Editor's Note: this is an old review republished from Bjørn's website.
A misty autumn morning, I received a request from Nikon Svenska AB (the Nikon facility of my neighbouring country, Sweden) to evaluate the still scarce new 300 mm Nikkor lens. I agreed provided they supplied a review sample and didn't mind my writing up whichever conclusion I drew after testing. So, next day I had the lens delivered at my doorstep as it were, and kept shooting with it for some time afterwards.
I'm always been in favour of 300 mm lenses for my kind of photography. This focal length offers a great compromise between lens quality, speed, handling, size, and isolating power. By the way, I won't factor in affordability or weight in the equation because fast telephoto lenses never come cheap, nor are they light-weight. In their 300 mm line, Nikon has offered a long series of f/2.8 and f/4-f/4.5 models over the last decades, and even an f/2 which is guaranteed to make you develop severe back pain, if you and your wallet survive the purchase. I own more of these 300 mm lenses than I like to think about, and selecting the appropriate one hasn't become easier with this VR newcomer.
The AFS 300 mm f/2.8 VR is approximately the size of the old warhorse, AFS 300/2.8, so adding VR capacity hasn't increased bulk or weight at all. Apart from the more aggressive looking control panel bristing with sliders and buttons, they look quite similar. The VR has a slick-looking lens shade made of carbon fibre probably costing a small fortune on its own. Come to think of it, the 300 VR is just like a bigger brother to my favourite 200/2 VR Nikkor. So I have to repeat a number of observations made for the latter lens.
The lens bristles with an array of controls for VR activity (on/off, normal or active mode), locking focus, commencing AF focusing, memory set, memory recall, sound signals on or off, focusing ranges and so on. Even a Hi-Fi freak would feel at home here. In my narrow-minded opinion, darkened by an aversion against Oriental VCR recorders and their equally incomprehensive user manuals, the controls just detract from normal operation of the lens. Murphy’s Law assures the control switch will be in a wrong position the critical moment you need any of these features. However, I admit the designers likely considered more broad-minded users than me when they implemented the impressive array of control features found on the VR lens. Sports photographers, for example, should have tons of possibilities to set up the lens the exact way they need. Since the 300 VR was loaned to me, I could not follow up the practice from my 200 VR and glue controls into their preferred position.
The AFS 300 Nikkor, like the 200 VR, comes with a big soft-pouch bag holding the lens with a reversed hood and a camera. I confess I rather like the trunk cases which used to be delivered with those big glass lenses in earlier days, so I'd try to get rid of the pouch as soon as possible. It makes a really nice holiday or hiking backpack for the young ones in your famility.
The AFS speed of this lens is very fast and focusing is reliable thanks to the bright view it offers through the viewfinder. Manual operation of the lens is easy thanks to the generously sized focusing collar and its smooth movement. With all its electronic gimmickery and AFS motor, it's no wonder that the VR lens will exert a considerable drain on the camera's battery. I would estimate that my D2H lost about 40% of its total power due to the use of the VR lens, so keep a spare battery at hand for any important assignment involving this gear.
The tripod collars of modern long Nikkors have been a very mixed blessing. The one of the 300 VR lens looks as were it among the better designed, however reality bites to show this impression is false. In fact, I had real problems getting adequately sharp images when the lens was atop one of my big, professional Sachtler tripods (either ENG-2HD or ENG-2 CF which have a load rating 10 to 30 times that of the 300 VR lens). And yes, I did follow those "long-lens techniques" so highly recommended, but to no avail. The lens simply isn't stable on a good tripod and shooting at 1/60 or lower means a disturbingly high incidence of blurred images. This is an appalling performance. Not as bad as my experiences with the AFS 300/4 Nikkor, but they come close.
In optical terms this AFS-VR lens has basically the same complexity as its non-VR predecessor, using 11 elements in 8 groups, with 3 ED elements thrown in for good measure. The lens protector in front, which used to be an optical flat on earlier Nikon telephoto lenses, now actually is glass having a negative (meniscus) power, so perhaps should be included in the design as well, bringing the total to 12 elements. The lens coating uses sophisticated "Nano-Crystal" technology, and this works to keep lens flare under strict control for such a fast lens. Ghosting is markedly less troublesome with the new coating, too.
The AFS 300 mm f/2.8 VR, in common with the 200/2 VR, delivers very sharp images, possibly sharper images than can be resolved by the current line of Nikon DSLRs. Simple as that. I no longer test lenses using film so cannot say whether the same behaviour should occur there, but nothing indicates otherwise since performance of 35 mm film is long surpassed by the best digital systems.
Set wide open, the 300 VR delivers bitingly sharp images with just a minute trace of softness and veiling flare, and stopped down one or two stops more it delivers even sharper images with higher contrast as well. From near f/16 to the minimum at f/22, diffraction effects gradually soften the image and lower the contrast, but as this only can be perceived by direct comparison to the performance further up the aperture scale, the lens convinces even at these small aperture settings. All all apertures the image has a perfectly flat field across the entire frame and if there is a light fall-off towards the corners at the wide apertures, I probably would have to use sophisticated lab measuring gear to detect this.
I shot side-by-side comparisons between the new 300 VR and my old workhorse, AFS 300/2.8 Nikkor (Mk.I), and the new lens delivers equal or better performance at all apertures.
Now, as far as I'm concerned, superb optical performance is a nice feature, but it won't bring home the bacon on its own. So, in the end the salient point is what you can achieve with such a lens, and for me, other aspects than sheer image clarity are paramount. I tend to draw heavily on the isolating power of long lenses, using them to rearrange the "planes" of my subjects in order to gain visual clarity and enhanced impact.
The optical performance of the 300 VR was very well maintained when I shot a test series using it in combination with the TC-14E MkII teleconverter. In general, my attitude towards tele-converters has been luke warm at best. However, I'm pleased to report that image quality of the 300 plus TC-14E combination hold up surprisingly well. Using the 300 VR with TC-17E, I also got rather nice shots but you do need to stop down at least one stop to get good image quality.
Vibration reduction (VR)
Is vibration reduction (VR) technology really the panacea to say good-bye to all unsharp images? Well, yes and no, presumably depending on your needs and ways of shooting. The technology undoubtedly may work miracles and I even managed to get a critically sharp shot at 1/15 sec hand-held, and as long as 1/8 sec with some additional support. For my notoriously shaky hands this is just phenomenal. The master VR control is located on a rotating ring to the rear of the lens. This method works much better than on some other VR lenses because you can operate it by touch, there is no need to remove your eye from the viewfinder to locate the switch. I tend to select VR "Normal" mode for most of my VR-assisted shooting. The image in the viewfinder does meander a bit, but since it moves slowly, I didn't notice the feeling of seasickness I've experienced with the 70-200 VR zoom. With VR set to "Active" mode, the finder jumps more haphazardly around, but still no problem as this mode suits shooting from boats or moving vehicles, shooting circumstances than I personally can do without and accordingly try to avoid, thus killing at least two birds with one stone.
A pertinent question always lingering on my mind is whether VR influences image quality. In order to come to grips with possible ill effects of VR, I have done extensive test shooting with the 300 VR lens mounted on a high-quality, professional calibre tripod (Sachtler ENG 2 HD with the Burzynski "Protech" tripod head). For all shots, I allowed VR to run for about 1 minute to ensure it had all the vibration data it possibly could crave for, before I tripped the shutter using a cable release.
As I already found out for other VR lenses from Nikon (AFS 70-200/2.8 VR and AFS 200/2 VR Nikkors), the AFS 300 doesn't like the combination of tripod mounting and VR operation. When shutter speeds become progressively longer, the chance is that you will obtain a blurred image with VR turned on. This results because VR misinterprets the minute vibration residual found in a setup in which the lens is deployed on a high-quality tripod, and thus starts to counteract a non-significant vibration by adding its own internal lens movements. You would expect the AFS 300 VR to improve its VR behaviour on a tripod, thanks to its shake-prone tripod mount, but even this "hope" died in vain.
So, what is Nikon’s take on such issues. Officially, the brochure accompanying the lens claims there is no need to switch VR off for tripod use. We know by now this simply isn’t true. However, Nikon partially admits this statement isn’t entirely correct by adding a vague phrase about "unlocked tripod heads". Having a firmly locked tripod head ensures you will get the exact framing of the image which you may need, so unlocking the head just to allow VR to function better is not the optimal solution for many shooting occasions. You’ll be better served by moving the VR slider to the OFF position. On the other hand, if you have a lesser quality tripod, shoot fast-moving subjects, plan to do panning shots at slow shutter speeds, or simply need the tripod to ease the weight of the lens off your back, then VR might continue to be a welcome functionality and the lack of a clamped-down tripod head might not be entirely critical. You do have to know that VR can be a mixed blessing to fully appreciate its bright side and to avoid the darker side of its sophisticated technology.
You would expect a long, fast lens to render the background pleasantly unsharp. Set wide open this also can be observed for all f/2.8-class long Nikkors. But when the lens is stopped down, huge differences exist between various telephoto lenses as far as bokeh is concerned.
The bokeh of the AFS 300 is phenomenal in terms of its endearing creamy softness. Further to its advantage is the way the lens behaves when it is stopped down. The AFS/non-VR predecessor exhibited quite nasty out-of-focus rendition when set to f/5.6 or smaller, whils the VR lens continues to be well behaved in an exemplary manner. In fact, even at f/22 its nicely rounded, softish bokeh prevails. It must rank amongst the most pleasant lenses ever made in terms of its bokeh.
The Summing Up
In terms of optical quality, the VR version of the old classic f/2.8 telephoto is the best yet. Colour saturation and image contrast are great, details are rendered with tremendous clarity, and the superb bokeh probably would endear the VR model to many people, including yours truly. I have to admit that going back to my old, AFS 300 mm f/2.8 Mk.I and having to put up with its questionable bokeh when that lens is stopped down, wasn't easy. But I resent the idea of having to purchase yet another 300mm lens, and besides, for my line of work the new 300 VR wouldn't be perfect. Downsides - once again - poor VR performance when the lens is mounted on a tripod, and a not acceptable tripod collar arrangement. You have to decide whether or not these drawbacks are show-stoppers for your personal shooting assignments. If you shoot from a monopod or can have sufficiently short shutter speeds, the tripod-mounted inadequacies may not be noticed at all. I expect a huge number of sports photographers will take to this lens as ducks take to water, thus the 300/2.8 VR likely will be the reference medium-length Nikkor from now on.
Exeunt the old workhorse, enter the new King.