The long awaited new AF-S 300mm f/4E PF ED VR lens has finally arrived. We have been shooting with it for almost two weeks, here comes our review of this latest telephoto lens.
300mm f/4 has always been a popular way to get into the world of telephoto photography. While the AF-S 300mm f/4D (released Aug 2000) is still a very good lens in terms of picture quality, it really lacks the modern technology such as VR, Nano coating..etc. So when Nikon announced the new AF-S Nikkor 300mm f/4E PF ED VR lens, it excited a lot of Nikon users.
One of the biggest complaint of the old 300mm f/4D lens is that it doesn’t have VR which is really important for telephoto lenses. not surprisingly Nikon has added VR to the new version and they told us the VR is about 4.5 stop effective. I can hand held my D800 and shoot at down to 1/15s and get a good percentage of sharp photos. If I decrease the shutter speed further down to around 1/8s I still can get some usable but slightly blurry photos. So for me the minimum shutter speed is probably around 1/10s- 1/15s which is pretty much the same as Nikon’s claimed 4.5 stop performance. this makes the lens a lot more useful when shooting under low light without a tripod .
Fluorine coated front lens element
But the most interesting thing with the Nikon 300mm f/4e is it’s PF element which stands for Phase Fresnel lens. this is the first lens in the NIKKOR lineup that has PF element. But what is a PF element anyway?
This is copied from Nikon’s website:
The PF (Phase Fresnel) lens, developed by Nikon, effectively compensates chromatic aberration utilizing the photo diffraction phenomenon*. It provides superior chromatic aberration compensation performance when combined with a normal glass lens. Compared to many general camera lenses that employ an optical system using the photorefractive phenomenon, a remarkably compact and lightweight body can be attained with less number of lens elements.
In other words, it’s an optical element that helps reduce chromatic aberration and allows the lens to be made smaller and lighter.
That’s why even with VR added and a more complex optical design, the lens is much shorter at 147mm when the old version is 222mm . And the weight reduction is even more impressive, at 755g, it’s almost half of the weight of the original 300mm f/4D lens (1440g)!
That is some massive weight and size reduction! It makes a huge difference in portability! All of a sudden carrying a 300mm f/4 lens is just like a 24-70 f/2.8. It’s not the smallest lens in the world but I am happy to carry one with me and walk around the town whole day. This is really a game changer as now I am happy to carry a 300mm lens in my camera bag even if I may not use it at all.
By the way, the E in the f/4E means this lens’s aperture diaphragm is controlled digitally electromagnetically rather than the traditional mechanical way. This helps improves the stability in auto-exposure control during continuous shooting. Unfortunately it means it’s not compatible with older body like D2, D200 or film SLR.
Unlike the old version, this new version of 300mm f/4 lens doesn’t come with any tripod collar ring. While some people may think it’s just Nikon goes cheap and try to save some cost, personally I think it makes perfect sense as Nikon has spent all the efforts to make lens is so much smaller and lighter and also included a 4.5 stop VR, the lens is begging you to shoot handheld, Adding a tripod collar ring that most people probably won’t use is just adding weight and size to the lens.
Now feature wise the new 300mm f/4e is truly impressive, but what about its picture quality? Would the new compact design also comes some hidden cost when it comes to picture quality?
Nikon told us the PF element is not perfect. When there is a strong light source in the scene or just out of frame it could create some colourful ring shaped flares. But out of the hundreds of sample photos, I only saw a little bit of those funny colourful flare in a few photos even though I tried really hard to create them. So the choice between a small lightweight lens and the colourful ring flare in a handful of pictures? Give me the small lens any day I say!
The old 300mm f/4D is a very sharp lens and not surprisingly, the new 300mm f/4E is also very sharp. Even the corners are sharp at f/4 with the 36MP D800.
And another impressive thing with the 300mm f/4E is the Chromatic Aberration or lack of it. I see virtually no Chromatic Aberration at all in any of my photo, even at f/4 I can’t see any trace of sign of purple fringing. The PF element really works some miracle in defying the law of physics!
Contrast is excellent. Even when you are shooting into some strong light source contrast still remain reasonable level thanks to the Nano coating.
Bokeh is delicious, no nervous halo even when shooting tricky scenes. And because of the long focal length, you can get a very narrow depth of field and turn everything in the background and foreground into beautiful bokeh.
See the swirly pattern in the background? That pattern is really a bokeh killer, but it is melted beautifully by the 300mm f/4E
There is a little bit of vignetting at wide open but nothing severe. Overall, the optical performance is just really good.
Autofocus is powered by a silent wave motor. It is fast and smooth. There is also a focus limiter switch that allows you to increase the autofocus speed. If you turn it on, the autofocus speed becomes even faster! If you still can’t capture some super fast speed action with this lens. Don’t blame the lens. Sorry, it’s you.
The Nikon AFS 300mm f/4E PF ED VR is another great addition to the NIKKOR lineup. Optically the lens is just amazing. While You can say the same about it’s predecessor AF-S 300mm f/4D. The big difference is, with the new technology like Nano coating, VR..etc added to latest version, you can now shoot under a much broader environment and still get very good results. The shooting envelop just becomes a lot wider. And adding the massive reduction in weight and size to the equation, the new 300mm f/4E is just a much better lens in real world.
This lens really shows you how Nikon is designing lenses these days. Optical performance surely is important, but what they want is not just to give you the sharpest lens in the world, it’s the balance between image quality, size/weight and real world performance that is most important to most of the photographers.
With the improvements in high ISO and low light autofocus performance in the latest full frame camera, the reasons for a big, heavy and expensive f/2.8 is really getting smaller and smaller. If you are looking at buying a good telephoto lens, this lens should really be at the top of your short list.
Now I wonder what’s the next lens that will receive this amazing PF element upgrade? I can’t wait to see more of them!
Reviewer: Richard Wong
Richard is a multi-award winning wedding/portrait photographer based in Auckland, New Zealand. Richard’s website is www.photobyrichard.com and his facebook page is https://www.facebook.com/PhotoByRichard
Richard is also a contributing writer for a few photography magazines.
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Some more Sample Photos: (All photos were shot in RAW and adjusted to taste using Adobe Lightroom)