by Philip Greenspun; created 1995
It costs and weighs about as much as a good used car, yet fits neatly into its own special suitcase.
Fashion photographers are going for longer and longer lenses. The telephoto perspective flattens facial features, an allegedly flattering thing when your subject is an anorexic 17-year-old. An f/2.8 aperture at 300 or f/4 at 600 gives you a depth-of-field that extends perhaps from the tip of the model's nose to the back of her eyes. That will focus the viewer's attention on the model's face.
So if you want to be taken seriously as a 35mm fashion photographer, you have to have at least a 300/2.8. Note the petulant yuppie at right with his Nikon 600/4. He is so far from the model, though, that he has to use a radio to communicate with her. Also, he has flown all the way down to South Beach (Miami Beach, Florida) for this shot, but the 600/4 means the background will be unparseable. He could have gotten the same image in a NY studio.
Note that none of the most famous fashion images were taken with lenses like this. For one thing, most of them were done with medium and large format cameras. Richard Avedon, for example, favors an 8x10 view camera. He'd need a 2000mm lens on an 8x10 to get the same perspective afforded by a 300 on a Nikon. Such lenses do not exist. It is possible to buy reasonably long lenses for Hasselblads and Rolleis, but they aren't fast and they don't handle very well. The standard 6x6cm fashion lens is the 150, which is equivalent to about a 90mm lens on a 35mm camera.
Important details about photo at right: yuppie Reef Runner shoes on photographer, assistant holding reflector to fill harsh shadows on model, Gitzo tripod (of course), annoyed expression on face of photographer (I'd shown up about 15 seconds before with a Rollei 6008, 50mm lens, and Velvia). The photos below are snapshots I took on my way to Alaska when I happened to have an 8008/300 combo handy on the back seat of my car.
You'd think a $4000 telephoto lens would be perfect for wildlife. Well, it is. So long as the wildlife is in a zoo. If your subject is a pair of 900 lb. bears as in the top photo, then a 300 is fine. In that case, I was about 10 meters from the bears. However, if you are going after smaller animals then you'll need a teleconverter and/or a 600/4. The 600 is the minimum starting point for serious bird photography. Birds are small. The image at left was taken with the bird about 3 meters away (in a zoo aviary).
Pelicans are big birds. Nonetheless, for this image at right I think I had to use a Tamron 2X teleconverter (at one point I even added the Tamron 1.4X also). Contrast consequently suffers. Of course, one loses 1 stop of light with a 1.4X converter, 2 stops with a 2X (so the 300/2.8 becomes a 420/4 or 600/5.6). Location: Yellowstone National Park.
The 300/2.8 has internal focus ("IF" in Nikon nomenclature). That means the camera is only driving a lightweight internal optical element and not the whole barrel full of glass back and forth. This makes for much faster autofocus, probably adequate for many uses with the N90s. Personally, I only ever used the 300/2.8 with a 6006, 8008 or F4 and the single central AF sensor on those cameras made AF useless for me.
You can't screw filters onto the front of a 300/2.8. Well, maybe you can but you will go bankrupt buying them. There is a little filter drawer towards the back that takes 39mm filters. If you leave this drawer empty as opposed to containing the special clear filter that comes with the lens, then I think you get a strange line on your images.
What you can/should screw to the front is the lens hood. I think the Nikon 300/2.8 is actually reasonably flare-proof. The reason to use the hood is that (1) it is light, (2) it can't hurt image quality, (3) it helps protect the lens, (4) it is huge enough to inspire awe.
I saw a lot of wildlife photographers in Katmai National Park using little drawstring condoms on the front of their 300/2.8 sunshades rather than putting the contraption in a hard case.
Should you scratch the front of the lens, rest assured that this is a relatively cheap element and Nikon will replace it for you, maybe for around $300.
I've knocked my 300/2.8 a few times and it seems to be holding up fine. It is not a fragile product.
You're looking at about $4000 including the suitcase. Used, maybe $3000. If you're really poor, the traditional pro alternative is a used Tamron 300/2.8 for about $2000. Console yourself that you don't have to shell out $6000-8000 for a 600/4.
If you have a Nikon N90s or F4 body, you'll want the AF-I version which has a built-in motor and lets you do the simultaneous AF/MF trick that makes Canon EOS USM lenses so pleasant.
Text and pictures copyright 1991-1995 Philip Greenspun