Since both my wife and I are photographers, we have a lot of lenses. We tried the idea of ‘sharing lenses’ until we both saw the same incredible eagle photo and we only had one long telephoto lens. So we have doubles of a few of our favorite lenses, including the venerable 300mm. This focal length just hits the sweet spot so many times, and when attached to a D500, you get an equivalent 450mm lens. If you have read this blog, you know how much I love the 300mm F4 PF version. So small, compact, razor sharp…this is the ultimate compact travel telephoto lens. But what about its bigger brother, the 300mm F2.8. I have owned many versions of this lens through my career; they are all outstanding, and a benchmark for sharpness. But how would these two compare side by side shooting in the field. Cree and I went to the zoo to find out.
First, a couple of disclosures. Cree was shooting the D500 with 300mm F4, I was shooting the D850 with the 300mm F2.8 VR I version. I was in Dx crop mode to get an equivalent image and subject size. The 300mm F4 weighs 1.6 pounds and is 5.8 inches long, $2000. It has VR too. The 300mm F2.8 weighs 6.4 pounds and is 16 inches long, $5500. Obviously, the 2.8 version is a lot bigger, harder to hand hold and carry around all day. By comparison, the highly popular 200-500mm weighs 4.8 pounds, so just under 2 pounds lighter, and is about the same size. If you want to do a lot of hand holding you need to seriously consider the weight.
But what about performance? First, let’s get right to it. Is the 300mm F2.8 version sharper? If you research lab MTF data, the F2.8 version is sharper, as one would expect for a $5500 lens. The image above was taken with the 300mm F2.8 at 2.8.
Here is the 300mm F4 version. Hard to really see any difference. The F2.8 version edges the F4 version just slightly, but really not discernible unless you zoom to 100%. One difference, and a benefit of the F2.8 version, is the more pleasing bokeh at F2.8. I’ve used both lens on numerous assignments and never had an editor say “I wish you used the sharper 300mm version.”
But the comparison doesn’t stop there. Why would one want the 300mm F2.8 version over the F4 version if you can barely see real world sharpness differences. In a nutshell…the F2.8 version is built to take rough field use, better sealing from the elements, better color and contrast, faster autofocus and better bokeh at F2.8 instead of F4. Those are the qualities you are paying for. If I am shooting fast action sports, or lots of wildlife, I will bring out F2.8 version. If I am traveling, hand holding a lot, or hiking with camera in hand, I use the F4 version. Both lenses create stunning photos. Last year on a bear workshop at Silver Salmon Lodge in Alaska all I shot was my D500 with the 300mm F4 PF. It was fantastic being able to move quick and shoot fast with this super light setup. The images were tack sharp. This year I may bring my 300mm F2.8 just to mix things up.
And one other important point to note. The 300mm F2.8 version works terrific with teleconverters since you start at F2.8 instead of F4. With a 1.4x on the 300mm F2.8 you have a 420mm F4. Autofocus still works very well, and the images are sharp. Using the F4 300mm, you get 420mm at F5.6, so you won’t have as good as autofocus with less light. Autofocus still works pretty good, just not as snappy as on the 300mm F2.8 with 1.4x converter.
Nikon is rumored to have a lighter version of the F2.8 300mm coming out. This means if you really want this lens, you could wait and get the lighter version. Or buy a used VRII version at a good price. And let’s not forget the 200-500mm F5.6. At $1400 this lens is a bargain, with excellent sharpness and good autofocus. It may not focus as fast as the 300mm primes, but the zoom range is very handy, and current reviews say sharpness is excellent at 200-400mm with a slight decrease at 500mm, as is the case with these super telephotos. This lens might be the perfect wildlife lens for many people, just the right mix of size, zoom range and price. I don’t own one of these lenses yet…but workshop participants are very pleased with this lens, and their images look fantastic.