Nikkor 300mm f/4E tests and happy dogs!

Posted on August 16, 2015 with tags photography.

I recently got a new lens, which I’m still trying to learn how to properly use ☺. The new lens is the Nikon 300m f/4E PF ED VR (wow, that’s a mouthful of acronyms…) and it’s as good as I expected, except that it seems that it’s too good for the person using it (me).

Physically, the lens is indeed very light and very easy to hand-hold; it’s barely heavier and longer than the 70-300mm f/4-5.6 zoom, although a bit more bulky. I was fearing something “bigger” and heavier for a fixed-aperture lens, even after hearing all the good reports about it, but it was better than I expected. I was also slightly concerned, this being a prime lens, about finding the subject fast, especially if smaller or far away. It turned out that if the lens is focused at somewhat the right distance (not at the opposite end), it is not a real problem.

So, as the first test/learning exercise, I did a couple of hour long walks outdoor, photographing random subjects. First day I used the lens by itself, on the second day I added the Nikon TC-14E(III) tele-converter, for a 420mm focal length. All pictures below except the Huskies are non-cropped, just down-sampled (they have the original field of view); the Husky pictures were cropped.

In all cases, camera was set to semi-manual mode, mostly at 1/1000s or 1/2000s, various apertures between f/4 and f/8; this means wide open or stopped down one (when with the tele-converter) or two stops. Semi-manual as auto-ISO was on. Lens focus limiter on, VR either active or sport (to help with the viewfinder image mostly, at this speed), camera set to AF-C and group mode most of the time.

Also, all pictures were shot hand-held, with bad technique - until somebody stopped me, turns out he was a photographer, and showed me how to properly hold a telephoto lens; thanks, whoever you were!

The “random subjects” parts worked only somewhat, as (at first) the subjects were not too interesting; air-plane flying high above - check, fast focus (although it is easy to focus on a plane in clear sky), or close, static subjects:

Airplane in the sky
Airplane in the sky
Test of close focusing
Test of close focusing

Birds flying around - almost check, fast focus (both with just the lens and with the TC), although I learned that shooting flying birds while panning needs 1/2000s - my initial attempt at 1/1000s was not enough to eliminate either panning blur or wing-tip blur (both depend on the speed of the respective action); in any case, initial focus acquisition is speedy enough for me. A couple of examples (first without, second with the TC; in the second one, I was unprepared when the I saw the bird from the corner of my eye, and managed to bring up the camera and take exactly one photo before the bird was gone):

Not enough speed
Not enough speed
Too much blur
Too much blur

Another attempt was to focus on dogs jumping in the water. Here the problem was different: focusing on the correct object! The splashing around meant that there were lots of water droplets both in front and behind the dog, the dog being partially obscured by them. I don’t know what AF settings would have helped here (maybe 3D tracking pre-focused on the black dog)? I had a low success rate on the first attempt, so I’ll have to try again. The lens did correctly track the wrong thing, though ☺. Examples:

Almost focused
Almost focused
Wrong focus
Wrong focus

Once the dog caught its target, the lens focused well enough, of course, but not perfect; it might need some AF fine-tuning or photographer upgrade ☺:

Not quite perfect focus
Not quite perfect focus

At one point, I was lucky to have a dog running towards me; focus tracking on a subject approaching the camera is a good test for the lens (and camera) auto-focus performance. I was pleasantly surprised, given my failure to track left-to-right flying birds (which should be easier!):

Run!
Run!
Not yet tired!
Not yet tired!

In any case, I was walking and thinking on how to improve on my technique, when I saw in the distance a pair of dogs (Husky’s, I believe) which were very active. This case was relatively easy for the camera and lens, since they were moving only left-to-right, instead of forward-backward, so the focus distance was mostly constant, and I just had to pan. Full gallery here, two examples:

Jump!
Jump!
Play over, going home
Play over, going home

These two dogs had an education value beyond the “how is the lens performing”; they were so fast, active (they kept going at it non-stop for a good number of minutes) and playful that they made my day brighter ☺.

So, that concludes my first test of this lens and the 1.4 tele-converter. Conclusion: equipment good, need to upgrade the photographer!