The Nikon 18-300mm DX is a variable aperture lens with a 16.7x zoom range for enthusiasts that need a single, “all-in-one” lens for everyday and travel photography. The variable aperture of f/3.5-5.6 (which changes from f/3.5 on the widest end at 18mm to f/5.6 when zoomed in), along with the lack of the gold ring on the front of the lens indicate that the lens is not on the same level as professional-grade constant aperture lenses in terms of optics, which is quite understandable, considering what it can offer in terms of zoom range.
Despite being a consumer-grade lens, the Nikon 18-300mm is beefed up with plenty of optical technologies from Nikon. The lens sports the second generation VR II (vibration reduction) technology, offering camera shake compensation equivalent to a shutter speed increase of approximately four stops, allowing to shoot at slower shutter speeds without introducing camera shake. In addition, the two “Normal” and “Active” VR modes let photographers choose how the Vibration Reduction system responds to various shooting situations. Equipped with an AF-S silent-wave focus motor, the Nikon 18-300mm lens focuses quietly and reasonably quickly in various lighting conditions. Similar to the 28-300mm lens, the Nikon 18-300mm also has a 77mm filter thread, which is a standard filter size on pro-level lenses, making it easy for photographers to use specialized filters (polarizing, neutral density, etc) on the lens without having to mess with adapter rings. To prevent issues with lens creep, Nikon provided a zoom lock on the lens exterior, similar to the ones on both 18-200mm and 28-300mm lenses.
Having a similar optical design as the 28-300mm and the 18-200mm lenses, the Nikon 18-300mm has retained a similar physical appearance as well. The same barrel layout with the zoom ring in front of the lens, same focus mode switches, lens markings, etc. The biggest difference is the weight and bulk: the lens is the biggest and the heaviest of the three. In this review, I will take a closer look at the lens, analyze its optical performance characteristics and provide comparisons to the other two Nikon superzoom siblings.
1) Lens Specifications
- Versatile 16.7x zoom lens with ED glass and VR II image stabilization offers a broad focal length range that’s perfect for travel, landscapes, portraits and distant subjects.
- Boasting the longest reach of any NIKKOR all-in-one zoom lens, it delivers the equivalent of 450mm – enough reach to bring the most distant action up close.
- Nikon VR II (Vibration Reduction), engineered specifically for each VR NIKKOR lens, enables handheld shooting at up to 4 shutter speeds slower than would otherwise be possible, assuring dramatically sharper still images and video capture.
- 3 Aspherical Lens Elements virtually eliminate coma and other aberrations, even at wide apertures.
- M/A Focus Mode Switch Enables quick changes between manual and autofocus operation.
- Nikon Super Integrated Coating (SIC) Enhances light transmission efficiency and offers superior color consistency and reduced flare.
- 3 Extra-low Dispersion (ED) Elements offer superior sharpness and color correction by effectively minimizing chromatic aberration, even at the widest aperture settings.
- Exclusive Nikon Silent Wave Motor (SWM) enables fast, accurate and quiet autofocus.
- Internal Focus (IF) provides fast and quiet autofocus without changing the length of the lens, retaining working distance throughout the focus range.
- Zoom Lock Switch secures the lens barrel at its minimum focal length preventing the lens from extending during transport.
- Rounded 9-Blade Diaphragm renders more natural appearance of out-of-focus image areas.
- Mount Type: Nikon F-Bayonet
- Focal Length Range: 18-300mm
- Zoom Ratio: 16.7x
- Maximum Aperture: f/3.5
- Minimum Aperture: f/22
- Format: DX
- Maximum Angle of View (DX-format): 76°
- Minimum Angle of View (DX-format): 5°20′
- Maximum Reproduction Ratio: 0.32x
- Lens Elements: 19
- Lens Groups: 14
- Optical Conversion Factor: 1.5x
- Compatible Format(s): DX
- VR (Vibration Reduction)/Image Stabilization: Yes
- Diaphragm Blades: 9
- Distance Information: Yes
- ED Glass Elements: 3
- Aspherical Elements: 3
- Super Integrated Coating: Yes
- Autofocus: Yes
- AF-S (Silent Wave Motor): Yes
- Internal Focusing: Yes
- Minimum Focus Distance: 1.48 ft. (0.45m) only at 300mm zoom setting
- Focus Mode: AF, Manual
- G-type: Yes
- Filter Size: 77mm
- Accepts Filter Type: Screw-on
- Dimensions (Approx.): 3.3×4.7 in. (Diameter x Length) 83x120mm (Diameter x Length)
- Weight (Approx.): 29.3 oz. (830g)
- Supplied Accessories: HB-58 Bayonet Lens Hood, LC-77 Snap-on Front Lens Cap, LF-4 Rear Lens Cap, CL-1120 Soft Case
2) Lens construction and handling
As I have already pointed out in the introduction of this review, the Nikon 18-300mm is bigger and heavier than both the 18-200mm and the 28-300mm lenses. And for this reason alone, it was one of the first things that I really disliked about it. Yes, the 18-300mm does give more range than any other Nikkor lens, but it is a DX lens and it feels completely out of balance on most DX cameras. When fully extended, it gets so long that from the side it almost looks like you are using the 70-200mm f/2.8. The Nikon 18-200mm now looks small in comparison and it is not a small lens to start with. Weighing 830 grams, it is a whopping 270 grams heavier than the 18-200mm – almost as heavy as the Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8G! I don’t know what Nikon was thinking when they designed the lens – what kind of a DX shooter would want this monstrosity? I can understand if one desires a heavy and expensive lens for performance reasons, but the 18-300mm is not a very a sharp lens (see sharpness tests on the next page). So keeping its performance characteristics in mind, it is too bulky and heavy in my opinion. Some people prefer DX cameras for weight reasons, so I guess the 18-300mm would be completely out of question for those folks.
Here is how the lens compares to the 18-200mm and 28-300mm size-wise (From left to right: Nikon 18-200mm, Nikon 18-300mm, Nikon 28-300mm):
And here they all are again, this time fully extended (From left to right: Nikon 18-200mm, Nikon 18-300mm, Nikon 28-300mm):
On a positive note, the lens is built well and feels solid in hands – certainly better than the Tamron and Sigma equivalents. It has a plastic barrel with plastic focus and zoom rings (the zoom ring is covered with rubber). Most of the recently-announced lenses by Nikon have a plastic exterior, which does not necessarily mean that the lenses are not solid. The interior of the Nikon 18-300mm contains plenty of metal to hold optical elements, although judging from the weight, it feels like the lens has nothing but glass. The lens mount is also made of solid metal, not plastic as in some cheap kit lenses like 18-55mm DX.
The Nikon 18-300mm DX should be able to withstand cold and hot temperatures, but I would not leave it under rain, extreme moisture and dusty environments. The lens is most vulnerable when zoomed in – the barrel extends out quite a bit and any dust that settles on the lens barrel can be quickly sucked into the lens, resulting in dust inside the lens and potentially on the camera sensor. While dust specs generally do not affect the sharpness of a lens, too much dust decreases lens contrast, resulting in images that look a little cloudier than normal. Note that most zoom lenses are prone to the same issue as above, including some of the professional lenses.
The zoom ring is easy to rotate from 18 to 300mm and vice versa, although it felt a little stiff at first when I started using it. Zooming in/out got a little smoother overtime, but not too much to cause the lens to creep. It takes more than a half turn to go from 18 to 300mm, which means you can zoom to a subject very quickly.
Another important thing to note is that the front part of the lens does not seem to wobble when the lens is fully extended (the 18-200mm is notorious for that). The plastic focus ring is located on the back of the lens, which I find backwards. I am used to the zoom ring being close to the camera and the focus ring to be in the front. But if you have shot with the 18-200mm or other DX lenses like Nikon 18-105mm or Nikon 18-135mm, you should have no problems with this.
3) Focus acquisition speed and accuracy
The autofocus motor of the Nikon 18-300mm f/3.5-5.6G VR is quiet and accurate at short focal lengths, even in low-light conditions, thanks to the AF-S Silent Wave Motor. Autofocus speed is relatively quick, but certainly not as fast as in pro-level lenses. As you zoom in, however, autofocus accuracy is inconsistent and can be all over the place – with plenty of hits and misses. Anything above 105mm tends to miss focus and it gets worse at 200mm and 300mm. With such a complex lens design, I can see why it is so weak on the telephoto side. Because the optical performance of the lens is rather weak at the telephoto end, and since there is a significant amount of light loss at f/5.6, the phase detect sensor often gets confused and gives false positives. Well, that’s what you get with a superzoom. Focus tracking in OK in continuous mode, again only at short focal lengths. When the lens cannot autofocus and starts to hunt, the autofocus performance gets to a crawling speed. I was able to get a couple of sharp shots at 300mm, but it was not easy. I had to constantly refocus and take pictures and eventually got a couple of keepers. Here is an image sample of a Black Bear photographed at 300mm:
It does not look bad when the image is down-sampled. But at 100% view it is not as impressive. If you are after wildlife, this lens is clearly not a good candidate – you would be much better off with the 70-300mm lens.
4) Lens sharpness, contrast and color rendition
The lens suffers from similar problems as the other superzooms – sharpness and contrast vary by focal length and aperture, with the weakest numbers at largest apertures. The performance of the lens at short focal lengths is pretty good, but anything above 105mm is average to below average. Contrast is quite poor wide open, but gets better at f/5.6 and beyond. Overall, the lens sharpnes is not bad for a superzoom when compared to the 18-200mm, but certainly nowhere close to the sharpness and contrast of pro-level lenses like Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8G or Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8G VR II. You can see lens sharpness tests in the next page with comparisons against the 18-200mm and 28-300mm. Color rendition is pretty good, I would say on par with the 28-300mm.
5) Vibration Reduction – VR II
I am a big fan of Vibration Reduction (VR) lenses – I wish every lens had VR in it, because it is one of the most useful lens features for low-light photography. The Nikon 18-300mm f/3.5-5.6G comes with the second generation “VR II” image stabilization technology, which is supposed to deliver sharp images up to four stops the shutter speed. While VR seemed to work fairly well in most situations, I did not find it to be as reliable, again mostly at telephoto focal lengths. In many cases, VR seemed to go on the opposite direction of motion and the only way to address the issue was to re-engage VR and wait until it stabilizes. I have not experienced such problems on higher end lenses, so either my copy of the lens was bad, or the VR mechanism on the lens is unreliable.
One of the key advantages of the Nikon 18-300mm lens is supposed to be its 9 blade diaphragm, which should result in better-looking round bokeh. In my experience, the number of blades on the latest Nikon lenses does not really matter, since the aperture blades are rounded. I have done some extensive bokeh tests and comparisons and I really could not see major differences between 9 blade and 7 blade rounded diaphragms. Now if you compare old straight aperture lenses with fewer blades to the new rounded ones, the difference is quite evident. In fact, I prefer rounded 7 blade diaphragm to a straight 9 blade one – try to test an older lens and see for yourself.
As for the bokeh on the 18-300mm, I found it to be similar to bokeh on the 18-200mm and 28-300mm lenses, which is quite nervous. In short, none of the superzooms will give you great-looking, “creamy” bokeh. The shapes of background highlights are defined and often layered. Here is the best case scenario, with a Marmot photographed at 300mm, wide open:
Again, nothing to be excited about. For these kinds of wildlife shots, I would rather shoot with my favorite Nikon 300mm f/4 AF-S. It is significantly sharper even with the TC-14E and it produces absolutely beautiful bokeh.
Besides sharpness issues, the Nikon 18-300mm also suffers from heavy vignetting. There is plenty of vignetting at 18mm, which is significantly reduced towards 50mm, but comes back again at telephoto ranges. Take a look at the following chart that shows vignetting at different focal lengths and apertures:
While vignetting is easy to remove in Lightroom or Photoshop, it is still another process to run during post-processing. Take a look at the following worst-case scenario vignetting example, where the extreme corners are darkened by over 2 stops:
8) Ghosting and Flare
Ghosting and flare are handled quite well, depending on the focal length and where you place the source of light. Here is an extreme example with the sun in the top left frame:
And here is an example with the sun in the top right frame at sunset:
Not bad, I cannot see any apparent ghosting and flares in the image. As you zoom in towards the telephoto range, however, ghosting can become an issue.
This lens, just like both the 28-300mm and the 18-200mm has lots of distortion throughout its range, which is expected for a 16.7x zoom lens. At 18mm, it suffers the most, producing images with very noticeable barrel distortion. As you zoom in towards 28mm, barrel distortion immediately switches to pincushion distortion and stays that way all the way to 300mm:
Pincushion distortion reaches its peak at 105mm and then diminishes again towards 300mm. Distortion is also something that is easy to fix in post-processing. Lightroom 4.3 already has built-in support for this lens, so you can fix it with a single click of a button using the Lightroom Lens Correction sub-module.
10) Chromatic Aberration
One of the big downsides of this lens, is the amount of chromatic aberration or color/purple fringing that is present in the images. My sample had a strong amount of CA present above 28mm, as can be seen from the below chart:
These issues can be easily corrected in Photoshop or Lightroom, now that the lens is fully supported by Adobe.
11) Focus Breathing
Similar to the Nikon 28-300mm and 18-200mm lenses, the lens does suffer from a “focus breathing” problem. Basically, in order to keep the minimum focus distance shorter, Nikon made a few adjustments to the lens design, which resulted in shorter effective focal lengths when shooting close objects. If your subject is very close at minimum distance, the 300mm on the Nikon 18-300mm will be equivalent to around 135mm, which is less than twice. As the distance between you and the subject grows, the field of view narrows. When I was doing my tests between 2-2.5 meters, the field of view at 300mm was equivalent to around 150mm. In order to get the full 300mm out of this lens, your subject would have to be very far away, with your focus set to infinity. Even at a 50 meter distance, you would still get around 275mm. As I have stated above, this lens is not a good candidate for photographing birds or other small wildlife. If you want to get close, the Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G VR or Nikon 55-300mm f/4.5-5.6G DX VR are much better candidates, since they can get to true 300mm.
Let’s now move on to the good stuff – Sharpness tests. Select the next page below.
12) Sharpness Test
NOTE: All lenses were tested on the Nikon D800E body. For the following “Lens Comparisons” page, since both 18-300mm and 18-200mm lenses are DX, the camera was switched to DX crop mode during the lab testing process. The Nikon 28-300mm, on the other hand, was tested in FX mode to evaluate the entire frame.
Take a look at the following sharpness charts that illustrate the optical performance of the lens at different focal lengths from 18mm to 300mm:
The Nikon 18-300mm starts out fairly well at 18mm, with good center sharpness. Mid-frame is pretty average and corners are a little worse in comparison.
At 28mm, the image gets weaker, especially in the extreme corners.
Zooming in to 50mm does not change the picture much.
At 105mm, there is a pretty significant drop of resolution.
Even worse at 200mm.
At 300mm we get the worst sharpness – image quality suffers pretty badly and the resolving power of the lens is greatly diminished. These results are pretty typical for a superzoom though. The other two lenses are also weak in the long end.
13) Nikon 18-300mm vs Nikon 18-200mm @ 18mm
Let’s see how the new 18-300mm compares to the 18-200mm VR II at the shortest focal length of 18mm:
Seems like both lenses perform about the same on the short end.
14) Nikon 18-300mm @ 105mm vs Nikon 18-200mm @ 135mm
Another comparison between the two lenses at 105mm and 135mm focal lengths:
Zoomed in to 105mm and 135mm, the Nikon 18-200mm seems to perform better overall, most notably in the center and mid-frame. The corners on the 18-300mm look better at larger apertures.
15) Nikon 18-300mm vs Nikon 18-200mm @ 200mm
Here is what happens at the long end @ 200mm:
And looks like it is the same story at 200mm, where the 18-200mm maintains an edge over the 18-300mm in terms of sharpness in the center and mid-frame. Corners look the same on both.
16) Nikon 18-300mm vs Nikon 18-200mm Summary
While both lenses seem to perform well wide open, the Nikon 18-200mm shows better performance in the center and mid-frame when zoomed in a little. The 18-200mm maintains better sharpness at long focal lengths and it can also resolve more detail at its longest focal length of 200mm. In addition, it also has less distortion and chromatic aberration than the 18-300mm.
17) Nikon 18-300mm vs Nikon 28-300mm @ 28mm
Now let’s take a look at how the 18-300mm compares to the full-frame Nikon 28-300mm lens:
At 28mm, the Nikon 18-300mm yields better sharpness throughout the image. The Nikon 28-300mm suffers from a strong amount of field curvature, which is why there is a big difference in performance between center and mid-frame.
18) Nikon 18-300mm vs Nikon 28-300mm @ 50mm
Let’s see what happens at 50mm:
At 50mm, the Nikon 28-300mm catches up in center performance, but still suffers in mid-frame and corners at large apertures.
19) Nikon 18-300mm vs Nikon 28-300mm @ 105mm
Another comparison at 105mm:
At 105mm, the Nikon 28-300mm takes over the center sharpness, but still loses everywhere else.
20) Nikon 18-300mm vs Nikon 28-300mm @ 200mm
Zoomed in 200mm:
Corners still suffer at 200mm on the 28-300mm lens.
21) Nikon 18-300mm vs Nikon 28-300mm @ 300mm
Zoomed in to 100% @ 300mm:
Lastly, at 300mm, both lenses seem to perform about the same.
22) Nikon 18-300mm vs Nikon 28-300mm Summary
Judging from the above test results, the Nikon 18-300mm seems to perform overall better than the 28-300mm. It has better mid-frame and corner frame sharpness at all short focal lengths. Zoomed in, however, both lenses start to look about the same.
Keep in mind that the above test is not an apples to apples comparison. The Nikon 18-300mm was tested in DX crop mode, while the 28-300mm was tested in FX (full-frame mode). This is the main reason why the 18-300mm scored better in mid-frame – it does not cover the same area as the 28-300mm (see DX vs FX). If the 28-300mm was also tested in DX crop mode, it would have performed better.
23) Nikon 18-300mm vs Nikon 24-70mm
Just for fun, I am including a quick comparison between the 18-300mm and the 24-70mm, so that you could see how different the performance of these lenses is at the same apertures. Here is a comparison at 50mm:
Obviously, this is not a fair comparison, because we are comparing a consumer superzoom to a professional mid-range zoom. But it is a good contrast to show what to expect from pro-level glass and understand the compromises you have to make with the 18-300mm.
Summary and Image Samples
As you may already know from my review of the Nikon 28-300mm VR, I am not a fan of superzoom lenses. Yes, they have their uses for people that travel or do not want to change lenses, but they come with too many problems for my taste. I have tried every single superzoom Nikon made so far, as well as some third party superzooms, and I found none of them to be appealing for my photography needs. In fact, I used to own the Nikon 18-200mm VR lens (the original version) a long time ago and I got rid of it fairly quickly, because I was not satisfied with its performance. With so many optical problems like distortion, vignetting, chromatic aberration, bad bokeh and decreased sharpness, I found myself spending more time editing pictures and not being fully satisfied with them, than enjoying photography. Most of these optical issues can now be easily removed or reduced today thanks to the automated lens correction module of Lightroom, but it still left a bad taste in my mouth.
That’s not to say I do not enjoy zoom lenses. I own and love a number of excellent zoom lenses like Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8G, 16-35mm f/4G VR, 24-70mm f/2.8G (the 24-120mm f/4 VR is also excellent) and 70-200mm f/2.8G VR. And when I used to have DX gear, I loved shooting with superb zoom lenses like Nikon 17-55mm, 12-24mm and 16-85mm. However, you cannot compare those lenses to the 18-300mm or the like – they are a world better in comparison. Just take a look at the bottom part of the second page of this review and see how the 18-300mm fares against the 24-70mm and you will quickly see what I mean.
Why so much criticism towards the 18-300mm and the superzooms, you might ask? I want people to know what to expect from such lenses before they decide to put a thousand dollars of their hard earned money on them. I have met a lot of beginners and photo enthusiasts during my workshops, various seminars and local photography club meetings. To my surprise, many photographers end up with such lenses as 18-200mm and 28-300mm, just because someone else recommended that “they would never have to buy another lens”. I often see more people with a 18-200mm than with a 16-85mm. Why? Because most of them do not know any better (heck, most of them never even get out of the “Auto” mode). Unfortunately, many of us get lured by the idea of owning a single “do it all” lens without understanding the consequences. And since the demand for such lenses is unfortunately high, Nikon keeps making more of them and updating them often, rather than giving us lightweight and good performing DX primes and zooms. As I have pointed out in the comments section of the why DX has no future article, Nikon is the one that is sinking the DX ship. Instead of giving us monstrous and under-performing lenses like the 18-300mm, why can’t it concentrate on better lenses? We need more lightweight, optically great and cheap DX lenses. But enough of my ranting, let’s get down to the conclusion!
In summary, as you can clearly see from this review, the Nikon 18-300mm is a very average lens with average performance overall. It is optically worse than the 18-200mm and it is much bigger and heavier in comparison. It has plenty of distortion, chromatic aberration, vignetting and other issues, but worst of all – its optical performance and focus accuracy at long focal lengths is disappointing. Personally, I would rather opt for the 18-105mm kit lens or the 18-200mm, both of which are cheaper and better optically. Add the focus breathing “feature” and it becomes more like a 18-135mm lens, so you are not getting the full 300mm anyway (except if shooting objects at infinity).
25) Where to buy and availability
B&H is currently selling the Nikon 18-300mm f/3.5-5.6G VR lens for $996 (as of 11/28/2012) and has it in stock.
26) More image samples
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