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Each year, photographers of all levels, from professional to enthusiast, can reliably expect new and improved tools to help them realize their vision. Higher-resolution cameras, faster computers, as well as more powerful imaging software continuously expand what is possible in the process that begins within the photographer’s eye and ends inside the finished frame. Arguably though, the most critical juncture in that process is not the camera used, but the lens. The lens on your camera can determine qualities ranging from the objective, such as perspective and degree of detail, to the subjective, such as ambience and mood. To help with your next lens purchase, which is best considered not simply with regard to the camera you are using but primarily with your subject in mind, we’ve reviewed five of 2014’s notable zoom, wide-angle, normal, and portrait lenses.
Canon EF 24-105mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM
Zoom lenses are engineered to be versatile, and the Canon EF 24-105mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM lens is no exception. Not only is it able to fully expose the area of a Canon DSLR full-frame sensor, it incorporates a screw-type stepping motor that’s suitable for smooth and silent continuous autofocus for still images and video, as well.
For still shooters and budding cinematographers, the EF 24-105mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM’s 24mm can satisfy the needs of those looking for a wide-angle to a short-telephoto view. On a full-frame sensor Canon DSLR, this means the diagonal angle of view can be adjusted from about 84 to 23 degrees. On an APS-C Canon DSLR, the angle of view across the zoom range is narrowed, providing an effect similar to what one would see if they could put a 35mm to 150mm zoom lens on a 35mm SLR or full-frame sensor DSLR. Practically speaking, everything from landscapes to portraits can be accommodated by this 3.3 x 4.1" and 18.5 oz lens, while the camera-bag space that would be taken up by a half dozen single focal length lenses can be saved.
To help ensure its optical performance, one (Ultra Low Dispersion) and two aspheric elements are included so that sharpness and clarity are apparent. These high-quality components, while beneficial on their own, are further complemented by an optical image stabilization system that offers up to four stops of compensation to help prevent the photographer’s own movement from showing up in the frame when shooting at slow shutter speeds, or while using the lens at its maximum zoom setting, which can magnify the appearance of any camera shake.
When used at any shutter speed, but especially with wide apertures, the EF 24-105mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM’s seven-blade diaphragm renders out-of-focus highlights softly and smoothly, which for many, makes shallow-depth-of-field images a pleasure to view.
Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 20mm f/1.8G ED
For Nikon DSLR shooters who would like to fit even more in their frame than a lens featuring a 24mm focal length can provide, the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 20mm f/1.8G ED provides an expansive 94-degree diagonal angle of view on a full-frame sensor DSLR, and 70 degrees for an APS-C DSLR.
Aside from its inherent ability to capture dramatic landscapes, wedding photographers can use this lens’s 7.9" minimum focus distance for pictures of large groups even while in a confined space; real estate photographers can show entire rooms in one frame; and causal shooters can emphasize depth and scale in everyday shots.
Along with access to a wide angle of view while using the AF-S NIKKOR 20mm f/1.8G ED is a wide, f/1.8 maximum aperture for shallow depth of field that can further emphasize the sense of depth between what is near and far from the lens. Having an f/1.8 aperture also makes this lens a strong performer in low light, so that a group around a birthday cake can be captured comfortably by the more dramatic illumination from the candles in front of them, or that the shadows in the landscape whose contours might be better shown at dawn or dusk still retain their details.
At 3.2 x 3.1" and weighing only 12.6 oz, the AF-S NIKKOR 20mm f/1.8G ED can be carried comfortably all day. When used in autofocus mode, a Silent Wave Motor brings subjects into sharp relief quickly and quietly. All the while, two ED (Extra-Low Dispersion) and two aspherical elements help this lens deliver the clarity and sharpness many Nikon users expect, while a Nano Crystal Coat works to eliminate internal lens element reflections caused by light entering the lens diagonally, a particular benefit for an optic with as wide an angle of view such as this one.
Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art
With its 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art Lens, Sigma seeks to offer a normal focal length lens with optical quality that is competitive with Canon and Nikon lenses. It is compatible not only with Sigma DSLR camera bodies, but with Canon, Nikon, and Sony DSLRs, as well.
Referred to as a “normal” lens due to its 47-degree angle of view on a full-frame sensor DSLR, the 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art Lens can approximate the perceived angle of view of the human eye. A 50mm’s versatility extends to practically anything in front of the photographer, so long as the extremes in distance magnification provided by a telephoto lens and the area that can be spanned by a wide-angle lens are not needed. When placed on an APS-C sensor camera, the effect of the lens becomes similar to that of a short telephoto, with an angle of view that could match a 75mm lens placed on a 35mm film camera or a full-frame sensor DSLR.
Among its 13 lens elements in 8 groups are one aspherical element and three low-dispersion elements to help deliver a high degree of clarity and sharpness by working to eliminate unwanted flair and color fringing in a scene’s highlights.
These high-quality optics are sealed within a lens barrel that includes Sigma’s Hyper Sonic AF motor for fast autofocus, as well as a nine-blade diaphragm for smooth highlights and out-of-focus regions, particularly when opening up the lens’s aperture setting all the way to f/1.4. This capability makes the 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art Lens a potential asset to any photographer shooting in low light or seeking very shallow depth of field.
Solidly constructed, measuring 3.4 x 3.9" and weighing 28.7 oz, this lens takes advantage of some of the current advancements in technology, as it is compatible with a USB dock that allows the user to install firmware upgrades or adjust lens settings in the convenience of their own home.
Sony Sonnar T* FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA
For users of the Sony E-mount mirrorless cameras, the Sony Sonnar T* FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA is a normal-range lens for Sony’s full-frame sensor a7-series bodies and functions as a short telephoto lens on Sony’s APS-C sensor E-mount cameras. On those smaller sensor bodies, the 55mm focal length results in an angle of view similar to an 85mm on a Sony a7.
The Sonnar T* FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA is distinguished by its incorporation of Carl Zeiss T* anti-reflective coatings that prevent distracting internal reflections within the lens that could otherwise detract from its ability to produce accurate, neutral colors and excellent contrast.
Like many lenses in its class, this 55mm provides shallow depth of field and low-light capability with its f/1.8 maximum aperture; however, its f/22 minimum aperture exceeds that of many similar lenses and can be used to deliver more in-focus elements within the frame or slower shutter speeds for smoother blurred elements (such as water running through a stream) than what is possible with a lens that stops down to f/16. When wider aperture settings are used, a nine-blade diaphragm smoothly renders out-of-focus highlights and areas where they would appear.
Dust and moisture resistant, the Sonnar T* FE 55mm f/1.8 ZA is designed to subject the photographer to as few limitations as possible with regard to location and weather. At 2.54 x 2.78" and 10 oz, the compact form factor of the E-mount mirrorless cameras for which it is designed are maintained, making it a likely go-to lens when neither extreme wide-angle nor telephoto capability is necessary.
Zeiss Otus 85mm f/1.4 Apo Planar T* Lens
Portrait photographers who use Canon or Nikon DSLRs have a large variety of lens options within those brands, but Carl Zeiss, a renowned lens manufacturer, makes a strong appeal with the Otus 85mm f/1.4 Apo Planar T* Lens.
Many regard the 85mm focal length in front of a full-frame sensor to provide an ideal angle of view for portraits, free of distortion and, with an APS-C sensor DSLR, the effect that approximates a 135mm lens on a 35mm film SLR or full-frame DSLR is considered desirable for the subject as well.
Partially named for a genus of owl generally known for the eyesight that provides it with an advantage in the wild, this lens is designed to live up to its label with one aspherical element, and six dispersion elements. A total of 11 lens elements in 9 groups that include Zeiss T* anti-reflective coatings housed within an all-metal barrel result in a substantial lens measuring 3.98 x 4.88" and weighing 2.65 lb. The Otus 85mm f/1.4 Apo Planar T* Lens is manual focus only, but its focus mechanism is engineered for precision, while the color fidelity, sharpness, and tonality it delivers can, for many shooters, make its premium price point well worth it.