Nikon 16-85mm VR vs. 18-200mm VR
*16-85mm is new and selling for full price in March 2008, while the 18-200mm is now being discounted. I expect the 16-85mm price will drop as time progresses.
Which is best?
I borrowed a brand-new 16-85mm and compared it against my personal 18-200mm VR to find out.
Some people thought my 18-200mm must be magic because it was among the very first batch which were made in Japan in 2005, but I doubt it. My 18-200mm has seen a lot of action. All the 18-200mm lenses have been made in Thailand, just like the 16-85mm, since 2006.
Summary First back to top
Most aspects are identical or almost identical, like the price, look and feel, mechanicals, switches, VR noises, AF speed, and features and controls.
The 18-200mm is a little bit bigger and heavier, but only by 1/2" (12mm) and 2.630 oz. (74.55g).
The 16-85mm has somewhat better sharpness at the wide end in the corners, while the 18-200mm is a little better at 85mm. It's not that big a deal and will vary from sample-to-sample probably more than from one design to the other.
The 16mm end of the 16-85mm is not much wider than the 18mm end of the 18-200mm. I can't see any difference unless I deliberately have both in my hot little hands at the same time to compare them.
The 16-85mm has a VR system which, if you're shooting at around 1/8 of a second at 85mm, gives superior results.
The 16-85mm has about half the distortion of the 18-200mm at the same zoom settings, but each of them has enough distortion that if you care about it, you'll still need to correct it in Photoshop.
Performance back to topBokeh back to Performance back to top
I took this comparison to its own page at Nikon 85mm Lens Bokeh Comparison.
There isn't much difference between the widest ends of these two lenses. If I swap one for the other, I really have to be paying attention and looking for specific points on a subject to notice.
Here are some comparison photos:
18-200mm at 18mm.
16-85mm at 16mm.
Did you see it? I can't either. 16mm to 18mm is only a half-step, just a hair less than the half-step between 24mm and 28mm.
It doesn't really matter unless you just happen to come across a situation where you just need a little more room.
I can exaggerate the difference between these two by putting the two images on top of each other for you to mouse-over to swap:
Widest settings, 18-200mm versus 16-85mm. (Roll mouse over to see.)
Now it's obvious, but is it significant? If wide is important to you, as it is to me, you're much better off buying a real wide-angle lens instead of the 16-85mm, like Nikon's 12-24mm. If you're on a budget, Tokina's 12-24mm is almost as good for half the price.
Here's the difference between the 16-85mm at 16mm and the 12-24mm at 12mm. 12mm is what you want if you need wide, not 16mm.
Widest settings, 16-85mm versus 12-24mm. (Roll mouse over to see.)
200mm is obviously longer than 85mm.
This is a huge difference for subjects far away, which is why you need a long lens in the first place. The 18-200mm wins easily.
You may not see as much of a difference simply pointing each lens at things indoors, like in a camera store.
Due to the optical tomfoolery used to design modern do-everything zooms, there actually is much less difference between these lenses if you're only a few feet away from the subject. This is because these zooms actually shorten their focal lengths as you focus more closely!
If you point the 18-200mm at your feet and zoom from 85 - 200mm, you'll see little change.
If you're comparing them for yourself, be sure to point them at something very far away. You'll see less difference at 20 feet (6m) and very little difference at just five feet (1.5m).
These two lenses are almost identical. Differences usually are due more to focus issues than either lens being a champion.
At the wide end, they're the same in the center.
The 16-85mm, on a D200 or D300, is superior at the wide end in the corners, if you look at your images at 100% on-screen, which is like looking at a 3-foot (1m) wide print from the same distance as your computer screen.
My 18-200mm is a little better at 85mm.
I've never had any issues with sharpness from my 18-200mm for anything I've done with it, including making 20x30" (50 x 75cm) SuperGloss prints from it. When was the last time you printed 12 x 18," much less 20x30?"
I only see these differences by 1.) shooting special test subjects (flat at infinity), 2.) at full aperture, and then 3.) blowing up the images to the equivalent of 40" (1m) wide, and looking at them closely.
Used under normal conditions and/or printed small, like only 12 x 18" (30 x 45cm), I can't see any meaningful differences.
You have to shoot a lot of side-by-side tests to see anything meaningful. Forget shooting one lens one day and the other lens the next day to compare. You have to shoot the same subject with the same camera at the same time and compare split-screen, preferably on a 30" monitor.
Zoom lenses like these will vary in sharpness from shot-to-shot, and from corner to corner. If you shoot less than a few hundred identical comparisons, you'll see differences, but you're seeing shot-to-shot variations instead of lens-to-lens differences. These can drive you crazy, since one lens will win one time, the the other will win the next under the same conditions!
I pronounce this aspect a draw.
Both have complex barrel distortion at their wide ends, and pincushion distortion throughout most of the rest of their ranges.
The 16-85mm has about half the distortion of the 18-200mm, but it still needs correcting in Photoshop CS2's lens distortion filter if you're picky.
Here are the figures I've measured to use in Photoshop CS2's lens distortion filter at each zoom setting, as well as an overall RMS distortion power measurement.
© 2008 KenRockwell.com
* Waviness remains.
They give almost identical magnifications.
The 16-85mm gives a tiny bit less magnification, but it's sharper because it focuses more accurately.
Marked close focus is different (1.5' (0.38m) on the 16-85mm and 1.6' (0.5m) on the 18-200mm), but the longest zoom settings are different and the adherence to the marked focal length varies at close distances. The close-focus specifications alone are meaningless for comparison.
Full images, D300, f/11 at 1/500, ISO 200:
Crops from 100% images, D300, f/11 at 1/500, ISO 200:
VR is better in the 16-85mm, but only under certain conditions where VR is effective.
If you want to see the difference for yourself, make some shots at 85mm at 1/10 of a second. When I do, most come out perfectly sharp with the 16-85mm, while few do with the 18-200mm.
Of course most shots aren't made under these conditions. At 1/2 second, neither gives good results, and at 1/30 second, they both give perfect results 100% of the time.
* Minimum speed which, 50% of the time, gives me perfect tripod-equivalant sharpness when viewed at 100%. For most (less critical) uses, you can use much slower speeds. See The Importance of VR for more details about these figures.
On a D300
None, since the D300 corrects each lens fully.
On a D200
The 18-200mm has secondary (magenta/green) fringes at 18mm. The fringes of the 16-85mm are also secondary (magenta/green), but only about half as strong.
Neither lens has any by 70mm.
If you worry about this, dump your old camera and get a D300 or D3, which corrects this automatically. I suspect this is the same on the D60, D40, D100, D1X, etc. and everything that came before the D300 in the fall of 2007.
While they are both specified as "f/3.5-5.6," since the 16-85mm only goes to 85mm, at most zoom settings the 16-85mm is about a quarter-stop slower.
They are identical.
The rings turn the same amount to get you to the same settings.
Both lenses extend as you zoom, and the filter ring never rotates, even when focusing.
Both lenses make it easy to set a precise focal length, and make it easy to zoom quickly to any focal length. They both have correct logarithmic calibrations, meaning a constant change in percentage of focal length for the same rotation.
Zoom ring calibration is about 1.8 cm/octave in both lenses.
Neither lens creeps when set to the either end of their zoom rings.
My 18-200mm creeps slowly if pointed straight down or straight up and set to the middle of the zoom range.
The wide end of the 16-85mm is a little bit wider than the 18-200mm, but not by much. I can't see any difference between them unless I stand in exactly the same place and make careful comparisons between them.
Recommendations back to top
This race is a lot easier to call than you'd think.
If you're a tripod-hugger who looks at every image at 200% looking for flaws, you want the 16-85mm VR. You'll need another tele zoom to make up the lost zoom range.
If you just want to get in and get out, get the 18-200mm VR. I've never had any issues with a lack of image quality. The slight differences I've noted above are only visible if I go out of my way looking for them. Getting the shot is far more important than how sharp it is. I'd rather have my shot than be jacking myself changing lenses.
The 16-85mm can have better optics, but that doesn't matter if you missed the shot because you couldn't zoom past 85mm or if you were busy changing lenses.
In all honesty, the optics of the 18-55mm kit lens are as good, and have even less distortion at 55mm. If you're not loaded with cash, I'd pass on the 16-85mm and get the 18-55mm kit lens for general use, and an excellent 55-200mm VR just because you can and still save money over the 16-85mm.
My favorite is still the 18-200mm for its far greater utility. 16-85mm only covers less than half of what I need, while the 18-200mm covers almost everything.
If you're serious about technical quality, I get far better quality with my Canon 5D (full-frame), which costs the same as a D300, and less expensive Canon lenses. For instance, the superb Canon 17-40mm f/4L or 28-135mm IS costs only 2/3 a Nikon 12-24mm or 16-85mm VR, and has performance which far exceeds the Nikon DX system.
If you find this as helpful as a book you might have had to buy or a workshop you may have had to take, feel free to help me continue helping everyone.
Thanks for reading!