As a class, 300mm f/4 lenses are the standard for the rational photographer in need of moderate reach. This Nikkor is a superb example of the class, but like the other Nikkor (non-exotic) telephotos it is relatively obsolete today. In short, a lens of this focal length needs to have stabilization.
The current version of the 300mm f/4 Nikkor lens just barely missed the arrival of VR technology in the Nikon lineup, a year and a half later. Its Canon counterpart was launched several years earlier but aged far more gracefully thanks to its incorporation of IS technology. How frustrating for Nikon users.
This review continues the saga of my Great Telephoto Search. Early in the process I decided that 300mm and f/4 were ideal specifications for a telephoto prime, based on past experience. In my use the focal length doesn’t work out as well as I’d hope, at least in this implementation.
This 300mm Nikkor lens is essentially the same size and weight as the newest of the 70-200 VR zooms. The finish and markings match those of modern lenses. The built-in sliding hood may loosen with use, as it did on the sample I rented, but locks solidly into the extended position with a few degrees’ turn. Balance on the D700 is good, beyond a certain size lens balance is not really an issue in my opinion.
Manual focus is decently implemented in this lens. Focus is fluid, damped and fast. The shallow depth of field of the long focal length goes a long way to emphasize the placement of the focal plane. Auto-focus with this lens is speedy and accurate on the D700; it is otherwise unremarkable, good or bad.
In the field this lens demands a higher degree of skill in handling than most modern optics – you must treat this lens with great respect if you want to get anything out of it. Particularly when combined with the TC14E-II, one faces a delicate trade-off between very small apertures (to counter the TC softening) and very high shutter speeds (to counter vibration) for a given amount of light. That didn’t stop me from shooting the lens handheld out of a moving train though (see the Denali sample).
The 300mm Nikkor focuses internally with floating elements. It focuses down to the same distance of 1.5 meters as most other telephoto lenses.
The 300mm Nikkor draws finely and precisely, but requires either very high shutter speeds or bolting to the floor to do so. That makes it hard at times to observe the fine drawings the lens produces – practically this is what is called a “sunny day lens”.
At the full aperture of f/4 the Nikkor draws very fine detail with good contrast. I found very little to fault with the results even at this “wide” aperture. Smaller apertures do improve contrast to a high level, but are otherwise indistinguishable from one another until diffraction sets in. I doubt that it would be possible to improve on the performance of this lens combined with the D700, a higher-resolution sensor would be needed to pick up any flaws.
With the TC14E-II attached the drawing at full aperture is visibly softer, only fine detail is resolved then and with average contrast. Stopping down once (hence to f/8) raises performance back to the level that the lens delivers on its own at full aperture. Although no longer at its peak for the base optic, the resultant 420mm lens is capable of very crisp images with a touch of sharpening.
Chromatic aberrations, fringing, flaring, etc… aren’t real issues with this lens.
The 300mm f/4 Nikkor is an excellent lens by all measures and sells for a relatively cheap price. The reason for the discount is plainly obvious, the uses for an un-stabilized telelphoto of this focal length and aperture are few and far between. It’s terribly frustrating that missing what is now a commodity feature marginalizes such a great lens.
Would I recommend this lens to other photographers? Yes. If you have abundant photons to burn on speed, it delivers all that it promises.