Comparing the Nikon 11x Zooms

BorrowLenses.com, one of my favorite vendors, is running a special deal for Thanksgiving: week-long rentals for the price of a usual three-day period. Whenever they do that, I get suckered into trying out some new gear. This time it’s the new AF-S Nikkor 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6 G VR lens. Perhaps because I live in the S.F. Bay Area, FedEx delivered the lens on Friday instead of Monday, so I got a ten-day rental instead of seven (or three) and an extra weekend. What else to do on a Friday night? Run tests!

When Santa Claus delivered a new Nikon D90 two years ago he had the foresight to include the upgraded kit lens: the AF-S Nikkor 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 G ED VR. Although I’ve added a number of better lenses to my collection since then, the 18-200mm has remained my go-anywhere lens. So this zoom was the basis for my comparison.

This isn’t a thorough evaluation by any means. In fact I only tested one configuration: 200mm at f/5.6. That’s it. And just to make things fun, I tossed in a third lens: my favorite AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 G ED VR II, also at 200mm f/5.6. Here’s what I found.

  • The old 18-200mm is a relatively lightweight lens. It feels a bit flimsy even. Let it hang front-element-down as you walk, and it will elongate on its own. I had it adjusted and checked by United Camera, but it didn’t get any better. It’s a DX-only lens. You can’t use it on a full-frame body. Compared to the other two lenses, it’s a bit soft, but only very slightly so. (I’m only looking at the center of the frame.) You really need to look closely at 1:1 to be sure. It really holds up in terms of color saturation. But what’s really strange is that its 200mm setting is nowhere near what the other lenses call 200mm. In fact, for the purposes of these tests I had to set both of the other lenses to 160mm in order to match the crop of this lens at 200mm. That’s a big difference!
  • By comparison, the 28-300mm feels more like a pro lens even though it has more plastic than the 70-200mm. Not only doesn’t the lens self-extend when you carry it, the copy I have is actually too tight. And to be extra sure, the lens has a lock for the 28mm position. (You’ll never use it!) The 28-300mm is also heavy. It’s 43% heavier than the 18-200mm and half the weight of the 70-200mm. The big difference is that the 28-300mm is compatible with Nikon’s FX (full-frame) bodies. But it only costs $200 more than the 18-200mm ($1,050 list vs. $850 for the newer VR II 18-200mm and $785 for my VR model.) The quality of the image (frame-center) is nearly as good as the 70-200mm, and that really impresses me. You really have to look hard at my 160mm f/5.6 test images to see any difference at all. Of course the huge difference is that the 70-200mm opens wide to f/2.8.
  • And of course the 70-200mm is absolutely gorgeous, particularly at f/2.8. That’s why it’s worth 2x the price and 2x the weight of the 28-300mm.

Bottom line: As a general-purpose lens the 28-300mm is excellent. If you have an FX body or you think you might get one anytime soon, you really don’t have a choice. The 18-200mm just won’t work. But supposed you have a DX body? In that case you need to think about your need for wide-angle coverage and whether you want to add another half pound to your kit. Remember that a 28mm lens on a DX body is like a 42mm lens on a full-frame camera — in other words, a mid-range lens. For me, I’d probably carry the AF-S Nikkor 12-24mm f/4 G ED (DX only) that I just bought used on eBay. I’d have to change lenses for wide-angle shots, so I guess I’d be outside of the “walk-around” criteria, but I think it’s a good two-lens combination for DX shooters.

For now though, the 28-300mm is going back to BorrowLenses.com in ten days, and I’ll stick with my 18-200mm. Still, if I continue to bond with the 28-300mm over these next ten days, one could be on my wish list for Santa next month.

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