PHOTOOG Photography writings by Olivier Giroux


Which are the best lenses?

I'm widening the question from its usual form - which is best "brand A .vs. B" or "lens A .vs. B". These are as much my current mental notes as anything...

Best how, and for what purpose? On the basis of optical quality alone? What would you give up (and how much would you pay) for an optical masterpiece? When does quantity of options beat quality, if ever?

The immediate answer is that Leica makes the best lenses for most purposes. Expert photographers can refinance their homes to gear up with these hand-made optical gems; almost every one is a masterpiece. They have a unique drawing style, with truer colors and finer details rendered… but can you handle or afford them? Some photographers that can’t afford a Leica turn to Zeiss, heavyweight independent lens-maker, which offers similar results without quite the same spiritual experience.

Of course a 28 ‘Cron ASPH may not be the ideal lens for sports and wildlife photography… so even (particularly!) a Leica may not fit all styles. No matter the style a masterpiece lens needs to be optically robust, that is it should perform extremely well even under optically difficult conditions. At the masterpiece level, this is usually achieved through careful balance of flare and aberrations (lateral / longitudinal chromatic, spherical, coma, astigmatism, distortion, curvature), low manufacturing tolerances and rigorous quality control. These last two points are the key, most lenses sold do not meet their design point because of mass-production tolerances.

Some but not all masterpieces endure the test of time. An example of enduring mastery is the Carl Zeiss 2.8/21 Distagon for the now-defunct Contax MM system. The 21-Distagon sells for 2~4x its former price on the used market, where it often gets a 2nd life mated to adapters for the Canon EOS system. New lenses that cover the 21mm focal are routinely compared to the Distagon, but none have yet dethroned it.

How do Canon and Nikon score?

They do pretty good, but mostly they compete on things other than exalted image quality. This is to say that their lenses achieve very high image quality, certainly, but they put as much emphasis on wider market appeal and high profit margins too. Deciding which of the two titans would best the other in a brawl (besides being a tired and boring subject) ultimately goes back to my original question: best how, and for what purpose? At any given time each offers a handful of masterpiece lenses, typically with no overlap between them.

What about the other players?

The most interesting player I’ve yet to mention is Olympus – their top-end lens designs are demonstrably better than the Canon/Nikon offerings, but their bodies (even the E-3) prevent the world from noticing. After that it’s hit & miss really. The smaller 1st-parties (e.g. Pentax) ship a gem or two for every decade. Few real gems are made by the 3rd parties, though Voigtlander stands out with a few.

Are all other lenses bad? Good heavens, no. They’re just not optical masterpieces. They may well be workable products that competently handle themselves.

The masterpiece count.
These are my guesses, based on reading reviews, design diagrams, performance charts, ... and of course looking at images.
  • Leica: 16-18-21/4M, 28/2M, 35/1.4M, 35/2M, 50/1M, 50/1.4M, 75/2M, 90/2M, 15/2.8R, 50/1.4R, 28-90 /2.8-4R, 280-800/4R
  • Zeiss: 35/2 ZF, 100/2 ZF, 25/2.8 ZM, 35/2 ZM, 50/2 ZM, 85/1.4 ZA, 21/2.8 MM
  • Nikon: 14-24/2.8G, 24-70/2.8G, 85/1.4D, 200/2G, 28/1.4D
  • Canon: 24/1.4, 35/1.4, 85/1.2, 135/2, 70-200/4 IS, 200/2
  • Olympus: 12-60/2.8-4, 90-250/2.8, 14-35/2, 35-100/2
  • Pentax: 31/1.8, 35/2, ??
  • Voigtlander: 35/1.2M, ??
  • Sigma, Tokina, Tamron: ??

You’ll note that for some systems the masterpieces form what would be a workable if expensive “kit”. Also note that I’m not really interested in the >200mm crowd. They’re all good so far as I'm concerned, and none strike me as being special over the others, except for the one-of-a-kind Leica Telyt.

I had a hard time sifting through the Canon designs in my search for the modern masterpieces. The 85/1.2 I knew was worthy from Erwin Puts' analyses against the 90 'Cron ASPH, the 70-200/4 IS has attained high reknown since its release, and the 200/2 looks to be a milestone judging from MTF. However many of the "bread maker" designs like the 24-70 seem due for replacement. These lenses were the key to Canon's market share grab against Nikon but now look outdated as compared to the state of the art.

Comments (5) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Found out about this blog from clb-photo. Good stuff!
    I think the canon 135 f/2L certainly deserves a lot of consideration on that list, as it is considered the be truly superb. The Holy Trinity (35L 85L 135L) is named that for a reason-They are all superb.
    Probably one of the few things canon has going for it in FF-land atm-Nikon just doesnt have those sharp fast primes. (I Expected that to change relatively soon)

  2. Thanks! You’re welcome to check it all out.

    Agreed on the 135L. I will add it. I don’t want the list to grow to include just anything, but the 135L it seems I overlooked.

    The argument about the missing primes… well that’s where Zeiss comes in. The Zeiss ZFs are not offered in Canon mount, and I consider them one of the hidden gems of the Nikon system.

  3. I would submit, as an Olympus user, at least for consideration the 7-14/4, 50/2 Macro, and the 150/2; the 50/2 in particular is without any particular optical vices (bokeh in particular is nice — no hard edges) aside from slow operation, the 7-14/4 didn’t have anything comparable, field-of-view-wise before the Nikkor 14-24/2.8, and the 150/2 … well, check out some of the bird pictures here; EXIF data indicates that most were taken with the lens + either the 1.4 or 2x teleconverter, and a lens this good in conjunction with converters deserves a nod. Of course, the only one affordable by mortals is the 50/2.

  4. Pentax: A* 85 f1.4, A* 135 f1.8, both are stellar performers. Pentax K 28 f2

  5. Ouch, missed it: I find my new shiny Leica Super Elmar 18 being better optically than CZ Distagon 21 (had it, sold because of its weight with all my DSLR stuff).

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