GEAR REVIEW - NIKKOR 300mm f/4 AF ED
The Nikon Nikkor 300mm f/4 AF ED was introduced in 1987 and its production continued for 13 years, when it was subsequently replaced by the AF-S version in 2001 and now has been upgraded to include VR and a fresnel lens with the 2015 incantation.
The 300mm f/4 AF is built like a tank, weighing in at just over 1.3KG. While nobody likes humping around heavy equipment, it's a price you pay for well constructed, durable gear. I was particularly glad of the build quality when the carabiner on my camera strap broke, sending the D800 with the 300mm f/4 attached, falling to the ground from waist height, landing on snow and solid ice. Nooooooo!
After the profanity had ceased, I picked up the camera and inspected it diligently. Not a mark upon it or the lens, save for a very slight deforming of the inbuilt hood. I doubt the same would be true of today's more plastic offerings. Since then, I now use the Peak Design products, to prevent any such accident happening again. Make sure you check them out!
Optically, this lens is decent, even when combined with the Kenko 1.4x teleconverter. It produces very usable images that I have been happy with. It's perhaps not quite as sharp as the AF-S version and reviews of the latest model are thin on the ground at the time of writing this. Still the f/4 AF is very good nonetheless. Your main obstacle to getting sharp images will be shutter speed vs focal length in less favourable lighting conditions. Chromatic aberration is handled very well, with high contrast photographs having just a touch of green and purple fringing on occasions. Nothing that isn't easily corrected inside Adobe Camera Raw though.
Focus speed isn't bad on the D800, although it can be sped up by judicious use of the continuously variable focus limiter, which makes things a lot quicker. If you know you can't get within a certain distance of your subject because it's too skittish or getting any closer would result in parts being cropped off, set the limiter to exclude those focal ranges. Having said that, if you're using it in the extreme cold, as I did (-25c and below), like any lens, it will slow up considerably. When combined with the Kenko teleconverter, focus speed decreases dramatically. If the lens decides to hunt, it's a good 5 seconds before it locks on again. Still, I managed to live with the idiosyncrasies and with diligence, was rewarded with some great images.
The other drawback to its metal body is that when its cold, it will radiate that through your gloves to your hands. Not a lot you can do about this, save for a custom neoprene coat (Lenscoat don't make a standard one for this lens unfortunately, so I made my own), which may offer some protection. Even the D800 radiated the cold through my gloves and its magnesium alloy body is covered by plastic and rubber grips.
Unlike the AF-S version, there is no instant manual focus override. Instead there is an AF/M switch on the lens. However you also have to disengage the focus motor on the camera body too, which is annoying and kind of pointless. As it's not an AF-S lens, you can only autofocus on professional and "prosumer" bodies. Entry level cameras like the D3xxx and D5xxx series will only focus manually. For fast moving creatures, this obviously isn't ideal but for static ones, you should have time to nail focus.
The 300mm f/4 comes with its own tripod collar and this lens is definitely best used in conjunction with a monopod, gimbal head or beanbag. As it has no VR, stabilizing 300mm to get sharp shots can be difficult, even with good technique. As a rule of thumb your shutter speed should equally your focal length to avoid hand held blur, so on full frame 1/320 sec (1/500 sec on a crop sensor).
If like me, you have a tremor in your hands, or are shaking due to cold, getting blur free shots is a real challenge. I find this especially true when I don't have access to a monopod or tripod. If you can lean against a tree trunk or low hanging branch, then do so. Better that, than having to raise ISO 3 stops or more to counter-act motion blur.
Obviously this lens has been out of production for almost 15 years now and is only available used. eBbay is probably your best bet and can be had for anywhere between £350-£450 depending on condition. Good examples will be clean optically, but expect a bit of brassing on the name plate and perhaps the mount too depending on usage. Internal dust is a possibility but so long as the optics aren't caked with fungus or haze, don't worry about it. Although it's nice to use pristine glass, dust or scratches on the front element aren't going to make any discernible difference to the resulting images - trust me on that. I had an ant - yes a dead red ant, inside the front element of the manual focus Nikkor 180mm f/2.8 Ai-s ED and that thing was blisteringly sharp! The element to be more concerned with, is the rear one, as it's nearer the sensor/film plane and stands a better chance of showing up.
The lens should come with its own leather carry case and gold box, although you probably won't use the former, even for storage. What you should look for is that the front cap, which is a fake leather/cloth cover with a draw string, which protects the front element whilst in your bag or out in the field. If it doesn't you can get 82mm lens caps from eBay but, get a copy with the original if you can. There is also a drop in filter on the top of the lens. Leave this in place and don't bother messing with it - although make sure the filter is actually in the holder.
To increase the pulling power of the lens for skittish birds and other wildlife, I added a Kenko 1.4x AF teleconverter. This takes the 300mm f/4 to a 400mm f/5.6. Image quality is still more than acceptable and the extra 120mm definitely comes in useful. The loss of a stop of light obviously is a trade off but, is simply a case of raising the ISO 1 stop.
That's about it for the 300mm f/4 AF ED. If you're looking for an affordable wildlife lens, then it's certainly stands up to the task. If you can afford the newer AF-s versions, then go for it, as they are fast focusing quicker and optically superior. It you have £1600 you could get the brand spanking new Nikkor 300mm F/4E PF ED VR. I'll have to be a good boy for many years before Santa will bring me one of those though!