Nikon was one of the first camera manufacturers to design digital-specific lenses matched to the DX sensor size, but then seemed somewhat reluctant to produce a true budget standard ‘kit’ zoom, finally succumbing with its original 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 to accompany the launch of the D50 in April 2005. This lens was updated to a mark II version with the release of the D40 in November 2006, featuring a new external design and smoother zoom operation. Then barely a year later, the company announced a wholly new version, this time equipped with a vibration reduction (VR) unit to combat camera shake; a lens which has now been confirmed as the standard companion to the D60 SLR. This lens is clearly Nikon’s response to the widespread adoption of in-body stabilization systems by most other manufacturers (with the notable exception of Canon, whose own stabilized 18-55mm preceded Nikon’s by just a few months), and allows them to offer stabilized dSLR kits at budget prices.

The incorporation of VR technology allows photographers to take substantially sharper pictures at slower shutter speeds than previously possible, and according to Nikon’s own specifications, speeds up to three stops slower can be used before the image-degrading blur of camera shake becomes apparent. This should allow shooting in a wide range of low-light situations which would previously be impossible.

Changes compared to the non-VR version

As with Canon’s 18-55mm IS upgrade, there are rather more changes from the previous Nikon 18-55mm than at first meet the eye. The physical similarity between the lenses masks a multitude of differences; most notably the new lens has a more complex optical formula of 11 elements in 8 groups as compared to 7 elements in 5 groups, and interestingly the new lens loses the Extra-low Dispersion (ED) glass element of its predecessor. The use of ED elements allows superior correction of image aberrations in simpler lens constructions, and presumably Nikon consider the more complex design of the new lens renders their use superfluous.

Other changes include a modest increase in size, with about 3mm added to the diameter and 6mm to the length, and a 60g increase in weight. As seems to be the current fashion, the smooth black plastic of the old lens has been replaced by a new stippled matte black finish, which resembles magnesium alloy and matches the D60 body. Other differences include a larger rear lens element (20mm vs 15mm), an additional circular flare-cut diaphragm placed in front of the aperture assembly, and new ‘Super-Integrated Coatings’. Overall this newcomer is clearly a completely different beast to the old lens, and as the old 18-55mm had an unusually high reputation for image quality (for a kit lens at least), we will be interested to see if the new version maintains this standard.

Headline features

  • 27-82.5mm equivalent focal length range
  • Optical vibration reduction – 3 stops
  • F mount for Nikon DX dSLRS only

Angle of view

The pictures below illustrate the focal length range from wide to telephoto:

18mm (27mm equivalent) 55mm (82.5mm equivalent)

Nikon 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G AF-S VR DX specifications

Street price • US: $200
• UK: £180
Date introduced November 2007
Maximum format size DX
Focal length 18-55mm
35mm equivalent focal length (APS-C) 27-82.5mm
Diagonal angle of view (APS-C) 76° – 29°
Maximum aperture F3.5-5.6
Minimum aperture F22-36
Lens Construction • 11 elements / 8 groups
• 1 compound aspherical element
Number of diaphragm blades 7, rounded
Minimum focus 0.28m
Maximum magnification 0.31x
AF motor type Compact Silent Wave motor
Focus method Extending front element
Image stabilisation • 3 stops
• Single mode (with automatic panning detection)
Filter thread • 52mm
• Rotates on focus
Supplied accessories* • Front and rear caps
Optional accessories • LC-45 Hood (clip-on type)
• CL-0815 Case
Weight 265 g (9.3 oz)
Dimensions 73 mm diameter x 79.5 mm length
(2.9 x 3.1 in)
Lens Mount Nikon F only
Other Distance information output to camera body

* Supplied accessories may differ in each country or area

Design

The 18-55mm VR bears a distinct family resemblance to Nikon’s previous version of their kit lens, but feels somewhat better made (a perception which may be due in no small part to the increased weight). The entire external construction, including the lens mount, is made of plastic, but with a higher quality feel than some other kit lenses. The large zoom ring feels very smooth across the range; the only real let-downs are the tiny manual focus ring with its extraordinarily short travel, and the rotating front element which will annoy filter users.

On the camera

The lens is a particularly good match to the lightweight D40/D40x/D60 body series, and even feels well- balanced on the much more substantial D300 body. In everyday use the handling is perfectly acceptable, the main gripe being that manual focus doesn’t work very well at all.

Autofocus

This lens features a compact silent-wave motor for autofocus. This is pretty fast and quiet in most everyday situations, although not as refined as the SWM motors found in more expensive lenses such as the 18-200mm VR. The manual focusing ring rotates on autofocus, and Nikon warn against moving it accidentally with the lens set to AF, to avoid damaging the motor. A direct effect of this design is that focus can’t be tweaked manually with the lens set to AF.

Focus speed and accuracy is dependent upon a number of variables, including the camera body used, subject contrast, and light levels (Nikon appear to ‘gear down’ focusing speed in low light for greater accuracy). The lens is fast and accurate in most everyday use, and continues to work well even in low light levels.

Lens body elements

The lens uses Nikon’s venerable F mount, and communicates with the body electronically via the contact pins. Control of the aperture is mechanical, using a metal lever. The lens mounts by aligning the white dot with that on the body and twisting anticlockwise. Like many lightweight kit lenses, the mount is plastic, but should be perfectly durable in normal non-professional use.
The filter thread is 52mm, and rotates on focusing. This can be a nuisance for photographers who like to use filters such as polarisers and neutral density gradients.

The HB-45 hood clips to the lens just ahead of the manual focus ring. However Nikon don’t provide it as standard, which is a shame; I’d argue hoods should always be a standard accessory.

The zoom ring rotates 85 degrees clockwise from wide to telephoto, with markings at 18, 24, 35, 45 and 55mm. The grip is a 23mm wide, and the zoom action one of the best in its class, being smooth and precise. The front element extension is impressively solid, with no lateral play at all.
The manual focus ring is just 4mm wide, and rotates a mere 45 degrees anticlockwise from infinity to 0.28m. It also rotates on autofocusing, so care must be taken not to grip it during use, to avoid damaging the motor.

The focusing action isn’t too bad, but the short throw makes precise manual focus difficult (especially noticeable at the 10x live view magnification we use for test charts). There’s no distance scale either.

Two small and positive switches on the side of the lens barrel control the focusing and VR systems. However there’s no distinction in shape or feel between the two.

Reported aperture vs focal length

Here we show the maximum and minimum apertures reported by the camera at the focal lengths marked on the lens barrel.

Focal length 18mm 24mm 35mm 45mm 55mm
Max aperture F3.5 F4.0 F5.0 F5.3 F5.6
Min aperture F22 F25 F32 F36 F36

Studio Tests

The 18-55mm VR performed pretty well in our studio tests, at least on a par with the other kit lenses we have tested. It perfoms best in the middle of its range, with a distinct drop in preformance towards the telephoto end, as is common with lenses of this type.

Sharpness An impressive performance at 35mm, where sharpness is high across much of the frame at F8, contrasts with a rather less desirable set of results at 55mm. Here the lens is soft across the most of the frame wide open, although it improves dramatically at F8-F11. As usual, stopping down beyond F11 causes the image to degrade due to diffraction, and anything below F16 starts to look distinctly soft.
Chromatic Aberration As usual, chromatic aberrations are highest at the wideangle settings (18mm and 24mm), and become essentially negligible at telephoto. Blue/yellow CA is particularly well-controlled; overall this is about as good a performance as you’ll get from a kit lens.
Falloff We consider falloff to start becoming a potential problem when the corner illumination falls more than 1 stop below the centre. The 18-55 VR performs quite well here, with falloff only likely to be an issue wide open at 18mm and 24mm, and disappearing on closing the aperture one stop.
Distortion As usual distortion is most pronounced at wideangle, with a rather pronounced 2.2% barrel at 18mm. The observed distortion pattern is relatively simple, with little recorrection towards the corners, so it should be reasonably easy to correct in software if desired. The lens is almost perfectly rectilinear at 35mm, and switches to mild pincushion at longer focal lengths.

Macro Focus

A really good showing from the Nikon kit lens here, with a measured magnification of 0.37x. This is achieved at a focus distance of about 25cm, giving a working distance of slightly over 11 cm between the front lens element and subject.

Image quality is pretty good too; results are sharp in the centre even wide open, and improve further on stopping down to F8, with the corners not far behind. There’s essentially no distortion or chromatic aberration either. Very impressive.

Macro – 63 x 42 mm coverage
Distortion: negligible
Corner softness: Minimal
Focal length: 55mm (82.5 mm equiv)

Specific image quality issues

As always, our studio tests are backed up by taking hundreds of photographs with the lens across a range of subjects, and examining them in detail. This allows us to confirm our studio observations, and identify any other issues which don’t show up in the tests.

Flare

It’s a kit lens, and the 18-55mm VR is therefore rather prone to flare in bright light, with the shallow hood unlikely to help much especially at longer focal lengths. The lens performs quite well when the sun is actually within the frame, showing an overall loss of contrast plus a few coloured flare patches even stopped right down to F16. Here the 7-bladed aperture gives 14-point ‘starburst’ patterns, which some people apparently value quite highly.

The greatest problem, however, comes from strong back or sidelit conditions, with the sun shining directly onto the front element but outside the frame itself. Unfortunately the 18-55mm VR handles these situations particularly badly, especially at the telephoto end where almost half the frame can become covered with multi-coloured blotches of flare. And these aren’t the kind of pretty patterns which Adobe’s programmers have tried so hard to mimic with the ‘Lens Flare’ filter, but instead downright ugly and destructive of anything which was supposed to be in the picture.

I’d suggest the best option with this lens would be to buy a multi-angle acrew-in rubber hood which can be adjusted to provide a deeper shade when shooting at 55mm; this can cure flare problems almost completely.

18mm F16, sun in corner of frame 55mm F8, strong sidelight

Background blur (‘bokeh’)

One genuinely desirable, but difficult to measure aspect of a lens’s performance is an ability to deliver smoothly blurred out-of-focus regions when trying to isolate a subject from the background, generally when using a long focal length and large aperture. This lens’s 55mm F5.6 setting scarcely counts as either, so genuinely blurred backgrounds aren’t terribly easy to obtain.

When defocused backgrounds do appear, they aren’t all that smooth either, showing harsh sharp edges to specular highlights. To be fair though, this is pretty typical of this type of lens, and one of the reasons true macro lenses aren’t cheap.

b a
100% crop 55mm F5.6

Vibration Reduction

Nikon claim that the 18-55mm’s Vibration Reduction system allows handholding at shutter speeds three stops slower than normal when shooting at 55mm focal length, and real-world shooting suggests that this is a pretty reasonable estimate. The VR unit is near-silent in operation, with just-audible clicks as the VR unit unlocks and locks at the start and end of operation.

We tested the VR system at both the long and short ends of the zoom range in our standard studio test. We take 10 shots at each shutter speed and visually rate them for sharpness. Shots considered ‘sharp’ have no visible blur at the pixel level, and are therefore suitable for viewing or printing at the largest sizes, whereas files with ‘mild blur’ are only slightly soft, and perfectly usable for all but the most critical applications. With the 18-55mm’s equivalent focal length range of 28-82.5mm, we’d normally expect to be able to get good results handheld without image stabilisation at 1/50 sec at wideangle, and 1/100 sec at telephoto. The subject distance for these tests was approximately 2.5m.

18mm VR OFF 55mm VR OFF
18mm VR ON 55mm VR ON

These results demonstrate that you no longer need to pay an arm and a leg for a lens with an effective VR system for your Nikon dSLR. We see an approximate 2 stop improvement in ‘hand-holdability’ at wide angle, with a 90% success rate of critically sharp shots at 1/13 sec when VR is turned on, as opposed to 1/50sec without. There’s even a 50% chance of getting a usable shot at shutter speeds as low as 1/3 sec, which is essentially impossible handheld without stabilisation.

At the telephoto end results are similar, with the VR again offering about 2 stops of stabilisation, and giving a good chance of getting usable results at shutter speeds as low as 1/13 sec. It’s also worth noting that this performance is essentially identical to that which we obtained from the much more expensive Nikon 18-200mm VR, showing that no corners have been cut given the relatively low cost of the 18-55mm VR.

Conclusion – Pros

  • Decent optical quality
  • Effective vibration reduction system
  • Very good macro performance

Conclusion – Cons

  • All-plastic construction
  • Rotating front element annoying for filter users
  • Somewhat susceptible to flare, with little help from near-useless lens hood
  • Short travel of focus ring makes critical manual focus rather tricky

Overall conclusion

Tne 18-55mm 1:3.5-5.6G AF-S VR is certainly a worthy upgrade to Nikon’s already well-regarded kit lens. The addition of the Vibration Reduction system, which seems equally capable as those previously only available on more expensive lenses such as the 18-200mm VR, greatly extends shooting flexibility into low-light situations which would previously have required a faster lens or tripod. And the optics are at least as good as before, meaning you’ll get few nasty surprises when those precious images are viewed up-close on the computor monitor.

Indeed overall there’s little to criticise about this lens given its entry-level price point, and the few faults it does possess are scarcely unique in its class. It’s distinctly susceptible to flare in strongly backlit situations, so you need to be careful when pointing the camera in even the general direction of the sun; unfortunately the optional matched lens hood will only help a little here, and the rotating front element design precludes the use of a more effective petal-type hood. And the vestigial manual focus ring is only just about functional, which is annoying in those situations where autofocus fails to hit the desired mark. Like Canon, Nikon could learn a thing or two from Pentax and Olympus about doing these simple things properly.

But when all is said and done, it can’t be denied that with this new VR version of the 18-55mm, Nikon have taken what was already a good lens and made it even better; it can’t be overstated how useful VR can be in expanding photographic possibilities when using a camera handheld. Of course it won’t help when you really need high shutter speeds to avoid motion blur, so don’t expect it to perform miracles for indoor available-light people pictures, but it will help when you want to shoot in low light conditions and can tolerate slow shutter speeds. Indeed with the excellent high-ISO capabilities of modern dSLRS, VR will allow you to keep shooting in the fading light well past sunset.

So in conclusion, this is a small, lightweight and versatile lens, which deserves a place in every DX-shooter’s bag, and earns a recommendation for sure.

Detail Rating (out of 10)
Build quality 6.5
Ergonomics & handling 6.5
Features 7
Image quality 7.5
Value 9

Recommended

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