Nikon 300mm f/4 PF ED – Wildlife Photography Review

I’ve lost count of the hours I have spent packing, unpacking then repacking camera bags before a flight. It’s an incredibly frustrating process which most travelling wildlife photographers will no doubt sympathise with. With higher end cameras, and wide-aperture telephoto lenses, it doesn’t take long before you reach most airline’s hand luggage weight limit. More often than not, it means sacrifices have to be made with the contents of your camera bag.

Photographers are a hard bunch to please too, and not just wildlife photographers! We want lenses with wide apertures and fast, silent focusing. We want our lenses to be robust and be able to withstand more than the occasional bang or knock. We want weather and dust sealing, multiple coated lens elements to avoid distortion and remove chromatic aberration. But we also want them to be small and lightweight! We can’t have both, or can we? Well, Nikon have tried. So, step forward Nikon’s 300mm f/4 PF ED VR lens.

A couple of weeks before our 2017 Masai Mara wildlife photography safari, I was offered the chance of reviewing Nikon’s latest incarnation of their 300mm f/4. On delivery, I admit to being quite taken aback. It is an incredibly compact and lightweight lens, around half the weight and a third smaller than its predecessor. At first I thought Nikon had sent a mid-range zoom rather than a ‘professional grade’ FX 300mm f/4!

Nikon have achieved this compact design by using a ‘Phase Fresnel’ lens element, hence the ‘PF’ designation. A Phase Fresnel lens reduces the need for as many other lens elements to correct chromatic aberration and ghosting effects.

nikkor 300mm f/4 pf ed lens review

Specifications

Full designation: AF-S Nikkor 300mm f/4E PF ED VR

Focal length: 300mm

Aperture: f/4 – f/32

Minimum focus distance: 1.4m

Filter size: 77mm

Aperture blades: 9

Construction: 16 Elements in 10 groups

Size (Diameter / Length): 89mm x 147.5mm

Weight: 755g

It’s also a ‘FX’ lens, so it will work with all full frame and cropped sensor Nikon DSLRs. Using a camera with a cropped sensor, such as the Nikon D500, produces a field of view which is equivalent to that of a 450mm lens. Vibration reduction gives 4.5 stops of compensation and includes ‘normal’ and ‘sport’ mode. A focus limiter allows you to adjust the range from ‘full’ to no less then 3 metres.

Lens elements benefit from Nikon’s Nano Crystal and Fluorine coatings.

nikon 300mm f/4 pf review wildlife

Compatibility

The lens is fitted with Nikon’s electromagnetic diaphragm to control the aperture blades. Earlier DSLRs are not fully compatible with this technology; they can be used but only at f/4. These are the D1, D2, D40, D50, D60, D70, D80, D90, D100, D200, D3000. Furthermore, only teleconverters from the II and III generations are compatible.

Handling and Build

It is clear that Nikon set out to make this lens a game changer in terms of size and weight, and it’s fair to say they succeeded. At 755 grams, it is half the weight of its predecessor and just 10g heavier than Nikon’s 70-300mm f/4.5-f/5.6 VR lens. It’s easy to carry and use for extended periods without having to consider a tripod, monopod or beanbag and is also safe hanging freely from a traditional neck strap. The lens is not shipped with a tripod collar but it is compatible with Nikon’s generic RT-1 collar if it is required. However, I had no concerns about the weight of the lens requiring this support anyway.

nikon 300mm f/4 pf review wildlife

The focus ring moves smoothly with comfortable friction, but it does feel a little narrow. If you’re a fan of manual focus this may be troublesome, but as I use autofocus exclusively for wildlife photography, it wasn’t a problem.

The lens casing is made of plastic and does not feel as tough as lenses such as the 24-70 f/2.8 and 70-200 f/2.8. Let’s be realistic though, we aren’t going to get such a lightweight lens with the equivalent build quality of such lenses. That said, it certainly feels a lot more durable than other plastic lenses. As we would expect, there is a metal lens mount with a rubber gasket to help with environmental sealing. Users of the previous version of the lens will be pleased to see the addition of a rear lens element which prevents contaminants from getting inside the lens and its mechanics.

Image Quality

It is easy to get carried away with the handling advantages of such an innovative lens design and forget that image quality must also live up to expectations. I’m happy to report that, on the whole, it does.

I used the lens exclusively on my D500, which is of course a camera with an APS-C sensor. Most of my photography was with apertures between f/4 and f/8; I found sharpness to be excellent. Softness caused by diffraction begins to creep in after f/11 and is certainly noticeable from f/16.

nikkor 300mm f/4 pf lens review

Control of chromatic aberration is excellent, and with real world use I didn’t notice any that caused me to use a corrective process in software. As we would expect from a 300mm prime, there is no noticeable distortion and on an APS-C camera there is very little vignetting too.

So, where can quality suffer? It’s well reported that a by-product of Phase Fresnel lens technology can be some unusual shapes contained within out of focus elements when shooting into bright lights. However, I didn’t use the lens under such conditions and I think I would have to go out of my way and make a deliberate effort to actually create this problem! So in reality, this wasn’t an issue for me at all.

nikkor 300mm f/4 pf lens review

Autofocus

The lens is fitted with an autofocus limiting switch which allows you to restrict the focusing range from 3 metres to infinity. Engaging this makes the focusing speed significantly faster and responsive than when the switch is set to ‘full’ where it hunts through the full range. As the minimum focus distance is 1.4m, setting it to ‘full’ only gives you a focus advantage of an additional 1.6m and there wasn’t anything I was photographing which came within this range anyway. As we would expect, the lens has internal focusing so there are no changes to dimensions, and no rotating filters.

nikkor 300mm f/4 pf lens review

Users of cameras such as the D500, D850 and D5 will also be able to use the full array of 99 cross-sensor focus points with this lens.

Adding a 1.4x Teleconverter

I also had the use of one Nikon’s latest teleconverters, the AF-S TC-14E III. Together they gave me a focal length of 420mm at f/5.6 and on a APS-C camera like the D500, an effective field of view 630mm.

nikkor 300mm f/4 pf lens review
Ring-Necked Dove 1/4000, f/5.6, ISO500, 420mm (Nikon D500 and Nikon 300mm PF & 1.4x)

Autofocus slows down slightly but it is still responsive and tracks moving subjects accurately. As we would expect, we also take a hit on sharpness but it remains very good and absolutely acceptable, even when used wide open at f/5.6. Where this combination does fall down is the quality of the bokeh, as the transition between out of focus elements appears rather harsh. Chromatic aberration also creeps in but it is dealt with very easily and effectively in Adobe Lightroom.

nikkor 300mm f/4 pf lens review
White Fronted Bee-eater: 1/640, f/5.6, ISO400, 420mm (Nikon D500 and Nikon 300mm PF & 1.4x) Note the contrasty feel to the bokeh.

I also tried the lens with a 2x teleconverter but found the focus slow and unresponsive. Image quality suffered quite significantly being soft throughout all apertures. I would not recommend using this combination.

Conclusion

Overall, I found the 300mm PF to be an absolute joy to use. We would expect excellent image quality from a lens in this range, and despite such a radical redesign it is safe to say this has been maintained.

The compact and lightweight construction makes it a great choice for photographers who are travelling a lot, particularly when faced with luggage weight restrictions. Using the lens and panning with moving subjects without the inconvenient shackles of a tripod, or being poised waiting for a moment of action without the arm and shoulder strain of heavier lenses, felt liberating.

A 1.4x teleconverter gives us an incredibly portable and excellent quality 630mm on a APS-C body, but I’d exercise caution with this combination when faced with complex backgrounds which are close to the depth of field.

The lens I used was loaned to me from Nikon Professional Services and sadly I had to send it back as soon as I returned to the UK. I don’t own one myself so a good question to end this review with is “Would I buy one?” And the answer…. Absolutely!

Purchase Options

The Nikkor 300mm f/4 PF ED lens can be bought from the following trusted retailers:

A purchase through these links will help to fund Nature TTL, at no extra expense to yourself.

Summary
Review Date
Reviewed Item
Nikkor 300mm f/4 PF ED lens
Author Rating
51star1star1star1star1star

Alan Hewitt is a wildlife and conservation photographer, writer, and workshop leader. Driven by his appreciation for and fascination of wildlife, Alan aims to document our natural world and use this as a tool for conservation. His work has been used to support wildlife conservation organisations in Kenya, as well as ones closer to his home in the UK, including campaigns to save nature reserves that are home to iconic and endangered species.

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  • Alastair Wilson

    I accidentally bought this lens before a holiday to NZ, and it is a marvel! So compact and sharp, I just wish Nikon would make a 400mm f/4 PF lens as that would be perfect on my full frame camera.

    • Gosh1

      Hear Hear. Nikon have failed to close this gap with a quality AFS 400 since the excellent 400 f5.6AIS EDIF. But that was state of the art 40 years back.

      Let’s all keep on rattling the bars for a 400 f4 PF, but due justice is served if Sigma deliver a 400 f4 APO Sport with IQ matching their new 500 f4 but weighing approx ~1.3 kg.

  • Gosh1

    Great to see images of superb IQ testifying in another confirmation of prowess of this lens in “mobile” wildlife photography. That this little tele aids and abets evading the knuckle-draggers and jobs-worths bedevilling air travel is even better! It is interesting how the pixelpeeper brigade have condemned this lens for being too soft and also its flare in rare circumstances. At least the reviewers on Lenstip were honest in admitting the challenges of testing this Nikkor – https://www.lenstip.com/431.11-Lens_review-Nikon_Nikkor_AF-S_300_mm_f_4E_PF_ED_VR_Summary.html

    This 2015 interview with the Nikon designers of the 300 PF makes interesting reading [google translate works well enough] https://dc.watch.impress.co.jp/docs/news/interview/688994.html

    No surprises that experienced Nikonians who actually take photos in the real world, including yourself and Thom Hogan, love the 300 PF.

    The VR problem reported on some DSLRs with the 300 f4 PF should have been fixed in copies with serial numbers above 205101. But be careful with Used copies.

    Besides its great IQ on the pro-DX D500, the 300 PF came of age as an FX optic in late 2017. New generation cameras in the calibre of the D850 expand the DX Performance Envelope. This gives a 300 a whole new lease of life. It was hinted at by the D810 but consolidated on the D850, especially TCs. Although AF suffers, performance of the 300 PF with the TCE17 II is also comenable. All these combinations enable realistic cropping of the FX image of hard-to-reach subjects.

    If only we had a 400 f4 PF optimized for TCs for mobile wildlife photography…. I will keep rattling the bars for this one. It is doubtful Nikon will listen to customers. So we have to hope Sigma will release a 400 f4 APO Sport that delivers prime IQ and with their TCs. It should be excellent if it weighs approx 1.3kg. Magnesium body and a fresnel + fluorite elements make this design feasible.

    • Gosh1

      Well, Well here we go (sort of)…. https://nikonrumors.com/2018/02/01/the-latest-nikon-patents-400mm-500mm-and-600mm-f-5-6-phase-fresnel-pf-lenses.aspx/
      About bl00dy time too! I have been shouting out loud for a 400 f4 PF for months…..
      These are only patents – Real products quite another matter. Sigma are in the position to deliver a 400 f4 PF Sport to complement their excellent 500 f4 Sport, which Canadian wildlife pro Brad Hill chose instead of the Nikkor 500 f4E ….see his blog for exhaustive field tests. Sigma’s USB tuning is a big factor AND the RRP of the sigma is 3500 quid less than the Nikon?