5) Lens Sharpness and Contrast
When it comes to sharpness and contrast, the Nikon 300mm is often regarded as one of the sharpest Nikon lenses ever produced and is considered to be a sharpness “reference” lens. It took Nikon 40 years to make it what it is today – a highly regarded work of art and engineering that delivers outstanding images to sports, action and wildlife photographers that need maximum sharpness for print. As shown further down below, both center and corner frames are razor sharp at all apertures, which is simply incredible. Contrast is top of the class and colors are stunningly beautiful, definitely Nikon’s best, thanks to the clever optical design of the lens.
6) Bokeh and Vignetting / Light Falloff
One of the strengths of long telephoto lenses is the beautiful, creamy bokeh they are able to produce, due to the shallow depth of field, at even longer distances. The Nikon 300mm f/2.8G VR II is a bokeh champion – it produces exceptionally good-looking background blur, especially wide open at maximum aperture of f/2.8. I primarily used the Nikon 300mm f/2.8G VR II for birding and wildlife photography and I was stunned by the results. The bokeh looks creamy and beautiful and the lens does a superb job at isolating subjects at large apertures. Here is an example of subject isolation and bokeh for a portrait that was shot at f/2.8:
The amount of vignetting is very moderate at maximum aperture and is barely noticeable, especially when compared to Nikon 200-400mm @ 300mm f/4.0. The corners look much brighter by f/4.0 and vignetting is almost completely gone by f/5.6. Don’t get too concerned about vignetting though, since it can be very easily fixed in Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom. In Lightroom 3.0, there is an option to “Enable Profile Corrections” under “Lens Corrections”, which can be used to get rid of vignetting issues. Although there is no camera profile for the Nikon 300mm f/2.8 yet, you can type a custom value or move the slider to fix vignetting problems. I used +20 under “Amount” in “Lens Vignetting” and that removed all traces of vignetting on images shot at f/2.8.
7) Ghosting and Flare
Notice how big the hood on this lens is? Well, it is there for a reason – most long-range telephoto lenses do not perform well against the sun, when compared to wide angle lenses. So, if you shoot against the sun, you might get some large, nasty flares and plenty of ghosting, which is quite normal. The integrated “Nano Crystal Coat” certainly helps to reduce ghosting and flare, but does not eliminate it. Here is an image with the sun in the center frame:
And here is another one with the sun on top right side of the frame:
As you can see, the images contain lens flares and ghosts in both images, but the one with the sun in the center does not look bad at all.
Forget about distortion on this lens – it is almost non-existent. If you put up straight lines on the wall and shoot some samples wide open, you might see a very minimal amount of pincushion distortion when shooting at close distances, but as soon as the focus point gets towards infinity or the lens is stopped down a little, distortion is completely eliminated. As I have pointed out in many of my other reviews and articles, distortion is generally not a problem, because it can be easily fixed in Photoshop or Lightroom 3 using Lens Correction.
9) Vibration Reduction
One of the biggest advantages of the Nikon 300mm f/2.8G VR II lens is its Vibration Reduction II system. When you shoot with long telephoto lenses, even the slightest camera shake can result in blurry images. Considering the size, weight and focal length of this lens, it is impossible for a human to hand-hold the Nikon 300mm f/2.8G VR II without normal vibrations. Even following the focal length rule, which states that the shutter speed of the camera should at a minimum be at the focal length of the lens (for example, at 300mm focal length, the shutter speed needs to be at least 1/300th of a second), does not always guarantee consistently sharp photos, again, due to vibrations caused by our hands. That’s where the VR system comes into play – it works its way against the motion, allowing to get sharp photos at slow shutter speeds. With the Vibration Reduction II system, Nikon claims a 4 stop improvement, which means that you should be able to obtain sharp images while shooting at around 1/30th of a second, hand-held at 300mm. It is certainly tough to get sharp images at 1/30th of a second, but doable if you use a proper hand-holding technique. I would say 1/60th of a second (around 3 stops) is a pretty reliable shutter speed with VR turned on and anything slower than that might introduce blurry images due to camera shake.
10) Performance with the Nikon TC-14E II teleconverter
As I have pointed out above, the Nikon 300mm f/2.8G VR II works great with all Nikon teleconverters. The Nikon TC-14E II teleconverter increases the focal length of the lens to 420mm total (300 x 1.4) and slows down the lens to f/4.0. Aside from the decreased maximum aperture, you will barely notice that the TC-14E II is attached to your camera – it has a very small effect on image quality, sharpness or color. The results with the TC-14E II are fantastic and I would not hesitate to shoot the lens wide open at f/4.0, although stopping down to f/5.6 certainly improves the sharpness. A detailed sharpness comparison with the TC-14E II can be found below.
11) Performance with the Nikon TC-17E II Teleconverter
The day I received the lens, I already knew that it would perform exceptionally well with the TC-14E II. So I attached my Nikon TC-17E II 1.7x teleconverter to the lens and went out shooting, while waiting for the TC-20E III to arrive. I was quite surprised to see how well the Nikon 300mm f/2.8G VR II performed with the TC-17E II in terms of sharpness and contrast. Compared to the Nikon 200-400mm f/4.0 VR (which does not work well with anything longer than the TC-14E II) the results were outstanding.
12) Performance with the Nikon TC-20E III Teleconverter
It is no coincidence that Nikon released the new Nikon TC-20E III together with the Nikon 300mm f/2.8G VR II. The Nikon TC-20E III was specifically engineered to work well with the Nikon 300mm f/2.8G lens – one of the few Nikon lenses that historically performed well with the 2x teleconverter. I have heard a lot of good things about the TC-20E III and after one of our readers sent some sample images from the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II + TC-20E III combo, I knew that I had to get the TC-20E III. The images looked unrealistically good, because the older version of the Nikon 70-200mm performed quite poorly with teleconverters, even with the TC-17E II.
It was darn hard to obtain the Nikon TC-20E III because of such a high demand on it and after waiting for a few weeks, I decided to just rent it for a week. My objective was to try the Nikon TC-20E III specifically with the Nikon 300mm f/2.8G VR II and with the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II to see how it truly performs in an outdoor environment when photographing nature. It is one thing to shoot test charts with a lens sitting on a tripod, and another to get out and do some real shooting. Some lenses look great on paper and on test charts, but cannot perform equally well when used in an outdoor environment, especially with fast-moving subjects like birds. The primary reason is autofocus, which primarily depends on the speed of the AF motor inside the lens and camera’s AF system. Teleconverters generally negatively impact autofocus performance, due to a considerable loss of light and contrast and the 2x TC is the worst in this regard.
But what about the TC-20E III? Take a look at the following 100% crop:
The image was shot at maximum aperture of f/5.6, which is very impressive! Move the mouse over to see how it looks with some sharpening applied to the image using my “how to sharpen images in Lightroom” tutorial. To be honest, I did not expect the TC-20E III to work this well wit the Nikon 300mm f/2.8G VR II. After having some bad experience with the TC-17E II and TC-20E II TCs in the past, I subconsciously started stopping down the lens to f/8.0-f/10 in the beginning, thinking that I would not be able to obtain sharp images otherwise. Well, as you can see from the above example, shooting wide open is perfectly acceptable with the TC-20E III, although stopping down to f/8.0 does produce even sharper images.
Let’s now move on to the good stuff – Sharpness tests and Comparisons.
Some Technical Info:
- White Balance: Auto
- ISO: 200
- EXIF information is preserved in the images
- Lens was mounted on Nikon D3s FX Camera and Gitzo tripod
- Subject distance is about 8 meters (approx. 26 feet)
- Focusing was performed through Live-View Contrast Detect.
- 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 for some images
- Lightroom export: sRGB JPEG Quality 80
- Testing was performed at f/2.8, f/4.0, f/5.6 and f/8.0 apertures
- Nothing was moved during testing
13) Sharpness Test – Nikon 300mm Center Frame
Either hover your mouse or click on each image to see the aperture settings. Top left: f/2.8, Top right: f/4.0, Bottom left: f/5.6, Bottom right: f/8.0.
Do you see a difference between any of the above images? Because I don’t – the center sharpness of the Nikon 300mm f/2.8G VR II is looking very good at all apertures.
14) Sharpness Test – Nikon 300mm Corner Frame
How about the extreme corners? Let’s take a look:
Again, the corners look as good as the center frame, which is simply incredible! No wonder why images from this lens look so crisp and sharp.
On the next page, let’s take a look at how this lens compares to other popular telephoto options: