Standard and special DX zooms

With two DX cameras, a D5600 and a D7500, I use a couple of zoom lenses. These are my observations, written in blog style. This is not a review trying to be balanced.

Inexpensive wiiide angle: DX 10-20 mm 4.5-5.6 VR

This lens got me exactly what I wanted: Ultra-wide angle in a lightweight, compact Nikkor model which is also affordable. Image quality is not optimal, one has to stop down quite a bit to get somewhat sharp images and the corners never get truly sharp. At minimum focal length, the lens has horrible vignette until again stopped down quite a bit.

The 10-20 comes with bag and lenshood, but everything feels quite plasticky. The mount is plastic, too. Strangely the barrel is pushed out at the 10 mm focal length, moving in when turning to 18 mm, and then again pushing out a little bit when set to 20 mm. This is an indication of a simple zoom design.

I am never good at selfies.

All that said, it gets the job done. The AF-P autofocus is very fast and almost silent, making the lens usable for video, especially because it is also stabilized. For many wide-angle shots I prefer stabilization to larger aperture (smaller f-stop number) because background blur is out of the question anyway, except for close-up shots. The kit-type 4.5 – 5.6 aperture allows a very lightweight construction.

A lens for every day?

When selecting the kit for the D5600 purchase I opted for this lens, knowing other Nikkor wide-angle zooms are optically superior but also much more heavier, and more expensive. With 10 mm on a DX camera, the field of view is really wide. The 2x zoom makes this lens generally usable: At 20 mm the DX field of view is comparable to a cellphone camera. It is even a bit closer. On a D7500 with the 1.3x crop mode, one gets even closer at the cost of image resolution. In-camera cropping only saves time later on, there is of course no zoom magic. Still, one can get an almost normal field of view – neither wide-angle nor tele – out of the camera without doing any further edits.

I used this lens on a film SLR! The F65 cannot focus with AF-P, so I focused to near-infinity on the DSLR and then put it on the F65. With 14 mm or more, the small-frame film (in digital terms, “full frame”) gets illuminated with acceptable vignette. Pro tip: Remove the lenshood, or you shade the long edges.

With a DX camera, one can walk around with just this lens all day long. It is not a low-light specialist but more useful in low light than you think because the short focal length combined with VR (vibration reduction, meaning optical stabilization) allows you to handhold the camera for quite some time before shake blur gets visible. With a bit of luck I can hold it for 1/6 seconds.

I have to say that the DX 10-20 mm seems to be completely useless for portraits. I never managed to get anyone looking good no matter the settings. For architecture, and with moderate focal length for landscape, I consider it a useful lens if stopped down in order to improve sharpness.

1/15 s handheld, f/5.6, 10 mm. Even with upright and some crop one gets a lot into the frame.

A lot of reach for little money: DX 70-300 mm 4.5-6.3 VR

There is a non-VR version of this lens which I would not recommend based on my experience with VR turned off. This is an in-camera setting as AF-P lenses seem to have no external switches, neither for autofocus nor for optical stabilization. With VR on and some luck, one can use full 300 mm handheld at 1/60 seconds. For best sharpness, stopping down is useful. But if light is more important, I use the lens at maximum aperture and don’t worry about some softness.

This is a kit-lens which includes the front cap but nothing else. Bag and lenshood are optional purchases (which I made), even a real lens rear-cap is optional as the box includes only a very cheap cap which cannot be fixed. The mount is all-plastic, too. Compared to larger, more expensive tele zooms, images are not as sharp.

I still like the DX 70-300 because it is is so light and compact, yet offers serious reach. The AF-P autofocus is really useful, very quick, almost no misses. In a zoo, or at a social event, I just use this lens without having to work around any focus issues.

Not even cropped. 270 mm on a DX camera.

The one big drawback is the minimum focal length. 70 mm on a DX camera is too long for general use. One has to bring another lens as well, and swap. Or bring even another camera with a different lens.

Getting the zoo tiger covering the full DX frame, that sounds quite expensive but this lens is an impressive almost-telescope. Even for faux macro photos it can be used, while the reproduction ratio is not outstanding, the background still gets very blurry and some cropping helps to get an insect large enough.

Cropped and heavily processed in post-production, still taken with the DX AF-P 70-300 mm.

I used it for a couple of portrait photos but don’t like the results very much. Having a lens his long requires me to be quite far away, which hinders communication with the model and the distance causes the face to appear quite full. While the nose is nicely small, the eyes are quite close together. I prefer to be not as far away, getting a somewhat intimate portrait appearance.

After borrowing a more expensive zoom, which yielded more details, I like this 70-300 mm kit lens even more because it is a light and compact design which lets me actually use this lens from time to time, not only for rare moon shots. When I am in the zoo, this lens is a regular. For events taking place outside, I grab it in order to get candid shots from far away. Facial proportions are not optimal as discussed, but those pics are better than nothing.

Showing off: DX 16-80 mm 2.8-4 VR

Let me begin with the bad stuff: The focus ring has some play. The barrel construction seems to be all plastic (at least, the mount is made of metal.)  And this lens costs almost 1000 bucks! Still, there are only 7 aperture blades, not 9. Autofocus is AF-S, not AF-P, so it is not as quick as it theoretically could be.

The aperture control is ambivalent: Aperture blades are moved electronically, not mechanically, which means the lens is incompatible with older cameras. The F65 can focus but not change aperture (shooting wide open instead.) On the upside, on supported cameras the electronic aperture blade movement could be faster than with a mechanical lever, but I am not sure how big the advantages is, if there is any.

You need a lot more to buy this lens. Taken with 16-80 @60 mm f/5.6

Now the good stuff. Where to begin? Optical quality? I find it impressive. Stopping down helps to crank out a bit more sharpness but I have no worries to use this lens wide open. The minimal focal length is 16 mm, not 18 mm as many other zooms. Does not look like a big difference but when I need those 2 mm for wide angle, it is there for nice wide shots.

80 mm on the long end is not very much, I would prefer some 100 mm, but the images are still so sharp that cropping, while reducing nominal image resolution, still keeps a lot of detail compared to cheap kit travel-zoom lenses used at equivalent zoom.

Aperture. 50 mm is f/3.5, 60-80 mm is f/4. An f-stop number of 4 seems to be almost slow but using it at 80 mm still allows more background blur than 50 mm with f/2.8!

VR works really well, at 16 mm one can try 1/6 or even 1/4 seconds handhold, with a bit of luck the image turns out to be usable.

The lens has three switches (autofocus, VR on/off, VR mode). The autofocus is slower than I am used to from AF-P lenses, but the focus speed is okay for all my applications, including taking photos of moving persons. The very large, angular lenshood creates a cinema-lens appearance.

Taking pictures handheld in almost any light

A D5600 with the 16-80 mm feels like a different camera. Put on a D7500, the camera gets quite heavy and I don’t like it to use it all day, but do so on some occasions. This lens serves me well on travel, Considering the performance I wonder how it could be made so light. It covers a useful zoom range, can be used at dawn, sometimes at night without tripod, and is capable of doing good portraits. The bokeh appearance is nicely soft for a zoom lens.

The 16-80 does not excel at anything in particular, but covers a lot with good results. As I said, almost 1000 bucks, but since putting it up, I never complained about the price again.

Travel light: DX 18-55 mm 3.5-5.6 VR

Because I also wanted a lighter, more compact zoom, I added the infamous kit lens. This time I did not buy the optional bag, but the optional lenshood (which is ugly) and the optional real rear cap (since it comes only with this very cheap excuse of a cap.) My main gripe is the front cap though! Not 52 mm, not 58 mm. Instead 55, a very uncommon size.

If the wide angle setting is used wide open, sharpness suffers horribly. The vignette is also very bad. Stopping down helps. The minimum f-stop number of 3.5 is not practical in my opinion.

Otherwise, the optical performance exceeds my expectation. With the right settings, images turn out nicely sharp. There is a non-VR version of the lens, I am glad that I bought the VR model because it helps with longer handheld exposures in order to get enough light with larger f-stop numbers. One can focus very close, allowing near-macro shots.

Autofocus is AF-P, very quick, with very few misses. The lens weights almost nothing and can be used all day long. But it is not my favorite. First, the locking mechanism. The lens can be retracted, making it quite short. but a button has to be pressed and the zoom ring must be turned to get the lens in a working condition. It is expanded at the wide 18 mm setting, getting smaller until 33 mm, and then extends again up to 55 mm. A simple zoom construction again. Second, everything on the lens feels light in the sense of thin and plasticky.

31 mm f/8 to get more sharpness. Images can be good 🙂

There is a silver-colored ring near the front lens. A golden ring marks some prestige (the 16-80 mm lens has it) but this silver ring seems to be out of place. At least the optical performance is okay as long as one stops down. The 18-55 covers a useful zoom range from wide landscape to head-shoulder portrait.

At the widest setting of 18 mm, this lens faster than the dedicated wide-angle 10-20 mm lens at any setting! Both lenses have to be stopped down though in order to yield acceptable sharpness.

I am someone complaining a lot about weight of camera gear, and the 18-55 is an option to be flexible for almost no carriage. Someone buying a DSLR with this lens will probably look for other lenses to add. It still serves purpose, for example if you ask if you want to get a 35 or 50 mm prime, you can test the corresponding field of view with the 18-55.

Wide angle for little money

I also use it as lightweight wide-angle. There are wide-angle, fast prime lenses, but they cost a lot and weight a lot. Except for action or astro photography, VR compensates for the slow aperture, and you get your wide-angle shots for little money with this entry-level kit lens.

The trap over overthinking

That was the plan: Have the 16-80 (bought together with the D7500) in the middle, with an additional option on each the wide and tele range. Later I added the 18-55 as lightweight standard alternative.

All that planning, and all that money spent, but perfect happiness was not found! I even see the value of superzooms now, like 18-140 or even longer, because that means to cover more range without having to swap. Specialized lenses like superwide or supertele are superuseful in superrare cases.

For some time I used a borrowed 18-105 mm lens. Quite heavy for its reach, acceptable but not outstanding image quality, and the AF-S autofocus is slower than AF-P, and close-up capability is as not good as with the 18-55. At least one gets some real tele.

Slimes attacking my keyboard. Taken with 18-105 mm @70 mm.

The 10-20 mm is a good example of a kit-type DX lens: Lightweight construction, a good price, though mediocre ergonomics and the optical quality is visibly compromised unless noticeably stopped down while the lens is rather slow to begin with. Still, for many applications it is practical. The quick AF-P autofocus and VR are nice, too.

Because the lens is comparatively inexpensive I could afford it and because it is lightweight, I use it when I can instead of keeping it in the shelf. But one has to be clear, this items does not get you the feeling “wow, what a high-quality product”.

Investing in DX

The 16-80 costs as much as the other three lenses combined. The build quality is better but not at pro level. The optical quality is very good in my opinion, but one only gets 16-80 mm focal range. The other lenses together cover 10-300 mm (with a very small gap in-between). Spending a lot of money on a single DX lens is a statement to stay with this sensor size for the time to come.

This lens is clearly made for users who also spent a lot on the DX camera, but I like to put it on the affordable D5600 in order to reduce weight. For high-profile events, I use it on the D7500. Should I upgrade to FX within a couple of years, I might regret this purchase. Until then I let the full-frame users talk about their iso performance and just use my compact, yet powerful DX camera/lens combination.

I have an old Nikkor from the film era, 35-70 mm f/3.3-4.5. Autofocus does not work on D5600 because it relies on a camera motor. The lens is not in the best condition as it makes scratchy noises but it works. DX involves a 1.53x crop, there is no wide angle with this lens on such camera. If used wide open, images are soft with this product. But it is a classic item, mostly made of metal, and using it feels good. Image quality however is not on par with kit lenses of today.

Less talk, more walk

All this time writing this blog post was not spent to be out there, improving my photography.

If you are like me, you might want to blame the lens “If I only have something better, my photo would be better”. But what is more likely: That they sold a bad lens which holds you back, or that after decades of technological improvement any lens today is good enough and it is rather the lack of experience which holds you back?

I found an answer for myself.

Will this lens, or the other one, finally bring happiness? Wrong question.


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