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Lens review & comparison: Nikon 55-200 VR f4-5.6

-Nikon-Nikkor 55-200 VR f4-5.6 ($269.99*)
Tested against:
-Nikon-Nikkor 70-200mm VR f2.8 ($1668.36*)
-Nikon-Nikkor 70-300 ED f4-5.6 ($329.99*)
*All prices from and current only as of 09.16.08
* *All tests preformed on a Nikon D300.

The Nikon 55-200 is aimed at people who want an inexpensive telephoto or who have the 17-55mm kit lens and want more reach. But, does it provide good image quality and focusing abilities or does it fall well short of a professional lens?

First impressions:
When I first touched the lens to take it out of the box I immediately noticed it's light weight and plasticy feel. Although plasticy however, it still feels well put together, although nowhere near as solid and "tank" like as the 70-200 2.8 which is made out of hardened metal brought from the belly of a violent volcano.

It's IF SWM (Internal Focus - Silent Wave Motor) make it's focusing very quick, accurate and silent. It locks on quickly to objects with good contrast but on occasion will slightly miss-focus and if you're not careful you will end up with a poor quality image. (see images below) One thing I noticed is that even with slight miss-focus the background tends to blur severely causing a poor quality image. (see images below)

Poor quality image caused by miss-focus

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100% crop

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After having used it for a while one comment I have is that the manual focus ring is placed too tightly in between the lens hood and is very small and hard to manipulate. It can be gotten used to however.

Another issue is that it has only M (manual) or A (Automatic) focusing modes which means that you have to choose the mode on the lens because changing the focus mode switch on the body has no effect. This is the first lens I've used where this occurs but is just another thing to get used to.

Low light:
In low light the 70-200 was slightly quicker than the 55-200, right up until I took off the polarizing filter I had accidentally left on the 70-200 and then it out-focused and outclassed the 55-200 all the way. That said, in low light the 55-200 works well, but still hunts on scenes with less contrast. Just like with any other lens you have to know how to focus using areas of good contrast.

Other general observations:
An interesting observation is that even in manual exposure and/or when comparing to other lenses the 55-200 tends to overexpose on a regular basis by up to 2/3 stop. In comparison the 70-200 2.8 seems to underexpose by 1/3 stop, these problems are due to lens design and on the 55-200 tend to cause a loss of quality in overexposed areas.
This is not a close up lens: The 55-200's closest focusing distance is 1.1m, so if you want to get closer you'll need to use a close up attachment or extension tubes. That said, when shooting bees and flowers you can get adequately close but nowhere near what a true macro or even close up attachments/extension tubes will achieve.

Image quality:
When comparing the 55-200 to the higher end 70-300 ED and the professional 70-200 (a lens almost seven times it's cost) the 55-200 holds it's own. It's a lens that will definitely work for most people, especially those who only occasionally print larger than 11x14". Gone are the old days of needing to worry about low end vs. high end glass when it comes to image quality, the lines have come much closer and one doesn't need to consider it unless they need the low light advantages and extreme sharpness and detail of a professional lens.

In this animated example which is a 100% crop you can clearly see the difference in image quality between all three lenes:

The photo above is a 100% fop of the following image:

The bokeh of the lens is really impressive. At longer focal lengths the background blurs out smoothly when focusing on closer images. See the image examples below:

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Overall I feel very positive about the Nikon 55-200 VR.

Although there are some small issues with image quality and the lens design (MF ring), the 55-200 is an extremely good lens especially considering it's price. It's not a lens that you'll regret buying down the road.
That said it is not aimed at professionals or people who need great low light performance or the maximum amount of detail in their images.
This is a good companion to the 17-55mm kit lens and also a great lens for anyone who wants to save gobs of money in exchange for a bit of image quality.

Sample images:


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100% Crop of image 1a

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This image is a 100% crop of image 3a

Special thanks to Don's Photo for the use of the Nikon 55-200mm VR for testing purposes.

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