J R's Images & Ideas
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D200 Steep Learning Curve:
70-300mm f/4.5~5.6 lens

Much better than I thought

<17-55mm 2.8   Index   180mm 2.8>

1//1250 @ 8 iso400 Aperture Priority (A) spot metering FF (full frame) HH (hand held)

This is the shot that got me thinking about writing about this and the others of my lenses that I actually use. I backed off a few inches beyond the closest focus (five feet away) and I shot more than one shot, just to make sure. I probably could have sharpened it up more, but who cares? For a lens this cheap, this is amazing.

The last time I wrote about lenses — back when I only had inklings about which would fit my shooting, I had only one AF lens, that I'd bought in the late 1980s. It still works and it's still good, but I needed a more versatile, zoom lens, and this is what I could afford at the moment.

This page marks the beginning of a series of pages, one per lens, of more intelligent, experience-laden information on the lenses I actually use — with lots of photo examples.

I have these manual focus Nikon lenses: 20mm 4, 35mm 1.4, 55 3.5 macro and 105 2.5 telephoto.
But these auto focus Nikons are the ones I actually use: 17-55 2.8, 70-300 4.5~5.6 and 180 2.8.

Of all those, the lens I use most often — almost every day — is the 70-300mm. For macro, tele, birds, sailboats, snakes, animals, a spare few portraits, whatever.

I did not use it for the wedding I shot or to carry around to visit art gallery openings — those occasions are perfect for the 17-55. But for a first-grab lens for almost all my shooting at White Rock Lake, the 70-300 goes with. The few times I take another lens, I generally wish I'd brought this one instead.

The Egret Ruffle  1//1250 @ 8 iso400 A spot
(same day as the dragonfly) 70% crop HH

The big question was, can a cheap zoom cut it?

And the answer is, usually, but not always.

It's not as uniformly sharp as the 17-55 wide to medium zoom, and it's not as sharp wide open as the 180 telephoto prime (not zoom) lens, whose usual maximum aperture is 4x as bright. The 70-300's max aperture of 4.5 (which I rarely use, because I have this light-weight baby racked out to full telephoto's f/5.6) is puny. But this cheap zoom is versatile and light. At just under half the 17-55 or 180's mass, I don't mind lugging it.

(I almost always photograph things at White Rock Lake, but my obstensible purpose is to walk. It is easier to walk if I am not carrying a canon.)

At full zoom, it wobbles when I walk, so I usually zoom it in to carry. But when I use it, unless I'm zooming in and out to frame a moving subject, I almost always leave it at full zoom, close up or far away.

If I'm following a bicycle speeding by, it usually holds focus well. But if I point it up to catch a bird about to fly me over, it's hopeless. Whenever the lens is confused (often), it racks back to full close focus and then back all the way out, instead of starting at infinity, which is almost always closer to the focus I need.

But by then whatever was up there is probably gone. I cheat by focusing it at the trees or something about as far away, then back at the bird, if it's still there.

Great Blue Heron back-lit by the setting sun

That backing-up-and-starting-over focus hunting has lost me more shots than I care to admit. It's a major nuisance, and I long for a bigger max f/stop, longer zoom with AFS (Nikon's fast focusing mode) or faster focusing. But this sucker only cost $170 full retail ($130 or less online), so I'm not surprised it's less than perfect.

Nikon's 80-400mm zoom lens, which may, eventually replace my 70-300 costs about $1,200. It has vibration reduction (VR), which means I can hand hold it at slow shutter speeds and still get sharp results. It is not AFS (high-speed auto focus motor) and because it was originally designed for 35mm film, which is larger than the bit of silicon that acts as film in my Nikon D200 camera, it is heavier than a similar zoom lens made for digital use only would be. There may be a new, digital model of this lens after September, but Nikon is not telling yet. If so, it might be cheaper, because it could be smaller.

I am, however, constantly surprised just how good this lens actually is. Once it latches onto focus, it usually stays sharp on the subject (thanks largely to the D200 camera's inherent intelligence) through long, winding pans (if I've set the camera for continuing focus).

Björn (who tests lenses for the internet and uses them for a career) recommends keeping it at at least f/8, and since I started using aperture priority set at f/8, I've been happy with the results. Used wide open, however, the results are soft.

This lens is almost useless in low-light. Because of its relatively small maximum aperture — I'm used to my Sony F707's f/2 maximum aperture — the 70-300's 5.6 is one-fourth of that — it is nearly blind in evening light to dark of night. It could hunt focus all night and never settle.

Manual focusing this lens is not pleasant, either. Newer, more expensive lenses are IF (internal focusing). Instead of twisting the entire front end of the largish lens, one twists a focusing ring, and all the moving in and out and around occurs inside the lens barrel.

Bright Band of Sunlight - photograph copyright 2006 by J R Compton. All Rights Reserved.

Bright Band of Light Across the Lake - 1/8,000 @ f/8 at 70mm
Can you see the bird flying across the road at lower left of center?

This zoom lens is an externally focusing lens, which means the far end of it spins wildly during auto focusing and I have to twist it in manual mode, which I avoid like the plague. If I'm holding the far end, which I almost always do, the torquing elements pinch unwary fingers or spin them away.

My other major complaint is that this lens is simply not long enough for my usual use. It has not the reach, the magnification I need to photograph birds at much distance, which most of them maintain when they see me.

It's not great. It's not anywhere near perfect. But for the price, it is still amazing.