Nikon has announced a firmware update for its new AF-S NIKKOR 300mm f/4E PF ED VR, to fix an issue where at certain shutter speeds on D800-series cameras, images can exhibit 'noticeable blur'. According to Nikon, the problem can occur at around 1/125sec with the lens's VR function enabled in either 'Normal' or 'Sport' modes. Users of affected units (those with serial numbers lower than 205101) are encouraged to return their lenses to Nikon where the update will be applied free of charge. 

We are very curious about this news, since in our testing (see below) we have found this issue with several of Nikon's VR-equipped lenses, not just the new 300mm F4. And it's not only Nikon - preliminary tests of Canon's new 50MP EOS 5DS cameras also show issues at certain shutter speeds when using lenses with optical image stabilization without any sort of Mirror Up pre-delay. It is unclear whether this particular problem is unique in some way to the 300mm F4 VR, but we're speaking to Nikon and will update this story with more information as and when we receive it.

Have a look below at our tests with the Nikon D810 and a 70-200 F4 VR lens shot at 1/80s, hand-held, with a few different shooting modes:

VR On | S | (Worst of 10)VR On | S | (Best of 10)
VR On | EFC | (all shots equivalent)VR Off | S | (Best of 10)
VR Off | EFC | (Best of 10) | Sharpest

Abbreviations in table: S = Single Shot drive mode | EFC = electronic front curtain in Mirror Up drive mode

There appears to be some sort of interaction between vibration reduction (VR) and the mirror/shutter actuation, as VR On with the electronic front curtain* yields sharper images than VR On in Single Shot mode, where there is no delay between the mirror and shutter actuation and the beginning of the exposure. Furthermore, VR Off in either drive modes (Single Shot, or Mirror Up with electronic front curtain) can yield sharper results than any of the VR On shots, although 80% or so of your shots will be blurred from hand-holding shake. Still, the fact that the best you can get with VR On, in either drive mode, is worse than the best you can get with VR off is interesting. Note that for each permutation, we shot 10 to rule out outliers and pick the best or worst of the series, as indicated above.

What does this mean for real-world shooting? The most important take-away here is that the mirror and shutter-induced shake can blur your images, and electronic front curtain helps reduce these deleterious effects. These effects are not unique to Nikon; we've seen these effects in a Sony a7R as well as Canon's newest 5DS cameras to varying degrees. It behooves camera manufacturers, then, to look into these deleterious interactions, which clearly exist since you can get better results with VR set to 'off', as we've shown above. 

The easiest, and arguably best solution, though, is somewhat simpler: make the electronic front curtain more usable. Our sharpest shots above utilized an electronic front curtain, which on the D810 requires you to switch to Mirror Up drive mode. The first button press flips up the mirror and shutter, and the second button press initiates the shutter. Two button presses is an odd way of shooting; furthermore, the second button press might shake the camera, so an exposure delay is additionally useful. But that makes this manner of shooting even more impractical: the first button press lifts up the mirror and shutter, the second button press then initiates an exposure delay, and then the exposure is taken a whole second later (which is the shortest available exposure delay).

With a 200mm lens, by this point - two button presses and more than a second later - your framing has totally changed.

Much smarter in our opinion would be to allow electronic front curtain in all drive modes, and pair it with user-selectable short delays (on the order of 1/2 to 1/10s or so, as vibrations do die out quickly). The first button press would lift up the mirror and shutter, and the exposure would automatically be initiated by the camera after a short, pre-selected delay that is just long enough to have let movement die down from the button press and the mechanical actuations.* 

For more details about how to return your lens to Nikon, click here.

Nikon Official Statement:

We have confirmed that when the AF-S NIKKOR 300mm f/4E PF ED VR lens is used with the D800, D800E, D810 or D810A, images captured at shutter speeds of around 1/125 s with the VR function enabled (NORMAL or SPORT) sometimes exhibit noticeable blur.

To address the occurrence of this, we are offering a service for updating your AF-S NIKKOR 300mm f/4E PF ED VR firmware.

When cameras other than the D800, D800E, D810, or D810A are used, this firmware update is not needed.

Users of the D800, D800E, D810, or D810A who are concerned about this issue may take or send their lens to a Nikon authorized service center, where your lens firmware will be updated free of charge.

When sending your AF-S Nikkor 300mm f/4 E PF ED VR lens to a Nikon authorized service center, the user must pay the cost of shipping to the service center, and Nikon will pay for return shipping.

Firmware for lenses with a serial number of 205101 or later has already been updated.

*Funny enough, Canon offers this sort of 'pre-delay' in the 5DS, but they don't pair it with an electronic curtain. It's like each manufacturer got half the implementation correct, but didn't go all the way to ensure sharp images.