Fast lenses group test

When it comes to lenses, can you get the speed you need without paying top dollar?

Fast lenses – by which we mean lenses with a wide maximum aperture that are ideal for low light – are notoriously expensive. Take the luxurious f/2.8 Canon EF-S 17-55mm and Nikon AF-S 17-55mm models we reviewed recently, both of which cost over £1,000. But with contenders from the likes of Sigma and Tamron costing half the price, you don’t have to spend such big money to get hold of fast glass.

A major bonus of fast lenses is that they allow you to use faster shutter speeds in low light, fending off the problems of both camera shake and motion blur, the latter of which can’t be fixed with any amount of optical image stabilisation. Large apertures also create a shallow depth of field, which is especially good for blurring the background in portraits.

With this in mind, a ‘standard’ 50mm focal length equates to about 75mm to 80mm with most D-SLRs, which use APS-C rather than full-frame sensors. Therefore they offer a perfect effective focal length for taking portraits. As well as offering a two-stop increase in speed at focal lengths of around 50mm, compared with most standard ‘kit’ zoom lenses, the fast zooms on test also boast constant aperture, so the maximum aperture is available throughout the zoom range.

The downside is that while zooms are unbeatable for versatility, there’s an inevitable compromise in optical quality. Go for a fast prime lens and you can generally expect a further two-stop increase in speed, with a maximum aperture of around f/1.4, negligible distortion at the fixed focal length and supreme sharpness.

Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM

Street price: £290

This model firmly occupies the prime lens middle ground between Canon’s rather basic 50mm f/1.8 and the massively expensive 50mm f/1.2L USM, costing nearly £1,300. It delivers a more standard f/1.4 maximum aperture and fast, near-silent USM (Ultrasonic Motor) Autofocus, complete with full-time manual override.

Rugged but fairly light in weight, it’s easy to live with. As with most Canon lenses, however, you have to pay extra for a lens hood, which will set you back £25. Optical performance proved respectable in our tests; the lens produced reasonably crisp images even under very low indoor lighting, but the drop-off in sharpness was more obvious at the maximum aperture than with some other lenses here, especially towards the corners of the frame.

Outdoors, the Canon’s resistance to flare was average but, even so, image quality is a big step up from Canon’s cheaper kit zoom lenses.

At its largest aperture, the Canon EF 50mm isn’t the sharpest tool in the box, but a major plus point of this is that the lens can give an attractive ‘dreamy’ look to your portraits. Stopped down a bit for this studio-lit shot, there’s plenty of detail throughout most of the image, but it could be a little better in the corners of the frame. Even so, there’s certainly a lot to like about this lens.

Verdict: Features **** / Build quality **** / Handling ***** / Image Quality **** / Value for Money **** Overall *****

Nikon AF-S 50mm f/1.4G

Street price: £280

Nikon’s reasonably priced 50mm f/1.8 lens only costs about £100, but is so sharp you can practically cut yourself on it. At nearly three times the price, this f/1.4 lens has its work cut out to justify the outlay, but it’s still the cheapest lens here.

As well as the slightly larger maximum aperture, the newer f/1.4G is much more of a 21st-century lens, dropping the antiquated aperture ring that is largely superfluous on D-SLRs, and adding Nikon’s Silent Wave AF-S autofocus system. As with Canon’s USM, this means you get whisper-quiet autofocus with full-time manual override, although autofocus speed isn’t as rapid as with some of Nikon’s other AF-S lenses.

At apertures of f/2.8 and smaller, sharpness proved great across the frame and, even wide open at f/1.4, it’s way above average. The quality of bokeh was also particularly pleasing, and overall the f/1.4G is worth every penny.

Every tiny nuance is captured by the razor-sharp Nikon and, when viewed at 100% magnification on a computer screen, this test shot reveals a level of detail that simply can’t be seen with the naked eye. For portraiture, it’s perhaps a little too sharp and accentuates every wrinkle and flaw in the skin. This can be easily fixed in Photoshop though, and we’d rather have too much detail to start with than not enough.

Verdict: Features ***** / Build Quality ***** / Handling ***** / Image quality ***** / Value for money ***** / Overall *****

Click through the next pages to see how the other lenses in our test fared.

Sigma 18-50mm f/2.8 EX DC Macro HSM

Street price: £315

This Sigma is the cheapest f/2.8 constant aperture lens in the group by quite some margin, yet still offers Sigma’s HSM (HyperSonic Motor) autofocus system, equivalent to Canon’s USM and Nikon’s AF-S.

The HSM is certainly fast and very quiet but, unlike the Canon and Nikon versions, doesn’t feature full-time manual override, so you have to manually switch back and forth between auto and manual focus.

Build quality feels robust, but the overall design seems like it’s cutting a couple of corners. For example, unlike the Canon, Nikon, Sony and both Tokina lenses, the focus distance scale is printed on the outside of the lens barrel rather than being stashed below a viewing window, and the finger grip on the focus ring itself is rather too small for our liking.

Optical quality is very respectable for a fast zoom lens at this price, but a bit on the soft side when shooting at the maximum aperture.

We weren’t completely convinced that the focal length of this Sigma stretches all the way to 50mm, as the flower arrangement didn’t quite fill the frame in the same way as it did with the 50mm prime lenses on test here. Image quality itself is slightly soft when shooting wide open, but sharpens up very impressively by the time you hit f/4. There’s bags of edge-to-edge detail in this shot.

Verdict: Features **** / Build quality **** / Handling **** / Image quality **** / Value for Money ***** / Overall ****

Sigma 50mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM

Street price: £359

Oddly for a third-party prime lens, the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 costs more than the competing ‘own-brand’ Canon, Nikon and Sony prime lenses on test. On the plus side, however, it also feels more sturdily built, with a chunkier design and much heftier weight that gives it a more natural balance on heavier D-SLR bodies. Like the Sigma zoom lens on test, this one features fast, quiet HSM autofocus, but this time it comes complete with full-time manual override and the focus distance scale is neatly tucked away below a viewing window.

The Sigma prime is impressively sharp even at its maximum aperture; in our tests it gave slightly better performance than the Canon f/1.4 but didn’t quite match the Nikon or Sony prime lenses. The lack of distortion and overall optical quality are noticeably better than with the Sigma 18-50mm zoom, so it’s a choice between prime lens quality versus zooming versatility.

Good attention to detail even when shooting wide open leads to even greater sharpness at f/2.8 and smaller apertures, winning out over the Canon 50mm f/1.4 in our tests. The Sigma’s street price is £70 more expensive, but at least it comes with a lens hood and soft pouch, like most Sigma lenses. This Sigma is proof, were it needed, that ‘third-party’ lenses can be a good investment.

Verdict: Features ***** / Build quality ***** / Handling ***** / Image quality ***** / Value for money **** / Overall *****

Sony 50mm f/1.4 AF

Street price: £282

Sony lenses often seem overpriced for what they actually offer, so how does this 50mm f/1.4 stand up? At first glance, it’s difficult to take the lens seriously, as it’s incredibly compact and lightweight, and minimalist in the extreme. For example, the manual focus ring seems almost like an afterthought, as it’s small and there’s no ribbed grip on it.

Maybe that’s just as well, because the ring rotates in autofocus mode as well as during manual focus, and the small size of the lens makes it difficult to hold without your fingers fouling the focus ring.

Autofocus is fairly fast, but quite noisy in operation. It’s easy to forgive any handling flaws, however, the moment you see images taken with the lens. They’re wonderfully sharp and full of contrast, even when shooting at f/1.4. Indeed, in our tests, the overall optical quality was practically as good as with the Nikon 50mm f/1.4, and better than any of the zoom lenses.

Hardly bristling with features, the Sony looks a very basic lens but optical quality is stunning. Sharpness and contrast are exemplary, even at the maximum aperture, and things get better still when you move down by a stop or two. As with the Nikon 50mm prime lens, also on test, every tiny detail in this shot of flowers is there to see in the final image. It might look humble on the outside, but the Sony has great glass.

Verdict: Features **** / Build quality **** / Handling **** / Image quality ***** / Value for money **** / Overall ****

Click through to the final page to see how the last 3 lenses in the test got on.

Tamrom 17-50mm f/2.8 XR Di II VC

Street price: £490

Fast standard zoom lenses with image stabilisation are few and far between, yet this heady combination has been combined in Tamron’s new 17-50mm f/2.8 VC (Vibration Correction) lens.

In our tests, the VC consistently gave an advantage of three to four stops, fending off camera shake and enabling the handheld use in near darkness. It’s just a shame that the high-tech VC isn’t matched in other areas of the lens’s design, which features a particularly slow and noisy autofocus motor and the lack of full-time manual focus override.

The zoom ring of our test sample was also very stiff in operation, but at least there was no hint of zoom creep. More disappointingly, the lens really lacked sharpness when shooting wide open and had to be stopped down to f/5.6 to give convincing results, even then lagging a long way behind the prime lenses. For the money, it’s not one of Tamron’s best.

There’s a lack of sharpness in this shot compared to almost all the other lenses on test, and the problem gets worse the closer you get to the maximum aperture of f/2.8. Another issue that we had was that, when shooting on a Nikon body in Manual mode, the lens consistently over-exposed images by about one or two stops, even when locking the aperture and shutter speed to the same values used with other lenses.

Verdict: Features **** / Build quality **** / Handling **** / Image quality *** / Value for money ** / Overall ***

Tokina 16-50mm f/2.8 AT-X Pro DX

Street price: £590

A sizeable and weighty affair, the Tokina 16-50mm looks more like luxury lenses such as the Canon EF-S 17-55mm and Nikon 17-55mm f/2.8 offerings, with a rugged, professional feeling build quality. Autofocus is rapid and fairly quiet, despite lacking the equivalent of USM or AF-S, and while there’s no full-time manual override, the lens features Tokina’s trademark push-pull focus ring, which enables speedy switching between auto and manual focusing.

It can be a bit too easy to switch between manual and autofocus unintentionally though. The price is as heavyweight as the lens, with street prices around £250 more than the equivalent Sigma and £100 more than the Tamron VC lens on test.

So does it have image quality to match? Distortion is fairly well-controlled considering the 16mm wide-angle ability. While sharpness is reasonable at f/2.8, however, it fails to improve much as you stop down.

Something of a curiosity, the Tokina can match most of the lenses in the group for sharpness when shooting wide open, especially in dull lighting conditions, but images don’t get any sharper when you stop down. In our tests, by the time we got to f/8 or f/11, other lenses in the group had left the Tokina a long way behind in terms of contrast and sharpness, from the centre to the corners of the frame.

Verdict: Features **** / Build Quality ***** / Handling ***** / Image quality **** / Value for money *** / Overall ****

Tokina 50-135mm f/2.8 AT-X Pro DX

Street price: £550

The big brother of the Tokina 16-50mm lens, this 50-135mm model takes over neatly where the smaller one leaves off, or at least that’s the theory. In practice, we found a few millimetres of focal length missing in the middle, the larger lens seeming more like a 55-135mm.

Weighing in at 755g, the big Tokina comes with a collar for mounting on a tripod and the solid, chunky build quality is continued from the smaller model. There’s also the same push-pull mechanism for switching between autofocus and manual focus. One notable difference, however, is that this lens has internal zooming, so the overall length of the lens stays fixed throughout the entire zoom range.

Specifically made for Canon and Nikon cameras with APS-C sensors, the effective telephoto reach of the lens is a handy 216mm or 202mm respectively, making it a relatively cheap option for a fast telephoto zoom lens.

At 50mm or thereabouts, the Tokina wasn’t quite a match for most other lenses on test, either shooting wide open or stopped down. Sharpness was still adequate for most scenarios, but not fabulous. We didn’t suffer any drop-off in quality at longer telephoto focal lengths, however, so it’s a useful lens on an APS-C camera when you need extra reach, and the f/2.8 gives a wonderfully small depth of field.

Verdict: Features **** / Build quality **** / Handling **** / Image quality **** / Value for money **** / Overall ****