6 Must-Have Specialty Camera Lenses
APRIL 23, 2013
By Dan Havlik
Not all great lenses are created equal. Sometimes they’re made extra special for when you need to capture a specific look for a particular project. While you might not often need specialty lenses, which include extra-long telephotos and zooms, macros, tilt-shifts and perspective control glass, you can turn to them when you want to kick it up a notch. Here are our six favorites for a variety of special assignments.
Canon EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM
A few years ago, Canon created the EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM lens, billing it as “the world’s widest fisheye zoom lens.” What that means to photographers is it can give you a range of looks depending on whether you’re using it with a digital SLR with a “cropped” (i.e., an APS-C- or APS-H-sized) sensor or with a full-frame camera, such as the Canon EOS 5D Mark III. Full frame is really how you want to go with this fisheye, though—especially when you pull it back to the widest 8mm setting, which unleashes the full circular fisheye effect. A circular fisheye captures the 180-degree hemisphere of a scene, and projects it into a circle in the frame with the corner areas blacked out. It’s best described as a wrapped panorama that looks like a marble or a little planet. The result is pretty unique and a different spin on the classic wide-angle, warped effect, which fisheyes are typically known for. If you’re shooting with an APS-C sensor camera, such as a Canon EOS 7D, you don’t get the circular effect but you can create the ultra-wide fisheye look at 10mm. The versatility of the Canon 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye is a definite plus when you consider you can also employ the look while shooting video. And because this is top-of-the-line Canon L-series glass, it has all the requisite weather-resistant gaskets to keep out dust and moisture. It combines an aspherical lens element with UD (ultra-low dispersion) glass in a 14-element design and the warping effects of this lens aside, it was pleasingly sharp in the non-distorted areas. One nice touch: If you want to add a gelatin filter, such as a neutral density filter, there’s a holder on the back of the lens.
Nikon AF-S Nikkor 800mm f/5.6E FL ED VR
If you’re photographing a ski jumper about to launch into flight or a soaring hawk streaking across the sky, your trusty 70-200mm lens just isn’t going to cut it if you want to get close. For those assignments, you need to turn to something like Nikon’s AF-S Nikkor 800mm f/5.6E FL ED VR. This massive super-telephoto was scheduled to start shipping in April but a few lucky photographers have already test driven it: A dozen prototypes were reportedly in use during the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London. The lens is the longest focal length of any Nikkor autofocus lens, but it actually goes farther than 800mm. Attach the included 1.25x teleconverter and this mini-Howitzer becomes a 1,000mm lens. The trade-off is you lose a stop of light, with the maximum aperture changing to f/8. Still though, 1,000mm is pretty handy if, for instance, you want to photograph Felix Baumgartner’s next jump from space. The 800mm is the first Nikon lens built with two fluorite glass elements, two Extra-Low Dispersion glass elements and Nano Crystal Coat, all of which help reduce chromatic aberration and flaring while keeping the lens relatively lightweight (for its size). The 10-pound lens also (naturally) has Nikon’s Vibration Reduction image stabilization, which reputedly offers the equivalent of approximately four stops of shutter speed correction.
Sigma 120-300mm F/2.8 EX DG OS APO HSM
While telephotos are great for long-range photography, their fixed focal lengths cut down on their versatility. The Sigma 120-300mm F/2.8 EX DG OS APO HSM combines the distance of a telephoto with the adaptability of a long zoom into a very flexible piece of glass for sports and wildlife photographers. (It’s also thousands of dollars cheaper than fixed 300m telephoto models from Canon and Nikon.) Boasting a fast f/2.8 constant aperture, this ultra-zoomer features Sigma’s new “F” Low Dispersion glass. Though it’s not actual fluorite, it does a good job of preventing ghosting and flare while reducing chromatic aberrations in shots with high contrast. The Sigma 120-300mm focuses quietly thanks to the lens’s Hyper-Sonic Motor. It also gives you full-time manual focus override for nailing precise shots. In our testing, Sigma’s Optical Stabilizer System did a great job of keeping photos sharp when handholding this beast of a lens. (Generally though, we’d recommend a tripod.) Despite its relatively low price, the Sigma 120-300mm is also sturdy and splashproof with O-ring seals to repel dust and moisture.
Hasselblad HTS 1.5 Tilt-Shift Adapter
One of our favorite specialty lens accessories, the Hasselblad HTS 1.5 tilt-shift adapter, came back on the U.S. market last year after being yanked from shelves pending litigation involving a patent infringement claim. With the decision going Hasselblad’s way, photographers can once again purchase this medium-format adapter, which is sort of a multipurpose lens in itself. Designed to work with five different Hasselblad lenses—the HCD 28mm, HC 35mm, HC 50mm, HC 80mm and the HC 100mm—the HTS 1.5, in a sense, can become five different tilt-shift lenses in the Hasselblad arsenal. Being able to control perspective in medium-format photography not only lets you create that distinctive, extremely shallow depth of field for dramatic food or product photography, it also lets you increase depth of field if, for instance, you’re shooting for a catalogue and want sharp focus from the front to the back of an object. The HTS 1.5’s shift function is also a real boon for photographing furniture since it lets you maintain parallel vertical lines without any convergence, i.e., that look which can make a chair or a desk appear squeezed. The other benefit of the shift function in the HTS 1.5 is when photographing buildings, it lets you capture nearly perfect parallel lines with little distortion.
Lensbaby Composer Pro
We can’t talk about specialty lenses without mentioning Lensbaby, the company that brought the wonders of selective focus glass to the masses. Lensbaby’s top of the line is still the Composer Pro, which uses a unique, all-metal ball-and-socket design. The setup lets you easily position and lock the lens at odd angles to create a sharp “sweet spot” in an image surrounded by striking graduated blur. Combine the Composer Pro with Lensbaby’s Edge 80 Optic, which gives you an 80mm f/2.8 flat field of focus with a 12-blade adjustable aperture, and you have a winning combo for creating distinctive portraits with a dramatic slice of focus on your subject. The Sweet 35 Optic (shown right) can also be used with the Composer Pro.
Price: $600 (Composer Pro with Edge 80 Optic)
Tamron SP 90mm F/2.8 Di MACRO 1:1 VC USD (Model F004)
Tamron’s macro lenses have been among our favorites for capturing beautiful close-ups of flora, fauna and insect life for some time. Add to that storied lineage the Tamron SP 90mm F/2.8 Di MACRO 1:1 VC USD, which is the bee’s knees for photographing nearby subjects with minute detail. And, most importantly for macro mavens, this lens offers true 1:1 capture, i.e., the object you’re shooting a close-up of is the same size as the image on the digital sensor. It also has a relatively fast f/2.8 aperture, letting you get some creamy blur in the background of your photo to make the subject pop. Thanks to its Vibration Compensation image stabilizer, which offers approximately three stops of correction from hand shake, the Tamron 90mm F/2.8 Di shines for hand-held product photography in natural light. Tamron’s Ultrasonic Silent Drive motor keeps autofocus virtually silent with this lens so you won’t scare off camera-shy bugs or animals. Two Extra Low Dispersion glass elements and one Low Dispersion element help keep images sharp while reducing chromatic aberration. Meanwhile, Tamron’s new eBAND (Extended Bandwidth & Angular-Dependency) Coating cuts down on ghosting and flare. And even though this Tamron macro lens is several hundred dollars cheaper than comparable models from Canon and others, it’s built solid with a tough, moisture-resistant construction.