Cameras get the headlines, but experienced photographers know it’s the quality of the lens that often makes or breaks a kit. That’s because lenses dictate everything from the sharpness of a photograph to the ability to shoot in low light at low ISOs with fast shutter speeds while handholding. In short, good glass will often make or break the shot.
That was always the case in the film era, and it’s still true now that most photographers shoot digital. But these days, good glass is about even more than high-fidelity optics. Each new generation of lenses sports jaw-dropping new-and-improved features.
Take image stabilization, for instance. What once offered an additional stop or so of handholding capability now provides up to five or even six stops of stabilization. Pro photographers have always demanded higher build quality with metal components to withstand the rigors of working on the go, as well as weather sealing to prevent the intrusion of dust and moisture. Today, though, these features have trickled down into more affordable lenses as well, making them especially well suited for travel photography and shooting outdoors.
Certain features have always signaled quality lenses. These include fast maximum apertures, such as ƒ/2.8 for zooms or even faster (like ƒ/1.8 or even ƒ/1.4) for prime lenses, and focal ranges that cover from wide-angle to telephoto without sacrificing quality.
The latter group of zooms often incorporates a variable maximum aperture—which shifts, for example, from ƒ/4 to ƒ/6.3 when zooming from wide to telephoto—in order to help make lenses smaller and lighter. These lenses are especially good for traveling photographers who don’t want to carry multiple lenses or for those who prefer not to change lenses regularly.
Some features are quite technical, but it’s important to understand the basics of what they do. For instance, the number of blades that form an aperture determine the look of the out-of-focus area of the image, better known as bokeh. The more blades, the rounder the aperture. And the rounder the aperture, the more attractive the bokeh.
When shopping for lenses, photographers will encounter some esoteric acronyms that speak to the quality of the optical elements themselves, as well as the special coatings that are applied to them to help fight ghosting and lens flare. For instance, “LD” stands for “low dispersion glass” (and “ED” for “extra-low dispersion glass”). Both help minimize chromatic aberration. That’s the inability of a lens to focus different colors at precisely the same point. Lens makers also boast about aspherical elements (often abbreviated as “ASPH”) that are used to minimize spherical aberrations (distortion) and make lenses smaller and lighter—especially wide angles and fast primes.
With an understanding of the essential features in hand, here’s a roundup of the best new glass that makes use of them. This list includes enthusiast lenses as well as pro-level models and affordable glass that won’t break the bank.
Available Lenses For Enthusiasts
Canon RF 24-240mm F4-6.3 IS USM
One of Canon’s newest lenses is the RF 24-240mm F4-6.3 IS USM, a versatile superzoom for Canon’s full-frame mirrorless camera system. Not only does this do-it-all zoom cover a wide range from wide to telephoto—making it ideal for travel photographers because of its capability with everything from landscapes and architecture to portraits and sports—but also dynamic image stabilization provides up to five stops of added stability when handholding. That makes it a great lens for low light.
The lens also features Nano USM technology from high-end Canon L lenses to provide fast and accurate autofocus for still photography and video capture.
Fujifilm XF16mmF2.8 R WR
Photographers these days relish downsizing in both size and price. To that end, the XF16mmF2.8 R WR is a welcome addition to the Fujifilm FUJINON lens lineup.
Designed for the company’s APS-C mirrorless cameras, this compact wide-angle prime offers a 24mm equivalent angle of view. Two aspherical elements provide edge-to-edge sharpness, and a stepping motor delivers fast and quiet autofocus. Weighing in at just 5.5 ounces, the lens is less than 2 inches long, and its metal construction and weather-resistant sealing make it durable, too.
Nikon NIKKOR Z 85mm f/1.8 S
Advanced amateurs and professionals want to downsize their camera systems without sacrificing quality. And that just got easier, especially for portrait shooters, with the addition of the NIKKOR Z 85mm f/1.8 S to the Nikon S lens lineup.
Built for the company’s Z full-frame mirrorless system, this 85mm prime is compact yet fast, providing a wide and constant ƒ/1.8 maximum aperture. Coupled with nine aperture blades and supreme sharpness from edge to edge, this lens is ideal for portraits with shallow depth of field and beautiful bokeh. Its ability to focus as close as 2.6 feet, however, makes extreme close-ups a breeze.
The lens also caters to video shooters with its ability to work in extremely low light, quiet focus motors and customizable control ring for smoother aperture adjustments.
Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-200mm F3.5-6.3
Photographers who want to travel light often look for one lens that can cover a variety of needs, from wide-angle landscapes to telephoto portraits and even distant sports action. For users of Micro Four Thirds cameras, the Olympus M. Zuiko Digital ED 12-200mm F3.5-6.3 is exactly that lens.
Covering a whopping 16.6X zoom range equivalent to 24-400mm, the lens is perfect for travel photographers or those who simply don’t want the hassle of changing lenses. It can also shoot close-ups of small objects at just over 8.5 inches and with nearly .5x magnification. It’s not quite a true macro, but useful nonetheless—especially for a lens that can also provide the equivalent of a 400mm telephoto on the long end.
The lens is also ideal for traveling and outdoor photographers because, although it’s not one of Olympus’ pro lenses, it uses the same weather sealing to make it dustproof and splashproof.
Panasonic Leica DG Summilux 25mm/F1.4 II ASPH
Announced this past summer, the Panasonic Leica DG Summilux 25mm/F1.4 II ASPH is an update on a popular normal prime lens for Micro Four Thirds Panasonic Lumix G digital cameras. Unlike the first-generation 2011 version, this new lens is dust and moisture resistant, yet it’s still compact and light—weighing 7.26 ounces and measuring just over 2 inches long.
Equivalent to a 50mm normal focal length lens, the Summilux 25mm is also very fast with a constant ƒ/1.4 maximum aperture. The smooth and quiet stepping motor makes autofocus optimal for video capture, too.
Ricoh HD Pentax-DA 10-17mm f/3.5-4.5 ED Fisheye
Pentax K-mount DSLR camera users have a new option for ultrawide images thanks to the newly announced HD Pentax-DA Fisheye 10-17mm f/3.5-4.5 ED zoom lens. Compact and light, this ultrawide lens provides a 180-degree angle of view on APS-C format sensors when zoomed out to 10mm. (The focal range is equivalent to 16-27mm on a full-frame camera.) The lens offers the opportunity for unique special effects thanks to its ability to focus as close as an inch from the front element, and its Quick-Shift Focus System allows instant switching to manual focus after locking on with autofocus. The removable lens hood makes nearly circular fisheye images possible as well.
Tamron 35-150mm F/2.8-4 Di VC OSD
Built for Canon and Nikon full-frame cameras, the Tamron 35-150mm F/2.8-4 Di VC OSD is a fast, compact, do-it-all zoom. The maximum aperture varies with focal length, allowing the lens to be a fast ƒ/2.8 lens at the wide end while still maintaining a compact shape and low weight that makes it ideal for photographers who want to travel light with a single lens.
Optical image stabilization is built-in—especially useful at the telephoto end of the zoom range—and low-dispersion and aspherical glass minimize aberrations. The dual micro-processing unit ensures fast autofocus and maximum vibration reduction of up to five stops.
Tokina FiRIN 100mm F2.8 FE Macro
The newest lens from Tokina is the FiRIN 100mm F2.8 FE Macro, a telephoto macro lens designed for Sony E-mount mirrorless cameras.
With its fast ƒ/2.8 maximum aperture comprised of nine blades, this prime lens is useful not just for life-sized macro reproductions but also for portraits with beautiful bokeh. The lens focuses as close as 11.8 inches, and the lens barrel features a printed magnification scale to help photographers precisely achieve their desired amount of enlargement, from 1:6 to life-size 1:1.