Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 AF-P VR 

bythom nikon 70-300mm FX AF-P

What is It?

Nikon sometimes gets themselves into incredibly difficult to explain positions. The 70-300mm logjam at the moment is one of them. Incredibly, you'll find five different 70-300mm zooms in Nikon's "current lens lineup." 

So before we get to today's lens, we need to do some 'splainin'. 

Consumer telephoto zooms are popular lenses. Nikon's first lens in this range was the 75-300mm f/4.5-5.6 way back in 1989. Then came the long-lived 70-300mm f/4-5.6D from about 1998 to 2006. In 2006 Nikon introduced the 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G VR, which is still available and was the primary consumer telephoto Nikon sold through much of the DSLR growth spurt. All told, the 70-300mm of various sorts has probably sold in the seven figure numbers in terms of units.

But that G VR version of the lens started looking old and a bit underwhelming with the 24mp DX and 36mp FX bodies. It really needed a refresh, and it got two (three if you count VR versus non-VR versions). First we received the AF-P DX version. Now we've gotten an AF-P FX version.

Don't get confused by the similarities in specs. These are different lenses. Very different. The DX version has a very consumer build quality and is 10 ounces (265g) lighter. The optical design is simpler in the DX version and the net result is a slightly smaller and less expensive lens. 

That said, many of the primary specs, such as minimum focus distance and maximum magnification ratio are nearly identical between the DX version and the new AF-P FX version.

Why was an FX version needed? Well, optically Nikon was pushing the boundaries on the DX version in terms of the imaging circle. A wider image circle was needed for FX. But I think more to the point is that Nikon sees DX users different than FX users. So little things do come into play, like virtually no manual focus ring, a 7-blade aperture diaphragm, the smaller f/6.3 aperture at 300mm, and more subtle things that new users probably wouldn't notice on the DX version.

This 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6E ED VR AF-P version of the lens that I'm reviewing here is the latest FX version, and it just brings a more prosumer sense to most of the design and build elements than the DX version did. And yes, optically, it performs a bit differently. 

Okay, let's get to the specifics of the lens under review.

The new AF-P lenses 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.

Nikon has been doing some firmware updating to make more cameras compatible. To see the full list of what is and isn't compatible, see Understanding the AF-P Lenses.

The 70-300mm f/4.5-6.3 AF-P VR DX was a bit of a surprise when introduced in August 2016. The 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 AF-P VR FX version much less so (though the AF-P bit was a surprise to many). That's because the older 70-300mm FX lens was showing its age on most of the newer DSLRs, particularly those with high pixel density (e.g. 20/24mp DX, 36/45mp FX). Most of the Nikon community was expecting Nikon to only update the full frame (FX) 70-300mm lens, not introduce a new DX-only version as well as an FX version. 

So, to be clear, here are the five 70-300mm lenses Nikon currently sells:

  1. 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G VR (US$500) covers DX/FX (model 2161)
  2. 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G (US$173) covers DX/FX (model 1928)
  3. 70-300mm f/4.5-6.3G AF-P (US$350) covers DX (model 20061)
  4. 70-300mm f/4.5-6.3G AF-P VR (US$400) covers DX (model 20062)
  5. 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6E AF-P VR (US$750) covers DX/FX (model 20068)

I don't usually put buying recommendations in the first part of my reviews, but the complexity Nikon has introduced here has forced me to deal with that:

  • Do not buy #2 or #3. No VR in a telephoto lens that you might handhold is a mistake. Plus #2 is seriously not capable of handling the pixel count of the latest DSLRs.
  • If you own a camera not in the AF-P compatibility list above, your best choice is #1. It might prove satisfactory with your current older DSLR—particularly 6mp and 12mp ones—but isn't going to grow with you if you buy a new DSLR.
  • And as I noted above, buy #4 if you have a compatible DX body and aren't likely to move to FX any time soon.

Anyone left? ;~) 

I hope so, because this is a very good lens. 

Let's get back to specifications.

Most of the lens design is more complex than its DX cousin: 18 elements in 14 groups, again 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/32)
  • f/4.8 at 100mm
  • f/5 at 135mm
  • f/5.3 at 200mm
  • f/5.6 at 300mm (minimum is f/40)

Minimum focus is about 48” (1.2m), which results in a good-but-not-macro 1:4 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 switch or a three position switch on the lens (Am, Ma, M). Like AF-S 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), though this is done via fly-by-wire. Fortunately that fly-by-wire is excellent in discrimination, though you may find that you have to do a lot of turning of the ring.

The lens has VR built in, which is controlled by a switch on the lens (Off, On, Sport). Nikon claims 4.5 stops (CIPA) of stabilization.

Overall the lens is relatively small. That translates into 5.7 x 3.2” (146 x 80.5mm) collapsed, and 24 ounces in weight (680g). As I've noted before, the DX-only version of the lens is smaller and lighter, which is one of the reasons why that version is preferred for DX-only shooters.

Up front we have a 67mm filter ring that does not rotate due to focus or zoom change. The supplied lens hood for it is the HB-22, the supplied soft case is the SL-1022. 

Source of the review sample: purchased

Lens is made in Thailand. Price is an astonishingly low US$599. 

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 only two switches (focus mode and VR) and two rings (focus and zoom). The zoom ring is very wide and easy to find without looking. The focus ring is small and closer to the camera than the zoom ring. It's somewhat difficult to find due to the narrow nature of the ring and its unusual position.

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.

Overall, the lens is very hand-holdable and your supporting hand falls naturally on the zoom ring, which is where it belongs. 

How’s it Perform?
Focus: The big surprise is that the new AF-P focus motor is very snappy and nearly silent. Compared to the older G version, I'd have to say this lens is much better at focusing. Faster, more sure, and eerily silent most of the time. In Live View, the difference is very clear: the AF-P motors are fast for both phase detect and contrast detect use. Note that there's a tendency in Live View to snap-check-focus as opposed to snap-focus. This is visually disconcerting, but the speed at which the focus is obtained is still quite good, nearing phase detect speeds. The problem for this is video, where you get that little burp on refocusing that is visually distracting.

Sharpness: Nikon's MTF charts were tantalizing when they fist appeared. They showed 300mm contrast, for example, as an almost perfect flat line for 10 lppm. Pretty much everything that we were finding weak on the old version—other than astigmatism in the extreme corners at 300mm—looked like it might be fixed on this lens. 

Reality is slightly different. But only slightly.

Wide open, 105mm, 135mm, and 200mm look excellent in the center, nearly excellent at the DX boundary, and still what I'd call very good in the corners for FX. At 70mm, the far FX corners are clearly showing issues and generating lower acuity. At 300mm, the center is just very good, and the far FX corners show the same issues as at 70mm, only less so. It really takes f/11 to pull in the corners as much as possible at some focal lengths, though I'd probably say this lens is best shot at f/8 overall.

Still, wide open this lens is absolutely better than we saw out of its predecessor, pretty much on all counts, but especially in the mid focal range and above. We're in a range of capability where I wouldn't be afraid to put it on the new D850 (don't take that statement incorrectly: you're going to still see some loss of acuity fairly clearly out in the extremes, but compared to the older G version, it's no contest at all). 

I would also  say that the two focal extremes on the new lens are just a bit weaker at the closest distance than long distances near infinity, something that's a bit unusual in Nikkor designs. Indeed, this is one of the reasons why I think that some D850 users might find this lens very acceptable: at distance the loss of acuity is lower than close in, and the far corners actually perform pretty well at distance. This is a far cry from the older design, which just had smudgy corners at distance.

I try to use words carefully. Acuity refers to distinct separation on edges that makes for a crispness of the overall edge (without having to apply sharpening techniques to add contrast to the edge). So the edge of a building at distance shows as a clean, well defined line if acuity is high, and a less defined line—but still a line—as acuity diminishes. Smudging refers to clear optical aberrations that destroy a detail like a line. It's impossible to tell where the boundaries of the line are due to the pollution of data across a broad area. I never want to see smudging. I can tolerate some modest loss of acuity, particular since there are sharpening techniques that often can "restore" some of that acuity. A really good test for smudging is small print (small for the distance shot). When letters blur completely together, you have smudging. Where edges of letters have a bit of a blur to them, you have loss of acuity.

You may wonder about this lens versus the 80-400mm. At the wide end (70/80), the 80-400mm is just a bit better. Through the mid-range, they perform about the same, and quite well. At 300mm, the new 70-300mm is just starting to outshine the 80-400mm. Given that I like the 80-400mm a lot, the fact that this new, less expensive lens is keeping up says a lot about how Nikon optical designs are progressing.  

Also note that this lens focuses close. Sharpness is still quite good at close-in distances.

Vignetting: here's where Nikon compromised. The new AF-P version has significantly more vignetting than the older G version. At 70mm, I'd tend to say this is ignorable, as the stop or so of vignetting I see is really constrained out in the corners (and gone by f/8). At 300mm, though, we've got well more than a stop of vignetting, and it begins even in the DX portion of the frame. By f/8, however, this is ignorable, though the older lens really had virtually no remaining vignetting at all at 300mm f/8, while the new lens still has a bit. 

Chromatic Aberration: surprisingly there was a tiny bit of longitudinal chromatic aberration wide open. Generally you don't see that in zoom lenses with slower apertures like this. It's ignorable, but it does edge the bokeh a bit.

Lateral chromatic aberration is clearly present in the corners on high contrast edges at the wider end of the lens, but surprisingly, not so much at the telephoto end. 

Flare: The deep lens hood means that you rarely see flare. When flare is produced, it tends to be mostly blue and green, and can be spread over a large portion of the frame.  

bythom US CO Boulder 9-2017 D850 13921

I chose this sample image taken with the 70-300mm on the D850 for several reasons: (1) it shows off the sharpness of the lens (top flower); (2) it shows that the lens focuses pretty darned close; and (3) the background blurs (other flowers and the bud in the background) are very distinctly the new Nikon style of going from sharp to blur without busy-ness or artificial look.

Final Words
If you need a lower-cost, modestly light, competent FX telephoto zoom and have one of the 16-24mp bodies, this is a no-brainer: this lens is clearly better than the old G version, and holds its own against the more expensive 80-400mm in the overlapping focal range. There's not a better budget telephoto zoom option for you. Even a quick comparo against a Tamron and Sigma competitor tells me the Nikkor is optically better across a broader range of uses. Just make sure your camera supports AF-P.

Other considerations:

  • Versus 80-400mm — I've already mentioned that this lens holds its own against the 80-400mm in the same focal range, so you really don't go to the 80-400mm unless you really need 400mm. And remember, that lens is a bit softer at 400mm than it is at 300mm. 
  • Versus 70-200mm f/4 — Trickier comparison. That nearly extra stop of aperture at 200mm can be the decider for many. Technically, the 70-200mm looks a bit higher in the MTF numbers I've generated on the high megapixel bodies, but practically, I don't see enough difference to get excited about. If you want really great 70-200mm range, buy the 70-200mm f/2.8E: there's just nothing else that comes close.
  • On DX bodies — Doesn't require a firmware update for some older bodies like the DX version does, and is slightly better optically against the DX version in the DX frame. Definitely looks great on the 20/24mp DX bodies. Of course, it's bigger, heavier, and more expensive than the DX version, but it is a bit of future-proofing for your gear closet if you're considering some day moving from DX to FX.

The real consideration may simply be cost and size/weight, though. This is a very packable lens with great performance, particularly for its cost. As such, it's a great travel lens for telephoto needs, even on the high megapixel count cameras. 

Again, the compatibility (may require camera firmware update; current as of last article update [see date at bottom]):

  • Not compatible: D1 series, D2 series, D40 series, D50, D60, D70 series, D80, D90, D100, D200, D3000, D3100, D3200, D5000, D5100.
  • Meter off defocus issue: D3 series, D300 series, D700, D5200, D7000.
  • Fully compatible with current firmware: Df, D4 series, D5, D500, D600, D610, D750, D800/D800E, D810, D850, D3300, D3400, D5300, D5500, D5600, D7100, D7200, D7500.

So, like the 200-500mm f/5.6, here we have Nikon producing another telephoto zoom winner that would generally be considered budget price (for Nikon). 

Recommended (2017 to present) and a value bargain

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