One legacy of the film-based Advanced Photo System is that it got optical designers thinking about what they could do with a lens if it didn't have to cover a full 35mm frame. Indeed, the size of the image sensor in most digital SLRs is roughly based on an APS "C" frame, and along with the even smaller Four Thirds-format chip has allowed designers to create lenses that are faster, sharper, and more compact than ever. But even cameras with full-frame sensors will benefit from several lenses in this optical panoply.
Co-SLR Lens of the Year: Nikon AF-S Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8G ED
Its short focal-length range makes it sound more like a zoom for digital SLRs with a smaller-than-35mm image sensor. In fact, Nikon's phenomenal 14-24mm f/2.8 zoom covers a full 35mm frame. No, it's not an unsolicited optical gift for Nikon photographers who use film SLRs, though they'll benefit from it. Rather, it's a match made in digital heaven: a constant aperture, ultrawide-angle zoom dedicated to Nikon's full-frame D3 D-SLR (pending a second full-frame model).
You can use the 14-24mm with other Nikon D-SLRs, on which it will give you the not-too-shabby equivalent of 21-36mm f/2.8. But it's an awfully big lens for that, and you'd be throwing away the full goodness of its awesome corner-to-corner sharpness. At 14mm the image quality it produces is actually better than Nikon's very good prime 14mm f/2.8 wide-angle.
The new rectilinear zoom is fully weather-sealed and has internal, SWM-driven AF. The latter contributes to smooth handling and fast focus; constant working distance at any focal length; and closest focusing of under 11 inches at 24mm. It isn't to keep your polarizing filter from spinning, however. The 14-24mm has no filter thread, nor even a gel filter slot in the back. (The assumption is that you can do it all in Photoshop.) But that's our only gripe about one of the most impressive lenses we've used in years. About $1,600.
Co-SLR Lens of the Year: Olympus Zuiko Digital 7-14mm f/4.0 ED
On the opposite end of the D-SLR chip-size spectrum from Nikon's new 14-24mm, this spectacular Four Thirds-format zoom delivers roughly the same 35mm-equivalent focal length range: 14-28mm. The extra four millimeters that take you out to 28mm are useful when you don't want to force perspective too much, and the lens is way smaller in part because its image circle only needs to cover one-quarter the area of the Nikon's. (Of course its smaller f/4 maximum aperture helps too, but is constant throughout the range.) Another benefit of the smaller chip format is the lens's remarkable closest focusing distance: four inches at every focal length.
Zooming on the fully rectilinear 7-14mm is nice and firm, with little to no apparent vignetting or barrel distortion throughout. For photographers accustomed to swapping prime wide-angles just to gain or shed a few millimeters, it's an unfamiliar treat to change focal length so effortlessly in this focal-length range.
Just like the Nikon, with which it shares top honors, this lens has no provision on either end for filters, threaded or gel. Here, though, the thread diameter is smaller and more reasonable than with the Nikon. Perhaps the worry was that a filter's rim might cause vignetting, though new thin-rimmed filters such as those from Rodenstock mitigate this problem. So we hope our Lens of the Year co-winners are reincarnated with that feature. In the meantime, we're loving wide-angle again. About $1,600.
Other Top SLR Lenses
Nikon PC-E Nikkor 24mm f/3.5 ED
Nikon photographers who shoot with perspective-control (PC) lenses can finally add tilt to their shift. Unlike all prior Nikon PC optics except the recent 85mm PC macro, the manual-focus 24mm PC-E Nikkor lets you angle the lens up to 8.5 degrees to either side, along with about the same amount of lateral shift that made our old 28mm PC Nikkor so great. This means in addition to keeping the film plane (oops, image sensor) parallel to the subject to prevent the convergence of parallel lines, you can tilt the plane of focus to maximize your front-to-back sharpness. (The lens's rotating barrel lets you angle the movement in any direction.) The lens still requires manual stop-down except on Nikon's D3 or D300, but you do so not with the old sliding ring but with a pushbutton. (Push the button again for full-aperture viewing.) Better news is that for the first time, with the D3 or D300, you can use any exposure mode and the lens is automatically stopped down and reopened by the camera, just as with any other lens. Now that's progress! About $1,850.
Tamron SP AF10-24mm f/3.5-4.5 Di II LD
This affordable yet high-performance wide-angle zoom stretches Tamron's current 11-18mm f/4.5-5.6 lens on both ends of its focal-length range, producing the equivalent in 35mm of about 15-36mm (for Nikon D-SLRs other than the D3) or 16-38mm (for Canon D-SLRs other than the EOS 5D and EOS 1Ds-series models). Available this Fall, it delivers pretty much the same angles of view, for smaller-chip D-SLRs, that the tried-and-true 16-35mm does for 35mm- or full-frame-digital SLRs. Though it doesn't have that zoom's constant f/2.8 maximum aperture, which would make it a bigger, more expensive lens, it improves considerably on its predecessor's speed, adding a very useful two-thirds stop to both the short and long ends of its range.
Sigma 10-20mm f/4-5.6 EX DC HSM
With a Four Thirds-format mount that fits Olympus, Panasonic, and Leica Digilux D-SLRs, this 10-element zoom stays compact (about three inches long and wide) but delivers a powerful 20-40mm range (35mm equivalent). It zips from ultrawide-angle to a slightly-wide focal length that can be used with little evident distortion. Packed with high-grade glass, it counts three low-dispersion and three aspherical elements among its total of 14. (This very lens is also available for D-SLRs with the bigger, APS-C-sized sensor, with which it becomes about a 16-30mm.) About $500.