While the imaging world has been transfixed by awesome developments in sensor and image-processing technology, the 4K video revolution and advances in on-sensor phase-detection AF, an equally impressive transformation has been taking place on the optical front.
In the past two years, literally hundreds of interchangeable lenses were introduced, spanning every format from compact system cameras, APS-C and full-frame DSLRs and digital medium format. This optical explosion not only enhances the range of creative opportunities for picture takers, from casual shooters to pros, it also expands your profit potential.
In analyzing the latest entries, several trends emerge. As shooters become more sophisticated, creative expression and the esthetic quality of the image have come to the fore, and this has resulted in a renewed interest in wide-aperture prime (single focal length) lenses that create beautiful bokeh effects using limited depth of field at apertures in the f/1.2–2.8 range. Virtually every major lens manufacturer has jumped into the fray and offers an enticing assortment of high-speed primes covering all formats.
At the other end of the spectrum, zoom ranges are steadily increasing, and there are several new ultra-long telephoto zooms as well as long-range, wide-to-telephoto zooms that are wider at the wide end and provide unprecedented overall zoom ranges. Other notable lens trends are: flat, ultracompact wide angles and wide-angle zooms; high-performance lenses, often at premium prices; lenses with built-in, ultraquiet stepping motors for shooting video without focusing noise; and creative lens accessories that let shooters put the zone of sharpness where they want it.
Perhaps the greatest thing about lenses is they’re “keepers” that migrate to the next, more advanced camera body as customers upgrade to take advantage of the latest technology. As a result, lenses have a higher resale value than cameras and a higher perceived value among consumers. Indeed, lenses are considered long-term investments that will pay dividends going forward, and that’s one reason the optical sector is one of the healthiest, most dependable niches in the digital marketplace.
A Compendium of Innovative Lenses
Nikon: A pair of high-speed primes for FX/DX formats
AF-S Nikkor 58mm f/1.4G. This ultra-high-performance f/1.4 normal lens for full-frame FX Nikon DSLRs revives a classic focal length that goes back to the Nikon F’s earliest days, and it works as a moderate 87mm-equivalent telephoto on DX (APS-C) format Nikons. It has two aspheric elements, Nano Crystal and Super Integrated coatings, virtually no coma or light falloff, apertures from f/1.4–16, a rounded nine-blade diaphragm for smooth transitions and beautiful bokeh, and a silent wave motor. $1,699.95.
AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.8 G ED. This is also an advanced lens designed for DX- (52.5mm equivalent) and FX-format Nikons, providing excellent background separation and low-light image quality at wide apertures. It incorporates an extra-low dispersion (ED) element to increase sharpness and contrast, and has seven rounded diaphragm blades for enhanced bokeh. $599.95. nikonusa.com
Tokina: An ultrawide zoom for APS-C-format DSLRs
AT-X Pro 12–28mmm f/4 DX. A compact, ultrawide-to-wide zoom available in mounts for APS-C-format Canon and Nikon DSLRs, it employs aspheric and super-low dispersion glass elements for enhanced sharpness, minimal distortion and impressive color correction. It also boasts a new GMR magnetic precision AF control sensor designed for faster autofocus and a silent drive module (SD-M) for quieter AF. A one-touch clutch lets users shift from AF to manual focus by simply sliding the focusing ring back and forth. It has nine curved blades for dramatic bokeh and provides equivalent focal lengths of 18–42mm (Nikon, $499) or 19–45mm (Canon, $489). kenkotokinausa.com
Olympus: A pair of compact Micro Four Thirds lenses
M.Zuiko ED 14–42mm f/3.5–5.6 EZ. This flat, ultracompact 24–48mm equivalent short zoom is designed as a standard walk-around lens for Olympus OM-D and PEN cameras. It incorporates three aspheric elements, one extra-low dispersion (ED) element to reduce aberrations and one S-HR (super-high refractive index) element to enhance sharpness. It includes an electronic zoom mechanism for nearly silent zoom control and weighs only 3.2 ounces. $349.99.
M.Zuiko 25mm f/1.8. A standard (50mm-equivalent), high-performance, high-speed prime lens optimized for low-light performance, it offers limited depth of field at wide apertures to separate the subject from the background. It has two aspheric elements for enhanced sharpness and aberration correction, a seven-blade circular diaphragm for artistic bokeh and a quiet MSC autofocus system for shooting HD video. $399.99. olympusamerica.com
Canon: STM stepping-motor lens for ultraquiet AF
EF-S 55–250mm f/4–5.6 IS STM. Made for APS-C-format Canon DSLRs, it delivers an impressive 88–400mm equivalent range along with built-in optical image stabilization (IS) to ensure sharp shots at long focal lengths. It has an ultralow dispersion (UD) element and optimized lens coating to ensure optimum image quality, and a seven-blade circular diaphragm for smooth transitions to out-of-focus areas. A full-time manual focus control uses a rear-group focusing system and a nonrotating front element. Its signature feature is an STM stepping motor engineered to produce fast, nearly silent AF that’s especially suited for video. $349.99. usa.canon.com
Sony: High-performance, full-frame E-mount lens
Sonnar T* FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA. Designed for full-frame E-mount cameras such as the Alpha 7 series, this high-performance, high-speed normal lens bears the Zeiss logo and incorporates proprietary Carl Zeiss T* coatings for flare-free imaging. It employs five aspherical elements and one ED glass element that combine to enrich image quality. The lens’s wide aperture is optimized for low-light shooting and affords greater control over the plane of focus, while a nine-blade circular diaphragm enhances its beautiful bokeh. It also features dust- and moisture-resistant construction. $999.99. sony.com
Panasonic: A Leica DG Micro Four Thirds lenses
Lumix G Leica DG Summilux 15mm f/1.7 Asph. Announced just before press time, this high-performance, high-speed 30mm-equivalent wide-angle lens provides beautiful defocus effects as well as enhanced low-light abilities. It incorporates three aspheric elements, Panasonic’s Nano Surface coating to achieve outstanding image quality across the field with extremely low flare, and a manual aperture ring. A newly designed stepping motor enables faster speed and smoother, virtually silent operation when shooting video. It is compatible with Lumix G (Micro Four Thirds) cameras with high-speed AF. A robust metal barrel and mount ensure durability. $599. panasonic.com
Tamron: A duo of long-range telephoto zooms
SP 150–600mm f/5–6.3 Di VC USD. For full-frame and APS-C-format DSLRs, its 4x zoom range provides a maximum equivalent focal length of 930mm with the latter. It incorporates three low-dispersion glass elements to minimize aberrations, Tamron’s proprietary VC (vibration compensation) image stabilization system, a USD (ultrasonic silent drive) motor, full-time manual focus, a nine-blade circular diaphragm for enhanced bokeh effects, eBand and BBAR coating to virtually eliminate flare and ghosting, and moisture-resistant construction. It can easily be shot handheld and comes with a removable tripod mount. It will come in Nikon, Canon and Sony mounts. $1,069.
28–300mm f/3.5–6.3 Di VC PZD. Designed for both full-frame and APS-C-format DSLRs, this all-in-one zoom lens features four LD glass elements, three molded-glass aspheric elements, one hybrid aspheric element, one XR (extra refractive index) element and one UXR (ultra-extra refractive) element to achieve superior performance over the entire zoom range. It includes Tamron’s VC image stabilization system, a fast, quiet, efficient Piezo Drive and moisture-resistant construction. It will launch in Nikon, Canon and Sony mounts. TBA. tamron-usa.com
Sigma: A high-speed prime lens and a macro
50mm f/1.4 DG HSM/A. One of the highlights of Sigma’s Art lens lineup optimized for creative imaging, this autofocus lens for full-frame and APS-C-format DSLRs is aimed at photographers who want to create beautiful pictorial effects at wide apertures, and shoot in low light. This highly corrected lens incorporates a silent and responsive HSM (hyper sonic motor) that provides full-time manual focus override. It will be available in Canon, Nikon, Sony and Sigma mount. TBA.
18–200mm f/3.5–5.6 DC Macro OS HSM/C. In Sigma’s Contemporary line, this lens for APS-C-format DSLRs provides a 29–320mm equivalent, 11x zoom range as well as true macro capability down to 1:3. Its double-sided aspheric elements allow for an extraordinarily compact design. Other features include: a built-in optical stabilizer (OS) to eliminate the effects of camera shake; an HSM for enhanced speed and responsiveness; a seven-blade rounded diaphragm for smooth out-of-focus transitions; and a durable brass bayonet mount. It comes in Canon, Nikon, Sony, Pentax and Sigma mounts. $399. sigmaphoto.com
Fujifilm: Premium X-mount lens
Fujinon XF 56mm f/1.2 R. A super-speed prime portrait lens that provides an equivalent focal length of 85mm when used on Fujifilm APS-C-format mirrorless cameras, it’s optimized for creating stunning pictorial effects using limited depth of field as well as for enhanced low-light performance. It incorporates one double-sided aspheric element to control aberrations, two ED elements, and DT-EBC multilayer coating to achieve impressive imaging performance and very low flare. It also features an efficient internal focusing system with high-speed AF and a seven-blade rounded diaphragm. When used with a Fujifilm X-series camera with a lens modulation optimizer (LMO), it’s said to deliver even illumination and sharpness over its aperture range. $999. fujifilmusa.com
Luxurious Leica M-system lens from Germany
Leica APO-Summicron-M 50mm f/2.0 Asph. For Leica M-series rangefinder cameras, it’s touted as the best-performing 50mm lens ever offered in (albeit limited) series production. Despite its breathtaking price of more than $7k, it’s sold amazingly well and has been on constant back order. Claimed to capture the finest details even at maximum aperture, its MTF performance readouts are astonishing, and its distortion and light falloff are said to be virtually imperceptible. Who needs such a lens? Well-heeled fanatics and those who want to get the ultimate image quality out of their Leica Monochroms and M9s! $7,350. us.leica-camera.com
Lensbaby: Something different and inventive
Composer Pro with Edge 80 Optic. This ingenious selective focus system combines the Lensbaby Composer Pro with the new Edge 80 optic. The Composer Pro provides a tilt/shift action that lets users achieve selective focus on various parts of the scene and has an enhanced ball-and-socket joint that tilts up to 17.5º and retains its position once set. The Edge 80 Optic is made of multicoated glass, provides a flat imaging field and works like a standard 80mm lens when it’s not tilted. But when it’s tilted, it provides a thin slice of sharp focus through the image. For maximum creative image control and flexibility, it features a nearly circular 12-blade aperture with a range of f/2.8–22 and a macro function that focuses as close as 17 inches. $399.99. lensbaby.com