In Praise of the 300mm

The 300mm has the kind of reach that can make the difference between ordinary sports photos and impressive ones, like this image shot earlier this year at Sulphur, Oklahoma.
The 300mm has the kind of reach that can make the difference between ordinary sports photos and impressive ones, like this image shot earlier this year at Sulphur, Oklahoma.

Earlier this year I “bought” (using credit card thank you points) a new AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8. Regarded as a portrait lens both for its natural perspective at face-filling distances and for its ability to throw backgrounds out of focus when shot at apertures close to its maximum, I am delighted with it. I recently shot a wedding with it, and the images were amazing.

But if you are outdoors and want a lens that will take all this to a new level, you might consider a large-aperture super telephoto. For me, few lenses rival the 300mm, both for its amazing reach and for its ability to render backgrounds completely out of focus.

In April 1985, Scott Andersen and I were walking around New York City when we came across a photographer with a 300mm f/2.8 Nikkor on a monopod. At first we couldn’t quite figure out what he was shooting, but a half a block down the street we saw his pouting fashion model. He was using the 300mm to isolate his subject on the street and throw the background well out of focus.

This is the kind of reach you can get with a 300mm lens, in this case my personally-owned AF Nikkor 300mm f/2.8. Notice that the background is beautifully out of focus and flattering. No matter how hard you try, you'll never get gorgeous selective focus like this with a zoom.
This is the kind of reach you can get with a 300mm lens, in this case my personally-owned AF Nikkor 300mm f/2.8. Notice that the background is beautifully out of focus and flattering. No matter how hard you try, you’ll never get gorgeous selective focus like this with a zoom.

Flash forward 31 years. For years I’ve used a wonderful AF 300mm f/4 Nikkor that my newspaper got used on eBay. It was a workhorse, and occasionally combined with a Tokina 1.4x teleconverter and the so-called 1.5 “crop sensor” factor of my cameras, I had all the reach I needed.

Worth Repeating...
I know I say this a lot, but I am seeing a distinct uptick in a number of people around me who think they can buy a skill by buying a lens, and that’s just not true. Remember: You can’t buy mastery; you have to earn it.
I photographed the workhorse AF 300mm f/4 at a baseball game last spring, showing much of the paint on the metal surfaces showing brass from years of service. This lens died last week.
I photographed the workhorse AF 300mm f/4 at a baseball game last spring, showing much of the paint on the metal surfaces showing brass from years of service. This lens died last week.

Last week the old 300mm f/4’s focus locked up and wouldn’t budge, just as my outdoor playoffs – baseball, soccer, softball, and daytime football – were starting. I tried to fill the gap with hope and a cheap consumer 70-300mm, but I was really feeling the loss. When the repair estimate came back at nearly $500, about what we paid for it in the first place and certainly more than it was worth, I urged my publisher Amy Johns to buy me a new one, and she agreed without hesitation. Props to her for recognizing the value of photography and the equipment it requires, and the value of respecting her staff and their needs.

I had the lens shipped overnight, and put it right into service at a regional playoff baseball game. That’s the way I roll. No test frames. No “playing with it.” Trial by fire.

Before I shot with this beautiful new lens, I photographed it on my desk at work. I later removed the tripod collar, and will probably never use it again.
Before I shot with this beautiful new lens, I photographed it on my desk at work. I later removed the tripod collar, and will probably never use it again.
A closer look at the AF-S 300mm f/4 shows the simple, straightforward controls, including the focus ring, the auto/manual focus switch, the focus limit switch, and the aperture ring. Aperture rings are on their way out of Nikon lens design to save weight and complexity, but still remain on some older designs.
A closer look at the AF-S 300mm f/4 shows the simple, straightforward controls, including the focus ring, the auto/manual focus switch, the focus limit switch, and the aperture ring. Aperture rings are on their way out of Nikon lens design to save weight and complexity, but still remain on some older designs.

I wasn’t disappointed, though I knew I wouldn’t be. Lenses aren’t magic wands. I have a career of experience with the 300mm, and I knew this new one, the AF-S Nikkor 300mm f/4 ED-IF, would do the job, and due to improvements in autofocus and lens coating technology, it would do it better. Focus is quick and on the money, images are tack sharp, backgrounds are super-clean, and although it is not Nikon’s lightest 300mm, it is lighter and feels better in my hands than the old 300mm.

A coworker saw this lens as I was unboxing it and asked, “It’s just a 300mm?” The prevailing view among many photographers is that a fixed focal length lens, a so-called “prime,” isn’t versatile or exciting enough, but my experience is that my use of prime lenses is responsible for most of my really great images. The 300mm is one of those lenses.

Here is the first frame through my new AF-S Nikkor 300mm f/4. Thanks to the f/4 maximum aperture, you'd never guess this was shot through the backstop net.
Here is the first frame through my new AF-S Nikkor 300mm f/4. Thanks to the f/4 maximum aperture, you’d never guess this was shot through the backstop net.
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3 Comments

  1. As usual, I enjoyed both your images and accompanying text.

    I can attest to (as if you need it) the truth of your bit: “…a number of people around me who think they can buy a skill by buying a lens…” I was one of those people. While it is true that some lenses can do what others cannot — by their very nature — I had to learn the hard way that I can’t just buy a lens and have it magically make beautiful photographs.

    As for “a large-aperture super telephoto”, a person can quickly spend a LOT in that direction. I remember borrowing Steve Boots’ 400mm f/2.8 and wishing I could sell both my cars to have one just like it. 🙂

    (He also had a 600mm f/4 that was ridiculous, but wasn’t very mobile.)

    In case you still have a reader that isn’t aware, the “completely out of focus” background is a result of four things:

    1) Focal length
    2) Aperture
    3) Distance (camera to subject)
    4) Distance (subject to background)

    Those who can’t afford 1 & 2 can work on 3 & 4 and still get some worthwhile results.

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