Focus Speed and Accuracy
If you have never handled an AF-P lens before, you will be shocked to see how fast and silent Nikon’s focus-by-wire autofocus motor operates. When using the optical viewfinder, it snaps into focus immediately with phase detection autofocus, no matter how close or far your subject is. And unlike AF-S lenses, you don’t get to hear the high-pitched noise – it practically happens at near silence. In fact, it is so fast and so quiet, that at times I hesitated and wondered if I was truly focused at the subject, forcing me to defocus and refocus again. This is where there is already a huge difference between the AF-P model and the previous generation AF-S model – there is simply no comparison!
I wondered if this ultra fast autofocus comes with a focus accuracy issue. After testing the lens extensively while shooting moving and non-moving subjects, I can say that the autofocus accuracy is pretty darn impressive – I would say noticeably better than what the 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G VR can do, especially at longer focal lengths. There is also a noticeable difference when focusing through live view (contrast detect) – the 70-300mm VR AF-P often focuses right on target without going back and forth, which is quite nice. The only negative side of this focus-by-wire system, is that if you use a camera that is not fully compatible, you will need to reacquire focus after the metering timer expires. I found this to be a bit annoying when using the lens with the Nikon D810.
Lens Sharpness and Contrast
As you can see from the images presented in this review, as well as the below Imatest charts, the Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6E VR AF-P can deliver pretty solid sharpness, even on high-resolution cameras. Unlike its predecessor that had inferior performance at longer focal lengths, this one surprised me by how good it looked at 300mm. Let’s take a look at its performance at different focal lengths:
As you can see, the lens starts out pretty sharp at 70mm, showing respectable performance across the frame. Maximum resolution potential is reached at f/5.6, after which the overall performance goes down.
As we zoom in to 100mm, we see a slight drop in overall performance, especially towards the edges of the frame.
Zooming in to 200mm showed slightly worse wide open performance, although stopping down did not seem to help much.
The performance of the lens got worse at 300mm, but not as significantly as it does on its predecessor. Corners took a hit as well, especially at f/5.6, which get a tad better when stopped down to f/8.
If you are planning to use this lens to photograph portraits or wildlife, corner performance should not be a concern, but if you are looking for a sharp 300mm lens for shooting cityscapes and landscapes, the corners in images might look disappointing. It is not a big deal if you shoot with a 24 MP DSLR like the Nikon D750, but if you mount the lens on a 36 MP+ camera like the D810 / D850, you might be disappointed with the overall sharpness at longer focal lengths.
Nikon incorporated the latest version of its Vibration Reduction system into the 70-300mm VR AF-P, claiming up to 4.5 stops of stabilization, which is pretty much as good as image stabilization can get today. Thanks to the lightweight construction of the lens, hand-holding it was a breeze, so I decided to shoot mostly hand-held with the lens when traveling. I am happy to report that vibration reduction worked wonderfully. Aside from a couple of images in this review, everything was shot hand-held and the lens was able to stabilize my shots extremely well, even when shooting at 1/25th of a second at 300mm. Obviously your hand-holding technique is going to be important when shooting at very slow shutter speeds, so keep that in mind if you are struggling with blurry images.
Unlike its DX counterpart, the Nikon 70-300mm VR AF-P thankfully has a VR switch, so if you want to mount your camera on a tripod and turn off stabilization, you can easily do so without having to dig in the camera menu. For most subjects, I would recommend to keep VR in “Normal” mode, but if you are shooting fast-moving subjects that require some panning, the “Sport” mode will do a better job.
While one cannot expect a budget lens to yield exceptionally good bokeh, the Nikon 70-300mm VR AF-P actually produces decent results. Out of focus highlights appear pleasing to look at when shooting at long focal lengths, with fairly smooth transitions:
As I have already pointed out, the minimum focus distance on the AF-P model has been reduced to 1.2 meters, so you can get even closer to your subjects, making the background appear even more out of focus.
Unfortunately, the lens suffers from quite a bit of vignetting at large apertures, especially when zoomed in beyond 100mm. Light fall-off is not particular to the edges of the frame – it spreads almost to the mid-frame area, making manual corrections somewhat difficult. Imatest measured up to 1.4 EV of vignetting at 300mm @ f/5.6, which gets reduced substantially when stopped down to f/8 and smaller. Below are the results from the lab tests:
To see how bad vignetting can get at 300mm, take a look at the below before / after images. The “Before” image shows pronounced vignetting affecting large areas of the frame, whereas the “After” image is what the image looked like after Lens Corrections were applied in Lightroom:
While I personally like vignetting from some particular lenses, I found it to be rather distracting on the 70-300mm VR AF-P, so I would recommend to take care of it in post-processing.
Ghosting and Flare
While all telephoto lenses are prone to ghosting and flare issues, the Nikon 70-300mm VR AF-P is a particular offender. There is a good reason why the lens hood is so large on this lens – I would recommend to always keep it on to prevent light from ever reaching the front element. Since Nikon’s Nano coating is not applied to the lens, it certainly shows when including any bright objects in the frame. Take a look at the below image of the moon and Venus:
As you can see, there is a large white “blob” in the middle of the frame, which is basically flare created by a long 6 second exposure from the bright part of the moon. Such blobs can be quite difficult to take care of in post-processing. With some fiddling in Photoshop, I was able to take care of the problem, but it was painful and time-consuming:
In short, keep that lens hood on and stay away from photographing bright subjects!
Lateral chromatic aberration is controlled very nicely, with 70mm showing the worst performance overall, nearing 1 pixel. The good news is that unlike the Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G VR, this one does not have nasty CA at 300mm, as seen from the below chart:
If you get annoyed by purple or green outlines, you can take care of them quickly in post-processing software. Enabling “Remove Chromatic Aberration” option in Lightroom worked out really well for most of the images for me.
The Nikon 70-300mm VR AF-P has a pronounced level of distortion at the short end – Imatest measured 1.34% barrel distortion at 70mm. However, barrel distortion is significantly reduced as you zoom in, showing only around 0.38% at 100mm. By 135mm, distortion is practically gone – Imatest measured 0.06% pincushion distortion, which is basically non-existent:
This is much more improved when compared to the 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G VR, which shows more pronounced pincushion distortion at longer focal lengths.
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