updates a classic. Is it better than the original?
300mm f/4 lenses side by side. The front lens is the slightly
bulkier AF-S version, while the more svelte older version
is in the rear. The apparent length difference is mostly an
optical illusion--standing on end they're nearly identical
in length. Note the longer lens hood and wider focus grip
of the AF-S version.
elements in 6 groups; 2 ED elements.
tripod collar, AF-S (internal, silent wave) focus.
9" long, 50.8 ounces (1440g) with collar.
seemed like more than 12 years, but after a long run of being produced
exactly in the same non-D version, Nikon finally got around to adding
the distance technology to the classic 300mm
f/4. But they didn't stop there. The new lens uses AF-S (silent
wave) technology to focus faster and quieter, sports a new tripod
mount, and has a host of other new features. About the only thing
that remained the same is the overall length and the f/4 aperture.
The question, of course, is did they get all the changes right?
those who can't afford the big aperture teles, the 300mm f/4 was
Nikon's answer: give up one stop of aperture and you could get an
equally sharp telephoto that weighed about half that of its f/2.8
cousin, but focused slowly. From 1988 to 2001, that was the choice.
Buy a 300mm f/2.8, which kept getting new features and abilities
(D-type technology, silent wave autofocus, AF-S with manual override,
etc.), or buy the old reliable 300mm f/4, which had none of those
sharp is the lens? This image of the newborn gorilla at the
National Zoo in DC is handheld at 1/60 and f/4. What little
loss of sharpness I see in the image is almost certainly attributable
to the fact that I used no camera support.
what seemed far too long a wait, Nikon finally got around to updating
the 300mm f/4. The changes are not just cosmetic, but substantive
in almost every way:
lens now uses the AF-S silent wave motor. This means eerily silent
focusing, with a bit more snap than before (read on).
lens focuses substantially closer (5 feet [1.45m] instead of 8
feet [2.5m]), and has gained two additional elements (still in
six groups, though).
filter mechanism has changed from 39mm drop-in to Nikon's standard
77mm front thread.
dreaded "put a sock on it" lens hood is gone, replaced
by a standard 77mm cap.
tripod socket has been grown considerably in size (read on, though).
"girth" of the lens has been enhanced, making the diameter
larger (though with little effect on weight), and increasing the
size of the width of the focus ring.
all the changes to the lens, if someone had slipped the new AF-S
into my bag to replace my older 300mm f/4, I probably wouldn't have
noticed except for two things: the larger tripod collar, and the
regular lens cap.
course, once on the camera, I might have noticed. Focusing with
the new AF-S version seems to just happen, without any lens noise.
The older 300mm made a noticeable whine as it searched for focus.
It's also nice to be able to just grab the focus ring and override
the camera, as you can with all AF-S lenses.
the 300mm f/4 AF-S doesn't have the focus hold buttons of its larger,
more exotic cousins. This is a significant drawback, as the lens
can still be slow to focus in some situations, and, like most telephotos,
tends to wander off in search of a new focus point if your subject
moves even a little bit. "Slow to focus?" Yes, that's
what I said. I don't notice any dramatic increase in focusing
speed, though it is indeed measurably faster in most situations
when you put a stopwatch to it. Slightly more annoying is the fact
that the nice variable focus limiter on the older lens is replaced
a single switch on the new one. Your choices are full range of focus,
or focus from 10 feet (3m) to infinity.
Manual/Autofocus switch (now Manual/Autofocus with Manual override)
has moved from where it was easily found on the focus ring to back
near the tripod collar. And it's identical in size and feel to the
focus limiter switch. I guess Nikon didn't expect users to make
changes by feel (and you can't merely go by top/bottom, as the rotating
tripod collar can flip that orientation!).
new tripod collar is a mixed blessing. It moves the balance point
to a better position (with some bodies, the older 300mm tended to
be balanced a bit too far forward). It's also easy to find the adjustment
knob and rotate the collar. Unfortunately, the smooth feel of the
old rotating collar is missing.
new tripod collar drew a number of criticisms when it first appeared
(it also appears on the 80-400mm VR). Numerous posts and discussions
on the news groups argued that the lens now "vibrates"
at some shutter speeds, even on a tripod. Indeed, if you press the
mounting foot towards the lens, you'll find that there is a fair
amount of give. Part of the problem is the lock mechanism. If you
just turn the knob to a standard "hand tightening" level,
the collar isn't working as a single piece, and you can move the
foot substantially. If you tighten a little more, most, but not
all, of the give disappears. Some users have taken to wedging something
between the foot and the lens body to improve the "stability"
of the mount, but I've yet to find a situation where I can clearly
point to the tripod collar stealing sharpness from a photo. If you
find yourself shooting in the "danger zone" (1 second
to 1/30), you might want to pay close attention to stability of
the lens on the pod, though. If you're really concerned, buy the
replacement collar that Kirk sells for the lens. Kirk's version
is clearly superior to Nikon's, with a nice front brace to keep
the whole lens/collar absolutely rigid. It's worth the extra money
if you're going to shoot with this lens from a tripod.
the two feet side by side (AF-S is on top, the old lens on
the bottom). [Note that the AF-S has a Kirk quick mount plate
on the bottom of the foot, which accounts for some of the
new foot extends further from the lens body (good), moves
the center of gravity forward (good), and tends to wiggle
a bit (bad).
points on the new lens: a regular lens cap, a standard filter size,
and a built-in lens hood. No more fiddling with the "sock cap",
or buying expensive drop-in polarizers.
here boils down to two things: autofocus speed and sharpness.
me report the good news first. Everything that was wonderful about
the old 300mm f/4 seems to remain. I can't see any tangible visual
difference between pictures shot with the old and the new version--it's
as if Nikon took the optics out of my old lens and installed it
in a new body (with a couple of minor changes, that's essentially
what they did). Being able to focus to 5 feet (1.45m) is a big performance
plus, in my opinion. I see a itsy bitsy amount of sharpness loss
in the corners at f/4 with the focused racked all the way to 5 feet,
but not enough for me to worry about.
still, the lens is incredibly sharp when using the TC-14E 1.4x teleconverter
(I used the original TC-14E, not the newer TC-14E II, but that shouldn't
make a difference, as only the cosmetics are different). And I do
mean incredibly. All the attributes that I like at 300mm f/4 are
still present at 420mm f/5.6! Yes, it focuses a bit slower with
a converter and hunts a bit more, but it is still very sharp.
the leaves fall.
420mm f/5.6 (Nikkor 300mm f/4 AF-S with TC-14E 1.4x teleconverter,
shot wide open). On monopod at 1/320. And, yes, that's a leaf
falling on the right that the tiger was watching. National Zoo,
Washington DC, shot during my November DC workshop.
an unsharpened, unadjusted, actual pixels view of a section
of a NEF shot with the TC-14E 1.4x teleconverter on the lens
at f/5.6 (wide open). The full picture is in the main body text,
speed hasn't improved enough to get excited about. Moreover, the
lens is still prone to start hunting if your subject moves a bit.
Unlike the previous incarnation, you can't limit the focus search
to a narrow range (10 feet to infinity is not narrow, Nikon!). With
a teleconverter on, this problem is exacerbated--focusing gets slightly
slower and more "nervous."
Speed. Not a barnburner, not a sluggard. But from an
AF-S lens, you'll expect more.
A bit too much give in the foot, and why does the rotation feel
so rough compared to the predecessor?
Focus Hold Button, Limited Focus Range Option. A focus
hold button or a better focus limiter option would have made
major improvements to the handling of this lens, given its focus
speed and proclivity to hunt.
Still sharp. Even with a teleconverter on.
More Sock Cap, Funky Filters. As befitting a pro-calibre
lens, the front element has standardized at the 77mm thread Nikon
uses on all their other non-exotic pro lenses.