AF-S Nikkor 300mm F4E PF ED VR is the latest 300mm F4 lens from Nikon with all sorts technological advancement. While a standard 70-300mm zoom lens meets the need of most users these prime lenses are targeted for photographers who want optimum image quality and performance for specific purpose. Unlike a consumer zoom lens prime lenses can serve for decades before they are updated. The AF-S Nikkor 300mm f/4D IF-ED lens was released back in 2000.
The new 300mm F4E PF ED VR lens is a lot lighter than the old 300mm f/4D IF-ED. It is perfect for handheld use for long hours and Vibration Reduction shows superb performance. Optical quality is very good as well. You can read my full review here. Now the question comes – should I purchase this New $2000 lens or the old one which is still available at $1300. After using both lenses I optioned for the old model which I have been using for quite a long time. I made the decision by comparing the optical performance of both lenses in different lighting condition (both day & night). Since I always carry a tripod I don’t mind the weight. I will go through some key points that I found out to be important. Consider your nature of photography – what type of pictures you take, what is the lighting condition you mainly encounter, which aperture settings you frequently use etc. Since its a long term investment keep the headache of budget out of your mind when comparing the key points.
Size, Weight & Compatibility
Nikon 300mm F4E PF ED VR lens weighs a mere 755gm while the 300mm f/4D IF-ED is more than 1.5kg. The PF model is remarkably compact compared to the old one. The use of Phase Fresnel lens element helped Nikon keep the lens compact & light weight. The AF-S Nikkor 300mm F4D IF-ED comes with a built in tripod collar and has all metal body. It can be used with any old Nikon camera bodies but 300mm F4E PF ED VR lens has limited compatibility (it can be used with D4-series, D3-series, Df, D810, D800-series, D750, D700, D610, D600, D300-series, D7100, D7000, D5500, D5300, D5200, D5100, D5000, D3300, D3200, and D3100 cameras.).
Auto Focus Performance & Vibration Reduction
The auto focus performance of the new AF-S Nikkor 300mm F4E PF ED VR lens is no better than the old AF-S Nikkor 300mm f/4D IF-ED lens. You can watch their performance in the blind test below. I have not found any improvement while using the lens in the field.
The AF-S Nikkor 300mm f/4E PF ED VR has a 4.5 stop Vibration reduction which performs extremely well. Combined with its lightweight body and VR in action – makes this lens an excellent choice for bird photography.
Flare & Ghosting
Long telephoto lenses are prone to flare and ghosting. The new PF lens shows good performance when it comes to ghosting & chromatic aberration. However PF (Phase Fresnel) lens element has its drawback. According to Nikon “Due to the characteristics of a PF (Phase Fresnel) lens that utilizes the photo diffraction phenomenon, when there is a strong light source within the frame or when light enters the lens from outside of the frame, ring-shaped colored flare may occur according to shooting conditions.” To find out this issue I tested the lens in different lighting condition at night. As you can see the even lighting condition of moon is not a problem for this lens.
However if you are going to shoot street light or building at night the issue becomes very clear. The image below shows how flare will appear if you are going to use a PF lens. The colorful disc around the light source is quite disturbing. In the same lighting condition the old 300mm f/4D IF-ED shows no flare. I used different aperture to see if it helps, but its of no use. To fix the issue Nikon added a feature called “PF Flare Control” in their Capture NX-D software. But to my experience it is of little help. See the examples below…
After the initial test I was very impressed with the optical performance of AF-S Nikkor 300mm f/4E PF ED VR lens. At open aperture (F4) it managed to bring out very good contrast and smooth color compared to the old version. And difference was quite clear at 100% zoom. I shoot all the images in RAW, processed in Capture NX-D and no sharpening was done. The first batch of images are taken in available indoor light.
From the first set of images it can be noticed that the difference between AF-S Nikkor 300mm F4E PF ED VR & AF-S Nikkor 300mm F4D IF-ED lens starts to fade away around aperture F8. So, I took a more extensive performance test in outdoor with and without Nikon AF-S Teleconverter TC-14E II.
With out Nikon AF-S Teleconverter TC-14E II
At wide open aperture the PF lens shows really good contrast and color. And the images are sharper than AF-S Nikkor 300mm F4D IF-ED lens at aperture F4. The new lens also has less distortion at the edges. As I was reviewing the images at 100% zoom it became clear that their differences in sharpness and overall image quality become minimum at F5.6 and F8. Stopping down the aperture even further at F11 and F16 the AF-S Nikkor 300mm F4D IF-ED lens starts to show better performance. At F22 AF-S Nikkor 300mm F4E PF ED VR lens produced softer images, which get worse at F32. We know at higher aperture images start to become soft due to diffraction. However it affected more the new AF-S Nikkor 300mm F4E PF ED VR lens. All images below are at 100% crop.
PF : AF-S Nikkor 300mm F4E PF ED VR
D : AF-S Nikkor 300mm F4D IF-ED
With Nikon AF-S Teleconverter TC-14E II
Most of the time when shooting bird we keep the 1.4X teleconverter attached with the 300mm F4 lens full time. It increases the focal length to 420mm at F5.6. With Teleconverter on I found out the new AF-S Nikkor 300mm f/4E PF ED VR lens softer in the center at F5.6, this is something I was not expecting. Stopping down to F8 the overall performance of PF model improved with less edge distortion. At F11, F16 and F22 both lens performed equally well without any major difference. At F32 the PF model again showed softer images while the old AF-S Nikkor 300mm f/4D IF-ED had clearly better image.
If I consider the image quality between these two lenses none of them has a clear advantage over the other. The old AF-S Nikkor 300mm F4D IF-ED lens has no Flare or halo issue at all. And it shows overall better image quality at F8 and above with or with-out Teleconverter. The new AF-S Nikkor 300mm f/4E PF ED VR lens on the other hand yield sharper image with good contrast at open aperture.
In auto focus performance both of them are same. Vibration Reduction of PF model is a major advantage over the old non-VR lens.
The AF-S Nikkor 300mm f/4E PF ED VR is an ultra compact feather light lens compared to the old AF-S Nikkor 300mm f/4D IF-ED lens.
So keeping optical performance at the top of the list, if I have to chose a lens which has overall better image quality at wide range of aperture and lighting condition, I will go for old AF-S Nikkor 300mm f/4D IF-ED lens. Here I have to sacrifice the charm of VR and take the burden of extra weight.
The AF-S Nikkor 300mm f/4E PF ED VR lens is perfect if you mostly shoot images at F8 or below and don’t encounter high contrast scene which will create halo in image. And as a bonus you will enjoy the compactness and excellent VR feature of this lens.
Junaed is a Doctor by profession who started photography back in 1992. From film days to digital he is regarded as a talented Photographer. He regularly appears as a guest lecturer at various Photographic clubs & institutes.