Editor’s Note: This piece first appeared in our Summer 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.
Photographers spend a lot of time and money striving to get the right combination of gear and technique to capture a “perfect” shot, one that strikes the viewer as a natural extension of what a human might see. We reviewers debate the characteristics of lenses in terms of their fidelity in reproducing the world around them. How many lines per millimeter is the lens capable of resolving, does it have a coating that reduces flares, is there vignetting or distortion in the corners?
When it’s more important to convey a feeling or an experience, though, it’s time to turn to a specialty lens, one that’s designed not for an accurate representation of what the human eye can see, but instead to modify the scene in front of the camera to distort, modify or change that scene to create an image that challenges expectations.
Some of these lenses are sprinkled throughout this issue, as they’re part of the literal and figurative bag of tricks many photographers occasionally use in their selected field, but this guide is an assemblage of some of the most popular specialty lens types and some recommendations for purchasing them.
Macro lenses magnify the visible world, revealing a hidden collection of shapes and colors that most people find fascinating because we all understand that there’s a world that exists just outside our perception. From Honey, I Shrunk The Kids to Fantastic Voyage to countless BBC documentaries, the world of the super-small looks more appealing when it’s blown up to human proportions.
Technically, a macro lens is one in which the subject appears life-size on film or an imaging sensor. In other words, if you photographed a half-inch-tall insect with a macro lens, the image of the insect would cover a half-inch of the subject, vertically.
This is expressed in a ratio of the size of the subject on the sensor relative to life-size and written as 1:1, and this is also a measurement of the distance from the subject to the focusing element of the lens. A 65mm 1:1 macro lens would focus at 65mm from a subject (that’s very close) while a 65mm macro that’s 1:2 ratio would focus at 130mm, and a 65mm with a 1:4 ratio would focus at 195mm. The closer the lens can get to the subject, the larger the subject appears, so a 150mm macro that’s 1:2 would have a larger-looking subject than a 150mm 1:4 macro lens.
While this sounds confusing, just remember that the closer to 1:1 the ratio is, the bigger the resulting subject will be, at any given focal length, and the longer the focal length, the farther away from the subject you can get and still have the same size subject.
You might use a 65mm macro where you can get very close to your subject but use a 150mm macro where approaching a subject isn’t possible or advised—photograph a snowflake with a 65mm macro and a butterfly landing on a bush with a 150mm one.
In the macro lens market, there’s a huge range of options, although not all are truly macro. Many times a manufacturer will say a lens is macro when it’s less than a 1:4 ratio and so is really just a “close-up” lens.
You can also achieve macro results by taking a standard lens and putting an extender tube on it—a “lens” attachment with no glass that simply increases the distance between the sensor and the focal point of the lens, effectively increasing the magnification of the lens. Multiple extenders can be stacked together to achieve a 1:1 ratio, though the results won’t be as good as a well-designed macro lens with the same ratio.
Some lenses, like the exceptional Canon 65mm F/2.8 1-5x macro, can create images that are even larger than life-size. Fill the frame with a spider’s eyeball or reveal the details in a grain of sand; this lens is one of the most specialized in photography, but it’s irreplaceable if you’re a larger-than-life-size macro photographer.
Designed to correct the optical distortion caused when trying to photograph parallel lines when a camera sensor isn’t parallel to the surface, tilt-shift lenses can also be used to create interesting visual effects, throwing a very narrow focus across an image and even making a photograph appear to be made up of miniatures. (See our article on tilt-shift lenses in this issue for more.)
Many tilt-shift lenses are expensive and use dials to adjust the vertical (tilt) motion as well as the horizontal (shift) motion. This enables a photographer to shoot something like a building from ground level and make the sides of the building appear to be parallel, not converging, so tilt-shift lenses are popular with architectural and real estate photographers.
By radically throwing the lens into its tilt or shift settings, it’s possible to create interesting looks, so the lenses are also popular with photographers looking to create unique scenes. This effect is so popular that apps like Instagram include effects to simulate this look.
For the photographer looking to create this distinctive focus blur without the investment in a full-blown tilt-shift lens, there are lower-cost options from Lensbaby, which makes lenses that pivot or compress around an axis, creating a less-discrete effect that’s no less interesting.
Another effect that’s best used sparingly is soft focus, purposely throwing some or all of an image out of focus to create a blurry, dreamlike look. This technique, frequently simulated in software, is often overdone, creating images that look artificial. When used purposefully, though, it can give a portrait or landscape shot a touch of an ethereal quality.
While there isn’t a specific lens designed for long-exposure shots of the heavens, some lenses are better suited to astrophotography than others. Wider-angle lenses naturally take in more of the sky and lend themselves to any type of landscape photography (even if the landscape is in the sky), but wide-angle lenses are important because they allow for longer-exposure shots than long focal lengths without star trails appearing. There’s always a trade-off in lens physics, and in astrophotography that relates to light-gathering—the longer a focal length is, the more light it gathers of the section of sky it sees, making its field of view brighter. In other words, a 50mm lens and a 24mm lens gather the same amount of light (all else being equal), but the 50mm gathers it all in a more concentrated section of sky. Because of some complicated optical physics, many people shoot for a 24mm ƒ/1.8 or ƒ/1.4 lens.
Canon 65mm F/2.8 1-5x. This is a go-to lens for the macro photographer, and the best choice for shooters looking to get above life-size with their macro work. Combine this with Canon’s macro flash system, and it’s a setup that’s hard to beat. Price: $1,000. Website: usa.canon.com
Canon EF-S 35mm F/2.8 Macro IS STM. This brand-new wide-angle macro lens from Canon has a built-in LED ring light to evenly illuminate a subject. The hybrid IS image stabilization keeps teeny things in the center of the frame, even when the lens is handheld. A smooth servo AF system makes this lens perfect for macro videography as well. Price: $350. Website: usa.canon.com
Tamron SP AF 90mm F/2.8 Di Macro. Available for both Nikon and Canon cameras, the Tamron 90mm macro offers excellent image quality, autofocus and 1:1 reproduction in an affordable lens that focuses down to 11.4 inches. Price: $500. Website: tamron-usa.com
Nikon PC NIKKOR 19mm F/4E ED. This ultrawide tilt-shift provides an incredible field of view and now can rotate for +/-12mm of shift and +/-7.5° of tilt, but can rotate 90º for vertical shooting. ED and aspherical elements ensure low image artifacts, and Nano Crystal and Super Integrated coatings reduce flares and ghosting. Price: $3,400. Website: nikonusa.com
Rokinon TSL24M-N 24mm F/3.5. Rokinon’s 24mm tilt-shift lens is available for Nikon, Canon, Sony A-mount and (for around $200 more) Sony E-mount. The lens is built around six glass elements in 11 groups. The lens can change tilt by +/-8.5º and shifts by +/-12mm. Price: $700 (Canon, Nikon and Sony A-mount); $900 (Sony E-mount). Website: rokinon.com
Lensbaby Composer Pro II. It looks more like a fancy office stool than a lens, but the Lensbaby Composer Pro II provides a flexible alternative to a tilt-shift lens. With a rotating ball at its center, the Composer II allows for a wide range of tilt or shift adjustment (but only pivots in one direction). The Composer Pro II can be used with drop-in lenses ranging from 35mm to 80mm, and a kit provides all three focal lengths along with a carrying case. Price: $349-$799, depending on configuration. Website: lensbaby.com
Nikon AF DC-Nikkor 135mm F/2D. This portrait lens is pretty legendary among soft-focus shooters, as is its shorter 105mm sibling. The wide ƒ/2 aperture makes it a great all-around portrait lens, while the ability to defocus foreground or background makes it a unique creative tool. Price: $1,400. Website: nikonusa.com
Lomography Petzval 85 Art. A re-creation of a classic lens from the 19th century, the Petzval 85 came to life thanks to a very successful Kickstarter campaign. Available for Nikon and Canon mounts (with the company selling bundles for Sony and Fujifilm shooters that include an adapter), the Petzval comes in an eye-catching brass housing. An integrated bokeh-control ring allows photographers to dial in their preferred amount of background defocus. Price: $749. Website: lomography.com
Lensbaby Velvet 56. The Lensbaby Velvet 56 is a modern lens with a vintage optical design. The singlet-doublet-singlet lens design creates smooth focus that’s more apparent at wide apertures. Dial the lens to ƒ/1.6 for dreamlike focus or stop down to ƒ/16 for sharp detail. The Velvet 56 is available for Nikon, Canon, Sony A/E mounts, Pentax, Micro Four Thirds and Fujifilm. Price: $500; $550 (silver version). Website: lensbaby.com
Rokinon 24mm F/1.4 ED AS UMC. The Rokinon 24mm ƒ/1.4 is especially popular with astrophotographers, as the lack of autofocus (not necessary for astrophotography) keeps the price down, and the optical quality and edge sharpness are well regarded thanks to the aspherical lenses and multilayer coating. The Rokinon is available for Nikon, Canon and Sony. Price: $550-$600. Website: rokinon.com