Good Stuff Awards: best lenses of 2015

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CameraStuffReview had published 230 lens reviews by the end of 2015: 140 reviews of zoom lenses and 90 reviews of lenses with a fixed focal length. From that, we have made a selection for photographers with different target levels. We chose the best lenses for starters, amateurs and pro(-sumers). How did we choose? In the "Road map for buying a lens," we explained the selection criteria and classifications. We do not make recommendations for lenses that we have not tested in both practice and in the lab. We think you can only make a serious recommendation on the basis of serious test results. We strive to complete our reviews at a pace that is higher than the pace at which new lenses are released, so that we can offer an increasingly complete overview of the market.

We have—in order to keep things as objective as possible—selected different types of lenses (wide-angle, portrait, telephoto lens, etc.) on the basis of image quality for multiple lens mounts (Canon APS-C, Nikon FX, Samsung NX, micro-43, etc.). We also kept one eye on the price, though. If two lenses were more or less equivalent in quality, then we chose the less expensive of the two. It does not matter to us what year a lens came to market, as long as it’s good. And we are more likely to recommend more compact and less expensive lenses to starters than to more experienced photographers, where we place the emphasis more on the build quality (dust- and splashwater-tight), versatility (also think: brightness) and image quality.

Good Stuff Awards 2015: the best standard lenses

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When you buy a camera, there is almost always a kit lens with it. The combination of this standard zoom lens with a camera is usually more attractively priced than if you were to buy them separately. But not every kit is the same. Pay close attention to the type numbers. With cheap deals, there is sometimes an older version of the kit lens on the camera. That is not necessarily not as good as the new version, but it is advisable to check (our) reviews in order to find out what the differences are between the old and the new version. This also often explains the price differences between different suppliers.

After a while, many photographers want to buy a second lens: sometimes a telephoto lens with which they can bring a subject in close. Often a standard lens with higher brightness and higher image quality. Do you then choose a zoom lens or a fixed focal length

Fixed or zoom?

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The advantage of a zoom lens is that you can change the focal length of the lens, which makes a subject larger or smaller in the shot, without having to change lenses. For starting photographers, a zoom lens is ideal. More experienced photographers also like to use a fixed focal length because you make more deliberate compositions with them. In theory, lenses with a fixed focal length should be better than zoom lenses. The greater the zoom range, the more compromises have to be made in the lens design. Thanks to technological progress, the quality of zoom lenses keeps getting closer to the quality of lenses with a fixed focal length. Even if you look at the brightness, there are now zoom lenses that give nothing up to lenses with a fixed focal length. The Sigma 18-35 mm f/1.8 (also very suitable for video) and the Samsung 16-50mm f/2-2.8 are zoom lenses that not only leave most fixed focal lengths in the dust in terms of image quality, the build quality and the AF speed and accuracy are also flawless. They are a couple hundred euros more expensive than less bright zoom lenses with the same zoom range, but it is an investment that is certainly worth the effort.

For amateurs and starters with a Canon SLR camera, the Canon 50 mm f/1.8 STM is a great lens to choose as a first lens with a fixed focal length, partly due to the attractive price of a bit more than € 100. On a camera with an APS-C sensor (like the Canon 1200D or 750D), this is an ideal portrait lens. Should that still be over the budget, then for half the price you can consider a Yongnuo 50mm f/1.8. Unbelievably inexpensive, and the same image quality. If you would rather have an inexpensive lens that you can use as a standard lens, then the Canon 24mm f/2.8 STM has a more favorable focal length.

For Nikon starters and amateurs with a Nikon D3300 or D5300, the Nikon 50 mm f/1.8G is also a winner, for the same reasons (high image quality, bright and inexpensive). If you have a bit more money to spend, then you should certainly include the Nikon 35 mm f/1.8 in your considerations. Due to the shorter focal length, this is more broadly usable on a camera with a DX sensor than a 50 mm lens is.

For starting photographers with an Olympus or a Panasonic camera, the Sigma 30 mm f/2.8 EX DN and the Sigma 19 mm f/2.8 EX DN are relatively unknown but attractively priced fixed-focal length lenses with high image quality.

The best wide-angle lenses of 2015

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With a wide-angle lens, you take pictures in which there is a lot to see. Wide-angle lenses are ideal for interior shots and are relatively difficult to design, so that the differences in image quality can be big.

With an SLR camera for starters and amateurs (with an APS-C or DX sensor), you are talking about lenses with a focal length of 16 mm or less; with a Panasonic or Olympus camera (with a micro-43 sensor), that is 12 mm or less. For a Nikon 1 camera (with a 1-inch sensor), you need a lens with a focal length of 7 mm or less for wide-angle shots. That is not yet for sale.

For beginners or amateurs with a modest budget, the Canon 10-18 mm, Samsung 16 mm f/2.4 and the Panasonic 12-32 mm are absolute must-haves. A bit more expensive, but with an even wider view and the unique Fisheye look, photographers with a Canon or Nikon SLR camera can choose the Tokina 10-17 mm f/3.5-4.5 AT-X 107 AF DX Fisheye.

For (semi-) professional photographers, the choice for a wide-angle lens with a fixed focal length is obvious. For professional photographers with a Nikon or Canon, the Sigma 24-35 mm f/2 is an absolute must-have: from 24 mm through 35 mm, just as bright and good as the best lenses with a fixed focal length. Other winners are the Nikon 20 mm f/1.8 and the Sigma 20 mm f/1.4.

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The best telephoto lenses of 2015

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In 2015, we reviewed the various telephoto zooms for Canon and Nikon SLR cameras, and found surprisingly high image quality. In early 2016, we are going to review a couple of long-awaited telephoto zooms for micro-43. Photographing with telephoto lenses, lenses with a focal length of 150 mm (micro-43), 200 mm (APS-C/DX cameras) or 300 mm (full-frame/FX) is not for beginners. You need a steady hand—and preferably also a camera or lens with image stabilization—and focusing is more difficult than with lenses that have a short focal length. That works best when you are already accustomed to a camera.

Good and attractively priced telephoto zooms for starters who want to pull in their subjects more than is possible with the kit lens are the Nikon 55-200 mm f/4-5.6G ED AF-S DX VR II (for Nikon), Panasonic 45-150 mm f/4-5.6 ASPH MEGA OIS LUMIX G VARIO (for micro-43). For amateur photographers and professional photographers who are prepared to take along a bit more weight and pay a bit more, the selection is bigger:

Good telephoto lenses amateur photographers:

Good telephoto lenses for professional photographers:

The best low-light lenses of 2015

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Good, bright lenses are the most difficult to make. A high-quality 50 mm f/1.4 lens easily costs € 1,000 or more, while a good 50 mm f/1.8 is nearly 5 times cheaper. We usually recommend to starters and amateurs the most recently released f/1.8 lenses, because those offer so much quality for a modest price.

Bright lenses are the premier-league players among lenses. Some players who are a bit older are living off their fame and are really much too expensive. Some young players on the market are surprisingly good (read: much better) as well as being more affordably priced (read: between 500 and 1500 euros). Expensive or not, these are practically all flawlessly built lenses that let you keep taking sharp pictures where a normal lens produces a blurred shot. A butter-soft bokeh coupled with high sharpness gives some of these lenses a unique character. A bright lens is a good investment if you want serious enjoyment from photographing.

Affordable, bright lenses for starters and amateurs

Affordable, bright lenses for professional and ambitious low-light photographers:

And the best macro lenses then? Or video?

If you want to buy a macro lens, look in our overview of reviewed macro lenses. That list is still so manageable that we do not have to make any individual recommendations here. In the past year, we reviewed more zoom lenses and extreme telephoto lenses, so that few macro lenses were added to our overview. Usually, macro lenses are not tested as macro lenses, but in the same way as all other lenses: a couple of meters away from the subject. That lets you easily compare a macro lens with other lenses, but it tells you little about the application as a macro lens. In 2016, we are going to do a big macro test, for which we have made a new test set-up on which an image scale of 1:1 can be tested.

Macro lenses are also very good, practically without exception. They are designed to show a flat surface from very close-up very well, and you see that in the test results. An important distinction for choosing a macro lens can be the focal length.

Those who regularly make video recordings can consider the purchase of a Power zoom lens. With this, you can silently and steadily zoom in or out. Not all brands have a Power zoom in their array. Most of them for which a Power zoom is for sale are the mirrorless system cameras.

It also makes a difference how quiet a lens is during focusing. Practically all lenses that Olympus and Panasonic have released in the past years are nearly silent when focusing. Canon makes lenses with a stepper motor (STM), which is more suited to focusing during video recordings. Some STM lenses are also silent, but there are also some that you clearly hear in your shot. At the beginning of 2016, Nikon released an 18-55 kit lens especially for video with a silent stepper motor.

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Lens reviews: Influence of the camera on lens performance has decreased

Without a camera, we can’t test any lenses. Of course the quality of the camera has an influence on the image quality. That is why we always mention the test camera.

Watch out when comparing scores from different magazines and websites. Tests of a lens with a camera that is a couple of years old, usually with relatively few megapixels, cannot be compared with a test of the same lens on a modern camera. Modern cameras like a Nikon D810 or Sony A7R show both the strengths and the weakness of a lens more clearly than an older test camera will. You might not expect it at first, but it is the Nikon 1 and micro-43 cameras—with more pixels per millimeter—that place higher demands on the resolution of a lens than a camera with a full-frame sensor.

The degree of sharpening and the file type that are used for the test also influence the results. In-camera corrections (chromatic aberration, vignetting, distortion) often, but not always, improve a test result. In order to create the most even playing field possible, we do our best to test lenses with the best camera (in many cases: the highest sharpness) available. Sometimes we repeat lens tests with a more modern camera if we have the chance to do so. We are convinced that some lenses can do even better. But as long as the camera that will help them to do that is not for sale, you can’t do much about it.

Today, practically all cameras have a 24-megapixel sensor, and the full-frame cameras, a sensor with 46 megapixels or more. With that, the results for one lens, tested on different test cameras (for example, Nikon D3200 vs. Canon 760D), are closer to each other than they were at the start of this website a few years ago. If you are looking for a good Sigma or Tamron lens for a Canon camera, then you can feel confident reading the review of that lens on a Nikon camera (and vice versa).

A lens is a tool. Which property is important to you?

With every lens test, we give our results on the basis of jpg files with the standard camera settings from the manufacturer ("WYSIWYG"), supplemented with as many in-camera corrections (chromatic aberration, distortion, vignetting) as possible. If, for example, the correction of distortion leads to a loss in resolution, then a lens scores lower in sharpness in the corners of a jpg file.

This testing procedure most connects with the workflow of many amateur photographers, who do not want to worry about all the technical aspects, but just want to have a good camera in order to express themselves creatively. It does not, however, give a full picture of what a lens is capable of.

Some camera brands offer more options for correcting for lens properties. And the sharpness, particularly in the corners, does indeed decrease when you correct for distortion. You see that in the practice shots and in our WYSIWYG scores. It is not a quality difference that many photographers will worry about. Perfectionists will.

Get the information that is important to you out of our tests.

Maybe you want more information about the performance of a lens without corrections? Because in your workflow you do not correct for vignetting, distortion and chromatic aberration? In order to inform you about that, we test RAW files without sharpening or other corrections. Then the sharpness in the corners of RAW files will not be negatively influenced by any lens corrections. The image quality on the basis of uncorrected RAW files is a “worst case” for a number of other lens properties. Many photographers correct their RAW files for various lens errors, such as vignetting or distortion, while we do not do that in our tests.

Q 8032398The image quality of all lenses is assessed by CameraStuffReview individually for both unedited, unsharpened RAW files and edited (sharpened and corrected) jpg files. Both scales run from 5.5 ("the worst") to 9.9 ("the best"). As soon as a better lens comes out, the evaluations of all lenses drop, so that the results for all lenses—if you take the test camera into account—can be compared with each other. You can thus directly compare our test results from the last year with our tests from previous years. That is only possible on a few websites.

Lens testing: Measuring is a tool, but an important tool

Imatest measurement results make it possible for us to give the image quality of every lens a score, so that you can compare all the lenses that have been tested by us over time with each other. It is more objective than trusting your memory, and it should be just as reliable as a direct comparison. Measurements are naturally not sacred. Measurement results serve our practice tests. Differences that you can measure but not see we do not count heavily. For us, it is about visible quality differences in the photos that you make with a lens. We measure the resolution in edited files (jpg) that are sharpened, where the noise is suppressed and usually also were lens errors are removed. With that you get the image quality, including the effects of image editing (like, for example, loss of sharpness in the corners due to correction of distortion). We also measure unedited RAW files, in order to exclude the influence of image editing. The results for RAW files provide the fairest comparison of the image quality of lenses. 

Be careful, since you cannot simple compare the RAW scores and jpg scores with each other. The same applies for tests on different sites. Within one scale, it is possible to compare all lenses with each other: even if the pictures are taken with different camera brands and different sensor sizes. If a RAW file made with a Nikon 1 lens scores higher for vignetting than a RAW file made with a lens on a camera with a full-frame sensor, then we see that difference in the practice shots as well. The same applies for sharpness and distortion.

Even so, there are differences between the RAW and the jpg scale. Ever-more manufacturers are choosing to remove distortion with software. Because of that, there are few lenses with high distortion on the scale of edited images. The same applies for lateral chromatic aberration. But the unedited images show that distortion and lateral chromatic aberration. A lens that scores a 7 for distortion in a jpg file has much less distortion than a lens that scores a 7 for distortion in a RAW file, since there are many lenses for which the distortion in jpg files has already been corrected in the camera. First, the visible quality differences—which weigh the most heavily in our scores—are small among the best lenses, so that two lenses can trade places due to small variations in the measurement results or the assessment of the practice shots. It also often happens that one lens benefits more from sharpening and lens corrections than another lens does. The image quality of the very good lens does not leave much to improve with software. Because of this, a very good lens and a good lens (on the basis of RAW files) can end up closer to each other in the jpg scores.

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Ivo Freriks
Author: Ivo Freriks
With Camera Review Stuff I hope to make a modest contribution to the pleasure that you get from photography. By testing cameras and lenses in the same way, evluating the results and weighing up the pros and cons, I hope to help you find the right camera or lens.

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