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I currently own a Nikon D5100 with the 18-55mm kit and am looking for a good, cheap entry-level telephoto lens. I'm a beginner, and plan to do wildlife, nature and landscape photography with an occassional portrait.

I'm considering among the following choices:

  1. Nikon NIKKOR AF-S 70-300mm F4.5-5.6G VR
  2. Nikon NIKKOR AF-S DX 55-300mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR
  3. Tamron 70-300mm f/4-5.6 AF Di LD Macro (A17NII, with built-in motor)

The pros and cons for each lens (as per my understanding) are as follows:

1. Nikon NIKKOR AF-S 70-300mm F4.5-5.6G VR
Price: Rs. 25000 (~500$)
Pros:

  • VR
  • Possibly the best overall image quality of the lot (as per most professional reviews)

Cons:

  • Expensive (3 times the cost of the Tamron !)

2. Nikon NIKKOR AF-S DX 55-300mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR
Price: Rs. 17500 (~350$)
Pros:

  • VR
  • Coupled with the kit lens, covers the entire 18-300mm range

Cons:

  • Expensive (Twice the cost of the Tamron !)

3. Tamron 70-300mm f/4-5.6 AF Di LD Macro (A17NII, with built-in motor)
Price: Rs. 8000 (~160$)
Pros:

  • Cheap!
  • Macro functionality

Cons:

  • No VR

I'm confused as to which one offers the best price-performance-features ratio. The Nikon 70-300 probably has the best image quality, but its priced more than 3 times that of Tamron. Does the image quality justify the price premium? Or I'm better off going with the Tamron and use the money saved to buy another lens. Also, how important would be VR/VC when shooting handheld at these focal lengths?

Sorry, for such a long winded post!

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just a small note - do not know about the Nikons, but the Tamron has rotating front element. However it is cheap, light and I found it useful for my needs. I do not think the image quality is bad, according to reviews (lenstip I think) is was much sharper then equivalent Sigma lens at the longest focal length. It was also cheaper than the Sigma. –  Juhele Mar 11 '12 at 17:27

6 Answers 6

I also have a D5100. I would go for the Nikon DX 55-300 because

  • VR is well worth it for handheld telephoto, IMO, it lets you use shutter speeds a couple of stops lower than otherwise. (Although at 300mm, corresponding to 450mm for a full frame camera, handheld probably doesn't work very well even with VR.)
  • DX lenses are smaller and lighter, meaning less to carry around.

These are my priorities, yours may obviously differ.

The Nikon 70-300mm has the advantage of faster autofocus than the DX 55-300mm, for wildlife that's probably worth the extra.

Some other alternatives you might consider:

  • Nikon Nikkor AF-S DX 55-200/4,0-5,6 G ED VR: Cheapest of them all (at least in my area). You give up a little bit of tele, and the autofocus is still slow. But it weighs less than half of the Nikon 70-300mm, and would leave money for another lens.
  • Nikon Nikkor AF-S DX 18-200/3,5-5,6 G IF-ED VR II: Most expensive of them all. The primary benefit is that you can use one lens for (almost) everything, so the tele is always available - you won't miss shots because you left the tele at home or because you're busy switching lenses. (This would render your 18-55 superfluous.)
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As Dan and mattdm said, you get what you pay for, and it's a subjective decision whether the extra cost is worth the extra quality and features. A few comments:

VR

You will want to stop any of these lenses down to f/8 or f/11 for maximum sharpness. Outdoors on a sunny day that means 1/200th at ISO 200. This is near the limit for hand-holding at 200-300mm, so VR may be of use.

Autofocus

In my experience, the Nikon lenses autofocus faster and more accurately than 3rd party lenses. That seems to be a generalisation backed up by online reviews and feedback.

Coverage

I wouldn't worry about the "gap" between your 18-55mm and a 70-300mm, you won't miss any shots due to lacking 55-70mm. Zoom with your feet.

Upgrading

If you go with the Tamron or the 55-300m, and later on decide to upgrade to the 70-300mm, you'll have spent more than if you bought the best lens to begin with. It's not a mistake to be a less expensive lens - often people find they don't end up using it anyway - but if you know you will do a lot of wildlife photography and make good use of it, over a long period I think it's well worth the extra $$.

If you decide to upgrade, you can often sell the Nikon lenses at a premium to used 3rd party lenses. So for that reason I'd go with the 50-300mm over the Tamron if you were going with one of those two.

I haven't used the Tamron 70-300mm. I do have their 17-50mm which is an outstanding lens. But reviews of the 70-300mm say it's very soft at 300mm. I used to have the Nikon 70-300mm (non-VR) lens (which is optically nothing like the VR version) and it was horribly soft at 300mm, basically unusable. I'd shy away from the Tamron if this is a lens you expect to use a lot.

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I think you've done your homework here, and what's left is mostly the subjective final decision. (If it weren't subjective, there would only be one product on the market.)

That said, there are two items on your pros and cons list which I think you should cross off:

  • Coupled with the kit lens, covers the entire 18-300mm range — covering every possibility of intermediate focal length with zoom range is unnecessary. The space between 55mm and 70mm isn't very significant, and it's also in a kind of intermediate range that you're probably going to zoom right past anyway.

  • Macro functionality — the Tamron lens has a special mode where it allows a close focusing distance of a little over three feet, giving a maximum magnification of 1:2. This isn't particularly impressive, and the lens isn't truly optimized for macro focus. I would suggest not worrying about this, and getting a real macro lens if you want to do macro work.

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I have the Nikon NIKKOR AF-S 70-300mm F4.5-5.6G VR, and had the Tamron 70-300mm f/4-5.6 AF Di LD Macro. My experience is that the former may be three times the price, but it is at least three times better, if not more. I have also managed some very passable wildlife shots at 300mm, standing on a step ladder, in a boat, although, had there been room for a tripod, I have no doubt they would have been better! I found the Tamron to be soft at most lengths.

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Tamron tends to be cheaper because they are a third party lens supplier, so have to compete with name brands directly, I.e. lenses made by the company that made your camera.

My suggestion would be to check the reviews on sites like http://www.dpreview.com/, http://www.slrgear.com/ and http://www.photozone.de/ as they provide detailed information on the strengths and weaknesses of each lens, so you can figure out what's most important to you.

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My experience is that you get what you pay for. I'd choose them in the order you wrote them: Nikon 70-300, Nikon 55-300, Tamron 70-300.

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