I think one of the number one questions we get asked, no matter what the original presentation, or theme or topic of workshop is: “Which lens should I buy?” As soon as I hear the question, I start getting nervous, because this is a very personal choice with many variables, and invariably, no matter how many times I stress that my suggestion is just a suggestion, I get hit with a “…but you said…” Or worse “my husband says you say we NEED this lens”!
So I thought I should just break down how I select my lenses. Some things to keep in mind:
Expensive lenses are not always great lenses, and a lens isn’t great, it is “…great for …“ a specific job or use.
- “Expensive” is a relative term.
- Image Quality (IQ) is also a relative term.
- And lastly, everyone is an expert!
So let’s start with why do you need a lens? Are you replacing one? Do you have a gap in your line-up? Do you want to start shooting something else? Or do you have GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome)?
If you are looking for a lens, just to have one, rather don’t buy one, save your money and buy a better one later when you actually need one! Buying a lens you never use just makes your wallet light and your bag heavy. Most people will do very well with a single “walk-around” lens like a 24-70mm or 24-105mm and hardly ever need more. But as soon as you start moving into the hobbyist or advanced amateur sections you will start moving toward collecting the Trinity sets (wide, like a 16-35mm, or 14-24mm, mid, like a 24-70mm and then a zoom like 70-200mm) often with an added special lens like a cheaper 400mm, a macro or a fisheye, depending on what you enjoy shooting.
It’s important to know that not all lenses are equal and you will see the same focal lengths at various price points. The manufacturers wants to give you a lens you can afford, so you will get a 18-55mm kit lens for fairly cheap, a 17-40mm lens for two to three times the price, and the top end 16-35mm at 5 or six times the price.
So what makes the one better than the other? I will bet that if you print an 6×8” enlargement you will not see the difference between the lenses, but while the cheapest option is great for the occasional shooter that doesn’t need to depend on their equipment, a pro that must have the lens work day in and day out will go for one of the other options, that is built to withstand a few knocks and hard work day in and day out.
Do you need the most expensive one? No, you don’t it will depend on your budget and what y) will be using it for. For example: I own the Canon 17-40mm f/4 L and have often wondered if I should upgrade to the more expensive 16-35mm f/2.8 L – When a look at the field and lab tests the f/2.8 lens is definitely a better lens technically, but they are very close at f/7.1-f/11.
If I were a wedding photographer, the f/2.8 might be a definite bonus, meaning it could shoot wide open and still get sharp shots in low light, shots my client wants to buy.
If I were a landscape photographer, the f/2.8 still makes sense for low light and edge to edge sharpness, but less so because I am not pushed for time, I tripod and a longer exposure might be enough for a great shot.
But as it is, I am a commercial stock photographer, and I use my 17-40mm f/4 L when I travel because it’s solid, good quality and perfect for 90% of what I shoot, at less than half the price. I hardly ever shoot it wide open because the locations we get to is generally in pretty good light, and I often stop down to get a deeper sky.
Would I go for the 18-55mm kit lens? No ways. My lenses work hard, and the kit lens is not designed to take the knocks or shoot as much. Spending a few thousand on a trip and then having my lens break or fail on the trip is a risk I need to minimize as much as possible.
So what should you consider when buying a lens?
- What is your budget?
- What is your need in IQ?
- What is your need in longevity/build quality?
- Potential resale value
If you have a limited budget, then you may think that a cheaper lens is all you can go for, but the truth is that often you can get a good, second hand version of a higher specked lens for the same money or only slightly more expensive. You will be buying second hand, but you will be buying a lens that is made to last, made to be serviced with replaceable parts, and might actually (probably) have better optics. If you buy second hand though, buy through a dealer if you are not sure, and test, test, test!
If IQ is king for you, start reading MTF test charts and lab reports on the lenses, then move to reputable reviews and then, only then, start asking users that use the lens. Going onto Facebook or forums will always result in half the people saying the lens is crap, half saying the lens is awesome, they own one and they should know, and a third half (yes, Facebook is like that!) saying you should actually be switching brands instead of buying a new lens.
The point is a lens that works great for somebody else, might be completely wrong for you.
If you only shoot with your camera over holidays, or you are looking for a lens for a trip, then one of the cheaper options might be perfect for you. I am guessing you are looking to capture memories and tell stories, there is no commercial aspect and the lens won’t work very hard. But if you need the lens for commercial use, it needs to work when your client is in front of you waiting for the shoot to happen. And should it fail, servicing must happen quick. The other benefit of owning higher end lenses means you can most probably rent one just like it, should your lens need to be serviced, allowing you to keep your business moving seamlessly.
There is inherent value in the higher end brand name lenses. If you need to or want to upgrade in a year or two or three, a higher end brand name lens will be traded in for more or can be sold on the second hand market for more than a third party lens.
All the rules go out the window here. Many times there are amazing gems to be had at the most unexpected places. For instance, Samyang makes a brilliant 35mm wide angle lens that is just not good for general photography, but very hard to beat when it comes to DSLR video because it has a step-less aperture, making lighting adjustments a breeze, even during a take. Neither Nikon or Canon has anything like it!
However the flip side is also true, there are not a lot of great third party “long”-lenses. Most of them have inherent flaws because the cost to produce for high image quality is just too expensive for their target market. I would suggest staying with the big brand names. Both Canon and Nikon have great options going up to 400mm at more or less affordable prices. Are they as good? No, but they are bloody marvellous for a quarter of the price and eight times out of ten you will get your shot, if you learn to use them proper.
Old tech vs new tech?
This is the last little warning I would like to give. Many lenses today were designed for film cameras. These are well loved lenses that performed really well, but the new generation designs are just, well. Better. A good example is the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 L non-IS lens. Still on sale, but the newer generation 70-200mm f/4 L IS has much better image quality, even though it’s rated as a lower end lens than the f/2.8 and is cheaper than the the f/2.8 (nothing beats the f2.8 L IS mkII – new generation flagship lens though!)
So, when you read your reviews and get opinions, keep in mind that a newer design might actually be cheaper and with better IQ than a previous “high-end” version.
Long zoom ranges?
If image quality is critical, a lens with a very long zoom range is almost always going to be weak in that department (distortion, chromatic aberration and vignetting).
Bending light to give you a wide angle lens on the one side of the zoom range, and then extreme telephoto on the other side requires a lot of high end, and high quality glass and very precise engineering. And when I say a lot of glass, I mean really big pieces of glass. This makes the lens heavy, and requires bigger focussing motors, etc, etc. All things that also push up the cost of the lens.
Consider the really expensive lenses out there. Single focal length lenses tend to give very good quality, because they only need to function at one focal length and can be optimised for it. The top end zoom lenses like a 70-200 has a magnification range of less than 3 (200mm / 70 = 2.8x) A 24-70mm ends up on 2.9x So you can see that if you try and push something like an 18-270mm lens, a 15x zoom is going to cause trouble.
Does that mean you shouldn’t buy the lens? No, if a single lens solution is what you require, and Image Quality is negligible (in other words, you want it for memories, not for client work), then by all means, it’s the lens for you. Can technology overcome the problems of a long zoom range? Absolutely, in fact, Canon has a 30-300mm lens (10x zoom) with a massive front lens element (over 130mm) and weighing in at about 6kg, it can be done. Oh, it’s also over $40,000 for the lens.
Filters; should I get one as protection?
Up to you, but keep in mind that if you put inferior pieces of glass in front of a lens, you will be degrading the image quality. I do have a UV filter that I use in front of my lens in a dangerous situation where rocks might pitch up against the glass, but generally, a lens hood will be a better solution for basic protection (as well as keeping stray light from hitting the front of the lens elements and causing flare) If you are going to use a filter though, buy good filters… cheap filters are like cheap tripods. You will buy them and end up never using them.