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 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.
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 a 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.
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.
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:
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.
The Nikkor 300mm f/4E VR sample I tested showed a 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.
On the next page, let’s take a look at how this lens compares to others available today:
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