Technology never stands still, but the optical lens industry must seem to move exceedingly slow in comparison to that of other consumer electronics. Lenses are planned and executed using computers, but at their heart they remain extremely precise pieces of glass with specific properties dictated by physics. This might seem frustrating to someone looking for the “latest” lens, but the fact remains that new lenses come out on an infrequent basis — that which was touted as being “new” in 2012 can still be thought of as fresh today. While the number of companies producing lenses has shrunk over the years, there are still many types available for purchase.
The lenses available for DSLR (digital single-lens reflex) and mirrorless cameras are now called on to shoot video as well — and in many cases varying levels of high-definition video at that.
In addition, lenses require specific mounts in order to attach to a cameras. Some lens manufacturers make lenses that attach to a variety of cameras through the use of specialized mounts. However, camera manufacturers such as Nikon make lenses that only mount to that brand of cameras.
The lens industry may grind exceedingly slowly, but the results have been, and will continue to be, worth it…
Full-frame refers to a DSLR or MILC (mirrorless interchangeable lens camera) that is equipped with a 35mm format image sensor. Compared to this, most digital cameras utilize smaller sensors because they’re less expensive and easier to produce. Full-frame sensors enable wide angle lenses to reach a view equivalent to SLR lenses. Smaller sensor wide angle lenses are less “wide” in their angle of view. Full-frame lenses are also less “noisy” and so are able to attain a greater dynamic range.
While it is not possible to mention every lens of note, we will try to highlight those lenses from companies that continue to attract the attention and fulfill the needs of the videographer.
Retailing at about $1,200.00, the EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM AF can be considered Canon’s all-purpose lens, covering a zoom area ranging from a very respectable wide angle to a portrait-length telephoto. It provides auto as well as manual focus, image stabilization technology working against camera shake up to three stops, and lens construction designed to minimize chromatic aberration and distortions (effective at even wide apertures). It has both dust and moisture-resistant capabilities.
For those looking for extreme wide/fisheye use, the EF 8-15mm f/4L USM provides a 180 diagonal angle of view for all EOS DSLR cameras with imaging formats ranging from full-frame to APS-C, plus a 180 degree circular fisheye image for full-frame EOS models. Lens design suppresses chromatic aberration, with coatings to reduce ghosting and minimize the effects of soiling, smears and fingerprints on the lens. A rear gel holder can accept up to three pre-cut gel filters. It retails for (approx.) $1,350.00.
Those looking for a near “do-all” lens will find solace in the AF-S NIKKOR 80-400mm f.4.5-5.6G ED VR Telephoto Lens. Relatively compact for such a broad range, internal focus keeps the lens from extending outward and the front lens elements don’t rotate, either. The lens features three focus modes, including manual focus, and the motor provides a quiet operation, which is vital when shooting video. Vibration reduction and image stabilization are also built in. The lens costs about $2,700.
?Also presented — as a blast to the past — is the 58mm f/1.4G lens, returning to cameras a lens discontinued in 1998. The lens features a special Nano Crystal Coating and Nikon’s Super Integrated Coating so as to facilitate exceptional edge-to-edge sharpness and an even lighting at all apertures. This lens fits all FX and DX cameras and retails for about $1,700.
Rokinon has a series of wide angle lenses, including the second-generation 8mm /f2.8 UMC Fish-Eye II lens. It is designed for mirrorless cameras and includes a petal-shaped built-in lens hood to deflect light and protect the front element from exposure. The lens provides a 180 degree angle of view and is equivalent to a 12mm focal length in the 35mm format. It has a retail price of about $400.
The 10mm f.2.8 ED AS NCS CS is presented for mirrorless and DSLR (APS-C) mounts. The 35mm equivalent focal length is 12mm on APS-C format cameras, 16mm on Canon APS-C cameras and 20mm on Micro Four Thirds cameras. An anti-reflection coating system improves light transmission and reduces the reflections causing ghosting and flare. The Nikon Mount version provides automatic exposure capabilities. Retail is approximately $400.
The 12mm f/2.0 NCS CS model is for mirrorless cameras only and, unlike the other two, can accept front filters. It also has an anti-reflection coating and retails for about $400.
Schneider Optics recently introduced lenses well suited for digital cinematography to be used with HDSLR and other pro-level DSLRs. The Schneider Kreuznach Xenon FF Prime Lenses series includes 25mm, 35mm, 50mm, 75mm and 100mm focal lengths — plus an 18mm slated for 2015. Built for full frame use and able to handle 4K resolutions, these lenses have been designed to be compatible with industry-standard cine-style accessories such as follow-focus rigs and matte boxes. Functionality includes a circular 14-blade aperture, 300-degree barrel rotation for manual focus and color-matching consistency between lenses. Retail prices for the lenses fall in the $4,000-$5,600 range.
Also available is a 28mm lens designed for full frame DSLRs and which provides tilt/shift capabilities. Befitting its specialty moniker, the cost is more than $8,000.
Sigma has done a redesign of their classic focal length 50mm f/1.4 Art, adding a significant increase in glass elements. It has a new autofocus motor, nine bladed aperture and a multi-layer coating for reducing ghosting and lens flare. The retail is around $950.
Also available is Sigma’s DC Macro OS HSM Contemporary; this is a 18-300 f/3.5-6.3 ultrazoom good for those traveling or not wishing to be constantly changing lenses. It’s made for mid-to-lower range DSLRs and retails for around $579.
The Sony Alpha E-mount 20mm f/2.8 Prime and the 18-200 f/3.5-6.3 PZ OSS lenses are both produced for use with the NEX series of digital mirrorless cameras. The 20mm, joining a 16mm, has a 35mm focal length equivalent of 30mm and focuses as close as 7.8-inch. It has a seven-blade circular curvature aiding in producing out-of-focus areas when shooting with a shallow focus. It is driven by an internal stepping motor for both the autofocus drive and aperture, resulting in a smooth motion when shooting video. Manual focus is also available. The lens retails for about $350.
The 11X zoom capabilities of the 18-200mm have been optimized for shooting video — image stabilization provides up to four stops of shake control. Both manual and autofocus options are featured, as well as the ability to shoot video with a constant speed zooming through the use of the variable speed zoom control. Internal motors have been designed so as to avoid creating sound that would interfere with audio being recorded. It retails for about $1,200.
Tokina’s ATX 11-16mm T.3 Cine lens is designed for use by independent filmmakers working with Micro Four Thirds cameras. Heavier than the non-Cine version, it sports a f/2.8 aperture and has screw holes in the zoom/focus rings for adding operator levers. Retail is around $940.
Zeiss’ Loxia lenses are designed specifically for the Sony a7 camera and so work in a mirrorless, full-frame capacity. Precise manual focusing is enhanced via a large rotation angle. There is also a “DeClick” feature intended for smooth adjustments of the aperture while shooting video. The lens family consists of the 2/35 (35mm) and 2/50 (50mm), with prices of $1,300 and $949, respectively. Also available, and touted by Zeiss as the “best short tele lens in the world” is the Otus1.4/85, designed with an extremely large aperture for isolating subjects from the background, and has an optical correction value for eliminating almost every form of visual aberration. It retails for about $4,500.
To The Future And Beyond
Lens manufacturers continue to refine existing lenses — and so often a model will receive an upgrade in the form of an enhanced and superior replacement for an existing focal length. Lenses that are well suited for 4K video and full-frame DSLRs and MILCs are also being produced and will no doubt proliferate as new techniques strive to enhance the visual acuity of the glass. The lens industry may grind exceedingly slowly, but the results have been, and will continue to be, worth it for those looking to expand their vision through the creativity of a lens.
SIDEBAR: Renting lenses
Renting a lens can be a cost-effective method far superior to making a purchase, especially in the case where the lens is a specialty item that is not expected to experience heavy or frequent use. Lens rental houses expect compensation, but this will be far less than purchasing a lens outright. However, much as in a car rental, expect to be able to show identification and provide a deposit. This will most likely mean using a credit card, but there might be exceptions. It is also important to plan ahead as far as possible regarding your rental needs — the most local rental facility to your location might have the lens you need in a heavy rotation, or not have the lens at all. Since the lens rental is based on days, figuring in exactly how many days the lens will be needed is a necessity. However one shouldn't be influenced by the cost alone, since there is always the likelihood that the shooting will go over the time allotted. Additionally, and depending on the retail insurance cost of the lens, purchasing insurance against a mishap could also be smart. These are all things that need to be figured out prior to the actual rental.
Marshal M. Rosenthal is a technology and consumer electronics freelance writer based on the West Coast