Nikon's Bearable Long Lenses


Here you have all of the generations of Nikon's lighter 300's -- from the original f=300mm 1:4.5 Nikkor-P on the (left) to the most modern 300mm 1:4 AF Nikkor IF-ED on the (right), with the AI, AI ED, and AI-S IF-ED 1:4.5 models in between.

How does that Hollies song go again?

He ain't heavy ...
He's my brother

For those of you with realistic budgets and aspirations, you've probably taken a good long look at Nikon's long lenses -- sighed a bit, maybe, over the big 300f/2's and f/2.8's of this world, felt your thinning wallet/purse, and took a better look at the one-stop slower lenses, the 300f/4's and f/4.5's. This page gives the history and evolution of these lenses.


300f/4.5 non-AI, 1964-1977

In 1964, Nikon brought out the last few lenses to complete its lineup of automatic-diaphragm lenses for the Nikon F. The 300f/4.5 was intended as a replacement for the semi-automatic 350f/4.5, a lens that was originally intended for use on the rangefinders with their reflex housing, but which also saw duty (along with the 180f/2.5, 250f/4, 500f/5, and 1000f/6.3 Reflex) on the Nikon F, albeit with an adapter tube, in the first early years. Sometime during its production run, it was changed from a five element/four group construction to six elements and five groups. According to Nikon Data(1) , this change appears to have occurred around 1975, when the ED version of the lens was introduced. I have conflicting data (3)that says that the 6e/5g version was available as early as 1971, with the introduction of the F2. It was the longest hand-holdable lens that Nikon offered until the introduction of the 400f/5.6 in 1973.

Some of the notable design features on the lens are the inclusion of two tripod bushings (for horizontal and vertical-format pictures), the sliding lens shade (which provides approximately 45mm of extension), and the original "rabbit-ears" meter coupling prong, which is solid on all non-AI lenses. The lens is immediately recognizeable as a member of the "chrome barrel" family of Nikkors, with its scalloped focussing and aperture control rings. The later non-AI 180f/2.8 seems to be a scaled-down version of the early lens, as it has similar five element/three group construction.

The First (non-AI) 300f/4.5 (3) Here is Nikon's first 300mm lens for the Nikon F. Note:

    1. Scalloped focussing ring, characteristic of most so-called "chrome barrel" Nikkors
    2. Built-in sliding lens shade
    3. Double tripod sockets (you do have two QR plates, don't you?)


This lens was immensely popular, and many are available on the used market today very cheaply. It reputedly gives its best performance around f/5.6 and f/8, although wide-open is acceptable, too. At its current pricing, it is an excellent buy. The focussing throw is 140 degrees, so it handles relatively well. Although it might seem heavy in modern times, back in its day, it proved a viable alternative to the larger, more expensive 400f/4.5, which is approximately twice as heavy when on the appropriate focussing mount.


300f/4.5 non-AI, AI ED, 1975-1978

After the introduction of the 180-600f/8 ED, Nikon began to integrate ED glass into some of its proven designs. ED glass is designated for its property of Extra-Low Dispersion, which refers to the fact that the index of refraction is nearly constant over the visible wavelengths of light. In conventional glass designs, the index of refraction generally varies for different wavelengths; thus, the sharpness of distant images may be adversely affected by the misconvergence of different colors. In fact, for very long focal lengths of over 300mm or so, it is impossible to perfectly converge all visible wavelengths on the same spot; generally, lens designs up to the 1970's all tried to converge red and blue on the same spot, which would leave green and purple fringes.

All of this changed when Canon and Minolta began to demonstrate lenses with artificially-grown calcium fluoride elements in the early 70's. CaF elements have a constant index of refraction over visible wavelengths, and it is thus possible to design long lenses with perfect convergence. Not to be outdone, several years later, Nikon introduced ED glass, the exact formula of which is unknown. It is believed that ED is a fluorocrown glass, which means that fluorite has been added somehow to conventional optical (crown) glass. Although ED glass does not perfectly correct misconvergence, it has several advantages over fluorite elements, including being physically harder (CaF is fairly soft and thus cannot be used as the front element) and less sensitive to the environment. Thus ED glass has actually proved to be more practical than fluorite elements (and indeed, Canon seems to have switched to what they term Low Dispersion glass in their latest designs).

In particular, this lens is of six element/five group construction, with the front element being the only ED element, again similar to the AI and AI-S ED 180f/2.8. I have never actually seen this lens, but its physical design presumably parallels that of the regular 300f/4.5 (e.g. two tripod sockets while non-AI and rotating collar when AI).

Here is a photo of the non-IF ED 300, which is reputedly the best Nikkor 300 ever available.

This lens has the best reputation that I've heard of for Nikkor 300's. Chasseur d'Images gave it an amazing rating, and David Reuther's Subjective Lens Evaluations concurs with them. This, coupled with its relative rarity, have made this lens more of a collector's item than a user's delight. If you really want the ED glass, I would recommend the IF-ED version. Although it may not enjoy the same sterling reputation (though an excellent lens in its own right) as the ED version, it has the added benefit of internal focussing, which makes it shockingly light and easy to handle, as well as a closer-focussing lens.


300f/4.5 AI, AI-S, 1977-1990

When Nikon introduced Automatic Indexing in 1977, it updated most of the lenses in its lineup. Most of the updates involved cosmetic changes (most notably changing most surfaces to black satin finish and incorporating an rubber-inset on the focussing ring), which Nikon had been working on for a couple years, but some lenses were more extensively redesigned, losing weight and adding features.

The 300f/4.5 slimmed down a bit and gained a a rotating tripod collar in place of the dual bushings. Other than that, the optical design remained unchanged from the six element/five group construction, and it offered much the same performance. Of course, multicoating was added to the lens, which may be the most significant upgrade from the non-AI version. On the other hand, with only six elements, the original design was not too prone to flaring.

The Nikon 300f/4.5 AI and AI-S (4) After the introduction of the AI meter-coupling system in 1977, Nikon extensively redesigned the physical appearance of the 300f/4.5. Note the addition of a tripod collar, as well as the rubber focussing ring. This is actually an AI-S lens.

This lens is a relatively good buy, although for not much more cash, you can get the IF-ED version of the lens. On the other hand, you can spend less and get an AI'd version of the original lens. The rotating tripod collar adds a lot of value to the lens, apparently. Incidentally, Nikon USA still stocks the collar for the AI-S lens for approximately $50 US.


300f/4.5 AI, AI-S IF-ED, 1979-1989

With the introduction of Internal Focussing technology in 1977 with the 400f/3.5 IF-ED (still reputedly Nikon's best 400), Nikon made telephoto lenses simultaneously less bulky and easier to handle. The technology soon began to trickle down to the rest of the Nikon line, and in 1979, they introduced the 300f/4.5 IF-ED.

By removing the focussing helicoid, which was a large, heavy brass-and-aluminum affair, Nikon made a lens that not only weighed less than before, it was also able to focus closer. IF changes the focal length as you focus closer, but does not change the exposure, which makes it quite handy for macro work (c.f. the 200f/4 IF Micro); although the closest focussing distance of the original 200f/4 IF Micro isn't that much further than the old 105f/4 Micro, which indicates that the focal lengths are fairly close, it is one stop faster at 1:2 reproduction ratio. If you ever get a chance, do yourself a favor and try out an IF lens; you will not regret the experience (unless it causes you to purchase said lens, something that happened to me!). The handling of the lens will spoil you for other lenses.

The Nikon 300f/4.5 IF-ED (4) Perhaps Nikon's best value for the money, used, the 300f/4.5 offers all of the features you want -- IF, ED, tripod collar -- in a compact, lightweight package. Best of all, you can pick up user-condition examples for under $500 US, less than 1/3 of the original price.

This lens was relatively popular among professional photographers because of its compact size, light weight, and excellent performance. It does not, reputedly, work well with converters, but quite acceptable on tubes for excellent macro performance. IF makes this lens a joy to handle, as it is about 3/4 the weight of the regular 300f/4.5 and about the same weight as the manual-focus 180f/2.8. Nikon USA also still stocks the tripod collar for the AI-S lens, at around $50 US. You will want to be somewhat careful about keeping a rear cap on the lens, as the diaphragm is physically exposed.


300f/4 AF AI-S IF-ED, 1987-present

Nikon introduced this lens in 1987 to complement its increasingly professional emphasis on autofocus cameras and lenses. Rather than an update the of the classic f/4.5, Nikon chose to make the lens one third of a stop faster, which necessitated an 82mm front accessory size. However, Nikon gave the lens a whiff of "big-lens" style with a 39mm filter drawer. As is expected of Nikon's professional AF glass, it has the black "crinkle" finish and a metal barrel, which makes it quite durable; it never went through the misstep that Nikon made with the original AF 180f/2.8, i.e. the narrow focussing ring with little drag.

As it is a 1987-vintage lens, AF performance is not up to the same standards as, say the AF-I or AF-S lenses, but is quite acceptable on the more modern bodies. A focussing limiter switch is provided, as is an A/M switch on the lens itself. Optical performance is reputedly excellent, and B. Moose Peterson (2) claims that this lens is better on a converter (TC-14B) than a "naked" 400f/5.6 IF-ED. For those without a team of porters to carry around photo gear, it is probably the best choice for top-quality travel photographs.

The Nikon 300f/4 AF IF-ED (5) Nikon's current AF lens lineup includes the 300f/4 AF, an excellent lens for those on a budget (relative to the 300f/2.8 AF-S) or those looking for a great travel lens. It is a bit heavier than the older 300f/4.5 AI-S IF-ED, but offers AF, a focus limiter, and of course, the extra 1/3 of a stop.

Used lenses are available cheaply relative to the list price, but this lens generally hovers around twice the price of the earlier 300f/4.5 IF-ED. For most people, the f/4.5 is a better buy, but AF is quite useful for tracking motion/sports, so the f/4 is indispensible to others. As a manual-focus user, I'm eagerly awaiting the rumoured 300f/4D AF-S IF-ED, which will hopefully depress prices of the current lens.


Construction and Specifications

Internal Construction Comparison (4) Here are cutaway views of the AI-S 300f/4.5 and f/4.5 IF-ED. Note that the IF-ED version appears to be scaled-down from the classic "8/6" construction employed by Nikon for their larger original IF-ED lenses (300f/2.8, 400f/3.5, 600f/4). Note also that the first 300f/4.5 has slightly different construction than the AI-S depicted here, similar to the non-AF versions of the 180f/2.8.

In general, AI lenses were introduced in 1977; AI-S lenses were introduced in 1984.
Model/Mount

non-AI

AI, AI-S

ED non-AI, AI

IF-ED AI, AI-S

AF IF-ED AI-S

Made 1964-1971/5 formula change?-1977 1977-1990 1975-1978 1979-1989 1987-present
Construction 5 elements in 4 groups (6e/5g redesign 1971/5?) 6 elements in 5 groups 6 elements in 5 groups (front element ED) 7 elements in 6 groups (second element ED) 8 elements in 6 groups (second and seventh elements ED)
Dimensions (3, 4, 5) 80mm diam, 203mm long; 1100g
(3.2" diam, 8.0" long; 38.8oz)
78.5mm diam, 202mm long; 1200g
(3.1" diam, 8.0" long; 42.3oz)
78.5mm diam?, 202mm long?; 1160g?
(3.1" diam?, 8.0" long?; 41oz?)
80mm diam, 200mm long; 990g
(3.2" diam, 7.9" long; 34.9oz)
89mm diam, 218mm long; 1330g
(3.5" diam, 8.6" long; 46.9oz)
Minimum Focus 4m
(13.1')
3.5m
(11.5')
3.5m?
(11.5')?
2.5m
(8.2')
2.5m
(8.2')
Minimum Stop f/22 f/32 f/32? f/32 f/32
Accessory Size 72mm 72mm 72mm 72mm 82mm front; 39mm drop-in
Lens Case CL-20 CL-20A CL-20A? CL-36 CL-42
First Serial Number (1) 304501
480001(1975 reformula?)
510001(AI)
550000(AI-S)
173101(non-AI)
190001(AI)
200001(AI)
210000(AI-S)
unk.
Last US List Price (1) $485 (1977) $464 (AI, 1984)
$730 (AI-S, 1990)
$990 (non-AI, 1977)
$1298 (AI, 1978)
$865 (AI, 1984)
$1338 (AI-S, 1989)
$1470 (1997)
Typical 1998 US Used Price $150-300 $300-500 $800-1500 $400-800 $700-1000


References

    1. Comon, Paul, and Evans, Art. Nikon Data. Photo Data Research. Redondo Beach, CA. LC 90-81643. ISBN 0-9626508-0-3. 1990.
    2. Peterson, B. "Moose". Nikon System Handbook. Images Press, Inc. New York, NY. LC 90-084933. ISBN 0-929667-03-4. 1991.
    3. Crawley, Geoffrey. The Nikon System, Including Nikkormat. Amphoto. New York, NY. LC 74-125364. ISBN 0-8174-0973-4. 1972.
    4. Eyes of Nikon. Nippok Kogaku K.K. 1985.
    5. Nikon Full Line Product Guide 1996-97. Nikon, Inc. Melville, NY. 1996.


Comments, questions, and concerns should be routed to mliu@mit.edu