Many have called me a retro pioneer, others, a glutton for punishment. Either way you may feel about my choice on using manual-focus lenses for sports photography (and photography in general), the Nikon 300mm f/2.8 AI-s ED is highly capable of some stunning photographs, even on today’s digital cameras.
Lenses such as this in the “exotic” category have been hyped up enough on their own with their fast apertures and long focal lengths (and cost at the time of release), so instead let’s move onto the main review!
Full Name: Nikon 300mm 1:2.8 AI-s ED
Dimensions: 12 inches/305mm long (hood extended), 5.4 inches/137mm in diameter, with an extremely heavy weight of 5.3 pounds/2.4kg (with another ounce or two from the attached strap).
Close-Focus: Marked at 10 feet/3 meters. You can’t really get any closer, and this lens is by no means a macro lens.
Miscellaneous: 9 straight-bladed aperture, stopping down to f/22, 122mm front protection plate (no filter thread), 2 big elements of ED glass to suppress CA’s, built-in telescoping hood, focus click-stop, rear drop-in 39mm filter holder, rotating tripod collar, metal mount, carrying strap, leatherette front cap. This particular version (produced from 1986-2005) is actually the lightest 300mm f/2.8 Nikon has ever made. Go figure.
The Nikon 300mm f/2.8 AI-s ED is one of those ginormous long and large-aperture optics that turn any camera attached into a mere accessory. It’s so massive, handheld shooting is nearly impossible due to the huge front elements shifting the center of gravity forwards. It’s so heavy, simply carrying it around for a shooting session longer than 15 minutes becomes a workout. It’s so long (with an even longer 450mm super telephoto FoV on APS-C, 600mm on m4/3), the only way to reliably get accurate focus is to shoot on a monopod/tripod. It’s built so well, in the event of dropping the lens, you’d break whatever it falls on well before any significant damage is done to the 300mm.
In other words, this lens is about as ridiculous as they come, and it’s really not a bad thing.
As far as operation, I couldn’t be happier as long as the lens is on a monopod/tripod to take the weight (and camera shake) off. Focusing is smooth (all internally, helping keep dust out of the lens), the aperture ring glides between apertures, and the telescoping hood has threads both at the base and in the extended position to lock into place. When transporting, use the attached strap, rather than the camera’s neck strap. This will help reduce the strain on the mounts. The focus click-stop underneath the front lens assembly can be locked into a certain position on the focus ring, giving tactile feedback when a chosen focus zone is hit. Personally I just move it out of the way. The rotating tripod collar is perfect, loosening and tightening up with only one oversized screw. Once locked in, it’s not going anywhere.
Oh, and just like every AI-s lens, everything is made of metal or glass, save for the rubber focus ring and carrying strap.
The big question here, why would someone in their right mind use a huge lens like this instead of more compact zooms that end up at f/5.6 at 300mm? Three reasons:
- Higher shutter speeds/lower ISOs, important to capture fast action while keeping digital noise at a minimum.
- Peak performance at a much larger aperture, important to pixel peepers who need the best performance at reasonable shutter speeds.
- Vastly superior depth-of-field control at long distances, important in creating extreme subject separation.
To illustrate that last point, here’s a couple boring shots of a plant, located about 50 feet from the camera:
If you are looking for a bargain, you aren’t likely to find it in the 300mm f/2.8. These regularly sell on eBay for well over a grand. Like new and mint condition copies can run as high as $1500, while “beaters” still sell for around $700. Keep in mind the modern autofocus version of this lens sells for $5700. Is autofocus really worth $4000 more? I obviously don’t think so.
As I mentioned in my first impressions, the Nikon 300mm f/2.8 is one of my favorite optics. Just like my 105mm f/1.8, this lens enables me to capture images in a way no slower zoom can. Optically speaking, I haven’t found any real issues with the 300mm in real-world use. Sure, it’s not perfect, as wide open there’s still a small amount of purple fringing (despite the ED glass), and there is a tiny bit of flare in the worst conditions. Other than that, optical performance is outstanding in nearly every respect. The 300mm isn’t a cheap lens, but is a great example of “you get what you pay for”.
Though sharpness is supposed to be only a small component in a lens’ performance, many feel it is the deciding factor between a good or bad optic. I personally fall somewhere in the middle. I love seeing pixel-level sharpness (especially with a 24MP sensor), but it isn’t terribly important that all my shots are sharp when viewing at 100% on screen. With the 300mm, sharpness is always high (at the larger apertures) with great contrast. Focus shift isn’t a problem and field curvature isn’t noticeable. The real limit to sharpness will be your ability to nail focus, the depth of field at f/2.8 is super shallow at most focus distances. The following chart was used to assess sharpness and contrast.
First up, some 100% crops (meaning, clicking on them won’t make them bigger) from the center by aperture:
Starting out wide-open, there is plenty of detail present (surprising for the focal length and aperture), but contrast is severely lacking due to veiling haze. Thankfully, while sharpness can’t be helped too much in post, contrast can. Stopped down only once, detail in the center is very sharp, with good contrast to boot. By f/5.6, optimum contrast and sharpness have been reached, and it truly is razor-sharp. F/8 is about the same as f/5.6 (perhaps a bit worse), and diffraction comes into effect from f/11 on, degrading both sharpness and contrast. F/22 looks very bad. Then again, why would you purchase a 300mm f/2.8 to shoot at f/22?
Onto corner 100% crops by aperture:
Corner performance on long, fast legacy glass (designed to cover “full frame” 35mm film/sensors) is typically very good on APS-C and smaller sensors, as more of the center of the lens is used for the perceived corners. The 300mm f/2.8 fits within this norm well, even wide-open, there is no detail smearing. Due to some vignetting and veiling haze, detail and contrast seem lacking, but the corners here at f/2.8 are better in most ways than the corners at optimum aperture with the 28mm E! At f/4, detail and contrast improve to a good degree, and at f/5.6, detail and contrast have peaked. Unfortunately, detail in the corners with the 300mm never gets anywhere close to the performance in the centers, but it’s no big deal–rarely are the corners in focus anyway when used for portraits (headshots in particular) or when trying to center a baseball player in the frame. From f/8 on, diffraction sets in taking a hit on contrast and sharpness, and at f/22, detail is again pretty mushy.
For critical pixel-level work, I would stick to f/5.6 for any and everything. For optimum depth of field control and high shutter speeds, f/2.8 is pretty great even zoomed in–I shoot at this aperture most of the time.
Sharpness at Infinity
The only way to focus at true infinity with the 300mm f/2.8 is to either find a cliff to photograph a far-off town, or to shoot at the moon. Since my area of Kentucky is hilly, rather than “cliffy”, I chose the latter. The optimum aperture of f/5.6 carries over to this focus distance, and the difference in detail between the razor-sharp centers and slightly dull corners is visible in these unedited 100% crops. At this magnification, you can see the heat shimmer from the reflecting sun rays on the right side of the moon.
For astrophotography, f/5.6 is your aperture!
Sharpness at Macro
As mentioned, the 300mm f/2.8 is by no means a macro lens, despite this later AI-s version focusing the closest of all the other manual-focus 300mms by Nikon. For the times you need to get close though, knowing what works best is important.
It’s great to see the overall consistency in sharpness at all focus distances. At macro, f/5.6 is almost as good as f/8, the only difference between the two is contrast.
“Bokeh” is an artistic term of Japanese origin for the character of anything in the image that is not in focus. Smooth bokeh, where out of focus objects and highlights seem to “melt” into the background, is typically favorable. With the 300mm, bokeh in most respects is great. Thanks to the focal length and large aperture, out of focus backgrounds are extremely blurry, but in this lens’ case, are also rendered smoothly.
By aperture (these are NOT 100% crops):
With the exception of doubling in near-focus-point foreground bokeh (second from right) at f/2.8 and close foreground bokeh (far right) at f/8, bokeh is smooth everywhere. The extremely blurred-out backgrounds at f/2.8-4 are especially welcome, creating a 3-D effect on objects that are in focus even at a distance.
Now, let’s take a look at how the 300mm handles out of focus highlights. To assess this characteristic, a sparkled decoration was photographed out of focus to get as many different colored point sources of light as possible. By aperture:
Another great feature of the 300mm f/2.8 is its handling of out-of-focus highlights at large apertures. Wide-open to f/5.6, most highlights have soft edges and are artifact-free. Only when stopped down from f/8 on do the brighter highlights begin to show obvious outer rings and artifacts. If bokeh highlights are a concern to your photography, shy away from using apertures smaller than f/8, they get progressively worse at each f/stop. Though…with the loss in sharpness and contrast, I wouldn’t want to use those apertures anyway.
A form of chromatic abberation (a type of distortion where certain colors do not hit the image sensor at the same convergence point), purple fringing is typically seen in fast lenses at their wider apertures when shooting scenes of high contrast, such as branches against sky. Though purple fringing can be cleaned up very well in post processing nowadays, it is still an important point to take into consideration if one either doesn’t have the time to post process, or has purple objects in the frame that does not want to be desaturated. To assess purple fringing, I used this (boring) scene of high contrast:
The big elements of ED glass do their job well here, purple fringing even at the exotic f/2.8 aperture appears more as a haze than obvious purple discoloration. Anyway, here’s a quick 15-second adjustment in Lightroom 4 to correct for the fringing:
Next I would usually make a point about other purple and green longitudinal chromatic aberrations with this lens, tinging objects out of focus both in the foreground and background. Thanks again to the ED elements, there’s nothing to worry about (at least, they aren’t noticeable in actual shooting).
I was a little worried with regards to flare with the 300mm, despite it having Nikon’s excellent multi-coatings. The biggest worry is due to the huge front element. The whole point of it is to capture as much light as possible for the f/2.8 aperture speed, but it is more prone to capture off-camera sources of light as well. Great news though, flare performance is quite good with the 300mm (with hood extended, I wouldn’t use it any other way).
In just the wrong conditions…
What I’m getting at here, don’t ever worry about flare artifacts, though with the sun (or a strong light source) in the frame, contrast heavily decreases from veiling flare. Nikon actually sold a lens hood (HE-4) to put on the built-in hood to probably help alleviate veiling flare. And yes, it looks rather ridiculous.
Vignetting is the look of darkened corners as a result of shooting near the wide open aperture (sometimes photographers add vignetting in post processing for effect). Most full-frame designed lenses tend to have little to no vignetting when used on APS-C or smaller sensors. The 300mm does a super job here with little vignetting even wide open:
One of the many advantages of using prime lenses over zooms is to usually observe less distortion, especially with wide-angle and telephoto lenses. The 300mm does extremely well here, with only a bit of pincushion distortion. If you are picky, an adjustment of -1 to the distortion correction slider in LR4 will correct the small amount there is at closer focusing distances. As the lens is focused towards infinity, the distortion (or lack thereof) goes away.
Now…let’s hit the old recap on this exotic optic.
Pros and Cons
- Stellar build quality, a true masterpiece of mechanical construction by Nikon
- Smooth operation in all respects
- Internal focusing helps keep dust and other unwanted particles out of the lens
- Sharpness is consistently great from f/2.8-8 (contrast from f/4-8), with corner sharpness being very good all-around as well. The optimum aperture for sharpness and contrast across the frame is f/5.6, only two stops down from wide-open.
- Consistent performance at all focus distances
- Out-of-focus areas are not only extremely out-of-focus at the larger apertures, but the quality of the bokeh is almost always smooth
- Bokeh highlights are great from f/2.8-5.6
- Purple fringing and other LoCAs are a non-issue even wide open in real-world shooting thanks to the ED elements, it has less fringing than the 180mm f/2.8 AI-s ED
- Flare artifacts rarely show up in photographs
- Vignetting is a non-issue
- There is no real distortion
- With its exotic f/2.8 aperture, the amount of depth-of-field control is superb compared to zooms or other primes with slower f/5.6 maximum apertures. Having two stops more light to hit the sensor means higher shutter speeds to freeze action easier, as well as the ability to keep ISOs as low as possible.
- Sporting an optical construction of 8 elements in 6 groups, the 300mm f/2.8 AI-s probably has more light transmission than the modern 300mm f/2.8s with their design of 11 elements in 8 groups
- The only faster 300mm is the $25,000 Nikon 300mm f/2 AI-s ED. Good luck finding one and being able to afford it.
- You will break whatever or whoever the lens hits in the event of dropping it. The lens itself should still be okay.
- Unless you have Olympian arms and shoulders, handheld shooting longer than 5 minutes is next to impossible
- Corners never sharpen up to the level of the center
- Bokeh highlights from f/8 on are distracting
- Veiling flare is very strong. Despite not suffering from flare artifacts, avoid shooting with the sun or other bright light sources in the frame
- Nailing critical focus at f/2.8 is a challenge even with focus peaking and magnification. The single focus confirmation dot on cameras such as the Nikon d300 are never accurate enough.
- Even as a 20 year-old lens, bargains are difficult to find. Most sellers on eBay are outside the U.S., too.
The Bottom Line
When I was deciding on going through with the purchase of this now-ancient optic, I was rather hesitant. “Do I really want to give this a gamble, using a clunky manual-focus lens for fast-action sports on a compact mirrorless?” Thankfully in a few practice games I nailed my methods on accurately using this lens for its purpose. Is this the ideal lens for long distance general-photography? NO! Unless of course you don’t mind hauling it around with your monopod or tripod. That said, the Nikon 300mm f/2.8 AI-s ED is an absolute stunning performer in most all respects, giving images a 3-D pop that isn’t possible to obtain with other lenses. Compared to its autofocus younger brothers, this lens is a steal, and one that will have a place in my photography for a long time to come. Back in the film days, this was the professional 300mm–even today it hasn’t lost any of its quality. For APS-C cameras, this lens is dynamite in every way. For m4/3 cameras, I would only use this with some form of IBIS; at 600mm equivalent FoV, good luck keeping everything steady, even on a tripod!
To wrap things up here are a couple more recent captures with the lens, a little abstract if you will:
But I couldn’t resist a few of my still-favorite sports pictures captured with this lens from last spring:
Well…that’s all for this one guys and gals, nice to take a break and have a look at a “real” Nikkor during my continuing journey with the Series-Es. Up next will be the Series-E zooms. Should be interesting, it feels like I haven’t used a zoom lens in ages.
Thanks for dropping by, C&C welcome, and as always, have a great one!