It looks like everyone agrees that sharpness - which is the key reason I prefer a lens over another since I mainly shoot scenery - does not change much between the $300 kit and $1800 pro lens . All the resolution tests indicate the same . The expensive glass lenses hit 2000-2200 lw/ph in middle and 1800-2000 lw/ph in borders but so does my 18-135 mm kit zoom.
I agree with sharpness being not the only issue but let's go over the rest .
- Vignetting & distortions : Exist also in pro lenses but maybe half of what it is in kit lenses . They are both easy to get rid of in PC if you need to or just crop the corners for vignetting.
- (Shallow ) Depth of field , bokeh : Useful but I don't need that when shooting scenery trying to get everywhere crisp sharp.
- Chr. Aberrations : for 24-70 mm f2.8 at 5.6 24mm/40mm/70mm : 0,81/0,60/0.56
for 18-135mm f3.5-5.6 at 5.6 18mm/35mm/70mm : 1.04/0.74/0.87
It's not like it is non-existent in the $1800 lens ! Just a bit less ...
- Build Quality/plastic vs metal/weather sealing/robustness : So what ? I've never had a kit lens that broke down and even if it does I can replace it 3-4 times with what I saved in the first place
And if you drop them on concrete , they both break - the difference being the pro glass makes a $1800 sound when it does :-)
So I guess the main difference comes to speed - to the 1 or 2 stops advantage . Well , for me it doesn't matter as I shoot scenery and use a monopod most of the time. For someone shooting sports , I'm sure it will make a huge difference.
I still say sharpness is the most important factor in lens quality and when it comes to that , there is no difference between the $300 and $2000 lens ....And can you believe the $100 valued 18-55mm that came with my wife's D5000 is actually even sharper ! !
I think we should consider ourselves lucky that Nikon builds such high quality cheap zooms . It's not the case with Canon - what I hear .
After months of looking at lens tests, I convinced myself it is not worth giving an extra $1000 for each lens for 5% more in image quality and the 1-1.5 stop difference . Especially when you are using the best/center part of the glass in DX anyway . I won't be fooled into paying 4-5 times as much for a lens that is only 5-10% better than the one that comes in a cheaper looking packaging .
I also have a lot to say about the so called "wonderful" prime lenses - the $150 to $350 range - ( which are also supposed to be better in image quality than the kit zooms but actually aren't ) but I will leave it to some other time . Unfortunately , this time I was tricked into buying 2 of them :-(