180mm f/2.8 Nikkor-P v. 55-200VR

180mm f/2.8 P

The 55-200VR was one of the first lenses I bought, aside from the kit lens that came with my camera. It’s a very, very common second lens for Nikon DSLR buyers — reasonably priced, universally respected by reviewers, and an obvious compliment to the 18-55 kit lens. For D40 users, it’s part of the trifecta of first lenses — 18-55, 55-200VR, and 50mm f/1.8 AF-D.

I was madly in love with my 55-200 for a while. Understandable, because it covers some of my favorite focal lengths. When I’m looking for photographic subjects, the things that catch my eye are usually details occupying a fairly small part of my field of view. So, when I first got the 55-200, there was a long honeymoon period during which it never left my camera.

But I quickly came to discover that the lens had some serious limitations. The most glaring is in an application which, to be fair, was a bit of a stretch for this lens — birds. The 55-200VR isn’t fast enough or long enough to be really useful for birding work, and it really wasn’t reasonable of me to expect it to do so. Nonetheless, this was a frustration, and the slow speed of the 55-200 was often an impediment when shooting other, less mobile objects as well.

This is why I first got interested in manual focus lenses — first a 135mm f2.8 Q, then the same lens with a 2x teleconverter, than a 300mm f/4.5, became my go-to lenses for street photography and for birding. I’m very fond of both those lenses, but it always seemed like 135mm wasn’t quite enough reach, and (except for birds) 300mm was almost always too much.

One stays, one goes

Then I got a 180mm f/2.8 P — not the legendary ED AIS version of this lens, or the equally awesome current-gen AF version; this is the old non-multicoated, no-ED version. So, it’s relatively humble. It cost me less than $80, and it makes me really wish I had just skipped the 55-200 “stage” of my photographic development. : )

I love the speed of the 180, I love the way it feels in the hand (just enough heft for stability without heaviness), and I love its buttery-smooth focus ring dampening. I particularly love the control that focus ring gives me; when paired with many, many hours of practice, it gives me a far superior solution for tracking motion. (Superior to the D40’s AF system, anyway. If I could afford a D300 or D3, that would be a different story.)

I always assumed that the lens was limited by its age. It doesn’t have modern coatings, let alone ED glass. It’s old, it’s been used pretty thoroughly, and it lacks amenities like autofocus and VR. So I initially assumed that I was working with a lens that was probably optically inferior to my 55-200VR — I figured I was using it only for its faster aperture and better handling, not for its image quality.

Buzz, buzz

But I started thinking about it more and more after reading some discussions of the 55-200 and of VR in general, and after hearing a professional photographer of many decades waxing eloquent about his 18-55 and 55-200 lenses. I decided maybe I ought to see what I was and was not giving up with the 180 — so I did some totally unscientific comparisons.

I discussed my findings in the D40/x/D60 group on flickr. I’ve also got the most recent round of test shots in a set here.

I was surprised at how well the 180mm lens fared. Or, conversely, at how poorely the 55-200VR did.

  • The 55-200 is surprisingly soft at the long end, although it’s nearly as sharp as the 180 when shooting at f/5.6 at the same focal length.
  • The VR isn’t useless, but the level of compensation it provides is just enough to make up for the intrinsically less stable nature of the light-weight plastic lens.
  • That lightness also makes the 55-200 far more sensitive to vibration and/or mirror slap, even when shooting on a tripod.
  • The one area where the 55-200 really demonstrates a superiority is in contrast at smaller apertures (i.e., f/8 or f/11 or so).
The Somnambulist

Since in the case of either of these lenses, I’m mostly doing hand-held available-light shooting, the net zero benefit of VR and the need to stop down to see a real performance benefit make the 55-200 a bit frustrating for me. Of course, a more pro-quality lens with second-gen VR would probably have no problem outperforming my humble 180 (although maybe not its ED cousins), but those lenses are likely to cost ten times as much — if not more still.

All this means that the 180mm f/2.8 is a much, much better choice for someone in my situation — looking for a somewhat long lens suitable for handheld, available-light shooting, and willing to manually focus and work without metering. And one of the nice things about doing focus and exposure manually is that I can improve my performance with practice and thoughtfulness. When I rely on my lenses and camera for that, I need to pay money when I need to improve performance.

The 180 is particularly appealing in the digital context, because so it’s so easy to deal with color and contrast in post-processing. The 55-200 might actually be more useful for film shooting — because color and contrast control in analog printing is a whole lot more trouble than color and contrast control in Capture NX. Which is ironic, since it’s a DX lens.

I’m seriously considering selling the 55-200 — I hold back because I may at some point want a cheap portrait lens in conjunction with TTL flash — not totally likely, given my feelings about portraits, flash, slow lenses, but I’d kick myself if I sold today the piece of equipment I wind up really needing tomorrow… : )

3 Responses to “180mm f/2.8 Nikkor-P v. 55-200VR”

  1. pat Says:

    Thanks for posting this commentary. I have been happy with my 55-200 in outdoor settings with good light, but I’m loving my other primes and you’re really tempting me with this one!


  2. pat Says:

    Also, don’t sell it… you can’t get enough for that lens to make it worthwhile. Leave it on the shelf and someday you might need/want it for something.

  3. paulmarculescu Says:

    This post came as a revelation to me. Following your description of the experience you had with the 55-200mm, I may say that I’m heading towards the end of the honeymoon period with this lens. Even though I keep it on my camera most of the times (I only have another lens, the kit one), I’m starting to feel frustrated by exactly the issues you listed.

    My knowledge in lenses is minimal and your blog and also your posts in the D40/D40x group on flickr are very good personal inputs. So, reading this, I decided that I want the 180mm f/2.8 P at the price you found it. I’ll do my best in finding it around here (I live in Stockholm).

    Thanks for sharing this and please keep up the blog. Your experience is a valuable source of inspiration.

    Ah, I was about to forget, may I suggest to change the color/decoration of the links on the website, since they don’t stand out from the text and can be easily missed.