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Thursday, May 04, 2006

In Praise of the Superzoom

Nikkor 18-200mm VR
By Eolake Stobblehouse

When I started photographing in the mid-seventies, zoom lenses were rare, big, and expensive. My first SLR was a Konica, they had maybe thirty lenses, and three of them were zooms. What people tended to get was a 50mm lens, a 28mm, and a 135mm. Which was a good and handy range, and gave you good quality.

Prime lenses (fixed focal length, no zoom) still have many fans, for good reason. It is obvious that it is much easier to make a sharp and compact prime lens than it is to make a similarly good zoom which has to have twice as many elements. You'll never get the same quality for the same weight, size, and price.

However times have changed. When Hasselblad made their very first zoom over twenty-five years ago, and people asked: "is it as sharp as the primes?" the answer was: "it can't be, obviously." But these days....




Anonymous John lehet said...

"And at the best settings, at middle to long range and stopped down two stops, this lens is excellent. As good as the best I have tried."

Yes, this is a key phrase in your post. It really is great in these ranges. And sometimes surprisingly OK the rest of the time. But...

It's oddly ironic that since I've come to understand the qualities of this lens, which I got for the VR, I've been carrying a tripod with me more. Also since getting it I've come to appreciate the Nikkor kit lens (18-70 much more); it's much sharper at wider apertures, has less distortion, and less chromatic abberation. And if a prime lens is the right lens for a situation, it will likely be better than this zoom, I think. Early on I blew some really nice shots by counting on the VR and shooting at wide apertures. I had the tripod in the car, and also other lenses I could have used for those shots.

The purple fringing is the worst of any Nikkor lens I've ever used, when I use this 18-200 vr on either the d70 or d200. Shots with bright highlights -- reflections on water -- tend to blow out in a strange blocky way and have a purple ring around them when used on either body. It's a strange effect and is somehow different and worse than "simple" chromatic abberation. It's not a shift, but a ring. My other Nikkors don't do this in those situations. I could post some blood curdling examples.

I have had some really really good results with the VR18-200 too, and it's usually the lens I keep on the D200. Overall I'm pleased, but for me the point is to enjoy the potential advantages without being burned by the possible pitfalls if another lens or a tripod can make the shot better -- sometimes much better.

This lens has actually increased the weight of my bag. I keep this relatively heavy lens on the camera, like you, 90% of the time, but still carry one other lens with me in my small bag, and the whole collection in the big bag.

Glad you're enjoying yours!

6:20 AM  
Anonymous Robert said...

The reason that we fret over these things at all is because of an innate guilt that we shouldn't get anything for (next-to)-nothing. Superzooms shouldn't be good; we can't shake the guilt, somehow.

Also, we worry too much what our friends might think.

It's why we wear useless things like neckties, for which there is no point whatsoever. Hanging on to vestiges of things that we can't remember the origins of without looking it up.

11:05 AM  
Blogger eolake said...

I have to admit it can be uneven for critical work (color fringing and soft corners), and it is a bit hard to pin down exactly how and when. Strange.
One does not expect a lens like this to be purchased for very critical work though.

I feel my review pretty much says all that, but I have now made a small amendment to clarify it.

11:29 AM  
Anonymous Chris said...

There's a lot of fans of this lens, but I don't know if I could live with the distortion of the thing. Photozone rated it at 4.13% I thought my Canon 16-35mm was bad at 2.37%!

Granted, this is easy to correct after the fact, but it almost seems like all the time that one could potentially save by changing lenses would be spent in post processing.

Otherwise, it does look like an interesting lens. Hope you have a lot of fun with it!

5:50 PM  
Anonymous Ira Crummey said...

I do not own a true super zoom but I recently purchased a Sigma 24-135mm for my DSLR. It gives me the equivalent of 36-202mm which is a range I am very comfortable with. This lens is even fairly fast at f2.8-4.5. It has a little distortion, it is a little soft in the corners at the telephoto end and it is fairly heavy but I love it. I now have a lens that allows me to spend a day outside with no lens changes, and thus less of a dust issue. I think the fact that dust is now such a factor (unlike the film days when every shot had a new "sensor") will draw more people to these superzooms, especially now that Nikon has produced a real winner. Tamron seems capable of producing a good ultra zoom as well so we should see more "quality" super zooms in the future.
Enjoyed the article.

7:47 PM  
Blogger techcouch said...

A good - real world - review. Any bit of kit that helps you focus on the important thing - the image - has to be worth a little compromise.

I hadn't thought of the benefit of a super zoom of reducing the number of times you need to change lenes and thus reducing the dust factor. However, with the increased amount of zooming – ie a greater movement of air within the lens – will this also introduce dust?

This may not be so true for the ‘super zooms’ but there is a little bit of software that allows you to interrogate your photo data and pull out the focal lengths you have used. It is quite interesting to see that for many people they often nearly always only use the widest and longest ends of the zoom and rarely the many mm in the middle.

11:36 PM  
Blogger John Roberts said...

I have been using zoom lenses, first on Minolta 35mm's since the early 1980's, and today on an Olympus E500 DSLR, and I've never been less than satisfied with the results I've gotten. Apparently, neither have my customers. I'm sure if my zooms were compared with my prime lenses in an optical lab, the primes could produce better numbers. However, they don't seem to produce noticeably better prints. I love my zooms!

7:06 AM  
Anonymous Frank P said...

I try zooms from time to time. They make me do bad things, like framing the shot by zooming instead of thinking about how I want a certain focal length to discribe the relationship between foreground and background. If I were more disciplined I would figure out the perspective that is best and shoot with the zoom at just the right focal length. But 99% of time I am reduced to being just like every other amateur tog and just zooming in or out instead of putting the camera in the very best position.

I also like using f/1.4 and f/2 so I can control the depth of field. It's all the harder to control with cropped sensor DSLRs.

So until the manufacturers make a super zoom that is faster than f/2.8, I'll pass. And smile at all the togs who "must" have their $1500 super "pro" zooms.

If the manufacturers have figured out how to make zooms as good or better than prime lenses, then we should rise up and demand new, better primes with the same technology.

7:24 AM  
Anonymous David Mantripp said...

"And the last person will be a hobby photographer who is really hung up on ultimate fidelity. And who cares about him, do you think he will buy a print from you? :) Personally I have no compunctions in using these for exhibition prints."

This says it all, really. The quality & precision that most of us get hung up over counts for practically nothing, except to our (99%) male techno obsessions. Last week, I was in Tuscany, and I bought two books there by local photographers. In both cases, some of the photos are really NOT good technically, they are soft, no clear point of focus. Does it matter ? Does it matter why ? (lens, technique, printing, ...) No, not a jot. The photos are beautiful, well observed and present both the standard tourist view of the area and also details and perspectives that only come with deep familiarity. This is the point of photography, not eradication the last hint of purple fringing, or shaving off 0.1% of distortion, wide open.

Well that's my opinion, anyway.

3:50 AM  

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