For a while I owned the 18-135mm Nikon telephoto zoom, then the Nikon 18-200mm VR. The most interesting pictures with any zoom, are usually used either full wide or full telephoto. But 135mm or even 200mm is just too short to be exciting for telephoto. It’s too short to bring wildlife up close, even too short to get good sporting event shots. So, I sold these, and for the same price as one 18-135mm, I got both the 18-55mm above and the Nikon 70-300mm f/4-5.6G AF Nikkor. Indeed, for the price of the 18-200mm, I could get all three of the lenses I have in my kit now, with another 100mm in reach and full macro. You can never have enough reach though, so even the 300mm is not as good as it may sound…but anything longer is another $800.
Unfortunately, the 70-300mm G was a disappointment, being very soft at worst and mediocre even stopped down. (Read the full review of the 70-300mm G in our Cheap Nikon 300mm Zoom Lens Comparison). I have since replaced it with the Nikon 70-300mm f/4-5.6D ED AF Nikkor. The Nikon 70-300mm f/4-5.6D ED AF was the last “prosumer” 300mm zoom before the AF-S and VR era. Like most zooms in this category, best results with the Nikon 70-300mm f/4-5.6D ED AF past 200mm are achieved stop down a stop or two, but my copy seems pretty good even wide open. Certainly much better than the 70-300mm G. Optically, it’s on par with the newest 70-300mm VR, but lacks the VR and AF-S…and the price tag. It’s discontinued; a few new ones are still floating around at absurd prices, but’s readily available used for $200. It needs an on-camera focus motor.
Affordable Telephoto Alternatives
Nikon has a lot of options for telephoto zooms that reach to 300mm. Unfortunately, according to reviews, all of them do well up to 200mm but begin to weaken to varying degrees when wide open. This mostly mitigated by stopping down to f/8 or f/11. Since we have this focal length in the kit because we want that 300mm, this is less than ideal, but it takes $1000+ pro lenses for anything better. Note that only lenses designated “AF-S” will focus on cameras like the D40, D60, D3000 and D5000 series.
- I cannot recommend Nikon’s cheapest 300mm zoom, Nikon 70-300mm f/4-5.6G AF Nikkor. My copy was unacceptably soft. The price is tempting, though. You might be luckier in quality than me. This lens refurbished is $100, new less that $150. Note that you will need pin-drive focus on the camera.
- Nikon 75-300mm f/4-5.6 AF. This classic from the before the digital era is a good quality lens, but available for under $200 used. It’s the old style “push-pull” zoom. It requires a pin drive. It has a very solid feel, and is overall very sharp. Stop down to f/8 when you can, but even wide open it’s acceptable. I owned this one briefly, as an initial replacement for my poor 70-300mm G. I swapped it when I got a good price on the Nikon 70-300mm f/4-5.6D ED AF Nikkor, which is a little lighter, a little shorter when not zoomed, and to my eye very similar in image quality. Optically, there’s nothing wrong with the 75-300mm, and if you’ve got access to one for a good price, use it with confidence.
- Nikon 55-300mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR AF-S DX Nikkor $350 new. Focuses on any camera; the only DX in the group, so will not work properly on full-frame pro cameras. At these longer focal lengths vibration reduction really shines. If telephoto is your passion, this is the least expensive 300mm zoom with VR. It is a common kit lens, so it is easily found on used markets for good prices.
- Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G ED IF AF-S VR Nikkor $600 new, $450 refurbished, $375 used. Top of the line in the sub-$500 price range. Focuses on any camera. It is a full-frame FX, not a DX lens, so it will work on any Nikon camera. In these long focal lengths the VR really becomes useful. Because it is a popular lens, it is easily found on the used or refurbished market for reasonable prices. This is the lens I currently own. I happened to get a good deal on it due to a blemish that does not affect performance, otherwise I would still use the 70-300mm f/4-5.6D ED AF.
If you can do without the extra reach, the Nikon 55-200mm f/4-5.6G ED IF AF-S DX VR has vibration reduction and is less than $200 new, or about $150 used. It’s another high-quality sleeper that is included in retail kits, so they are inexpensive new and easily obtained used. On the other hand, while the various 300mm can be uncertain past 200mm unless stopped down, at least you have the 200mm to 300mm to work with. The first time you photograph any wild animal you’ll have the 55-200mm cranked out to 200mm and be crying for more. I certainly was with the 18-200mm I owned for a year. I’m inclined to upgrade to a better 70-300mm than move to the 55-200mm.
Of course, there is the almost-everything Nikon 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR AF-S Nikkor. But then we’d have $900 in one lens, still need something for macro, and would be unimpressed by the mere 28mm wide angle, especially on a DX camera.