Nikon 300mm Lens Field Test First Impressions

Author: David Huffman

From time to time, we all get the urge to buy a new piece of equipment. We research it, talk to others, and maybe even rent one before we make a purchase decision. I’m no different. As a teenager, when I first got the photography bug from my father, I poured over all the lens data and testing graphs in the back of the photo magazines every month. I could memorize them. That was partly because I had more interest than I did money. Several decades later, now I find that while there is tremendous information available over the Internet, I still want to try it myself before I make a final decision. The abundant testing that most websites perform is very helpful, but at times tends overstate the deficiencies of the lens—the lenses look better than the reports would have you believe.

So, I no longer photograph newspaper pages or test targets, but instead take the lenses out into the field for testing in more real situations. I can’t remember the last time a photograph of a test target or newspaper page won a contest.

This report comes from a walk-around test in my local park of an exciting new lens from Nikon. It has been 15 years since a new version of a 300mm telephoto lens was introduced by Nikon, so the new Nikkor 300mm f/4E PF ED VR lens was something many enthusiasts and professionals have been waiting for.  What makes this new lens so exciting is an innovative optical design that reduces the weight by 50% and the physical size by 30%; this is a completely different lens. Nikon was able to achieve this by using a Phase Fresnel (PF) lens element, which can effectively reduce the need to use complex lens elements for correcting chromatic aberrations and ghosting. (Please note that I received no compensation from Nikon or other manufacturers for this review.) There are a number of new technologies in this lens, and I’ll refer you to the manufacturer’s website or other Internet sources for the full details. What interests me most about this lens, was that I could achieve full frame coverage with a longer telephoto lens, and keep the size and weight lower so I could carry it and use it more often. I use long lenses and although the results with them are very good I find I use them infrequently because they’re just too big to carry. This lens is so small and light, that is comparable to my every day walk-around lenses and short zooms.  The lens is 89mm x 147mm, and weight is 755g.  The picture below shows the new (left) and old lens for comparison.

lens1

Lens handling is excellent and well-balanced on my full frame Nikon bodies D750, D810 and Df–– its weight is distributed evenly across the lens and it does not feel front-heavy like some of the telephoto and super telephoto lenses. Because the lens is so light, you don’t have to lay it on your left hand entirely when hand-holding, so you can completely avoid touching the focus ring.  The photo below shows a close up of the new lens alone.

lens2

I’ll abbreviate this review in the interests of time for your reading.  I decided to test the lens today without a tripod, for the convenience of walking and also because I intend to use it for wildlife which can be more difficult with tripods.  So the waterfowl photos that accompany this blog are hand held.  All photos use the VR—vibration reduction— setting and I was not resting the lens on any type of support.  I had good results at all shutter speeds down to 1/30th second, although the sharpness was more consistent at shutter speeds over 1/250th second.  Focus was fast and accurate, both in single focus and continuous focus modes.  Each of the photos below were cropped somewhat, just as I would for a final image; these are not intended to be contest-winners, just test shots.

The first image is was taken at f/4 and 1/1000th second.  Even taken at a distance of over 150 feet, the depth of field is very shallow, so I’ll have to be careful with focus.  Using smaller apertures can help, but with these longer lenses, depth of field will always be limited.

photo3

The second image was taken at a closer distance of about 35 feet, and you’ll see the sharpness is outstanding, using f/8 and 1/350th second.  But depth of field is still limited.

photo4

Finally, I added a 1.4X teleconverter to the lens for an effective focal length of 420mm, and took this image from a distance of about 25 feet using f/5.6 and 1/1000th second.  Very sharp.

photo5

My practical assessment concludes this lens is “a keeper” and one I’ll enjoy on my next outings and workshops with Arizona Highways Photo Workshops.  Join us soon!

David is a Volunteer Trip Leader, instructor and author, find him at www.HuffmanPhotoArt.com.

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