• Ed Dozier

Nikon AF Nikkor 75-300 f/4.5-5.6 Zoom

This lens harkens back to the early era of Nikon zoom lenses, when everyone was still using 35mm film. It was manufactured from 1989 through 1999. Your Nikon camera needs to have the in-camera focus motor to use this lens; I performed all of the lens tests using my D850.

This is a push-pull kind of zoom, which has long since gone out of favor with photographers. At least you don’t have to worry about which direction to twist a zoom ring. If you want to use manual focus, you have to switch the camera focus switch to “manual”.

The lens uses 62mm filters, and the filters (plus the end of the lens) unfortunately rotate while focusing. There’s a focus-limit switch, and I’d recommend that you use it. Try to avoid the “full” focus range setting; focusing through the full range is dog slow.

The lens has 13 elements in 11 groups. The lens weighs 850 grams. To me, it feels pretty light. It uses the HN-24 screw-in lens hood, although I got a cheap rubber lens hood for it that works just fine. The lens is about 6.6 inches long un-zoomed.

The 9-blade aperture can be stopped down to f/32.0 at 75mm and f/40.0 at 300mm. This lens has the old-style full aperture ring with click-stops, but you lock it at the minimum aperture on modern cameras for auto-exposure.

The lens barrel is all metal, and it operates smooth as silk. Nikon really went all-out with mechanical tolerances during this era, and its functionality hasn’t degraded at all over the years. There’s no “wiggle” to be found in this lens. It has, of course, a metal lens mount, but there’s no rubber weather seal or any other sealing.

The 75-300 has a non-removable tripod collar that doesn’t have any click stops in it. It’s quite solid, although it’s narrower than today’s tripod collars. The lens isn’t heavy enough to make a tripod collar mandatory, but it does help the balance. The collar tripod foot is quite small; I think it should be a bit larger to make it more stable on tripod heads that have plastic or rubber pads on them.

This lens predates vibration reduction, and you really notice its absence at 300mm. It’s easy to get spoiled with modern technology.

I have to admit that I was anticipating doing little else besides making fun of how poor the sharpness of this lens is. I didn’t give Nikon enough credit, though. If you’re willing to close the aperture down by only about a half-stop, this lens has very good resolution (at least at the shorter focal lengths).

The focus distance data (exif data) saved in the photos is garbage. It’s not a “D” lens, so there’s no distance data. It focuses from about 5 feet (1.5m) to infinity. The “macro” range (marked in red on the lens barrel) goes from 5 feet to about 10 feet (3m). The focus “limit” switch keeps the lens inside either of these ranges, depending upon what distance the focus is at when you set the “limit” switch. At the macro setting, you can get down to a magnification of about 1:3.8, which is quite good for a telephoto.

Speaking of focus, don’t bother using this lens unless your camera has focus fine-tune calibration or you use live view. This lens desperately requires focus fine-tune calibration or else the results are terrible. Also note that focus calibration changes wildly from short to long focal lengths. Nikon’s mirrorless cameras don’t have in-camera focus motors, so they are of no use here, either. The mirrorless cameras require manual focus with this lens, and also require the FTZ (Fmount to Z mount) adapter.

I didn’t notice any distortion in my photographs at any focal length. I didn’t notice enough vignetting to bother fixing it in my photo editor, either. Shots at the end of the article show the extent of vignetting and distortion.

There didn’t seem to be much chromatic aberration, which surprised me. I really only noticed it at longer focal lengths with wide apertures. Subjects like small tree branches against the sky are where you see this purple fringing; see the photos at the end of this article.

75-300 lens at 300mm zoom on Nikon D850

The shot above shows the manual-focus ring near the front of the lens. Note the fairly skinny tripod collar and its tiny foot. There’s no wiggle in this lens or collar, though. The rear of the lens has the full-blown aperture ring.

Lens at 200mm

Focus scale and limit switch up close

Note that there is a white infrared focus-shift dot at both 75mm and 135mm just to the left of the visible-light infinity mark. The limit switch (set at the “limit” position) will keep the lens outside of its macro range as shown above. The macro range (5 feet to 10 feet) is the red stripe on the right.

Autofocus Speed and Focus Calibration

This lens’ autofocus is pretty slow, or reasonably quick; let me explain this awkward statement. After about 30 seconds of focusing frustration, I slid the focus limit switch from “Full” to the “Limit” position; there was a world of difference in speed. With this switch in “Limit”, it would focus from the regular (about 10 feet) near-distance limit to infinity in 0.415 seconds at 75mm. Using the full focus range, it took 0.933 seconds at 75mm (it feels like an eternity). Using the “Limit” switch position at 300mm, it took 0.433 seconds. Leaving the switch in the “Limit” position, focus was pleasantly responsive. I did the testing in good light; my D850 and D500 cameras got the same focus speed results. Lesser cameras are probably a bit slower than this.

The first thing I always do with a lens is to focus-calibrate it. An out-of-focus shot is a useless shot. I found out right away that at 75mm, the focus fine-tune setting (-10 on my D850) was nowhere close to what was needed at 300mm. I determined that 300mm needs a fine-tune setting of +10 on the same camera. Major disappointment.

Nikon, unlike Sigma, has no way to cope with a focus calibration problem like this other than to tell you to buy one of their mirrorless cameras – oh wait, their mirrorless cameras don’t support screw-drive lenses! I always write the fine-tune calibration settings data on the inside of the lens cap on a sticker (per-camera); it’s too hard to memorize this stuff. If I don’t remember to reprogram the appropriate calibration setting when I zoom in or out, picture sharpness suffers.

Chromatic Aberration

Worst case chromatic aberration

These shots show how bad it can get with lateral chromatic aberration in the corner of the frame (100% magnification). The left-hand f/10.0 shot shows how much it gets improved by stopping down. As the labels indicate, this is at 300mm and the right-hand shot is wide-open f/5.6.

The full shots are shown down below; this was taken from about 220 yards away. Given the extreme distance of this shot, I think the lens resolution in the corner of the frame is really remarkable.

Infrared

Since Nikon added the IR focus-shift white dots on their focus scale, I thought I’d give the infrared capabilities a little test. I used an 850nm IR filter. I found that the focus shift indicators to not be very accurate. I actually needed to shift the distance scale marker more to the left (closer distance) by an additional 3mm beyond the white dot at 75mm zoom.

I was impressed by the very minimal hotspot in the middle of the shot (it was only brighter by about 0.3 stops). The vast majority of modern lenses are terrible at infrared, and zooms are the worst.

850nm IR 75mm f/8.0

Resolution

I do resolution testing with un-sharpened raw-format pictures. My resolution target is 4 feet by 5 feet, to enable me to be at realistic shooting distances. All tests were done using my Nikon D850 (45.7 MP). I used the MTFMapper program to evaluate the results. I used contrast-detect focus to side-step using focus calibration. As I mentioned above, the phase-detect calibration is all over the place; it depends upon the focal length.

I have noticed that this lens prefers distance shots over close-range, especially from 200mm to 300mm. My resolution target (at about 40 feet with 300mm) leaves you with the impression that the lens is worse than it is; some sample distance shots at the end of this article give you a better idea of its sharpness.

The resolution measurements are in units of “MTF50 lp/mm”. To convert these units into “lines per picture height”, just multiply by the result by (23.9 * 2.0). For instance, an MTF50 of 40.0 lp/mm is (40*23.9*2) = 1912 lines/ph. The D850 sensor is 23.9mm tall.

MTF50 lp/mm 75mm f/4.5

Even at a wide open aperture, 75mm is decent.

MTF Contrast Plot: 75mm f/4.5

Test chart center detail with MTF50 lp/mm values shown on edges

Test chart corner detail. MTF50 lp/mm values shown on edges

MTF50 lp/mm 75mm f/5.6

There’s a huge increase in resolution by stopping down just a little from wide open.

MTF50 lp/mm 75mm f/8.0

This is the sweet spot for 75mm. It’s only a tiny bit better than f/5.6, though.

MTF50 lp/mm 75mm f/11.0

MTF50 lp/mm 75mm f/16.0

MTF50 lp/mm 135mm f/5.0

MTF Contrast Plot: 135mm f/5.0

MTF50 lp/mm 135mm f/5.6

MTF50 lp/mm 135mm f/8.0

MTF50 lp/mm 135mm f/11.0

MTF50 lp/mm 135mm f/16.0

MTF50 lp/mm 200mm f/5.3

Yikes! Avoid 200mm f/5.3 at all costs.

MTF Contrast Plot: 200mm f/5.3

MTF50 lp/mm 200mm f/5.6

Stopping down just a tiny bit from wide open really helps sharpness.

MTF50 lp/mm 200mm f/8.0

This is probably the sweet spot for 200mm.

MTF50 lp/mm 200mm f/11.0

MTF50 lp/mm 200mm f/16.0

MTF50 lp/mm 300mm f/5.6

MTF Contrast Plot: 300mm f/5.6

MTF50 lp/mm 300mm f/8.0

MTF50 lp/mm 300mm f/11.0

MTF50 lp/mm 300mm f/16.0

This is definitely the best aperture for 300mm, even though lens diffraction is setting in just a bit.

Sample Pictures

300mm f/5.6 Macro, 5 feet

Believe it or not, this is considered one of the worst settings for this lens. I think the lens did quite well. The background melts away beautifully. This would be an ideal distance to avoid disturbing a butterfly, compared to regular macro lenses.

75mm f/5.6

I don’t see any vignetting here, and the palm fronds are razor sharp.

75mm f/5.6 I don’t see any linear distortion

300mm f/5.6 I don’t see distortion here, either

300mm f/10.0 Very sharp distant branches at about 220 yards

300mm f/5.6 has chromatic aberration & vignetting, but pretty sharp

300mm f/8.0 Decent sharpness

Conclusion

Before I started testing this lens, I figured there would be little to do besides mock it and talk about how old lenses really show their age. This has been a humbling experience. The mechanical and optical quality is really quite good.

By far, my biggest complaint about this lens is the annoying shift in focus calibration as you zoom it. Mirrorless cameras can’t cure it, since they can’t use the screw-drive lenses. It’s easy to imagine many photographers thought it was a generally un-sharp lens, not realizing how to compensate for it. When this lens was introduced, autofocus calibration fine-tune hadn’t even been invented yet.

Chromatic aberration at longer focal lengths can be seen in high-contrast scenes, but stopping down greatly improves it.

Although my modern Sigma telephoto zooms smoke this lens, I can honestly say that the AF Nikkor 75-300 f/4.5-5.6 takes really beautiful photographs. If you think about the primitive state of computers and software back when this lens got designed, it’s quite amazing what those Japanese engineers were able to accomplish. They should be rightfully proud. Nikon sold this lens for a whole decade; now I can see why it sold for so long.

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