Nikon 18-200 VR vs. Sigma 18-250 HSM OS Comparison Review

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Here finally, after sweating for over an hour in the broiling 98-degree midday sun yesterday to get the test shots, is my comparative review of the new Sigma 18-250 HSM OS and the Nikon 18-200 VR.

To be perfectly honest, my preconceived notion going into the testing session (based on only a very few quick and dirty preliminary shots with the Sigma) was that it simply wouldn't measure up to the Nikon in terms of sharpness. Seeing the side-by-side comparisons was quite a rude awakening to the fact that the Sigma is a helluva lot better than I expected.

Also, everyone who looks at the samples I have posted below or checks out the full set of comparison shots I uploaded needs to remember that they are all SOOC full-frame JPEGs with absolutely no sharpening or other PP applied. Comparing them to other photos that I've posted on Flickr really isn't fair because they aren't "finished products." Almost every photo I post has been run through some degree of PP sharpening.

As I said in the review, I have my D90's in-camera JPEG sharpening set at 6 (on a 0-9 scale, with 3 being the default). This is as high as I feel comfortable going because I don't want to introduce an objectionable amount of noise. And any additional sharpening that's needed, along with other fine tuning, during PP gives me much better control over the final product.

And so, without further ado, here's the review:

Introduction --

I just purchased one of Sigma’s newly released 18-250 HSM OS zoom lenses, which has recently been generating quite a bit of interest and buzz for a third-party lens. Is the buzz surrounding this new lens well-deserved, or just the inevitable, transient hype that accompanies any new product? I decided to find out for myself.

This afternoon I took a 51-frame series of photos directly comparing my new Sigma 18-250 mm HSM OS lens with my excellent copy of the Nikon 18-200 VR, which has been my mainstay lens since I bought it nearly four years ago. The camera is a Nikon D90. All the photos are full-frame JPEG, SOOC with no sharpening or other PP, with the D90's in-camera JPEG Picture Control sharpness set at 6 (the value I normally use).

The photos were taken on a tripod with image stabilization (OS and VR) turned off. The primary purpose of this test was to compare sharpness, contrast and color rendition, and my subject was chosen accordingly. The test was not designed to evaluate chromatic aberration or flare because these are not significant problems for either of these lenses. And precise comparisons of distortion are best done via bench tests using software that is specifically designed for this purpose.

First, though, some basic comparisons of the two lenses are in order.

Construction, Feel, Balance and Mechanical Functioning --

The Nikon 18-200 VR is as solidly built as any consumer-grade Nikon lens. It doesn’t come close to equaling Nikon’s far more expensive pro-grade lenses in this respect, and it’s not weather-sealed. However, the build quality is quite adequate, as one would expect from a Nikon consumer lens. It’s feels solid, the finish is typical Nikon (very good), and its size, weight and proportions balance extremely well on any Nikon DSLR.

The 18-200 VR has been out long enough, and is such a popular lens, that there is a great deal of anecdotal evidence to support the fact that individual copies of the lens vary quite widely in their mechanical functioning, particularly when it comes to “zoom creep” (which has earned the lens the unflattering nickname, “The Creeper,” in some circles). My copy has always crept, and this rather annoying phenomenon has gotten significantly worse with nearly constant use over almost four years. Rather significant individual sample variations in sharpness, especially at 200mm, have also been reported.

In contrast to the Sigma, AF with the 18-200 VR can be overridden manually in AF mode using the focusing ring, which does not rotate during auto-focusing. The Sigma’s focusing ring rotates during auto-focusing, and AF can only be overridden by switching the AF selector switch on the lens to off. The Nikon lens earns points compared to the Sigma in this respect.

The Sigma 18-250 HSM OS is a bit larger than the 18-200 VR I'm used to -- somewhat fatter, a tiny bit longer, and noticeably heavier. Typical of Sigma lenses, the build quality is excellent for a third-party consumer grade lens. It feels really solid, and you can tell there's a lot of glass and electronics crammed into a relatively compact package.

I've always been partial to the finish of Sigma lenses, with their soft, rubberized zoom and focus rings. The overall look and feel gives the impression of a very solid, good quality consumer lens. The zoom ring, positioned closest to the camera body, is very large and easy to grip. Even though it's a rather hefty chunk of glass, it's so compact that it balances extremely well on my D90. However, it does extend out 3 3/4 inches at full zoom, so it might feel a little bit front heavy on one of Nikon's smaller DSLRs like the D40/D40X/D60/D5000.

The zoom ring on the new Sigma is rather stiff, but quite smooth, with just a little bit of a stiffer "hitch" passing through the 135mm range, which is also the case with my Nikon 18-200 VR. But after just a day's use, the zoom loosened up just a little bit to the point where it's more comfortable. There is some very minor zoom creep between about 35 and 135mm -- but not enough to be annoying. Between 18 and 35mm, and from 135 to 250mm, the lens doesn't creep at all. I already mentioned the rather annoyingly ‘loosey-goosey” zoom creep I have with my well-worn 18-200 VR, but it still stays in place without any creeping when I park it at 18mm.

Worth noting, too, is that the Sigma zooms in by turning the ring counterclockwise, the opposite of Nikon zoom lenses, but the same as Canon. This will take a bit of getting used to for Nikon users.

HSM and Autofocus --

The HSM motor in the new Sigma lens is smooth and quiet, and AF speed and accuracy appears to be on a par with my Nikon 18-200 VR. It finds and locks focus very quickly and precisely, even in very low light on relatively low contrast subjects without hunting. And it grabs focus very quickly on distant moving subjects. In this regard, I'd say it functions as well as my 18-200 VR. The new Sigma's AF performance was a very pleasant surprise.

Image Stabilization --

Evaluating this feature is extremely subjective, it can only be accurately assessed by using a lens for awhile in a variety of real-world situations shooting hand-held, and I'll need to use the new Sigma lens a lot more to get a really good sense of how well it performs in this respect. However, my first impression is that Sigma got it right, and their OS does nearly as well as Nikon's excellent VR system.

One hand-held closeup test shot I took at 250mm and 1/30 demonstrated nearly perfect image stabilization. Nikon delivers on its claim of providing a four-stop advantage with their VRII technology. Sigma is a bit more hesitant to make such a specific claim, but my very preliminary hand-held testing with this lens suggests that Sigma’s OS system comes very close to equaling Nikon’s VR technology.

For a shaky old codger like me, the image stabilization function is extremely important at longer focal lengths, and so far I'm delighted with the Sigma's performance.

Image Quality --

With any of the “superzooms” that have this huge focal length range, you're always buying a compromise in overall image quality. Don't expect either of these lenses to equal any really good prime lens at a given focal length because they won't. The best you can expect with a lens of this type is very acceptable image quality throughout its zoom range, and both the Nikon and the Sigma deliver very respectably.

On the plus side, chromatic aberration is virtually nonexistent with both of these lenses, and they are highly flare-resistant. Sharpness and contrast are another matter. Sharpness, in particular, is “where the rubber meets the road” for any lens.

Testing Protocol –

My 51-photo test series consisted of sequential testing of both lenses at the following focal lengths:

18mm, 35mm, 50mm, 90mm, 135mm, 200mm, and (for the Sigma) 250mm.

At each focal length, sequential exposures were made at the following apertures:

Wide open (focal length dependent), f/8, f/11, and f/16.

The subject was selected primarily to evaluate sharpness, contrast, and color rendition.

Test Results –

Due to factors I’ll discuss below in my conclusions, I only felt it was necessary to upload photos at the focal lengths described above that were taken wide open and at f/8. In the case of the 50-55mm example, I used the f/11 samples instead because a strong gust of wind shook the tripod and ruined one of the f/8 shots.

The uploaded test results can be viewed in this Flickr set:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/bobw/sets/72157621692275261/

Here are a few samples from the set:

Sigma 50mm, f/11 --
3754212218_5d04cc5006_b.jpg
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Nikon 55mm, f/11 --
3753465817_a27cc80259_b.jpg
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Sigma 135mm, f/8
3753429401_37e38a3d09_b.jpg
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Nikon 130mm, f/8
3754278430_f8cd4518b3_b.jpg
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Sigma 200mm, f/8
3753436685_c0ec12bd1f_b.jpg
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Nikon 200mm, f/8
3753487045_8f98cc37da_b.jpg
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And here's the Sigma at 250mm, f/8
3754241298_e07b31fc91_b.jpg
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Conclusions –

I was very surprised, and extremely impressed, at how well the new Sigma lens performed in direct comparison to my tried and true old Nikon. Overall, the Sigma doesn’t quite match up to the Nikon in terms of sharpness or contrast, but it’s awfully close – a lot better than I expected. And the Sigma's diminished contrast seems to yield a wider, more complete and accurate tonal range. As I said, my Nikon 18-200 VR is an extremely sharp copy that sets a very high standard for comparing any other, similar superzoom lens.

It was interesting to note that there is very little variation in the Sigma lens’ sharpness at all focal lengths between wide open and the “sweet spot” at f/8 or f/11 so, even though it's a relatively slow lens -- 1/3 stop slower than the Nikon -- you can use it wide open with confidence anywhere in the zoom range. Both lenses suffer equally from a tiny bit of diffraction and lose a little sharpness when they are stopped down to f/16. The only obvious degradation in sharpness I detected with the Sigma was in the 90-100mm range, with the Nikon lens being more uniformly sharp at all focal lengths. But zoom the Sigma out to 135mm and you'll get nearly optimum sharpness. Except for that minor glitch in sharpness, the Sigma compared to the Nikon really well.

The Nikon definitely produces higher contrast photos than the Sigma. If anything, the color rendition of the Sigma in these JPEG images is more accurate, producing a somewhat richer and more complete tonal range than the Nikon. I was very astonished by this important finding that gives an edge to the Sigma lens.

Recommendations –

For pure, unadulterated sharpness and contrast, the Nikon 18-200 VR maintains a noticeable advantage over the Sigma if you get a very good copy, but not by much. The Nikon's popularity and reputation as the industry standard for superzoom lenses is well deserved. Just don’t expect any consumer-grade superzoom to equal either a good prime lens at the equivalent focal length, or one of Nikon’s far more expensive pro-grade zooms.

However, in this category of extremely versatile, one-lens solutions for most people’s photographic needs, the new Sigma 18-250 is a very pleasant surprise that should emerge high on the list of contenders. It boasts an additional 50mm of zoom range on the long end, which is not insignificant if you want to be prepared for just about any eventuality, but only carry one lens.

Neither of these lenses is classified as a “macro,” but they are both capable of capturing very fine closeups, and the Sigma’s minimum focus distance throughout its zoom range comes within 3 inches of Nikon’s 14-inch minimum. The AF and image stabilization characteristics of the two lenses are both excellent and appear to be almost identical. Size, weight and balance, and overall feel are practically the same, as is the build quality.

The newly released Sigma 18-250, being a third party lens, sells for about $150 less than the more established Nikon 18-200 VR (the current street price of the Sigma is $529). So, in addition to all its other positive attributes, it’s also a good value.
 
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Joined
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Last night I posted this without correct image links to the sample photos. I just fixed this and apologize for the inconvenience.
 
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Excellent review, Bob. After picking up a Sigma 10-20, 30 1.4, and 50 1.4, I've become much more appreciative of their offerings. This could definitely be an awesome one-lens kit. I like the idea of the +50mm at the long end as well.

Thanks for taking the time to post your results.
 
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Jose,

Yes indeed, the new Sigma lens is a definite "keeper" that will probably stay on my D90 most of the time. I haven't decided yet what I'm going to do with the 18-200 VR, but if the Sigma proves to be as good as I think it is after a few more weeks' use, I'll probably put the Nikon lens up for sale.

Mark,

The experience of going through four different Tamron lenses that were mostly okay (one was a terrible bad copy that I returned), I was kind of sour on third party lenses. Even the good Tamrons I tried with their new built in motors had very slow, sluggish and imprecise AF, and their image stabilization didn't do a thing for me. I didn't feel that any of them were quite ready for prime time.

Then I bought the reliable old Sigma 10-20 f/4-5.6 superwide. What a difference! I got a perfectly sharp copy, the solid construction impressed me to no end for a third party lens, and I fell in love with the "Sigma finish" with its soft, rubberized zoom and focus rings. Now I'm even more impressed with this new superzoom of theirs. My hat's off to Sigma for getting it right before they put a lens on the market.

It was also a lot of fun to do this review, and I hope it's helpful to anyone who is thinking about purchasing one of the "superzoom" lenses.

But it's the pictures that count. I really wanted to take my new Sigma 18-250 out to play this afternoon, but the heat was just too much. So I was left with one choice -- shoot the cat. I mean with my camera, of course, but some morning when they go ballistic at 5 AM I'd prefer a Taser :)

As luck would have it, Buddy struck a great pose on the bed -- perfectly natural for him -- and I got what I think is one of the best cat photos I've ever taken.

3760243341_ac96f60831_b.jpg
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Hand-held, 62mm, 1/13 @ f/8, so the Sigma OS definitely works. And once again the D90 comes through like a champ at ISO 3200.
 
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Jose,

Yes indeed, the new Sigma lens is a definite "keeper" that will probably stay on my D90 most of the time. I haven't decided yet what I'm going to do with the 18-200 VR, but if the Sigma proves to be as good as I think it is after a few more weeks' use, I'll probably put the Nikon lens up for sale.

Mark,

The experience of going through four different Tamron lenses that were mostly okay (one was a terrible bad copy that I returned), I was kind of sour on third party lenses. Even the good Tamrons I tried with their new built in motors had very slow, sluggish and imprecise AF, and their image stabilization didn't do a thing for me. I didn't feel that any of them were quite ready for prime time.

Then I bought the reliable old Sigma 10-20 f/4-5.6 superwide. What a difference! I got a perfectly sharp copy, the solid construction impressed me to no end for a third party lens, and I fell in love with the "Sigma finish" with its soft, rubberized zoom and focus rings. Now I'm even more impressed with this new superzoom of theirs. My hat's off to Sigma for getting it right before they put a lens on the market.

It was also a lot of fun to do this review, and I hope it's helpful to anyone who is thinking about purchasing one of the "superzoom" lenses.

But it's the pictures that count. I really wanted to take my new Sigma 18-250 out to play this afternoon, but the heat was just too much. So I was left with one choice -- shoot the cat. I mean with my camera, of course, but some morning when they go ballistic at 5 AM I'd prefer a Taser :)

As luck would have it, Buddy struck a great pose on the bed -- perfectly natural for him -- and I got what I think is one of the best cat photos I've ever taken.

3760243341_ac96f60831_b.jpg
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Hand-held, 62mm, 1/13 @ f/8, so the Sigma OS definitely works. And once again the D90 comes through like a champ at ISO 3200.
 
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Thanks for the work. I've been suggesting this lens since I first read reviews of it. They pretty consistently put the Sigma up as a contender, or even better.

Here's a comparison at SLR gear that is very informative with it's "blur index" that has interactive f/stop and zoom settings.

18-200
http://www.slrgear.com/reviews/showproduct.php/product/250/cat/13

Sigma 18-250
http://www.slrgear.com/reviews/showproduct.php/product/1242/cat/31

Overall, I'd say they reach the same conclusions that you do. The Sigma does best up to 200 and beyond where it needs one stop down to enter the real world, and then its pretty good.

Dave Harris
 
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Thanks for the work. I've been suggesting this lens since I first read reviews of it. They pretty consistently put the Sigma up as a contender, or even better.

Here's a comparison at SLR gear that is very informative with it's "blur index" that has interactive f/stop and zoom settings.

18-200
http://www.slrgear.com/reviews/showproduct.php/product/250/cat/13

Sigma 18-250
http://www.slrgear.com/reviews/showproduct.php/product/1242/cat/31

Overall, I'd say they reach the same conclusions that you do. The Sigma does best up to 200 and beyond where it needs one stop down to enter the real world, and then its pretty good.

Dave Harris

Very helpful links, Dave, thanks for posting.
 
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very nice of you to go out there and compare the 2 lenses for us Nikonians. glad to see yet ANOTHER corona local on these boards! :eek:

In case you don't recognize where I took the test shots, it's to the rear of the large Crossroads Christian Church and school complex off of Ontario. It took a bit of scouting around to find a good test scene like this. And, sure enough, it was 98 degrees in the shade, with no shade there.

It's always great fun to meet another local Nikonian photographer, so PM me if you're at all interested in getting together and comparing notes.
 
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Thanks Bob, great review.

Was that shot really at ISO 3200? :O I don't even see any noise at all O_O

Jesse,

Yes, that is indeed ISO 3200 with my D90, and it's what I've come to expect from the camera. The high ISO performance is absolutely amazing with only minimal noise as long as the photo is well exposed and sharp. Your D40 should produce similar results (just probably not quite that good) too, as long as you get the exposure and focus right.
 
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...but if the Sigma proves to be as good as I think it is after a few more weeks' use...

Keep us posted. I'm always interested in a new lens from a third-party manufacturer that performs well. Keeps Nikon on their toes.



The experience of going through four different Tamron lenses that were mostly okay (one was a terrible bad copy that I returned), I was kind of sour on third party lenses. Even the good Tamrons I tried with their new built in motors had very slow, sluggish and imprecise AF, and their image stabilization didn't do a thing for me. I didn't feel that any of them were quite ready for prime time.

Then I bought the reliable old Sigma 10-20 f/4-5.6 superwide. What a difference! I got a perfectly sharp copy, the solid construction impressed me to no end for a third party lens, and I fell in love with the "Sigma finish" with its soft, rubberized zoom and focus rings. Now I'm even more impressed with this new superzoom of theirs. My hat's off to Sigma for getting it right before they put a lens on the market.

That gives me a chuckle, because I've recently gone through the same experience. While I'd previously owned a Tokina 12-24 and Tamron 90, I had become comfortably entrenched in my Nikon snobbery, until I found a Sharp copy of the Sigma 30 1.4. After reading all the negative comments about focusing problems, I just considered myself lucky, and never really gave another third-party lens a chance.

When the Sigma 50 1.4 hit the market, I decided to try my luck again. This time I didn't get lucky...the lens had a front-focusing issue. I put it aside until last month when I sent it in for repair. On a whim, I picked up a Tamron 17-50, and found it to be tack sharp - no focusing problems. I started to warm to the idea of third-party lenses. Then I picked up the Sigma 10-20. Like you, I loved it from the start. About two weeks ago, my Sigma 50 arrived from the repair center, and it's simply amazing.

Now, I look at my lens kit and find a substantial number of third-party lenses:

Sigma 10-20
Tamron 17-35
Tamron 17-50
Sigma 30 1.4
Sigma 50 1.4
Tamron 90mm macro

I consider each of them to be at least on par with the Nikon equivalent (if there is one), and would recommend any of them - without hesitation - to anyone looking for a good lens...and an excellent value.
 
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Mark,

Cooler temps are forecast here in inland SoCal for the coming weekend, so I hope to get out and do some more shooting with the new Sigma. Like you, I'm definitely not a "Nikon snob" when it comes to choosing lenses. Some of the third party lenses (like the ones you listed) are excellent, and a helluva lot cheaper than similar glass bearing the Nikon label. But I've also discovered that the quality control standards of third party lens makers don't even come close to Nikon's meticulous QC.

If you get a good copy of one of the really good third-party Sigma, Tamron or Tokina lenses, you're off to the races. But all of these third party lenses should be very carefully evaluated after you buy them. And they should only be purchased from local or online vendors who have a very generous return policy, just in case you get a substandard copy.
 
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Update to my Sigma 18-250 HSM OS Review

This is an update to my initial review of this lens after having an opportunity to test it rather thoroughly under a variety of conditions in the field and do a more extensive comparison between it and my Nikon 18-200 VR.

In the field I was particularly interested in evaluating two specific characteristics of the Sigma lens vs. the Nikon:

1. The effectiveness of Sigma's OS (optical stabilization) compared to Nikon's excellent VR technology.

2. The comparative sharpness of the two lenses photographing a variety of close and distant subjects hand-held, primarily at focal lengths above 135mm.

Please bear in mind that these findings are purely anecdotal and subjective, based on comparative hand-held tests with the two lenses, shooting a variety of subjects in both bright and low light under "field conditions."

The test photos I posted in my original review were shot using a tripod with OS and VR turned off on the respective lenses. But I wanted to do additional field tests using what are, for me, normal hand-held shooting technique with the OS and VR both turned on before rendering a final verdict.

Once again, my observations are anecdotal and subjective, and -- as they say -- "Your mileage may vary."

However, the bad news I have to report is that, at least for me, Sigma's OS is not nearly as effective as Nikon's VR system when tested in both bright and low light at focal lengths above about 100mm. My Nikon 18-200 VR delivers very consistently sharp hand-held results down to 1/30, and up to 200mm. The same cannot be said for Sigma's OS. It seems to operate rather sporadically, and not really very effectively above about 100mm in both bright and low light, even using higher shutter speeds (up to and above the "rule of thumb" of using the same minimum shutter speed as the focal length.

I can shoot three consecutive hand-held frames of the same subject in rapid succession with the Nikon 18-200 VR, down to 1/30 at any focal length and up to 200mm, and nearly always get three very good, consistent photos without any apparent motion blur. Using this same shooting protocol, which is highly dependent upon the effectiveness of the lens' OS or VR functions with the Sigma, I'm lucky to get 1 out of 3 frames that don't suffer from obvious motion blur.

This significant shortcoming of the Sigma lens is a tremendous disappointment to me. I had very much hoped that their OS system would be as good as Nikon's VR, but it definitely is not.

Then, addressing my second test criterion, comparative sharpness, the Sigma's on-board HSM AF motor does lock focus very promptly -- close enough to the Nikon's AF speed that I really can't discern any difference. But its AF also appears to be somewhat imprecise compared to the Nikon lens.

After very thorough, precise bench testing, my Sigma doesn't exhibit any consistent front or back-focusing error. However, all too often, it's AF misses accurately honing in on, and locking on, the intended subject using the same single-area AF mode for both lenses. The AF focusing with the Sigma is always "close," but definitely not consistently as precise as with the Nikon. And "close" only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. This was another very disappointing discovery about the Sigma lens for me.

Based on these field tests comparing the two lenses, I have finally decided to return my Sigma lens for a refund and continue to use my trusty old 18-200 VR that delivers much more consistently satisfactory results.
 

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