The Lens Scene: The Glass Evolution

The Lens Scene: The Glass Evolution


In a digital world dominated by the relentless advance of image capture technology, where everything is on the consumer electronics paradigm, interchangeable lenses offer something akin to lasting value. In the end it is the lens that actually forms the image captured by those cutting-edge sensors and delivered by advanced image-processing software.

The rise of the compact system camera has redefined and expanded the interchangeable-lens landscape, with a profusion of enticing new lenses available for both Micro Four Thirds and APS-C formats. Leading camera and lens companies have also responded to the emergence of full-frame DSLR enthusiasts with exciting wide-aperture zoom and prime lenses aimed at full-frame shooters who want to express themselves using creative depth-of-field control. And far from being caught in the middle, APS-C-format DSLRs—now a robust, expanding category that extends from broad-spectrum, entry-level to pro/prosumer models—have also generated a fair share of innovative prime and zoom lenses that cover the entire focal-length spectrum.

While zoom lenses are still the most popular general lens category by a wide margin, consumer interest in single-focal-length lenses, aka prime lenses, has steadily grown over the past few years to become one of today’s hottest niches. Prime lenses score on high resolution, enhanced sharpness and reduced aberrations and distortion. They usually have wider apertures (f/2.8, f/2.0 and f/1.4), making it easier to create striking pictorial effects using limited depth of field, and to capture soft backgrounds and foregrounds with beautiful bokeh. Many are lighter and better balanced than zooms, and some are attractively priced.

On the opposite end of the lens universe there’s a raft of extremely long-range zooms for DSLRs and compact system cameras aimed at travelers and those seeking all-in-one convenience. Over the past year or so, virtually every major camera company and independent lens manufacturer has brought forth new high-performance zooms in the 24–70mm f/2.8 wide and 70–200mm f/2.8 telephoto categories. The fact that these pro-spec, premium-priced lenses are selling very well and generating lots of buzz is a sure sign that an increasing number of serious enthusiasts is one of the main factors driving today’s active and lucrative lens market.

Finally, with a veritable explosion in the ranks of shooters using DSLRs and compact system cameras to capture HD video, can video-prioritized lenses be far behind? Nope. Canon’s quiet-focusing STM lenses in EF mount and Sony’s ingenuous 16–50mm retractable power zoom in E-mount for NEX cameras are just a couple of stellar examples of a significant trend in progress.

Here’s a brief rundown of some of the coolest new lenses that your value-motivated customers are likely to be looking for to expand their systems—including something a little different from Lensbaby, the manufacturer of Creative Effects lenses.

Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM. Just announced, this super-speedy, full-frame wide-angle lens in Sigma’s new “Art” line is optimized for shallow depth of field and pleasing bokeh when used at its widest apertures. It incorporates one FLD (fluorite-equivalent low dispersion) element and four SLD (super-low dispersion) elements for enhanced chromatic aberration correction, a hyper sonic motor (HSM) for fast, quiet AF, a nine-blade diaphragm for smooth transitions in out-of-focus areas, and a classic brass bayonet mount. It focuses down to 11.8 inches and it will be available in Canon, Nikon and Sigma mounts. $899.

Sigma 180mm f/2.8 APO Macro EX DG OS HSM.
Claimed to be the first lens of its speed and focal length that gets down to 1:1 magnification in macro mode, it includes a built-in optical stabilizer (OS) for sharp handheld shots, three FLD (fluorite-equivalent low dispersion) elements to reduce aberrations, a floating inner focusing system to improve balance and performance, a hyper sonic motor (HSM) for fast, quiet autofocus, “super multilayer” coatings to help eliminate flare and ghosting, and a nine-blade diaphragm for enhanced bokeh. Its minimum focus distance is 18.5 inches, and it’s available in Canon, Nikon, Sony and Sigma mounts. $2,400.

Canon EF 40mm f/2.8 STM. This really flat pancake lens extends less than an inch from the camera body (0.9 inch to be exact) and works on full-frame Canon DSLRs as an inconspicuous semi wide angle, and on APS-C cameras as a discreet (64mm equivalent) normal lens. Its newly developed STM (stepping motor) function is designed to provide smooth, quiet, continuous AF when shooting HD video. It also features a circular seven-blade diaphragm to enhance bokeh and one aspheric element in its six-element, four-group design to maintain high sharpness across the image field. Its minimum focus distance is .98 feet. $199.99.

Canon EF 24–70mm f/2.8L II USM. This latest upgraded version of Canon’s classic, pro mainstay 24–70mm f/2.8L lens incorporates one super UD and two UD elements to reduce chromatic aberrations even further and virtually eliminate color fringing, and a ring-type USM motor and new high-speed CPU to ensure ultrafast and silent AF. Other features include a dust- and weather-resistant construction, nine-blade circular diaphragm for beautiful bokeh, fluorine coatings on the outer elements to reduce fingerprints and make cleaning easier, and a zoom lock lever. $2,299.

Pentax smc DA 18–270mm f/3.5–6.3 ED SDM. The longest ranging lens in Pentax’s K-mount line, this new superzoom provides a 15x zoom ratio and equivalent focal lengths of 27.5–414mm on APS-C-format Pentax DSLRs. Its built-in SDM AF system driven by a supersonic motor is said to provide exceptionally smooth and quiet AF. It includes two extra-low dispersion (ED) elements, a rounded diaphragm for enhanced bokeh and a minimum focus distance of 1.6 feet over its entire zoom range (0.26x) for extended macro performance. $799.95.

Pentax HD DA 560mm f/5.6ED AW.
This new prime super-telephoto lens delivers a focal-length equivalent of 859mm on APS-C-format K-mount Pentax cameras. It features dustproof, weather-resistant construction, an included 40.5mm circular polarizing (C-PL) filter that fits the built-in filter holder in the barrel, a rounded nine-blade diaphragm for enhanced bokeh, apertures to f/45 and a smudge-resistant super protect (SP) outer coating. It also allows easy manipulation with a quick-shift manual/AF focusing system. $6,999.95.

Nikon AF-S DX Nikkor 18–300mm f/3.5–5.6G ED VR.
Nikon upped the ante with this ultra-long-range 16.7x zoom ratio (27–450mm equivalent) lens for APS-C-format (DX) Nikon cameras. It includes the latest VR II (vibration reduction) image stabilization, three ED and three aspheric lens elements for claimed excellent performance and color correction, a nine-blade rounded diaphragm for enhanced bokeh, a silent wave ultrasonic motor (SWM) for swift, noiseless autofocus, a zoom lock switch and Nikon “super integrated multi-coating” (SIC) to tame flare and ghosting. Geared for travel and landscapes, it focuses down to 1.48 feet over its entire zoom range. $995.95.

Nikon AF-S Nikkor 24–85mm f/3.5–4.5G ED VR.
This impressive, compact wide-to-medium-tele zoom for general-purpose photography and HD video recording covers the full-frame (FX) image field, provides an equivalent focal-length range of 36–136.5mm on DX-format Nikons, and focuses down to a close 1.25 feet. Its VR II image stabilization system includes tripod detection, and it also incorporates: three aspheric elements and one ED (extra-low dispersion) element for enhanced performance and aberration correction; a silent wave motor (SWM) designed for swift, noiseless AF; a seven-blade rounded diaphragm for attractive bokeh; internal focusing; and SIC coatings for reduced flare and ghosting. $599.95.

Tamron SP 70–200mm f/2.8 Di VC USD. Tamron goes toe-to-toe with the big boys with this f/2.8-aperture high-performance telephoto zoom that’s clearly aimed at capturing a share of the pro market. Designed for full-frame DSLRs, it incorporates one XLD (extra-low dispersion) and four LD (low dispersion) elements to minimize chromatic aberration, and it features moisture-resistant construction, an ultrasonic (USD) motor for swift, silent AF, the latest version of Tamron’s proprietary tri-axial vibration compensation (VC) system, and a nine-blade rounded diaphragm for beautiful bokeh. It will be available for Canon, Nikon and Sony cameras. $1,499.

Tamron SP 90mm f/2.8 Di Macro VC USD. The latest upgraded version of Tamron’s classic 90mm macro lens, it offers the most advanced iteration of Tamron’s vibration compensation (VC) system and ultrasonic silent drive (USD). It also incorporates one LD (low dispersion) and two XLD (extra-low dispersion) elements to reduce chromatic aberration and enhance sharpness and resolution. This internal-focus lens features a rounded diaphragm for blur effects, moisture-resistant construction and Tamron’s newly developed eBand coating, claimed to deliver a dramatic improvement in antireflection performance. It will be offered in Canon, Nikon and Sony mounts. $849.

Sony 10–18mm f/4 OSS. Sony’s new ultra-wide-angle zoom for E-mount NEX cameras provides an equivalent focal-length range of 15–27mm and a satisfyingly fast, constant maximum aperture of f/4.0. The lens has built-in Optical SteadyShot image stabilization (OSS) to provide a four-stop shutter speed advantage, employs three aspheric elements and super-low dispersion glass to reduce spherical and chromatic aberrations and distortion, and has a seven-bade circular diaphragm for enhanced bokeh. The attractive 10-element, eight-group lens focuses down to 9.8 inches. $849.99.

Sony 16–50mm f/3.5–5.6 OSS.
This unique wide-to-medium-tele zoom for Sony NEX E-mount cameras retracts to keep the camera thin enough to slide into a pocket, extending only 1.2 inches from the body, while providing a very useful 24–75mm equivalent focal-length range. A boon for video shooters, it has power zoom capability in AF mode using an internal stepping motor! Other features include a dual-function ring that controls both power zoom and manual focus, built-in Optical SteadyShot (OSS) image stabilization, four aspheric surfaces and one ED (extra-low dispersion) element for enhanced sharpness and aberration correction, a 9.8-inch minimum focus distance, and a circular seven-blade diaphragm. It’s expected to ship in January. $350.

Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 75mm f/1.8. This impressively fast prime telephoto (150mm equivalent) lens for Micro Four Thirds-format cameras (including the Olympus Pen line) is ideal for portraits and low-light shooting. It’s compact (2.7×2.5 inches), lightweight (10.8 ounces) and uses a movie & still compatible (MSC) autofocus system to provide nearly silent AF. The portrait lens incorporates three ED (extra-low dispersion) elements, a nine-blade circular aperture unit, and advanced Olympus ZERO (Zuiko extra-low reflection optical) coatings for enhanced image quality and antireflection performance. $899.99.

Lensbaby Spark. Announced at photokina and designed to “spark “creativity, the Spark lets photographers create images in-camera with a sweet spot of sharp focus surrounded by “beautiful artistic blur.” This is achieved by simply pressing on its outer ring to tilt the Spark’s 50mm f/5.6 multicoated doublet fixed-focus lens in any direction and holding it in place while you take the shot. The amount of possible tilt is deliberately limited to keep the sweet spot somewhere on the image plane. “The Spark is designed to help young creative photographers express themselves,” said Craig Strong, Lensbaby’s chief creative officer and cofounder. The manual focus lens retails for $80, which should appeal to young shooters on a budget.