AF-S VR Zoom-Nikkor ED 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G IF


Better than you'd expect for the price.

It's been a long wait for this lens, with nearly a year passing since it was announced.

Lens Formula
17 elements in 12 groups; 2 ED elements.
Other Features
VR (vibration reduction), manual focus override, AF-S lens focusing motor, internal focus, 67mm filter size. 9-blade aperture. Comes with HB-36 hood and semi-soft case. Focuses to 4.9' (1.5m).
Size and Weight
About 143mm long, 26.3 ounces (745g).
Price
US$530 (street)

The Basics

Now we have three 70-300mm variants (actually four if you count the original 75-300mm f/4.5-5.6 that spawned the others):

  • 70-300mm f/4-5.6D ED. The most common version; no longer available.
  • 70-300mm f/4-5.6G. The least expensive; still available.
  • 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G VR. The subject of this review.

Surprisingly, there's quite a range of optical performance in just those three models. I don't recommend the original G version, for instance, as its lack of ED glass means that it has significant chromatic aberration issues that are easily seen. You'll note that I thought the ED version was pretty decent when I first reviewed it (back in 2001), and it has continued to be a modestly priced telephoto option for Nikon DSLR users in the ensuing years. The primary complaints about the ED version were its tendency to hunt, slow focus, and the slow variable aperture (f/5.6 at 300mm can put you into shutter speeds that are challenging for hand holding, even in good light).

What everyone wanted was a version of the ED lens with VR and AF-S. That's almost what we got.

This is a very complex lens, more complex than the one it replaces, with 17 elements in 12 groups. By comparison, the previous design was 13 elements in 9 groups. Two of the elements are ED (low dispersion glass). The aperture is a 9-blade type, with slightly rounded blades, and appears to have moved slightly in position (probably due to the VR addition). This is not a tweak of the old lens design: it appears to be new most respects, even though externally it bears a resemblance to the predecessor and it retains some of the design parameters (focus distance, for example).

You'll note that I said "almost what we got." You're probably wondering what that meant. Well, there are a handful of significant changes that may have some impact for those of you moving from old to new:

  • The maximum aperture at 70mm is now f/4.5 instead of f/4.
  • The filter size is now 67mm instead of 62mm.
  • The focus and zoom rings have exchanged positions.
  • The optics are...well, you'll have to wait for the Performance section for that.

Of these changes, the one that bothers me is the change in filter size. Nikon has lost their 52/62/77 simplicity and now seems to think it's okay to just make filter sizes all across the board (typically 62/67/72/77 these days). In particular, the old lens was a decent candidate for the 5T and 6T close-up lenses that Nikon made. Unfortunately, not only can you not use them on the new version of the lens, but Nikon doesn't seem to be making the close-up lenses at all, any more, a double loss. (Shortly after posting the article, several people commented that you can use a 67-62mm step-down ring with the 5T on the 70-300mm when mounted on a Nikon DSLR. True. That seems to work fine due to the larger-than-necessary imaging circle. However, if you do this with a full frame body, digital or film, you'll get vignetting. Likewise, several people pointed out that Nikon is being consistent, as the 18-70mm, 18-135mm, and 70-300mm all share the 67mm size. True, but we need much more than "some sharing of sizes between some lenses" to standardize our filter sets. We need a more pronounced and forward-looking statement by Nikon that "we'll make lenses in X, Y, and Z filter ring sizes in the future and try to stick to that as best we can. Note that Nikon had to supply five different filter ring attachments for the R1C1 set; that's crazy. Stilll, it does appear that all my 62mm filters and accessories are no longer very useful.)

Unlike some recent consumer zooms from Nikon, the lens does have a focus scale. But the big additions are VRII (second generation vibration reduction) and AF-S (silent wave, internal focusing motor). The promise of these two additions is a lens that focuses faster while being more easily handheld.

On the camera side of the focus ring are a set of three buttons:

  • Manual Focus button: In the M/A position the lens works as usual (autofocus with manual override). In the M position, the lens focuses only manually.
  • VR button: In the ON position, VR is active; in the OFF position, VR isn't used.
  • VR Type button: In the Normal position, VR will detect panning and not try to correct for it. In the Active position, VR takes out all motion.

There is no tripod mount on the lens. The front of the lens doesn't rotate during zoom, nor during focus operations.

Here's the 70-300mm VR fully extended and mounted on a D200 body.

Handling

I guess that focus-ring-close, zoom-ring-away from the camera is the new "norm" for Nikon, so we'll just have to get used to that. I do wish that Nikon would do more to differentiate the two rings. Especially on a lens like this new 70-300mm, where the barrel size doesn't change across the rings, you have to do more "feel verification" than I think should be necessary to ascertain which ring your hand is on. I'm more apt to tweak a focus on a telephoto lens, so it's important that Nikon make that easy. They didn't.

While this is a hefty lens for its size, it still balances decently on most Nikon bodies. It's negligable on a D2 series, but even on the small and light D40 I found it didn't seem out of place.

As usual, Nikon has made the buttons virtually indistinguishable by feel. That means that you won't be making changes to lens settings by touch unless you absolutely memorize which button is where (hint: Nikon has been consistent: the top one or two are AF related, the bottom one or two control VR). While the switches are slightly different sizes, they're not differentiated enough to tell which is which by feel. Nikon just didn't think much about this design; now they've repeated it several times so it's become a standard. Yuck.

The big handling issue though is the zoom ring: it isn't smooth. If anything, it's stiff and sticky. I suppose all those "zoom creep" complaints on previous lenses have Nikon tightening up the internal cams that move the lens elements, but the problem is that this has left a cheap, unsatisfying zoom feel in its place. On the plus side, there's no zoom creep. The focus ring is better, but still feels a little stiff. Good thing you won't be mounting this lens on a video camera, as you'd never get clean zooms or focus shifts. But for a DSLR, well, it's acceptable if not desirable.

Focus is about the same 5' (1.5m) mark as its predecessor. I'm sure that there will be folk that find that limiting, but I don't. In an unusual move, the manual actually talks about focus correction for infrared use (and the lens is marked with an infrared focus point for 70mm). About time. Basically, the compensation moves from the 70mm mark to the normal focus mark at 300mm in a slightly logarithmic manner. Why not put all four additional dots on the lens instead of just one, Nikon? Trust us, those of us using the lens for infrared work can figure out which dot goes with which focal length.

Focal length impacts aperture as follows:

  • 70mm f/4.5
  • 100mm f/4.8
  • 135mm f/5
  • 200mm f/5.3
  • slightly over 200mm and up f/5.6

The manual does a better job of explaining VR, though it still seems a little Japlish to me. Active VR takes away automatic panning detection--all four stabilizers are always active, while in Normal mode two of the stabilizers will turn off if panning is detected. Thus, in Active VR mode, the lens assumes you want to remove all motion. Do you need to put the lens into Active VR mode to remove motion when you're not panning? Not really. Most photographers produce much more up/down motion (due to stabbing at the shutter release) than they do left/right motion. But if you have lots of strong vibrations you need to remove--as you might when shooting from a vehicle with its engine on--set the VR to Active to be sure that nothing is interpreted as a pan.

I'm sure that some are going to be disappointed that Nikon says that all TCs are incompatible with this lens. The primary reason is that you'd be beyond AF working range with almost any teleconverter. Moreover, you're at the optically weakest focal length (300mm--otherwise why do you need a TC?), and you're adding to the vignetting, sharpness, and chromatic aberration issues I find at that setting. I'm sure that some will pop TCs on this lens and pronounce it acceptable. Don't believe those folks. It's not. I often have a hard time working at an acceptable ISO value shooting with the 200-400mm f/4 wide open--a 420mm f/8 or 600mm f/11 is just going to make that problem worse. At some point I'll have a full look at the telephoto decisionmaking process in terms of image optimization, but suffice it to say that anything that gets you beyond f/5.6 and increases the visibility of optical flaws is a de-optimization. If you have to shoot at ISO 1600 and f/8 at effective 420mm with a TC with a D80, you're even at a disadvantage to someone shooting with a D2x in Hi-speed crop mode with a 70-200mm at 200mm and f/2.8 with no teleconverter. (If you doubt that last statement, note that they'll be shooting at ISO 200 while you're at ISO 1600 to get the same shutter speed. Their AF works snappily. Yours may not work at all. While they only have ~7mp and would need to crop some more to get to the 420mm equivalent you're at, they also have nothing interferring with acuity; you do. It all adds up. I'd rather have a highly optimized 7mp even at a shorter focal length than a significantly degraded 10mp.)

The lack of a tripod collar is not surprising considering the audience for this lens and its price. But be aware that at 300mm the lens is extended quite far (see picture, above), and the possibility of even very small tripod vibrations reducing image quality is definetely a possibility. On my 1325 with a RRS BH-55, I can lock down and not see any compromising in IQ. On the lightest, cheapest tripod I have available to me fully extended (an old Gitzo four-section metal Traveler) with a lighter head, I can see small amounts of camera movement at low shutter speeds. I have no way of telling for sure if redistributing the mass to the center of gravity (one of the things a good tripod collar does) would help, but I strongly suspect it would. VR doesn't necessarily compensate for the missing tripod collar, by the way; I can still see slight camera movement using both VR settings.

Also on the positive side, the pinch-release lens cap works nicely under the long lens hood of the 70-300mm--you can actually reach in and remove (or replace) the lens cap with the hood on. The hood itself is the typical reversing bayonet type Nikon uses on telephoto lenses.

Performance


Here's an example of some of the tough scenes I put in front of the 70-300mm lens to assess its quality in actual use (as usual, I also performed controlled tests using reference charts and Imatest). Chromatic aberration, for instance, often appears on complex hard edges and even more so on high contrast edges, and this scene has both. Here's a 200% crop from near the upper left corner:


You should see a hint of purple on the left to right high contrast diagonal of the wide branch in the upper left. But curiously, close examination of the remainder of the scene shows very little of this purple aberration, and very little of the more traditional green/magenta edge colorations (you might be able to see faint hints of it on the smallest details in this example). At most focal lengths, the lens does even better than what is shown here. And while you can see a bit of chromatic aberration here, remember we're at 200% and this is nearly the worst I could provoke from the lens (the lens at maximum aperture here). I'll also note in passing that I found what chromatic aberration this lens produces tends to show up more on out-of-focus items than on in-focus ones (a common trait); the area in the 200% crop is behind the actual focus point and out of the depth of field.

Autofocus: just what you'd expect from an AF-S lens, though because the maximum aperture can be as high as f/5.6, you don't always get snappy performance in low light. But in bright light this lens focuses almost as fast and sure as the 70-200mm. Just don't expect that performance to hold up in low light.

Sharpness: from 70 to 200mm, this lens is quite sharp with plenty of contrast, and I have no real complaints. As you reach out to 300mm, you'll start to see it soften a bit at maximum aperture, though stopped down two stops it remains excellent. On an FX camera, you'll see that the corners aren't as good as the center, but on DX DSLRs this isn't an issue. I should point out, however, that the corners on an FX body with this lens are better than the corners with the higher priced 70-200mm!

VR: works as advertised. (If you want to know what that means, see the end of my 70-200mm review.)

Light falloff: for DX DSLRs, the only place you'll find light falloff observable is going to be at 300mm and f/5.6. At shorter focal lengths the lens has very little falloff, and stopped down a stop what little there is pretty much gone except at 300mm, where you really need to stop down two stops to get to fully even edge to edge. On DX cameras, there's observable light falloff at all focal lengths, though its well within what I'd call normal for a telephoto lens and not really problematic as far as I'm concerned. Moreover, it's better than the more expensive 70-200! Again, stopping down (one stop at the wider focal lengths, two at the longer) will remove it.

Chromatic aberration: for DX DSLRs from 70-200mm and mid-range apertures, I can't really find any. At 300mm and wide open at the extreme focal lengths, I can find modest hints of it, but not generally enough to worry about trying to correct. On FX cameras, you'll see minor chromatic aberration in the corners and clearly observable artifacts at 300mm and f/5.6, but this is still a very well controlled lens, and an especially well-controlled one for a modestly priced consumer zoom.

Flare: surprisingly, this lens is remarkably flare resistant. Generally lots of elements mean that flare is tough to keep from appearing. But this lens acts like the Nano-coated lenses: it just seems to not produce ghosts in backlit situations. Note that contrast does go down a bit with bright light sources in the frame, but that's normal for all lenses. What you don't get with this lens is the repeated ghost bursts with aperture opening shapes.

Distortion: you'll see modest barrel distortion at 70mm (somewhere near 1%). This clears up by 85mm. By 100mm we're heading into minor pincushion distortion, which increases to a maximum (about 2%) at 200mm, and then decreases again as you zoom out to 300mm. This puts most of the focal length range in the slightly frustrating realm from "you can ignore it" to "just enough to be visible." (I say frustrating, because the perfectionists amongst us will want to correct it, but probably won't because the minor benefit isn't worth the workflow increase.) The range from 135mm to 250mm would be "visible."

Bokeh: very good to excellent at f/8 and f/11, good beyond that. As with many Nikkors I own, my 70-300mm sample tends to go "out of shape" at the minimum aperture (there's a pronounced angle where two of the blades meet). But on all cameras you'd be beyond the point where diffraction is starting to play a role, so bokeh isn't just about aperture blades at f/22. Where I tend to use the lens, the bokeh is quite nice, and especially good for a low-priced lens.

In almost every performance category, the new version is better than the ED version. The ED version was a decent performer; the new VR version is an excellent performer.

Drawbacks

  • 67mm filters. Those of us who had 62mm sets now have to move on.
  • Stiff. The zoom ring action isn't the silky smooth one everyone wants.
  • Not a 300mm. Yes, it's usable at 300mm, but this is where this lens' performance is at its weakest in almost every respect.
  • Slower than the 70-200mm. The difference between f/2.8 and f/5.6 at 200mm on a fast moving object in low light is noticeable by anyone.

Positives

  • 70-200mm excellence. In this range there's almost nothing to fault the lens on optically, especially on an DX DSLR, but even on an FX DSLR.
  • VR and AF-S. That's what we missed in the original lens, and that's what Nikon has given us in the replacement.
  • Fits anywhere. It'll fit nose down in even shallow bags, making it a "carry anywhere" telephoto zoom.
 
Quick Evaluation


Highly recommended
; a worthy update of a decent lens.

features
performance
build
value

Table of Contents

Original Review: 1/5/2007
Update: 1/6/2007 5T and collar
Update: 1/6/2007 TC discussion
Update: 1/6/2007 f/stop changes
Update: 67mm size discussion
Update: minor corrections

Limitations


The 70-300mm lens has a few limitations you need to be aware of:

Internal flash cycling. VR doesn't work when the internal flash is being recycled.

Turn the camera off. Nikon's been telling us to turn the camera off before changing lenses, and it's never been more true. If VR is active when you remove the lens from the camera, weird things can and do happen.




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