Nikon Digital SLR Lens Kit Recommendations
last update: 08/24/07
Film SLR users should click here instead

Note: Some of the lenses I recommend are no longer available new. If you're looking for a reputable place that sells used Nikkors, try KEH.

Sharp and Light Lens Kit

For US$600 you cover wide angle to telephoto with two excellent lenses that won't cause you much grief. You will need a step-up ring for the 55-200mm to use the same filters as the 18-70mm (67mm filters are what you should get). This set weighs a total of 27 ounces (~730g), which is about as light as you're going to get with decent lenses on the Nikon DSLRs. Your primary limitation is that you're not set for low light work (see Top of the Line Lens Kit, below). If you have the 18-55mm DX, don't worry about replacing it: it isn't much behind the 18-70mm, so just add the telephoto zoom and you're done; you'll even avoid the filter size problem. What do you give up? A tiny bit of acuity and the 55-70mm range. Oh yes, and you also have less vignetting. Still, I like the 18-70mm better, and that little bit of extra focal length range means that you switch lenses less often.

Top of the Line Lens Kit

Most of these lenses have wide apertures, which helps with focusing, since the viewfinder image will be bright. They also have well-deserved reputations for sharpness (though not necessarily at full aperture). The three primary lenses all share the 77mm filter size, which is convenient. Buy this set and you'll also have some of the best Nikkors (and one Sigma) ever made and the ability to shoot under just about any lighting conditions. Do yourself a favor and memorize the hyperfocal focus distances for 10, 14, 20, and 24mm at f/11 (D2x) and f/13 (D200). For landscapes, that's where you'll be focused with the first two lenses nine times out of ten. If you're really a low light shooter, then you might want to substitute the 12-24mm Nikkor for the Sigma (a stop advantage is a stop advantage) and you might consider supplementing the zooms with an 85mm f/1.4 and replacing the 300mm with the also superb 200mm f/2 (which is almost as good as the 300mm when you put the 1.4x TC on it to get 300mm f/2.8).

The DX Lenses

A number of people have asked me to handicap the Nikon consumer 18-xx DX zooms, so here goes:

Lens
Reasons to Buy
Reasons to Avoid
18-55mm
  • Comes with your camera at a price you can't resist
  • Generally produces better-than-expected results; all around decent
  • The other DX lenses are all better at something
  • No VR
18-70mm
  • Comes with your camera at a price you can't resist
  • Sharp, inexpensive, and no major flaws
  • If you shoot wide open, vignetting is an issue
  • No VR
18-135mm
  • The sharpest of the consumer DX zooms
  • Basically the 28-200mm replacement--it's a one-size fits all lens
  • Chromatic aberration not controlled as well as other lenses
  • No VR
18-200mm
  • VR included
  • Absolutely a one-size fits all lens--you might not need another lens
  • Not quite as sharp as the 18-70 or 18-135mm
  • Isn't really 200mm at close focus distances
  • Expensive
17-55mm
  • Fast aperture means faster focusing and brighter viewfinder
  • Better contrast than the consumer zooms
  • No VR
  • Expensive

Overall, you can't go wrong with any of these lenses: I can heartily recommend any of them. They all can produce very nice results, even on the highest resolution Nikon DSLR bodies. In general, though, you give something up the longer the focal length range you select. The 18-55mm is an all-around decent lens, with no major flaws. On the consumer bodies printing at "normal" print sizes, you're not going to see any problems except perhaps some barrel distortion at the wide end (true of all the consumer zooms). The 18-70mm is a step up in acuity, and a step backward in vignetting wide open. You wouldn't select this lens if you were shooting wide open all the time. The 18-135mm is another step forward in acuity, being exceptionally sharp corner to corner at all focal lengths, but if you're shooting with the 10mp or higher bodies and printing at very large print sizes, chromatic aberration will be visible. This can be a deal killer for some. The 18-200mm isn't as sharp as the 18-135mm, but it also doesn't have any major flaws and provides you VR. Just note that the 200mm isn't really 200mm at most of the focus distances you'd use it at: like most super-zooms, at closer focus distances the maximum focal length shortens (to as little as 135mm for this lens). Still, if you can afford it and only want to have one lens on your camera, the 18-200mm is probably the right choice.

But all of the consumer lenses make the Nikon DSLR's sole liability--high ISO noise--potentially more of a problem. When you're at f/4 or f/5.6 indoors, you're going to have to bump the ISO to get usable shutter speeds, and not only will you be at the worst aperture of the lens but you're likely to be at the worst ISO of the camera. That's why pros and serious amateurs gravitate to something like the Nikkor 17-55mm (or the Tamron or Sigma equivalent): that extra stop or two of aperture not only makes focusing faster in low light, but also perhaps gets you away from the worst ISO values on your camera.

 Other Lenses to Consider

What, that's it? Yep, it is. As I look back at all the pictures I've taken in the past two years, the vast majority of them were taken with just the lenses mentioned above (the one exception is the no-longer available 70-180mm Micro-Nikkor). When I was using another lens not mentioned, it was usually because I was testing a lens, not because I felt it really added anything to my kit.

The number one lens question I get is about third party alternatives. I'll say that I've tried a lot of them, but with only a few exceptions, can't really recommend third party lenses. Most of the low-cost consumer zooms I've tried that are produced by third parties have flaws that don't raise them to the level of the Nikkors mentioned above. Moreover, few are fast focusing (and most won't autofocus on a D40/D40x), and some have questionable builds, IMHO. The three third party lenses that rise to (or nearly to) the level Nikon is producing these days are the Sigma 10-20mm mentioned above, the Tamron 17-50mm f/2.8, and the Sigma 50-150mm f/2.8. Indeed, those three lenses together would make a reasonable lower-cost alternative Top of the Line kit to the one I mentioned above. However, you'd lose VR at the long end, you'd have more chromatic aberration at the long end, you wouldn't be quite as sharp wide open, and you'd have filter size differences you'd need to reconcile. For a top-of-the-line kit, I don't want to give up any of that, nor should you.