Following a couple of recent email exchanges I’ve had, I thought I’d tidy things up and publish them here for the benefit of the general readership. This is a list of what I consider to be the ultimate lenses, on their native systems (and irrespective of system, actually). Lenses also tend to have significantly greater longevity (especially if without electronics) especially compared to camera bodies; you could buy one set of Otuses and adapt it to just about everything now and to come. In that sense, whilst good glass is expensive – the long term cost of ownership is significantly less than cutting edge bodies, and given residuals are high, generally worth the investment.
Of course, what constitutes ‘ultimate’ is actually highly subjective; some value smooth drawing quality and tonal transitions over outright resolution; others require zero distortion or high color accuracy or secondary color correction. If anything, my personal preferences tend to lean towards resolution and microcontrast; I can accept some vignetting, distortion, secondary lateral CA (but not longitudinal) – because these are easy to fix in post. Field curvature, smearing, coma etc. are not. Not all lenses on this list are here because of technical perfection or MTF chart performance, either. On top of that, there are two lenses that are not system options, but included anyway because they deserve honourable mentions. There are probably also better lenses I’ve not used yet (and so obviously can’t include them). I’ve tried to give justifications where possible. With that in mind, and in no particular order, here we go.
**Items denoted with two stars are lenses I currently own. *One star, lenses I’ve owned. Links are to reviews or affiliate suppliers. Images shot with the respective lenses mentioned.
The Zeiss Otus series** – in particular, the 1.4/85 APO Planar (review B&H) and 1.4/55 APO Distagon (review B&H Amazon).
I can’t think of anything else that reaches this level of performance across such a wide envelope, from the extremely challenging zone of maximum aperture all the way up to where diffraction kicks in. The 1.4/28 APO Distagon (review B&H) is still the best wide angle there is, but it doesn’t quite reach the levels of its brother. To get an idea of what is possible when budget and size considerations are secondary, the Otuses are it. At the time of writing, they’re the only lenses that manage to out resolve every camera they’re mounted on – by a large amount.
The Zeiss 2/135 APO-Sonnar (B&H Amazon)
Another best in class: very difficult to focus because of the relatively short throw and abrupt transition, but oh boy – what a rendering! It manages to do this without any aspherical elements, which makes for very smooth out of focus areas and transitions – despite that apochromatic ‘bite’. For the bokeh fans, and those who need isolation at distance.
The Zeiss 2/28 Distagon* (review B&H Amazon)
Despite having used a huge number of 28mm lenses, my favourites remain this one (for rendering, color and three-dimensionality and separation due to field curvature); the Ricoh GR’s lens (for outright resolution) and the Leica Q’s for overall balance between the two. It’s not expensive, it’s small, but it’s tricky to focus at the edges because of aforementioned field curvature, and it doesn’t play nice on mirrorless because of edge ray angles. But the results are gorgeous…
The Voigtlander 180/4 APO-Lanthar** (review)
When people ask ‘why small and slow?’ – this is the lens I cite. Barely 10cm long and with a 52mm front filter, it’s almost impossible to believe the focal length. Color correction is phenomenal, and whilst overall contrast is somewhat low compared to modern designs – it does make for very smooth tonal transitions. Micro contrast is excellent, but watch out for flare. Use of the hood is a must.
The Nikon PC-E 24/3.5** (review B&H Amazon)
I think this is actually a very misunderstood (and consequently, misused) lens. The problem is that it suffers from a) field curvature b) focus shift c) a very, very sensitive focusing ring, especially near infinity, and d) a movement it doesn’t need, but can’t be zeroed out consistently. The trick is to use it wide open and focus with live view, only caring about your focus point; or at f11, and focus at the most distant thing you want in focus – the shift means everything in front will be sharp, too. Field curvature means the focal plane is like a dome over the lens, which is actually good for most urban situations. You don’t really need tilt on something this wide – by f11 everything from 1m away is critically sharp, even on a D810; all it does is not lock properly at zero, frequently resulting in softness due to unintended movement.
The Nikon AFS 85/1.8 G** (review B&H Amazon)
An odd choice considering the others on this list; but I actually like the way it flares (extremely so). It’s useful for atmospheric images, cinematic feel, and isn’t harsh or distracting. If you ensure there are no point or bright sources in the frame, contrast and resolution are excellent. Note: it has not aspherical elements, which might have something to do with it. It’s also cheap, light, and small. You can put and not notice it’s there til you need it.
The Nikon AFS 70-200/4 VR* (review B&H Amazon)
Another one on the list because of size, weight, versatility and pure optical competence – at f4, it’s easy to make a truly outstanding lens, and it shows. I think it actually handles better than the 24-70, in my opinion. And the VR is excellent.
The Nikon AFS 24-120/4 VR** (review B&H Amazon)
With caveats: if you get a good copy, it should be very good everywhere at f4, and quite excellent by f8 post-correction (CA, distortion, vignetting) – even on a D810. It isn’t outstanding anywhere, but it doesn’t have any major flaws, either. Perhaps the ultimate Swiss Army Knife choice; ironically, pared with one of the D4 or D5 series bodies, there really isn’t anything you can’t shoot (and they’re also less demanding than the D810). I’ve shot far more with this than I care to admit…
The Nikon AI 45/2.8 P**
There’s something about the Tessar formula that renders rather nicely for portraits; it also helps that its small size doesn’t intimidate, and it’s easy to focus. Another one of those lenses that would make my small, lightweight kit – stop it down to f8 and it’s great; wide open it’s smooth. A bit of a chameleon; sadly no longer made but reasonably easy to find on the secondary market.
The Canon EF 40/2.8 STM* (B&H Amazon)
Small, sharp, great bang for the buck – with a rendering style similar to the Nikon AI-P 45/2.8, but with autofocus. Think of it as a body cap that you can also use to take some very nice pictures. What’s not to like?
The Canon 70-300/4.5-5.6 L IS USM* (B&H Amazon)
For the kind of work I do, I preferred the added reach/versatility of the 70-300L over the speed of the 70-200; it’s just as usable handheld thanks to the great stabiliser and relatively small size; it’s also much easier to pack. The tripod collar is a bit weak, though, and you need to watch for vibration. If only Nikon or Hasselblad made something like this…
The Olympus 45/1.8 for M4/3* (review B&H Amazon)
Another one of those small, light bargains. I find it needs a little stopping down to have truly satisfying bite, but its character remains smooth throughout the aperture range rather than crisp. It has a very nice rendering style and would be great for video if it had mechanical manual focus, but at the price, I think we probably can’t complain.
The Olympus 75/1.8 for M4/3* (review B&H Amazon)
One of the best short teles I’ve use for any format. Performance wide open is already outstanding, including secondary color. There’s almost no longitudinal CA, which is surprising given the speed of the lens and my general avoidance of using a hood. Again, a shame you don’t get the proper AF/MF focus clutch at this price; it has a very nice rending for video, but pulling focus is nearly impossible…
The Contax Yashica Zeiss 4-5.6/100-300 Vario-Sonnar**
This zoom has a reputation for being better than the Zeiss’ own primes in that focal length and range – and it is. It’s tricky to use because it’s a push-pull design, but very, very smooth and a joy to pull focus on. An aftermarket tripod collar is a must – there is simply no way to get a sharp/stable image out of it otherwise. Overall contrast is low – like non-aspherical designs of that era – but relatively good micro contrast means you’ve still got a lot of information to work with. As with all tele zooms, performs better at the wide end.
The Contax Yashica Zeiss 2.8/85 Sonnar MMG**
Yet another one of the chameleons on this list: lower in contrast and bite wide open, rivalling the Otus 85 in resolving power and microcontrast when stopped down. I converted my version to Nikon F; it’s small size and fantastic performance have made this my choice of 85mm unless I need one of the specific special attributes of one of the other lenses. No aspherical elements in this design either, which makes for very smooth transitions and bokeh.
The Contax Yashica Zeiss 2.8/35 PC Distagon AEG**
An outright impressive performer all round – it outresolved the 50MP FX cameras wide open in the middle, and holds at the edges if you stop down a little. Very simple to use shift mechanism and rotation; it’s impossible to accidentally tilt because there’s simply no provision for it. A shame they didn’t make it 28mm, but honestly – it’s so good I force myself to make do with 35mm. Competitive even with the modern PCE and TSE designs, but sadly has the wide mount that’s not convertible to Nikon F.
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