Plugged In: Taking a wider view at extreme lenses

Photos courtesy of Joe Kashi. Illustration 1.

Photos courtesy of Joe Kashi. Illustration 1.

By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

“Double, double toil and trouble. Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.” Well, that’s how Shakespeare described predigital wizardry methods in “Macbeth.” As I’m not even faintly related to the Bard, this week’s potpourri of digital-era wizardry is less exotically written and, lacking eye of newt, blander than that famous Scottish stew recipe.

Most current midrange and upper-level digital SLR and compact-system cameras are already more than good enough for virtually all serious photography. Unfortunately, the majority of affordable lenses, especially extreme telephoto and wide-angle lenses, fail to match the capabilities of modern digital camera bodies, while improving only slowly. Not uncommonly, the performance of individual copies of the same lens model differs considerably due to manufacturing and assembly variations.

For that reason, we’ll focus less on detailed comparison of camera bodies in the future and more on good-quality, affordable optics. Lenses are now usually the weakest link in the photo-making process, except for the analog computer that decides which subjects to photograph and when to press the shutter button.

This week, we’ll take a look at some optical extremes, super-telephoto lenses and extreme wide-angle lenses. Each has separate and very distinctive uses once you’ve become familiar with them.

  • Illustration 2.

    Illustration 2.

    A high-magnification telephoto lens can help you get photos not otherwise obtainable. Today’s Illustration 1 shows a Turbine Commander 690 observation and control aircraft flying near the northern edge of the Funny River Horse Trail fire Monday evening as the crew sets up its water drop run. This photo, taken from several miles away, would not be possible without a high-magnification telephoto lens.

  • Telephoto lenses also result in a compressed perspective in which widely separated objects appear closer together, with more distant background objects appearing relatively larger and more dominating than in a normal view. Today’s Illustration 2 shows two air tanker aircraft being serviced and refilled Monday evening at the Kenai Airport’s Air Tanker Base. Note the relatively larger size of the aircraft to the rear.
  • Illustration 3.

    Illustration 3.

    Very wide-angle lenses, on the other hand, not only include more subject area but also show a quite different perspective in which objects appear more widely separated from front to back, and in which the foreground seems more dominant. Today’s Illustration 3 shows the same two air tanker aircraft photographed from the same position and angle as in Illustration 2. The differences are obvious.

  • Alaska may be Wildlife Photography Central, but getting close enough to photograph big game like Dall sheep and brown bear often is physically difficult and potentially dangerous. A sharp, super-telephoto lens is the surest route for most of us. A few weeks ago, we briefly mentioned Tamron’s 150- to 600-mm VC super-telephoto zoom, and it’s time for a more detailed look. Usually, this sort of extreme zoom lens is either insanely expensive or, if affordable, exhibits insanely poor image quality. Tamron’s new zoom lens has neither fault. This Tamron lens must be intriguing photographers in less remote areas than Alaska, as detailed reviews have been published in England and other tightly crowded areas where the buffalo no longer roam. The reviews have been uniformly positive, highly so, showing center resolutions measured as high as 2,700 lines, with the edges not far behind. These are excellent results for a lens of this sort, particularly given its relatively low $1,049 list price. It’s available for Nikon, Canon and Sony full-frame and APS-C dSLR cameras. Although heavy, at nearly 4 pounds, and not inexpensive, it includes built-in image stabilization and is an excellent choice for anyone who needs a really high-magnification lens. The competition’s even heavier and more expensive, though not necessarily better. It’s a very good value if you need it.
  • While on extreme lenses, I’ve found that wide-angle lenses generally don’t fit my photographic preference unless they’re really wide-angle, with magnifications equivalent to 18- to 24-mm on full-frame cameras, 12- to 16-mm on APS-C dSLR cameras, and 9- to 12-mm on Micro Four-Thirds bodies.

With lenses this wide, images develop a quite distinct look, with foreground objects and great expanses of sky emphasized, while more distant background objects, like mountains, are greatly de-emphasized. This sort of foreground emphasis is quite the opposite of the telephoto effect, where the background is relatively magnified and dominating. It’s the reason why great mountain vistas taken with a wide-angle lens usually disappoint. You’ll cram more mountains into the same image width but that makes them seem no more than snow-covered anthills. For impressive mountain photos, use a telephoto lens.

In any event, high-quality extreme wide-angle lenses are among the most difficult lenses to design, especially for compact system cameras, and are usually more expensive. Too often, centers are sharp while edges and those very wide corners are both blurred and smeared. Oddly, zoom lenses not uncommonly do better than single-magnification prime lenses at wide-angle magnifications, especially at the widest end of their zoom range. Most wide-angle lenses, especially zoom lenses, typically use a surprisingly large front element to ensure even coverage and thus require quite large filters.

As expected, more recent super-wide-angle lenses tend to do much better than older designs. Canon users, for example, will find Canon’s new 14-mm, f/2.8 L II prime lens and the newly updated 16- to 35-mm zoom to be noticeably sharper on both full-frame and APS-C cameras than earlier versions, though at a stiff cost.

Nikon’s ultrawide primes tend to be older designs that are soft away from the image center. Nikon’s 14- to 24-mm zoom is a prograde model for full-frame and APS-C cameras in such high demand that early production was reserved for professional photographers. Nikon’s newer 16- to 35-mm f/2.8 VR II full-frame zoom is adequately sharp and about $600 less expensive than the comparable Canon. For smaller APS-C sensor cameras, Nikon’s 10- to 24-mm zoom produces good results at a fair price, with retail prices around $850.

Pentax users can choose between Pentax’s very good 15-mm f/4 Limited Series prime lens, a decent 14-mm f/2.8 prime, or the company’s well-regarded 12- to 24-mm f/4 zoom lens. None of these will likely break the bank.

Tokina’s 12- to 24-mm f/4 Pro II zoom is a very good, cost-effective ultrawide-angle choice for Nikon, Canon, and Sony users.

Tamron and Sigma make very wide-angle zoom lenses for a variety of APS-C camera bodies. Some can be very sharp if you’re lucky enough to get a properly assembled copy. Sigma’s AF 8- to 16-mm f/4-f/5.6 and AF 10- to 20-mm EX DC HSM zoom lenses are good examples, with properly assembled copies showing very good sharpness even though they’re quite extreme at the widest magnifications. Tamron’s 10- to 24-mm zoom is less impressive optically.

If high prices get you down, yet good image quality is important, then consider getting a manual focus, manual exposure 14-mm lens from Samyang/Rokinon/Bower. These are all the same lens made at the same Korean factory, though sold under different names at different price points. They’re made for nearly every camera body and lens mount, with objective tests showing surprisingly high image quality for an ultrawide-angle lens costing less than $400.

The offerings are a bit thinner for mirrorless compact system cameras although, as expected, Micro Four-Thirds camera owners have the widest choice of good optics. We’ll look at a variety of affordable wide-angle and telephoto Micro Four-Thirds lenses next week.

Local attorney Joe Kashi received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. He has published many articles about computer technology, law practice and digital photography in national media since 1990. Many of his technology and photography articles can be accessed through his website,


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