review

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.

Hands-on Windows Vista Review

This summer, a good portion of the work I was involved with took place on a Windows Vista system, so it’s only proper for me to have found out a few things about it. As I stated in my initial review, Microsoft’s latest and greatest left me somewhat impressed, but otherwise XP still rocks the house.

The first thing that many fear about Vista is the performance. We were running Vista on an HP laptop with a 1.8 GHz AMD Turion (whatever the mobile line is called) and 1.25 GB of RAM, and the machine almost never was significantly slow. Aero Glass performed nicely – the effects were never dropped, and Pinnacle Studio 11 Plus ran well most of the time. However, toward the end of the summer, Windows would frequently pop up dialogs alerting us that the computer was low on memory, although the system never crashed or hung.

The eye candy that Aero brings is certainly a welcome addition, but it doesn’t revolutionize the way you use the computer. Of all things, the transparent window frames are the least exciting part. I personally enjoyed the minimize and restore effects the most.

Vista actually does bring something in the way of productivity enhancements. The search box integrated into the Start menu makes it a breeze to find programs that could otherwise be buried folders-deep in the menu. Another useful addition is scrolling in the All Programs list, which lets you use the scroll wheel on the mouse to navigate through the list.

I’m still more convinced that even Mac OS X Tiger (but even more so Leopard) beats Windows Vista in terms of productiveness and design. Spotlight was around before Windows’ desktop search, Dashboard before Widgets, Exposé before Flip 3D, etc. I don’t want to go into Mac vs. Windows arguments, but I’m more than willing to give OS X a try.

Windows Vista: The "Wow" Starts When?

I couldn’t get my hands on a machine with Vista Ultimate at CompUSA today, but I did manage to find one with Home Premium or Basic. Despite all the hype I talked about earlier, there isn’t much that significantly improves your compter. And it’s kind of hard to believe, but Windows Photo Gallery actually crashed on me.

This is not to say that I hate or dislike Vista in any way. I was trying out Vista for the first time today. If it was my computer, maybe I would have gotten a little further with the experimentation. I guess I have to wait for my next computer (which may actually be a Mac) to get the full Vista experience.

Notes for members of the Cult of Mac: I took a slightly deeper look at the Macs, and I liked what I saw even more so than previous examinations. Earlier, I have looked at Macs (all types) that have Boot Camp and Windows XP on them, and all seems swell. Perhaps a MacBook or MacBook Pro is in order?

Windows Vista: Love It, Hate It, Or Just Forget About It

It’s hard to believe that the news hasn’t made it over to this corner of the blogosphere, but let it be known: Windows Vista has been officially released as of Tuesday, January 30. From what I here and see, Vista is the biggest and baddest Microsoft ever put churned out, with millions of lines of code. There are a number of new features and improvements in Windows Vista, some purely fluff in many people’s opinions, and some deep under the hood.

Slightly unrelated, but worth mentioning:

How much more astonishing, then, is what Microsoft has accomplished. Apple had it easy: it kept its PC box closed, maintaining control over the hardware so it would perfectly suit its software. But Microsoft faced hundreds of thousands of boards, drives and chips like those I had spread out before me a few weeks ago, all of differing technological vintages, made by hundreds of companies with wildly different goals. Microsoft has taken these objects, along with the many thousands of PC programs now sold, and tried to create a system that would overlook their dizzying differences, bind them to a coherent vision and force them, in all their variety, to leave techne behind for the uncharted possibilities of magic.

Quoted from http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/07/arts/design/07conn.html?pagewanted=2&ei=5070&en=4ad77c80c0fb9cb9&ex=1171515600&emc=eta1

Vista unlocks a new user interface, officially dubbed Aero Glass, which showcases of the power of your graphics hardware with transparent window frames and title bars and other special effects. In PC World’s feature article from the January 2007 issue, the author says a lot about how eye candy makes his day. Readers wrote back arguing against that, saying that a nice look isn’t the only thing that he should be proud of.

A number of new applications are included in Vista. They somewhat mimic Mac OS X with the new photo organization tool, a DVD-authoring program, and a calendaring app. Unfortunately for some, the Vista version of WordPad has dropped support for the Microsoft Word format, most probably in a push for users to but the new Office 2007. Most of the new apps are crude but effective for novice to intermediate PC users.

Aside from Aero, the desktop in general has gotten a few enhancements. The new Sidebar functionality is similar to OS X Widgets. The Sidebar gadgets can place hooks into the OS, providing system-level information to the user. Also, upon mousing over a taskbar button, the user is shown a small preview of the window’s contents, and can even display live content. Last in my (non-fully inclusive) list of features is Flip 3D, a replacement for the Windows + Tab keystroke that allows the user to switch windows in style. It shows the windows in a slanted stack.

Once you get past the surface, there are some under the hood (in one case, more over the hood than under) improvements in the areas of security and performance. The new user Account Control nags at the user for even seemingly non-administrative tasks, but helps protect the user from attacks and their own mistakes. Vista includes Internet Explorer 7, which is also available for Windows XP, and includes some of the much wanted features from today’s other browsers (like tabs and feed-reading capabilities). Also up are new graphics and programming frameworks for building richer applications and games.

Most of the notable enhancements that Windows Vista shows at this point are more eye candy than useful additions. However, as time goes on (and hardware compatibility rises), more of the monstrosity’s features will be put to use, giving users more reasons to enjoy the new OS. However, if you feel that windows XP is sufficient, stick with it, and wait for your next computer to get Vista.

Windows Live Writer

Microsoft has expanded on their Live idea by developing various applications that connect with the Web in some way or another. One of their best ones is, in my opinion, the Windows Live Writer application, which lets you post to your blog from your desktop.

Upon the first launch of the program, you will be asked to configure Writer (which is currently in Beta) for you blog. Just enter you blog’s address, and your username and password, and the wizard will get to work figuring out all the specifics of your blog (type of blogging system, template formatting, and more). The whole process took only a few minutes to complete over my relatively slow (meaning 95 Kbps tops for downloads) DSL line.

Once it’s all set up, you are presented with the post editing screen, where you type the content of your posts. You can also view the post as it would appear on your blog, or edit the raw HTML of the post. In addition, the latest versions allow you to add tags from a variety of blog search and social networking sites (Technorati, del.icio.us, and few others).

I haven’t yet experimented with pictures, maps or third party plugins, but the potential of Writer’s feature set looks positive. Just for your info, I wrote this post in Writer, illustrating it’s usefulness.

Windows Live Writer

More information at Live ideas

Mambo – The (almost) Perfect CMS

I started using Mambo, an open-source content management system, for my own personal web site, after discovering it while exploring CMSs on Wikipedia. After first installing it, I was intimidated by the abundance of menus and icons scattered around the interface. A small while later, I learned the ins and outs of how everything worked, from menus to components to modules. There are many decent templates for Mambo available, but I can’t really find any (if you have any suggestions, make a comment below). When it comes to components, there are ones that do the most bizarre things. I found a school component, which organizes students, classes, and tests. Of the more common ones are myPMS, a private messaging system. Modules are little widgets that sit on the top, sides and bottom of pages (as defined by your template). Mambots are little programs that search through the contents of text and can replace certain strings with images, code highlighting and more. Templates are – you guessed it – the skin of your site, defines the look and feel of your pages and also the possible module positions. I do have some complaints: I wish that the administrator console would be somewhat faster and that good templates would be easier to find, but pretty much everything else is good. My conclusion: Mambo is an excellent product, with just a few rough edges.