Search Posts
Categories
Feed

Entries in review (5)

Thursday
Nov272014

The Sony Alpha A6000: an Outstanding Little Travel Camera

It has been about 5 months since my last post, primarily because I've been very focused on my day job. Fret not though! I did get a chance to do some traveling recently, and have been spending quite a lot of time with the Sony A6000. I've used it while camping, hiking, and mountain biking at Lake Tahoe this past summer, it has been to India with me, and I've spent a bit of time shooting some landscapes with it here in San Francisco. Thus, I finally feel confident enough to write up a complete review of my experiences with it. If you can't already tell from the headline, I'm very happy with it, but there are several nit-picks that are worth digging into.

My A6000 Travel Kit

Handling

The A6000 is a camera that handles very well for its compact size. The built-in EVF (electronic viewfinder) is excellent, and is quick to turn on when bringing the camera to the eye. Unfortunately, I can't say the same about the camera startup time - it sometimes takes a full 5 seconds to "wake up" after sitting off for several hours! Curiously enough, this start up delay seems to be much shorter (1-2 seconds) if the camera has been turned on recently. In either case, the A6000 is nowhere near as fast to startup as a modern DSLR, which goes from off to ready in a fraction of a second.

Moving back to the viewfinder, it's worth mentioning that I prefer the A6000's to the X-E2's (see my review here). The major advantage of the A6000 finder is that it works much better in varying light; it's brighter in sunlight, and dims appropriately in low light. The A6000's finder also seems to refresh faster than the X-E2's, and feels much more immediate overall. These two factors really make the EVF shine, and add up to trump the X-E2's EVF resolution advantage, in my opinion. 

The control layout is well thought-out, and nearly all of the button functions can be customized. On my camera, I've configured the AEL button to activate "Eye AF" (more on that function below, in the autofocus section), the C1 button sets the AF drive mode, and the C2 button turns the rear LCD screen off ("Deactivate Monitor" function). Unfortunately the "Deactivate Monitor" function never turns the rear LCD completely off - it simply displays blackness on the monitor, but the LED backlight remains on. This is acceptable in daylight, but in very dark locations the glow from the rear LCD is still noticeable and can be distracting. Fortunately, the monitor backlight does turn off when bringing the EVF to the eye.

Battery life is awful, yielding about 300 shots per charge. This means that I carry 6-8 batteries with me when traveling in order to match the shot output of just two Nikon D800 batteries. I understand that EVFs and constantly-on image sensors draw lots of power, but I would not complain if Sony decided to make a slightly thicker grip to accommodate a bigger power cell. Another power-related complaint I have is related to the charging setup - the camera ships with a cable charger, which means that the battery can only be charged through the camera. It's not possible to leave a second battery charging outside of the camera while you're out taking photos. Fortunately, third-party battery chargers that work well do exist, but it's disappointing that Sony doesn't include one with the A6000.

The software menu layout isn't bad, but it is nowhere near as well-organized as what you'd find on a Nikon or Canon DSLR. Sometimes it takes a bit of hunting to find a particular function. Another gripe of mine is that the camera lacks a front control dial, which is a standard feature on nearly all "prosumer" cameras these days. Another welcome feature would be some basic form of weather-sealing. Finally, I'd also like to see a configurable AF point count. I frequently shoot in single-point AF mode, placing the AF point myself. With 179 AF points, clicking the selected AF point across the viewfinder to move it to a different location can be a bit tedious. As crazy as this may sound, I sometimes prefer to reduce the selectable AF points down to 11 on my D800 in order to speed up the AF point selection process (fewer clicks), particularly since I don't need all of those AF points when taking landscape photos. The same functionality would be very welcome on the A6000.

Autofocus

The AF system is the best of any mirrorless camera that I've ever used. It's incredibly fast and accurate, even in extremely low light. Interestingly enough, I found that the 16-70mm f/4 lens focused faster and more accurately in very dim lighting than the brighter 20mm f/2.8, but I think that is simply a characteristic of that particular lens, and not a reflection of the A6000's focusing system. In any case, I have absolutely no complaints about the AF system. However, it is worth mentioning that I don't shoot any live-action or sports events. One nice AF benefit of mirrorless cameras is that lenses don't need fine-tuning! Since the phase-detect AF pixels are directly on the camera sensor, there is no possibility for AF calibration error that can sometimes occur with DSLR cameras.

A feature that I've grown to use extensively is the "Eye AF" mode that I mentioned in the handling section. This setting quickly detects a subject's face, then focuses on the subject's eyes. This is incredibly useful when taking portraits, and allows for much more flexible, faster compositions: simply compose the shot, then hold the custom function button to ensure critical focus on the subject's eyes.

Image Quality

Image quality is where this camera really shines. The 24-megapixel sensor offers outstanding detail and dynamic range. Unfortunately the RAW files seem to be compressed and are certainly no where near as good as the 14-bit NEFs produced by Nikon cameras. The result of this is some slight banding noise when bringing shadow detail up, even at base ISO. A full-frame equivalent, this camera is most certainly not. However, it's still the best APS-C sensor that I've encountered (although most likely not as good as the D7100, which I have yet to try). In any case, see the images below for real-world examples. Feel free to click-through to view them in higher resolutions on Flickr.

San Francisco, CA (Sony A6000 + 16-70mm f/4 OSS)

Leh, Ladakh (Sony A6000 + 16-70mm f/4 OSS)

Khardung-La, Ladakh, India (Sony A6000 + 16-70mm f/4 OSS)

Stakna Gompa, Ladakh, India (Sony A6000 + 16-70mm f/4 OSS)

The Chaos of Old Delhi, India (Sony A6000 + 16-70mm f/4 OSS)

Blue City, Jodhpur, India (Sony A6000 + 16-70mm f/4 OSS)
The Taj Mahal, India (Sony A6000 + 16-70mm f/4 OSS)

The Himalayas (Sony A6000 + 16-70mm f/4 OSS)

Ecosystem

The Sony E-mount ecosystem is worth discussing here, as buying into any interchangeable-lens camera means buying into an ecosystem of lenses. Two things really stand-out about the E-mount ecosystem: lack of lenses, and high prices. While the A6000 itself is an incredible bargain, the same unfortunately cannot be said about some E-mount lenses. My favorite all-around E-mount lens, the 16-70mm f/4 OSS, comes in at $1000, which is very expensive given its parameters. It's a superb lens, and offers outstanding image quality with excellent range in a small package, but it's priced higher than comparable full-frame lenses made by Nikon and Canon. The 24mm f/1.8, a fast 35mm equivalent, is priced at an outrageous $1000, which is $100 more than Sigma's superb 35mm f/1.4 for full-frame.

Fortunately, most of the available E-mount lenses are quite good (excepting the kit lenses like the 16-50mm), but the selection is fairly mediocre. For example, I want to use the A6000 for underwater work, but the only macro lens available is a 30mm f/3.5, which is both too slow and too wide for wildlife macro work. Where is the proper 90mm f/2.8 macro? It really seems like Sony has focused on consumer-grade lenses, and are only now starting to cater to more advanced photographers. Fortunately a few other manufacturers are also making lenses for the E-mount system, and most of them are very good. One notable bargain is the Rokinon/Samyang 12mm f/2.0, which is supremely sharp across the frame, even at f/2!

The Milky Way Above Tahoe (Sony A6000 + Rokinon 12mm f/2.0)

Leh, Ladakh, India (Sony A6000 + Rokinon 12mm f/2.0)

Conclusion

For me, the A6000 represents an ideal compromise. It offers superb image quality in a small package, and that's what makes it such an outstanding little travel camera. Despite all of my gripes above, this is really the first affordable mirrorless camera that delivers enough image quality that I don't feel guilty leaving the D800 behind. In fact, for many longer trips, I will often choose the A6000 over my D800 because of the size and weight advantage. To illustrate the difference, the complete A6000 kit that you see in the photo above (camera, plus four lenses: 16-70mm f/4, 35mm f/1.8, 12mm f/2.0, and 20mm f/2.8) weighs less than a D800 + 24-120mm f/4 VR combo.

For many readers like myself, I think the A6000 will make an ideal second system, perfectly complementing a large full-frame setup, and filling the need for a light travel kit. For others who are newer to photography, I would certainly recommend investigating the A6000 as an excellent alternative to the standard APS-C DSLRs offered by both Nikon and Canon - just be weary of the fairly barren and expensive lens ecosystem that you're buying into. It pays to do your due diligence here, and to be certain that any lenses you might want do exist.

Pros

  • Superb sensor, delivering top-level image quality in the APS-C category.
  • Fast, accurate autofocus that works surprisingly well in very low light.
  • Incredible value: top-of-class image quality with entry-level pricing.
  • Small size and weight: perfect for traveling.

Cons

  • Immature lens ecosystem with abnormally high prices and poor selection.
  • Very slow startup time.
  • Abysmal battery life: ~300 shots per charge.
  • Doesn't ship with a separate battery-only charger.
  • A few "prosumer" features like a front control-dial and weather-sealing would be nice.
  • RAW files don't seem very RAW - some compression and slight banding when recovering shadows.
Saturday
May312014

The Fujifilm X-E2: a Landscape Photographer's Perspective

The Fujifilm X-E2: Handsome Indeed

The Fuji X-series of cameras have been some of the most discussed and reviewed cameras of the last two years. Fuji appear to have created a very successful formula that excites both amateur a professional photographers alike: good image quality in a small, reasonably-priced package that has intuitive manual controls. Combine this with a great lens lineup and a solid history of adding features via firmware updates, and one can see why they have become so popular. It's no secret that I shoot primarily with Nikon gear, but I'm certainly not the type to become attached to a particular brand when a better tool for the job exists. Since my Nikon setup is rather large and ungainly to travel with, I decided to give the Fuji X-E2 a try to see if it has what I need in a travel camera.

Before we begin, a quick note: I tested the X-E2 with the recently-released 2.0 firmware update which added significant electronic viewfinder (EVF) and autofocus (AF) improvements. Additionally, this is not intended to be an exhaustive review, but more of a short collection of my thoughts about the camera. 

Handling

The X-E2 is a handsome little thing: the perfect size and weight for travel, and with the MHG-XE accessory grip, the camera fits perfectly in my hand, and has a solid, well-built feel. Fuji did very well with the control layout, adding manual switches wherever possible instead of slow-to-access menu items. I'm a big fan of the manual shutter speed dial up top, the AF-mode selection switch, and the aperture selection dial that is on most Fuji lenses. The software menus are fairly well-thought-out; I was able to get used to them very quickly, so no complaints there. This was the first camera with an EVF that I've used for any extended period of time, and I was pleasantly surprised by the EVF resolution: it's very good! The EVF refresh rate is also rather good (the 2.0 firmware update greatly improved this) - there's a barely-noticeable delay between what happens in real-life, and what you see in the EVF.

Unfortunately, that's where my praise for the handling aspects must end. The camera is very slow to start-up, and certain functions can't be accessed until a few seconds after startup. The ISO button, for example, doesn't work until 2-3 seconds after turning the camera on, which resulted in one missed shot for me. If the EVF is in eye-sensor mode, it's very slow to activate shortly after turning the camera on. The process would often go something like this for me: turn the camera on whilst bringing the EVF to my eye, and then wait 3-4 seconds for the EVF to activate. To me, this delay was unacceptable. The default EVF mode switches between the EVF and rear LCD based on an eye sensor, but three other modes are available: EVF only (always on), rear LCD only, or EVF only activated by the eye sensor. I think the camera could use one more mode: DLSR emulation, where the EVF is used to compose and take photos, and the rear LCD is used for photo playback and menu access (and remains off otherwise). The addition of this new mode, along with much faster EVF response/activation time after startup, would make the camera much more usable, and would eliminate the sluggish feel that it currently has.

Autofocus

The AF is fast and accurate in good light. It's slightly slower, and noticeably less-accurate in poor light. The 2.0 firmware greatly improved AF performance, but it's certainly not up to DSLR standards yet, and it's not even close to DSLR standards when tracking moving subjects. Despite this, it's quite good for a mirrorless camera, and certainly usable for a travel camera.

Image Quality

I will go ahead and say it up front: the X-E2 image quality is very disappointing. The X-trans sensor has good noise characteristics and delivers great dynamic range in RAW, but unfortunately this comes with a great loss of detail. Some of this detail loss is due to the RAW de-mosaicing algorithms in Lightroom (I'm using 5.4), which seem to give images a strange, painting-like rendering. However, some detail loss just seems to be a characteristic of the strange pixel arrangement that the X-trans sensor has, since some artifacts and detail-loss are still visible in the JPEGs produced in-camera. The strange, painterly effect is most noticeable when taking photos of fine detail, like vegetation, and ultimately is unacceptable for a landscape photographer like myself. Some photographers seem to be getting better results by converting RAW files using CaptureOne, but I'm stubborn and refuse to completely change my workflow to make minimal image quality gains. Ultimately, I'd be much happier with a traditional bayer arrangement; noise is always correctable in post-processing, but lost detail is never recoverable.

To see an example of this strange X-trans rendering, click through the image below to view a full-sized version:

Sausalito, CA: Fuji X-E2, 18-55mm f/2.8-4. RAW converted in Lightroom 5.4. 18mm, 0.5s, f/8, ISO 200, OIS: off.

In the image below, you can see the X-trans de-mosaicing struggle with the fine detail of the bridge cables. There is also a strange color-cast around some of the cables, which looks a bit like chromatic aberration, but is not removed by Lightroom 5.4's correction algorithms. Click through to see the full-sized image:

San Francisco, CA: Fuji X-E2, 18-55mm f/2.8-4. RAW converted in Lightroom 5.4. 48mm, 5.3s, f/8, ISO 200, OIS: off.

Another with some of the strange painting-like rendering in the details of the boats. Despite this, I'm fairly happy with this image. Click through below to see the full-sized image:

Sausalito, CA: Fuji X-E2, 18-55mm f/2.8-4. RAW converted in Lightroom 5.4. 18mm, 1/280s, f/8, ISO 200.

There's quite a lot of detail-loss in the long-exposure below. Click through to see the full-sized image:

San Francisco, CA: Fuji X-E2, 18-55mm f/2.8-4. RAW converted in Lightroom 5.4. 18mm, 30s, f/8, ISO 200, OIS: off.

The next image, I'm very happy with, and would consider quite good. For some reason, the camera seems to fare better when taking portraits. Click through below to see the full-sized image:

Sausalito, CA: Fuji X-E2, 18-55mm f/2.8-4. RAW converted in Lightroom 5.4. 28mm, 1/240s, f/3.2, ISO 200.

Conclusion

The X-E2 is a pretty good little camera, albeit with a number of annoying handling nags. I would be willing to forgive some of the handling problems if the image quality were up-to-par for my landscape work, but ultimately the X-trans sensor is unacceptable for me. Sadly, my landscape work has turned me into an obsessive pixel-peeper: I demand good detail from my RAW files, and the X-E2 doesn't deliver in that regard. Even the JPEGs leave a lot to be desired. If you're as landscape-obsessed as I am, I don't recommend this camera for you. My Nikon D7000 from 2010, which also has a 16mp APS-C sensor, produces RAW files with much more detail than the X-E2. If, however, you're a more casual photographer and not as pixel-obsessed as I am, then you could be very happy with the X-E2. It delivers outstanding web-sized images, and could make a great travel companion for you!

If Fujifilm is listening, here's what I'd like from my next X-camera:

  1. Replace the X-trans sensor with one that has a traditional bayer pixel arrangement, like the excellent 24mp APS-C sensor used in Nikon and Sony cameras.
  2. Address some of the camera's slowness and handling issues, particularly the slow responsiveness just after turning it on.
  3. Add a DLSR EVF mode: compose and take photos using the EVF, playback and menu access using the rear LCD.

Those three fixes would make the X-system a perfect travel setup for me. Until then, I'm going to stay away from Fuji cameras, whilst yearning wistfully at their beautiful prime lens lineup and compact-size.

Pros

  • Size and weight: perfect for travel!
  • Manual control layout: I really like the manual shutter dial up top, and how the majority of lenses come with an aperture ring.
  • Fuji's lens lineup is outstanding, and is aimed perfectly towards enthusiasts and pros. Canon and Nikon could certainly take a hint here and add a number of fast primes to their APS-C lineups.
  • Excellent dynamic range and noise performance.
  • Produces beautiful web-sized images.

Cons

  • X-trans image quality leaves a lot to be desired: lots of detail loss due to X-trans de-mosaicing.
  • The EVF is slow to activate after turning the camera on: it takes 2-3 seconds for it to recognize that my eye is at the viewfinder after switching the camera on. This is incredibly frustrating, and makes the camera feel very sluggish.
  • The EVF needs one more mode: "DSLR emulation", where the EVF is used to compose and take photos, and the rear LCD is used for photo playback and menu access (and remains off otherwise).
  • The EVF doesn't adjust brightness automatically based on ambient light, and it's a bit too dark in very bright sunlight (even at its brightest setting).
  • The ISO menu can't be accessed for a few seconds after turning the camera on, which sometimes results in a missed shot.
  • IS.2, the secondary image stabilization mode, doesn't activate on shutter 1/2 press as described in the camera manual. Instead, it seems to activate during photo capture, which sometimes results in blurry photos since stabilization can take a short moment to properly "settle". IS.1, the default mode, leaves stabilization active constantly as long as the camera is on, but unfortunately this drains the battery much faster.
  • Spot metering doesn't use the selected AF point, and instead the center area is always utilized. This is very counter-intuitive to how every other camera meters in spot mode.
  • Long exposures cannot be stopped mid-exposure - not even by physically turning the power switch off. This is rather frustrating for a landscape photographer, since sometimes I start a long exposure by accident and need to end it quickly to change a setting and re-start.
  • Long exposure noise-reduction is a mystery. It doesn't actually take a second dark-frame exposure to subtract noise from the original.
  • AF isn't up to DSLR standards, particularly in low-light.
  • Exposure delay/self-timer mode not preserved when turning the camera off and on. I use the 2-second self-timer as an exposure delay for landscape photos, so I have to re-enable it each time after turning the camera back on.
  • Unable to change selected AF point without first pressing a different button. This extra step is an annoyance coming from a DSLR.
Thursday
Apr042013

Sigma 35mm f/1.4 A1 vs. Nikon 28mm f/1.8G

Sigma's brand new 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM A1, or Nikon's new-ish 28mm f/1.8G AF-S... which one is right for you?

These two prime lenses have similar focal-lengths, similar maximum apertures, and similar price-points. It's no wonder that I see them discussed and compared with each other on forums fairly often. Given $700-900 to spend on a fast, relatively-wide, prime lens, which do you get? First, let's take a look at a high-level specifications summary to get a feel for what they offer (clear winners highlighted in green):

To summarize: the Nikon is a bit wider, smaller, and lighter than the Sigma. It's also a bit slower (2/3rds of a stop), but it's a good deal less expensive as well.

Construction and Handling

The Sigma really outshines the Nikon in both construction and handling. When I first got my Nikon 28/1.8G, I was disappointed with the light, plastic feel of the lens. The focus ring feel light and cheap. It most certainly doesn't feel like a $700 prime lens should. Unlike the Nikon, Sigma uses a metal lens barrel with a very smooth, well-damped focus ring. It's also larger and heavier than the Nikon, which really give the Sigma a nice, high-quality feel. The flip-side of that is that the light weight and smaller size of the Nikon can certainly work to its advantage. I prefer to travel light, especially when hiking, where every single ounce really adds up. In that sort of situation, the Nikon would be my go-to lens.

Sigma 35mm f/1.4 A1 HSM DG

Focal Length

Focal lengths are tricky. What works perfectly for one photographer may feel completely wrong for another. To that effect, I've created two GIFs, below, which help to illustrate the difference in focal lengths. Please note that these comparisons are for the field-of-view on full-frame / FX cameras.

Focal Length Comparison: Sigma 35mm f/1.4 A1 vs. Nikon 28mm f/1.8G (16:9 crop)

Focal Length Comparison: Sigma 35mm f/1.4 A1 vs. Nikon 28mm f/1.8G

As you can see, the fields of view these lenses provide are actually quite similar. The Nikon may be slightly better suited towards landscape photos, and the Sigma might be a bit better suited for things like portraits and street photogoraphy. However, I like to challenge these sorts of assumptions, and I really think that either lens could be excellent for landscape, street, travel, and most other general types of photography - when placed in the right hands, of course. To give you an example, below is a landscape photo taken with the Sigma 35/1.4, and an environmental portrait taken with the Nikon 28/1.8.

Yosemite Falls (Sigma 35mm f/1.4 A1, landscape)

"Sailing, J24, Boston Harbor" (Nikon 28mm f/1.8G, environmental portrait)

Optical Quality

I don't have the right resources or knowledge to do a full optical assessment of both lenses. The general consensus across the web is that the Sigma is the new resolution benchmark to beat. From what I've seen, I have to agree. It's pretty astonishing in terms of center resolution and sharpness.

That said, the Nikon is nearly as good as the Sigma, and I have absolutely no complaints about its resolution or performance. If you're eager to look at some charts and numbers, the brilliant folks at Photozone.de have reviewed both lenes:

As you can see, the resolution numbers are quite similar. In terms of flare-resistance, both lenses performed very, very well during testing. I didn't have any issues with flare, even with the sun in the frame. It appears that Sigma's multi-coatings are beginning to rival Nikon's expensive "Nano-Crystal" coatings.

In short: both lenses are optically excellent.

Bokeh

I enjoy bokeh (out-of-focus blur) as much as the next guy, but I tend not to obsess over it. In this case, the Sigma wins out over the Nikon 28mm f/1.8G. This is simply due to the slightly longer focal-length and faster aperture, which just makes it more "bokeh-rific" than the Nikon (given the same subject at the same distance). Nevertheless, the Nikon's bokeh is pleasing and soft in certain situations, and about as strong as one might expect from any 28/1.8.

Autofocus

Both lenses feature fast, quiet, ultrasonic motors. I've encountered reports of the Nikon 28/1.8 having some focus-shift issues at different apertures (in-focus at f/1.8 may be out-of-focus at f/5.6). I've thoroughly tested my copy, and have had no such problems. There is some noticeable field curvature that one must be aware of, but that's expected of a moderately wide, fast lens. I didn't notice any field curvature with the Sigma.

As far as accuracy is concerned, both lenses are very accurate. Over the course of my week shooting with the Sigma, I only experienced one hiccup and missed-shot due to an AF problem. This was while using the extreme, center-bottom focus point. Some users have reported problems with the Sigma on the D800 when using the extreme outer focus points, but other than my one missed shot, I didn't have any issues. In fact, I also missed a shot in a similar situation with the Nikon during the same time period. Overall, I'd say that these lenses are about equal when it comes to AF performance and accuracy. Neither one is absolutely perfect, but they're not terrible either. In fact, they're both quite good.

Sample Images

I've been taking photos with the Nikon 28/1.8G for nearly a year now, so I've had time to amass a number of sample images that I'm very happy with. Unfortunately I only had the Sigma 35/1.4 for less than a week, since I rented it from the wonderful people over at LensRentals.com. Nevertheless, I managed to get a handful of images that I'm content to display.

"Port Tack, Boston Harbor" (Nikon 28mm f/1.8G)

"Sunset, Delicate Arch" (Nikon 28mm f/1.8G)

"Untitled" (Nikon 28mm f/1.8G)

"Wine Tasting, Napa" (Sigma 35mm f/1.4 A1)

"Summit Celebration" (Sigma 35mm f/1.4 A1)

"Tunnel View, Yosemite" (Sigma 35mm f/1.4 A1)

Summary & Conclusion

You really can't go wrong with either of these lenses. If cost, weight, and build quality are of negligible concern, then the decision could boil down to just one very subjective factor: focal-length. It really all comes down to the photographer's preference. Gary Winogrand famously used a 28mm lens for most of his street photography, but Henri Cartier-Bresson shot primarily with a 35mm.

For landscapes, I usually reach for a zoom (typically the 17-35/2.8 or 24-120/4) so that I can compose more precisely. For me, primes are more useful for travel, street, and portrait photography. Because of this, I find the slightly tighter focal length of the Sigma more appealing for general use. I also prefer the heavier and more solid construction of the Sigma over the Nikon. Conversely, I can see myself reaching for the Nikon when traveling light, like when hiking, where every ounce really counts. Other photographers might prefer working with primes for landscape photography, where the 28mm might be more appropriate than the 35mm.

If you're having a hard time deciding, I suggest renting these lenses from LensRentals.com before you choose. Or, you might try scotch-taping your zoom lens at each focal-length for a few days. It'll quickly become apparent which one you prefer.

Sigma 35/1.4 Pros

  • outstanding optical quality
  • 2/3rds of a stop faster than the Nikon
  • robust construction
  • nice, normal-wide field-of-view on FX
  • on DX it yields a "normal" 50mm equivalent field-of-view

Sigma 35/1.4 Cons

  • heavy
  • more expensive than the Nikon
  • no rear dust gasket/seal on mount

Nikon 28/1.8 Pros

  • outstanding optical quality
  • light and relatively compact design
  • nice, moderate-wide field-of-view on FX
  • less expensive than the Sigma
  • has rear dust gasket/seal on mout

Nikon 28/1.8 Cons

  • 2/3rds of a stop slower than the Sigma
  • cheap-feeling construction
  • on DX it yields a slightly strange 42mm field-of-view
Wednesday
Dec142011

Battle of the 300mm Zooms

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.

Vital Stats

Click for Full-Sized Stats Image

Size and Handling

From left to right: 55-200 VR, 55-300 VR, 70-300 VR, and 300mm f/4 AF.

Hoods extended:

A few handling notes:

  1. 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.
  2. The 55-300 VR grows a bit in size when focused at its minimum. Take a look at this image to see the difference.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Weight

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.

Autofocus

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:

Image Quality

70-300 VR: excellent pro-sumer level image quality. Good results wide-open, and even better when stopped-down.

70-300 VR @ 300mm, f/5.6 70-300 VR: @ 300mm f/8.0 70-300 VR @ 300mm, f/5.6 (close subject and bokeh)

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.

55-300 VR @ 300mm, f/5.6 55-300 VR @ 300mm, f/8.0 55-300 VR @ 300mm, f/5.6 (close subject and bokeh)

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.

300mm f/4 @ f/4 300mm f/4 @ f/5.6 300mm f/4 @ f/8.0 300mm f/4 @ f/4 (close subject and bokeh)

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.

55-200 VR @ f/5.6 55-200 VR @ f/8.0 55-200 VR @ f/5.6 (close subject and bokeh)

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.

70-300 VR: Jonathan Papelbon

70-300 VR: Hummingbird

70-300 VR: Jarno Trulli

70-300 VR: Meow

300mm f/4: Great Blue Heron

300mm f/4: Spring Has Sprung

300mm f/4: Why Hello There

55-200 VR: Harbor Seal

55-200 VR: Welcome to Portugal

55-200 VR: Cinematic Boston

Conclusion

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.