Shooting with a mirrorless camera isn’t the only way to shed weight in your gear bag. While Nikon’s new 300mm f/4E PF ED VR lens may not be a featherweight in absolute terms, this lens has earned its place as the smallest and lightest full-frame 300mm prime lens on the market.
At 3.5 x 5.8 inches and weighing 26.6 ounces, the new 300mm f/4E is about 30 percent smaller and almost 50 percent lighter than its older sibling, the 300mm f/4D IF-ED. For a slightly different perspective, the new 300mm is only slightly larger than the NIKKOR AF-S 24–70mm f/2.8G ED but actually weighs about 5 ounces less.
Perhaps the most important component of the lens’s alphabet soup suffix is its Phase Fresnel (PF) designation. By using a single, PF optical element, Nikon was able to design a compact, lightweight telephoto lens while maintaining a moderately wide aperture. At the same time, integrating PF technology helps reduce chromatic aberration.
The new lens now features vibration reduction (VR) that, according to Nikon, delivers up to an amazing 4.5 stops correction. In addition to Normal and Off settings, the 300mm offers a special Sport VR option when following fast-moving subjects.
The minimum focus distance is approximately 4.6 feet but a Focus Limit Switch is available to utilize the lens’s full AF distance range or restrict AF from 9.9 feet to infinity. As expected, the lens provides AF with manual override as well as manual focus. Like its predecessor, AF is controlled by a Silent Wave Motor to deliver quiet and fast autofocus.
In addition to Nano Crystal Coat, Nikon added a fluorine coating to the front lens element for easier and more effective cleaning. The lens is also equipped with an electromagnetic diaphragm to help deliver consistent exposure during burst shooting. The 300mm f/4E comes with a lens shade but a tripod collar/ring is optional.
Ergonomics and Performance
The lens’s size and weight look great on paper and are even more impressive when you pick up the lens, especially when paired with the hefty Nikon D4S. I was easily able to spend a full day shooting with this lens/camera combo without feeling any shoulder or neck strain. I also paired the lens with the DX-format D7200 for some quick testing and the 300mm lens felt well balanced on the smaller camera body.
Despite its light weight, the lens feels well built, although not quite as durable as some other models. The focus ring moved smoothly with no play and the switches on the side of the barrel snapped solidly into place.
Autofocus performance was, for the most part, excellent. AF snapped into focus quickly and definitively, even when the Focus Limit Switch was set to Full. Under extremely dark conditions or at the edge of its minimum focus range, the lens would occasionally search but that was the exception rather than the rule.
As someone whose upper body strength needs improvement and who admires anyone who can handhold a lens at less than 1/125 sec while caffeinated, the idea of 4.5 stops of VR correction was especially appealing. The fact that I was almost always able to grab sharply focused images at 1/20 sec made me an even bigger fan of Nikon’s VR than before. The VR on this lens is simply impressive. Image stabilization worked extremely well even when adding the Nikon TC-17E (1.7x) teleconverter.
Prior to receiving the test unit, there were some reports of VR failure at certain shutter speeds. I ran through pretty much every shutter speed from 1/20 sec to 1/500 sec and paid special attention to 1/60–1/320 sec settings, with VR on and off, and found no anomalies shooting with the D4S. Nikon has issued a firmware update for the lens after confirming that blurred images were possible when the lens was used with the D800/D800E/D810/D810A “at shutter speeds of around 1/125 sec with the VR function enabled.” Lenses with serial numbers of 205101 or later have already been updated; other lenses need to be sent to Nikon to be updated. (You can find more information at www.nikonusa.com in the service and support section.)
One of the drawbacks to Phase Fresnel technology, acknowledged by Nikon in the user guide shipped with the lens, is the possibility of a colored ring flare “when a bright light source is in or near the frame.” Because of this, version 1.1.0 of Nikon’s free NX-D software has a special PF flare correction feature.
After shooting directly into white and red lights at night as well as during the day with the sun near the frame and the lens focused on specular highlights, we did catch some PF flare, but not consistently. When it did occur, the PF feature in NX-D seemed to compensate slightly but did not eliminate it altogether. Since we went out of our way to create the flare, it likely won’t be a huge issue for most photographers or, if it is, a slight move to recompose should solve the problem.
The 300mm f/4E lens delivered everything I expected: crisply focused images with excellent detail across the frame. We had read that this lens was prone to some vignetting when shooting wide open, but we only saw minor evidence of it and then mostly on the D7200, not the D4S. Test shots showed no chromatic aberration even along high contrast edges.
Excellent contrast and color rendering were the norm, along with generally pleasing bokeh. With an aperture range of f/4-32, exposure and depth-of-field options are broader than most lenses.
The combination of light weight, small size and amazingly effective VR makes the 300mm f/4E lens an excellent choice for photographers who want a prime telephoto lens. Sports photographers laden with heavy gear will especially appreciate the lens’ many benefits.
While the price is about $500 higher than its predecessor, we think it’s worth the premium. Frankly, we’re more than happy to put up with a little flare on occasion given how well the lens performs.
PROS: Exceptional VR; excellent sharpness and detail; light weight; compact size.
CONS: Expensive; doesn’t include tripod collar; potential for Phase Fresnel lens flare.