A portrait lens, with good background defocus (often called “bokeh”), is an essential tool for any type of photography. Photo by David Schloss
Editor’s Note: This piece first appeared in our Spring issue and reflects the products available at the time of publication. To see our coverage of new lenses, visit our Gear/Lenses and News sections.
So you’ve got yourself a new camera. Great! But in order to build your kit, you’re going to need quality glass. Here’s a look at some lens options to make your camera really work.
All About Lenses
Let’s assume your new camera came with no lenses. The first thing to figure out is what focal lengths are most essential to the type of photography you’re going to be doing.
A “normal” lens on a full-frame DSLR is 50mm. For decades, this was the standard kit lens that came with a new 35mm film camera. The angle of view, they say, approximates human vision. In fact, it’s a bit wider, but it’s still the standard for a normal angle-of-view, general-purpose lens. Lenses shorter than this are wide-angles—typically in the range of 24-35mm. These lenses expand a scene, similar to your car’s “objects in mirror may be closer than they appear” warning. Wide-angles are useful for all sorts of things—particularly when context is important. This can be for candid photography, landscapes, architecture, street photography—all sorts of subjects can be photographed with wide-angle lenses in the 24-35mm range.
Lenses even shorter than that are known as ultrawides, which can dip down to the 10mm mark. In practice, even a 15mm ultrawide offers an extremely wide field of view—100 degrees and more. Some ultrawides are fisheye lenses. These can be full-frame or circular, and produce a distorted, ultrawide field of view even beyond 180 degrees. In practice, fisheyes are special-effects lenses that aren’t practical for everyday use. If you find yourself shooting subjects that require ultrawide angles of view (like interior architecture, for instance), traditional ultrawide lenses in the teens up to 20mm or 24mm will be much more versatile.
Lenses longer than a normal lens are known as telephotos. These lenses compress a scene and bring distant objects closer. Medium telephotos typically range from about 70mm up to 135mm. These are ideal portrait lenses, as they compress scenes, make shallower depth of field easier to achieve (in order to separate subject from background) and minimize the distortions of wide-angle lenses that exaggerate the features of a human face.
Longer telephoto lenses, from 150mm and up, are useful mostly for photographing distant subjects such as wildlife and sports. Professional sports and outdoor photographers sometimes rely on supertelephoto lenses in the 600mm to 800mm range. These lenses are very large and prohibitively expensive for all but the most dedicated professionals, but they sure do a good job of reaching out and pulling distant subjects in for close-ups.
Some zoom lenses cover an extreme focal range, from wide-angle all the way to supertelephoto. For instance, a 30-300mm superzoom can be a go-everywhere, do-everything lens. The sacrifice typically made with a superzoom is a subtle lack of fine sharpness when compared to the very highest-quality lenses as well as compromised maximum apertures. Superzoom lenses typically have variable maximum apertures that aren’t capable of opening as wide as most fixed maximum aperture lenses. This means their low-light performance can suffer comparatively.
Speaking of apertures, one of the benefits of working with prime lenses is that—along with being optically simpler and therefore often very sharp lenses—prime lenses frequently have very wide maximum apertures. This makes a lens “fast,” because it’s capable of delivering a faster shutter speed even in low light. Another benefit of fast lenses (with apertures bigger than ƒ/2.8, which means smaller numbers such as ƒ/2, ƒ/1.8 and ƒ/1.4) is that they’re capable of producing extremely shallow depth of field. This look is particularly popular with portrait photographers, and the combination of a medium telephoto with a fast ƒ/2 maximum aperture makes for an ideal portrait lens.
Another specialty lens that’s incredibly useful for photographing tiny objects is the macro lens. Yes, you’ll sometimes see the macro logo (a little flower icon) represented on standard telephoto zoom lenses or even on point-and-shoot cameras, but all the icon really indicates in this circumstance is the ability to focus slightly closer to the subject, increasing the chances for a successful macro photograph. In fact, for photographers interested in dedicatedly pursuing macro photography, a true macro lens such as the Micro-NIKKOR 40mm macro lens or the Micro-NIKKOR 105mm macro lens will provide much closer focusing and the ability to photograph items at actual life-size or even larger.
Some lens names are appended with IS, which stands for “image stabilization,” or VR, for “vibration reduction.” This is a great tool for handholding telephoto lenses at slower shutter speeds. An optically stabilized lens may deliver a full two stops of additional handholdability—meaning if you’re normally able to produce sharp pictures with a 100mm focal length at 1/125th of a second, with IS engaged you may be able to achieve the same results all the way down at 1/30th of a second. This, too, makes IS especially useful for photographers working in low light.
The acronyms EF-S, DX and DC refer to smaller-than-full-frame-sensor formats, such as APS-C. This is essential information because an EF-S lens designed to produce a smaller image circle to cover the smaller sensor size won’t function correctly when attached to a full-frame camera. The reverse, however, usually isn’t true. But when using a full-frame lens on an APS-C sensor, there’s a multiplication factor (sometimes called a crop factor) that makes lenses perform like longer versions of themselves. With a crop factor of 1.6x, for instance, a 100mm lens really behaves like a 160mm telephoto. That may be no big deal, but when compared to a 24mm lens that actually performs like a 37mm lens, the difference is dramatic. As you may imagine, sports and wildlife photographers may consider a crop factor a benefit, as it makes a 300mm lens behave more like a 480mm lens—much better for zooming in to distant animals or athletes. Either way, it’s essential to be sure that photographers using APS-C sensors purchase lenses designed for the format and rely on “equivalent” focal lengths to determine whether a lens is wide, normal or telephoto. A wide-angle lens for Nikon’s DX (APS-C) format may have an actual measurement of 10mm, though on the smaller sensor it performs equivalent to a 15mm lens on a full-frame sensor.
Canon EF-M 18-150mm ƒ/3.5-6.3 IS STM. The new compact extreme telephoto lens for Canon’s mirrorless M3 and M5 cameras with an equivalent focal range of 29mm to 240mm. Optical image stabilization makes it easier to handhold at slow shutter speeds, and a stepper motor allows for silent autofocus while recording video. Price: $499. Website: usa.canon.com
Fujifilm FUJINON XF50MMF2 R WR. Fujifilm’s new Fujinon XF50mmF2 R WR is a fast 50mm prime for the Fuji X system of cameras. The WR in the name is for “weather resistant,” as it’s built to withstand the rigors of dirty and wet working conditions. It’s also capable of working in temperatures as low as 14ºF. On an APS-C-sized camera, the lens offers the equivalent of a 76mm angle of view. Coupled with the fast ƒ/2 maximum aperture, the lens is ideal for portrait shooters and photographers who want to work in low light. Price: $449. Website: fujifilmusa.com
Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm ƒ/2.8E FL ED VR. Built for the FX mount on Nikon full-frame cameras, the AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm ƒ/2.8E FL ED VR is the newest telephoto-zoom in the Nikon lineup, and one of the fastest, too. With a constant ƒ/2.8 maximum aperture, the 70-200mm lens can shoot handheld in low light at ƒ/2.8 and produce the shallow depth of field wide open that portrait photographers demand. The Silent Wave Motor makes autofocus quick and quiet, while built-in optical vibration reduction increases the handholdability of this user-friendly, versatile lens. Price: $2,900.
Olympus M.ZUIKO DIGITAL ED 12-100mm ƒ/4 IS PRO. This Olympus lens is made for the company’s line of Micro Four Thirds cameras, such as the Pen and OM-D, where it behaves like an equivalent 24-200mm extreme telephoto. This lens, however, sports a constant maximum aperture (ƒ/4) and the ability to focus closer than one inch from a subject. This really is one go-everywhere, do-everything lens. Price: $1,299. Website: getolympus.com
Sigma 500mm ƒ/4 DG OS HSM | Sports. Wildlife and sports photographers rejoiced at the new, supertelephoto 500mm ƒ/4 DG OS HSM Sports lens from Sigma. Designed for professional users, the magnesium lens with carbon-fiber hood is built to withstand the rigors of professional use and abuse. It’s also dust- and splash-proof and features a drop-in filter slot for polarizers and other filters. The fast ƒ/4 maximum aperture makes sure you’re able to use fast motion-stopping shutter speeds even in fading light. Available in mounts for Canon, Nikon and Sigma SLRs. This lens’ only real shortcoming is its price. Price: $5,999. Website: sigmaphoto.com
Sony PLANAR T* FE 50MM ƒ/1.4 ZA. Sony stepped up its lens game in 2016 with great new lenses for demanding photographers. Case in point, the Sony Planar T* FE 50mm ƒ/1.4 ZA. It’s a Carl Zeiss-made lens for the E mount of the full-frame lineup of Sony Alpha mirrorless cameras. Fast autofocus and weather sealing make it suitable for pro users, who are sure to love its crazy-fast ƒ/1.4 maximum aperture, which combines with 11 aperture blades to produce beautiful bokeh (the out-of-focus area of an image) and offers the ability to shoot at fast shutter speeds even in low light. Price: $1,399. Website: sony.com
Tamron SP 90mm ƒ/2.8 Di Macro 1:1 VC USD. One of the newest lenses in the Tamron lineup is the SP 90mm ƒ/2.8 Di Macro 1:1 VC USD. Capable of life-size enlargement of tiny objects and focusing just under 12 inches, the 90mm macro, with its built-in vibration reduction and fast autofocus, is a great choice for photographers who want to focus on small subjects such as flowers and insects. Because macro photographers frequently work in nature, the lens is built to be dust- and moisture-resistant, while a durable front element coating minimizes the risk of condensation, smudging and scratching. Vibration reduction eliminates the tiniest of shakes that occur when handholding—which is particularly important when shooting close-ups. The 90mm focal length makes it a practical lens for general use, as well, especially for portraiture. Tamron manufactures this lens with Canon, Nikon and Sony lens mounts. Price: $649. Website: tamronusa.com