Plugged In: New optic options from old manufacturers

By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

Until a few years ago, Sigma and other third-party lens makers got no respect, their products viewed as cheap, low-quality alternatives to “proper” optics from prestigious original equipment manufacturers like Zeiss, Canon and Nikon.

That’s changed over the past two or three years. Third-party optical companies have dramatically upgraded the quality of their products, in many cases surpassing the name brands, while remaining relatively inexpensive alternatives.

Partly, that reflects economies of scale. A third-party manufacturer can design and build the same lens for many different camera mounts rather than only their own cameras, spreading fixed research and development costs over many more units.

When a new generation took the reins of family owned businesses like Sigma, they realized that they could, and must, compete on quality as well as price. In the case of Sigma, for example, that renewed focus on quality became evident within the past two years.

Many new Sigma lenses crafted at their traditional Japanese factory simply outclassed the optical quality of brand-name optics, often now made in Third World countries. Despite the higher quality and manufacturing costs of Sigma’s Japanese-made lenses, they’re selling well below the price of comparable Zeiss, Canon, Sony and Nikon products.

Consumers clearly win on quality, variety and price. Even professional reviewers, usually a dour lot, are rooting for Sigma, the underdog made good. So, what products might work for you? We’ll start with Sigma but also mention products from rival Tamron.

About a year ago, Sigma split its newest products into three quality and price ranges, with their “Art” series including the best and more costly lenses, while the lower-cost “Contemporary” series provides decent consumer-grade optics at a reasonable price. Older lens designs remain available but are not necessarily as good as these newest products.

Some Sigma zooms have garnered a particularly good reputation. They’re fairly large and hefty due to the additional optical elements needed to produce higher optical quality compared to simpler designs, and are available for most digital SLR cameras.

  • Sigma’s 18- to 35-mm f/1.8 Art is a wide-angle to normal-magnification zoom for most APS-C dSLR cameras. Until this lens shipped and exhibited exceptionally good optical quality when professionally tested, the conventional wisdom was that no one could make an affordable zoom lens with a very bright, f/1.8, maximum aperture and such high optical quality. It lists for a relatively reasonable $799 price. The 18- to 35-mm Sigma zoom is much sharper than Tamron’s current stabilized version of its classic 17- to 50-mm zoom lens while costing only slightly more. The Sigma is clearly the better deal, even when compared to OEM products from Canon, Nikon, Pentax and Sony. Sigma also makes a less-expensive, 17- to 70-mm f/2.8 “C” series wide-angle to telephoto, consumer-grade zoom lens that’s surprisingly sharp given its low $499 list price. Its extra telephoto magnification adds versatility. In this general-purpose range, both Sigma lenses offer better quality and value compared to their OEM and third-party competitors.
  • Sigma’s new Art 24- to 105-mm f/4 is a general purpose lens for full-frame cameras. It’s really intended for larger professional cameras where the extra weight improves balance and handling. At less than half the cost of comparable Nikon and Canon lenses, the Sigma is a very good value, even at its $899 list price. However, Tamron’s similar, though more expensive, 24- to 70-mm f/2.8 VC zoom is better optically and likely the preferred choice for full-frame users, even when compared to more expensive products from Canon and Nikon.
  • An expensive and specialized lens of particular interest to serious wildlife and sports photographers, Sigma’s 120- to 300-mm f/2.8 Sports Series zoom provides excellent telephoto-range sharpness and image quality. Tamron’s new 150- to 600-mm super telephoto zoom looks interesting for wildlife photographers but I’ve not yet seen any reviews.
  • 70- to 200-mm f/2.8 lenses are a staple of sports and wildlife photographers. These are big, expensive lenses primarily intended for full-frame cameras. The stabilized versions of the Sigma and Tamron products both sell for about $1,400 but the Sigma lens is sharper.

Single magnification “prime” lenses remain a favorite of serious photographers — optical quality is usually better than even the best zooms while the physically smaller size of prime lenses results in better handling. Among prime lenses, there’s a wider variety of high quality choices because prime lenses are simpler to design and build.

In some instances, notably the low-cost yet optically excellent prime lenses made in Korea by Samyang, you’ll need to manually set lens aperture and focus, though that’s not difficult to learn. Samyang’s 14-mm, superwide-angle, 35-mm normal and 85-mm telephoto lenses are particularly well-regarded yet very reasonably priced.

  • Sigma recently produced a stir when its newest 50-mm f/1.4 Art lens proved at least as good, perhaps better, than a $4,000 “no compromises” 50-mm lens recently marketed by legendary optician Zeiss. Although not inexpensive at $949, Sigma’s new 50-mm Art series lens is probably the single best lens currently available to consumers and it’s a relative bargain. Sigma’s 35-mm f/1.4 Art series prime lens is one of the best available lenses in this range.
  • Sigma’s 30-mm and 60-mm prime lenses for Micro Four-thirds and Sony NEX cameras show excellent optical quality despite their very low selling price of $199 to $239. In particular, Sigma’s 60-mm lens appears to be just as sharp as Olympus’ similar 75-mm lens costing four times more.
  • Both Sigma and Tamron ship a range of excellent, fairly priced macro lenses that also work well as portrait and telephoto lenses. These lenses are optically equivalent to comparable macro lenses from major manufacturers but typically cost a lot less. Sigma’s 70-mm, f/2.8 macro is so sharp that it’s used to test new cameras because its optical potential exceeds that of current digital sensors. Similarly, Sigma’s 105-mm, 150-mm and 180-mm macro lenses are very sharp, at least when used at intermediate lens apertures. Tamron’s 60-mm f/2.8 and 90-mm f/2.8 are similarly sharp but the company does not field as broad a product line.

Local attorney Joe Kashi received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. Many of his technology and photography articles can be accessed through his website, http://www.kashilaw.com.

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