The Nikon 70-300mm VR lens is targeted towards sports, nature and wildlife photographers that need a lightweight, versatile telephoto lens with great optics and vibration reduction technology, at an affordable price. The lens works on both Nikon FX (full-frame) and DX (cropped) sensors and has an equivalent field of view of approximately 105-450mm on DX sensors, which makes the lens particularly good for reaching distant subjects. The Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G ID-ED VR lens features two “ED” (extra low dispersion) glass elements that are used in all Nikon professional lenses, providing higher contrast, lower chromatic aberration and higher resolution, due to less air bubbles and glass deformities within the glass elements. In addition, the lens sports the latest vibration reduction “VR II” technology, giving up to 4 full stops of advantage over non-VR lenses at low shutter speeds. Vibration Reduction, especially the latest VR II generation, makes this lens particularly useful for hand-held shooting while hiking and traveling. Autofocus is practically silent, thanks to the Silent Wave Motor (AF-S) within the lens.
In this review, I will do my best to provide a thorough analysis of this lens, along with some image samples and comparisons against other Nikon professional telephoto lenses.
1) Technical specifications
From NikonUSA website:
- Mount Type: Nikon F-Bayonet
- Focal Length Range: 70-300mm
- Zoom Ratio: 4.3x
- Maximum Aperture: 4.5
- Minimum Aperture: 32
- Maximum Angle of View (DX-format): 22° 50′
- Minimum Angle of View (DX-format): 5° 20′
- Maximum Angle of View (FX-format): 34° 20′
- Minimum Angle of View (FX-format): 8° 10′
- Maximum Reproduction Ratio: 0.25x
- Lens (Elements): 17
- Lens (Groups): 12
- Compatible Format(s): FX, DX, FX in DX Crop Mode, 35mm Film
- VR (Vibration Reduction) Image Stabilization: Yes
- Diaphragm Blades: 9
- Distance Information: Yes
- ED Glass (Elements): 2
- Super Integrated Coating: Yes
- Autofocus: Yes
- AF-S (Silent Wave Motor): Yes
- Internal Focusing: Yes
- Minimum Focus Distance: 4.9ft.(1.5m)
- Focus Mode: Auto, Manual, Manual/Auto
- Filter Size: 67mm
- Accepts Filter Type: Screw-on
- Dimensions: (Approx.) 3.1×5.6 in. (Diameter x Length), 80×143.5mm (Diameter x Length)
- Weight: (Approx.)26.3 oz. (745g)
2) Lens handling and features
The Nikon 70-300mm VR is a mostly plastic lens with a metal mount, which is easy to carry and handle due to its low weight. Although the lens has a total of 17 optical elements, it is only 26 ounces in weight. Compared to Nikon 80-400mm VR (47 ounces) and Nikon 70-200mm VR II (3.4 pounds), this is one of the lightest Nikon telephoto zoom lenses. The zoom ring is very large, making it easy to zoom in and out with your left hand, while holding the camera with your right hand. Despite the fact that you can manually focus the lens by overriding autofocus, Nikon clearly did not make manual focus a priority on this lens. The focus ring is tiny compared to the zoom ring and it is located closer to the back of the lens, which makes it a little difficult to focus by hand. But it is a smart move by Nikon – after-all, this lens is created for automatic focusing and the focus ring does not get nearly as much use as the zoom ring.
I really like the versatility of this lens – being able to shoot at 70mm all the way to 300mm is very nice, especially for wildlife photography. Unlike the new Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR II, this lens is not plagued with a field of view issue and 300mm on the long side is truly like 300mm, not shorter. Another important thing to note, is that the lens does extend pretty far when zoomed all the way in at 300mm. This is quite normal for this type of a lens and most other consumer zoom lenses also extend out when zoomed in. Zooming in/out was a little stiff at first, but got much better as I used it more and more. I think it has to do with the fact that the lens comes more “tightened” from the factory and constant use of the zoom makes it softer over time. Even after using the lens for a while, I did not notice any problems with zoom creeping when I pointed the lens up and down, so there is no need to hold the zoom ring like we had to on the original Nikon 18-200mm VR lens.
The lens hood is rather large, but I recommend to leave it on at all times, since it helps to protect the front element of the lens, in addition to eliminating flare and ghosting (see below).
By the way, because it is a variable aperture lens, the focal length on it changes as you zoom in:
- 70mm – f/4.5
- 105mm – f/4.8
- 135mm – f/5.0
- 200 to 300mm – f/5.6
3) Focus acquisition speed and accuracy
In general, the Nikon 70-300mm VR lens focuses very quickly and accurately in daylight, I would say almost as quickly as the Nikon 70-200mm VR. However, it does get challenging to acquire focus in low-light environments, especially at the longer end, when aperture reaches maximum f/5.6. When I took the lens for a ride the first time, the weather conditions were bad (cold, windy and cloudy) and I felt that the lens was not able to focus very accurately most of the time. Take a look at this shot:
And here is the 100% crop:
It took me many tries to get this shot. Although the weather conditions were truly horrible and I was shooting against a very bright sky, I would have definitely gotten a much better AF accuracy and sharpness with the Nikon 300mm f/4.0 AF-S lens that doesn’t even have VR. But it is unfair to make such a statement, since the 300mm f/4.0 is three times more expensive and is a pro-level lens.
In daylight conditions with plenty of light, however, the lens focused very accurately and the results were simply outstanding, as can be seen from the below shot:
Click here to see the full JPEG version of the above shot (80% Quality @ 1,3 MB).
Here is the 100% crop:
One annoyance that I noticed on this lens, was that it would constantly focus back and forth a tiny bit after acquiring focus, making a ticking sound as if AF was still looking for a better focus. This only happened when the camera was set to “continuous” (AF-C) mode in challenging lighting conditions and insufficient contrast (for example, when I was shooting a bird on a tree with yellow grass in the background), but still worth noting.
4) Lens sharpness and contrast
When it comes to lens sharpness, the lens is outstanding between 70 to 200mm and starts losing just a touch of sharpness towards 300mm. But even at 300mm the lens performed very well, as can be seen from the above shot of the plane. In daylight conditions, the lens performance is top notch – I would say very close to “pro” level. Take a look at this shot of a building:
Click here to see the full JPEG version of the above shot (80% Quality @ 2,6 MB).
The image is a little noisy (I shot at ISO 800 to increase shutter speed, since it was a little windy and I didn’t want to blur the grass), but sharpness and contrast is remarkable, both in the center and in the corners. It gets a little softer on the corners on a full frame body, but barely noticeable.
Keep on reading if you want to see a more in-depth review of the lens sharpness, where I shoot test charts at various aperture settings and compare it with other Nikon telephoto lenses.
5) Vibration Reduction – VR II
The new vibration reduction system in this lens is superb and works great! This lens is designed to be hand-held and you should only put it on a tripod if the shutter speed drops below 1/50th of a second (or even lower, depending on focal length and your hand-holding technique).
There are two VR modes on the lens – “Normal” and “Active”. If you shoot hand-held, you should always use the “Normal” mode, while the “Active” mode is for cases when both you and the environment around you moves (for example if you are shooting from a moving car).
When shooting from a tripod, do not forget to turn VR off completely.
I was surprised by the quality of bokeh this lens is capable of producing. The background blur is soft and creamy, almost on par with what my Nikon 300mm f/4.0 produces.
Which makes this lens great for portrait photography as well:
Anyway, I still had to do a bokeh test of this lens against the Nikon 300mm f/4.0 AF-S and Nikon 200-400mm f/4.0 VR. Take a look at these image samples:
While the bokeh on 70-300mm is not as good as the bokeh on the two pro lenses, it is still pretty darn good overall. There is a slight problem with keeping the bokeh circular on the 70-300mm compared to both the Nikon 300mm f/4.0 and Nikon 200-400m f/4.0, but I was still pleasantly surprised to see this kind of a result from a $500 dollar lens!
I did not notice any vignetting between 70-200mm on a DX body. There is a slight amount of vignetting towards 300mm, but it is almost gone at f/8.0 and beyond. When I mounted the lens on an FX body though, the situation was a little different – there was some visible vignetting at all focal lengths, but particularly between 105 and 135mm. Wide open at 70mm, there is very minimal light falloff. Then at 105mm there is a little visible vignetting, which gets a little more noticeable at 135mm @ f/5.6. It then returns to normal towards 300mm, as seen below:
Move your mouse over each image to see the focal length and aperture settings.
8) Ghosting and Flare
Considering the number of optical elements in this lens, there should be some heavy flare and ghosting. However, I was surprised to see that the lens is almost flare-resistant when shooting against bright objects. While you can certainly use it without the hood, I would still recommend to leave it on for protection.
9) Chromatic Aberration
The Nikon 70-300mm VR lens has a very controlled amount of chromatic aberration, due to the excellent ED glass elements used in this lens. You might see a little bit of CA when shooting wide open and a little more on FX bodies, however, it is not too bad and I would even say very acceptable for a consumer lens. If it becomes an issue, just stop the lens down one or two stops and CA will be gone.
Distortion is not much visible on a DX body, but definitely a little noticeable on FX. There is a small amount of barrel distortion at 70mm and a fair amount of pincushion distortion between 135 and 200mm. It gets back a little under control at around 300mm, but still a little noticeable on FX. If distortion is an issue for you, you can easily fix it via Filter->Distort->Lens Correction filter in Adobe Photoshop.
Some technical junk:
- White Balance: Auto, changed to “Custom”: 3700 Temp, +10 Tint in Lightroom
- ISO: 200
- EXIF information is preserved in the images
- Lens was mounted on Nikon D700 FX Camera and Gitzo tripod
- Focusing was performed through Live-View Contrast Detect. After each successful focus acquisition, focus was switched to manual to prevent camera refocusing
- Mirror Lock-Up mode with Exposure Delay set to “On” and remote cable release to completely eliminate camera shake
- Long exposure NR: Off
- Image Format: RAW
- Lightroom settings: Default settings, but exposure had to be slightly adjusted (-.20 to +.033) to make sure that all images have the same brightness
- Lightroom export: sRGB JPEG Quality 80
- Testing was performed at f/4.5, f/5.6 and f/8.0 apertures. I personally wouldn’t use this lens above f/8.0 and did not see the point of doing tests at very high apertures
- Nothing was moved during testing
11) Sharpness Test – Nikon 70-300mm @ 70mm Center Frame
The lens performs very well on all apertures @ 70mm in the center of the frame. I tried to compare the images and could not spot any difference.
12) Sharpness Test – Nikon 70-300mm @ 70mm Corner Frame
Corners also look good, although there is very slight softness wide open at f/4.5. At f/8.0 and beyond, the image looks reasonably sharp.
13) Sharpness Test – Nikon 70-300mm @ 100mm Center Frame
Again, the center of the frame is sharp all the way from f/4.5 to f/8.0.
14) Sharpness Test – Nikon 70-300mm @ 100mm Corner Frame
The same story as with 70mm – the image is a little softer at f/4.5, but sharp at f/8.0 and beyond.
15) Sharpness Test – Nikon 70-300mm @ 200mm Center Frame
Center frame @ 200mm is equally sharp between f/5.6 and f/8.0.
16) Sharpness Test – Nikon 70-300mm @ 200mm Corner Frame
Corners look a little soft at both apertures, but slightly better at f/8.0.
17) Sharpness Test – Nikon 70-300mm @ 300mm Center Frame
Center frame looks good at both apertures.
18) Sharpness Test – Nikon 70-300mm @ 300mm Corner Frame
Compared to the center, corners look soft at both apertures, but a little worse at f/5.6.
Compared to Nikon 300mm f/4.0 AF-S
19) Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 VR vs Nikon 300mm f/4.0 AF-S
I have been spoiled by the superb performance of the Nikon 300mm f/4.0 AF-S for more than three years now and I really wanted to see how the Nikon 70-300mm compares with it at 300mm. It is a little unfair to compare these lenses, since the 300mm f/4.0 costs three times more, but I still wanted to see how much of a difference there would be in sharpness. The below test was shot with the Nikon D300 @ 300mm:
As expected, the Nikon 300mm f/4.0 is much sharper than the Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6, even wide open at f/4.0.
The sad part is when you look at the corners – that’s where the Nikon 70-300mm VR clearly shows its weakness and the Nikon 300mm f/4.0 AF-S shines. Again, it is quite expected to see these kinds of results, as the two lenses are of different classes.
The Nikon 300mm f/4.0 AF-S takes the lead not only when it comes to sharpness, but also when it comes to focus speed, especially in low-light and tough back-light situations.
Compared to Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR II and Summary
20) Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 VR vs Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR II
Here is another unfair comparison between the consumer Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 VR and the top-of-the-line professional Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR II lens. Because of the field of view issue on the Nikon 70-200mm VR II, I had to use approximately 135mm focal length on the Nikon 70-300mm VR for comparison (70-200mm VR was at 200mm on the lens). Here we go:
Comparing these lenses wide open – Nikon 70-200mm at f/2.8 and Nikon 70-300mm at f/5.6, both lenses perform similarly with a slight advantage over the 70-300mm, despite the fact that there is a two stop difference between them. It is totally unfair to compare these lenses at f/5.6, because the 70-200mm will have a serious advantage over the 70-300mm, just like the Nikon 300mm f/4.0.
When it comes to corner performance, both lenses are quite similar wide open, except the distortion is heavily noticeable on the Nikon 70-300mm. Again, if I compared corner sharpness at f/5.6 for both lenses, the Nikon 70-200mm would have had a huge lead over the Nikon 70-300mm.
Despite being a consumer zoom level, the Nikon 70-300mm proved to be an excellent lens when it comes to performance, value and weight. Although it does have a few drawbacks such as focus speed and focus accuracy in low-light, inferior overall performance on full-frame bodies, visible distortion and reduced performance as you get closer to 300mm, it is still a great lens that can be used for sports, nature, portrait and wildlife photographers that have a tight budget or want to be able to travel light. Sharpness and contrast-wise, it definitely beats any other consumer telephoto lens in the 200-300mm range category.
Where I find the most value in this lens, is its portability. Hiking with heavy lenses is difficult and not always practical. The Nikon 70-300mm VR lens is very lightweight and can be easily carried around, hung on the neck or on the shoulder (it also nicely fits in most bags and backpacks). Price, without a doubt, is another key factor – it only costs around $500-550, which is cheaper and yet much better than such lenses as Nikon 18-200mm VR on the telephoto side. It also works great for portraiture, because it can isolate subjects very well and render pleasant-looking, creamy bokeh.
What about bird photography? I find that this lens performs reasonably well for birding during daylight and it can definitely produce great results of perched birds. For occasional birding, the Nikon 70-300mm is a good fit. Once you get a hang of how it performs in various conditions, I’m sure you can put it to good use for birding. For fast-action bird photography, however, I still favor my favorite Nikon 300mm f/4.0 AF-S over this lens. Autofocus speed and accuracy are the two most important factors for birds in flight and the low-light performance of the Nikon 70-300mm VR is just not good enough, despite the fact that it features vibration reduction technology. Another problem with this lens, is that its performance is decreased at 300mm, which is problematic for birding (you always need more reach and sharpness). Corner performance at 300mm also suffers tremendously, as it is demonstrated in comparison with the Nikon 300mm f/4.0. This is not such a big deal for most birding needs, but definitely a problem if you want to compose the shot with a bird in the corner.
22) Where to buy
All Images Copyright © Nasim Mansurov, All Rights Reserved. Copying or reproduction is not permitted without written permission from the author.