Having owned this lens for nearly a year I thought it was about time I wrote down my views on it. This is not going to be a review of MTF charts, specifications and pixel peeping but more a reflection on what I use the lens for and why it is almost always attached to my camera. The sheer volume of pictures I have taken with it made choosing images for this article very difficult. I have tried to pick shots that illustrate the capabilities of the lens.
It was a tough decision to buy the lens, it is after all a lot of money at over £1300. I read numerous reviews on the internet about how great the lens was, but there were a few things that clinched the decision for me;
1. It was very lightweight and should allow me to cycle easily with it on my commute to work (one of my main opportunities for wildlife photography).
2. It was a prime lens so sharpness should be excellent and far exceed some of the heavier alternatives.
3. On my crop sensor camera the standard field of view would be the equivalent of 450mm, just the sort of reach I was looking for.
Has the lens lived up to expectations?
It is safe to say the lens has exceeded my expectations. The weight is simply astonishing, the lens weighs in at 754 grams combining it with my D7000 at 780 gams gives a total weight of just over 1.5Kg. I can carry this combination around all day without any problem. Even with my 1.7x teleconverter fitted I can get the camera in a chest mounted toploader bag and cycle with it ready to go right in front of me. This setup has allowed me to capture some shots that I simply wouldn’t have been able to any other way.
Use with a teleconverter. I don’t have a range of teleconverters to try only owning the less popular TC-17E II, but for wildlife photography this combination works pretty well. Overall sharpness is affected and I find myself having to stop down to f7.1 or f8 to be unable to spot any difference. I would say images at f8 are slightly sharper than those taken at f4 and images at f7.1 are on a par. I tend to avoid f6.7 (wide open for this lens and teleconverter combination) unless I really need to go there as I can spot a difference, but I can be pretty picky with sharpness sometimes. I realise this is slightly at odds with what the MTF charts and imatest scores might say but I am going from personal experience with using the lens and teleconverter for wildlife photography rather than optical test analysis. Interestingly in my view the 1.7 teleconverter works better with this lens than it does with the 70-200 f2.8 VRII.
Unfortunately the teleconverter impacts focus speed slightly and predictably this is most noticeable in low lighting conditions. It is not bad enough however to stop me using it, in fact the teleconverter gets more use on this lens than the straight 300mm lens alone. The fact of the matter is I couldn’t carry any other 500mm lens equivalent on a DSLR as easily, so until someone starts making lightweight f2.8 DX telephotos it will probably continue to get a lot of use by me.
Like all lenses not everything can be perfect. Lens design is often a juggling of compromises to try and find a sweet spot of performance that works for a majority of people. Here is my list of things which could be improved if I had a majic wand.
Focus speed. This is probably my number one complaint, and it is a small one. In good light with contrasting subjects the lens is more than adequate quickly acquiring critical focus with minimum of fuss. In low light situations the lens can hunt a bit and sometimes the D7000 seems to give up and not know which way to go to aquire focus. This could be a reflection of the D7000 performance, it is a relatively old camera body now but the hunting behavior shown by this lens is not something I have ever seen with my 70-200 f2.8 lens or my 18-55 VRII kit lens. Can it cause you to miss shots, definitely yes, in fact birds in flight can be very hit and miss in low light conditions. That said if you get the lens close to focus by pre-focusing on a less challenging subject focus speed can be very fast indeed.
VR at 125/sec. As discussed previously this is my second biggest gripe with this lens. Like all lenses once you know about it you learn how to deal with it, such as a camera body only grip when the shutter speed is at or near 125/sec, it is just a shame it doesn’t perform equally at all shutter speeds.
PF bokeh effects. This lens is notable for being the 1st Nikon lens to feature phase fresnel elements. This special shaping of 1 or more elements is what allows Nikon to create such a lightweight 300mm lens. I’m really struggling to find any significant problems here, but I have seen the strange bokeh effect mentioned in other reviews. Out of all the images I have taken with this lens over the last year I (approximately 2500) I have only seen this happen on 10 images and they were all from the same shoot. AN image with a strong highlight in the out of focus portion of the picture can give some strange rings in the bokeh circles. Given how rarely it occurs you have to really work hard to make this affect cause you problems, even then it is relatively simple to blur the affected area in Photoshop. The picture below shows what the effect can look like.
Nikon 55-300 DX VR
A nice budget lens this but I was put off by past experience with a 55-200 DX lens that the VR mechanism failed on after the 1st year of ownership. In reading up on the lens I was concerned that sharpness would be lacking, especially at the 300mm end. Also at f4.5-5.6 I suspected it was going to create some challenges in low light situations.
Nikon 70-300 VR
No worries about build quality with this lens, but I did have the same concerns regarding sharpness and low light performance as with the 55-300
Nikon 300mm F4 AF-S
The predecessor to the PF version I purchased, with a well earned reputation for producing great images. I was torn for a while, but for my preferred us VR was a must have feature.
Nikon 200-500 f5.6
Now this was a new contender which arrived on the scene just as I was making my purchasing decision. Significantly cheaper and with more reach I seriously debated getting this lens. In the end I felt it would be too bulky and wouldn’t allow me to cycle easily with it. This lens is still on my shortlist for future purchases however…
I really like this lens, not a week goes by without it spending at least a couple of days mounted to my camera. In terms of optical performance the lens is fantastic, sharpness is great and colours come out how I expect them to. Added features of VR and lightweight make the high price tag well worth paying. If you live in a sunny part of the world and you don’t need lightweight, get the previous 300mm F4 lens, the optics are as good if not better. If you need lightweight and VR then this is quite possibly the best performing lens available.