Photography / Hands-on Review

Glass Encounters of the SLR Kind: Out-of-This-World Lenses for 2013


To capitalize on the ever-increasing resolution of image sensors, lens manufacturers continue to come up with new optical designs and other lens technologies that allow greater low-light capability and aberration-corrected imagery. Among the standout advances in this year’s roundup of noteworthy SLR camera lenses are a budget-friendly wide-angle zoom intended for full-frame shooters, telephoto zooms with near-silent stepping-motor-driven autofocus, and a much-anticipated premium optical/mechanical beast of a prime lens from Zeiss.

Prime Lenses

Extending the focal-length reach of their production lineup of super-telephoto prime glass, Nikon released the AF-S NIKKOR 800mm f/5.6E FL ED VR lens—an ultra-telephoto monster lens that comes with an included 1.25x dedicated teleconverter, which brings the effective focal length to an astounding 1000mm f/7.1. Two fluorite and ED glass elements allow the 800mm f/5.6 lens system to produce bright images that are color faithful throughout the focus range. This prime lens has a 1200mm focal length equivalent when mounted on one of Nikon’s DX-format cameras. Additionally, an electromagnetic aperture mechanism provides greater exposure control and lens stability—especially beneficial when burst shooting. Also contributing to overall shooting stability is Vibration Reduction (VR) image stabilization, which compensates for up to 4.5 stops of camera shake, and a Silent Wave Motor (SWM) AF system.

The Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM lens is a fast wide-angle prime that utilizes Hyper Sonic Motor (HSM) ultrasonic autofocus drive to provide fast and accurate focusing that is practically silent. This is the first in Sigma’s Art line of professional DSLR lenses; it contains a floating internal focus system and FLD and Special Low-Dispersion glass elements, which transmit light efficiently and deliver enhanced low-light performance. A nine-blade circular aperture and the ability to shoot wide open at f/1.4 enable this lens to render smooth bokeh and fine gradient out-of-focus detail. An ability to focus as close as 11.8” makes this Art series lens well suited for architectural photography and landscapes—even product photos. The 35mm f/1.4 is sold in a variety of mounts: for Canon EF, Nikon F, Pentax K, Sigma SA, and Sony A, and it is also compatible with the Sigma USB dock.

Collaborating with industry-leading lens manufacturer Carl Zeiss, Sony introduced a premium-glass prime lens designed for full-frame A-mount cameras. Featuring the image quality and durability Zeiss loyalists continue to depend on, the 50mm f/1.4 is endowed with a Planar design and ED glass, two molded aspherical lens elements, and a Zeiss T* multi-layer anti-reflective lens coating. The lens is constructed of a lightweight aluminum alloy and has a Direct Manual Focus (DMF) function that is especially useful for manual focusing while shooting video. As expected, the Zeiss optics produce noteworthy sharpness and lifelike color fidelity, making this normal lens ideal for almost any photo application.

Bower's 24mm f/3.5 ED AS UMC Tilt-Shift lens was produced specifically with full-frame shooters in mind. This lens offers ±8.5° of tilt and ±12mm of horizontal shift adjustment. Perspective control will be appreciated by product photographers and architectural shooters. This lens is available with Canon EF, Nikon F, or Sony A camera mounts.

Somewhat new to the lens market is Pentax’s limited edition update to five of their K-mount lenses; the 15mm f/4 ED AL, 21mm f/3.2 AL35mm f/2.8 Macro, 40mm f/2.8, and 70mm f/2.4 AL. Adding HD lens coating, circular aperture design, and all-metal construction, Pentax enhanced the imaging capability and build quality for these limited editions, giving Pentax shooters prime options that minimize ghosting and lens flare, as well as enhancing the durability and focus action. Each limited edition lens is also available with either a black or silver finish.

The high-water mark for lens development and overall quality in 2013 was set, unsurprisingly, by Zeiss, with their 55mm f/1.4 Otus Distagon T* lens. Zeiss is perennially among the standard bearers in optical manufacturing, but they have managed to elevate the bar even higher with the first lens in their Otus series.

The 55mm f/1.4 Otus embodies Zeiss’s attempt to redefine what an SLR lens can be; it is overflowing with similar T* and apochromatic engineering glory as other Zeiss cine lenses and is poised to keep up with the rapid increase in image sensor resolution. Superficially, this highly anticipated Zeiss lens has highly visible yellow scale markings, an all-metal housing, and supple rubber manual focus ring with 270° of focus travel. Precise construction, broad focus travel and tight action on the focus ring deliver manual focus control that, surprisingly, exceeds that of other renowned manual focus SLR lenses by Zeiss. Inside, the Otus is the first 55mm Zeiss lens using an APO-Distagon design. Resulting images are tack sharp and have negligible field curvature and chromatic aberration. This lens is available for Canon EF and Nikon F lens mounts.

Zoom Lenses

The 120-300mm f/2.8 DG OS HSM lens from Sigma is the first lens in their Global Vision Sports line of fast telephoto glass. Setting this lens apart from Sigma’s other telephoto zooms is its compatibility with the USB dock that enables customizable functions, including a range of autofocus and optical image stabilization settings. The USB computer connection offers intuitive control of the custom functions via a user-friendly graphical display. Customizable image stabilization functions and constant f/2.8 maximum aperture, along with FLD and SLD (Super-Low Dispersion) elements, enable this lens to produce sharp and bright images even while shooting the lens handheld at the super-telephoto end of the zoom range. It is available for Canon EF, Nikon F, and Sigma SA mounts.

Also from Sigma, the 18-35mm f/1.8 DC HSM offers exceptionally fast imaging from a zoom lens. This wide-angle lens is designed for architecture and landscape photography using APS-C cameras—capturing a 35mm equivalent focal-length range of about 27-52.5mm. Complementing the fast f/1.8 constant maximum aperture, four aspherical and five SLD glass elements finished with Super Multi-Layer coating translate into impressive low-light performance and aberration-corrected images. The 18-35mm f/1.8 can be purchased for Canon EF, Nikon F, Pentax K, Sony A, or Sigma SA camera mounts.

Tokina’s 12-28mm f/4 AT-X Pro DX wide-angle zoom lens features ultra-low dispersion and aspherical glass elements, as well as a recently developed GMR (magnetic precision) AF sensor that quickly acquires the focus plane and provides virtually silent action. When mounted to a Nikon DX-format camera, the 12-28mm f/4 captures a 35mm equivalent focal-length range of 18-42mm—approximately 19.2-44.8mm when mounted on Canon APS-C cameras.

Two notable zoom lenses updated this year by Canon are the EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS STM and EF-S 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS STM. Each now includes their STM stepping motor AF technology, designed for near-silent, smooth autofocus that will be greatly appreciated while shooting video—especially at telephoto focal lengths.

The Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x lens has an impressive, built-in 1.4x tele-converter that changes the focal-length range to 280-560mm f/5.6 with the flick of a switch—320-640mm / 448-896mm equivalent focal lengths on APS-C-sized camera sensors. To prevent accidental adjustment, the 1.4x extender switch lies flush with the housing and has a sliding switch lock. This lens also boasts three-mode optical image stabilization as well as a ring-type internal focusing mechanism. Optically, the EF 200-400mm f/4L features one fluorite element and four Ultra-Low Dispersion (UD) elements that reduce chromatic aberration and improve image detail. Fluorine coating on exterior elements helps prevent fingerprint smearing and moisture from adhering to lens surfaces.

Nikon’s AF-S NIKKOR 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5G ED is a standout among this year’s highlighted zoom glass, offering a budget-friendly full-frame wide-angle lens that features ED and aspherical elements in addition to a Silent Wave Motor AF mechanism that provides quiet and precise autofocus. For even better control of focus placement, the 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5 has manual focus override that permits instant switching between AF and MF focusing systems.

Also equipped with manual focus override and a Silent Wave Motor AF system, the AF-S NIKKOR 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR is a medium-telephoto to super-telephoto zoom lens equipped with five extra-low dispersion glass elements that transmit bright, crisp images across the entire zoom range. When mounted on a DX-format camera, the lens produces 35mm equivalent focal lengths of 120-600mm. Its nine-blade aperture and Nano Crystal Coating produce rich bokeh and high-contrast imagery that are ideal for events that require a bit of extra reach—sports and wildlife photography, for example. Portraitists, journalists, and wedding shooters are also likely to find a variety of creative opportunities within an 80-400mm zoom range.

Another stellar introduction from Nikon this year was their AF-S NIKKOR 58mm f/1.4G, a slightly longer-than-normal prime that is designed to excel at edge-to-edge sharpness, illumination, and clarity throughout the f/1.4 to f/16 aperture range. Two aspherical elements contribute to its rendering capabilities while the Nano Crystal Coating and Super Integrated Coating maintain true color fidelity and contrast by combating lens flare and ghosting. The Silent Wave Motor AF system produces quick, quiet autofocusing and a Manual/Auto setting enables instant transitioning between auto and manual focusing for a refined sense of control that is well suited to selective focus and shallow-depth-of-field techniques.

Recently announced, Sony's 70-200mm f/2.8 G SSM II lens employs an updated Super Sonic Wave (SSM) AF system to deliver smooth focus action that is both fast and quiet. This lens also has improved subject-tracking capabilities for enhanced focus control. For Sony A-mount camera shooters, this means better focus accuracy and quicker acquisition of fast-moving subjects. Additionally, a focus range limiter gives the photographer the ability to define the focus range in which the AF system will operate, helping to increase response time and reduce the possibility of the AF system locking onto the incorrect subject in the photographer’s field of view.

Another telephoto zoom with impressive range is the Tamron SP 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Di VC USD lens. Unveiled in mid-November, this all-in-one telephoto is sold with either a Nikon F, Canon EF, or Sony A mount; it is also compatible with full-frame and APS-C sensor sizes. Vibration Compensation and three low-dispersion glass elements allow this lens to capture sharp images—even while you're shooting handheld in low-light situations.

The 150-600mm f/5-6.3 also features an Ultrasonic Silent Drive (USD) AF motor that provides high-torque autofocus action without creating excessive noise or mechanical vibration. It enables full-time manual-focus override for exacting manual focus control, even while in AF mode. Included with the lens is Tamron’s SILKYPIX Developer Studio software, which expands post-production possibilities by enabling optical aberration correction.

For more information about other SLR lenses, please check out these manufacturer pages on the B&H website.

Discussion 9

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I recently purchased the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR Lens for my D7000 from B & H. It was on back-order when I bought it so it took longer to get than what I was hoping but now that I have it, I love it. I see that it is on back-order again. I think that photographers are finding out about one of Nikon's best kept secrets.

I have the Canon 100-400 4.5L and really want a 1.4 extender, which is not available. But this lens is $11,699. I'd prefer a prime lens for that kind of price. The Canon 500 f/4L for 10,399 or the Canon 400 f/2,8 for 10,999 with an extender.

But I'm dreaming.

TOKINA 11-16 2.8 f best wide zoom. Canon C300 body.

The Canon 200-400 f4 L is a great lens....for $10,000

Purchased the Sigma 120-300 for Canon this year with high hopes. Nothing but disappointment with the inconsistent performance on a 1DX. Lens shot soft and could not get a sharp image. Had horrible back focus issue.

How about the new Olympus 12-50mm constant aperture 2.8 micro 4/3 lens, a 24-80mm equivalent for under $1,000? It again proves that pro-level lenses don't have to cost an arm and two legs.

It might be a good idea to list the "runner-ups" to all these excellent lenses. A sale is a sale if the customer wants it. Great job you all are doing, you've got my business.

One other thing that I would find very helpful, on your "wish lists" it would be nice to have a "generic note space" at the top of the wish list.

Having them for each item is very helpful, thank you, but I find in using the wish lists a lot (I have two going) that a general area for notes at the top would be helpful to me.... :)

Right now I have 4 orders going (three in house with you) and one ready to submit, and there are various notes about them that I have on my desk (that can get lost) that would be much better being right in the wish lists itself.

Thanks.... Craig

Awesome selection. Any chance you'll have a similar list for special-purpose lenses? I'm especially thinking macro :-). Thanks!

What about best AFFORDABLE SLR Lenses ?
Lenses that are less than 500$ ?