,6


Nikon 400mm F2,8 VR FL



660mm F4

800mm F5,6




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