Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Review: Nikkor 55-200mm AF-S DX f/4-5.6G ED lens


Before getting into the review I want to perhaps clarify some confusion. Nikon has two very similar lenses, the Nikkor 55-200mm AF-S DX f/4-5.6G ED and the Nikkor 55-200mm AF-S DX f/4-5.6G IF-ED. These two lenses look similar and are (especially) named similar, but they are in fact different.

The 55-200mm AF-S DX f/4-5.6G ED is both smaller and lighter than the 55-200mm AF-S DX f/4-5.6G IF-ED. The ED does not have built-in image stabilization while the IF-ED does. The ED lens can focus about six inches closer than the IF-ED. The ED has nine rounded diaphragm blades while the IF-ED has seven. The two lenses perform similarly. The IF-ED in tests at DxOMark edges out the ED in every category, but only by small margins. The ED retails for $170 while the IF-ED retails for $250.

Just to be clear, the lens that I'm reviewing is the 55-200mm AF-S DX f/4-5.6G ED and not the 55-200mm AF-S DX f/4-5.6G IF-ED. The reasons that I chose the ED over the IF-ED are cost, size and weight, and the number of diaphragm blades (which affects bokeh and sunstars). The IF-ED has image stabilization (Nikon calls it Vibration Reduction or "VR"), which might make it worth the extra cost, but Nikon's VR has a negative side-effect on long exposures (however, VR can be turned off pretty easily).

The Lens
Beauty Among Thorns - Stallion Springs, California
The Nikkor 55-200mm AF-S DX f/4-5.6G ED zoom lens is for Nikon cameras with APS-C sized sensors (Nikon calls it "DX"). For this review I used a D3300. With the APS-C crop factor, the lens has an equivalent (in 35mm "full-frame" terms) 82.5-300mm focal length. That's a good focal length for sports, wildlife, portraits and sometimes landscapes.

Build quality is pretty low. It's mostly plastic, except for the glass, some rubber, and a very small amount of metal. It doesn't feel like it will last forever, but on the positive side it is very light weight.

This lens has no distortion at 55mm, but as one zooms the distortion shows up pretty quickly, peaking at its worst around 100mm. It isn't terrible (and it is certainly correctable in post-processing), but this is something to be aware of. Keep the lens at 55mm if you want straight lines to be straight. On newer Nikon DSLRs, the camera can correct the distortion for you if distortion correction is enabled.

I couldn't find much in the way of chromatic aberrations at all, which is really good. I'm not sure if this is entirely because of the lens. Nikon "fixes" chromatic aberrations automatically in-camera with their latest generation of DSLRs.
Shelvador - Rosamond, California
The 55-200mm AF-S DX f/4-5.6G ED is sufficiently sharp. It's not terrible or great--about what one would expect from a lens at this price point. If you want a telephoto zoom lens with sharpness similar to a prime lens, be prepared to spend at least $1,000. While this lens is not tack sharp like a prime, it is sharp corner-to-corner--some prime lenses can't claim that.

At 200mm the lens is noticeably softer than at 55mm. At first I blamed this on the environment (haze) and technique (shutter speed and sturdiness of user). But after some (somewhat) controlled tests, I decided that in fact the lens is sharper at 55mm than 200mm. I think it is around 150mm that the lens begins to lose some crispness, but it is indeed softest at 200mm.

A downside to this lens is vignetting. There is significant vignetting throughout the range of focal lengths, but it gets worse as it zooms and is strongest at 200mm. If you are photographing a white wall or empty sky you'll notice, otherwise this is not a huge deal. In fact, some may prefer some vignetting (depending on the subject and style). However, I had more than one image ruined by the vignetting before I realized this limitation.
Abandoned Window Morning - Rosamond, California
Diffraction occurs around f11, except at the long end of the lens (roughly 150-200mm) where it occurs about f8. The lens is at peak sharpness around f5.6. Contrast is pretty good, but it does seem to decrease as you get closer to 200mm.

Bokeh (the quality of the out-of-focus area in a photograph) is nice and smooth. Highlights show up as soft circles (maybe perhaps slightly oval upon close inspection). Lens flare is well controlled and sunstars look great.

Autofocus is perhaps slightly slower than what one would expect. If the change in focus is small the camera locks focus almost instantaneously. If the change in focus is from near-to-far or far-to-near, it takes a noticeable moment for the lens to get focused. Manual focus is possible with a flip of the switch on the side of the lens, but the focus ring isn't great and the experience is less than ideal. Still, I manually focused multiple times with success.
Purple Hills - Stallion Springs, California
Minimum focus distance is about three feet from the camera's sensor, which puts it somewhere in the neighborhood of two-and-a-half feet from the front of the lens. This is certainly acceptable for a telephoto lens, and sufficient for everything except macro photography.

The largest aperture is f4, available from 55mm to about 60mm. As you zoom in, the aperture gets smaller until it reaches f5.6 at about 180mm. The smallest aperture is f32, available from 200mm to about 150mm. As you zoom out, the aperture gets larger until it reached f22 at about 60mm. While it would be nice if the maximum aperture was larger than f4, it is sufficient for most purposes. And while f32 sounds good on paper, diffraction makes it not particularly useful.

The 55-200mm AF-S DX f/4-5.6G ED retails for $170 (I've noticed some places selling it for $200). I paid $100 for mine. It was "factory refurbished" from Nikon and included a 90-day warranty. Except for the packaging (which clearly said "refurbished"), there was no way to know that this wasn't a brand-new lens. It certainly looked brand-new to me.

And It Was Yellow - Stallion Springs, California
It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. That's how I would summarize this lens. It has a lot of good things going for it, but it seems to be a tale of two lenses. At 55mm it is a solid lens. But as one zooms, distortion shows up, vignetting gets worse, sharpness and contrast decreases, diffraction comes quicker, and the maximum aperture gets smaller. By the time you reach 200mm it is just a so-so lens.

Interestingly, you can spend quite a bit more money and get a telephoto zoom lens that isn't significantly better (if better at all). There are a bunch of options, but not many that are good enough to justify the higher price tags. If you have money to burn, I recommend the Sigma 50-150mm f/2.8 EX DC APO OS HSM Nikon, which retails for $1,000. It is hands down the better lens.

An outside-the-box alternative is the Nikkor 50mm AF-S f/1.8G, which retails for $220. It doesn't zoom, but it is telephoto on DX cameras and is quite excellent.

If you are like most people and are on a limited budget, the Nikkor 55-200mm AF-S DX f/4-5.6G ED is a descent enough lens that will get the job done for not too much money. It is a good value option for adding some versatility to your DX camera. Find it on sale or buy it refurbished or used. It is a much better value at $100 than $200. Spend a little more and get the IF-ED version if image stabilization is a big deal to you.

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