AF-S DX NIKKOR 18-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR Lens


    Photo Review 8.3
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    AF-S DX NIKKOR 18-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR Lens

      In summary

      Buy this lens if:
       - You want the longest available 'convenience' zoom lens for a Nikon DSLR.
       - You want effective built-in image stabilisation.
       - You want fast and quiet autofocusing.

      Don’t buy this lens:
       - If you mainly use FX bodies.
       - You require resolution that matches a high-resolution sensor.
       - For macro photography and extreme close-ups.

      Full review

      Nikon's widest-range zoom lens, the AF-S DX Nikkor 18-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR, was released in June, 2012 to cater for photographers who want an 'all-in-one' lens for travel and general photography. Suitable for DX cameras only, it covers a huge 16.7x zoom ratio and boasts second-generation VR II (vibration reduction) stabilisation technology and supports both the Active (for shooting from a moving platform) and Normal VR settings, with a claimed camera shake compensation of approximately four f-stops.

      Side view of the AF-S DX Nikkor 18-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR lens. (Source: Nikon.)

      Potential purchasers should be aware of the limitations associated with super-zoom lenses. It is impossible to design lenses that will range from wide angle to telephoto and keep them small, light and relatively fast. Consequently, this lens is large, heavy and relatively slow across its zoom range.

      Like most of Nikon's consumer lenses, it is made in Thailand. The optical design consists of 19 elements in 14 groups, including three aspherical and three ED (extra-low dispersion) elements to minimise common aberrations. The iris diaphragm has nine blades and closes to a circular aperture to optimise bokeh at wide aperture settings.
       

      The above diagram shows the structure of theAF-S DX Nikkor 18-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR lens and the positions of the exotic elements. (Source: Nikon.)

      Internal focusing means the front element doesn't rotate during focusing or zooming. The AF drive uses an ultrasonic Silent Wave Motor to ensure relatively fast and generally quiet autofocusing. It also supports manual over-ride in autofocus mode.

      This lens is a variable-aperture lens, with maximum and minimum apertures that change as you adjust the focal length. Only six focal length settings are marked on the lens barrel. The table below shows the  maximum and minimum apertures for each of them.

      Focal length

      Max. aperture

      Min. aperture

      18mm

      f/3.5

      f/22

      28mm

      f/4

      f/29

      50mm

      f/5.3

      f/32

      105mm

      f/5.6

      f/32

      200mm

      f/5.6

      f/32

      300mm

      f/5.6

      f/32

      Build and Ergonomics
      Because this is a large and relatively heavy lens, it feels slightly unbalanced on lighter Nikon DSLR bodies, including the D5200 we used for our tests. It also extends quite a way in front of the camera, even at the 18mm position, where it measures 120 mm. Zooming in to 300mm extends the inner barrels a further 88 mm and adding the supplied lens hood applies a further 42 mm extension, which makes the camera/lens combination quite ungainly.

      Build quality is better than average for a consumer lens. The lens mount is made from metal and although the barrels are mainly polycarbonate they feel quite solid. Like most zoom lenses, this lens would be vulnerable to dust and moisture with the barrels extended.

      Chunky rubber grips cover the focusing and zoom rings, which are distinguished by different textures. The zoom ring is located approximately 12 mm behind the front of the lens. It's about 40 mm wide and its training edge carries stamped-on focal length markings, which are lined up against a white dot on the leading edge of the main barrel.

      Just behind the zoom ring is a distance scale with a plastic cover. It's marked in feet and meters, ranging from 0.45 metres to infinity. A zoom lock is provided on the side of the outer barrel but we found the lens assembly to be nice and tight, which meant it showed little tendency to creep when carried facing downwards.

      The focusing ring is closest to the camera. It's 15 mm wide and 28 mm from the camera body. Soft stops at each end of the focusing range show you when to stop turning and the ring turns smoothly through about 250 degrees.

      Between the focusing ring and the camera body are three slider switches, located on the left hand side of the outer barrel. The top one is the M/A and M switch for swapping between auto and manual focusing modes. (M/A indicates manual focus over-ride in AF mode.)

      Below it is a slider for switching the VR compensation on and off. The new VRII system claims to provide the equivalent of a shutter speed approximately four stops faster and works across the entire zoom range. Further down is another switch for selecting between the Normal and Active vibration reduction modes.

      The lens is supplied with a petal-shaped plastic hood (HB-58), which attaches via a bayonet mount and can be reversed for storage. A soft carrying pouch is also provided.

      Cautions
      We've never been fans of ultra-zoom lenses because of the compromises to both design and performance associated with them. However, they can be a useful solution for travellers and people who want a single lens that covers most subject types. There are several factors prospective purchasers need to account for with respect to this lens.

      1. It is only usable with DX bodies –  and only bodies designed for lenses with no aperture ring. This means you can't mount it on a film DSLR without losing automatic aperture control. It's also not designed for the larger 35mm-sized imaging circle and severe vignetting will occur.

      2. The rear element is very close to the lens mount and vulnerable to dust and fingermarks if not handled correctly.

      3. The front element is also close to the front of the lens, which will require special care while you're out and about. Keep the lens cap on and the hood reversed when the lens is not in use; avoid carrying the camera and lens facing downwards and use the lock to prevent unwanted barrel extensions.

      4. Tele-converters are not recommended for use with this lens.

      Most of these issues will be minor for typical purchasers, who will want this as a 'convenience' lens that stays on the camera body all the time.  Such users would seldom need to add a converter to extend the zoom range and may even be reluctant to change lenses at all.

      Performance
      The autofocusing system in the review lens was a good match for the upgraded AF system in the D5200 camera we used for our tests so focusing was fast and accurate under most shooting conditions. Even in relatively low light levels, the camera/lens combination was able to lock onto subjects at all focal length settings.

      The review lens took 1.06 seconds, on average, to change focus between close and infinity. Small changes in focusing distance were almost instantaneous and manual over-ride is always available in AF mode. 

      The VR II stabilisation proved capable in most situations and even allowed us to obtain sharp images of moving subjects with the 300mm setting in wind gusts of 30 knots or higher.

      Subjective evaluation of image sharpness suggested the review lens was also a competent performer. Shots taken at the 200mm and 300mm focal lengths

      However, Imatest showed that it failed to reach expectations for the camera's sensor across its focal length range. This was probably inevitable as very few lenses of this type would be able to match the capabilities of  a 24-megapixel image sensor.

      As expected, resolution was highest a stop or two down from maximum aperture, with the best performance at the 18mm focal length where centre sharpness could be considered very good, although edge softening was apparent. The 28mm and 50mm produced similar results for image sharpness with slightly better edge resolution.

      Resolution lagged a little with the 105mm and 200mm focal lengths, albeit with improvements in edge sharpness. There was a steep decline in resolution beyond f/8 due to the effects of diffraction at higher focal length settings.

      We weren't able to test the lens at the 300mm setting due to lack of space in our testing set-up, however we have figures for the other focal length settings. The graph of the results below shows a sharp fall-off in resolution between f/8 and f/11 as diffraction took effect.

       

      Shots taken at 300mm benefited from a little unsharp masking in Photoshop and some tweaking of the lens in Camera Raw when we converted raw files. Best results were achieved between f/6.3 and f/8, beyond which you enter the diffraction zone.
       Even with optimal camera settings, we suspect the best shots from this lens wouldn't rank with images from a 300mm prime lens, whatever its speed.
       
      Lateral chromatic aberration sat solidly in the 'low' band for almost all focal length and aperture settings we tested, dipping into the 'moderate' level at the widest apertures for 187mm and 28mm. Since this aberration can be corrected in most cameras and is easily adjusted out in editing software we don't consider it a serious problem. In the graph of our Imatest results below the red line separates 'negligible' and 'low' CA, while the green line marks the beginning of the 'moderate' CA band.

       
       Vignetting was moderately low for an ultra-zoom lens but visible at the maximum apertures for all focal length settings. It was most obvious with the shortest focal lengths but still discernible at 300mm. This flaw is correctable in many cameras and easy to fix in most image editors.

      Rectilinear distortion was much as you would expect from a lens of this type. At 18mm, barrel distortion was obvious. From 28mm to 300mm the lens transitioned from slight barrel to slight pincushion distortion, reaching its peak at 105mm with some residual barrelling in the centre of the frame. In this zone, the distortion probably wouldn't be enough to worry the majority of users and it is correctable in editing software.

      Despite the nine-bladed iris diaphragm, which should optimise bokeh, the lack of lens speed made bokeh generally pretty ordinary. At the shorter focal lengths the shapes of background areas didn't blend into the background and highlights were often layered, while at the longer focal lengths, distortion and coloured fringing took effect and outlining was common in bright out-of-focus highlights.

      Flare and ghosting were handled quite well, thanks in part to the effectiveness of the supplied lens hood. With as minimum focusing distance of 45 cm and a maximum magnification of 0.15x this lens is unsuitable for macro work. However, it can be used for close-ups of large flowers and pets.

      Alternatives
      In addition to the AF-S DX Nikkor 18-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR, Nikon produces several other 'convenience' lenses for photographers who want an all-in-one lens for their DSLR. The table below compares key features of these lenses.

       

      18-300mm f/3.5-5.6G

      18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G 

      28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G 

      Designed for

      DX  bodies

      FX bodies

      Zoom range

      16.7x

      11.1x

      10.7x

      Closest focus

      45 cm

      50 cm

      50 cm

      Max. magnification ratio

      0.32x

      0.22x

      0.32x

      Filter

      77 mm

      72 mm

      77 mm

      Dimensions

      83 x 120 mm

      77 x 96.5 mm

      83 x 114.5 mm

      Weight

      830 g

      Approx 565 g

      Approx. 800 g

      Choosing between them depends on how much zoom you want, which camera body formats you own and how well you can tolerate the vignetting and distortion associated with these lenses. There's only one choice for owners of FX bodies: the 28-300mm.

      Put this lens on a DX body and its focal length becomes equivalent to 42-450mm. You gain at the tele end but lose wide-angle capabilities.

      Choosing between the two DX lenses is more difficult as they both offer the same effective speeds. The 18-200mm lens is substantially lighter – and a bit slimmer. And it won't stick out as far in front of the camera, which makes it a better partner for lighter Nikon DSLR bodies.
       

      SPECS

       Picture angle: 76 degrees to 5 degrees 20 minutes
       Minimum aperture: f/22-32
       Lens construction: 19 elements in 14 groups (including 3 aspherical lens elements and 3 ED lens elements)
       Lens mounts: Nikon F-mount
       Diaphragm Blades: 9 (rounded diaphragm opening)
       Focus drive: Nikon Internal Focusing (IF) System with autofocus controlled by Silent Wave Motor and separate focus ring for manual focus
       Stabilisation: VRII technology
       Minimum focus: 45 cm at 300mm focal length
       Maximum magnification: 0.15x
       Filter size: 77 mm
       Dimensions (Diameter x L):  83 x 120 mm (distance from camera lens mount flange)
      Weight: Approx. 830 grams 

      TESTS

      Based on JPEG files taken with the 24-megapixel D5200 body.

      SAMPLES

       
       

      Vignetting at 18mm, f/3.5.
       
       

      Vignetting at 28mm, f/4.
       
       

      Vignetting at 50mm, f/5.3.
       
       

      Vignetting at 105mm, f/5.6.
       
       

      Vignetting at 200mm, f/5.6.
       
       

      Vignetting at 300mm, f/5.6.
       
       

      Rectilinear distortion at 18mm.
       
       

      Rectilinear distortion at 300mm.
       
       

      18mm focal length, ISO 400, 1/640 second at f/13.
       
       

      300mm focal length; ISO 400, 1/500 second at f/8.
       
       

      300mm focal length; ISO 400, 1/1250 second at f/5.6.
       
       

      300mm focal length; ISO 400, 1/2500 second at f/6.3.
       
       

      105mm focal length, ISO 400, 1/1000 second at f/8.
       
       

      Strong backlighting at 18mm; ISO 100, 1/350 second at f/9.5.
       
       

      Close-up depth of field at 300mm f/5.6, ISO 1600, 1/60 second.
       
       

      Close-up depth of field at 300mm f/8, ISO 1600, 1/125 second.
       
       

      Close-up depth of field at 300mm f/11, ISO 1600, 1/200 second.
       

      355: Close-up depth of field at 300mm f/16, ISO 1600, 1/400 second.

      300mm focal length; ISO 400, 1/1000 second at f/5.6.
       

       

       Crops from the above image, magnified to 50% to show bokeh.
       
       

      Outlined highlights in close-up taken at ISO 100  with 300mm focal length, 1/350 second at f/8.
       
       

      Layered highlights in close-up taken at 200mm; ISO 750, 1/500 second at f/5.6.
       
       Additional image samples can be found with our review of the Nikon D5200.

       Rating

      RRP: n/a; ASP: AU$1200, US$697

      • Build: 8.5
      • Handling: 8.0
      • Autofocusing: 8.5
      • Image quality: 8.0
      • Versatility: 9.0

       

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