The Nikon AF-S Nikkor 300mm f/4E PF ED VR lens review for birding

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This Nikon AF-S Nikkor 300mm f/4E PF ED VR lens review for birding is by Willy Alfaro Cervantes:

In mid October I lead a bird watching trip, 10 days around Costa Rica, photographing birds. I used a Nikon D7200 with the Nikkor 300mm E PF ED VR and a Nikkor TC-14E III.  All pictures were taken handheld

The camera

The Nikon D7200 has 24.2 megapixels in DX crop and native ISO 100-25600, very convenient for the challenging light in the Tropical forests. It also has a 1.3x crop that allows you to shoot 7 fps, which turns your lens 2 times “longer”, so roughly the lens with the TC that are 420mm end up being equivalent to 840mm at 15.4 megapixels (the D810 in DX is 15.4 megapixels).

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Barred Antshrike - Nikon D7200 with Nikkor 300mm f/4 PF + TC-14E III, 1/500s, f/5.6, ISO 3200

The lens

The newer version of Nikkor 300mm f/4E PF ED VR has great features. Besides the VR, basic nowadays, Nikon incorporates a PF (Phase Fresnel) element, which allows the lens to be 1/3 shorter and 1/2 lighter than the previous 300mm f/4. This element also helps control chromatic aberration -CA very well.

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Detail of Pacific-screech Owl - notice the fairly well controlled CA. Nikon D7200 with Nikkor 300mm f/4 PF + TC-14E III, 1/640s, f/6.3, ISO 6400. No editing, basic JPEG from camera.

Other great new features (compared to the older 300mm f/4) are the Fluorine Coat, first used in the new Nikkor 400mm f/2.8, that repels water and dust, the Nano Crystal Coat and the Electromagnetic Diaphragm, among others.

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Crop showing sharpness and contrast. JPEG out of camera, basic.

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Crop showing sharpness and contrast. JPEG out of camera, basic.

The teleconverter

The TC-14E III is excellent, magnifying the lens 1.4 times, and closing the aperture 1 full stop, so the lens turns into a 420mm f/5.6. The fluorine coat and Super Integrated Coating make this TC a perfect combo since you don’t really loose image quality.

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Collared Aracari - Nikon D7200 with Nikkor 300mm f/4 PF + TC--14E III, 1/500s, f/8, ISO 220

First impressions

As soon as I took the lens out of the box I felt surprised on how small and light it is. Attached with the camera and the TC-14, it was all 1.7 kgs or 3.77 pounds.

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Rufous-tailed Hummingbird - Nikon D7200 with Nikkor 300mm f/4 PF + TC--14E III, 1/500s, f/8, ISO 4000

The combo felt well balanced and easy to maneuver, especially for birds in flight. Focus is fast, hunting only in low contrast, but is something you can override manually and seamlessly.

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Social Flycatcher - Nikon D7200 with Nikkor 300mm f/4 PF + TC--14E III, 1/500s, f/8, ISO 500

In the D7200 the 300mm + TC-1.4 is 420mm x 1.5=630, a great reach, and if you use the 1.3x crop of the camera, your 420mm turns into an 840mm with 7 frames per second, very convenient for following the action even in the distance.

Optics

Out in the field, the lens delivery was impressive, outstanding IQ. The birds’ feather details were outstanding as well as the contrast and color.

It was hard to believe the sharpness and contrast for a lens that cost less that +5K. The bokeh is very good, even if you shoot with some light in the back, the circles don’t have a border, like other mid-price lenses.

Scarlet Macaw - Nikon D7200 with Nikkor 300mm f/4 PF, 1/400s, f/6.3, ISO 5000
Scarlet Macaw - Nikon D7200 with Nikkor 300mm f/4 PF, 1/400s, f/6.3, ISO 5000
White-throated Magpie Jay - Nikon D7200 with Nikkor 300mm f/4 PF + TC--14E III, 1/400s, f/5.6, ISO 1250
White-throated Magpie Jay - Nikon D7200 with Nikkor 300mm f/4 PF + TC--14E III, 1/400s, f/5.6, ISO 1250
Black-necked Stilt - Nikon D7200 with Nikkor 300mm f/4 PF + TC--14E III, 1/2500s, f/5.6, ISO 640
Black-necked Stilt - Nikon D7200 with Nikkor 300mm f/4 PF + TC--14E III, 1/2500s, f/5.6, ISO 640

Conclusions

The Nikkor 300mm f/4E PF ED VR is really good for bird photography. Although it is 1 stop slower than the 300mm f/2.8 is also +$4.000 cheaper, and with nowadays high ISO capabilities, I was willing to sacrifice 1 stop.

The lens focuses close, even with the TC-14, I was actually able to focus at 60 inches with a 420mm lens… very convenient in some occasions, although it is slowing focusing alone the whole range, but you can select the limiter to 3m - ∞.

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Orange-chinned Parakeet - Nikon D7200 with Nikkor 300mm f/4 PF + TC--14E III, 1/1000s, f/8, ISO 320

Nikon did a great job incorporating the PF element, you get almost no chromatic aberration thanks to the PF element and in real life, with normal light, you don’t see any bad flares against the light. I guess you would need to point into very bright light in dark spaces to see the PF flares.

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Masked Tityra - Nikon D7200 with Nikkor 300mm f/4 PF + TC--14E III, 1/1250s, f/5.6, ISO 1400

The combo worked great for me, I got a lot of images in focus despite I was shooting handheld. And thanks to the quality of the optics the transmission of light was great even with high ISO or distant subjects.

In the future I will test the lens with the TC-17, for a 510mm f/6.3, it may well be another option, especially for birds in well lit open areas such as wetlands.

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Photo courtesy of Katya Barrantes.

You can visit my website at www.willyalfaro.com for more about tropical birds and photography.

If you have an interesting idea for a guest post, you can contact me here.
The Nikon AF-S Nikkor 300mm f/4E PF ED VR lens is finally in stock in the US.

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  • Aldo

    Nice photos.

  • Ryan

    Would love to get this lens setup my D750.

    • Tolas

      I have the D750 + 300 f4 PF + TC14EIII and it does perform really well! With decent light AF works fine even with the TC14.

      • Ryan

        Nice one! 😉 still contemplating this setup or the 200-500. Both have their benefits!

        • Tolas

          I was having the same struggle initially between this setup and the 200-500. I tested the 200-500 at a local Nikon shop and in the end I just found the lense too big and heavy. I guest it depends if you need a zoom or not… but the 300 f4 is so light for what it is, I love it (but it’s more expensive…) !

          • Ryan

            I’m yet to hold the 200-500 but I’ve seen how large it is and how small the 300 is and it’s tempting. Not sure if I’d like to log around my D750 + 70-200 VRII plus my D810 + 200-500 on my back! Thanks for the advice 😉

      • Photobug

        Tolas, it’s awesome on my D750. Have not tried it yet with the TC1.4EIII or my D7100.

  • AnotherView

    These photos look very soft to me. Just say’in…

    • Patrick O’Connor

      Really? Did you click on them to get the large view? Maybe the difference is between viewers!? The birds and scenery are beautiful (dreamlike) so what I think is appropriate sharpness (for this subject) may be soft for you.

    • mikeswitz

      Really, I would love to see what you consider sharp. I can see why you call yourself AnotherView.

    • Photobug

      Really. Did you click on the images for the larger view. I thought the pictures were sharp. Just saying….

    • tjholowaychuk

      Agreed. It’s really not a sharp lens, I bought it for the size, but the 70-200 for example is much sharper.

  • Very nice!

  • Photobug

    Nice review and excellent pictures.

  • Plug

    I’m just back from a trip to Ethiopia using the same combination and with similar conclusions. The low bulk at 3500m in thick afro-montane forest is hugely helpful. Nicely sharp provided you concentrate on your settings and technique. The TC14E III does slow autofocus slightly. Out of the forest, for large BIF such as eagles, the non TC set-up is very manoeuvrable and useful.

  • Galeazzo Ciano

    The pics are mostly on the soft side. But we don’t know how much they were croped. So any discussion of “sharp” or “soft” has no objective basis on which to judge.

    I returned the 300pf that I got in May. The photos I got were unacceptably soft- just awful.

    I’ve used the 300/4 AFS for several years with results much better than the 300pf. The 300pf copy that I got was just bad. I’ll give the lens another try.

    • russ

      I agree that many of the images are soft, certainly compared to what I get out of a 500mm f/4 and D7200. But this may be due to the photographer’s use of a TC, the D7200 crop mode, and, additional cropping as well. None of those methods of getting more bird in the frame is a free lunch, and I would expect the use of all three at the same time to introduce serious image degradation. http://www.flickr.com/photos/russ-w/

  • tjholowaychuk

    I didn’t find it overly sharp, certainly not among modern lenses – though not terrible of course.

  • koenshaku

    Beautiful images on your flickr my friend I need to rub my pennies together to get this lens now.. -_-

  • Willy Alfaro

    Hi everyone, thanks for all your comments.
    Just for the sake of the discussion of sharpness, I am uploading a 100% crop (simple printsreen) of the hummingbird photo, which was taken with equivalent focal distance of 840mm (1.3x crop of D7200)

    Consider this facts:

    1.- the bird is only 4 inches, photographed at approx 4 meters

    2.- ISO 4000
    3.- You can see the feathers of the eye of the hummingbirds and the ones that are growing around.

    … It is hard for me to think this is a soft lens. I do respect the comments, it is all an appreciation of the soft side and certainly I don’t mean to compare this lens to a 500 f/4.
    Thanks!

  • Bengt Nyman

    The comments below appears to agree with the only available comparative test data (by LenScore) suggesting that the resolving power of the new Nikon AF-S Nikkor 300mm f/4 E PF ED VR lens is approximately 80% of that of the older Nikon 300mm f/4 D AF-S.

  • Tom Moffatt

    THIS blogpost was the one I was waiting for on the 300 pf. I believe this is the best lens today for birders on the go. I expect to see other sensational images with the lens coming out of Ecuador especially. In addition, it is ideal for coastal Antarctic use – shooting from a zodiac, or incredible closeups of penguins, albatrosses, etc. both on the ground and on the wing.

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