There was an industry perception in the past that third-party lenses weren't necessarily of the highest quality. Today, these lenses are made of more advanced materials and perform considerably better than their predecessors. Lenses from companies like Sigma, Tamron, Tokina, Lensbabies, Sunex and Zeiss are becoming viable alternatives to their higher-tier brothers and sisters made by camera companies.
"Sigma has numerous lenses which have been independently, objectively rated as having equal or even superior performance to comparable lenses from the best known camera makers," says Tom Sobey, Sigma Corporation of America spokesman.
Whether or not brands are able to compete head-to-head with their top-shelf counterparts, third-party options serve as a healthy and more inexpensive complement to lenses made and branded by the camera companies. Many offer the same high-tech functionality as more pricy lenses and some house unique features that can add an "edgy" quality to a pro's repertoire, at a fraction of the price and in less time than producing similar effects in Photoshop.
The popularity of Lensbabies, a selective focus lens that brings one area of an image into sharp focus and gradually blurs out the rest, exemplifies the trend towards more "interpretive" or "impressionistic" photos. The "sweet spot" of focus can be placed anywhere in the image by tilting the lens.
"Now digital photography has made very sharp photos much easier to achieve," says Sam Pardue, Lensbabies' CEO. "Pro photographers want to be able to differentiate themselves from the mass of images out there, and artistic photographers want to create a more personalized image that captures their interpretation or feeling of the moment," he says, adding that the lens is a perfect addition to a wedding photographer's arsenal.
A unique trend that has buoyed with the initiation of Sunex into the third-party lens market is the Superfisheye, a lens with very large field-of-view (FOV > 60°). This lens is vital for creating panoramas and virtual realistic (VR) images. Sigma also makes a similar model, the 486 circular fisheye.
Already a world leader in a variety of applications, such as rear-view cameras for automobiles, video-conference systems and security cameras, recently the company identified a new trend in the photography world-360 degree immersive images (i.e.: VRs, virtual tours, 360° panos) used particularly on websites in the real estate, media, retail, and tourism industries.
"Although, today this art is somewhat reserved to a group of photographers specializing in this [genre] using expensive equipment (full-frame, rare fisheye lenses), we believe [it] will become much more common as information is migrating to the web," says Francois Pelletier, director, Sales & Marketing, Sunex, Inc.
"As these types of web [panoramas] become more common in the near future, we believe we have the technology to make it more accessible," he adds. (Example below, taken at 120° using Sunex Panoramic Rotator Head, Sunex Superfisheye lens 5.6mm f/5.6 and Picture Stitching via PTGUI software.)
Sunex developed a 185° fisheye lens specifically for Nikon (1.5x) and Canon (1.6x) DSLRs that utilize a smaller image sensor instead of a full-frame imager. The lenses are specifically designed to use a maximum number of pixels on the image.
Using new typed of glass with high refractive indexes, the company was able to make the lens with a significantly reduced number of elements to provide a sub-$1,000 package. It provides a rotator that attaches to the lens and positions the nodal point exactly onto the sweet spot. The rotator is key to the high quality image results.
Key to the success of third-party lenses and a major reason for the surge in quality and usefulness for the photographer is the much-improved materials used in manufacturing. Combined with lightweight, updated designs and eco-friendly supplies are low dispersion glass, state-of-the-art plastics, and metals like magnesium. Also, computers used in manufacturing and quality control are all but eliminating flaws in lens manufacturing.
"We have some of the smallest and lightest lenses on the market," says Stacie Errera, Tamron's chief marketing officer. "The technology of engineering plastics has changed drastically which means we can make lighter lenses that are still very durable and the components are very precise," she adds.
Tamron, actually, leads the industry when it comes to "all-in-one compact zoom lenses" with the only 13.9X zoom -the AF18-250mm-made for use on smaller imager cameras. Both Tamron and Sigma also offer optical or vibration stabilization, a feature that many lens models have only begun to embrace.
Some companies combine the best of modern practices with traditional manufacturing techniques building on its years of experience. Zeiss, for example, with more than a century of photographic lens design experience in its portfolio, has its core competence in lens design, tolerances, and manufacturing processes. Going against trends, the company chooses not to use lighter materials, but selects high-quality components and assembly processes that have been perfected over many years.
Creating lenses to accommodate the recent demand by photographers for full-frame image sensors is another evolving characteristic in these lenses as zoom ranges or fixed focal length lenses are made specifically based on user requests.
"After analyzing the recent trends towards full-frame DSLRs, our new SLR lenses were created based on user requests from our former customers," says Richard Schleuning, national sales manager of Carl Zeiss Micro Imaging.
"These photographers have a certain expectation about image quality and appreciate the performance of a high-quality lens.
We believe the expanding range of full-frame DSLR cameras will place a renewed emphasis on the need for high quality lenses. This is especially true with wide angle lenses, which many times show their limitations at the frame edge," he adds.
Sigma's Tobey agrees. "Sigma offers, and is developing, new lenses specifically (DC series) for DSLRs, but also more (DG series) for full frame cameras," he says. Also Sigma is developing more "high tech functions, HSM motors for AF drives, more stabilized lenses, more extreme lenses (focal lengths and apertures)."
While price was once the most common reason to buy third party, this has changed. These lenses are now serving as comparable stand-ins as availability of popular lenses from camera makers come in short supply such as 20mm f/1.8, DG; 30mm f/1.4 DC, and 12-24mm zoom.
Furthermore, the presence of a third party lens industry encourages greater innovation and competition. "The existence of a third party lens market has introduced more diversity into the SLR market in terms of price points and functionality," says Lensbabies' Pardue.
Most Popular Lenses:
Lensbabies (www.lensbabies.com): Lensbaby 3G
Sigma (www.sigmaphoto.com): 10-20mm F/4-5.6 EX DC zoom (for APS-C type digital SLRs)
Sunex (www.sunex.com): Superfisheye
Tamron (www.tamron.com): 17-50mm F/2.8 and 28-75mm F/2.8
Zeiss (www.zeiss.com): Makro-Planar 2/50 ZF and 2/100 ZF for close-up photographer, Planar 1.4/85 ZF for portrait applications.