ABOVE - The Nikon AF-S (Silen Wave Motor) 300mm f/2.8 Telephoto Lens - Generation II - the lightest 300mm f/2.8 Nikon has ever made and arguably one of the best. The newer VR (vibration reduction) G-N (Gelded, Nano-Coating) models are a little sharper due to a reduction of chromatic and flare issues with the Nano Coating tech - but they are heavier and are 20-30% slower to focus even though they are Silent Wave Motor lenses. The VR tech is the reason for the added weight and slower focus.
A little history - this is the lens category that almost put Nikon out of business in the late 1980's; the Auto-focus Super-Telephoto lens. Until the invention of auto focus cameras and lenses, Nikon had enjoyed the reputation as "the professional's camera". From the Associated Press to professionals around the world, the KING of the market for 35mm professional photography (digital was still nearly 15 years away) was Nikon bodies and Nikkor lenses.
The first Nikon auto-focus lenses hit the market in 1986. The first Nikon professional digital camera - the D1 - was released in 1999. A lot changed for Nikon and its market share between those two events.
Canon (it should be noted) was considered a consumer-level camera. Canon was known for consumer cameras and lenses and Nikon was the more expensive professional's choice. When Canon introduced a line of professional auto-focus lenses in the late 1980's which were technically far superior to Nikon's lenses at the time - everything changed. Canon quickly gained market share in the professional photography realm. Because Canon had ALWAYS catered to non-professionals and Nikon had not really spent too much effort competing in the consumer/pro-am markets; they found themselves playing catch-up.
The benchmark for pro camera systems has typically revolved around the speed/function of the body and the focus speed/quality of super-telephoto lenses (300-600mm). Nikon's early AF lenses had motors driven by a small gear shaft that would connect between the camera body and the lens. These drives are noisy and pretty slow.
Canon AF lenses have always been internally focused - and thus much faster. The AF-S Nikon lenses are chip driven and do not require the camera body to drive their focus motor. For this reason there are many older Nikon AF lenses which will NOT work with newer digital bodies - the reason is that these newer, smaller bodied cameras lack the internal motor drive to focus the lens.
With the release of the AF-S lenses in 1998 - internally focused - fast auto-focus lenses with Nikon's long-established optical superiority hit the market slowing Canon's gain in the high-end lens market.
ABOVE - The Nikon (Nikkor) AF 300mm f/2.8D ED-IF - Heavy and slow - but extremely clear and robust - the first true AF super telephotos were capable of beautiful photos - but lacked the ability to track and focus quickly. They were very heavy and very noisy.
ED = Extra-Low Dispersion Glass - a 1960's optical innovation by Nikon - ED glass helps eliminate secondary chromatic aberration (green-magenta color fringes) which is what previously prevented the design of practical super speed, super sharp super telephoto lenses.
IF = Internal Focus - IF lenses focus closer and faster than conventional telephoto lenses. IF was a fantastic innovation for telephoto lenses when Nikon invented it in the 1970s for the manual-focus super telephoto lenses. It helps AF lenses focus quickly because there is less glass to have to move around.
AF-S = Silent Wave Motor - AF-S NIKKOR lenses feature Nikon’s Silent Wave Motor, which represents a significant advance in AF lens technology. It is an electronic focus engine - as opposed to a servo actuated one - and it is self-contained inside the lens. Faster and virtually silent - it is the best focus system Nikon has ever produced and is the main focus system for the most current Nikon lenses.
ABOVE - The Servo Motor Drive Gear on a Nikon F5 Camera Body - 2nd Photo - The Servo Motor Drive Socket on a Nikkor AF-D Lens.
BELOW - The Nikon AF-S 300mm f/2.8 IF-ED Mark II - The lightest version of the AF 300mm f/2.8 that Nikon has produced. It features a carbon fiber hood which helps reduce weight. This is my favorite version of this lens - it is also the fastest focusing version of this lens - 20-30% faster than the AF-S VR and AF-S VR-II models. This lens is mounted on my old Nikon D1X camera body - if you look through the photos you'll see how far away from the subject I was shooting and you'll see how well this lens performs in crushing DOF and producing an ultra-sharp image.
BELOW - A chart of the different AF 300mm f/2.8 lenses Nikon has made.
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS LENS -
Sincerely - pretty much everything. I've shot with/owned 3 versions of this lens - the AF-I, AF-S, and AF-S II. It is my go-to lens for outdoor portraits when I really want to crush depth of field. It's for sure my go-to for sports and wildlife.
THE TRUTH ABOUT WEIGHT AND SIZE -
I can shoot with it hand-held - especially the AF-S II - which is nearly 1.5lbs lighter than the AF-I was. It is smaller than any other super-telephoto lens - and significantly lighter. Nikon makes a shorter but heavier and wider 200mm f/2.0 - which is far more expensive and has fewer applications - it is basically a hard-core portrait lens - 200mm isn't usually long enough for sports and wildlife.
The Nikon 400mm f/2.8 is nearly 8 inches longer and almost twice as heavy. And let's not forget that it is $12,000 brand new - making it MORE than twice as expensive as the 300 f/2.8.
If used with a monopod this lens is easy to manage and can produce some stunning photos. Outdoors in daylight I have no issues hand-holding this lens with great success as with the Hummingbird photo below.
ABOVE AND BELOW - Examples of photos shot hand-held with the 300mm f/2.8 AF-S II.
Being able to open the lens up to f/2.8 gives you outstanding control of DOF and selective focus in your compositions. It also allows you to set your ISO and shutter speeds fast enough to produce crystal clear - vivid images with great exposure from dark to light.
ABOVE - another hand-held shot - none of the 300mm f/2.8 lenses I've owned have VR technology - Vibration Reduction - which helps steady the image due to the tendency of ultra-long lenses showing blur from shake. This is far more common in the 500, 600, and 800mm lenses due to their smaller maximum apertures (f/4, f/5.6).
THE TRUTH ABOUT VR TECH AND THE NIKON 300mm f/2.8 LENS -
It is unnecessary. The lens has a short enough focal length and fast enough aperture that vibration reduction isn't needed.
THE HAND-HELD RULE OF PHOTOGRAPHY - states that as long as your shutter speed is greater than the focal length of the lens - lens shake will not be an issue. I shot the rodeo image below using a monopod and shutter speed of 1/500th sec - VR only slows these lenses down and makes them heavier.
IN CONCLUSION - If you only ever own a single super telephoto lens in your life - the 300mm f/2.8 is the one to get. It's light enough and small enough to be manageable - and it won't break the bank. I own two - my original AF-I and my newest AF-S II. I paid around $3,400 for the AF-S II and I purchased the AF-I for right at $2,000 - and it has a full set of filters, the hard case, etc...
You can purchase used AF-S and AF-S II lenses for half of what a new AF-S VR or VR II costs. Unless you want bragging rights that you've got the "latest" - and the VR II is equipped with the same Nano Coated lenses which reduce flare and light distortion - so it should be a better lens in regards to dealing with issues from light sources - I say look for a good condition AF-S or AF-S II model.
And then get you a monopod if you don't have one - and go shoot photos of anything and everything you feel inspired to - this lens will open new creative horizons for you. It'll be the one lens you'll never regret having forked over a small fortune to own.
ABOVE - The 300mm f/2.8 makes a fine portrait lens when used outdoors where you can get some distance from your subjects. Shot on a monopod during "Magic Hour" - the time just after the sun sets when the light has a dreamy - warm and soft quality to it.
ABOVE - "Pirate" - my neighbor's Aussie Sheep Dog - hand-held during magic hour.