The gold stan­dard

Matthew Richards searches out the best up­grades for stan­dard zoom kit lenses

NPhoto - - Gear Zone -

Splash out on a Nikon DSLR and you gen­er­ally get the op­tion of buy­ing a com­plete kit that comes with a stan­dard zoom lens. There’s a lot to be said for the likes of the AF-S DX 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR II for DX (APS-C) for­mat cam­eras and the AF-S 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5G ED VR for FX (full-frame) bod­ies. They’re rea­son­ably com­pact and light­weight – es­pe­cially the 18-55mm, with its re­tractable de­sign – and they de­liver good im­age qual­ity with de­cent all-round per­for­mance. In­deed, you can buy these DX and FX-for­mat lenses separately for around £190/$245 and £440/$500 re­spec­tively. How­ever, you could buy bet­ter.

One thing that all ‘kit’ lenses tend to lack is a rel­a­tively fast aper­ture rat­ing that re­mains con­stant through­out the zoom range. The ad­van­tages

A stan­dard zoom with a con­stant f/2.8 aper­ture en­ables you to main­tain faster shut­ter speeds at any avail­able fo­cal length

are two-fold. Firstly, a stan­dard zoom with a con­stant f/2.8 aper­ture en­ables you to main­tain faster shut­ter speeds un­der dull light­ing con­di­tions, at any avail­able fo­cal length. This is typ­i­cally up to two stops faster than most kit lenses at the long end of the zoom range. You’ll also get more con­trol over depth of field, the wider aper­ture en­abling you to blur the back­ground more and bet­ter iso­late a close-up sub­ject in a com­po­si­tion. Fi­nally, an ex­tra bonus is that you can shoot in man­ual mode with­out wor­ry­ing that the wide-open aper­ture might change if you ad­just the zoom set­ting.

The down­side of lenses with wider aper­ture rat­ings is that they tend to be bulkier and heav­ier, which can be a prob­lem for travel pho­tog­ra­phy and pro­longed pe­ri­ods of hand­held shoot­ing. An­other is­sue is that the out­right zoom range can be com­par­a­tively lim­ited, es­pe­cially at the tele­photo end. Most of the lenses we’ve cho­sen for this group test, in both DX and FX cat­e­gories, aim to strike a com­pro­mise.

A cou­ple of the DX-for­mat lenses on test boost the zoom range, but have a vari­able aper­ture rat­ing, shrink­ing from f/2.8 to f/4 as you ex­tend the fo­cal length. This is the case with the Sigma 17-70mm and Nikon 16-80mm lenses, which give ‘ef­fec­tive’ zoom ranges of 25.5-105mm and 24-120mm re­spec­tively.

In the FX camp, the Nikon 24-120mm and, to a lesser ex­tent, the Sigma 24-105mm, big up the zoom range com­pared with the more con­ser­va­tive 24-70mm lenses. They re­tain a con­stant-aper­ture de­sign but, this time, the widest avail­able aper­ture is a nar­rower f/4 at all fo­cal lengths.

It’s a sign of the times that all of the lenses on test fea­ture op­ti­cal im­age sta­bi­liza­tion. Com­pet­ing sys­tems go by the name of VR (Vi­bra­tion Re­duc­tion) for Nikon, OS (Op­ti­cal Sta­bi­liza­tion) for Sigma and VC (Vi­bra­tion Com­pen­sa­tion) for Tam­ron. The aim is the same in all cases: to au­to­mat­i­cally de­tect and coun­ter­act vi­bra­tions that would oth­er­wise re­sult in a loss of sharp­ness from ‘cam­era shake’. It’s par­tic­u­larly use­ful for hand­held shoot­ing un­der dull light­ing con­di­tions, typ­i­cally en­abling you to shoot at shut­ter speeds of be­tween three and four stops slower be­fore cam­era shake be­comes a prob­lem.

In other re­spects, the lenses on test vary con­sid­er­ably in terms of build qual­ity, aut­o­fo­cus tech­nol­ogy and per­for­mance, as re­flected in the broad spread of prices. Let’s take a closer look at what each of the con­tenders have to of­fer.

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