My Merthyr Road photography project can see me walk 6 or 7 miles a day on weekends, travelling parts of the route between Cardiff and Merthyr Tydfil in South Wales taking a closer look at the many interesting things that are easily missed when you go whizzing by in a car. Lugging a camera bag full of different lenses has quickly become a drag, as has stopping to change lenses.
For most of March, I tried going about with just the one lens – my trusty Sigma 15-30mm. It’s a great lens (so long as the sun is behind me!), and in the four years or so that I’ve owned it, I’ve taken many pictures with it that I’ve been very happy with. I bought the lens whilst on holiday in Snowdonia with my Nikon D100 back in 2003. It was the first time I’d been on holiday with a digital SLR, and I learned the hard way that none of my existing lenses gave me anything approaching a “wide” image, because of the 1.5x focal length multiplying effect. I dragged my poor wife around North Wales, looking for a camera shop, just so that I could take this shot of Dolbadarn Castle in the Llanberis Pass at the foot of Mt. Snowdon.
Whilst 15mm has been handy to have, I’ve found that only having 30mm on the zoom end is very restrictive when I’ve been carrying only the one lens. So, fed up with the situation, I decided to trawl through the Nikon SLR Lens Talk forum on Digital Photography Review, as well as the reviews on SLRGear.com, to find myself a single walkabout lens.
I’ve settled on Nikon’s 18-135mm DX lens, which is the standard kit lens for the Nikon D80 SLR. When attached to a digital SLR such as my Nikon D200, it’s the equivalent of a 27-200mm lens on a full-frame 35mm SLR. It doesn’t have the advertised reach of the Nikon 18-200mm lens, nor the built-in VR-II image stabilisation technology, but unlike the 18-200mm lens at least you can buy one today.
There are plenty of folks online who report that both the 18-135mm DX lens and the 18-70mm DX lens (the kit lens from the Nikon D70) produce images with exceptional sharpness – much better than the 18-200mm lens. Some folks prefer the 18-70mm lens because it has a slightly faster aperture at the zoom end, or because it has a metal lens mount ring (the 18-135mm DX lens has a plastic mount ring), or because it has a rubber weather seal (which I must admit appeals to me!). Folks who prefer the 18-135mm DX lens online all seem to focus on the extra convenience of having that extra reach on the zoom – which is exactly what I wanted from my next lens.
I’ve used this lens on three shoots so far, including half of the images from my shoot at Melingriffith (the other two shoots will be published later in the year). Despite a concern about the build quality, which I’ll come onto in a moment, overall I’m very happy with the new lens, and it certainly fits my need of having a single lens I can use for walkabouts. I’m extremely pleased with the sharpness, colour and contrast of the images I’ve taken so far – three areas where I had no complaints about the Sigma 15-30mm lens that this replaces.
The only problem I’ve had with the lens has been with the focus ring. This year I’ve started shooting nearly all my shots using manual focus instead of relying on the D200’s excellent automatic focus system. The majority of my lenses are made my Sigma, and if there’s one thing that Sigma have consistently gotten right on their lenses, it’s the working of the manual focus ring. On Sigma lenses, the focus ring is always nice and tight, and as you get towards the infinity end of the focus range, it certainly feels like it takes more movement of the focus ring to adjust the focus – giving me the feeling of a very precise control. Unfortunately, the focus ring on my new Nikon lens is very loose. All I have to do is touch it and the focus shifts substantially, and I’ve found that I’d often knock the focus off just by catching the focus ring against my hand when raising the camera to my eye. I’ve gotten used to it, but I don’t like it, and I’m debating giving Nikon a call to see whether they will adjust the tightness of the focus ring for free or not.
There are plenty of other lenses in this range that would also make good walkabout lenses. As well as Nikon’s impossible-to-find 18-200mm lens, Sigma has lauched an 18-200mm lens with built-in optical stabilisation, and both Sigma and Tamron sell lenses in the 18-70mm range too. I chose the Nikon lens because of the exceptional rating for image quality – and so far it’s proving to be a good choice for me.