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Nikon 16-85mm VR vs. 18-200mm VR
© 2008 KenRockwell.com. All rights reserved.

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Nikon 16-85mm vs 18-200mm

Nikon 16-85mm VR and 18-200mm VR. enlarge. I get my goodies at Ritz, Amazon and Adorama. It helps me keep adding to this site when you get yours from those links, too.

More Nikon Reviews

March 2008


Intro    Summary    Performance      Recommendations

As of March 2008, the Nikon 16-85mm VR and 18-200mm VR lenses sell for about the same price and, except for the zoom ranges, have almost identical specifications.

Price, March 2008
Forecast Price, March 2009*
Availability, March, 2008





*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

Intro    Summary    Performance      Recommendations

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 top

Intro    Summary    Performance      Recommendations

Bokeh   Widest Angle-of-View    Tele Range    Mechanics   

Sharpness    Distortion   Macro   VR   Color Fringes  

Maximum Apertures   Zooming

Bokeh       back to Performance    back to top

I took this comparison to its own page at Nikon 85mm Lens Bokeh Comparison.

Widest Angle of View       back to Performance    back to top

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.)


Tele Range       back to Performance    back to top

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).

Mechanics      back to Performance    back to top

Filter Thread


(extensions from flange, measured)

    at shortest zoom setting
3.368" (85.53mm)
3.823" (97.10mm)
    at 85mm zoom setting
5.055" (128.40mm)
5.647" (143.44mm)
    at longest zoom setting
5.055" (128.40mm)
6.30" (160mm)
Diameter (maximum, measured)
2.847" (72.32mm)
3.031" (76.98mm)
    The fattest part is the
Zoom ring (barely)
Filter ring
Weight (actual measured, no caps)
17.165 oz. (486.6g)
19.795 oz. (561.2g)
Materials and Feel of Quality
Ass Gasket (dust guard at mount)
Controls and location
Made in
(Originally Japan)
Serial Number
US version indicated by
"US" serno prefix.
"US" serno prefix.


Sharpness    back to Performance    back to top

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.


Distortion    back to Performance    back to top

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.

Distortion at 10' (3m)
RMS Distortion Power
1.8 RMS (18-85mm)
3.2 RMS (18-85mm)
Distortion, 16mm
(no 16mm setting)
Distortion, 18mm
Distortion, 24mm
Distortion, 35mm
Distortion, 50mm
Distortion, 85mm

© 2008 KenRockwell.com

* Waviness remains.


Macro    back to Performance    back to top

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:

Closest Macro, 16-85mm VR
Closest Macro, 18-200mm VR

Crops from 100% images, D300, f/11 at 1/500, ISO 200:

Crop at 100% from above, 16-85mm
Crop at 100% from above, 18-200mm

Vibration Reduction     back to Performance    back to top

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 at 85mm*
Acoustic Noise, run
the same
the same
Acoustic Noise, start/stop
the same
the same

* 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.


Lateral Color Fringes    back to Performance    back to top

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.


Maximum Aperture    back to Performance    back to top

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.

Maximum Aperture


Zooming    back to Performance    back to top

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

Intro    Summary    Performance      Recommendations

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!


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