July 26, 2014

The Nikkor 55-300 VR was designed for crop-frame DSLR's such as the D7100, D3300, and so on.

Compared to some other Nikkor lenses, it's also not too expensive. 

Could a moderately-priced lens with this much zoom power really be any good?

Let's see.

Some Specs
Form Factor
Basic Use

Image Quality
Corner Sharpness
Indoor Use

55-300 vs 55-200

Some Specs

Aperture (Maximum):  f/4.5-5.6
Aperture (Minimum):   f/22-29
Aperture Blades / Diaphragm:   9-bladed circular
Aperture Ring:  No
Autofocus:  Yes
Coated Optics:  Yes
Country of Manufacture:  China
Diameter (Max.):  3 inches (76.5mm)
Distance Scale:  No
Filter Size:  58mm
Focus Limiter Switch:  No
Full-Frame Compatible?  No
Image Stabilizer:  Yes
Inner Focusing:  No
Length: 4.8 inches (123mm)
Lens Elements:  17 elements in 11 groups
Lens Hood:  Included (Nikon HB-57)
Manual Focus:  Yes
Minimum Focus Distance:  4.59 feet / 1.4 meters (all focal lengths)
Mount:  Nikon DX
Price:  $399.95 list  (Buy yours through this link and it helps me keep this site going)
Rotating Front Element:  Yes (I tested it.)
Weight:  530 grams (18.7 oz)

Buy your 55-300mm lens through this link and help support my website!

Form Factor

This is a DX lens.  It will not work on FX (full-frame) cameras.   (That means it will also not work on my Nikon N55 film camera, even though it can handle "G" lenses.)

If you have an FX camera or think you may someday buy one, get the Nikkor 70-300 instead.  It's compatible with both FX and DX.  (I don't worry about it, though.  That's because when I want full-frame, I reach for one of these anyway.)

Basic Use

As I said, the Nikkor 55-300 was designed only for Nikon's crop-sensor (DX) cameras.  Because of the 1.5x crop factor, the maximum 300mm focal length has  "35mm equivalent focal length" of 450mm.  That's some pretty serious reach, making this lens good for wildlife... as long as it's not moving fast.

The manual focus ring is narrow.  (It's not as maddeningly narrow as the late variant of the AF 35-70 f/3.3-4.5 that I have kicking around here.) 

Manual focus cannot be used unless the switch is set to "M".  This seems common for consumer-grade Nikon zoom lenses, even for many years.

The 55-300 is quite a bit larger than the 18-55 kit lens, but it's not so big that you'd need a separate tripod mount, at least not for everyday use.  I use this lens hand-held at ISO 100 in the very late afternoon / early evening, when there is no direct sunlight.  Shutter speeds of 1/125th are no problem, thanks to the VR.  (With a non-VR lens of 300mm, you'd be having to use 1/500th to be sure of clear pictures.)

By the way, the front lens element rotates... filter threads and all.  (I tested it just to make sure.)  That means a circular polarizer is kind of a nuisance to use with this lens.  You have to re-adjust it after you focus.

Image Quality

At first I didn't expect this lens to be any better than the kit lens, but it is. 

The 55-300 is sharper than the kit lens.  It also gives better color and contrast.  I was once skeptical that modern lenses had any real differences in color intensity.  After using this lens, I'm not skeptical anymore.  There really is a difference.  I think a lot of it has to do with the extra-low-dispersion ("ED") optics here. 

The bokeh is gorgeous. The out-of-focus areas are smooth and soft.  I don't see any of the wiry, nervous bokeh you get with some lenses. 

So what if this lens can't do f/2.8?  For subject isolation you don't need it.  Not with a zoom lens, anyway.  At 135mm and f/5.6, this lens is stunning. The bokeh is super-smooth.  At 300mm it's even better. 

If you want good bokeh, you're better off getting this lens than messing around with AIS lenses like the 85mm f/2.  The 85mm is sweet, but let the film photographers have it.  They need the fast lens.  Meanwhile your DSLR can do ISO 3200 with ease... and VR lenses have a good three or four stops of image stabilization.

Now for some test shots.  First, the 18-55 kit lens:

Nikkor 18-55mm VR @ 55mm
Nikon D5100

Now, the 55-300.  This lens won't focus as closely as the kit lens, so I had to stand back a bit and use 135mm:

Nikkor 55-300mm VR @ 135mm
Nikon D5100
You can probably already see the better color and contrast with the 55-300.

Compare the 100% crops:

(100% crop)
Nikkor 18-55m VR

Not bad, but now it's the 55-300's turn.  This one was shot at 135mm, which seems to be my most-used focal length right now:

(100% crop)
Nikkor 55-300mm VR

I did not adjust the colors or brightness at all.  These were shot in Vivid color mode, auto white balance +A1 +M1.

OK, want to compare identical focal lengths?   Let's look at another pair of 100% crops.  First, the white rectangle shows where they'll come from:

Weathered Wood
Nikkor 55-300mm VR
Nikon D5100

OK now let's compare:  the 18-55 at 55mm vs. the 55-300, also at 55mm.   By the way a note about the field of view:  at the minimum focus distance, 55mm on the zoom lens does not have the same field of view as 55mm on the kit lens.  That's odd, but then again Nikon told us this would happen. 

Now let's compare detail.  First, the 18-55 @ 55mm:

(100% crop)
Nikkor 18-55mm VR

Now, the 55-300 @ 55mm:

(100% crop)
Nikkor 55-300mm VR

Wow.  The 55-300 isn't simply a little sharper than the kit lens... it's WAY sharper.   Look how much more detail is preserved.  It gives a whole new life to your Nikon DSLR, whether it be a D3100, a D7000, or any other Nikon DX.

Corner Sharpness

This lens is sharper in the corners than the 18-55 is in the center.

This 100% crop was taken from the lower right-hand corner of that weathered wood photo.

You can see there's really not that much of a sharpness difference between the center and the corners.

That's a very good thing.

Indoor Use

You may still be thinking you need an f/2.8 zoom so you can do indoor photography. 

Sure, it wouldn't hurt;  but f/2.8 zoom lenses are expensive. 

The 80-200 f/2.8 non-VR goes for around $1,300.   That's a non-VR lens!

The 70-200 f/2.8 VR II lists for about $2,400. 

If you can afford these, then more power to you.  Higher-end Nikon lenses are definitely worth having.  But if you can't afford it, then don't worry.  Actually, the 55-300's VR puts it at least one stop ahead of the 80-200 non-VR in terms of low-light performance.   (You may wonder... why get the 80-200 non-VR at all?  Well, the shallower depth-of-field and faster AF would be selling points.)

As for the 70-200 f/2.8 VR II, those extra two stops of light-gathering basically cost you $2,000 more than the 55-300... and you lose 100mm of focal length on the zoom end.  If you're thinking of photographing events with, say, your D5200, you're better off using fast primes such as the 50mm f/1.8 and moving around more.  The same goes for photography inside music venues, where it tends to be really dark.  Use a fast prime and get closer to the subject.  

Outside of the most poorly-lit venues, the 55-300 is a winner.

55-300 vs. 55-200

The 55-300 has more reach and better image sharpness.  I can't think of any reason to get the 55-200 instead, unless it's a question of budget.  If that's your situation, know that the 55-200 is quite a good lens in its own right.  (Get the 55-200 through this link and it helps support my website.)

One more advantage of the 55-300 is the build quality;  it has a metal lens mount, whereas the 55-200 has a plastic mount.


I know some people don't get that excited about the 55-300.  That's because of its slow autofocus and the fact that you can buy the FX-compatible 70-300 VR for not too much more... but I'm telling you, I for one am excited about this lens.   The 55-300's not-so-close focus distance is the only thing I really don't like, but it's no big thing;  just stand back and zoom in more.

In my experience, this lens is great for walk-around use.  The sharpness and color are excellent for the money;  the bokeh is gorgeous.   I've found that once it goes on the camera, the kit lens spends a lot of time collecting dust.  Kit lenses give you a lot for the money,  but the 55-300 is well ahead of them in terms of performance.

I'd rather have the 55-300 than the 55-200, which itself is a pretty good lens.  Both lenses have slow autofocus, but they're still usable.   These may not be fast-action lenses, but they're plenty good for portraits and slow-moving wildlife.

It's been said that you should skip the 55-200 and the 55-300 and just go straight for the f/2.8 Nikon zooms.  Ideally speaking that might be true, but let's be realistic.  $1,500 to $2,400 for one lens... that's a lot of money to most of us.  Even if you can save for that 70-200 f/2.8 over the course of a year (or three), you've got no lens in the meantime. 

It's better to have a 55-300 f/4.5-5.6 in hand than a 70-200 f/2.8 in the imagination.    Even the 70-300 f/4.5-5.6, which at least has FX compatibility, is still almost $200 more than the 55-300.  That difference is almost enough to buy you a 50mm AF-S prime, which every photographer should have.

Would I get the 55-300?  Absolutely.  Then, get a fast prime lens to round out your lens kit.  Buy a decent camera bag like this one or better yet this one, and you're all set.

If you buy your gear through the links on this page, it helps me keep this site going.  Much appreciated!

Thanks for visiting my website!


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