It has been 15 years since Nikon produced the last iteration of its budget 300mm lens, so the new Nikkor 300mm f/4E PF ED VR was something many enthusiasts and professionals have been patiently waiting for. Although the previous generation Nikkor 300mm f/4D AF-S is an excellent lens optically, it lacks image stabilization, new generation coating and other new technologies that Nikon has been integrating into modern lenses. I have personally been a huge fan of the 300mm f/4D AF-S lens and have owned it for many years, loving the lens for its superb optical performance, fast autofocus, light weight and compact size, making it my ultimate travel lens for wildlife photography – a perfect companion for hand-held shooting. Because it was so good with the 1.4x teleconverter, I practically always kept the teleconverter attached to the lens, making it a very nice 420mm f/5.6 combination. When Nikon finally announced the new 300mm f/4E VR lens, I got very excited, because Nikon completely redesigned the lens. In fact, with close to a 50% reduction in weight and a 30% reduction in physical size, we are not dealing with another redesign or update – this is a completely different lens.
The Nikkor 300mm f/4E PF ED VR is physically just like the Nikkor 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G VR, earning it “world’s lightest 300mm full-frame lens” title. Nikon was able to achieve this by using a Phase Fresnel (PF) lens element, which can effectively reduce the need to use complex lens elements for correcting chromatic aberrations and ghosting. Basically, the use of a Phase Fresnel lens element is what allowed Nikon to significantly reduce both size and weight of the lens. In addition to these benefits, Nikon also utilized a number of newest technologies in the lens, including: new Fluorine Coat technology for repelling dust, water and dirt; electromagnetic diaphragm mechanism for precise and consistent control of aperture when shooting fast action in high-speed bursts; Vibration Reduction image stabilization technology that allows up to 4.5 stops of compensation; Nano Crystal Coat for reducing internal lens element reflections and reduction of ghosting and flare; Silent Wave Motor for smooth and silent autofocus operation and a number of other improvements. With the ability to be coupled with all three Nikon teleconverters, the 300mm f/4E VR is quite a versatile choice capable of extending its reach all the way to 600mm. Overall, considering how much this lens offers for its $2K price tag, it is truly revolutionary. Let’s take a look at the lens in more detail.
1) Lens Specifications
- Focal length: 300mm
- Maximum aperture: f/4
- Minimum aperture: f/32
- Lens construction: 16 elements in 10 groups
- Picture angle: 8°20′ (5°3′ with Nikon DX format)
- Closest focusing distance: 1.4m
- No. of diaphragm blades: 9
- Filter/attachment size: 77mm
- Diameter x length (extension from lens mount): Approximately 89 x 147.5mm
- Weight: 755g
Detailed specifications for the lens, along with MTF charts and other useful data can be found in our lens database.
2) Lens Handling and Build
Although the Nikon 300mm f/4E VR feels a bit plasticky compared to its predecessor (which is just a solid chunk of metal and glass), it really is no different in construction than any of the new Nikkor primes that we have seen in the last few years. The outer shell of the lens is made fully from hard plastic – aside from the metal mount and the filter thread, everything else seems to be made out of plastic, giving it somewhat of a cheaper feel. I would not be concerned about that though, as it is clear that Nikon’s intention was to make the lens as lightweight as possible. Had Nikon used a metal outer shell, the lens would not have offered the same significant weight savings when compared to its predecessor.
The filter thread stayed the same at 77mm, which is great news for those who already own 77mm filters, or want to move up to this lens from the “D” version. The lens mount features a rubber gasket to minimize dust and debris from making it into the camera chamber. The single ring on the lens is made out of plastic and has a rubber layer on top of it for better grip. The ring has the same smooth feel as on other modern AF-S lenses, allowing one to move past infinity or closest focus point with slightly more resistance. There are three switches on the side of the lens. The first switch is used for moving between Auto / Manual (A/M), Manual / Auto (M/A) and Manual (M) focusing operation. The second switch is for setting either full focus range (FULL) or limit focusing to subjects at 3 meters and further. The third switch is for operating Vibration Reduction on the lens – you can toggle between OFF, NORMAL or SPORT. All three samples that I tested indicated that it was made in China (my Nikkor 300mm f/4D AF-S was made in Japan). Although I have no problem with the lens being made in China and understand that it is cheaper for Nikon to produce lenses there, I am not particularly psyched with sample variation at this point – see notes further down in this review.
Handling-wise, the lens is simply amazing. When I first mounted the lens on my Nikon D750, I could not believe how light it was when compared to my 300mm f/4D – it did not feel at all like a 300mm lens, more like a 70-300mm VR zoom in terms of size and weight. The lens was so light and easy to hand-hold, that I never bothered to put it on a tripod. I even let it hang off the mount on my Nikon D750 when hiking, which is something I certainly do not feel comfortable doing with my 300mm f/4D. In this regard, the 300mm f/4E VR is a game changer, as it handles a world better than any other lens in its class. It balances perfectly on any standard-size Nikon DSLR I attached it to, whether it was the Nikon Df, D750 or the D810 – its weight is distributed evenly across the lens and it does not feel front-heavy like some of the telephoto and super telephoto lenses. Because the lens is so light, you don’t have to lay it on your left hand entirely when hand-holding, so you can completely avoid touching the focus ring. In fact, I was mostly balancing the lens with my thumb and index fingers when shooting! The best part is walking around with the lens in your hands. No more need for hanging your camera off your neck and keeping your hands on the lens at all times. I mostly held my camera by its grip with my right hand and let the lens just hang off the mount when hiking, just like I do when using smaller lenses, which was great.
To appreciate size differences between the new 300mm f/4E VR and the 300mm f/4D AF-S, take look at the below side by side comparison:
This is by no means an over-exaggeration – this is how small the new 300mm f/4E VR really is when compared to its predecessor!
While Nikon sells the optional RT-1 tripod collar ring, I would not worry about getting one. If you do need to use the lens on a tripod, just use the camera tripod mount instead, as your camera mount will easily be able to handle the lens even with teleconverters attached. Unlike the 300mm f/4D, the lens does not have a built-in hood. A plastic HB-73 bayonet lens hood is provided, which attaches easily on the lens and locks securely in place. The hood is also made out of plastic and is rather thin, probably designed this way also for weight reduction reasons.
Lastly, there is another advantage of the new lens design – it now has a rear element! The previous generation 300mm f/4D did not have a rear element (you could literally see the diaphragm of the lens from its rear) and you could end up with quite a bit of stuff inside the lens if you were not very careful. The new 300mm f/4E VR is free from this problem and you can now safely use the lens in any condition. Although the rear element is not very close to the mount, it won’t prevent you from being able to clean it when it gets rather dusty. Because the rear element does not move and there are no openings on its back, you can safely use a rocket blower to get rid of dust.
Overall, the lens handles amazingly well, which is something you will certainly appreciate, particularly when hiking with the lens or transporting it.
3) Autofocus Speed and Accuracy
One of the main reasons why I love my 300mm f/4D AF-S is its fast and accurate autofocus motor. With the new 300mm f/4E VR getting the latest generation silent wave motor, I wondered if the lens would be any faster or more accurate than its predecessor. So I put both lenses side by side and did my AF speed measurements. After a number of comparisons, I came to the conclusion that the 300mm f/4E VR has a slightly faster focus motor than the older model. How much faster? Considering that the new lens focuses a little bit closer at 1.4 meters versus 1.45 meters (which translates to overall more focusing distance), the difference is pretty small – most people won’t notice any difference in focus speed between the two. If you have never used the 300mm f/4D, keep in mind that the motor is not as fast as the focus motor found on the 300mm f/2.8G VR or 70-200mm f/2.8G VR lenses – it feels noticeably slower. But that’s a given, as Nikon would not want a small compact lens to compete with its pro-level line.
When using just the lens without teleconverters, going from infinity to close focus and back is about the same on both 300mm f/4D and f/4E lenses, whether shooting at full range or limiting the focus to 3 meters and longer range. A quick tip: make sure to set the focus delimiter switch to “∞-3m” instead of “FULL” when photographing wildlife. This will speed autofocus up considerably. Only switch back to “FULL” when the subject is closer than 3 meters.
When mounting the TC-14E II or TC-14E III, the 300mm f/4E VR focuses a little bit faster. I tried both combinations of TCs and the two 300mm f/4 lenses showed the same result – the 300mm f/4E VR was a bit faster. Performance with the TC-17E II is a bit disappointing in terms of AF speed, but if you have been happy with the TC-17E II on the 300mm f/4D in AF speed, you will not be more disappointed with the 300mm f/4E VR. To go from infinity to close focus and back, it takes about a total of 3.5-4 seconds. You can cut that significantly by moving the focus limiter switch to 3 meters, which is what I would certainly advise to do when photographing distant subjects and when using teleconverters. Performance with the TC-20E III is even slower. When going from infinity to close focus and back, it will take on average about 5 seconds. I tried to time this on both lenses and they were about the same in speed. The 300mm f/4E VR might be a tiny bit faster, but it is close enough to be the same that I would argue there is no difference.
If you are wondering about the sharpness when using teleconverters, that information is provided further down in this review.
What about focus accuracy? That’s where the 300mm f/4E VR clearly wins, without a doubt. I have been using the lens on my D750 and D810 cameras and the hit rate is noticeably better when compared to what I normally get with my 300mm f/4D AF-S. The lens seems to snap into focus better and tends to keep focus grabbed when subject moves, reacting to sudden movements faster and better than its predecessor. My 300mm f/4D AF-S sometimes gets stuck when focusing and refuses to do anything, until I move the focus ring. The 300mm f/4E VR is free from this issue and acquires focus without hesitation every time. The focus motor on my 300mm f/4D AF-S also feels much louder and produces a squeaking sound when focus moves back and forth – the 300mm f/4E is very silent in comparison.
Overall, the Nikon 300mm f/4E VR seems to be slightly faster in AF speed, but noticeably more accurate than its predecessor, which is great news.
4) Lens Sharpness, Contrast and Color Rendition
I got very excited after seeing Nikon’s provided MTF charts right after the lens was announced, because they showed very promising differences in optical performance between the Nikon 300mm f/4E VR – the MTF charts on the lens showed resolution improvements at the widest aperture, as indicated below (Left: Nikkor 300mm f/4E VR, Right: Nikkor 300mm f/4D AF-S):
If you don’t know how to read MTF charts, see my detailed guide with in-depth information on how to read manufacturer-specific MTF charts. In short, if you look at how much higher that second blue line is in comparison (resolution), we should expect much better resolution than what we can see on the 300mm f/4D at f/4. Knowing what to expect, I set up my Imatest lab using a very high resolution film chart and performed tests at all standard apertures. Let’s take a look at the results:
As I have indicated on earlier in this review, sample variation on this lens could potentially be an issue. All three samples of the lens that I tested were decentered quite a bit, showing pretty average mid-frame and corner performance. Although the center performance is stellar, the mid-frame and the corners did not yield numbers as good as on the older “D” version due to these decentering issues. So far, I have not been able to find a stellar copy that does very well across the frame, so I am publishing the results from the best of the three copies.
If you are curious to see how the lens compares to its predecessor, take a look at the Lens Comparisons section of this review.
With its minimum focus distance of 1.4m, the lens is also excellent for macro work, especially when attaching a close-up filter like Canon 500D. If you want to decrease the minimum focus distance of the 300mm f/4E VR, 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).
Just like on the high-end telephoto and super telephoto lenses, the color rendition of the lens is superb.
5) Focus Breathing
I was a bit worried that the new lens design could have potential impacts of focus breathing on the actual reach of the lens. I tested the lens along with the 300mm f/4D AF-S side by side and I was relieved to find out that the lens does not suffer from noticeable focus breathing. At a camera to subject distance of approximately 15 feet, both lenses showed similar field of view, with the 300mm f/4D giving slightly more reach, most likely because it is physically longer. But the differences are so small that they are practically unnoticeable. The same goes for the lens when used with teleconverters – there is no noticeable loss of focal length, even at relatively close distances.
6) Teleconverter Compatibility and Performance
Unlike its predecessor that does not like the new TC-14E III teleconverter, the Nikon 300mm f/4E VR is compatible with all current and older Nikon teleconverters. As expected, the performance with the TC-14E II and TC-14E III teleconverters is superb. I found the TC-14E III to couple better with the 300mm f/4E VR, providing slightly better performance than the previous generation teleconverter. A number of images in this review were taken with the TC-14E III and I found this combo to be superb when shooting wide open (the 1.4x loses 1 stop of light, resulting in f/5.6 maximum aperture). Here are the Imatest numbers for this lens + 1.4x TC combo:
Image sample with the TC-14E III:
Although I avoided using the TC-17E II with the 300mm f/4D AF-S, I found the performance of the teleconverter on the 300mm f/4E VR to be quite good. As expected, there is a definite hit in AF speed and reliability, but the sharpness of the combo is actually not bad. Using the latest generation Nikon DSLR certainly helps quite a bit to get more in-focus images, as such cameras have superior performance in low light situations when using teleconverters. Here are the Imatest numbers for the lens with the 1.7x teleconverter:
Image sample with the TC-17E II:
Surprisingly, I found the 2x teleconverter to also yield decent results – at f/8 the lens produced fairly good sharpness and stopping the lens down to f/11 seemed to improve sharpness a tad more. While autofocus was not reliable and the lens hunted quite a bit when contrast was not there, the TC-20E III is certainly usable for still or slow subjects. Similar to the first image of a flicker earlier in this review, the below images were captured at 600mm with the 2x teleconverter:
And if you look at this image of a dove, there is plenty of feather detail in the image:
Pretty impressive for a small and lightweight lens! Keep in mind that I had to crop and sharpen the image to get the above results. Here are the lab results using the 300mm f/4E VR + TC-20E III (2.0x teleconverter):
Here is a teleconverter compatibility chart for the Nikon 300mm f/4E PF ED VR lens:
|TC-14E II / III||TC-17E II||TC-20E III|
|* Only in ideal lighting conditions when using the newest Nikon DSLRs|
|Effective Focal Length||420mm||510mm||600mm|
Detailed graphs highlighting lens performance with all three of the current Nikon teleconverters will be provided soon.
7) Image Stabilization
Nikon included the latest generation Vibration Reduction image stabilization system inside the Nikon 300mm f/4E VR, which is supposed to provide up to 4.5 stops of shutter speed compensation. While that is a pretty optimistic claim, I found VR to be quite effective up to 3 stops and sometimes 4 stops, which is impressive. Image stabilization does not just offer the ability to shoot at lower shutter speeds – it can also be of great benefit when hand-holding the lens, as it makes it easier to frame the shot and follow action. Without stabilization, shooting at focal lengths of 300mm and higher can be a bit challenging, since everything in the viewfinder looks a bit too “jumpy”. Thus, VR certainly helps in countering such movements, making it easier to compose and shoot.
A number of our readers asked me if I experienced any issues with VR when shooting at slow shutter speeds such as 1/80-1/160. I am happy to say that I have not experienced such problems and all three samples seemed to be free of VR problems…
Overall, the bokeh on the Nikkor 300mm f/4E VR seems to be quite good despite the fact that the lens uses a Fresnel lens element. You can see examples of bokeh in a number of images in this review and based on the real world shooting conditions, the Fresnel lens element does not seem to be doing a lot of damage:
However, the same cannot be said when shooting very bright background highlights. John Lawson experimented with the lens at night and discovered that it can yield rather unpleasant bokeh in such situations. Take a look at the below image, which was cropped off-center:
And here it is at 100%:
In this case, the focus distance was around 20-25 feet and the lights were miles away. You will notice strange shapes within the highlights that resemble the “Death Star”, which can be even more pronounced when stopped down. This strange bokeh shape seems to be initiated by the rings of the Fresnel lens element.
Vignetting levels on the Nikon 300mm f/4E VR are controlled quite well. At maximum aperture, there is a little bit of darkening towards the corners and stopping down the lens reduces the effect considerably. If vignetting bothers you, you can easily fix it in Lightroom or any other post-processing software, so it is not a big deal.
I measured vignetting levels at both close focus and infinity and here are the measured results by Imatest:
It seems like focusing on a subject at infinity will darken the frame a bit more, up to 1.7 EVs in the extreme corners. At f/5.6 vignetting is cut in half and it practically disappears by f/8.
Here is the worst case scenario illustrated by Imatest when shooting at infinity:
10) Ghosting and Flare
All telephoto lenses, including the Nikon 300mm f/4E VR are prone to serious ghosting and flare issues. There is a reason why Nikon supplied a long hood with this lens, so I recommend to always use it. If you point the lens at a very bright source of light, you will see a lot of color changes, loss of contrast and other issues. Hence, try not to point the lens at the sun – it is not good for your eyes anyway with so much magnification.
As expected from a quality telephoto lens, distortion on the Nikon 300mm f/4E VR is practically non-existent (Imatest measured barrel distortion at just -0.6). Adding teleconverters does not change this behavior, so you should be safe from having to correct anything in post-production. Although Lightroom currently does not have a built-in lens profile, you can experiment with photographing straight lines and making corrections – you will see that the changes will be very minimal when fixing distortion.
12) Chromatic Aberration
The Nikkor 300mm f/4E VR sample I tested showed rather noticeable amount of chromatic aberration, which is probably the result of the lens design and the decentering issues I have experienced with every lens sample I tested. As expected, longer teleconverters do affect the levels of chromatic aberration rather severely, so keep this in mind when shooting in the field.
13) Nikon 300mm f/4E VR vs Nikon 300mm f/4D AF-S
Let’s take a look at how the new 300mm f/4E VR compares to its predecessor, the 300mm f/4D AF-S:
It is pretty clear that the new 300mm f/4E PF ED VR lens is noticeably sharper wide open when compared to its predecessor. Take a look at the center performance, where the lens shows a noticeable boost in sharpness at f/4. Stopped down to f/5.6 and smaller, the newer lens performs slightly better, but the difference is barely noticeable. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about the mid-frame and the corner performance of the 300mm f/4E VR – those areas showed visibly weaker performance when compared to the predecessor. Although lens decentering certainly could have negatively impacted the corner numbers, the mid-frame performance still suffers in comparison. I performed tests on three different lens samples and I regret to say that neither of the three was able to surpass the 300mm f/4D in mid-frame or corner performance. While this should not impact most photographers out there (since wildlife or sports subjects are never flat like a test target), if you are looking for even center to corner performance, the 300mm f/4D is a better lens in comparison.
Let’s take a look at how the two lenses compare when using teleconverters. Here are both with 1.4x teleconverters:
Once again, the newer 300mm f/4E VR shows better center performance when compared to its predecessor, but at the cost of mid-frame and corner performance.
And lastly, let’s see how the two lenses compare with the TC-17E II (1.7x) teleconverter:
With the TC-17E II teleconverter, the new 300mm f/4E VR showed pretty impressive performance, especially when stopped down to f/8. As you can see from the above graphs, the lens does significantly better with this teleconverter combo in the center compared to the 300mm f/4D AF-S.
Since the 300mm f/4D AF-S performs very poorly with the TC-20E III, I did not bother with doing the comparisons. I would personally avoid using the 2.0x TC with f/4 lenses, but if you don’t mind doing a bit of post-processing work (down-sampling, adding sharpening and removing chromatic aberrations), then the teleconverter can provide decent results with the 300mm f/4E VR, but only for stationary subjects.
14) Nikon 300mm f/4E VR vs Nikon 80-400mm VR
Now let’s take a look at how the lens compares to the Nikon 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G VR. We will be looking at both lenses at 300mm and 400-420mm focal lengths to see which one does better in terms of sharpness. Let’s start with 300mm:
As expected when looking at a prime vs zoom lens, the new Nikkor 300mm f/4E VR significantly outperforms the 80-400mm VR wide open – and we are comparing f/4 vs f/5.6 here. As you can see, it is sharper all across the frame, particularly in the corners.
And what if we compare the 300mm f/4E VR with the 1.4x teleconverter vs the 80-400mm at 400mm? Although it would be a 420mm v 400mm comparison, the difference in focal length is not that huge:
While the performance of the 300mm f/4E VR is diminished due to the 1.4x teleconverter, it still outperforms the 80-400mm VR at its native focal length of 400mm. The difference is not huge, but it is definitely there, whether you are shooting wide open, or stopping down to f/8. The corners on the 80-400mm VR are also noticeably worse in comparison.
16) Nikon 300mm f/4E VR vs Nikon 200-500mm VR
Finally, let’s take a look at how the lens compares to the new Nikon 200-500mm VR optically when coupling it with the 1.4x and 1.7x teleconverters. First, we will compare both lenses at 300mm:
Once again, it is expected to see a prime lens like the 300mm f/4E VR to outperform a zoom lens like the 200-500mm VR at the same focal length. As you can see from the above charts, the 300mm f/4E VR is significantly sharper all across the frame. Now let’s take a look at what happens when the TC-14E III (1.4x) teleconverter is added to the mix and both lenses are compared at around the 400mm mark:
Here, the situation is a bit different – the 200-500mm VR slightly outperforms the 300mm f/4E VR at f/5.6. Stopped down to f/8, however, the 300mm f/4E VR catches up, but only in the center – the 200-500mm VR shows better mid-frame and corner performance.
The real test is to see which lens comes out on top at 500mm:
And here, we can see that both lenses perform very similarly in the center. The 300mm f/4E VR + 1.7x TC combo is a bit better in the corners. Considering that both lenses are very similar at the long end, which lens would I recommend for the reach? To be honest, I think the 200-500mm VR would be a better candidate, primarily because of autofocus reliability – the 300mm f/4E VR with the 1.7x TC works quite well, but not as well as the 200-500mm zoom for fast action (like birds in flight). In addition, its maximum aperture is letting a bit more light through at f/5.6 vs f/6.7 on the 300mm f/4E VR + 1.7x TC combo.
Although I still have quite a bit of testing left to do with this lens, based on my preliminary research and first impressions, the lens looks like a real winner. The biggest benefit of the updated lens design is not just its improved sharpness, but its amazingly compact and lightweight design plus built-in image stabilization, which makes the 300mm f/4E VR a breeze to hand-hold. Sports and wildlife photographers will be very happy with this lens, since they will no longer need to worry about using a monopod or a tripod to stabilize the lens – thanks to the lighter weight and incredibly useful image stabilization, the lens is capable of producing very sharp and beautiful images. With its ability to be coupled with all three Nikon teleconverters, the 300mm f/4E VR can be quite a versatile lens that is capable of getting closer to action, all the way to 600mm (although AF performance with 1.7x and 2.0x teleconverters does get a bit sluggish). And with its $2K MSRP price, the Nikkor 300mm f/4E VR seems like a no-brainer for anyone who wants to get a high-quality telephoto prime lens without spending a ton of money on the much heavier and bulkier 300mm f/2.8G VR II. In fact, the 300mm f/4E VR could be a great companion to sports and wildlife shooters who cannot take their big guns when traveling. Personally, I own the 200-400mm f/4G VR lens and although I love it for its versatility, I often end up taking my 300mm f/4 lens with me when traveling, as it is much easier to transport.
My current concerns with this particular lens have to do with quality control. As highlighted in the review a couple of times, all three lens samples I have tested suffered from decentering issues, making it difficult to assess the corners of the frame. Although decentering is not a huge issue for such lenses, since it only matters when photographing “flat” subjects, it is still a concern that Nikon should address by either tightening up their QA process, or perhaps slightly modifying the optical design of the lens to reduce potential optical issues. My 300mm f/4D AF-S is free of such issues and I have handled a number of copies of that lens, none of which suffered from noticeable optical defects.
With the exception of the above, I love everything about the new 300mm f/4E VR lens and I hope that it will soon replace my aging 300mm f/4D AF-S, which I have been shooting with for years.
17) Where to buy
The Nikon 300mm f/4E VR lens is available at B&H Photo Video for $1,996.95.
18) More Image Samples
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Nikon 300mm f/4E PF ED VR
- Optical Performance
- Bokeh Quality
- Build Quality
- Focus Speed and Accuracy
- Image Stabilization
- Size and Weight
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