What is It?
Note: this lens comes in two versions, one VR and one non-VR. Other than a small internal difference due to the VR implementation, these lenses appear to be identical. The VR version has voice coil motors on one element, the non-VR version doesn’t. What I write about the VR version should apply to the non-VR version, though I have no idea why you’d buy the non-VR version given the modest price difference. It appears that the non-VR version exists mostly to be stuffed into a lower-cost two-lens kit with a consumer DX body and to sell to older DX body users (more on that in Final Words).
The new AF-P lenses at the low end of the consumer DX lineup use a very different approach to focus motors. The AF-P lenses have stepper motors in them that are unlike the previous AF-S lens motors, which use a piezoelectric or ultrasonic wave motor. The good news is that these new stepper motors are fast and quiet. The bad news is that only a few cameras are compatible with them (see near end of this section).
The 70-300mm f/4.5-6.3 AF-P VR DX was a bit of a surprise when introduced in August 2016. Most of the Nikon community was expecting Nikon to update the full frame (FX) 70-300mm lens, not introduce a new DX-only version. Moreover, the specs are a little on the low side, with a maximum aperture of f/6.3 at 300mm this is not a telephoto lens designed for low light use.
Most of the lens design is relatively straightforward: 14 elements in 10 groups, with a single ED element to help with chromatic aberration control. The lens extends as you zoom it, with a single inner barrel extending outwards as much as 2” at maximum zoom. The zoom ring is marked at 70mm, 100mm, 135mm, 200mm, and 300mm.
- f/4.5 at 70mm (minimum is f/22)
- f/4.8 at 100mm
- f/4.8 at 135mm
- f/5.3 at 200mm
- f/6.3 at 300mm (minimum is f/32)
Minimum focus is about 43” (1.1m), which results in an okay-but-not-macro 1:4.6 maximum reproduction ratio. There is no focus point indicator or depth of field scale on the lens. Focus mode is determined by the camera body; there are no switches on the lens to set focus mode. However, unlike other low-end DX autofocus lenses, the AF-P lenses allow user manual override of the focus at any time (just rotate the focus ring while continuing to half press the shutter release).
Overall the lens is small and light. That translates into 4.9 x 2.8” (125 x 72mm) collapsed, and only 14.6 ounces in weight (415g) (the non-VR version is 15g lighter).
Up front we have a 58mm filter ring that does not rotate due to focus or zoom change. Nikon does not supply a lens hood with the lens; the optional lens hood for it is the HB-77, the optional soft case is the SL-1020.
Note: This lens is only compatible with a few recent Nikon DSLRs. The current list of full compatibility is D500, D3300, D3400, D5300, and D5500 (but make sure that you’re using the latest firmware). The following cameras have no way to set VR and may change focus position if the camera’s meter goes inactive (requiring you to re-obtain focus): Df, D5200, D7100, D7200, D750, and D810. All other Nikon DSLRs should be considered completely incompatible with this lens. Further note that this is a fly-by-wire lens, so while it may appear to mount on those other Nikon DSLRs, you can’t focus the lens manually, thus the incompatibility warning.
Source of the review sample: one sample on loan from B&H.
Lens is made in Thailand. Price is US$399 for the VR version (US$50 less for the non-VR version). Nikon’s Web page for the 70-300mm AF-P.
How’s it Handle?
There’s not a lot to talk about with this lens, as there are no switches and only two rings (focus and zoom). The zoom ring is very wide and easy to find without looking. The focus ring is small and forward of the zoom ring, and does have a different texture to it, so it isn’t difficult to find, either.
The zoom ring goes from 70mm to 300mm in about a quarter of a turn, and unlike many recent Nikon zooms, has no hiccup in the middle of its turn. I’d say that’s it’s slightly rough, but there are no spots where the zoom is stiffer or less stiff on my sample, something we don’t always see with the low cost lenses.
Where you’re going to probably be surprised is the focus ring: it’s fly-by-wire. As such, it is actually silky smooth in rotation. But here’s something that you probably won’t expect: the focus ring does nothing if there’s no battery in the camera. Fly-by-wire is fly-by-wire, and that requires power.
A lot of fly-by-wire rings are very sensitive, in my experience. Nikon’s seems pretty stable and works pretty much as if it weren’t fly-by-wire in terms of smoothness and amount of focus change. As best I can tell, minimum to maximum focus is a bit less than a half turn of the ring at 300mm. As fly-by-wire focus rings go, this lens was as good as I’ve encountered to date, and really didn’t give me any pause. I really didn’t care that the lens was fly-by-wire for manual focus.
The lens strikes me as very appropriate to the low-end DX DSLR users (D3xxx, D5xxx). But it also seems to fit in decently with the D500, as well, though the VR on/off ability is buried in the Custom settings [#D10]).
One thing that should be mentioned is that the 18-55mm and 70-300mm AF-P lenses together make for a very small, light, fast focusing, lens set that will appeal to the consumer DX body purchasers. The handling on the 18-55mm is pretty much the same as the 70-300mm, though the 18-55mm has that dreaded “press button and extend lens” thing I hate, though it does keep that lens compact for transport.
Indeed, Nikon packages some kits with that two-lens set, though the 70-300mm version they use is the non-VR version. Still, 28-450mm equivalency in a small, versatile package is one thing that will partly stave off the mirrorless cameras for awhile.
How’s it Perform?
The big surprise is that the new AF-P focus motor is very snappy and nearly silent. Given the low price of this lens and the performance of the older 55-200mm and 55-300mm DX zooms, I was expecting the 70-300mm to be in the same range. Not even close. The new lens is clearly faster than the older DX telephoto zooms in bright light, even with the low end D3400 I was mostly testing it on.
This was especially true of cross point focus sensors: snappy, sometimes faster than you can notice any change to the focus. In good light and with a cross focus sensor, this lens performs right up there with many of the big, expensive lenses, for sure, even on the least expensive Nikon DSLR body.
On the other hand, move to a line-only focus sensor in low light and you can see that the slow f/6.3 aperture at the 300mm end does make this lens start to hunt a bit. Not terrible hunting, but slow enough to miss a shot. That’s the drawback to the f/6.3 aperture, I think. Couple that with the slower focus performance of some lower end DX cameras off center, and you just lose the focus snap this lens was giving me in good light with the center sensor.
I spent a fair amount of time photographing Frank (a bird I’ve named) down at the river. Generally an inexpensive lens on Nikon’s least capable camera is not one that I’d be expecting to find and hold focus on a big bird like this when it decides to dive or fly. Especially considering that I was shooting at 300mm f/6.3 at ISO 6400 (to keep shutter speed up; but that tells you that the area I was photographing in was in deep shade). Yet it did. Easily and consistently. Even with the outer line sensors.
For the price, this lens has to have what I’d call very good autofocus performance, and exactly what the casual consumer crowd would expect from a DSLR. You mirrorless folk don’t have any combo yet that’s (a) inexpensive, (b) goes to 450mm equivalent, and (c) has snap-to-focus like the D3400 and 70-300mm AF-P combo. Just watch your use of line sensors in very low light indoors.
Optically, the lens seems to shine, as well. Since this was a short term loaner I did not have time to do my full set of test charts and analysis. That said, the testing I was able to do tells me this:
300mm seems a little better wide open than 70mm, particularly in the corners. Both are decent. Excellent sharpness in the center, very good sharpness at 300mm towards the edges, but only good at 70mm.
Even without in-camera processing of lens information, chromatic aberration was only slightly apparent. The lens handled high contrast edges decently in this respect.
Vignetting wasn’t as bad as I expected it to be (see notes on FX frame below). While it’s certainly present and visible without correction, it’s not bad for a low cost telephoto lens.
Flare control seemed particularly good, both with edge of frame light source and just-outside-frame light sources. That’s a good thing as I was testing the lens without the optional lens hood, which wasn’t available at the time I evaluated the lens.
I was also a bit curious about bokeh and out-of-focus performance at 300mm f/6.3. That’s one reason why I took so many photos of Frank with a background stick behind or near his head. I could have moved my position to frame him without that distraction, but I was looking to see just how well I could isolate him, and what the out-of-focus area then looked like.
As you might guess, you can’t get a lot of isolation in a cases like these. Still, as I looked through hundreds of images I took pressing the lens in ways I thought it might start to show issues in the focus to out-of-focus transition, the 70-300mm fared like a lot of other recent Nikkors: very controlled. There’s a tiny bit of onion-skinning in specular highlights that are out of focus, clear but minimal edge highlighting, and modest edge coloration due to chromatic aberration, but frankly the bokeh was smoother and cleaner than I would expect for a lens this inexpensive and this slow. It’s not going to win any awards for bokeh, but even with VR on I found the bokeh to stay mostly in the unnoticeable range.
Unexpectedly, the 70-300mm does not clip the frame corners of an FX camera at 300mm, modestly clips them at 70mm, and is obviously clipping them at 135mm. This lens—had Nikon actually updated firmware of cameras to make it fully compatible—could have been very useful with 5:4 or 1.2x crops on FX bodies.
If you need a low-cost, light, competent DX telephoto zoom and have one of the most recent low-end DX bodies (D3400, D5500), the 70-300mm f/4.5-6.3 AF-P VR just became the lens to buy. Optically, it seems clearly better than the 55-300mm, and in good light with a cross sensor the autofocus performance is in a whole other (far better) category, too.
For a US$400 lens, the 70-300mm AF-P consistently produced excellent, contrasty, and well focused images across it’s entire range, even wide open. I think that’s what we want, right? The other performance characteristics were also above what I’d expect at the price point.
No, the build is not rugged. No it won’t work on many (most) older Nikon DSLRs. But if you’ve got a recent DX DSLR and need a telephoto lens, the 70-300mm AF-P just became a better choice to me than the 55-300mm, or even the older full frame 70-300mm f/4-5.6. Yes, I wrote that. The 10-year old 70-300mm AF-S lens is nearly double the weight and struggles a bit with the 24mp DX sensors. I don’t see that same problem with the new 70-300mm AF-P.
Sadly, if you don’t own one of the latest generation or two of the lower DX DSLRs, you still may be stuck with the older choices. The D7100 and D7200 can’t turn off VR, which is a shame.
It’s difficult at this point to say what’s going on here with AF-P. Nikon seems to be making a pivot of some kind, but they have done almost nothing to help users of their previous Nikon DSLR bodies come along with wherever that pivot is leading them.
So here’s my conclusion:
- D3400/D5500 users: this is the basic telephoto zoom to buy, no questions asked
- D500, D3300, D5200, D5300 users: make sure you have the current firmware; probably the basic telephoto lens to buy
- D7100, D7200 users: note that you can’t set VR to off; if that’s okay with you, consider the lens
- All other older DX users: do not buy this lens
One has to really question what Nikon is up to at this point. First, the 18-55mm AF-P didn’t exactly appear on shelves immediately after announcement, now we have another AF-P lens that really is best used on a D3400. One wonders if the Nikon engineers are even talking to one another, let alone whether Nikon is going to start selling products that are incompatible with previous cameras’ firmware.
Frankly, that’s just another shot in the foot thing Nikon has done to themselves. The 70-300mm DX is a great little lens for its price and size. But it’s not a great little lens for all DX shooters. Go figure.
I suppose Nikon’s response to, say, a D7100 user would be: buy the non-VR version. No, that’s not an appropriate response. You don’t make your (Nikon’s) problem the customer’s problem (selecting something less than they wanted).
Nikon’s feet are full of holes at this point. One would welcome an acknowledgment from them that they’re well aware of that and will try to repair the holes. At a minimum, the D3000+, D5000+, and D7000+ all need firmware updates to support this lens fully. Without that, Nikon simply isn’t going to sell as many lenses. In fact, without that, they’re not going to sell many lenses.
Curiously, Nikon’s Web sites have a small text footnote that says “these cameras [the ones I just listed just above] will also require a firmware upgrade to access the menu to turn off the VR.” We’re still waiting for some of those firmware updates, Nikon.
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