Photography / Buying Guide

Best of 2015: SLR Lenses

While much of the photo industry has been focusing on the continual growth of the mirrorless world, the DSLR market has also seen its fair share of growth and optical innovations throughout 2015. Anchored by the strongholds of Canon and Nikon, and garnished with Pentax, the realm of SLR lenses expands beyond the primary camera manufacturers to include several third-party manufacturers ranging from the formidable Zeiss, Sigma, and Tamron to lesser-known, up-and-coming manufacturers such as Mitakon Zhongyi and Venus Optics. With a wealth of SLR lens options available over the years, 2015 was mainly characterized by manufacturers redeveloping and refining classic focal lengths. However, this isn't to say that a few surprises didn't pop up over the course of the year, as well.

A Wide-Angle Kind of Year?

If you could categorize the bulk of the notable lens announcements in one genre, it would be hard to argue calling 2015 "a wide-angle year." Kicking off the start of the year was Canon's release of the EF 11-24mm f/4L USM—the widest rectilinear, non-fisheye zoom lens available for full frame. Coinciding with the company’s announcement of the high-resolution EOS 5DS and 5DS R DSLRs, this ultra-wide zoom features a no-holds-barred optical design that incorporates Super Ultra Low Dispersion, Ultra Low Dispersion, and aspherical elements to produce a well-corrected image that is nearly void of chromatic and spherical aberrations. Ideal for architectural, landscape, and interior applications, this lens is also characterized by its constant f/4 maximum aperture, weather-resistant build, and inclusion of Subwavelength, Air Sphere, and fluorine lens coatings to reduce surface reflections and protect the front bulbous element from fingerprints and smudging.

Also a wide and also from Canon, the long-awaited update to one of its most popular lenses occurred in the second half of 2015 with the EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM. Redeveloped to suit the new range of high-resolution cameras, this lens incorporates a newly developed Blue Spectrum Refractive (BR) element that is designed to suppress chromatic aberrations and color fringing for increased clarity. As an L-series optic, this lens is also weather resistant, features a Subwavelength Coating to minimize flare, and has an Ultrasonic Motor for fast, quiet AF.

Book-ending 2015 was another high-profile wide-angle lens release, this time from Zeiss, with its newest installment to the venerable Otus line of high-resolution manual focus primes. The Otus 28mm f/1.4 joins the 55mm f/1.4 and 85mm f/1.4 from the previous years and features a similar apochromatic design, along with the inclusion of anomalous partial dispersion glass and aspherical elements to virtually eliminate aberrations and distortion for true edge-to-edge sharpness and illumination. Famed Zeiss T* anti-reflection coatings are applied here, as well as a floating-elements system, and sparing no expense to even the physical character of the lens, the Otus 28 features the robust, durable metal barrel and grippy rubberized focus ring now common to these Strigidae-named optics.

Upping both Canon and Zeiss, at least in regard to quantity, Sigma released a trio of wide-angle lenses in 2015—each of which belongs to the esteemed Art series of Global Vision lenses. Beginning with the widest, and most recent release, the 20mm f/1.4 DG HSM utilizes both FLD and SLD glass elements to limit distortion and aberrations for a high degree of sharpness and even illumination. A Hyper Sonic AF motor realizes, fast, smooth, and quiet focusing performance and, as with all Global Vision lenses, this lens is compatible with the Sigma USB Dock for fine-tuning focusing parameters and other lens characteristics.

Just a bit narrower in perspective is the 24mm f/1.4 DG HSM, which shares a number of design elements with the 20mm f/1.4, including the HSM AF motor, USB Dock compatibility, and use of Thermally Stable Composite material for added durability and resistance to temperature variations. FLD and SLD glass is featured here again, as well as a pair of aspherical elements that work to correct chromatic and spherical aberrations for a high degree of clarity, sharpness, and color accuracy.

Finally, Sigma also produced a rather curious wide-angle option with the 24-35mm f/2 DG HSM lens, which is characterized not only by the caliber of its optical design, but also by the constant f/2 maximum aperture. Similar to both the 24mm and 20mm options, this wide zoom uses FLD and SLD glass, as well as Super Multi-Layer Coatings, to control lens flare and ghosting for increased contrast when working in strong lighting conditions.

Rounding out the onslaught of wide-angle lenses is one of the more unique options of the year, this time from relative newcomer Venus Optics. The Laowa 15mm f/4 Macro lens has the distinction of being the widest true 1:1 macro lens for full-frame cameras, enabling you to achieve a broad perspective with close-focusing capabilities down to 4.7", which equates to an approximate 0.2" working distance. Extra-low dispersion and high refractive index elements control aberrations and reduce unwanted distortion while integrated +/- 6mm of shift lets you adjust your composition more easily.

Nikon's Long Game

Absent from the contention of wide-angle lenses, Nikon instead focused on improving its telephoto range beginning with the AF-S NIKKOR 300mm f/4E PF ED VR. Featuring a significant reduction in weight and size from its predecessor, this 300mm f/4 incorporates a newly developed Phase Fresnel (PF) element, along with one extra-low dispersion element, to reduce chromatic aberrations and ensure a high degree of sharpness and clarity. A Vibration Reduction system compensates for up to 4.5 stops of camera shake, making this a suitable lens for handheld use.

Following the release of the lightweight, compact 300mm f/4, Nikon released updates to its anything-but-lightweight, yet equally impressive, 500mm and 600mm telephotos. The AF-S NIKKOR 500mm f/4E FL ED VR and AF-S NIKKOR 600mm f/4E FL ED VR lenses now feature Nikon's electromagnetic diaphragm for greater exposure stability when working with fast continuous shooting rates, as well as fluorine-coated front elements for greater protection and resistance to fingerprints and smudging. They also feature combinations of fluorite and extra-low dispersion elements for truly impeccable image quality that is void of chromatic aberrations and distortions. Additionally, Vibration Reduction is featured in the two models to compensate for up to 4 stops of camera shake.

Later in 2015, Nikon then released the AF-S NIKKOR 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR lens, a versatile tele-zoom featuring a constant f/5.6 maximum aperture and the electromagnetic aperture mechanism. A trio of ED glass elements maintains consistently sharp performance throughout the zoom range while the VR system in this lens compensates for 4.5 stops of camera shake.

Balancing the wave of telephoto options, Nikon also slipped in a pair of standard zoom announcements for both FX and DX systems: the AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8E ED VR and the AF-S DX NIKKOR 16-80mm f/2.8-4E ED VR. The 24-70mm f/2.8 is an update to the classic standard zoom favored by many professional shooters for its versatility and wide-angle to portrait-length range. This new model has been updated with the same electromagnetic aperture mechanism found in the new telephotos, and also incorporates a unique aspherical extra-low dispersion element in addition to a plethora of other aspherical, ED, and high refractive index elements for well-corrected imagery and notable sharpness. This workhorse of a lens now also features 4-stop effective Vibration Reduction for sharper handheld shooting.

For DX shooters, the new 16-80mm f/2.8-4 serves as a faster and more versatile alternative to the classic 18-55mm kit lens. Besides its more expansive zoom range and faster maximum aperture range, this lens also separates itself from the pack through the use of aspherical and extra-low dispersion glass elements, both Nano Crystal and Super Integrated Coatings, and fluorine coatings on the front and rear elements. Common with the wave of new NIKKOR lenses, this optic also incorporates the electromagnetic aperture mechanism, as well as four-stop-effective Vibration Reduction.

Pentax Prepares to Go Full-Frame

In anticipation of its first full-frame DSLR, Pentax released a trio of impressive zooms to cover the larger image sensor in its forthcoming camera: the HD PENTAX-D FA* 70-200mm f/2.8 ED DC AW, the HD PENTAX-D FA 24-70mm f/2.8 ED SDM WR, and the HD PENTAX-D FA 150-450mm f/4.5-5.6 DC AW lenses. Arguably the two most oft-used zooms in a high-end kit, both of the constant f/2.8 models feature weather-resistant construction, employ extra-low dispersion glass, and have Pentax's Quick-Shift Focus System for more intuitive handling. The 70-200mm is a member of the Star (*) series, deeming it of the highest standard of lenses from Pentax, and features the new Aero Bright Coating II to suppress reflections and flare, as well as Super ED glass elements to compensate for a broad range of aberrations and distortions. Autofocus is managed by a Direct Current motor for smooth, quiet focusing performance, and a focus range limiter constrains focusing ranges for more responsive use. 

The 24-70mm lens, conversely, uses a Supersonic Direct-drive Motor for quick and near-silent AF operation and this lens features Pentax's HD lens coating to minimize flare and ghosting.

The longest of the three lenses, the 150-450mm, blends features from the other two lenses and incorporates a Direct Current AF motor, HD lens coatings, and utilizes a series of extra-low dispersion glass elements to limit chromatic aberrations throughout the zoom range.

Zeiss's New Bird in the Hand

In September, Zeiss introduced its newest family of manual focus SLR lenses, following the same suit of other ornithological-inspired optics, and this time the series is dubbed “Milvus,” after a genus of kites known for their hovering flight patterns. The Milvus series of lenses was developed as an update to many of Zeiss's classic series ZF.2 and ZE lenses for Nikon F and Canon EF mounts, respectively, and features a more contemporary exterior appearance that is common to the Otus and Batis lineups. Aside from the updates to their appearance and handling characteristics, the Milvus 100mm f/2M, 21mm f/2.8, 35mm f/2, and 50mm f/2M share the same optical designs as their respective predecessors.

Two of the new lenses, however, gained updated optical designs for improved performance. The Milvus 50mm f/1.4 can be seen as the evolution of the Planar T* 50mm f/1.4, and now utilizes a Distagon-type optical concept, along with four anomalous partial dispersion elements and one aspherical element, to more effectively control chromatic aberrations. Similarly, the Milvus 85mm f/1.4 lens features an improved Planar design that now incorporates seven anomalous partial dispersion glass elements, along with a unique spherical design, to both suppress aberrations and generate a smoother bokeh quality for selective-focus shooting.

All Milvus lenses sport the now well-recognized rubberized manual focus ring, sport weather-resistant construction, and the Nikon F mount (ZF.2 in Zeiss-speak) versions have a manual aperture ring that can be de-clicked for silent, smooth rotation that is well-suited to video applications.

Unique Prime Time

Concluding our look at some of the most notable lenses from this past year is a quartet of primes that doesn't necessarily fit within the aforementioned categories; however, these lenses deserve recognition based on their unique abilities or innovative technologies.

Announced at the end of the summer, Tamron introduced a pair of wider-than-normal primes that are distinct among other options due to their inclusion of Vibration Compensation image stabilization. The SP 35mm f/1.8 Di VC USD and the SP 45mm f/1.8 Di VC USD lenses, which are both available in Canon EF and Nikon F mounts, as well as Sony A without VC, blend a mixture of aspherical elements and low dispersion glass to produce well-corrected imagery with consistent illumination and sharpness across the frame and throughout the aperture range. The two lenses also feature Tamron's eBAND and BBAR coatings to suppress surface reflections and flare, and both use a Floating System for consistent performance throughout the focusing range.

Similarly unique among other primes is the Venus Optics Laowa 60mm f/2.8 2X Ultra-Macro lens, which is available for Canon EF, Nikon F, Pentax K, and Sony A mounts. What separates this lens from other macro lenses is its ability to achieve up to 2:1 magnification ratio with a 2.4" minimum focusing distance, as well as infinity focus at a 0.1x magnification, without the use of extension tubes or other adapters. This versatility lets you switch continuously from working with close-up and distant subjects in the truest sense of the phrase. The lens is further characterized by manual focus, manual aperture design; a rounded 14-blade diaphragm for smooth out-of-focus highlights; and a built-in lens hood to reduce flare and ghosting.

The final lens in our roundup is the Mitakon Zhongyi Speedmaster 85mm f/1.2, which is available for Canon EF and Nikon F mounts. Based on the same optical design as the E-mount version of this lens, this portrait-length prime is obviously characterized by its very fast f/1.2 maximum aperture that is suitable for low-light shooting and shallow-depth-of-field control. A manual focus design permits fine-tuned control, while the optical construction, which includes extra-low dispersion and high refractive index glass, reduces chromatic aberrations for greater color accuracy and sharpness throughout the aperture range. Complementing the wide maximum aperture is an 11-blade rounded diaphragm, which adds to the quality of bokeh, along with a stepless, de-clicked aperture ring for silent iris pulls when recording movies.

Discussion 11

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Good article re what's new.  Also Sigma's 10-20mm f3.5 EX DC HSM and Tokina's AT-X 11-20mm f/2.8 Pro DX Could also stand a shoutout.

 I love the  Sigma 10-20mm f3.5 EX DC HSM

What lens would be the best for my cannon D40 EOS for close ups and wide angle photos ? 

Hey Jeffrey, are you wanting recommendations from the lenses covered in this article, or generally speaking any lens recommendations?  Let us know and we'll reply back with recommendations. 

Yossi; I asking which Lens in this article would be the best for my cannon D40 for Wide Angle and Close Up Photos? 

Ótimo artigo !

I own Canon equipment including several "L" lenses. I have been a Canon person since about 1967. These new lenses look beautiful and are technical masterpieces but reading these articles is now like like reading a Motor Trend review of a new Ferrari. The Version II lenses are many hundreds of dollars more than the first version instead of giving you more bang for the same bucks. This lens technology is not following the price/performance trends of computers. More like automobiles.

Nice roundup. I'm one of those who went mirrorless and won't be looking back. How about a similar piece on the latest and greatest lenses for Fuji X mount and other mirrorless cameras? Other than Zeiss and Rokinon + its clones, it's hard to believe that Tokina, Sigma and Tamron haven't released anything in Fuji X mount. Not that I have a problem with the Fujinons, but it would be nice to have a few more options

Me too! I'm very happy with my mirrorless Olympus.

Just got the Tamron 16-300mm lens.  Haven't really tried it out to much but for what I have I am pleased with the quality of the pics.  The build quality is also very good. Manual override while in AF is a plus.  Got to go shooting.  Dabs...

What would be a good lens for a canon rebel t5i for milkyway photography?