on February 6, 2009
The 55-200 VR is a remarkably light, inexpensive, and GOOD lens. It really has everything needed to get excellent images within its range, and I have seen some truly extraordinary photos taken with these. Even so, there are good reasons to consider getting something else, probably depending on your budget. The good news is that if your budget encourages you to stay with the 55-200, you give up little in terms of the image quality you can produce.
One problem a lot of people are going to have with this lens is its feeling of cheapness. It is very light and feels insubstantial and, for a Nikkor, cheaply made. It is a high quality item - the quality of the plastics used is good, and it is put together well enough to function as well as it does, after all, which is not to be taken for granted - but it is not a good "feeling" lens. The zoom ring has a light feel combined with a bit of static friction, the combination of which makes it easy to overshoot your intended framing when adjusting, and often you will need to go back and forth several times to get exactly the framing you want, which takes extra time and effort - and which, for me at least, reminds me of the lens' cheapness each time it happens. The focus ring is hard to find and too fast for fine control, and it doesn't have any range markings or depth of field markings at all. In addition, you have to flip a switch to go between manual and auto focus, unlike most other AF-S lenses. Other reviewers have concluded that the lens just wasn't really intended to be used much as a manual-focus lens, and I tend to agree. It is workable, but not intuitive and slower than it would be with most lenses. Since manual focus is necessary for many types of telephoto shots, this is a real factor for some buyers.
By the way, the light weight of the lens is not always a positive factor, and it is not a negative factor only due to build and perceived quality issues. When tripod-mounted, the sharpness of any camera/lens setup is limited by vibration, and a heavier lens damps vibration more effectively. This is not a minor point. The difference between a heavy lens and a light lens is easily visible as blur, especially with shutter speeds in the range of a second to a small fraction of a second. Using this lens will require a heavier tripod, better technique, or that more attention be paid to avoiding these shutter speeds. VR does not help when the lens is used on a tripod, and should be turned off.
Image quality has been said by other reviewers to be very good, but just a shade short of Nikon's very best lenses. Again I agree. My sample was not quite good enough to be sharp at all apertures, having some abberations that caused mottled fuzziness at certain settings at wider apertures. This would not be immediately apparent in a normal print, but could show up as areas of less detail, somewhat randomly, that might be noticeable when they happen to coincide with a point of interest in a photo. These are caused by imperfectly aligned or imperfectly manufactured lens elements and tend to move around as the lens is focused and zoomed. Most lenses do this to some extent, but many of Nikon's better lenses, if you get a good sample, seem completely free of it. My wonderful 16-85mm zoom has not a trace. The good news is that they tend to go away as a lens is stopped down, as the lens is then seeing through a smaller area of glass nearer its central axis, which is less sensitive to alignment. Other than this, the lens doesn't really need to be stopped down - sharpness over most of the image field is nearly as good wide open as at f/8 or f/11. This is actually pretty common for today's ordinary zooms, as they don't go to wide apertures - spherical abberations, which are what cause a loss of sharpness wide open, are much more important for "fast" f/2.8 lenses and primes.
Contrast is very good at pretty much all apertures, in fact I would say that the 55-200 is very close to as contrasty as any lens I've used, and for a lot of people that is going to be much more important than sharpness. Contrast makes images look striking no matter the size they are displayed at, whereas minor sharpness issues are only really important for large reproductions, if at all.
These are most of the major points. A few other miscellaneous items of note:
- VR is excellent. If you are only going to have one telephoto lens, make sure it has VR. It is indispensable unless you use a tripod all the time. It is really remarkable, for somebody like me who started with film cameras in the '80's, to be able to hand-hold a lens at 100-300mm-equivalent focal lengths and not worry about shutter speeds. It really works, very well, and you will get shots with it that you would never have a chance of getting without it.
- This lens has a plastic mount. I don't worry about that at all. It actually gives the lens a very nice, frictionless feel as it is mounted and unmounted, and if anything it ensures that the camera's own metal mount will stay free of wear indefinitely. I can't imagine the plastic mount would ever wear out, and since the lens is so light, a metal mount is simply not needed. The only concern would be if you were to mount the lens to a very heavy camera, and then pick the camera up using the lens. You can get away with that with a metal-on-metal mount, but not with a plastic one. Probably not a problem with anything smaller than a full-on professional-sized DSLR.
- Vs. Nikon's 70-300mm VR: The look of these lens' images, and the feel, is also similar. The 70-300 shares the 55-200's cheap, sticky zoom, but the 70-300mm lens has enough of an edge in every important performance category to move it from the "very competent" category to the rather sparse category of truly superlative lenses. It adds quicker and better manual focusing, with a distance scale (but no depth-of-field scale) and immediate manual-focus over-ride; much faster AF; and better VR. It dwarfs the 55-200, being considerably longer, bigger around and heavier, but is still far more manageable than any of the pro telephoto zooms. Overall, it is a better lens - but the 55-200 holds up surprisingly well. It costs about twice as much as the 55-200, used or new.
I would buy this lens again in a heartbeat if I didn't feel as though I could justify more money for one of Nikon's more expensive telephoto zooms. Even if I did, this and an 80-200 f/2.8 would be a fine combination: one for hand-held, one for tripod use. Nikon doesn't really offer any telephoto zooms that have the whole package of desirable features, which in my view includes reasonable weight, VR, good sharpness across their range, and good focus performance. Even the very expensive lenses give up MORE than one of these qualities. I would not even consider a lens without VR in this range, unless as a second lens for tripod-only use, which limits the choices to only a few, unfortunately imperfect, lenses. There might be comparable third-party lenses: I think Tamron makes something along the lines of a 28-300 or so that tends to get mixed reviews and that has their equivalent of VR. I don't have any experience with it. My thinking is that any lens will tend to get good reviews most of the time, so I'd tend to pay extra attention to the poor ones and try to figure out what they mean. Quite possibly the 55-200 is actually the better lens. For many photographers it may be the best of all even without factoring in its low price.