Nikkor DX kit lens group test: 18-55mm vs 18-70mm vs 18-135mm vs 18-200mm VR - In depth

In depth

Pictured below from left to right are the Nikkor DX 18-55mm II, DX 18-70mm, DX 18-135mm and DX 18-200mm VR lenses, each zoomed-out to their widest 18mm focal lengths. In this position, all but the 18-55mm lens barrels are at their shortest. Like many 18-55mm kit lenses, the Nikkor model extends when zoomed all the way out or in, and is at its shortest physical position when set to a focal length of around 30mm. You can see a demonstration of this in our video tour.

 

The Nikkor DX 18-55mm II, DX 18-70mm, DX 18-135mm and DX 18-200mm VR lenses measure 74, 76, 87 and 97mm in length respectively, in their shortest positions – this is with the 18-55mm zoomed to a focal length of around 30mm. They each have maximum diameters of 71, 73, 74 and 77mm, and filter threads of 52, 67, 67 and 72mm respectively.

Pictured below from left to right are the four Nikkor lenses zoomed-in to their longest focal lengths, and it’s now clear to see the difference between them. Here the DX 18-55mm II extends by the same 12mm as it did when zoomed-out to a focal length of 18mm. The DX 18-70mm, DX 18-135mm and DX 18-200mm VR each extend using two barrel sections by 26, 59 and 65mm respectively. While all four looked fairly similar in size in our first group shot, the progressively longer focal ranges result in physically longer barrel extensions when zoomed-in; the DX 18-200mm VR dwarfs the others here.

 

In terms of weight, the budget Nikkor DX 18-55mm II is unsurprisingly the lightest of the group at just 205g. Next up comes the DX 18-135mm which weighs 385g and feels quite light for its size. Third heaviest is the DX 18-70mm at 420g, thanks to its superior build quality and slightly faster aperture, more of which later. The heaviest is of course the DX 18-200mm VR which weighs noticeably more than the others at 560g, but not so much you’d find it a burden in general use.

All but the cheapest DX 18-55mm II lens comes supplied with a lens hood. While this is expected for the pricier DX 18-70mm and DX 18-200mm VR models, it’s nice to find Nikon supply one with the cheaper DX 18-135mm. It’s worth mentioning Canon doesn’t supply lens hoods with anything other than its professional L series.

Nikkor kit lens group test build quality

In terms of build quality, the budget DX 18-55mm II lens again unsurprisingly feels the weakest of the group, but it should be said it’s no worse than budget 18-55mm kit lenses from rival manufacturers, and is arguably better than many including Canon’s.

Click here for the Nikkor kit lens group test

The Nikkor DX 18-135mm offers a step-up in build quality from the DX 18-55mm II lens, but it still employs a plastic mount and feels quite light compared to the two premium models on test here. The DX 18-70mm and DX 18-200mm VR both share roughly similar build quality and boast a noticeable step-up from the DX 18-135mm. Both feel like high quality products with decent construction and very smooth focusing and zoom rings.

We should however point out the physical design of the DX 18-200mm VR can result in some lens creep where the barrel can retract or extend under its own weight when pointed straight up or down respectively. This affects the lens most when zoomed to around the 100mm focal length and we have a demonstration in our Nikkor kit lens video tour.

Nikkor kit lens group test focusing

In terms of focusing, all four models feature Nikon’s SWM Silent Wave Motor built into the lenses themselves; in Nikkor terminology, this makes them AF-S models, all of which will auto-focus with the latest D40 and D40x bodies. While you’d expect SWM focusing on the premium DX 18-70mm and DX 18-200mm VR lenses, it’s impressive to find it on the DX 18-135mm and especially the DX 18-55mm II lenses, which are designed as budget kit models.

SWM allows Nikkor lenses to focus quickly and quietly, although we noticed differences between the four models on test. Unsurprisingly given their pricing and premium nature, both the DX 18-70mm and DX 18-200mm VR lenses focused a little quicker than the two cheaper ‘kit’ models. The DX 18-70mm and DX 18-200mm VR lenses also featured windows showing the current focusing distance.

In terms of manual focusing, all but the cheapest DX 18-55mm II featured dedicated manual focusing rings, leaving you to physically turn the end section of the budget model. Since this turns while focusing, manually or auto, it can prove a little annoying for users of polarising filters. We’re pleased to report the other three lenses all featured internal focusing with non-rotating filter mounts.

Before you think we’re knocking the budget DX 18-55mm II kit lens though, it’s well worth comparing it to Canon’s EF-S 18-55mm. Both lenses may have rotating end sections, but the Nikkor’s focusing is noticeably quicker and quieter. Canon may have a quick and quiet USM version of the EF-S 18-55mm, but so far it’s rarely bundled outside of Japan or special edition kits. So for a budget kit lens, the Nikkor DX 18-55mm II is much classier than its main rival and also delivers pretty respectable optical performance.

Nikkor DX kit lens group test coverage with Nikon D80

 

The primary reason for choosing a new lens is to enjoy a broader or alternative focal range. All four lenses in this Nikkor group test offer general-purpose ranges from wide angle to telephoto. While all start at a focal length of 18mm though, the major difference between them is how much they can zoom in.

When zoomed-in, the Nikkor DX 18-55mm II, DX 18-70mm, DX 18-135mm and DX 18-200mm VR lenses each offer equivalent focal lengths of 83, 105, 203 and 300mm respectively. Clearly that’s a big difference in practice and one we’ll illustrate in a moment. But first we’ll compare the coverage of each lens when zoomed-out to wide angle; they may all quote a shortest focal length of 18mm (equivalent to 27mm on a Nikon DSLR), but in practice there can be slight differences.

To compare their actual coverage in real-life we shot the same scene with each lens within a few moments of each other from a tripod to ensure a consistent position. Below are resized samples from each lens set to its widest focal length.

Nikkor DX 18-55mm II
Nikkor DX 18-70mm
Nikkor DX 18-135mm
Nikkor DX 18-200mm
Nikkor DX 18-55mm II at 18mmNikkor DX 18-70mm at 18mmNikkor DX 18-135mm at 18mmNikkor DX 18-200mm at 18mm
18-55mm at 18mm (27mm equiv)
18-70mm at 18mm (27mm equiv)
18-135mm at 18mm (27mm equiv)
18-200mm at 18mm (27mm equiv)

The samples above may look identical, but with each image examined at their original size, one difference is apparent: the budget DX 18-55mm II lens captures a fractionally smaller field than the other three lenses when zoomed-out to wide angle. It is a very small difference though and nothing to be overly concerned about – certainly it’s a smaller difference than that found between different Canon lenses quoting a 17mm focal length – see our Canon kit lens group test.

Now onto telephoto coverage with each lens zoomed-in to its longest focal length; once again we shot the same scene with each lens within a few moments of each other from a tripod to ensure a consistent position. Below are resized samples from each lens set to its longest focal length.

Nikkor DX 18-55mm II
Nikkor DX 18-70mm
Nikkor DX 18-135mm
Nikkor DX 18-200mm
Nikkor DX 18-55mm II at 55mmNikkor DX 18-70mm at 70mmNikkor DX 18-135mm at 135mmNikkor DX 18-200mm at 200mm
18-55mm at 55mm (83mm equiv)
18-70mm at 70mm (105mm equiv)
18-135mm at 135mm (203mm equiv)
18-200mm at 200mm (300mm equiv)

As clearly seen in the samples above, each lens delivers a progressively smaller field of view. The jump from 55 to 70mm may be quite modest, but at 135mm you’re significantly closer to the subject; the DX 18-135mm offers more than double the magnification of the basic DX 18-55mm II kit lens and much greater flexibility in practice. Clearly the DX 18-200mm offers the greatest range and flexibility of all here, along with Vibration Reduction facilities to reduce camera-shake which we’ll test below.

Nikkor DX kit lens group test aperture

After focal length, the most important specification of a lens is its aperture. All but the DX 18-70mm offer a focal ratio of f3.5 at wide angle and f5.6 when zoomed-in; these are fairly average and nothing to get particularly excited about. The DX 18-70mm also has a focal ratio of f3.5 when zoomed-out to 18mm, but boasts a slightly brighter focal ratio of f4.5 when zoomed-in – that’s about 2/3 of a stop brighter than the others and gives a slight edge in low light performance. If you’re really serious about low-light work though, you should consider investing in an optically ‘faster’ model like the Nikkor DX 17-55mm f2.8.

Nikkor DX 18-200mm Vibration Reduction

The unique selling point of the Nikkor DX 18-200mm over the other lenses here is the inclusion of Vibration Reduction (VR) technology to combat camera-shake. The DX 18-200mm was the first Nikkor lens to feature its latest second generation VR II, which according to Nikon delivers four stops of compensation, compared to the three stops of the former VR system – and it has to be said the three stops also offered by Canon’s current IS system. Four stops is a significant claim, which if true would allow you to handhold shutter speeds a considerable 16 times slower than normal.

VR is enabled by an on / off switch on the side of the lens, and kicked-into action by a half-press of the shutter release button. As with other lens-based stabilisation systems, there’s a faint click after which the composition through the viewfinder appears to steady itself and float gently. The system deactivates with another faint click moments after lifting your finger from the shutter release, and the shakiness returns to the viewfinder. A second switch on the side of the barrel alternates between Normal and Active mode, the latter only correcting the vertical Y-axis for use when panning with moving subjects like passing aeroplanes or runners.

To illustrate the effect of VR in practice we’ve presented two crops below of a scene taken with and without VR enabled using a focal length of 200mm and a shutter speed of 1/15. We’ve cropped the original 4288×2848 images taken with a Nikon D2X to 1680×1120 pixels, then reduced them to 282×188 pixels here. The benefit is clear, and even when viewed at 100%, the shot with VR is perfectly sharp. Note VR, like other anti-shake systems, won’t freeze a subject in motion, so the jogger in the crop below left would still have been blurred in a 1/15 exposure even with VR activated.

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Nikkor 18-200mm without VR
Nikkor 18-200mm with VR
Nikkor 18-200mm lens without VR
Nikkor 18-200mm lens with VR
Nikkor 18-200mm VR at 200mm (300mm equivalent).
VR disabled. 100 ISO, 1/15th second
Nikkor 18-200mm VR at 200mm (300mm equivalent).
VR enabled. 100 ISO, 1/15th second

Considering the field of view at its longest focal length is equivalent to 300mm, classic photographic technique would recommend a shutter speed of 1/300 to avoid camera shake. Being able to achieve this at 1/15 actually corresponds to four stops of compensation and backs up Nikon’s claim. While the effectiveness of VR will vary between people and conditions, it’s still an impressive performance.

Nikkor DX 18-55mm vs 18-70mm vs 18-135mm vs 18-200mm outdoor scene with Nikon D80

Nikkor DX 18-55mm II f/3.5-5.6
Using Nikon D80
Nikkor DX 18-70mm f/3.5-4.5
Using Nikon D80
Nikkor DX 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6
Using Nikon D80
Nikkor DX 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 VR
Using Nikon D80
Nikkor DX 18-55mm - crop 1Nikkor DX 18-70mm crop 1Nikkor DX 18-135mm - crop 1Nikkor DX 18-200mm - crop 1
1/200, f8, 100 ISO
1/200, f8, 100 ISO
1/200, f8, 100 ISO
1/200, f8, 100 ISO
Nikkor DX 18-55mm - crop 2Nikkor DX 18-70mm crop 2Nikkor DX 18-135mm - crop 2Nikkor DX 18-200mm - crop 2
1/200, f8, 100 ISO
1/200, f8, 100 ISO
1/200, f8, 100 ISO
1/200, f8, 100 ISO
Nikkor DX 18-55mm - crop 3Nikkor DX 18-70mm crop 3Nikkor DX 18-135mm - crop 3Nikkor DX 18-200mm - crop 3
1/200, f8, 100 ISO
1/200, f8, 100 ISO
1/200, f8, 100 ISO
1/200, f8, 100 ISO

 

Very slight tonal differences aside, there’s not a great deal to tell the results from each lens apart. All show very similar levels of detail, whether in the mountain ridge, houses or wooded areas. Slight evidence of coloured fringing is visible on some areas of the DX 18-135mm and DX 18-200mm images, such as on the edge of the mountain ridge in the first crop and on the edge of one of the lower trees in the third row of crops, but it’s really nothing to be concerned about. We’re really pixel-peeping here, and it’s fair to describe each lens as performing essentially the same under real life conditions when zoomed to a focal length of 26mm with an aperture of f8. As you’ll see over the following pages though, some differences between the lenses do emerge under studio conditions.

To compare real-life performance we shot the same scene with the Nikkor 18-55mm, 18-70mm, 18-135mm and 18-200mm lenses, all set to a focal length of 26mm and an aperture of f8. Each lens was mounted on a Nikon D80 set to 100 ISO and using its best quality JPEG settings. All images were taken within moments of each other.

The image left was taken with the Nikkor 18-55mm at 26mm f8, with a sensitivity of 100 ISO; the original Large Fine JPEG measured 4.47MB. The crops are taken from the upper left, centre and lower right portions of the originals and presented here for evaluation at 100%.

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