The Plot Thickens: Nikkor 18-200mm VR

Having just spent a couple of weeks with this as virtually the only lens on my camera, I’m beginning to sort out my thoughts about it and it may help me (and possibly others) to set them down.

I thought it would be helpful to me to start by analysing which focal lengths I really used – at least for my more successful pictures. These are the images that I have bothered to develop from the original RAW files to save in my personal library as full-size high quality (92% in Lightroom) jpegs. Although I archive most of the RAW NEF files I shoot, these jpegs are my working collection of images.

For this analysis I used a small freeware program written by Paul van Andel, ExposurePlot and set it to examine all the sub-folders in my August 2008 directory, which contain 899 images. Of these, 34 were taken with the 10.5mm fisheye (a small but very important proportion which could not have been made otherwise) and the remaining 865 with the 18-200mm.

Lens use
Too small to read! The left hand bar is the 10.5mm fisheye. Other bars represent the number of images grouped around 30mm, 60mm etc to 300mm.

The results were interesting – and of course could be very different to those of other users. Almost exactly two thirds (66.8%) of the images were taken in the range 18-33mm (equivalent 27-50mm) with  38% with the lens at or very close to its widest setting. Around 10% were in the 70-90 mm equiv range, 8% in the 100-160mm range and around 11% at 180-300 equivalent, of which half were at the 300mm setting. The table (made with a little help from Excel) gives the fuller picture.

August images with Nikon 18-200 VR

Focal length
Actual  35mm Eqv  Frames  Cum Frames  Cum %
18       27        329        329       38%
20       30         84        413       48%
27       40         86        499       58%
33       50         79        578       67%
40       60         14        592       68%
47       70         27        619       72%
53       80         43        662       77%
60       90         19        681       79%
67      100         10        691       80%
73      110         18        709       82%
80      120         13        722       83%
90      140         18        740       86%
107     160         14        754       87%
113     170          4        758       88%
120     180          8        766       89%
133     200         14        780       90%
153     230         13        793       92%
173     260         18        811       94%
200     300         54        865       100%

So with an 18-70 I could have taken 80% of these images, or with an 18-125mm roughly 90%. But the large number of images at the widest setting also suggest that I really would have preferred something a little wider (and yes, I do feel that when shooting – which is why my full kit also includes a 10-20mm.) I also have a suspicion that I wouldn’t really miss some of those that I took at or around the 200mm setting.

If the guys at Nikon  (or Sigma, Tamron etc) are listening, what I’d really like for a super-zoom is something like a 15-100mm lens. Perhaps the closest at the moment are the Sigma 17-70mm f/2.8-4.5 DC Macro / HSM, which is also reasonably small – almost exactly the same size as their 18-125 OS, another contender, along with Nikon’s own 18-70mm and the Tamron 17-50mm f/2.8 SP XR. Nikon also have a classy but big and heavy 17-55mm, a good lens but not for going light.

So what do I think now of the Nikon 18-200 VR? (This isn’t exactly a review – for a rather more balanced view on this and other Nikon lenses I recommend Thom Hogan.)

Its plus points are obviously its size and weight, impressively small for a lens with such a large range, but just a little big and heavy for the holidays. And there is the VR, though I’ve never been that convinced it did anything for most of my pictures (of course it doesn’t help with moving subjects.) I keep it switched on, but I’ve no idea if it helps or not.

It’s also a reasonably sharp lens, usable at full aperture when you have to (though better stopped down – like almost all lenses.) But that’s true of most modern lenses and it generally takes resolution charts rather than typical subjects to show up their weaknesses.

On the down side, it’s big enough to make the flash built in to the camera useless unless you like a big area of shadow at the bottom of every shot, at least around the wide-angle end (slightly better if you remember to remove the lens hood.) Almost every picture needs correction for chromatic aberation for critical use, and again for architectural shots, horizons etc you need to correct for barrel or pincushion distortion. Fortunately Lightroom handles the chromatic stuff easily (the camera can do it automatically for jpegs and the Nikon raw software also handles the job, but I can’t cope with its workflow.) And  ePaperPress’s PTLens is a real bargain and does a great job when those lines need to be straight.

It’s not a perfect lens, but I can live with these problems. But what has caused me considerable pain is autofocus. Perhaps I’ve just been unlucky, or it may be that the build quality of this lens isn’t up to my lack of care with equipment. But too often I’ve half-pressed the shutter to focus and it fails to do so. I took it in for service earlier this year and it improved a bit, but on holiday it was back at it’s old tricks. Yet when writing this article I tried it out and it was perfect.

This kind of intermittent fault is a real pain, both for the user and the repairer. Fortunately for me even when it’s at its worst it still focuses at the extreme ends of the zoom range, just not anywhere in between. As the graph shows I use it most around the ends, and I’ve got into the habit of focussing there and then holding the release half-down while I zoom back to take the picture. But sometimes the delay involved has led to my missing the critical (or even perhaps decisive) moment.

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