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Eye of the Camera: The B&H 2009 Lens Buyer's Guide

By David Flores

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 imaging system.

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 D5000, Canon Rebel T1i, Pentax Kx, etc), fixed lenses around 35mm should provide you with the most natural field of view.

Nikon's 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 new 20mm 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 Primes

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

The Zeiss 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-a-Zoom-Zoom

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, Pentax, Sony, and Sigma.

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

The Nikon 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, Nikon, Sony, and Pentax 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.

Long Glass

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.

Nikon's 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 performance.

Serious Toys

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 shooting again.

The Diana F+ film camera

A few years back, Lomo mass-marketed the Diana 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.

The 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.

The 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 feel.

The 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.

The Classics

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.  The lead-time?  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 Glass

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.


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