Diving into the more specialist world of 300mm lenses may initially seem like a strange proposition, but these high-end primes have many advantages. There’s also the case that there are many telephoto zoom lenses which either stretch up to 300mm or include it in their focal range, such as the Tamron AF 70-300mm f/4.0-5.6 Di LD Macro zoom lens.
There are definitely high-quality telephoto zoom lens out there, but what a 300mm prime lens can provide above the rest is sumptuous image quality. I realized this point many years ago when I was in the mindset at the time that zoom lenses rule as they are the most versatile. However, a friend of mine who shot predominantly motor sports only shot with prime lenses – the 300m, 400mm and 600mm and the image quality couldn’t be faulted.
Once you’ve seen the optical advantages of a prime lens, there’s no going back. Therefore, let’s have a closer look at the best 300mm lenses, which are all pricey propositions, but also deliver the best images.
1. Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 300mm f/4E PF ED VR (Overall Winner)
The Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 300mm f/4E PF ED VR packs loads of high-end optics to deliver the best possible images in the best 300mm lenses category. It features one Phase Fresnel and one extra-low dispersion element for reducing lens anomalies such as chromatic aberration. A Nano Crystal, Super Integrated and Fluorine coating reduces reflections and other anomalies such as lens flare and ghosting.
The vibration reduction system provides 4.5 stops of compensation, along with a ‘Sport Mode’ and ‘Tripod Mode’ for optimizing the system for each scenario. The Silent Wave Motor handles autofocusing duties with also manual focus override and a specialized electromagnetic aperture mechanism for better exposure control with continuous shooting.
Weighing in at a reasonable 755g, the image quality is outstanding and the build quality is exactly what you need for regular outdoor events. With a cost of roughly $1,600, this lens may seem expensive, but the image quality justifies the price and the lens seems very cost-effective when measured up to the very expensive Nikon 400mm.
If you need to step up the light gathering capabilities of a 300mm lens on the Nikon platform, then the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 300mm f/2.8G ED VR II is the way to go. A larger aperture of f/2.8 means this lens is better in lower light and can produce far superior bokeh than the f/4 version, but it’s also a whole lot heavier at 2900g. Once you get into this weight class, the included tripod mount becomes a necessity.
As for the optics, inside this lens are three extra-low dispersion elements, Nano Crystal and Super Integrated Coatings, plus a VR II (Vibration Reduction) system and the very efficient Silent Wave Motor for autofocusing. A nine-blade rounded diaphragm provides the highest quality of bokeh while the lens itself can be used with the optional AF-STC-14, TC-17, and TC-20 teleconverters to provide even more reach.
This is an extremely sharp lens, which is lightning fast to use for sports, wildlife and event photography.
For the Canon users out there, a staple choice prime lens at 300mm is the Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM. Just like the other f/2.8 lenses on this list, this is a heavyweight offering coming in at 2,400g and needs either the included tripod collar or some beefy biceps to keep this lens upright all day long.
It boasts an image stabilization system with four stops of compensation and three designated modes (standard single-shot, panning-optimized, and during exposure modes). Inside the lens are two fluorite elements, with a Sub Wavelength coating, plus the fast and efficient ring-type Ultrasonic Motor (USM). The lens also features a Focus Preset function to call up previously programmed focusing points and a Focus Limiter switch to constrain the focusing to three different ranges.
The build quality features the usual L-series specs, made with magnesium alloy and titanium and completely weatherproofed. Image quality is exceptionally well-defined, with a good degree of contrast and color saturation. This lens is an expensive proposition, but will also never let you down in the field. As a more cost effective version, you could try the Canon EF 300mm f/4L IS USM.
It usually follows that a f/4 lens is comparatively cheaper than the f/2.8 counterpart, but that doesn’t mean it skimps on quality. This is the case with the Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 300mm f/4 IS Pro, designed for Micro Four Thirds cameras and works out to be an equivalent of a huge 600mm.
This lens is heavier than the other f/4 offerings at 1475g, but it also features three Super ED (extra-low dispersion), three high refractive index, and one E-HR element to reduce lens anomalies. A Z Nano coating is also in place to reduce ghosting and lens flare, while also increasing color and contrast.
An image stabilization system has also been incorporated, along with a Manual focus clutch for quicker manual focusing duties. The lens also has a Programmable L-Fn (lens function) button for accessing certain settings.
The Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 300mm f/4 IS Pro is a fully weatherproofed lens which provides fantastic sharpness and clarity, while also being cost-effective.
We had to throw in something a bit left-field in this list, so we’ve included the Hasselblad HC 300mm f/4.5. A specialist lens for the Hasselblad formats, it provides a 13 degree angle of view, with a secure locking mount, and a locked focal position at infinity. Inside the lens are nine elements arranged in seven groups, with a basic external design that is fully weatherproofed.
This lens provides excellent image quality and sharpness, and although you’re not going to get much change from $6000, considering this is a Hasselblad lens, the cost is respectable.
6. Rokinon Reflex 300mm f/6.3 ED UMC CS (Budget Winner)
While Sony has the very capable 300mm f/2.8 G SSM II, the Rokinon Reflex 300mm f/6.3 ED UMC CS is a good budget option available for Canon, Fuji, and Nikon mounts.
The idea behind a reflex or mirror lens is that it uses internal mirrors, along the lines of a telescope, to reach long focal lengths, while keeping a compact size. This idea has been around for many years, which can produce some weird and charming bokeh effects, but is not necessarily the greatest when it comes to high-end image quality.
What this lens does deliver is respectable image quality in a very compact size, at a very affordable price point. Considering the cost of a full-blown 300mm lens, the Rokinon is a steal at just a few hundred dollars and it’s quite amazing that it can cram the 300mm focal length into such a small package.
Picking the Best 300mm Lenses
Buying into a 300mm prime lens is going to be a sizable investment, but if you have a regular application for this focal length, then they are worth the asking price. Some zoom lenses can cover the same ground, but none will produce the same depth of image quality you can get from a prime lens.
Due to their cost, it’s advisable to borrow or rent one of these lenses before you lay down any cash. However, once you’ve tried one out in the field, you’ll be very reluctant to return the thing straightaway.