Lenses aren’t very flashy, but they sure are important. In the past two decades, cameras have changed from film to digital, but lenses still do what they’ve always done best. These days, though, they’re doing it better than ever.
In the early years of the digital revolution, lots of photographers concerned themselves with continuing to use the lenses they had acquired in the film era. It was possible, and still is, but we learned quickly that digital sensors resolve so well that the optics in lenses needed to be upgraded to meet the needs of digital capture. Things like edge-to-edge sharpness and eliminating chromatic aberration became paramount, as did collimating the light in order for it to strike the sensor at the perfect angle to register on the appropriate pixels. As such, the digital revolution also marked a time of great change in lenses simply because, seemingly all at once, the newest lenses were vastly superior in terms of sharpness and clarity than their predecessors. In many ways, that trend still continues today with advancements in elements and coatings that better eliminate flare and ghosting—things that cause images to lose contrast, sharpness and saturation. We used to settle for lenses that got a little too fuzzy and off-color near the edges. No more. When it comes to producing high-quality images, today’s lenses tend to be dramatically improved over the lenses of a generation ago.
Given that lens shopping is increasingly about distinguishing really good lenses from truly great ones, it’s an exciting time to be a photographer. And, when it comes to filling the bag with glass, the first consideration is what focal lengths are most useful and appropriate for what the photographer wants to do. These lens focal lengths largely determine what a lens is useful for.
The longstanding “normal” lens that came with a new camera kit was a 50mm prime lens. A prime is a fixed focal length, as opposed to a zoom, which can be adjusted across a range of lengths. And 50mm—at least in terms of a full-frame camera sensor—approximates the normal human eye’s angle of view, or so it’s said, and therefore it’s the natural place to start. This focal length is a good all-around lens, but that’s also its major downfall. It’s neither wide nor telephoto, so it doesn’t compress a scene nor spread it out. It’s just sort of, well, normal.
Lenses shorter than 50mm (in 35mm equivalent terms) are considered wide-angle lenses. Popular focal lengths are 20mm, 24mm, 28mm and 35mm. These lenses open up a scene and make elements generally appear farther apart than they really are. But they also allow you to take in a wide angle of view, even from a relatively close camera position. This makes them exceptionally useful for things like landscape photography and architectural photography.
If a lens is shorter than 20mm, it’s generally thought of as an ultrawide. These lenses, down to a 14mm or 15mm focal length, deliver a huge angle of view up to and beyond 100º. If a lens delivers an even wider angle of view—like 180º or more—it’s a fisheye. These special-effects lenses aren’t useful all the time, but it’s true that there’s nothing quite like the extreme view of a fisheye lens. These can produce a full-frame image or, sometimes, a circular image isolated in the center of the frame.
For a narrower field of view, and a greater ability to make distant objects appear closer, consider a telephoto lens. These lenses are about 70mm and longer. Short or medium telephotos, in the 70mm to, say, 150mm range, are ideal for portraiture, as they provide shallow depth of field, especially at wide apertures, in order to isolate subjects from backgrounds. And because telephotos compress scenes, they naturally make it easier to eliminate distracting background elements with subtle changes of camera position. These focal lengths also don’t distort facial features as would happen with a normal or wide lens used up close to the subject.
Beyond 150mm, a lens becomes useful primarily for specific distance-related needs. For instance, sports photographers who need to photograph baseball batters and outfielders from a position hundreds of feet away, or wildlife photographers who may just get a glimpse of their game from the length of a football field, often employ lenses with extreme telephoto capabilities—lenses like 500mm, 600mm and 800mm focal lengths. These specialized lenses cost more than a good used car, however, so they’re not for everyone. And their greatest asset—their ability to effectively enlarge a tiny distant subject—is also their main limitation. Walk around with a supertelephoto lens all day, and you’ll be surprised how little there is to photograph with it. For more practical applications, telephotos or telephoto zooms that top out in the 200mm to 300mm range are considerably more versatile.
Prime or zoom? As mentioned, a prime lens has a fixed focal length while a zoom covers a range—from 28mm to 105mm, for instance. Zoom lenses gained popularity for reasons of convenience: They could do the job of multiple lenses. A 28-105mm is like having a 28mm, 35mm, 50mm, 70mm, 85mm and 105mm lens all in a single package. That represents a considerable space and weight savings, so zooms caught on with traveling photographers for obvious reasons. They’re still useful in the same way, albeit sometimes just to allow a new photographer to cover multiple focal lengths without the expense of multiple lenses. In their earlier forms, zoom lenses were typically not considered as sharp as prime lenses, and they’re typically not as fast. The sharpness issue has largely been eliminated, but zooms still aren’t as fast as primes, in most cases.
The speed of a lens, by the way, refers to its widest aperture—the ability to open up and let in lots of light, thereby affording a faster shutter speed. So a lens with an ƒ/1.4 maximum aperture is considered very fast, as it’s a full two stops faster than an ƒ/2.8 lens. So, in the same lighting conditions, where the ƒ/2.8 lens perhaps requires a shutter speed of 1/125th, the ƒ/1.4 lens would require a fast 1/500th shutter speed. For low-light, natural light photographers and those who want minimal depth of field, fast lenses are key. Zoom lenses are rarely as fast as similar prime lenses, and, in fact, they often feature variable maximum apertures that change along with the focal length—shrinking from, say, ƒ/4 to ƒ/5.6 as the lens zooms from its widest to its most telephoto position. Variable maximum apertures are typically associated with size and weight savings as well.
Perspective control lenses (which are sometimes called tilt-shift lenses) can be adjusted to alter the plane of focus in order to eliminate distortion in architectural and product photography or for special effects. These lenses are designed to mimic the movements of a view camera, and they’re a large reason why professional photographers can use DSLRs for tasks that required large-format film cameras a generation ago.
Another unique lens is the macro. Used for enlarging objects to life-size and beyond, the macro lens is often employed for photographing small subjects such as flowers, insects and tiny technical parts. Sometimes you’ll see a normal or zoom lens with a macro designation, but these are a bit deceiving as they can’t focus closely enough for meaningful enlargement. A true macro lens is indicated by its ability to focus mere centimeters from a subject and magnify it in a way no traditional lens can match.
Lenses are often identified with a string of obscure letters, like IS or VR, at the end of their names. In this particular case, IS and VR stand for image stabilization and vibration reduction, respectively. This feature is a wonderful addition to many modern lenses, offering the equivalent to a much steadier hand. In-lens stabilization (as opposed to in-camera stabilization) incorporates a motor to adjust the optics to counteract movement as detected by the lens. Such optical stabilization is useful for handholding (as opposed to when used on a tripod), where it can easily provide a photographer two full stops of added stability and, at least according to some lens manufacturers, four or more stops of stability. That’s the difference between blurry pictures at 1/30th and the same exposure, but this time as sharp as if it were shot at 1/250th.
Sometimes those acronyms in a lens name signify optical qualities of glass (such as LD for Low Dispersion) or a special lens coating (such as T*). New photographers can largely ignore these acronyms when it comes to purchasing decisions, as other factors are likely to have a much larger influence on user satisfaction. One acronym not to ignore, however, is the lens mount. A lens designed to accommodate Canon’s full-frame cameras is designated an EF mount. Some lenses, however, are designated EF-S, and those won’t work on full-frame cameras as they’re smaller and lighter lenses designed for cameras with smaller sensors (like APS-C). Nikon’s approach, similarly, distinguishes between FX lens mounts for full-frame cameras and DX mounts for smaller sensors. You can use an FX lens on a DX body, but you can’t use a DX lens on an FX body. The same is true for Canon and other manufacturers that build for both formats. This is due to the smaller image circle produced by the smaller-format lenses; they just won’t cover the entirety of a full-frame sensor.
After you’ve purchased the appropriate lenses to complement your camera body, you’ll need a few other items before you get to shooting. First off, appropriate media and a card reader complete the package. A high-capacity card will let you shoot a lot without having to download regularly, while a fast data transfer rate will ensure that the card works well for large image files and, in particular, for the ever-increasing needs of video capture. Just make sure you understand what format card your camera uses: SD, CompactFlash, etc. With the card in hand, a card reader—preferably something with a fast USB 3.0 connection—will make life easier than downloading by connecting the camera, for sure.
Photographers on the go—particularly if they travel far and wide—will want a solution for backing up image files once they’re downloaded, too. Not only does a travel-sized external hard drive free up space on a media card, but it also allows the photographer to duplicate data. Outdoor photographers will want to use a circular polarizer to deepen saturation, darken skies and fight glare. And pretty much every photographer will want to invest in a solid tripod (one that’s also constructed of light materials if you’re a heavy traveler or hiker) and a camera bag to tote the goods. There are shoulder bags, sling bags, backpacks, hard cases, rolling cases—a bag for every occasion. Just be sure to test them out and look for the features that will work best for you.
Canon EF 85mm F/1.4L IS USM
Canon’s new EF 85mm F/1.4L IS USM is a fast, medium telephoto lens that’s perfect for portraiture. Built for full-frame sensors but certainly usable on smaller APS-C cameras, this L-series lens is from Canon’s pro lineup. Built-in image stabilization provides up to four stops of vibration control, and the nine-bladed round aperture produces beautiful bokeh—perfect for portrait shooters who like fast lenses like this.
Price: $1,599. Website: usa.canon.com
Nikon AF-P NIKKOR 70-300mm F/4.5-5.6E ED VR
The AF-P NIKKOR 70-300mm F/4.5-5.6E ED VR from Nikon is an affordable and compact telephoto zoom built for full-frame DSLRs, but functional on cameras with smaller APS-C-style sensors as well. Its variable maximum aperture makes the lens lighter than a telephoto zoom of this range would be normally. Vibration reduction up to 4.5 stops is included, as is a pulse motor for quieter autofocusing—especially helpful when recording video.
Price: $399. Website: nikonusa.com
Sony FE 16-35mm F/2.8 GM
Users of Sony E-mount full-frame cameras will be happy to get their hands on the company’s newest professional-quality wide-angle zoom, the FE 16-35mm F/2.8 GM. That GM stands for G Master, which signifies that the lens comes from Sony’s pro lineup, with tighter tolerances for weather resistance and the kind of features demanding photographers love, like an 11-bladed round aperture for beautiful bokeh, Nano AR and Flourine coatings to reduce flare and improve sharpness, and a lens barrel switch for alternating between auto and manual focus, as well as a focus hold button and direct drive Super Sonic Wave motors for fast AF.
Price: $2,199. Website: sony.com
Fujifilm XF80mmF2.8 R LM OIS WR
Fujifilm introduced its first-ever X-mount macro lens to provide full 1:1 macro reproduction recently, and it’s the XF80mmF2.8 R LM OIS WR. Built for the X-mount and APS-C format, the telephoto lens functions equivalent to a 120mm lens—great for portraits, but ideal for making big enlargements of tiny objects. Optical image stabilization is built to provide up to five stops of correction, perfect when handholding at close-up focusing distances where every tiny movement is amplified. A linear AF motor makes autofocus fast and quiet, and a coated front element minimizes the ability of oily stains—everything from fingerprints to magic marker—to stick to the front element.
Price: $1,199. Website: fujifilmusa.com
Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 17mm F/1.2 Pro
Olympus makes pro-caliber lenses for the Micro Four Thirds lens mount, and one of the newest is the M.Zuiko Digital ED 17mm F/1.2 Pro. The focal length of this fast prime lens is equivalent to a 34mm wide angle—1 millimeter shy of a longtime favorite of documentary and street photographers who like to photograph people with context. Those photographers will also appreciate the weatherproofing that helps this lens withstand a wide range of shooting conditions. Chromatic aberration and distortion are minimized, thanks to ED-DSA and DSA lens elements, and Z Coating Nano on internal elements minimizes ghosting and flare. Nine aperture blades help provide smooth bokeh. A programmable Lens Function button on the barrel provides easy access to a number of controls.
Price: $1,199. Website: getolympus.com.
HD Pentax-D FA* 50mm F/1.4 SDM AW
Set to ship this spring is the brand-new “star series” of lenses from Pentax. This one, the HD Pentax-D FA* 50mm F/1.4 SDM AW, is a fast, normal prime lens built for general-purpose photography for discerning photographers. The star series provides improved optical quality for full-frame or APS-C cameras using Pentax’s KAF3 lens mount. The FA* 50mm focuses quickly thanks to a ring-type ultrasonic motor, and the ƒ/1.4 maximum aperture is fast enough to provide action-stopping shutter speeds at low ISOs, even in low light.
Price: TBD. Website: us.ricoh-imaging.com
Sigma 14mm F1.8 DG HSM Art
The 14mm F1.8 DG HSM Art lens from Sigma has earned many fans since its debut early last year. An ultra-wide prime lens with an especially fast maximum aperture, the 14mm Art lens is built for full-frame DSLRs using Canon’s EF mount, Nikon’s FX mount and Sigma’s SA bayonet mount. An ultrasonic focus motor helps speed focusing shooting stills or during video capture, and the ultra-wide angle of view is ideal not only for landscape photography but also for astrophotography, in particular, where an ultra-wide angle of view is appreciated for the edge-to-edge sharpness Sigma’s Art lenses are designed to deliver. Compatible with Sigma’s USB dock, the 14mm Art lens can update firmware and adjust focus position and other parameters with Sigma Optimization Pro software.
Price: $1,499. Website: sigmaphoto.com
Tamron 18-400mm F/3.5-6.3 Di II VC HLD
One of the most versatile lenses from Tamron is the new 18-400mm F/3.5-6.3 Di II VC HLD extreme zoom lens. Built for APS-C cameras, the lens covers a whopping focal range equivalent to 29-640mm on a Canon and 27-600mm on a Nikon. That’s a 22x zoom range, including everything from a wide angle to a long telephoto, all in one compact (4.9-inch) package that weighs in well under 2 pounds. Built-in vibration compensation offers up to 2.5 stops of shake reduction when handholding, and moisture-resistant construction make this an ideal do-it-all lens for travelers. This economical zoom is also compatible with the TAP-in console, so firmware can be updated and settings may be adjusted using the TAP-in Utility application for Mac and Windows.
Price: $649. Website: tamron-usa.com
ZEISS Milvus 1.4/25
For those who want the ultimate in high-quality, prestigious glass, look to Carl Zeiss. The new Milvus 1.4/25 is a professional ZEISS lens available in FX and EF mounts for Nikon and Canon full-frame DSLRs. This fast and sharp wide-angle prime is constructed using 15 elements in 13 groups: seven low-dispersion elements and two aspherical elements included. An anodized metal barrel with rubberized focusing ring completes the weather-sealed construction. The rounded nine-blade diaphragm produces smooth bokeh, and the T* coating reduces reflections that cause ghosting and flare that sap sharpness, contrast and vibrancy from images.
Price: $2,399. Website: zeiss.com
Lowepro’s Flipside II backpacks not only are comfortable, high-capacity camera bags, but they also provide a unique balance of security and easy access for all kinds of cameras and lenses, from DSLRs to mirrorless systems. For those who want the ideal combination of capacity and comfort, consider the Lowepro Flipside 400 AW II. This backpack has an interior volume of 21.5 liters—that’s enough to carry a DSLR with a 300mm lens attached, as well as a half-dozen other lenses, a 15” laptop computer, 10” tablet and even a mid-sized tripod. The built-in all-weather cover protects the kit and its contents during sudden showers, and the design of the Flipside II series keeps the camera compartment securely against the body when worn, while the unique design allows the bag to quickly swing forward to provide access to cameras and lenses.
Price: $149.95. Website: lowepro.com
The Befree Advanced aluminum tripod from Manfrotto is a compact and light tripod for traveling photographers, as well as those who eschew big, bulky sticks in favor of a compact kit. Developed to ensure stability on the most uneven terrain, the Befree incorporates the new M-lock twist lock for fast and easy adjustments in a compact package that won’t get hung up on entry and removal from storage sleeves or pockets. The leg-angle selector is easy to use, and both right- and left-handed photographers will find the adjustments a snap. The 494 aluminum center ballhead is compact but easy to use, with three independent controls for universal adjustments. An ideal combination of portability and stability, the Befree Advanced extends to 59 inches with the use of the center column but collapses to just under 16 inches.
Price: $189. Website: manfrotto.us
A circular polarizer is one of the most useful filters around. Good for intensifying color, boosting contrast, eliminating glare and generally making any outdoor image look a little bit better, circular polarizers rotate to allow for an increase or decrease in intensity. Hoya has been making filters for more than 75 years, and one of its newer products, the EVO Antistatic Circular Polarizer, continues the company’s legacy of innovation. The EVO Circular Polarizer features an antistatic coating the company says acts like a force field around the filter to prevent dust from being attracted to the surface of the glass. Ideal for use in dusty, dirty environments, the EVO Antistatic Circular Polarizer is available in more than 15 sizes—all of them in low-profile aluminum construction for durability without unnecessary bulk.
Price: $80-$350. Website: hoyafilterusa.com
At 450 MB/s, SanDisk’s Extreme Pro CFast 2.0 CompactFlash cards provide more than twice the shot speed of the next-fastest memory cards. Designed for professional photographers and videographers, the CFast 2.0 cards offer blazing read and write speeds up to 525 MB/s (read) and 450 MB/s (write) for the fastest data transfer available. The cards also feature a Video Performance Guarantee—VPG-130—which guarantees a minimum sustained write speed of 130 MB/s so videographers will never have to worry when shooting large 4K video files. Available in 64 GB, 128 GB and 256 GB capacities, these CFast memory cards are ideal for demanding professionals.
Price: $289 (64 GB); $499 (128 GB); $729 (256 GB). Website: sandisk.com
Match a fast CFast 2.0 media card with a fast CFast 2.0 card reader. For ultrafast data transfer—more than 10 times faster than readers with a USB 2.0 interface—the SanDisk Extreme Pro CFast 2.0 reader/writer is backward-compatible with USB 2.0 technology but uses a USB 3.0 connection for data transfer speeds up to 500 MB/s—ideal for downloading large sets of raw image files or HD and 4K video files.
Price: $49. Website: sandisk.com
Portable Hard Drive
Photographers who work on location—particularly those in remote locations—need to give extra consideration to storage capacity and file backups. That’s where the R-Series of G-Technology G-Drive Mobile SSD drives comes in. Available in three capacities (500 GB, 1 TB and 2 TB), the drives use solid-state storage for up to 560 MB/s transfer rates through USB 3.1 Gen 2 connectivity. This makes it ideal not just for transferring large takes of raw image files but also for transferring and even editing video. The R-Series is rugged, with water resistance, dust resistance, drop protection and an impressive 1000-pound crushproof rating. Get your data to this disk, and you won’t have to worry about it again.
Price: $199 (500 GB); $379 (1 TB), $699 (2 TB). Website: g-technology.com