Back in the olden days, before computers were generally available, Nikon was making the nicest lenses you could get. How do these antiques stack up to modern lenses? I thought I’d take a look.
The Nikkor 300mm f/4.5 was my very first “good” telephoto. This thing even pre-dates “auto indexing”, although later I got a kit and converted it to AI (AI, or auto-indexing, was invented in 1977). It does have Nikon’s NIC (Nikon Integrated Coating) multi-coating. Auto-focus hadn’t been invented yet (Nikon started in that game in 1986). Internal-focusing lenses were about a year away. Nikon’s “ED” (extra-low dispersion) glass hadn’t quite been introduced yet (it got introduced in the next generation 300mm lens). We’re talking 1975.
To even the playing field a bit, I have picked my Sigma Contemporary 150-600mm lens for a comparison, which I’ll zoom to 300mm. This Sigma is definitely not the best lens out there, but I think its representative of what is widely available today (and it’s actually cheaper in today’s dollars than the Nikkor was in 1975). Back in the day, no self-respecting photographer would stoop to use a zoom lens; they were complete crap then.
This 300mm Nikkor lens was produced from 1975-1977. The aperture is 6-bladed, which is not very nice for “sunstars” or lights at night. It has a rotating, locking, non-removable lens collar that is excellent for balancing on a tripod. It has a wonderful permanent telescoping lens shade, which I sorely miss on today’s lenses. This lens looks, feels, and acts like its brand-new; I expect it to last well beyond my own lifetime.
I can’t sufficiently describe how excellent this lens is for manual focusing. It has precisely the right dampening, rotation range, and smoothness. The ‘feel’ of the focusing hasn’t changed any whatsoever over the life of the lens. Nikon built this metal lens to the highest possible mechanical standards.
Don’t get me wrong, though. Manual-focus on a long lens is generally a real pain. Ever since Nikon abandoned the “split-screen” focusing screens, precision and fast manual focus is a thing of the past. You can still get accurate manual focus on a long lens, but it pretty much requires the use of a tripod or really stopping down the aperture. It’s possible to buy focus screen replacements, but I heard Katzeye is out of business, and other makers cause really dark viewfinders.
I configure my cameras with the “Non-CPU lens” menu setting, and shoot with aperture-priority (or manual) mode, so auto-exposure isn’t any different from modern lenses (except you turn the aperture ring instead of a wheel). If you haven’t used an AI lens before, note that you still get to focus and shoot with a wide-open aperture. Your camera does need to have an aperture-coupling lever, however (I heard they abandoned this on the D7500).
Even though such things are totally correctable in post-processing anyway, I thought I’d mention that vignetting, distortion, and chromatic aberration are minimal on this lens. Oh, I forgot to mention that it has a 72mm filter thread size. Also, the lens only focuses down to 13 feet.
Nikkor 300mm f/4.5 AI-converted on Nikon D610 with lens shade extended
I haven’t ever seen any resolution analysis of this lens, so that’s what I’m going to concentrate on in this article. I used my Nikon D610 (24 MP, 5.95 micron pixels). I’m only showing the Sigma results at f/5.6 (where the Sigma resolution is at its worst).
The MTFMapper software I used for resolution analysis produces charts showing “smoothed” measurements. It’s possible to get at individual resolution measurements, however, in both the meridional and sagittal directions.
I did my testing at 10 meters, which is a realistic shooting distance for 300 mm. Beware of measurements where they shoot a lens of this focal length at maybe 4 or 5 meters.
Sigma at 300mm f/5.6 (worst aperture) resolution chart detail, D610
Nikkor 300mm f/8.0 (best aperture) resolution chart detail, D610
Peak Resolution Results
The Sigma, at 300mm f/5.6, had peak resolution measurements of 48.5 MTF50 lp/mm, or 2329 lines per picture height. Again, this is at the Sigma’s worst aperture!
The Nikkor had the following peak resolution measurements:
f/4.5 MTF50 lp/mm = 25.1 (meridional and sagittal)
f/5.6 MTF50 lp/mm = 25.1 (meridional and sagittal)
f/8.0 MTF50 lp/mm = 40.2 (sagittal), 38.5 (meridional)
f/11.0 MTF50 lp/mm = 36.8 (sagittal)
f/16.0 MTF50 lp/mm = 33.5 (sagittal)
The Sigma totally smokes the Nikkor when comparing the same aperture measurements. The Nikkor at f/8.0 and beyond, though, is quite respectable. Since I’m generally against trying to give a single number that represents resolution, the following section shows you the overall lens results.
Full-sensor Resolution Measurements
First, I’ll show the Sigma at 300mm and f/5.6 and then we'll take a look at the Nikkor.
Sigma 150-600 MTF50 lp/mm resolution at 300mm and f/5.6
Sigma 150-600 MTF10/MTF30 contrast at 300mm and f/5.6
Now, here’s the Nikkor 300mm results. I stopped measuring after f/16.0, although the lens stops down to f/22 (and diffraction is really kicking in to spoil the resolution).
Nikkor 300mm MTF50 lp/mm (smoothed) resolution at f/4.5
Definitely not up to present-day resolution standards.
Nikkor 300mm MTF10/MTF30 contrast at f/4.5
Nikkor 300mm MTF50 lp/mm (smoothed) resolution at f/5.6
Nikkor 300mm MTF10/MTF30 contrast at f/5.6
Nikkor 300mm MTF50 lp/mm (smoothed) resolution at f/8.0
Nikkor 300mm MTF10/MTF30 contrast at f/8.0
Nikkor 300mm MTF50 lp/mm (smoothed) resolution at f/11.0
Nikkor 300mm MTF10/MTF30 contrast at f/11.0
Nikkor 300mm MTF50 lp/mm (smoothed) resolution at f/16.0
Nikkor 300mm MTF10/MTF30 contrast at f/16.0
Full picture sample
Crop from near the picture center
In the right hands, this Nikkor 300mm is capable of making beautiful photographs. The level of effort, skill, and patience required for an old manual-focus telephoto lens isn’t for everyone. And forget about birds in flight. And avoid placing your subject in the frame corners.
I suppose I’m just sentimental, but I have no plans for ever letting go of mine. I think of it as a real collector’s item.