Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 CX Lens Review

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What is It?

The 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 VR ED is a very long telephoto zoom for the Nikon 1 cameras (CX mount). By very long, I mean 190-810mm equivalent.

This is achieved in a pretty small package, mostly because the Nikon 1 one-inch image sensors don’t need a very large image circle. At 19.4 ounces (550g) and barely over 4” in length (collapsed), this is a very cartable and reasonably lightweight super telephoto option. Indeed, the kind of lens that bird watchers and others have been waiting for a long time. Coupled with a V series Nikon, you end up with the most portable “long reach” option I know of. The fact that we’ve optical stabilization and a fast focus motor inside are almost icing on the cake.

Better still, the 70-300mm also focuses pretty close for such a long lens: 3.3 feet (1m), which almost puts it into the macro range with it’s 1:2.4 reproduction ratio:

INT BOTS Okavango 8-2014 V3 38058.jpg

Up front we have a 62mm filter ring, and an HB-N110 (included) lens hood. An optional (TR-N100) tripod foot is available.

At US$1000, coupled with all the other desirable attributes of the lens, a lot of people suddenly started thinking more seriously about the Nikon 1 cameras when this lens was announced. Obviously, the real question I need to answer is whether all that expectation actually paid off in the reality of use.


How’s it Handle?

The 70-300mm is a fairly substantial lens. With the lens collapsed it may be short, but it’s still a fairly heavy, dense bulk mounted on the front of what are fairly small bodies. There’s a bit of front heaviness to the V3/70-300mm combo. Note I wrote “a bit.” I’d say it gets more than a bit if you take the grip and EVF off the camera or use this lens on any of the S or J models.

Nikon uses the “must press button and rotate to extend lens before use” design on this lens. Frankly, I don’t like that design, though it does mean that the lens is 2” shorter—about three and three quarters of an inch long—during transport. The good news is that extending the lens will turn on the camera and collapsing it will turn off the camera, something Nikon introduced via firmware somewhere in the middle of the J1/V1 cycle and now applies to all Nikon 1 bodies.

v3-with-70-300-collapsed.jpg


When collapsed with the lens hood reversed in the preferred transportation position(see above) the problem is simple: you’ll have to pull the hood off (and mount it) to get to the button to extend the lens. You can’t zoom the lens with the hood reversed. This is one of those design conflicts that are inherent throughout the Nikon 1 series. Okay, the camera will turn on if you extend the lens, a time saver that gets you to first shot faster. But you’ll have to take the hood off first, which gets you to first shot slower. Yes, this may seem like a nit, but I really want a camera/lens to go from transport to shooting as close to instantly as possible. That was especially true on safari because I was using the V3/70-300mm as a thirdcamera and thus keeping it as minimized as possible due to the lack of space in the front seat of the vehicle where I usually sit.

The lens hood, by the way, is a bayonet style, and once you realize that the hood marker should basically align with the top of the lens before rotating, it goes on surely and quickly, unlike a few other Nikon hoods I’ve dealt with lately. Curiously, the lens itself doesn’t really have an alignment marker for the hood bayonet.

Once extended, the lens zooms from 70-300mm in about a quarter turn with a very wide ring. At the beginning of my trip, the zoom action was smooth and sure. Unfortunately, the Botswana dust has managed to make it much rougher (and noisier) after three weeks of use. It’s still quite usable and doesn’t have any “hitches” in the action, so I won’t be sending it back to Nikon for a look just yet, but it does call into question just how weather sealed the lens might be.

Normally I’d complain a bit about how the focus and zoom rings aren’t differentiated enough in terms of their grip, but in the case of the 70-300mm, it’s pretty clear by feel which ring you’ve connected to: the focus ring is very loose and smooth compared to the zoom ring (even before the dust got into my lens).

On the V3, the combo is pretty well balanced. As I noted, there’s a tiny bit of front-heavy feel, but since we’re talking about really long focal lengths here (up to 810mm equivalent), I’ve normally got my hand under the lens itself supporting it.

The lens has a focus limiter switch to help net you faster focus on long distance subjects. I didn’t really feel the need for that in my shooting and tended to just leave it set to Full, but it’s there just in case.

The optional tripod collar is still missing in action. I ordered it on day one and have yet to receive it, so I can’t say anything about it. The position it bolts into is veryclose to the body, though. I suspect that those of us who use Arca-style plates on our cameras will find that the collar bumps into them.


How’s it Perform?

Autofocus: in three weeks of shooting with it I can’t say that I ever had an issue with how the lens responded to the camera’s focus system. Because the 70-300mm is a native CX lens, that means you can use all of the focus sensors on the camera, not just the central one as happens when you use a traditional F-mount lens on a Nikon 1 via Nikon’s adapter.

It’s a shame that the V3 has an indirect way of moving the focus point (press OK button, then use Direction pad, then press OK again) and a potential direct way that isn’t really usable when you’re using the EVF (touchscreen). If you’re using the LCD to focus, great. Otherwise, you’re slowed by the method of moving the focus sensor, which takes away from the speed at which the lens actually focuses. Another of those design dissonances in the Nikon 1 line, unfortunately.

Focus accuracy was quite good, as you’d expect.

VR: Yes, it works as you’d expect. But there are couple of niggling things you need to be aware of. First up, there’s the EVF lag issue. With static subjects, the VR is relatively tame: the view through the viewfinder seems very stabilized. When you pan with a fast moving subject taking a burst and VR is On, the re-centering of the optical elements that the Nikon system does just prior to each photograph being taken can make it seem like there’s a bit of twitch to the VR, but it’s really that the optical elements realigned between frames that you're seeing in the EVF, and sometimes that direction is the opposite of your pan, making for that slight twitch. It doesn’t happen all the time, but the more active you are, the more likely I think you’ll see it.

The big problem is that Nikon’s VR has this persistent problem of getting jumpy as the battery nears exhaustion. The classic symptom is that you see a big jump of framing as the VR re-engages after a shot. Well, the V3 doesn’t exactly have a big battery. Whereas I can shoot almost all day with my D810 before I provoke that jumpiness in my 80-400mm, with the V3 and 70-300mm it was happening with much more regularity during the day, and because the battery is so wimpy, much sooner during a shooting session. I guess the good news is that it’s a very visible low battery reminder ;~).

Exposure: Wait, exposure? Yes, I think I need to talk about this, as it’s another of those design dissonances you need to be aware of. No, the 70-300mm doesn’t produce exposure problems. Not in the sense you’re thinking. But here’s the thing: at ISO 160 (base ISO) in direct sunlight at maximum aperture (e.g. f/5.6 at 300mm) I was getting shutter speeds of between 1/640 and 1/800. Since we’re talking about 810mm equivalent, we’re actually underthe minimum shutter speed required to keep the results steady. Good thing we’ve got VR (see above).

So if the light is not full sunlight or you have fast motion you need to absolutely stop, the problem is that we’re very quickly pushing ISO values up using this lens, and, of course, the Nikon 1 cameras aren’t terribly great at high ISO values. The result is that there is a very narrow window of exposure before we start compromising something in our results. Time and time again in the early morning on safari I found that I really didn’t have a truly usable combination with the V3 and 70-300mm because of this. A fast moving animal out of direct light as the sun has barely risen just pushed me to values that were highly problematic.

The moral of this story is that it’s easy to get excited about 810mm equivalent, but the word equivalent is definitely coming into play here and will cause you issues in a number of cases. To cover football during the day with enough shutter speed, I have to boost ISO on my V3 with this lens. And that’s at maximum aperture. Heaven help you if you want some more depth of field.

Optics: That said, this is a darned sharp lens, enough so for me to want to push it right to the V3’s exposure boundaries. Here’s a full frame out of camera (ISO 160, f/5.6, 1/640 by the way):

INT BOTS Moremi Aug2014 V3 12203.jpg

And here’s the actual pixels:

INT BOTS Moremi Aug2014 V3 12203crop.jpg

(Yes, I was cheating the focus point a bit to keep the mane hair in the DOF.)

I really don’t have any big issues with anything in the optics. Linear distortion is quite low (and Adobe and others already provide profiles to correct what little there is). Chromatic aberration is also very well under control in my sample. Wide open the lens is sharp across the zoom range, and maybe even a bit sharper at 300mm than 70mm, with only a modest falloff into the corners. Vignetting wide open is just into the visible range, but not enough for me to worry about on a long telephoto. There’s just not a characteristic in the optics I’d call problematical in any sense of the word.


Final Words

You’ll notice that I’m not gushing over the 70-300mm. I actually like it a lot, and it adds a very interesting and useful tool to my gear closet, so I’m obviously keeping it and continuing to use it. Yet…

As I’ve noted several times, the Nikon 1 system just keeps having these design dissonances. The small sensor of the camera both grants us the 810mm equivalent in a pocketable lens, but it also challenges us to find situations in where it is undeniably useful.

I’ve started calling this my Sunny 16 lens. Not because I shoot with it at f/16, but because I need Sunny 16 types of conditions to get truly superb results out of this lens on the Nikon 1 bodies. As the light goes down and/or the subject moves faster, my delight with this lens goes down, too, but because of the small sensor sitting behind it, not the optics. But when the sun is out, and especially with not-so-fast-moving subjects, I amdelighted with the lens.

It’s not surprising that demand for this lens exceeds Nikon’s production as I write this. It’s an exceptional, if situation limited, tool. Nikon didn’t appear to understand the demand for it, either, which seems strange. It’s almost as if Nikon doesn’t know what a Nikon 1 system is good for photographically. Oh wait, they don’t ;~).

Did Nikon pick the right compromises with this lens? They could have built a 100-300mm f/4 lens, for example. It would have been bigger and heavier and more expensive, but that extra stop would have made the lens usable for more things on the little Nikon 1 cameras. In this case, though, I think Nikon made the right choice. I can actually stick a number of long telephoto f/2.8 and f/4 lenses on my Nikon 1 cameras if I really need the extra speed (though I lose focus flexibility), so that option already existed. The 70-300mm Nikon built is a compromise choice: keep the size and weight down and the performance up as high as possible. I think Nikon basically nailed that compromise. There’s nothing else out there that quite matches what a V3 and the 70-300mm are capable of in terms of being easily transportable and truly hand holdable.

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