Perspective: Nikon AF-S DX 17-55mm f/2.8 + Sony A6500

The camera and lens combination for this experiential review is my Sony A6500 mated to a Nikon AF-S DX 17-55mm f/2.8 IF-ED zoom lens adapted via a Fotodiox Pro Fusion mk II Nikon F to Sony E autofocus adapter. In this configuration, my A6500 was set up with in-body image stabilization and although focus peaking was turned on, it was not necessary as the lens autofocuses with the camera’s built-in systems via the adapter.

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Now you may notice that I’m talking about this lens in the past tense. Although it was a good optical combination, the overall weight of the lens + body defeated the point of APS-C photography, so I am no longer using nor seeking a vintage lens combination of this type.

It is worth noting that I am not a pixel-peeper; I choose to use a lens to achieve a look that may arise because of the quality of the optics, defects in the lens itself and its interaction with the camera and sensor. In other words, this is my qualitative perspective and a subjective review; your personal experience with the gear combination may vary.

Why not full frame, FE?

A fast, affordable autofocus zoom on a Sony FE-mount (full-frame) is, arguably, a mythical unicorn-esque creature. On one end of the spectrum, there are affordable kit lenses that are rather slow and optically average. On the other end are high-end boutique G Master and Zeiss lenses that seem to be the size and cost of a vintage VW convertible. As such, I’ve been hesitant to invest in Sony FE lenses and in fact, traded in my A7 body out of cost frustration.

The Sony I grew up with could make amazingly small gear, so why can’t it do that with full frame photography today? Leica can can make old school small high quality optics by hand, Contax (Zeiss) of yore could do it for others (Sony included), but I guess 21st century Sony has lost the ability to make small things. Lenses the size of beer kegs at boutique pricing or unimaginative subpar optical combinations tend to be Sony’s norm. Anyhow, the economics of investing in Sony full frame does not equate to positive creative value for me, so I downsized to APS-C to give myself greater portability and creative flexibility. Could that change in the future? Sure, specially with the A7mkIV on the market… but I digress.

Until recently, the smaller format left me with an optics problem. Prior to 2019, Sony APS-C lenses fit into one of three categories: average and affordable, better but overpriced or huge and expensive (i.e. FE lenses). When usable Nikon to Sony autofocus adapters drifted into the market a couple of years ago, a surprise option appeared — Nikon DX glass, which led me to pick up a fast, used 17-55mm DX-format autofocus zoom (which has been rendered obsolete by the most recent offerings from Sony and others).

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Experience

So what’s it like to use this body-lens combination? Well, let’s just get this out of the way: the Nikon 17-55mm is a beast of a lens that feels as if it was lifted off the side of an armored personnel carrier. Mounting it to the A6500 transformed the combination into a pro DSLR-grade photographic rocket launcher. With the weight came another concern — added strain on the A6500 body mount.

To partially counter the stress on the body, I took advantage of a feature included as part of the Fotodiox Pro Fusion mk II autofocus adapter. I clipped my Gordy’s leather strap to the body on the left side and bolted the other end to the adapter’s threaded foot. My hypothesis was that distributing the hang strain to the adapter and the shortest portion of the body would reduce torsional stress on the mount. Don’t know if it helped, but I felt better about it.

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Optically, I found the lens to be very good and quite nice in low light. It gave me a solid walk-around range with f/2.8 speed to be more creative without having to make too many compromises because of lighting conditions or other soft light factors. Add in the SteadyShot image stabilization and I ended up with a pretty solid do anything combination.

When shooting I didn’t find the weight of the lens to be too much of an issue. The mass helped stabilize the lens before SteadyShot kicked in, thus dampening some of the vibration before relying on the electronics. The other thing that I liked about this lens was that across the zoom range barrel extension was minimal with the least extension popping out at about 35mm. 17mm was the longest and 55mm pokes out a bit, but otherwise the controlled length of the lens kept it balanced when handheld and manageable in crowds.

That said, carrying the lens when not shooting was fatiguing. The lens is simply too heavy for practical use. Now I realize all of us who came from the vintage SLR world hung the equivalent of barbells around our necks, but that was then — today and to me, ergonomics are as important as optics. If you don’t want to carry the camera, you won’t use it. Period. Unless you’re a full-blown professional, the camera you have (smartphone) will win the day when fatigue kicks in.

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It is important to note that this particular lens was designed for a professional APS-C photographer in mind and as such, used copies vary widely in cosmetic, mechanical and optical condition. Cosmetic condition never really bothers me — rough looking lenses make it easier to disappear in a crowd.

The optical condition of any used lens is always a concern, so it is important to check the lens throughout the entire optical path paying close attention to both the front and rear elements. Unlike full-frame lenses, this DX lens will use the entire field across the glass to fill the sensor. As such, a mark on an edge or corner matters and as a pro lens, the copy you’re looking like may be cosmetically great (because it was always in a neoprene field wrap) but optically a mess (dropped, rear-element down in rocky meadow or bashed against a hard surface within a crowd of people).

The last point about condition is to thoroughly test the zoom and focus rings. A loose zoom ring in particular seems to be a sign that that the copy you have has had a hard life. It should feel dampened but not tight or sticky. My copy didn’t creep when carried lens down and is 90% smooth across the entire zoom range. It had a slight stickiness at the transition to full zoom (55mm), but I attributed that to the way the zoom mechanism worked. After pulling back from 17mm it shifted back out while zooming to 55mm. To me that indicates some kind of cam action with a mechanical shift in direction that would naturally have a motion-related physics involved. It did not feel like it was going to jam at an inopportune moment, so more of a feel thing than an actual issue.

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So what about autofocus? As I mentioned earlier, I chose the Fotodiox Fusion adapter to connect the lens to the A6500 body. It worked and was relatively quick at nailing focus (as quick as a kit lens, IMHO). With any third party autofocus adapter, native lens speed is important to consider. Typically, the more light that the lens can gather, the better the autofocus response. I have an 18-200mm VR zoom that is optically slow and unsurprisingly, the autofocus is slow, too.

The Fusion adaptor is controversial in that it seems to frustrate people in many ways. I’ve read many a review about the adaptor not working well or not working at all. In my case, the lens has been tested for use with the adapter and because the A6500 has multiple focusing systems built into the body, I simply don’t have the same kind of problems people have with, say, an A7 or an A6000. The A6500 and 17-55mm combination is a good fit and the in-body image stabilization system appears to work automagically, too.

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Aside from the considerable weight, I have to say that I did enjoy shooting with this body-adapter-lens combination. This lens was meant to be autofocused and it did it well. The added speed, constant aperture and focus range were huge bonuses for travel and event photography and while not as fast as some primes, it was fast enough to forgo lens swapping in the field.

Afterward

As I mentioned in the introduction, I no longer use this lens. While it was a good combination of optics, autofocus and zoom, it was just too heavy to be practical. To put a firm dot at the end of this paragraph, while in transit the lens took a hit and the zoom mechanism jammed. The 17-55mm Nikkor beast focuses and zooms no more. The lens was too heavy for its own good and there are better, lighter options entering in the Sony E-mount market so repairing it isn’t a worthwhile investment.

The perspective that I have shared is based on my own personal experience with the lens + camera/gear combination, which has been influenced by my 30+ years as an amateur and creative photographer. At the time of writing, I personally owned the equipment described and did not receive any compensation for expressing my opinions.

The featured image on this post was taken at the Hansen Arts Park, Jamestown, ND.

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