The Birding Dream Team: the Nikon D500 and Nikon 300mm f/4

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You can go birding literally almost anywhere on earth. But, if you want to photograph rare species and large birds of prey, Manhattan is probably not on your birding bucket list. Nevertheless, Central Park, in the middle of New York City’s Manhattan Island, is known as one of the nation’s top birding spots.

Photographs © Todd Vorenkamp

One thing Manhattan does offer that most places don’t is the opportunity to go birding with staff members from the national offices of the Audubon Society—the folks at the heart of worldwide bird conservation efforts. And, even though I was not training my binoculars or telephoto lens on a majestic bald eagle or endangered woodpecker, I did get to spend a morning in the park with a group of infectiously passionate birders.

“There’s one!”

“That is my favorite warbler!”

“Look at that!”

“So beautiful!”


Black-throated Blue Warbler (Setophaga caerulescens)


 

Every spring, a group of birders from the Audubon Society’s head office in Manhattan gather in Central Park to see if they can find some of the avian treasures presented to the city by the spring migration. You’d think the folks who run the gorgeous Audubon Society website, excellent magazine, and public relations efforts would be in the field as much as they are in the office. Unfortunately for them, this is not the case, so it is a rare occasion when a good portion of the office is walking around on a beautiful spring morning with binoculars dangling from their necks and eyes pointed skyward.

Gear

Invited to join the team, I felt that it was a perfect chance to try the brand-new Nikon D500 DSLR camera and the fairly new Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 300mm f/4E PF ED VR lens.


That is a 300mm lens on the D500. Photograph by Audubon's Mike Fernandez


 


Camera

The D500 is Nikon’s newest APS-C (DX) flagship camera, replacing the very long-in-the-tooth D300s that has been out for almost 10 years (the D300 was announced in August 2007, the D300s in July 2009). Sporting a 20.9MP CMOS sensor and the same EXPEED 5 image processor as the Nikon DLSR flagship D5, the D500 can shoot 10 frames per second, 4K UHD video at 30fps, and photos at up to ISO 51200 (expandable to ISO 1640000).

With every successive generation of DSLR, we see not only refinements in the sensors and processors, but in the autofocus systems, as well. With a Multi-CAM 20K AF system, the D500 has 150 phase detection AF points—99 of which are cross-type sensors. 15 of the points are usable with apertures up to f/8, and all of the points work with lenses of f/5.6 and larger. The f/8 sensitivity allows autofocus points to be used with an f/4 aperture lens and 2x teleconverter.

 
The House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) is comfortable with humans in close proximity.


 

 
American Robin (Turdus migratorius)


 

In short, the D500 is virtually the D5 for APS-C shooters, and it can be had at a fraction of the D5’s price tag.

Lens

The latest version of the Nikon 300mm f/4 lens is the revolutionary Phase Fresnel version that arrived last year. Packed with the most modern NIKKOR lens features, such as fluorine coating, the latest Vibration Reduction, Silent Wave Motor, Nano Crystal Coating, one Extra-low Dispersion (ED) element, and an electronic aperture diaphragm, the most significant feature is the Fresnel lens that nearly eliminates chromatic aberration or ghosting and allows the lens to be truly compact.

What we are left with is a lens that is only 2/3 the length and slightly more than half the weight of its predecessor. Read that again. No, don’t. I’ll just reiterate. The new lens is 2/3 the length and slightly more than half the weight of the older Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 300mm f/4D IF-ED lens. Oh, by the way, that D-version of the 300mm f/4 isn’t really a bazooka of a lens—it has a deserved reputation for portability.


Black-and-white Warbler (Mniotilta varia) in flight.


 

Enter the new lens, and my mind is now blown. Do you need another comparison? The Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8E ED VR lens is almost ¾ of a pound heavier and 1/3 of an inch longer than this 300mm lens. Read that again. A 300mm telephoto lens is smaller and lighter than the popular Nikon mid-range zoom lens that has less than half the focal length of the telephoto.

For this review, Nikon gave us a D500 with the new Nikon AF-S DX NIKKOR 16-80mm f/2.8-4E ED VR lens and a compact Nikon Deluxe Digital SLR Camera Case, which is designed to hold a body with a lens attached and one additional lens. The case is about the size of an average purse and smaller than standard multi-lens camera bags—not something you would usually grab off the shelf to tote a 300mm lens plus a large DSLR and mid-range zoom. But, guess what? The new 300mm lens fits easily in a small camera bag. Amazing.


Breakfast time at the robin’s nest


Back to birding

The group guide for the outing was Audubon’s Chief Network Officer, David Ringer, who has been birding since he was a small child, in Springfield, Missouri. A veteran birder, he and some of his Audubon colleagues definitely had the advantage over me when it came to spotting birds—even with my good eyesight. There is certainly a practiced art to spotting fast-moving warblers in dense foliage.

Along with my “property-of-Nikon” D500 and the 300mm lens (a mint-condition model borrowed from the B&H Used Department), I had my pair of Nikon 8x42 Venturer LX binoculars (replaced by the LX “L” and now the Nikon 8x42 Premier). The 450mm equivalent field of view of the D500 and 300mm was similar in power to the view afforded by the Nikon binoculars, so switching back and forth was not an exercise in visual surprises. I will say this: even with a large bright viewfinder, and a premium lens, the view of one’s surroundings through a nice pair of binoculars is much brighter, sharper, and more immersive. If you are a long telephoto lens birder, keep your binoculars close and step away from the camera every once in a while to better experience the view—even if it keeps you from getting one more great shot.

Great optics aside, staying targeted on the smaller birds, higher up in the heavy spring foliage of the Central Park Ramble, was challenging. The mature trees are very tall, and the warblers were enjoying the treetop canopies. Shooting distant small birds would have been challenging for any camera and lens combination, but the D500’s autofocus system and easily movable AF points were up to the task. In reviewing the images, I got more in-focus “hits” than misses. Everyone from Audubon who looked through the camera and lens remarked about its blazing-fast autofocus.


Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis)


 

I had the D500’s ISO set to 800 for most of my shooting. The skies were a sunlit overcast with few breaks, and the camera spent a lot of the morning trained skyward into heavy foliage and the shade this created. With the extreme 450mm equivalent field of view, I knew camera shake would be an issue. I didn’t feel like I brought my steadiest hands to the party, but the 300mm’s VR system is advertised to be good for 4.5 stops. Pressing the shutter halfway and engaging the VR motors would immediately steady my view through the D500’s viewfinder.

Starting from the Naturalists Gate on the west side of the park, we meandered through the Ramble to Summit Rock, Central Park’s highest natural elevation at an ear-popping 142 feet above sea level. Coming down from elevation, we made it to the beautiful Belvedere Castle, where migrating hawks are known to gather. Down below, turtles enjoyed sun breaks on the shore of their namesake, Turtle Pond. We descended back toward the American Museum of Natural History, where a current exhibit highlights the relationship of today’s birds to ancient creatures. 


Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)


 

For birders who are looking to travel light during a morning outing, the Nikon D500 and AF-S NIKKOR 300mm f/4E PF ED VR lens combination forms an amazingly capable, yet compact and light travel package. You cannot beat the compact size and weight of this 300mm lens. If you need a longer reach, you can combine the 300mm with the AF-S TC-14E III, AF-S TC-14E II, AF-S TC-17E II, AF-S TC-20E III, or AF-S TC-20E II teleconverters.

Get involved

Our guide, David Ringer, leads the Audubon’s Bird-Friendly Communities program that connects people in urban, suburban, and rural areas with their local birds and environments—encouraging conservation efforts at a local level. The umbrella program oversees three initiatives. The Native Plants for Birds program recommends bird-friendly landscaping and growing tips for your area of the globe. Lights Out: Creating Safe Passage gives us one more reason to reduce light pollution. Lastly, the Avian Architecture: Providing Good Homes for Birds program helps birders and conservationists reverse declining habitats by suggesting how artificial structures can best benefit local and migratory birds. You don’t have to be a birder to get involved!


My guides


 

78 Comments

Great article! I have a D7200 and the 300mm f/4 lens, but have been eyeing the D500 now for quite some time, and am close to pulling the trigger. I love the lens (it is amazingly light) and usability in low light situations. I enjoy taking photos of birds so needless to say the many features of the D500's autofocus system are very appealing, especially with smaller birds who don't want to pose for me. 

Hey Richard,

Thanks for the compliment on the article! I can see why the D500 is tempting, but the D7200 is no slouch, so don't expect a revolutionary experience if you do step up to the D500 place...more of an evolutionary transformation.

Either way, I am glad you are enjoying that unique lens!

I have both the D500 & 300mm PF. Not sure if I would call it the dream team. So far the combo is OK but not great. The D500 is not as sophisticated as advertised and the 300 PF gives mixed results in regard to resolution. Still working on making the combo work. And I’m not a pro just a long time amateur so maybe I’ll get the combo functioning better as time goes on, we’ll see.

Hey John,

I am sorry the combo has left you wanting a bit. When you say that "the D500 is not as sophisticated as advertised," can you elaborate? As a D300 user, I found that using the D500 was an-almost seamless experience, however, I knew, even without visible bells and whistles, that it had more power under the hood.

I got some very sharp images with the 300PF...but, it is a 300mm f/4 lens on APS-C, so you have to have a steady hand, or a good bit of light.

Let us know what you are finding or seeing and maybe we can help. Good luck!

I have felt that this combination would be very useful, and not just for birding.  I'm pleased to see professional affirmation in this review.  I'd purchase the bundle in a heartbeat if Nikon would only provide a little financial incentive.

Hi Mark! Sorry your comment slipped through without a reply...

I am not sure about "professional affirmation"...but I appreciate the sentiment! Regardless, it is a heck of a camera/lens combo for birding!

Regarding the 300 f/4 Fresnel lens, it is truly a marvel, sometimes in unexpected ways. I used it for two pelagic (offshore) birdwatching trips at the mouth of the Bay of Fundy. The second was rough, and spray was coming inboard regularly. The lens, with its shorter length, and ease of movement was easier to keep dry and protected. With less weight there is less inertia when a "lurch" to the side sends the camera (and sometimes the photographer) towards a metal edge. The lens is in perfect, "undinged" shape after this work on the "oceanic trampoline" and produced sensational results in these adverse conditions.

Hey Tom,

I agree. That lens is special in the photography world because it redefines the portability of a 300mm SLR lens. I am still amazed by its size and weight.

I am glad you are enjoying the glass! Thanks for writing in!

I got great pics with my Sony RX-10 III. nice reach and maybe lacking in the bokeh but pleasing enough.

There is definitely something to be said for traveling light! Thanks for reading and commenting, Rodrian!

Another good article Tod! I had the librairian print it out for me. I'll put it on the fre refridgerator next to the others!

Thanks, Gammy! I am glad you enjoyed it!

Thank you for the review and photos.  I am excited at the possibilities of the D500...though I do not have one yet.  Since I do quite of bit of sports photography, is there a second shutter release for verticle shooting like on the D2, D3, D4, D5 Pro bodies?

Hey Larry,

Thanks for writing in!

Yep, there is a battery pack/vertical grip for the D500. The camera body only has the one release, so if you want the vertical release, you have to get the battery pack.

http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/1214163-REG/nikon_27169_mb_d17_multi_power_battery.html

There is a second shutter release on the MB-D17 battery grip along with a spot for a second battery.

The D500 has it's quirks and with the Nikkor 200-500 in group autofocus it does not work well at all for me for birds in flight. It may ber that it is to light and whippy. I normally use a Nikon D4S and Sigma 150-600 Sport and the weight fits my shooting style and with group auto focus it is an amazing combo.  I have another friend in Idaho who has the D500 and we have both experienced a perplexing issue that Nikon does not have an answer for it yet other than to try the 2 button factory reset. The D500 freezes up in mid shooting and will not even turnoff with the switch. Resolved by pulling out the battery and putting it back in. (side note the Watson batteries I used in my D810 will not work in the D500).  Both times it happened to me I was shooting birds in flight using continuous group autofocus. However my friend was using single point continuous. Anyone else run in to this and any advice ?  Other than that I do like the camera and previously had the D300s (seemed a little more sturdily built) and this is much better in low llight and still prefer the D4S overall but for small sitting birds (confession ... I am a birder) the DX format and the 200-500 gives amazing "reach".

Hey Ken,

Its ok to be a birder in these parts! Your confession is noted and welcomed!

Thanks for sharing your experience. I hope some of our other customers can help out and chime in. Thanks for reading!

Have you used a 300mm prime?  Can you compare it to the 200-500mm or the Sigma 150-600 Sport for sharpness?  I'm considering getting the 300mm f4 with a 1.4x.

Hi Steve,

Hopefully Ken will check back to see your questions. Personally, I have used the latest two Nikon 300mm f/4 primes and I did a hands-on of the Sigma 150-600 Contemporary. All three are great lenses.

I haven't had the pleasure of the Nikon 200-500mm yet.

I really have a problem with the Nikon D500.  I do quite a bit of sports photography (with some birding on the side) and have found that after a month of using this camera's spectacular auto focus system, that I'm drowning in excess frames in post production that I simply can't trash.  Even with my workflow through PhotoMechanic, I'm finding myself tagging 90+% of the frames and then spending inordinate amounts of time deciding on which to publish. The situation is hopeless, but I'm hopelessly in love with this beast. 

First world problems, Doug! I am sorry about your struggles. Yes, life was easier when there were more "misses" than "hits!"

Time to get a faster computer from B&H to speed the editing process. It is a vicious cycle of technology! Good luck and thanks for reading!

Thank you for a nice article highlighting one of the typical uses and strong points of the D500 and 300m PF lens. Your article captures  what many of us enjoy doing on a pleasant spring day. Gear is fun to talk about, but any day you can be out shooting is a good day!

I have just recently bought a D500 and am very positively impressed with this camera! The number one advantage is the autofocus, which is incredibly fast and accurate. The autofocus points cover nearly all of the frame, and the system is way quicker and more accurate in terms of keepers in a sequence than on the D810, which I have shot with extensively. This combined with the high burst rate makes the D500 an incredible camera for shooting birds and sports. The autofocus is really at another level! I want to emphasize that it is more consistently accurate in both AF-S and AF-C than my D810. As a fun exercise, put the autofocus in Auto and have your kid/pet or other animate object run around randomly while shooting at 10 FPS. The AF just tracks them, and the focus on almost all frames is right on. Group AF works extremely well for this if you can keep up with pointing the lens, but Auto works across the frame, and seems to be able to stick with the closest object.

With a fast XQD card the buffer is essentially bottomless. So the camera just grabs onto focus like nothing I've shot with before (I've never owned any of the D4, D5 line, so can't comment relative to them.)

When I've been shooting birds before with my D810, I usually end up cropping in significantly anyway, so shooting DX is actually better, as the D500 files are nearly half the size of the D810 files. 

The D500 is also one of the few DX cameras with a good-enough viewfinder. Full-frame is much better, but the D500 viewfinder is quite usable, and doesn't distract from shooting like some of the smaller pentamirror cameras like the D5500.

One other thing that is key is ergonomics. Here the D500 has close to the same control layout as the D810, so I'm comfortable switching between the two. Lastly, the high ISO noise is quite well controlled. Last evening, I was shooting into dusk, and ended up with some shots at ISO 10000 to 16000. There is of course more noise than at base ISO, but it is remarkably low for the given speeds, and is very "film-like" with a random grain structure. I would call ISO 6400 and below completly usable for sports and wildlife. I agree with the other comment that at 1600-3200 the noise is inconsequential. This is remarkable for a DX camera.

Finally, I agree that the 300mm PF is a fantastic combination with the D500. It's not quite as fast in autofocus as some of the big-gun teles, but with the compact size it is so much more pleasurable to shoot with. No tripod foot needed, but RRS makes a very good one if you want to shoot with one. Plenty sharp with great optical performance. I have found it works very well with the 1.4x TCIII.

Thank you again for a fun review!

Hey DaveT,

Thanks so much for the kind words! I am glad you enjoyed the review and delighted that you are digging your D500! Thanks for sharing your experience and for reading Explora!

Excellent review. I enjoyed havng real world photos and it did not sound like a Nikon comercial. I got information I can use to help make a decision on real world test.

Thank you for a great review.

Thanks, Lawrence! I am glad you enjoyed the article and thanks for reading!

This was a totally useless article with the audacity to be advertised as a review.

Hi Dale,

I am sorry you felt that the review was useless. If you are looking for a more technical review, I am sure there are reviews available online elsewhere with bench test photos of still-life subjects taken with the D500.

I'd personally rather take the camera for a walk through the park than spend the day in a laboratory.

Feel free to let us know what kind of information and photos you are looking for in hands-on reviews. We are always open to suggestions from our readers!

Thanks for reading!

Great article! I'm really excited about the D500 - not only for the great ISO range, but also the 4K video. Okay with it being DX, if the grain looks comperable to the D4S. Have you had any experience in how it looks in to 1600 to 3200 ISO range?

I have taken 1000s of images in the ISO range of 1600 to 3200.  I can tell you, unequivically, that noise is not at all perceptable in this ISO range.

Hey Brad,

As it was a sunny day, I didn't crank the ISO that high, but it looks like some of our other readers have with great results. High ISO performance has been the one area that has made steady improvements with successive models of cameras, so no reason to think the D500 would be different.

Thanks for reading!

Check out the BosStrap Side Slide at B&H.  It allows use of binoculars and camera without strap entanglement.  No need to choose between a camera or a binocular.

I needed that! Thanks, Tom!

Nikon teleconverters are OK in a pinch.  I have all three sizes of them.  However, they will stop down your light by one to two stops, they will slow your auto focus aquisition, and they will, quite often, negatively effect resolution for a number reasons.  Also, they are not cheap.  Nikon makes excellent teleconveretrs, but you have to pay as much for them as a good Nikon lens.  Instead of buying teleconveretrs, put your money into a longer lens.

Hi Harvey,

Agreed! Teleconverters do have their downsides, but there are many who swear by them and never leave them at home.

The whole reason I got the D-version of the 300 f/4 was because I was not happy with my results using a 2x teleconvertor on the 70-200 f/2.8. I gave up some range, but made up for it in speed and sharpness.

Thanks again for commenting and reading Explora!

Todd,

I would have no reservations using a Nikon teleconverter on a bright sunny day.  They do quite well in bright light.

Thanks, Harvey! Noted!

Hi Harvey and Todd, Interesting articles, I have recently shot with the new 300 f4 on a D7100, D4, DF.

I found the lens to be excellent, sharp, great colour and light weight, the VR is excellent, it fits the purpose very well.

With the use of a converter 1.4 it was evident and more so the D7100 D800 there was a clear compromise shooting critically but in many cases somewhat tolerable

To me using the 300 f4 and the 1.4 converter on the DF and D4 with both cameras having much larger pixels but less of them the compromise was almost undetectable to non-existent.

A side by side comparison of the 300 F4 and the 300 2.8 VR 11 was revealing, especially in lower light circulstances.  The 300 f4 offered agility, compactness, lightweight, great image quality, as a comparison to the 300 2.8 VR 11 it is sharper and faster especially in lower light conditions and it is very sharp at 2.8 for creative shots, it is a different tool.

I find light speed and time is my mantra, Having Nikon Service in Sydney calibrate all lenses and cameras, the difference it makes is in many cases is staggering and well worth the Money if you shoot critically.

I also used the new Nikon 200-500 in the same circumstances as the 300 F4, the 200-500 is amazing, truly superb, although the use of converters I found started to exceed what I was willing to accept as a compromise, that’s not an issue with the lens its simply using the tools for what they were meant to do and abiding by my mantra.

It appears Nikon is upping its game and delivering more of what people are asking for, great to see.

Kindest Regards from Rolf Down Under

G'day Rocket,

Awesome stuff! Thanks for sharing with our other customers and readers and thanks for reading!

Cheers!

Cracking camera and I think legendary in status, I being a shooter of the a7rII have also bought one, great for sports and wildlife...

Nice moves, Rob! Enjoy it!

The article is great and the pictures are beautiful, but your bird labels are not right... A Catbird is not a Black-throated Blue...

And it is an awesome camera! Mine came last week and to catch birds on the fly, it does exceptionally well. 

Hi Julie,

I am glad you are enjoying your D500!

Thanks for the compliments on the photos!

I double-checked our captions and they appear accruate on my screen. May I ask on what image you are seeing the errant text?

The ID is correct, it's just that the photo is UP-SIDE-DOWN!! Must have been edited by an Ausie!

Hey Reed,

Which photo looks upside-down to you? If you are referring to the warbler in flight, that was taken almost directly overhead and is the correct orientation.

The new 300 f/4 lacks a mounting foot. That's strike one and two for me.....

The camera does not need a mounting foot.   it can be easily hand held with the 300/4 pf lens. For a really heavy lens like a 300/2.8 the optional mountng foot would be needed if a tripod was used.

I am not as accomplished a bird photographer as you folks, but as an experienced photographer when it comes to wildlife, the 300mm lenes aren't long enough for me when it comes to our aviary friends.  For a longer, yet managable, focal length, and for less money, I suggest the the Nikon 80-400 or, preferably, the new Nikon 200-500.

Good point, Harvey. For the less casual birders, I think the 300mm f/4 plus a teleconverter will make a very nice and highly-portable package.

I agree.  There are some who will benefit from the smaller and lighter camera/lens combination.  In fact, in a few years, I may join this group.

I can't emphasize enough how nice it was to go out with a 300mm lens and not have to break out a separate bag or backpack!

Thanks for reading, Galeazzo!

True statement, Ernaldo, but a mounting foot has likely never been installed on a lens so small and lightweight. Thanks for reading!

The camera does not need a mounting foot.   it can be easily hand held with the 300/4 pf lens. For a really heavy lens like a 300/2.8 the optional mountng foot would be needed if a tripod was used.

Agreed. Unless you put a very very light DSLR on the 300mm f/4, the balance is going to favor the camera, not the lens.

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