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Nikon 55-300mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR 5.5x Telephoto Zoom Lens Review Roundup

2012-02-08 03:52
2/8/2012: Add review by PB.
1/26/2011: Add review by DigitalReview.
11/29/2010: Add review by SLRgear.
10/17/2010: Add review by NikonRumors.
10/11/2010: Add review by PhotoReview Australia.

On August 19 2010, Nikon announced the new Nikon D3100 DSLR camera as well as four new SLR lenses - the 55-300mm, 28-300mm, 24-120mm and 85mm. The 55-300mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR 5.5x Telephoto Zoom lens covers an impressive focal length range, and offers a tripod detection mode, where the vibration reduction (VR) system (up to 4 shutter speeds slower) is tuned to compensate for the small movements of the camera when shooting long zoom shots on a tripod. Angle of view equivalent to a focal length of 82.5 to 450mm in FX/35mm format DSLR. Additionally, a High Refractive Index (HRI) lens element is implemented to keep the lens compact while offering high contrast even at maximum aperture. The optical construction consists of two Extra-low Dispersion (ED) Elements that effectively minimize chromatic aberration, even at the widest aperture settings, as well as the Nikon Silent Wave Motor (SWM) which enables fast, accurate and quiet autofocus. Here's the lens technical specifications:

  • 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)
  • Focus Mode Auto/Manual
  • Filter Size 58mm
  • Accepts Filter Type Screw-on
  • Dimensions (Approx.) 3.0x4.8 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
    *Supplied accessories may differ depending on country or area.

The Nikon 55-300mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR lens is currently selling at around $399 (via Amazon.com) and here's the lens review roundup:

PhotographyBLOG, gave a rating of 4/5: "The AF-S Nikkor 55-300mm f/4.5-5.6 lens has a very narrow focus ring located in front of the - much wider - zoom ring. There are hard stops at both ends of the range, making it easy to set focus at infinity. Polariser users should take note that the 58mm filter thread rotates on focus. When it comes to AF, the 55-300mm zoom is surprisingly slow for a modern AF Nikkor, and is probably the slowest focusing lens in the AF-S line-up. This isn't particularly bothersome if you're photographing stationary subjects, but can pose difficulties when trying to shoot sports. On the plus side, I did not experience much "hunting", at least in good light. Low-light focusing can be more problematic, but given the slow maximum apertures on offer, this isn't meant to be a low-light lens anyway. Chromatic aberrations, typically seen as purple or blue fringes along contrasty edges, can be detected in shots taken at or near the longer end of the zoom range, but they are not too prominent. At shorter focal lengths, CAs are practically nonexistent. Bokeh is a word used for the out-of-focus areas of a photograph, and is usually described in qualitative terms, such as smooth / creamy / harsh etc. In the  AF-S Nikkor DX 55-300mm f/4.5-5.6G VR lens, Nikon employed an iris diaphragm with nine rounded blades, and it has resulted in a splendid bokeh in our view.

Optically, the Nikon AF-S Nikkor DX 55-300mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR is better than we expected it to be, based on its price tag and 5.5x zoom ratio. Centre sharpness, in particular, is very good at most focal lengths, including 300mm where most consumer zooms struggle. Bokeh is fantastic, vignetting is essentially a non-issue, and chromatic aberrations aren't too bad, either. Close-up performance is also decent for a non-macro lens. The picture isn't quite as rosy when it comes to features, though. Yes, the lens offers Vibration Reduction but there are no separate Active and Normal modes as on the more expensive models, and it also appears to take more time for image stabilisation to kick in. Yes, it's an AF-S lens but it's quite possibly the slowest-focusing one at that. Shooting sports, kids and action in general can thus be a challenge with this lens. Also, focusing isn't internal, meaning the length of the lens changes and the filter thread rotates on focus. Finally, there is no full-time manual focus override, either, which is rather unusual for an AF-S lens. In conclusion, the AF-S Nikkor DX 55-300mm f/4.5-5.6 lens is a good choice if you are looking for good optical performance in an affordable telephoto lens, but if you wish to shoot fast-moving subjects on a regular basis, or plan on moving to full-frame in the future, you might want to look for alternative solutions."... [Source]

DigitalReview: "In terms of the sharpness delivered by the lens in general we found that the AF-S DX 55-300mm VR II performed well and within our expectations in the 55-200mm range, with a slight softening occurring however towards the 300mm range. JPEG sample images taken with the AF-S DX 55-300mm VR at 300mm are still acceptable overall (better at F8 and above) and look good for regular sized prints and for web use. This is similar to the findings we found when using the Nikon AF-S 70-300mm VR II, although we would give a slight edge to the sharpness delivered by the AF-S 70-300mm VR II especially at the upper telephoto range. With respect to the optical qualities offered by the AF-S DX 55-300mm F/4.5-5.6G IF-ED, the lens provides a pleasant bokeh (out of focus background detail) thanks to its 9-blade rounded diaphragm, while some vignetting (darker image corners) may occur when shooting at the upper telephoto end wide open at F/5.6 (vignetting is kept to a minimum at F8 and above).

The lens is relatively compact and light weight making it a good choice for hiking and traveling. Although it does not focus quite as fast as other lenses in the Nikkor lineup (like the AF-S 70-300mm VR II Nikkor zoom), the AF-S DX 55-300mm VR II will serve its Nikon DX format SLR user target audience of family and travel photographers well at a reasonable price. While also not ideal for fast action and low light photography, you can get some decent results from the AF-S DX 55-300mm VR II in these situations with a little practice focusing and making use of the higher ISO settings on your camera to allow for a faster shutter speed to minimize potential subject blur. For fast action and indoor sports photography and above par image quality we recommend considering the pro oriented Nikon AF-S 70-200mm F/2.8G IF-ED VR II Nikkor zoom, although at a very significant price point premium. The closest competitor to the AF-S DX 55-300mm VR II is the Nikon AF-S 70-300mm F/4.5-5.6G IF ED VR II Nikkor zoom, which does offer a more robust feel, faster focusing, and in our opinion delivers a slight edge in terms of image sharpness especially at the upper telephoto range."... [Source]

SLRgear, gave a rating of 9/10: "As with most lenses the optimal results are achieved when stopped down - in the case of the 55-300mm VR, to f/8 or f/11. Best results for sharpness seem to be achieved with the lens set to either 70mm or 100mm and f/8, where sharpness is tack-sharp across the entire frame. When used at its widest apertures, the lens' performance is somewhat uneven; it needs to be stopped down even by one stop to achieve consistently sharp images across the frame. Results when used wide open at 200mm and below are decently sharp if uneven, at around 2 blur units; at 300mm, it's not as uneven, but corner softness moves up to 3 blur units. Close the lens down by one or two stops, and it finds a happy place. As we've already indicated, it's happiest in the wider region of its zoom range; performance is still very good at 135mm, but at 200mm or 300mm sharpness never gets better than 2 blur units, even stopped down to f/8 or f/11. Diffraction limiting sets in at at f/16; fully stopped-down performance is acceptable at wider focal lengths, but at 135mm and longer, it becomes quite soft; at 300mm and f/29, we note around 6 blur units across the frame. 

Considering the price point, you do get a good deal of lens for the money: it's fairly sharp wide open, sharper when stopped-down, and other traits such as tolerance to chromatic aberration, corner shading and distortion are as good or better than you'd expect for a lens in this class. It's not quite as good as its predecessor 55-200mm, but then, it's not just a matter of tacking on an extra 100mm of focal length; something's got to give, and thankfully, there's nothing that gives too much to make that happen. For the money, the lens makes an excellent companion to an 18-55mm for a two-lens system that runs the full gamut of wide-angle to telephoto.
"
... [Source]

NikonRumors: "The Nikon 55-300mm f/4.5-5.6 lens is not fast - at 300mm, the maximum aperture is only f/5.6. Even when shooting on the beach, with the sun behind me, I still had to push the ISO to 400 in order to freeze the action with shutter speed above 1/1000. Similar to sports, do not expect to shoot wild life at base ISO with the Nikon 55-300mm f/4.5-5.6 lens, unless you are using tripod. The reach of this lens on a DX camera is 450mm (1.5 crop factor) which is very powerful. Unless you have very steady hands, you must raise the ISO/shutter speed in order to avoid blurry images.

I am guessing that the two main areas where the Nikon 55-300mm f/4.5-5.6 will be used are wild life and sports. This lens is for people on a budget, who like to travel light and do not have any plans to upgrade to a full frame camera in the future. If you do have such plans, I suggest you buy the full frame 70-300mm lens which is $200 more, or the new full frame 28-300mm lens which is almost $700 more. The 55-300mm Nikkor will be a good addition for a two lens kit setup if you already have the 18-55 lens. In most circumstances, you will have to raise the ISO when shooting with the Nikkor 55-300mm. The Nikon 55-300mm f/4.5-5.6 is a replacement for the old 55-200 f/4-5.6 VR lens that costs nearly half the price - this makes me think that the 55-300mm lens is on the expensive site. Expect prices to drop significantly few months after the release date (already dropped $30 from the MSRP a month after it was released)."
... [Source]

PhotoReview Australia, gave a rating of 8.5/10: "The review lens was something of a 'curate's egg' (excellent in part). On the plus side were the effective VR stabilisation system and the quiet and effective autofocusing system. On the minus side, most test shots appeared slightly soft. Like the Tamron SP 70-300mm f/4-5.6 Di VC USD lens, the AF performance of the AF-S DX Nikkor 55-300mm f/4.5-5.6 G ED VR lens was limited by the camera body. In bright conditions it was reasonably fast and accurate. In low light levels, we noticed a tendency to hunt and the not-very-bright viewfinder in the D3100 made manual focusing tricky. Edge and corner softening were measured - and noticeable - in shots taken at wide lens apertures and only addressed to any degree when the lens was stopped down to about f/8. Diffraction reduced resolution from about f/14 on. 

Rectilinear distortion varies with focal length, with very little distortion at 55mm and increasing pincushion distortion from about 70mm on. Although pincushioning was quite noticeable at 300mm, we doubt it would be a problem for most photographers who would consider purchasing this lens. Vignetting was apparent at all focal length settings and became more obvious as focal length was increased. However, again, we doubt it would be a problem for most potential users. Although backlit subjects were mostly handled well, some veiling flare was seen in test shots taken with the 300mm focal length when the sun was low in the sky. However, at the 55mm focal length setting flare was negligible, even when the sun was just out of the frame."... [Source]

ePhotoZine, gave a rating of 7/10: "Typically with lenses covering this range, the performance is very good at shorter focal lengths tailing off as the lens is zoomed in. In the case of Nikon's 55-300mm, at 55mm the sharpness in the centre is already excellent from maximum aperture, with the resolution towards the edges of the frame catching up by f/8, which is where the lens gives its peak performance for this focal length. As the lens is zoomed to 135mm, the resolution drops off a little, but is still very good across the frame from wide open, reaching its peak at f/5.6. At smaller apertures, diffraction appears to take a bite out of the sharpness as the lens is stopped down. Finally at 300mm the sharpness at maximum aperture is certainly acceptable, but stopping sown the lens to f/8 improves matters noticeably. Here peak performance is found at f/11 where images show good sharpness across the frame.

During testing the Nikon 55-300mm lens proved itself capable of producing decent results. It fills a gap in Nikon's lens line up giving DX camera owners the popular 300mm focal without leaving a gap after the 18-55mm kits lenses provided with most of Nikon's entry-level SLRs. For this reason alone it will be popular, but also for its lightweight and decent build quality for the price point. During my time with the lens I had a couple of niggles, but then I've been spoilt. It is fairly typical for consumer level lenses not to have internal focusing. On the other hand, the delay I experienced with the stabiliser kicking in I found a little more disconcerting. Those looking for a reasonably priced, high quality, telephoto addition to their Nikon 18-55mm kit lens can't really go far wrong with this lens, especially if they really want that 300mm focal length."... [Source]

User review by Jim, gave a rating of 5/5: "This lens is fantastic - especially for $399. My first concern was whether it not it had a plastic or metal mount since some DX lenses in this price range have plastic. I even contacted Nikon and they couldn't (or wouldn't) tell me. Well, I was really pleased to see that it does have a metal mount. It has a nice solid feel to it. The zoom movement is smooth and I haven't had any problem with lens creep when I'm aiming it downward. Even when I point the camera downward and shake it, it won't creep. I'm just beginning to get into testing it but my preliminary pictures are coming out nice - really nice. The sharpness is amazing and the lens produces a very nice bokeh. I posted the image of the bug with the chicken wire background (see the customer uploads) Check out the detail in the wings. That shot says it all. It was HAND HELD and cranked all the way out to 300mm. The original image is great but a lot of the detail was lost with the upload to Amazon. But - none the less - it's still pretty sharp. The auto focus on this lens is fast, smooth, quiet and very accurate. It locked right in on the insect. It was set on aperture priority at f/8 1/500sec for the shot that I posted here (shot with a D-90). 

The VR on this lens is great. The detail I get with hand-helds just amazes me. It has Nikon's VRII image stabilization and it even has a tripod detection mode that reduces any vibration from shutter release when it's on a tripod. Colors are rendered accurately and the contrast is pretty sharp even at the max aperture. The lens is compact for a 300mm and it's lighter than my AF-S DX 18-200mm which I use as my regular walk-around. I'm sure the new 55-300 will be used as my walk around pretty frequently also. All in all for an APS-C lens, Nikon did a great job with this one - especially for the price. It's a welcome addition to the DX line and I'm really glad I have one in my gear bag."... [Source]

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