AF-S Zoom-Nikkor ED 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6G IF DX


Yet another consumer DX zoom to consider.

 

Here's the full Nikkor consumer zoom range side by side (left to right: 18-55, 18-70, 18-135, 18-200).

18-135mm lens with hood mounted..
Lens Formula
15 elements in 13 groups; 2 aspheric, and 2 ED elements.
Other Features
Manual focus override, AF-S lens focusing motor, internal focus, 67mm filter size. Comes with HB-32 hood. Focuses to 1.5' (0.45m).
Size and Weight
About 100mm long from mount (145mm extended), 13.6 ounces (385g).
Price
No longer in production

The Basics

It seems like every new Nikon DSLR comes with a new Nikkor consumer zoom option, and the D80 was no exception. This time around we got the 18-135mm version. Just to put things into perspective, here's a table showing just what Nikon has done:
  Introduced With Equivalent 35mm Frame Focal Range
18-55mm D50 28-80mm
18-70mm D70 28-105mm
18-135mm D80 28-200mm superzoom
18-200mm D200 28-300mm superzoom

So now we have the full range of the "28-to" zooms (let's hope so; we don't need any more DX choices that start at the 28mm equivalence, in my opinion).

As usual, I need to explain what the DX means. All of the Nikon DSLRs (plus the Fujifilm DSLRs) have a sensor that's smaller than a 35mm frame. It's often referred to as APS size, as it's very close to the frame size of that now mostly forgotten film type. To wit, the 35mm frame is about 36mm across the long axis, while the Nikon DSLRs are all about 24mm across the long axis. That means that any 35mm Nikkor lens has an image circle that is far bigger than is necessary on the DSLRs. The DX series lenses are designed with an image circle more appropriate to the smaller sensor size of the digital lineup. Essentially, these lenses are designed solely for use on Nikon DSLRs (and the Fujifilm DSLRs). The advantage of a DX lens is that it can be smaller and lighter than a lens of similar specifications that needs to cover the full 35mm frame.

The first thing you notice about the 18-135mm DX lens is that it's rather compact. Where the heck is the 135mm stuffed in? After all, this is a lens that's smaller and lighter than most previous mid-range zooms Nikon has made. On the flip side, it's not that much smaller than the also compact 18-200mm, though it is significantly lighter.

The 18-135mm focal range gives you angle of views from ~10 to 66 degrees across the horizontal axis on a DSLR; it's effectively the same as using an 28-200mm lens on a 35mm body. For some users, that's a stay-on-camera range. There's no denying that this is a much-asked-for focal length range. Indeed, even I find it interesting to walk around with this lens, the 10.5mm, plus a small extension tube--that makes for a very compact, light kit that covers a pretty incredible focal length and focusing range.

This is a two ring design; like most recent consumer Nikkors, the zoom ring is the front most ring and the focusing ring is closer to the camera. Yuck. The lens does not have a distance scale, and no depth of field or infrared markings. On the left side of the lens (from the back of the camera) is one button:

  • Manual Focus button: In the M/A position the lens works as usual (autofocus with manual override). In the M position, the lens focuses only manually.

The lens does not have VR (vibration reduction), a big disappointment to many potential purchasers. At 135mm and f/5.6, this lens really could use VR.

The HB-32 hood supplied with the lens is the bayonet type butterfly style. It can be reversed onto the lens for carrying, but it adds diameter to lens when you do so. It's quite shallow, so doesn't present a lot of shading for the front element from the sides, but it's far better than nothing. The lens itself uses 67mm filters, a now somewhat common size for Nikkor consumer zooms.

You get AF-S focusing with this lens, and that'll take you down to about 16 inches (.45m) at all focal lengths. It would be a very long stretch to call this a "macro lens," but you can get down to about 1:4.5 at 135mm (that's an ~4.5 inch width subject at close focus).

The supplied lens cap is the pinch-front type.

Finally, we must once again talk about focal length. As with most zooms, focus point shifts the focal length a bit. At infinity, the lens is 18mm at its wide end, and I think a few millimeters short of 135mm at the tele end. At very close focusing distances, which is where I'm at most of the time, the lens is almost down to 17mm at the wide end, with a perceptible change in focal length at the tele end.

Handling

Handling is not the strongest point of this lens, though I suppose it is good enough for the target audience.

The zoom ring on my sample is less stiff than on my 18-200mm, but still on the stiff side (that's actually probably good, otherwise you get lens creep when the lens is pointed downwards or upwards). The barrel extends almost twice its length (4.5cm) at 135mm, so you're moving a fair amount of plastic and glass during the zoom. The barrel doesn't rotate during zoom, which means that you don't need to readjust filters. The focus ring on my sample is quite loose and easy to twist. Unfortunately it's quite thin and has nothing to distinguish it in feel from the zoom ring other than position and width. Remember, the focus ring is not in the traditional spot (prior to digital), and this takes some getting used to if you're coming from the standard 35mm Nikkor lenses.

Focal length changes slightly when you're shooting at close distances. As with most modern "zoom" lenses, this is really a vari-focal lens, so you should be focusing after framing; I don't see this as a big deal.

Maximum aperture doesn't change the way you might expect with focal length. The relevant values are:

  • 18mm f/3.5
  • 24mm f/4
  • 35mm f/4.5
  • 50mm f/5
  • 70mm and higher f/5.6

The 18-135mm is pretty small and quite light for its range. It balances well on the front of a D80 (or any of the Nikon consumer DSLRs). I can see why the D80 and 18-135mm intros were simultaneous--they're a very good match for many users. On bigger cameras, such as the D2x, the 18-135mm is less balanced, but still okay. Either camera, I felt comfortable.

Performance

I'll cut to the chase: This is a very, very sharp lens, but it has other drawbacks that unfortunately detract from all that edge-to-edge sharpness.

Autofocus: just what you'd expect from an AF-S lens, though because the maximum aperture can be as high as f/5.6, you don't always get snappy performance in low light.

Sharpness: sharpness and contrast is simply excellent throughout the entire range, from corner to corner, at every aperture. That's a very unusual finding, actually. Most zooms go a bit soft in the corners, and also as you zoom in. This lens seems to be the exception that proves the rule. It simply doesn't have any side-to-side sharpness problems I can detect. At 18mm, this is a very sharp lens, and it doesn't really seem to lose much acuity as you zoom. Compared to the 18-200mm, for example, the 18-135mm is sharper in the corners at every aperture and focal length, and in the center at many! I don't know how you design this aspect of a superzoom lens any better.

Light falloff: Vignetting is clearly there at all focal lengths, and it doesn't get fully controlled until about f/8 for 18-24mm and f/11 for everything else. The worst case light falloff is at 18mm and f/3.5, where the corners can be as much as a stop lower in value than the center. But there's a good two-thirds of a stop falloff at every focal length at maximum aperture. Overall, a disappointing performance.

Chromatic aberration: Chromatic aberration is also a problem with this lens. At the widest and longest focal lengths, chromatic aberration is seen near the center of the image as well as the edges, and is more prevalent than on other recent Nikkors. From 50 to 100mm, the results are better, with the center of the frame being mostly free from color fringing and the edges less impacted than at other focal lengths. Still, not an impressive performance.

Flare: Flare performance is quite good except for direct into the sun, where I see some minor artifacts and contrast reduction. The supplied butterfly type hood is a bit skimpy, and doesn't keep sidelight off the front element of the lens as well as some as on some other Nikkors.

Distortion: Distortion performance is average. At 18mm, there is significant barrel distortion that gets into the visible range (>1%). Curiously, there's no marked focal length that's free from linear distortion, as by the time you get to 24mm the lens is already producing pincushion distortion, which remains relatively constant up through 135mm. The pincushioning isn't particularly high (~0.7% with peaks in as much as 1%), but it's present pretty much throughout the focal range.

Bokeh: I'm still evaluating bokeh, but my initial impressions are that the bokeh is acceptable, if not great (the lens features a 7-blade aperture diaphragm). I see slightly elongated out-of-focus highlights with a bit less circularity than I'd like.

An overall comment: my issue with the 18-135mm is that Nikon has produced two other very nice DX zooms, the 18-70mm and the 18-200mm. Frankly, the 18-135mm falls out of consideration when considering those competitors. First, it doesn't have the VR that the 18-200mm has. While the 18-135mm is sharper edge-to-edge, it has worse chromatic aberrations, falloff, and distortion characteristics and is missing VR. If you want a superzoom, the 18-200mm still reigns. On the other hand, if you're looking for small, light, and inexpensive, the 18-70mm looks like the winner, as it doesn't have the chromatic aberration issues of the 18-135mm but shares high sharpness and other attributes.

Drawbacks

  • Variable aperture. The big issue is that at 70mm this is already an f/5.6 lens, which means that autofocus in low light can be compromised.
  • Chromatic aberrations and distortion. The excellent sharpness of the lens is compromised by other visual drawbacks.
  • Where's the VR? Lack of VR makes this lens less attractive.

Positives

  • Very, very sharp. It's not easy to design a zoom lens that's sharp across all focal lengths and from edge to edge. Nikon has.
  • Price/Performance matches. This is a slightly better lens than you'd expect for the price. Build quality doesn't exceed the price point.
 
Quick Evaluation


Average
; another okay superzoom from Nikon.

features
performance
build
value

Why the low performance rating? It just misses four stars, but the vignetting and chromatic aberration are strong enough to be problematic for some.

Lens no longer produced.

Table of Contents
Limitations


The 18-135mm lens has limitations you need to be aware of:

No Converters or extensions. The optical design of the 18-135mm means that almost any extension would put the focus point inside the lens--I assume you don't want to focus on the fifth element. TCs also pose multiple problems, including loss of autofocus and potential damage to the rear element of the lens. In short, the only thing you can add to this lens are filters (including things like a close-up lens).

AF-S Limitations. If you have a Fujifilm S1, AF-S is not operative.

Digital only. Of course, since this is a DX lens, you're only able to use it on a Nikon DSLR without seeing the image circle intrude at the edges.

Versioning of Review:
1/5/07: initial post.
12/19/12: update




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