Telephoto Lens Comparison- Tamron SP AF200-500MM vs Nikon 500mm Prime

February 17, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

Tamron 200-500mmTamron 200-500mm The near lens is the Tamron SP AF200-500MM F/5-6.3 Di LD (IF) and the far lens is the Nikon 500mm F/4 P manual focus lens. Nikon 500mm F/4 PNikon 500mm F/4 PClosest is the Nikon 500mm F/4 P with a cool cammo cover. The far lens is the Tamron 200-500mm

Here is the straight up comparison and review of two fantastic telephoto lenses: the Tamron SP AF200-500MM F/5-6.3 Di LD (IF) and the Nikon 500mm F/4 P.  I have owned both and can now give a well rounded opinion of these lenses after many shots in the field.  I am mostly doing this post for the consumer perspective and as a guide to what you can expect from these lenses as you use them under real field conditions.

Soaring OspreySoaring OspreyPhoto taken with a Nikon D200 and Tamron SP AF200-500MM F/5-6.3 Di LD (IF) lens.

I bought the Tamron 200-500 new in 2006 to use on my Nikon D200 camera.  This lens became my wildlife and sports lens with many years of happy use.  I found it easy to focus and I could use it in just about any situation.  When I upgraded to the full frame D800 I kept the Tamron 200-500mm because it was already full frame compatible and I still needed that long reach. The Soaring Osprey to the left was taken with the Tamron 200-500mm on a D200.

Then I came across a Nikon 500mm prime F/4 P lens in a local camera shop. This big lens has been in production from 1988-2002.   Although I knew it was manual focus, this 500mm prime had the potential to get me better images through superior optics and better light gathering.  So I went down to the camera store with my D800, Tamron, and tripod to check it out.  I was able to take a few test shots outside with both lenses and see the back of the camera for comparison.  The difference was clear enough to me and I bought it on the spot.

I kept the Tamron 200-500mm so I could still have a travel lens, but found that I did not pull it out of the bag even though the Nikon 500mm is so bulky and heavy.  I was able to outsmart the manual focus on the Nikon 500mm by investing in a  Nikon T-16A 1.6x teleconverter that had been modified to allow the last bit of focus to be done by the camera.  This also gave me some extra magnification, but at the cost of a stop of light. 

I found myself wondering if I was really getting better shots, or if I just felt better with that big piece of glass that the Nikon F/4 is.  So I set up a comparison test to document my results.  I put both lenses on tripods and set up a target card about 25 yards away.  

For each lens I used the same Nikon D800 set at F/8 ISO 800 and shutter speed of 1/500.  I put my focus point on the number 2 on the left hand ruler and took a few shots to make sure I was in focus and not shaking.  I shot in RAW and brought them in to Lightroom.  So let's take a look at the results- Tamron zoom on the left and Nikon Prime on the right. 

Tamron Nikon full frameTamron 200-500 vs Nikon F/4 PFull frame from 25 yards, raw output to Lightroom.
They look very similar, but it is clear that the Nikon prime is allowing a lot more light in than the Tamron.  This is not unexpected.  So now the details that I always look for- the 100% center crop.  This is where you can see the greatest difference between the two lenses.

100 Percent center crop100 Percent center cropTamron 200-500mm on the left, Nikon 500mm on the right. Both at 100% crop.

Take a look at the big and small letters and you will see that the Nikon prime is superior to the Tamron 200-500mm at full magnification.  What also stands out to me is the details of the card edge- there is a crispness from the Nikon that is not available from the Tamron.  

So when viewing the close up details of these photos you can definitely see a difference.  The difference is not so great that it renders the images unsuitable, in fact I have a gallery full of images from the Tamron 200-500mm that I am quite happy with!  The Tamron 200-500mm telephoto is a fantastic lens for someone who wants a lightweight and affordable super zoom lens.  I just could not pass up the opportunity to get the Nikon 500mm prime. 

The 500mm f/4P that I have is manual focus.  Manual is fine for static displays, but a moving target is much easier to capture with autofocus.   PohickBay-221PohickBay-221Photo by Jim Craige- For this reason I picked up the modified Nikon T-16A  1.6x teleconverter that does the last bit of focusing.  You can find these on Ebay already modified, and there are also some guides on how to do it yourself.  This has made the investment in a 500mm prime worthwhile.  I get a little extra reach and sacrifice a stop of light.  The image quality is quite good with the teleconverter installed.  The drop in available light is noticeable.  However the sharpness of the image remains relatively intact and is still superior to the Tamron 200-500mm.  The photo of the diving eagle on the left was taken with the Nikon 500mm F\4P with the 1.6x Nikon teleconverter on a D800.

The Tamron 200-500mm  is a great starter lens for someone looking to get into sports, wildlife or any other type of photography that needs a telephoto lens.  It is a good lens for mastering the technique of using a long telephoto lens while being lightweight and portable.  A used Tamron 200-500mm is much less expensive than a used Nikon 500mm.  To put it in real perspective, you can buy ten Tamron 200-500mm lenses for the cost on one new Nikon 500mm prime autofocus lens.  The Tamron SP AF200-500MM F/5-6.3 Di LD (IF) may meet all of your needs for super zoom, as it did for me for many years.  Getting the Nikon 500mm F/4 P prime was an investment to push my boundaries and continue to inspire me to get out and take the long shots.

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