Though made for different formats, the Nikon AF-S Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8G ED
and Olympus Zuiko Digital 7-14mm f/4.0 ED, this year's top lens picks, have
something in common.
Olympus Zuiko Digital 14-35mm f/2.0 ED SWD
Photographers who've done much of their full-frame shooting with a 28-70mm f/2.8 sometimes bemoan that zoom's speed, even though it's constant. Prime lenses falling within the same focal-length range often provide an f/2 maximum aperture or wider, making them more versatile in low light. The zoom's f/2.8 is a compromise -- a way both to keep the maximum aperture constant and prevent the lens from getting too big for wieldy handling. No such compromise needed with the Four Thirds-digital format because a lens has to cover only one-quarter the area of a 35mm "full" frame. That's how Olympus's new Zuiko 14-35mm f/2.0 zoom provides the angular equivalents of a full-frame 28-70mm yet maintains its f/2 maximum aperture -- a full stop faster -- throughout the focal-length range. You pay extra for that speed, but when combined with the sensor-based image stabilization in Olympus D-SLRs it lessens the need to ratchet up the ISO, reducing image-degrading noise. About $2,300.
Canon EF-S 55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS
Built-in image stabilization more than offsets the variable-aperture design of this compact, lightweight lens -- a moderate- to supertele UD zoom equivalent to 88-400mm (in 35mm). A new, simpler IS technology both lowers the cost and increases to four the number of stops by which you can safely shoot handheld below the focal length's reciprocal. At the lens's highest magnification, for example, you could shoot at 1/30th second and shake would be countered well enough to prevent image blur. We probably wouldn't trust our own steadiness at such a slow speed; we feel safer at two to three stops slower. Assuming you don't need to freeze subject movement, though, the image stabilizer makes the lens the equivalent of a nonstabilized f/1.0-1.4 in terms of pure light gathering ability. And when you pan a moving subject, the lens automatically senses the camera movement and stabilizes the image only in the vertical axis. About $280.
Pentax SMC DA* 200mm f/2.8 ED (IF) SDM
A fine match for the impressive Pentax K20D, this razor-sharp, smooth-focusing telephoto becomes a 300mm f/2.8 (in 35mm terms) when you use it on that camera. And the 300mm f/2.8 was always a bread-and-butter optic for 35mm sports and wildlife photographers, available for just about any brand of SLR. That lens was hefty, though, with a barrel length of 10 inches or more, a girth of up to five inches, and weight approaching six pounds. By contrast, the new Pentax 200mm f/2.8 (which meets the same tough weather- and dust-resistance spec as the K20D body) is only half that long, just over three inches in diameter, and several ounces shy of two pounds. This scaling down makes a huge difference in handling -- allowing hand-held shooting, with equal magnification, where and when the 300mm f/2.8 was (and is) just too much of a beast for anything but a monopod or tripod. About $1,000.
Zeiss Makro-Planar T* 100mm f/2 ZF
Accurate focus is critical when you're shooting macro photographs, given the inherently shallow depth of field at such close working distances. This full-metal, manual-focus lens for the Nikon F-mount makes the job easier by giving you a wider maximum aperture -- and therefore a brighter viewfinder and more decisive point of focus -- than with the f/2.8 of most other macros. (For shooting very close we find autofocus to be more of a hindrance than a help.) We used the new 100mm ZF on our Nikon D3 because it covers a full 35mm frame, but if you mount it on any other Nikon D-SLR you get the equivalent (in 35mm) of a 150mm f/2 lens. That's fast for such a relatively long focal length and makes for great tight portraits with very shallow depth of field. We shot many closeups with the lens wide open, which created lovely soft-and-sharp effects -- pinpoint focus with dramatic yet smooth defocused areas. About $1,600.
Tokina AT-X Pro DX AF 11-16mm f/2.8
Available for Canon (EF-S) and Nikon (DX) D-SLRs, this constant-aperture, wide-angle zoom proves that independent lensmakers can build lenses that are every bit as good as, if not better than, those offered by the SLR makers themselves. We think its optical quality equals or beats that of its closest competitors, which include lenses with 10-20mm, 10-22mm, and 12-24mm ranges. And the Tokina is up to a stop and a third faster, since those competitors start out with a maximum aperture of f/3.5, f/4, or f/4.5. What's more, it maintains that speed throughout its range while other such wide-angle zooms end up at f/4.5 or even f/5.6 at their long end. In addition to increasing your low-light shooting ability, the wider aperture makes the viewfinder brighter -- good for manual focusing, which you do simply by pulling back the ring. (The lens doesn't autofocus with the Nikon D40/X or D60.) The new zoom does fall short of its competitors on the long end, but we're not complaining. About $570.
Sony Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* 24-70mm f/2.8 ZA
This zoom's very wide to moderate-tele range is ideal for a full-frame D-SLR. So why would Sony bring out such a lens, given that the smaller-than-35mm chip in Sony D-SLRs makes it an old-school 35-105mm? To prepare for Sony's full-frame, 24-megapixel pro D-SLR, which is on the near horizon. The lens and its constant-aperture companion, the Sony Zeiss T* 70-200mm f/2.8 GA, will give the much-anticipated camera a 24-200mm range with a nonvariable aperture. And the new chip's resolution should be up to maintaining the sharpness that defines Zeiss optics -- which you used to have to resort to a prime lens to get. About $1,750.