55-300 VR vs. 70-300 VR: Which is Best?
This comparison will cover two of Nikon's most popular 300mm telephoto zoom lenses: the relatively new Nikon 55-300 f/4.5-5.6G ED VR AF-S DX, and the tried-and-true Nikon 70-300 f/4.5-5.6G ED IF AF-S VR. To add some context, I'll also cover the old screw-drive 300mm f/4 AF (the predecessor to this lens), and the very budget-friendly Nikon 55-200 f/4-5.6G ED IF AF-S DX VR.
Size and Handling
From left to right: 55-200 VR, 55-300 VR, 70-300 VR, and 300mm f/4 AF.
A few handling notes:
- The 70-300 VR is the only lens in this bunch to have full-time AF override by simply turning the focus ring. All three other lenses must be switched to manual-focus mode before their focus rings may be adjusted.
- The 55-300 VR grows a bit in size when focused at its minimum. Take a look at this image to see the difference.
- The 55-300 VR features an innovative new snap-on lens hood. Unlike the 55-200 VR and 70-300 VR which have hoods that turn to lock and unlock, this new hood simply clicks on in any position. To remove it, there are two small buttons on the side which have to be depressed. I found installation to be a breeze (it clips on easily in either direction), but removal can be tricky sometimes due to the slightly finicky buttons on the hood.
- The 55-300 VR has a front element which rotates while autofocusing. This can be a serious downside to shooters who frequently shoot through polarizing filters. Oddly enough, the even cheaper 55-200 VR does not suffer from this fault
How well are these lenses built? All three 300mm lenses feel very solid. The only real disappointment of the bunch is the 55-200 VR, which has a very light and plastic-ridden feel to it, though this is expected due to its $150 pricetag. The older, all-metal-bodied 300mm f/4 is built like a tank, and has an incredibly strudy and solid feel. The 70-300 VR is made of plastic, but despite this it has a very solid and high-quality feel to it. The real surprise of the bunch is the 55-300 VR, which is incredibly well-made lens given its $250 pricetag.
Lens weight/size is a very important issue for me since I often use my camera while traveling, on hikes, and during other strenuous activities. The 55-200 VR is incredibly light, and for this reason it has been my favorite telephoto zoom to bring traveling or on a hike. The 55-300 VR is a bit heavier (1.6 times heavier than the 55-200 VR, to be exact), but it's still light enough to bring on a hike without having to think twice about it. Of course it has the added advantage of being able to reach 300mm, so it will most likely replace my 55-200 VR as my hiking telephoto. The 70-300 VR is on the heavy side for long hikes, and it can even be tiring to hand-hold during an all-day walk at the zoo. The 300mm f/4 is quite heavy, and so I tend to only use this lens when the added image quality potential really outweighs the difficulty that's required to get it where I need to go.
To recap the weight relationships: the 55-200 VR is very light. The 55-300 VR is about one-and-a-half 55-200 VRs... still on the light-enough side to take hiking. The 70-300 VR is about one-and-a-half 55-300 VRs... getting heavy. The 300 f/4 is a portly thing weighing in at four 55-200 VRs, or about two 70-300 VRs. For the exact weights, see the vital stats image above.
The 70-300 VR and, surprisingly, the 55-200 VR really shine here. Both have very snappy and accurate AF systems. The 300mm f/4 is a tad bit sluggish on consumer DX bodies like the D7000 and D90 due to its screw-drive AF system. It's much faster on bodies like the D3 or older film cameras like the F100. The only real disappointment is the new 55-300 VR, which has very slow AF, taking about twice as long to focus as the 55-200 VR, or almost four times as long to focus as the 70-300 VR.
Check out the video below:
70-300 VR: excellent pro-sumer level image quality. Good results wide-open, and even better when stopped-down.
55-300 VR: again, the surprise of the bunch with image quality that matches the 70-300 VR, at a lower price and in a smaller package.
300mm f/4: beautiful bokeh and sharp results wide-open on close-up subjects. Best-of-bunch resolving power and sharpness when stopped-down to f/8.
55-200 VR: adequate-enough image quality, especially when stopped-down to f/8. The 200mm maximum focal length can be limiting, especially for wildlife.
Real-World Sample Images
Note: Since the 55-300 VR is a recent acquisition, I do not yet have any real-world sample images to post for it. Look for an update with these after I've spent a little more time with this lens.
The 55-300 VR is a lens that's full of compromises. Its image quality (in terms of sharpness and contrast) is quite good, especially for lens of its size. It absolutely blows the older 55-200 VR out of the water, especially since it has an extra 100mm of reach. However, the AF performance and odd build choices (rotating front element, strange lens hood) can be serious drawbacks. The FX shooter doesn't have to think twice here, but what about the DX shooter? Can a 55-300 VR replace the 70-300 VR which you already carry in your bag? For me, this answer is an emphatic "yes", especially since the image quality between these are fairly similar. The light weight and relatively small size of the 55-300 VR make up for its slow autofocus and other small faults. The extra focal length available over the 55-200 VR and the fact that it only weighs a bit more make it a top choice for me while hiking and traveling. Casual wildlife shooters who currently use the 70-300 VR will probably want to pass on the 55-300 VR because of the glacial AF performance. For serious wildlife shooting, I'll be sticking to my 300mm f/4, but for my lightweight telephoto needs, the 55-300 VR will be replacing both my 55-200 VR and my 70-300 VR.