AF-S NIKKOR 300mm f/4E PF ED VR
Good things often come in small packages and one of the biggest, lightest and possibly smallest lens releases from Nikon of recent times has been in my hands for the past week. It’s the almost diminutive AF-S Nikkor 300mm f/4E PF ED VR, a lens with new designs and something that just does not seem to calculate quite right, a 300mm that is so light and compact like never before.
Right- The AF-S Nikkor 300mm f/4E PF wide open at f4 produces stunning sharp images and surprisingly smooth bokeh. This new lightweight design is a must have for any travelling wildlife photographer. Nikon D810 with AF-S Nikkor 300mm f/4E PF
The AF-S Nikkor 300mm f/4E PF is an amazingly lightweight and surprisingly small lens. When I first held it at Nikon’s showroom a month before public release for the first time, the exceptionally lightness and compactness surprised me, realistically there is no comparison on the market in full frame optics. I’ll go out on a limb and say that this lens has some groundbreaking technology, Phase Fresnel glass design; this sets a standard for the future of compact lens design from Nikon. One of the reasons it is ground breaking is purely based on weight, here is a 300mm lens that allows you to do away with tripods or monopods and still achieve the image quality only ever reserved for the heavy-weight 300mm f2.8 lenses.
Phase Fresnel (PF) is the latest design offering from Nikon and its heart of the 300mm f/4E PF lens. Fresnel lenses share one common character, lightweight comparative to their size. These lens elements are specially designed to gather light from great distances accurately, reduce/minimize colour fringing and chromatic aberration related issues. Its main design is to provide superior chromatic aberration compensation performance when combined with a normal glass lens design. Compared to many general camera lenses that employ an optical system using the photorefractive design, the new 300mm f/4E PF uses less lens elements, thus achieving a remarkably compact lightweight lens.
Though Phase Fresnel is the heart of its design, Nikon still uses many of its other lens innovations like SIC, Nano Crystal coating and ED Glass, each of these have a purpose to deliver superior imagery. The front lens element is fluorine coated, this effectively repels dust, water droplets, grease and dirt, ensuring easy removal even if they adhere to the surface. This coating is highly effective as during the time I had this lens in outback NSW, the muddy sodden conditions and constant rain really put the lens to its test, water literally just beaded off the front element. The Super Integrated Coating (SIC) is a multilayer lens coating that helps to reduce ghosting, flare and also increases light transmission. Nano Crystal Coat (N) has been a standard for many years in Nikons “pro-glass”, this anti-reflective coating eliminates internal lens element reflections across a wide range of wavelengths, and is particularly effective in reducing ghost and flare. And last is one design that has been around for many years is ED glass or Extra-low Dispersion glass, this minimizes secondary chromatic aberration i.e. green/magenta colour fringing and is a necessity in telephoto lenses 300mm or longer. It may sound like a lot but in the end this lens delivers, comparing it to my ultra heavy weight AF-S Nikkor 200mm f2G ED VR, despite the massive size and weight differences, it delivers stunning results.
Above – One of the biggest benefits with the new AF-S Nikkor 300mm f/4E PF is its close focus ability. At only 1.4m its the closest fixed 300mm lens available, making it an excellent all rounder for the wildlife photographer. Nikon D810, AF-S Nikkor 300mm f/4E PF and Nikon SB900 fired with a Pocket Wizard 111.
Physically this optic is unique, first of all the Nikkor 300mm f/4E PF is incredibly small in comparison to its focal length, actually it’s the smallest fixed 300mm, at only 755gm, 14.75cm and 21 cm with the lens hood, making it smaller compared to any other full frame 300mm lens, even with the lens hood attached! It’s almost indistinguishable, both physically and visually from one of Nikon’s most popular lenses, the 24-70mm f2.8, looking at them, the only difference initially is the 24-70 has an extra rubber ring! The filter thread is 77mm and the outer lens diameter being 89mm, compared to its competitor, the Canon EF 300mm f/4.0L IS, the diameter is similar but its one centimetre longer without lens hood, that’s an amazing achievement, plus the Canon is 435gm’s heavier. This lens is a joy to use and carry around.
Below – The lightweight design, super fast focusing and VR all add up to make the Nikkor 300mm f/4E PF an excellent choice for wildlife photographer. Even wide open it is capable of locking onto the subject quickly, thus was particularly obvious when ttrying to photograph a superb wren that frequented my campsite recently. These great little birds are extremely fast and erratic making them difficult to photograph. Nikon D810 with AF-S Nikkor 300mm f/4E PF
On my D810 and D750’s, the automatic focusing speed is first class and locks onto the subject quickly, easily rivalling some expensive lenses and competes with my AF-S Nikkor 200mm f2G ED VR. Internally the lens uses Internal Focusing (IF), i.e. the length does not change when focusing and uses Nikon’s Silent Wave Motor (SWM), and it’s silent, super fast and a really accurate focusing motor. Even faster focusing can be achieved by setting the focus distance limiter on the side of the lens from 3m to infinity, this ideal for fast moving subjects like animals and sport. Focusing works superbly even with high speed continuous shooting mode, quite remarkable on super high res cameras like the D810. Auto focusing is amazing but the need for a manual override is essential, I often use this, simply a slight turn on the focus ring and then depressing the focus button helps relock the focus for sharper images. The 300mm f/4E PF includes Nikon’s exclusive M/A mode, this allows switching between autofocus to manual operation with no time lag – even during AF servo operation and regardless of AF mode in use. So in practice your camera instantly stops using continuous focusing if you turn focusing ring when this mode is selected from the lens.
Right – Like many of Nikon’s latest lenses, weather proofing comes standard allowing you to still shoot while the weather turns bad. Added to this is the new fluorine coating which minimizes dirt and water sticking to the front element. Nikon D810 with AF-S Nikkor 300mm f/4E PF
Vibration Reduction (VR) is a standard feature on Nikon telephoto lenses, and the image stabilization on the 300mm f/4E PF is really impressive. In theory a lens of this focal length requires the shutter speed to be faster than the focal length to deliver the best results, but Nikon’s new VR system challenges that theory. Shots down to1/60th sec are easy, with some stabilization on your behalf like leaning against a wall or tree then 1/30th sec is easily achievable. Compared to the ‘pro’ lenses, it easily matches and I would suspect it most likely outperforms them as its not shifting such large elements. On the side of the lens the VR button can be turned off and also has two modes. “Normal” VR is suitable for regular all direction stabilization and “Sport” VR best suited for panning shots, it only stabilizes vertical movement, helping to take photos of subjects moving fast in horizontal pattern.
My AF-S Nikkor 200mm f2G ED VR, simply put, produces stunning images but its closest focusing distance of 1.9m’s does limit its usability and though telephotos are most commonly used for long distance subjects, close-up ability makes a lens a lot more useful. The new 300mm f4 has one of the best features that very few would realise, its close focusing distance, in fact, its the closest focus of all fixed focal length 300mm lenses, at 1.40m, it’s capable of “macro” shots to long distance subjects all in one package. Stopped down to f8 and this lens really shines, up close subjects leap out of the background.
Optically is stunning, amazing for an f4 lens and especially at a relatively “budget” price for a fixed telephoto, it’s really quite hard to find any major flaw of this lens, it’s almost the perfect lens and one of the best I’ve used in this focal length. Sharpness is excellent and holds up well right across the frame, even wide open with carful focusing practice it delivers crisp high contrast images. There’s some vignetting wide open but begins to disappear by f/5.6 but it reduces greatly after this to almost non-existent at f8. Vignetting is one of those optical flaws that you should not worry too much about, personally I prefer a lens to have some. The only case I don’t like it is with macro lenses for product imagery. With the 300mm f/4E PF really easy to fix afterwards in Adobe ACR and you can also use Nikon’s built-in camera vignetting correction feature, which works really well too.
As explained earlier the Fresnel glass combined with Ed glass is designed to reduce and or eliminate chromatic aberration. Colour issues are amazingly well controlled and even the slightest hint of aberrations possible occur in extreme condition like fine branches against a stark sky, and that’s really pushing it with a D810, its insignificant and only possibly seen by zooming in several hundred precent and would never show in print, if you are worried then it can be easily eliminated in ACR. Barrel distortion like most telephoto lenses is so diminutive, that I wouldn’t bother mentioning it any further, simply click on lens profile in ACR to see, its borderline zero. All up optically this is a really impressive lens, hard to fault.
Left – Bokeh is excellent allowing subjects to pop out of the background. Closeup at its minimal focal distance the AF-S NIKKOR 300mm f/4E PF ED VR produces vibrant high contrast colors with fine detail and creamy backgrounds.Color aberrations are minimal if not non-existent, if they were to show then an image like this suffer but due to its complex design it never is an issue. Nikon D810, AF-S Nikkor 300mm f/4E PF and Nikon SB900 fired with a Pocket Wizard 111.
All the rage in lens chat of recent times is micro detail, which this lens delivers and bokeh, or out of focus smoothness. In telephoto lenses, bokeh is usually pretty good, even stopped down to f8 at distances of 3-5 metres. The bokeh from the 300mm f/4E PF is quite smooth and pleasing even with erratic backgrounds like grasses and fine branches with the main subject popping out from the background. At closer distances, stopped down to f8 this lens give really creates some intense images with silky smooth backgrounds. The 300mm f/4E PF is really impressive, producing crisp detail with creamy smooth backgrounds, its ability to isolate the subject easily, this is one of the main the reasons why I love this lens.
Below – Traveling wildlife photographers will rejoice with this lens, its amazingly compact and lightweight design combined with VR image stabilization making the 300mm f/4E VR a breeze to handhold. Nikon D810 with AF-S Nikkor 300mm f/4E PF
The AF-S NIKKOR 300mm f/4E PF ED VR is an exceptional lens. This lens is seriously impressive, its one lens that I can recommend to serious photographers who are searching for a light, high performance telephoto lens that won’t break the bank compared to the larger f2.8 versions. The biggest benefit is its amazingly compact and lightweight design combined with VR image stabilization making the 300mm f/4E VR a breeze to handhold. Travelling sports and wildlife photographers should be ecstatic with this lens, there is no longer a need for a monopod or tripod to stabilize the lens, due to the light weight and incredible VR image stabilization, the lens is capable of producing very sharp, high contrast and beautiful images. Coupled with a Nikon teleconverter, and the AF-S NIKKOR 300mm f/4E PF ED VR can be quite a versatile lens.