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Throughout the course of 2014, a number of notable SLR lenses were released, running the gamut from optically refined, fast primes to versatile and long-reaching zooms, with all other realms covered in between. While the lens releases varied from manufacturer to manufacturer and system to system, a number of distinct themes became recognizable, which act as foundation points from which to compare and contrast different lenses, as well as gauge expectations regarding the future of contemporary SLR lens design.
High-Quality, Fast Primes
One of the most compelling new themes of lens design that is beginning to make headway is the development of standard-length prime lenses with truly excellent optical performance. In contrast to designing for faster maximum apertures, exotic focal lengths, or constant zooms, this trend is focusing on some of the most common prime focal lengths. Compared to other lenses of such focal lengths (50mm and 85mm), these lenses are being completely redeveloped from the tried-and-true constructions and updated to garner the most from the newest high-resolution sensor designs. Two of the main players in this arena are Zeiss and Sigma, who pushed this category in 2014 with the Otus 85mm f/1.4 Apo Planar T* lens and 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art lens, respectively.
In regard to Zeiss, the renowned German optics powerhouse, the 85mm is the second lens in their manual focus Otus lineup, and follows last year’s famed 50mm f/1.4, widely dubbed as one of the greatest 50mm lenses ever designed for DSLRs. The 85mm continues with the same agenda and, again, sees no optical compromises. It is a portrait-length apochromat that includes one aspherical element and a floating-elements design; or in other words, is designed to eliminate nearly all chromatic and spherical aberrations for maintained color accuracy around subject edges at all aperture settings. Other noted features of this lens include its all-metal lens barrel, high-visibility yellow scale markings, grippy focus ring with a long focus throw, and the trademark T* anti-reflective coating.
Countering the Zeiss lens’s prowess is Sigma’s formidable 50mm f/1.4, which holds the clear distinction over the Otus lenses as being a high-quality prime with autofocus. This HSM (Hyper Sonic Motor) delivers quiet, quick focusing performance to pair well with modern DSLRs for faster-paced shooting applications than the Zeiss, yet also features sophisticated optical construction that includes one aspherical element and three Special Low Dispersion elements. This structure pairs with a large-diameter design to maintain even sharpness and brightness throughout the aperture range while also controlling aberrations and color fringing. Like the Zeiss, a floating system is used for high rendering capabilities at all focus and aperture positions, and a Super Multi-Layered Coating works to reduce flare and ghosting for increased contrast.
While each of these primes is certainly suited for different image makers due to the key difference in focusing methods and, of course, their difference in focal length, the central theme is how lens designers are working to re-develop classic focal lengths for the contemporary imaging needs of the ever-improving image sensors.
Dueling 400mm Super Telephotos
At the other end of prime lens design, two other heavyweights of the camera world, namely Canon and Nikon, both released 400mm telephoto lenses for their respective DSLR systems. Both succeeding previous iterations of these lenses, the updated versions are designed for improved optical quality, weather sealing, and image-stabilization performance.
Along with being the newest super telephoto lens in the EF lens lineup, the Canon EF 400mm f/4 DO IS II USM is also the newest diffractive optics lens, which strives to lessen the overall weight and size while maintaining enhanced correction for chromatic and spherical aberrations. Gapless dual-layer diffractive optics is the defining feature of this lens, helping to prevent a decline in diffraction efficiency that can result from a layer of air between optics. A large diameter aspherical element and UD (Ultra-Low Dispersion) element are also incorporated into the design. Protective fluorine coatings on both the front and rear elements, along with weather-resistant construction, benefit this lens’s use in trying conditions while an inner focusing Ultra Sonic Motor and Power Focus mode complement fast and intuitive handling. Additionally, an Optical Image Stabilizer is also incorporated, which compensates for up to four stops of camera shake and features three dedicated modes for specific types of shooting, including standard, panning, and during exposure only.
On the Nikon front, 2014 saw the release of the AF-S NIKKOR 400mm f/2.8E FL ED VR lens, which succeeds their previous 400mm f/2.8 lens and incorporates two fluorite elements and two extra-low dispersion elements into its design. Coupled with a Nano Crystal Coating, this fast telephoto strives to nearly eliminate chromatic and spherical aberrations, as well as thoroughly control lens flare and ghosting for consistently high-contrast, color-neutral imagery. Similar to the Canon lens, this Nikon optic incorporates a front fluorine-coated meniscus element that pairs with weather-resistant barrel construction to suit working in inclement conditions. Nikon’s Silent Wave Motor offers fast and quiet AF performance and the Vibration Reduction image stabilization compensates for up to four stops of camera shake. Among other notable features of this lens is an electromagnetic aperture mechanism that aids exposure consistency when shooting high-speed bursts, and an inner focusing design with full-time manual focus override.
Both fast and flexible in control and performance, the 400mm focal length is one of the most versatile super-telephoto designs used for a wide array of shooting styles, ranging from sports to wildlife to reportage.
The New Telephoto Zoom Standard
Deviating from the standout prime lenses of the year, much of the attention in regard to zoom lenses during 2014 surrounded a common focal-length range, namely 150-600mm. Two manufacturers in particular embraced this long reaching range: Sigma and Tamron. Beginning at a standard telephoto and expanding to a very long super telephoto length, these lenses have been designed for ultimate versatility when working with distant subjects.
Beginning with Tamron, their SP 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Di VC USD lens was announced at the end of 2013; however, it became available for the first time in 2014. This 4x zoom is complemented by Vibration Compensation (VC) image stabilization, for the Canon EF and Nikon F mounts, which compensates for camera shake, while an Ultrasonic Silent Drive (USD) AF motor provides fast, near-silent focusing performance that can be manually overridden at any point. Three low-dispersion elements control distortions and aberrations throughout the zoom range while eBAND and BBAR coatings suppress flare and ghosting.
Following up Tamron’s release at the beginning of the year, Sigma recently matched that offering with the 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM Sports lens, which is the second lens in its performance-oriented Sports line of telephoto zoom lenses. Differing in optical design, the Sigma version features two “F” Low Dispersion elements and three Special Low Dispersion elements within its 24 elements in 16 groups design (versus Tamron’s 20 elements in 13 groups). Common to other Sigma lenses, this 150-600mm utilizes a Hyper Sonic Motor for quiet focusing and an Optical Stabilizer to reduce the appearance of camera shake. Also unique to Sigma, this lens is compatible with Sigma’s USB Dock for customizing focusing and stabilization settings based on specific shooting needs.
Poised to be a standard telephoto zoom for many photographers, the new 150-600mm focal length range is quite suitable for an array of shooting applications, ranging from portraiture at the wide end to wildlife and sports at the 600mm end.
The White Unicorn Has Arrived
The end of 2014 saw the release of one of the most anticipated lenses in recent memory—a lens that many have been waiting for, for more than a decade. The Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM is a newly designed upgrade to the company’s popular EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM, and with it comes a slew of improvements in both the optical and functional realms. Physically, the lens gains a more intuitive rotation-type zoom control, compared to the previous lens's push-pull mechanism, and also has an updated tripod mount that can be removed while the lens is attached to the camera. The image stabilization system compensates for up to four stops of camera shake and a ring-type Ultrasonic Motor offers quick and quiet AF performance.
On the optical front, fluorite and Super Ultra Low Dispersion glass is employed to control chromatic aberrations and distortions throughout the zoom range, and a newly developed Air Sphere Coating has also been applied to maintain light transmission and minimize backlit flaring and ghosting.
Another unique touch this version adds is the new dedicated ET-83D lens hood, which features a small side window for easier control over polarizers or other rotating filters while the hood is in place.
Notable Wide-Angle Zooms
At the other end of the zoom lens spectrum, wide-angle zooms occupy an area that consistently sees growth and progression due to the popularity of working with a wide range of differing focal lengths. Compared to telephoto zoom lenses, wide-angle zooms tend to span a shorter range of focal lengths, yet each position can offer drastic results. Wide-angle zooms are prized for their versatility in altering the perspective of an image and can be well matched to a broad range of working conditions.
The middle of 2014 saw the release of Canon’s EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM lens, which serves as an alternative for the successful 16-35mm f/2.8. Separating itself from its f/2.8 relative, though, the f/4 version is unique in that it features an Optical Image Stabilizer to minimize the appearance of camera shake. While forfeiting a stop in light, the added benefit of image stabilization can compensate for up to four shutter-speed steps to benefit its use in difficult lighting conditions. Its optical design includes three aspherical elements and two UD elements to control aberrations and distortions, while a constant f/4 maximum aperture offers consistent illumination throughout the zoom range as well. A ring-type Ultrasonic Motor offers fast, precise, and quiet focusing while an internal focusing design and full-time manual focus override promote intuitive and fast handling. Additionally, as an L lens, this lens is fully weather sealed when paired with an optional Protect filter for use in inclement shooting conditions.
Another standout wide-angle zoom from this year, albeit for a much larger format, is the HD Pentax-DA645 28-45mm f/4.5 ED AW SR lens. As one of the more noteworthy medium format lenses of late, this 22-35.5mm equivalent zoom is unique among other medium format lenses through its inclusion of Shake Reduction image stabilization to minimize the appearance of camera shake by up to 3.5 stops. This proves especially useful when working handheld with the Pentax 645Z or 645D cameras, which feature sensor sizes around 44 x 33mm that tend to magnify any camera shake during shooting. Beyond the Shake Reduction of the lens, it also features an internal focusing DC autofocus motor, quick-shift focusing for moving between AF and MF, and weather-resistant construction to pair well with the 645Z/D cameras. Extra-low dispersion glass elements reduce chromatic aberrations and both HD and Aero Bright coatings maintain consistent light transmission with minimized flare and reflections.
As 2014 comes to a close, some of these lens themes can certainly be seen as pointers to where the world of lens design will continue to evolve over the coming years. The focus on developing lenses for updated sensor designs, along with offering new and unique focal lengths are certain themes on which most manufacturers seem to be keen. On the other hand, surprising introductions, such as the return to the standard focal length primes or reworking of previously released focal lengths, gives added assurance of maintaining a strong foundation from which to expand complete lens systems for future camera and image-sensor development.