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