Often referred to as ‘budget telephoto zooms’, 70-300mm lenses with an aperture rating of around f/4-5.6 have been highly popular since the days of 35mm film. More recently, the Nikon AF-S 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G IF-ED VR has been the pick of the crop, combining excellent image quality with a high-performance ring-type ultrasonic autofocus system and VR (Vibration Reduction) stabilization, all at a very attractive price of around £430/$ 500/AU$ 850.
That lens has now been discontinued, and replaced by the AF-P 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6E ED VR, priced at a somewhat less budget-friendly £750/$ 750/AU$ 1,300. So what’s the difference, and is the news lens worth the extra outlay?
- AF swaps to an AF-P (Pulse) stepping motor system
- Features electromagnetic diaphragm control
- Uprated VR system
Not to be confused with Nikon DX-format 55-200mm, 55-300mm and 70-300mm zooms, for DSLRs with APS-C image sensors, the new 70-300mm is an FX (full-frame) compatible zoom. As with its predecessor, you can also use it on DX cameras, where it gives an effective zoom range of 105-450mm, edging into super-telephoto territory.
Compared with the older FX-format 70-300mm VR lens, there are three crucial differences in the new design. First, autofocus swaps to an AF-P (Pulse) stepping motor system. The good news is that it’s amazingly fast, even compared to the ring-type ultrasonic system of the previous lens. Instead of being ‘whisper-quiet’, the new autofocus system is virtually silent in operation; indeed, it’s difficult to hear any autofocus noise even with your ear pressed up against the lens barrel. Another bonus here is that the AF-P system enables smooth rather than jerky focus transitions when shooting movies.
Downsides to this are that you need battery power from the camera for manual focus as well as autofocus operation and, unlike in the previous lens, there’s no focus distance scale. A bigger drawback is that there are incompatibility issues with older cameras: neither autofocus nor manual focus is possible with a number of DSLRs, up to and including the D3200, D5200 and D7000.
Next up is diaphragm control for the aperture. Instead of Nikon’s usual mechanically operated system, which relies on a physical lever, the new 70-300mm is an ‘E’ type lens with electromagnetic diaphragm control. Again, there’s good news and bad news here. The upside is that exposure consistency is better on a shot-to-shot basis, when shooting at fast continuous drive rates. That’s a real plus point in action sports and wildlife photography, to which telephoto zooms are well suited. The downside is that, again, there are incompatibility issues with older cameras. If you use this lens with a D1, D2, D40, D40s, D60, D70, D70s, D80, D90, D100, D200, D3000 or D5000 body you’ll only be able to shoot at the widest aperture.
The third main feature change is in the VR (Vibration Reduction) stabilization system. The previous lens had Normal and Active modes. The Normal mode was ideal for general shooting, and included automatic panning detection, while the Active mode was intended for shooting from vibrating platforms, such as an idling vehicle or a helicopter; either way, the VR system was only worth around 2.5 stops in effectiveness. The uprated VR system in the new lens gives improved 4.5-stop performance, and comes with Normal and Sport modes. The latter of these gives a more stable image in the viewfinder when you're panning or tracking erratically moving subjects.
Build quality and handling
- Complete set of weather-seals is now fitted
- Refined handling
- Auto-priority or manual-priority AF modes
The new lens is a little lighter than its predecessor, at 630g compared with 745g. Despite this, construction feels similarly sturdy and of good quality throughout. A change for the better is that a complete set of weather seals is now fitted, whereas the older lens merely had a sealed mounting plate.
Handling is refined, with smooth and precise operation of the zoom and focus rings. A three-position rather than two-position auto/manual focus switch has been added, enabling you to choose either auto-priority or manual-priority AF modes. With the latter, you don’t need to wait until autofocus has locked onto a subject; instead, you can twist the focus ring at any time to override autofocus and use manual focusing instead. It’s a bonus in tricky conditions, when autofocus may hunt and fail to lock onto a subject, and also enables you to engage manual focusing in Continuous AF mode.
- Autofocus is incredibly fast
- Sharpness is very good
- Color fringing very well controlled
As we’ve mentioned, autofocus is incredibly fast. It also proved consistently accurate throughout our tests, during which the VR lived up to its 4.5-stop billing. Image quality is very satisfying in all respects. Sharpness is good throughout the entire zoom range, and across the whole image frame. Most notably, it beats the older lens for sharpness at the long end of the zoom range, and into the corners of the frame. Color fringing and distortions are very well controlled, the latter switching from minor barrel at 70mm to negligible pincushion at medium-to-long zoom settings. All in all, there are no real criticisms regarding the new Nikon’s performance.
While performance is excellent for a ‘budget telephoto zoom’, the new Nikon is an expensive lens to buy. For example, the Tamron SP 70-300mm f/4-5.6 Di VC USD offers performance and image quality that are nearly as good, but is much more affordable at around £330/$ 450/AU$ 600; the Tamron is also compatible with older Nikon cameras, whereas Nikon’s own lens is not. Putting the Nikon’s value for money in better light, Canon’s range-topping EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM costs a hefty £1,250/$ 1,350/AU$ 1,800 although, in many ways, the Canon EF 70-300mm f4-5.6 IS II USM is a more direct competitor, and is rather less expensive at £500/$ 550/AU$ 750 (with ‘optional’ lens hood).
A limiting factor of 70-300mm lenses is that their widest available aperture is typically f/5.6 towards the long end of the zoom range, which means you can struggle in dull lighting conditions or, for example, when shooting indoor sports; while the VR system is very effective, it can’t do anything to ‘stabilize’ moving subjects. You don’t need to spend very much more to get a fast telephoto zoom like the Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 EX DG OS HSM, at £900/$ 1,300/AU$ 1,400. With its f/2.8 aperture constant throughout the zoom range you can use faster shutter speeds for freezing action, without having to bump up your ISO settings so much; you’ll also get the bonus of a tighter depth of field, if and when you want one.
In a nutshell, the new Nikon is simply the best 70-300mm lens on the market for use with current and recent Nikon DSLRs, and that holds true for both DX and FX cameras. However, it’s not particularly good value at the price.