AF-S Zoom-Nikkor ED 18-300mm f/3.5-5.6G IF DX VR


The Super Superzoom

Copyright 2012 Thom Hogan

Lens Formula
19 elements in 114groups; 3 aspherical, and 3 ED elements.
Other Features
Manual focus override, AF-S lens focusing motor, internal focus, 77mm filter size. Comes with HB-58 hood, 9-blade rounded aperture. Focuses to 1.5' (0.45m).
Size & Weight
About 4.7 " (120mm) long from mount (8" or 205mm extended), 28.6 ounces (810g).
Price
US$999 street

The Basics
Introduced in Spring 2012, the 18-300mm is the latest in a series of 18-xx zooms, and is the most super of the superzooms (18-135mm, 18-200mm, 18-300mm).

Superzooms are compromise lenses. They are lenses that you're likely to leave on all the time because they cover a huge range of focal length ability from wide angle to telephoto. Such lens designs don't come without penalty, however. It's difficult to design a lens that is optically sound at everything. To accomodate the telephoto side, the lens will end up being fairly large and heavy and extend length quite a bit (to 8" on this lens). In this case, the lens isn't cheap, either.

A wide range of focal lengths is very useful, of course, as it means not taking the lens off and on the camera except when you need something special, such as really wide angle coverage, a faster lens aperture, or macro coverage. Since the 18-300mm reaches to 300mm, which is about as far as most consumers are willing to pay for, it would be rare that someone with this lens is taking it off to "go more telephoto."

The question is whether you can live with the compromises, so read on.

This lens has VR II and supports both Active and Normal VR settings (that's good). It is true AF-S (has an A/M and M switch), meaning you can override the focus at will (that's also good). The glass has considerable ED in it (three elements), which helps keep the chromatic aberration down, and it has three complex aspherical elements, which are trying to keep sharpness up throughout the focal range (they don't quite manage to do that, though they correct 18mm quite well).

There's a focus distance window on the lens, but no DOF or IR markings. The lens itself is only marked at 18mm, 28mm, 50mm, 105mm, 200mm, and 300mm for zoom, so if you're looking for a specific focal length to match--say 85mm--you'll be guessing.

Like many of Nikon's recent consumer glass, the focus ring is closest to the camera, the zoom ring at the front of the lens.

The 18-300mm is an internally focusing lens, so the front element doesn't rotate during zoom or focus. Close focus is 1.5' (.45m), giving a maximum reproduction ratio of about 1:3. Not great, but not bad. The lens uses 77mm filters and is made in Thailand.

Handling
This is a big, heavy lens compared to the other 18-xx lenses, even the 18-200mm. I find it almost a bit front heavy when put on the D3200 or D5100 bodies, but not uncomfortably so. Nevertheless, at nearly two pounds, you're committing to a big weight hanging from your neck on any Nikon DSLR body. Here's the difference between the 18-300mm (left) and 18-55mm kit lens (right) both fully collapsed and full extended:

Copyright 2012 Thom Hogan

Copyright 2012 Thom Hogan

On my sample of the lens the focus and zoom rings are smooth, somewhat noticeably so compared to some of the lower end zooms. I guess you do get what you pay for. . Full zooming takes somewhat more than a quarter of a turn of the ring. My sample shows no tendency to lens creep (zoom without user action when pointed up or down). The butterfly hood (supplied) is a bayonet type that can reverse onto the lens when not in use, though it covers the zoom ring in doing so, which makes for a bit of inconvenience if you're going from minimum size to shooting quickly. With the hood normally mounted, you've got 6.5" sticking out in front of the camera body, risking catching it on things around you as you walk, so there's a natural tendency to reverse the hood when you're not shooting to minimize that risk.

The maximum aperture changes with focal length as follows:

  • 18mm = f/3.5
  • 28mm = f/4
  • 50mm = f/5.3
  • 105mm+ = f/5.6

In other words, it's an f/5.6 lens from about 100mm on. The front element of the lens is close to the end (i.e. not inset and protected by the lens barrel or mount). One noticeable thing: this lens has less wobble when extended than a lot of consumer Nikkors. Overall the build quality seems at the high-end for a consumer lens.

Overall, the handling of this lens was smooth, but slightly cumbersome. You'll need to be careful about protecting the front of this lens while walking around with it hanging from your DSLR.

Performance
Autofocus: As you might expect from an AF-S lens, focus performance is generally fast and direct. This is higher-end AF-S performance as opposed to the lower-end performance you see in the 18-55mm and 55-200mm kit zooms (and a few others). If the camera can focus, the lens will be driven to focus quickly and surely.

Sharpness: As we've gotten more and more pixels in the DX cameras, the old 18-200mm has started to show it's rough edges. The question is whether the 18-300mm is better. Yes, and no. Sharpness on this lens is a little bit of a roller coaster, and no doubt the complexities of superzoom designs has something to do with that.

For example, at 18mm the 18-300mm is a perfectly fine lens in terms of sharpness. Even wide open it has a very good edge to edge sharpness to it that's commendable. The corners are only a tiny bit soft compared to the center, but I'd judge both to be very good, maybe even excellent in performance.

The roller coaster starts when you start zooming. As you zoom everything gets worse, then better, then worse, then better, then worse. For example, I'd say that 18mm and 50mm are very good, but 28mm and 200mm are not so good; the corners are quite different than the center, and the center is a bit worse than at the 18mm and 50mm focal lengths, wide open.

Okay, so does stopping down help? Yes. Two stops down from maximum aperture you still see the roller coaster, but it's a kiddie coaster now, and at worst case (probably around 28mm and 200mm again) the lens is good at the center and fair at the corners. I did see some slight miscentering in my testing, but not nearly enough to explain the problem.

These are interesting results, and I'm not sure how to characterize the overall performance of the lens because of them. 18mm is clearly very good, maybe as good as we've seen from the 18-xx zooms. At certain other focal length/aperture combinations you see more of that goodness. But at others, things go downhill in the corners, and sometimes even in the center. The interesting thing is that when we're down clearly in the diffraction zone on my D7000 (e.g. f/16), I can see the diffraction impacts lowering the overall MTF scores, but the actual pixel integrity (considering diffraction) starts to improve and the lens becomes very balanced edge to edge at virtually all focal lengths.

Intrigued by this, I went back and relooked at the 18-200mm. Sure enough, it has a roller coaster in edge sharpness right around 35mm, though overall it's a bit better behaved when you stop down two stops than the 18-300mm is. So this is obviously something in Nikon's superzoom optical design as the internal elements shift positions to go from wide angle to normal.

So, overall, it's still a superzoom, and as with all such lenses, there are compromises. At 18mm, shoot at any aperture with relative impunity (watch out for diffraction on the high megapixel bodies). At 300mm, make sure you're at least one stop down, and preferably two (which puts you into diffraction on a D3200). In between? Consult a spreadsheet ;~).

If you enjoyed the 18-200mm, you're probably enjoy the 18-300mm. Unless you hit one of those weak focal length/aperture combinations with the wrong composition.

This isn't a perfect example, but will show you a bit of what I mean about 18mm being decent. First, the full frame (18mm f/5):

Copyright 2012 Thom Hogan

Now the area towards the lower left corner (actual pixels):

Copyright 2012 Thom Hogan

Surprisingly decent sharpness (though not great), especially considering the low light and the flare sources. This is from a D3200 by the way.

Now let's look at 28mm (f/7.1 this time; sorry, don't have an exact matching images we can compare) similar position (again, actual pixels):

You should see just how much of a blur mess we have going on here, though the building in the foreground is almost exactly at the same focus distance as the lens was set to (hundreds of yards away).

Light falloff: Simple answer: avoid the maximum aperture at 18mm and vignetting performance is quite good (less than a half stop). Even at 18mm and f/3.5 vignetting doesn't quite hit a stop. That's actually quite good for such a lens, however remember that this lens is f/5.6 at 100mm and above, which helps make the upper focal lengths not so prone to vignetting.

Chromatic aberration: High, pretty much across the board. Since Nikon has chromatic aberration reduction built into their JPEG engines and Capture NX2 now, it seems that they're getting looser with CA in lenses. One of the things about lens design is that you can't control everything; something has to give. We've seen lenses optimized for sharpness over chromatic aberration before (18-135mm), and this lens seems to be optimized for vignetting and distortion over chromatic aberration. On the 24mp D3200 I was seeing CA figures over 10 pixels at many settings. This is still correctable in software, but I think it also high enough to be contributing to the sharpness results I measured, too. Probably the most disappointing aspect of the lens.

Flare: Flare is very well controlled; I have no real complaints here, surprisingly.

Distortion: As you'd expect from a wide-to-telephoto lens there's linear distortion. But it's not quite what you'd expect. At no point does the linear distortion really get above the 1% level, but the way that's achieved is fairly interesting for a superzoom.

At 18mm, there's clear barrel distortion, and it's relatively even. At 28mm through 300mm we still have a bit of barrel distortion in the center, but the corners tend towards pin cushion (though not a lot of it). Some people might call this mustache distortion, though it's not quite the classical mustache I'm used to. In other words this is a complex distortion, but not necessarily a strong one. There's just enough distortion throughout the lens that if straight lines are important to you, you'll want to correct it, but for most uses you'd probably just ignore it.

Bokeh: This lens isn't going to win any bokeh contests, not by a long shot. First, the only way you're going to get to highly blurred backgrounds is at the long telephoto focal lengths wide open, and even if you can get strong blur, the chromatic aberration is going to taint it.

Overall, what a strange beast of a lens. I can't say I've seen a more unusual set of figures from a test. Varying sharpness, high chromatic aberration, irregular linear distortion, and very little light falloff considering the specifications. It seems clear to me that to build this compromise lens, Nikon made compromises. The real question is whether you can live with those compromises. I'm not sure I have a good answer for that. Obviously, the extreme focal length makes it versatile. Going from wide view to a tight composition (remember you're at 450mm equivalent at the long end) at a snap of the wrist is definitely addicting.

Yet we're in the era of 24mp DX cameras now. On my D3200, this lens put me into diffraction zone more often than not, which takes a little edge off its best and worst traits.

If you absolutely need a convenience superzoom, you've got a difficult choice. Both the 18-200mm and the 18-300mm have their drawbacks, only they're a bit different. But I think I'd opt for the 18-200mm, which is a bit more consistent over its focal range in sharpness than the 18-300mm. But then again, 300mm is 300mm. But the 18-200mm is 10 ounces lighter and doesn't stick out as much. Like I said, tough choice.

Update: some have asked me to compare it to the 28-300mm FX superzoom. Okay, the 28-300mm has substantially more linear distortion that would need to be corrected, and that comes in focal length ranges that people regard as "normal," so it definitely stands out if not corrected. You of course lose all wide angle ability with this lens (42mm equivalent is almost exactly "normal" for the DX diagonal). Optically, the 28-300mm is more consistent than the 18-300mm, but that's not the great thing it sounds like. Even on DX the corners are very weak out to 50mm. Like the 18-300mm, this lens is designed to be sharp in the center. DX benefits some from that, as DX is a center crop of FX, but as I note, the corners are weak up to at least 50mm on DX. Vignetting is a bit stronger on the 28-300mm lens on DX than the 18-300mm, too, though not substantially so.

People who opt for the 28-300mm on DX are typically truly convenience shooters, and ones that don't value wide angle all that much. That's often the mark of someone who doesn't understand or value perspective, and hasn't learned how to use wide angle effectively. That also tends to mean that they haven't been trained to see the low level types of problems that I describe here, and thus are perfectly happy with pretty much any super zoom. My reviews aren't tailored to these folk; they're written for someone who is seeking to maximize the image quality they get from their equipment, not maximize the convenience of the equipment.

Drawbacks

  • Roller coaster sharpness. Especially in the corners, you get sharp, not as sharp, sharp, not as sharp as you zoom.
  • Big brute. Nearly two pounds, and it's going to stick out further than your previous zoom.

Positives

  • Range. 18mm baby. 300mm baby. Nothing else gets you there without changing lenses.
  • Nice build. The high end of the consumer builds. Decent rings, not a lot of sloppy movement.
 
Quick Evaluation



I neither recommend nor not recommend this lens.

features
performance
build
value

As a superzoom, it's average all the way, except for price.

Limitations


The 18-300mm lens has limitations you need to be aware of:

Converters: no converters are recommended (rear element very close to mount at 18mm, too)

G: Since this is a DX lens, it's not likely that you'd mount it on an older 35mm body that can't handle the lack of aperture ring or makes restrictions because it is missing.

Coverage Area: produces a vignette on FX bodies at all focal lengths, and is not really usable even at 5:4 crops.

Version of Review:
10/8/2012: initial post.
10/14/2012: added 28-300

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