What should I buy?

This question keeps cropping up – no surprise there. Photography equipment is expensive and making the right choices is therefore very important. Here’s just some of my gear:

The lenses are:

  1. Prime 35mm f/1.4
  2. Prime 50mm f/1.2
  3. Prime 100mm f/2.8 macro
  4. Prime 45mm f/2.8 Tilt-Shift
  5. Zoom 16-35 f/2.8
  6. Zoom 24-70 f/2.8
  7. Zoom 70-200 f/2.8

Cameras are 1.0 sensor (full size); 1.3 sensor (the 1D) and 1.6 sensor (the 7D). Which means that range of lenses can handle pretty much everything. My lenses are all I could wish for. Just about.

But do you need that kind of investment? Not if you don’t make a living from photography. I have a few tips for you when considering buying a lens:

  • Lenses are much more important than cameras. Invest in your lenses – the camera makes little difference.
  • I would simply start with a kit lens and a fast prime 50mm lens (“50mm f/1.4” or “50mm f/1.8”).
  • Always buy the fastest lenses you can afford (the lowest f-numbers). As you see here, none of my lenses are slower than f/2.8.
  • A lens that “does everything” is a compromise. The more a lens does, the more of a compromise it is. A 18-55 (crop) or 24-70 (full frame) is a better general purpose zoom; for longer and wider you add separate lenses.
  • IS/VR (Image stabilization/Vibration Reduction) is a great function, and is definitely worth the money if you can afford it.
  • If you shoot travel, if you like perspective, if you shoot street, etc – add a wide angle lens – for crop camera that means a lens in the 10-20mm zoom range. Super-wide lenses are the great under-appreciated secret in today’s SLR photography.
  • If you shoot macro, get a dedicated macro (close-up) lens.
  • A macro lens is also a great portrait lens.
  • If you shoot birds or go on a safari, get the longest lens you can buy – perhaps even adding 1.4x or 2x extenders.
  • For specialized product or architecture shooting only, get a tilt-shift lens.
  • For events, get a 24mm (crop camera) or 35mm (full frame camera) prime lens.

Now that you know those ground rules:

  • No, you cannot do it cheaper if you really want to do it well.
  • But yes, you can do it cheaper if all you want is the shot, and pro quality is not important.
  • Yes, an expensive lens is better than a cheaper lens. Sharper, faster. stronger.
  • Yes, lenses cost a lot – but then, they last a long time (decades), both technically and in terms of depreciation.
  • Yes, you really have to carry more than one lens if you want quality. I would not have those seven lenses if I did not need them. You may not need as many – but to stop as one is being over-optimistic.
  • Yes. you can buy third-party lenses (Sigma, etc) but try them out before you buy and make sure you are happy!

The above pointers should get you started. The faster the lens, the better: go have fun with lenses!


What lens should I buy!

Boy, that’s a tough question. And I get it a lot.

Today, student Dave asks:


Michael – I have been researching lens for my D800. I currently own three FX lenses – 60mm 2.8 Macro (we used this for the portraits on my D90) , 105mm 2.8 macro, 70-200 2.8. My other lenses are DX – I will end up selling some of these. Is Kijiji the best?? I have a great 12-24 F4 G DX lens.

I am debating between (1) a mid-range zoom and (2) a good wide-angle zoom and a fast 50mm prime. I am thinking about going with (2) – getting the Nikon 16-35 F4 G with VR (gets great reviews) and a 50mm 1.4 G. The 24-70 2.8 would be about the same price in Nikon as the two other lenses. However, the Nikon lens does not have VR. Tokina has just announced a forthcoming 24-70 with their version of VR. It won’t be available for a while I think.

Also, some commentators say that mid-range zooms aren’t that useful – use your primes, and wide-angle and tele-zooms (and your legs if you need to!). However, I must admit I find I use my mid-range for my DX quite a bit.

So, a little confused. Advice?

So. First, like many pros I do like the mid-range zoom. In a shoot yesterday with talented Make-Up Artist (MUA) Anastasia, as so often I used my 24-70 f/2.8L lens.

It goes wide-ish like this:

And it goes longish like this:

So that makes it very versatile for “I’m not quite what I am expecting” shoots.

Both the Nikon and the third-party 24-70s are fine, and you do not really need VR/IS on a widish lens like that. On a long lens (the 70-200 range) it is essential but on wider lenses you can easily live without it.

So the idea of “the Nikon 16-35 F4 G with VR (gets great reviews) and a 50mm 1.4 G.” is a good one. My 16-35 f/2.8L lens is a lens I totally love, as is a fast 50.  So: my vote is for the wide lens and the fast 50, and keep your existing 24-70 lens.

That said – these are personal choices, I love the wide lens for newspaper work, for travel, for landscapes. My six lenses, by the way, are:

  • 16-35 2.8 zoom
  • 24-70 2.8 zoom
  • 70-200 2.8 zoom
  • 100mm f/2.8 macro prime
  • 50mm f/1.2 prime
  • 35mm f/1.4 prime

All are EF lenses, meaning they fit on any Canon body (none are EF-S lenses, which are like Nikon’s DX lenses).

So if you shoot a lot of things that need wide, I strongly recommend it – a wide wide lens (10-20 for crop bodies; 16-35 for full frame sensor bodies) is my strong recommendation for everyone. IS/VR is not that important until you get beyond 70mm.

But whatever you choose will be right – just tune your shots to the lens you have at hand (eg do not do headshots with a 16-35mm lens).  And remember to shoot prime whenever you can: quality, consistency and speed will thank you.

Does that help?


Open wide!

I mean – wide angle lenses are more useful than most people realize. As frequent readers here know, I do tend to say this over and over. And let me reiterate it here, again.

Last week I shot an industrial food facility. And again, the shots I like most are the wide angle shots – like 16mm on a full-frame camera (that is 10mm on your crop DSLR).

And that gets us shots like this:

Industrial Food Facility (Photo: Michael Willems)

Industrial Food Facility (Photo: Michael Willems)

Industrial Food Facility (Photo: Michael Willems)

A wide angle lens, especially when you get close, introduces – you know it – depth, three-dimensionality, perspective, size, and hence drama; and above all, it gives a 2-D still photo credibility.

So if you do not have one yet, ask Santa now (*and you can also ask him for a gift certificate for personal training while you are at it – ask me how).

A “wide” lens is a 10-20mm lens, that order, when you are using a crop DSLR, or a 16-35 or 17-40 when using a fill-frame camera.



Points of view

Just to show how much a few seconds and  shift in viewpoint can change your photo, look at these images:

Aircraft landing, Sint Maarten (Photo: Michael Willems)

Aircraft landing, Sint Maarten (Photo: Michael Willems)

Aircraft landing, Sint Maarten (Photo: Michael Willems)

Most people would assume that…

  • The larger the aircraft, the more impressive
  • The less perspective distortion, the better

I am not sure I agree with that.  The top picture is a favourite, even though the aircraft is tiny. And while aircraft spotter sites insist on “straight” images, I much prefer the drama a wide lens gives you (bottom images).

This is not to say that I am right. What I mean is: cameras, and lenses, are powerful creative tools, and you should think about how you use them; try to use them in different ways; be creative; experiment, and follow your intuition.


Lenses: Brand or third-party?

When buying a lens, you have two options: brand (Canon lenses for a Canon camera, and so on) or third party (“Sigma made for Canon”, and so on).

Third-party lenses are often half the price of brand name lenses. Brands say “that is because ours are better”. Third parties, like Sigma, maker of the 24-70 f/2.8 Nikon-mount lens below, would probably say “this is because you pay for the name with those guys”. Which is it?

A bit of both, I think.

I would certainly consider a third-party lens. If:

  • aperture is large,
  • build quality is good,
  • focus is silent, fast and accurate,
  • the lens is sharp, even at the corners,
  • colour is good,
  • and importantly, the lens feels good to me..

…then I will most certainly consider it. And third-party lenses often have better warranty than Canon and Nikon offer.

But that also brings me to why – perhaps because these warranties are needed. The lens above is the third one that its owner tried in about two weeks: lens number one did not always focus consistently, so it was exchanged in its first week, and lens two suddenly stopped focusing after just a few days – the focus motor stopped working entirely in mid-shoot. Lens three, we hope, will work well.

Now that is from a sample of one (well, three). So you cannot draw any conclusions from it. But still… in the past, reliability and quality control used to the the third-party lens makers’ Achilles’ Heel. There is either a certain irony, or a wise lesson, in the fact that two samples of this lens failed in two weeks.

But the lower price – significantly lower – is hard to pass by. I think whatever you choose, you will be fine, as long as you go through the check list above abnd make sure the warranty is OK.

And remember: lenses make your photos, much more than your camera does. So whatever lenses you invest in – investing in lenses is never bad.