Best superzoom for Nikon DSLRs: 8 tested

12th Apr 2012 | 08:00

Best superzoom for Nikon DSLRs: 8 tested

With their colossal zoom ranges, superzooms offer unparalleled versatility

Superzooms for Nikons explained

A main attraction of any DSLR is that you can fit the ideal lens for pretty much any shooting scenario. But this isn't without its pitfalls. Most of us are rightly concerned about swapping lenses in dusty environments, dumping dirt into the camera body that can often find its way onto the image sensor.

And with fleeting photo opportunities, there's always the risk that the moment will have passed before you've finished removing one lens, fitted another and taken aim.

There are also times when you might need to travel light, and it's not just about baggage allowances when you're going on holiday. Anything from city wanderings to countryside rambles and hill-climbing can become an arduous challenge when you've got a big bag stuffed with heavy lenses hanging off your shoulder.

Wouldn't it be nice if you could just carry a single lens that answered almost every photographic need? Enter the superzoom.

The whole idea of these lenses is that they deliver everything from a wide-angle field of view to serious telephoto reach, all at the flick of a wrist. There are two main types - those designed for APS-C-format cameras from the D3100 to the D300s, and full-frame lenses for bodies such as the D700 and D4.

Best superzooms for nikon dslrs: 8 tested

Nikon calls these two types 'DX' and 'FX' lenses respectively. With Sigma, it's 'DC' and 'DG', and for Tamron it's 'Di II' and 'Di'. But if you're using an APS-C-format camera you needn't let lens type be the deciding factor; full-frame lenses are compatible with smaller-sensor bodies.

If you want a really wide-angle focal length on an APS-C-format body, you'll need an APS-C-format lens. Once you take the 1.5x crop factor into account, an 18mm focal length effectively becomes 27mm.

However, a lens such as the Nikon 24-120mm f/3.5-5.6G AF-S IF-ED VR still equates to 36mm at its widest zoom setting, which is practically identical to the 35mm focal length of a wide-angle lens.

Sure, the maximum effective telephoto reach of 180mm isn't all that impressive either, but that's not the whole story.

A fine balance

The bigger the zoom range, the more image quality is likely to be compromised. Outright sharpness might be impaired, and distortions are likely to be more noticeable.

So while a lens such as the Tamron 18-270mm f/3.5-6.3 Di II VC PZD gives a class-leading 15x zoom range, equivalent to 27- 405mm, you push the boundaries of what's possible when you also demand high optical quality.

Best superzooms for nikon dslrs: 8 tested

Naturally, if you're not too fussed about wide-angle shooting, a full-frame 28-300mm lens goes extra large on telephoto reach when fitted to an APS-C-format camera. Even so, the minimum effective focal length of 42mm is not wide enough for most of us.

But if you're considering trading up to a full-frame body in the future, any full-frame lenses you buy now will be suitable.

Speed is another issue, especially when it comes to maximum aperture. At their longest telephoto focal lengths, the Nikon 18-200mm, Nikon 24-120mm and Nikon 28-300mm tested here all have a maximum available aperture of f/5.6.

This means that under dull lighting conditions you'll be forced to use quite a slow shutter speed, unless you resort to increasing the sensitivity setting of your camera.

All other lenses on test are even slower at f/6.3 - under anything other than bright sunlight, camera- shake can be a big problem.

If you want to travel light with just a superzoom on your camera, lugging a tripod around defeats the object. Instead, try handheld shooting.

To fend off camera shake, all but the Tamron 18- 200mm in the group feature image stabilisation. Nikon calls its system VR (Vibration Reduction), Sigma has OS (Optical Stabilization) and Tamron has VC (Vibration Compensation).

All competing systems have a microprocessor- controlled group of lens elements that senses vibration and attempts to cancel it out by moving the group. It's worth having, as you get sharp shots quite consistently at shutter speeds up to three or four stops slower than you would without stabilisation.

Keep the noise down

Speed and accuracy are also critical factors when it comes to autofocus. All the Nikon lenses on test have fast, whisper-quiet, ring-type ultrasonic systems. These have the added benefit of boasting full-time manual focus override in Single-AF mode.

At the other end of the scale, basic electric motors are sluggish and noisy, as shown by the Tamron 18-200mm and 28-300mm lenses. All other lenses on test are based on ultrasonic motors. Unlike ring-type ultrasonic systems, these aren't much faster than basic electric motors, although they are quieter.

They're not as near-silent as ring-type systems, though, because gear wheels are still used to drive the autofocus.

Tamron 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 Di II Macro

Best superzooms for nikon dslrs: 8 tested

Tamron 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 Di II Macro - £170/ $220

This lens made a splash when it launched, but that was in 2005, and it's the only zoom on test without image stabilisation. Getting sharp handheld shots is a challenge, with a maximum available aperture of only f/6.3 at the longest zoom length.

The Nikon-fit version originally had no internal autofocus motor, instead relying on the in-camera AF drive featured on upmarket Nikon bodies. So, there was no autofocus ability on cameras such as the D40 and D60 and subsequent bodies like the D3100 and D5100. Tamron put things right in 2008, adding a basic built-in autofocus motor.

Performance

Autofocus is a little slow, and quite shrill. Sharpness isn't great at 18mm, and drops off slightly between 35-135mm, and more so at 200mm. Distortion is more disappointing, considering the relatively modest zoom range. Barrel distortion is particularly noticeable at the 18mm focal length and, unlike with genuine Nikon lenses, auto-correction isn't available.

Sharpness

At maximum apertures, sharpness is quite lacking throughout the zoom range. At f/8 the lens fares rather better.

Lab test at f/8
Sharpness at wide angle: 1352
Sharpness at mid range: 1269
Sharpness at telephoto: 1127

Best superzooms for nikon dslrs: 8 tested

Fringing

Fringes around high-contrast edges can be an issue throughout the zoom range but are most obvious in telephoto shots.

Lab test at f/8
Fringing at wide angle: 1.56
Fringing at mid range: 1.3
Fringing at telephoto: 2.02

Best superzooms for nikon dslrs: 8 tested

Full image

Best superzooms for nikon dslrs: 8 tested

Cropped to 100%

Distortion

Barrel distortion is pronounced at 18mm and, unlike with Nikon lenses, automatic corrections are unavailable.

Lab test at f/8
Distortion at wide angle: -4.28
Distortion at mid range: 1.25
Distortion at telephoto: 1.09

Best superzooms for nikon dslrs: 8 tested

Image quality verdict

Lab data is disappointing for the Tamron 18-200mm, and our real-world results are further hampered by the lack of optical stabilisation.

Best superzooms for nikon dslrs: 8 tested

Taken at 18mm (min)

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Best superzooms for nikon dslrs: 8 tested

At 200mm (max)

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Sigma 18-250mm f/3.5-6.3 DC OS HSM

Best superzooms for nikon dslrs: 8 tested

Sigma 18-250mm f/3.5-6.3 DC OS HSM - £400/ $480

Like Sigma's 18-200mm, this is a 'DC' lens for APS-C-format cameras. Both lenses have Sigma's four- stop OS (Optical Stabilisation), and HSM (Hyper Sonic Motor) autofocus. Unlike many of the brand's more exotic lenses, the 18-250mm doesn't have advanced ring-type HSM, but the motor-driven system is still fairly speedy and quiet.

It's bigger than the 18-200mm, but it's easier not to foul the the focus ring's action while it's rotating. You get a lot more reach at the telephoto end, equivalent to 375mm. However, the maximum available aperture of f/6.3 means the image stabilisation has its work cut out in anything other than bright, sunny conditions.

Performance

Sharpness is adequate at wide- angle and mid-range zooms, on a par with the 18-200mm lens, but there's a drop at the longest end of the range. Fringing can also be noticeable as you approach the 250mm focal length. But distortions are well controlled considering the extra-large zoom range.

Sharpness

Sharpness is in line with the Sigma 18-200mm's at wide-angle to middle focal lengths, but drops off at 250mm.

Lab test at f/8
Sharpness at wide angle: 1449
Sharpness at mid range: 1165
Sharpness at telephoto: 1019

Best superzooms for nikon dslrs: 8 tested

Fringing

Most noticeable at either end of the zoom range. There's still some apparent colour fringing around the 135mm mark.

Lab test at f/8
Fringing at wide angle: 1.25
Fringing at mid range: 0.98
Fringing at telephoto: 2.18

Best superzooms for nikon dslrs: 8 tested

Distortion

Given the generous zoom, distortions are fairly low, especially for pin-cushion distortion at telephoto settings.

Lab test at f/8
Distortion at wide angle: -2.48
Distortion at mid range: 1.02
Distortion at telephoto: 0.84

Best superzooms for nikon dslrs: 8 tested

Image quality verdict

Outright sharpness could be better, especially towards corners of the frame, but the Sigma 18-250mm acquits itself fairly well overall.

Best superzooms for nikon dslrs: 8 tested

Taken at 18mm (min)

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Best superzooms for nikon dslrs: 8 tested

Taken at 250mm (max)

See full res image

Sigma 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 II DC OS HSM

Best superzooms for nikon dslrs: 8 tested

Sigma 18-200mm f/3.5-6.3 II DC OS HSM - £420/ $500

The recently launched version of this lens is smaller and lighter than its predecessor, at 75 x 88mm and 490g rather than 79 x 100mm and 610g. The filter size has been reduced from 72mm to 62mm, too. The new lens also gains an FLD (F Low Dispersion) element. This is equivalent to top-quality fluorite glass, giving high light transmission and very low dispersion. Even so, the largest aperture at the telephoto end is still a sluggish f/6.3.

The first-generation Sigma OS from the original lens has been updated, taking performance from 2.5 stops to four.

Performance

Autofocus is fast and quiet, but it's driven by an ultrasonic motor and the focus ring rotates during autofocus. Sharpness isn't as good as with Nikon lenses at wide-angle and mid-zoom settings, but instead of dropping off at maximum telephoto focal lengths it increases a little. The Sigma has the sharpest performance of any lens in the group at its maximum zoom stretch.

Sharpness

Fairly consistent throughout the zoom range, sharpness is okay at the centre of the frame, less so towards the corners.

Lab test at f/8
Sharpness at wide angle: 1461
Sharpness at mid range: 1194
Sharpness at telephoto: 1218

Best superzooms for nikon dslrs: 8 tested

Fringing

Apparent at both ends of the zoom range, fringing at image corners can also be noticeable at mid-range settings.

Lab test at f/8
Fringing at wide angle: 1.67
Fringing at mid range: 0.77
Fringing at telephoto: 1.58

Best superzooms for nikon dslrs: 8 tested

Distortion

Barrel distortion at 18mm is more obvious than with the Sigma 18-250mm, despite this lens's smaller zoom range.

Lab test at f/8
Distortion at wide angle: -3.26
Distortion at mid range: 1.11
Distortion at telephoto: 1.11

Best superzooms for nikon dslrs: 8 tested

Image quality verdict

Edge-to-edge sharpness could be better, especially when you're using the largest available apertures. Overall, this lens is good rather than great.

Best superzooms for nikon dslrs: 8 tested

Taken at 18mm (min)

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Best superzooms for nikon dslrs: 8 tested

Taken at 200mm (max)

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Tamron 18-270mm f/3.5-6.3 Di II VC PZD

Best superzooms for nikon dslrs: 8 tested

Tamron 18-270mm f/3.5-6.3 Di II VC PZD - £480/ $500

This lens is far from a simple revision of its predecessor. With added PZD (Piezo Drive) autofocus, it's much smaller and lighter than the first 18-270mm, has 16 elements rather than 18, a smaller and lighter VC (Vibration Compensation) system and a filter thread of 62mm not 72mm.

It's about the same size and weight as most 18-200mm lenses, and 115g lighter than Nikon's. Handling is assured, but the sluggish f/6.3 maximum aperture at the telephoto end makes handheld a challenge despite the four- stop stabiliser.

Performance

Autofocus is much quieter than with the original 18-270mm's basic motor, but it's no quicker. Sigma's ultrasonic motors are faster. Sharpness is disappointing at both ends of the zoom range, and adequate in the middle region. Barrel distortion is also pronounced at 18mm, switching to pin- cushion distortion at mid-range zoom settings. Colour fringing is also an issue at either end of the zoom range.

Sharpness

At f/8, sharpness is pretty good at focal lengths around 135mm, but less inspiring towards either end of the zoom range.

Lab test at f/8
Sharpness at wide angle: 1172
Sharpness at mid range: 1344
Sharpness at telephoto: 885

Best superzooms for nikon dslrs: 8 tested

Fringing

Apart from in the central region of the zoom range, fringing is a major issue, with some of the worst results on test.

Lab test at f/8
Fringing at wide angle: 2.33
Fringing at mid range: 0.6
Fringing at telephoto: 3.37

Best superzooms for nikon dslrs: 8 tested

Distortion

Pronounced barrel distortion switches to high pin-cushion distortion as you zoom from wide-angle to mid-range settings.

Lab test at f/8
Distortion at wide angle: -4.02
Distortion at mid range: 1.25
Distortion at telephoto: 1.09

Best superzooms for nikon dslrs: 8 tested

Image quality verdict

The extreme 15x zoom range is an undoubtedly good feature to have, but brings with it a fairly major compromise in terms of image quality.

Best superzooms for nikon dslrs: 8 tested

Taken at 18mm (min)

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Best superzooms for nikon dslrs: 8 tested

Taken at 270mm (max)

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Tamron 28-300mm f/3.5-6.3 XR Di

Best superzooms for nikon dslrs: 8 tested

Tamron 28-300mm f/3.5-6.3 XR Di - £495/ $560

A direct competitor to Nikon's full-frame 28-300mm lens, the Tamron is much cheaper. It matches the Nikon for stabilisation, with Tamron's four-stop Vibration Compensation. It's a bit smaller, too, and some 250g lighter, although the build doesn't feel as robust.

The filter thread is just 67mm, rather than Nikon's 77mm, but with less light entering the lens the maximum aperture is a third of a stop slower at the telephoto end. As a result, this pushes the image stabiliser to the limit when you're using an APS-C-format camera.

Performance

Impressively, sharpness is on a par with the more expensive Nikon 28-300mm at the wide- angle end of the zoom range, and slightly better at mid- range and telephoto lengths. Distortions are fairly well controlled, although colour fringing is more noticeable, especially at frame corners. The slow autofocus is a bit of a letdown. Plus, there's a tendency for it to hunt back and forth or stop in dull light.

Sharpness

In the 28-200mm section of the zoom range, sharpness is great, and it's still acceptable at the longest 300mm setting.

Lab test at f/8
Sharpness at wide angle: 2108
Sharpness at mid range: 1682
Sharpness at telephoto: 1128

Best superzooms for nikon dslrs: 8 tested

Fringing

Colour fringing is obvious at mid to long focal lengths throughout the zoom range – a lot worse than with Nikon's equivalent.

Lab test at f/8
Fringing at wide angle: 1.8
Fringing at mid range: 2.54
Fringing at telephoto: 3.78

Best superzooms for nikon dslrs: 8 tested

Distortion

There's very little to differentiate the Tamron and Nikon 28-300mm lenses in terms of distortion. Both perform well.

Lab test at f/8
Distortion at wide angle: -2.44
Distortion at mid range: 0.81
Distortion at telephoto: 0.75

Best superzooms for nikon dslrs: 8 tested

Image quality verdict

Colour fringing is the only real flaw in the Tamron's image quality. Other than that, it's a strong performer at a good-value, reasonable price.

Best superzooms for nikon dslrs: 8 tested

Taken at 28mm (min)

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Best superzooms for nikon dslrs: 8 tested

Taken at 300mm (max)

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Nikon 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G AF-S VR II

Best superzooms for nikon dslrs: 8 tested

Nikon 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G AF-S VR II - £550/ $845

The original version of this lens was a hit. This mark II version looks almost identical, but important updates include a four-stop optical stabiliser rather than a three-stop one.

The zoom mechanism has also been redesigned, as the original lens was often criticised for zoom creep between 24-135mm. The issue hasn't been cured completely, but a zoom lock switch at 18mm has also been added. Two high-performance ED (Extra-low Dispersion) lens elements are still present, but updated lens coatings further reduce ghosting and flare.

Performance

Handling outstrips that of any other DX-format lens on test, with a silky-smooth focus ring. The fast, near-silent ring-type ultrasonic autofocus means it's also the only DX lens on which the focus ring doesn't rotate during autofocus, yet enables full-time manual focus override. Distortion is quite pronounced at the 18mm end of the zoom range but the in- camera correction on Nikon's latest bodies combats it well.

Sharpness

Excellent throughout almost all of the zoom range. There's plenty of sharpness right into the corners of the frame.

Lab test at f/8
Sharpness at wide angle: 2311
Sharpness at mid range: 1265
Sharpness at telephoto: 872

Best superzooms for nikon dslrs: 8 tested

Fringing

Very good for a superzoom lens – slight colour fringing is only usually a danger at the long end of the zoom range.

Lab test at f/8
Fringing at wide angle: 0.31
Fringing at mid range: 0.34
Fringing at telephoto: 0.56

Best superzooms for nikon dslrs: 8 tested

Distortion

There's a fair bit of barrel distortion at the wide-angle end but the latest Nikon bodies can tune this out automatically.

Lab test at f/8
Distortion at wide angle: -4.31
Distortion at mid range: 1.49
Distortion at telephoto: 1.35

Best superzooms for nikon dslrs: 8 tested

Image quality verdict

This lens delivers the best image quality of any DX-format superzoom currently available, with excellent results for sharpness, fringing and distortion.

Best superzooms for nikon dslrs: 8 tested

Taken at 18mm (min)

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Best superzooms for nikon dslrs: 8 tested

Taken at 200mm (max)

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Nikon 24-120mm f/3.5-5.6G AF-S VR

Best superzooms for nikon dslrs: 8 tested

Nikon 24-120mm f/3.5-5.6G AF-S VR - £560/ $860

Almost exactly the same size and weight as Nikon's 18-200mm DX VR lens, this FX counterpart is appealing, with an impressive 24mm wide-angle and modest 120mm telephoto. While the 5x zoom range only just edges the lens into the superzoom category, the widest focal length is an effective 36mm on DX bodies. Meanwhile, the telephoto length translates to 180mm, making it a viable superzoom for cameras such as the D3100 or D7000.

One advantage of this lens over Nikon's 18-200mm is that it doesn't suffer from any zoom creep. This is handy if you want to use a tripod for shooting at extreme angles. However, VR is a generation older, only gives a three-stop benefit and lacks an 'Active' mode for moving platforms.

Performance

Sharpness is great at the wide-angle end, excellent at mid-range and only drops off a little at the longest focal length. There's much less distortion at the wide-angle end, compared with several lenses in the group.

Sharpness

Sharpness can be lacking at the largest available apertures, but performance is good if you make a one-stop reduction.

Lab test at f/8
Sharpness at wide angle: 2279
Sharpness at mid range: 1479
Sharpness at telephoto: 1141

Best superzooms for nikon dslrs: 8 tested

Fringing

Resistance to colour fringing is good and remains constant throughout the entire zoom range.

Lab test at f/8
Fringing at wide angle: 0.43
Fringing at mid range: 0.41
Fringing at telephoto: 0.44

Best superzooms for nikon dslrs: 8 tested

Distortion

Barrel distortion is quite restrained at 24mm, switching to a slight pin-cushion effect at middling and longer zooms.

Lab test at f/8
Distortion at wide angle: -2.58
Distortion at mid range: 1.03
Distortion at telephoto: 1.02

Best superzooms for nikon dslrs: 8 tested

Image quality verdict

This often-overlooked lens works well on full-frame and DX bodies alike, consistently delivering high optical quality at a good price.

Best superzooms for nikon dslrs: 8 tested

Taken at 24mm (min)

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Best superzooms for nikon dslrs: 8 tested

Taken at 120mm (max)

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Nikon 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G AF-S ED VR

Best superzooms for nikon dslrs: 8 tested

Nikon 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G AF-S ED VR - £695/ $940

Noticeably larger than the DX-format lenses on test, this full-frame model gives a zoom range that's almost identical to the effective 27-300mm from 18-200mm lenses on an APS-C-format body. It has a newer design than the Nikon 24-120mm lens, and four-stop Vibration Reduction with 'Normal' and 'Active' mode options.

The extra length of the lens is even more noticeable at full stretch, but zooming from 28 to 300mm demands a little effort, as the zoom ring feels a bit sticky in places. As with the other Nikons on test, the ring-type ultrasonic autofocus system is quick and quiet, and comes complete with full-time manual override.

Performance

As with the Nikon 24-120mm lens, barrel distortion is well restrained at the widest-angle zoom setting, and pin-cushion is similarly low at the telephoto end. That's quite an achievement given the greater 10.7x zoom range. Sharpness is similarly impressive between 28 and 250mm, but drops off quite noticeably at 300mm.

Sharpness

Great performance in the 28-250mm range, with sharpness dropping off at the maximum 300mm focal length.

Lab test at f/8
Sharpness at wide angle: 2147
Sharpness at mid range: 1459
Sharpness at telephoto: 781

Best superzooms for nikon dslrs: 8 tested

Fringing

Colour fringing is a little noticeable in the central region of the zoom range, but well controlled at either end.

Lab test at f/8
Fringing at wide angle: 0.33
Fringing at mid range: 0.6
Fringing at telephoto: 0.46

Best superzooms for nikon dslrs: 8 tested

Distortion

A close match for the Nikon 24-120mm, distortions are well controlled, especially considering the extra zoom range.

Lab test at f/8
Distortion at wide angle: -2.48
Distortion at mid range: 1.18
Distortion at telephoto: 0.99

Best superzooms for nikon dslrs: 8 tested

Image quality verdict

Image quality is good overall. Our only reservation is that sharpness could be a little better at the maximum 300mm focal length.

Best superzooms for nikon dslrs: 8 tested

Taken at 28mm (min)

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Best superzooms for nikon dslrs: 8 tested

Taken at 300mm (max)

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Verdict

Best superzooms for Nikon DSLRs: 8 tested

Beautifully built, the Nikon 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G AF-S DX ED VR II packs in plenty of top-level features, making it our winner. The ring-type ultrasonic autofocus is fast, supremely accurate and practically silent.

Handling is further refined by full-time manual focus override, which is shared with Nikon's full-frame superzooms in the group.

It's not perfect, as there's a little zoom creep, and the image sharpness measured in our lab tests could have been better at the 200mm focal length. Out and about, however, it delivered the best overall image quality time after time.

For maximum zoom range on APS-C-format cameras, the Sigma 18-250mm OS is a better bet than the Tamron 18-270mm VC. Both feature ultrasonic, motor-driven autofocus systems, but the Sigma's is faster.

The Sigma's sharpness is also better, at least at either end of the zoom range, while distortions are better controlled and colour fringing is generally less of a problem.

For full-frame cameras, the Nikon 28-300mm and Tamron 28-300mm are direct competitors. The Nikon is more advanced, with ring-type ultrasonic autofocus, but the Tamron only has a basic electric motor that's slow, noisy and more prone to hunting in dull light. The Tamron's sharpness is better at 300mm, but the Nikon delivers better image quality.

Overall, our full-frame choice is the Nikon 24-120mm. Yes it lacks outright telephoto reach, but the extra wide-angle coverage is useful and offers a step up in image quality. The lens is also good for APS-C-format cameras, if you're planning on upgrading from APS-C to full-frame.

superzooms Nikon DSLRs cameras
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