AF-S Zoom-Nikkor ED 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G DX


What, another kit lens?

 

 

For US$150, D50 purchasers can get a modest zoom lens that goes from wide to not-quite telephoto. Everyone wants to know if it's worth the money. Well, yes, but US$150 isn't much money, right?

Here it is mounted on the D70s. As you can see, this makes for a rather compact kit.

Lens Formula
7 elements in 5 groups; 1 aspheric, and 1 ED element.
Other Features
Manual focus switch, AF-S lens focusing motor, 52mm filter size. Optional HB-33 hood. Focuses to .9 feet (0.28m).
Size and Weight
About 74mm long from mount, 7.4 ounces (210g).
Price
US$150 (with D40 or D50)
  Note: Nikon introduced a second version of this lens with the D40. Optically and physically, the new version is the same. The primary difference is that the internal AF-S motor has been improved slightly, which should result in slightly faster and more accurate focusing. The new version is identified by a "II" immediately after the "G" in the identification plate on the lens. Note also that there is a VR version of this lens that is even better.

The Basics

Nikon surprised everyone yet again by coming up with yet another kit lens for the D50 announcement. At first look, it seems like it might just be the D70 kit lens without as much reach, but a closer look reveals a lot more corners have been cut. Having a kit lens for consumer camera isn't new for Nikon, but the specs say this an AF-S lens, an ED lens, and a DX lens, which seems to imply something designed to a higher level of quality.

The immediate question everyone asks is if an inexpensive lens that comes with the camera can be any good. I'll save you from scrolling down to the performance section: the kit lens that came with the D70 is much better in almost every detail except for size and weight.

Once again we have to talk about what DX means. All of the current (as I write this) 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 have sensors that are all about 24mm across the long axis. That means that any traditional 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.

As I write this, we now have six DX lenses: the 17-55mm f/2.8G , the 10.5mm full frame fisheye, the 12-24mm f/4G AF-S, the 55-200mm f/4-5.6G AF-S, the 18-70mm f/3.5-4.5G AF-S, and the subject of this review, the 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G AF-S. More DX lenses are on the way, with the only one that Nikon's hinted at officially being a prime wide angle.

The first thing you notice about the 18-55mm DX lens is that it's light, small, and plastic right down to its lens mount. Indeed, a magician with a modest-sized hand could probably make it disappear before your very eyes just by palming it.

Left: the 18-70mm DX (D70 kit lens). Right: 18-55mm DS (D50 kit lens). While the length isn't much different, note the difference in size of the front glass (and implied in the internal glass).

The 18-55mm focal range gives you angle of views from ~28 to 76 degrees (diagonal) on a DSLR; it's effectively the same as using something like a 28-85mm lens on a 35mm body. For some users, that's "the new standard lens." There's no denying that this is a popular and much-asked-for focal length range. But I'd also contend that the other specs don't match up to user requests, and that 28-85mm doesn't really get you wide or telephoto.

This is a two ring design; the zoom ring is a big frontmost ring, while the focusing ring is barely a quarter inch wide and at the very front of the lens. Yuck, we're back to the original Nikon AF focus ring design that we all hated when it appeared with the AF lenses for the N8008. The lens does not have a distance scale, so it also has 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 A position the lens works only in autofocus. In the M position, the lens focuses only manually.

The HB-33 optional hood is the bayonet type, but not butterfly style--it's rather meager in coverage. The lens itself uses 52mm filters, Nikon's old consumer filter size.

You get AF-S focusing with this lens, and that'll take you down to a bit less than 1 foot (.28m). The supplied lens cap is the pinch-front type.

Here's something you might not expect: I think we've seen this lens before! It looks and feels pretty much like the 28-80mm f/3.5-5.6D Nikon marketed in the mid-90's. It has the same number of elements, about the same weight, and the reduction from 58mm to 52mm threads could be explained by the DX change. That lens was merely average in performance, too.

Handling

Handling is not the strong point of this lens. Indeed, it's a very weak point.

The zoom ring is okay, not really stiff or loose. The barrel extends about a half inch at maximum, with the minimum point being somewhere just over 35mm (i.e. it extends for both wide angle and telephoto). The barrel doesn't rotate during zoom, but does during focusing, which means that you will need to readjust polarizing and graduated ND filters. The focus ring is terrible, being only a slight ring at the front of the lens. Worse still, even though this is an AF-S lens, you cannot manually override focus without flipping either the camera or the lens to the manual focus position.

Focal length changes slightly when you're shooting at close distances. As with most modern lenses (which are technically vari-focal, not zoom), you should be focusing after framing, so I don't see this as a big deal.

The lack of any distance markings (okay, Nikon has inscribed the close focus distance on the bottom of the lens should you not be able to figure it out experientially) mean that you're up creek without a paddle when it comes to setting hyperfocal distances (not that most modern DOF scales are very useful in that respect). Remember, the D50 this lens comes with doesn't have a DOF preview button. Nikon clearly is targeting this lens towards someone who isn't very sophisticated in setting focus.

The 18-55mm is small and light and balances on the front of a D50 very nicely. On bigger cameras, such as the D2h, it just disappears. But either way, I felt comfortable. Even though it's small and relatively light, there's enough mass here to keep even the heavy bodies in balance.

Performance

What do you expect from 7 elements in 5 groups (compare that to the 18-70mm that came with the D70)? Not much. Fortunately, you get more than that expectation, though perhaps not as much as you might hope.

Sharpness is very good but not great throughout the range, with f/8 being the point of maximum sharpness on my sample pretty much across the entire focal length range. Even at f/3.5 (or 5.6 at the tele end) in the corners this lens remains a fair performer--slightly better than you'd expect for the price. I'd be more comfortable about using this lens wide open if it weren't for the visible vignetting, but if you're a Capture user and shoot NEF, you can safely ignore that comment, as Capture's Vignette control handles this lens well. Otherwise be forewarned that you'll need to get to about f/8 to lose the vignetting effects.

By f/5.6 at 18mm there really aren't any big issues to worry about, though vignetting is still partially present. Chromatic aberration is slightly below what you'd expect from a lens of this price range, which is to say visible but not obnoxious. On a D50 it doesn't really show up as a problem; on a D2x, well, you'll see it.

Images taken with the 18-55mm are somewhat sharp and have good contrast, though neither of these things are a match for Nikon's better lenses.

Light falloff is, as mentioned, is a performance issue with this lens. It's present and obvious wide open (less so at the telephoto end), and it extends to some degree for at least for two full stops. Whether this is a deal breaker for you is something you'll have to decide. I'm often filtering and post processing to darken corners of images, so I'm not as upset about this problem as some photographers. Especially so as I rarely shoot with a lens wide open. Stopped down to f/8 or beyond, vignetting really isn't an issue with this lens.

Put the 18-55mm on an F5 and the lens falloff characteristics become obvious: the image circle is small at 18mm. But by 24mm the image circle begins to cover the full 35mm frame! This exactly matches the vignetting performance I see on the D50. 55mm is the best focal length in terms of light falloff, 18mm the worst. Note too, that light falloff is best at infinity focus and gets worse as the focus pulls in.

Distortion performance is good. At both ends there's distortion. At the wide angle end there's visible barrel distortion (a bit above 1%) while at the telephoto end there's still a bit of barrel distortion, but it's not really visible). Distortion overall is low in amount and not as obvious as we've seen in some other Nikkor designs. This isn't an architectural lens, but it's far from a fun-house lens.

Autofocus is not very fast considering that it's AF-S, though hunt-free. Even in bright light this lens isn't a snap-to performer when it comes to focus. At 55mm, the f/5.6 aperture is also pushing Nikon's AF system to the limits, so off center sensors sometimes will cause the lens to "double-clutch" at the focus point (do a secondary refocus).

Flare performance is okay except for direct into the sun. Unless light is hitting directly on the front element, I've not seen any visible contrast degradation. Unfortunately, the optional hood is poor at keeping light from hitting the front element. If the light source is directly in the picture, things get a little wonkier, and you're likely to see contrast reduction if not ghosting. That's typical of virtually all modern zooms, though.

Bokeh is a bit lopsided in out-of-focus elements (the lens features a 7-blade aperture diaphragm). Looking through my sample of the lens at the aperture blades, two of the blades have a steeper angle than the other five, which might explain that.

Drawbacks

  • Vignetting is back. We'd forgotten about it when we moved to digital SLRs, as the older lenses had much larger image circles than necessary, but with a small DX lens that barely covers the APS-sized sensor, it's back.
  • Variable aperture. The big issue is that at 55mm this is an f/5.6 lens, which means that autofocus in low light can be compromised.
  • Build quality. Build quality doesn't exceed the price point.
  • What happened to AF-S? Slower to focus than most AF-S lenses, and you can't manually override the focus.
  • Where are we? No distance scale.

Positives

  • Adequate optics. Other than that vignetting, no big flaws worth mentioning, actually. Considering the price, good performance, and probably well-matched to the D50 purchaser.
  • The 28-85mm for the digital world. Yes, the mid-range zoom is back in full force. If that's what you want with your D50, this is a lens you should consider (but I'd opt for the much better 18-70mm if I could get it).
  • Price/Performance matched . This is a slightly better lens than you'd expect for US$150.
 
Quick Evaluation


Above Average
; The latest version is quite good for its low price.

features
performance
build
value

Why the low build rating? Everything isn't quite as good as the lens acronyms might suggest. The 18-70mm D70 kit lens spoiled us.

Table of Contents
Limitations


The 18-55mm lens has limitations you need to be aware of:

No Converters. Not a big loss, though. Who uses converters on a midrange zoom?

AF-S Limitations. The in-lens motor that makes this lens focus so swift and sure works only on the F4, F5, F6, F100, N65, N70, N75, N80, N90/N90s, D40, D40x, D50, D70, D70s, D80, D100, D200, D1, D1h, D1x, D2h, D2x, Fujifilm S2, S3, S5, and Kodak DCS 14n and Pro SLR/n bodies. If you have an older body, such as the N60 or Fujifilm S1, AF-S is not operative. Of course, since this is a DX lens, you're only likely to use it on a Nikon DSLR, and those all have no limitations.

G Limitations. Because the lens has no aperture ring, if you were to use it on an older 35mm body such as the F4 or N90s, you'd need to put those cameras into Program or Shutter-priority exposure modes. Again, since this is a DX lens, that's not likely, though in a pinch it can suffice as a 24-55mm lens on those bodies.

Version of Review:
8/10/05: initial review.
8/16/05: fixed A/M button mistake.
8/30/05: fixed "creek", AF-S limitation list.
4/30/06: fixed angle of view
2/24/07: added II version note
8/15/07: changed rating




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