Wildlife photography review: The Nikon 300mm f/4 PF lens
By Specialist Photographic Guide Villiers Steyn.
Can a lens so small really give you big results?
Like most professional wildlife photographers, I’m very fond of prime lenses. Having said that, I only own one – a Nikon 500mm f/4. It produces mind-blowing photos, but on the downside, it’s the size of a bus…and it weighs as much too!
I spend the majority of my At Close Quarters photographic safaris in South Africa’s Sabi Sand Game Reserve where we get extremely close to the leopards, lions and the other creatures we photograph, so another drawback of my 500mm f/4 lens is the fact that eight out of ten times I can’t fit the whole animal in the frame. And that’s where the itch to add a 300mm prime lens to my kit first started. I needed something wider and wanted something lighter.
I first considered buying a Nikon 300mm f/2.8 lens, but it’s by no means small and light. It also costs a fortune! A brand new one will set you back more than R90000 (or $5500 if you buy it in the US) and you hardly ever find second hand ones, because no-one wants to sell theirs. So I opted for the next best thing – its much smaller f/4 cousin.
What is a 300mm PF?
Early in 2015, Nikon released the AF-S Nikkor 300mm f/4E PF ED VR fixed focal length telephoto lens, which I simply call the Nikon 300mm PF. The PF stands for Phase Fresnel and refers to the type of lens element used, and without getting too technical, it helps make the lens lighter.
The AF-S Nikkor 300mm f/4E PF ED VR lens
It’s so much smaller than you think!
How much lighter? I hope you’re sitting down, because you might just fall over when I tell you. The Nikon 300mm PF weighs just 755g (26.6oz) – that’s nearly four times lighter than the 2.9kg (6.4lb) Nikon 300mm f/2.8 lens! And it’s a whopping six times lighter than my bus, the 500mm f/4! It’s literally only one and a half times the size of a can of diced tomatoes and looks and feels much more like a 24-70mm f/2.8 lens.
Can you believe this is a 300mm prime lens?
The size difference between the 300mm PF and my 500mm f/4
Again, without getting too technical, it’s an FX format lens with an F mount (as opposed to a Z mount used by Nikon’s mirrorless cameras) and it has Nikon’s trusty VR image stabilisation. Oh! And before I forget, brand new it only costs R35000 ($2000 if you buy it in the US). So when I heard of a mint condition second hand one for two thirds of the price, I couldn’t resist!
How do the photos look?
That’s the big question, isn’t it? Can a lens that fits in the palm of my hand produce high quality wildlife photographs that match those taken by its larger, more expensive cousins – the 300mm f/2.8 and the 500mm f/4? Yes! It can!
Like any good professional wildlife photographer, the first thing I photographed when I got my ‘new’ lens was my dog. Luckily my wife, Tabby, is a dog training instructor so it was easy to get Cooper to pose for a few portraits in the garden. I was blown away by the results! The photos were tack sharp and the background was much more blurred than I expected it to be.
My dog, Cooper, photographed at close range
Ten days later I was finally able to test it on a wild animal for the first time – a leopard female I found right next to the road near Shingwedzi in the Kruger National Park. The fact the light was very low made it an ever bigger challenge. To my delight the 300mm PF was able to produce another perfect portrait, so my excitement levels skyrocketed as my next At Close Quarters #BigCatPhotoSafari in the Sabi Sands approached…
The first wild animal I was able to photograph with the 300mm PF
Eighteen days of field testing
Over the following two months I was able to test my Nikon 300mm PF lens extensively in the field. I used it almost exclusively during four photographic safaris to the Sabi Sands, always paired with my trusty Nikon D850 camera body. Here are some examples and my thoughts:
When you get close to an animal, and I’m talking like 4 to 12 meters (13 to 39 feet) away, the results are staggering! It’s hard to believe that such a small lens can capture such beautiful portraits that are no less impressive than any larger, more expensive prime lens. Don’t you think this wild dog looks just as good as Cooper did in that initial shot?
An African wild dog photographed at close range on f/4
A leopard female photographed slightly further away, also at f/4
I particularly loved the results when I was able to get some foliage out of focus between me and the subject, like in these examples of a dwarf mongoose and an impala ram.
The 300mm PF’s biggest handicap, at least if you compare it with my 500mm f/4 or a 300mm f/2.8, is the fact that it lets less light in, and this became apparent on night drives. I struggled to get fast enough shutter speeds after dark, especially if the animal sat or walked relatively far away from us.
Even at ISO 2000, f/4, I was only able to get a shutter speed of 1/60 sec
This lion photo is not quite as sharp as I would have liked it to be
I know, it looks pretty sharp compared to what you’ll get with a Sigma or Tamron 150-600mm zoom lens, but if you’ve used a 500mm f/4 after dark you’ll see the difference.
If I’m honest, I also didn’t like the 300mm PF much when I was photographing slightly wider frames when the animals were further away from me, perhaps because I couldn’t blur the background enough.
The further the subjects were from me, the harder it was to blur the background
I didn’t have the opportunity to test it with any teleconverters/extenders, but that wasn’t the aim of this field test.
Nikon’s 300mm f/4 PF is an amazing piece of equipment and if you don’t like heavy gear and you get plenty of opportunities to get close to animals, buying this lens is a no-brainer! Providing the distance to the animal is right, and you’ve got enough light, you can get results that match larger and longer prime lenses. I also love the fact that’s it’s got the same excellent build quality as well. In fact, I love this lens so much that I’ve ordered the 500mm PF as well…
This is one of my favourite photos taken with the 300mm PF during the field test
To see more of my wildlife photographs, follow me on Instagram: @villierssteyn and visit www.atclosequarters.com to learn more about my photographic safaris.