As most of you know, we generally test multiple copies of a lens when we evaluate it, simply because we are so aware of copy-to-copy variation. But I got caught between a rock and a hard place this week. We received exactly one copy of the new Nikon 300mm f/4E PF ED VR lens and the purchasing department told me it would be at least a week and probably longer before any more come in. But I've been dying to know how it measured up against the existing Nikon 300mm f/4 ED AF-S lens.
So I did what I had to do and ran the one copy through Imatest, comparing it to a batch of several copies of the older model. We used the new high-resolution, backlit film charts that we've been using for telephoto lens test lately, and shot all the tests on a Nikon D810 test camera so we would generate the highest possible resolution.
I always like to mention my expectations going into testing. The existing 300mm f/4 AF-S is a very, very good lens. The new PF ED VR brings a lot of new technology to the table, and we know from experience with Canon that Phase Fresnel (what Canon calls Diffraction Optics) technology has historically not give the resolution that a good optical lens does. On the other hand, Canon's second generation DO lenses seem to be every bit as good as their standard optical telephotos. So I hoped the new lens would be optically as good as the old one, but wouldn't be shocked if it were a bit better or a bit worse.
Even if it wasn't quite as good optically, the PF ED VR has a lot of attractive features: an excellent VR system, a tiny size, better coatings, and an all electric aperture system with no mechanical linkages. (Most of you won't consider the latter a great advantage, but most of you don't work on lenses for a living.)
For emphasis: this is somewhat of a failed test. The results we got for the 300mm f/4E PF ED VR lens are good, but other copies may well be better. I'll speculate on how much better, but until we get more copies, that's all it is, speculation.
A Quick Look at the Lenses
The side view shows at a glance just how much smaller the new 300mm lens is. It can't show you the weight difference, but the new lens, at 1.66 pounds, weighs about half as much as the original version.
Nikon 300mm f/4 AF-S (left) and 300mm f/4E PF (right) with hoods. Image Roger Cicala, Lensrentals.com, 2015
The view from the mount shows that, like the other "E" lenses, there is no mechanical aperture lever. The aperture in this lens is completely electronic.
Image Roger Cicala, Lensrentals.com, 2015
Below is a simple table showing the Imatest results as we usually present them: Center point, Weighted average of 50 points across the front of the lens, and average of the 8 corner results (4 horizontal, 4 vertical) given in Line Pairs / Image Height from unsharpened raw images.
300mm f/4 AF-S
300mm f/4E PF VR
The results seem somewhat straightforward at first glance. The new lens is a bit sharper in the center, not quite as sharp in the corners, but the two lenses are very close in resolution. Certainly with only one copy of the new lens tested I wouldn't want to say more than 'equivalent in resolution' to the original version. It's advantages in size and VR speak for themselves. I'd want one if I shot at this focal length a lot.
But . . .
One of many Imatest shots taken with the 300mm f/4E PF VR lens
There's more to it (or at least there should be more to it) than just letting the computer spit out numbers. When we look at the actual graphs of the Imatest results, the 300mm f/4E PF VR graphs all show the sharpest point not near the center of the lens, but off to the right side of the image. It looks like the lens is slightly decentered or tilted. This isn't bad, by any measurement, but it's noticeable.
Our Imatest set-up self-checks to be certain we are correctly aligned, but just to be sure we tore it down, set it back up, and got similar results. We then put the lens on OLAF, our 5-micron-pinhole-collimator testing machine, which confirmed the lens was just slightly decentered.
OLAF image of the 300mm f/4E PF VR at center point.
If you look carefully it's apparent that the rings for each dot are not perfectly symmetrical; they're slightly shifted to the left. Again, this isn't a horrible result by any means. A really bad lens would be smeared 300% or more times on one side compared to the other, this is not bad at all.
Still, it's apparent this lens is slightly decentered.
What Does That Mean for the Results?
I'm going to speculate here, because we don't have experience with decentered Fresnel lenses. When we get another half-dozen copies we may find they are all just like this - that a slight degree of decentering doesn't affect the lens at all. (There are several lenses like that, where every copy is slightly decentered and the resolution is just fine.)
We may find that a well-centered copy is far superior to this one, particularly in the corners, but perhaps even in the center.
What we can say is that the new lens is at least the equal, from a resolution standpoint, to the old lens. That's about all for now.
When I get a half-dozen copies in and tested, I'll be able to say a lot more. What I suspect I will find is the center resolution after testing multiple copies will be about what it is here -- just slightly better than the original 300mm f/4 AF-S. I think that because our maximum resolution point, while off-center, was not up near the edge of the image. My experience is that the center resolution won't change much on a well-centered copy, it will just return toward the center of the image.
I expect we will see somewhat better numbers in the corners, and therefore in the overall average of the lens, probably making it slightly better than the original lens in all areas. Not greatly better, possibly not enough that you'd even notice it in a photograph. But at least as good, in a much lighter lens with excellent VR. That will definitely make this a worthwhile purchase for a lot of people.
The real bottom line? Testing one lens creates about as many questions as it does answers, at least for an OCD guy like me.
A while back we did a teardown of the Sony A7r, and were very impressed with its clean modular design. Now that Sony has released the A7 II we thought a similar teardown would be worthwhile. There are certainly going to be some differences. First among them, of course, is that the new camera has 5-axis, in-body image stabilization, which is definitely going to create some differences. There also is a more robust magnesium alloy shell and lens mount, and perhaps (or perhaps not) improved weather resistance.
In an earlier post we were most impressed with how much better the new Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II resolved compared to the original version. I mentioned that we hadn't been able to get many copies and didn't have time to do any other comparisons right then, but that we would do more as soon as we could.
We still haven't received any of the other couple of dozen 400mm DO IS II lenses we've ordered, so the results are for the same pair as the original post. For all other lenses in this post we tested four copies and averaged the results. For the 300mm f/2.8 with 1.4X TC III test we used four lenses and four different converters. All tests are done using the same backlit film chart as the previous test, using a Canon 5D Mk III test camera.
400mm DO II vs. 300mm f/2.8 IS II
The first comparison we made was between the 400mm f/4 DO IS II and the 300mm f/2.8 IS II at their native focal lengths - 400mm and 300mm. I do want to point out that this puts testing distances at roughly 19 and 15 feet respectively. This is not ideal working distance for super telephoto lenses, so take these results with that tiny grain of salt.
We tested the 300mm lens at both f/2.8 and at f/4 to level the playing field a bit.
400mm f/4 DO II
300mm f/28 IS II f/2.8
300mm f/2.8 IS II f/4
These results are about what I expected, since we already knew that the 400 DO II is really excellent. Shot at its native f/4 it has a bit better resolution than the 300 f/2.8 does shot at f/2.8. Stop the 300mm lens down to f/4, though, and it's a bit sharper than the DO.
Could you notice these differences in a photograph? Probably if technique was equal and you pixel peep a bit. But these are all spectacular results. If you can't tell the difference between a 300mm f/2.8 shot at f/2.8 and at f/4 (most of us can comparing side-by-side shots), then you sure can't tell the difference between either one and the DO.
The question most people (and by most people, I mean me and a couple of others) wanted answered was how the 400 DO compares to the 300 f/2.8 with a 1.4 X teleconverter added. Other people wanted to know how it compares with the tried-and-true, bargain-priced Canon 400mm f/5.6 L, so we did those comparisons too.
Let's again point out that there are some differences in these tests. The 300mm f/2.8 with teleconverter is actually shooting at 420mm, so it gives a bit more reach. The 400mm f/5.6 is being compared one stop down compared to the other two, which are being shot at f/4, which gives it a bit of an optical advantage.
400mm f/4 DO II
300mm f/2.8 with 1.4X
400mm f/5.6 L
The results, again, are fairly triumphant for the DO. The DO version I, which I shot with frequently, definitely gave up some image quality compared to a 300 f/2.8 with teleconverter. Most of us who shot the DO were willing to do so because it weighed less, and the weight was distributed near to the mount making it easier to handhold. The version II 300 f/2.8 is much lighter than its predecessor, so the weight savings isn't quite as significant. However, it's clear that from a resolution standpoint at least, the 400 DO is slightly better than the 300 f/2.8 IS II with teleconverter.
Again, let's remember that with DO lenses, field tests in varied lighting conditions may well reveal other issues that a simple resolution test can't. But the resolution test certainly suggests that shooting the DO could give results at least as good, and perhaps a tiny bit better, than the 300 f/2.8 IS II with teleconverter.
The results with the 400mm f/5.6 weren't surprising to me at all. It has always been regarded as a very sharp lens. Given that it's shooting at a 1-stop narrower aperture, no one should be shocked that it can hang with the other two lenses in the center. The price is certainly far more attractive, although the narrower aperture and lack of image stabilization make it a very different lens than the other two.
Would I sell my 300 f/2.8 IS II and move to the 400 DO? I doubt it. But if I was considering the two for purchase and realized I was going to shoot at 400mm, I'd be leaning towards the DO. It's still easier to shoot handheld, the IS systems are now equal, and it doesn't appear to give up anything from a resolution standpoint.
Can I get equivalent shots with a 400 f/5.6? If the light and technique are good, I can certainly get very close, if not equal shots. But the other two lenses will get shots in a lot of conditions that the 400 f/5.6 could not shoot well in.
"He caused a lot of trouble over here, you know." A librarian at the Royal Aeronautical Society, when asked for references on Sydney Cotton.
It's been a while since I did a history article. I love writing about the true "characters" of photography, and to be honest, I hadn't stumbled across anyone that really interested me for a while. But while I was writing an article about the most decorated photoreconnaissance flight in history, I kept running across the name Sydney Cotton, who was considered the father of aerial reconnaissance. Continue reading →
A few months ago, before my hiatus from blogging, we did a series of articles showing the effect that a thick sensor stack (the glass above the sensor) had when we use adapted lenses designed for a thin sensor stack. The first one was mostly about theory, the second about when it was likely to actually be noticeable, and the third gave a general summary of when you might expect problems. All of that theory and prediction is good and useful.
The articles generated a fair amount of discussion about removing filter stacks on cameras so that they would perform better with legacy or film lenses designed for little or no sensor stack. In theory, that would make a big difference, but changing the stack has its own set of issues: focus is changed, infrared filtering can become inadequate, etc. Recently, though, our friends at Kolarivision, who had contributed a lot to our database on filter stack thickness, asked us to do some independent resolution testing for them.
They had modified some Sony a7R cameras, removing most of the thick sensor stack and replacing it with thinner Schott BG39 glass (I do not know the exact thickness of the replacement glass, but it is described as 'significantly thinner'). The replacement glass closely matched the original IR transmission, maintaining accurate colors, but, in theory at least, should improve resolution on wide-angle, wide-aperture, short-backfocus distance lenses. In other words, it should improve the performance of the a7R using wide-angle Leica and other M-mount lenses designed for film. Continue reading →
Canon shooters have a bit of 400mm excitement right now. The biggest news, of course, is the release of the 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II lens, replacing the original version that's had a very long, successful run. Not quite so much excitement was generated by the release of the 400mm f/4 DO IS II lens. It too replaces a long running lens, but one that has been considered more of a niche lens. (I'll admit, though, it's been one of my favorite niches. I used the 400 DO a lot over the years.)
Most surprisingly, neither lens was released at a huge price increase. The new DO II lists for $6900, compared to $6470 for the original version. The new 100-400 IS lists at $2200 compared to $1700 for the original. Both new versions promise several improvements to the older versions, but we were most interested in how good the optics might be. So, of course, we ran these through Imatest at 400mm the day they came in.
One thing I need everyone to be aware of: We tested these on the new, high-resolution film-transparency, backlit Imatest targets. These are particularly good for testing high-resolution telephoto lenses, but do give us higher resolution numbers than the larger, printed charts we use for more general testing. So, while you can compare the results of these four lenses today against each other, you can't compare them to some older Imatest numbers for, say, the 70-200 f/2.8 lens and draw any reasonable conclusions.
We're simply evaluating them today to see if the newer optics provide a higher resolution than the older ones. Of course, we expect them to, but it's still worth checking. The original versions of both lenses were pretty darn good.
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I just want to be clear, before we get started, this is not an NX-1 review. It's not even a complete optical test. It's simply me answering a single question: is this new Samsung worth further investigation from an optics/image quality standpoint?
Samsung's 28.2 megapixel, APS-C backlit sensor should capture more light with less noise, with a bit higher resolution than the 24 megapixel sensors in the competition. The hybrid AF system with striped illuminator should be quick and accurate. The short lag time 2.36 mpix OLED, low-lag-time EVF should be great. I know the built-in WiFi will actually be useful, because I've used lesser Samsung cameras in the past just for that feature.
All of those things are well and good. But none of them are even worth investigating until one simple question is answered: is this camera system (meaing camera and lenses) competitive with other APS-C cameras I can buy? Because I've sung the "Baby, I Love Your Sensor, but you Just Ain't Got No Optics Blues" to too many cameras already. Continue reading →
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It's time for our 5th annual Black Friday Sale! The sale begins at 8:30 AM CT on Wednesday. At our sister site, LensAuthority.com, we'll be giving you 10% off all used equipment. We'll also be having special deals throughout the sale, so keep your eyes peeled on the Special Deals section and be sure to follow LensAuthority on Facebook and Twitter to get announcements of any special deals during the sale period.
Over at Lensrentals.com, we're giving you are best discounts of the entire year! Place an order for any arrival date before April 1st, 2015, and get 25% off using the promo code BLACKFRIDAY. Been longing to try a certain lens? This is the perfect time to take it for a test drive (and don't forget about our Keeper program when you fall in love with it).
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