Lens Choices Are Simple?

“What lens should I buy?” is the most common question I hear from students. And no wonder: lenses cost a lot of money and there’s more than one to choose from. That said, surely choosing a lens for your camera cannot be that difficult? I mean, it’s not as though there’s a lot of them to choose from, is it?



OK then, so there’s a lot. But still.

Here, then, are my Top Ten Timeless Tips about lenses:

  1. The lens is more important than the camera. I would much rather shoot with a Digital Rebel and my current lenses than with a Canon 1Dx Mk2 with kit lenses like a consumer “standard zoom” 17-55 f:3.5–5.6 EF-S/DX lens.
  2. You get what you pay for. Good “glass” makes better photos, and good “glass” costs money. But unlike a camera, a lens is an investment that keeps both its value and its functionality for at least several decades.
  3. There’s no “one lens does everything for everyone” lens. The more things a lens does, the worse its performance on each of the things it does. An SUV does a lot of things, but it’s not the best at any of the things it does. So as much as you would like there to be one lens that does it all, that lens will be a compromise lens. You may be better getting a couple of specialized lenses,
  4. Lower minimum “f-numbers” are good: you can shoot in the dark and you can get those blurry backgrounds you love. The number mentioned on the lens is the minimum for that lens, and lower is better. So a lens that says “1:2.8” can go as low as f/2.8, whereas a lens that says “1:3.5–5.6” can go as low as 3.5 when zoomed out, and can go as low as 5.6 when zoomed in.
  5. They do different things: Wide angle gives you “3-D” and easy-to-use; telephoto gives you “compressed perspective” and blurry backgrounds.
  6. They have different benefits: Zoom (adjustable)  lenses are convenient; prime (fixed) lenses offer low “f-numbers”, consistency, and quality. The “consistency” advantage is often overlooked.
  7. Zoom lenses are best “in the middle”, not at the extreme wide or telephoto focal lengths. So a 16-35mm lens will not be at its very best at 16 or at 35mm.
  8. Zoom lenses are best “in the middle”, not at the extreme wide or narrow aperture. So an f/2.8–f/22 lens will not be at its very best at f/2.8 or at f/22.
  9. Use the right lens: For portraits. use longer lenses. Unless they are environmental portraits (where the person is small in the picture); then, you can use wide lenses.
  10. Third party lenses: By all means consider 3rd party lenses (such as Sigma). Their warranties are great and they can be very much cheaper. Try them on, hold and feel them: if you like them, go for it.


Full frame camera; 85mm f/1.2 lens at f/2.0—isn’t that nice, blurring out the noisy background? This way you can shoot nice family portraits anywhere, just about.

I love my 85mm prime lens for fashion or half-body portraits. On a crop camera, you might like to use a 50mm prime lens to get pretty much the same effect.


Full frame camera; 85mm f/1.2 lens set to f/8.0.

Let’s finish this note with an overview of my seven lenses. These are the typical photojournalist lenses, a list designed to meet pretty much any need quickly and efficiently:

Prime (fixed) lenses: for consistency, quality, and sometimes for special purposes such as macro/close up, here’s my favourite fixed lenses:

  • Canon 35mm f/1.4
  • Canon 85mm f/1.2
  • Canon 100m f/2.8 Macro
  • Canon 45mm f/2.8 Tilt-Shift

Zoom lenses: for convenience, these cover the gamut from very wide to kinda long:

  • Canon 16-35mm f/2.8
  • Canon 24-70 f/2.8
  • Canon 70-200 f/2.8 IS

Misc: this allows the 200mm lens to become a 400mm lens (at f/5.6), without the cost.

  • YongNuo 2x teleconverter

And those seven lenses allow me to cover what I need to shoot, whatever it may be.

Now it is time to get some sleep: tomorrow, I lead a Match.com workshop in Toronto.

Taking A Cat Snap

As seen in the previous post: Mau, just now:


So what are the salient technical points of this photo?

  1. I have two flashes aiming toward the camera and toward Mau Mau from the back, providing back- and rim lighting.
  2. Back- and rim lighting provide “3-D” modelling and drama, and light the whiskers well.
  3. But the white bedsheets (and I!) reflect enough back so there is some forward lighting also.
  4. Camera: manual mode, 100 ISO, 1/200 sec, and f/22:
  5. So that is the “darkest” possible ISO, the “darkest” possible shutter speed (“sync speed”), and the “darkest” possible aperture this lens offers; alll this to completely kill the bright ambient light (and at this close distance the flashes are super bright, so that’s not a problem).
  6. I used a Yongnuo YN622C-TX wireless controller on the camera, and a YN622C connected to each one of the flashes.
  7. These flashes have to be 430EX MkII or 580EX or 600EX, or equivalent: the old 430EX with the switch does not work here. Much as I like the switch, this is a situation where electronically setting the wireless mode is a must have.
  8. Although this setup supports TTL, I used manual power setting for the flashes, 1/16 power worked fine in this case (trial and error). Manual power setting is the way to go, if you have any control over the environment.
  9. You should lose any filters you may have on the lens: they will often increase flare to an unacceptable level. They certainly will not make the picture better.
  10. The lit eye is in sharp focus; of course at f/22 there is quite a lot in focus. Eye and whiskers are essential.

As you see, beyond the obvious, rather a lot of thinking can go into a simple picture. And few of these are “the only way to do it”. That is why photography is such a cool artistic endeavour.

So if few of those are “must do this way” points, why list them?

Because it is more important that you think about all these things than what you think about them. In other words, an analytical approach to photography helps you create repeatable art, where a photo works a certain way because you want it to, rather than “by accident”.


Mistakes are how we learn…

….and I can make them too. Today is an example.

I just bought a used Canon ST-E3-RT wireless flash control transmitter. A great piece of engineering. And also a good piece of business, for Canon. And also a mistake, for me.
20161011-1dx_1235-1200 20161011-1dx_1236-1200 20161011-1dx_1237-1200

Because as I told the seller, “This one does radio as well as IR, IIRC”.

If I had only looked that up instead of relying on my recollection! Because no, it does not do light/infrared control. It only does radio control. Meaning I can control 600EX flashes, but not the six 580EX and 430EX flashes that I own. My only 600EX is faulty and needs an expensive repair or replacement.

So I have a controller that is a marvellous piece of engineering, but it only controls 600EX flashes that I do not own. Review some time when I do own 600EX flashes!

And careful when you rely on recollection. “IIRC” (if I recall correctly) implies that you might be wrong. Which I was.

Why is this flash, as I put it, a great business move? Because it forces photographers like me to buy only new 600EX flashes, and yo discard their 430EX and 580EX flashes. Which would be fine if it was one flash… but I have six of them!

Moral of the story? Check things before you trust your recollection; every time you say “IIRC”, realize you could be wrong.

(PS: Anyone looking for an ST-E3-RT? :-) )


How can you be sure?

“How can you be sure you used a flash?”, asked a student. She meant in this image:


Several ways:

  1. I remember.
  2. The wheel would be dark without a flash.

But most of all: just look. Zoom in. and you see:


Et voila! See the photographer? C’est moi. Avec un… quick, what’s a flash in French?



Little things.

I taught a 2-hour presentation in London, Ontario on Thursday night. The London Camera Club made me feel welcome, and was very receptive to my message about flash photography. Lots of members bought my e-books, and several signed up for my flash courses on 16 and 23 October.

(Both courses are now full: if you wanted to take part, send me an email: I will repeat the workshop again in the next weeks, if there’s demand).

Nows for tonight’s tech tip. Look at this image from today, when I was shooting a horse farm in Adjala, Ontario:


I shot against the sun, so I used a flash to light up the Camaro—else, the wheel would be dark.

Consider the star-shaped reflection in the bumper. And there’s the star shaped sun rays. Why the star shape?

The answer is simple:

If you want a distinct star shape in your hot spots, stop down to a small aperture (high f-number).  So this was shot at f/16.  And one more tip: shooting against a light source like this, leave off your “protective” lens filters. Otherwise you will not get this: all you will get instead is flare.