Nikon 300mm f/4E AF-S VR Review

bythom AFS 300 4E PF.jpg


What is It?

The 300mm f/4D was one long-in-the-teeth lens. Basically, it had been with us since the early days of DSLRs (2001). The very next year we got the 70-200mm VR, and pretty much all the telephoto options have had VR since then. Thus, the 300mm f/4D was one of the last AF-S-but-no-VR lenses to be produced by Nikon.

Yet it was a popular lens. Because of it’s combination of size, price, and focal length it became the “poor man’s telephoto.” Most shooters added a TC to it to get more reach, and were happy about most everything except…it didn’t have VR.

Rumors of the replacement came long before it appeared, and a lot of us wondered if Nikon was really going to go where the patents indicated they might: fresnel lens elements to lighten the product. As it turned out, that’s exactly where Nikon went.

The result is a lens that’s 3” shorter than the one it replaces, and the lens loses almost half the weight, as well (down from 50.8 ounces to 26.6; 1440g down to 755g for my foreign readers). Can you say wow? I can’t remember another time when we’ve had a seminal lens shed so much belly as the 300mm f/4 now has. I wish I could lose weight like this lens has. 

In terms of other specifications, not much changed. Still 77mm filters up front, still about 1.4m close focus, still a 9-blade diaphragm, still has ED glass in it, and it still focuses internally. The optical formula got a bit denser, with 16 elements in 10 groups instead of 10 elements in 6 groups, though that’s fairly common with VR designs versus non-VR. 

The big difference is in one of those lens elements. Instead of a traditional curved glass element, we have a fresnel element. This cuts a lot of glass (and thus weight) out of the design, plus it allows for a more compact telephoto formula to be used. 

Two small changes you should note: the new lens has Nano coating, which helps with internal reflections and boosts micro contrast a bit; and the tripod collar is not supplied with the lens (a bit of the weight difference). The good news is that the tripod collar you need is the same as for the 70-200mm f/4 lens. For once Nikon isn’t arbitrarily making us buy yet another new accessory. 

But let’s return to that fresnel element for a moment, as it has consequences. The problem with using such an element is that, with small bright highlights in frame you tend to get ringed flare around them due to the—you guessed it—fresnel rings themselves. Nikon has now added a fresnel flare removal tool to their software products (e.g. Capture NX-D), but it really only reduces the appearance of flare, it doesn't remove it. In other words, it treats the symptoms, doesn’t cure the disease. Such flare is very pronounced with small light, very bright light sources in frame. Photos taken at night with street lights or other point lighting sources are ones that tend to produce this flare. 

So the fresnel element is both our friend and foe. It’s a friend because its job is to keep all colors focusing at the same point in the frame and reduce chromatic aberration, a job it does very well (see performance section, below). Typically it takes large, heavy ED elements to achieve the same thing the fresnel element does. On the other hand, it’s our foe on small highlight production, as that’s where the non-smooth aspect of the fresnel element tends to have the most dramatic impact on light rays. 

Note that this is an E-type lens. The aperture is closed via electronic communication, not a manual aperture activation arm. This means that earlier Nikon SLR and DSLRs aren’t good candidates for it. Specifically, the F6, D1 series, D2 series, D40, D40x, D50, D60, D70, D70s, D80, D90, D100, D200, and D3000 bodies can’t control the aperture on this lens, you can only shoot wide open with them.

Nikon’s page for the lens is here. The lens is made in China and sells for about US$2000.

Source of the review sample: personal purchase. Results compared to three other sample lenses available to me.


How’s it Handle?

Prime lenses don’t have a lot to talk about in terms of handling.

The focus ring on the 300mm f/4E goes from minimum focus to infinity in about a third of a turn. On my sample, the manual focus ring is smooth but doesn’t give me any resistance, making it a little difficult to know whether I moved focus in very small increments.

The inclusion of A/M and M/A positions for focus gives you a bit more subtlety in use, and the focus limiter switch (3m to infinity) is useful for subjects that aren’t close as it limits any focus hunt the camera/lens may perform (rare on this lens). 

VR, however, is limited to “Off”, “Normal”, and Nikon’s ill-described “Sport.” Sport mode is specifically linked to detection of panning motion. Which means that we’ve lost the old “Active” mode, which attempts to remove platform vibrations (shooting from a moving vehicle or shaky platform). It’s not that this is “bad handling,” it’s that Nikon is solving problems without really telling us what problem they’re solving, and removing things that we know the problem the solved (and which we still need solved). This does indeed mean that the way we handle the lens is impacted, and personally, I think this is a step backward. 

But the big story with handling is this: handholding. The 300mm f/4E is a small, light lens for its focal length. I was recently shooting football on the sidelines of several games, and the f/4E basically meant that I could forgo a monopod. 300mm isn’t exactly the perfect lens for football (and f/4 is a little confining in terms of DOF isolation), but compared to using my usual 400mm f/2.8 it was like I had suddenly had a great weight lifted from my shoulders. Literally, I did. 

The same thing applies to things like mid-distance wildlife and birds-in-flight shooting: the 300mm f/4E is a lens that you can handhold and pan with subject motion easily, and for longish periods of time without fatigue. 

If anything, the primary difference between the older and newer 300mm f/4 is this: suitability to carrying long distances and handholding. Smaller and lighter is a real win here.


How’s it Perform?

I’m going to start with sharpness first for a change. There’s good news and not-quite-as-good news. First, center to edge performance really doesn’t vary a lot. While edges aren’t quite as good as the center, they’re closer than you’d typically expect, even in a high end telephoto lens. Top resolution and acuity is achieved at f/5.6 and I’d rate that as mostly excellent on a D7200 (highest pixel density DSLR Nikon makes). The 300mm f/4E isn’t a 200mm f/2, unfortunately, and it’s not fully pushing into the upper limits of what a D810 or D7200 can achieve, though it is still very nice overall, and better than a lot of zoom alternatives. The corners at f/5.6 are probably what I’d call the bottom side of very good. So let’s call this lens “very good to excellent” in terms of sharpness and acuity.

At f/4 the center falls down a bit from f/5.6, though surprisingly the corners don’t drop as much. Still very good. Once we hit the diffraction-impacted apertures at the other end, I really don’t see any differential between center and corners, and it’s clear that diffraction itself is controlling how much resolution you obtain. 

Basic advice: use f/5.6 and f/8 for optimal results, don’t be afraid of f/4. Plus this lens is capable of sharp, strong results on the best DSLRs Nikon makes.

I no longer have my 300mm f/4D to test directly against, but I do have my test results from that lens still handy (though not from a D810). I can’t really say that the new 300mm is “better” than the old one in terms of resolution and acuity. Maybe a tiny bit at a few apertures in a few areas, but not enough for me to really pick one over the other. I don’t think you pick the 300mm f/4E over the f/4D because of optical clarity. Which is a bit of a surprise, but maybe not when you consider how well regarded the original 300mm f/4D was in terms of sharpness.

Where the E starts to shine compared to the lens it replaces is in the other optical parameters. Chromatic aberration, both longitudinal and latitudinal, is very well corrected. Yes, some small amount of latitudinal chromatic aberration is present, but it’s at levels where I might not even try to correct it. On the longitudinal side, I can’t find enough to even comment on in actual use, which is excellent performance for a prime lens.

Linear distortion is low, basically pincushion type at a level I also probably wouldn’t correct. Vignetting for DX is mostly ignorable wide open (half stop worst case) and nearly nonexistent at f/5.6. For FX users, the corners might hit one stop down wide open, though this is remarkably smooth in transition outwards, and again at f/5.6 you’re just not going to find enough to worry about correcting. As is often the case with Nikkors, I see a tiny bit of de-centering in my sample, though not enough to worry about.

Bokeh isn’t great, but it isn’t terrible. There’s a tiny bit of onion-skin at the very outer edge, and as usual with recent Nikkors my copy has a slightly imperfect geometric aperture opening. 

So is there an Achille’s Heel to the 300mm f/4E? Maybe for some, and that would be flare tendencies. If you have tremendously bright (e.g. sun) or point source lights (e.g. night scenes) in the frame, the PD element tends to easily produce a very artificial looking “broadening” around the light source and concentric lower contrast rings in the affected area. So don’t shoot city scenes at night and wildlife with the sun right behind them ;~). 

Overall, the performance of this lens meets or exceeds that of its predecessor, with the exception of in frame bright light flare.

So let’s take a look at some images and discuss the consequences of using this lens (the sample photos this time were taken by my workshop teaching partner, Tony Medici, with his D810). 

300mm-Samples---20150825-0857---N8114939.jpg

Let’s talk about the “is it long enough, does it work” for wildlife question first. Probably, and yes, respectively. 300mm and f/4 do have some limitations for wildlife and sports. 300mm isn’t truly long, so you need some relatively close access to animals to use it (or use it with a DX body or crop instead of FX). Likewise the f/4 isn’t going to truly isolate focus. Note that the trees in background haven’t gone completely out of focus. Subject isolation against backgrounds are more difficult with this lens than the 300mm f/2.8 (or likewise a longer lens such as the 400mm or 500mm). The good news is that I don’t see any issues caused by the fresnel elements in the background blurs the lens does produce. 

So, the next question people ask is “but what if I put the 1.4x teleconverter on it?” Okay, yes, you get 420mm f/5.6, but it’s still sort of the same thing. Best case subject isolation at 420mm f/5.6 isn’t going to be as good as the 500mm f/4, and you still may be a little short in focal length in some situations.

These aren’t reasons to avoid the 300mm f/4, as the above shot should start to suggest. It’s just not a long-reach lens.

300mm-Samples---20150830-1047---81A04028 full.jpg
300mm-Samples---20150830-1047---81A04028 100percent.jpg

Is it sharp? Top is a crop of the full frame, the bottom is 100% view. Yes, it’s sharp. Very sharp. While I earlier described the optical perform in detail, the bottom line is that this is a good lens that should be netting you very usable images. If you’re not getting sharp photos from the 300mm f/4, something is wrong, simple as that. That was true of the original 300mm f/4, too. The difference is this lens is easier to handhold and has VR.

As you might know, Nikon issued a Not-A-Service-Advisory for this lens. Basically, on the D8xx series bodies, images captured with VR active around the 1/125 shutter speed exhibited unexpected blur. NikonUSA’s position on this is totally consumer-unfriendly. The problem is a firmware issue that was present in all copies up to serial number 205101. In other words, a manufacturing defect that makes the product not operate as advertised. NikonUSA will fix it for you, but "the user must pay the cost of shipping to the service center, and Nikon will pay for return shipping.” In essence, my 300mm f/4E will cost me about US$30 more than list price because of Nikon’s insistence that this isn’t something they should have caught and dealt with on their own dime. 

This kind of customer-unfriendly attitude needs to stop. The best case scenario for Nikon is that Nikon users are becoming educated to not purchasing new Nikon products until the Internet issues an “all clear” signal months after the product first ships. Given that early purchasers of the D600, D800, D810, D750, and now the 300mm were all burned by Nikon’s QA, it almost puts someone like me in the position of advising my site visitors to simply not purchase the first shipment of anything from Nikon.

The good news is that Nikon knows what the problem is and can fix it through updating the firmware. The bad news is that you’ll pay for the privilege of having it fixed here in the US, both in actual shipping cost and in time without your new lens. The best news for those of you still considering this lens is that virtually all of those early serial numbers that were affected have long been sold to unsuspecting customers. 


Final Words

The 300mm f/4E is a tough bird to identify. Technically, the older 300mm f/4D is very close optically, and thus it seems as if you’d not want to upgrade based on that. On the other hand, the 300mm f/4E has VR, plus it is substantially smaller and lighter. Whether the new version is the one for you will, I think, depend upon whether you’re handholding, and specifically, whether you’re handholding at shutter speeds less than 1/500 most of the time. 

Basically, you pay at least US$500 extra for VR and the loss of 3” of length and 24.2 ounces of weight (though realize that if you need the tripod collar for the new lens, the price differential is increased and weight differential decreased). The other benefits, such as Nano coating, while welcome, are quite subtle in their impact. Yes, I’d rather have Nano coating than not, but realistically, it’s not going to make a huge difference to me (especially considering the other flare tendencies of the 300mm f/4E). 

So are you willing to pay for smaller, lighter, steadier? 

That’s a trickier question than it first seems. The old 300mm f/4 rarely made my Africa bag because it was an additional three pounds of weight to carry when weight was always a consideration. Moreover, my 200-400mm f/4 covered 300mm just fine, anyway. But when the new 80-400mm appeared and did most of what I needed the 200-400mm for, things changed a bit. Only a bit. But enough that I do now think “should the 300mm f/4E also go to Africa with me?” Ditto sports events. The smaller size and weight just makes me consider bringing this lens more often than I used to.

Of course, not all of you have a full quiver of Nikkors to choose from when you go on trips. You’re looking for the one be-all, do-all lens to purchase and use. And there things are still tricky. 

That’s because most of you aren’t considering the 300mm focal length. You really want 400mm. You’ve already got a 70-200mm zoom, so you can get to 400mm with a TC-20E. Or you could get to 420mm with the 300mm and a TC-14E. 

First off, I don’t like TCs. They introduce an additional set of mount tolerances, and basically you’re putting random on random tolerances when you do that in the Nikon world (less so in the Canon world). That means that there are three basic outcomes: (1) the mount and optics tolerances cancel each other and you don’t even have to AF Fine Tune; (2) the tolerances compete, but you can get most of that out with AF Fine Tune; or (3) the tolerances are additive and you’re outside of AF Fine Tune range. I’ve seen too many #3’s to ignore this, and too many feisty #2’s, as well. On top of that, the new 300mm already has over 50% more lens elements than the older one and you’re going to add some more lens elements with the TC. Not optimal. I don’t care how many coatings you put on the glass/air surfaces, you lose some light and some contrast at each one.

Is a 300mm+TC workable and usable? Most of the time, yes. But in virtually all cases I’d just rather have a 400mm lens in the first place. Why Nikon hasn’t made a 400mm f/5.6 yet in the modern era I don’t know. It would be a popular lens, and if it used the PF optics, it would be smaller and lighter than any other 400mm option (other than the 300mm PF with a TC). 

The irony is that the 300mm f/4E is probably best suited to the pro-style DX shooter, who, of course, doesn’t currently have the right body to put it on. Oh, Nikon.  

Overall, I like the 300mm f/4E. A lot. But it’s a tough product to recommend. For nearly the same optical quality you can just keep using the older 300mm f/4 and not worry about backlit flare. At US$2000, you’re making a pretty big monetary commitment with the new lens, and virtually all of that commitment is for VR and smaller size/weight. I can’t really tell you if that’s a good use of your money or not, as I don’t know how much you value those things. 

I will say that I value the smaller size and weight over the VR. For the types of things I’d mostly be using this lens for—wildlife and sports—I’m typically going to be trying for 1/500 and faster shutter speeds, and VR is just an acuity reducer at those shutter speeds. On the other hand, smaller and lighter is definitely a big plus in my book. 

So, yes, the 300mm f/4E will stay in my kit. I really wish it were a 400mm f/5.6, though. 

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