Nikon 300mm f/4 PF VR on Nikon D4 body
After waiting for what seemed like an eternity for the lens to be in stock, I finally received a call that a camera store had one in hand, and whether I wanted to buy it. My quick answer was "Of course I want to buy it, can you overnight it?!". The lens was in my hands on March 27th 2015 and I've now had it for a couple of weeks. While I haven't done enough shooting with the lens to write an in depth review, I thought I'd put together a few thoughts for those of you on the fence about buying one:
Size & Weight
Damn this thing is tiny (for a 300/4)! In size and weight, it's comparable to my 24-70mm f/2.8. It's slightly longer and slightly heavier, but not a significant difference at all. Definitely the lens to carry when small size and weight are a priority. The picture below shows how the 300 PF compares to the 70-200mm f/2.8 VR2 and the 24-70mm f/2.8 lenses.
Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR2, 300mm f/4 PF VR and 24-70mm f/4 VR compared
I would compare the build quality as closer to my 16/35mm VR than my 24-70. That is, from a distance it LOOKS like a metal tank of a lens, but as soon as you pick it up you figure out that the lens is mostly plastic. However, this is in keeping with the 'smaller & lighter' ethos of the lens so I can't say I fault Nikon for making this choice. That said, it does hurt a little that I just dropped close to two grand on a plastic lens :)
I haven't had a lot of time to shoot with this lens, so these comments are going to be very superficial. The image quality seems to be pretty good. However, I do see more chromatic aberration when images are zoomed in to 100% in Lightroom. Not sure if this has something to do with camera and/or Lightroom not correcting automatically for CA as the lens is too new to have a profile for it, or because the lens simply has more CA than some of my other lenses. More details will follow over the coming weeks as I get more time with the lens.
So far, I'm reasonably happy with my purchase and can't wait to shoot some more with it! I'll post a detailed review over the next couple of months after I have a lot more hands on experience...
Body & Handling
Overall, I think the ergonomics have been improved over theD3S and D3X bodies that it replaced. Here are some of the major changes and how they affect my shooting:
1. Dedicated video recording button - this is not really a big deal for me. Call me old fashioned, but I found that fumbling for yet another button to start recording a video was too much for me.I simply reprogrammed the shutter button to start and stop video recording while I'm in video mode, and therefore hardly use the video button now.
2. Thumb selector for portrait - this is a HUGE ergonomic improvement! When shooting in portrait mode I used to have to reach over to the main selector button whenever I wanted to change the active focus point, but not with the D4. Honestly, I don't know why Nikon couldn't do this on the D3/D3X series - they had this selector button on the D300/D700 grips when they were launched.
Thumb selector on the D4 (above the "mic" label)
3. New AF selector - there's a separate AF selector button just above the main selector button. Don't use this much.
4. Vertical grip 'thumb' nub - when shooting and carrying a camera for extended periods of time, your thumb's going to get a serious workout holding on to a heavy pro body. Nikon's previous generations of pro bodies had a small channel you could stick your thumb into, but the D4 has added a small rubber nub that's extremely useful when carrying the camera around using the portrait grip.
"Old" thumb channel on D3S (left) and "New" thumb nub on D4 (right)
5. Placement of AF-On buttons - there are two button AF-On buttons on the body, and both have been moved on the D4. The horizontal button has been moved to the left and farther away from your thumb. Those with small hands (like me!) now have to stretch their thumbs a little more to reach the AF-On button. Not a huge deal, but annoying after a couple of hours' shooting. The AF-On button in vertical mode (see image above) is inconsistent compared to the position of the horizontal button - in vertical mode you need to reach across and lower, with the result that you have to consciously remember whether you're shooting portrait or landscape when you reach over for the AF-On button. Once again, not a big deal, but ergonomics are one of the primary reasons we buy these expensive bodies and for a $6,000 camera I think Nikon should have paid a little more attention. That said, it's an improvement over the D3-series bodies that had the AF button ABOVE the dial!
6. Focus mode / AF area mode buttons - previous generations of Nikon bodies had an AF area mode selector to switch between the different AF area modes that looked like this:
Nikon D3S AF Area Mode Selector
AF modes (Continuous, Single, Manual) were selected using this:
Nikon D3S AF Mode Selector
Both these functions have now been replaced by a single button (see image below), which when used with the front and rear dials allow you to spin through the AF modes and AF area modes. In practice, it's a little easier to use after you get used to it so I'll call this an improvement.
Nikon D4 AF Mode & Area Mode Selector
7. Live View Selector - the D4 has a selector that you can use to switch whether the LiveView is launched for video or stills. A little more intuitive, so another small win here.
8. Shutter button angle - Nikon mad a big deal about this at launch, stating that the D4 and D800 had more steeply raked shutter buttons that make it more comfortable to use. To be honest, I can't really see a big difference.
Overall, I think the body ergonomics have been improved in small but significant ways, and this makes the D4 easier to use on long, multi-hour shoots.
The ability to autofocus with the central 9 sensors at down to f/8 is a pretty useful feature for me. When shooting songbirds you generally need all the magnification you can get, and I occasionally even use the 600mm f/4 lens with a 2X teleconverter. In good light, AF is usable with the D4 as long as the bird isn't in brush or moving too fast. See my article here evaluating the optical performance of the Nikon 600mm f/4 VR / TC-20EIII combo.
AF speed seems to be slightly better than the D3S, but strangely enough I seem to have a few more AF misses in flight photography than before. I haven't conducted a back to back scientific test (sold the D3S last year) and my strategy for flight photography has changed (moved from single AF sensor to Dynamic Area) so this is not a definitive opinion. I'll update this article as I learn more.
Frame Rate & Buffer
The improved frame rate (9>10FPS) over the D3S is no big deal. The larger buffer is. The D4 has more than double the RAW buffer of the D3S, and all I can say is that I've never hit the buffer on the D4. Did manage to hit the D3S buffer a few times though.
Video features are much improved over the D3S. I'm not a heavy video user, but I've started shooting a decent amount of video this year and can appreciate the improvements. The obvious improvement is the 1080p mode along with the choice of 24, 30 and 60FPS frame rates (though you can only get to 60FPS by reducing resolution to 720p). An equally important addition however is the ability to change crop mode. The D4 allows you to shoot in 1x, 1.5X and 2.7X crop modes. I use prime lenses 90% of the time, and the crop mode means that I can change the crop mode to get different perspectives of the same scene, allowing me to mix these in post processing and make the videos look more varied while maintaining consistent quality.
I'd also like to comment on the audio features along with the video as that's where the audio is used. The addition of a microphone jack is important because the standard microphone picks up a lot of autofocus, electrical and general vibration and handling noises. I use a Zoom H4N recorder as a mic, and pass a heavily amped signal into the D4. More on the H4N in a separate post.
Dual card slots are par for the course in the D4. The addition of the XQD slot is not a big deal to me - I just bought a large XQD card and called it a day. It seems comparable to or faster than the Lexar 1000X CF cards I use, so it's a win.
The high ISO performance and dynamic range of this camera are spectacular! However, I wouldn't say it has made a giant leap in this category over the D3S - it seems to be the same per pixel ISO performance or a little better, with the added benefit of more megapixels.
I'm going to make a pretty controversial statement here - I wish the D4 had more megapixels! Before you start lighting up the torches and polishing the pitchforks, let me explain why. I really don't need more than 16 megapixels in a given image most of the time, but what I do wish for are the same megapixels more densely packed into the middle of the frame whenever I shoot smaller birds (songbirds, etc.) I find myself turning to the D800 whenever the light is reasonable and I'm shooting these kind of subjects and using the in-camera crop to get that extra reach. For the D4 to be my perfect wildlife body, I guess I'm asking for a 1.2-1.3x crop factor with 16 megapixels or so.
Apart from that, I'm pretty happy with the image quality of the D4 - it seems to have that perfect blend of fantastic any-light performance, good image quality and a reasonably sized raw file that doesn't try to drown my computer.
You'll probably wonder why I'm devoting a whole section to this seemingly inconsequential feature, but believe me this feature has changed how I set exposure 90% of the time. In the old days (pre-D300/D700/D3) we had no auto ISO and I used Aperture Priority mode, setting the aperture to achieve the desired depth of field and then manually setting the ISO to get a shutter speed I was comfortable with. The advent of auto ISO allowed us to set the range for ISO and minimum shutter speed and let the camera decide what to set the ISO at in Aperture Priority mode, but I didn't use this feature much as the maximum ISO settings were in stops and the jumps were too high. In addition, a single minimum shutter speed wouldn't work on zoom lenses where you need a different shutter speed at 70mm compared to 200mm for example. I therefore ended up using the D300/D700/D3 generation of cameras with manual ISO. The auto ISO function in the D4 and D800 has addressed these problems, though not perfectly.
Maximum ISO can now be set in thirds of a stop, which completely solves that issue. The minimum shutter speed can be set as an inverse of focal length - for example if I set it to 0 and shoot with a 200mm lens, the ISO is automatically increased until it achieves a shutter peed of 1/200th of a second. If I set it to +1 and shoot with the same lens, it raises the ISO until a shutter speed of 1/400 is achieved. So this feature now works well with zooms lenses too.
However, all is not perfect yet with this feature. Let's take an example of a shooting session that includes multiple types of birds. When shooting songbirds sitting in trees, I'm comfortable going down to 1/300 with a 600mm lens and will set the minimum shutter speed at -1. Suddenly, if I see a heron coming in for a landing I need a much faster shutter speed and the auto ISO feature is buried 3 levels into the Nikon menu system. The result? A heron with blurry wings, or a missed shot as I fiddle with settings. What I'd really like is to be able to set the shutter speed just like the exposure compensation using a small dedicated dial that has a range from -2 to +2. For that, I would buy the Nikon D5! Nikon, are you listening?!!!
I'm very happy with my purchase of the D4. It's my wildlife camera of choice for low light and action photography, and despite it's size and weight has become the camera we carry with us to take family pictures and videos. It's build like a tank (though it also weighs as much as one!) and can pretty much take any shooting situation in stride. The ergonomics are mostly better, as are the video and image quality. It's an evolution of the D3S rather than a revolutionary camera, and I for one am not disappointed by the fact that Nikon took the safe approach of not fixing what wasn't broken. Please post your thoughts and comment below, or let me know if there are any other aspects of the camera you'd like me to comment on...
Nikon D800 (left) and Nikon D4 (right) sample images side by side
As you can see above, the D800 image contains significantly more data. In good light and with good technique, the D800 offers a significant cropping advantage over the D4, and this can't be disregarded for wildlife. Of course, occasions where a wildlife photographer finds good light and perfect conditions are few and far between, so the D800 won't win this fight that easily even in terms of image quality! I'll be posting more comparison articles over the next few weeks, dealing with areas like noise and ergonomics.
Links to the original images are below; I've exported them directly from the RAW files using Lightroom with no sharpening or any other changes. Please feel free to check them out and share your own thoughts at the bottom of this page. Thanks!
Sample image from Nikon D4
Sample image from Nikon D800
Full image with the bare 600mm lens @ f/5.6 (click on the image for full size)
100% crop with bare 600mm lens @ f/5.6
The bare 600mm is pretty darn sharp - the detail on the fence post is captured pretty well. No surprises here then...
Full image with the TC-17EII Teleconverter mounted on the 600mm lens@ f/8 (click on the image for full size)
100% crop with the TC-17EII Teleconverter mounted on the 600mm lens@ f/8
In the past, I've seen the TC-17 deliver a bigger image without necessarily resolving more detail than the bare lens at the same distance, especially on the 70-200mm f/2.8 VR (version 1). No such complaints here - the quality of the glass on the 600 shines through and really delivers a sharp, usable image. The compromise in aperture hasn't been a big deal for me YET - the D800 seems to take it in stride and focuses swiftly and surely. However, busy backgrounds can still throw it off so you need to give focus a manual tweak every now and then.
Full image with the TC-20EIII Teleconverter mounted on the 600mm lens @ f/10 (click on the image for full size)
100% with the TC-20EIII Teleconverter mounted on the 600mm lens @ f/10
With the TC-20, the image in the viewfinder and on the sensor is certainly bigger, but it looks to be like the detailed resolved is similar to the TC-17. Contrast also seems to take a slight hit. Overall, a decent performance but it loses you more light than the TC-17, slows down AF a little and doesn't really resolve any more detail.
I'm pretty happy with the results the 600mm and TC-17 provide, and can safely say that I'll use this combo whenever I need the reach and don't need the AF speed. I wouldn't say that the AF is speed is bad, but I'm not sure it'll be up to handling birds in flight.
I've always sworn by the performance of the TC-20EIII teleconverter on the 400/2.8, but it looks like the 600 doesn't work as well with this teleconverter. The results are certainly usable, but doesn't provide enough of an advantage over the TC-17 to recommend it. The allure of 1200mm is still too much to resist though, so I'll continue doing more field testing before I discount this combo.
What do you think? Any thoughts and comments are welcome!
D800 ISO 400
D3S ISO 400
I can see a little luminance noise in the D800 image, but nothing that would bother me. The D3S file looks clean.
D800 ISO 800
D3S ISO 800
ISO 1600 A little more luminance noise in the D800, but still very well controlled and perfectly acceptable, even for very large prints. The D3S is showing some noise, but it's so minute that you need to stick your face in the monitor to see it!
D800 ISO 1,600
D3S ISO 1,600
The D3S is just warming up, while the D800 is noisier. The noise though is limited to luminance and isn't that hard to get rid of in post processing. On the D800, this ISO is about as high as I would comfortably go for wildlife photography.
D800 ISO 3,200
D3S ISO 3,200
ISO 6400 The D800 gets noisier and some of the fine detail is being blurred at this point. The D3S is humming a tune and picking its nails while still taking incredible pictures in near darkness. Now that's style!
D800 ISO 6,400
D3S ISO 6,400
The D800 is breathing hard now, with lots of noise, loss of dynamic range and loss of more fine detail. The D3S on the other hand just realized that it's actually in a comparison test! It shows some noise but nothing that can't be cleaned up in post.
D800 ISO 12,800
D3S ISO 12,800
ISO 25600 The D800 is well out of its depth by 25,600 ISO - it's noisy, fine details are all but gone and colors, contrast and dynamic range are suffering visibly. It looks rather like a poorly executed Pointilist painting! The D3S is showing significant luminance noise, precluding this sensitivity for any critical work that'll be printed at large sizes.
D800 ISO 25,600
D3S ISO 25,600
Summary The D800 is perfectly usable for wildlife photography up to ISO 3,200. WHAT? ISO 3200? YES. It's that good! Incredible performance from a camera that many people say is only for use on tripods in controlled lighting circumstances. The D3S maintains fantastic quality right up a little over ISO 6,400, but I'd stop short of using 12,800 for critical work. As the ISO's climb over 3,200, I'd say the D3S is a 1-1.5 stops better than the D800. What was surprising about both cameras was that most of the noise was luminance noise, which to me is not as objectionable as the considerably more difficult to remove chroma noise (those ugly red, blue and green splotches).
This whole test has been based on a pixel level noise comparison, but we're ignoring one key factor here - the D800 has THREE times as many pixels as the D3S!!! To conduct an apples to apples comparison, I resized the D800 image to 12MP, and applied some sharpening and noise reduction to both images. Take a look at the results:
D800 ISO 12,800 - noise reduction & sharpening applied via Lightroom 4
D3S ISO 12,800 - noise reduction & sharpening applied via Lightroom 4
Can you tell a difference? I certainly think they're pretty comparable in terms of noise. So what I see is that the D800 has identical ISO performance to the D3S at ISO 12,800 IF you're willing to spend 15 seconds in Lightroom dragging the noise slider! On top of that, even downsized to 12MP you can see that the D800 is resolving a little more detail. Amazing!
Overall recommendation (based purely on ISO performance) If you shoot a LOT of images in low light and don't want to spend hours in post processing, the D3S is the clear winner here. However, if you shoot in both good and bad light and don't mind spending a little time working on your low light images, the sheer flexibility of the D800 will serve you better. I hope this review has been useful to you, and please feel free to leave comments or ask questions.
The HSM motor in the seems pretty fast especially for such a long lens. It's a hair slower than a Nikon 400mm f/2.8 with a 2X teleconverter, but the difference isn't significant. The low light conditions I normally shoot in cause almost any long lens to hunt, but the Sigma didnt seem any worse than other big lenses I've used.
You'll know by now that I'm a big fan of the Nikon 400mm f/2.8 lens, which coupled with a 2X teleconverter has been my primary long lens for a few years now. I shot the lenses side by side and the images below are 100% crops from the center of the image.
So can you guess which picture is from the Sigma and which is from the Nikon? The first one is from the Sigma and the second one's from the Nikon. You can make your own conclusions, but to my eyes the Nikon is quite a bit sharper. This couldn't have been due to lens shake as multiple shots were taken locked down on a tripod with 1/400 sec+ shutter speeds. Ignore the lighting differences as the sun went behind some clouds as I was shooting with the Nikon.
Stopping down seemed to help make the Sigma's output a little crisper, but not by much.
I've been asked a few times why my reviews of long lenses stick to analyzing just the center of the image in a field setting. Wouldn't shots of a test chart in perfect studio lighting conditions provide a much better guide to lens sharpness? I don't doubt it. I'm almost always shooting in bad light and less than ideal conditions, so performance in a studio setting means nothing to me. Also I hardly every put anything in the corners of the image so corners sharpness doesn't mean much either for a long lens.
Size & Weight
The picture below shows the Sigma 300-800 compared to the Nikon 400 (with 2X TC). They're both big lenses, but the Sigma is a few inches longer and a few pounds heavier. It's definitely enough to feel on a day in the field.
The Sigmonster is a very specialized tool for a specialized application. It's calling card is the sheer flexibility of the zooming. In my experience the greatest benefit is in zooming out to 300mm, finding the subject, and quickly zooming in to 800mm. Having missed great shots in the past due to being a split second late in finding the target, I can't stress enough how important this is.
On the downside, you do trade some size and sharpness disadvantages for this flexibility - some of the name brand prime lenses are noticeably sharper and weigh less to boot. Is this lens the right one for you? If you need the zooming flexibility in a super telephoto lens and don't mind carrying around a gargantuan lens, this might be the one!
An example of good Bokeh - the background is a blurred, soft wash of color and emphasizes the subject
Bad Bokeh - the branches in the background detract focus from the subject
Body & Handling
I've always preferred a larger body whenever I've used a camera for any period of time. When I sold the D700 and moved to the D300S, I simply transferred the grip from the D700 over to the D300. The camera becomes a dream to use with the grip attached. I recently had a chance to use a Nikon D3, and to me the D300 had two major advantages:
1. Additional focus point selector - the D3 has one method to select the focus point, which is done by using the directional pad. Great for landscape mode, but change over to portait mode and your thumb can't quite reach it. This is a problem in real world shooting, especially for me - I need to be able to change the focus point without taking my hand off the camera. The D300S has an additional directional joystick that can be used in portrait mode.
2. The portrait grip just seems to have a little more meat to it than the D3, making it a tad more comfortable for long periods of use.
Autofocus is a critical part of bird photography. Low light, small subjects, an 800mm effective focal length and f/5.6 aperture would be challenging for ANY camera. I'd say the autofocus in the D300 is adequate. It's certainly better than the D200, but probably a tad slower than the D700. After using a D3 for a bit, I can say than the D3 wins hands down and just seems to lock on effortlessly. That said, focus seems to be accurate, and maybe my expectations of this camera are too high!
Something I really liked moving from the D700 to the D300S was the increase in base frame rate from 5FPS to 7FPS. I feel that this frame rate is adequate for wildlife photography, though I'd jump at the chance to up this to 9-10FPS!
The 1.5x crop factor is the DEFINING factor of this camera for me. Compared to a pro full-frame body like the D3 or D4, I have slower FPS, worse low light performance, slower AF and worse battery life. However, locking the D300S onto a small songbird and getting that frame filling shot because of the crop factor sometimes more than makes up for it!
Image quality from this camera is great, until you get into serious wildlife photography. The majority of this type of photography is done either just after sunrise or just before sunset in pretty low light levels. The ability to shoot at high ISO's with reasonable noise levels is a pretty big deal for wildlife photographers. I used to shoot this camera at a max ISO of 800 as this was as much noise as I was willing to put up with. However, I've recently started using Adobe Lightroom for noise removal and man DOES THIS FEATURE ROCK! I'm now ok with shooting upto ISO 1,000-1,250 knowing that I can get rid of the noise in Lightroom without destroying any detail.
The D300S has served me well over the years and it really is a fantastic camera for all-round use, and a very special camera for the bird photographer. That said, I'm eagerly awaiting the arrival of the D400(or whatever its replacements will be called. Check out my blog post on the D400 wish list for more of my thoughts!
Image Quality & Performance
This lens delivers amazingly sharp pictures with good support and long lens technique. Bokeh is unbelievable and really makes the subjects pop. I coupled the lens with the Nikon TC-20EII 2X teleconverter for the first few months that I had it. The results were good but not great - I felt that the compromise in image quality was a little too much. Upgrading to the TC-20EIII teleconverter made a world of difference; I stop down by 1/3 to 2/3 stop for an effective aperture of f/7.1 and the resulting images are tack sharp. Check out the detail on the Dragonfly's wings below (this is a crop of about 10% of the original image):
Eastern Phoebe with Dragonfly
This is also probably the fastest focusing lens I have ever used - it's fast, sure and is a dream to use. However, I rarely use this lens without the 2x teleconverter, and adding the teleconverter sometimes makes the AF hunt a little in low light. However, this and the Nikon 300mm f/2.8 are probably the only lenses that can handle a 2X TC with such ease.
Here are my contributions to the big VR argument - I haven't attempted a scientific test but from what I've seen, using the VR in NORMAL mode it doesn't seem to hurt the images any! How's that for a cop-out?! Seriously, the only time I switch off VR is when I'm doing video - VR makes it sound like you're shooting from inside your local laundromat.
This is one serious lens - both price wise and in the commitment required to use it. However, all this pales into insignificance when you finally snap that picture of a beautiful songbird in perfect focus with the background a soft, dreamy wash of color. For anyone who hasn't used one of Nikon's big lenses, here's my recommendation : rent one - you'll fall in love and eventually buy one!
Nikon 50mm f/1.8 nestled inside the lens hood of the 600