Lenses are one of the hottest, most rapidly expanding categories in the digital imaging arena, because they offer lasting value while extending your customers’ creative capabilities—a one-two punch perfectly in tune with the times. The newest cameras may leave older models in the dust, but this is seldom true of lenses, which generally hold their value and migrate from camera to camera, a factor that encourages people to upgrade by buying the latest body.
Interchangeable lenses also help shooters take their photography to another level by capturing images that are not possible with, say, the standard short-zoom kit lens. In addition, they offer a cost-effective way of upgrading and freshening a camera system without having to buy the latest body.
Camera companies and independent lens manufacturers have gone to great lengths to entice and enable consumers with their current crop of products. Here are the hottest optical trends likely to have lens-seeking customers walking through your doors.
1. Fast-aperture lenses: With maximum apertures in the f/1.4, f/2 and f/2.8 range, they provide shallow depth of field when shot wide open, causing the main subject to pop off the background. Many enthusiasts are now using this time-honored pro technique and are gravitating toward prime (single focal length) and zoom lenses that provide it.
2. Ultra-wide-angle lenses: They range from ultrawide zooms covering the full frame with 35mm equivalents in the 16–24mm to 21–35mm class, many with fast apertures like f/2.8. There are also new fisheye zooms, some providing classic circular fisheye coverage, others covering the entire frame with increasing linear distortion toward the edges, and a few capable of doing both, depending on the focal-length setting. All provide exciting perspectives for creative shooters.
3. Constant-aperture zooms: Unlike variable-aperture zooms that deliver smaller maximum apertures at their longest focal lengths, these lenses deliver the same aperture—usually f/2.8 or f/4—over their range. The advantage: Better low-light performance (and more easily hand-held shutter speeds) at long focal lengths, where you really need it, plus shallow depth of field when you want it for creating pictorial effects.
4. Prime lenses: Zooms have been all the rage for decades, but over the past few years, photographers have gone for prime (single focal length) lenses in a big way, especially traditionalists and art photographers. The reasons: Superior optical performance, wider apertures, and the discipline that results from “zooming with your feet” rather than turning the zoom ring.
5. Super-telephotos and ultrazooms: Providing 35mm-equivalent focal lengths of 300mm and up, they come in two varieties. Super telephotos are very long (300–1,000mm) prime lenses, often with fast maximum apertures in the f/2.8–f/5.6 range that appeal to serious wildlife and sports shooters. They’re generally costly but superb, delivering unmatched reach and image quality. Ultrazooms typically provide zoom ratios in the 10x–15x range, going from wide to long tele, usually with variable apertures like f/3.5–f/5.6 to f/3.5–f/6.3. They’re the closest things to universal lenses and shooters use them rather than interchanging lenses on the fly.
6. Built-in image stabilization: Whether you call it VR or IS or VC, it’s a very popular in-lens feature for cameras like Nikons and Canons that don’t have in-body, sensor-moving, image stabilization systems like Sony and Pentax. All such systems are effective in minimizing the image-blurring effects of camera shake when shooting handheld. The best in-lens systems provide about a four-stop advantage that’s especially important when shooting at long focal lengths and/or at close distances.
7. Special-effects lenses: When mounted on a DSLR, this lens category allows photographers to achieve an infinite range of creative effects. The Lensbaby line, which began with the selective-focus Original Lensbaby that brings one area of a photo into sharp focus with a “sweet spot” surrounded by graduated blur, exemplifies this group.
Now that you have a better idea of the kind of lenses your customers may be looking for, here’s our selection of recently announced and standout lenses.
Lensbaby Composer. The Composer is based on a ball-and-socket configuration that delivers smooth selective focus photography; photographers tilt the lens to a desired angle and then focus with a manual focusing ring. The Composer stays in the desired bent position without requiring a locking mechanism. It is part of the Lensbaby Optic Swap system, which features six optics that can be swapped in and out of a Lensbaby Creative Effects SLR lens: the double glass, single glass and plastic optics that achieve a selective focus look; and the fisheye, soft focus and pinhole/zone plate optics to explore different creative realms. The Composer comes with a double glass optic. $269.99. lensbaby.com
Pentax smc DA 35mm f/2.4 AL. This fast, compact, high-performance prime lens is equivalent to a 53mm normal lens on an APS-C format Pentax DSLR. It employs a six-element five-group design with one hybrid aspheric element for enhanced performance and also has “ghostless” coatings to minimize ghost images and Pentax’s Super Protect coating on the front surface to repel dust, water and grease. $219.95. pentaximaging.com
Canon EF 8–15mm f/4L Fisheye USM. Billed as the world’s widest fisheye zoom, it delivers a 180 degrees diagonal angle on full-frame and APS-C format EOS cameras, providing classic circular fisheye images. It uses UD (ultra-low dispersion) and aspherical elements to enhance image quality, is weather sealed, and has an anti-smear fluorine coating on its front and rear elements to facilitate cleaning. $1,399.99*. usa.canon.com
Canon EF 70–300mm f/4–5.6L IS USM. Compact and lightweight, this high-performance “L” lens incorporates two UD elements for enhanced performance, weather and dust seals, and a floating element formula designed to improve image quality and provide a shorter minimum focusing distance (3.9 feet). It uses Canon’s latest IS (image stabilization) system and a fluorine anti-smear coating for easier cleaning. $1,599.99. usa.canon.com
Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM. The sixth generation of Canon’s classic fast telephoto, it’s claimed to be 13% lighter, provide enhanced durability and image quality, and include Canon’s latest IS design with a rolling-ball-friction system in place of the sliding parts in the compensation optics barrel for minimum friction. Magnesium alloy and titanium were added to the lens barrel for greater durability, its weather sealing was upgraded, and a fluorine anti-smear coating is applied to the front and rear elements. $6,999.99*. usa.canon.com
Nikon AF-S DX Nikkor 55–300mm f/4.5–5.6G ED VR. Designed to complement the 18–55mm VR kit lens on DX-format Nikon DSLRs, it provides 35mm-equivalent focal lengths from 82.5–450mm. Its tripod detection mode enables users to keep VR (vibration reduction) image stabilization activated and effective when mounted on a tripod. Its high refractive index lens element and two extra-low dispersion (ED) elements help to keep the lens compact while minimizing chromatic aberration. $399.95. nikonusa.com
Nikon AF-S Nikkor 28–300mm f/3.5–5.6G ED VR. The first full-frame (FX format) Nikon lens with a 10.7x zoom range, it’s positioned as “the all-in-one optical solution,” providing equivalent focal lengths of 42–450mm when attached to a DX DSLR. It includes two ED glass elements and three aspherical elements to eliminate aberrations at wide aperture settings, plus an M/A focus mode switch to enable quick changes between manual and autofocus operation, as well as quiet internal focusing (IF). $1,299.95. nikonusa.com
Nikon AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.4G. Aimed at portrait, studio and wedding photographers, Nikon’s ultra-fast classic portrait lens delivers the ability to create dramatic background effects using shallow depth of field (bokeh). Optimized for edge-to-edge sharpness on FX- and DX-format DSLRs, it features internal focusing, nano crystal coat and rugged construction. $1,699.95. nikonusa.com
Sigma APO 120–300mm f/2.8 EX DG OS HSM. This high-performance wide-aperture tele zoom lens features a weather-resistant design throughout and Sigma’s OS (optical stabilization) function, which offers the use of shutter speeds four stops slower than otherwise possible. One SLD (special low dispersion) and two FLD glass elements are used for maximum correction of chromatic aberrations and pro-caliber performance. A super multilayer coating reduces flare and ghosting, and the HSM (hyper sonic motor) is engineered to ensure quiet and quick AF, while allowing full-time manual focus override. $2,999.95. sigmaphoto.com
Sigma APO Macro 150mm f/2.8 EX DG OS HSM. This large-aperture medium telephoto macro lens incorporates Sigma’s original OS function and offers the latest optical design technology and weather resistance. A floating focusing system moves two different lens groups in the optical path to different positions to compensate for astigmatism and spherical aberration and provides extremely high performance from infinity to 1:1 macro. Three SLD glass elements provide correction of other aberrations, and its super multilayer coating reduces flare and ghosting. $729.95. sigmaphoto.com
Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 75–300mm f/4.8–6.7. With a 150–600mm equivalent range on compact Olympus Pen interchangeable-lens cameras, it is said to be the world’s smallest and lightest 600mm super telephoto lens. Weighing 15.2 ounces and measuring 2.8×4.6 inches, it delivers excellent portability and outstanding image quality. Like the next lens, it’s made with ED (extra-low dispersion) glass to maximize the performance of the Micro Four Thirds system. It also employs a rear focusing mechanism with a single-element unit to enable fast and nearly silent HD movie recordings with sound. It’s available in black and silver. $899.99. olympusamerica.com
Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 40–150mm f/4.0–5.6. Though it weighs only 6.7 ounces, this lens for Olympus Pen cameras provides a wide zoom range, with a 35mm equivalent of 80–300mm, thus offering versatility plus portability. It’s an affordable complement to the 3x wide-angle zoom lens (M.Zuiko Digital ED 14–42mm f/3.5–5.6) that comes standard with the Pen kit. When mounted on a Pen camera, M.Zuiko lenses are stabilized thanks to the camera’s in-body image stabilization. It also comes in black and silver. $299.99. olympusamerica.com
Carl Zeiss Distagon T* 24mm f/2 ZA SSM. This A-mount lens for Sony DSLRs functions as a wide-angle 24mm lens on cameras with full-frame sensors or as a 36mm-equivalent lens for general use on cameras with APS-C sensors. It employs the Carl Zeiss Distagon designed for wide-angle lenses and features a built-in SSM (super sonic wave motor), a focal range from 0.19m to infinity, a nine-bladed circular aperture that contributes to natural bokeh, and an all-metal barrel. $1,249.95. sony.com
Sony DT 35mm f/1.8 SAM. Weighing 6 ounces, this lens has an approximately 50mm-equivalent focal length on APS-C sensor Sony Alpha models, which makes it geared for general shooting as well as portraiture. Its high-speed f/1.8 maximum aperture is helpful for handheld shooting in low light. Its short minimum focus distance of 0.8′ facilitates close-ups, and its internal “smooth autofocus motor” (SAM) helps ensure responsive and fluid AF operation. $199.99. sony.com
Sony 85mm f/2.8 SAM. The 85mm focal length is a classic standard for portraiture on full-frame Sony DSLRs. On APS-C sensor models, it functions as a 127.5mm-equivalent telephoto lens. It features a Zeiss Sonnar-type optical design optimal for mid-range telephoto lenses and smooth defocusing thanks to its f/2.8 maximum aperture and circular aperture design. $249.99. sony.com
Tamron SP 70–300mm Di VC USD. Featuring Tamron’s VC (vibration compensation) image stabilization and an ultrasonic silent autofocus drive (USD), this high-performance lens can be used with full-frame sensor or APS-C sensor cameras, providing an equivalent zoom range of 109–465mm with the latter. With a maximum magnification ratio of 1:4, it can be used for semi-macro photography. The optical design employs LD (low dispersion) and XLD (extra-low dispersion) lens elements to minimize aberrations and enhance performance to SP (superior performance) levels. A crossover from AF to manual focus is achieved by adjusting the focus ring, to make adjustments on the fly. When focusing, the internal elements of the lens move and the lens’s external size does not change, providing better balance. Nikon and Canon mount, $449.00. Soon to be available in Sony A-mount. tamron.com
Tamron AF18–270mm f/3.5–6.3 Di II VC LD Aspherical (IF) Macro. This 15x zoom lens, with a proprietary built-in vibration compensation (VC) mechanism to combat camera shake, captured the EISA Photo Award – European Travel Lens of the Year 2009–2010. The compact, lightweight all-in-one lens covers the 28–419mm equivalent in the full-frame 35mm format and is exclusively designed for DSLRs with APS-C-size sensors. It provides a 1:3.5 macro and focuses down to 19.2 inches. Tamron’s built-in VC optical image stabilizer is engineered to reduce the impact of camera shake so photographers can hand-hold the lens at shutter speeds up to four stops beyond normal safe levels—especially useful in low light. $629.00 tamron.com
Panasonic Lumix G 12.5mm f/12 3D. This remarkable lens for Lumix G-series Micro Four Thirds-format hybrid cameras actually features two optical systems installed within the diameter of the lens mount, creating stereo images formed by the left and right lenses that are then processed with a 3D image-processing system. The lens allows instant 3D shooting (65mm equivalent) without time lag between left and right images—even when shooting objects in motion. Advanced optical technology and image processing systems, and an ingenious lens barrel design, allow the 3D lens to be compact. $249.95. panasonic.com
Panasonic Lumix G 14mm f/2.5 Asph. This ultra-compact lightweight lens for Micro Four Thirds system cameras provides the 35mm-equivalent coverage of 28mm wide angle, a fast f/2.5 aperture and sharp, high contrast imaging thanks to a six-element five-group design that incorporates three aspheric elements. It delivers a wide depth-of-field range for excellent performance in a variety of situations. Its integrated stepping motor and an inner focus drive help create quiet, high-speed contrast AF. $399.95. panasonic.com
Panasonic Lumix G Vario 100–300mm f/4.0–5.6 Mega OIS. This long-range telephoto zoom for Micro Four Thirds cameras provides an equivalent zoom range of 200–600mm ultra-telephoto but is lightweight and portable due to its compact size. Panasonic’s Mega OIS (optical image stabilizer) suppresses blur by compensating for handheld camera shake, and a 17-element 12-group design that includes an ED element minimizes chromatic aberration for sharp, high-contrast imaging over the entire zoom range. $599.95. panasonic.com
* At press time, Canon announced these two lenses have been pushed back to a March 2011 release date.