I recently returned from a hiking and photography trip to New Mexico, Colorado and Arizona. I’ve gone on many such trips over the years, and as I explore more venues and venture deeper into wild places, I tend to gravitate toward lighter, more versatile photographic equipment. I’ve had quite a bit of success with crossover cameras like the Fuji HS30EXR, which I used on two recent jaunts, Terra Sanctus and The Metro.
One piece of gear I recently added to my stable was the Nikon D7100 digital SLR and one of Nikon’s current “superzoom” lenses, the AF-S Nikkor 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 G-II ED. I ended up pairing it for the trip with my Tokina 10-17mm f/3.5-4.5 AT-X fisheye. Between the two, I felt like I could accomplish all my photographic goals. In the end, I made about 95% of my images with the Nikkor.
Superzoom lenses typically start at about 18mm (for sensors that are 15x24mm, which most of them are), which is a wide but not superwide focal length, and zoom to somewhere in the vicinity of 200mm to 300mm, which is a telephoto length with a fair amount of reach.
It’s temping to say that superzoom lenses are jacks of all trades and masters of none, but that’s not really true, since the superzoom definitely masters convenience. In fact, a good superzoom has no peer. It excels at occasions like travel, hiking, and casual family affairs like holidays and reunions.
The biggest limitation of a superzoom lens its maximum aperture, which at its widest focal length is usually f/3.5, while at the telephoto end is typically f/5.6 or even f/6.3, and that’s not insignificant. f/6.3 is a pretty small aperture, making lenses like these poor choices for news, sports, and casual events in low light like stage performances, nighttime parades, or indoor holiday gatherings.
My wife Abby and I have two additional superzooms, a Tamron 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3, and a Tamron 18-250mm f/3.5-6.3. I used the 18-250mm extensively in 2012 on a trip to The Maze District of Canyonlands National Park. They are both fair lenses, but neither is up to the mechanical and optical quality of the Nikkor. The Nikkor, on the other hand, is noticeably bigger, heavier, and more expensive. The Nikkor has Vibration Reduction (VR), which I believe is not as effective as the camera makers claim.
It’s worth noting that the compromising nature of most superzoom lenses results in a fair amount of distortion and other aberrations, as well as a tendency to perform better, often much better, at the wide focal length end.
If I were constructing a camera system from the ground up, the superzoom would not be my first choice, but after adding a large-aperture wide angle and an f/2.8 telephoto zoom, a superzoom definitely has a place in my photography.
I think the superzoom lens category is the DSLR market’s answer to the folks moving up from point-and-shoot cameras — these people (I was one of them) are accustomed to “20X zoom!” marketing schemes and can’t initially understand the point of a non-zoom (prime) lens.
However, as you said, there is a place for them in the toolbox, especially for a casual/hobbyist photographer. I’ve had one (Sigma 18-125mm, now discontinued) for several years and it has often come in handy, though it has all the disadvantages you mentioned: most importantly it’s soft on the long end and has a small aperture. It also has slow focus compared to an f/1.8 prime.
I’ve taken it on a few vacations just so I wouldn’t have to carry a heavy load… But if I had to give away just one of my lenses, it would be that one.