Q&A #6 – How to Choose Lenses to Buy? (Podcast 82)

by | Apr 9, 2007 | Fundamentals, Gear, Podcast | 0 comments

Today I’m going to answer another listener’s question about how to figure out which lenses to buy, that I received as a text message. In fact I had pretty much the same question from Eric Wikander and Jared Fein, and I’ve been asked this a number of times from others too, so hopefully this will be of some help to a number of people. So first off let me paraphrase a little on what Eric and Jared mailed me. Eric’s question was “What made you decide on the gear you use specifically lenses?”

Similarly, Jared wrote “For a while I have been meaning to write to you with a suggestion for a podcast topic – call it DSLR lenses 101 or “Primer on how to choose your next camera lens. It is easy to superficially understand that Image quality and price go hand in hand. However, it is not really easy for an amateur like me to know how much one needs to spend in order to take decent images (photographer aside). For a serious amateur, how does one go about determining cost:benefit.” Jared goes on to compare a few lenses from a newspaper add and asks “how much better does the image get, in relation to the increasing price” when going for better quality lenses. Well, I’m not going to go into these specific lenses, as I don’t have any experience with them, but as we’ll hear, there is a quality trade-off, but it is marginal in most cases.

Jared also asks if I know of any web site that does lens comparisons like DPReview does for camera bodies. Well, once again before I go on, I’ll just say that I have in the past looked for this type of site, but unfortunately to date could not find anything. If anyone does know of a lens comparison Web site, please do let us know. The MBP Forum would be a good place for this, but you can also mail me on info@martinbaileyphotography.com if you’d prefer and I’ll pass that on the rest of the listeners.

So thanks very much to both Jared and Eric for the great questions. So where shall I start. I’ve actually already done an episode on considerations when buying a Digital SLR body in episode 64, and I’ve covered tripods and macro gear, extension tubes and tele-converters, and filters and other stuff at some point too, so I’m going to skip stuff other than lenses from Eric’s question. What I will do in the near future, as I mentioned a few weeks ago, is an episode on “things I’d hate to be without”, as kind of a catch-all for the remaining bits of gear that I use. Today I’m going to concentrate on the main common theme here, which is what to keep in mind when buying lenses.

When I sat down to plan this, the first thing that came to mind was what John Arnold of the PhotoWalkthrough Podcast mentioned in episode 2 of the Focus Ring podcast. I’m recalling this from memory so it’s not word-for-word, but basically John said something like “Most people get all excited on getting a new camera, and want to buy some new lenses straight away, but if you don’t know what you want to do, then hold off until you have a clearer picture”. So the first thing I want to say is that I totally agree with John. It’s easy to get caught up in the gear game. I’m probably guilty of giving many of you gear envy talking about the arsenal of lenses that I’ve built up over the years. The thing is though, I have really spent years building up my collection of lenses and each and every one has its place in my photography workflow. I’ll get on to that more in a moment, but the first piece of advice is don’t run out and buy a bunch of lenses just because someone else has got one and you’d like one too. Now, please don’t misunderstand what I’m saying here in agreeing with John’s statement, or indeed, please don’t misunderstand the original statement. It is great that you are asking the questions. Just asking the questions is often not just the excitement of an unknowing beginner, but it’s quite often a sign that you are getting to the point where you have a problem that needs fixing but you don’t quite know how to fix it. Being inquisitive is one of the most important things in learning, so please understand that we’re not just suggesting that you simply put up with your kit lens until you have some kind of epiphany and no exactly, irrefutably what you need. Once you start asking the questions, hopefully the rest of what I have to say today will be of some help.

So let’s get into it. Now, unless you have a truck load of disposable cash to spend, which I would think rules out pretty much all of us, everything you buy should have a purpose. You will have a real problem to solve, and adding the lens to your kit will help you to solve that problem. To explain, I’m going to talk first about the first three SLR lenses I ever bought, which was back in 1991 and 92, when I first started using an SLR camera body. The first and only lens I bought at the very start was a nice cheap 35-105mm F4.5-5.6 USM lens. Looking back, this was not a great lens, but it was acceptable, and this was to be my main lens for the next ten years. I used it with my EOS 100 film camera, right up to and for a while after I bought my first Digital SLR, the D30, not to be confused with the more recent 30D.

This was not actually a kit lens. I bought the body really cheaply at a discount shop, and picked up the lens at a local camera shop when I was living in Fukushima in Northern Japan, but I’m sure the quality of the lens is pretty much what you’d have expected from a kit lens of that time. I think John actually went on to say something very similar to this actually, but really, the kit lens that comes with most consumer bodies at the moment will at the very least do a fine job, while you’re getting to know the gear, and many will do much better. For example, I don’t know if this was the case worldwide, but in Japan you could buy the 20D with the 17-85mm EF-S lens, as a kit, and that is an amazing piece of glass. Very sharp, nice range, and has image stabilization. This lens knocks the hell out of my first lens, and has a similar range with the crop factor calculated in, so I’d have been very happy with that as my first lens. I hear that the 18-55mm, pretty much the standard Canon kit lens is not brilliant, but it is probably still as good if not better than my first lens, so I know that you should still be able to get some great shots with it.

The important thing to note here is that back in the film days, unless you were blowing your work up pretty large, it was not easy to see the shortcomings of cheaper lenses. Once we entered the digital age, and started to be able to blow our images up to 100% on screen and examine the shot at the pixel level, it becomes much easier to see if you’re lens is not quite as good as you thought it was. Now, we are rarely actually going to create prints that allow us to easily see that much detail, so it’s very debateable how closely you inspect your shots, but the fact remains that it’s much easier to do so now.

Anyway, getting back to my first three lenses, the next step in my decision making was based on the fact that I soon realized that the widest focal length I had of 35mm was not wide enough for some of the landscape work I wanted to do. So now, unlike the first lens purchase which was really based on nothing more than I needed something to cover everyday shooting, I now had a problem to solve, and this was the driving force behind buying my second lens which was 24mm F2.8 prime lens. This lens too was in my camera bag for ten years, until I got my first DSLR. I actually really regretted selling this beautiful lens to put the money towards a new lens, as it was a really nice lens. This was more luck than judgement though, as I still didn’t really know all that much about photography and equipment. I just thought that 24mm was going to be wide enough, and it was, and F2.8 was wider than my current lens, which I thought would be cool to have, but most importantly though, it was a nice affordable lens. I think I only paid a few hundred dollars for it at today’s exchange rate.

The next step was going the other way. I was finding that I wanted to get closer on the telephoto range, than my 105mm was allowing me to get. The next lens I added, and the last lens purchase for ten years, was a 100-300mm F4.5-5.6 USM lens. This was really not a great lens at all. It produced very flat, low contrast images, that in hind-sight, I’m amazed I was every really happy with, but that was my skill level, and so it stayed in my kit bag. Now, when I say that was my skill level, I’m not talking about compositional or artistic skills, I’m talking about technical skill. More specifically, the ability to look at my results, and see what is wrong with them. I would see some shots that looked great, due to conditions that matched the lens, and others, the results would be really not great, and I’d put it down to simply being how it is. I’d not really looked into buying any more expensive lenses, and I recall thinking why I would need anything more expensive in the same zoom range.

So that was my kit for the first ten years I was shooting with an SLR body. Now, when I ask myself why I was OK with that kit, I have to be honest, that to a certain extent this contented state could also be called the bliss that is ignorance. I didn’t know any better. Nowadays though, you have any number of magazines thrusting the biggest and best down your throat and the Internet to read reviews, and there’re even portable devices that play radio programs on demand from Podcasters like me, telling you about my newest lens and how cool it is. With the knowledge of what is available comes the temptation to blow all your income on new kit. But again, when you think about it, when that knowledge wasn’t there, I was fine with just these three lenses for ten years, and only bought new ones when there was a problem to solve.

One problem that needed solving after I bought my first DSLR was that due to the 1.6X crop factor, I needed something wider than my 24mm prime lens to get anything reasonably wide. This was about five years ago, and there were no EF-S lenses specifically for digital then and the bodies didn’t support them even if there was, so the only choice I had was a 17-35mm F2.8 L lens. This was my first L lens, and then what happened? I realised just how crap my 35-105mm and even more so, my 100-300mm lenses were. And even though the images I was producing with my D30 were only 3 mega pixels, I could examine the photos much more closely as I said earlier. I was no longer ignorant to the reality that more expensive glass makes better photos. This though doesn’t change the fact that I had a whole bunch of decent photos shot with my old lenses, and some that are still my favourites today, so it really is a catch 22 situation, but it brings me back to what John said. If you don’t know what you want, wait until you do.

The problem with this is though, that there are so many ways now to learn what you want, so I’ll say again, that you really should wait until you have a problem to solve, and this will more than likely be related to focal length to begin with, but then there are a number of options within the focal length of the lens you are considering that must be considered before parting with your hard-earned, and this is where Jared is right now. It’s not so much which lens to buy, but whether or not it makes sense to go for the expensive glass, or buy something of a similar focal length, but much cheaper. Before we can talk about that, let’s look at some of the differences between cheaper and more expensive lenses. What do you get for your extra money?

OK, so typically, the first thing is going to be wider apertures, or what are sometimes called brighter lenses. The more expensive lenses are generally better engineered, so you’re going to get more dust and weather proofing etc, and it’s usually more expensive to get a lens with Image Stabilization or Vibration Reduction. So once you’ve identified a focal length or a range of a focal length that you need, and you are online or in a store looking at the options, you can start to ask yourself if you need an extra stop or two of brightness that a wider aperture will give you, so that you can shoot in darker conditions and still have autofocus. Or you might want just a little extra bokeh, that’s the out of focus area of a shot, also from a wider aperture. Or do you usually shoot with the aperture closed down to F8 or so anyway? You can also ask yourself whether or not your shooting will benefit from Image Stabilization. Not wanting to sway your decisions at all here, but I can say for sure that until you have image stabilization you might not understand what all the fuss is about, but once you have it, most people start wondering how they did without it for so long. Anyway, these are all questions that you can start to ask yourself with regards to these sorts of options.

Unfortunately, there’s more to think about, once you’re in the know. Now I know that some people are going to pull me up on this, but having worked through various lenses over the years, and now having some of the best lenses available for comparison, I can tell you without a doubt that in most cases you are going to get better quality with the higher end, i.e. more expensive lenses, that’s why they’re more expensive. Depending on what you are comparing the difference in image quality is going to be marginal, but you really do get what you pay for. Generally you’ll get crisper images with better contrast, resolution and depth. The reason for this is because the manufactures often add more elements or elements of a shape that’s more expensive to reproduce which helps the lens to bend the light in a more pleasing way to reduce distortion. Many more expensive lenses have UD elements to reduce refraction and dispersion of the light passing through the lens. UD stands for Ultra Low Dispersion, and these elements are a very close substitute for fluorite elements, which are incredibly expensive. Some lenses actually do use fluorite, which bumps the cost up quite considerably. Ones I can think of off-hand from the Canon range are the 300mm and longer telephoto prime lenses. These are all extremely good quality lenses, and produce superb images, but because of the size and cost of the lens elements including a few fluorite and UD elements, they cost an arm and leg. Because of this these really aren’t the sort of lens that we run out and buy very often, and for most, not at all.

In the digital age, and an age where advertising is everywhere, keeping check of temptation is more difficult than ever, but I still tell myself every so often that I shot with the same three lenses for ten years, and I try to hold off on purchases until I really can’t reasonably work around not having a particular lens any more. Now that I’ve told you what you most feared though, that you can get better image quality with more expensive lenses, do you need to take out a second mortgage to fully equip yourself with top quality lenses? Of course you don’t. In addition to continuing to ask yourself questions on your planned additions, take stock of where you are in your learning of photography. I’ve heard people griping on a number of occasions that they bought a nice new L lens that cost them a fortune, but the image quality is really not what they expected. When you really look into it though, the lens is fine, but the photographer is at fault. For example, some people get all carried away at their first F2.8 aperture lens, and shoot a load of shots and then scream that everything is out of focus! What’s really happening is that this person has never had to really focus very precisely because they’ve been using a F4.5-5.6 until now, and these smaller aperture cameras have a much deeper depth-of-field even when used wide open, so a certain amount of focusing error doesn’t make much difference. When you focus on someone’s fact though, with an F2.8 aperture lens wide open, if you are focussed on the nose say, the eyes are going to be out of focus, because they’re out of the depth of field. It’s amazing how many people focus on the nose though, either on purpose or just because it’s the closest thing to the camera and the camera automatically focuses on it. When shooting with a wide aperture, you have to get used to focusing on the eyes, and then recomposing the shot as necessary. You’ll also find that many people tend to subconsciously rock back and forwards as you breathe. If you move after focusing but before you release the shutter, you’ll again lose focus on the eyes unless you learn techniques to overcome this.

Another problem I’ve noticed is people who first buy long zoom lenses, like up to 300mm or longer often complain that their shots are blurred, and this time, rather than focus errors its camera shake. They don’t realize that the longer focal length intensifies any movement in the camera during the exposure, and continue to shoot at F8 for 1/60th of a second, despite now shooting with a 300mm lens on a crop factor camera. Even with image stabilization you’re going to get a lot of failures shooting at these shutter speeds at an equivalent of 480mm. Now, I’m not going to go into detail of techniques to overcome these issues today, as I’ve covered most of this in previous episodes and after all, they are just examples of the problems people go through when getting new gear. The important thing to understand here is that no matter how much money you spend on your equipment, you’re only going to be able to use it to the best of your current and near future ability.

One of the things you can try to give yourself a realistic feel of whether or not something is out of your current ability range, is if you have a rental store that is not too far away from you, you can try renting the lens you are thinking of for a few days to take it for a test run. This will be throw-away money if you go ahead and buy the lens, but you might find it helps to put your mind at rest before the purchase, or proves to you that you are not yet ready for that particular piece of kit. It’s not usually all that expensive to rent lenses, and whether you decide to buy one or not, I’m sure you’ll have fun trying out the new lens. Make sure you push yourself technically though while you have it, so that you can really understand where you might need to improve once you buy the lens.

One other piece of advice that has been mentioned a number of times in one form or another, and was also brought up I think by Jeff Curto in the same Focus Ring podcast I mentioned earlier, is if you are considering buying a prime lens, before you take the jump, you can try taking one of your current lenses if you have one that covers the same focal length of the lens you’re thinking of buying and tape the zoom ring to that focal length for a day to see how it feels. Of course, you’re not going to be able to check the additional image quality that most prime lenses will provide by doing this, but prime lenses often limit people more than they first think, and forcing yourself to use just that focal length can help to make the decision as to whether or not that particular focal lens, or even prime lenses in general, are for you.

If you can’t try the lens out in one way or another before buying it, and you have all the information to make a decision on a new focal length or zoom range to enable you to shoot images that you cannot shoot right now but would like to or may even need to be able to shoot for some reason, and the only decision left is whether or not to go for the best of class lens, or a cheap alternative, here’s my advice. If your budget will stretch to the best of class lens and you are ambitious and able to spend the time to learn any techniques that might be necessary to be able to bring that lens to life, then go for it. If however, you don’t want to or simply can’t afford to go for the more expensive lens, then don’t sweat it. Stick with your kit lens, or a few cheaper lenses to cover your working range, until your skill level demands that you upgrade.

The dilemma is that with all this information you’ll now know that if you go for the cheap lens at this point, then in a few years time, when you find that you want to upgrade, you might think that you’ve wasted the cost of the cheaper lens. This is only partially true though. Firstly, like a car or washing machine or any other piece of equipment that we buy for use in everyday life, as we use it, we’re getting something back for our investment. It might be much easier to talk your other half into letting you buy a new washing machine or a new car, but putting that aside, every time we use things like this, we’re getting a return. So if you spend say $400 on a relatively nice, but not top of the range zoom lens, and use it for just two years, that’s only actually costing you $17 a month, and that’s if you don’t sell the lens to put the money towards your new one later on, so don’t think of the cost of your starter lenses as a throw-away expense.

Selling your old gear and putting the money you get towards the new gear is something you might want to consider. I pretty much always do this. I have actually just upgraded my 16-35mm F2.8 lens, for the new version released at the end of March 2007. The reason for the upgrade was because although I was always happy with the old version, the edges of the lens were a little soft and overly distorted. I have a few great shots of trees that I have never been able to use because the detail wasn’t there around the edges, to the point that I’ve stopped even shooting them sometimes, to stop myself from getting disappointed. Canon has redesigned this lens with less distortion and sharper edges. I justified, probably more to myself than anything, but I justified the decision with the fact that if I sell my old version now, I’ll get more money for it than in a month or two when the second hand market is flooded with the previous version. I took my old lens to a local store that buys second hand lenses, and they gave me just under a thousand dollars for my old one, and they had the new version for just under $1,500, which means I could upgrade for less than $500. I’d say in a few months that will go up to $700 or higher, which makes making the switch a little less attractive. I got such a good price for my old lens by the way, because it was in pristine condition. I always keep the boxes, cases and manuals for my lenses, and I probably use my gear with kid-gloves most of the time. I’m not too worried about getting things wet or dirty, but when that happens, I always wipe them down thoroughly before putting them away, and I rarely allow my kit to sort of clang together as I see some people doing, so the exterior is usually pretty free of scratches. The exception is my 100-400mm F4.5-5.6 L lens, which I have given a bit of a beating over the years, putting it onto the stone bag of my tripod while using it with a second body shooting wildlife. Usually the pace of shooting is so fast that I don’t have time to treat it the way I’d like. I’m going to justify this sloppiness by saying that I really don’t think I’ll ever be replacing this lens, but if Canon turns out an updated version that’s perhaps just a little bit sharper at any time, I’d probably consider it. I’d say that goes for almost any of my gear though.

Having gotten to this point, I realize that before we finish I still have to answer Eric’s question which “What made you decide on the gear you use specifically lenses?” With the number of lenses I’ve owned over the years, I’m not going to go into full details about my old ones, but here’s a quick rundown of my current inventory with some thoughts on why I bought them in addition to the advice I’ve given already. I mentioned earlier about why I originally bought a super wide angle lens, originally the 17-35mm, then the 16-35mm, and now the 16-35mm version 2. Well the original reason was because I was using a crop factor camera, but that might lead you to ask why I still have a super wide angle zoom now that I’m using a full frame, 35mm digital SLR body, especially as I also own a 24-105mm F4 lens, which goes as wide as my original 24mm F2.8 lens. Well, this is really because my photography has progressed to the point where I really still want to be able to shoot the really wide vista. I also find these super wide angle lenses great for shooting up at a tree or between buildings, and using the perspective to make it look like the trees or buildings are falling in on you. Another thing I do more now is get in really close to the primary subject, as these lenses focus at under a foot, but when I use a very wide angle, it again throws a very strange perspective over the rest of the scene. In short, it’s another artistic option for making photos.

I bought the 100-400mm F4.5-5.6 L lens before my first trip to Hokkaido. I was hoping to shoot both landscapes and wildlife, and this was really the lens that enabled me to get serious about wildlife photography. Until then, I was using the 100-300mm lens, and this was really not a good lens at all. Newer versions and the 70-300mm IS lenses are now great by comparison, and if you don’t want to splash out for the more expensive 100-400mm or don’t want the additional weight, I believe these newer lenses are close enough in image quality to be a valid alternative.

I use the 24-105mm F4 lens as a general catch-all lens. I keep this on my camera when I’m just out and about, and as it’s an L lens, it’s sharp enough for just about anything I want to do within that focal length range. I bought the 50mm F1.4 a few years ago, for the excellent bokeh that this lens has. It’s a little soft when used wide open, but incredibly fast, and the out of focus areas are really sweet. There’s the speciality lenses like the 24mm TS-E or Tilt-Shift lens, which I bought again for artistic reasons. I often take this lens out with me when I’m just going on a shopping trip or something, and use it to throw a totally surreal angle on the world. In fact, I shot a reasonable image of the main street in Harajuku here in Tokyo on Saturday under just such conditions, and as I haven’t included any images today, I’ll throw this one in just as an example. This is image number 1370, just a little eye-fodder.

Harajuku Omotesandou

Harajuku Omotesandou

Macro lenses again are a little specialist. The MP-E 65mm 1-5X F2.8 lens much more so than the 100mm F2.8. The 100mm is relatively inexpensive but incredibly sharp. I can recommend it to anyone thinking of trying macro photography but who’s realized that when it say Macro in the name of a standard zoom, it doesn’t really mean macro. Macro photography though is one of those areas that people can quickly get discouraged in, as there’s a pretty steep learning curve. Still, once you’ve gotten the hang of a few things, it opens up a whole new world that is not accessible without a Macro lens.

The 70-200mm F2.8 lens was one that I found it very hard to justify for so long. I had the range covered, and was managing without the additional stop of aperture, but so many people swore by this lens that I really just couldn’t keep myself from buying one any longer. I had a few old camera bodies, namely the 10D and the 20D, and the 17-85mm EF-S lens that I would no longer be able to use without the 20D, so I decided it was time to take the plunge, and I have never looked back. I’ve owned this lens for about nine months now, but I’m using it more than any other still. I’d heard so many people call this lens their work-horse, and it really is. Incredibly bright and sharp, and has great image stabilization. Not a huge zoom range, but being able to get out to 200mm and staying at F2.8 it has really opened up a lot of artistic areas to me that I simply didn’t have before.

Finally, the 600mm F4 – this behemoth of a lens took a lot of thinking about. Not only because of the ridiculously, but I believe justifiable high price tag, but because of the size and weight. I was really torn between this lens and the 500mm F4. The 500mm is a few grand cheaper, and a little lighter too, so I was very tempted, but I figured if I was going to go that far, I might as well get the extra 100mm to enable me to fill the screen with smaller wildlife or even the Red-Crowned Cranes I shoot, when they’re further away. I was basing my decision on fact at hand. I’d shot the cranes with the 100-400mm lens at full extent with my 10D and 20D, which with the crop factor means I’d been shooting at 640mm. The thing is I know that this is still not as close as I’d like to be sometimes and didn’t want to go any shorter than that. The 500mm F4 with a 1.4X extender was also an option, and I already owned the extender, but that combination still only got me to 700mm on a full frame camera, and I knew I’d want to get closer still. With the 600mm F4 and the 1.4X extender, I was talking 840mm. This was just 50mm less than the 100-400mm with the 1.4X extender at full extent on a crop factor camera, but I’d have autofocus, which you lose with the 100-400mm and any extender, and it was going to be much, much sharper, because of the high quality of the 600mm prime with its UD and fluorite lens elements. The deal was done. I sold my soul to the missus until I got our savings back topped up, and the rest is history.

Again, I hope that has been of some help. Thanks again to Eric and Jared for your great questions. Before we finish, I just wanted to share some kind words from these guys before we close. In addition to his question, Eric also wrote “I too shoot and enjoy Nature Photography. There is just something about getting out there and taking pictures. I have really enjoyed your shows so far. You give education and share your knowledge with your audience. This is something many others forget to do. Thanks for taking your time to do these podcasts although I have no idea where you find the time.” To be honest Eric, I don’t know how I make the time either, but most of us can make the time to do the things we enjoy or feel important, and doing this Podcast has become an important part of my life, and I do enjoy it. I not only have come into contact with a great bunch of people in you listeners through this, but it also helps me to add structure to my knowledge of photography by planning what to say each week, so it is definitely not a one way relationship.

By the way, Eric also included a link to some of his images on PBase, and there are some really good shots, so I’ll drop the link into the show notes in case you want to take a look yourself.

Jared also went on to say “I would also like to take this opportunity to thank you for the fantastic job you do with your podcasts and with your web sites. You stimulated my interest improving and growing my photography which resulted in my purchase earlier this year of my first DSLR, a D70S, for which I am most grateful. I try to post photos weekly on the members’ gallery, as I know this will force me to work harder on them.” Thanks for these kinds work Jared and Eric. I really appreciate it.

Remember that there is now just one week left for the Simplicity assignment. If you haven’t got your entry in yet, please do upload it to the Simplicity album on mbpgalleries.com no later than the end of your Sunday, the 15th of April. Voting will start from Monday the 16th for two weeks to find out who the winner of one of my original prints will be, and this is the big one, in which we’ll find out who will scoop the amazing Lowepro Stealth Reporter D650 AW camera bag that Lowepro have been kind enough to offer us as a prize.

And with that, I guess all that remains to be said is thanks for listening, and have a great week, whatever you have planned. Bye-bye.

Show Notes

The music in this episode is from the PodShow Podsafe Music Network at http://music.podshow.com/

Here’s the link to listener Eric Wikander’s photos as mentioned: http://www.pbase.com/reewik



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