Nikon 300mm f/4E PF ED VR Review

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.

Buzzard fly by

Nikon D7000, Nikon 300mm F4 PF + TC-17E II at 500mm (750mm equiv.) – F8, ISO 400, 1/1600 sec

The other benefit of being such a lightweight setup is that I have been able to take it travelling without having to plan for an extensive kit bag. A tripod has as yet proved unnecessary, so I can travel light and typically take 1 other lens with me. I have enough space in my camera bag that it can become my carry on bag on business trips and still have room for a laptop and a few travel essentials. The fact I have some serious firepower with me has encouraged me to search out wildlife opportunities whilst away on business, something I would have previously never have thought to do.

Female Common Whitetail Skimmer Dragonfly

Nikon D7000, Nikon 300mm F4 PF (450mm equiv.) – F8, ISO 320, 1/500 sec.

Sharpness has been a real eye opener. OK so I am used to the performance a prime lens can offer, but what blew me away was how well this lens was able to resolve detail even wide open. Things do get slightly sharper as you stop down but I have no qualms using the lens at F4. Couple the optical performance with VR and the lens becomes a joy to use, the VR performs better than any other lens I have (including the 70-200 f2.8 VRII). My only reservation is VR performance at or around 125/sec shutter speed can be a little hit and miss, I have found this can be significantly improved by holding just the camera body at these shutter speeds. The VR performance issue is something I was aware about before purchasing, it just takes a bit of practice to establish the best workaround for your setup.

Blue Tit feeding on sunflower

Nikon D7000, Nikon 300mm F4 PF (450mm equiv.) – F4, ISO 800, 1/500 sec.

Using this type of lens for Macro work can be a great way to maintain distance from your subject, especially small bugs that might scare easily if you hover over them with your camera setup. Performance in this scenario is hampered slightly by struggling to home in on the correct subject but once your target is acquired the lens performs well. I often find myself craving a closer short focus distance which at 1.4m (4.6 feet) can be restrictive. I ended buying an achromatic close up filter but the same or better results could be achieved with extension tubes. I still prefer my 70-200 f2.8 VRII for macro work however as the closer short focus and zoom range just make composition a joy rather than a challenge.

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.

Ribbon Snake PF highlight rings

Nikon D7000, Nikon 300mm F4 PF + TC-17E II at 500mm (750mm equiv.) – F8, ISO 250, 1/640 sec.

Other options.
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…

Conclusions
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.

Nikon D7000, Nikon 300mm F4 PF (450mm equiv.) – F4, ISO 800, 1/160 sec.

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