7 Stunning Lenses

JANUARY 20, 2012

By Theano Nikitas

Cameras are nice but any photographer worth his or her salt knows nothing beats a great piece of glass. With so many premium lenses out there to choose from, how do you know which ones you should add to your kit? To help you narrow down the options, here are seven stunning camera lenses from a variety of manufacturers that, in our opinion, you shouldn’t leave home without.

Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM Camera LensCanon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM

With its 85mm focal length and large, 8-bladed circular aperture, the Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM is the classic portrait lens. In addition to producing a shallow depth of field with a beautiful bokeh, the current 85mm version II lens can focus about 1.8x faster than its predecessor due to its ring-type ultra sonic motor (USM), high-speed CPU and special algorithms. When you don’t need shallow depth of field, the lens can stop down to a useful f/16 and has a minimum focusing distance of 3.1 feet. The lens is compact at 3.6 x 3.3 inches but it weighs a hefty (for its size) 36.2 ounces. By comparison, Canon’s EF 85mm f/1.8 USM, which sells for about $420, weighs less than half of its L-series sibling. Be assured that the price and weight aren’t the only differences between the two lenses!

Sure, this EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM lens has been around for almost five years but it’s still the fastest lens in its class, which makes it ideal for low-light conditions. And, since it’s an L lens, you know it offers top-of-the-line optics, with eight elements in seven groups designed to help eliminate aberrations. Images are sharp and thanks, in part, to its Super Spectra coating, you won’t have to worry about flare and ghosting. For portraits, weddings and other scenes that demand a mid-telephoto lens, it doesn’t get much better than the Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM.

Price: $2,199

Canon 500mm f/4L IS II USM camera lensCanon 500mm f/4L IS II USM

Though formally announced last February, availability of Canon’s latest generation super telephoto 500mm f/4L lens has been delayed, at least in part by the devastation caused by the March earthquake and tsunami in Japan. As of press time, there was no estimated delivery date but this monster of a lens will certainly be an impressive upgrade to its already great predecessor.

The current, albeit discontinued, 500mm f/4L lens produces tack-sharp images. Great image stabilization makes it possible to handhold the lens and capture an amazing image or two, although this 5.8 x 15.2 inch, 8.5-pound behemoth requires some strong muscles and very steady hands when not mounted on a tripod. It works really well with a 1.4x extender; images are not nearly as sharp with the 2x extender, though. All in all, it’s a superb lens.

Fast forward to version II of this lens and we’re already breathing a sigh of relief at the drop in weight to 7.03 pounds due to a redesign that incorporates magnesium and titanium elements. Canon claims sharper images and less chromatic aberration thanks to newly designed Fluorite optics. In addition to redesigned buttons and switches, there’s a third IS mode that kicks in when the shutter is fully depressed. Canon also claims that all three of the IS modes offer a 4-stop advantage. A new Power Focus mode will benefit videographers with its ability to more smoothly shift focus and, of course, the lens is weatherproofed.

A huge jump in price between the old and new 500mm lenses might cause sticker shock though. We’re told that the increase (from the current $7,000 to $10,499) is the result of a combination of factors including the dollar/yen exchange rate, the inclusion of a second Fluorite lens element and, most likely, the aftermath of the disaster in Japan. On the bright side, your current Canon 500mm f/4L lens will certainly maintain its value for a long time if you want to trade it in or sell it to put a down payment on the new model.

Price: $10,499

Hasselblad HC 80mm f/2.8 camera lensHasselblad HC 80mm f/2.8

Considered by many to be the workhorse of the medium-format crowd, the Hasselblad HC 80mm f/2.8 lens is certainly that and more. Let’s face it, if you’re shooting H-system medium format, this is the lens that makes the most sense whether you’re photographing fashion, beauty, portraits, advertising or even landscape.

Versatility is not only a benefit of its focal length but the 80mm lens’s f/2.8 aperture is a plus when focusing in low light or when a shallow depth of field and bokeh are desirable (e.g., portraits). On the other hand, for product shots and other applications where front-to-back focus is critical, this lens can be stopped down to f/32.

The lens, which weighs just a little over a pound, is compact with a length of 2.76 inches and a diameter of 3.31 inches, so it’s really portable. Manual focus is easy thanks to the good grip on the lens barrel, but autofocus is a snap, particularly with Hasselblad’s True Focus technology and Absolute Position Lock (for the H4D-series of cameras only).

Image quality is, as expected, excellent with sharp focus, excellent detail and great color due, in part, to its flat image plane and minimum distortion. Chances are if you own a Hasselblad H System camera, you already have one of these lenses in your kit. If you’re looking at an H4D camera and don’t own an HC 80mm f/2.8 lens, Hasselblad offers camera/lens bundles that you should check out.

Price: $2,395

Leica Super-Elmar-M 21mm f/3.4 ASPH camera lensLeica Super-Elmar-M 21mm f/3.4 ASPH

Gorgeous is one way to describe this lens: from its exceptional build to the images it captures. It’s not the fastest wide-angle lens available but it stops down to f/16 and, especially when paired with the Leica M9, it’s a formidable piece of glass.

Highly compact, even with its cool-looking rectangular lens hood, the lens weighs a mere 9.8 ounces and measures 2.16 inches long, with a diameter that’s only around 2 inches. Manual aperture and focus rings move smoothly, with the former clicking easily into position and the latter adjustable with a convenient finger grip that makes focusing effortless, especially for those with larger hands (and it helps avoid any inadvertent turn of the aperture ring as well).

Images are razor sharp, crisply detailed and surprisingly distortion-free. Of course, at 21mm you have to expect a hint of distortion and vignetting but they really are pretty subtle. Given this little lens’s quality build and images, it’s well worth the price.


Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II camera lensNikon AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II

This is one of my favorite lenses and I use it almost exclusively to shoot runway shows at New York Fashion Week. It’s fast, it’s sharp and it maintains good detail even when using a 1.7x teleconverter.

Equipped with VR II, the second generation of Nikon’s excellent image stabilization technology, this model is slightly more capable than its predecessor, with an estimated gain of up to four stops versus the standard VR’s three stops. The lens’s tripod foot makes it easy to mount on a monopod or tripod (it also has a convenient rotating, non-detachable collar). But it’s also relatively easy to shoot handheld with this lens because of the VR (vibration reduction). Granted the lens weighs about 3.4 pounds, and measures 8.1 inches in length (a little shorter than the earlier version) and 3.4 inches in diameter, so it may wear on your arm and shoulder muscles after long stretches of shooting.

With an aperture range of f/2.8 through f/22, users have good control over depth of field. And it’s versatile enough to focus as close as 4.6 feet. Nikon has done a lot to improve the latest model with three focus options and decreased vignetting. It’s a great lens that produces amazing photographs.

Price: $2,400

Nikon AF DC-NIKKOR 105mm f/2D camera lensNikon AF DC-NIKKOR 105mm f/2D

F-stops may give you control over depth of field but the AF DC-NIKKOR 105mm f/2D lens provides a level of blur adjustment that you’re not likely to find elsewhere. DC stands for Defocus Control, which gives you an idea of what this lens can do. A special ring and f/stop indicator allows photographers to create bokeh or blurring in the foreground or the background of an image. It’s really pretty simple to use: A separate ring on the lens barrel (which can be locked if you don’t want to use the feature) is marked with aperture settings and F (foreground) and R (rear) designations at either end of the ring. Keep in mind, though, that the defocusing only affects the background or foreground of the scene. Lock the ring and you have an excellent, tack-sharp 105mm lens that’s perfect for portraits and other mid-telephoto shots.

Price: $1,200

Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 Distagon T camera lensZeiss 35mm f/1.4 Distagon T

The Zeiss 35mm f/1.4 Distagon T lens provides stunningly sharp images when you want them and creates a lovely bokeh when it’s appropriate. At f/1.4, the lens is fast but stops down to f/16 when shooting in bright light or when a broad depth of field is desirable.

At just under two pounds, this is no lightweight lens, but as you would expect from a lens of this quality, it is solidly built. At 4.7 inches long, with a diameter of around 3 inches, it’s certainly manageable when tested on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II. It’s manual focus only though, so be prepared to get back those skills you might have lost with today’s superfast and accurate autofocus. But the focus indicator works in the viewfinder (at least on the 5D Mark II), so you’ll know when focus is locked in. Zeiss recently announced a 25mm f/2 Distagon T lens. Bet it’s at least as sweet as the 35mm.

Price: $1,843

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