Cameras seem to get all the attention, with their everclimbing pixel counts and buzzworthy features. But seasoned shooters will tell you—over and over—that lenses are what make the magic. To get a handle on the current state of the optical arts, we’ve pored over more than 80 lenses introduced in the past two years, and seen a handful of key trends emerge: dramatically longer zoom ranges, image stabilization on lenses designed for close-up and wide-angle work, a resurgence of fast primes, and new, highly compact glass for the Micro Four Thirds format.
While reporting, we also uncovered some possible developments, including lenses specifically geared for DSLR video, and increasingly sophisticated stabilization systems. Read on to discover just how vibrant and exciting lens technology is today, starting with...
In years past, supertele zooms— that is, lenses that start and end in the telephoto range, and reach to at least 400mm—were relatively rare beasts. Today, Nikon has a pair of excellent VR (image-stabilized) products, an 80–400mm and 200–400mm; Canon, a 100–400mm; Tamron, a 200–500mm; and Tokina, an 80–400mm. Last July, Sony unveiled a 70–400mm, which our test (September 2009) called “an optical superstar.” It’s Sigma, however, that dramatically ratcheted up interest in the supertele zoom, turning the category red hot virtually overnight. In a remarkable flurry of releases two years ago, it unveiled three at once: a 120–400mm, 150–500mm, and the Godzilla of all supertele zooms, the 35-pound, 28.6-inch, $29,000 200–500mm f/2.8.
Nikon got this ball rolling a few years ago with its 105mm f/2.8 macro prime, the first such lens to couple lifesize subject magnification with Vibration Reduction, its term for lensbased image stabilization.
Since then, Canon, with its EF 100mm f/2.8 IS lens, and Nikon have added to the list. We’d even include Pentax’s 100mm 1:1 macro—although it’s not image-stabilized, since Pentax puts this feature in the camera body instead.
Of all the new 1:1 macros, the coolest just may be Nikon’s AF-S DX Micro-Nikkor 85mm f/3.5G ED VR lens. Announced in October 2009, this digital-only (that is, built for cameras that have APS-sized sensors) master tool is well-suited to portraits as well as to close-ups.
Plus, it streets for a very reasonable $530, offering lifesize magnification and stabilization much more affordably than the company’s original pro-level 105mm VR lens ($890, street).