When most of us think about camera lenses, we think about things like focal lengths and maximum apertures and how they allow us to photograph certain subjects most effectively. Lots of lenses work for lots of different things, most of the time. But some lenses are built to do things that are especially unique.
These specialty lenses may be designed with movable focal planes for amazing depth of field, or built to focus extremely close to tiny subjects for macro enlargements, or even to produce a specific type of soft focus that’s flattering for portraits. These lenses may not be as all-around versatile as some zooms, but for the specific things these lenses do, they do them incredibly well—and no other lens can compare. That’s why we’re calling them specialty lenses, after all. If you’re looking for something special, a lens with a unique capability, consider investing in one of these prime specimens.
For photographers who want to make big pictures of very small things, a macro lens should be at the top of their list. When enlarged to life size and well beyond, a whole world of pattern and detail and color is revealed. Whether that’s found in plants and flowers or insects and butterflies, seeing the world from the extremely magnified perspective of a macro lens is a tremendous way to make uniquely interesting photographs.
Just because a lens focuses close doesn’t make it a true macro lens. If a subject can be rendered truly life size or larger on the sensor (or film), it’s technically a macro lens. In practical terms, that means a 1-inch stamp photographed with a macro lens will take fill an actual inch on an image sensor.
Along with a traditional focal length, lenses are measured by a magnification ratio expressed as 1:1 or 1:2 and so on. A 1:1 ratio means a lens is capable of producing truly life-size enlargements. A 1:2 ratio means the lens is capable of rendering an image half of life size, while a 1:4 magnification ratio means one quarter of life size. This magnification ratio also expresses how close a lens can focus, with a 1:1 lens being able to focus at a distance equal to its focal length. A 100mm macro prime with a 1:1 magnification ratio, for instance, can focus at a distance of 100mm from the subject. A 1:2 100mm lens can focus at 200mm from the subject, meaning it can technically only enlarge a subject to half the size of a 1:1 lens. While technically these less-than-1:1 lenses are not truly macro lenses because they don’t reproduce at life size, many manufacturers use the term loosely because a lens approximates the macro enlargement effect.
The best way to measure the power of a macro lens is to rely on the magnification ratio while using the focal length of the lens to help determine how close you might like to be to photograph the subject. A 65mm macro with a 1:1 ratio might be the better choice for photographing something like the grains of pollen on a flower petal, while a 150mm lens with a lesser magnification ratio may be wonderfully useful for photographing wider scenes of flowers and insects in the wild with a bit more context. Those macro photographers who are less likely to tie their camera down to a tripod may also want to ensure they choose a macro lens with image stabilization as well. When focusing on tiny subjects, the slightest hand movements translate into huge changes in the viewfinder. Whatever you’re shooting, for photographers who really want to make close-up macro photography a part of their repertoire, it’s best to skip extension tubes and close-up filters and go straight for the higher quality and better results produced by true macro lenses.
Perspective Control Lenses
Based on the incredible functions of view camera movements, tilt-shift or perspective control lenses are capable of doing things no other lenses can—like shifting the plane of focus so that it’s no longer parallel with the subject and the sensor plane. This type of lens is particularly useful for architectural photographers because it fights the distortions that occur when a camera’s sensor is not parallel with the vertical lines in an interior or on the exterior of a structure, for instance. When does this happen? Any time a camera is pointed up at a building in order to get it in the frame, you’ll see the parallel lines of the corners of the building begin “keystoning,” or appearing to converge at the top of the frame the way train tracks appear to converge as they run off to the horizon.
Tilting the front element of the lens downward, however, corrects for this type of distortion and enables architectural photographers to keep straight lines straight while photographing interiors and exteriors.
Another option is to make an even bigger image file and wider angle of view by shifting the lens from its center point to the left for an exposure and to the right for an exposure (or up and down, as well). In this way, these additional exposures can be combined with the main image using Photoshop to produce a larger image file with a larger view than the original single exposure alone.
Aside from architectural and landscape photography, tilt-shift lenses can be used to change the plane of focus in order to create an incredibly deep depth of field that would be impossible in a normal fixed lens. That same functionality can be used in reverse, too, in order to create an impossibly thin depth of field. Have you ever seen an image in which a city streetscape looks like a miniature? This optical special effect is only possible with a tilt-shift lens. These lenses are expensive—that’s their prime drawback—but they can do amazing feats of optical physics unlike any other lens.
Soft Focus Lenses
Most portrait lenses are known for being especially sharp and high fidelity, but in fact, sometimes portrait photographers want a bit of softness in order to impart a more pleasing effect on the subject’s skin or to help hide imperfections such as blemishes, lines and wrinkles. Manufacturers used to make a lot more lenses that were otherwise just like a normal portrait lens but with specifically soft-focus capability for this very purpose—and some of them are still available. These days, though, digital imaging has largely replaced lenses at approximating this look, but there are some other particularly unique options out there for photographers who want everything from subtle softness to a downright dreamlike, hazy effect.
Lenses For Astrophotography
If you walk into your favorite camera store and ask for an astrophotography lens, the sales team is not likely to show you to a particular model. There’s technically no dedicated category of lenses made specifically for astrophotography, you see. But in recent years, as high-ISO capture has become increasingly high-quality, ultrawide lenses have gained new popularity specifically for astrophotography. The huge angle of view encompasses more of the sky, sometimes practically from horizon to horizon, but because the view is so wide it takes more for movement to register on the sensor. That makes these wide-angle lenses particularly useful for astrophotographers who want to photograph the stars without creating star trails—those illuminated lines of motion blur that occur with an exposure long enough to register the rotation of the earth and its impact on the galaxy. The wider the lens, the longer the exposure that can be used without creating star trails. A 24mm lens with an ƒ/1.4 or ƒ/1.8 maximum aperture tends to be particularly popular for astrophotography because of its ability to render stars accurately and to minimize coma—distortion of the shape of stars—at the sharpest apertures on the lens.
Canon EF-S 60mm f/2.8 Macro USM. Users of Canon APS-C DSLRs will want to check out the Canon EF-S 60mm f/2.8 Macro USM. This true macro lens is optimized for APS-C sensors and features 1:1 magnification and a minimum focusing distance of just under 8 inches to make big enlargements of little subjects. Its 96mm equivalent focal length makes this lens great for portraits, too. Lens elements have been treated with Super Spectra coating to minimize flare and ghosting, which rob images of contrast and saturation. An Ultrasonic Motor makes focusing quick and quiet, while internal focusing makes it easy to use filters, too.
Price: $399. Website: usa.canon.com
Tamron SP 90mm F/2.8 Di Macro 1:1 VC USD. The life-size 1:1 magnification produced by the Tamron SP 90mm F/2.8 Di Macro VC USD lens is ideal for close-up photography, and the lens focuses as close as 11.8 inches. The built-in vibration reduction on this updated version of a classic 90mm macro lens makes handholding even easier—particularly because small movements are amplified when working close up to subjects. Coated elements fight flare and increase contrast when shooting in backlit situations. The rounded nine-blade aperture produces beautiful bokeh as well.
Price: $649. Website: tamron-usa.com
Rokinon 100mm f/2.8 Macro. Available for Sony E and A mounts, the Pentax K-mount, Fujifilm X mount, Nikon F-mount, Samsung NX mount, Micro Four Thirds mount and Canon EF mount, the Rokinon 100mm f/2.8 Macro lens uses one high refractive index element and an extra-low dispersion element to reduce distortion and chromatic aberration while producing life-size 1:1 magnification. It can focus as close as 12 inches from the subject, and with its 100mm focal length, it’s ideal to make detailed enlargements of the tiniest subjects—on practically any camera you choose.
Price: $429-$549. Website: rokinon.com
Nikon AF-S Micro NIKKOR 60mm f/2.8G ED. Nikon shooters who want to make close-up photos will like the updated 60mm macro, the AF-S Micro NIKKOR 60mm f/2.8G ED lens. It produces true macro images with its 1:1 magnification ratio and 7.3-inch close focusing distance, as well as utilizing one ED glass element and two aspherical elements for better light transmission, plus minimized flare and ghosting. Compatible with both F and FX mounts, when used on a DX format camera its equivalent focal length is 90mm. A nine-bladed diaphragm produces beautiful, smooth bokeh.
Price: $599. Website: nikonusa.com
Canon TS-E 50mm f/2.8L Macro. Last fall, Canon added three new tilt-shift lenses in its lineup: two medium telephoto lenses (a 90mm and a 135mm) and the TS-E 50mm f/2.8L Macro. The name is a bit of a misnomer, as it produces just a 1:2 magnification ratio, but it is still great for close-up photography—as well as landscape, architectural interiors and exteriors, and portrait photography. This normal focal length lens has a minimum focusing distance of just over 10 inches, and the lens movements provide more control, particularly to the focus plane and depth of field when photographing close-up subjects.
Price: $2,199. Website: usa.canon.com
Nikon PC-E NIKKOR 24mm f/3.5 ED. This wide-angle lens provides perspective control via tilt and shift movements that can be used to eliminate distortion for architectural interiors and exteriors, landscape photographs and more. The lens mount can rotate 90 degrees in either direction to allow for tilt and shift control on any axis. The 24mm lens provides a wide angle of view that is ideal for landscapes and architectural photography, with enhanced control over the composition and plane of focus as well as distortion correction.
Price: $2,199. Website: nikonusa.com
Lensbaby Composer Pro II. For photographers who want to approximate the funky focus shifts without the extreme precision and higher price of true tilt-shift lenses, less-expensive options from Lensbaby can be compressed or extended around a single axis in order to create a strong focus shift that can make shallow focus effects and perspective adjustments in order to dramatically reinvent all sorts subjects—from portraits to landscapes and everything in between. The Lensbaby Composer Pro II doesn’t have quite the construction of most tilt-shift lenses, but it does provide an affordable alternative that still approximates the effects achieved by these highly specialized lenses. The Composer Pro II uses a rotating ball at its center to allow for tilt and shift adjustment. It can also use drop-in lenses ranging from 35mm to 80mm for a variety of focal lengths for working with any number of subjects.
Price: $349-$749. Website: lensbaby.com
Soft Focus Lenses
Nikon AF DC-NIKKOR 135mm f/2D. This old-school lens may look like a thing of the past, but it can still be purchased brand-new today. It’s the AF DC-NIKKOR 135mm f/2D, and along with being an ideal lens for portraits thanks to its 135mm focal length and fast f/2 maximum aperture, it’s the Defocus Image Control that really makes this lens special. Using a secondary ring on the lens barrel, the photographer can manually adjust the quality of the bokeh, in either the foreground or the background, to produce supremely pleasing selective focus images, or when pushed to its limits creating an actual soft focus effect even at sharp apertures and when the focus point is spot on.
Price: $1,399. Website: nikonusa.com
Lomography Daguerreotype Achromat 2.9/64 Art. Now available in brass, black and chrome-plated finishes, the Daguerreotype Achromat 2.9/64 Art Lens is designed to provide tack sharp or silky soft focus depending on the aperture used. Based on the design of the first photography-specific lens, an achromat popularized by Louis Daguerre in the 1830s, when shot at small apertures (from f/5.6 to f/16), this simple doublet optical design produces precise, sharp focus. But wide open, or below f/4, the lens produces beautifully soft focus, ideal for portraits with a dreamy, ethereal feel. Interchangeable aperture plates also alter the look of the images by changing the bokeh from softly glowing to painterly textured. Available for Nikon F and Canon EF mounts.
Price: $399. Website: lomography.com
Lensbaby Velvet 85 f/1.8. The Lensbaby Velvet 85 produces a soft, glowing effect at wide apertures that’s ideal for portraits. The relative softness of the lens can be adjusted by stopping down or opening up. The 12-bladed diaphragm helps to produce beautifully smooth bokeh, and the manual focus design keeps the lens compact and affordable and helps it to focus as close as 9.5 inches. The 85mm focal length is ideal for portraits on full-frame sensors, while on APS-C sensors the lens is equivalent to a 128mm—still good for portraiture. Available in mounts for Nikon, Canon, Sony (A and E), Pentax, Fujifilm, Samsung and Micro Four Thirds cameras.
Price: $499. Website: lensbaby.com
Lenses For Astrophotography
Rokinon 24mm f/1.4 ED AS UMC. The superfast Rokinon 24mm UMC f/1.4 lens may be great for low-light action photography because of its fast f/1.4 maximum aperture, but it’s especially ideal for astrophotography due to its optical quality and wide angle of view. Edge to edge sharpness and minimum distortion are thanks to aspherical elements and multilayer coatings. The lack of an autofocus motor—which isn’t necessary for astrophotography—keeps the cost down too. Available for Sony E mount, Micro Four Thirds, Canon EF, Nikon F and Pentax K-mount cameras.
Price: $449-$599. Website: rokinon.com