Tired of your kit lens? Here's great advice on what lens to buy next!
It's time to move beyond that kit zoom
Feeling hemmed in by the 18-55mm lens that came with your DSLR? Yearning for something longer to grab sports or wildlife subjects with crisp detail and vibrant color? Or a wider focal length to embrace the entire family around a holiday spread?
You're in luck. A new breed of lens combines high-caliber optics with low-impact prices. The Pop Photo Lab is testing sharper and more distortion-free glass than ever -- across the pricing spectrum. Indeed, so many lenses now earn our highest ratings that we will soon need to raise our test standards. Again.
Lens makers are honing their acts in several ways. First, they're refining aspheric lens elements. Unlike most elements, which are round, these taper and then flare out toward the edges. Made of ground or molded glass, or glass-and-plastic hybrids, they improve sharpness, especially at the image edges and at wider apertures, while allowing for smaller, lighter lenses.
Control of chromatic aberration is also improving, thanks to dropping prices of low- and super-low-dispersion apochromatic glass. These purer forms of glass focus all wavelengths to the same plane, reducing color fringing and increasing sharpness.
Finally, image-stabilized lenses are becoming more refined and less expensive. Canon and Nikon, which use lens-based stabilization, have been forced to keep a lid on pricing to compete with camera systems that have sensor-based, in-camera IS.
To reach out and put distant wildlife and sports action smack in your face, put a tele zoom on that DSLR. Each profiled lens offers something phenomenal, including a few kit zooms that are kit zooms in price only.
Olympus Zuiko Digital 40-150mm f/3.5-4.5 AF
• WHY IT MATTERS: Four Thirds shooters will like its reach (an 80-300mm equivalent), smooth handling, and easy-on-the-wallet price.
• HOW IT TESTED: Like virtually all Olympus lenses, it's sharp. Many longer zooms at this price level typically dip into the Very Good or even Good ranges at longer focal lengths, but this Zuiko produced Excellent SQF numbers across the board. Distortion control is phenomenal -- within or very close to the Imperceptible range at all tested focal lengths.
• STREET PRICE: $260.
Pentax SMCP-DA 55-300mm f/4-5.8 ED
• WHY IT MATTERS: It stands out from other kit teles for its extra reach (82.5-450mm equivalent, while most max out at 300mm or so) and light weight (under a pound). Pentax says smudge-resistant SP (Super Protective) coating makes the glass easy to clean.
• HOW IT TESTED: Very strongly, with sharpness and contrast in the Excellent range, even out to 300mm. Maximum magnification is a satisfying 1:3.3, and distortion was extremely well controlled, earning our lowest rating (Imperceptible) at 55mm.
• STREET PRICE: $400.
Sigma APO 120-400mm f/4.5-5.6 DG OS HSM
• WHY IT MATTERS: One of the longest image-stabilized zooms (at least 180-600mm equivalent, depending on the camera), this full-framer sports Sigma's quiet HSM focusing motor, plus APO glass to suppress color fringing. Available in Canon, Nikon, and Sigma mounts (Pentax and Sony coming soon).
• HOW IT TESTED: With Imperceptible barrel distortion at 120mm, and almost Imperceptible (i.e., low-range Slight) at the other tested focal lengths, this lens is virtually without linear distortion. It's an order of magnitude above Sigma's 135-400mm of the 1990s, which showed Visible distortion at almost all focal lengths.
• STREET PRICE: $850.
Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM AF
• WHY IT MATTERS: With a 112-480mm (equivalent) focal length on Canon's APS-C sensors, this big gun delivers more reach than most amateur tele zooms. And, though priced for Rebel owners, it's a full-frame lens. Digital shooters who ultimately move up to a full-frame sensor won't have to leave this sharp, moderately fast-focusing zoom behind.
• HOW IT TESTED: Strongly. Sharpness and contrast dipped from Excellent down into the Very Good range at longer focal lengths, which is common. The 1:4.1 maximum magnification ratio should attract close-up shooters, and the built-in image stabilization, everyone else.
• STREET PRICE: $550.