Some thoughts on a non-VR 500mm vs. the 500VR:
I think it comes down to your shooting style and intended subjects! In September 2008, my 500VR arrived and I have been appreciating the lens ever since, except for a nagging feeling that perhaps a nice AF-S 500mm would have been sufficient and saved me a bundle (3 to $4,000 on a used one?). Hey, that would pay for a 14-24 and a 24-70!
Here are my subjective impressions of some of the shooting situations I encounter and the 500VR advantages or not:
- pure handheld on a BIF, I don't think the VR makes a ton of difference assuming you, like me, are also trying to achieve a fast shutter speed. My minimum goal is 1/1600 second for handheld on a bird in flight subject. I would prefer 1/2500 and when I get some more light, I'll go into 1/4000 and see how that shakes out. At these shutter speeds I believe other posters advice is VR may not be making all that much difference, perhaps little to none in the finished image with some feeling a negative effect. Only advantage here is steadier viewfinder image allowing you perhaps better holding of the lens onto the target and therefore better AF tracking and one could argue sharper resulting image since AF was able to nail it. Call it small advantage for the VR but not a show stopper?
- handheld on a BIF at slower shutter speeds, there are a lot of things "wrong" here so unsharp shots can result due to combined subject motion, large angular motion of the lens at high focal lengths (sometimes 850mm!), and so luck comes more into play. E.g. fire a burst and hope for one or two. Keeper ratio far lower regardless of VR or NOT so again call it a small advantage for the VR but not a show stopper? Personally I really do not like subject motion blur so I avoid this scenario given any choice.
- non-pure handheld, balanced on a fencepost, car hood, car roof, or other objects yes VR has an advantage, especially on a perched, slowly walking or swimming bird. I'll include shooting from inside the car, balanced on a window or door jamb in this category too. I always try to rest my lens on something if I have half a chance when handholding. Here you can also maybe trade off lower shutter speeds for better ISO and the VR helps.
- on monopod, my highly preferred method for a bird that is not flying, I think the VR is conferring its greatest advantage to me anyway. In this shooting situation (and the previous one too) I suspect the VR is conferring some decent advantage, again dependant on shutter speed and some of the other variables such as angle and speed of travel of the subject. Though if able to get high shutter speeds then less VR advantage here.
- not locked down on a tripod, for example a gimbal, sidekick, or on an unlocked ballhead I believe posters indicate a decent advantage for the VR lens. I now am shooting this way a little more often and generally been using 'tripod-mode' VR (although Nikon recommends normal-mode VR) since I am generally pretty steady when shooting this way, so it's almost like shooting locked-down. Very difficult for me to tell whether VR is conferring any advantage in this shooting situation. I get such a high percentage of keepers this way it is hard to imagine a non-VR lens doing much worse.
- locked down (not loose) on a tripod, one could quibble pros or cons but tripod-mode VR or not should be a small victory either way? I rarely shoot any subjects fully locked down, so I don't really have a lot of feedback, but again perhaps not a big win for the VR again.
On balance for me, having now formulated my thoughts about my own primary shooting methods, I am OK with having spent the extra on the VR. Especially with me not getting into too many tripod shooting situations, I think VR can make some sense. For those disciplined tripod folks I would think an AF-S may be just fine.
Anyhow, just some thoughts based on my own experience and 2 cents worth as they say!