Autofocus Nikkor 70-300mm f/4-5.6D ED


Nikkor 70-300mm f/4-5.6D ED

angle of view: 810'-3420' with 35mm, 58'-2239 with D1 (107mm to 466mm)
close focus: 5 feet (1.5m)
filter thread: 62mm

weight: 18.2 ounces

Lens no longer produced


photo: The Eiffel Tower in its post Millenium lighting. You can't see it in this small JPEG, but the original held an amazing amount of detail, even at the edges, and despite the fact that this was shot wide open. Fuji Provia.

 

A surprise when it was announced, the 70-300mm ED ostensibly replaced the dated 75-300mm f/4.5-5.6. While it shares many attributes with the older lens, the design is completely new, and, to my eye, the results it obtains are noticeably better.

Introduction

I'll be the first to admit I've been quite conflicted when it comes to telephoto zooms. Having used the 80-200mm f/2.8, I know just how good a telephoto zoom can be. Unfortunately, that wonderful lens weighs in at over two pounds (over 1 kg). That's just too much weight for me to carry into the backcountry, so I've pretty much tried every other available option looking for a lighter alternative:

The Basics

This Nikkor has a variable maximum aperture that ranges from f/4 at 70mm to f/5.6 at 300mm. The minimum aperture is f/32 at 70mm. Small colored dots are used to indicate the aperture for 70mm versus the aperture for 300mm. Focusing can be as close as 5 feet (1.5) at any zoom setting; there is no macro mode. No infrared focusing mark is provided. The front element rotates during focus (and less so during zooming), making use of a polarizer a bit of a chore. The D in the name means that focus distance is used in flash metering calculations by the camera. The ED indicates that twoof the elements are made of Nikon's unique extra-low dispersion glass, which helps focus color information at the same plane, especially at longer focal lengths. As with all ED lenses, the lens focuses past infinity under normal temperature conditions.

The manual zoom and focus rings are separate, and easily distinguished. The front focus ring is wide and easy to find compared to some AF lenses. At the front of the lens, you'll be screwing in 62mm accessories (Nikon's medium standard, shared by many Nikkor lenses). If you have to know, there are 13 elements in 9groups, a bit on the complex side, though typical of telephoto zooms.

The lens comes with the HB-15 hood. The size is relatively small at 70mm, so the lens fits nicely into even small camera cases, though when zoomed in to 300mm the lens does extend several inches. Build quality is adequate and features a sturdy polycarbonate body. Nikon does not supply a tripod mount for this lens, but since it isn't very heavy, this isn't really an issue except at 300mm and slowish shutter speeds. Because of the light weight and compact body, this is lens that begs to be used handheld.

Handling

The focus and zoom rings are easily distinguished. The zoom ring has a decent feel, almost the equal of the professional lenses. The focus ring isn't quite as good, as it has the usual autofocus "looseness," but it is better than many recent lower-priced Nikkors. Both the focus and zoom go from one extreme to the other in slightly less than a quarter of a turn, which seems to be Nikon's new standard. The zoom doesn't tend to creep, even when you zoom all the way out and set the lens down on its front (with all the weight behind it). That's a far cry from the old one-touch zooms that creeped if you looked at them cross-eyed, and even better performance than some of the more recent two-touch zooms.

The aperture ring has solid click stops and a decent feel. The aperture lock is a little further from the body than on some Nikkors, making it easier to get to (you still need a good fingernail to catch it, though).

The front element is not recessed, as it is on some telephotos, though the front element is reasonably flat, so you won't accidentally touch it when you reach around the front. The rear element is well recessed at all zoom settings, which could prove to be a problem if you need to clean it regularly.

The supplied HB-15 lens hood bayonets onto the front piece, and is made of cheap, slightly flexible, plastic. Unfortunately, there is no indicators to help you line it up with the lens, so you basically have to mount it be feel. If you can get the lens cap off with the hood mounted, you've got smaller fingers than I do (I'm a medium glove size). You can reverse the hood on the lens for storage, which is a welcome touch.

Here's the weird part: While there's an indicator line to show you what focal length the lens is set at, there is no focus point indicator. Yes, there's a distance scale, but there's no nearby indicator to tell you at what distance you're focused (you can look back to the zoom indicator, but that's several inches back on the lens--you won't be setting precise distances without a straightedge).

Performance

I was expecting to be disappointed with this lens. Other reviews I'd read had a decidedly ho-hum reaction to the 70-300's performance. I suspect the ED elements had them expecting state-of-the-art optics, something that would challenge the 80-200mm f/2.8.

First, the good news: in terms of Nikon's consumer offerings, this lens is at the top of the heap. I'd call it a distinct improvement on the 75-300mm it replaced. From its widest setting to about midrange, it performs well even at f/5.6, with results at f/8 and f/11 virtually indistinguishable from the considerably more expensive 80-200 f/2.8, except, perhaps, at the very corners. On a D1 I wouldn't have any qualms at using this lens wide open at any zoom setting between 70-200mm. Distortion was visible at the telephoto end, but not enough for me to worry about in the types of photography I do; if you're into using telephotos for architectural work, well, you're going to see enough pinbarrel at the 300mm end to keep you from smiling.

On the down side, the results at f/22 and f/32, as is usual for telephotos, is not particularly good. And as you near 300mm, you'll see some softness at all apertures, and the edges are distinctly soft. You can keep both problems reasonably in check by using f/8 or f/11. Chromatic aberration is distinctly present in the sample image, above, though reasonably well controlled (e.g., while present, other telephoto zooms I've used show more).

Contrast is good, though not as good as the 80-200mm f/2.8. Contrast appears better than the other Nikkor telephoto zooms I've used, though I haven't used this lens in enough different situations to make that a blanket statement. Autofocus has been quick and sure in almost every situation I've used it in. Even in the Paris shot, above, the lens didn't hesitate (those lights are all blinking, by the way, at different intervals, so it isn't as high contrast a situation as you'd think).

Overall, I am quite pleased with the lens, especially on a D1. I'd rank this zoom by itself midway between the other consumer telephoto zooms and the top-of-the-line AF-S 80-200mm f/2.8.

Drawbacks

Thomas Hartig Braunstein writes:

I have had my 70-300mm ED for one year and use it with the N80 (great camera). I agree on the softness issue at 300mm, though it is not much. The lens is for sure handy and lightweight and can be used for most situations, except indoor or panorama pictures. I got mine used, but in mint condition, for around 24200 Denmark, and for that price it's a bargain.

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