Sunday, March 15, 2015

Nikon AF-S DX NIKKOR 55-200mm f/4-5.6G ED VR II Review

Left: Version 1    Right: Version II

As the old saying goes, small cheap good: pick two but you can't have all three. If it is small and good, it's not cheap. If it is cheap and good, it generally isn't small. If it is small and cheap, it's not necessarily good. This is a good adage to remember when you shop for camera gear, as it keeps your expectations in line and helps you set a budget for the gear that you need and can afford.

Of course, the key word is expectation. The AF-S DX Nikkor 55-200mm f/4-5.6G ED VR II is small, cheap and good... if your expectation of what "good" means is kept in check. To make it clear, this isn't damning with faint praise, as the second version of this lens is better in every regard over the original 55-200VR. That lens in itself was an improvement over the original non-stabilized 55-200mm lens, and was (and is) a good lens by virtue of being compact and offering reasonable image quality at an affordable price.

However, time moves on. Because of the rise of mirrorless cameras, the 55-200mm VR, which is mall for a DSLR lens, is "big" for a generation that is only accustomed to only travelling with nothing more than a smartphone. Nikon addressed that by adding a retracing mechanism to the lens body. This was first seen on the Nikon 1 kit lenses; a retracting version of the 18-55mm VR kit lens is sold with later versions of the D3200, D3300 and D5300.

Left: Version 1    Right: Version II

Truth be told, with the lens retraced, this is an impressively small package to reach 200mm on the DX format. That said, it isn't what makes this lens good.

Body and Design

On the face of it, the second version looks like the first version with a retractable element added. There's a family resemblance, and the two lenses work the same way. The camera body won't operate until it detects that the lens is fully deployed, but once you have done so, it's more or less the same length as the old lens.

Like all of the 55-200mm lenses before it, the VR II version is not a true AF-S lens, meaning that it has a built in AF motor like all modern Nikon lenses, but the autofocus cannot be manually overridden. You have to switch the lens to full manual mode. As well, the front element spins during focusing, just as before. These are design irritations, but ones that the core audience is likely not to worry over. Even among professional shooting circumstances, the times that you need to override the the AF during AF focus lock is minimal; the vast majority of the time focusing is done by relying on the automation.

One thing that is worse about the new retractable element is that seems to make the zoom mechanism less smooth than before. The first 55-200mm VR zoomed smoothly from wide to tele; perhaps it was a little too loose to give a "quality" feel during operation. The second version is neither two smooth nor two tight, but the resistance of the lens barrel as you zoom the lens isn't consistent through the zoom range. It's a small niggle, and one that few people would notice if they've never used the first version, but in terms of haptics, this is an area where the 55-200mm VR II feels as though some cost has been cut.

The front filter thread remains 52mm, which means that it uses the standard-sized HikonLC-52mm front cap. Of course, a lens hood isn't supplied; that would be the HB-37 if you need it. Speaking of cost cutting, note that the newer 55-200mm comes with the slip-on translucent plastic rear cover rather than the more substantial LF-4 rear cap that the first version did.

Left: Version 1    Right: Version II

As before, the lens mount is plastic, not metal as with the more expensive lenses. Many people get hung up about this, but truth be told, if a modern camera lens sustains impact damage, it's more pressing concern will be with the mechanical mechanisms inside the lens rather than with a catastrophically damaged front glass element or a damaged bayonet mount.

Plastic ring mount


Using this lens is a simple and straight forward matter. The aperture isn't particularly large, but that is partly made up for by the improved VR image stabilization. The first lens is fairly old in terms of technology; the VR mechanisms in latter lenses tended to work better. For a practical guide, the vibration reduction of the first lens was roughly two stops, meaning that for a non-moving object, your theoretical safe hand-holding shutter speed would be 1/60s. Never mind what the literature said (or didn't say); image stabilization systems were better than nothing back in the day, but they didn't perform miracles.

The second version is very much in keeping with the types of lenses that have come out in 2014 and 2015, meaning that you have a reasonable expectation of 4 stops of hand-holding advantage if you have proper technique and reasonable steady hands. This translates into a minimum shutter speed of 1/15s. In practical terms, your hit rate will be roughly 2/3 to 3/4. It is possible to push the lens to 1/6s, but the hit rate will drop considerable.

Image Quality

On paper, the second version is a simpler lens than the first, having 13 elements arranged in 9 groups, whereas the first VR version had 15 elements in 11 groups. In other words, rather than modifying the older lens with a retractable front, Nikon seems to have re-arranged the lens formula to make the new construction work. Both lenses use one ED glass element; neither makes use of an aspherical glass surfaces, now would you expect them to at this price point. That also shaves of 35g, making version II somewhat lighter, though the difference in practical terms is minimal.

You can quantify the relative performance of the first and second version with Nikon's MTF charts: version 1 and version 2. These charts are for maximum aperture values; at 50mm (f/4.5), both lenses are fairly sharp and contrasty across the frame, though the second is better at the corners. At 200mm (f/5.6) both lenses have consistent contrast across the image frame, but Version II is better at reproducing fine details in the centre of the image frame, which is generally where you want to compose if you are zoomed out. These are undoubtedly cheap lenses, but the penalty factor isn't in the image quality. For the typical user of an entry-level D3200 or D3300, this is more than sharp enough; even advanced users of the D7100 or D7200 could have use of them as a spare emergency-zoom.

With Nikon D3300

Concluding Thoughts

Quick question: if you want a small APS-C large(ish) sensor in a small, portable package, what would you look for? For many the answer seems to be something along the lines of a mirrorless camera. Nikon would have you think again, and to re-examine the traditional DSLR route. If you look at the 55-200VR II, it's actually a bit shorter than the Sony SEL 55-210 and it's less bulky than a Fujifilm XC 50-230mm F4.5-6.7 OIS. If you pair the Nikon 55-210 VR II with one of the newer-generation small body Nikons (D3300-D5500), you have a package that is not appreciably bigger than what a comparable mirrorless camera would offer in practical terms. You would still need the small size camera bag, the same size tripod etc... Mind you there are great reasons to choose either a Sony or Fujifilm system, but size and weight are important considerations, but they aren't deciding considerations.

On the Nikon D3300

As small portable cameras, the small Nikons don't get enough credit for being better cameras than their predecessors. This is because the enthusiast portion of the market has since long moved on and is gabbing about other things on the internet, and because the specs on paper don't tell the whole story. This is one of those lens/camera combinations that does a better job selling itself. The smaller 55-200 VR II sits well on the smaller carbon-fibre era Nikon bodies. The handling is comfortable and something that also gets over looked is that Nikon increased the size of the viewfinders of the smaller DSLR bodies post D3300/D5300. This makes them more comfortable to use in general, but especially with longer focal lengths.

This is an inexpensive lens to purchase on its own, but there are some caveats. If you are shooting sports or moving objects, them its worth saving up for the AF-S 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G VR IF-ED. It's a more expensive lens than the 55-200mm, but it's not expensive in terms of the entirety of camera lenses. The other thing to watch for is bundling. From time to time you will see "soft" bundles of a camera body with kit lens plus the 55-200mm as an add on. These are much better deals than buying the camera and lenses separately, but the best deals usually happen at the end of the year when Nikon starts rolling out "hard" bundles, where the camera with 18-55mm and 55-200mm are sold as a complete package. However, you do need to watch out for kits that bundle the original 55-200mm VR, or worse, the un-stabilized first version of the 55-200mm, as these will be less useful to own in the long run.

With thanks to Broadway Camera

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