Recumbent Review: The Seriously Versatile AF-S DX Nikkor 18-200mm 3.5-5.6G ED VR

After about 24 hours of being in transit, I took this photo from a moving car just after having been picked up at the airport. The camera and the 18-200 got a fairly good shot in spite of my exhaustion. That's the South Korean Parliament building with the domed roof under a Seoul sunset.

About the Recumbent Reviews

Welcome to the fourth Recumbent Review!

This series of articles examines photographic equipment and accessories from an ordinary user’s point of view. You’ll find none of that snooty “I’m an expert so my opinion is the final word” guff you get from the professional reviewers you’ll find elsewhere on the interwebs. I’m too lazy and inept to go into a detailed technical analysis involving resolution tests, discussions on acutance, or anything else involving experimentation, exacting measurement, or a scholarly comparison with other equipment, but I’ll certainly not hold back on opinion and speculation. Ranting and raving are par for the course!

Hopefully you’ll enjoy yourself while learning all about stuff that will help you take better pictures and cost you money you should be putting toward your children’s college fund or something pink and frilly for your wife (or husband).

Intro

The AF-S DX Nikkor 18-200mm 3.5-5.6G ED VR (let’s just call it the 18-200 from here on in, OK?) we will be examining is the older version of this lens, not the newer AF-S DX Nikkor 18-200mm 3.5-5.6G ED VRII. The 18-200 (the old one that we’ll be talking about, and not the newer “VRII” edition because I don’t have one of those) is not the most exotic or the sexiest piece of glass you can buy, but it is flexible! It was, by the way, the flannel pyjamas my D300 (whose name is “Denise”, by the way) was wearing when I fell in love with her.

Pre-ramble

This not-so-exotic lens next to a standard can of Coke. They are about the same size but the lens is almost 60% heavier!

I know that what I am about to tell you is slightly twisted but in the interest of honesty between friends I am willing to risk losing your respect. Whatever you think about me after having read this, please do not tell Denise this story — I’m pretty sure it would break her heart and would most certainly change our relationship forever.

I first met Denise a few years ago indirectly through her big sister, D3, while I was still involved with a Nikon CoolPix 5700 named Cindy. Cindy was fun but not a very serious camera — she was slow to focus, had a fixed lens, and, with only 5 megapixels of resolution, she lacked depth. I was at the point where I saw that our relationship had no real future and began considering my options.

I took a trip down to a local fully-licensed (by Nikon) establishment after hearing about a new girl in town, the D3. The pixologist behind the counter pointed her out and introduced us. She was a gorgeous full-figured girl. Talk about “full-frame”… va-va-va-voom! Her stats spoke for themselves.

After a short while with her I realized that she was way out of my league. I’m a little embarrassed to say this but there was no way I could keep up with her lavish lifestyle. Being a full-framed FX format, she demanded the top-of-the-line haute-capture lenses at jet-set prices. She was a gorgeous pro but, frankly, I could not afford her.

Then the pixologist suggested that I consider Denise, a Nikon D300 and D3’s down-to-earth cousin. Her vital statistics shared a family resemblance with those of D3, having a slightly higher pixel count in fact, but being an APS-C DX format she would be less of a gold-digger. I liked what I was hearing.

When she and I first met, I was taken by her physical beauty. She had all of D3’s curves (including tonal response, if what the guys whispered about her was true) but was trimmer. You might think me superficial but I’m not a large guy and having a big girl on my arm all day might wear me out — Denise and I were a much better match. Some people say it all evens out in the darkroom but I’ve always believed that a human/camera relationship should be based on more than what happens once you turn out the lights, and Denise is a digital with no use for the darkroom anyway.

To make a long story short, Denise was unpretentiously accessorized with the 18-200 when I took her home to meet Mom. While not haute-capture, the 18-200 is no knock-off either — it was designed at Nikon’s atelier in Tokyo, but pieced together in a sweatshop in Thailand.

[If you don’t mind, I’m going to dispense with the sexual innuendo now… I don’t think I can “keep it up” all the way ’till the end of the post.]

What’s in a Name?

In case you’re not fluent in Nikonese, here’s what “AF-S DX Nikkor 18-200mm 3.5-5.6G ED VR” means.

  • AF-S: Silent ultrasonic auto-focus motor.
  • DX: Designed for use on Nikon APS-C format cameras. Even though this lens has the very same F-mount (no, not a sexual innuendo) that Nikon has been using since 1959, the DX lenses will produce vignetting in pictures taken on full-frame cameras (if you can get the lens to work at all) unless your digital FX camera has, and is set to, “crop format”.
  • Nikkor: Nikon’s very own lens brand.
  • 18-200mm: An 11x zoom lens with range of focal lengths from 18mm to 200mm (approximately 27mm to 300mm, 35mm equivalent) and angles of view ranging from 8° to 76°.
  • 3.5-5.6: When the lens is zoomed out to 18mm, the maximum effective aperture is f/3.5 and when zoomed in to 200mm it becomes f/5.6. Intermediate zoom settings result in intermediate f-stops when wide open.
  • G: There is no ring on the lens to select your aperture… you have to use the control dial on the camera body.
  • ED: Some of the lens elements are made from “Extra-low Dispersion” glass to reduce chromatic aberration.
  • VR: Contains a Vibration Reduction device that reduces blur from camera shake, especially at longer shutter speeds. VRII is the newer version that supposedly does an even better job than the image stabilizer in my lens.

Why You Shouldn’t Get One

  • According to other reviewers on the web who shoot pictures of test targets, this original version 18-200 exhibits a lot of weird distortion — barrel when zoomed out, pin cushion when zoomed in, and complex moustache distortion at points in between.
  • It also isn’t the sharpest knife in the optical drawer — non-zoom “prime” lenses tend to perform far better for less money and professional zoom lenses offer a range of magnifications, wider maximum apertures, less distortion, and yield sharper and higher-contrast pictures.
  • Let’s face facts… this is a high-end kit lens and only offers snob appeal if you are trying to impress rank amateurs who own cheaper equipment.

Why You’d Want One

The Nikkor 18-200mm VR with the included lens hood attached.

I figure the best way to explain this to you is to tell you about how my wife and I differ in our approach to buying produce… Mrs. HoaiPhai walks up to the tomato bin at the supermarket and settles in. She’ll scan the tomatoes and choose what she thinks is the best currently visible. While holding it in one hand, she’ll go through the bin searching for a better tomato, replacing the old best tomato she’s holding with a better one from time to time. After she’s satisfied that she has the epitome of tomato perfection, she’ll move on to the apple aisle and repeat the process. She does a lot of her shopping at stores with extended hours and I do a lot of my shopping at pharmacies with a wide selection of happy pills.

When I am alone shopping for tomatoes and am therefore permitted the luxury of making my own decisions, I walk up to the tomato bin and buy the first one that is large enough for my purpose that isn’t already rotten or showing signs of worm infestation. I’ll squeeze it a couple of times to make sure that it’s really juicy (for curry or pasta sauce) or firm (for salad or sandwiches). The time I save in the produce section I spend in the coffee aisle chatting it up with college girls who look like they’ve never shopped for groceries before and are confused by the vast selection of beans, grinds, and roasts. I’m very helpful that way.

The Nikkor 18-200mm VR fully zoomed out to 200mm.

The point is that I select camera equipment in very much the same way I buy tomatoes (although there are precious few college girls in the filter aisle of the camera store) — I figure out what my needs are and don’t bother torturing myself considering expensive optimum-quality special purpose goods that I cannot afford that would eat up my entire equipment budget while only filling a narrow range of needs.

I’m not swimming in money so buying top-of-the-line stuff would mean that I’d only be able to afford a couple of lenses and that would put serious limitations on the kinds of pictures I could take. In a sense I’ve resigned myself to buying used or “pretty good” stuff, trading highest-possible image quality for the ability to shoot slightly lower quality in a wider range of situations — I get more bang for my buck by getting cheaper stuff that will give me good pictures in more situations. Besides, I’m not the most highly skilled photographer around and I take pictures mainly for fun.

I’m not convinced that top-end pro equipment would make my photos much better anyways (but if someone wants to send me a pro lens, I’m willing to test this theory and eat my own words in case I’m wrong). I figure that somewhere along the way the photographer’s ability comes into play and even if the lens is razor-sharp, a mediocre photog like me would likely mess the image up somewhere between tripping the shutter and printing. Similarly, Mrs. HoaiPhai and I love to cook but whatever nominal quality advantage her tomato has over mine is not likely to make one lick of difference at the end of the day in our amateur spaghetti sauce. That being said, if I win the lottery you can look forward to me reviewing digital Hasselblads and/or technical cameras with scanning backs.

So with my general purchase philosophy hanging out in the wind for everyone to see, here are a few reasons why the 18-200 might be the right lens for photographers who share my skill level, needs, and budget.

  • Extreme Flexibility! This lens is a do-it-all piece of equipment. Having a single lens that covers angles of view from 8° to 76° is great. This is the primary reason why I bought this one over a higher-priced zoom with better optics but with a narrower zoom range — after dropping a fair amount of money on the camera/lens/memory card package, I didn’t think my wife would be too thrilled with me running out and getting more lenses anytime soon, so I wanted something that would serve a variety of purposes. For some people, this lens is all they’ll ever need and even pros take the 18-200 along as a “scouting lens”… they’ll use it to take test shots of a location, study the pictures, and then take along higher-end lenses for the actual shoot.
  • Pretty sharp image! It’s actually a great performer that yields wonderful results if you know what you’re doing. Stopped down a bit, it is crisp and contrasty enough, yielding beautiful results considering its flexibility, price, and the number of bells and whistles that come with it.
  • Nice bokeh! Bokeh is the blurry out-of-focus stuff in the picture. This lens has seven aperture blades that form a round opening so bokeh is rendered smooth, pleasing, and not at all distracting.
  • Image stabilized! It’s not a super fast lens but with vibration reduction I can take photos in light situations just 2 EV brighter than what my Nikkor 50mm f/1.2 AI-S can handle and I can squeeze greater depth of field out of the 18-200 in any given lighting, if that’s what I want. There’s also an additional VR setting for taking pictures from moving or unstable locations, like from inside a moving car.
  • It’s a CPU lens! It’s designed for modern Nikon digital camera bodies so communication between them is seamless and natural. When you upload the images to your computer, all kinds of information like aperture and focal length are recorded so if you need to re-shoot the image, you have all the info you need on which to base any corrections. The camera uses the info sent to it by the lens to fine tune metering and flash output on some flash units like my SB-900. In the auto-exposure Programmed and Shutter Priority modes, the camera can select and control the aperture setting. You can, of course, turn off auto-focus, image stabilization, and the camera’s control of the aperture and shoot pictures just like your daddy used to do.
  • Quick & accurate focus! This was one of the things that really impressed me when I “moved on” from my last camera. My D300 with the 18-200 mounted focuses precisely and almost instantly in most circumstances, at all focal lengths, and at all distances. I realize that this is largely to Denise’s credit but the lens’ motor plays a part. The lens is fast enough, in terms of brightness, to allow auto-focusing in extremely dim light. And in concert with my SB-900’s auto-focus assist light, it’s phenomenal in dim light in which it would be a major challenge for me to focus manually!
  • Great people/action lens! Because it’s an auto-focus zoom lens, if your camera is equipped with 3D Focus Tracking, i.e. your camera locks in on your subjects and maintains its focus on it, the 18-200 is one great action lens that makes shots of the kids a snap, be they playing a game of tag or just being their fidgety youthful selves when you’re trying to get them to sit still for a portrait. It works on older subjects, too!
  • Close focus! You can focus as close as 1.6 ft. (0.5m) and the 18-200 has a maximum reproduction ratio of 0.22 (that’s  1:4.54). It’s no macro lens (or “micro” in Nikon’s parlance) but it does great close-up shots.
  • Internal focus! The front and rear lens elements don’t move in or out when you focus so you won’t have to worry about the lens bumping into your subject if you are using the lens (with optional extension devices) for macro work. Also, the lens and filter mount don’t rotate as you focus so you won’t have to constantly readjust your polarizing filter.
  • Build quality! It’s metal and glass with some plastic body parts — nothing cheap or flimsy about it (except the focusing ring). I’ve heard that some cheap lenses have plastic mount flanges, but the 18-200 is not one of those.
  • Groovy lens hood included! It comes with a petal lens hood that bayonet mounts on the lens for use or reversed for storage. It’s plastic, but works well and after over three years, the original hood that came with the lens remains unbroken.
  • Satisfaction! It’s a pleasure to use and the results are great.
  • Five year warranty! Yup, it comes with a five-year warranty right out of the box, just like all lenses distributed by Nikon Canada!

How to Get the Most from Your Nikkor 18-200

  • Use a Tripod: As a general principle, a steady camera yields better shots and while vibration reduction devices help matters, they are not miracle workers. Vibration Reduction devices work great but there’s no substitute for a good tripod. If you have a tripod and your subject and circumstances allow for its use, by all means use it and make sure you turn off the VR. Use a cable release or self-timer.
  • Focus Accurately: I seem to remember in the old days when you could gain entrance to a Chinese buffet at dinner time for under $5 that a distinction was made between a varifocal lens and a parfocal lens. Both are zoom lenses but the latter, sometimes called a “true” zoom lens, maintains focus as you change focal lengths. The 18-200 is a varifocal lens so if you re-frame your shot by zooming in or out you must refocus.
  • Use a Lens Hood: A lens hood comes with the lens so use it always (except when you’re taking photos with a camera-mounted flash unit)! Again, this is a general principle that applies to all lenses in most situations.
  • Use the Right Aperture: As with just about any lens, the 18-200 produces crisper pictures when not wide open, so stop down an f-stop or two if light conditions will allow it. The minimum aperture ranges from f/22 (zoomed out to 18mm) to f/36 (zoomed in to 200mm) but because APS-C cameras are pretty much diffraction limited at an aperture somewhere around f/11 or f/16, I only stop down to around f/11 unless I’m willing to trade a crisp image for depth of field.
  • Learn from Your Successes as Well as from Your Mistakes: Part of the beauty of digital photography is that aside from an image the digital file contains a lot of information about camera settings. If you find that you are really pleased with how a few images came out, take a look at the metadata and see what you did right. Having your camera make all the decisions might make your life easier but sometimes you might want to use Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, or Manual shooting modes to give your photos additional punch.
  • Spend Some Time in Post-processing: Digital photography allows more control over your images than was ever dreamed of by those shooting during the film-only era — take advantage of it! This lens has some quirky geometric distortion properties but it’s not a deal-breaker — you might not even notice the distortion unless you compare an uncorrected and a corrected image side-by-side. Check to see if your image editing software can correct distortion for specific lenses and use this feature. You’ll be amazed at the improvement in photos you thought were “good enough” before you corrected the distortion, and especially in photos with people’s faces occupying a large area and/or are near the edge of the frame or when there are a lot of straight lines in the scene. If your software doesn’t have this feature built-in, spend a few dollars and get third-party software. I use PTLens — it’s only $25 and you can try it out on ten images before you decide whether it’s right for you. No, the PTLens people, or anyone else, don’t pay me to recommend their product.

Things that Bug Me about the 18-200

  • Focusing Ring: This is a minor gripe but it’s plastic and doesn’t have a very “positive” feel about it. This was my first zoom lens so maybe the absence of a more substantial feeling is normal for zoom lenses and being an auto-focus lens, I don’t use manual focus on this lens much anyway. Don’t get me wrong — it works, but feels flimsy.
  • Zoom Creep: No, this is not my nickname down at the camera store (as far as I know) but is the tendency for the zoom setting to change in relation to the orientation of the camera. When I point my lens up, gravity pulls the extended part toward the camera causing the lens to zoom out and when I tilt the lens down the lens zooms in. I find this most annoying and could be prevented if only there was some sort of zoom lock built into the design.

The Field Test

The proof is in the pudding so I think I’ll let the pictures do most of the talking from here on in…

Top Image: Zoomed out to 18mm; Bottom Image: Zoomed in to 200mm.

The two images above demonstrate the 11 x zoom. The chimney and the utility shack shown in the bottom image can be seen in the center of the top image. That’s an incredibly wide range of magnifications!

A neighbourhood turtle or tortoise.

I came upon this shelled guy while taking a walk…

A small section taken from the previous turtle (or whatever) photo.

Above is the closest thing to an empirical test you’re likely to see in one of my Recumbent Reviews. Because my D300 has a resolution of 4288 x 2848 pixels and I post horizontal shots on this WordPress theme at 471 x 313 pixels, only 1.2% of the original image information ends up being displayed. So what I’ve done here is take a 471 x 313 pixel section of the full-sized image and posted it to show you some of the finer detail that you’re missing when I downsample my images. So here we can see that the 18-200 preserves a lot of detail from the original scene.

Nice tones!

These buffalo were shot from the window of a slowly moving car.

200mm 1/20 sec (handheld!) f/5.6 ISO 6400

This shot was taken at 1/20 second with the lens zoomed in to 200mm. Because my camera’s an APS-C sensor job, the 200mm becomes 300mm in 35mm equivalent. The traditional rule of thumb is the slowest speed, in seconds, you should shoot at handheld is the reciprocal of the focal length, otherwise your image is likely to be ruined by camera shake. So 1/20 of a second is 4 stops slower than the recommended speed, a sterling tribute to the lens’ Vibration Reduction system. I did take two other shots at the same settings but they were not as good as this one in terms of lack of camera shake.

Zooms make composition a snap!

My 18-200 is a pleasure to use because the wide zoom range allows you to pick your perspective and then zoom to frame your subject.

The AF-S motor helps make focusing on fleeting subjects like this Peanut Control Agent quick and accurate.

Sharp and contrasty... not bad for a "kit lens".

The very essence of the Recumbent Reviews... a shot taken out the back door while I was in my pyjamas.

The Verdict

In my book, this lens ranks as “Hard to Imagine Life Without It” on the HoaiPhai Scale of Camera Stuff Approval, even though nobody will contest your will to get their hands on it. Here are some of my reasons for giving it this rating…

  • It easily handles the vast majority of my shooting needs.
  • The range of zoom is wide and covers everything from wide-angle to the frontier of super-telephoto.
  • It’s light and versatile enough to go with me wherever I go… it’s my default lens.
  • The image quality is pretty darned good and I’m very pleased with the images it allows me to take.
  • It’s easy to use and functions seamlessly with my D300.
  • It has never ever surprised me by doing anything weird, like my Sigma super-wide zoom does on occasion or my Reflex-Nikkor 500mm does predictably under certain circumstances.
  • Considering its versatility, automation, and image quality, it’s a bargain at around $800 (or ~$830 for the newer VRII model).

If you liked this Recumbent Review, read the others in the series:

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About HoaiPhai

I'm up late digging up the dirt. View all posts by HoaiPhai

11 responses to “Recumbent Review: The Seriously Versatile AF-S DX Nikkor 18-200mm 3.5-5.6G ED VR

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