Nikon 300mm f2.8 VR Lens Review
I bought the Nikon 300mm f2.8 VR lens back in September and since then it has been about three months of using only that lens for wildlife and birds. I have put in a good number of hours with it and while I am not a professional reviewer or a person who try’s out every lens on the planet, I do own several Nikon, Sigma, Tamron, and Tokina lenses so I feel somewhat qualified to give a good overview of how this lens performs. That said, it is by far the best lens I have ever used. A little intimating at the begining because it does have a lot of bells and whistles, many of which most people won’t need to use on a regular basis. First impression is that it is a big heavy lens that is built like a truck and that is exactly what it is, and part of why it is a great piece of glass. The other part is the sharpness. Oh yeah it is so sharp! It is sharp everywhere. The rookie mistake is thinking it goes a little soft around f2.8 but usually it is because the depth of field is so razor thin that parts of the image you wanted sharp are simply out of focus. This is especially true when you get anywhere in the neighborhood of minimum focus distance which is a little over seven feet.
For me, just as large a part of the legend is the color, contrast, bokeh, and the complete lack of chromatic aberration. It is without a doubt more accurate and consistent than any third party lens around.
Legendary. I mentioned it before but it is worth repeating, this is one very sharp lens and it is sharp pretty much everywhere. A great lens needs to be sharp above all else and this one delivers that along with the quick focus, VR, and incredible image quality. As part of my workflow in bird photography I rarely sharpen an image anymore other than the the initial sharpening Lightroom does on RAW images by default on import. After that I will use the Tonal Contrast feature in Nik Color Effects Pro to give some feather detail and that is it. The VR is a huge help in getting sharp images also, especially when hand held. Just activate it at half press and watch a jerky view finder smooth out very quickly.
Complicated. It took me a while to get used to the 300 f2.8 to be honest. Sure I could pick it up on day one and shoot some sharp images but in pressure situations it is tough to know which switch to flip to get the best performance. No kidding, there is a bunch of stuff on this lens, it has six switches, three buttons, and two knobs, and it takes a while to learn what works best under different conditions. Some stuff is a matter of preference but others like focus memory can be a huge asset at times.
Teleconverters. I had heard that the 300 f2.8 works as well as any lens with teleconverters so I wanted to try a few of them out and see how they perform. First was the Nikon 1.4x TC. This acts pretty much the same as if it were not there. Autofocus and image quality seem to be the same as the bare lens. All the benefit with none of the drawbacks other that the aperture will now only open up to f3.8. Then I tried a Tamron 1.4 that was for an older AFd screw drive focus. It worked in manual focus only and was pretty soft. Not an option for me. I also rented a nikon 1.7x teleconverter from Borrowlenses.com and tried that out. While the images are perfectly acceptable the quality does suffer a bit. Widest aperture comes in at f4.8 but for sharpest photos you will want to stop down to around f8.
Image quality seems to me to be a little too high in contrast, definitely different from the bare 300. Autofocus is noticeably slower also and tends to hunt in low contrast situations. It is about as fast as my older AFd screw drive lenses, not bad but not really very good either. Anyone who is thinking about using a teleconverter as a substitute for a longer lens should think twice because you just won’t be happy comparing the quality to the bare 300mm.
What I bought. For a short time Nikon was selling both the older version and the newer VRII version of the lens. I did some research trying to find out a real difference in the two and just was not convinced by anyone that the new version was a whole lot better. Nikon says that the VRII gives an extra stop of stability but feedback I have heard say it is not that big of a gain. In my mind it does not make a big difference in avian photography anyhow, so I opted for the original VR version and saved about a thousand bucks in the process.
Conclusions. While the Nikkor 300mm f2.8 G IF-ED VR lens is second to none in quality it does fall in the middle in a few other respects. Both of my camera bodies have a 1.5 crop sensors in them. That means that the 300 really has an effective focal length of 450mm and that really works well for me in a lot of situations. 300mm on a full frame sensor is a lot different and it might wind up being too short for a lot of avian photography so you really want to think ahead before buying one of these. The lens is heavy but not long lens heavy. You can handhold but not for a long time so you will really need to have some support near by most of the time. You can use it on a good heavy ballhead but you are really going to want to get a Gimbal head for smoother panning and stability before long.
Wether you buy new, used, or refurbished this lens (and supporting gear) is going to cost a pretty penny, there are simply no two ways about it. If you are not ready to lay down big money you will also be well served to buy a Nikon 300f4, 80-400mm, or Tamron 200-500mm, all of which will deliver about 90% of the quality at less than a quarter the price. For me the 300 f2.8 is a must have lens and is worth the huge sacrifice I made to get it.
You can see more of my images at www.ronboyddesign.com