We'll look at the main Nikon "standard" zoom lenses (not super telephoto, not ultra-wide), lenses with focal lengths starting from around 18mm. These are general-purpose lenses, good for many types of photography.
There are three different 18-55mm models. The earlier models have been superseded by the 2008 model with VR (image stabilization). If you're buying an 18-55mm secondhand, make sure that it is the VR model. The VR model is sold as a kit lens with the D3000, D3100, D5000, D5100. It receives good ratings from users. The main drawback is the relatively short 55mm at the telephoto end, reducing the amount that you can zoom into the scene.
It's small and light, a good travel lens, for when you're walking around all day. If you're happy with the 55mm, don't feel pressured into getting another lens just because other people are. You can take professional-quality photos with it.
One surprising advantage is that with a 0.31x magnification, it's better for macro than all the other zoom lenses compared here. Though strictly speaking, none of the lenses discussed here are macro lenses.
This is slightly brighter at the telephoto end than the other consumer zooms, but without VR, it's difficult to recommend this lens.
Kit lens for the D90 and D7000. Extending the telephoto end to 105mm, doubles the amount you can zoom in, compared to the 18-55mm.
If you have the 18-55mm and find the 55mm not long enough, this is a serious contender as an upgrade. Drawbacks are a lower 0.2x magnification, and almost double the weight.
Similar to the 18-70mm, without VR it's difficult to recommend this lens. The 135mm telephoto end isn't significantly longer than the 18-105mm.
18-200mm f3.5 to 5.6
There are two versions of this lens. The 2009 model has improved VR (VR II).
I've used the older 2005 version of this lens for a few years, recently switching to the 18-105mm after the VR starting acting up (image would jerk in the viewfinder before autofocusing). I found the images soft (blur) at the telephoto end, so the additional 200mm reach wasn't really usable.
It also had a zoom creep problem. If you hang the camera off your shoulder, gravity will pull on the lens and extend it all the way to 200mm. Which is dangerous because fully extended, the lens is more easily damaged if you knock it. I ended up putting a thick rubber band (sold as a wrist band) around the lens barrel to create enough friction to stop the zoom creep. The 2009 model has a lock to lock the zoom at 18mm, to stop it from creeping. It works, but is inconvenient.
I'd prefer the 18-105mm over the 18-200mm even if both were selling at the same price. As the 18-200mm is actually double the price of the 18-105mm, I would recommend avoiding the 18-200mm.
16-85mm f3.5 to f5.6
The main advantage is an additional 2mm less at the wide-angle end. That's not significant for me, but if you find 18mm not wide enough, this will give you a slight edge. At almost double the price of the 18-105mm, it's difficult to justify getting it instead of the 18-105mm.
This is a "professional" lens. The constant f2.8 maximum aperture is a dead giveaway that it's targeted at professionals. It's also got a professional price tag, a few times more expensive than the other zooms.
It would have been an attractive buy a few years ago, but with the superb high-ISO performance of the new DSLRs, an additional 2x brightness at the wide-angle end and 4x brightness at the telephoto end, isn't as compelling now. Especially when there's no VR on this lens. It also weighs 3/4 of a kilogram!
If you have the cash, I'd recommend getting a second DSLR body instead. Outdoors, you can mount a 55-200mm or 55-300mm on it, together with a kit lens on your first body. Indoors, mount a 50mm (f1.4 or f1.8) or 85mm (f1.4 or f1.8) on it, with the kit lens on the your first body. This two-camera solution plus lens costs more than the f2.8 zoom, but gives you better low-light performance, and a backup body in case one camera fails.
You don't need a large aperture at the wide-angle end, because camera-shake is less, so the kit lens will do nicely. You also want a smaller aperture for wide-angle use, because the wide-angle covers more area and you'll have trouble getting everything in focus (especially photos of a group of people).
When using the 35mm f1.8, I find myself stopping down to f4 when photographing people, even indoors in low light. So the f2.8 isn't much of an advantage over the f3.5 of a 18mm kit lens.
A large aperture is more useful at the telephoto end because camera-shake is magnified. You're also more likely to be photographing a close-up of one or two people. They will more likely to be at the same distance from the camera, so you don't need a large depth of field and can use a large lens aperture.
An f1.4 or f1.8 prime lens will give you an advantage over the f2.8 zoom where it matters: at the telephoto end. An f1.4 lens is 4x brighter than f2.8, f1.8 (practically an f2) is about 2x brighter than f2.8.
The table below summarizes the more important (to me) specifications of the Nikon zoom lenses discussed above. The terms are explained below the table, with an explanation of their importance when choosing a lens.
|Lens||Max. Aperture||VR||Weight (grams)||US List Price||Year||Mount Ring||Focus Scale||Max. Repr. Ratio, Mag.||Kit Lens With||Average Amazon .com rating (max. 5)||Average Fred Miranda .com rating (max. 10)||Average Nikonusa .com rating (max. 5)|
|18-55 mm||f3.5-5.6||no||210||-||2005||plastic||no||1:3.2, 0.31x||-||4.5||-||-|
|18-55 mm II||f3.5-5.6||no||205||$120||2006||plastic||no||1:3.2, 0.31x||-||4||8.8||3.6|
|18-55 mm VR||f3.5-5.6||VR||265||$200||2008||plastic||no||1:3.2, 0.31x||D3000, D3100, D5000, D5100||4.5||8.2||4.1|
|18-70 mm||f3.5-4.5||no||390||$460||2004||metal||yes||1:6.2, 0.16x||-||4||7.9||4.0|
|18-105 mm||f3.5-5.6||VR||420||$400||2008||plastic||no||1:5, 0.2x||D90, D7000||4||8.1||4.3|
|18-135 mm||f3.5-5.6||no||383||-||2006||plastic||no||1:4.2, 0.24x||-||3.5||7.5||-|
|18-200 mm||f3.5-5.6||VR||560||-||2005||metal||yes||1:4.5, 0.22x||-||-||7.9||-|
|18-200 mm VR II||f3.5-5.6||VR||565||$850||2009||metal||yes||1:4.5, 0.22x||-||4.5||-||4.4|
|16-85 mm||f3.5-5.6||VR||485||$700||2008||metal||yes||1:4.6, 0.22x||-||4.5||8.5||4.7|
|17-55 mm||f2.8||no||760||$1540||2003||metal||yes||1:4.6, 0.22x||-||5||9.4||4.6|
How bright the lens is. f2.8 is 2x brighter than f4 (about the same as f3.5), f4 is 2x brighter than f5.6. Consumer zooms are 1-stop (2x) brighter at the wide-angle end, compared to the f5.6 telephoto end. The "professional" 17-55mm f2.8 is 2x brighter than a f3.5-5.6 consumer zoom at the wide end, 4x brighter at the telephoto end.
In my opinion, maximum aperture is less important now than it was a few years ago. The D5100 and D7000 have high-ISO performance that is about 2 or 3-stops (8x) better than earlier DSLRs such as the D300 and D80. This means that a D5100 with a f3.5-5.6 zoom, will have better low-light performance than a D300 with a f2.8 zoom.
A D300 with an f2.8 zoom was perfectly acceptable to professional photographers a few years ago, so a D5100 with a f3.5-5.6 should be more than acceptable, at least in terms of low-light performance.
Vibration Reduction, what Nikon calls their lens stabilization system. Nikon claims 2x to 3x improvement with VR over a non-stabilized lens. At 18mm it allows you to handhold the camera at shutter speeds of 1/8 to 1/15 seconds (at 18mm), compared to 1/30 to 1/60 seconds for a non-VR lens. This means you don't need to use flash, and can use a lower ISO setting on the camera, which reduces the amount of noise in the photo.
VR effectively gives the lens a larger aperture, making a f3.5-5.6 kit zoom equal to a non-stabilized f2.8 professional zoom. There is one limitation. VR will have no effect on motion-blur: unsharp images caused by people moving. To avoid motion-blur, you'll need to use a higher shutter speed (typically 1/30 to 1/60 seconds). An f1.4 or f2.8 lens has an advantage in this situation.
Nikon has an improved VR system, called VR II. Nikon says that this gives an additional 1-stop improvement in reduced camera-shake. You'll need to check the lens specifications to see if the lens has VR or VR II, you can't tell by looking at the name of the lens or the markings on the lens barrel. Confusingly, some lenses are marked "VR II" on the lens barrel. This means that it is version II of the lens, and has VR. It doesn't mean it has VR type II.
The weight of the lens is significant not just because you'll be carrying it on your shoulder. If you're covering an event that lasts a few hours, you'll be lifting the camera and lens to your eye, a few hundred or thousand times. This puts a strain on your fingers and arms. Add an external flash to that, and it gets worse.
US List Price
This is to show the relative price of the lenses. You should check your camera
shop for actual prices.
Lenses don't improve (get outdated) as quickly as camera bodies. A lens that is 10, 20 years old will work fine. The year the lens was introduced is more for comparing different versions of the same basic lens.
To reduce cost, consumer lenses have a plastic mounting ring instead of a metal mounting ring. This is the part of the lens that connects to the camera body. The worry is that if the lens is knocked, the plastic will break off. Some user reviews on the Internet have reported this happening.
If you're using a lens with a plastic mount, make sure that you have a backup lens (like a 35mm f1.8 or 12-24mm f4) that can take the place of the standard zoom without too much trouble. This is especially important if you're covering a one-in-a-lifetime event. Actually it's a good idea to have a backup lens, even if your main zoom has a metal mount.
This is a mechanical window in the lens that shows the distance that the lens is focused to. To reduce cost, consumer lenses don't have this feature.
It's not that important most of the time. It is useful in the rare instances when it's too dark for the camera to autofocus. You can switch on the autofocus assist light on the camera to illuminate the subject, but this draws attention to yourself.
If you have a focus scale, you can guess the distance to the subject and dial the focus in manually. Without the focus scale, you can still focus manually by seeing how clear the image is in the viewfinder, which can be difficult in low light. This kind of manual focus technique works best if you have enough depth of field to cover any focusing errors. This means wide-angle (18mm) and small aperture (f4 and smaller).
Maximum Reproduction Ratio, Magnification
Magnification is easier to understand. Reproduction ratio is simply 1 / magnification.
Magnification is measured relative to the size of the image on the camera's image sensor. For a 1.5x cropped sensor DSLR, the sensor size is 24mm x 16mm.
A 1x magnification means that an object 16mm high, brought in close to the lens, will fill the height of the photo. A 0.25x magnification means that the same object can only be photographed to fill 1/4 of the height of the photo. Moving the object closer to the lens will cause it to be out of focus.
High magnification is useful for taking close-up photos of food, small pets, wedding rings, labels on boxes. It's not important for general photography. For real close-up work, you can add close-up filters to the lens, or use a dedicated macro lens.
Information on lenses compiled from: