55-200mm f/3.5 – 5.6, 55-300 f/3.5 – 5.6, Tamron 70-300 f/4 - 5.6 USM
The humble 55-200mm VR - sharpest Nikon tele-zoom under $1,000
I know it’s a big call but I mean it. This lens must’ve made third party lens makers weep when it was introduced 5 years ago at about $250. Yes, it’s that good. It won the TIPA 2007 Award for best entry level lens, it was American Photo Editors Choice 2007 and Best Buy. Ken Rockwell put it on his list of Nikon's dream team lenses, and photoreview.com gave it an editor's choice distinction.
'You can pay more,' KR says, 'but all you're getting will be tougher build quality, more weight, the need for bigger filters, instant manual-focus override, and lose the ability to zoom as short as 55mm.' That about sums it up.
Nikon actually improved the build quality compared with the earlier version of this lens. This one has a single inner lens tube. The ‘G’ means it has no dedicated aperture ring, and the IF stands for Internal Focusing which means the lens barrel doesn’t stretch or rotate during focusing. The build quality of this lens is better than its plastic looks and light weight suggest – my lens shows few signs of wear despite frequent use over 3 years.
The lens isn’t big, and it isn’t heavy. It weighs just 335g and the size is 100 x 74mm, and takes 52mm filters. It easily slips into a small camera bag or bum bag or pouch or backpack or a handbag even. That makes it an ideal travel or hiking lens. Because of its modest weight, the lens balances well on the smaller Nikon bodies from the D40 to the D5100.
Two switches on the barrel let you choose AF and VR or not. Vibration reduction on this lens is not VRII (red letters mean I, gold letters II) but it works well enough. This is not a great lens for manual focus work since the focus ring covers too big a range in a short turn. In AF mode, there are no complaints.
The zoom ring is weighted just right, and the autofocus motor is fast and sure in all but the worst light. It’s fast enough for shooting kids, pets and sports in action in bright to modest light (with help from the VR). The f/4-5.6 limitation is common for zoom lenses even up at the next level. To get down to f/2.8, you’re generally looking at close to $1,000 and the kind of heft that makes hiring a Sherpa a desirable proposition.
I like the way the chick looks at its mother, thinking: she wants me to eat junk food already? Apart from being razor-sharp, this lens can freeze action as well. Please click on the images to see a larger file.
An unexpected bonus is that this lens will also do duty for portraits or shots of flowers and small things - the bokeh is pretty creamy even at f/5.6. So we can add versatility to this lens’s credentials.
This is a great walk-about, kick-around, throw it in the backpack medium tele-zoom lens when you don’t want to carry heavy gear. The best part is that you can still pick new copies for around $150 - $175, even though Nikon stopped making this lens a year ago or more.
The Tamron is the best 70-300mm tele-zoom $500 can buy.
The write-ups for Tamron’s 60-year anniversary lens range from glowing to incandescant, and that’s how I ended up choosing this one. Nikonians said ‘The Tamron SP 70-300 f4.-5.6 Di VC USD is an extremely impressive optic and, at a going street rate of under US $500, brings a great set of capabilities and image quality, all in a light and well-built package.’ http://blog.nikonians.org/archives/2010/10/tamron_sp70300.html
‘This new telephoto optic from Tamron has proven itself to be very capable indeed,’ says Gary Wolstenholme. 'It is capable of producing images with very good resolution across the image area at all focal lengths and optical aberrations such as colour fringing and distortions are kept well within acceptable thresholds. The Ultrasonic Drive makes the focusing speed more sprightly than can be found on other Tamron lenses and the vibration correction system was effective during testing.' http://www.ephotozine.com/article/Tamron-SP70300mm-f456-Di-VC-USD-14690
SP is Tamron speak for ‘high performance spec’ but the lens is clearly designed to a price point. It’s a hefty lump which looks and feels well-built despite the plastic on the outside. Tamron’s ribbing is a bit excessive and will be hard to keep clean, but the material is decent and all the moving bits have a quality feel to them. On the inside there are 17 elements in 12 groups, including an LD (Low Dispersion) and an XLD (Extra Low Dispersion) optical element to prevent chromatic aberration (the so-called purple fringing effect).
In the past, Tamron’s in-built AF motors for Nikon bodies tended to be clunky affairs. For this lens, Tamron decided to get serious and fit a new Ultrasonic Silent Drive (USD) mechanism. It’s a coreless ring motor like Nikon’s Silent Wave motor. VC (Vibration Compensation) is another feature of this lens, and Tamron claims that it adds four stops for hand-held shooting, allowing you to shoot at much smaller apertures/slower speeds in poor light, or at lower ISO settings.
The size of the lens was a bit of a shock: Fully extended with lens hood on, it’s almost a foot long. Without the hood and zoom extension, it’s just on 6 inches or 14.5 cm. The worst part is that it’s 3 inches/80cm in diameter, which makes it hard to get even my long fingers around. The weight is 765g. To put things in perspective, Nikon’s 70=300mm is just about the same size and weight. The Tamron is a little cheaper and a little faster at f/4. Like The Nikon, this Tamron is an FX lens, which means it’ll work on a D700 or D800 too.
The fat diameter of the lens makes handling it a challenge, and it pays to make sure you get a good grip on it. The lens doesn’t look or feel comfortable on the little D5100, and I suspect it won’t be that much better on a D90/D7000. The lens hood is an exaggerated affair, so much so that turning it back over the lens obscures both the zoom and focus rings. Regardless of the body you screw it onto, you’ll look like an amateur paparazzi.
The lens diameter is 62mm so filters and hoods and caps are not too hard on the pocket. The zoom ring and focus rings have firm actions and there’s no lens creep at any angle. There is a distance scale for manual focusing but no aperture ring. Just like Nikon G lenses.
The lens works well, with no obvious flaws. Zooming in and out is even across the long zoom range, the amount of rotation needed is just right and the firmness of the zoom ring is constant. The new USD mechanism pretty well does what it says on the box and provides fast, silent and accurate focusing. Very fast, actually. Like most systems, the AF is less accurate in poor light.
There are a couple of switches on the lens, one for AF or MF, and you have to throw the switch before you can focus manually. The other switch turns VC on and off. Why do you want it off? The VC mechanism (not just Tamron’s) can compromise ultimate image quality so you’d want to turn it off when you’re shooting from a tripod or at over 1/500 – both situations where you don’t need it. You do see VC at work sometimes in this lens – the image seems to shake in the viewfinder – but it works well.
I tested this lens by taking lots of shots walking about, often early or late in the day, and the ratio of sharp shots isn’t as high as I expected. The AF struggles in these conditions and you’ll find the limitations of the VC as well, especially when you combine high speeds and long distances with less than optimal light. The Tamron is no worse than other lenses though.
When you help things along and use a prop or a steady shooting position, tack sharp photos are easier to produce. And the lens can freeze action nicely as the shot above shows. The best thing is that the fall-off in sharpness you inevitably see at the long end of tele-lenses is not a real issue with this lens.
I'm not dreaming of becoming a wedding photographer - it just so happens that I live near the rotunda at Balmoral, which is a popular spot for weddings. It's also a tough spot for cameras, with its extremes of light and shade on a sunny day. That's why I like using it for testing lenses.
The colours look a bit like the vibrancy was enhanced by editing but it wasn't - this is exactly what the light and the scene on that very sunny afternoon produced. Colour reproduction is accurate with this lens except in the bright early morning sun, where objects can take on a strange golden glow at times.
There are no obvious problems with flaring in bright light though (highlight blow-outs), or distortion (lines that aren’t straight), vignetting (light fall-off near corners and edges) or chromatic aberration (fringing or halo effects). The lens’s bokeh is pretty decent, even if it makes no claims for macro ability of any kind.
The real world
I really like this lens for its performance, IQ and value, but it’s not a practical size for my purposes. And you look like a dork flashing this huge thing wherever you go. Great for wedding shooters, maybe wildlife shooters and sports shooters too. Just not for casual walkabout shooters like me.
AF-S Nikkor 55-300mm F/4.5-5.6 G ED - right on the money
I sold the Tamron and settled for this lens in the end. It came on the market at $400, which didn’t make it great value, but it soon came down to $300 on the street. That made me take notice since no other 55 or 70-300mm tele-zoom with VR sells for anywhere near $300. And no other 55/70-300mm tele-zoom with VR is this compact.
Build quality is pretty decent, only the lens diameter is a stupid 58mm. Size is a modest 76.5 x 123mm and weight is just over 500g. Inside there are 17 elements in 11 groups, including 2 ED glass elements and one HRI element. The 9 blades produce lovely bokeh, it turns out. The hood has a new clip-on arrangement, which feels pretty cheap but works OK.
Compared with the Tamron, the autofocus is slower and the images are a tad less sharp and the colours less punchy. The size is right, though, and the weight: this is a lens that won't make you look like a show-off, and that won't weigh you down. And because it doesn't cost that much, you can even take it to the beach without worrying.
The only serious drawback is the AF which is slow for shooting sports, kids and fast action. Leisurely, in fact. Also, focusing isn't internal, so the length of the lens changes and the filter thread rotates when focusing. There is no full-time manual focus override either, so there are a few trade-offs for the smaller size and price. The VR works well, on the other hand, and sharpness is good up to 240mm. Beyond that it drops off a little.
A pro wouldn’t buy a lens like this, a cheap plastic $300 item that isn’t quite in the rank of the serious tools they like to flash at newly-weds. I just hope the pro here got photos that are as lovely as these taken from a distance. It helps to have a pretty bride, and very pretty bridesmaids, and I thank them for posing so nicely.
I wasn’t expecting too much of this lens after reading the mixed reviews that are out on this new Nikon instrument. It’s as though the majority of the usual sites decided it was a yawn long before it was time to call it a night. You know, another obvious cheap plastic lens from Nikon, so what? They churn them out like other companies produce plastic toys, and yes it’s made in China – heaven forbid.
Just hold the phone a moment. This lens may be plastic but it’s about as sharp as it gets and the colours are true.
Nikon has a history of making cheap lenses
with superb optics, the 55-200 this lens replaces is proof of that. I’ve set up
an image gallery for the 55-300 with a few larger photos - look in the right
hand-column under pages and you'll see the 55-300 page there. Please click on
the images in the gallery, and those in this review, to see larger files.
This lens is designed for cropped sensor DX cameras. Here’s the short list:
- 123mm in length, and 76.5mm in diameter
- Weight is 580g
- Filter size is 58mm
- 1 HRI (High Refractive Index) Lens Element
- 2 Extra-low Dispersion (ED) Elements
- Super Integrated Coating (SIC)
- Nikon Silent Wave Motor (SWM)
- VR II image stabilization, which Nikon claims allows ‘handheld shooting at up to 4 shutter speeds slower than would otherwise be possible.’
- Tripod Detection Mode
- Minimum focus distance to 4.6 feet
- Rounded 9-Blade Diaphragm
Build quality is better than expected. This is quite a solid lens, much heavier than the one it replaces and about 3 cm longer. It even has a metal mount. The matt plastic finish doesn’t look or feel tacky, and the focus and zoom rings move with gentle resistance. Unlike many recent consumer lenses, the focus ring is up front and the zoom ring behind it. You really can't complain about the build quality at the price point of this lens.
The size of this lens is just on the right side of practical for travelling/walking about. Its bigger brother, the 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G VR, is definitely on the wrong side. 20 extra mm in length, 5 more in diameter and 200 grams more heft make for an unwieldy instrument. This lens is easier to pick up and carry, and it fits into normal size slots in bags. Still, it would be perhaps be more at home on a D90/7000 than the D3000 it’s pictured on here.
Two pretty flimsy switches control AF/MF and VR. There are no normal and active VR settings. You can’t use the focus ring when the switch is set to AF, which won’t worry most weekend shooters but an override option would be nice. The extension lens barrel and focus ring move during autofocus since this is not an IF lens. Otherwise, the lens handles well and its weight and size make it easy to keep it steady on a reasonable-size body.
The first thing you notice is how smooth and silent the AF is. Its operation is carpet-slipper soft. The next thing you notice is how slow it is. I suspect it feels slower than it is because of that soft action, and the good news is that it works at the same speed in poor light. It’s fine in most circumstances but, if you’re a mad sports action shooter, you might need to look at a different lens.
The second reason why action shooters might look elsewhere is that the fastest aperture is f/4.5. Yes, lens speed is no longer so crucial with current DSLRs offering dizzy ISO settings, but you get better quality photos at lower ISOs. No problems shooting the kids’ soccer game on a bright summer Saturday, though. Except for the slow AF.
Photos are pretty sharp most of the time, so clearly the VR is highly effective and AF is accurate. That means more keepers. Overall, IQ is good for the money: colours are pretty accurate, but skin tones aren’t perfect – a bit orangey on the wedding shots where the sun caught the faces – but this lens is not alone with that problem. Colours are superb in the shade, and the lens is good for flowers and portraits where it delivers a decent bokeh.
If you can get this lens for a decent price as part of a camera kit, or when the price comes down to below $400 once the initial sales drop off, this is a pretty good option. The things I liked most were its good optics, effective VR and its size and weight, both on the right side of unwieldy. The slow AF is a grumble but only if you shoot a lot of fast-moving action, but there are no consumer 55-300s with VR that aren't compromised in some way.
Test Image Gallery
Under Pages in the margin on the right - Nikon 55-300mm VR. Click on the images for a larger version.