Review: Nikon’s Zoom-Nikkor AF-S DX 55-200mm f/4-5.6G ED-IF VR lens

After spending nearly a year with my Nikon D40 and the 18-55mm kit lens it came with, I’ve learned a great deal about photography, having taken thousands of photos in various corners of the globe. It’s gotten to the point where I lust after new gear (camera bodies, lenses, and even just cheap accessories) to the point that my dad reminds me that I have no income. Well, the economy doesn’t seem to have phased my family too greatly, since upon my graduation from high school, my grandparents gave me Nikon’s Zoom-Nikkor AF-S 55-200mm f/4-5.6G DX ED-IF VR lens to use with my D40, conveniently right before I left to camp (where, as I will discuss later, the lens has been of considerable utility).

Please forgive me ahead of time for the extra long sentences, and bear in mind that while this review won’t go thoroughly overboard with discussions about distortion and falloff and other camera nut scientific details, I will be talking somewhat technically throughout the review. As such, I forgive you if you head back to the page of Google search results you found this review in to look for a less geeky write-up.

Initial impressions

Aside from the initial excitement and anticipation after my dad told me my present was something I’d been wanting for a while, I knew I was moving up in Nikon-land when I opened the box of the 55-200mm VR. I guess it really was worth spending some quality time with the small 18-55mm beforehand as I improved my shooting technique to (unknowingly) prepare for this lens.

The lens is finished in textured plastic that’s actually a bit nicer than that of the D40 body – it has a more pronounced texture that assures confidence in the hand. The zoom ring on the barrel of the lens is surrounded with ribbed rubber, and is sufficiently large for comfortable zooming.

Nikon only designed the 55-200mm VR with the more simplistic AF-S system found in lenses like the 18-55mm (both the VR and non-VR enabled iterations), and the non-VR version of the 55-200mm, which doesn’t support grab-and-go manual focus override. As such, the focus ring is locked while the lens is set to autofocus (and does rotate during autofocus servo operation – very noisily at that), and switching to manual focus mode involves flicking the top switch in the small control cluster on the side. Also, the focus ring does have a bit of play while locked, which seems normal of this caliber of AF lenses.

The included bayonet-style hood attaches to the front of the lens, outside the 52mm diameter filter thread, and also attaches in reverse for convenient storage. Speaking of the filter thread, it doesn’t rotate during focus operation – this lens is adorned with the IF (Internal Focus) designation, making it more convenient to use with filters like circular polarizer or graduated density filters. (I bought a polarizer immediately after receiving the lens.)

Build quality is otherwise okay, on par for an affordable telephoto zoom. Zooming action is not quite silky smooth, but works just fine.

Performance

The 55-200mm, being an AF-S series lens, focuses fast in most situations (I’ve been able to achieve focus during plays on the dimly lit stage in my camp’s dining room). The lens can go from infinity to its closest very fast, much faster than on my 18-55mm, though also much more audibly – it makes a slight screeching sound when passing through its focus range.

Being a slow, variable aperture lens, the 55-200mm VR won’t let you use fast shutter speeds in very low light, or achieve extremely shallow depth of field (though at 200mm you definitely see compression of the subject on the background). Despite this, I can shoot with the 55-200mm in low light with my SB-400 speedlight (in full TTL auto mode) at f/7.1, 1/80 of a second, and ISO 800, and get decently exposed photos (albeit they tend to be somewhat grainy thanks to the D40′s noisy sensor).

Nikon’s Vibration Reduction technology is absolutely essential when shooting handheld at any focal length beyond, perhaps, 55mm, and works amazingly well. Hold down the shutter button half way, and the image in the viewfinder becomes amazingly stable while the camera attempts to achieve focus. At a sporting event, set your camera to continuous-servo and dynamic-area autofocus, and follow a moving subject while holding down the shutter button half way – you can follow with ease, and the focus will keep up with your movement.

Image quality

Here’s the part that camera nuts could go on and on with. I’ll try to condense my opinions.

The 55-200mm VR tends to have decent bokeh around the minimum focusing distance, and with care (stop down the aperture if you need to), subjects can be kept very sharp. Falloff, or vignetting perhaps, is noticeable in photos I’ve shot outdoors. Chromatic aberrations are okay – certainly much better than with the 18-55mm. I haven’t really noticed any distortion, as I’m not exactly shooting skyscrapers with a telephoto lens.

The punchline

If you’re a soccer mom or baseball dad who wants a cheap but useable telephoto zoom lens for the little league games, or want to compliment your kit lens with something longer, go for the 55-200mm VR. It’s cheap (compared to, say, the professional Nikon 70-200mm f2.8 VR, which rolls in at about $1,900), light (also compared to that lens, which I can attest will send you to the gym), compact (it kind of fits in my LowePro Nova Mini bag), and generally gets the job done. I’m certainly happy with mine, and I continually get great shots from it.

If you want more reach, the new just-grab-the-ring-to-focus-manually AF-S system, or possibly even better AF performance, try out the full-frame Nikon AF-S 70-300mm VR, which, as even Scott Bourne claims, has merit. If you want a truly professional lens, take a look at the AF 80-200mm f2.8 (non-VR and non-AF-S), or prepare to take out a second mortgage for the AF-S 70-200mm f2.8 ED-IF VR. But if you’re not pro, chances are the simple 55-200mm VR will serve your needs.

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