Zoom Lenses For Nikon 'F' Mount: Medium Long to Telephoto Range
Evaluations By Bjørn Rørslett
For rating criteria, please see the Lens Survey Page
Note: Many zoom lenses possess front filter threads that rotate while the lens is focused. This often is annoying if you want to use a polarising filter, for example. Whenever a zoom lacks this trait it is explicitly stated.
More frequently than other lenses, zooms do display product variability and you may have to test several before getting a perfect sample. This results because of their complex optical design. Remember that such lenses also would be more susceptible to knocks and blows than are primes, so treat them with real care.
[test lens version(s) given]
|Zoom-Nikkor 50-300 mm f/4.5 ED
|Nikon surprised everyone
with this remarkable 6X zoom in the mid 60's, and the
last version from 1977 (AI) incorporating an ED element
is by far the best of all. By the way, it still is on the
Nikon lens list. It is a very big and heavy lens, and
most people would never even think of using it hand-held.
On a tripod, however, it's a joy to use and probably
should be considered the ultimate "travelling"
lens when you tour the countryside by car. Images
delivered by this zoom lens are very sharp and quite
contrasty at all focal length settings, although close to
the near limit at 2.5 m the longest settings (200 mm and
up) soften a little in the corners. Optical aberrations
are well controlled and colour fringing isn't a big issue
with this lens although traces can be seen at the 300 mm
setting. There is, however, quite noticeable light
fall-of in the corners that largely disappear by
f/5.6-f/8. At all focal lengths, a setting of f/11 will
yield maximum sharpness. The front element is susceptible
to stray light and flares easily. Likewise, flare and
ghosting can be a problem when shooting into the sun. The
front lens assembly can be misaligned if the lens is
subjected to heavy knocks and blows from the side - if
this happens, the lens needs to be reassembled to a
proper orientation again. My sample had to have the front
lens group replaced before top result could be produced.
It is now quickly becoming one of my favourite lenses for
the D1 because of its tremendous versatility, and the
vignetting is less of a problem with this camera also.
This venerable old-timer
zoom lens continues to have surprises up its optical
sleeves. Thus, it gives outstandingly sharp images when a
D1X or D2X is hooked up to it. Gone is the slight greyish
cast that characterises images captured with it on F5,
and the increase in recorded sharpness is very evident
when film is replaced by the high-resolution CMOS of D2X.
It deservedly gets a top '5' (Excellent) rating for use
on the D2X, but be aware that you might occasionally need
to clean the image for CA vestiges when the lens is shot
around 300 mm. The image contrast is slightly lower than
found on more modern zoom designs and this may be an
advantage for some areas of image-making. And still I
find it one of the best-handling lenses ever for tripod
work. Come to think of it, there simply isn't any better.
This old-timer is a remarkable performer on the D2X, and with this camera you in fact get surprisingly sharp images even at f/22 - f/32. Conventional theory would have it results should be destroyed by diffraction (and the small pixel pitch of D2X), but since D2X and the 50-300 ED are jolly mates and not too keen on theory, they don't care about such wisdom at all. Perhaps this observation indicates there is a need for an update of the current way of thinking based on film heritage.
However, on the D3, the performance of the 50-300ED no longer is top notch. Muddiness creeps in and the corner perfomance suffers. A pity but such is real life.
|AFS 55-200 mm f/4-5.6 Nikkor ED G VR DX||
that there are two versions of the 55-200, this review
only covers the last VR model.
This is a plain consumer-oriented item, evidenced by its plasticy build even down to having a plastic lens mount, plus a thin and hard-to-reach collar for manual focusing to the front of the assembly. AF action is not very fast, so the "S" of the "AFS" designation applies to Silence, not Speed like the professional AFS designs. Please don't drop the lens as it is likely to disintegrate upon impact!
Such a light-feathered lens does not balance well on a D2x, but would fit a D40/40x or D50 perfectly. If you bite the bullet and apply AF focusing and VR operation, the lens in fact can deliver quite nice images. Colour rendition is clearly more muted than with ordinary ED glass and image contrast lacks the sparkle of more expensive lenses. Flare can also be an issue, in particular towards the long end so leave the lens shade on. You can spot some CA issues too, but I've seen much worse.
However, given that you swallow your pride and put the lens to its intended use (a vehicle for acquiring photographic pictures), you might be surprised by the quite sharp images delivered by this modest zoom lens. Putting the lens to around f/8 seems to work best at all focal settings. You can get decent close-ups as well, but in this case f/11 or so would add better "bite" to the picture.
A final warning is that being a DX design, this lens won't work that well on FX cameras.
|AFS 70-200 mm f/2.8 G ED-IF VR||
improvement over the AFS 80-200/2.8 and the AF
80-400/4.5-5.6 VR lens, this newcomer is a landmark
achievement, and is clearly slated to be a legendary
Nikkor (despite its "G" design, which I don't
Compared to the others, it is surprisingly small and neat in its outward appearance. It shows excellent workmanship and handles impeccably, thanks to a nice balance with a D1-series camera, and controls which are well laid-out. The VR function works splendidly, and AF speed is up among the very best. Even the tripod collar is sufficient, and the scalloped, flower-shaped lens hood has a nice locking button. These are small but significant details, which indicate Nikon has listened to user feed-back re the earlier medium-range zoom lenses.
Images are rendered with
the enhanced colour saturation and high contrast typical
for ED optics. On a D1-series camera there is virtually
no light fall-off across the frame even at f/2.8
(probably would show up on a F5), and sharpness wide-open
is very good, improving further at f/4-f/11. Bokeh is
superb, the out-of-focus areas being rended with that
exquisite creaminess so often missing from lesser lenses.
Vibration Reduction (VR) functions very well, being highly responsive, and allows me to take adequately sharp images (at 200 mm) at speeds as low as 1/10 sec hand-held (I'm notorious for my shaking hands). When switched to "Active" mode, VR constantly tracks lens movements, and the viewfinder image may jitter quite visibly, thus easily causing some nausea if you are susceptible to sea-sickness (like me). The lens handles panning with ease and there is no setting to this end. (VR feasibility on a tripod is covered in the pending full review).
The 70-200 VR excels in producing some of the most pleasing and beautiful bokeh I've ever seen with a Nikkor lens. Thus, the out-of-focus areas are depicted as silky smooth, and without any trace of harshness. Test shooting indicates that the VR setting may influence bokeh so to achieve the very best results, be sure to turn VR off.
A full review is found here. Note this applies to DX cameras only.
On the D3, however, issues occur with this lens. A certain amount of vignetting when the lens is set wide open is both to be expected and indeed readily visible. But stopping down one or two clicks resolves that issue nicely. The centre sharpness is excellent even on the D3, but the tendency for the corners lacking critical sharpness when the lens is focused towards infinity at its longer end is unexpected and troublesome. For landscapes at 200 mm, you need to stop down way too far to get the corners just barely acceptable, even to f/22 in some cases. I think the covering power of this slim design simply is not adequate for a good performance across the entire FX frame, at least towards the 200 mm setting. For PJ-style work or for studio and portraiture, this flaw is tolerable, but not for landscapes. Nikon really needs to come up with a Mk.II model of this general-purpose zoom lens.
|AF 70-210 mm f/4 Nikkor||
*not same sample as with D1x
|One of the
earliest AF designs, this modestly specified zoom lens
aims clearly at satisfying the amateur ranks. Zooming is
a breeze with the huge collar occupying the better part
of the lens barrel, but manual focusing is pitifully
served by a tiny ring at the very front of the lens
Compared to the contemporary offerings of this kind, this oldtimer is much better built, but unfortunately its optical performance is nothing to write home about. Images are markedly soft at wide apertures and only get acceptable at f/8-f/11 or so. Colours are rendered in muted hues and lack the sparkle of the better lenses. Some colour fringing occurs all over the zooming range to become more troublesome for close-ups.
Another sample, this time deployed on the D2X, showed a better performance, in particular towards the wide end or with distant subjects. Sharpness in fact for landscape work was quite good at 70mm. However, for close subjects, in "macro" settings, and with the lens set to the longer focal lengths, chromatic aberration entered in force and image contrast declined.
So, sample variation is evidently in play with this lens. Both copies I've used looked almost pristine, so quality cannot be gleaned from the external looks - another manifestation of that ubiquitous truth.
|AF 70-300 mm f/4-5.6 G||
|The first of
its kind, in the "G" line of Nikkors without
aperture collar, the light-weight silver-coloured 70-300
is really only suited for the consumer-type Nikon model.
It has a very narrow focusing collar placed near its
front end, and the rest of the exterior is taken by a
large zoom control. A plastic lens mount and general
wobbliness clearly show this is a consumer lens. Combined
with its feather weight making it prone to vibration,
this means it isn't sitting comfortably on professional
Nikons. Hand-holding the lens and trusting its AF are the
only feasible operational options, which don't suit me.
Optically speaking, the 70-300 isn't really that bad and given you avoid shooting distant subjects with the lens set to the longer focal lengths, quite decent image quality can be obtained. You need to stop down a bit, to f/8 or so, to get the best quality. Colour fringing is not a big problem despite the lack of ED glass, but colour saturation won't reach up to ED lenses.
|AFS 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 ED VR G||
(DX: D200 modified)
|This lens is
a further development of an affordable all-in-one zoom
lens for the keen amateurs, and they get good value for
their money too. The 70-300 delivers crisp and sharp
images all along its zooming range, and the VR adds
further practical usefulness to it (so would of course a
faster speed, but then the lens would not be this
compact, nor affordable). There is mild barrel distortion
on the short end that quickly changes into the pincushion
type, and this is manifestedly visible beyond 200 mm.
My main gripe is the presence of chromatic aberrations that creep in towards the telephoto end and since they comprise both the red-cyan and the blue-yellow type, removing them in post-processing takes a little patience and might demand more efforts than the average user is prepared to apply to his or her image files.
Otherwise, the lens handles quite nicely even on the D3, and the dedicated long lens hood reduced flare too. Set the lens to f/5.6-f/8 at the short end and around f/8-f/11 at the long end to extract maximum image quality from it.
IR: the 70-300 VR does work quite well for IR photography. No hot spots occur and the amount of focus shift is not immense either. Since its IR transmission seems to drop quickly towards longer wavelengths, using it with a weak 89B-type filter (Hoya R72 or similar) is recommended.
|75-150 mm f/3.5 Nikon Series E Zoom||4.5
|This modest lens, harking back to the Nikon EM glorious days of the early 80's, has deservedly got a reputation for its excellent quality. It is a one-touch zoom design where the focusing collar moves freely with little or no resistance at all to make working with the 75-150 fast and easy. In common with many other longish zooms it's a splendid performer when close-up lenses are added to its 52 mm front thread. I prefer to set the apertures in the f/8-f/11 range to obtain optimum sharpness. Beware of flare when it is pointed towards the sun, though.|
|AF 75-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 Nikkor||
|This popular zoom clearly is aimed at the amateur market. There is a small and flimsy tripod collar that is unable to support the lens if an F4 or F5 is mounted. The focusing collar is situated in front of the lens and is difficult to operate if focusing is done manually. To top it all, the front rotates during focusing so adding a polarizer is awkward and inconvenient. Close-up lenses can of course be screwed into the front thread, but do little to enhance image quality. On its own, the 75-300 gives acceptably sharp images, but the quality at the long end isn't that impressive. There is no ED glass here so colour fringing at the tele settings can be quite visible. Flare and ghosting can seriously degrade image rendition, too. As a traveller's lens, the 75-300 can be pressed into service with passable results, but I for one would rather have a better lens or even carry two additional lenses to cover this focal range. It all boils down to preferences and taste.|
|Zoom-Nikkor 80-200 mm f/2.8 ED
|One of the
true classics of the 1980's, the manual-focus 80-200 is
extraordinary in every aspect: Optical performance,
workmanship, rarity, and sheer bulk. This kind of
exquisite quality is unlike almost anything seen today.
However, weighing in at nearly 2 kg this isn't something
you would like to do hand-held photography with, which
taken together with its elevated price might explain why
it quickly was discontinued.
The geometric distortion is unusually modest going from a trace of barrel at 80 mm to just detectable pincushion at 200 mm. The image rendition is vividly saturated and crisp at all aperture settings although the smallest f/22-f/32 do soften the image a little by diffraction. Flare and ghosting are remarkably well under control considered the state-of-art optics comprising 15 elements in 11 groups, but if you are intent on getting your share of flare and ghosts, then you assuredly can fulfil your need just by pointing the lens into the sun.
|AF-ED 80-200 mm f/2.8 Nikkor
|4-4.5||Nikon have redesigned the popular 80-200 ED several times, both externally and internally with its optical formula. The first versions lacked a tripod collar, a feature that was added to the later models, and was a one-touch design. The current model is the nicest of them all having a two-ring design, but the tripod collar is a bit too small to support the lens when it is mounted on an F5. All models achieve very good or excellent image quality, share some vignetting and corner light fall-off at large apertures, and exhibit some pincushion distortion at the long end of the zooming range. At f/5.6-f/8 you are assured of getting excellent imagery.|
|AFS 80-200 mm f/2.8 Nikkor ED-IF||4.5
(refer to text)
model of the 80-200 line incorporates a silent-wave motor
and internal focusing to make it the fastest focusing of
them all. This is achieved by increasing the bulk and
price of this quite impressive lens, which is outfitted
with a removable and just marginally acceptable tripod
collar. Because the collar flexes when a heavy camera
such as F5 is attached to the lens, impeccable technique
is needed to secure sharp images with a tripod-mounted
Some vignetting darkens the corners at f/2.8 and this needs stopping a bit to improve, f/5.6 settles the score in this respect. Corner fall-off is most evident at the short focal setting, but some vestiges still occur at 200 mm. Geometric distortion is as expected a mild barrel type at 80 mm going to slight pincushion at the other end. Avoid the very extremes of the zoom range if architecture is your preferred line of work, otherwise distortion shouldn't be an issue at all.
Image quality is excellent even at f/2.8 to improve further at f/5.6-f/8. Usefully sharp images were obtained at f/16, too. Colour saturation is superb thanks to no less than 5 ED elements in the optical design and this zoom is virtually devoid of colour fringing.
AFS makes the lens focus quite fast and noise during focusing is low. There are 4 AF focus locking buttons around the front of the lens, but I for one fail to see their usefulness (other people's mileage may vary, though). Focus hunting was minimal on my D1 and F5 cameras. Lens flare and ghosting are evils that the huge scalloped hood, with some success, tries to cure. I found the lens hood kept snow away from the front while shooting under rough winter conditions, so keep the hood on at all times.
Were this zoom to be shipped with a decent tripod collar, it would get a top "5" rating - for now, a "4.5" rating is all I can give. Still an excellent optical performer, though.
|Zoom-Nikkor 80-200 mm f/4
|The successor to the
famous f/4.5 80-200 offered 1/3 stop higher speed and
focused closer, to 1.2 m vs. 1.8 m for the old version.
It achieved all this with an additional lens element and
a significant increase in bulk to make it less easy to
apply for hand-held shooting. The external appearance of
its forerunner was upheld and it works very smoothly with
auxiliary lenses. Due to the increase in filter size from
52 to 62 mm, a 6T lens is needed instead of the former 4T
unit. By adding a close-up lens, near life-size
magnification can be obtained.
This lens performs poorer on the D2X than with a silver-halide based camera. Colour fringing is very evident, so is veiling flare at wide apertures. Using the 80-200 in combination with a close-up lens isn't recommended on the D2X because colour fringing is unacceptable.
|Zoom-Nikkor 80-200 mm f/4.5
|4||This is the zoom that changed many people's attitude towards zoom lens quality. A beautifully crafted one-ring zoom, it was the dream lens of all Nikon users in the early 70's. Even with its 15-element design it delivered outstandingly sharp pictures. The only criticism was its propensity for ghosting when used for shooting into the sun. The final version presented in 1977 used only 12 elements to give still better optical quality. Flare and ghosting performance was improved as well, but high-contrast scenes still are tough to handle for multi-element zooms. The 80-200/4.5 performs great with close-up lenses, such as the 4T, and I have used it extensively this way for flower and insect photography.|
|AF Zoom-Nikkor 80-200 mm f/4.5-5.6 D||
light-weight, plastic design for the low-end market
segment, this 80-200 functions quite nicely as long as
you don't drop it. Manual focusing is difficult due to
the very narrow focusing collar located in front of the
Optically, quite decent results are obtained if you are not nitpicking too much. There are traces of chromatic aberration across the entire frame which the targeted users likely won't notice at all, and sharpness should cater adequately for their needs as well. At f/8 or thereabouts, the best image quality is found. Image contrast is lower than I'm used to see in my professional lenses and colour saturation is slightly muted (neither trait hardly surprising). There is very slight barrel distortion at the short end of the zoom range and more evident pincushion on the long end.
and stubby lens introduces VR (Vibration Reduction)
technology to the Nikon lens. It is also equipped with
optical enhancement such as ED glass (3 elements), but
lacks an AF-S feature. Autofocus operated quite fast on
my D1 (but much more sluggish than an AFS lens, of
course), and noise levels during focusing were moderate.
Under low light conditions, some focus hunting occurred,
though. There is a removable tripod collar of the
identical cantilevered design recently sported by the AFS
300/4, but somewhat improved in quality compared to the
first version of that 300 lens. It still needs a redesign
and I'm amazed why such poor designs appear in the first
One wouldn't normally get too excited about another slowish zoom, its ED glass notwithstanding. But the claims about VR benefits sounded too good to be true. I'm happy to report they evidently hold in practice. Thus, I obtained sharp images with the lens hand-held at 1/15 sec and racked all the way to the 400 mm setting. And my hands are not among the steady ones, either. Thus, VR technology can alleviate camera shake to a unprecedented degree and works well in panning mode, too. However, VR unfortunately is not compatible with tripod operation of the lens. Use on a monopod evidently is preferable.
The 80-400 VR delivered crisp and sharp images with high contrast over the entire zoom range. There is slight barrel distortion at the short end, accompanied with the inevitable pincushion distortion at the long end, but distortion levels were all over surprisingly low. There are just vestiges of colour fringing to be detected in the out-of-focus areas. Peak performance occurred at f/11 for either short or long zoom settings.
A full review of the 80-400 VR is found here.
|Zoom-Nikor 100 - 300 mm f/5.6 (AIS)||
zoom lens is targeted at the keen enthusiast, who prefers
to snap away hand-held pictures. Thus, the lens doesn't
come with a tripod collar. With a modest speed of f/5.6
the 100-300 obviously is most suitable for sunny vacation
days. It performs quite well and delivers sharp images
with a healthy contrast despite the lack of ED glass. The
images are sharp from f/5.6 to f/16 and even f/22 holds
up quite well. However, the critical user might detect an
increased presence of chromatic aberration towards the
tele end of the range. Nothing that cannot easily be
fixed during post-processing, though.
The real surprise of the 100-300, however, comes when you put a close-up lens onto its front threads. I employed my standard Nikon 6T (reverse-mounted) and was absolutely floored by the high quality close-ups produced by this combination. High image sharpness and contrast, perfectly flat field, and virtually no CA are features you associate with an expensive Micro-Nikkor, not a makeshift combination of a achromatic attachment and a consumer zoom lens. Food for some real thoughts.
Recent field test show that the missing tripod collar in conjunction with the long build of the 100-300 can introduced some vibrations when the lens is used with a tripod-mounted camera. This is plainly visible for close-ups, so consider using a flash to cut exposure times to ensure better sharpness. I have adjusted the ratings of this lens according to these findings.
|Zoom-Nikkor 180-600 mm f/8 ED||
|Nikon actively developed long telephoto zoom
lenses in the mid '70s and the rare 180-600 was amonst
the first of these designs. It stayed long in the product
line, but only as a special order item.
As common with other expensive lenses from this era, workmanship is first class. That extends even to its cantilevered tripod foot, that for once is really sturdy due to its dimension in conjunction with a generously size of the rotating collar hold the lens barrel. Nothing here reminds me of the disasters introduced by the AFS 300/4 and AF 80-400 VR decaders later. Food for thought.
The lens is long and quite heavy, weighing approx. 3.2 kg without a lens hood. Focusing and zooming is by a combined huge one-ring collar which can be locked for a given focal setting. Compared to modern lenses it can't come up to their speed of handling, but that doesn't prevent it from delivering very sharp images with excellent colour saturation and contrast. There is the merest vestiges of CA found along high-contrast transitions, and all over the images peak in quality when the 180-600 is stopped down to f/11-f/16. At f/22, some softening of the details is noticeable and the diffraction cuts even more of fine detail at f/32.
My sample is the very scarce pre-AI model without external meter coupling. Adding a customised CPU to the lens changes it into a peculiar "G" model so you can set the aperture you want on the lens, dial in that value with the command wheel on the camera, and then go on shooting without any further considerations.
A total of some 650 units, all versions, were produced between 1975 and 2000. Most samples are AIS so will couple to the metering system.
|Zoom-Nikkor 200 - 400 mm f/4 ED||
|This zoom lens, only available for a short
period in the mid 1980's, probably has the best build and
workmanship of any Nikkor seen and used by me. For its time the design was
revolutionary and incorporated no less than 4 ED glasses
out of the total 15 elements in 10 groups. It isn't an IF
design and thus grows considerably in length while
focused down to the near limit at 4 m. Zooming is
performed by a generously sized and smoothly moving
collar. Focusing is quite stiff on my sample, not
surprisingly given it had stood the better part of 20
years unused on a shelf. A substantial massive L-shaped
tripod foot secures the lens atop a tripod. Incidentally,
due to the physical size and 3.6 kg weight of this zoom
lens (plus a heavy all-metal lens hood), the tripod needs
to be very robust and stable to handle the load. The
200-400 really springs into action atop a heavy-duty
tripod such as Sachtler ENG-2 series.
Image quality is really impressive and I understand well why this lens became an insider's tip for nature photographers during the late 1980's. In fact, the lens sold second-hand for several times its initial price, and was keenly sought after by wildlife photographers. Production was limited and not that many of them have been available, a fact not exactly driving the price level down.
The results at f/4 are very good and get even better by stopping down a little. Compared to its newer AF counterpart, the manual lens has much fewer elements, 15 vs 24, and this ensures a high image contrast and with all the ED glass inside, colours are rendered with vivid saturation. I purchased this lens with an aim of using it for landscapes, since non-IF lenses often have less out-of-focus colour fringing. So far, my results substantiate this assumption.
On D200, I obtained slightly less convincing results than with my D2X. I never found out why before my D200 was converted to be a UV-only body. Also on the new FX-format D3, the images acquired lack some of the sparkle and magic seen on the D2X. However, the high-resolution D3X brought back the snap and punch I missed from the D3.
IR performance: Very crisp and sharp IR images are obtained with the Fuji S3 Pro UVIR camera. Not the slightest vestiges of a hot spot can be seen. You do need to use an IR gel since the rear filter drawer won't permit filters with ordinary thickness, or be insane enough to purchase a 122mm filter for the front threads.
200- 400 mm f/4 ED-IF VR G Nikkor
|This might well be the finest long
zoom lens I've ever tested. The image quality delivered
by the 200-400 is absolutely marvellous and should put
the legendary predecessor MF 200-400 f/4 Nikkor to a
deserved rest (well, almost. See above for the manual
The lens is physically quite long, built with a craftmanship often lacking from other current "pro" Nikkors. However, the lettering should be engraved, not just printed, on such an expensive lens.
The 200-400 balances nicely on its tripod mount. Thanks to the IF feature, the length is constant at all settings. The tripod mount is barely adequate, and I'd like to see it improved further since this lens is quite pliable due to its overall length and weak foot
Environmental sealing is
provided by a rubber gasket in the rear. There is a
generously sized zooming collar to the rear of the lens
and the focusing collar is moved in front of that, and
set off by a wider diameter. There are a plethora of
control buttons for AF lock (in front of the lens),
memory reset (sic!), sound warning on/off, AF range, VR
mode (normal, active, as on the 70-200 VR lens), and so
With the FX cameras, the 200-400 delivers crisply defined images, but one should watch out for corner vignetting in particular towards the short enbd of the zooming range.
Last Update 15 January, 2009