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Nikkor 55-200 f/4.0-5.6G ED IF AF-S DX VR Review

March 26, 2016

This review mostly details the lens MTF50 resolution performance and how well the lens auto-focuses.  I don’t need to rehash the Nikon specifications of the lens. Is it just me, or does that lens title seem like all it’s missing is “EIEIO”?  You can pick up this lens for dirt cheap, so bear that in mind if you notice any whining in the subsequent paragraphs about things that only exist on pricier lenses.

 

The lens feels like it weighs nothing, and it’s really short for being able to zoom to 200mm.  It has a good solid (plastic) bayonet lens shade that will reverse-mount on the lens for really compact storage.  It telescopes out as you zoom to 200mm.

 

The lens has a plastic lens mount and no rubber seal.  What a shocker ;~)

 

Focus

 

This and the 18-55 kit lens are the only AF-S Nikkors I’m aware of that you can’t override auto-focus with the focus ring.  You have to switch the lens to “manual” focus. Yuck.

 

The skinny plastic focus ring is right behind the 52mm filter. Double yuck.  If you can stick to auto-focus, though, it’s no problemo.

 

There is no focus scale. Did I say yuck yet?

 

The auto-focus DOESN’T have any chatter. Yay! Beats that evil 70-300 zoom.

 

Speaking of auto-focus, this lens is unfortunately the poorest example I’ve seen from Nikon.  It’s slow, and even refused to operate in “cloudy bright” conditions when I tried Live View at f/8.0 on the D7100.  The 18-55 kit lens focuses much better.  Stick to phase-detect focus. At least it didn’t have any focus chatter. Or did I already mention that? 

 

Nikkor 55-200mm zoomed out to 200mm with HB-37 hood

 

Zooming out and using the hood makes it look like a much larger lens.  When zoomed to 55mm and having the hood reverse-mounted, it stores away in a really small space.

 

 

Vibration Reduction (VR)

 

This version of the lens has VR; the original version didn’t. I was able (sticking to decaf) to get about half of my shots sharp at 1/100s with NO VR while zoomed to 200mm. Using VR, I could go to roughly 1/50s. I even got one sharp shot (out of 5) at 1/13s with VR ON. If the rule of thumb is 1/(35mm focal length equivalent) limit, or 1/300s then you could say the VR is good for about 2.5 stops.

 

Everybody is different in how they support the camera while hand-holding it, so your mileage will vary here.  I determine “sharp” versus “un-sharp” by photographing a resolution chart at slow shutter speeds and measure where the resolution (MTF50 lp/mm) drops by about 10% from maximum.  I don’t know if there is some industry standard on VR effectiveness, but what counts for me is when pictures just start to show some blur, and I like to do it by the numbers.  I haven’t figured out how to calibrate my level of nervousness with hand-holding, so this VR business is literally “hand waving”.  Oh, also, I test at the longest focal length (200mm).

 

 

Resolution Testing

 

This review is looking at a single copy of the lens.  Yours will be different, but hopefully ‘similar’.

 

These tests were done using a Nikon D7100 (24 MP) with unsharpened 14-bit compressed RAW format.

 

Resolution is a 2-dimensional thing.  The tests that follow show you how resolution varies throughout the frame.  If you ignore the corners, then resolution is really quite good.  About time I said something positive about this lens, isn’t it?

 

Also, the sagittal direction is really, really good.  The meridional direction, on the other hand, is really quite terrible and is the culprit in dragging down the MTF50 numbers.  I have a few shots below that demonstrate what I’m talking about.  You’d swear there was severe motion blur in the pictures, but it’s just the meridional direction optical aberrations.

 

I use a (free!) program called MTF Mapper from here to measure lens resolution.  The download site also has files for printing out the resolution targets (mine are A0 size on heavy glossy paper (‘satin’ finish seems to work just as well), dry-mounted onto a board).  This program is covered in more detail in my MTF Mapper Cliff’s Notes article. The software is comparable to ‘Imatest’ in the quality of the MTF measurements, and it uses the “slanted edge” technology similar to ‘Imatest’, also. I can’t thank the author of MTF Mapper, Frans van den Bergh, enough.  Visit his site and give him the praise he deserves.

 

The chart design used for resolution tests orients all of the little black squares to be ‘slanted’ but they’re generally aligned in meridional and sagittal (think spokes on a wheel) directions to correlate better with the usual MTF plots you’re familiar with.  There’s often a dramatic difference in sharpness between these two directions, and the chart photographs show it clearly.

 

If you spot some small islands of resolution peaks/dips in the following charts, you can safely ignore them.  Visually imperceptible variations in the surface of the resolution chart can show up rather dramatically in the plots, because the analysis software is exquisitely sensitive.

 

 

What the resolution target looks like.  Mine is mounted ‘upside down’.

 

At long last, I’m getting around to some actual resolution results.

 

 

Tests were done with “Live View” AF-S auto-focus (where possible), contrast detect, IR remote, VR OFF, and a really big tripod.  For f/8 and beyond, I was forced to use manual focus using Live View at 100%, since it refused to focus automatically. I use the “best of 10 shots”; not every shot gets the same resolution results.  All cameras operate on the “close enough” principle for focus, so many tests are needed to determine the best resolution that the lens can produce.

 

55mm f/4.0 APS-C Corner. Note Sagittal is MUCH better than Meridional

 

The corner at 55mm f/4.0 shows how much worse the meridional direction is than the sagittal direction.  Also note the vignetting (I don’t care much about vignetting, since it’s easy to fix in post processing).  There is very slight chromatic aberration (this is the unmanipulated RAW view), which is also trivial to fix in post.

 

 

55mm f/4.0 center looks good

 

200mm f/5.6 corner.  Good unless you count the meridional direction!

 

 

Lens center 200mm f/5.6.

 

Unusually poor dead center, but much better resolution just a little off of center.  See 2D plots below for overall resolution view.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Conclusions

 

While not in the ‘pro’ category, this lens is still capable of producing some fine photographs, even wide open.  If you can tolerate f/11, it’s capable of truly good shots.  It’s all about knowing a lens strengths and weaknesses.  For 200mm, it’s exceptionally portable and light.  You can’t beat the price.

 

I’d avoid low light levels; without a distance scale, even manual focus can be a challenge.

 

The picture below gives you a hint of what the lens is capable of doing with a bit of practice. 

 

 

Sample Picture

 

Rabbit at a dead run, 1/500s f/5.6 55-200mm at 200mm, ISO 400, VR ON, 37 feet.

 

Very few shots require sharp corners.  This shot has always been a favorite of mine, done with one of the cheapest and least glamorous lenses that Nikon makes.  It looks quite sharp, even in a print I have that’s 36 inches wide. It was taken by my daughter, who got her amazingly fast reflexes by competing in fencing (foils) competitions for years.  Try shooting wild rabbits on the run and you’ll appreciate the shot even more.

 

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