Nikon 300mm f/4 AF-S E PF VR (Part II – Sample Pics)

This is part II of my post from last week on my first impressions on the new Nikon 300mm f/4 AF-S E PF VR. Let me start by saying that the weather here in Switzerland has been fabulous this November. We’ve been treated to constant 15 degree C temperatures for the past 3 weeks. OK, not so good from a global warming perspective, but that’s another issue. So for several days in a row last week was I was lucky enough to have very similar lighting conditions on Lake Neuchâtel, just a few minutes on foot from where I work. On 3 different days I took either my D810 or D4 with 3 AF-S teleconverters and shot for about an hour each day (at the end of the day) with various combinations and the new 300mm VR. I mostly trying to evaluate autofocus speed and tracking ability, as well as overall image quality.  In total, I shot about 600 hand-held frames and I’ve posted about 50 of them below. For the most part I was quite pleased with the results. The “handholdability” (a word?) of this lens is quite incredible. About these shots:

  • I mostly tried to shoot with the aperture wide open, even with teleconverters, to estimate image quality at maximum aperture.
  • I’ve processed these images from raw NEF format as I normally would – very little contrast, saturation and sharpening were added, for example.
  • Some cropping is applied for some photos, but nothing deep or extreme, unless otherwise noted.
  • Pertinent EXIF is at the bottom of each image. Look at the last number “35mm focal equivalent” to determine if a teleconverter was used. For example; 420mm = TCE-14E II; 500mm =  TC-17E II; 600mm = TC-20E III. Some oddball focal lengths indicate that I’ve shot the D810 in 1.2 crop mode (ie. 504mm = 300mm x 1.2 x 1.4 TC).
  • Click on each image to zoom to a 2000 pixel image. If anyone wants to see full resolution samples I can also post a few.
  • Photos are posted in 2 groups, by camera body (D4 & D810). Both camera bodies drove the AF in the 300 similarly. I tend not to use Group Mode in the D810, rather single, 9, 21 or 51-point AF. Both bodies officially support AF up to f/8 with teleconverters (with the restriction of using only 11 AF sensors on both D4 & D810).

  On both the D4 and D810 the AF tracking on this lens is excellent without the teleconverters, and very good up to and including the TC-17e II. It’s not as fast to lock on a moving subject as the 300 f/2.8 VR, mind you, but not as far behind as I would have expected (the 300 f/2.8 VR II is arguably Nikon’s best lens for autofocus performance). Basically it’s how we would except a modern Nikon AF-S lens to handle. Granted, I can’t quantify this observation, but I try to judge the AF performance by target acquisition time and ease (no “hunting”), as well as ease of tracking – especially with backgrounds that are “busy” – that  provide less contrast with the main subject (i.e. see birds flying against shoreline, below). At f/8 with the TC-20e III, there is a noticeable drop-off in AF acquisition speed, especially in low-light situations. However, if the contrast is good between the subject and the background, both bodies were quite competent at maintaining AF lock. As expected, image quality degrades slightly as we add longer converters, but even at f/8 with the TC-20E III, the image quality if very good, and certainly usable. Acuity at distance was better than I expected as well (see pics below of distant mountains). Swinging this small lens around at 400mm, 500mm and 600mm focal lengths while tracking birds in flight does require high shutter speeds. Best results at 1/1000s or higher. Of course, higher ISO will likely be necessary to maintain these speeds and this will also affect image quality. For most of these shots, I used auto-ISO up to 6400 with a minimal shutter speed of 1/1000s. I usually turn VR off on shutter speeds of 1/500 or faster, but I was curious to see if the “sport mode” VR on the 300mm E PF could simply be left ON at higher shutter speeds. Indeed, I don’t see any evidence that leaving VR ON, using “sport” mode, had any negative effects on image quality.   D4

    D810 Not too shabby either. I had less-willing subjects as far as action / birds in flight are concerned. However, for this series I was physically closer to some of the birds (sparrows) and you can see that imagine quality is excellent. For some of them I’m cropped slightly deeper, but as we approach 1600 ISO, the noise starts to become more apparent (relative to the D4), especially when cropping  – not a fault of the the 300mm E PF by any means, but a simply a characteristic of the sensor used in the 36 megapixel D810.

    For complete, thorough reviews of this lens I recommend you go here and here. 


Nikon 300mm AF-S E PF VR

First thoughts – Part I of II   ( Update : Part II now available here ) The new Nikon 300 AF-S was finally updated earlier this year to the VR (vibration reduction) version. This update was more or less expected, even though the older AF-S non-VR version was very, very good optically. The older version was (and still remains) a fairly low-cost way to “get to” the 400 mm focal length – considered a bare minimum for many wildlife photographers.  Of course, this focal length is only achieved with this lens by adding a 1.4 teleconverter, thereby reducing the aperture to f/5.6 (yes, it actually gets you to 420mm). I used the older non-VR version for several years and managed to churn out quite a few good bird images with it.

Nikon 300mm f/4 AF-S E VR (image Nikon USA)

What was not expected with this new release was the size reduction of the new lens. Indeed, going from 1440 grams down to 755 grams and losing about 7 cm in length represents quite an innovative leap, especially when considering the addition of VR to the lens. The secret to this size reduction is the use of Fresnel elements, instead of some heavier glass elements. If the quality of this lens were to match the older version, in a package weighing half as much, with vibration reduction, then this lens was too good to be true and would be destined to be a hot seller for Nikon. Unfortunately, 2 problems plagued the release of the lens;

  1. the VR system was wreaking havoc at lower shutter speeds of between 1/60 – 1/120 (where it would actually be used), and
  2. Nikon bungled the recall / service alert on affected lenses (up to serial number 205101) by requiring owners to ship the lens to Nikon for a firmware update, and also… wait for it… at the customer’s expense. Ouch. Considering the recent string of bad PR linked to recent camera releases (D600, D800, D750…), you’d really think that they would at least offer to pay for 2-way shipping costs.

I’ve personally never been affected by these issues – because I’ve learned not to be an early adopter. Sure, sometimes I would like to be able to order a hot-off-the-shelf version of a new Nikon product, but I’ve learned that I’m much better off waiting 5-6 months (at least) before the product is used by actual consumers & pros and reviewed by trusted reviewers. Anyhow, after seeing the specs for this lens I know it would eventually find a spot in my bag – as long as initial real-world reports were positive. With the exception of the VR issue, which should no longer affect models coming off the assembly line… 9 months after its release, I finally took the plunge and got myself a copy. Serial number 212xxx. Out of the box and 5 minutes later my first shots were tests at shutter speeds of between 1/25 and 1/200 with VR ON… and I’m happy to report that my copy is unaffected by the VR bug. Whew. While I’ve only had good experiences with Nikon Switzerland for service and repairs (as an NPS member), nobody likes sending in a new product for a mandatory service in the first week of ownership. This post is not a complete review, but let me just say that this lens is simply a joy to use and is quickly living up to its expectations. While I don’t mind carrying heavier gear for dedicated wildlife outings or sporting events, having a quality optic like this as a walk-around package for city walks and day hikes is a real game-changer. The autofocus performance is what you expect from modern AF-S Nikkors – very good (though not the same performance as its big-brother, the f/2.8 which I use frequently). I shot a kid’s rugby tournament with it last week and it performed very admirably (for comparison, for kids’ rugby – on smaller fields – I’ll usually use a 70-200 f/2.8 + TCs, and/or a 300 f/2.8 + TCs). I’m using it on a D4 and a D810. Subjectively speaking, image quality and sharpness is excellent at closer distances of roughly 10-30 meters and still very good at mid to longer ranges. You can shoot wide open at f/4 and get very good results. I have read reports that it performs best at f/5.6 – f/7.1 and I’m not going to contest that at all. I’ll be shooting at f/4 without hesitation and only higher when I need more depth of field. I’ve also done some casual testing with all three Nikon AF-S tele-convertors and I’ll have some sample images to post in part II of this mini-review in a few days. In the meantime, here’s a sample image from this week – a sparrow waiting for some lunch… feather detail! Standard sharpening, saturation and contrast applied. Click on the image to download a full-resolution version (taken with D810 in 1.2x crop mode). And don’t forget to drop back for Part II in a few days  (Update: part II now available here) For complete, thorough reviews of this lens I recommend you go here and here.

Click to enlarge and see shooting data. For full resolution image, right-click and choose “Download link file…  (or similar)”