If you are a birder, you have only two choices for Nikon – either the 300mm f/4.0 AF-S or an expensive/heavy professional lens such as the 600mm f/4.0 VR. All other semi-professional lenses by Nikon are not good enough/long enough for birding. The 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6D VR is too slow to focus and a lot of people are frustrated with it because smaller birds are constantly on the move and won’t just sit there for you to take your time. I have been using this lens for almost two years now and have been very pleased with the results. I take it with me everywhere I go and have used it more than any other lens so far (my second most used lens is the Nikkor 50mm f/1.4). It is relatively light and I primarily use it handheld for shooting birds and other wildlife of Colorado.
I also tried some macro with this lens and was quite happy with the results. The lens minimum focal distance is 1.45 meters, so you will need a close-up filter to get closer. Some people use and praise the Canon 500D close-up filter, but I haven’t yet had the need for that kind of macro work. If you want to decrease the minimum focus distance of the 300mm f/4.0, then Canon 500D is currently the only way to go (500D will decrease the minimum focal distance to 0.9 meters, approximately down to 1.1x ratio).
Macro – 300mm f/4 @ f/8.0, 1/500 sec, handheld:
Most lenses are best stopped down to f/5.6-f/8 to give consistently good pictures, while this lens is very sharp wide open at f/4. Couple it with a 1.4x TC and you will have 420mm on a full frame sensor or 630mm on D90/D300 1.5x sensor cameras. The 300mm f/4 + 1.4x TC is great shooting wide open and provides excellent results when stopped down. My only suggestion is to switch the focus limiter from “FULL” to “~3m” on the lens when you have the TC on to prevent “hunting” or long focus acquisition, especially in low-light conditions.
Bokeh on Nikkor 300mm f/4 AF-S is very good, I would say very comparable to bokeh produced by professional f/4 lenses. To get the best bokeh, I would recommend shooting at f/4.0 – f/5.6. Keeping a close distance to the subject and having no objects right behind the subject also helps to achieve good bokeh results.
Besides being a birder’s lens of choice, the Nikkor 300mm f/4 is also a superb portrait lens. I love shooting my family with this lens, because it isolates subjects and produces crisp and colorful pictures. It lets you capture natural behavior of people, because you can capture images from a distance, making your presence less noticeable. Bear in mind that it is not a lens for indoor photography though. If you are looking for a lens to shoot indoors, you will need a much faster lens such as the Nikkor 50mm f/1.4.
There are three small downsides of this lens:
- There is no back element on this lens, so you have to be extremely careful in changing lenses as dust will go inside and you won’t be able to remove it yourself (I’m sure Nikon did this to keep the cost of the lens down). When you look at the back of this lens you can clearly see the diaphragm – the last lens element. Although the diaphragm closes down to minimum aperture (f/22) when the camera is turned off and lens removed, if the dust goes into the lens it will get through the hole onto the last glass element that sits in front of the diaphragm. At that point, the only option is to send the lens to Nikon for cleaning. If you are buying this lens used, make sure that it doesn’t have large dust particles visible from the front element. If you are shooting in dusty/windy areas, my recommendation is to keep the teleconverter always on the lens if you absolutely need to change lenses.
- I wish it had VR (Vibration Reduction) in it. Hopefully Nikon will release a VR version for us birders soon. Most DX lenses have VR in them, so there is no reason why Nikon can’t add VR to this lens at the same or slightly higher cost.
- For heavy tripod use, I recommend replacing the original lens collar with a more stable version from either Kirk or Really Right Stuff. I have the Kirk collar and it does a much better job in keeping the lens stable, compared to the original Nikon version.
Overall, I’m very pleased with this lens. It would be great if Nikon added VR to the future versions of this lens, but we do have to work with what we have today :) Considering that the lens costs 4 times less than the professional 300mm f/2.8 VR and yet yields almost the same contrast and sharpness, it is a good bargain and is definitely worth getting. It is also an excellent choice for those who like to travel light and want to handhold their lenses for long periods of time.
More sample shots with this lens:
Pros: Quick Focus, Durable, Lightweight, Strong Construction, Sharp Focus.
Cons: No back element, No VR, Bad Tripod Collar.
I bought my copy of the Nikon 300mm f/4.0 AF-S online from B&H, but you can also get it from Adorama or other large retailers. If you are in the USA, make sure to get the USA version that comes with the 5 year warranty.
Lens image courtesy of NikonUSA.com.