This is an in-depth review of the Nikon 55-300mm f/4.5-5.6G VR lens that was released in August of 2010 together with three other lenses – Nikon 85mm f/1.4G, Nikon 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G VR and Nikon 24-120mm f/4.0 VR. The Nikon 55-300mm VR lens is a major update to the existing Nikon 55-200mm f/4.0-5.6G ED VR lens that was released in 2007. Just like the 55-200mm VR, it is designed to be used with the Nikon 18-55mm DX VR kit lens to provide expanded focal range for telephoto shots. Nikon 55-300mm is currently the cheapest way to get to true 300mm focal length in Nikon’s current line of lenses, with a little more shorter range to work with than the Nikon 70-300mm VR lens.
It is an ideal lens to be used for family events and vacations to capture distant subjects, and the use of Vibration Reduction (VR) technology makes it easier to get sharp photographs at slower shutter speeds, especially when shooting at 300mm. Similar to the Nikon 28-300mm VR lens, the Nikon 55-300mm VR comes with two Extra-low Dispersion (ED) Elements, which due to less air bubbles and glass deformities within the glass elements help minimize chromatic aberration and deliver sharper images at large apertures. The Nikon 55-300mm VR lens is only designed to work on Nikon DX (cropped) sensors and has an equivalent field of view of approximately 82.5mm-450mm (in 35mm equivalent), which makes the lens particularly good for reaching distant subjects. Autofocus is practically silent, thanks to the Silent Wave Motor (AF-S) within the lens.
In this review, I will do my best to provide a thorough analysis of this lens, along with some image samples and comparisons against other Nikon professional telephoto lenses.
1) Lens Specifications
- Compact DX-format zoom lens with High Refractive Index lens element, ED glass and VR II image stabilization allows expanded photo and video opportunities that are designed to bring the action closer to the photographer.
- Nikon VR II Image Stabilization/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.
- HRI (High Refractive Index) Lens Element is essential to keeping the lens compact while offering high contrast even at maximum aperture.
- Exclusive Nikon Silent Wave Motor (SWM) enables fast, accurate and quiet autofocus.
- The minimum focus distance is at 4.6 feet at all focal lengths.
- 5.5X Telephoto Zoom lens is ideal for capturing distant subjects at athletic events, family pictures, dramatic sunsets, travel and more. Angle of view is equivalent to a focal length of 82.5 to 450mm in FX/35mm format D-SLR.
- Tripod Detection Mode reduces vibration that may occur due to shutter release when mounted on a tripod.
- 2 Extra-low Dispersion (ED) Elements effectively minimize chromatic aberration, even at the widest aperture settings.
- Nikon Super Integrated Coating (SIC) enhances light transmission efficiency and offers superior color consistency and reduces flare.
- Rounded 9-Blade Diaphragm renders more natural appearance of out-of-focus image areas.
- Mount Type: Nikon F-Bayonet
- Focal Length Range: 55-300mm
- Zoom Ratio: 5.5x
- Maximum Aperture: f/4.5
- Minimum Aperture: f/22
- Format: DX
- Maximum Angle of View (DX-format): 28°50′
- Minimum Angle of View (DX-format): 5°20′
- Maximum Reproduction Ratio: 0.28x
- Lens Elements: 17
- Lens Groups: 11
- High Refractive Index Elements: 1
- Compatible Format(s): DX, FX in DX Crop Mode
- VR (Vibration Reduction/Image Stabilization): Yes
- Diaphragm Blades: 9
- Distance Information: Yes
- ED Glass Elements: 2
- Super Integrated Coating: Yes
- Autofocus: Yes
- AF-S (Silent Wave Motor): Yes
- Minimum Focus Distance: 4.6 ft. (1.4m) throughout entire zoom range
- Focus Mode: Auto/Manual
- Filter Size: 58mm
- Accepts Filter Type: Screw-on
- Dimensions (Approx.): 3.0×4.8 in. (Diameter x Length) 76.5x123mm (Diameter x Length)
- Weight (Approx.): 18.7 oz. (580g)
- Supplied Accessories: HB-57 Snap-on Type Lens Hood, LC-58 Snap-on Front Lens Cap, LF-4 Rear Lens Cap, CL-1020 Soft Lens Case
Detailed specifications for the lens, along with MTF charts and other useful data can be found in our lens database.
2) Lens Handling and Features
The Nikon 55-300mm VR is a plastic lens with a metal mount, which is easy to carry and handle due to its low weight. Although the lens has a total of 17 optical elements in 11 groups, it weighs only 580 grams. In comparison, the Nikon 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G VR lens weighs 800 grams, while the Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G VR lens weights 745 grams. Nikon was able to do this by using a high refractive index (HR) lens element (which allows using a single lens element instead of multiple elements made of standard glass), without compromising sharpness and image quality. The zoom ring is gigantic, occupying almost half of the lens barrel, which makes it easy to zoom in and out with your left hand, while holding the camera with your right hand. Compared to such lenses as 70-300mm VR, the 55-300mm does not have a manual focus override, which means that you have to first switch to “M” mode on the lens in order to be able to rotate the front of the lens barrel, where the focus ring is located. This is certainly a drawback, especially if you need to quickly switch from Autofocus to Manual focus (most current Nikon lenses have an “A/M” mode on the lens, which allows to override autofocus by simply rotating the focus ring). The focus ring is tiny compared to the zoom ring and is located in front of the lens, which is a smart move by Nikon – after-all, this lens is created for automatic focusing and the focus ring does not get nearly as much use as the zoom ring.
I really like the versatility of this lens – being able to shoot at 55mm all the way to 300mm is very nice, especially for wildlife photography. Unlike the new Nikon 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G VR or the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR II, this lens is not plagued with a “lens breathing” issue and 300mm on the long side is truly like 300mm, not shorter. Another important thing to note, is that the lens does extend pretty far when zoomed all the way in to 300mm. This is quite normal for this type of a lens and most other consumer zoom lenses also extend out when zoomed in. Zooming in/out was a little jerky and not very smooth on my lens sample, but it probably does get better overtime. The lens does not creep at all and I don’t think it will, even with heavy use in the future. The HB-57 lens hood is specifically engineered for this lens and it snaps on easily – I would leave it mounted on the lens to keep the front element protected against damage and flare/ghosting.
Since it is a variable aperture lens, the focal length on it changes as you zoom in from f/4.5 to f/5.6 on the long end:
- 55mm – f/4.5
- 105mm – f/4.8
- 135mm – f/4.8
- 200mm – f/5.0
- 300mm – f/5.6
3) Focus acquisition speed and accuracy
The lens focuses well when there is sufficient light and when shooting at shorter focal lengths below 200mm. As you get closer to 300mm and f/5.6, the AF accuracy starts to suffer a little, similar to what the 28-300mm does, but it is not bad. I had a few cases when the lens would not focus at all at 300mm, which I was able to address by pointing the lens to a different spot, then half-pressing the shutter or pressing the AF-ON button again. The AF performance is slow – it certainly felt slower than on the Nikon 70-300mm VR lens. Subject tracking worked OK for the most part, occasionally producing out-of-focus images. Once I got used to how the lens autofocuses and learned how to operate it under various conditions, it certainly got easier to work with. Take a look at the following hawk shot that I captured at 300mm (100% crop):
The hawk was just cruising above me, so I did not have to track focus – the lens just acquired focus at once and I took a couple of images. I cropped the image in Lightroom and added some sharpness.
When focusing in low-light, you might notice the lens hunting, which is certainly annoying. Obviously, the 55-300 is not a good candidate for any kind of indoor/low-light photography, unless flashes are used.
4) Lens Sharpness and Contrast
When it comes to lens sharpness, the 55-300 performs very well between 55 to 135mm and starts losing just a touch of sharpness towards 300mm across the frame. The center is pretty sharp throughout the focal range, with the corners being slightly soft when shooting wide open. As you stop down the lens, both the center and the corners improve considerably, with f/8 being the sweet spot at short focal lengths and f/11 at the long focal lengths above 200mm. Check out the following image to see how sharp the lens can be:
Click here to download the full-size version of the file (7.7 MB).
As you can see, the lens is capable of producing great results when shot at f/8.0.
5) Vibration Reduction – VR II
The new Vibration Reduction (VR) system in this lens is superb and works great! I shot the 55-300mm hand-held most of the time and used a tripod only for lab and outdoor testing. Thanks to vibration reduction, I was able to shoot at slow shutter speeds and still get sharp images of non-moving subjects. VR can be turned on/off through a switch on the side of the lens. Compared to the 70-300mm VR lens, it has no VR modes like “Normal” and “Active”, which I personally do not miss, since I rarely change VR from Normal to Active. When shooting from a tripod, do not forget to turn VR off.
The quality of bokeh this lens produces is pretty good. It is not as good as what the Nikon 70-300mm VR and other exotic lenses such as the Nikon 85mm f/1.4G can do, but still quite pleasing for a lens like this. Here is a bokeh comparison between the Nikon 55-300 and 28-300:
Although the bokeh looks a little “edgy”, it is not as bad as the bokeh on the 28-300mm. The Nikon 28-300mm bokeh looks very dirty in comparison.
Here is another image sample showing soft and pleasing background rendering:
Vignetting is typically not a problem on telephoto lenses, however, the Nikon 55-300mm does have a significant amount of vignetting present past 135mm when shooting at the largest aperture. Stopping down the lens to f/8.0 completely gets rid of vignetting though, which is great. Here is an example of vignetting at f/5.0 @ 200mm (left) and at f/8.0 @ 200mm (right):
As you can see, the vignetting is clearly gone by f/8.0. The same thing happens when shooting at the longest focal length of 300mm.
8) Ghosting and Flare
Telephoto lenses are typically not designed to shoot against bright sources of light. While the Nikon 55-300mm seems to be able to handle ghosting and flare fairly well, I would be careful with putting the Sun into the frame – you might get some nasty ghosting and flare depending on the angle, position, etc. The images might appear “cloudy” if the sun reaches the front element of the lens, so I would just keep the supplied hood on at all times. Not only will the hood protect the lens, but it will also do what it is supposed to – which is block sun rays from reaching the front element. When shooting against other light sources in dim environments, I did not notice any considerable amount of ghosting/flare. If you are seeing too much flare and you are using a filter (clear, UV, etc.), try removing the filter to see if the effect goes away. If it does, then you have a low quality filter.
9) Chromatic Aberration
The Nikon 55-300mm VR has a very controlled amount of chromatic aberration (CA), due to the excellent ED glass elements used in this lens. I did not notice much CA at the short focal lengths (just a tad in the corners), but did get some at the long end between 200mm and 300mm across the frame. But this slight amount of CA is very easy to fix in Lightroom and Photoshop, so it is not even worth mentioning it- certainly very good for a consumer lens of this class. Stopping down the lens to f/8.0 almost completely eliminates visible aberration.
Distortion is controlled well at the short focal lengths, with a very slight amount of barrel distortion at 55mm. As you get to 70mm, distortion completely disappears, reappearing as pincushion distortion at 105mm all the way to 300mm. Pincushion is moderate at the long ranges – here is an extreme example at 105mm with noticeable distortion:
If distortion is an issue for you, you can easily fix it via Filter->Distort->Lens Correction filter in Adobe Photoshop or use the new “Lens Corrections” screen inside Lightroom’s Develop Module.
Some Technical Info:
- White Balance: Auto, changed to “Custom”: 3500 Temp, +19 Tint in Lightroom
- ISO: 200
- EXIF information is preserved in the images
- Lens was mounted on Nikon D300 DX Camera and Gitzo tripod
- Focusing was performed through Live-View Contrast Detect. After each successful focus acquisition, focus was switched to manual to prevent camera refocusing
- Mirror Lock-Up mode with Exposure Delay set to “On” and remote cable release to completely eliminate camera shake
- Long exposure NR: Off
- Image Format: RAW
- Lightroom settings: Default settings, but exposure had to be slightly adjusted (-.20 to +.033) to make sure that all images have the same brightness
- Lightroom export: sRGB JPEG Quality 80
- Testing was performed at f/4.5, f/5.6, f/8.0 and f/11.0 apertures
- Nothing was moved during testing
11) Sharpness Test – Nikon 55-300mm @ 55mm Center Frame
As you can see, the lens performs very well at all apertures when shooting at 55mm. The image wide open @ f/4.5 is just a tad softer than others, but almost unnoticeable, which is very good.
12) Sharpness Test – Nikon 55-300mm @ 55mm Corner Frame
As expected, the extreme corners at the largest apertures do show some softness at 55mm. Stopping down the lens to f/8.0 does improve the situation considerably though.
13) Sharpness Test – Nikon 55-300mm @ 70mm Center Frame
Again, the center of the frame is sharp from f/5.6 to f/11.0 with a very slightly softer image at f/4.5.
The corners at 70mm look very similar to the 55mm crops posted above, with softer corners wide open getting pretty good by f/8.0.
14) Sharpness Test – Nikon 55-300mm @ 105mm Center Frame
Again, the sharpness is pretty good overall, but we are already seeing some loss of sharpness at the largest aperture and f/5.6. Stopping down the lens to f/8.0 and f/11.0 produces the best results.
15) Sharpness Test – Nikon 55-300mm @ 105mm Corner Frame
I’m surprised to see how well the lens does at 105mm – all corners look pretty sharp with no difference between the crops.
16) Sharpness Test – Nikon 55-300mm @ 200mm Center Frame
At 200mm, the best performance is between f/8.0 and f/11.0, with the wide open and f/5.6 performance getting a little weaker, but still pretty good.
The corners are very similar to 105mm – consistently good images from f/5.6 to f/11.0.
17) Sharpness Test – Nikon 55-300mm @ 300mm Center Frame
Again, the center looks very similar to 200mm, with slightly softer image at f/5.6 that gets sharper at f/8.0 and f/11.0.
18) Sharpness Test – Nikon 55-300mm @ 300mm Corner Frame
Corners look all the same to me in terms of sharpness, with a slight amount of visible purple fringing in the corners.
Overall, the lens sharpness performance is pretty good, with a slightly worse performance at larger apertures when shooting at long ranges above 105mm. The remedy is to stop down to f/8.0, which increases image sharpness.
Compared to Nikon 55-200mm f/4.0-5.6G
How does the Nikon 55-300mm VR compare to the older Nikon 55-200mm VR? Let’s take a look at direct comparisons between the two.
19) Nikon 55-300mm vs Nikon 55-200mm @ 55mm Center Frame
However, as you can see, the 55-200mm is actually softer at maximum aperture. The sharpness difference is very minimal at f/5.6 and f/8.0 (below):
Both perform very similarly when stopped down to f/8.0.
20) Nikon 55-300mm vs Nikon 55-200mm @ 55mm Corner Frame
Wide open, both lenses have an almost identical corner performance – I cannot see any difference between the two. The same is true when stopped down to f/8.0:
21) Nikon 55-300mm vs Nikon 55-200mm @ 105mm Center Frame
Again, both are quite good at maximum aperture, with the 55-300mm being a tad softer.
At f/8.0, the performance is almost identical.
22) Nikon 55-300mm vs Nikon 55-200mm @ 105mm Corner Frame
23) Nikon 55-300mm vs Nikon 55-200mm @ 200mm Center Frame
Wide open, the Nikon 55-300mm is now at f/5.0, while the Nikon 55-200mm is at f/5.6. Sharpness-wise, both are almost identical, with the 55-300mm slightly outperforming the 55-200mm at f/5.6.
Both lenses perform about the same when stopped down.
When it comes to corner performance @ 200mm, the Nikon 55-300mm takes the lead just like in the 105mm corner test.
So, which one is sharper, the Nikon 55-300mm or the Nikon 55-200mm? As you can see from the above tests, both perform equally well, with the 55-300mm performing just a little better than the 55-200mm towards the longer range at 200mm. Overall, I would say the performance is almost identical, with small differences here and there. When it comes to distortion, CA and other lens characteristics, lenses are very comparable, with the 55-200 having a little more vignetting at 200mm than the 55-300. The obvious advantage the 55-300mm has over the 55-200mm, is focal length. Those 100mm play a big role when it comes to reaching distant subjects and without a doubt, the 55-300mm is a lot more useful than the 55-200mm.
If you are trying to decide between these two lenses, the choice is clear – the Nikon 55-300mm is a better lens, mainly because it can reach much further. Here is the difference between 200mm and 300mm focal lengths:
As you can see, the difference is significant.
Compared to Nikon 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G VR
What about the new and versatile Nikon 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G VR? Let’s see how it compares against the Nikon 55-300mm.
24) Nikon 55-300mm vs Nikon 28-300mm @ 70mm Center
Due to differences in field of view between the Nikon 55-300mm and Nikon 28-300mm, I had to adjust the focal length of the Nikon 55-300mm to match around 70mm of 28-300mm. Here are 100% crops from both lenses wide open and f/5.6 (Left: Nikon 55-300mm, Right: Nikon 28-300mm):
At both apertures, the Nikon 28-300mm is clearly taking the lead. When it comes to corners, the Nikon 55-300mm performs a little better at 70mm than the 28-300mm though.
25) Nikon 55-300mm vs Nikon 28-300mm @ 300mm Center
The most important test against the 28-300mm is to see how well the Nikon 55-300mm does at 300mm. But first, back to the field of view difference and focus breathing – at a distance of approximately 2.5 meters, the difference in focal length is huge. The below crops of the 55-300mm were shot @ 135mm. At this subject distance, I would say Nikon 55-300mm @ 150mm roughly yields the same field of view as the Nikon 28-300mm @ 300mm!
Considering the focus breathing issue, it is impossible to compare the Nikon 28-300mm to the Nikon 55-300mm @ 300mm while shooting a close subject. However, at around 150mm on the 55-300mm, the Nikon 28-300mm seems to be sharper.
Nikon released the new 55-300mm lens as an update to the existing 55-200mm lens and did a great job in keeping consistently good sharpness between 55mm and 200mm, with an added bonus of another 100mm for situations where additional reach is needed. Despite being a consumer zoom lens, the Nikon 55-300mm proved to be a great choice when it comes to optical performance, value and weight. It basically obsoletes the previous 55-200mm lens in all aspects and compares favorably against other similar lenses such as Nikon 70-300mm VR. While its focus speed and accuracy are not as good as on the Nikon 70-300mm or other pro-level lenses, it certainly does good enough of the job for capturing family pictures, events and travel at a very affordable price point. The slow autofocus performance and small maximum aperture are certainly not for low-light and fast-moving action photography, but if you learn how to focus with this lens, you will be able to capture great shots.
When compared to the Nikon 28-300mm lens, the Nikon 55-300mm can give a much longer range to work with, since the Nikon 28-300mm has a “lens breathing” design that brings down the effective focal length of the 28-300mm to approximately 130mm when shooting at minimum focus distance of 1.5 meters @ 300mm. There is a huge difference between 130mm and 300mm when it comes to field of view, and having a longer range is quite important while trying to fill the frame with a nearby subject. In terms of optical performance, the Nikon 28-300mm is a little sharper. Where I find the most value in this lens, is its portability. Hiking with heavy lenses is difficult and not always practical. The Nikon 55-300mm VR is very lightweight lens and can be easily carried around, especially if mounted on a compact DX body. Price, without a doubt, is another key factor – it only costs around $369, which is not a bad price for a lens like this.
Overall, I am impressed with this lens – it is fully capable of producing great pictures for those with tight budgets and who are planning to continue using DX cameras in the future.
27) Where to buy
The Nikon 55-300mm f/4.5-5.6G VR lens is currently available at B&H Photo Video and other retailers for $396 (as of 07/15/2013). I always recommend buying photography gear from B&H, because they have the lowest prices and the best customer service when compared to other online and local retailers.
28) More Image Samples
All Images Copyright © Nasim Mansurov, All Rights Reserved. Copying or reproduction is not permitted without written permission from the author.
Nikon 55-300mm VR
- Optical Performance
- Bokeh Quality
- Build Quality
- Focus Speed and Accuracy
- Image Stabilization
- Size and Weight
Photography Life Overall Rating