|Nikon 55-200VR, 55-300VR and 70-300VR|
|Nikkors: 55-200VR, 55-300VR and 70-300VR|
Updated January 2014
This is the cheapest in the range and is the companion lens to the kit Nikon 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G VR DX AF-S lens. Both of these lenses are often sold in bundles with cameras like the Nikon D3200, D5200 or D5300. Like its little brother, the 55-200VR is actually a very good lens for the price. That doesn't mean that it will come anywhere close to a 70-200 f/2.8VRII, but the 55-200VR is fairly consistent in its optical performance, and doesn't have any glaring weaknesses.
If anything, the humbleness of this lens is its virtue. It's the smallest of the three lenses listed here, making it the easiest to pack. While it is also has the shortest focal length at 200mm, that shouldn't be held against this lens. On a DX camera, 200mm is a reasonable limit for most hand-held applications. Once you start reaching further than that you really need to concentrate on steadying the camera or using a tripod, even with the VR system turned on. As with most consumer lenses, the 55-200VR is best when you bring it down two stops from wide-open, so generally the sharpest results will be at f/8.
Build quality is plasticy, there's no way to get away from it. The mount is also made of plastic, and not metal as with the more expensive lenses. Generally, this hasn't proved to be a problem unless you knocked the lens hard or dropped the camera; under normal use, the plastic mounts seem to endure without undue wear. Overall, a lens for taking pictures at a distance, but not necessarily of fast moving subjects. That said, it would still be serviceable for outdoor sports in good light; just not the best choice. The zoom ring takes up almost all of the lens barrel, indicating that this is a lens for pointing-and shooting rather than with fiddling with focus.
The 55-200VR is a "nice to have" if you don't shoot long distances very often, and are the type of shooter that takes pictures in the landscape-to-portrait range. Your immediate priority may be to add a prime lens or a flash... or may even upgrade to something like the Nikon AF-S 16-85mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR II DX. If this is the case, spending extra money on a good long distance lens wouldn't suit your purposes.
Used copies are easy to find on Craigslist and usually sell for $200 USD or under. The number one reason. for parting with this lens is because the owner is upgrading to very popular 70-300VR.
Nikon 55-300mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR DX AF-S
This lens was something of a surprise when it was announced. Most people did not expect Nikon to fill in the gap between the 55-200VR and the 70-300VR, but the 55-300 slots neatly between the two. In many ways, this is a larger and longer version of the 55-200VR. That might sound like a good thing, but it may or may not be the case. Sometimes, adding more takes away from the essential quality of a simpler concept, and it could be argued that the 55-200VR is a better balance of price, size and performance. The 55-300VR is a little bit bigger, a little bit more expensive, and even though it does have longer reach, it's not optically a better lens. Most consumer zoom lenses are sharper at the wide end than they are at the telephoto end. That is true of all three of these lenses. With the 55-200VR, the drop off in performance isn't terribly bad. The 55-300VR is similar up to 200mm, but because it extends an extra 100mm, the performance drops a bit further. Literally, 300mm on this lens is a "stretch", and is best left for times when you absolutely can't get any closer.
Like the 55-200VR, you get a tiny little focus ring at the end of the lens, meaning that you likely won't want to manually focus with this lens if at all possible. As well, the 55-300VR is not a true AF-S lens in that you can't manually override the autofocus by simply grabbing the focus ring.
If you are planning on staying with DX and budget is an issue, but would like a little more reach, by all means, go with the 55-300VR. It's larger size makes it more of a fit for the D5100 and D5200 than it does for the D3100 and D3200. You might have to spend a little more time in post-processing to pull out the detail and contrast with pictures taken at the longer end of the lens, but that isn't a heavy burden.
This lens has increased in popularity in recent years, mostly because it it is often included in bundles. Increasingly, it is is supplanting the 55-200VR in two-lens bundles and the so-called "holiday packs" that tend to show up around the end of the year.
Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G IF-ED VR AF-S
This is is a venerable lens in the Nikon lineup. This lens tends to be used by owners of the more advanced D7000 and D7100 cameras. The size and girth of the lens balances a little better better on these cameras than it does on the smaller bodies, but since it's plastic in construction it won't overwhelm a D5100 or a D3200 in the way that a professional (80-200 or 70-200) lens would. Unlike the previous two lenses, the 70-300VR is compatible with full frame cameras like the D610 and the D800, making it a potential "investment" lens if you are the sort that dreams of moving to FX one day. Optical quality is very good, but like the other two, the 70-300VR is sharper at the wide end of the zoom range, making the 200-300mm range once again something of a "nice to have" feature but not something that you would want to use all the time.
One big advantage over of the 70-300VR is that it is a true AF-S lens, meaning that you can manually override the autofocus without having to toggle the A/M switch on the lesser lenses. This also means that the focus mechanism on the 70-300VR works faster, making it a better choice for sports and moving subjects. This point can't be underestimated: if you are shooting at anything like moving (sports, etc.) the 70-300VR is a much better choice than the 55-300VR because of how fast the lens acquires focus. However, it's no 70-200 f/2.8; when the light starts getting dim you won't be able to use as fast a shutter speed as you can with the professional lenses. This also means that this lens can't develop the same amount of background blur that the faster professional lenses can.
Used copies of this lens are easy to find on Craigslist, and go for approximately $450 USD or less depending on the condition. These lens are plentiful and traded often, so take your time to find a copy that you are happy with before committing if you are going to go the used route.