Ronno Tramper Photography

Nikons 70-300 AFS VR
Is it any good?

text and photography: Ronno Tramper


Being the owner of a Nikkor 80-400 VR (non AFS, over three lbs or 1.5 kg heavy) I was looking forward to laying my hands on Nikons new 70-300 VR (AFS and only half the weight of the 80-400). A light weight 300 mm tele with fast autofocus and VR and the versatile zoom range of 70-300 all in one lens had been on my wish list for a long time. I suppose many photographers out there are at least tempted to exchange the bulky 80-400 (with all its limitations) for this 70-300 VR. Is it a good idea? The answer is of course that it depends on your particular needs. I had the opportunity to test them side by side and decided not to buy it. Note: both the 70-300 VR and the 80-400 VR are full frame lenses, meaning they will also work on film SLRs and on full frame DSLRs.

the good news
Let's start with the good news. Autofocus on Nikons new 70-300 VR is very fast and accurate. It beats the 80-400 hands down. VR works fine, but despite the fact that the 70-300 has more options for finetuning its performance, I did not notice much difference in practice. I took bursts of three exposures with VR and AF on of a non moving subject (approx. 1/20 sec. at f11). Most of the time all three of them were sharp, although occasionally the 80-400 had a soft exposure. Probably due to the interaction between AF and VR.
Optical performance (sharpness, contrast, CA) in the 70-200 range is fine. Very good I would say, but certainly not better than the 80-400 in the same range. So if you want a light weight, high quality 70-200 lens, with fast AF and VR and you will only occasionally zoom out to 300 mm, you should consider buying it. Although you have to ask yourself if buying the 18-200 VR would not be a better option in that case. Carrying around a 70-300 usually means that you will also be carrying around an 18-70 and maybe a wide angle zoom such as a 12-24. And you only accept the burden of an extra lens and changing lenses all the time if you absolutely want the 300 mm (what other reason could you have?).

the basic question
So for me the basic question is: is this 70-300 VR any good at 300 mm? For that reason I compared it to the 80-400 VR at 300 mm. I was in for a nasty surprise. Optically the 70-300 at 300 mm is absolutely no match for the 80-400.

sharpness
At f5.6 and 300 mm the 70-300 is reasonably sharp in the center and hopelessly bad in the corner. Surprisingly, stopping down to f11 does not change this all that much. The 80-400 at 5.6 and 310 mm (310 is what my Bibble raw converter said) was very good in the center and very good in the corner as well. The difference with the 70-300 is immense! Also notice the difference in contrast. Stopping down to f11 the 80-400 remains very good. But stopping down the 80-400 to improve the performance is certainly not necessary. Using the 70-300mm on a full frame (FX) DSLR or on a film SLR like teh Nikon F100 or F5 will probably worsen the situation. If the corners are this unsharp on the small DX-sensor, that means that on a larger sensor a much larger part of the frame will probably be unsharp. To be fair, it has to be said that the 80-400 at focal lengths over 320mm is rather soft in the corners too. Below are 100% crops, so you can judge for yourself. The specs: D200 raw files, converted in Bibble 4.10 and exported as 100% tif. Standard sharpening of the raw converter (very little). Auto levels, no addional sharpening after conversion. I used a tripod, cable release and raised the mirror in advance. VR was switched off.

70-300 @5.6/300mm center

80-400 @5.6/310mm center

70-300 @5.6/300mm corner

80-400 @5.6/310mm corner

70-300 @11/300mm center

80-400 @11/310mm center

70-300 @11/300mm corner

80-400 @11/310mm corner

70-300 @11/300mm center
CA corrected

80-400 @11/310mm center
CA corrected

70-300 @11/300mm corner
8 x 12 print simulation

80-400 @11/310mm corner
8 x 12 print simulation