This is just a work in progress - I hope to capture the salient points on shooting the 500VR and what makes it a good tool and how to decide if it is the right tool for you.
First of all, the 500VR is probably a bird-specialist tool more than for other subjects, but it also does very well on wildlife if you can combine it with both a DX and an FX camera at the ready. I haven't personally tried the 500VR for sports.
In my opinion, the big thing about deciding between buying a 500VR and a 600mm is handling (weight and size) not optics. There is only a 20% field of view difference, so you should make your decision based on a careful review of exactly what shooting situations you plan to use your super-telephoto.
Get the 500VR if you want to handle it in a variety of shooting situations from handheld, prone, monopod, and some tripod usage.
Get the 500VR if you plan to get into all kinds of situations with it from instant jump out of the vehicle and shoot situations, casual hikes handheld or on monopod, shooting out the car window (using the car as a blind), all the way to static situations staked out in a blind.
My personal favourite ways to shoot the 500VR is sitting cross-legged with lens on a tilt-swivel on top of a monopod or on a ballhead from a ground pod (laying prone on the ground). Results are excellent. Full-gimbal on a tripod is probably the most comfortable but you do miss some shots due to less flexibility and not being able to get into (or adjust) position in time.
A 500mm f4 lens in my view is purchased for shooting with the TC14E and TC17E. It's because it lets you get out to 700 and 850mm that makes it so valuable - "now that is what I'm talking about" when it comes to birds!!
If you "only need 500mm" then a 300mm with TC17E is probably more practical. But if you are a bird-shooter, "only needing 500mm" doesn't happen all that often
I personally wonder whether VR in a 600mm lens is as necessary as on the 500, since it is much more likely you'll shoot the 600mm beast on a full tripod and gimbal rig? In the case of the 600mm, it moreso comes down to Tripod-mode VR and how much value that adds.
I could see owning a 500VR for mostly native use without TCs (and not on a tripod) alongside a 600 with TCs on a tripod. Or my own dream is a 300-800mm to go with my 500VR!
For complete flexibility in shooting a long prime like the 500VR, for larger subjects such as wildlife, you need to have an FX and a DX body! In that case let's discuss combining the 500VR in usage with other lenses:
- OK, say you have the D300 and D700 and add the TC14E and TC17E and a 70-200.
- Then the 500VR is a great flexible tool for wildlife and with TCs on both cameras. Expressed in DX FOV terms (i.e if you are already used to "DX FOV"):
- The 500VR in combination with the two cameras and two TCs this gives you equivalent to 333mm, 466mm, 500mm, 566mm, 700mm, and 850mm (expressed in a DX FOV mindset).
- I.e. the 500 becomes a "333mm" for someone used to DX FOV when you mount it on FX.
- Mix in a 70-200 and you also have 70-200, 105-280, and 120-340mm. So you have each focal length covered multiple times.
- I use the above mentioned combos and have no complaints and don't really feel the need for a 200-400, 300, or 400 for my wildlife shooting.
For sports, you might consider the 200-400 as more flexible. In which case I would add a used non-VR 600mm for a very nice combo.
You don't so much as mount the 500VR lens on a camera as you do mount a camera onto the lens.
Carrying the 500VR is generally by lens foot or on monopod, but also on tripod, and sometimes laying it on the ground, or clenching it between thighs while you use binoculars to scan the horizon. No strap is necessary on the camera or lens, it just gets in the way of this big rig!
Yes you still have to sharpen 500VR images in post to get the most out of this tool. In fact, owning a multi-thousand dollar lens has almost the opposite effect on your post-processing skills - one feels obligated to develop PP to ever higher-levels commensurate with this fine lens.
The lens collar may be a design weak-point, mine broke completely through on one side after only 5 months usage. Repair at Nikon Canada took almost two months (IIRC my baby was away 7+ weeks).
I got the monster GT5541 tripod mostly because I may add an 800mm some day, but I think the GT35nn series is probably a lot easier to carry (or I need to do some weight lifting).
The Manfrotto 681B monopod is "too tall" when fully collapsed at 24", rendering it difficult to use from a cross-legged position. I should have got the smaller 680B, which has one more segment, but collapses 4" lower.
I think a full gimbal (as opposed to a SideKick) makes sense for the big heavy glass like this. The sidekick calls for you to mount the lens sideways, and there is some danger you might drop it during this procedure.
In summation the differences of a 500VR from a 600mm: handling, handling, and handling! So think really carefully about those shooting situations you intend to get into.
Hope this helps your own decision-making process.
"I do want to tackle focus tuning, but am very aware of the need for obtaining repeatable test results, so for the moment I have not tackled this."
Update one year later: I began to notice front-focusing (I think through better understanding of the 500mm lens and the images it produces) and embarked on quite a journey. I initially tuned using a freebie focus chart and knowledge that based on real-life images it was front-focussing. I think this produced some better images but it also created a ton of uncertainty on how much I should set the tuning value to. And don't forget this is with the lens naked plus two teleconverters therefore three different values to set.
So I finally broke down and got the Lens Align Pro Plus tool (which is not cheap) and have been using this like a banshee on all my lenses and bodies, which let me tell you is a huge huge exercise ;-) (especially when I am tuning 2 teleconverters plus 2 telephotos times two bodies, that is 12 combinations right there, plus 2 bodies and each of my other lenses where I don't use TCs, so probably about 22 combinations in total have been fine-tuned. Egads, I am about to get another body ;-) )
I now feel I am in a more repeatable zone in terms of getting a correct AF tune value and I critically/constantly evaluate all my images to see if I think I am on the right track. Focus tuning is what I would call a DIFFICULT rewarding process, especially suited for the fast primes, f2.8 zooms, and super-telephotos where depth of field can be razor-thin. And just to be clear you are adjusting the default zone of focus backwards and forwards.
For focus tuning I would now describe it as the journey continues...