Jan 6, 2012
Nikon 18-55 VR compared to Nikon 18-105 VR
Over the past 2 years, I've had the chance to use and compare these two lenses on my Nikon D40. On the way, I learned a great many things, so I’ll start off with the story.
3 years ago, after buying my Nikon D40, I was delighted at the image quality of the camera and at the same time, a bit frustrated with the standard kit lens, the 18-55mm G-ED II.
My previous camera was a Sony H-1, a big-zoom compact. The image quality was obviously quite poor compared to any DSLR, but the large zoom range, the vibration reduction system and the DSLR like click and scroll control were brilliant.
The kit lens on the Nikon D40 at first frustrated me mostly because of the missing vibration reduction. I had grown so used to it that it felt at first very hard to take sharp pictures. This had mostly to do with the fact that I had gotten sloppy handholding. The limited focal length range was also somewhat hard to get used to. On the plus side, the kit lens was very light and made the D40 very easy to handle. I found the pictures I made with it to be excellent in good light and ok in low light. A very good kit lens, but a shame that it has no VR.
The focal length limitation I could easily live with, but the lack of vibration reduction not so much. Call me lazy, I know, but it makes it much easier to have sharp photos, even in low light. So I started looking at the options:
The Nikon 18-200mm VR
I had at first decided on this ultimate travel zoom, thinking that while it is expensive, this would be the only lens I would ever need. Things were not so rosy however, when I went to try it at the camera shop. While the size seems to be ok on paper, this lens is very front heavy and it feels completely unbalanced on the D40. Using the camera one handed with this lens on it is out of the question, at least for me. With the 18-200mm out of the running, it was time to look at the alternatives.
The Nikon 18-55mm VR
The great thing about the 18-55 VR is the size and weight. It is fractionally larger and heavier than the 18-55 kit lens but just barely enough to feel the extra weight. Since the focal length is the same as the kit lens, this felt like a bad deal to me. Of course, the fact that the normal retail price is ridiculously high makes it a doubly bad deal. I thought it would be silly to spend so much money just to have vibration reduction.
The Nikon 18-105mm VR
This Nikkor 18-105 VR is in an interesting middle ground. Price wise, it is much closer to the 18-55 VR than the 18-200 VR. In terms of zoom range, it lies right between them. I found this to be an attractive alternative, it was affordable, doubled the zoom range of my kit lens, and had vibration reduction. After trying it on my D40, I found the size and weight much more reasonable than the 18-200VR. Yes, it is larger and heavier than the kit lens, but not dramatically so. One handed shooting is a bit trickier, but still ok.
At the beginning, I was really happy with the extended zoom range and the vibration reduction. After some months though, some of the shortcomings became obvious.
I’ll start with the most frustrating: The minimum focus distance is far too long on this lens. Sometimes, when you want to take a close up of something, you’ll get near it and the lens will simply refuse to focus because you are too close to your subject. This happens so often that it gets really annoying after a while.
Another niggle: The focus ring has no feel and too much travel. Although you can override the focus at any time, you can’t easily tell in which direction you are shifting the focus because the travel is far too long. Since there is no distance scale or anything, I can’t ever really tell what I am doing. Well, I know I am not the best photographer in the world, yes, but I manage to shoot with manual focus cameras and that works out fine. All of this caused me to practically not ever attempt to adjust the focus manually. Which kind of takes some of the fun away.
The final straw: While I was never dissatisfied with the pictures from the 18-105VR, I was not really satisfied either. For a long time, I couldn’t tell why and it took me a really long time to understand the reason. Some of my pictures with my kit lens the 18-55mm, especially those shot in good light, had an almost magical “pop” to them. They looked really, really good. Not that I am a good photographer, I am just talking about the technical quality. You just looked at them and said “wow”. I realized that none of the images shot with the 18-105 were like this. So I started examining the kit lens pictures more closely. The thing that these pictures had in common was: Kit lens, shot with an aperture of f8 or f11. Hmm, ok I thought, this is kind of obvious, any lens needs to be stopped down a bit to get optimum quality.
So I started looking at the photos from the 18-105, picking out the f8 or f11s. They looked fine, ok, there were no obvious problems. But they did not have that “bite”, that “pop” that something extra that the kit lens pictures had. This is the point at which a better photography site would put up comparison test shots between the two lenses. Since I am lazy and can’t bother to shoot pictures just for testing, I will just say the following: The 18-55mm kit lens spanks the 18-105mm VR in image quality, period. Will you notice the difference? I always thought “Lens sharpness is way overrated, it’s for pixel peepers, normal people can’t see the difference”. Well, even with my lowly 6 megapixel D40, I can tell the difference.
On with the rest of the story:
Armed with this information, I snagged a second hand 18-55mm VR to try out. Within minutes, it made me smile. What I had forgotten was how much fun the D40 is with a light lens on it. While the 18-105 is not enormously large, it still is noticeably heavier. The 18-55 VR, on the other hand makes the D40 handle like a dream. The close focusing distance means you can get much closer to subjects and the maximum magnification for macro shots is larger than the 18-105. The image quality is also much better, I think pretty much same as the kit lens, in other words: very good. All of this makes this lens a lot of fun. On paper, this lens looks awkward and expensive, but on a camera, it feels absolutely wonderful. It’s a case of the whole being more than the sum of its parts.
The conclusion, then:
The Nikon 18-55mm VR
It doesn’t do everything, this one. Zoom range is limited, there is no instant focus override. It is a simple, light, cheap lens with vibration reduction. Doesn’t promise you the world. But it does what it does very well. It is a brilliant little lens.
The Nikon 18-105mm VR
This one promises a bit more. Double the zoom range. Instant focus override. Looks a bit more serious as well. In the end: the niggles take a lot of the fun away from this lens. On paper, this is a much better lens, shame that it doesn’t work as well in the real world.
So, which one am I keeping?
Despite the 18-105 having double the zoom range, I always find myself using the 18-55VR. As I said, it is a lot more fun.
Is that subjective? Yes.
Will my 18-105 be finding a new home soon? Also a yes…
Sigma & Tamron:
You may be wondering why I did not consider the alternatives from Sigma and Tamron. I had looked at the Sigma 18-200mm OS but ultimately decided on the Nikon 18-200. When I changed my mind due to the size / weight, the Sigma was looking similarly large and much more expensive than the Nikon 18-105. The Tamron 18-250mm, unfortunately doesn’t have vibration reduction. Since then, the Tamron has introduced the 18-270 VC which was not available last year. I would quite like to try that one out, although I am pretty sure the size/weight could again be a deal-breaker.
Read more about:
Nikon 18-105mm VR Lens.