One of the selling points of zoom lenses is their ability to cover a wide range of focal lengths while keeping within the confines of a camera bag that's easy on your back and shoulders. For most shooters a wide zoom and a moderately long zoom cover a majority of their needs. For full-frame DSLRs this usually boils down to something in the 16-35mm and 70-200mm range, give or take a few millimeters. (If you shoot with an APS-C format or 4/3-format DSLR, divide these numbers by 1.5x or 2x respectively.) As for mid-range zooms, most manufacturers offer zooms that fill this portion of the focal range, plus or minus a few millimeters.
And while you now have a seamless zoom range, it also means your bag just got a lot heavier. And chances are you will still be facing low light shooting situations with maximum apertures no wider than f/2.8. Perhaps it's time to consider a 'normal' lens… preferably a fast one.
My recent pique of interest in normal lenses began when David Edelstein, our irrepressible Nikon rep, handed me a Nikon D60 with the new AF-S DX Nikkor 35/1.8G mounted to it. Designed as a fast normal lens for DX-format Nikon DSLRs, the new lens has the field-of-view of a 52.5 mm lens on a full-frame (FX-format) DSLR. Other useful features found in the new 35 include Nikon's Super Integrated Coatings (SIC), an aspheric lens element to control coma and color aberrations, a minimum focus of 1-foot, a Silent Wave Motor, and 7 'bokeh-inducing' rounded aperture blades for natural-looking out-of-focus areas.
Having a fixed, faster-aperture mid-range lens in your lens arsenal has its advantages. For starters, there's the weight issue. With the exception of plastic-barreled, entry-level kit zooms, most zooms, especially the faster f/2.8 models, are larger and heavier than fixed-focus primes. Most fixed primes can also focus closer to the subject than their zoom equivalents. It's not for naught many pro shooters who own zooms in the 70-200m range also own faster, fixed focal length primes in the 85 to 105 millimeter range for shooting tight, selectively-focused portraits. Ditto wide zooms. There are images you can capture with a fast (f/2, 1.8, and 1.4) wide angle prime lens that you can never emulate with a wide zoom that maxes out at f/2.8.
Speed-wise even the least expensive fixed primes are faster than the quickest zooms, which universally top-out at f/2.8. And though f/2.8 is considered wickedly fast for a zoom lens, the slowest primes (f/2 or f/1.8) allow twice as much light through the gate as the costliest zooms. Most manufactures also offer normal lenses that open up to f/1.4, which transmits images to your camera sensor in a quarter of the time it takes the fastest zoom lens. (Faster apertures also translate into faster AF tracking and quicker metering.)
As for losing the ability to simply zoom in-and-out to frame your subject, try taking a few steps closer to or further back from your subject. It may not be as effortless as twisting a lens barrel, but it's certainly more aerobic.
Note- Most manufacturers produce macro lenses that fall into the normal lens category, and these will be discussed in an upcoming feature article devoted specifically to macros.
In addition to the new Nikkor 35/1.8 AF-S DX, Nikon recently introduced an update of its well-regarded 50/1.4-series Nikkor lenses. The Nikon AF-S Nikkor 50/1.4G has a 46° angle-of-view (AOV) when used on a full-frame DSLR, and a 31° AOV (or 75mm equivalency) when used on an APSC-format Nikon DSLR. Other features found on the new 50/1.4G include Nikon's Super Integrated Coatings (SIC), a Silent Wave motor for fast, smooth AF functionality, and a 9-bladed aperture designed to deliver natural 'bokeh' in the image's out-of-focus areas.
Other 'normals' in the Nikon system include the prior-and-still-available AF Nikkor 50/1.4D, and the half-stop slower (and less-than half the price) AF Nikkor 50/1.8D, and all 3 of these optics effectively become 75mm short telephotos when used on DX-format Nikon DSLRs.
Note- All 3 versions of Nikon's 50mm AF lenses are designed to cover a 24x36mm (full frame) field of view. The DX 35/1.8 only covers a 25x16mm (DX / APS-C) image area.
Canon offers 3 distinctly different options in the normal lens department. Their entry-level normal lens is the Canon EF 50/1.8 II, an inexpensive lens that weighs a scant 0.29 lb, and focus' down to 1.5'. Option number two is Canon's EF 50/1.4 USM, which aside from being a half-stop faster, is widely acknowledged as being one of the sharpest 50/1.4s money can buy. For sharp imagery under the lowest of lighting conditions check out the Canon EF 50/1.2L USM, which aside from outstanding low-light performance is capable of producing incredible selective-focus imaging regardless of lighting conditions. The EF 50/1.2L is built like a tank, rather hefty, and well worth the efforts of hauling it around. When used on any of Canon's APS-C format DSLRs, all of the above Canon '50s' effectively become 80mm short telephotos.
If you shoot with an APS-C format Canon EOS DSLR (Rebels, 20D, 30D, 40D, 50D), normal lenses fall in the 35mm range, for which Canon offers a choice. If speed is an issue, check out the Canon EF 35/1.4L USM, which as a member of Canon's red-banded 'L'-series optics is sharp, fast, and built to pro-standards. When shooting wide-open at close range, what's sharp is quite sharp, and what isn't sharp feathers off into a smooth haze. Consisting of 11 elements (including 1 aspheric element) in 9 groups, the EF 35/1.4L USM focuses down to 1-foot, and being a USM lens, you can manually over-ride the AF system at any time.
Notably smaller, lighter, and less costly (if you can live with a stop less light) is Canon's EF 35/2, which features 7 elements in 5 groups, and a minimum focus of a macro-like 9.6 inches.
Note- All of the above Canon lenses will cover full-frame as well as APS-C format DSLRs
For full-frame Sony DSLRs we offer the Sony SAL-50/1.4, which features 7 elements in 6 groups, and a minimum focus of 1.5-feet. When used on any of Sony APS-C format DSLRs, this lens effectively becomes a fast short telephoto (75mm). If you shoot with an APS-C format Sony DSLR and want a fast normal lens, take a look at the Sony SAL-35/1.4G. Designed to cover full-frame Sony DSLRs as a moderate wide-angle lens, the SAL-35/1.4G features curved aperture blades (for natural-looking 'bokeh') and floating elements for sharper close-distance imaging. The SAL-35/1.4G, one of the finer optics in Sony's lens line-up, contains 10 elements in 8 groups and focuses down to 1-foot.
It's well worth mentioning all Sony optics benefit from SteadyShot INSIDE image stabilization, which is built into all Sony Alpha DSLRs. It makes a world of difference when shooting under low lighting conditions or places you can't use a flash.
Pentax offers an impressive trio of normal lenses for its APS-C format DSLRs. The most compelling one of the batch has to be the Pentax SMCP-DA 40/2.8 Limited, which due to its slim profile is known as a 'pancake' lens. Comprised of only 5 elements in 4 groups, the SMCP-DA 40/2.8 (39° AOV) is a terrific lens if you want to reduce the size and weight of your Pentax DSLR. Though quite sharp (the pancake design is based on the classic Tessar lens formula), you'll have to make due with a maximum aperture of f/2.8 and a minimum focus of 15.7". But then again, this lens is isn't much thicker than a body cap, which makes for a very compact body/lens combo.
The Pentax SMCP-FA 43/1.9 is slightly long for a normal lens on an APS-C format DSLR, but it still qualifies and is definitely worth consideration. Containing 7 elements in 6 groups, the SMCP-FA 43/1.9 has a minimum focus of only 1.5 feet, which is somewhat offset by the lens' longer focal length compared to comparable 35mm focal length optics. If you prefer to go wider, Pentax fills the bill in the form of the Pentax SMCP-FA 31/1.8 AL Limited, a wider-than-normal APS-C format lens that features 9 elements in 7 groups, a minimum focus of 1-foot, a built-in butterfly-style lens shade, and 9 curved aperture blades for natural-looking bokeh.
As with Sony DSLRs, all Pentax DSLRs feature in-camera image stabilization, which guarantees better results under low-light conditions with all Pentax-compatible optics.
Olympus, Panasonic, & Sigma (4/3s System)
Olympus, Panasonic, & Sigma each manufacture lenses for 4/3-format DSLRs from Olympus and Panasonic. The size of 4/3 imaging sensors are half the size of the sensors used in full-frame (24x36mm) DSLRs, which means normal lenses for 4/3 DSLRs are in the neighborhood of 25mm. To fill this gap we offer a quartet of optics in a range of speeds and focal lengths.
The Panasonic 25/1.4 Leica D Summilux Aspheric is a fast, Leica-designed normal lens made to fit any 4/3 System camera (as are all of the following 4/3-format optics). Featuring 10 elements (including 1 aspheric element) in 9 groups and a minimum focus of 15", the 25/1.4 Leica D Summilux delivers high-performance imaging even under low lighting conditions. As with all Leica-designed optics, this lens delivers natural-looking out-of-focus highlight details thanks in part to 9 curved aperture blades.
If you value compact size and lighter weight over fast maximum apertures, consider the Olympus 25/2.8 ED Zuiko. The designers were able to pare the weight (3.35 oz) and size (0.9") of this lens by limiting the maximum aperture to f/2.8, which is 2 stops slower than the Panasonic's Leica-designed 25/1.4 lens (It's also a quarter of the price). From a working point-of-view, the Olympus 25/2.8 ED Zuiko, which contains 5 elements in 4 groups, focuses down to a macro-like 7.8".
Slightly longer than Panasonic and Olympus' 4/3-format normal offerings is the Sigma 30/1.4 EX DC HSM. Containing 7 elements in 7 groups, the Sigma 30/1.4 EX DC HSM incorporates 2 Special Low Dispersion (SLD) elements and a hybrid aspherical element to reduce spherical aberrations. Minimum focus for this lens is 15.7".