Zoom Power

A friend asked me the other day:

Mike – I don’t understand how to compare the zoom power of my Nikon P100 26x zoom to the Canon 28-300mm zoom with my Canon 5d MkII.

Good question. But I think it is the wrong question. Or at least, the way the question is asked shows me that it might be based on the wrong premise.

The term “zoom power” seems to indicate that the ability to chance focal length settings through a wide range is a good thing. Like, a 10-500mm lens would be a good thing. Some even call this “ultra zoom technology” – you know, as in: just add the word “technology” to a term and it somehow gains in value. But only to the ignorant: when someone says “technology” like that, I just hear “marketing”.

Here’s why I think a wide zoom range (i.e. a wide ability to change from one focal length to another) is not necessarily a great thing.

First, it is a compromise. The wider the adjustment range, the more this lens will be a compromise at all lengths. A wide zoom range lens will neither be a great wide, nor a great standard, nor a great telephoto lens. Its aperture will be small, and it will vary. It will show pincushion and barrel distortion at both ends. It will not be sharp. The more a lens is like a prime lens, on the other hand, the clearer, faster, and sharper it will be.

The other reason is that of discipline. With a lens that can go from very wide to very long. you will never have a reason to be consistent in your images. Your pictures will not take on any particular look and feel: rather, each image will be different. Neither fish nor fowl, you might say.

The reason we have these super zoom compacts is for convenience, of course. But a lot of the time, this is wishful thinking kind of convenience. I hear it often: “yes, but I don’t want to own multiple lenses to get from 10mm to 500mm”. Sure, like I don’t want to die or pay taxes. Both are, alas, inevitable.

So only you can decide whether you want a wide range zoom camera or lens. To me, the wider the zoom range, the more everything will be a compromise, and the worse my pictures will be. But you may have different thoughts if size and convenience are more important to you than quality.

My lenses are a 16-35 (“2.2x zoom”), the 100mm, 50mm and 35mm primes (“0x zoom”), a 70-200 (“2.9x zoom”), and a 24-70 (“2.9x zoom”), and they are among the best on the planet. In fact my entire range of lenses from 16 to 200mm is equivalent to one 12.5x zoom, in those terms. This shows you how little those terms really mean.

But since you ask: a 28-300 mm zoom would be a “10.7x zoom” in marketing-speak. So the compact 26x zoom has a much wider range. 2.43 times wider, in fact!

2 thoughts on “Zoom Power

  1. Been there, done that. I think you missed the question. When I asked it, the question was “What lenses do I need to get for my 30D to make up the range offered by my CoolPIX 8800?” That would be about 18 mm to 600 mm, taking into account the digital zoom which introduced all kinds of noise. The picture taken with the 30D and 100-400 zoom with or without a 2X teleconverter is much better than the picture taken with the CoolPIX. Of course, everything is bigger and heavier, but sadly, size does matter. The SLR sensor and lens are both much larger.

    The next thing that crops up is dirt, never a problem with the CoolPIX, it gets into the SLR when the lens is changed and unlike with film, the sensor is present for every shot, so is the dirt. The bodies that shake the sensor help, but only a little. A simple solution is change lenses less; enter the “super zoom”. I have a Sigma 18-200, a Sigma 18-250 and a Canon 28-300. They are on different bodies, and are on their bodies most of the time. If you are printing really large pictures, you might see problems compared to a prime lens, but you might miss some pictures while trying to change prime lenses. If you are printing 19X13 or smaller, or displaying on a monitor, very few people will be able to look at the image and say “Oh, you used that lens!”

    When doing event photography of the type you do, I can see that you would prefer the 24-70 or one of your prime lenses to the 28-300, they are smaller, faster, and the 28-300 is the same size as the 70-200 f/2.8 or the 100-400, and pretty heavy. Plus you get a bigger aperture for the shallow depth of field photos you like. The other benefit of shooting wide open is that dirt on the sensor is not apparent.

    For a walk along the waterfront, one of the super zooms is a great choice. You can zoom out to take the overall view, or fit in a building, then a second later you can zoom right in to capture the seagull sitting at the top of the lamp post, or the squirrel on the park bench, without having to get right up to it. They are also great for traveling. You can frame what interests you without leaving your group and get it done fast enough that you don’t have to run too far to catch up to the group again.

    Except for the 35mm prime (I have a 24 mm f/1.4 which makes more sense on a crop sensor body and is excellent for low light photography) I have all the lenses you mention and a couple of others. They get used when I want a specific effect, the vast majority of shots are taken through one of the super zooms because the convenience is there and the difference in quality is rarely apparent.

  2. Indeed, Ron. But rest assured it was a different question from a different person.

    You are right that small is convenient. I have a small point and shoot too: the Panasonic Lumix GF-1. But even for that, I have no zoom, I have the 20mm f/1.7 prime. Just cannot get myself to accept the distortion, lower quality, and higher aperture numbers a zoom means.

    I shoot travel also, and when traveling, carry a 1Ds and a 7D. I get 16mm to effective 300mm that way. I have never found that insufficient, but yes, indeed it is heavy.

    The 28-300 is a fine lens for walking around in daylight, I agree entirely. If only it started at a wider angle: wide is so important for travel photography.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *