I've been shooting this lens for about a week in private game reserves bordering Kruger NP in South Africa now, with a D800E, and it's just the tool for the job. It has a very classic tonal scale, meaning slightly compressed, but never murky or dull. Bokeh is just perfect for making scrubby, dry brush (it's the dry season here) visually palatable.
The other alternative is to shoot a much faster lens, like a 400/2.8 and throw it all completely out of focus, but then you lose the environmental context. The fast superteles also produce a very different image, perhaps due to their nanocoatings. The histogram of the 200-500 definitely has a more pronounced bell curve than the nanocoated optics, indicating tonal compression. But it never looks flared, and the histogram is usually left-aligned.
It is however quite prone to fogging, more than any other telephoto I've ever owned or rented. It's winter here and the early mornings are a bit chilly, hovering slightly above freezing. Midday is about 85, and when the sun rises it gets warm very quickly. Driving in an open vehicle the windchill cools down the lens, especially the front protective element if it faces the direction of travel. Get up out of a cool gully, into morning sunlight, stop to shoot and the lens will easily be 20 degrees colder than the air. The fogup is instant and can only be remedied by putting the lens in the sun for a minute or two to warm up, then wiping off the moisture. These are pretty extreme conditions though; even though the days are warm and very dry, in the cool morning there's plenty of moisture. Later in the day, after sunrise this no longer happens. I solved it by covering the lens during travel, but it would be nice if Nikon provided a slip-on cap that goes over the hood to keep windchill and dust off of it.
But movement isn't necessary. I was shooting that Waterbuck above in early morning, as the air warmed rapidly the lens fogged up, practically between two shots.
This lens has no noticeable propensity to flare even in harsh backlight. This shows good internal baffling. I wish I could say the same for the D800E - better make sure to cover that eyepiece and not let stray light slip in, because it WILL wash out the image. If some out of a series look washed-out, that's almost certainly what happened. Normally this isn't an issue whatsoever, it just so happens I lost the cup for the eyepiece magnifier (DK17M I believe it is) and this makes it somewhat noticeable. It's worst at oblique sideways light where the sun can get in between my head and the eyepiece. I have noticed no chromatic aberration whatsoever.
(That Rhino was in a bad bad mood. We left it rather quickly.)
VR works very well. With a tripod, gimbal, or careful bracing it can be shot at ridiculously low speeds. I just used the "normal" mode; for my purposes it's just fine. The panning lag actually isn't that noticeable to me, I've had lenses that were much worse. (Canon 600/4 IS: looking at you!) Except for the most rapid action I wouldn't switch to sports mode.
The balance is near perfect with a D800 with grip, and I'd assume the same applies to the D810 and D5. Maybe the D500 unless they made it smaller, in which case it's possible it's a little front heavy.
AF is fast, but shows the the limitations of my D800; the lens is far more competent than the camera. I shoot single AF point in AF-C and use the thumb controls on the camera and grip to continuously move it around as needed. In the impala doe shot above for instance I had a single AF point over the head of the leading doe. Since image review interferes with this I have that turned off altogether. (The thumb controls control image playback during review.) Apart from the D800 specific complaints (not enough AF points far out in the field) the main issue is it tends to get stuck at close distances, so the range limiter is important to engage for this camera. The drawback is if something is just at the close end of the range it may be slightly out of critical focus simple because the lens hit the limit, without warning. After a while though I intuitively started to disengage it when limited, but it would be better if the range limits were a feature of the camera instead of the lens; apart from being better integrated, it could potentially allow setting up narrow limits to prevent mistracking. This is especially so when in a messy environment like the dry South African brush. Another issue with my D800E is the focus points are slightly off vs the viewfinder indicators.
Did I mention AF is fast? When the D800E doesn't hunt it's instantaneous. When the D800E starts hunting... it often gets stuck at close range, probably confusing OOF bokeh effects for focus. The only realy solution is to manually rack it out and engage the limiter when that happens.
For exposure I set it to A mode f/5.6-f/11, auto ISO with a minimum speed of 1/320. 1/320 is fast enough to shoot off the hip from a moving vehicle most times, handheld. I went through a few iterations (1/250 ISO1600, fixed ISO A mode, etc) before settling on this. The D810 should pick up a couple more stops of usable ISO range, but even with only the D800E I've never really felt starved for light. It's good well past sunset and by the time it gets to something like 1/30 ISO 2200 f/5.6 it's getting dark so fast that even two more stops doesn't buy a lot of time. But certainly, 1/120 for a wildlife subject is better than a 1/30. But it's more about "bigger numbers are better" than any significant different in usability.
While I'll be adding a D810 for its various incremental improvements anyway, I really think this is an excellent general-purpose wildlife lens. The fact that it's a zoom is absolutely fantastic, and the range is just about perfect. Any large mammal too far off for a 500 on a 35mm body is just going to be so far off that it just doesn't matter. It certainly won't matter if the lens is a 500 or 600. At that point, for really distant subjects I'd rather pick up a D500 and maybe add a 1.4x TC if there's any benefit over cropping.
Verdict? Five stars for sure. Totally, absolutely, a super tool for the job and something that has been missing from the Nikon lineup since... well, since Canon released the 100-400. The 200-500 runs circles around the Canon 100-400 in every way imaginable.
I apologize if the color balance is off... I'm a MacBook Air and haven't calibrated this display in a while, and don't have all my usual tools on it (Viveza etc).