Image from Nikon USA.
This lens is the full-frame equivalent of the very popular 18-200/3.5-5.6 DX VR; and like the DX equivalent, it’s an optic that seems to breed two kinds of people: blind fanboys who think it’s the one and only lens you need to own, and others who think it’s a horrible compromise that does nothing well, and is best avoided.
I picked up this lens together with the new (at the time) AFS 85/1.4 G at the latter end of 2010; I never intended to use it as a one-size fits all, but rather as as more flexible replacement for the AFS 70-300/4.5-5.6 VR – itself which was great up to about 200mm, but required much smaller apertures to be useable at 300mm, and it never got as sharp as it was at shorter focal lengths – despite stopping down.
Bottom line: the 28-300VR does the job. My sample, at least, matches the 70-300VR optically in the 70-200mm range; neither one is really great at 300mm, but I’d give a slight edge to the 28-300VR. Never mind the fact that it isn’t 300mm all the time – I’ll talk more about this later.
Let’s start with the physical stuff. It isn’t a small lens – in fact, it’s similar in size and heft to the 24-70/2.8 without the hood – but it’s made entirely of textured polycarbonate. It also extends considerably when zoomed out, which shifts the weight in the hand quite noticeably. Fortunately, the extensions are quite robust. The lens is gasketed, and I’ve shot with it in light rain; I probably wouldn’t do this under more adverse weather conditions, because the water will naturally go inside the lens as you zoom in and out – you can see evidence of this as water streaks are left behind. There’s a narrow, very short-throw focus ring with rudimentary distance scale, no DOF markings, and very little feel. Clearly, this lens wasn’t mean to be manually focused – good luck doing it precisely. In front of that is a wide rubberized zoom ring. Zoom spacing is nice and linear, though a little stiff – you can feel the plastic-on-plastic action inside the lens. The remaining controls are switches for AF/MF, VR ON/OFF, and VR ACTIVE/ NORMAL mode. There’s also a lock switch to prevent the lens extending past 28mm – clearly Nikon learned something from the self-tromboning 18-200VR, though the zoom action is actually stiff enough not to require it.
It’s a proper AF-S lens, which means that you have full time manual override. Focusing is midrange-fast, even at the long end of the zoom. It isn’t as fast as the pro lenses, obviously. Fast enough.
The stabilizer uses Nikon’s second generation technology – denoted by the gold VR plaque, rather than red as on the first versions. It’s quite effective – with good technique, critically sharp shots at 1/15s 300mm on FX or 1/50s 450mm equivalent on DX are possible. It has automatic panning detection, and an ACTIVE mode that cancels out all subject motion – i.e. panning off. However, you should be turning the stabilizer off if your shutter speed is above the safe speed required – the time required for the stabilizer to move into position can actually create a weird double-image effect if left on at very high shutter speeds. VR is much more effective if you give it a couple of seconds to ‘lock in’ before shooting. Curiously, it also works much better if the camera is held horizontal – extreme up or down shooting tends to render it mostly ineffective.
Let’s talk about optics: I strongly suspect with a lens this complex, there’s some sample variation going on. And this might well be the source of the strong polarization between user camps. Mine isn’t so hot at 28mm – in fact, it’s downright crappy (flare, aberrations, lack of sharpness and contrast) at 28mm until f5.6; curiously, you can manual focus it to a sharper image – however, using that AF-fine tune calibration throws out every other focal length. From 35mm to 200mm or so, this lens is right up there with the rest of them – it’s sharp, contrasty, and has plenty of bite. It’s lacking micro contrast though, which I suspect is a consequence of having a huge number of elements and air-glass interfaces: a little bit of contrast is lost at each one, no matter how good your coating is. Above 200mm, things soften to the point that 300mm isn’t that good wide open, and requires f8 to be useable.
That was for FX. Curiously, the lens seems a little sharper on DX (16MP D5100); this might be because it’s using only the central portion of the image, though that doesn’t explain the much improved results at the extreme ends of the range. Curiously, it works much better on the D800 than it did on the D700 – it could be my sample – in fact, it’s much the same as on the D5100 which has similar pixel density. On the 12MP FX cameras, I’d use it from 28-100 at f5.6, and 100-200 at f8 or lower. On the 36Mp D800, 28-300 at maximum aperture is useable but a little soft; improves greatly one stop down, and is actually pretty good by two stops down from maximum. There’s always vignetting, at pretty much every aperture; however it’s an easy fix in Photoshop. Weakest performance is actually at 28mm on all formats and sensors – on the high density sensors, it’s sharp but hazy; on the D700, it’s just hazy.
It seems that slightly better results may be obtained at 28mm on the D700 if live view is used, which points to an AF calibration error – however, if one calibrates for 28mm, every other point in the focal range becomes soft. I think this is very much a design or batch QC issue as all of the samples of the lens I’ve tested have exhibited the same issue.
Sharpness is about the only optical thing that the lens has going for it. It flares in a dramatic, cinematic way; distortion is horrible and complex; (as you’d expect from an optical design that has to correct for wide-angle and telephoto aberrations) and high contrast edges exhibit lateral chromatic aberration, though not as bad as you’d expect from a lens of this complexity. Bokeh is actually neutral to good.
By far the worst thing about this lens is the focal length shortening. You didn’t think you were really going to get 300mm at the near limit of 0.45m, did you? If so, that would be one hell of a macro lens. The reality is that up close, it’s probably giving you no more than 135mm, no matter what the position of the zoom ring. This is an optical trick that allows for less movement of the focusing group to deliver the same minimum focus distance. Out to infinity, the lens delivers around 290mm.
Curiously, Canon also makes a 28-300mm lens – but it’s a heavy duty, L-series weather sealed push-pull zoom monster, costing at least four times as much as the Nikon. I used one briefly with a 1D Mark III, which has similar pixel density to the D700 – the Nikon is much, much better. There’s a general softness and slight edge flare to the Canon that makes images feel ill-defined. I hear a replacement is in the works, however. There’s also a Tamron version, which I can’t comment on as I haven’t used it – other than it’s f6.3 on the long end. I think though then physical aperture of the Nikon or Tamron may be f5.6 or f6.3, the T stop is much, much lower – possibly as bad as f8 or higher.
Practically, what is this lens good for? What do I use it for? Basically, two things: it’s a Swiss army knife, for times when I know there’ll be plenty of light out, and I’m not aperture-limited; when I don’t know what I’m shooting or know that I’ll require a lot of perspectives; and finally, when I need telephoto reach. I shoot most of my work below 85mm, so this is a kind of emergency tool for when I need to go longer. It works, and having said all of the above, it is capable of delivering pretty good images – if you use it within its limitations. Just don’t try and shoot architecture in the dark hand-held with it. MT
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