Beginner question: Nikon 300/4 vs 300/2.8 for Bird Photography

Discussion in 'Nature' started by arvind_thiagarajan, Aug 30, 2013.

  1. Hi all,
    I'm a beginner to bird photography. I have been renting the Nikon 300mm AF-S f/4 lens to try it out and really like the sharpness and quality of images I get of birds both big and small I get with this lens.
    I am now considering an outright purchase of this lens used or new, but am also tempted by the similar, but much pricier Nikon 300mm f/2.8 AF-S VR (used, since I can't afford the new one). My only concern is: would the f/2.8 end up really being used very much since it could result in shallow depth of field and possibly out of focus tail/feathers (e.g. if focusing on the eye of a bird). So would it be worth spending so much extra for that lens if it is going to be used mostly at f/4 or lower anyway.
    I am still inexperienced and starting out (as you can see!), so sorry if this is a stupid question. Anyone out there with birding experience having any comments/thoughts on how often you end up actually shooting birds wide open with the 300/2.8 and if you find the extra stop of light from f4 actually helpful, would be great to hear from you.
    I heard of other advantages of the 300/2.8 --- being able to shoot with teleconverters and the VR. Are those also helpful in the field? I have so far been typically shooting birds at fast shutter speeds anyway, so wasn't sure if VR is all that helpful (in the long run) either. Also, could anyone comment if the AF acquisition on the 300/2.8 AF-S is noticeably faster or helpful than the 300/4 AF-S?
    Thanks a lot! Your comments/thoughts would be much appreciated.
  2. the similar, but much pricier​
    I would not call it very similar - the 300 f/4 is fairly portable, fairly hand-holdable, farily affordable, and optically very good, especially considering its cost. The 300 f/2.8 is simply large, heavy, costly and among the very very best Nikon has to offer. It's not just about the an extra bit of depth of field (less), but it's about a lens built with far less compromises.
    The extra stop of light it has, I think the advantages are not so much DoF, but more elsewhere: it's one extra stop of shutterspeed for sports and birds in flight, and it's twice the light for the AF system to work with. Combined with heavier, faster AF motors in the lens - yes, it is a faster lens to AF (as far as I could tell, by a LOT, but I played with a 300 f/2.8VRII only once; but my goodness, the AF is instantaneous - the 300 f/4 I own is a lot slower).
    Plus, indeed Teleconverters. They are useful in the field. On the 300 f/4, the TC14EII works well, with the TC17EII I find the optical performance to be already too mediocre (plus on the body I have, AF is bad, on the new bodies as the D7100, D600, D800, it should be a lot better). The 300 f/2.8 should work well with all TCs.
    Whether VR is helpful, I can't answer. I have little problems handholding the 300 f/4 (but I am not the smallest person on earth), the 300 f/2.8, I am quite sure I would have problems. Being a big and serious lens, the 300 f/2.8 requires a very solid tripod too, with a solid head - that's going to add serious money to the bill if you do not yet have those. Plus, you will have to take into account you'll be out in the field with this solid tripod, few kilos of lens...
    So frankly, the choice between these lenses, you will have to consider more than just the merits of each lens. Yes, the f/2.8VR is a spectacular piece and for me personally, the Nikkor I would most love to own. But even if I could find the money... I probably still wouldn't buy it, because I know I am not going to carry it around. It would sit at home, being an incredibly good lens, while I am outdoors with the 300 f/4 shooting.
  3. Thanks Wouter. That's helpful to know --- I plan to try the 2.8 to see if handholding its weight is too much for me or not.
  4. stemked

    stemked Moderator

    IMHO a 300mm lens itself is normally not long enough for bird photography. 400mm and better still 500 or 600 is what you need for most bird photography. I know nothing about Nikon lenses, but I should think you need to think about how you want to get more length out of your lens. a 300mm f2.8 is a 600mm f5.6 with a 2X adaptor; or a 420mm f4.2 with a 1.4X TC. Will that compromise your ability to photograph birds? I'll let the Nikon folks pipe in. I do occasionally get great bird images with a 300mm f4.5 Pentax lens, but usually I just need more reach, and I have longer lenses for that purpose.
  5. grh


    For birding, being outside with plenty of light, and likely not too close to your subject, I don't see why you'd need an f/2.8 aperture. At any reasonable distance the DoF of a 2.8 is still going to be thicker than your average bird. (Go to for lots of info and calculators.)
    Using a crop-sensor camera (e.g. a Nikon D7000) at 200mm with a distance to subject of 100 ft, f/2.8 gives you a DoF of 8 ft. f/4 gives you a DoF of 12 ft. Pretty negligible for something as small as a bird, if you ask me.
    With respect to shutter speed options, there is nothing I can add to the above. Weight wise, everyone I know that has a 70-200 f/2.8 comments about the weight. And +1 on the TCs.
    If you're not sure, and you have the option, try renting first to see what you think.
  6. Douglas, good point about the length, but it's unfortunately a bit a gap in the Nikon system: after the 300mm lenses, there are only the serious big guns (400 f/2.8, 200-400 f/4VR etc., $7500 new and up), the old AF-D 80-400VR ($1500, slow AF, not great at 400mm) or the new AF-S 80-400VR lens (much better than the old one, but with a $2700 pricetag) - and those latter 2 are f/5.6 at the long end, and probably not too great with TCs. So, the choices on a more normal budget are a bit lacking - the 300 f/4 with 1,4TC is the nicest bet, in my view. I do not do a great deal of birding photos (and that's an understatement), but from the bit I do, on APS-C/DX I usually find the 420mm working out quite well. On full frame, it's typically too short.
    If you need more, a 300 f/2.8 with TCs is probably the nicest and most affordable way to reach 600mm with optical good performance; all other options are compromises of sorts...
    Forgot to mention earlier: there are of course also 3rd party alternatives, as the Sigma 50-500 OS zoom, the Sigma 500 f/4.5 prime, or the 300 f/2.8 lenses from Tamron/Sigma... I know precious little about them, but it might be worth looking those up as they can make very viable cheaper alternatives.
  7. I own and use a 300mm f 4.0 AFS and a 500mm f 4.0 AFS II for bird photography. I add a 1.4x Nikon TC to the 500mm about 90% of the time and it is mounted on to an expensive tripod with a gimbal head. This is what you really need, but it costs a lot. I use the 300mm f 4.0 AFS mostly without the 1.4x tc for large birds in flight. My birds in flight would be much better if I had the 300mm f 2.8 because of faster AF, but it is heavy. I have used a 300mm f 4.0 with a 1.4x tc for birds, but AF can be slow. As a starting system for large birds, it can work, but you still should plan on using it on a tripod with a very good head. One alternative is to buy a used Nikon 500mm f 4.0 P lens. It has electronic contacts, but is manual focus. Its optics are superb. Its matched 1.4x tc is the Nikon TC14B. I used one for about 7 years before I got the AFS II version. Joe Smith
  8. Thanks for all the responses.

    Douglas, I am shooting on DX and with crop factor, so 300mm seems decent so far, except the really far away birds. The 400, 500 and 600 lenses are really heavy and as Wouter says, I don't know if I would be able to explore, walk around and see as many birds as I could with the 300mm lenses.
    Gary, I so far feel I have needed to wait to get close to the birds to take good pics. Otherwise I somehow can't focus accurately on the eye of the bird (maybe defect in my focusing technique, but these small songbirds seem to move really quickly). At a distance of about 10 feet (which I shot a catbird with the other day), the website you pointed me to claims a 0.03 foot DOF for an f/2.8 on a DX body, which seems to be only 1 cm or so.
    I have not yet tried shooting with the teleconverters, so maybe I will rent the f/4 and f/2.8 + TCs and see if they help me get better pics of more birds. That's a good tip. Thanks. So far it looks like 300 f/4 + TC14e is a winner combination.
  9. SCL


    Arvind - Birding is a tough one to define....although I think photographers like Doug Herr, do an incredible job with almost any lens he uses...but he understands stalking his prey to get the fantastic shots. I do think serious shooters of birds, in particular, will do a much better job with a 400mm or longer focal length lens than a 300. I had a Nikon 300/2.8 (not AF, but manual focus) for a number of years...great lens...very bright images in the viewfinder, sharp as a tack pictures...but shooting at f2.8 really didn't take advantage of the sweet spot of the lens, which was more like f4. OTOH, my favorite bird lens was a Leitz 400/f6.3 in a Visoflex mount used on my Nikon as a tack in the center, and fading in sharpness toward the edges until stopped down (when you could no longer focus thru the viewfinder anyway). It was my favorite based on 1) less weight than the 300 therefore greater portability and a better range for capture of smaller and intermediate sized birds. To answer your question...being relatively new to shooting birds...I'd not opt for the 300/ really is a specialty lens; and you're better off with a 400mm or greater focal length in terms of capturing a larger number of birds. The photo below is a sample of what a 400 can capture at relatively close distances.
  10. Thanks Stephen, that's an amazing photo. Such expression!
  11. stemked

    stemked Moderator

    Have you looked into Sigma or Tamron options? I have the Sigma 150-500 f4-6.3 in Pentax mount, it is a pretty decent lens. As the Tamron 200-500 doesn't exist in Pentax mount I know nothing about it. Provided you aren't taking a lot of other lenses I find I can carry the Sigma lens fine several miles. Alternative pick up a used Sigma 400mm Version II (77mm filter) APO macro f5.6, it's a VERY reasonable lens to carry and will even work okay with a 1.4X TC. The older APO 400mm f5.6 is okay, is feather light, but it doesn't focus close and is very fragile and not the Version IIs optical equal. These Sigma lenses are also quite reasonably priced.
    A look through the used market finds several possible lenses in the 400mm range (mostly zooms), but to be honest I don't know them that well, nor how compatible they are with Nikon's digital bodies.
    A couple of images from each lens.
    Uncropped and unmanipulated Sigma 400mm f5.6 (with a 10 megapixel Pentax K10).
    Partly Cropped, but not manipulated Sigma 150-500mm. (14 Megapixel Pentax K7)
    These are both warblers, so small birds, which are one of the biggest challenges in bird photography.
  12. I agree with Stephen Lewis (thanks for the kudos, BTW), 300mm is the short end of the useful focal length range for most bird photography. I use a 280mm lens most often but I keep extenders with me too.
    400mm is a great starting point for most people and for many it's the sweet spot: a 400mm f/5.6 is a good balance of portability and reach, long enough to learn good long-lens technique without being overwhelming, and will encourage development of good stalking skills that can be applied to any bird regardless of the focal length of the lens.
    I expect that the f/2.8 aperture will be useful primarily for faster AF. I find that at most bird-to-camera working distances when I want to fill the frame the DOF atfull aperture of my 280mm f/4 is too skimpy unless everything is lined up perfectly in the plane of focus. An f/2.8 is going to be even skimpier. I have also found that birds are freaked out more by the bigger entrance pupil of a faster lens and I can't get as close to them. IMHO an f/2.8 lens imposes a huge cost, weight and stalking penalty just for the benefit of faster AF, but I focus manually so take this with a grain of salt.
    I used the Leica 400mm f/6.8 for many years and it was a very productive lens for me. It's portable, quick handling, relatively inexpensive, easy to adapt to Nikon and close enough to f/5.6 that the difference doesn't matter. It's manual focus and manual aperture which can be a big drawback for many people. Unfortunately Nikon doesn't curently make a 400mm f/5.6 prime.
  13. ShunCheung

    ShunCheung Administrator

    Unfortunately Nikon doesn't curently make a 400mm f/5.6 prime.​
    But Nikon now has a 80-400mm/f4.5-5.6 AF-S VR, which is optically excellent. AF is also fast under good light. Of course, it has all the advantages and disadvantages of a 400mm/f5.6 lens, namely it is very much hand holdable and relatively compact, but f5.6 is slow under dim light and AF speed and accuracy will suffer. Additionally, I find that lens quite expensive (US $2700) for a relatively slow 400mm lens.
    I would agree with the others that a 300mm lens is going to be on the short side for bird photography, even on a DX (APS-C) body.
    Concerning the OP's original question, I have both of Nikon's 300mm/f4 AF-S and 300mm/f2.8 AF-S. The f2.8 is fairly big and if you want to hand hold for birds in flight, it is heavy to hold it for long. However, the f2.8 is much better for adding teleconverters to make it longer, more suitable for bird photography.
  14. Arvind, I had the same question. Rented and used both lenses for week-long trips in Florida. Here are my thoughts:
    1. 300 f/4 is much easier to hold, carry, and use. As an amateur, I would use it a lot more.
    2. With the 300 f/2.8, I shot mostly at f/4 anyway.
    3. The VR in the 300 f/2.8 helps. I verified it helps quite a bit in hand-held test shots in the yard and in the living room. In the field, I want a high shutter speed anyway because of subject motion, and I use a monopod. I did not find the VR important for my photography.
    4. The advantages of the f/2.8 lens: With wider aperture, you autofocus is said to perform better. I believe this, but I did not experience it in my shooting. The f/2.8 lens still has f/4 or f/5.6 with 1.4x or 2x teleconverters. I shoot the 300 lenses on a DX camera with a monopod. As an amateur, that's enough reach for me. I'm just not ready to carry the tripod and gimbal head that goes with a 500 or with a 300 + Extender.
  15. Having reading All the comments here, I see that my very large collection of lens covers every lens mentioned
    here. So, what do I use with over 700 lens to pick from ?

    If I go to a zoo, any of my high end 100 mm lens are more than adequate to obtain excellent imagery of birds of all sizes.

    For field work, I pre-plan which lens or two lens that I will use based upon the following:
    1] The camera used
    2] The working distance to the subject
    3] The size of the subject
    4] The lighting conditions available
    5] The amount of time I spend in the field

    I do not use tripods. I am skilled at hand holding a lens over longer exposure periods than the compromised stabilization systems provides.Image stabilization is not used because they are not as optically sound as designs without that feature incorporated.
    I avoid teleconverters, since few are really "matched" to the design of the lens being used.
    I control every aspect of my camera and lens manually.

    As for focal lengths suitable, the range can be from 100 mm to 1200 mm native. Shorter focal lengths for pets or caged birds).
    Certainly, "action" photography is better accomplished with a quality high speed lens, but following (panning) can often yield the same results with a slower lens that is often light weight and better optical quality. My adapted Hasselblad, Mamiya, Bronica ,RZ and other medium format lens to my Nikon, Canon, and other cameras (I have over 50 cameras) that are only F/4.5 or F/5.6 provide outstanding imaging characteristics that allow cropping and enlargement to a high degree without loss in definition provided that the atmospherics are steady enough to obtain a clear air shot.

    To name some: I have all the Nikon, Canon, Pentax, Leica R, and many Leica M lens in my collections. I use the appropriate adapters on all my DSLR cameras and mirror-less cameras.
    For long periods of work in the field, I also employ the best mirror- lens. I have several mirror lens that easily perform at the level of the costly long telephotos, but their weight and physical size permits me to carry them and use them for longer periods of time.
    Some are as fast as F/2.8, while others are as slow as F/11, but with the ISO capabilities and shutter speed choices of the camera, these do not hinder me from using them in most conditions.

    It is all about practice, rather than asking the question "which lens is better" . I have tested over 8000 lens from all parts of the world in my optical lab. I have designed hundreds of custom lens that are unlike any sold .
    It really comes down to learning the basics and working to improve your own skill level with what you own.

    I have scores of 300mm lens ranging from the Nikon 300 mm F/2 EDIF to many 300 mm F/4 and F/5.6 fixed focal length lens from various manufacturers. I have learned how best to employ them and feel comfortable to do so.
  16. The system I use is Sony/Minolta so I can't comment on specific performance of long teles in the Nikon range, but in terms of focal lengths my experience is that 300 f4 is an excellent choice for circumstances birds where longer focal lengths and heavier optics usually interfere too much with your ability to aim and find the bird with maximum success. Such circumstances include birds in flight from gull sized and up - if you have some good birding spots in your area where they are less wary and will fly over at close range. Another setting where a 300 f4 works better for me than longer/heavier teles are small birds jumping from twig to twig in forest or denser scrub.
    As others pointed out above, the key here is not just reach+speed of the lens itself but also the handholdability - while it is possible to handhold heavier optics for short periods, you'll definitely want a tripod and gimbal for best results, and it really takes a while to learn how to handle heavier lenses effectively either way. For that learning process I found my 300 f4 (with or without 1.4x TC) to be a very good trainer, and for me that also was the first lens with which I really practiced things like "two eye technique" etc. Last but not least, learning how and when and where to get closest to wildlife is an exciting training ground all by itself. If you're pretty stubborn and don't focus too much on getting "the perfect shot" from the get-go, but instead enjoy the practical challenges and learning processes in their own right, then it does actually pay off to force yourself in the first 2-3 years to have to really get in close with a shorter aka 300mm lens.
  17. Thanks Sebastian for your comments on your experience, it helps.
    I am still tempted mainly by the extra reach of 300/2.8 + 1.7x TC (achieved without weight and cost of the 500 or 600 lenses, which simply doesn't make sense for me), but I am now looking for a used 300/2.8 lens without VR which should save me money over the VR version and help me buy the TC instead. If I can't find a cheaper 300/2.8 without VR, I think I will settle for the 300/4 + 1.4x TC as you suggest. I was happy with the 300/4 images I got when I rented it.

    Paul, thanks for your comments too. I agree getting close seems helpful: for most of the shots I have taken so far, the good ones have always been when I was within 5-10 feet of the bird (especially for the small ones), and the bad ones have always been when I was far away.
  18. ShunCheung

    ShunCheung Administrator

    I am still tempted mainly by the extra reach of 300/2.8 + 1.7x TC (achieved without weight and cost of the 500 or 600 lenses, which simply doesn't make sense for me),​
    I bought my 300mm/f2.8 AF-S, first generation, way back in 1998. Back then, AF-S used to be a symbol for expensive high-end lenses, and Nikon's 300mm/f4 was a screwdrive AF lens without AF-S. My lens is still great on modern DSLRs such as the D7100 and D800E. I believe you can find one of those 300mm/f2.8 for around $3000 in these days. (I am not selling mine.)
    However, when it comes to bird photography, I use the 300mm/f2.8 mainly for brids in flight, and its weight is not ideal for hand holding. Instead, I typically use 400mm, 500mm, and 600mm lenses for birds. Clearly those lenses are big and expensive, but bird photographers use them for a reason.
    You can always start with a 300mm/f2.8, perhaps with TC, but most likely, a longer lens will make sense to you in the future.
  19. Being a big and serious lens, the 300 f/2.8 requires a very solid tripod too, with a solid head​
    It doesn't, Wouter - it just needs technique.
    I'm not a big guy, and I'm in my fifties. but I happily use a Sigma 120-300mm f/2.8 OS (which is bigger and heavier than the Nikon 300mm f/2.8) handheld on my Canon 7D all day long - often with 1.4x or 2x TCs, and get fantastically sharp images with no problem at all (that image being at 600mm, as are this and this - wide-open lens, too), because I've worked to develop good handholding technique.
  20. Hi Arvind, I just want to point out that the dof issue that you referenced is directly related to how close you are to the bird. If the bird is 10' away then yes at f2.8 you could see feather detail reduced. But at 100' I don't think you would be able to tell the difference between f/2.8 and f/4. I have the 300 f/4 and have been very happy with the IQ. Focus speed is not super quick but certainly adequate. It's light and easy to handhold for inflight shots. If I ever upgrade to the 2.8 it will be for situations where I need 600mm (with a 2.0 x tc). While you can still handhold this setup, you won't get consistent results without a tripod, and that's a whole different ball game. Since you are a beginner, please keep this in mind. Hope this helps!
  21. While you can still handhold this setup, you won't get consistent results without a tripod​
    And again, as I explained the post directly above yours, if you have well-practiced handholding technique, a tripod is all but irrelevant as far as consistency and quality of end results is concerned.
    To repeat myself, it is absolutely possible to get critically-sharp images as a matter of routine with a 300mm f/2.8, a 2x TC and no tripod.
  22. Hi all,
    I finally ended up getting 300/2.8 (used, so didn't break the bank!) and it works very very well. I can handhold it without a problem, but I do have occasional issues acquiring accurate focus on small birds due to handholding "shake" --- when I press the AE-L/AF-L button of my camera to focus, the center AF frame sometimes shakes slightly and focuses on the body/tail or a nearby branch rather than the bird eyes, especially for small birds that don't cover the viewfinder.
    Keith, if you have any suggestions on how to improve focusing accuracy with handholding a heavy lens like this one, would appreciate your inputs. The shake isn't a problem when I make the shot itself since I shoot at high shutter speed and I use VR, but the shake does affect my focusing accuracy and I can't quite seem to get exactly the birds eyes in focus when the bird is small.
  23. The image looks pretty good to me. See if your camera or software allows you to turn on focus points. This way you can see where your camera focused on the bird. If it focused other than on the eye, then it looks more like a dof issue rather than camera shake. If you are looking for the eye to be sharp, you will want to position yourself so the bird is facing you with its head at a slight angle. This is a good shot Arvind!

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