Introduction The Nikon 300 F4.0 D AF-S has been Nikon’s main stay pro 300 mm prime, that is affordable and has allowed many enthusiastic photographers to take on bird and wild life photography on a budget, including myself. I have had this lens for over 9 years now and it still continues to be one of my most important lenses for birds and mammals that is hand hold-able. I am not a pixel peeper and here I will give you my actual user experience of this lens in a variety of shooting conditions.
Ergonomics This is a pro lens and make no mistake, feels like one. It is an all metal lens with a wide rubber focusing ring, 2 buttons for the focus limiter and M/A, M switches and a distance scale. It also has the gold ring indicating that it is a professional Nikkor lens. The M/A switch allows over-riding the AF with manual focus capability to fine tune focus. The focus ring is smooth without any play or changes in effort in the entire focus range. The hood is an inbuilt affair and you need to only pull it out and give it a slight twist to lock it in its place. Unfortunately, Nikon does not make hoods like this anymore and IMHO this is an excellent design that eliminates the need to carry external hoods and is very effective in keeping out stray reflections and flares. Only problem that I have faced is that it can sometimes get jammed at an odd angle if you are not really careful in tightening it and then unlocking it needs some effort. At approximately 1.5 kgs this is a relatively light lens to hand hold for some one who is used to carry heavy F2.8 and F4.0 prime lenses or telephoto zoom lenses. I say relatively, as most people who are used to slow variable aperture consumer zooms like the 70-300, 55-300 find this lens very heavy. My AF fine tune values on my D800E and D7000 are -2 and -3 respectively. It comes with a built in tripod collar which unfortunately is a very poor design and I will elaborate more on this in the optical section of this user review.
Features The 300 F4 D AF-S is a full frame FX lens and when mounted on a DX camera like a D7000 gives an effective reach of 300X1.5 = 450 mm. The ‘D’ nomenclature means that it has an external aperture ring which makes it possible to use this lens even on very old Nikon F mount cameras that need apertures to be set from the lens instead of the body. It also means that the lens transmits distance information to the camera when using Nikon flashlights. The AF-S motor is silent, though this is certainly not one of the faster AF-S lenses that I have used. In fact I can safely say that it is one of the slowest focusing AF-S telephoto primes that I have used. But the focusing is sure- i.e., there is focus chatter and in good light more than adequate for fast moving subjects. One important feature is that due to its relatively large maximum aperture of F4.0, this lens can take Tele Converters (TCs) pretty well. So this lens is preferred by most Nikon shooters as a cheap way to shoot at longer focal lengths. But by adding TCs Auto focus slows down even more. It is still fine in good light but in fading light it positively struggles. By adding a 1.4 TC and using a DX body, one can get a relatively light and a fast 630 mm F5.6 lens that makes a good birding/wild life lens. The aperture diaphragm is a rounded 9 blade affair. But these diaphragm blades are exposed, as there is no rear element to protect them. This can cause a lot of dust to enter the lens so changing lenses in the field should be avoided as far as possible. This is also the reason that this lens along with my 180 F2.8, which also lacks a rear protective element, are most affected by dust and easily prone to fungus in humid Mumbai weather. I have seen many people having fungus problems with this lens in Mumbai. You must positively store this is a dry cabinet during the entire monsoon season especially in hot humid weather areas. The 300 F4.0 has a 77mm filter thread which is a good thing as most of my screw-in filters for my Nikon system are 77mm.
Optical Performance I think this is the most important section that most readers will be interested in. So how is the optical performance of this lens? In a single word, SUPERB. This lens is easily one of the sharpest lenses Nikon makes and it easily gives its big brother, the 300 F2.8 a run for its money. The bare lens is tack sharp even wide open at F4.0 and I really do not see a difference even stopped down. When using it bare I hardly ever stop it down and I never worry about sharpness wide open. Here is a sample of the bare lens used wide open at a medium distance.
Since it is so good optically when used bare, it provides excellent sharpness even when used with a 1.4 TC. With a 1.4 TC, it is very much usable for large prints even wide open. But unlike stopping down the bare lens where I do not see a difference in sharpness, stopping down one stop with a 1.4 TC does improve sharpness. By adding a 1.4 TC, the maximum aperture reduces to F5.6. Here is an example of the lens used with a 1.4 TC wide open i.e. at F5.6
The cropping ability of this lens (yes, I know its more a function of the camera and how many MPs it has to allow you to crop) is very good. Images zoomed even at 100% retain a lot of details and I have had 100% cropped images which have printed large very well. Here is an image cropped to 100% as this fish eagle was just too far away.
The 9 blade rounded aperture diaphragm also renders very pleasing out of focus areas and this lens sure has one of the nicest bokehs in Nikon land. But then all of the Nikon super telephoto lenses have excellent bokeh. Another super feature of this lens is its extremely close minimum focus distance. In this regard its much better than than its bigger brother, the 300 F2.8. The 300 F4.0 can easily be used as a micro/macro for most difficult and close to get subjects like butterflies, insects and even flowers. By adding another close up filter like the Canon 500D the macro capabilities can be further enhanced.
Here is an example of close focus and the kind of bokeh one can get with this lens. I really prefer this lens for shooting butterflies and other frisky creatures as the 300 mm focal length really gives me enough room and space to get that shot without intruding too much and scaring away the subjects.
For long distance shooting even with a TC, this lens is fabulous. There is no drop in sharpness even when shooting at long distances and I have used this lens to take a number of long distance animal scapes with good success. Being a light hand hold able lens, this is my preferred lens for shooting birds in flight. The AF even with a TC in good light is fast enough to capture fast moving birds. The 3D tracking on most of the newer Nikon bodies is exceptional and most frames are in focus when used with this. But I am able to use this lens with old bodies like a D50 to track and shoot BIF without much of a problem. Here is an example of this using my old D50 body.
CA control is exceptional with this lens and that ED element really works well to eliminate all forms of CAs and importantly purple fringing, when shooting darker objects against brighter backgrounds. Vignetting is something I have never really bothered about as most of the times my subjects are near about the center of the frame when shooting with this lens. Even for landscapes I have never really been bothered by vignetting even at F4.0
Problem areas So is everything perfect about this lens? No it’s not. Like I said, optically it’s a brilliant lens. But due to lack of optical stabilization of any kind, it’s a very difficult lens to use in the field without any kind of support like a tripod or a monopod, especially due it’s not so large F4.0 aperture. If you are shooting wildlife hand held in the jungles early morning or late evening or in heavy canopied areas, it is very difficult to consistently get sharp images with this lens without any support. This is due to the fact that it is very difficult to shoot at a minimum shutter speed of 1/300 for FX or 1/450 for DX to adhere with the 1/focal length rule to avoid camera shake. I say consistently, as one in many shots could be sharp even at shutter speeds less than 1/300. But even these minimum shutter speeds are inadequate for a high MP body like the D800E and so I have stopped using this lens hand held on my D800E. A monopod is now my preferred support with this body. Yes you can crank up the ISO and get your desired shutter speeds but then that is not the ideal situation in most cases for me. The other problem with this lens is the extremely poorly designed tripod collar. I just don’t understand how Nikon is able to consistently design brilliant lenses with absolutely horrid tripod collars. For example, the new Nikon 80-400 AF-S tripod collar is a joke. But thanks to Nikon, there are many third party vendors like Kirk and RRS who have built up a sizable business of designing and selling proper lens tripod collars and replacement feet for Nikon lenses. The problem with the Nikon collar is that it’s impossible to get sharp images even when mounted on a tripod at shutter speeds less than 1/120. So this was the first thing I got for this lens and trust me it makes a significant difference if you regularly shoot below 1/120 shutter speeds. Here is an image I shot with the lens mounted on tripod in very low evening light at 1/50 and ISO 1600 on my D7000. Trust me this shot wouldn’t have been possible with the stock tripod collar.
The Kirk replacement tripod collar has a built in Arca Swiss plate that is a direct fit on any Arca Swiss compatible clamp and I have used it successfully with Jobu, Feisol, Kirk, Sirui and Markins clamps.
Conclusion This lens is a very good option for shooters like me who are always on a budget. If you can work around its lack of VR (image stabilization in Nikon land) and can keep your shutter speeds high enough, this lens can reward you with outstanding images. For about Rupees 70000 you can still get a brand new one with 2 years Nikon India warranty. Used prices are around Rupees 50000 on JJMehta and other such sites. I see a lot of people offloading their lenses for more expensive lenses but I really don’t see the point, as nothing in this range or even 2 times more money is optically better. So unless you absolutely need VR or a smaller lens like the new 300 F4.0 E, I don’t see any reason to upgrade. IMHO if you really want to get the best out of this lens, get that after market tripod collar as the Nikon one is just not good enough to fully utilize this lens. Still even with this extra cost, it is way cheaper than the new Nikon 300 F4.0E PF ED VR and even more than the Nikon 80-400 4.5-5.6 G VR. Like I said, optically it is as good if not better than both of these expensive options. To sum it up this lens is highly recommended for Nikon shooters who don’t want or cant afford the super exotic telephoto primes but desire their IQ.