AF-S DX Nikkor 18-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR review: Introduction

As we know, there are specialist lenses designed to take certain types of images, such as an 85mm f/1.8 for portraiture or a 105mm f/2.8 for macro. It is usually considered that only primes can have specialist applications because of the compromises in quality that are unavoidable in zoom lenses. However, a superzoom does indeed have a speciality – travel photography.

I have to admit to being a fan of superzoom lenses. When I’m away on a city break, I will often pack an 18-200mm lens so that I can travel light – spending my time relaxing and taking in the sights, rather than worrying about the weight on my shoulder or which lens to use for which subject.

While a superzoom lens is never going to be as good optically as a fixed-focal-length lens, or even one with a shorter zoom, in Nikon’s new AF-S DX Nikkor 18-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR we have the highest magnification yet seen in an SLR lens. This could make it an ideal one-for-all lens for entry-level photographers, and for enthusiasts it may be the ideal ‘walk-around’ lens for when you’re never quite sure what you will be photographing.


With its impressive 18-300mm focal length, the Nikkor lens has a 16.7x zoom range. Despite the extra 100mm, the maximum aperture remains the same as the f/3.5-5.6 aperture of Nikon’s 18-200mm. However, the optical construction of each lens is very different.

The new 18-300mm has three more elements than the 18-200mm lens, comprising 19 elements in 14 groups. Three of the internal lenses are extra-low dispersion (ED) elements, which help to reduce chromatic aberrations and also maintain contrast even when the maximum aperture of the lens is used. Nikkor uses ED glass in nearly all its telephoto lenses. There are also three aspherical lenses in the 18-300mm, which are designed to control curvilinear distortions.

Although the lens is designed to be used with DX-format (APS-C-sized sensor) cameras, it could feasibly be paired with the Nikon D800. With a 36.3-million-pixel, full-frame (FX) sensor, its DX-cropped mode still provides 15 million pixels, which is very respectable for most enthusiast photographers. Most of this test has been undertaken with the 18-300mm lens paired with a Nikon D3200, which has a 24.2-million-pixel, APS-C-sized sensor.

As the highest-resolution camera the 18-300mm is designed to be used on, the D3200 will provide the toughest test.

Build and handling

With 19 glass elements, the first thing I noticed when picking up the 18-300mm zoom lens was how heavy it is. At 830g, it is 270g heavier than Nikon’s 18-200mm. In comparison, the 18-300mm lens is closer in weight to the Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8, which is 900g.

This weight gives the 18-300mm a high-quality feel, not necessarily because the lens is built to a higher quality than the 18-200mm, but simply because we associate such weight with more professional, and expensive, lenses.

As a ‘one-for-all’ lens designed to stay on the camera, this weight should be a consideration. Although it isn’t a huge load to bear, it does become significant when paired with a Nikon D300, for instance, and worn around the neck all day.

The new lens looks similar to the older 18-200mm. Towards the rear of the lens barrel is a slim manual-focusing ring, while a much wider grip towards the front of the lens acts as the zoom control. Both these rings are wider on the 18-300mm than on the 18-200mm lens, and it is safe to assume that this is due to the larger size of the 18-300mm.

There are four switches on the side of the 18-300mm. Like the second (current) generation of the 18-200mm lens (introduced in 2009), the new 18-300mm has a catch that locks it at 18mm to prevent the lens barrel from extending when travelling.

There are two switches that control the vibration-reduction function. One is simply an on/off switch, while the other switches between normal and active modes. Active mode should be used when there may be additional movements or vibrations, such as when photographing from a moving vehicle.

I did notice a difference in the shots I was able to handhold with the lens set at its maximum 300mm focal length, compared to the longest setting on the 18-200mm. With the image stabilisation turned on, I managed to get a few sharp images at 1/60sec, but at around 1/120sec I achieved a significantly higher success rate. It is also worth noting that cameras with a higher resolution will show the effects of camera shake to a greater degree. This is not to say the camera shake is worse, just that it will appear more pronounced on a 24-million-pixel image at 100% than on a 12-million-pixel image at 100%. This must be a consideration for those wanting to pair the lens (or indeed any telephoto) with a D3200. Err on the side of caution and be conservative when estimating what shutter speed will comfortably allow handheld shooting.

Image: Barrel distortion is visible at 18mm, while pincushion distortion can be seen at 300mm


Image: The huge zoom of the 18-300mm lens is suitable for a huge range of images, although chromatic aberrations can be an issue towards the corners

As you would expect from a lens with such a large zoom range, the autofocus can be a little sluggish when shooting at longer focal lengths. If the point of focus is missed, the lens has a long range over which to focus back and forth.

For general-purpose use, the 18-300mm is ideal. As part of the test, I used the lens out and about on a walk in the countryside, without the intention of specifically taking test images. The aim was to see how the lens performed in real situations, but I was also interested to see exactly which parts of the focal range I used. I wanted to see how much I used the 200-300mm range, to find out how much more useful the lens would be over the 18-200mm.

Interestingly, I took more than half my images between 18mm and 200mm. However, most of the remaining images where taken at the maximum 300mm setting. Almost exclusively, these images were of wildlife and, of course, the focal length will be dictated by circumstance and subject. I would suggest that many enthusiast photographers are drawn to whatever the maximum setting of a zoom lens is, especially when out snapping and an opportunity to take a wildlife image presents itself. So it would appear that there is some advantage to having a 300mm focal length, even if you don’t expect to use it too often.

The new 18-300mm lens performs in a very similar manner to the 18-200mm. Barrel distortion is quite severe at the widest focal lengths, and, as well as a bend, the curve waves. Most Nikon DSLRs should correct the distortion in JPEG files, but those using older cameras or shooting raw images will have to correct this. Due to the wave of the distortion, it is best if a calibrated correction, such as that found in Adobe Lightroom, is used, rather than a generic correction. Pincushion distortion is also present, and is at its most severe at 300mm, although it is visible before this.

Vignetting is noticeable when shooting with the aperture wide open, and is at its worst at the 18mm focal length. This is corrected in JPEG files, and even if you are shooting raw it isn’t too much of an issue as it is easily corrected

Unfortunately, chromatic aberrations aren’t uncommon in zoom lenses with such extreme focal ranges. They are caused by the sheer number of glass elements that the light must travel through. As a result, there is chromatic aberrations visible in raw files and a hint of purple fringing at the edges of images. This is almost entirely reduced in JPEG files except in extreme cases, and it can be removed from raw files without too much effort. Again, to some extent, chromatic aberrations are almost inevitable with this type of lens, and they are the compromises that must be made when using such a lens to take images that contain high-contrast edges.

This lens is about on a par with the AF-S DX Nikkor 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR II. At the 18mm setting, the 18-300mm can resolve up to around 30 in our resolution test. However, by 300mm the resolution significantly reduces, as does the level of contrast.

The sharpest aperture is around f/8-11, which is the same as that on the Nikkor 18-200mm and the Tamron 18-270mm. Although the performance of all three lenses is similar, the slightly more powerful zoom of the Nikkor 18-300mm gives it a slight edge over the Tamron 18-270mm. However, with the Tamron costing half the price of the Nikkor 18-300mm, it may be more popular among the target market.

If carefully focused, and set to its sharpest aperture and a fast shutter speed, images from the 18-300mm can look very good. It is worth finding out how best to use the lens to get the sharpest results, such as shooting at f/8. Of course, this isn’t always practical, so a compromise must be made in return for having the convenience of a single lens on which most images can be taken.

See larger version of this chart

We recorded the test chart images using the AF-S DX Nikkor 18-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR , AF-S DX Nikkor 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR II and Tamron AF 18-270mm f/3.5 -6.3 Di II VC LD Aspherical IF Macro lenses. Images were taken on a Nikon D3200. Due to the minimum focus distance not being close enough, the 18-200mm shots were taken at 24mm, rather than the widest 18mm setting. *Images taken at f/6.3, not f/5.6

Our verdict

The AF-s DX Nikkor 18-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR is an ideal lens for those times when you don’t know what you will be photographing and you want to keep your camera bag light. That said, the lens is heavier than its 18-200mm little brother, so if weight is an issue consider whether the extra 100mm focal range of the new lens will be used. I found the extra reach useful, particularly for the occasional wildlife photograph.

Image quality is good considering the huge range of the lens and the convenience it offers, although it will obviously be bettered by fixed-focal-length and shorter zoom lenses.

I would certainly consider taking this lens on a long weekend away, although I would probably also try to sneak a 50mm f/1.8 optic into my bag for low-light use or for a sharper image when necessary.