My New Used Nikon 300mm F2.8 Lens May Be My Most Versatile Lens in My Wildlife Kit

November 29, 2017  •  Leave a Comment

Early morning in the blindEarly morning in the blindGet my free Darkroom & Fine Art Newsletter and never miss another article again. Over this last year, I have been using a Nikon D500 (crop sensor) and D5 (full frame camera) for my wildlife photography along with four core prime lenses (300 F4, 400 F2.8, 500 F4, 600 F4). In a previous article, I discussed my plans for 2018 where I am bringing together my love of classic platinum printmaking and my newfound love of wildlife photography.  I've had to master creating digital negatives for my new platinum and platinum/palladium prints because I won't be able to use my large format film cameras for these adventures.  I am really excited about exploring all of this more deeply in the coming years.  All of this has taken me on a journey, exploring a variety of equipment (cameras, lenses, tools) and my latest lens, the Nikon 300mm F2.8 is an amazing tool that I am really excited about.  

THE JOURNEY TO THE 300

The photo to the left is my outdoor cat, Fluffy.  It is the very first exposure I created with the new lens.  I mounted the lens on the D500 and went outside at the end of the day before the last bit of remaining light was gone.  I created this exposure wide open and handheld the lens with no difficulty. This image is a screen capture from my Mac and isn't processed in any way.  I knew when I saw this image that I was going to love this lens.   

I originally anticipated that I would need a 600mm F4 lens for my wildlife photography and I would be good to go!  I was wrong....I discovered very quickly that 600mm was too much lens or it was simply too big and heavy for my current situation. However, when you need the long reach, you need it.  This is when I started exploring shorter prime lenses, so I got the 400mm F2.8 lens and a new world revealed itself to me.  The 400mm F2.8 is probably the single best lens I own in terms of optical quality, although I think anyone would be hard-pressed to pick out a photo made with the 400 F2.8 vs. the 300 F2.8.  The only downside to the 400 F2.8 lens is the physical size and weight, and hence the reason for my exploration of the 300mm F2.8 lens.  There are many times when I simply want or need to handhold my lens for my style of wildlife photography.  I can manage the 400 F2.8 for limited episodes in this context and I think the 300 F2.8 lens is going to open up those type of opportunities for me.  

My love of the 400 F2.8 lens made me realize the value of a fast F2.8 lens for wildlife photography.  Based on many lessons and adventures, I decided to start exploring the idea of the 300 F2.8 lens because it was only 100mm shorter in focal length, but substantially smaller and lighter.  

I was able to acquire a used copy of the lens at an excellent price, so I made the investment.  It has been everything I had hoped it would be based on my experience with the 400, and even more.  My first sets of test images have simply blown me away in terms of quality and the smaller size and less weight is going to open up new options for me.  

VERSATILITY OF THE 300

The photo to the left is my second exposure with the new lens on the D500. Again, this image was created handheld wide open at F2.8 and I placed the focus point on her right eye and she was walking around.  This image was also just a screen capture from my Mac and not edited in any way.  It could benefit from a slight increase in exposure and some custom vignetting, however, I think you can see the potential with this very simple image.  

Since I use both full frame and crop sensor cameras, my 300 right out of the gate is a very versatile lens.  On my full frame D5, I get an amazing setup at 300mm and F2.8. When you combine this with the state of the art AF system of the D5, low-light performance, and frame rate, this is one amazing wildlife photography tool.  The 300 on the crop sensor D500 gets a 1.5X boost for field of view, providing the illusion of a longer focal length, so the 300 mounted on the D500 effectively becomes a 450mm F2.8 lens.  I say effectively because it really isn't 450mm, it is the same field of view if you cropped the full frame image (minus the pixels).  In my Wildlife Photography Newsletter, I go into the specifics behind all of this in case you are interested.  

I tested my new/used 300 lens with all three of Nikon's teleconverters (1.4X, 1.7X, and 2.0X) and the images and AF performance exceeded my exceptions so far.  Further use in the field in demanding conditions will reveal more of an opinion in this area.  

I performed AF Fine Tuning with the bare lens on each of my camera bodies, and then with each teleconverter so that I would be able to achieve maximum sharpness.  On a side note, I cover the LensAlign AF fine tuning process in my 2018 Wildlife Photography Bundle and my Wildlife Newsletter Subscribers receive my step-by-step notes for free on how to use Nikon's Automatic AF Fine Tune process that is included on their most recent cameras (e.g., D5, D500, D7500, D850, D750, etc). I can't emphasize enough how important it is to AF fine tune your lenses for wildlife photography because each lens and camera is manufactured within certain tolerances and until you pair you specific camera and lens together, you don't know how much calibration they may need for optimum performance.

As you can see from the listing directly below, I have a wide range of options with this single lens from 300mm at F2.8 to 840mm at F5.6.  For many wildlife photographers, this single lens when paired with a full or crop sensor camera and the teleconverters may be the only telephoto lens needed making the investment a little easier and justifiable.  

Full Frame D5 with 300mm F2.8 Lens
Bare lens = 300mm F2.8 
+1.4 TC = 420mm F4
+1.7 TC = 510mm F4.8
+2.0 TC = 600mm F5.6

1.5X Crop Sensor D500 with 300mm F2.8 Lens
Bare Lens = 450mm F2.8
+1.4 TC = 630mm F4
+1.7 TC = 765mm F4.8 
+2.0 TC = 840mm F5.6

APPLICATION / USES FOR THE 300

One of the most exciting opportunities that I have planned for the new 300 is when photographing black bears in the mountains.  I learned this last year that my longer primes (600mm, 500mm) are often too much lens.  I plan to use the 300 wide open at F2.8 on my full frame camera and I think this will be a very solid setup based on experience.  The 300, as well as the 400 primes are sharp edge to edge, even wide open.  This is critical for my style of photography.  I frequently find the bears in the forest understory where the lighting is very poor.  The extra 2 stops of light will make a huge difference in my range of opportunities next spring.  

This past year, I ended up switching from my long primes to the Nikon 200-500 F5.6 lens for many of the black bear photos and the F5.6 aperture cost me a lot of opportunities.  The new 300 at F2.8 lets in four times the light as the F5.6 lens and when coupling this with the benefits of the D5, I should be really happy with the results.  

I could have used the 300 several times this year when photographing wild herds of elk.  I started with my 500, then stepped down to my 400 and still found myself needing to back up to get the composition I wanted.  By keeping both full and crop sensor cameras in my pack, as well as the three teleconverters, I suspect the 300 lens will become a staple in my setup moving forward.  

I would not be covering one of my primary motivations regarding the 300 F2.8 lens if I didn't mention the creamy bokeh.  The ability to isolate your wildlife subjects in very messy natural environments is a real advantage and can make a huge impact on the overall success of the image.  I look forward to using this to my advantage in the smaller and lighter package this next year.  

LESSONS LEARNED

I've learned a lot of valuable technical lessons this year, along with confirming the subjects that I really love to photograph, and also, letting go of some things that I thought I would like to pursue.  In the end, the ability to create good wildlife photographs is a balance of many factors which include being present at the right time, knowing the capabilities of your gear inside and out, and a love for the animals that you are photographing, among many others.  Because of wildlife photography is frequently best in low or minimal lighting conditions, I learned the value of faster lenses (e.g., F2.8) really quickly.  

Because of the challenging lighting conditions, I have been forced to take my post processing to a new level because I am pushing the envelope of the current technology (ISO performance, AF performance, etc.) and its impact on the images that I want to create.  Selective noise management and selective sharpening have been the two biggest areas that has taken my images to a higher level. I include both of these skills/concepts in my 2018 Wildlife Photography Bundle because I learned first hand, how important they are. 

NEW PHYSICAL FRONTIER

I was able to push myself to new levels physically that I didn't think was possible this year.  Because of my love of the outdoors and wildlife, I set out on a mission to get in better shape so that I could enjoy my time even more and pursue some more difficult venues in the future.  My sights are set on Yellowstone/Grand Tetons in the spring!  I have lost over 30 pounds so far and I am in the range of my ideal body weight for optimum health.  Now, I am starting to focus on strength training and endurance so that I am better able to pursue more demanding wildlife photography adventures.  I didn't think it was possible in my 50's, but I have learned the body is an amazing machine that wants to be worked.  

If you enjoy or value articles like this, consider becoming a supporter of my writing for only $2 per month or $24 per year.  It takes a lot of time and effort to continue to write and publish meaningful information and the expenses that go along with that.  Hopefully, $2 a month is an extreme value for you.  I also provide exclusive content for my supporters that you won't see anywhere else.  

Get my Free Darkroom Newsletter and/or my Wildlife Photography Newsletter and never miss an update again. View my Learning Materials for darkroom and large format photographers that include video workshops, eBooks, and quick reference cards. Purchase copies of the Darkroom Underground Magazine.

-Tim Layton 

Tim Layton
Darkroom & Large Format Photography
Platinum Histograph Heirloom Prints & MiniaturesTM

 


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