"They say a lot of women would like to see me naked. But there's not a lens long enough for that." --Andy Garcia
What is it?
The Nikkor 55-300mm f/4.5-5.6G DX lens was a bit of a surprise when it was announced, as Nikon already had two very good telephoto zooms that appealed to DX body users (55-200mm DX and 70-300mm VR). Why Nikon was revisiting the low-cost telephoto space before filling out other DX options had a lot of Nikon users puzzled. Still, with two low-cost cameras (D3100, D5100) in the lineup, having low-cost lenses for them seems like the right thing to me. The question at hand is whether this was the right addition to the low cost lineup.
The optical formula is 17 elements in 11 lens groups. Two of them are ED (Extra-low Dispersion) elements. Super Intergrated Coating help keep internal reflections to a minimum.
The lens covers only the DX format, presenting a 5°20' to 28°50' degree angle of view (diagonally). Close focus is just under a 5 feet (1.4m), presenting a maximum magnification of 1:3.6. The lens has VR II, but only with an on and off switch. Filter size is 58mm. There is no tripod mount on the lens (nor would one really expect one on a smaller, light telephoto lens like this one). The lens doesn't have a focus scale. As with most Nikkors, there are 9 aperture blades. Surprisingly, there's dust/moisture protection built into the mount.
The lens comes with a hood and soft carrying glove for US$399. Nikon's page for the lens is here.
How's it Handle?
The 55-300mm DX isn't exactly a small lens at 5.5" collapsed (and nearly 9" fully extended). But it's consumer construction makes it fairly light for its size. That consumer orientation means a lot of compromises, many of which show up in the handling category:
- The front element rotates on focus.
- Focus cannot be overridden by hand as it can on higher end AF-S lenses; you have to flip the switch to M for manual focus to tweak focus.
- The focus ring is small (at the front of the lens) and easy to miss by touch.
- There's no focus markings or DOF scale.
- VR is either on or off--there are no advanced modes to it, such as Active and Normal.
That out of the way, the lens balances well on all DX bodies. The zoom ring is acceptable in rotation--neither smooth nor rough--though the quarter turn from minimum to maximum focal length makes fine tuning a little difficult.
One corner Nikon cut that they shouldn't have is on the lens hood. I don't know what apprentice is designing these multipart, el cheapo lens hoods that's held together with a dab of glue, but they shouldn't be promoted. All it takes is one strong whack (drop, whatever) and it'll come apart in your hands and not go back together without tape. How the multi piece approach makes for something less expensive than a single piece of plastic, I don't know, but the first time it comes apart on you will likely be the last time you use it on your lens, as the little plastic nubs in the clip will have broken (smallest piece in shot). Replacements are US$29.99, which is absurd considering it'll just break again. Get yourself a 58mm screw-in hood for the lens, though this means you won't be able to reverse the hood on the lens for carrying.
How's it Perform?
Nikon's MTF charts for the lens suggest that this might be a pretty decent lens. Turns out, that's basically true. At 55mm it's very reasonable, even wide open. At 300mm it's actually best wide open and still pretty good, especially considering its price. At the longer focal lengths, the corners are a bit weak (and my sample was slightly decentered, making one side slightly worse than the other. Nevertheless, I was comforable using the lens at 300mm. At f/5.6 this lens is very good to excellent up to about 200mm, where the corners start becoming visibly soft. Best performance was in the mid-range stopped down to f/8, where the lens was nearly edge-to-edge sharp. The center is never really an issue (though it is decentered on my sample slightly), and again stopping down even one stop brings everything into very usable territory. The 55-200mm DX is slightly better across the overlapping focal range, both wide open and stopped down, but not enough so that I'd pick it over the 55-300mm if I knew I needed the extra reach sometimes. The 55-200mm was a bargain for its performance, the 55-300mm is just a good value for its performance.
Here's 200mm in a test shoot (D7000) by my assistant, Anthony:
And the 100%, actual pixel view of one area in the upper right (with minimal ACR sharpening):
Chromatic aberration, though present, was quite restrained. Indeed, this is one of those places where test charts and reality don't always agree. First, of course, we've got bodies that'll remove chromatic aberration (though not all of Nikon DSLRs do), so on those the whole subject is moot. But I was a bit surprised to find that in practice (field shooting) I was seeing less chromatic aberration than I expected from the test numbers. One reason that happens is that you shoot flat test charts relatively close in, but you shoot the dimensional real subjects at 300mm relatively far out. Yes, chromatic aberration tendencies can change with focus and well as focal length, though that's more rare. In testing, the 55-300mm had modest to clearly visible chromatic aberration (in the corners at the extreme telephoto positions). In real world shooting, it's as if someone had made it 40% better, which put it into my "mostly ignore" category. If you shoot close in subjects with high contrast edges, you might need to do post correction. I was able to remove what chromatic aberration was in my images with Adobe Converter Raw's corrections, both profiles and manual, with ease.
Vignetting was ignorable, never amounting to more than a half stop at the corners, remarkably good performance for a telephoto lens. Likewise, linear distortion was reasonably well controlled, never even hitting 1%. The distortion wasn't completely linear, though. The central and edge areas can actually have different distortion patterns at the long end, with the corners being slightly pin-cushioned and the center slightly barreled. Again, however, it's not all that much to worry about, as it's low in overall value.
Focus speed is what you'd expect from the consumer AF-S lenses: decent but not snap fast. Nikon uses a lower grade motor on the low-end lenses, plus the slow maximum aperture doesn't help the consumer AF systems. Still, in decent light I had no issues with focus performance. One nice touch is that the lens is 1:3.6 in magnification. With that close focus distance of under five feet (1.4m) and 300mm, you can get things to about one third their actual size. Put another way, on a DX body, that means you can fill the frame with something about 3" across. Sometimes camera makers compromise this aspect of a consumer lens, but Nikon has chosen not to. Bravo.
Yeah, I know you FX users are going to ask a question, so I've got an answer for you: not really. At 50-70mm there's clear clipping in the corners, which becomes extremely visible image circle limitation from 70-150mm. From 200-300mm the frame is full (both at close focus and infinity), but you'll get some increased vignetting. So I guess in a pinch you could use it at the far telephoto end on an FX body, but why don't you just get the 70-300mm VR instead?
The question for a DX user is this: 55-200mm DX VR, 55-300mm DX VR, or 70-300mm VR? If price is no object, the 70-300mm VR is the choice to make. It has faster focus with manual override, it performs better at the edges, and it'll serve you well even if you later move to an FX body. But you'll pay an extra US$200 for that priveledge. On the flip side you can save US$100 by opting for the 55-200mm DX. If you don't often need the 200-300mm range, then the 55-200mm DX is the lens you should choose. Thus, you can see that the 55-300mm DX is actually a tweener, fitting nicely between your other two options. For US$100 you gain that 100mm of extra reach and lose nothing important. For a savings of US$200 you get a lens that works quite well with DX cameras and gives up little from the more expensive model. But there are differences between the three, so you have to carefully consider what's the most important to you.
Some people were unhappy that Nikon would take engineering time to create the 55-300mm DX, thinking that the 55-200mm DX and the 70-300mm VR were enough. I happen to think that Nikon was wise to offer the in-between option. Even if the compromises aren't perfect for you, they will be for some people. I'm not afraid to shoot with this lens. It's what I took as a telephoto option on my Patagonia trip while shooting on a D7000. I was not dissatisfied with the results (other than having to duct tape the lens hood back together).
||review source: purchased lens
||No fancy AF-S or VF, no focus scale, terrible hood.
||No fatal flaws. A strong center with slight corner weakness wide open.
||Better than you expect for the price
Ratings last updated: 10/19/12