Eye of the Camera: The B&H 2009 Lens Buyer's Guide
When you peer through the viewfinder or compose on the LCD
screen, you're watching your world through the lens. Lenses are essentially an extension of your
naked eye. They can sharpen, skew, compact, and expand your field of view. It is this power that makes optics the most indispensible component of any given
Whether you're just starting out or you're a seasoned pro,
it's important to consider your photographic goals, and match these with the proper
optics. From the major brands to third party offerings, here's a rundown of some of the finest glass available today.
Prime Time Digital
|From left to right: The Panasonic 20mm Pancake, Nikon 35mm DX, and Pentax 31mm Limited
Fixed focal length lenses (or primes) force perspective and
allow shooters to take a more considered look at the world in front of
them. If you're new to DSLR photography,
chances are your camera came with a general-purpose zoom lens. Kit lenses are great for providing a variety
of wide-angle to medium-telephoto focal lengths in a lightweight, easy-to-carry
package. They have a few limitations though. Typical kit lenses use a variable aperture. The optic allows varying degrees of light in at
the wide and long ends of the zoom range.
By design, the aperture (the size of the hole that lets light into the
lens) isn't very big. For faster
autofocus and greater control of depth of field, a larger aperture is
preferred. This is where a standard
prime comes into play.
If you're using an APS-C size sensor DSLR (Nikon
Rebel T1i, Pentax Kx, etc), fixed lenses
around 35mm should provide you with the most natural field of view.
AF-S 35mm f/1.8G DX lens combines an incredibly fast aperture, 1' minimum
focusing distance, and advanced optical coatings to produce brilliant images in
a package that extends little more than 2" in length and weighs just 7 ounces. Priced under $200, this is a great way to
bring a standard focal length to your Nikon DX camera.
Canon offers two 35mm options for "normal" performance with
their 1.6x crop cameras. The Canon
EF 35mm f/2.0 lens is lightweight, and small enough to fit into your pocket
or camera bag. An easy-to-read distance
scale on the top of the lens makes manually focusing street scenes and other
low profile subjects a logical exercise.
For premium resolving power and superior autofocus speed, the 35mm
f/1.4L is another fantastic option.
I recently revisited this lens with the new EOS
7D, and cannot say enough about its quality and responsiveness. As a member of Canon's esteemed L series, the
35mm f/1.4L is built for heavy-duty use and performs flawlessly under the
toughest of conditions.
Pentax users should consider the SMCP-FA
31mm f/1.8 AL Limited lens for use with their DSLRs. A sophisticated depth-of-field scale,
integrated hood, and smooth focus ring hark back to the golden days of 35mm
film photography. Updated for the
digital age with advanced coatings and on-board autofocus, the lens fits
seamlessly into any Pentax Digital kit.
Micro Four Thirds shooters will love the simplicity of Panasonic's
f/1.7G Pancake lens. Producing a
field of view just slightly wider than normal, this lens is an excellent choice
for everything from street reportage to family snapshots.
Portrait lenses are typically a bit longer than a standard
optic. They slightly separate the
subject from the background, creating a pronounced, three-dimensional
effect. Though portrait lenses come in a
variety of focal lengths, the two most common flavors are 85mm and 135mm.
|From left to right: The
Zeiss 85mm, Sony 135mm, and Canon 100mm L
85mm f/1.4 Planar T* has been available with a Nikon
F mount for a number of years.
Today, this legendary lens also ships for Canon
EOS and Pentax
K mount cameras. The Planar design
is well suited for studio applications.
With its high contrast and neutral color rendition, the lens is ideal
for portraiture and art copy work.
Documentarians and wedding photographers also use it for location
shooting. The latest version of the lens
boasts electronic contacts. These pass
focal length and aperture along for EXIF data recording, with additional
support for focus verification. Focus on
the lens is manual only, so make sure this suits your style before buying.
I've used the Sony
Alpha A900 for several portrait assignments this year and have taken quite
a liking to their 135mm
f/1.8 Carl Zeiss Sonnar T* lens.
Dramatic depth of field control is superb, thanks to a beautiful
9-bladed circular aperture. Internal
focusing is fast and precise, and offers benefits for everything from studio
portraits to sports photography. This is
Sony's first professional optic to coax me away from my standard camera
kit. When portraits and lowlight action
call, this lens answers.
Though not a dedicated portrait optic, Canon's new 100mm
f/2.8L Macro IS lens should also be on this list. By design, it provides 1:1 magnification for
excellent close-ups of flowers, insects, and other macro fare. However, the lens also happens to be a
fantastic choice for portraiture. Color
is lush and warm, and the lens has a level of sharpness rivaling the best glass
on the market. The first Canon optic to
feature Hybrid Image Stabilization, the lens saves up to 4 stops of camera
shake. I've always taken IS boasts of
better than 1 or 2 stops with a grain of salt.
But Hybrid IS actually lives up to, and under certain conditions
exceeds, its marketing hype. I'm really
looking forward to seeing this technology in future Canon lenses.
Zoom lenses couple performance and convenience by combining
multiple focal lengths into a single package.
Most are designed for a more conservative focal range, but a growing
number of options cover the wide angle to full-on telephoto scale.
|From left to right: The Sigma 18-250mm
OS, Nikon 18-200mm VR II, and Canon 18-135mm IS
The all-in-one design of the Sigma
18-250mm f/3.5-6.3 boasts an impressive 27-405mm equivalent on an APS-C
body. The lens features Sigma's Hybrid
Optical Stabilizer to reduce handheld shake, and newly developed coatings for
better all-around sharpness and color consistency. Built specifically for smaller sensor cameras
(full-frames need not apply), the lens is offered in mounts for Canon,
Nikon's recently updated 18-200mm
f/3.5-5.6G ED VR II lens for DX sensor cameras offers the same great
optical quality of the original, with some well considered improvements. Updated VR II (Vibration Reduction)
stabilization now compensates for up to 4 stops of shake. A new zoom lock parks the lens barrel at
minimum length. This highly-requested
feature eliminates lens creep, and allows the optic to be carried with greater
security. The 7-bladed aperture provides
a pleasing esthetic for photo and video field work.
Canon shooters looking to keep it lightweight should be well
served by the new EF-S
18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS. At just 16
ounces, the lens offers many features previously available only with heavier,
pricier glass. Generous control rings
make manual zoom and focus fast and intuitive.
Internal AF is quick and precise, while Image Stabilization technology
reduces unwanted vibration and shake.
The lens performs considerably well in both photo and video
applications. If you're looking for a
zoom option above the kit lens, this is a fantastic choice.
|The updated Nikon 70-200mm VR II and
lightweight Tamron 70-200mm
70-200mm f/2.8 has been re-engineered with 7 extra-low dispersion (ED)
elements to further enhance sharpness, while reducing chromatic
aberration. Nano Crystal Coating brings
the lens in line with other Nikkor pro zooms.
My tests with the Nikon
D3S showed noticeable performance advantages in autofocus speed and
Vibration Reduction over the previous model.
For the professional that demands the very best, look no further.
Tamron offers a 70-200mm
f/2.8 with mounts for Canon,
cameras. With a macro-friendly minimum
focusing distance of 3.1', this multipurpose optic is a fantastic choice for
photographers framing a wide variety of subjects. Weighing just 2.5 pounds and priced under
$730, it won't weigh heavily on your camera bag or your wallet.
|Canon's 800mm f/5.6L Super Telephoto
When your subjects are at a distance and there's no way to
physically bridge the gap, it's time to break out the long glass. There are plenty of
super zoom optics on the market to bring you closer to the action, but nothing
elevates image quality at a distance like a telephoto prime lens. In addition to better overall sharpness and
focusing speed, telephoto primes also produce a stronger compact effect, while
also boasting longer focal lengths. Most
zoom telephotos top out at 200 or 300mm.
Primes can take you there and beyond.
AF-S Nikkor 600mm f/4 ED VR lens is used by some of the world's greatest
wildlife and sports photographers. Nano
Crystal Coat technology eliminates ghosting and flare for more natural looking images
under even the most challenging shooting conditions. Powerful Vibration Reduction II technology
compensates for unwanted movement, while a Silent Wave Motor works in tandem
with the camera's focusing system to provide the most accurate autofocus
tracking possible. The lens weighs in at
over 11 pounds, so be sure to pack a proper tripod.
In a similar weight class, but with an additional 200mm of
focal length, the Canon
EF 800mm f/5.6L IS USM is the longest professional telephoto prime currently
in production. A close cousin to the
legendary 1200mm f/5.6L lens, the new 800mm L features solid magnesium alloy
construction to achieve a weight that's a shade under
10 pounds. From surf photography to soccer,
this lens has quickly become a regular part of many pro sports kits.
Not all high performance telephoto lenses weigh a ton. Consider the Olympus
150mm f/2.0 ED lens. At just under
6" in length, and weighing less than 3.5 pounds, this lens offers an effective
focal length of 300mm (thanks to the 2x conversion factor for the Four Thirds
System). With an enormous f/2.0 aperture, fast focusing is possible in the
darkest areas imaginable. More compact
than most 70-200mm f/2.8 lenses, this telephoto is easy on space and high on
There's nothing quite like a toy lens. Something magical happens when you frame a
subject with a simple plastic optic. What is it about this that's so
appealing? Colors shift off into candy
land; unfocused imagery delivers a higher level of truth. If you're in a rut with your photography,
playing with a toy camera is a great way to get out of it. Mary Carothers, a brilliant artist and
professor at the University of Louisville, put me on to the Diana Camera when I
hit a wall with my studio photography. I'd
been working so hard at mastering "proper" technique that I had lost my ability
to be spontaneous. One thrift-store Diana
and 3 rolls of 120 film later, I'd cleared my head and gotten excited about
|The Diana F+ film camera
A few years back, Lomo mass-marketed
F+ film camera. Based on the cheep-o
dime store toys of the late 20th century, the Diana F+ offers
interchangeable optics and a host of other options. Essentially, the new Dianas
are the first "system" toy cameras. This
year, that system expands with adapters for both the Nikon
F and Canon
EOS systems. This brings the sweet,
plastic-y goodness to the major DSLR players.
The adapters for either system are priced below $15. If you already own a Diana F+, you can simply
detach its 75mm optic and use it with the adapter on your Nikon or Canon body. If you don't already have a Diana F+, buy
one. Other Diana optics include the 110mm
telephoto (awesome for tight portraits) and the 20mm
fish-eye (this reviewer's personal favorite).
Speaking of systems, it wouldn't be fair to talk toy optics
without mentioning Lensbaby. Featuring
the movement characteristics of tilt-and-shift lenses (sans the precision and
quality), Lensbaby optics allow you to "bend" the lens in relationship to the
focal plane. This creates dramatic
selective focus and miniaturization characteristics. A liberating means of framing just about any subject,
Lensbabies come in 3 flavors.
Muse: Similar in form to the original Lensbaby, this optic is best suited
for spontaneous photographers that want to create one-of-a-kind images. A flexible barrel allows the Muse to bend
between your fingers for selective focus on the fly.
Composer: A completely new addition to the Lensbaby family, this lens uses
a unique ball joint to control tilt and shift movements. This makes it easier to maintain consistent
effects from frame to frame. A manual
focus ring at the front of the lens gives the Composer a refined, purposeful
Control Freak: Essentially a rebranded iteration of the Lensbaby 3G, this
option gives the photographer maximum control over all movements, with fine
adjustments for tilt and shift, a dedicated locking mechanism, and fine focus.
|From left to right: The Lensbaby Muse,
Composer, and Control Freak
All of the new Lensbabies feature support for the Optical Swap
System. They ship with a standard
multicoated double glass optic, but this can be easily removed and replaced
with an alternative glass or plastic lens to achieve a desired effect. A single
glass optic, a plastic
optic, and a zone
plate/pinhole optic are available individually or in a kit. The recently-announced soft
focus and fish-eye
optics are available individually. All
of the Optical Swap options, except for the new fish-eye, have a focal length
of about 50mm. Lensbabies are available
with mounts for Canon EOS, Nikon, Pentax, Sony, and Four Thirds System cameras.
|From left to right: The Canon 1200mm L
Super Zoom and Nikon 45mm Pancake lenses
The B&H Used Department has always been the best place
to get a sweet deal on secondhand photo gear.
This is a great way to save a few bucks and roll with the latest and
greatest from today's hottest manufacturers.
But the Used Department is also an awesome place to pick up classic,
one-of-a-kind photo equipment that's no longer in production.
Case in point: The Nikon
45mm f/2.8 P AIS lens. Hands down,
this is one of the most unique lenses that Nikon ever offered. Based on the Tessar design, the optical formal
was simple yet effective. With an
extremely natural field of view, the lens boasted precise manual focusing with
warm color and smooth, buttery bokeh. At
just under an inch in length, the 45mm P is still used by many pros as a
functional body cap and street lens.
Minimum focusing distance is about 1.5'.
Add an extension tube for some sweet macro photography. The lens shipped in both silver and black,
with a metal hood, dedicated filter, and lens pouch. B&H usually has a few in stock at or around $500.
These are getting harder to find, so I'd recommend striking while the
iron is hot.
Looking for a real one-of-a-kind lens? Canon's
1200mm f/5.6L super telephoto is unlike anything imaginable. During its time in production, this lens had
to be custom ordered through Canon in Japan.
At least 6 months. The cost? I've heard
a lot of stories, and they're all expensive.
B&H has been lucky enough to take a few of these mighty super
telephotos in trade over the years. For
a little over $100,000, a few folks outside of the major agencies have added
one to their collection. Visit the
B&H Used Department for the latest information.
Stopping Down the
I hope this 2009 lens guide has been helpful. The list is far from all-inclusive, but should
help get your juices going. Remember, the
lens is an extension of your eye. What
you choose to put on your camera should be suited to your individual needs and
preferences. Know how you see, and shoot
what you know. Until next time, keep
challenging your world through the lens.
David Flores is a photographer and filmmaker based in New York City. He is a member of the B&H Creative Content Team.