A Look Back at the Most Intriguing Optics of 2008


Like a full moon on February 29th, there are some dynamic events that coincide with one another and produce some very compelling results. An example of which is the Las Vegas Photo Marketing Association expo in January, Germany's Photokina in September, followed closely by Photo Plus a few weeks ago here in Manhattan; these three events combined have been the platform for the release of a broad range of lenses of into the wild to the benefit of us photographers. So let's warm up the old ‘way-back machine' and take a look at the most interesting lenses of 2008 beginning alphabetically with Canon.

Canon's focus this year has clearly been on revising their camera line, but they have not neglected their optical engineers. These scientists were busy conjuring up the new EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM. This is a lens aimed squarely at pros that will enjoy the shallow depth of field and low-light capability with a pleasing, and rather wide angle of view. On the other hand, both beginners and those who are of the "one camera, one lens" mindset, will be happy that Canon also introduced their image stabilized EF-S superzoom, the 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 IS. Superzooms tend to push the limits of optical performance, but make up for their shortcomings with convenience. People who lust for massive white-bodied telephoto lenses can also rejoice over the introduction of the EF 200mm f/2L IS USM and EF 800 f/5.6L IS USM, two lenses that can make the difference between a good shot and a great one.

Leica has had a busy year and has surprised many with some amazing new lenses. It seems that "fast and wide" is the theme of the optical trends of 2008 as Leica sent their latest models, the Summilux-M 21mm f/1.4 ASPH and Summilux-M 24mm f/1.4 ASPH down the runways of Photokina. Leica lenses are often designed to be shot wide-open, so the abilities of these unique lenses are without equal. The words ‘Leica' and ‘budget' are terms that are seldom uttered in the same sentence, but their Elmar-M line offers newcomers an introduction to the Leica system at an affordable price, the latest being the Elmar-M 24mm f/3.8 ASPH. Conversely, if money is no object, why not grab hold of the world's fastest currently manufactured photographic lens in the form of the Noctilux-M 50mm f/0.95 which has bested Leica's previous 50mm f/1.0?

The recently renamed Lensbaby company (nee Lensbabies,) has also conceived of a new nomenclature system for their latest lenses. They have discontinued their numeric versioning system with the latest from the Lensbaby laboratories. The Muse, the Composer and the Control Freak are as oddly named as they appear, but each is a unique tool for creativity and depth of field manipulation. The Muse is based upon the Original and Lensbaby 2.0, while the Control Freak is an evolution of the old 3.0. Completely new is the Composer, which is not bellows-based, but rather utilizes a ball & socket mechanism to adjust DOF.

Nikon's factories have been occupied producing new additions to their optical lineup as well as modernizations of some popular classics. The classic Nikon 50mm f/1.4 and the 60mm f/2.8 Micro were given a major reworking while heralding the next trend in Nikon's lens design. The new incarnations are no longer D-type lenses with an aperture ring catering to older cameras. They are now enhanced with AF-S focusing, and these are certainly the first of many D lenses to be brought into the 21st century.

Before this year, you would have to take the way-back machine to 1980 to witness the last time Nikon released a wide-angle, perspective control (PC) lens. This year they birthed the 24mm/f3.5 PC-E as well as the 45mm f/2.8 PC-E Micro while revising their 85mm f/2.8 PC-E Micro. This is an amazing trio of lenses for critical lenswork where optical alignment is key and each has a substantial image circle for a wide range of movement.

Olympus has been a company making headlines of late with their micro four-thirds format and the lenses that are sure to follow. They are continuing to develop lenses for their open-source ‘full' four-thirds mount cameras, the latest being the Zuiko Digital 9-18mm f/4-5.6 that with a 2x lens crop factor generates a 18-36mm perspective in the full-frame/35mm format. For E-system, Panasonic and Leica Digilux users, this lens is a welcome extreme to moderate wide-angle zoom for all of those shots in tight places or when shooting sweeping vistas. Furthermore, a last-minute entry is the new Zuiko Digital 14-54mm f/2.8-3.5 II a revamping of a favorite pro/advanced amateur lens.

Like Olympus, Panasonic is surfing on the micro four-thirds trend and has two lenses to get the format off the ground. Both the LUMIX G VARIO 14-45mm f/3.5-5.6 ASPH. MEGA O.I.S. and LUMIX G VARIO 45-200mm f/4.0-5.6 MEGA O.I.S. lenses feature image stabilization and together cover practically the entire gamut of focal lengths a budding photographer could ever desire. The compact nature of the format extends to these lenses: they are not much larger than typical rangefinder lenses, matching the design goal of a diminutive SLR with interchangeable lenses.

Continuing their trend of unlimited "Limited" lens production, Pentax offers a 15mm f/4 ED AL Limited lens in an extreme wide angle setting. Other new releases include a surprisingly svelte SMC-DA* 60-250mm f/4 ED [IF] SDM zoom and its perfect focal length compliment, the 17-70mm f/4 AL[IF] SDM. This pair of lenses provides the aspiring professional or advanced amateur with a one-two optical punch; they allow for a streamlined lens library while giving quality results. For those wanting to get a bit of extra ‘oomph' out of their existing telephoto lenses, Pentax unveiled a 1.4x teleconverter. This is their first for their digital AF system that is also being backwards-compatible with older lenses.

Sigma has found their niche in filling in the optical gaps in lens offerings from other manufacturers. Ironically, this year they released two standards as far as focal lengths go, but as usual, Sigma puts their own touch on their design. The first lens couldn't get any more standard – it is the 50mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM available in two flavors, for full-frame/APS-C digital cameras and another for the micro four-thirds mount. Another old standby for pros is the 24- or 28-70mm f/2.8 lens - Sigma has updated theirs with the 24-70mm f/2.8 EX DG HSM. What has been added are fast and quiet focusing HyperSonic motors while a considerable amount of mass has been subtracted, resulting in a compact pro lens for everyday shooting.

Sony has been working hard to develop a class of pro-level lenses to match their pro Alpha A900, the latest are a 16-35mm f/2.8 ZA SSM Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* wide zoom, and a 24-70mm f/2.8 Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T*. As a departure from the common 70-200mm zoom, Sony also offers the new 70-400mm f/4-5.6 G SSM to cover a great deal of telephoto range while remaining compact.

Tamron has revealed a couple of zooms that push the envelope. Squeezing as much as one can out of a superzoom, Tamron has revealed the 18-270mm f/3.5-6.3 Di II VC LD. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the 10-24mm F/3.5-4.5 Di-II LD Aspherical [IF] is a dizzyingly-superwide-angle zoom lens; so you have no excuse for not being able to capture your subject in its entirety.

Ah, and lest we neglect those mad geniuses over in the Zeiss laboratories, what roundup would be complete without mention of the 18mm f/3.5 Distagon T* and 21mm f/2.8 Distagon T* lenses that are optically outstanding and not nearly as expensive as one might think. Who would have thought that in the rapidly-evolving digital world there would be such a demand for meticulously engineered, entirely mechanical lenses? Many subtleties such as a very long and smooth focus throw combined with a very close minimum focusing distance make these Zeiss lenses a real pleasure to use. These two new Zeiss

SLR lenses and their earlier brethren are available in Nikon F, Pentax K, M42 screw and now Canon EF mounts.

This is certainly not a complete list of every single piece of photographic glass that has been introduced this year, furthermore there may yet be optical additions that will be announced before December 31st. What is on the horizon for 2009 is anybody's guess, but I think it is safe to say without channeling The Amazing Kreskin that you will see many more "II" and "III" versions of popular lenses; Nikon will continue to update their D-type lenses to G-type; Olympus and Panasonic will further develop their burgeoning micro four-thirds library; and Pentax will have reveal more "Limited" lenses. Who will produce the most innovative and radical lenses in 2009 is a question I can't yet answer, but until then I'm pretty satisfied with this year's collection.