Lens Sharpness and Contrast
As for sharpness, you get quite a lot – given how small and cheap this lens is. Nikkor 18-55mm AF-P is decently sharp wide open (with a tad softer corner) to very sharp when stopped down to f/8 – f/11 (with adequately sharp corners). This holds for all tested focal lengths (18mm, 24mm, 35mm and 55mm) – usually, lenses like this become softer on either of the ends, but this Nikkor does not suffer from that. Interestingly, diffraction sets in rather slowly and this lens shows a good resolution across the frame, even at smaller apertures. I find micro contrast to be very good and color rendition rather neutral, without any color cast. It is quite important that the lens does not lose micro-contrast transmission when shooting against the sun (see below). Very good and even performance across the focal lengths, in any part of the frame and at all aperture values is a great advantage of this lens. For more details, see the sharpness comparisons on the next page of this review.
This lens is being sold in two versions: the non-VR version is cheaper ($196 versus $246 USD) and lighter (195g versus 205g) compared to the stabilized VR version. You can discern one from the other only by a written sign on the lens – there are no VR switches to be found on the stabilized version. It does not have a “Normal” and “Active” VR switch, which I personally do not miss, since I hardly ever change VR from Normal to Active. However, it also lacks any VR on/off toggle switch in general.
With the fully compatible bodies, VR function can be turned on/off through in-camera menu. I am not very happy about this since quite a few partly compatible bodies (such as D7100) do not support this feature and hence VR cannot be turned off. Check if you have the latest camera firmware installed, as Nikon promised to include this feature into compatible bodies.
Even if VR can be turned off in some bodies, I still think it is not the optimal solution: it is easy to forget about the in-camera setting and shoot with VR turned off.
Apart from this nuisance, I cannot complain about the efficiency of the stabilization as such. I was shooting with 18-55mm hand-held most of the time and used my tripod only for very few shots to do some side-by-side testing. With VR on, I was able to shoot at very slow shutter speeds. Typically, 1/10 or 1/15 of a second was not a problem (on a 24 MP body). I got a few decently sharp 1/5 sec photos (even at 55mm). Overall, the Vibration Reduction (VR) system in this lens works very well, I would judge the advantage as approximately 2 – 4 EV thanks to VR, depending on your conditions and hand-holding technique.
A smooth and silky bokeh is not to be expected from an inexpensive slow kit lens. However, you can achieve shallow-depth of field photos when zooming in to 55mm and shooting objects at the closest possible distance of 25 cm. The quality of bokeh this lens produces is (subjectively) OK. Highlights render as septagonal (and almost circular shapes), albeit with some outlines. Below are some image samples that show the lens bokeh performance:
Vignetting (or light fall-off) is most pronounced (about 2.5 EV) at the wide-open aperture (f/3.5) and the wide end (18mm), and also a bit less in the mid-range (around 35mm). It is least visible at 55mm. Stopping down the lens to f/5.6 and higher helps a lot to get rid of the darker corners. Vignetting should not be a major concern in this class of a lens, as even professional lenses display some degree of vignetting. What is more, it can be easily corrected in most of the post-processing software.
Ghosting, Flare and Shooting Against the Sun
I love shooting against the low sun, so one of the very crucial features, is how a lens can handle direct sunlight or any other strong source of light. Similar to other AF-P lenses, the 18-55mm AF-P handles all this extremely well:
Even if this lens does not feature any high-end Nano Crystal Coating, it still does a great job in dealing with direct light. When the sun is in the frame, I could not really get any nasty ghosting, flare or any significant loss of the micro-contrast. Only a small tiny colorful dot appears in the middle of the frame. Side light hitting the front glass is often more challenging, but not even here I could spot any major troubles.
Similar to the Nikkor AF-P wide-angle (10-20mm), this kit lens does not render nice sunstars out of point sources of light. The shape is more distracted and the rays of light can be even curved. Getting a small irregular sunstar-shape is still possible, but only when the bright source of light is very tiny. This means that sun has to be partly shaded by other objects.
The Nikon 18-55mm AF-P VR lens has a very controlled amount of lateral chromatic aberration (CA) both in the corners and the center of the frame. There is a noticeable improvement compared to the AF-S VR II (2014) version which displayed strong chromatic aberration. I assume this is why Nikon included one extra aspherical element in the new third-generation design. This is not to say that you will not find any green and pink edges in the contrasting areas of your images. However, it is nothing critical, as this amount of CA is very easy to fix in Lightroom and Photoshop (or similar software).
The amount of Distortion is also quite typical for an inexpensive kit lens. At 18mm, there is a noticeable amount of barrel distortion (+4.3%) and still quite high distortion (+3.0%) at 24mm. As you zoom in further, it gets to moderate levels and it disappears completely by 35mm, barrel distortion remains absent from 35mm until 55mm, where it turns to slight pincushion distortion. Even if the barrel distortion at the short end is quite heavy, correcting it via software during post-production is not very difficult in Lightroom (or any similar software). Furthermore, the latest Nikon DSLRs correct this lens’ distortion automatically (you need to have the function “Automatic Distortion Correction” set to ON).
Usage on FX Bodies
Even if the usage on a full frame body is this is not the main purpose of this DX lens, it is interesting to notice that this small glass can be still used on an FX body with some (expected) caveats. From 18-24mm the lens does not cover the whole FX sensor, i.e. you will get black rounded corners. It is possible, however, to use the vast majority of the FX sensor (without much cropping) in the focal range of 24-55mm, albeit with noticeable vignetting, The edges are quite soft, but that is compensated by very good center performance. I found myself in situations when I was glad I could mount this lens on my D750 and get decent results (such as night photos of architecture).
In the Nikon family, I see three other options at a similar price and purpose category (DX basic zoom lens), all mentioned in the sharpness comparison section of this review. Namely, Nikkor 18-140mm f/3.5–5.6 AF-S VR, Nikkor 18-105mm f/3.5-5.6 AF-S VR and the one generation older Nikkor 18-55mm AF-S VR II lens. As I explained above, Nikon still sells sets with the older 18-55mm AF-S generation lens. While also a very well performing glass, if you plan to buy a compatible body, I would go with the AF-P version, which offers a more balanced optical performance and much better autofocus for the same price.
As for the other two zooms (18-105mm and 14-140mm): both offer much greater zoom range which might be handy for beginners who are not sure about the usage of the lens. In terms of optical performance and portability, the 18-55mm lens is a winner. If versatility is the most important issue and you do not want to invest in a telephoto zoom lens, the 18-140mm is also a good option.
Nikon also sells the DX zoom 16-80mm f/2.8-4 AF-S VR, but that is a completely different beast – faster, more versatile, optically excellent, way heavier and almost 4 times more expensive, so not nearly in the same league. Also the nowadays quite outdated (including in terms of optical performance) Nikkor 17-55mm f/2.8 is a very different lens as well, so I do not consider it as a direct competitor.
The situation gets more complicated when one looks at other brands, such as Sigma or Tamron.
Both offer basic zooms with limited range and very good optical performance. The Sigma 17-70mm f/2.8-4 DC displays very good sharpness in the center of the frame throughout the zoom range (even if the amount of resolution is falling slightly with increasing focal lengths) and the close focusing ability is great for close-up shooting. Similar to the excellent Nikkor 16-80mm, this Sigma offers one stop faster aperture values. So it is no surprise that such a lens costs around $500 USD and weights 465g, exactly twice as the Nikkor 18-55mm AF-P. If you want to shoot indoors in low light and do not want to invest in fixed primes, the Sigma 17-70mm could be a good choice.
For that purpose (indoor shooting), you could also consider the heavier (570 g) and pricier ($650 USD) Tamron SP 17-50mm f/2.8 XR Di II VC. It is the only basic zoom with constant (and fast) aperture – so this lens might be very appealing to sport / action photographers. Tamron performs very well at 18mm and in general at wider focal lengths. However, it is not nearly as sharp wide open at 50mm (neither in the center, nor in the corners) as the other competitors, so stepping down at least to f/4 might be needed for optimal quality.
We should not forget about the Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 DC HSM – optically superb glass, featuring a super-wide f/1.8 aperture and stunning center image quality throughout its range. That range is, however, very short, and the lens is quite large and heavy (and expensive). But if you shoot portraits or weddings and you want to stay with the DX-format, this might be your top choice, since that lens is like having three primes in one zoom.
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