Nikon 300mm f4 PF lens is small, light and points to the future

While the likes of Fuji, Olympus and Samsung are revolutionising the camera market with increasingly small pro-level cameras, Nikon has started the fightback of the full-size DSLR with some miniaturisation of its own. But instead of shrinking the camera body, they’ve started to shrink the lenses.

The first to get the treatment is the all-new Nikon 300mm f/4 PF lens, which is 30% shorter and roughly half the weight of the 14-year-old 300mm f/4 lens it replaces. And compared to the giant 300mm f/2.8 monster lens, it’s absolutely tiny and less than a quarter the weight. That makes it the first 300mm prime you really could fit into a normal bag and take around pretty much anywhere.

Nikon 300mm f/2.8 dwarfs the 300mm f/4
Nikon 300mm f/2.8 dwarfs the 300mm f/4

It’s virtually the same size as the Nikon pro’s do-all lens, the 24-70mm f/2.8, but weighs even less. And coincidentally, Nikon has already patented a new version of the 24-70mm f/2.8 which will feature the new PF lens technology and, for the first time, vibration reduction. So this new 300mm lens could pave the way for a whole range of superlight new Nikkors.

The reason the lens can be made so much smaller and lighter is that it uses a Phase Fresnel element – hence the PF in its title. Nikon have used the PF technology in some of its microscopes for several years, and also in a teleconverter for the Coolpix 8400 compact. Canon also have a lens with similar Diffractive Optics technology, the 400mm f/4 DO lens which in its latest mark II guise costs £7000. So Nikon’s is the first affordable Fresnel lens for a DSLR, albeit one that costs a not unsubstantial £1639.

Even Nikon’s explanation of the technology is complicated, claiming the lens uses the photodiffraction phenomenon of a focusing lens to provide better control of chromatic abberation. Simply put, a Phase Fresnel lens, in combination with a normal refractive lens, can use less glass for lighter weight and a more compact lens.

But there is a trade-off, and that’s in the out-of-focus areas or bokeh, as many people call it. Even Nikon admits that when there’s a strong light source within the frame or if light enters the lens from outside the frame, ring-shape coloured flare can occur. The latest Capture NX-D software has a “PF Flare Control” setting, but other software, such as Lightroom or Photoshop, don’t yet have it. And very few people use Capture NX-D as it’s a bit slower and more clunky than other solutions.

What really matters is what the lens is like in use, and in this case it delivers very well. Chromatic aberration is very well controlled, even in the out of focus areas. And trying to coax the lens into producing the ring-shape coloured flare is not easy. So it seems Nikon’s warning is definitely in a worst-case scenario. And the deep circular lens hood, supplied with the lens, definitely helps. Coloured fringing is very hard to spot, even towards the very edges of the frame.

The bokeh itself, often an area where Fresnel lenses are criticised, is not as smooth as in conventional lenses, though. That may be a deal-breaker for photographers looking for the ultimate in creamy out-of-focus highlights. For other, it’s the subject itself that’s most important so slightly jagged bokeh is less of an issue.

However, the light does fall off towards the edges of the frame at the largest apertures, giving a natural vignette effect that is seen in most telephoto lenses. This is easily cured in most software packages if you don’t like the effect, though, and is pretty much gone by the time you reach f/6.3.

For critical sharpness, the lens also delivers well, resolving an impressive amount of detail, especially at apertures of f/5.6 or 6.3. In fact, it’s in this narrow range that the lens works really very well. Shoot it wide open at f/4, which many may want to do to maximise the telephoto effect of out-of-focus backgrounds, and the lens is definitely a tad softer. This problem is more noticeable if it’s used on a very high resolution body, like the 36MP Nikon D810 we tried it on. A camera like this really shows up every tiny deficiency of a lens, especially when viewed on a large monitor. So if you want 100% critically sharp photos at f/4 on a D810, then you may be a bit disappointed. In cases like this, there really is no option than spending over £4000 on the f/2.8 version and close it down a stop.

But for most working professionals, it’s perfectly fine and actually works better on lower pixel cameras like the 16MP Nikon D4S. And that’s the sort of camera lenses like this are usually used on.

A 300mm lens is usually used for subjects like wildlife or sports, and the new super-light PF version works well for subjects like this. It focuses very fast, especially when mounted on action cameras like the D4S. And if it is used on a crop-sensor camera like a D7200, then the extra reach means it’s a genuinely useful wildlife lens that’s light enough to actually be carried out into the wilds or packed for a safari trip. Decent weather sealing, and new lens coatings that Nikon claim make the lens easier to clean and less susceptible to damage, help here, too.

But where the compact size of the lens could really make inroads is for photographers who usually wouldn’t cart around a 300mm lens due to its size and potentially limited use. So jobbing press photographers, wedding photographers, travel photographers or landscape workers who could occasionally use the extra length of a 300mm lens for its creative opportunities now have an option of a light and compact optic that doesn’t break the bank or the back. Landscapes with impressive compression of perspective are now more easily possible, as are tightly-cropped candid shots. And its compact size is far less threatening and conspicuous than holding a huge DSLR with a massive bazooka-like 300mm f/2.8 bolted on the front. Although its f/4 maximum aperture may seem a bit limiting compared to the f/2.8 lenses that many pros favour, the high-ISO capabilities of modern cameras means going up a stop is hardly a deal-breaker any more. We cranked the ISO of a Nikon D4S up to 12,800 to shoot some of the more gloomy areas in Wembley Arena to shoot a Supercross race and got very useable results with the lens.

The small size of the lens does mean that it’s slightly more tricky to keep it still, compared to using lengthy and weightier alternatives, and this shows up a little in panning, too. But panning is aided somewhat by the new Action mode in Nikon’s Vibration Reduction technology. Action has always been the problem area for any VR and the new PF lens works better than most, although it’s not infallible. The standard VR mode claims to offer up to 4.5 stops of improvement, and we did manage to hand-hold shots at a ludicrously slow shutter speed of down to 1/60th sec. But again that was a bit hit-and-miss, but it’s still very useful in a pinch.

The 300 also uses an electronically-controlled aperture, hence its designation as f/4E. Nikon says this is a more consistent way of controlling aperture and our tests proved every exposure to be identical – unlike on certain other Nikkor lenses, even pro-designated ones.

The lens comes with a good pouch but no tripod mount, unlike its predecessor. This costs a relatively steep £149, but in reality a light lens like this with great VR is a joy to handhold. And so a tripod mount is not an essential accessory.

Even without the mount, £1639 is a fair chunk of change for a lens. But it’s a lens you can actually carry around a lot of the time, and can give creative results you just can’t get by cropping in on shorter lenses.

The teleconverter option

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Nikon has a full range of teleconverters, from 1.4 and 1.7 to 2.0, which alter the focal length of the lens but also effectively reduce the maximum aperture. While the 1.7 and 2.0 have been unchanged for many years, Nikon’s latest technology is in the TC-14E MkIII. It has revised optics and improved weather sealing and is perfectly matched to the new 300mm f/4 lens as well as other fast Nikon lenses.

It turns the 300mm f/4 lens into the equivalent of a 420mm f/5.6 lens while only adding 25mm to the physical length. AF speed remains very fast, but there is a very, very slight degradation of image quality and contrast when viewed at 100%. But this is a very small price to pay for such a compact and useful accessory – despite its pretty steep £449 asking price.

Of course, many pros use Nikon’s 70-200mm f/2.8 lens so the converter on this lens turns it into a 98-280mm f/4 lens. So instead of buying the new 300mm lens, this converter takes the 70-200mm close to it. In comparison, the converter-equipped 280mm f/4 is not quite as sharp or contrasty as the 300mm f/4 lens, as you would expect. But it’s not far behind so could be a more affordable option to get extra reach if you already have the 70-200mm lens.

VERDICT

Nikon’s new 300mm f/4 PF lens is the smallest and lightest lens of its type from any manufacturer and gives very sharp results, especially when closed down a stop from its maximum aperture. However, many pros use their lenses wide open so this may be a small issue. The only alternative is four times as big and more than £2500 more, though.

The PF lens is fast to focus and has no discernable chromatic aberrations, although bokeh can be a bit more jagged compared to a not Phase Fresnel lens.

What a lens like this can do is help capture more creative images that only a long focal length can give, from a lens that’s small enough and light enough to carry around. If you’ve always fancied a 300mm lens but been put off by the size and weight, not you have a very real option. At £1639 it’s not cheap, but gives great results and it simply has no rivals.

Specs

Nikon AF-S 300mm f/4E PR ED VR

Focal length 300mm

Fitting Nikon F (FX)

Image Stabilisation 4.5 stops, Normal and Sport mode

Aperture range F/4 to f/32

No of diaphragm blades 9, electro-magnetically controlled

Lens construction 16 elements in 10 groups

Types of elements 1ED element, 1 phase Fresnel element

Coatings Fluorine and Nano crystal

Minimum focus 1.4m

Focusing type Internal, silent wave motor

Weight 755g

Diameter x length 89 x 147.5mm

Filter thread 77mm

Tripod collar Optional RT-1 (£149)

Price £1639


Nikon AF-S Teleconverter TC-14E III

Reproduction ratio 1.4x

Lens construction 7 elements in 4 groups

Weight 190g

Diameter x length 64 x 24.5mm

Price £449

Contact www.nikon.co.uk

  • First published in Photo Professional magazine