If you are interested or just getting into wildlife photography, you have to keep in mind that it's not always possible to reach to your subject physically closer most of the time. And in that case, you have two options; you can either get a mid-range telephoto lens and add a teleconverter to get an extra reach or get a long-range telephoto lens. Unless you are a pro wildlife photographer and making your living out of it, it's very hard to justify the cost of expensive telephoto lenses. In my previous blog, I wrote about should you buy a telephoto lens or get a teleconverter where I talked about the best possible route you can go. In short, if the budget is not an issue, get a telephoto lens by all means but if the budget will be an issue, you can get a mid-range telephoto lens and a teleconverter. In this blog, I am trying to discuss about two Nikon mid-range telephoto lenses under $2,500 and onto which you can attach a teleconverter to extend your reach. When you are shopping for the lenses, usually, you encounter with the two choices; whether to get a prime lens or a zoom lens. Most of the time, the deciding factor would be what is more important to you; speed of the prime or the flexibility of the zoom? Today, we are going to take a look at two lenses which are in similar price and focal range but one is prime and another one is zoom lens. Let's take a look at them one by one.
Prime Lens: AF-S Nikkor 300mm f/4E PF ED VR
This lens has an effective focal length of 300mm on FX Model and 450mm on DX Model DSLR. Since it is a prime lens, the widest aperture is also constant at f/4 with the smallest aperture of f/32. This lens is made up of 16 elements grouped into 10 groups with the minimum focus distance of 4.6 ft. This lens has an aperture with 9 blades diaphragm, with the lens diameter of 77mm (takes 77mm filter) and weigh 755g and comes with the price tag of $1,999.95.
Nikkor 300mm f/4E has an electromagnetic diaphragm mechanism (E) in the barrel which provides highly accurate electronic diaphragm or aperture blade control, whereas in conventional D/G type lenses, the diaphragm blades are operated by mechanical linkage levers. But this lens is most famous for a Nikon-designed Phase Fresnel (PF) lens element, a first for the Nikkor DSLR lens lineup. It helps to get sharper and clear image with virtually no chromatic aberration or ghosting. Due to it's revolutionary PF technology, this lens is relatively compact and lightweight.
It also includes one ED (Extra-low Dispersion) glass element and the Nano Crystal coat (N) combined with the Nikon's Silent Wave Motor (SWM) to deliver clear and accurate images with an ultra-quiet and ultra-fast auto-focusing system. It is weather sealed and the front element is coated with fluorine to repel dust, water, grease or dirt and ensures easy cleaning.
This lens comes with 4.5-stop of Vibration Reduction (VR) which provides an image stabilizing effect equivalent to a shutter speed increase of 4.5-stop in a Normal mode. It helps to capture sharp and clear handheld images in low light, Sports and Action. Image sharpness and contrast are fabulous from f/4 all the way through to f/16, and they don't drop off much at f/22-32. Color fringing and distortion are negligible, while resistance to ghosting and flare is very good and the overall image quality is superb.
Zoom Lens: AF-S Nikkor 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR
This lens has an effective focal length of 80-400mm on FX Model and 120-600mm on DX Model DSLR. Since it is a zoom lens with a variable aperture, the widest aperture is f/4.5 at 80mm and f/5.6 at 400mm with the smallest aperture of f/32-f/40. This lens is made up of 20 elements grouped into 12 groups with the minimum focus distance of 5.74 ft. This lens has an aperture with 9 blades diaphragm, with the lens diameter of 77mm (takes 77mm filter) and weight 1570g and comes with the price tag of $2,299.95.
Nikkor 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G doesn't come with a Fresnel element but it does have four ED elements and one super ED element. There is no fluorine coating and only the mount is weather sealed, but as with the 300mm lens, the Nano Crystal Coating helps to combat ghosting and flare. With a minimum length of 203mm, this lens is at least a third longer than the 300mm and it extends considerably at longer zoom settings. It also weigh about twice as much as the prime lens, but comes complete with a tripod/monopod collar which is an optional purchase on 300mm prime. The 80-400mm has the same triple-mode focusing system as the 300mm, and there's also an autofocus range limiter and a zoom lock switch, but AF speed is slightly slower. It comes with the Nikon's second-generation Vibration Reduction (VR) technology which is rated at up-to 4-stop, and has a conventional normal and "active" modes.
Because of it's weight, it makes hard to shoot handheld for a longer period of time but you can get the versatility of the zoom range. This lens comes with the mechanically controlled aperture (G) which is less accurate in high-speed continuous shooting. The image quality of this lens is not as consistent as that of 300mm. It has an impressive sharpness throughout most of the zoom range but drops off quality little bit near 400mm. This lens is not as sharp as 300mm prime even at 300mm and the color fringing and the distortions are slightly more noticeable, but they're still pretty negligible.
I think based on the price, size, manageability and the overall image quality, Nikkor 300mm prime is easily a winner. It's also good value for a Nikon telephoto prime, and standout features include an electromagnetically-controlled diaphragm and a more effective VR system. However, if you can put up with the extra size and weight, the 80-400mm is almost as good, has a greater reach, and is much more versatile lens.