Nikon 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 G ED-IF AF-S VR DX Zoom-Nikkor Lens

Reviewed by: Howard Carson, August 2006
Manufactured by: Nikon Canada, Nikon USA
Requires: Any Nikon digital SLR camera; we reviewed the lens mainly with Nikon D200 and D70S cameras
MSRP: US$899.00, CAN$899.00

The competitive heat in the digital SLR camera market is felt nowhere more keenly than it is in the regular battles waged between Nikon and Canon: DX sensor vs. full frame sensor, the Nikon 'look' vs. the Canon 'look', Nikon ergonomics vs. Canon ergonomics—the annual battles are wonderful for the industry because the end result for consumers has been the design and production of better cameras and better lenses from both great companies. Every so often, one of them steals a march on the other. This time, Nikon seems to have surged ahead in the lens category.

The Nikon 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 G ED-IF AF-S VR DX Zoom-Nikkor lens is a compact zoom which, despite its small size, aspires to be something akin to it's bigger, beefier and significantly more expensive brethren. In fact, there is nothing from any lens maker (including Canon, Sigma, Tamron, Tokina, Olympus, Pentax, Leica or Sony) which covers the 18-200mm zoom range at this quality level with or without vibration reduction (VR). I tested the lens with four cameras: D50, D70, D70S and my own D200.

The 18-200mm focal length mated with Nikon's small format DX image sensor is equivalent to a 27-300mm lens in 35mm format. That means you get in one relatively compact package a wide angle, a long telephoto and everything in between. The maximum aperture ranges from f/3.5 at 18mm to f/5.6 at 200mm. The minimum aperture available is f/22-36 depending on the usual factors (ISO setting, aperture, lighting conditions, shutter speed and zoom level). The lens assembly consists of 16 elements in 12 groups (including two ED glass elements and three aspherical elements). The picture angle ranges from 76°-8° depending on zoom level. The minimum focus distance is 1.6' (0.5 m). Focus adjustment is internal which means that a circular polarizer can be attached and used properly. Attachment size is 72mm.


I put the lens through its paces over a period of two weeks, shooting mainly in downtown Toronto, downtown Buffalo, NY, and Niagara Falls. I also supervised some use of the lens by a professional studio photographer who does quite a bit of his work with Nikon D2x and D200 bodies. To say that both of us were delighted with the results we got with this lens sits in stark contrast to the negative attitude we both had going into the test and review period. Frankly, and despite the favorable, highly complimentary reviews of this lens by Ken Rockwell and other pros, I doubted that even Nikon (with its long standing and powerful influence in the lens making business) could actually produce a reasonably priced VR lens in this zoom range and at this high quality level. Color me wrong. The lens is terrific.

Let me confess to some other unreasonable attitudes. It took at least three days of shooting for me to get over the idea that the lens could not possibly produce great shots simply because it doesn't have the bazooka-like weight of my Nikkor f/2.8 70-200mm VR zoom—3.9 lbs (1.4kg) vs. 1.5lbs (.5kg) for the 18-200mm. The bazooka literally weighs more than my 12-24mm wide angle and the 18-200mm put together. The quality I get out of the bazooka is a bit better than I get out of the 18-200mm, but it's an occasional difference that can usually only be appreciated by picky professional photographers.

At the shorter end of the zoom range—say, between 18 and 55mm—the lens is not quite as razor sharp when compared with the stunning results you can get from the Nikon 35mm f/2.0 AF or Canon 35mm f/1.4L USM pro lenses. In the middle of the zoom range however, I was surprised at how well my results compared to the Nikon 50mm f/1.4 and 85mm f/1.4 and the Canon 50mm f/1.4 USM and 85mm f/1.8 lenses. With VR turned on, it's possible in some shots to detect a slight softening of the subject, but the base image is so good to begin with that it's debatable whether or not even the pickiest professional photographer will give a damn. The lens excels at the long end too. Shooting high contrast images in bright sunlight, I was able to easily capture pleasingly sharp, detailed, beautifully exposed shots, VR on, handheld at all apertures, at around 1/50 of second while zoomed to 180mm and 200mm. Once again, the lens was wonderful, although not quite up to producing the stunning results you can get from the Nikon AF-S VR 200mm f/2.0 IF-ED or Canon EF 200mm f/2.8L II USM prime lenses.

Some of you may think that the foregoing comparison is not favorable at all. Let me be clear on this point however: the results a competent photographer can get from the Nikon 18-200mm lens look to most eyes identical to the results that the same professionals get from the aforementioned prime lenses. The main difference? The Nikon 18-200mm lens costs $899.00, and covers more than the range of focal lengths represented by all of the primes listed above put together. The total cost for the primes (35mm, 50mm, 85mm and 200mm) is a staggering $6,000.00 or more. So this 18-200mm represents an incredible value at this quality level. Better than all that, the results that casual shooters, hobbyists and talented amateurs can easily get out of this lens are absolutely smashing.

For all you dedicated lens hounds, I found the sweet spot from f/5.6 through f/16 between 20-180mm. In other words, this one has a very big sweet spot that is aided and abetted by the VR and genuinely good quality glass. Bokeh (out of focus background) is lovely courtesy of Nikon's excellent coatings as well as the nine-blade aperture. Lens flare, ghosting and chromatic aberration are all minimal, allowing great sunset shots among other things, as well as a range of versatility from a single lens that is unique in the SLR world. There's some barrel distortion which is noticeable on wide shots containing parallel horizontals, but it's well controlled. The lens is very sharp across the entire diameter and resolves fine detail and color extremely well in a wide variety of lighting conditions.

Cons: Could we please get this one in an f/2.8 version? Nikon did not anticipate the enormous demand for this lens and still has order backlogs around the world. In Nikon's defense, it would have been difficult to predict the kind of wild popularity generated by the development and release of this lens. As long as Nikon is supplying the demand at the usual manufacturing pace while maintaining the highest quality, we'll forgive and forget. Nikon has to make up it's mind about where the zoom and focus rings are placed. My 17-55mm f/2.8 lens has a zoom ring at the rear of the barrel. But the zoom ring on the 18-200mm lens is at the front of the barrel. The change in placement must have something to do with the internal positioning and operation of the VR mechanism inside the 18-200mm lens barrel.

Pros: The Nikon 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 G ED-IF AF-S VR DX Zoom-Nikkor lens is well made, operates smoothly and works in a range of lighting and subject conditions that makes a lot of other lenses look very bad indeed by comparison. This is a terrific lens which can provide you with the help you need to capture great shots in normal conditions and great shots in conditions which might otherwise prevent you from even considering a shot in the first place. We love vibration reduction in all its forms these days, simply because the latest versions of VR work so well. Having both VR modes (normal and active) on a compact zoom lens of this quality makes me wonder how often I'm going to bother hauling around anything other than this one, my 12-24mm wide angle zoom, and a few filters. Despite traditional wisdom to the contrary, it has been possible for quite some time to make a compact zoom lens of very high quality, and this one is a shining example of how well it can be done. Its light weight is a blessing for pro photographers who have to lug around a bag full of gear all day, and a delight for avid photography hobbyists and travelers who've always dreamed of getting the quality shots out of the best SLR camera bodies without the usual heavy load of lenses. Match it up with a D50, D70, D70S, D100 or a D200 and have more fun than I can describe. The lens is a delight and we shed a tear when it had to be packed up and sent back to Nikon. Kudos to Nikon. This one is a winner. Highly recommended.

KSN Product Rating:



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