Lenses - Keep It Real

The Mac Daddy for a sports shooter. Canon 500mm f/4. IS - about $7000.Before we get into the gut wrenching decisions and choices about what lenses to own, let's start with a moment of zen:

Repeat after me. "What stands between me and greatness, sits between my ears, not in my equipment bag." Now say it again.

Don't believe me? Then ask yourself this. Did Henri Cartier-Bresson shoot with a Nikon D3 with auto focus, auto exposure, and a 70mm-200mm f/2.8 zoom at 10 frames per second? Did Ansel Adams? Helmet Newton? Louis Klemantaski? Alfred Stieglitz? While the equipment they used might certainly be collectable today, I'm not so sure much of it would be serviceable or very productive in the feeble hands of us mere mortals.

The point is, today's DSLRs, even at the most basic consumer levels, are pretty impressive pieces of equipment. And, let's face it, getting an in focus, correct exposure isn't much of a challenge. As they say in the GEICO commercials, even a caveman can do it.

So... before you start grumbling and griping that you need this lens and you need that lens, get your head on straight, think about the type of photography you're doing (or want to be doing) and get your arms around your budget.

When you think about a budget, be sure to include a healthy dose of patience. In other words, be patient. Wait until you have enough money to buy the RIGHT lens. The rule of thumb is to ALWAYS buy the best glass you can afford... and sometimes, that means waiting.

The 70mm-200mm f/2.8 zoom borders on perfection from either Canon or NikonAs mentioned, most current model DSLRs today can do a good job. However, they can only capture the image that's reported to the sensor. Regardless of how the sensor and software record that image and translate it to a file, the pure source is the image that comes through your lens.

Also consider, lenses have a much longer shelf life than bodies. Camera bodies come and go. At the consumer and even pro-sumer level, you're talking a new body comes to market every 12-18 months. And even the pro bodies seem to get a face lift every 24 months. Not so with lenses... especially at the high-end of the spectrum.

View a lens purchase as a long term investment. There's an old saying in business and sales stating, "you can have it good, fast or cheap... pick two." Nowhere is that quote more appropriate than in the lens market. There are good lenses. There are fast lenses. And, there are cheap lenses. I have NEVER seen all three characteristics in a lens. I've seen it in lens reviews... but oddly, never in practice.

Here's a cold hard fact: You do not want a cheap lens. You do not want a "kit" lens. If you are half way serious about photography... either as a career or hobby, you have to take your lens purchases seriously.

What You Are Paying For

Canon 16mm-35mm f/2.8 - Good glass is a long term investment in your system. You can not go wrong.When you buy better glass, you are paying for quality of optics, construction, mechanical performance and investment. You might be asking, why investment... well, good glass holds its value and therefore has a good resale value. Since there are lenses better suited for specific types of photography, you never know when you might want to swap out a lens to suit your interest or needs. Maybe you shift from landscape to wildlife photography... or from portraits to sports photography. A top of the line Canon "L" Series lens will typically retain 75%-85% of its original price on the secondary market. Even if it's been replaced by an updated model, you might still see a 50%-65% resale value. Not so with lower priced lenses and non OEM name brands.

Have a Plan

A nice wide zoom like this Nikon 14mm-24mm f/2.8 is a perfect addition to your system.If you shoot Canon, buy Canon. If you shoot Nikon, buy Nikon. I know there are people that will say, oh.. this company makes a good such and such lens and so and so makes a killer telephoto at half the price... guess what, NO THEY DON'T. Look, I have no dog in this fight. I have no reason to tell you to buy this or buy that. I have one obligation... to help you make the best decision for your photography and help you get the most out of your equipment. That's my only motivation.

Buy fast lenses. When we talk about fast, we're addressing two things... the aperture performance in low-light settings and the lenses ability to autofocus quickly.

We always want to buy lenses with excellent low-light performance. Of course, that comes at a price. And, the longer the focal length of the lens, the more of a challenge that becomes.

Now maybe having really quick autofocus isn't a priority for you. It is for a sports shooter... or for capturing anything with action. So keep that in mind when you are formulating your plan.

Low light needs can be assessed individually... but I'll warn you, we all think we aren't going to need it... trust me, you will. A lens that is fast and good in low light will always come in handy. And when you are shooting wide open apertures, you've got shallow depth of field to work with to enhance your compositions. Try to fit the faster lens into your budget.

Terrific "walk-around" lens from Canon - 24mm-105mm f/4 with image stabilization for low light use.If you're doing a lot of general photography there are lots of great quality mid-range zooms out there that offer speed, sharpness and range. Consider something in the range of a 24mm-70mm or 28mm-105mm. This how most point n' shoots are equipped because it will give you a good variety of range. Get a fast aperture and you'll be able to shoot most situations that aren't on the extreme end of any particular type of shooting.

If you're going to shoot lot of landscapes, you'll probably want a wide angle lens to a normal range. Here, you might want to consider a prime lens as opposed to a zoom. Primes are going to provide good speed and optimum sharpness. And a really fast prime, say below f/2. can be lost of fun to use when employing a shallow depth of field in your composition.

A great zoom for general shooting, the Nikon 24mm-70mm f/2.8If portraits are your bag, you'll want a slightly longer than "normal" focal length. A 50mm (in 35mm film equivalent) is considered "normal." A lens will have distortion that is attributed to focal length. For instance a wide angle will make a person look bug-eyed when shot close-up. (Look in the back of a spoon... you'll see what I mean) A 50mm lens should report a neutral amount of distortion. After 50mm, lenses begin to report degrees of compression. This can be flattering in the case of a portrait. An 80mm to 135mm will flatten your subjects features slightly and have a much more flattering effect on facial features. Again, we'd also like to have a fast lens to take advantage of shallow depth of field. This will soften out the background and make your subject "pop" off the page.

If you plan on shooting sports or action, you're going to want at least a medium telephoto. And, since you'll want to compose your shots on the fly with limited ability to move, a zoom is perfect for the job. Two of the most popular zooms out there are Canon's 70mm-200mm f/2.8 and Nikon's 70mm-200mm f/2.8 - These are both excellent performing lenses for their speed, sharpness and color clarity. I'd highly recommend either of these lenses.

Beyond the 200mm range, you're headed into the stratosphere price-wise. Long, fast glass requires big fat dollars. You can edge your bets with prime lenses like the Canon /f3.5 300mm or f/5.6 400mm. They are tack sharp... but obviously, you'll be challenged in low light. If you're shooting night football or baseball, you could struggle.

DO NOT try to find a zoom that will take you from 28mm-300mm.. or anything that claims to be all in one. Zoom lenses are created by stacking elements (pieces of glass) together to make up the focal length. Remember stacking-type telescopes... pull it out to its fullest length to see a long way? That's how zooms work. The wider the range of reach it has, the more elements it will need. Well.... the more glass you shoot through, the slower the lens will get and the SOFTER the image will be. It's just math folks. I don't care what the salesman or the brochure says, they haven't reinvented physics.

I know I've thrown out a lot to consider here. So let's recap the hard and fast rules. 

  • Use your head and don't buy emotional. Know what you want before you shop. Do not go to the store gathering information (unless you live by Roberts Imaging). It's not there. It's right here online. Do your homework first. Or, talk to pros... they are the guys you see shooting with the equipment you want.
  • I can't tell you how much to spend. I can only tell you to buy the best you can afford and if you can, wait. Don't buy something you'll be unhappy with later. Cheap lenses have no resale or trade-in value... so it's going to sting twice.
  • Know what you want to use your lenses for. If you aren't completely sure of what you'll be shooting, try to prioritize between landscape, general, portrait or sports. Go with what you know you'll shoot the most and invest your dollars there.
  • Buy fast apertures. There's a reason they cost more. They're better.
  • Buy brand specific to your system. If you shoot Canon, buy Canon.
  • Stay away from "All-in-One" zooms. There is no such thing.
  • You can have it good, fast or cheap. Pick the RIGHT two... good and fast.

Feel free to drop a line if you have questions. I'll try to help when I can.

JT