Gear Review: Nikon DX 18-300mm lens comparisons

Nikon DX 18-300mm Lenses Compared

18-300mm f/3.5-5.6 VR DX zoom Nikkor versus 18-300mm f/3.5-6.3 VR DX zoom Nikkor

Nikon has two 18-300mm DX zooms. How do they compare, and which is right for you?
Nikon 18-300mm lenses
Nikon’s 18-300mm DX lenses. Left: 18-300mm f/3.5-6.3 AFS G DX. Right: 18-300mm f/3.5-5.6 AFS G DX lens

All in-one zoom lenses have come a long way in terms of quality and focal length range. While many enthusiasts and pros tend to shy away from all in-one lenses in favor of higher-performance glass, there are certainly times when the “superzoom” lens is ideal. For me, superzoom lenses are perfect when you’re traveling and you don’t want to carry multiple lenses. Superzoom lenses are also perfect for street photography or photo walks, where you never know what kind of subject you might encounter.

Nikon offers two 18-300mm zoom lenses for their DX (APS-C) format cameras. I had the brief opportunity to compare them and report my results.

Specifications

A quick comparison of specs highlights the main differences between the two versions of these Nikon lenses.

Nikon 18-300mm lens review
Comparing the specifications of two Nikon 18-300mm DX zoom lenses.

Reading the specifications above, it’s readily apparent that the 18-300mm f/3.5-5.6 version of this lens is designed with enthusiasts in mind. Not only is it 1/3 f-stop faster (f/5.6 vs. f/6.3), but it has a more complex optical formula, more aperture blades (for improved bokeh), manual focus override, and two different VR modes. In addition, the f/5.6 version of this lens includes a case and bayonet lens hood (offered at additional cost with the f/6.3 version).

The other obvious difference is size and weight. The 18-300mm f/3.5-5.6 is over a half pound heavier, and it uses 77mm filters, which are typically more expensive than the 67mm filters the f/6.3 version of this lens uses. It’s also interesting to note that the f/5.6 version includes an internal focusing scale. The f/6.3 version has no focusing scale on the lens barrel.

Performance

The obvious question then, is how well do these two lenses compare in terms of optical performance? I mounted both lenses on my Nikon D850 to try them out, as I don’t currently own a DX Nikon DSLR.

My first observation was that neither of these lenses can be used reliably on a full-frame (FX) Nikon DSLR. The image circle is just too small at any focal length. That’s ok, as these lenses were both designed for use with DX format Nikon DSLRs. To use these lenses on an FX format Nikon, all you need to do is enable the DX crop mode on your camera.

Nikon 18-300mm lenses
The image circle from both 18-300mm Nikkors does not cover the full 35mm frame, as they are designed for APS-C format cameras.

I made a brief comparison of images captured with both lenses across the focal length range, and the difference in optical quality was indeed noticeable. At every focal length I tested, the f/5.6 version of this lens was clearly sharper and had better contrast and bokeh than the f/6.3 version. This difference was particularly noticeable at the longer focal lengths.

Nikon 18-300mm lenses
1:1 crops of images captured at 300mm with the Nikon 18-300mm lenses. At top: 18-300mm f/3.5-5.6. Below: 18-300mm f/3.5-6.3.

The image pair above shows 1:1 crops of images captured with each lens on my Nikon D850. Both images were captured as RAW and processed using identical sharpening settings in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom Classic CC. The difference in clarity and detail between these lenses is fairly striking. I also double-checked the focus accuracy of the f/6.3 lens by performing AF Fine-Tuning with it on my D850. The results I saw were consistent.

Conclusions

Nikon offers two DX “super-zoom” lenses that cover the 18-300mm range. That’s roughly the equivalent of a 27-450mm lens on a 35mm (FX) camera. This huge range is incredibly versatile for photographers who are traveling light and don’t wish to carry (or change) multiple lenses in the field. Both of these lenses offer image stabilization (VR), relatively fast internal focusing, and the use of Nikon’s extra low-dispersion (ED) glass.

Despite the obvious optical performance differences described above, both of these lenses would be perfectly suitable for the casual photographer. However, enthusiasts who are willing to spend a little more and carry around a slightly heavier lens will be rewarded with a far better lens overall if they purchase the f/5.6 variant of this zoom Nikkor lens, which currently lists for $997 (check current price).

On the other hand, if you’re on a tight budget, or shopping for a beginner, the 18-300mm f/3.5-6.3 AFS G DX VR zoom Nikkor provides a decent lens in a fairly lightweight package and at a significantly lower price that the f/5.6 version. The Nikon AF-S DX 18-300mm f//3.5-6.3 ED VR lens currently runs about $700 (check price). If you get this lens, I’d definitely recommend adding the Nikon HB-39 lens hood, too.

Disclaimer: Special thanks to B&H Photo for loaning me a test copy of the Nikon AF-S DX 18-300mm f/3.5-6.3 VR zoom lens.

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