What are the best basic/walk-around lenses for your Nikon digital SLR?


Back to my lens page
In working with every Nikon dSLR released since 2003, I've had a chance to own and use the basic "kit" lenses that are furnished with these cameras, plus other lenses that are useful as do-everything, walk-around lenses.  Here are my impressions of the key lenses.  You won't find any formal resolution testing here, just my honest evaluation after using each of these optics for my own photos. 
 
  • AF-S DX Nikkor 16-85mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR. I’ve listed this lens first because the new 16-85mm VR lens is, in fact, the zoom that would make the most sense as a kit lens for the D300, given the typical user of that more advanced camera. Owners of other DX-format (non-full-frame) Nikons can benefit from it, too. It's not cheap at about $600, which isn’t out of line for a lens primarily intended for a sophisticated camera. If you really want to use just a single lens with your camera, this one provides the best combination of focal lengths, image quality, and features. Its zoom range extends from a true wide angle (equivalent to a 24mm lens on a full-frame camera) to useful medium telephoto (about 128mm equivalent), and so can be used for everything from architecture to portraiture to sports. If you think vibration reduction is useful only with longer telephoto lenses, you may be surprised at how much it helps you hand-hold your D300 even at the widest focal lengths. The only disadvantages to this lens are its relatively slow speed (f/5.6) when you crank it out to the telephoto end, and that, as a DX lens, it can’t be used to its full potential on a full-frame camera you might buy in the future.
  • AF-S DX Zoom-Nikkor 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G ED II. This is the least expensive basic zoom Nikon offers (assuming it hasn't been discontinued), and suitable for entry-level cameras only if you’re really pinching pennies and plan to upgrade to better lenses in the near future. It's really intended for the amateur/entry-level dSLRs in the Nikon line, and you probably won’t be happy with the very limited focal length range. Image quality is fine.
  • AF-S DX Nikkor 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6G VR. This VR version of the 18-55 is a marginally better choice than the basic 18-55 optic, because the vibration reduction partially offsets the relatively slow maximum aperture of the lens at the telephoto position. I got one of these for my wife to use on her Nikon D60, as she tends to "punch" the shutter and really benefits from the VR feature. It can be mated with Nikon’s AF-S DX VR Zoom-Nikkor 55-200mm f/4-5.6G IF-ED to give you a two-lens VR pair that will handle everything from 18mm to 200mm, at a relatively low price. However, serious users may prefer a different lens line up for that range.
  • AF-S DX Zoom-Nikkor 18-70mm f/3.5-4.5G IF-ED. I love this lens! If you don’t plan on getting a longer zoom-range basic lens and can’t afford the 16-85 zoom, I highly recommend this aging, but impressive lens. Originally introduced as the kit lens for the venerable Nikon D70, the 18-70mm zoom quickly gained a reputation as a very sharp lens at a bargain price. It doesn’t provide a view that’s as long or as wide as the 16-85, but it's a half-stop faster at its maximum zoom position. You may have to hunt around to find one of these, but they are available for $250 or less and well worth it.  I use mine with my D70 that has been converted to full-time infrared use.
  • 18-105mm f/3.5-5.6G DX VR.  I've been using this lens, which was introduced as a kit lens for the Nikon D90, since I got my D90, and I am very impressed.  It is a perfect match for the D90: affordable, covering a decent range of focal lengths, and with VR.  It produces the equivalent of a 27 to 158mm range on an FX camera, so it offers moderate wide-angle to medium telephoto settings.  This lens beats the pants off the most popular alternative lenses, hands down.  It has a longer zoom range than the excellent 18-55mm VR kit lens, is more compact and less expensive than the useful, but flawed 18-200mm VR, and includes Vibration Reduction where the older 18-135mm Nikkor zoom did not. My most aggressive test?  I put this lens on a Nikon D60 and handed the combo to a rank neophyte who is known for "punching" the shutter release, despite my best efforts at instruction, and who ends up shooting at fairly low light levels quite frequently.  She loved it, and came back with a near-perfect set of images, with no visible camera shake even at 1/30th second and at 105mm.  Many D90 users will favor this lens over the 18-55/55-200mm zoom combination. Unless you're shooting field sports or wildlife, this lens covers most of what you need.  
  • AF-S DX Zoom-Nikkor 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6G IF-ED. This lens has been sold as a kit lens for intermediate amateur-level Nikons, and is being packaged with the D300 as well. While decent, it's really best suited for the crowd who buy one do-everything lens and then never purchase another. Available for less than $300, you won’t tie up a lot of money in this lens.  It's reasonably wide, but doesn't offer the telephoto reach more serious photographers demand.
  • AF-S DX VR Zoom-Nikkor 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G IF-ED. I had this lens for about three months, and decided it really didn’t meet my needs. It was introduced as an ideal “kit” lens for the Nikon D200, and, at the time had almost everything you might want. It's a holdover, more upscale kit lens for more recent Nikon cameras. Its stunning 11X zoom range covers everything from the equivalent of 27mm to 300mm when the 1.5X crop factor is figured in, and its VR capabilities plus light weight let you use it without a tripod most of the time. However, I found the image quality to be good, but not outstanding, and the slow maximum aperture at 200mm to be limiting when a fast shutter speed is required to stop action. The “zoom creep” (a tendency for the lens to zoom when the camera is tilted up or down) found in many examples will drive you nuts after awhile. Today, when I need a 200mm focal length, I prefer my Nikon 70-200mm f2.8 VR lens when I require speed and vibration reduction, and my Nikon 28-200mm f3.5-5.6 zoom when I want compactness. Both lenses are described later.  This is a full-framelens that can be used on any future FX camera you buy.
  • AF Zoom-Nikkor 28-200mm f/3.5-5.6G ED. This lens is a neglected gem! It faded into obscurity when the sexier 18-200mm VR zoom was introduced, primarily because it didn’t have the same wide-angle range as the newer lens. It's probably discontinued, and Nikon may be planning a newer more expensive version for its lineup of full frame cameras, including the D3 and D700. Don’t confuse this series G lens with the older and less desirable D version (they can be readily told apart because, like all G lenses, the “good” version has no aperture ring). This lens has superb optical quality (incorporating three extra-low dispersion ED elements), is incredibly compact at 12.7 ounces and 2.8 x 2.7 inches (length/diameter), and focuses down to 1.3 feet. I’ve taken it to Europe twice on important shooting trips rather than lug around my legendary Nikon 70-200 VR optic (which costs more than five times as much), because I knew I wouldn’t be sacrificing any image quality. It's available for about $300, and, unlike all but one of the lenses in this section, can be used with both DX and FX (full frame) Nikon bodies. Disadvantages? It's slow, lacks VR, and requires a focus motor built into the camera body (so it won’t autofocus on the Nikon D40/40x and D60 camera bodies). But what do you want for $300?
  • AF-S VR Zoom-Nikkor 24-120mm f/3.5-5.6G IF. I felt I had to mention this lens because it has seen new life as an optional kit lens for the new Nikon D700, because it covers the full FX frame.  Prior to that renewed interest, I saw a large number of these lenses available used at low prices. There are two versions, an older non-VR lens, and this model, which added vibration reduction, internal focusing, and some extra low dispersion (ED) elements to improve image quality. Unfortunately, while image quality is very good at the maximum 120mm, the lens softens quite a bit at shorter focal lengths and at larger apertures, making it less suitable as an all-around tool. My guess is that the reason there are so many available at less than $300 on the used market is that the original owners dumped them for something better.