AF-S Zoom-Nikkor ED 55-200mm f/4-5.6G DX and DX VR Lenses


Consumer AF-S telephoto zooms. Are they good enough?

 

 

For US$250, we now have a modest zoom lens that covers the telephoto range for DSLR users.

Here is the original version (non-VR) mounted on the D70s and fully extended. As you can see, even at 200mm this lens stays compact.

Lens Formula
Original: 13 elements in 9 groups; 2 ED elements.
VR Version: 15 elements in 11 groups; 1 ED element.
Other Features
Manual focus switch, AF-S lens focusing motor, 52mm filter size. included HB-34 hood. Focuses to 3.1 feet (0.95m).
Size and Weight

Original: About 79mm long from mount, 9 ounces (255g).
VR Version: 11.8 ounces (335g).

Price
Original: US$170 street
VR Version: US$250 street
   

The Basics

Even more surprising than the new standard kit lens with the D50 was the introduction of the 55-200mm AF-S zoom as part of an extended kit (it was also available separately and with the D70s). At first glance it appears to be yet another mid-range zoom--it is that small. The specs say this an AF-S lens, an ED lens, and a DX lens, which seems to imply something designed to a higher level of quality, but as you'll find out, those monickers are a bit misleading. Then Nikon updated the lens with a new optic design, adding VR, when the D40x was introduced in early 2007. I'll tackle both lenses with this review, as they are near enough in most respects to be virtually interchangeable.

The immediate question everyone asks is if an inexpensive telephoto zoom AF-S lens can be any good. I'll save you from scrolling down to the performance section: the original was not quite as good as everyone was hoping for, but it's pretty darned decent other than focus speed. The updated version pushes only a bit further, but the addition of VR was certainly welcome, especially since the price stayed the same.

Once again we have to talk about what DX means. All of the current (as I write this) Nikon DSLRs (plus the Fujifilm DSLRs) have a sensor that's smaller than a 35mm frame. It's often referred to as APS size, as it's very close to the frame size of that now mostly forgotten film type. To wit, the 35mm frame is about 36mm across the long axis, while the Nikon DSLRs have sensors that are all about 24mm across the long axis. That means that any traditional 35mm Nikkor lens has an image circle that is far bigger than is necessary on the DSLRs. The DX series lenses are designed with an image circle more appropriate to the smaller sensor size of the digital lineup. Essentially, these lenses are designed solely for use on Nikon DSLRs (and the Fujifilm DSLRs). The advantage of a DX lens is that it can be smaller and lighter than a lens of similar specifications that needs to cover the full 35mm frame. The DX advantage doesn't really kick in for long telephoto focal lengths, but it does apply at the shorter focal lengths of this lens, thus the smaller size.

As I write this, we now have nine DX lenses: the 17-55mm f/2.8G, the 10.5mm full frame fisheye, the 12-24mm f/4G AF-S, the 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G AF-S (in two iterations), the 18-70mm f/3.5-4.5G AF-S, the 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6G AF-S, the 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G AF-S VR, and the subjects of this review, the 55-200mm f/4-5.6G AF-S twins. More DX lenses are on the way, with the only one that Nikon's hinted at officially being a prime wide angle.

The first thing you notice about both 55-200mm DX lens versions are that they're light, small, and plastic right down to its lens mount. They just doesn't seem like they're big enough to be a telephoto zoom. Indeed, a magician with a modest-sized hand could probably make it disappear before your very eyes just by palming it.

Left: the 55-200mm DX. Right: 18-55mm DX. Yes, this makes for a remarkably small 18-200mm lens kit.

The 55-200mm focal range gives you angle of views from ~8 to 28 degrees (diagonal) on a DSLR; it's effectively the same as using something like a 80-300mm lens on a 35mm body. For some users, that's "the standard telephoto zoom." There's no denying that this is a popular and much-asked-for focal length range. But I'd also contend that the other specs don't fully match up to user requests. Still, coupled with the 18-55mm, you have a pretty full range of focal lengths available in two lenses.

This is a two ring design; the zoom ring is a big frontmost ring, while the focusing ring is barely a quarter inch wide and just in front of the zoom. Yuck, we're back to the original Nikon AF focus ring design that we all hated when it appeared with the AF lenses that came with the N8008. The lens does not have a distance scale, so it also has no depth of field or infrared markings. On the left side of the lens (from the back of the camera) is one button:

  • Manual Focus button: In the A position the lens works as usual (autofocus). In the M position, the lens focuses only manually.
  • (VR Version) VR button: In the On postion, VR is active, in the Off position it isn't.

The HB-34 optional hood (original) or HB-37 hood (VR version) is the bayonet type and can reverse mount onto the lens. The lens itself uses 52mm filters, Nikon's old filter consumer filter size.

You get AF-S focusing with this lens, and that'll take you down to a bit less than a meter (3.12 feet) at all focal lengths. The supplied lens cap is the pinch-front type.

Handling

Handling is not a strong point of this lens. Indeed, it's a very weak point.

The zoom ring is stiff, but good. The barrel extends about an inch-and-a-half at maximum, with the minimum point being at 55mm. The barrel doesn't rotate during zoom or focus. The focus ring is terrible, being only a slight ring near the front of the lens. Worse still, even though this is an AF-S lens, you cannot manually override focus without flipping either the camera or the lens to the manual focus position. Coupled with only five autofocus sensors on a D50 or D70s or three on the D40/D40x, not being to override focus makes this not really much of a wildlife or sports friendly lens. Case in point:

In a situation like the one above, the D50's AF sensor choices would have been left or center. Neither is correct. If the center sensor is used, we'll get focus on the grass in front of the animal. If the left sensor is used, we get focus on the elk's back. We want the focus on the eye. Since the animal is moving we can't count of focusing and reframing. Thus, we want to tweak that focus ring without leaving autofocus, which we can do on all AF-S lenses except this one and the 18-55mm DX. Worse still, if we drop to manual focus on this lens, all we've got is a rather coarse and very small manual focus ring that's no fun to use.

Focal length on this lens changes slightly when you're shooting at close distances. As with most modern lenses (which are technically vari-focal, not zoom), you should be focusing after framing, so I don't see this as a big deal.

The 55-200mm is small and light and balances on the front of most Nikon consumer DSLRs very nicely. On bigger cameras, such as the D2h, it just disappears. But either way, I felt comfortable.

Performance

What do you expect from Nikon's least expensive telephoto zoom? Not much, probably. Fortunately, you get much more than that expectation, though perhaps not as much as you might expect from the AF-S designation.

On the original version, sharpness is quite good throughout the range, with f/8 or f/11 being the point of maximum sharpness on my sample pretty much across the entire focal length range. At f/4 (or 5.6 at the tele end) the corners get a teeny bit soft--but optical performance is still far better than you'd expect for the price. I'd be more comfortable about using this lens wide open if it weren't for the visible vignetting in the 55-135mm range, but if you're a Capture user and shoot NEF, you can safely ignore that comment, as Capture's Vignette control handles this lens well. The VR version improves slightly on the optics of the original, in least in my samples. Center performance is excellent throughout the range, with again corner softness just starting to be visible at the longer focal lengths at the maximum aperture. I doubt anyone will be complaining about sharpness with these lenses--the center is well controlled throughout the range, and having a slightly soft corner (and I do mean slightly) is generally a preferred attribute on telephoto lenses.

By f/8 at 55mm there really aren't any issues to worry about on either version. Chromatic aberration is almost completely missing; I expected to see it on my D2x and didn't (and the VR version is even better than the original in this respect).
I was particularly interested in the close performance of the 55-200mm. Above, left is the full frame of a test shot. We're at 78mm and f/5. Above, right, we have a 100% view of an area about half way to the top of the image frame from the center. Curiously, the 55-200mm seems to hold it's sharpness well even at close distances. We're about at the edge of the resolution the D50 it was mounted on can manage (and the flower may have been moving slightly, as it was windy).

Images taken with the 55-200mm are sharp and have very good contrast, though neither of these things are a match for Nikon's better lenses. This lens is not quite the "poor man's 70-200mm," though many casual shooters will not notice the difference, especially when handholding the VR version.

Light falloff is, as mentioned, is a performance issue with these lenses. It's present and obvious wide open (curiously, less so at the telephoto end), and it extends to some degree for at least for two full stops. Most people will be satisified a single stop down from wide open, though. Where there's as much as a full stop of corner falloff at the wider focal lengths at maximum aperture, this drops rapidly. At 55mm and 200mm, one stop brings falloff down to about a third-of-a-stop; At 100-150mm, you'll need two stops smaller aperture to get the same low level of falloff. Whether this is a deal breaker for you is something you'll have to decide. Personally, on telephoto lenses I usually like there to be a bit of corner darkening--it helps isolate the subject. Stopped down to f/8 or beyond, vignetting really isn't an issue with this lens at any focal length.

Put the 55-200mm on an F6 and the lens falloff characteristics become obvious: the image circle is small at 55mm. By 135mm the image circle begins to cover the full 35mm frame at anything but the closest focus distance. This exactly matches the vignetting performance I see on my D50. On the original lens I found 200mm is the best focal length in terms of light falloff, ~100mm the worst. On the VR version, 55mm was the best (200mm not far behind) and again the mid-range was the worst. Note too, that light falloff is best at infinity focus and gets worse as the focus pulls in.

Distortion performance is good on the original and excellent on the VR version. On the original version I see some pincushion distortion at the 200mm end (less than 1.5%), with the maximum pinchushion occuring in a mid-focal length value; but it's still pretty low in amount and not as obvious as we've seen in some other Nikkor designs. I doubt anyone is going to object to the distortion characteristics of this lens, but when you get to 55mm and pull off the 18-55mm and put on the original 55-200mm, you go from very slight barrel distortion to extremely slight pincushion distortion. The VR version has distortion characteristics so low as to be dismissed (a small amount of barrel distortion at 55mm and a maximum of about 1% pincushion distortion in the mid-to-tele focal lengths).

Autofocus is slightly slow considering that these lenses are designated AF-S. I can also induce this lens to hunt for focus in low light with off-center sensors. Even in bright light this lens isn't a snap-to performer when it comes to focus. At 200mm, the f/5.6 aperture is also pushing Nikon's AF system to the limits, so off center sensors sometimes will cause the lens to "double-clutch" at the focus point (do a secondary refocus).

One meter (3+ feet) is not particularly close focus, especially at 55mm. You're going to want a set of 3T and 4T close-up lenses, I think. That'll get you close to being able to use this as a modest macro zoom. Still, overall, I felt the close focus distance was a little constraining--it would have been nice to have closer focusing at least at the shorter focal lengths.

Flare performance is good except for direct into the sun. Unless light is hitting directly on the front element, I've not seen any visible contrast degradation. The hood does a decent job of keeping light from the front element.

My impression of bokeh on the original lens is that it is a bit elliptical in out-of-focus highlights (the lens features a 9-blade aperture diaphragm). Moreover, the tilt of the ellipse changes with aperture, thus the bokeh characteristics also change a bit with aperture. On the other hand, there's no obvious points or angles as I've seen with some cheap lenses. The VR version uses a 7-blade aperture diaphragm, but frankly, seems a little better at bokeh. Neither are going to get bokeh awards, but neither is particularly annoying, either.

The VR version doesn't seem as if it gets as much benefit from the VR as I see on the 70-200mm f/2.8. You also can't turn the panning detection on and off as you can on some other VR lenses, which may be part of the issue (some small movements look like pans to the lens). Still, for the price, getting any VR coupled with the excellent optics of this lens makes for a much better image than you could take with almost any other X-200mm non-VR lens.

Drawbacks

  • Vignetting. We'd forgotten about it when we moved to digital SLRs, as the older lenses had much larger image circles than necessary, but with a small DX lens that barely covers the APS-sized sensor, it's back.
  • Variable aperture. The big issue is that at 200mm this is an f/5.6 lens, which means that autofocus in low light can be compromised slightly.
  • Build quality. Build quality doesn't exceed the price point.
  • What happened to AF-S? Much slower to focus than most AF-S lenses, and you can't manually override the focus.
  • Where are we? No distance scale.

Positives

  • Very good optics. Other than that vignetting, no fatal flaws worth mentioning, actually. Considering the price, good performance, and probably well-matched to the D40, D40x, D50 or D70s, or even D200 purchaser. The VR version is preferred, but the original is no slouch (and now an excellent value).
  • The 80-300mm for the digital world. Yes, the low-cost telephoto zoom is back in full force. If that's what you want with your DSLR, this is a lens you should consider. Just don't expect 70-200mm type autofocus performance.
  • Price/Performance exceeded . This is a sharper, more featured lens than you'd expect for US$250.

 

 
Quick Evaluation

Original Version: Average

You get what you pay for.

features
focus speed
optical quality

build quality
value

VR Version: Above Average

Again, you get what you pay for.

features
focus speed
optical quality

build quality
value

Table of Contents
Limitations


The 55-200mm lens has limitations you need to be aware of:

No Converters. Not a big loss, though. Converters would put you past the point of autofocus aperture-wise.

AF-S Limitations. The in-lens motor that makes this lens focus so swift and sure works only on the F4, F5, F6, F100, N65, N70, N75, N80, N90/N90s, D40, D40x, D50, D70, D70s, D80, D100, D200, D1, D1h, D1x, D2h series, D2x series, Fujifilm S2, S3, S5 and Kodak DCS 14n and Pro SLR/n bodies. If you have an older body, such as the N60 or Fujifilm S1, AF-S is not operative. Of course, since this is a DX lens, you're only likely to use it on a Nikon DSLR, and those all have no limitations.

G Limitations. Because the lens has no aperture ring, if you were to use it on an older 35mm body such as the F4 or N90s, you'd need to put those cameras into Program or Shutter-priority exposure modes. Again, since this is a DX lens, that's not likely, though in a pinch it can suffice as a 135-200mm lens on those bodies.

Versioning of Review:
8/10/05: initial review.
5/3/07: VR version added.
5/8/07: typo fixed.
4/20/09: updated ratings to match other 55-200mm reviews.




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