By Carter B. Horsley
Zoom lenses have come a long way since their introduction a generation or so ago when they were generally considered quite inferior to "single-focal-length" lenses. For the consumer, they have offered great convenience, in most cases replaces three or four "single" lenses, and still offering reasonable quality for most snapshots. Professionals, of course, continued for a long time to stick to their superior "single" lenses, especially since they were accustomed to traveling with large camera bags and because their reputations and livelihoods depended on their ability to produce the very highest quality pictures.
The first zoom lens that was widely adopted by many professionals was Canon's 17-35 mm lens, which was introduced almost two decades ago and which offered a lens that was capable of taking very wide angle pictures of interiors and crowds as well as being able to narrow the field down to the 35 mm range, which was only slightly wide-angle and could be used judiciously for medium-length portraits.
The next major zoom lenses that became popular were 80-200 mm telephotos with a fixed 2.8 aperture, which was fairly fast and permitted photographers to compose portraits from a variety of medium distances. Most major manufacturers offered lens in this category, albeit at not inexpensive prices, but they were soon followed by similar lens that were somewhat less expensive by several of the leading independent lens manufacturers such as Tamrom, Sigma and Tokina.
Numerous companies came out with broader zooms, typically 75-300, but they were slower and generally had F-stops of 4 at the widest settings to 5.9 or 6.3 at the longest.
The introduction of autofocus lens technology introduced similar lens but they were heavier and bulkier generally and in the late 1990's Canon added "IS," or "image stabilized," lens that were also bulky and more expensive but offered image stabilization that was quite important for most telephoto shots.
A variety of wide-angle to semi-telephoto lens captured a large portion of the market, often as substitutes for the standard 50mm. Most of these were in the range of 28-80 mm and the first ones generally were not "fast" and how F-stops only as low as 3.5. While standard 50 mm lenses usually were quite fast and had F-stops as low as 1.7 or 1.4, other lengths were usually much slower, although major manufacturers like Nikon and Canon introduced some single-length wide-angle and telephoto lenses with quite fast speeds and quite expensive prices.
In the 1980s, many manufacturers came out with improved zoom lenses with faster and fixed apertures throughout the zoom range. These were usually 80-200 mm lenses with a F-stop of 2.8. These fine lenses however were more expensive and many cost close to a $1,000 dollars. Among the independent lens manufacturers who generally offered cheaper lens than the major camera manufacturers, Tamrom lenses were usually the most expensive, followed by Sigma, and then Tokina. Vivitar, which had been a major independent lens manufacturer for many years generally withdrew from the high-quality competition and began to concentrate its line on the less expensive models.
In the late 1990s, Tamrom began offered a 28-200 zoom lens that was compact and relatively inexpensive and quite good optically and within a few years had sold more than a million of them, leading them to introduce at the end of the century a similar and slightly more expensive 28-300 mm zoom lens. These lens came with autofocus couples designed for the most popular cameras and had lens hoods and lens caps that were well designed as well. Sigma followed suit quickly as the market clearly liked these as all-purpose lens. Canon had several years previously introduced a 50-350 mm zoom lens that was quite large and expensive.
Around this time, Tamrom introduced a very impressive and medium-priced 24-105 mm zoom lens with a fixed 2.8 aperture and Tokina soon followed with a 28-70 mm lens with a 2.6-2.7 aperature range and in 2000, Nikon upped the ante by introduced an impressive 24-120 mm autofocus lens for its cameras that sold for less than $500. The Nikon lens, however, was considerably slower than the Tamrom and Tokina offerings.
For many years after World War II, wide-angle lenses were mostly 35mm and some professionals liked to use them as a standard lens because their distortion was not too bad and they did broaden the field of view. The introduction of 28 mm lens was important because they offered much bigger fields of view, but they rarely replaced standard or portrait length (85-135mm) lens and were usually used as an extra lens. Similarly, the even wide 24, 21, 20 and 17 mm lens were special-use extreme wide angle lens and were not cheap. (Nikon and some other manufacturers also introduced "fish-eye" lens that covered about 180 degrees but they were very expensive and usually used only by some professionals.)
Canon's 17-35 mm zoom was very popular with news photographers because its wide-angle zoom range was very broad, but it was in the $1,000 plus league.
The 17-35 mm lens is very appealing as a general lens because it can be so effective at its widest settings, but most consumers will probably be better satisfied by the 28-200 mm lenses because its range includes most common and desired focal lengths ranging from good wide-angle to medium telephoto. While most professional photographers still maintain that single-focal-length lens provide better quality pictures, they are usually on higher budgets and they will usually concede that the new medium-length zoom lenses, especially the more expensive ones with fixed and fairly fast apertures produce pictures that are impressive for most purposes.
Clearly, there are a lot of choices. Lens technology has generally advanced rather slowly but the relatively new and current generation offer some very attractive choices. One wants to look for sturdy construction and smooth but firm zoom rotations that do not slip and, of course, optical quality and fast apertures to minimize hand-held shakes because of the greater bulk of these auto-focus behemoths.
In the future, ideally one should hope for the introduction of 24-80 mm zooms with apertures of not more than 2.8 and for 80-240 mm zooms with similar fixed apertures. These two lenses would meet most consumer and prosumer photographic needs until they can afford to add 400 f/2.8 and 500 f/4 lens to their tripod equipped arsenals.
For many beginners, the best purchase would be a good basic camera body by Canon or Nikon or the like with a dedicated flash unit by the same manufacturer and a 28-200 mm zoom lens by Tamrom or the like. Such a unit would cost about $800 or so at the better discount photographic stores such as B & H. A good flash unit, of course, adds bulk to the package but is much better than the built-in flashes in some camera models and, more important, makes the somewhat slow apertures of the zoom lenses not such a drawback.
For the prosumer, that is a consumer who is serious and quite active about his photography, he should probably buy two of the better fast fixed-aperture zooms, but that will up his ante by about another $1,600 or so. Both the consumer and the prosumer should, of course, also get skylight filters for their lens and probably a good fabric bounce-flash attachment, but these will only add another $50 or so.
Leica and Contax are, of course, magnificently made cameras, but unfortunately they are very expensive and the independent lens manufacturers do no make auto-focus lens for them. Leica and the Zeiss lens used by Contax are, of course, superb.
Zoom lenses are generally unavailable for larger-format cameras but many of the APC cameras have built in zoom lenses but they generally are quite slow and get much slower at their longer telephoto settings.