American Photo Editor's Choice 2009: Lens

Pixels notwithstanding, photography is still about making light perform tricks—and all the new optics we’ve chosen do just that.

Tamron 18-270 mm f/3.5-6.3 DiII VC LD

It justifies its long name by squeezing more focal lengths than ever before into an interchangeable lens for still photography. Starting at a true wide-angle 27mm (35mm equivalent for Nikon D-SLRs), the digital-only Tamron zooms to a supertele 405mm. Yet its compactness and light weight invite handheld shooting, which is in turn made practical by Tamron's built-in Vibration Compensation (VC) system. VC maintains the 15X zoom's surprising optical quality not only with slower shutter speeds, but also with higher speeds at which shake combined with high magnification can still reduce sharpness. About $630.

Panasonic Lumix G Vario HD 14-140mm f/4.0-5.8 ASPH

For the moment this impressive zoom comes only as part of the "kit" for Panasonic's Micro Four Thirds-format Lumix GH1. But what a kit lens it is! In addition to putting an unusually wide 28-280mm (35mm equivalent) range into a very small package, the metal-bodied optic's fit and finish are exceptional.

There's no wobble when it's extended, and zoom and focus rings are nicely damped. AF is extremely smooth, quick, and quiet. (That's especially noticeable when its follow-focusing in the GH1's 1080p HD video mode.) Sharpness is maintained throughout the 10X range by two ED and four aspheric elements, backed up by built-in optical image stabilization. Owners of the older Lumix G1 should soon be able to buy the lens separately.

Tokina AT-X 16.5-135mm f/3.5-5.6 DX

Its unusual range of 25-200mm (35mm equivalent) bests the competition's typical 28mm-equivalent wide-angle limit by roughly five degrees of coverage. While the new Tokina's 200mm long end may not offer enough magnification for wildlife or sideline sports, its intervening focal lengths suit everything from tight portraits to still lifes. In fact, its closest focusing distance is under 20 inches, for a maximum reproduction ratio of almost 1:5. Yet the lens stays small (three inches long by 3.5 inches in girth) and light (21.5 ounces) even with 15 elements, two of them super-low dispersion and three of them aspherical.

Lensbaby Composer

Though it's optically old-fashioned, the manual-focus Lensbaby is one of photography's most interesting recent innovations, bringing to 35mm and digital SLRs the graduated-blur effects that could once only be obtained with a view camera. The expanded line now includes several versions and dedicated accessories, including an Optic Swap System that turns any model into an interchangeable-lens Lensbaby. The newest of these, the Lensbaby Composer, is a brilliant departure from the previous models' bendable, flexing-tube lens barrel design. It substitutes a ball-and-socket system that eliminates the need for physical bending of the barrel. The design also keeps the lens in the desired position without holding or locking. (You can even vary the resistance of the lens's movement.) Focus is adjusted not by manually extending or compressing the barrel but with a helical collar. About $270.

Sigma 50-200mm f/4-5.6 DC OS HSM

Sigma's own optical image stabilization makes this next-generation digital zoom a much more versatile optic-especially at the long end, where blur due to hand movement is more likely. Unlike sensor-based stabilization, the in-lens system takes jiggle out of the viewfinder image as well, and it supports the new lens's other image-sharpening qualities. These include internal focusing (which also keeps the lens front from rotating, a plus with polarizing filters); a 14- element, laser-coated formula that focuses to 1:4.5; and super low dispersion (SLD) glass. There are also both hypersonic motor AF and internal focusing, making this a good buy for small-sensor Canon, Nikon, Pentax, and Sigma D-SLRs. About $300.

Sony 70-400mm f/4-5.6G

Sony's growing line of Zeiss optics has set a very high standard of image quality. But this beautifully-made G-series lens, which has a focal-length range Zeiss would never attempt, maintains top performance throughout-even when used wide-open. Distortion is well-controlled even on the full-frame Alpha 900 and better still with small-sensor models such as the new Alpha 330, on which the 18-element ED zoom delivers the equivalent of a remarkable 105-600mm-with no loss of speed. (Take note, sports and wildlife photographers who are always moving forward and backward to frame a distant subject.) SSM autofocus is quiet, smooth, and almost inaudible, and there's a focus limiter to speed things up further (a good thing given the five-foot closest focusing distance). Variously-placed focus-hold buttons let you lock in AF at any time. About $1,600.

Canon TS-E 17mm f/4L

Users of perspective-control optics are often cramped by these lenses' shortest focal lengths, either 28mm or 24mm, which can be insufficiently wide to take in a very large structure even from the farthest practical camera position. The problem is much worse with small-chip D-SLRs, which turn a 24mm focal length into the equivalent of a barely-wide 36mm or 38mm lens. The good news: Canon's impressive TS-E 17mm perspective-control lens produces a 104-degree angle of view on 35mm or full-frame D-SLRs, but can be mounted on Canon's APS-C-sensor models to produce a still-wide 28mm. An improved mechanical system allows tilt and shift to be adjusted in parallel or at right angles. About $2,500.

Pentax SMC DA* 55mm f/1.4 SDM

Prime lenses are good discipline for photographers spoiled by zooms, which is why we like the Pentax 55mm f/1.4. (We were tempted to single out the new Pentax 60-250mm f/4 ED for its 35mm-equivalent range of 90-375mm, not to mention its constant f/4 aperture, but no matter.) The nine-element, weatherproofed 55mm f/1.4 features a moderate-tele focal length that's about equal to 35mm's classic 85mm portrait length-and it brings an unusually fast maximum aper- ture to the world of APS-C D-SLRs, in which shallow depth of field can be hard to achieve. Used at wide apertures, this ultrasonic-focusing lens produces lovely out-of-focus backgrounds, especially at close distances (CFD is 1.5 feet), while the main subject is sharpened by extra-low dispersion glass. It's a natural for portraits, but don't stop there. About $730.

Nikon PC-E Mmicro-Nikkor 85mm f/2.8D

Perspective-control lenses are more useful than ever: Mount one on a high-res D-SLR and you access not just view camera-style image-control movements but also a good measure of the big camera's image quality, with much greater ease of use. This manual-focus PC lens is optically and mechanically similar to the 85mm PC Micro-Nikkor released a few years ago, but it offers one very important improvement: automatic diaphragm control. If you're shooting with Nikon D3X, D3, D700, or D300 D-SLRs, you no longer have to manually stop the lens down before shooting. (That step was easy to forget, and its omission could result in serious overexposure.) As before, this lens combines its tilts and shifts with macro focusing. Aside from exacting control over sharpness and linear perspective, that combination lends itself to interesting out-of-focus effects not just with architectural subjects but in still lifes too. Sort of like a very expensive Lensbaby! About $1,750.

Olympus Zuiko Digital ED 9-18mm f/4-5.6

Last year's top lens honors went to the Olympus 7-14mm f/4, a gorgeous but costly chunk of glass. This wide-angle ED zoom could be the next best thing for Four Thirds-format photographers, and is even a couple of hundred dollars cheaper than the less-wide (though faster) Zuiko 11-22mm f/2.8-3.5. It is the equivalent, in 35mm, of 18-36mm, more or less the classic wide-angle zoom range. While that's not quite as wide as the 16mm or 17mm starting focal lengths of current 35mm zooms, it is several degrees wider than the angular coverage produced by the 10mm or 11mm starting focal lengths of competing Four Thirds lenses. The 9-18mm is light and compact, with a relatively small variable maximum aperture-yet is sharp from corner to corner, with minimal vignetting. Fortunately, sensor-based image stabilization lets you safely compensate for the smaller f-stop by setting slower shutter speeds. About $540.

Nikon AF-S DX Nikkor 10-24mm f/3.5-4.5G ED

In a world of 10X, 12X, and now 15X zooms for interchangeable-lens D-SLRs, a 2.4X magnification range seems paltry. Yet in wide-angle territory a mere millimeter makes a real difference in angle of view. Nikon's digital-only 10-24mm offers focal lengths that are equivalent, in 35mm terms, to 15-36mm-six or seven degrees wider than the company's 17-35mm for 35mm and full-frame D-SLRs. And while even the best pro-level wide zooms can be softer than you'd expect, the new Nikon is crisp throughout, due in part to two ED and three aspherical elements among its total of 14. A variable aperture and internal focusing keep the 10-24mm compact, SWM autofocus keeps it quiet, and its closest focusing distance of under ten inches allows you to create dramatic near-far effects. About $900.