My new f/1.2 lens reminds me to point out that vignetting is a good thing.

Let me explain.

Vignetting means “making the outsides of a picture dark”.

A lens, especially a fast lens, used wide open (at the lowest f-number) does this rather a lot. Like in this example. Here is the 50mm lens at f/1.2:

Vignetting at f/1.2

Vignetting at f/1.2

And here at f/2, “stopped down” just over a stop:

Less vignetting at f/2

Less vignetting at f/2

As you see, the wide open image gives you a lot more vignetting: the corners are dark. This is mentioned as a drawback for lenses that do this.

But hold on! Often, vignetting is a desirable thing. Especially in portraits.  Like many photographers, I often add vignetting using the “effects” tool on Lightroom. A little vignetting is hard to detect but makes the picture noticeably better. Vignetting, in this way, makes the subject in the centre looks like he is lit by a spotlight:

Make my day

Make my day (Michael Willems)

I could do this in Photoshop, true – but I like to say “I did it all in the camera”.

And that is why I believe that for a portrait lens, a little vignetting when the lens is wide open is not a bad thing. And I ignore it when lens reviews moan about vignetting wide open.

Faster… faster!

As regular readers will have read yesterday, I just bought a 50mm f/1.2 L lens.

As some here have mentioned, this lens is not known for being the very sharpest at wide open apertures. It is also not known for being one of the cheapest: you can buy an f/1.8 lens for $120, so why spend $1,800 on a f/1.2 lens? Especially a prime lens-  meaning not a convenient “10-500mm” zoom lens?


  • It is yet another bit faster (meaning, lets in more light) than the f/1.4. A third of a stop more. And as you saw in my post of two days ago, that is important: every little bit helps.
  • And it allows me to blur the background even more.
  • And it gives me beautiful bokeh when used wide open.

Here’s an f/1.2 snap:

Food held out

Food held out

…and another one, showing nice blurry background:

Laptop at The Royal

Laptop at The Royal

Of course even at smaller apertures, like f/2.8, you can get a nice blurred background:

Hold out your glass...

Hold out your glass...

But wide open you get this wonderful soft bokeh (the nature of the blur):

Glass with bokeh

Glass with bokeh

And that is why I am happy to invest in this type of lens.

Plus unlike a camera, a lens keeps its value. A lens’s value depends on the intrinsic value of the optical glass, so it is great.

So when people ask me “should I spend money on a lens or on a new camera”, well – you know they are both great and useful and fun. So either decision is good. But lenses are more important to your photos, and they keep their value, so do not ever feel bad about purchasing a great lens.

Reader question

Today, another reader question that I think may interest others. Reader (and student in one of my workshops) Chuck asks:

I wanted to ask you a second question since my class – this time about Canon lenses:

I’m looking for a wide angle Canon EF lens, and I’m seeing two choices:  17-40MM L F. 4.0 lens and for literally twice the price, a 16-35MM F2.8 lenses.

Having heard you educate about ISO abilities & Lightroom capabilities and seeing your picture of lenses ( I’m wondering why you choose the more expensive 16-35MM F 2.8. over the 17-40MM F 4.0  I read a lot of praise for the F2.8 lens and mixed praise for the F4.0 lens…. but just wanted your perspective please on these two L series lens before I make the purchase.


Great question, Chuck.

First of all: either lens would be superb. They are both high quality “L” lenses. On a full frame camera like my 1Ds this is a very wide angle lens; on a crop camera like my 7D this is a wide-to-standard lens. All great.

So why do I go with the 16-35 f/2.8 instead of the 17-40 f/4?

Two reasons.

  1. A wide lens is easy to keep in focus all over the place, focus from the tip of your nose to infinity. The wider, the easier this gets. But what if I do not want that? What if instead I want selective sharpness, with a really, really blurry background? Then on a wide angle lens I need very low f-numbers to achieve that. F/2.8 is better than f/4 (which is better than f/5,6, and so on). ISO will not help here.
  2. Light. A wider lens lets in more light. One more stop may not seem much, but in the low light environments I often shoot in, that extra stop can be the difference between a lost shot and a good shot. ISO can of course help, but in that case the more expensive lens can be the difference between me having to shoot at 3200 ISO and being able to do it at 1600.

That’s why I chose the 16-35. The 17-40 would also be a super l;ens, and if you do not need the extra depth-of-field control and you do not shoot very dark environments all the time, the 17-40 will be great as well. I used to own one and loved it.

Why is the 2.8 twice the price? It has literally twice the glass in it, that’s why (a larger aperture means more of that expensive optical glass). So it’s not just marketing!

Advice: go into your camera store and hold both, feel them, try them out. Then, you will know. And since either choice will be superb, you will be happy!


Why do lenses cost so much?

I often hear this question: why do lenses cost so much? And why are fast lenses even more expensive?

There are several very good reasons for this.

  • Lenses contain very expensive, high-quality optical glass. The more glass, the more cost. The faster a lens, the more glass (that is what “fast” means: a larger opening): ergo, the higher that cost.
  • Today’s lenses contain sophisticated electronics. See my 16-35 f/2.8 lens below, a while ago after I, um, dropped it. Twice.
  • Economies of scale: of course a more popular lens has lower cost, because it sells more (look at the popular 50mm f/1.8 lenses).

Here’s that lens of mine:

Lens "wide open" - for real

Lens "wide open" - for real

The good news: as I have said here many times, lenses are an investment. They are more important to your picture than the camera, and they retain their value, often for decades.

TIP: go to the online Canon Museum and go to the Virtual Lens Plant to see a very interesting series of videos about lens manufacture.

Data mining

Photography is not about gear. It is about art, expressions, emotion, colour. About the end product, not about what you use to get there.

Right. But it does start with gear. I thought, therefore, that you might be interested in what lenses I used for what shoots. I get asked this rather a lot. So I did some data mining of my shoots of the last few years.

Michael Willems's Lenses

Michael's Lenses


First I picked some recent event shoots: “grip and grins”. The lenses I uses were, out of a total of thousands of images:

Canon 1D Mark IV (1.3 crop factor):

  1. 42% – 24-70 f/2.8 (equiv. 30-90) (by shoots, this is number 2)
  2. 39% – 70-200 f/2.8 (equiv. 90-260) (by shoots, this is number 1)
  3. 17% – 16-35 f/2.8 (equiv. 20-45)
  4. 1% – 35mm f/1.4 (equiv. 45)
  5. 1% –  50mm f/1.4 (equiv. 65)

Canon 1Ds Mark III (full frame)

  1. 51% – 16-35 f/2.8
  2. 33% – 24-70 f/2.8
  3. 12% – 35mm f/1.4
  4. 2% – 70-200 f/2.8
  5. 1% –  50mm f/1.4

That is interesting. On the 1Ds, I use the 35mm f/1.4 lens in too few shoots (a lovely lens!).


Now the total, all types of shoots, out of a total of tens of thousands of images::

Canon 1D Mark IV (1.3 crop factor):

  1. 49% – 24-70 f/2.8 (equiv. 30-90)
  2. 25% – 16-35 f/2.8 (equiv. 20-45)
  3. 19% – 70-200 f/2.8 (equiv. 90-260)
  4. 3% – 35mm f/1.4 (equiv. 45)
  5. 2% –  50mm f/1.4 (equiv. 65)
  6. 2% – 100mm macro

Canon 1Ds Mark III (full frame)

  1. 33% – 24-70 f/2.8
  2. 27% – 16-35 f/2.8
  3. 19% – 70-200 f/2.8
  4. 13% – 35mm f/1.4
  5. 5% –  50mm f/1.4
  6. 3% – 100mm macro

One surprise here is how often I use a specialty lens like the macro. The real surprising thing is how often I use the 24-70, on both cameras.

Here is another breakdown: What focal length do I use in event shoots. More data mining from Lightroom gives me this (out of aroud 2,000 shots in a number of event shoots):

Michael's event shoot focal lengths

Michael's event focal lengths

As you see, peaks at 35mm for the full frame and at 70-200mm for the 1.3 crop camera.

So for an event, here are a few suggested combos.

Large room: A good safe “vanilla” combo, for larger rooms:

  • 1Ds with 24-70
  • 1D with 70-200

Smaller Room: Another safe combo, good for wider shots, e.g. in smaller rooms:

  • 1Ds with 16-35
  • 1D with 24-70

Creative: A slightly riskier combo, great for both wide effects and long shots (and covering a super-wide range, but maybe a bit riskier because the range between “real” 35-90 is missing):

  • 1Ds with 16-35
  • 1D with 70-200

Dark: Finally, a combo for darker rooms:

  • 1Ds with 35 f/1.4 prime
  • 1D with 70-200 – or with 50mm f/1.4!

Of course you can also just pick what you have. I mentioned a friend and student who recently showed me a wedding he had shot entirely with a 35mm (equivalent) lens. You do not need to obsess too much.

That said, it is fun to use the tools in the best possible way. And I strongly recommend that you also make checklists.

Zoom zoom zoom.

A beginner’s question this time:

What does zoom have to do with wide angle? I thought they were two opposite things!

Not necessarily. A “zoom” lens is simply an adjustable lens. As opposed to a prime lens.

What you are perhaps confusing with a “zoom” lens, dear student, is a telephoto lens.

Let me explain.

There are two main types of lenses:

  1. Zoom – this means adjustable focal length.
  2. Prime – this means not adjustable: you have to zoom in by stepping forward.

And, an entirely unrelated classification, there are various lengths of lenses:

  • Wide angle – roughly, less than 24mm on a crop camera
  • Standard – roughly, 30-40 mm on a crop camera
  • Telephoto – roughly, longer than 50 on a crop camera

So a 10-20mm zoom lens is a wide angle zoom lens. A 24-105 zoom lens is a wide-to-telephoto zoom. A 24mm prime is a wide angle prime lens. And so on!

"What lens should I get?"

“What lens should I get?”

I hear that question a lot from students, and I am always delighted to help answer it.

Of course “help” is all I can do. And I will, over time, in this blog. I can explain the difference between:

  • Zoom and prime.
  • EF and EF-S (or non-DX and DX).
  • Wide and telephoto.
  • Normal and specialised, like Macro and Tilt-Shift.

And I can explain what to use them for (long for sports and safaris, short for environmental, parties, and photojournalism).

And with that knowledge, you can, for instance, buy the lenses I use – or at least understand why I bought them:


So this is a typical photojournalist collection, consisting of fast (f/2.8 or better) lenses:

  • Zooms: 24-70 2.8L, 70-200 2.8L and 16-35 2.8L
  • 100mm macro
  • Fast primes, 35 mm f/1.4L and 50mm f/1.4

But “fast” does not have to mean “expensive”. The first lens you should buy is the lens I shot my lenses with – the cheapest Canon lens (and Nikon has one too): the 50mm f/1.8. The “nifty fifty”. And while the lenses above range from $500 (50mm) to $1,000-$2,000 (all the rest), the 50mm f/1.8 is just over $100. And boy, is it fast and sharp. Zoom in to see!

And that nifty fifty on a crop camera turns into an 80mm portrait lens.

One thing to feel good about: when buying a lens, you are investing. Unlike a camera, which loses value as quickly as a PC, a lens keeps its value for many years.

Do I need a fast lens?

When students ask me “should I really buy a fast lens?” (For beginners, that’s a lens with a low “F-number”, like f/2.8), my answer is “it depends.”

What are you shooting? Landscapes (no need for a fast lens, since you will shoot at f/16 or above) or nightclubs (which need a fast lens for low-light abilities), portraits (which need a fast lens for blurry backgrounds) or sports (which need a fast lens for fast exposures)?

And if you like blurry backgrounds, does it make sense to get a pro lens like an f/2.8, or is my kit f/5.6 lens enough? That’s an easy one to answer. It depends. On whether you like this, taken yesterday during a course at f/5.6:


..or whether you prefer the same shot at f/2.8:


You decide. View them full size to really see the difference.

Know that every stop faster (from 5.6 to 4, or from 4 to 2.8) doubles the lens price. But if you like the blur (“Bokeh”) in the bottom shot, there’s no substitute for fast.

And I did not say expensive – at least not necessarily so: while some lenses like my f/1.4 35mm cost $2,000, an excellent 50mm fixed (“prime”) f/1.8 lens (a “nifty fifty”, which on a crop camera is  great portrait lens) can be had for as little as $150 or less.

So yes, low f-numbers make a difference and that’s why photographers are willing to pay lots of money for them. But don’t worry: good lenses keep their value.