Children of a Lesser Nikon

One of the biggest reasons my generation of photographers started with Nikon was their absolutely fantastic lenses. They were well-built, solid, heavy, and made incredible images.

Abby Barron photographs prairie dogs with the AF Nikkor 70-300mm f/4-5.6G at Devil’s Tower National Monument, Wyoming, in the summer of 2005.
Abby Barron photographs prairie dogs with the AF Nikkor 70-300mm f/4-5.6G at Devil’s Tower National Monument, Wyoming, in the summer of 2005.

To stay competitive starting in the late 1990s, however, Nikon had to take some serious shortcuts, one of which was the extensive use of plastic in the bodies of many of their lenses.

The AF Nikkor 70-300mm f/4-5.6G is one such lens. I originally bought this lens for my wife as part of a “kit,” married to a Nikon D70S and an 18-70mm lens. For years, she shot with these lenses at family reunions or on road trips. Eventually, we replaced her two-lens kit with a single lens, a Tamron 18-250mm, which, while not all that great optically, greatly simplified the logistics of her photography: every lens she needed was at her fingertips with a simple turn of a zoom ring.

I spotted the modest 70-300mm sadly gathering dust on a shelf recently, and put it into my workflow, only to be instantly reminded of its shortcomings.

So why is the 70-300mm, and other lenses like it, weaker than other lenses in this same category? It is missing a single item: extra-low dispersion glass. Nikon calls this “ED” glass, and even though my other 70-300mm had just one small ED glass element, it makes a noticeable difference.

ED glass fixes one of the most vexing problems with telephoto lenses: secondary chromatic aberrations, which are green and magenta color fringes on some edges of some images.

I made this image of Ada tennis coach Terry Swopes at a recent tournament. You can see all the flaws of the AF Nikkor 70-300mm f/4-5.6G in this image: it isn’t very sharp, it is littered with green and magenta fringing, and the “bokeh,” the quality of the out-of-focus area, is incredible ratty.
I made this image of Ada tennis coach Terry Swopes at a recent tournament. You can see all the flaws of the AF Nikkor 70-300mm f/4-5.6G in this image: it isn’t very sharp, it is littered with green and magenta fringing, and the “bokeh,” the quality of the out-of-focus area, is incredible ratty.

One thing this lens has going for it is it’s weight: it is so light on the camera that you might think it’s not even there.

Despite its flaws, I’m not going to get rid of this lens. If you know what to do, you can make pretty decent images with it. 1. Don’t shoot it at 300mm. Optical quality starts to deteriorate at about 200mm, and 300mm is a wreck. 2. Always stop it down a little. “Stopping down” means using a lens with the aperture set smaller than wide open. Most lenses are sharper stopped down a little, but it makes a big difference with this class of lenses. 3. Be patient with autofocus. Lenses with smallish maximum apertures tend to cause autofocus to hunt and wander, looking for right right spot to be in focus.

If you have a lens like this, shoot with it and decide if it is doing the job for you, or if you should think about replacing it with something larger, heavier and more expensive, but much more capable.

AF Nikkor 70-300mm f/4-5.6G set to 300mm.
AF Nikkor 70-300mm f/4-5.6G set to 300mm.

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