2021 in Full Frame Lenses

I'm always looking for a new way to look at the year end and try to make sense of what did or didn't change. All three of the largest camera companies introduced flagship mirrorless cameras this year (Canon R3, Nikon Z9, and Sony A1), and that would be one way to look at the year. 

However, these are system cameras, and often it's the system itself that is most important, not one camera body. So today we're going to look The Year in Lenses. Canon and Nikon are playing catch-up, Sony is playing fill-in-the-blanks. With this article I'm going to restrict myself to the Big Three and full frame, but I'll likely have a different article for the crop sensor market in the future. 

Important: I don't have enough experience with the Panasonic bodies and L-mount lenses to comment cogently on them yet. My initial impression is that Panasonic is making quite good gear, but it doesn't have much sales traction in the market.

This year's lenses were:

Canon RF

  • 14-35mm f/4L zoom (US$1700)
  • 16mm f/2.8 STM compact (US$300)
  • 100mm f/2.8L macro (US$1400)
  • 100-400mm f/5.6-8 IS (US$650)
  • 400mm f/2.8L IS (US$12000)
  • 600mm f/4L IS (US$13000)
  • Total Lenses to Date: 12 primes, 11 zooms

Nikon Z

  • 24-120mm f/4 S (US$1100)
  • 28mm f/2.8 (US$300)
  • 40mm f/2 (US$270)
  • 50mm f/2.8 macro (US$600)
  • 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 VR S (US$2700)
  • 105mm f/2.8 VR S (US$1000)
  • Total Lenses To Date: 11 primes, 9 zooms

Sony FE

  • 24mm f/2.8G (US$550)
  • 35mm f/1.4GM (US$1400)
  • 40mm f/2.5G (US$550)
  • 50mm f/1.2GM (US$2000)
  • 50mm f/2.5G (US$550)
  • 70-200mm f/2.8GM OSS II (US$2800)
  • Total Lenses to Date: 23 primes, 17 zooms

Things aren't quite as lopsided as many people think. We have Sony at 40 lenses (but note my comment, below), Canon at 23, and Nikon at 20, with each having put out six full frame lenses in 2021. 

It's in the type of lenses that each put out that is somewhat intriguing. 

Canon, for instance, put out two exotic lenses in advance of the camera body most would be putting them on. Then we had two odd low-cost lenses that don't make a ton of sense with the current R camera lineup (but might if Canon were to refresh the RP and R). A lot of Nikon Z5 and Z6 owners would give up a card slot for that low-cost 100-400mm, I'm pretty sure, particularly since Nikon still isn't addressing less expensive telephoto options yet. 

Nikon, meanwhile, continues to roll with their very targeted plan of completing lines and filling holes. There's not an odd-ball lens in Nikon's 2021 offerings, and suddenly at the end of the year the Z system line looks a lot more filled out, at least in the 24-200mm range. Despite the 400mm f/2.8 development announcement that pairs so nicely with the upcoming Z9, Nikon seems more concerned about selling reasonably priced lenses to the Z5 to Z7 II crowd. This approach seems to have worked: every one of Nikon's 2021 offerings was a first day sell-out, though several are now starting to be readily available. 

Sony I can't quite figure. The new f/2.5 or 2.8G lenses all look very worthy, but of those 40 Sony lenses I mentioned, 10 of them are variations on 35mm to 58mm primes! Surely there can't be that much demand in that narrow range. Sony still has plenty of lenses that I'd argue need rework, including the original 24-70mm f/4, which should be a staple lens, but no longer is competitive. Sony's weakness now that Nikon has a body to match up against the A1 is in telephoto offerings, not mid-range primes. Despite the mid-range prime bloat, the one thing I can say for Sony is that they've stepped up their optical game from when the A7 first appeared. There's not really a dud among the recent G lenses, and the GM lenses all seem to deserve that extra letter (M for master). Well done.

Canon doesn't have the same optical consistency as Nikon, and recent Sony, IMO. Canon seems to have embraced a low-end, high-end strategy in lenses, but I'm not seeing many lenses in the RF mount that really speak to what can be done in the new mount. Canon's feeling "more consumery" to me lately, despite the R3, R5, and R6 bodies. And that impression is really driven by the lens set. I can absolutely pick out a lens set that works for the R and RP (and R6, I suppose), but what lenses really make the R3 and R5 shine? Too many of Canon's RF lenses feel either like a remake of the EF lens (so why wouldn't I just use an adapter?), or something targeted to sell volume. Consumery. That said, the 100-500mm may be the best in class, while the 28-70mm f/2 is a heavy-but-excellent lens. But all the 24-xx lenses feel luke warm to me. Very good, but nothing stands out. 

Nikon, meanwhile, seems to have "dialed up" their Nikkor game. Not that it was bad in the first place. Quite the opposite, actually. The most recent F-mount lenses for their DSLRs were all exceptionally good, in many cases unmatched, and here they've given themselves a new mount and upped their game. The Nikon Z-mount f/2.8 zoom trio, for one, is the best of the bunch (Sony's a close second). The S lenses all have something optically special about them, but even the non-S lenses are turning out to be really well designed. Moreover, the 24-50mm f/4-6.3 shows that you can design a compact (muffin sized) zoom that's low cost but still performs quite well. And why is it that Nikon, not known for their video, is the one that's correcting for focus breathing in their lenses while Sony, who is known for their video, is playing catch up? 

2022 is going to be a lot like 2021, I think, at least in terms of lenses. Canon, Nikon, and Sony will all put out about the same number of new lenses, with each marching to their own drummer in terms of what they think is necessary in the market. Only Nikon is giving us a road map at the moment (26mm pancake, 85mm f/1.2, 200-600mm f/4.5-6.3?, 400mm PF, 600mm f/4 S, and 800mm PF, plus some DX lenses). What Canon and Sony will do next year is not yet known, though there have been plenty of rumors and a ton of patents on the Canon side. 

Overall, I'm reasonably happy with where we're at in all these full frame mounts, but in the following order:

  1. Sony. Lots of choice. Fair amount of overlap. The GMs are exceptional, the Gs are good. But telephoto beyond 200mm still seems a weak point.
  2. Nikon. Has nicely picked lenses so that they form a coherent, fullish line. The S's are exceptional, the rest is quite good. Nikon still has some gaps to fill in to be fully competitive.
  3. Canon. I keep looking at their lens list, and at first glance it seems right, but at second glance I keep finding a lot of oddities. With three high-end bodies and two aging lower-end ones, the lens lineup doesn't seem well tuned to the bodies. 

I said I wasn't going to cover Panasonic, but there are a couple of things that should be said. Like Nikon, Panasonic is pulling off a highly credible f/1.8 prime lineup (24mm, 35mm, 50mm, 85mm, with an 18mm coming), a solid f/2.8 zoom duo, a solid f/4 zoom duo, and an odd-but-video useful 20-60mm f/3.5-5.6 lens. Since Panasonic uses the L-mount, they get the benefit of Sigma's set of lenses, as well.

The Latest is Always the Best

Nikon's introduction of a halo camera with reported incredible focus performance—the Nikon Z9—reminds me that I need to further explain something that oft goes overlooked.

The Internet thrives on latest and greatest. Most of the photography sites and videos you might look at are all about generating Dollars Now! To a large degree, influencers have taken over the mainstream photography discussion, and they have very vested interests in hyping something before the truth about it starts to dilute the sales potential slightly. 

So let me start with that last bit: a new camera tends to sell best on first availability. At least in terms of the dollars that come from affiliate programs and other semi-hidden royalty programs available to Web sites and influencers. (Disclosure: none of my Web sites participate in this. My relationship with B&H is a fixed cost advertising contract that does not depend upon how many of the latest product I manage to help them sell, though I suppose if clickthroughs from my sites dropped significantly, I wouldn't be able to maintain that more distanced relationship.)

Thus, what is now happening on the Web is strong competition for eyeballs, which has lead to clickbait type headlines and exaggerated claims. Information has turned into Infotainment, with an emphasis on the entertainment side, not the information side. The camera companies haven't been oblivious to this; they see what's happening and try to take advantage of it.

The reason I bring this up has to do with exactly what Nikon promoted so heavily with the Z9 introduction, and something Sony promoted heavily with the A1 announcement: focus performance. 

Here's the thing you have to be aware of: not all cameras from the same maker have the same focus capability and performance. That seems like it should be a given, but what I keep seeing all across the net are generalizations about brand versus brand, and those blanket statements aren't going to be accurate for all models. Focus is one of those technologies that has been moving forward with every generation of camera. The original Sony A7 introduced back in 2013? Pretty dismal in focus performance compared to the current A1. But the range in focus performance of Alpha cameras over the ensuing time period is more important to understand than you might first think. And make no mistake, it's a range.

For instance, I would say from experience that the Nikon Z6 II's focus system is more reliable and in some cases faster than the Sony A7 Mark III's. That shouldn't be surprising, as the Nikon is a newer camera than the Sony. However, it is surprising to many because the general theme of Internet posts has been "Sony's AF performance is better than Nikon's." Yes, that may be true for an individual, new camera, but it isn't consistently true across all models. And let's not throw in Canon, Fujifilm, Olympus, and Panasonic, who are on their own climb to best-possible AF performance.

Not that the Z6 II is perfect at autofocus. It has three specific liabilities that the user needs to be aware of to maximize performance: (1) the AF sensors in the viewfinder lag the actual focus; (2) above 5.5 fps you'll get more random focus performance because you can't keep the camera composed properly on moving subjects; and (3) you can't switch to a different focus mode instantly via a button, should you decide that an alternate mode would be better suited to the subject before you. But for most things, I'd prefer to have the Nikon Z6 II over the Sony A7 Mark III. For instance: the Z6 II locks onto the focus plane tighter for moving subjects than the Sony does. 

I can't speak to the just announced Z9 yet as I haven't had a real chance to use it—nor have I used a Canon R3 yet—let alone for real production work, but right now I'd tend to say that the current AF performance goes something like this minus those two new cameras:

  1. Sony A1
  2. Canon R6/R5
  3. Nikon Z6 II/Z7 II
  4. Sony A7R Mark IV

There's not a lot separating #1 from #2, then a bit of a drop-off to #3 and #4, again where there isn't a lot of separation. (My assessment is made from actual use of these cameras in a range of photography, and from diligent studying of how to extract every bit of focus performance from each. Which means: don't photograph with everything set to Auto ;~).

But where are we really? 

Well, pretty much every current mirrorless camera is as good as—and many are better than—all but the top pro DSLRs of five to ten years ago. Again, you have to study the differences and adapt to the new focus systems to extract all the performance that is possible. But if you do that, you'll find that the current mirrorless cameras provide excellent focus abilities, pretty much across the board.

So don't get too caught up in the Canon R3, Nikon Z9, and Sony A1 focus hype unless you're buying a camera at that level. If you are buying at that level, wait for the real-world evaluations from photographers who try to maximize the performance rather than listening to the quick had-the-camera-for-a-day testers who never really got past setting all-automatic. 

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