Best standard zoom lens upgrades for Nikon

Splash out on a Nikon DSLR and you generally get the option of buying a complete kit that comes with a standard zoom lens. There’s a lot to be said for the likes of the AF-S DX 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR II kit for DX (APS-C) format cameras and the AF-S 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5G ED VR kit for FX (full-frame) bodies. They’re reasonably compact and lightweight – especially the 18-55mm, with its retractable design – and they deliver good image quality with decent all-round performance. Indeed, you can buy these DX and FX-format lenses separately for around £190/$245 and £440/$500 respectively. However, you could buy better.

One thing that all ‘kit’ lenses tend to lack is a relatively fast aperture rating that remains constant throughout the zoom range. The advantages are two-fold. Firstly, a standard zoom with a constant f/2.8 aperture enables you to maintain faster shutter speeds under dull lighting conditions, at any available focal length. This is typically up to two stops faster than most kit lenses at the long end of the zoom range. You’ll also get more control over depth of field, the wider aperture enabling you to blur the background more and better isolate a close-up subject in a composition. Finally, an extra bonus is that you can shoot in manual mode without worrying that the wide-open aperture might change if you adjust the zoom setting.

The downside of lenses with wider aperture ratings is that they tend to be bulkier and heavier, which can be a problem for travel photography and prolonged periods of handheld shooting. Another issue is that the outright zoom range can be comparatively limited, especially at the telephoto end. Most of the lenses we’ve chosen for this group test, in both DX and FX categories, aim to strike a compromise. 

We've split these lenses into two groups: those designed for Nikon's APS-C (DX) format DSLRs and those designed for full frame (FX format) Nikons. You can use full frame standard zooms on a DX body, but the effective focal length becomes 1.5x longer so they lose their usefulness.

Spoiler alert

For build quality, handling and outright performance, Nikon leads the way in both DX and FX camps, with the 16-80mm VR and 24-70mm VR lenses respectively.

Read on to find out more...

DX-format lenses

1. Nikon AF-S DX 16-80mm f/2.8-4E ED VR

The most up-market DX-format zoom on test

Effective zoom range: 24-120mm | Lens construction: 17 elements in 13 groups | No. of diaphragm blades: 7 | Minimum focus distance: 0.35m | Filter size: 72mm | Dimensions: 80x86mm | Weight: 480g

Big zoom range
Build quality and handling
Short zoom distortion and fringing
Long zoom sharpness

The perfect match for high-performance DX bodies like the D7500 and D500, this is the most advanced DX-format lens in the group. Up-market features include an electromagnetically controlled diaphragm, ring-type ultrasonic autofocus and a weather-sealed mounting plate. It also has the biggest zoom range, going more wide-angle than the other DX lenses and offering the greatest reach. Typical ring-type ultrasonic attractions include fast and near-silent operation, with full-time manual override. The optical path includes four ED (Extra-low Dispersion) elements, Nano Crystal Coating for reducing ghosting and flare, plus fluorine coatings on the front and rear elements to repel muck and moisture. While build quality and handling are the best of any DX-format lens here, performance admittedly leaves a bit to be desired in some areas.

2. Sigma 17-70mm f/2.8-4 DC Macro OS HSM | C for Nikon

Newer and smaller, but with a bigger zoom range

Effective zoom range: 25.5-105mm | Lens construction: 16 elements in 14 groups | No. of diaphragm blades: 7 | Minimum focus distance: 0.22m | Filter size: 72mm | Dimensions: 79x82mm | Weight: 465g

Compact and lightweight
Four stop optical stabilizer
Focus ring rotates during autofocus
Centre-sharpness not the best

Part of the ‘Contemporary’ class models from Sigma’s ‘Global Vision’ line-up, this lens is designed to be compact, lightweight and stylish. It lacks the older Sigma lens’s constant-aperture rating, but matches its f/2.8 rating at the short end of the zoom range, while only shrinking to f/4 at the long end. That’s still an f/stop faster than most kit lenses. As with the Sigma 17-50mm lens, autofocus is based on an ultrasonic motor, and the focus ring rotates during autofocus, so you have to be careful to keep your fingers clear. Other similarities are the inclusion of two FLD elements and a four-stop optical stabilizer. Lab test results for centre-sharpness aren’t quite as good as from the Sigma 17-50mm, but levels of sharpness are much more consistent across the whole image frame.

3. Tamron SP AF 17-50mm f/2.8 XR Di II VC LD for Nikon

This old-school zoom still has something to offer

Effective zoom range: 25.5-75mm | Lens construction: 19 elements in 14 groups | No. of diaphragm blades: 7 | Minimum focus distance: 0.29m | Filter size: 72mm | Dimensions: 80x95mm | Weight: 570g

Vibration compensation
Fast, constant aperture
Noisy autofocus motor
Corner-sharpness suffers

Now eight years old, this Tamron lens combines a fast, constant f/2.8 aperture with VC (Vibration Compensation) stabilization. It competes directly with the Sigma 17-50mm for zoom range, aperture rating and stabilization, and is almost exactly the same size and weight. However, the Tamron has a smaller filter thread of 72mm, lacks a soft case, and has a more basic electric autofocus motor. The optical path includes an XR (eXtra Refractive Index) element, two LD (Low Dispersion) elements and BBAR (Broad-Band Anti-Reflection) anti-reflective coatings. Autofocus speed is a little quicker than in the DX-format Sigma lenses, but the motor is comparatively noisy. Again, the focus ring rotates during autofocus and there’s no full-time manual override. Centre-sharpness is excellent at short to mid zoom settings but corner-sharpness is relatively poor at both ends of the zoom range.

4. Sigma 17-50mm f/2.8 EX DC OS HSM for Nikon

It packs a punch at a penny-pinching price

Effective zoom range: 25.5-75mm | Lens construction: 17 elements in 13 groups | No. of diaphragm blades: 7 | Minimum focus distance: 0.28m | Filter size: 77mm | Dimensions: 84x92mm | Weight: 565g

Compact design
Good contrast and centre-sharpness
Lacking weather-seals
Autofocus speed

Both of the Sigma DX-format lenses on test have ultrasonic motor-based autofocus systems. While not as fast as most ring-type ultrasonic systems, and while lacking in full-time manual override, the relatively small motor does enable a compact build. Even so, this is the chunkier of the two Sigma lenses and, at 565g, is 100g heavier than the 17-70mm. It beats the other Sigma DX lens in terms of having a constant-aperture f/2.8 rating, but falls shorter in maximum telephoto reach. It’s also an older design with an ‘EX’ designation, denoting ‘professional grade’ build quality, although the standard of construction doesn’t feel any more robust than that of the newer 17-70mm lens, and neither have any weather-seals. Helped by two FLD (Fluorite-grade Low Dispersion) elements, contrast and centre-sharpness are good throughout the zoom range.