Nikon Nikkor 300mm f/4.5 Ai-S

Introduction

Nikon Nikkor 300mm f/4.5 AiS is a traditional, manual 'everything' lens, manufactured by Nikon from early 80s through mid 90s. The 300mm prime has gone through at least through half a dozen revisions, with the first version of the lens, Nikon Nikkor 300mm f/4.5 P first released in mid 60s, but quickly replaced by an improved Nikkor 300mm f/4.5 H in 1969. That lens was in turn replaced by an AI variant circa 1977. In addition to thetraditional focus 300mm lens, Nikon used to manufacture a number of IF (Internlal Focus) 300mm primes, including Nikkor 300mm f/4.5 IF and later Nikkor 300mm f/4.5 ED IF. The AiS version, reviewed here, was eventually phased out in favor of a slightly faster auto-focus variant, AF Nikkor 300mm f/4D. The AiS versions of the lens are quite common these days on used markets, with good quality copies fetching ~US$250 (as of September 2008).

The optical construction of the lens consists of 6 elements in 5 groups - nothing fancy, compared to modern super telephotos. The build quality of the lens is superb - all metal barrel, retractable metal lens hood, rubberized focus ring, metal lens mount - 'built to last' is the best description that comes to mind here. The focusing ring is pretty broad and very comfortable to grip. The ring is a little bit tight to operate, although it is not quite clear whether this is due to the age of the lens or the original designers' intention. Despite the all metal construction, the lens is 'moderately' bulky and heavy (for a telephoto lens that is) - it measures 79 x 202mm (3 x 7.95in) and weighs 990g (2.1lb). The lens actually extends during focusing, almost doubling in length. With the lens hood also extended, the lens looks monstrous even on such a bulky camera as Nikon D3.

As any other AiS lens, Nikon Nikkor 300mm f/4.5 AiS sports a conventional aperture ring, which moves from f/4.5 to f/32 in one full f-stop increments. The lens supports automatic aperture indexing, allowing for shutter priority and program modes. The lens accepts 72mm screw-in type filters and since the front element of the lens does not rotate, photographers can use polarizing filters without any problems. The minimum focusing distance for the lens is 3.5m (12ft).

Image

Considering that the Nikkor 30mm f/4.5 AiS is a traditional lens designed for 35mm cameras, when it is used on an APS-C camera with 1.5x crop factor its field of view will resemble that of a 450mm prime on a full frame body. Like any Nikon F lenses, Nikkor 300mm  f/4.5 AiS is easily adaptable to a number of alternative mounts, including Canon EF/EF-S and Olympus Four Thirds. Obviously, you will have to use the lens in manual or aperture priority mode.

 

Summary
Lens Composition 6 elements in 5 groups
Angular Field ~8 degrees
Minimum Focus 3.5m/12ft
Focusing Action MF
f-stop Scale f/4.5-f/32, camera/manual
Filter Size 72mm
Lens Hood Built-in
Weight 990kg/2.1lb
Dimensions 78.5x202mm/3x7.95"
Lens Case CL-20A (included)

 

Field Tests

The first thing that cames to mind after mounting the lens to Nikon D3 is that it is pretty darn long (physically), especially with the barrel fully extended when the lens is focused towards closeup. Not that the lens is the longest or the heaviest of them all, (actually, the newer AF version of the 300mm prime is both longer as well as heavier) but it is long and heavy enough to make hand-held photography somewhat of a hassle. Try holding a combination of an already bulky D3 and this lens and at the same time trying to manual focus this lens and you would quickly develop a full appreciation for an auto-focus. Quick focusing with this lens is practically out of question. The focusing ring rotates for about 200 degrees when the lens is focused from the infinity to the closeup distance, and considering that you need to use both of your hands holding the camera/lens combo, you will end up rotating the focusing ring with your thumb and index finger - how fast can you do that? Probably not fast enough to track a moving target. There are individuals who claim they can take great pictures with 300mm primes hand-held at 1/150sec or even 1/80sec. If you belong to this group, you might be able to use the Nikon Nikkor 300mm f/4.5 AiS hand-held and achieve great results. But for the rest of us, using a tripod and even presetting the lens would probably be a more prudent option.

Overall, the lens produced rather average performance in the field. Images lacked a pop and image resolution was pretty weak throughout the frame. The worst part was that the image quality did not really improved with stopped down apertures - actually there did not seem to be any significant visible improvement between images short at f/4.5 and say f/8 or f/11. Furthermore, there was no visible difference in image quality between shots taken at the closeup distance vs the infinity.

 

ISO 400, 1/25, f/4.5, 300mm (Nikon D3)
ISO 400, 1/25, f/4.5, 300mm (Nikon D3)

 

Surprisingly for such a long, and relatively slow lens, Nikon Nikkor 300mm f/4.5 AiS showed a pretty noticeable vignetting on a full frame camera when shot with a wide open aperture. Vignetting actually continued to persist at f/5.6 and completely disappeared only at f/8, which is quite discouraging. Traces of vignetting were also visible even on an APS-C camera, whose smaller image sensor is typically more forgiving of vignetting. The lens showed minor degree of vignetting at f/4.5 as well as f/5.6, which f/8 being completely clear of the artifact.

 

Vignetting @ f/4.5 - full frame vs 1.6x crop (300mm)
Vignetting @ f/4.5 - full frame vs 1.6x crop (300mm)

 

On the positive side, Nikon Nikkor 300mm f/4.5 AiS showed pretty decent handling of flare. With a strong direct light source positioned directly within or near the picture frame, the lens showcased pretty usual reduction in the overall image contrast throughout the aperture range. This can be noticeable from the shots below, taken at f/4.5 and f/8. While the images look bleak and lifeless, this can be considered typical for the majority lenses since very few primes, telephotos or wides, can deal with flare any better. At least there are no visible signs of flare or ghosting, which can be considered to be a good sign.

 

 

Left: ISO 200, 1/320, f/4.5 Right: ISO 200, 1/125, f/8 (Nikon D3)
Left: ISO 200, 1/320, f/4.5 Right: ISO 200, 1/125, f/8 (Nikon D3)

 

Color handling was somewhat mixed. Colors were sufficiently saturated, however, images showcased some color fringing. You could notice both axial as well as lateral chromatic aberration in the sample gallery below. Furthermore, images seemed to showcase somewhat varying degree of contrast, with slightly better results at smaller apertures. There was no sign of barrel distortion, which is not a major surprise considering that we're dealing with a telephoto prime here.

 

ISO 200, 1/1600, f/4.5, 300mm (100% crop)
ISO 200, 1/1600, f/4.5, 300mm (100% crop)

 

Lab Tests

Please note that MTF50 results for APS-C and Full-Frame cameras as well as cameras from different manufacturers are not cross-comparable despite the same normalized [0:1] range used to report results for all types of cameras.

 

Nikon APS-C: Coming soon...

 

Nikon FF: The lens produced rather unimpressive results on a full frame Nikon D3. Center resolution remained average at best throughout the aperture range - wide open, stopped down, results were pretty much the same. Border image resolution was not any better and the lens struggled throughout the aperture range, with basically no improvement in quality even at smaller apertures. Conclusion? Not much to discuss here since the overall quality is not anywhere near to what one would typically expect from a good telephoto lens.

 

Normalized raw MTF50 @ 300mm
Normalized raw MTF50 @ 300mm

 

For a telephoto lens, Nikon Nikkor 300mm f/4.5 AiS showed OK handling of chromatic aberration. CA in the center averaging ~0.6px at f/4.5 and dropping to ~0.5px by f/11. CA around borders approached 0.9px and dropped to ~0.8px by f/11.

 

Chromatic Aberration (FF) @ 300mm
Chromatic Aberration (FF) @ 300mm

 

Here re 100% crops, taken with a full frame Nikon D3, comparing image borders at f/4.5 and f/8.

 

Image borders @ 300mm (100% crop): f/4.5 vs f/8
Image borders @ 300mm (100% crop): f/4.5 vs f/8

 

Canon APS-C: Nikon Nikkor 300mm f/4.5 AiS did not fare particularly well on an APS-C camera, even despite the camera's smaller imaging sensor that is typically more forgiving of lens weaknesses (especially around borders). Image quality remained pretty consistent across the frame as well as throughout the tested aperture range. Generally speaking, consistent performance is a very desirable characteristic in any lens, but in this case the overall performance remained being somewhere between mediocre and average. The lens does not really have any strong points - it is capable of producing good 11in prints and decent 16in prints throughout the tested aperture range. Pretty weak if you ask me. Conclusion? Nothing special here. Are you still awake?

 

MTF50 (Line Width/Inch on the Print) @ 300mm
MTF50 (Line Width/Inch on the Print) @ 300mm

 

Normalized raw MTF50 @ 300mm
Normalized raw MTF50 @ 300mm

 

CA on an APS-C camera was somewhat mixed, with CA in the center averaging ~0.6px across the aperture range and CA around borders reaching ~1px at f/4.5 and dropping to ~0.8px by f/11.

 

Chromatic Aberration (APS-C) @ 300mm
Chromatic Aberration (APS-C) @ 300mm

 

Here re 100% crops, taken with an APS-C type Canon Digital Rebel XTi, comparing image borders at f/4.5 and f/8.

 

Image borders @ 300mm (100% crop): f/4.5 vs f/8
Image borders @ 300mm (100% crop): f/4.5 vs f/8

 

Canon FF: The lens did not show any improvement in image quality on a full frame Canon 5D, which is not that surprising considering the lens did shine on an APS-C body either. Center performance, as well as border performance suffered throughout the tested aperture range and never really recovered. That's pretty much it - very stable, but otherwise very mediocre performance. Conclusion? Move on, move on, nothing special to see here...

 

Normalized raw MTF50 @ 300mm
Normalized raw MTF50 @ 300mm

 

The lens showed negligible amount of distortion, which is not that surprising for the lens of this focal length. At ~0.29%, distortion is not going to be noticeable in pretty much any type of shots.

 

Distortion (FF) @ 300mm
Distortion (FF) @ 300mm

 

Chromatic aberration on a full frame Canon 5D was as mixed as on an APS-C one. Center CA was averaged ~0.5px across the aperture, while border CA approached ~1px at f/4.5 and dropped to ~0.8px by f/11.

 

Chromatic Aberration (FF) @ 300mm
Chromatic Aberration (FF) @ 300mm

 

Here re 100% crops, taken with a full frame Canon 5D, comparing image borders at f/4.5 and f/8.

 

Image borders @ 300mm (100% crop): f/4.5 vs f/8
Image borders @ 300mm (100% crop): f/4.5 vs f/8

 

Alternatives

The good news is that 300mm remains one of the most popular focal length for super telephoto photography. The bad news is that pretty much all modern 300mm primes are quite expensive, making Nikon Nikkor 300mm f/4.5 AiS look like a bargain. Nevertheless, if you are looking for a 300mm prime in Nikon mount, start your search with Nikon's own AF-S VR Nikkor 300mm f/2.8G ED IF. This is the lens to own if budget is not an issue for you. For a slightly cheaper alternative, take a look at its predecessor AF Nikkor 300mm f/2.8D ED IF, or the slightly slower version AF-S Nikkor 300mm f/4 ED IF, as well as its predecessor AF Nikkor 300mm f/4D ED IF. If you don't require an auto-focus system, then older generation, manual focus lenses would help you save quite a bit of money. Start with Nikkor 300mm f/2.8 ED IF AiS and Nikkor 300mm f/4.5 ED AiS. Outside of the Nikon camp, check out Sigma APO 300mm f/2.8 EX DG HSM or, the now discontinued, Tamron SP AF 300mm f/2.8 LD IF.

 

Recommendation

Back in early 80s Nikon's Nikkor 300mm f/4.5 AiS might have been considered a decent lens. Emphasis on maybe, since the lens does not really deliver performance that can be classified as decent (even for early 80s). While we can live with some of the artifacts that the lens exhibits such as vignetting or CA, rather mediocre image resolution across the entire aperture range would probably be a deal breaker for most users. Seriously, with basically no aperture level that delivers strong image quality, it would be hard to find a reason to choose this lens in favor of its more modern versions.