Everybody has been searching for the best lenses ever since the beginning of photography history. Photographers has never stop to complain about sharpness, distortion, flare, contrast and misalignment of colors. Lens manufactures has never ceased to stop their quest to please the consumers. Thing is, there is no such thing called the best lens. A lens might be on the top list today, but sometime along the line, another lens will take its place.
There are photographers who spend their life-savings on the most expensive brands of bodies and lenses. What do they do when they have these premium equipment in their possessions? Will they be happy with their gears and begin to practice on their photography? No, they will fuss and fret, thinking that if the lens manufactures built sharper lens their photography would magically improve. This is all nonsense.
When it comes to making a photograph, technical quality is the least of my concern; I rather concentrate on the elements within the image quality. To me, the best lens is the lens that gives me decent sharpness, least chromatic aberration and the right effect for the subject that I am going to photograph. I don’t have a favorite lens. I own piles of 35mm, 50mm and 85mm and I use them all equally, for different looks, locations and lights. Of course, each lens has its pros and cons. No matter if it is a Cooke, Zeiss, Leica, Asahi, Canon or Rokinon and no matter if it is an expensive or a cheap lens. They all give me exactly what I want for my photographs. Allow me to share with you the definition of a best lens in my book.
Let’s start with zoom versus prime lenses. Usually, prime lenses are sharper than zoom lenses due to fewer compromises from a basic design point of view. Prime lenses also provide more accurate color and brighter in addition to maintaining a constant f-stop. Although zoom lenses produced today have been refined, you still can not find a zoom lens with an aperture that is larger than f/2.8. Idealistically, the main attribute of a zoom lens is versatility in a rapidly changing visual environment, while a prime lens is more desirable in many shooting situations including low lights, streets and studios. Since prime lenses can be made with larger barrels to let in more light, telephotos is another norm for prime lenses.
What about lens distortions? Zoom lenses are designed to work well at the focal lengths in their range; however, they all show some types of lens distortion at some point. On the other hand, prime lenses are designed to work great at a single focal length. The distortions have been minimized by design.
When size matters. Of course, we all like the size of a big zoom lens, but sometime a smaller prime lens would get us in to some location easier than a canon-size-zoom lens. Being smaller doesn’t mean that prime lenses would weight less than zoom lenses, though. In fact, few prime lenses even weight more than a zoom lens that shared the same focal range.
If financial is the main concern. The true is some prime lenses are three times more expensive than a high quality zoom lens; especially, when it comes to brands like Schneider, Leica, Zeiss, Cooke Optics, etc. Buy a prime lens if you are going to need the extra f/ stops; otherwise a zoom lens will prove to be more versatile.
Now let talk about brands. Are Nikon lenses better than Canon L lenses? Not quite. Even though Nikon started out as a leading optical manufacturer—they even built lenses for Canon—you will find both brands share equally pros and cons. Recently, Zeiss has introduced their premium optics which come with either Canon, Nikon or Olympus mounts. I have to admit that Zeiss won my heart right after I held the Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 ZE Planar T* manual focus lens in my hands for the first time. Its built quality, optic and price are much better than the Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM autofocus lens. Try out the Zeiss if you don’t mind using a manual focus lens.
Ultimately, the best lens isn’t the most expensive or from a well know brand but it’s the one that gives you the correct focal length, depth of field, contrast and the right effect that you look for. Experiment and learn the characteristics of the lenses that you have so you can push them to the max. Rent a lens to play with for a weekend before you decide to invest your saving on it. Don’t just buy a lens because a sale specialist tells you so or because you see someone on Flickr has that lens. Think about a lens as the extension of your eye. That will help you to pick out your best lens.