Welcome to the final installment of our "Choosing Manual Focus Lenses" series. In this article, we will look at the larger picture of lens sets in general and also check out a few options for specialty optics, such as macros and shift lenses.
A Short History of Basic Lens Sets
The basic three lens kit through the 1960s often consisted of a 35mm wide-angle, a 50mm normal, and a 135mm telephoto. Zooms were in their infancy, very expensive, and not very good, so the overwhelming majority of photogs were still prime shooters. Interestingly, these prime sets had their genesis in the rangefinder segment. It was Leitz that had settled on the 50mm (5cm back in the day) focal length as standard or "normal" when they introduced the Leica back in the 1920s. It subsequently became the de facto standard lens for the 35mm camera makers for the next several decades. The 35mm focal length became the standard wide angle until the mid-'60s, as it was about as wide as the manufacturers could affordably and conveniently go before the first retrofocus (reverse telephoto) optical designs came on the scene in the early 1950's. 50mm & 35mm lenses formed the backbone of the journalists' lens sets and so...many people were unwittingly drawn to those perspectives as they made up the majority of pictures that were seen in the media. 135mm lenses were about the longest focal length that would work expediently with rangefinders and thus became the standard telephoto for amateurs and many pros. When SLRs first really began to take off in the early '60s, this pattern held on for some time as the lens makers began development of both wider and longer focal lengths that would be attainable for enthusiasts.
By the start of the 1970s, 28mm primes had begun to supplant 35s as the standard wide angle in many photographers bags. It had taken half a decade to bring the size, weight, and cost of such lenses down to the vicinity of the 35mm f/3.5s & f/2.8s for most manufacturers (e.g. the Minolta 28/3.5 AUTO W.ROKKOR-SG of 1963 weighed 345 grams and used 67mm filters; by 1968 this had been cut to 245 grams and 55mm filters, the same size as the 35/2.8 W.ROKKOR-HG and only 35 grams more). The late-'70s and early-'80s SLR boom saw the rise of 70-200ish f/4ish zooms that replaced the 135mm and 200mm primes in the majority of photographer's bags. The sheer volume of vintage aftermarket 28mm primes and 70-200mm zooms testifies to the popularity of the 28/50/70-200 triumvirate at that time (50mm f/2/1.8/1.7 lenses remained the standard kit lens sold with SLRs until the mid-'80s).
By the mid-'80s, zooms in the 28- or 35-70/3.5-4-5 range had begun to displace 50mm primes as the kit lenses for consumer-level SLRs. By the 1990s the standard lens set had became a 28-70/3.5-4.5 plus a 70-210/4-5.6 lens (and often a cheap 50/1.7 or 1.8 for "low-light" situations) and such has basically held into the DSLR era (taking crop factors into consideration and longer consumer zooms reaching out to 300mm on the long end).
The basic premise of such lens sets was this: reaching from wide-angle to medium telephoto. From there, an SLR user could expand in either direction into super- and ultra-wide angles on the one hand or super-telephotos on the other but at greater cost (especially for super-telephotos). The first step for most enthusiasts was into wider angles as they were more versatile, affordable, and portable. The first good 24mm lenses began to appear in the late 60's with the 20mms following in the early '70s, and the 17-18mms in the mid-to-late '70s. The other basic parameter that many photographers sought to upgrade was maximum aperture. Sometimes this would happen with the initial purchase of an SLR, moving up from a basic 50/1.7 or 1.8 to a 1.4.
Most manufacturers offered at least two lines of primes (f/2.8 - f/3.5 and f/2ish) with some offering a third line of f/1.4 primes in the 24 to 85mm range. Obviously, prices and size went up as maximum aperture increased. Aside from the 50/1.4s (which were relatively affordable), most 1.4s were aimed at pros and well-heeled amateurs. Many pros, however, opted for the middle-of-the-road f/2s as they provided an extra stop of light for a minimal size/weight penalty over the f/2.8s, but at a substantial savings over the 1.4s.
After getting their basic set up, many SLR users find themselves drawn to specific types of photography, some of which require more specialized lenses for such genres as dedicated close-up, perspective-control, or ultraviolet photography. Let's take a quick look at each of these categories.
Macro (or Micro in Nikonland)
All lenses have a minimum focusing distance, but what sets macro lenses apart is their ability to focus much closer than a standard lens of the same focal length. They have also been optimized to offer their best optical performance at such close distances, while regular lenses generally give their best results at medium-to-far distances. Manual focus macro lenses are mostly found in three basic focal length ranges: 50-60mm, 90-105mm, and 150-200mm.
Now, this is just scratching the surface of close-up photography, there being bellows, more extension tubes and lens reversing rings, etc. to utilize, but we'll leave that for another day. However, what if you don't think you actually need a dedicated macro lens but want the ability to grab the occasional close-up? The solution: achromatic screw-in close up lenses. An achromat is a two-element lens. They are far superior to the cheap and plentiful single-element close-up lens. Advantages: they can be moved from lens to lens easily, they take up little space in a bag, and they are inexpensive compared to buying a dedicated macro lens. Disadvantages: they cannot completely equal the optical performance of a true macro lens. (But they come close enough that very few people would ever notice the difference.) Minolta made them in three strengths (#0 @ +0.94 dioptre, #1 @ +2 dioptres, and #2 @ +3.8 dioptres) and in three filter sizes: 49, 52, and 55mm. Nikon made them in two strengths and two filter sizes (3T & 4T in 52mm and 5T & 6T in 62mm). The 3T & 5T were +1.5 dioptres and the 4T & 6T were +2.9 dioptres. Canon still makes them in two strengths (250D @ +4 dioptres & 500D @ +2 dioptres) and in four sizes (52, 58, 72, and 77mm). You can use step-up rings to adapt them to whatever filter size your lens takes.
Perspective Control Lenses
Borrowing from large-format cameras with their ability to tilt and shift the lens in relation to the film place, perspective control lenses allow the SLR user to compensate for converging verticals in architectural images and otherwise manipulate perspective. Some have only the shift function while others also include tilting capability. These are definitely very specialized lenses, but if you need what they offer, there is no substitute.
Again, we are talking a very specialized branch of photography, one that goes beyond the visible spectrum to form images. Most commonly used in forensic photography, UV lenses are specifically designed and corrected to allow the maximum amount of the UV spectrum to pass through to form an image. Nikon and Pentax were the two main producers of UV lenses in the mid-'60s to '70s, albeit in very limited numbers, making them rare and expensive to obtain. Such lenses can often give satisfactory to excellent results in standard visible light and infrared photography, as well, if you manage to get your hands on one ;-).
Admittedly, we have only begun to scratch the surface of lens selection in this series of articles. But, hopefully, it is a start. For many photographers, a basic three or four lens set will cover their needs very adequately. The important thing is to get what fits YOUR needs, which are not necessarily the same as somebody else's. Starting with a "normal" lens gives you a fine reference point to build from in both the wide-angle and telephoto directions. Resist the urge to flit from focal length to focal length just for the sake of something new. Technology is no substitute for creativity. Guess which one is achieved through time and practice? Making careful selections of a few lenses and then really getting to know them by using them will help you to maximize, not just your financial investment, but more importantly, your own photographic potential.
Check out how one photographer goes through the process of analyzing his needs for a particular trip, but with the possibility of using it as a standard kit in the future. Even though he is using a medium format 6cm x 6cm system, the principles apply to any format and he also translates the focal lengths into 35mm terms. Enjoy!
Suffers from a two-decade and counting film and manual focus SLR addiction. Has recently expanded into 1980's AF point and shoots, and (gack!) '90s SLRs. He even mixes in some digital. Definitely a sick man.