The Pocket Rocket: A Subjective Review of the NIKKOR 300mm f/4D AF-S

This review has been overdue.  Although the Nikkor 300mm f/4 AF-S has rightfully earned an enviable reputation, people write to me often seeking my thoughts on it, so I’m glad that I finally took the time off to pen this so I can direct knowledge-seekers straight to this photo-essay rather than having to repeat myself each time.


This lens was my staple three meals a day until last month, when I procured a Nikkor 300mm f/2.8G AF-S VR and having held both lenses simultaneously for awhile, I’ve had a chance to juxtapose them against each other, and will author a shootout sometime in the future, but considering my lack of time and slowness in doing anything, you are recommended not to hold your breath for it.

The NIKKOR 300mm f/4D IF-ED AF-S was introduced in 2000 to replace the ancient-looking AF predecessor.  In the absence of an image-stabilized version or even a state-of-the-art 400mm f/5.6 lens in the Nikon family, this gem has since become the answer for anybody who demands a top quality telephoto for wildlife, but is unwilling to cough up upwards of Rs. 260000 ($5800) for the fully-loaded f/2.8G VR II big brother or even more for the longer lenses, and has therefore come to be known as “the poor man’s tele”.   And as we’re about to see, its performance is anything but poor.  But before that…

Important Caveats:

1. Memorable (although not necessarily technically impeccable) images can be made with any lens, and a lot more can usually be done with what one already has before one needs “something better”.  It is always prudent to master one’s existing equipment and push it to its limits and to never depend excessively on technology aids.  Skill, discipline and imagination are much more important requisites to make quality images than ‘good lenses’, which are merely tools to assist one in capturing or creating what one’s mind sees.  A ‘good’ lens simply makes it easy to do so and moves out of the way, obviating the need to worry about trivial minutiae.  It doesn’t create an image; it only captures light. 

2. I am not a professional photographer, in that I do not rely on photography as my primary source of income, although I do strive to make ‘professional quality’ images.  My only claim to the eligibility to write such a review is that I’m a very demanding image-maker and settle for nothing but the absolute best in the way of optical quality, and functional precision.  This review is a subjective report based on my experiences and not a scientific or validated analysis, and is written from a hobbyist’s perspective, and should be treated as such. I have used only one copy of the lens and cannot comment on quality variation albeit I’d expect it to be minimal for a product of this class and given Nikon’s excellent consistency. Although I’ve used this lens for portraiture and other applications as indicated below, much of the use is concentrated heavily on Nature and Wildlife Photography, so my observations and conclusions are bound to have a fair degree of bias towards this application.

3. Is this the right lens for you?  I don’t know!  That is for you to decide.  Don’t let anybody else take that decision for you; only you know what’s best for you!  The aim of this review is merely to equip you with knowledge and help you make an informed choice.

I’ve used this lens to photograph: 

a) Nature and Wildlife 
– Mammals, Birds, Reptiles, Amphibians and Insects 
– Flowers and Other Floral Abstracts 
– Faunal Scapes 
– ‘Compressed Landscapes’
b) Portraiture 
c) Fast Cars 

The five areas that concern me when evaluating a lens of this nature are: 

1. Optical Quality – Sharpness, Contrast, Bokeh, Colour Neutrality, Distortion, Chromatic Aberration, Ghosting and Flaring 

2. Auto-focus Performance – Focus Accuracy and Speed 

3. Build Quality – Solidity of Lens Barrel, Switches and Hood; Weather Resistance 

4. Handling – Ease of Use, Weight, Dimensions, Balance, Minimum Focus Distance/Magnification and Stability 

5. Performance with Teleconverters – I’ll talk about this in the respective categories. I mostly use only the TC14E II (1.4x) teleconverter, although I have the TC20E (2x) AF-I too. I have never used the TC17E II (1.7x) teleconverter. 

1. OPTICAL QUALITY 
I. Native Lens (i.e. without a teleconverter attached): 

The short review is that this lens is an optical gem.  Chances are that this is all you need to know, but if you like reading long answers, see below.

1.I.a. Sharpness

For exclusive Web use, sharpness barely matters.  The results from nearly all lenses look very similar on a computer monitor at screen-fitting resolutions. Sharpness begins to matter more if you like setting your images as wallpapers or crop them significantly, and certainly matters considerably more if you are given to printing your images big and gaping at them from a foot away.  Pay importance to sharpness only if it matters to you.

And if it does, rest assured that the sharpness and contrast of this lens are excellent right from f/4 all the way down until diffraction sets in. Stopping down to f/5.6 through to f/8 improves both attributes and takes them to the realm of the spectacular, but the lens is already so biting-good wide-open that you may seldom bother to stop down except to increase depth of field. This is important, for the value of such a lens is diminished if it’s not capable of performing well at its largest aperture. 

Here’s a test performed casually on an overflow pipe outside my window.  The setup was mounted on a tripod.  Note that this is a test of only centre sharpness.  I was too lazy to test corner sharpness but I don’t think it would be vastly different on a DX body.



Below are 100% crops at f/4 and f/8 from a D300 with in-camera sharpening set to 6 and converted from NEF to JPEG without any further processing.



While the above results are good for an academic, technical evaluation, they don’t give a realistic idea of how the lens performs in practical situations, so below are a few field examples, which I reckon to be more relevant.

1. Juvenile Painted Stork
f/4; 1/400sec; shot hand-held from a moving boat



And here is a 100% Crop.  Straight out of the camera NEF converted to JPEG with no further processing.



And here is how it looks after a couple of rounds of quick sharpening using the Sharpen tool in PS.



2. River Tern
f/8; 1/800sec; shot hand-held again from a moving boat.


100% Crop:



1.I.b. Colour

Colours are well-saturated in all conditions and very natural (perhaps with a slight tendency to warmth), but with no sign of shifts or casts. 

1. 600mm (with TC20E II); f/8; 1/1000sec



2. 600mm (with TC20E II); f/10; 1/250sec (on monopod).

1.I.c. Bokeh


Bokeh is exceptionally pleasant, with out-of-focus elements delightfully creamy. Backgrounds fade seamlessly and even harsh highlights in the frame are rendered as near-perfect circles with no edginess. At all times a consistent, buttery smoothness prevails in the frame, making the lens a powerful tool for portraiture.  This surely has to rate right up there with Nikon’s best ever bokeh lenses.





All the above are shot at f/4.  I was too lazy to pull out shots taken stopped-down, but rest assured that it’s equally good at all apertures (unlike the 300mm f/2.8 AFS (non-VR), which is said to be hideous at f/5.6 and smaller).


1.I.d. Chromatic Aberration

This lens is astonishingly free of longitudinal and lateral chromatic aberration even in tough lighting conditions. Extraordinarily, in more than 100,000 images I’ve made in all varieties of lighting with this lens during the three years that I’ve been using it, I am yet to encounter so much as a hint of colour fringing to-date.

Consider the image below.  Shooting a high-key scene with a slender branch in the frame by overexposing on an overcast day is the perfect recipe to induce even the toughest nuts to display chromatic aberration.  But even such a cruel test is not enough to make the 300mm f/4 AFS yield.  It is virtually infallible in this regard.  

This image was shot on  D50, which does NOT have automatic CA correction.  


Here are a couple of abusive 100% crops from the above image.




OK, an extremely discerning eye can see but a trace of CA in the above crop, but this is as bad as it can get, really.  In a print this shouldn’t be visible at all, and on a camera equipped with automatic CA correction, like the D300 and newer, you can well-nigh forget about CA.  It simply doesn’t feature in the equation, giving you total satisfaction and peace of mind while shooting in adverse conditions and inclement weather.


1.I.e. Distortion

I haven’t noticed any significant barrel or pincushion distortion in any conditions at any focal distance so far, which is what you’d expect from a quality telephoto. 

1.I.e. Ghosts and Flare

Flare performance is phenomenal.  I’ve never experienced any ghosts or flare with this lens at any aperture, even while shooting directly into the sun. Contrast holds up very well when shooting against the light. This is truly exceptional performance, making this lens a default choice if you find yourself working in such conditions much of the time. 


Here are a couple of examples, both shot with the TC14E II.





With all the areas of importance satisfactorily addressed, this lens photographs just about anything you throw at it in any conditions with gusto and tremendous consistency, making its optical quality nearly impossible to fault. 

II. With TC14E II: 

Performance with the 1.4x TC is stellar. The loss of sharpness and contrast is evident but minimal even wide-open at f/5.6, and even shooting quick ‘grab-shots’ without any due care for stabilization technique, I’m able to consistently achieve good results with the combination. Of course stopping down by one stop, to f/8, gives optimal results, but I do so only when I need a deeper field or when the light is good enough to afford the luxury. Otherwise, I shoot wide-open at f/5.6 all the time with brazen impunity and although results straight out of the camera will not rival that of a native 400mm lens wide-open, I find that one round of sharpening in processing fixes this easily, bringing the performance very close to at least that of the 200-400mm f/4G AFS VR at f/4 at 400mm from what I’ve witnessed first-hand. 

All the other quality attributes remain the same as described above for the native lens. 

Some samples with 100% crops below.

Note that: 

1) All the images have been shot with the NIKKOR 300mm f/4D AFS with Nikon TC14E II 1.4x Teleconverter. The lens DOES NOT have VR (optical image stabilization). 

2) All the images have been shot WIDE-OPEN at f/5.6. 

3) NO TRIPOD has been used to shoot any of the images. They all are either hand-held (including the Brahminy kite in flight and the painted stork; which was shot from a rocking boat!), or off a monopod (all the other images). 

4) A round of sharpening has been applied in PP. The reason I’ve done this instead of showing unprocessed images straight out of the camera is because I want to show how the images will look in real use (when all of us WILL use sharpening I’m sure) instead of theoretical sharpness straight out of the camera. But apart from sharpening, I have NOT applied any other processing. 

5) All images are from my 12MP D300, which means that the 100% crops resemble looking at a section of a print that is 21 inches across (printed at 200dpi) on the longer side from a distance of one foot, which I think is a fairly stringent test of sharpness by any standards. 

6) I am not showing the ‘best-case scenario’ here (in other words, I have NOT cherry-picked at all, but just picked images at random). I have even sharper images than these but I was too lazy to dig in deeper and just showed whatever was readily available. 


1) Painted Stork from Boat Full-frame 
f/5.6 1/2500sec ISO 200 



100% Crop:


2) Brahminy Kite in Flight Slightly Cropped-frame: 
f/5.6 1/1250sec ISO 200 


100% Crop:

3) Pelican in Flight Full Frame: 
f/5.6 1/1250sec ISO 200 



 100% Crop:





4) Pelican Wading Full-frame: 
f/5.6 1/1250sec ISO 200 


100% Crop:



5) Pied Buschat (female) Full-frame 
f/5.6, 1/320, ISO 500 




100% Crop:



6) Little Green Bee-eater Closeup Full-frame 
f/5.6 1/640sec ISO 200 




100% Crop:



And this is what it can do if stopped down to F8: 

Common Kestrel Perched Full-frame 
f/8, 1/640sec ISO 250 


100% Crop:




Are these sharp enough? For all practical purposes, for me, they are! And they look even better on paper. I’ve regularly made 12 x 18 prints of some of the above images and many more shot wide-open with the TC14E II and they look perfectly acceptable. 


III. With TC20E II (AF-I)


The TC20E II is widely notorious for its softness and I’ve found this to be true but the keeper percentage with this lens is not zero, although it is quite low.  With some practice and in good light, it is possible to achieve acceptable images, as seen below.  The first image was shot hand-held while the second was shot off a monopod.



100% Crop:








100% Crop:




2. AUTO-FOCUS PERFORMANCE

I. Native Lens: 

Focus acquisition is fast and prompt even in low light. The lens normally doesn’t hunt except in very low light or extremely confusing situations. Accuracy is bang-on every time. Flight shots are very easy. Manual focus is a breeze because of the lovely focus ring (more on that in Handling), the instant override available and of course the bright image in the viewfinder due to the f/4 aperture. Overall, AF performance is very satisfactory if not scorching. 

II. With TC14E II: 

Adding the 1.4x TC certainly slows the focus down noticeably and the lens is more prone to hunting, especially in low light. However, it is still good enough for most situations including flight shots, especially if the focus limiter is employed. Focus accuracy is never an issue. 


III. With TC20EII (AF-I):
Nikon says lenses F4 or slower won’t support auto-focus with the 2x TCs, but the 300mm f/4D AFS does with the TC20E II, although perfectly woefully.  For all practical purposes, only the centre sensor is of any use, and only in good light at that.  In low light you can forget about auto-focus and should grab the big ring to focus manually.  This experience is based on my use on a D300, and I cannot comment on how this compares to performance on other bodies, either more basic or more advanced than the D300.







Overall, though, I wouldn’t recommend the TC20E II with this lens to anybody except the most committed and disciplined, or those who most desperately need that focal length.


3. BUILD QUALITY

This lens is built superbly. The mount is of course metal but so is the casing, and it feels solid and precise, inspiring oodles of confidence to use it even in severe weather conditions. This is an important feature for me since I often need to add or remove a teleconverter in very quick time on safaris or otherwise in the field, and don’t like a light drizzle make me shut shop. With this lens, I never worry about things falling apart or the barrel getting swamped and the lens feels like it’s built to last a lifetime. 

4. HANDLING

I. Native Lens: 

This is yet another aspect I highly value with this lens. Such quality at the 300mm focal length in such a tiny package (it is only 8″ long and weighs a mere 1250gm) is exceptional! The lens is superbly balanced and therefore easy to hand-hold all the time without feeling any strain. Of course someone moving from a 55-200mm/70-300mm class of lens will find it heavy but will get used to it very soon, and compared to other telephoto lenses in the range, the lens is very compact and light. This is very important to me since any piece of equipment that is too big and heavy could take the fun away from photography and could discourage you from picking it up and shooting with it often, which would be a tragedy. 

The tripod collar has been criticized widely by many reviewers, but I haven’t noticed any big problems with it probably because I seldom use a tripod and even when I do, I find stability to be an issue only at low shutter speeds (below 1/40sec). 

The built-in hood makes it a breeze to use and is a most convenient feature. The focus limiting switch is very useful and should be employed to further optimize focus, especially when using the lens with a TC, and the focus ring is a delight to use. It feels perfectly damped – neither too tight nor too loose, and is very precise to set. The auto-focus can of course be over-ridden anytime by just grabbing the ring. Overall this lens is a breeze to handle. 

The minimum focus distance, which of course doesn’t change when you add a TC of any magnification, is another strong point of this lens, which, at 4.2 feet, is very handy. I’ve almost never come across a situation in my photography where I couldn’t focus because the subject was too close, and adding the 1.4x TC makes the magnification even better. Therefore this is an excellent lens for some tele-macros and ultra-tight portraits or abstracts. 


II. With 1.4x TC: 

The TC naturally adds some weight (around 300gm I believe) and a tiny bit of length making the setup a little more of a handful, but not large or heavy enough to cause bother or encumbrance. However, the lack of image stabilization (‘VR’) does make its absence felt when shooting at 420mm. Hand-holding this combination is very easy but to get sharp images consistently takes practice and the use of at least a mono-pod is recommended in most conditions except in very bright light. 

CONCLUSION

The 300mm f/4D AFS is a no-nonsense, classically simple optic that cuts to the chase with no fuss and delivers shot after shot with spectacular consistency, all the while barely making its presence felt.  There are two things it doesn’t do, namely zooming in and out and optically stabilizing its output, but whatever else it does, it does exceptionally well.  It focuses reliably, works brilliantly with the 1.4x TC and doesn’t necessitate a gym membership or an encore of Ocean’s Eleven.  It fits in your pocket and goes like a rocket.  


And brings home the bacon fast and sharp.


For more images, visit my Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/santigris .




The ‘fine’ print:
© Text and Pictures copyright Santosh Saligram.  No part of this essay may be reproduced in any form without the prior written permission of the author.
     






9 Comments Add yours

  1. Lovely review Sant.. 🙂 I loved the non 'too' te3chnical review!! Im a Canon boy, but maybe in a year or two i will buy a Nikon system as my secondary system. & great images mate!!

    Like

  2. ap says:

    Already brought this lens for my nikon D60 body,but yet to try this as it is in transit.

    Like

  3. Santosh says:

    Angad, thanks. :-)ap, good luck! I'm sure you'll love it!

    Like

  4. What an review Santhosh!! Liked it all the way.. I loved all ur pics in FB.. and INW.. was decided to buy this.. and even I was planning for Canon F4 300mm after watching Sowmyajith Nandys Pics.. now either Nikon or Canon!! but buying it for sure.. Thanks for a lovely and easily understandable Review!!

    Like

  5. Arijit says:

    Loved it thoroughly, maybe because it was not too technical!!!!if I were a nikon shoter, I'd grab this (its also the most reasonable 300mm f4 around- at 60 k odd).the canon is 90 k i guess and the one for my pentax where available is 1200 USD :-(Soone, I see a Vr version of this in the offing ay rs. 100k or so. So guys with Nikons. grab the ones available.

    Like

  6. SHASHIDHAR says:

    Hi Santhosh…Nice review …. Last week I bought D7000… not yet decided, whether to go for 300 f4 or 300 f2.8 VR … thanx for a detailed review.

    Like

  7. Kartik Kumar says:

    That was a lovely review. I enjoyed reading that. I use this lens with a 1.7x and find that f4 is really slow in South Indian conditions at least – the TC makes it 6.7 wide open and its not acceptably sharp until at least f8. Just used it this past weekend with the 1.4x and that was too slow wide open at f5.6 – I was at ISO 1600 most of the time getting only 1/60 or so. Not fun.Congratulations on the upgrade – expecting great stuff from the big gun.

    Like

  8. Santosh says:

    Thanks, all!Thank you for your thoughts on the 1.7x, Kartik! And I understand your predicament with the 1.4x as well – that was one of the reasons I spent big money on the F2.8 big brother. 🙂

    Like

  9. Anonymous says:

    Beautiful review….I am also thinking about this combination as I would like to upgrade from my 70-300VR. I have heard that Kenko Pro 300 1.4x TC s are optically same as of Nikon's but at half of the price. Do you have any idea about the Kenko TCs?

    Like

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