Review: Nikon 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR AF-S Lens

Sometimes it just isn’t practical to carry a big bag o’ gear, or to change lenses in the middle of what you’re doing. Sometimes, too, there are the shots you miss because you have your short zoom on your camera, when you needed something with more reach (or vice-versa). I didn’t used to take the idea of an all-in-one lens seriously, but after missing several shots on vacation last fall because I had the wrong lens on the camera,* I started having second thoughts. Long story short (who am I kidding, it’s only the first paragraph), I ended up some time later with the Nikon 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR AF-S lens. I won’t belabor the thought process that led to this lens and not some other; point is, after doing my homework, here’s what I bought, and here’s the review of it.

First, let’s get some specs out of the way: ED coated glass does a good job of holding down lens flare and chromatic aberration. The lens doesn’t distort badly at any point in the zoom range. The VR II image stabilization works well, though I’m skeptical of Nikon’s claim that you can shoot up to four stops slower than you’d be able to without it. AF is generally quick and accurate, except in low light; here, similar to the 70-300, it tends to hunt a little. The 28-300 comes with a zoom lock switch, which is handy to keep the lens barrel from poking out during transport. The lens has a rounded 9-blade diaphragm, and while the bokeh wasn’t as pleasing as it’d be on a prime, it’s nice nonetheless. At 820g (1 lb. 13 oz.), it weighs slightly more than the 70-300, but you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference without actually putting them on a scale. The Nikon 28-300mm takes 77mm filters.

Now the more subjective part. I won’t bother to compare this lens to the primes in my kit. There’s no point in making the comparison, as they’re not meant for the same things. If I’m going to slap a 28mm or 50mm on my camera, I’m immediately making a concession that I’m going to have to change the way I’m shooting. Sometimes that means zooming with your feet, and other times it means being able to shoot in lower light than usual thanks to a brighter aperture. The 28-300 would not be my go-to lens in low light, or for macro photography, for instance.

That doesn’t mean that I won’t compare it to the other zooms in my kit. I tested the 28-300, which is a full-frame lens, on the D7000, which is a crop sensor camera. Its zoom range, accounting for the crop factor, would be 42-450, at least on paper. In practice, well, that’s something else again. The 28mm on the wide end is, at least for me, acceptably wide most of the time. It’s nothing that can’t be remedied by a step or two back (though I was recently glad when someone asked me to hang onto their 18-55mm, because without it I’d have either missed one shot I wanted, or fallen into the river trying to get it). At the long end, that 300mm isn’t quite 300mm. The camera’s EXIF data says it is, but if I take the same shot with the 28-300 and with my 70-300 with both at 300mm, the 70-300 is zoomed noticeably closer. The 28-300 is longer than 200mm by a good amount, but isn’t quite 300mm.**

The 28-300 is also softer than the other lenses in my kit, not terribly, but noticeably so. It’s helpful to stop the lens down (as with many lenses, the sweet spot on this one’s in the f/8-f/11 range), but not always practical to do so; f/8 won’t give you nearly enough light in some situations, and f/11 not nearly enough depth of field. If sharpness is critical, pack a different lens. While it’s not as soft as a serving of mashed potatoes (and I wasn’t expecting the same sharpness or minimum focusing distance that I’d get from a macro), it ain’t the sharpest knife in the drawer.

I’m aware that up to this point, it probably sounds like I’m a bit “iffy” on this lens. I hasten to point out that I actually like it. It’s been useful in a number of settings, whether I just didn’t feel like packing the rest of my kit, or because I was in an area (a park, for instance) where it was useful to be able to snap landscapes and animals without having to pause and fiddle with lenses.***

The bottom line is that it’s silly to expect a lens to do something that it wasn’t designed to do, much less to do it well. And that brings us to the verdict: Whether or not you like this lens is going to depend on your expectations. Taken for what it is, this is a good lens. It does what it was designed to do — to give you versatility when you’d like to travel light, or are shooting in situations where the time taken to change lenses could lead to lost shots — and within the optical limitations that come with any all-in-one, it’s a good lens. Taken on its own terms, the Nikon 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR AF-S is a competent performer that should be viewed as a supplement for, rather than replacement of, the other lenses in your kit. This isn’t pro glass, but it’s not meant to be; as always, choose the best tool for the job, whatever you’re shooting.

*Not counting the ones where I wasn’t paying attention to the right spot at the right time, or where my reflexes were just a bit too slow… can’t blame the camera or the lens for those.

**Absent the kind of fancy gear used to test lenses, I can’t give you precise numbers. However, I also use my lenses in real-life situations rather than using them to shoot brick walls and test charts, so…

***No small concern when you’re shooting someplace that’s damp, dusty, or buggy, by the way.

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