Full Review: Nikon AF-S DX 18-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR superzoom

Full Review: Nikon AF-S DX 18-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR superzoom

Nikon AF-S DX 18-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR

This new Nikon lens takes superzooms to a new level but is it one for the road?

Type: Superzoom lens
Price: £850, $1,000
Web: www.nikon.co.uk

The Nikon 18-200mm VR has long been renowned as the best superzoom lens on the market. For a while though, it hasn’t led the field for outright zoom range, losing out to the Sigma 18-250mm and Tamron 18-270mm, both of which have recently had radical redesigns. Nikon has now come up trumps with its new 18-300mm VR, which boasts the biggest zoom range of any SLR lens on the planet.

As a DX format lens, it delivers an effective 27mm focal length at the wide-angle end, stretching to a mighty 450mm of telephoto power. Despite its greater zoom range, it maintains the same maximum apertures of f/3.5-5.6 as the Nikon 18-200mm, which is a useful one-third of a stop faster than both the Sigma and Tamron at the telephoto end. Only the Nikons feature ring-type ultrasonic autofocus, which is faster and quieter than the Sigma and Tamron’s more basic ultrasonic motors. Handling is also more refined as the focus ring doesn’t rotate during autofocus, as well as offering full-time manual focus override.

Same difference?
Other Nikon refinements carried over from the 18-200mm include a weather-seal rubber ring around the lens mount, to guard against moisture and dust. VR II stabilization is highly effective, living up to its four-stop claim and it comes with both Normal and Active modes. It’s particularly useful at the telephoto end, which naturally stretches rather further than the older lens. Yet more similarities, compared with the second edition of the 18-200mm include SIC (Super Integrated Coating) to help reduce ghosting and flare, and a zoom lock switch to stop the lens stretching out through the zoom range when you’re carrying it around.

There are also some notable differences between the two Nikon lenses. The 18-200mm is based on 16 elements in 12 groups, whereas the upsized 18-300mm has 19 elements in 14 groups. Of these, the 18-300mm has three ED (Extra-low Dispersion) elements rather than just two, with an aim to maximise contrast and sharpness. And while both lenses feature a rounded diaphragm to give a smoother appearance to defocused areas in images, the 18-300mm bumps up the number of diaphragm blades from seven to nine, for superior results. Another plus point of the 18-300mm is that it’s free of zoom creep, for which the 18-200mm is somewhat notorious.

Heavyweight champ
Downsizing is a recent trend in superzoom lenses and the latest editions of both the Sigma 18-250mm and Tamron 18-270mm are noticeably smaller and lighter in weight than previous models. At about 88mm in length and around 460g in weight, they’re more akin to standard zoom lenses in these respects, and the filter size is also reduced to just 62mm. Given the suitability of superzooms as travel lenses, it’s a welcome move.

Bucking the trend, the Nikon 18-300mm is substantially bigger and heavier than the 18-200mm, being 23mm longer and weighing in at 830g rather than 565g. As such, it’s about the same size as most FX-format 70-300mm telephoto zoom lenses and heavier than all the most popular options, including the weighty Nikon 70-300mm VR. Couple the 18-300mm with a D7000 body and the combined weight is 1.6kg, so your neck will feel the strain if you’re walking around for hours on end. The filter thread is also upsized from 72mm to 77mm compared with the Nikon 18-200mm.

Ultimately, the deciding factor is whether the lens’s performance is worth the gain in size and weight. Sharpness and contrast are very impressive throughout the zoom range. Sharpness does drop off a bit towards 300mm at f/5.6, but bounces back if you stop down to f/8. Compared with the Nikon 18-200mm, sharpness is actually a little better at maximum telephoto zoom.

Colour fringing is impressively low for a superzoom lens Again, compared with the Nikon 18-200mm, it’s a little more in evidence at the wide-angle end but lower at telephoto settings. Barrel distortion is rather more pronounced at 18mm, and a fair bit worse than with the Sigma 18-250mm or Tamron 18-270mm. Overall though, the new Nikon gives excellent image quality for a superzoom.

Flat lighting test
Flat lighting is a big test for any lens but the 18-300mm VR retains plenty of contrast, as shown here. Sharpness is impressive at all focal lengths and the extreme zoom range is clear to see.

Impressive throughout the zoom range, sharpness is retained particularly well at the telephoto end, beating even the Nikon 18-200mm.
Sharpness at f/8, 18mm: 2292
Sharpness at f/8, 105mm: 2299
Sharpness at f/8, 300mm: 1723

Very respectable for a superzoom, colour fringing is much less noticeable than with most competing lenses, especially at telephoto focal lengths.
Fringing at f/8, 18mm: 0.9
Fringing at f/8, 105mm: 0.61
Fringing at f/8, 300mm: 0.33

A bit worse than with the Nikon 18-200mm, barrel distortion is quite pronounced at 18mm, switching to pincushion that’s most noticeable at around 105mm.
Distortion at 18mm: -4.72
Distortion at 105mm: 2.73
Distortion at 300mm: 1.98

Image quality verdict:
There’s little to choose in image quality between the Nikon 18-300mm and 18-200mm, making the extra zoom range worth having if you don’t mind the lens’s increased price, size and weight.

Overall Score: 4/5