Natural Art: The Photography of Brad Hill

 

Field Tests: The AF-S Nikkor 120-300mm f/2.8E FL ED SR VR

This write-up of my extensive comparative field test of the AF-S Nikkor 120-300mm f/2.8E FL ED SR VR summarizes the vast majority of what I have discovered or learned about the lens. However, at times I present additional facts/factoids about specific pieces of gear in my comments that are associated with images that are found in the Galleries of this website. If you are interested in seeing additional comments about gear (including this lens) the single best place to "keep an eye on" is my Gallery of Latest Additions. To see the comments associated with any image simply click on the "In the Field" that is found tab that is found below the main image window.

Review Sections:

Introduction
Physical Characteristics
Optical Performance
Optical Performance with Teleconverters
Optical Stabilization and "Hand-holdability"
Autofocus Performance
Musings from Just Shootin'
The Final Wrap-up!
Appendix 1: Methods: Optical Performance
Appendix 2: Methods: Optical Stabilization and "Hand-holdability"
Appendix 3: Methods: Autofocus Performance

Please note that this extensive field test and comparative review of the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E is being written "incrementally" and new sections will appear as they are completed. I will be posting alerts on my blog indicating when new content is added to this field test and review. Some sections of the field test and review may also be updated or revised as I discover more about the lens (or its primary competitors). You'll find the posting date and revisions dates at the top of each individual section.

And, in case anyone is wondering, all the photographic/graphic elements within this review (e.g., photos in page topper, section headngs, etc.) were captured using the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E - either shot native or paired with a teleconverter.

Enjoy...and cheers!

Brad


Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E Field Test: Introduction

Introduction

• Post Date: June 5, 2020

In this extensive field test I compare various aspects of the performance of the AF-S Nikkor 120-300mm f/2.8E FL ED SR VR against a host of competing lenses under real-world field conditions. While the three areas of lens performance that I pay the most attention to in this review are image quality, autofocus performance, and VR performance and "hand-holdability", I will be examining other performance characteristics as well (such as performance with teleconverters, etc.). It would be easy to "market" this field test and review as a "battle" between the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E and the Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8, but because I tested and compared so many different lenses (at various focal lengths) in the course of this test presenting it as just a Nikon-Sigma battle would be very misleading.

As with all my gear testing, this review contains information gleaned from systematic and quite rigidly controlled tests performed in the field plus anecdotal observations after extensive periods of "just shooting" the lens(es) in the way I would in day-to-day wildlife photography. I find that the "just shooting" portion of my field testing is critical in determining if the observations and conclusions from the rigid tests have any real meaning when I am using the lens for what it is intended for (i.e., if the test results directly translate into tangible real-world performance differences).

The ultimate goal of all my field testing of this lens (and any bit of gear I test) is to determine if it is right for me and should be in my own field kit. In this particular case, my findings will likely determine which of the two 120-300mm lenses (the Nikkor or the Sigma) I end up keeping and which I end up selling. But because I am comparing the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E against many other lenses, I suspect this review will help many photographers decide not only if the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E is right for them but also if some other lenses might be just fine for their uses.

The Nikkor 120-300mm for Wildlife Photography?

I am primarily a wildlife photographer. Nikon is marketing their 120-300mm f2.8E almost exclusively as a lens for sports photographers. I only field test products that I am interested in adding to my own wildlife photography kit. So...why is this wildlife photographer strongly interested in field testing a lens designed and built for sports photography? Well...despite how Nikon is marketing the 120-300 (and despite its astronomical price), I believe it has the potential to be a very important lens in my wildlife kit. Here's why:

1. Back in 2013 I borrowed a copy of the Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8 and found I liked the combination of its focal range and its fast f2.8 aperture very much. In fact, I liked it so much that I kept thinking about the lens long after I returned it - and I eventually ending up buying a copy for myself.

2. My favourite wildlife subjects are what many call "charismatic megafauna" - which loosely translates to "cool big animals". You know...bears, whales, sea lions, wolves, et cetera. I do the bulk of my wildlife shooting of these "cool big animals" on the coast of British Columbia and from a Zodiac, which is important because it means we can often approach these subjects quite closely while staying safe and not stressing out the subjects. And, I don't spend a lot of my time shooting small birds. So, based on preferred subject matter alone, I am probably less reliant on the very long focal lengths (e.g., 600mm+) than some other wildlife photographers.

3. I am not a member of the "closer is better" school of wildlife photography. This doesn't mean I won't shoot a portrait style shot of a bear or wolf if I get the chance, but I tend to favour "the wider view" in my wildlife shots. I love the challenge of shooting an "animalscape" shot - in fact I have an entire gallery on this website dedicated to animalscapes (see it here: Animalscapes). Over the years I have found that I have shot many of favourite animalscape shots in the 120-300mm focal range. Ironically, at the time of this writing, the lead image in my Animalscapes Gallery was shot with the Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8! ;-)

Note that I am not saying that the 120-300mm focal length range will work well for all wildlife photographers - I am simply saying that I had strong reasons to believe it would work well for ME.

The Cost...And the "Zoom vs. Prime" Issue:

There is simply no denying that the sticker price of the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E is astronomical - it's the elephant in the room. At the time of this writing the street price of the lens in Canada is $12,399 CAD and in the US it is going for $9,496.95 USD. If you look at the price of the Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E (which in itself is high) and then the price of the 120-300mm f2.8E one can't help but think "How on earth is the price justified?" Similarly, if you compare the price of the 120-300mm f2.8E to that of the Nikkor 300mm f2.8G VRII (which is going for just a little over HALF the price of the 120-300) you end up with the same conclusion - that the price of the 120-300mm f2.8E is completely out of whack.

But here's my thinking on it - and why I was able to swallow the price. Historically zoom lenses offered versatility and convenience, but if your primary consideration was image quality (especially in the telephoto and super-telephoto focal lengths) fixed focal length lenses (i.e., prime lenses) ruled. But with the introduction of the Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E back in 2016 this "written in stone" rule that zooms never matched prime lenses in image quality started to crack. Then, with the introduction of Nikon's first astronomically-priced super-telephoto zoom (the 180-400mm f4E) in 2016 the zoom vs. prime image quality paradigm was just blown to bits. Nikon had found a way to produce high-end zooms that completely matched primes in image quality (including not only sharpness, but also in the quality of the out-of-focus zones).

Moving back to the 120-300mm f2.8E: When I saw the specs and the price of the lens (and as one who owned and tested the 180-400), I felt it was extremely likely that the 120-300mm f2.8E would follow in the footsteps of the 180-400 and offer stunning image quality (along with a great AF and VR system). If so, it would functionally be like carrying a bag full of high-end primes with an f2.8 aperture in your bag. Suddenly - and if the lens performed the way I thought it would perform - the price didn't seem quite as unreasonable as it first appeared.

Caveats, Qualifiers, and Limitations of My Results:

Everything I did in this field test - and everything you'll read about the 120-300mm f2.8E and the competing lenses I compare it against - comes from the perspective of a WILDLIFE photographer. There will likely be LOTS of what I have to say that will apply to photographers of other genres (e.g., sports photographers), but I readily admit my wildlife photographer "bias". And, I tested ONE copy of each lens only. While one would like to assume that lenses costing almost $10,000.00 or more (in any currency) are built with a high degree of quality control and there is little between-sample variation in quality, it's possible that the results I obtain MAY differ a little from what others find with their own copies of the lenses.

I test my gear quite extensively in an effort to discover how it will perform for me (using my own shooting style) in a field situation. I do these field tests to reveal the strengths and weaknesses of a product in a field setting so I can understand how I can use the product to better create images of the best quality possible. For instance, I may go into the field with gear that will allow me to get to 200mm in two different ways - by using a 70-200mm f2.8E or using the 120-300mm f2.8E. But which of these two lenses produces the sharpest image when shooting a distance subject at an aperture of f2.8 and hand-holding the lens? This is the EXACT type of question I want my testing to answer.

I test gear under field conditions only (absolutely no lab work) and use the same techniques I'm likely to use when I'm shooting the particular item in the field. While much of my testing is done very methodically and under uniform conditions, a portion of it is pure "field shooting". I do not shoot images of targets under rigidly controlled lab conditions - I shoot images of wildlife (or "proxies", such as my Portuguese Water Dog) in the field. It's not critical to me to produce results that are generalizable or that are rigorous enough to be published in a peer-reviewed journal - I care about how I can use the gear in the field and how to get top-shelf results. While some "lab tests" have a real-world correlate that translates into a limitation (or advantage) in the field, I find an increasing number of tests quite esoteric and the "differences" between two products are real only in a statistical sense (and they are unrelated to producing a quality image, which is NOT a pure science). So you won't see any MTF charts in this comparative field test! It's my view that the level of discipline required to capture images in the field that are of the quality where differing MTF values would be even visible in the image quality of two competing products is a very rare (or non-existent) event. I believe that a mix of other characteristics (e.g., lens balance plus VR performance plus AF performance) often go MUCH further towards determining the quality of what you capture in the field than do MTF values.

Statement of Objectivity:

I'm a HUGE skeptic of what I read or see online myself. And I always wonder about the "corporate influence" on so-called product reviews (which are often little more than spec spews). For the record, I have received NO differential "perqs" or incentives (real or implied) to push my results one way or the other and I performed this field test without any form of "sponsorship" by Nikon, Sigma, or anyone else (and you'll notice there is NO advertising on this website). The products used in this test were either purchased by me or loaned to me by a friend or acquaintance (none of which work for Nikon, Sigma, or any other company in the photography industry).

Some Terminology, Abbreviations, and Acronyms:

To save typing and reading time (and the alphabet soup of full lens model names), here's some terms, abbreviations and/or acronyms you'll see in this review:

• Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E = AF-S Nikkor 120-300mm f/2.8E FL ED SR VR
• Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 = Sigma 120-300mm F2.8 DG HSM OS Sport
• Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E = AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8E FL ED VR
• Nikkor 70-200mm f4 = AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/4G ED VR
• Nikkor 300mm f2.8G = AF-S NIKKOR 300mm f/2.8G ED VR II
• Nikkor 300mm f4D = AF-S Nikkor 300mm f/4D ED-IF
• Nikkor 180-400 f4E = AF-S NIKKOR 180-400mm f/4E TC1.4 FL ED VR
• Sigma 150-600mm = Sigma 150-600mm F/5-6.3 DG OS HSM Sport

• Native (as in "shot native") = without a teleconverter
• OOF = Out-Of-Focus
• OOF Zone Quality = Bokeh (and refers to the overall quality of the out-of-focus zones, not just the specular highlights)

So off we go...fasten your seat belts!


Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E Field Test: Physical Characteristics

Physical Characteristics

• Post Date: June 11, 2020

Here are some of my impressions of the physical characteristics of the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E. This overview is not intended as a "spec spew" where I regurgitate every specification imaginable - those kind of details are available on dpreview.com's website or virtually any of Nikon's many websites. Those wishing to review the detailed specs of the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E can go HERE on dpreview.com's website.

My Two Sentence Summary? The Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E is a large and quite heavy super-telephoto zoom lens with an impeccable build quality. And, it comes with all the controls and most of the design features that owners of any current Nikon super-telephoto prime or super-telephoto zoom lens has come to expect.

I. A FEW Specification Highlights

Here's a few of the more easily missed or overlooked specs that may be important to some photographers. Lens weight and size dimensions are in a separate section below.

Minimum Focusing Distance? 2.0 meters (6.6 feet) at all focal lengths and when shot native or with any teleconverter. So with the TC-14EIII you have a lens with a maximum focal length of 420mm that focuses down to 2.0 meters - and with the TC-20EIII you have a lens with a maximum focal length of 600mm that focuses down to the same 2.0 meters (and that's pretty cool).

Short-Wavelength Refractive (SR) Lens Elements? The 120-300mm f2.8E debuts a brand new type of lens element for Nikon. According to Nikon "SR is a high- and specialized -dispersion glass lens that refracts light with wavelengths shorter than that of blue. By controlling short-wavelength light, the lens is able to achieve highly precise chromatic aberration compensation so that the colors in your images are more accurately reproduced. It also allows for more flexible optical designs, which allows for compact, lighter lenses to be designed." The Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E has one SR element.

Fluorite (FL) Lens Elements? Yep, 2 of 'em. These have now been around for a few years and they are also found in some of Nikon's latest top telephoto prime lenses. In a nutshell, fluorite is a lightweight optical material with excellent optical properties - so they make the lens lighter and sharper.

Here's a schematic drawing of the 120-300 showing the placement of its special elements: Lens Elements of the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E

ARNEO (ARN) Coating? This is another "first" for the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E - it's the only lens currently shipping that has this new coating (the elusive Z-mount 70-200mm f2.8S also has ARNEO coating, but at the time of this writing the whereabouts of this lens - and when it will ship - is anyone's guess). What's an ARNEO coating - and why do we care? Well...according to Nikon it's "An anti-reflective coating developed by Nikon and used in conjunction with Nano Crystal Coat to further reduce ghost and flare effects caused by incident light entering the lens vertically. This allows for the outstandingly clear capture of images even when a light source is located within the frame." Based on some of my own results of shooting strongly backlit subjects (with the sun IN the frame)...I think Nikon may be on to something here.

Filter Compatibility? Unlike most of the Nikon's other super-telephoto prime and zoom lenses, the 120-300mm f2.8E does NOT accept drop-in filters - it accepts screw-on filters (112mm). As one who has experienced internal lens fogging after "dropping in" a circular polarizer on my 400mm f2.8E on a humid and rainy day (and as one who shoots in wet conditions a lot) I like this change.

Tripod Foot? On the negative side - the stock foot follows Nikon's pattern and is NOT Arca-Swiss compatible. On the positive side - the bolt pattern attaching the tripod foot to the lens barrel uses the same standard as almost all of Nikon's super-telephotos...so it's no problem finding a 3rd party tripod foot with Arca-Swiss compatibility. I had a RRS LCF-14 tripod foot kicking around so I used that and it worked out perfectly - the foot is sufficiently long to allow me to balance the 120-300mm on a gimbal head with any of the bodies I use (D5, D6, D500, Z7) and when zoomed to any focal length. And it has the right amount of "drop" (distance between the lens barrel and plate section of the foot) for easy carrying (with hands of my size!), even when I'm wearing fleece glomitts...but not too much drop to complicate packing the lens into a backpack.

Lens Hood? Carbon fiber - and called a HK-41. Interestingly, it's the same hood as on the 180-400mm f4E. Nice and light, but super-expensive to replace if you break one (listed on the Nikon Canada website for a cool $829.95 CAD).

Focus Function Buttons? Yes - 4 of them near the distal end of the lens barrel (at the cardinal compass points). Since Nikon starting allowing users to use these buttons to program new functions (like instant switching of the AF area mode in use) these buttons have taken on increased value for many users.

VR Controls? Like with all recent super-telephoto primes and zooms it has a 3-position button for the various VR modes - OFF, VR Normal, VR Sport. Those shooters who like to shoot in bursts should be happy that the VR Sport mode hasn't gone away...

Environmental Sealing & Protection? Yes - sealed to keep dust and moisture out AND with a fluorine coating on the front element to repel dust and dirt.

Country of Manufacture? Japan.

II. Perceived Build Quality and Design Characteristics

Build quality is simple to describe - it's impeccable. All buttons and collars slide or rotate super smoothly. Nothing whatsoever about the build quality feels cheap, "plasticky" or less than top-notch. Which, for the price of the lens, should be expected.

Design is "typical" of Nikon's latest big lenses: the zoom ring is near the distal end of the lens with focus ring closer to the camera body. All buttons and controls (and there is no change in those controls compared to all recent Nikon super-telephotos) are closer yet to the camera body. The tripod collar itself is permanently attached to the lens barrel, but the tripod foot can be removed with the use of small Phillips screwdriver. In terms of overall "gestalt" - the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E is remarkably similar to the 180-400mm f4E. In fact, if you surgically removed the section of the 180-400mm f4E that houses the built-in teleconverter the two lenses would be almost indistinguishable (in length, dimensions, appearance, etc.).

III. Lens Weights - Tale of the Scale

As one who isn't inclined to fully believe lens weights that come from a host of different sources, here's a listing of the weights of the 120-300mm f2.8E and several competing lenses weighed on my own digital scale. I won't claim my scale is accurate to .0001 gram, but at least I'm using the same scale to weigh ALL lenses! ;-)

1. Shooting Weights (includes lens, lens hood, but not the front or rear cap, and weighed with the stock [or OEM] tripod foot):

Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E: 3468 gm (7 lb, 10.4 oz)

Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8: 3648.5 gm (8 lb, 0.6 oz)

Nikkor 180-400mm f4E: 3735 gm (8 lb, 3.8 oz)

Nikkor 300mm f2.8G VRII: 3117.5 gm (6 lb, 14 oz)

2. Carrying Weights (includes lens, lens hood, supplied front and rear caps, and weighed with the stock [or OEM] tripod foot):

Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E: 3627.5 gm (8 lb, 0 oz)

Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8: 3725 gm (8 lb, 2.1 oz)

Nikkor 180-400mm f4E: 3864 gm (8 lb, 9.4 oz)

Nikkor 300mm f2.8G VRII: 3276.5 gm (7 lb, 3.6 oz)

Note that the shooting weights and the carrying weights are with stock tripod feet - and do not factor in weight gains (or losses) involved with making the tripod foot of each lens Arca-Swiss compatible. Adding Arca-Swiss compatibility may slightly reduce the weight of the lens (if a lightweight replacement foot is available from a 3rd party maker for the lens in question) or add noticeable weight if an Arca-Swiss compatible lens plate must be added to the stock tripod foot.

IV. Lens Dimensions - Tale of the Tape

Because the size of a lens impacts not only on handling when shooting, but also how easy (or difficult) the lens is to put in a case or backpack and travel with, I am giving dimensions with both the hood on and hood off, as well as the front diameter of the lens (which is virtually always the widest part of the lens and determines how much space the lens eats up in a pack).

1. Lens Length - both with and without lens hood

Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E: 404mm (15.9") with hood; 305mm (12.0") without hood

Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8: 380mm (15.0") with hood; 285mm (11.2") without hood

Nikkor 180-400mm f4E: 458mm (18.0") with hood; 364mm (14.3") without hood

Nikkor 300mm f2.8G VRII: 364mm (14.3") with hood; 267mm (10.5") without hood

2. Front Diameter (measured outside-outside without lens hood in place)

Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E: 120mm (4.7")

Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8: 118mm (4.65")

Nikkor 180-400mm f4E: 121mm (4.7")

Nikkor 300mm f2.8G VRII: 117mm (4.6")

V. A Subjective Summary: Weight, Size, Balance, and Handling

Ok...what might not be instantly clear from the weights and dimensions above is that 120-300mm f2/8E is NOT a small lens! Compared to its closest competitor (the Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8) the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E is a little lighter but slightly bigger. These two differences mean that when "in the hand" the Sigma feels noticeably "denser". And, probably owing to the fact that the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E lens has a large and light fluorite element near the distal end of its barrel (and the Sigma does NOT have a fluorite element), the Sigma is definitely more front heavy (which I consider to be a negative property). Between the density differences and the balance differences between the two lenses the Sigma 120-300 ends up feeling (at least to me) considerably heavier than the 180 gm (6 oz) weight differential between the lenses would suggest.

A couple other "frames of reference" might be useful to some. First, if you're an owner of the Nikkor 300mm f2.8G VRII (or the VRI version) you will likely perceive the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E to be a noticeably bigger and heavier lens. If you think of the 300mm f2.8G VRII as a "size medium" lens, you'll probably think of the 120-300mm f2.8E as a size large! And, you certainly won't be mistaking the two lenses based on size and weight!

Second, if you're an owner of the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E you will likely perceive the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E as a slightly smaller and slightly lighter version of your 180-400. And, if you don't look closely you could easily confuse the two lenses (even when you pick them up!).

The bottom line is this: How negatively - or how positively - you perceive the size and weight of the 120-300mm f2.8E will be largely influenced by your own experience with other F-mount lenses. If the biggest and heaviest lens you've ever shot with is something like the 70-200mm f2.8E or the 300mm f4E PF or even the 500mm f5.6E PF, then you will probably of the the 120-300mm f2.8E as an absolute tank! Conversely, if you are used to shooting with Nikon's super-telephoto primes or telephoto zooms (especially the G series or before), you will likely think of the size and weight of the 120-300mm f2.8E as a complete non-issue. Of course, when it is in a backpack and you're humping it and a bunch of other gear up a mountain ANYONE would like it to weigh about 4 lb less. But we live in the real world - and the relative importance of having a 300mm lens with a f2.8 aperture (and the unique type of images that can be captured ONLY with a 300mm f2.8) will vary dramatically between users. Which means the willingness to accept the reality of the size and weight of the lens will vary dramatically between users too. I am personally more than willing to "pay the price" of the size and weight of the 120-300mm f2.8E to get the fast aperture and the focal length range. Others may feel differently.

What about the balance and handling of the 120-300mm f2.8E? I have been shooting it primarily with a Nikon D5 (and now the D6) and a D500 with battery grip attached. With these bodies I find the 120-300mm f2.8E to be very well balanced and easy to hand-hold. In these cases the lens/camera combo neither feels front-heavy or back-heavy. Surprisingly, on the rare occasions when I hand-hold the 120-300mm on my Z7 (when shooting this combination I am normally shooting from a tripod) I don't find the combination awkward to use at all. But don't forget that all my impressions of lens weight, balance, and "hand-holdability" are those of a wildlife photography accustomed to hand-holding big lenses on a regular basis...

RETURN TO TOP


Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E Field Test: Optical Performance

Optical Performance (shot native)

I. INTRODUCTION

• Post Date: June 16, 2020

One of the most critical variables influencing any lens purchasing decision is the optical performance of the lens. Optical performance becomes particularly critical when deciding on which super-telephoto lens to buy - not only are super-telephoto prime lenses very expensive, but now selected super-telephoto zooms from Nikon have entered the pricing stratosphere as well. Additionally, if you aren't happy with the optical performance of a super-telephoto lens the re-sale market for it is much smaller than that of shorter - and usually less expensive - focal length lenses.

In this section I describe the results of head-to-head field-testing of the optical performance of the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E against several competing lenses at three focal lengths, four camera-to-subject distances, and a wide range of apertures. The focal lengths, distances to subject, and apertures over which the lenses were tested and compared are discussed in Appendix 1: Methods: Optical Performance. Note that in this section only native focal lengths are considered (i.e., the lenses shot without teleconverters). Optical performance with both the TC-14EIII (1.4x) and TC-20EIII (2x) teleconverters are in a section below.

Note that I approach sussing out lens optical/image quality a couple of ways. The first and most extensive way is examining the "theoretical maximum image quality you could EVER get in the field". For this comparison I capture images using a high degree of control (much higher than I would use for about 99% of my wildlife photography). The goal here is to determine the absolute differences in image quality that are attributable solely to the optical qualities of the lenses - and NOT differences attributable to user technique, lens usability characteristics (such as autofocus or VR performance) or even autofocus tuning issues. So think of this section as revealing optical performance differences between the lenses in those rare "best case scenarios" that you occasionally experience in a field setting. The details of how these images are captured are discussed in are discussed in Appendix 1: Methods: Optical Performance.

The second way I look at lens image/optical quality (and overall usefulness of a lens) is how find out how much of the "theoretical" image quality can actually be realized in a field setting (where one is commonly hand-holding lenses, or shooting moving subjects, etc.). This realized image quality is influenced by other lens characteristics, including lens weight, balance, effectiveness of the stabilization (OS or VR) system and, of course, the effectiveness of the autofocus system. So during this field test I spent a considerable amount of time doing a more interesting thing - something I call "Just Shooting" the lens (and I suspect you can figure out what that means!). I find this time spent "just shooting" is very important to my testing for at least two reasons. First, it should (and usually does) tell me if the results I obtained during my more systematic and controlled testing translate into observable differences in lens performance when in the field. Second, I often notice things when "just shooting" that end up suggesting and/or directing additional (and more systematic) testing I should do. A perfect example of this is that I noticed very early on when "just shooting" with the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E that it worked incredibly well with the 1.4x Nikon teleconverter - if fact it worked so well with the 1.4x TC that, to be complete in my testing, that I HAD to add the testing of the 2x TC to this review (and this was something I had decided against before beginning testing).

So while this section is dominated by results obtained during systematic and controlled situations, I will include some comments from observations made while "just shooting" the 120-300mm f2.8E (including some sample images). Later in the review there is a section fully dedicated to additional observations I made while "just shooting" the lens - that section is found here: Musings from Just Shootin'.

Finally, it's important to note that image quality is NOT solely a function of image sharpness. I believe that the perception of the "quality" of an image is determined partly by image sharpness, partly by the quality of the OOF zones (i.e., the bokeh), and partly by the interaction between the in-focus and out-of-focus zones of an image. So...in my view, the quality of the bokeh is JUST as important as the sharpness in assessing the optical performance of a lens. Further, it's my belief that most photographers looking at fast (those with wide apertures) super-telephoto lenses are doing so largely because of their ability to separate a subject from its background and they are sensitive to the quality of those OOF backgrounds (and, in some cases, foregrounds). As an example and particularly relevant to this review, owners of the almost legendary Nikkor 300mm f2.8G tend to love the "quality" of its images, especially those shot at wide apertures. Yet, that lens is definitely NOT Nikon's sharpest telephoto lens when shot wide open, but it has just beautiful and almost "buttery" OOF zones. And, those OOF zones contribute a tremendous amount to the lens-specific "look" of images captured with the Nikkor 300mm f2.8G...arguably MORE than its sharpness does.

On to the optical performance results. The three native focal lengths that were systematic and comparative tests were made were 300mm, 200mm, and 120mm. And, I'm going to proceed in "reverse order", beginning with optical performance at 300mm then proceeding down to performance at 200mm and at 120mm.

II. OPTICAL PERFORMANCE AT 300mm

• Post Date: June 19, 2020
• Update (Revision) History: June 22, 2020: Added section #3: "SOME LENS-SPECIFIC OPTICAL PERFORMANCE COMMENTS"

At 300mm I tested the optical performance of the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E at four camera-to-subject distances (4.25m, 12m, 24m, and 1600m). The rationale for choosing these distances - and all other technical details concerning the methods I used - can be found in Appendix 1 below. The lenses tested and compared against the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E at 300mm included:

• Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8
• Nikkor 300mm f2.8G VRII
• Nikkor 300mm f4D
• Nikkor 180-400mm f4E (at 300mm of course)
• Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3 (again at 300mm)

When comparing 6 lenses at 4 distances and at 10 different apertures it is more than challenging to reduce the matrix of results to a sound bite. I'll attempt to do my best to keep it straight-forward by giving you a short Executive Summary. I'll follow that up with: a number of clear, consistent, and reproducible trends I noticed during testing; some lens-specific optical performance comments; and finally some results of (and some sample images from) my time spent "just shooting" the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E at 300mm.

1. THE EXECUTIVE SUMMARY - Optical Performance at 300mm

At a 300mm focal length - and over all test distances - the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E showed the strongest overall optical performance of all six lenses tested. At close and mid-distances (4.25m, 12m, 24m) the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E consistently ranked first in sharpness. The Nikkor 300mm f2.8G did tie it in sharpness in a number of instances, but never in the f2.8 to f3.5 aperture range. The Nikkor 180-400mm f4E also tied the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E in sharpness at overlapping apertures, but never beat it. At long distance 3 Nikkor lenses were in a virtual dead-heat for both center and edge sharpness - those lenses were the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E, the Nikkor 300mm f2.8G, and the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E. At long distance the Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 did very well in central region sharpness (tying the other 3 lenses), but edges were softer than the other 3 lenses at all apertures.

In terms of the quality of the OOF zones (i.e., the bokeh) two lenses were clearly superior to all others and were tied with each other - those lenses were the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E and the Nikkor 300mm f2.8G. The Nikkor 180-400mm f4E exhibited the next best bokeh, followed by the Nikkor 300mm f4D. Both Sigma lenses exhibited significant focus breathing, especially at the closest test distance. This focus breathing had a very negative impact on the bokeh of the two Sigma lenses at the closest test distance (4.25m) and a significantly negative impact on the bokeh at the mid-distance tests (i.e., at 12 and 24m).

So...when all apertures were considered, the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E clearly ranked first in sharpness (central region), was in a dead-heat with the Nikkor 300mm f2.8G in bokeh, and tied the other two top Nikkors in edge-sharpness. Ergo...when it comes to optical performance at 300mm the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E wins. Period.

2. A NUMBER OF CLEAR TRENDS

• Sharpness/Aperture Variation (Sharpness "Progression"). Almost all telephoto and super-telephoto lenses (primes and zooms) don't show their maximum sharpness at their widest aperture - they must be stopped down at least some (how much varies between lenses). At this focal length the ONLY lens that is as sharp shot wide open as when stopped down by any amount (a characteristic I call "Aperture Independent Sharpness" or AIS) is the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E. The next best in the test? DEFINITELY the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E - in most cases the sharpness difference between f2.8 and f3.2 was infinitesimally small...so small that virtually no one would notice it. In contrast, both the Nikkor 300mm f2.8G and the Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8 were very noticeably soft until stopped down to f4 (and sometimes beyond). Even the most discerning photographers (i.e., those obsessed with sharpness) wouldn't hesitate to shoot the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E at f2.8. That's significant. Anyone wishing to read a commentary on AIS can refer to my 5 July 2018 blog entry entitled "What's AIS?"

• Focus Breathing. None of the four Nikkor lenses tested at 300mm (and at the test distances of 4.25m, 12m, or 24m) showed any significant focus breathing (which is the shortening of focal length as distance-to-subject decreases). However, the two Sigma lenses - and particularly the Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 - showed significant focus breathing. As an example, at a subject distance of 4.25m the Sigma 120-300mm lost almost 20% of its maximum focal length...which functionally meant that at that 4.25m it was really a 120-243mm lens. Now most of the time I don't make a big deal out of focus breathing (I recall saying to someone "well...just get closer" once), but when considering 300mm f2.8 lenses the bokeh is a big deal (otherwise just buy a f4 lens). And, in this case, the focus breathing of the Sigma 120-300 takes a big bite out of the bokeh quality (see this comparison image to see what I mean). And that can mean it can be MUCH more challenging (and sometimes impossible) to produce those "tack-sharp-subjects-with-dreamy-smooth-background" shots that we often WANT to capture with a 300mm f2.8 lens (like this one). Note that the focus breathing was still an issue with a subject at 24m (about 79') with the Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 with a loss of about 7% of focal length - and a resulting degradation of the bokeh - at that distance.

• Vignetting? Finally - some proof the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E isn't perfect! It DOES vignette (EV values in corners and edges lower than in central region) when shot on cameras with full-frame sensors. How much? Well...a LITTLE more than the Nikkor 300mm f2.8G (like about 0.3 stops more), but pretty much the same amount as the Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 and the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E. So that means about 1.5 stops at f2.8, about 0.67 stops at f5.6, and about 0.2 stops at f11. Note that because vignetting can be easily corrected in post-processing, most view the vignetting as "something good to know" but rarely as a "problem." And if you are shooting with a cropped (DX) sensor the vignetting virtually disappears.

3. SOME LENS-SPECIFIC OPTICAL PERFORMANCE COMMENTS

Here's an overview of the optical performance of each lens tested at 300mm - both in absolute terms and relative to the Nikkor 12-300mm f2.8E:

• The Nikkor 120-300 f2.8E is just GREAT at 300mm: Edging out the "legendary" Nikkor 300mm f2.8G in sharpness at 300mm and then tying it in bokeh is a remarkable achievement for the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E. It's center-to-edge sharpness at long distances was tied by both the Nikkor 300mm f2.8G and the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E, but not BEATEN by them (or any of the other lenses). Owners of the Nikkor 300mm f2.8G prime lens would give up NOTHING in optical performance at 300mm if they swapped to shooting this zoom lens.

• The Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8 IS a good lens at 300mm. The Sigma Sport 120-300 is a serious competitor at 300mm from an optical perspective - especially in sharpness. At most distances it was softer than the 120-300mm f2.8E at the widest apertures, but pulled equal in sharpness to it in by f4 or f4.5. Unfortunately very significant focus breathing does impact bokeh at the distances where you are LOOKING for good bokeh (i.e., in this test at shooting distances of 24m or below), but the bokeh still is NOT bad (and from previous testing I know it kicks the butt of a number of other lenses in bokeh, such as the Nikkor 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 at 300mm). And, it always has to be remembered that it's a third of the price of the Nikkor 120-300!

• The Nikkor 300mm f2.8G is STILL a REALLY SOLID lens! The Nikkor 300mm f2.8G is now getting a little long in the tooth (it was introduced back in 2010) and it lacks most of the "alphabet soup" acronym list of new features found on Nikon's latest lenses (like FL, ARN, SR, E, yada, yada, yada). But at 300mm it was chasing and almost catching the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E in sharpness - and definitely matching it in bokeh. If you are sure 300mm is the focal length you want (or need) this lens gives you almost all of the optical performance of the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E at not much more than half the price!

• The Nikkor 180-400mm f4E? Yep, still pretty magical. The ONLY lens in this test at 300mm with pure AIS (Aperture Independent Sharpness). And, from f4 on it DID match both the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E AND the Nikkor 300mm f2.8G in sharpness. Basically, it's just lacking the f2.8 to f3.5 aperture range and it's a TAD off in bokeh (compared to the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E and the Nikkor 300mm f2.8G). At 300mm this is a great lens.

• The Nikkor 300mm f4D is STILL a good lens! I've never owned a copy of the Nikkor 300mm f4D lens myself and I had to borrow one for this test (thanks are extended to MS in Victoria BC for sending his 300mm f4D to use in this test). But what really struck me during the testing about this economical 300mm option was just how sharp it was. At most distances (excluding the closest distance where it didn't fare so well) it was competing with the best lenses in sharpness when you had stopped all lenses down to f5. At most apertures it didn't compete too well with the other lenses in bokeh, but if your primary concerns are just "getting to 300mm" and image sharpness - well...it's definitely the most pocketbook friendly way to get there! ;-)

• The Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3? It's almost unfair to put a lower-priced super-zoom lens into this mix of hot shot lenses! But it's always good to know how lenses stack up against one another. At the closest distance (4.25m) the Sigma 150-600mm faired poorly in sharpness and bokeh compared to all the other lenses. In the mid-distances (12m and 24m) it did fine in sharpness, tying the others but only once it was stopped down to f8 or f9. And at those mid-distances it's bokeh was a long ways behind the Nikkors (all of them). What about at long distances? Good in central sharpness from f5.6 on, but weak in edge sharpness at all apertures.

4. RESULTS FROM "JUST SHOOTING" @ 300mm

Since acquiring the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E I have shot just under 1,000 shots at 300mm while in the field. Most were hand-held and they have included action shots, close-ups of wildlife, distant scenes, and more. The most important thing I have learned is that the results I obtained during systematic testing are mirrored during my sessions of "just shooting" in the field. In practical terms that translates into the lens producing shots that are tack sharp where they are supposed to be combined with great out-of-focus zones. Owners of the Nikkor 300mm f2.8G lens know the almost "signature" look you get with that lens - and you get that exact same look and equal (or slightly better) optical performance with the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E. Here's a few more take-home lessons - along with a few examples - of things I've found through my "just shooting" sessions with the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E:

• Great Subject Isolation: If you like having the ability to have your subject stand out from the background you'll love this lens. And, you don't have to worry about sharpness loss when shooting this one wide open. Sample Image: Poncho - Putting his best paw forward.

• In-To-Out of Focus Transition: The best lenses have a nice smooth transition from the in-focus to the out-of-focus elements. This tight shot of a Dusky Grouse nicely shows the sweet transition you get with the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E: Dusky Grouse Hooting Under Douglas Fir.

• Distant Scenes? While I'm well aware that a D5 (or D6) isn't what most people consider "landscape" cameras, but if you have one in your hands with a Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E on it when a scene that looks best at 300mm reveals itself to you...well...you can be sure the lens will render the scene very well (and it will be very sharp edge-to-edge). Here's one example: First Light - Findlay Creek, BC .

OK...so what happens when you start twisting that zoom ring back - how does the Nikkor 120-300mm perform at 200mm? Read on...

III. OPTICAL PERFORMANCE AT 200mm

• Post Date: June 23, 2020

At 200mm the optical performance of the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E was tested at the same four camera-to-subject distances (4.25m, 12m, 24m, and 1600m) as it was for the 300mm focal length testing. The rationale for choosing these distances - and all other technical details concerning the methods I used - can be found in Appendix 1 below. The lenses tested and compared against the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E at 200mm included 5 other zoom lenses (and no prime lenses):

• Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8
• Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E
• Nikkor 70-200mm f4
• Nikkor 180-400mm f4E (at 200mm of course)
• Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3 (again at 200mm)

Just like the situation at the 300mm focal length it is really tough to reduce a huge matrix of results down to a single succinct statement (when you are comparing 6 lenses at 4 distances and at 10 different apertures there is a LOT of nuance!). Here's an Executive Summary, followed immediately by a number of trends at 200mm that were very obvious, then some lens-specific observations at 200mm, and finally some comments (and sample images) based on "just shooting" the Nikkor 120-300mm at 200mm.

1. THE EXECUTIVE SUMMARY - Optical Performance at 200mm

At 200mm - and when considering center sharpness, edge sharpness, and bokeh over a variety of distances and a range of apertures - FOUR lenses tested out quite strongly: the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E, the Sigma 120-300mm f2.8, the Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E, and the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E. All produced professional quality output at all test distances and without careful scrutiny it was tough to separate out the performance of these four lenses.

However, when the images from the tests were examined closely, two lenses stood out above the others in the consistency of their performance. They were close to flawless and showed only the most trivial of weaknesses - these lenses were the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E and the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E. Both exhibited full Aperture Independent Sharpness (maximum sharpness in the central region from wide open through to f8) at all distances. At all distances and for every aperture tested these two lenses were ranked (and were tied) for first in sharpness (but note that at a few distance/aperture combinations other lenses joined them in the tie for first in sharpness). The only "weakness" of the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E was in the quality of its bokeh at close distance in the f4.5 through to f8 range - here the Nikkor 180-400 f4E slightly beat it out (but note that the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E still beat all the other lenses in bokeh at this distance). The only "weakness" of the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E was in edge sharpness at long distance in the aperture range of f4.5 to f5.6 - here it placed second to the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E (but it still beat all other lenses in the test in these instances).

Is it possible to declare a "winner" at 200mm? Probably not. But my own preference is for the Nikkor 120-300mm over the 180-400mm simply because it has the larger aperture of f2.8 and at a 200mm having the f2.8 aperture is important to me. Note that of the 3 lenses in this test with an f2.8 aperture (the Nikkor 120-300, the Sigma 120-300, and the Nikkor 70-200) the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E consistently had the best center AND edge sharpness and the best bokeh in the f2.8 to f3.5 range.

2. A NUMBER OF CLEAR TRENDS

• Sharpness/Aperture Variation (Sharpness "Progression"). Only ONE lens exhibited complete AIS (Aperture Independent Sharpness) at all test distances AND when considering both central and edge sharpness - the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E. The 180-400mm f4E was exceptionally close to tying this result, but it did show slight edge softness with distant subjects in the f4.5 to f5.6 range. All other lenses required stopping down at least SOME distance before achieving maximum sharpness. For example, both the Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 and the Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E had to be stopped down to f3.5 before hitting maximum sharpness at the two closest test distances. Anyone wishing to read a commentary on AIS can refer to my 5 July 2018 blog entry entitled "What's AIS?"

• Focus Breathing. At 200mm neither the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E nor the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E showed significant focus breathing at any test distance. Both 70-200mm Nikkors (the f4 and the f2.8E) DID show easily noticeable focus breathing that "measured out" at about 10% at the closest focus distance, which means that the lenses functionally became 70-180mm zooms at this test distance. It's probably no coincidence that the bokeh of these two Nikkor 70-200mm lenses at the closest distance scored worse than that of the two Nikkors which did NOT show any focus breathing at this distance (the 120-300 and the 180-400). At slightly longer test distances (12m and 24m) the focus breathing of the two Nikkor 70-200mms decreased to under 5% but still slightly negatively impacted on their bokeh at these test distances. The Sigmas? Both Sigma lenses - and particularly the Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 - continued to show significant focus breathing. As an example, at a subject distance of 4.25m the Sigma 120-300mm lost almost 13% of its maximum focal length...which functionally meant that at that 4.25m a lens setting of 200mm (on the lens barrel) equated to a REAL focal length of 175mm. And, the focus breathing continued to reduce the quality of the bokeh of the Sigma lenses. It should be acknowledged that with the Sigma 120-300mm and the Sigma 150-600mm the focus breathing at 200mm CAN be offset simply by increasing the amount you "zoom" the lens...so most users probably would NOT consider it to be a significant problem. The bottom line is that the most significant focus breathing "problem" at 200mm (in terms of having an impact on image quality that CAN'T be negated by simply zooming the lens further out) is found on the two Nikkor 70-200mm lenses at the closest test distance.

• Vignetting? Well...this one is simple to describe - at 200mm ALL the lenses tested vignetted, and all by ABOUT the same amount. So at f2.8 it was about 1.3 to 1.4 stops; at f4 about 1.1 stops; at f5.6 about 1 stop; at f8 about 0.67 stops, and at f11 still about 0.67 stops. As mentioned before, vignetting is easily controlled in post-processing for raw shooters so chalk this one up as a fact, not a problem (for any of the lenses).

3. SOME LENS-SPECIFIC OPTICAL PERFORMANCE COMMENTS

Here's an overview of the optical performance of each lens tested at 200mm - both in absolute terms and relative to the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E:

• The Nikkor 120-300 f2.8E is super at 200mm: Not too much to say here beyond the obvious: at 200mm the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E came in tied with the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E as the best of the bunch in overall optical performance - both were simply outstanding! SO...if you are carrying the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E and any other of the lenses tested in this review while out shooting (with the exception of the Nikkor 180-400) and run into a situation where 200mm is the best focal length to use...well...USE THE NIKKOR 120-300MM f2.8E! And...realistically speaking...it's unlikely most anyone (if they're not employing a sherpa) would be carrying BOTH a Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8 and a Nikkor 180-400mm f4E in the field! The only "weakness" of the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E at 200mm was in the quality of its bokeh at close distance in the f4.5 through to f8 range - here the Nikkor 180-400 f4E slightly beat it out (but note that the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E still beat all the other lenses in bokeh at this distance).

• The Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8 is strong at 200mm. If you are shooting the Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 at 200mm you will likely come home with images you are very happy with, especially if you remember two things. First, at short to moderate distances (so about 15m or less) you are best to stop the lens down to about f3.5 (or smaller) if your concern is getting the sharpest images possible. Second, that you have significant focus breathing to keep in mind, especially at distances of about 30m or less. But if you are like most photographers you will be composing your shot while looking through the viewfinder and zoom to the focal length that LOOKS right to you...not the focal length printed on the lens barrel. Compared to the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E you are a step behind in sharpness (at almost all distances) in the f2.8 to f3.5 range, at long distances you lose a LITTLE edge sharpness at almost all apertures, and at very close distances you may have trouble matching the outstanding sharpness/bokeh balance of the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E.

• The Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E isn't at its absolute best at 200mm. The Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E is universally considered Nikon's best ever 70-200mm lens by a wide margin (though that may be challenged by the currently mythical Z-mount Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8S). However, like many of Nikkor's zooms, it isn't at its best at its longest focal length. At the closest test distance it ranked behind both the Nikkor and the Sigma 120-300's in sharpness and in bokeh at wide apertures (f2.8 to f4). At 12m it competed well in sharpness with the Sigma 120-300mm at all apertures, but was noticeably softer than the Nikkor 120-300mm from f2.8 to f3.5 range. It did quite well at 24mm (pretty much matching the two 120-300's and the Nikkor 180-400 in both sharpness and bokeh), but at the longest test distance (1600m) in ranked behind those same 3 lenses in BOTH center and edge sharpness. On the positive side, it DID out-perform the Nikkor 70-200mm f4 in sharpness (center and edge) and bokeh at all test distances!

• The Nikkor 70-200mm f4 is beaten up pretty badly at 200mm. While I have been a fan of this lens for a number of years, this field test indicates that several newer lenses have passed it by in optical performance at 200mm. In fact the ONLY situation where it didn't place last in the test was in bokeh at the closest test distances in the f5.6 to f8 range (and here it JUST edged out the Sigma 150-600mm). But in every other combination of test distance and aperture used it lagged behind ALL the other lenses...including the Sigma 150-600mm f5-6.3).

• The Nikkor 180-400mm f4E is just great at 200mm. Although the Nikkor 180-400 is anything BUT an "old" lens, this test is reminding me of how darned good it is. It's ONLY weakness in this test at 200mm was a slight edge softness in the f4.5 to f5.6 range - and the only lens beating it there was the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E.

• The Sigma Sport 150-600mm f5-6.3? At 200mm the Sigma 150-600 beat out the Nikkor 70-200mm f4 in most tests, but it lagged behind all of the other lenses in ALMOST all other test distances and apertures. Where did it NOT lose out (to ANY lens)? It did surprisingly well in both center and edge sharpness at long distances, tying the two 120-300's AND the Nikkor 180-400mm in the f8 to f11 range. Hey...give credit where it is due!

4. RESULTS FROM "JUST SHOOTING" @ 200mm

Interestingly, of the 5000+ shots I have taken when "just shooting" with the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E (with 4 different camera bodies) - almost none appear to have been taken at 200mm (and those at 200mm were ALL captured on my Z7)! However, before the conspiracy theories start circulating about how I avoid shooting the Nikkor 120-300 for some nefarious reason (that I won't even try to guess), I suspect the reason is more benign - my guess is that there is such a narrow range on the zoom ring that registers as 200mm in the metadata that you almost never hit it when you're composing your shots through the viewfinder. And...out of pure curiosity I just took a few shots with the 120-300 on my D6 and D500 and found that to be the case - you CAN capture shots that are recorded as shot at 200mm in the metadata, but the zoom ring has to be in the EXACT right spot to get that (otherwise it's recorded as 195mm or 210mm). ANYWAY...here's some shots taken in the 190-210mm focal length range for your perusal. And the most critical thing they tell me is that the results I obtained during my systematic testing translate well into results in the field when "just shooting" - the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E is just great at 200mm.

• Acceptable bokeh at 200mm? While it's fairly easy to capture images that show good bokeh at 300mm or longer focal lengths, is it really practical to do so when shooting at 200mm with the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E? Yep! Sample Image: Poncho - Closing in on the Lick Target.

• Acceptable bokeh at 200mm with the D500? Can you get good bokeh in the 200mm range when shooting the D500 (I've been asked this a surprising number of times)? Yep. Check out this red squirrel captured at 210mm with a D5: Red Guarding His Fortress.

• Acceptably sharp to REALLY shoot at f2.8 in the field? In my view there is virtually NO penalty in image sharpness when shooting the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E in the field at f2.8. This Dusky Grouse was shot at f2.8 at 210mm: Dusky Grouse Under Douglas Fir.

• How is edge-to-edge sharpness on distant scenes shot on a high res body? This FULL RESOLUTION image was captured using my Z7 on the Nikkor 120-300mm at f4 at 195mm. See if you can pick out the raven on the distant treeline: Backyard Backdrop.

OK...I get it - the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8 is really strong optically at both 200mm and 300mm. But how is it at its shortest focal length? Read on...

IV. OPTICAL PERFORMANCE AT 120mm

• Post Date: June 30, 2020

At 120mm the optical performance of the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E was tested at the same four camera-to-subject distances (4.25m, 12m, 24m, and 1600m) as it was for the 300mm and 200mm focal length testing. The rationale for choosing these distances - and all other technical details concerning the methods I used - can be found in Appendix 1 below. The lenses tested and compared against the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E at 120mm included 3 other zoom lenses:

• Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8
• Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E
• Nikkor 70-200mm f4

Just like the tests at both the 200mm and 300mm focal lengths the results are so nuanced that boiling it down to a single definitive statement that applies in all situations (and test distances) simply isn't possible. But here's my shortest possible Executive Summary that accurately reflects my test results, followed immediately by a number of trends at 120mm that were very obvious, then some lens-specific observations at 120mm, and finally some comments (and sample images) based on "just shooting" the Nikkor 120-300mm at 120mm.

1. THE EXECUTIVE SUMMARY - Optical Performance at 120mm

At 120mm - and when considering center sharpness, edge sharpness, and bokeh over a variety of distances and a range of apertures - TWO lenses tested out very strongly: the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E and the Sigma 120-300mm f2.8. Both of these lenses produced exceptionally high quality images at 120mm. The highly regarded Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E also tested out very well in terms of image sharpness (both central and on the edges) but - and to my surprise - competed poorly against the two 120-300mm f2.8 lenses in bokeh quality.

Is there ONE lens of the group that you could select in virtually any photographic situation at 120mm - from portraits to landscapes - and know that you are making no compromises in image quality? Yes...the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E. The only very minor "weakness" of the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E that I could find at 120mm is that from f2.8 to f3.5 at mid-distances (12m and 24m) it placed JUST behind the Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E in central region sharpness. At all other test distance and aperture combinations it placed first or tied for first in both central and edge sharpness.

2. A NUMBER OF CLEAR TRENDS

• Sharpness/Aperture Variation (Sharpness "Progression"). Only ONE lens exhibited complete AIS (Aperture Independent Sharpness) at all test distances AND when considering both central and edge sharpness - the Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E. The Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E was exceptionally close to tying this result, but at mid-distances (12m and 24m) it needed to be stopped down to f3.5 before hitting maximum sharpness . The Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 had to be stopped down to f3.5 at all test distances before hitting maximum sharpness in the central region and to f4.5 before hitting maximum edge-sharpness. The Nikkor 70-200mm f4? It fared not too bad in central region sharpness beginning at f5, but showed edge softness at all apertures. Anyone wishing to read a commentary on AIS can refer to my 5 July 2018 blog entry entitled "What's AIS?"

• Focus Breathing. At 120mm none of the lenses exhibited serious focus breathing - and certainly not enough to impact on overall image quality or shooting limitations as was observed in the case of the Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 at 300mm. The Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E exhibited the LEAST amount of focus breathing (if any) - each of the other 3 lenses showed focus breathing in the 3-5% range relative to the Nikkor 120-300 (so at 120mm on the "focus barrel" and metadata they actually were shooting in the 113 to 116mm range). So no big deal.

• Vignetting? A clear trend - at 120mm ALL the lenses tested vignetted, and all by ABOUT the same amount. So at f2.8 it was about 1.6 stops; at f4 about 1.4 stops; at f5.6 about 1 stop; at f8 about 0.67 stops, and at f11 about 0.5 stops. The vignetting WAS slightly worse (by about 0.2 stops at all apertures) with the Nikkor 70-200mm f4. Again, vignetting is easily controlled in post-processing for raw shooters so consider this a "stick this fact in the back pocket" thing and not a true problem.

3. SOME LENS-SPECIFIC OPTICAL PERFORMANCE COMMENTS

Here's an overview of the optical performance of each lens tested at 120mm - both in absolute terms and relative to the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E:

• The Nikkor 120-300 f2.8E is REALLY SOLID at 120mm: It became almost boring to summarize the results of the Nikkor 120-300 at 120mm: Central Region Sharpness - first; edge sharpness - first; bokeh - first; yada, yada, yada. There were definitely some lenses tying the Nikkor 120-300mm under certain test conditions (e.g., the Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E in sharpness at almost all apertures, the Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 matching it in bokeh in many cases), but the combination of central and edge sharpness and great bokeh at virtually all apertures exhibited by the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E was simply unmatched. The only "weakness" of the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E at 120mm was that from f2.8 to f3.5 at mid-distances (12m and 24m) it placed JUST behind the Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E in central region sharpness (but the sharpness difference between the two lenses was infinitesimally small...and within the range that tweaking sharpening in post-processing would completely negate the difference).

• The Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8 is a good alternative at 120mm. In real world terms the Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 faired very well against the Nikkor 120-300mm at 120mm. Like the Nikkor 120-300mm it showed a really strong mix of sharpness and bokeh and in a lot of situations the images of the two 120-300's are next to impossible to distinguish - it's only when you start pushing the boundaries that you start seeing differences between the images shot with the two 120-300's. In this case "pushing the boundaries" means shooting wide open or very close to it - at ALL distances you had to stop the Sigma 120-300 down to f3.5 to match the Nikkor 120-300 in central region sharpness and f4.5 in edge sharpness. Realistically this is pretty good performance for a lens costing not much more than a third of the price of the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E.

• The Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E is REALLY SHARP at 120mm. If image sharpness is your only criteria in assessing image quality, then the Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E is the lens for you at 120mm. In the vast majority of subject distance and aperture combinations it tied the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E and it edged it out in sharpness in the mid-distance tests over the aperture range of f2.8 to f3.5. But the Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E is definitely behind BOTH of the 120-300's in bokeh quality. This does NOT in any way mean the Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E has "bad bokeh" at 120mm - in fact BEFORE getting the Nikkor 120-300mm I was very pleased with the bokeh quality of the Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E. But now, after shooting both lenses extensively, if I'm in a situation of shooting at 120mm AND I want to separate my subject from the background as effectively as possible, I am going to grab for the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E. But place yourself in a situation of shooting a distant landscape or animalscape and you can't go wrong grabbing either the Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E OR the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E.

• The Nikkor 70-200mm f4 trails at 120mm. Just like at 200mm, at 120mm the Nikkor didn't compete well with the other lenses in this test. Central region sharpness becomes comparable to the other lenses only at apertures from about f5.6 and smaller, and at ALL apertures edge sharpness was very poor on the left side. Bokeh? Overall the weakest of the bunch (consistently placed last in all comparisons). While I always liked this lens in the past (and when shooting with lower resolution bodies), it doesn't do very well when paired with current high resolution bodies like the Z7 or D850.

4. RESULTS FROM "JUST SHOOTING" @ 120mm

Because all the field testing of the Nikkor 120-300 took place during the COVID-19 pandemic, I wasn't able to travel to "exotic" locations and seek out dramatic subject matter to work with. Normally I'd use the 120mm focal length on a lens like this primarily for landscapes and animalscape shots and the occasional wildlife portrait (with highly cooperative subjects, of course!). So you'll have to bear with me on these sample shots! But the KEY point is that the strong optical performance at 120mm revealed during systematic testing continued during all sessions where I went out "just shooting" at 120mm.

• Good enough for high-resolution landscapes? Short answer - the excellent edge-to-edge sharpness observed during systematic testing continues when shooting in the real world with the Nikon Z7. Sample Image: Lavington Sunrise, Findlay Drainage.

• Landscapes shot wide open? I was pleased to discover that wide apertures worked just fine for landscape images (background "softness" on f2.8 shot is a DoF issue, not an indication of any optical weaknesses). Sample Images:

Lavington Sunrise at f2.8
Lavington Sunrise at f8

• Sharpness/bokeh balance with closer subjects? There's no doubt that you WON'T get the same wonderful sharpness/bokeh balance when you shoot the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E at 120mm as you will when you shoot it at 300mm, but there's no doubt this lens works well when shooting with wide apertures at 120mm. Here's 3 sample images to illustrate what I mean (using my reliable wildlife proxy Poncho):

Poncho Going Low...at f3.2
Overlooking the Columbia Valley...at f3.2
Poncho @ Sunset...at f2.8

V. DISCUSSION: OPTICAL PERFORMANCE FROM 120mm to 300mm

• Post Date: June 30, 2020

When shot in its native focal range of 120-300mm, the new Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E is simply an optical powerhouse. You truly get prime-quality optical performance in BOTH sharpness and bokeh - at all focal lengths. Here's some of the most significant findings of my testing:

• At 300mm it showed the strongest overall optical performance, including slightly edging out the Nikkor 300mm f2.8G VRII in sharpness and matching it in bokeh.

• At 200mm it was in a dead heat with the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E in optical performance (and beat out the highly regarded Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8E). My own preference at 200mm is for the Nikkor 120-300mm over the 180-400mm simply because it has the larger aperture of f2.8 and at a 200mm having the f2.8 aperture (with the subject-isolating power it adds) is important to me.

• At 120mm the Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8 came the closest to matching the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E in overall optical performance, but the need to stop down the Sigma to match the central and edge sharpness of the Nikkor 120-300mm relegated the Sigma to second place.

For me the single thing that stands out for me about the optical performance of the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E is its complete lack of any optical weakness - shoot it at any focal length, any distance, and at any aperture and you get tack sharp images with wonderful bokeh. Over the years I have tested dozens of lenses and have only seen this kind of near flawless optical performance in one other lens - the Nikkor 180-400mm f4E. Both are "just can't miss" lenses...

It's probably worth summarizing the differences between the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E and the lens that competes most closely with it - the Sigma Sport 120-300mm f2.8. Both are very good optically but a few things clearly separate them. First, at close distances focus breathing REALLY hampers the performance of the Sigma 120-300. Why? Because when you have a 300mm lens "shortening" to 243mm via focus breathing your depth-of-field changes significantly which, in turn, really hampers your ability to produce those "dreamy, buttery-smooth" backgrounds at close distances that you wanted when you bought a 300mm f2.8 lens. Second, the Sigma suffers from the same fate as MOST super-telephoto primes and zooms - you have to stop them down from wide open to get maximum sharpness - and that difference in sharpness from f2.8 to f3.5 IS noticeable. In contrast, the difference in sharpness (at all focal lengths) between f2.8 and f3.5 with the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E is so trivial that you have no reason NOT to shoot it wide open all the time.

Simply put - when it comes to optical performance the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E is just a beast!

So..what happens with the image quality of the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E when you "extend" the focal length by adding teleconverters - does the optical magic continue? Read on...

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Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E Field Test: Optical Performance with Teleconverters

Optical Performance with Teleconverters

Information to follow soon...

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Optical Stabilization and "Hand-holdability"

Information to follow soon...

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Autofocus Performance

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Musings From Just Shootin'

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The FINAL Wrap-up and My Lens Choice

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Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E Field Test: Appendices - Methods

Appendix 1: Methods: Optical Performance Testing

• Post Date: June 15, 2020

The primary goal behind the methodology used in the systematic testing of the optical performance of the various lenses was to produce the highest quality image you could reasonably expect to capture with each lens in a field setting. This means that the shooting discipline during the testing is probably beyond that under which most wildlife photography is performed, but still closer to what we "do" in the field than most lab-based tests. Of course, user technique plus some lens-based usability features (such as the performance of both the autofocus system and the vibration-reduction system) will also go a long way towards determining how close a given photographer's day-to-day wildlife captures will approximate the results obtained during my systematic testing.

1. Focal Lengths Tested: Lenses were tested and compared over 3 native focal lengths of the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E and 4 focal lengths where the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8 was paired with one of two teleconverters. The native focal lengths tested were:

• 120mm
• 200mm
• 300mm

The focal lengths tested when the Nikkor 120-300mm f2.8E was paired with teleconverters were:

• 420mm: 120-300mm @ 300mm plus TC-14EIII (1.4x) teleconverter
• 500mm: 120-300mm @ 250mm plus TC-20EIII (2x) teleconverter
• 560mm: 120-300mm @ 280mm plus TC-20EIII (2x) teleconverter
• 600mm: 120-300mm @ 300mm plus TC-20EIII (2x) teleconverter

2. Distances to Subject: For each focal length the lenses were tested at several camera-to-subject distances. The test distances - and the rationale for choosing them - were:

A. For focal lengths of 120mm through to 420mm:

Close Distance (4.25m or 14'): This distance was chosen as it represents the distance that a wildlife photographer would often use to photograph subjects such as small birds or mammals (e.g., squirrels) or portraits of larger subjects (e.g., bears) with these focal lengths.

Mid-distance 1 (12m or 40'): This distance was chosen as is represents the sort of distance that wildlife photographers would commonly use to capture larger birds (e.g., approachable owls or birds of prey) and/or slightly mammals (such as foxes)

Mid-distance 2 (24m or 79'): This distance was chosen as is represents the sort of distance that wildlife photographers would regularly use to capture larger or more wary birds and mammals, including things like deer, elk, bears, wolves, etc.

Long distance (1600mm or 1 mile): This distance was chosen as it represents the typical distance one would commonly use to photograph a distant scene or, in some cases, an animalscape-style shot.

Note that when the images were assessed for image quality those captured at the close distance and both mid-distances were used to assess central region (but not edge) sharpness and bokeh while the images captured at long distances were used to assess both central and edge sharpness (but not bokeh). The rationale for this is that at both the short and mid-distances a wildlife photographer is almost never concerned about edge-to-edge sharpness - rather they are concerned with sharpness of what they focused on (which is not normally on the edges of the frame) and the quality of the OOF zones (the bokeh). However, at long distances both central and edge sharpness are important (but bokeh is almost never a concern as there are no real OOF zones at long distances).

B. For focal lengths of 500mm through 600mm:

Close Distance (8.6m or 28'4"): This distance was chosen as it represents the distance that a wildlife photographer would often use to photograph subjects such as small birds or mammals (e.g., squirrels) or portraits of larger subjects (e.g., bears) with these focal lengths.

Mid-distance (30m or 98'): This distance was chosen as is represents the sort of distance that wildlife photographers would commonly use to capture larger or more wary birds and mammals, including things like deer, elk, bears, wolves, etc.

Tests were not performed at long distances in the 500mm to 600mm focal lengths giving the rarity that these focal lengths are used to shoot distant scenes.

3. Apertures Used: For images captured with the 120-300mm shot native OR with the 1.4x TC images were captured with the aperture wide open (so at f2.8 if shot native and f4 if shot with the 1.4x TC) then at 1/3 stop increments up to f5.6. Thereafter images were captured at one stop increments (so at f8, f11, and f16). For images captured with the 120-300mm f2.8 plus the 2x TC images were captured in 1/3 stop increments from wide open (f5.6) through f11.

4. Image Capture Protocol: Each test image was captured using the following setup:

Camera Used: Nikon Z7: This camera was selected because its high-resolution full-frame sensor can reveal lens flaws (e.g., edge softness) that lower resolution or cropped sensor cameras may not resolve

Support System: All images were shot tripod-mounted using a Jobu Killarney tripod equipped with a Jobu MkII HD gimbal head

Autofocus mode: All images were shot using AF-S Pinpoint area mode which fully employs contrast-detect autofocus. This removes any bias in lens sharpness by removing possible AF-tuning issues

Shutter Release mode: All images were shot using a full electronic shutter (to negate possible vibrations induced by mechanical shutter curtains) and triggered using a Nikon MC-DC2 cable release

Frames Shot per aperture/distance/focal length combination: For each aperture, subject distance, and focal length combination two frames were captured. For each frame the lens was slightly defocused and then re-focused before exposure. The time between frames was a minimum of 5 seconds to allow any vibrations associated with changing the aperture or manually de-focusing the camera to dissipate. Yes, this took a long time!

File format: RAW - 14 bit compressed

5. Image Capture Conditions: For each session (e.g., the capture of all images using all competing lenses compared at 300mm and at close distance) all images were captured under consistent atmospheric conditions with medium contrast. In practical terms this means "under overcast skies with no wind".

6. Subjects: Here's a description (and look) at each subject used in the testing:

Close Distance - AKA "The Stump" (see it here): This subject sits in my yard and its strong texture, the distance from its front edge to back edge, and the objects at various distances in the background make it a great subject to assess both image sharpness and bokeh. As an added bonus, and unlike most grizzly bears, it is always easy to find.

Mid-distances - AKA "The Eagle" (see it here): I use this "almost" life-size eagle carving for my mid-distance subjects. Like the stump, it has strong texture (carved feathers and peeling paint!) to assist in assessing sharpness plus objects at different distances in the background to help assist in assessing bokeh. And, it's pretty much as easy for me to find as my stump! ;-)

Long Distance Scene (see it here): This is a scene looking directly south from my property. The treeline is the "key" part of this subject in that it runs perfectly perpendicular to your line of sight, meaning it's great for assessing edge-to-edge sharpness.

7. Image Quality Assessment: Images were visually assessed for sharpness and the quality of the OOF zones (i.e., the bokeh) at 100% magnification on a 27" Eizo CG279X display with a native resolution of 109 ppi. Images were viewed using Capture One Pro standard previews (with no sharpening) because Capture One Pro allows the simultaneous side-by-side comparison of up to 12 images at 100% magnification.

8. Image Quality Assessment - Sharpness AND Bokeh! Images were assessed for both sharpness AND the quality of the OOF zones (or bokeh) as follows:

Sharpness: For each aperture/focal length/subject distance combination the images of the various lenses were ranked from sharpest (assigned a value of 1) through to softest (assigned with a higher number that depended on the number of lenses in the number of individual test). Given the nature of the test subjects in almost all cases it was an easy matter to separate out and rank images based on sharpness. Here's one example of the images used to assess sharpness (on the viewer of Capture One Pro) - in this case 3 lenses at 300mm, f2.8, and a camera-to-subject distance of 24m: Download image.

Bokeh: - Exactly as above, but in this case the "quality" of the OOF zones were evaluated. Assessing the quality of the bokeh is somewhat more subjective than assessing sharpness, but in practical terms the smoothness of the background areas - plus the appearance of specular highlights - differed enough between images that ranking the images was not too difficult. In most cases the entire images (rather than just a subset of the image viewed at 100% magnification) were viewed to "see" differences in bokeh. Here's one example of the images used to assess bokeh (on the viewer of Capture One Pro) - in this case 6 lenses at 300mm, f5.6, and a camera-to-subject distance of 4.25m: Download image.

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Appendix 2: Methods: Optical Stabilization and "Hand-holdability"

Information to follow soon...

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Appendix 3: Methods: Autofocus Performance

Information to follow soon...

Field Test Index


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