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A personal lens collection

 

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A review of the author's lens collection.

 

Most people, as they give their first steps into the photography world tend to obsess over what camera to buy. As you mature into the hobby you realize that nowadays cameras are disposable, bound to obsolescence and outdated within a couple of years.  This wasn't always the case in photography's almost 200 years long  history. Today however, cameras are firmly planted in the consumer electronics domain and as such have a very short, ephemeral life. But then there's lenses. As most photographers learn sooner or later, lenses are the main factor determining the quality of your image (technically speaking of course; no lens will determine your compositional skills). Building a good collection of lenses is therefore much more important to your art than building a collection of cameras. With this in mind, I thought of showing readers the lenses I currently own along with my thoughts on each based on my personal experience with them. 

I shoot with Canon DSLR cameras primarily so this is decidedly a Canon lens collection. However, some of the third-party lenses I own are also available in other mounts (Nikon, Pentax, Sony, etc).

Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-f/5.6 IS - the "kit lens"

 

 

This is the lens that normally ships as a kit with current "Digital Rebel" models. Conventional wisdom has it that kit lenses are "cheap" and "optically inferior" so users should part away with them and buy "something better". While that might be true of some models, I take exception with this lens. To give you some perspective, I must first mention that I've also at one point owned the earlier (non IS) version of this lens when the original Digital Rebel (EOS 300D) first came-out. The new IS version is demonstrably better than the old version; much better. I've compared the two myself at multiple apertures and the difference was obvious. And tests performed at specialized lens review sites confirm my findings. This is actually a surprisingly sharp lens. The fact that this new model adds Image Stabilization (IS) is another major improvement over the older version. And the image stabilization is quite effective in my experience. Mind you, this lens is not without faults. Build quality is not very good as it is made with mostly plastic elements. Precise manual focusing is very difficult as the manual focus ring is very narrow and the movement is crude. On the other hand, one advantage of the "cheap", plastic construction of this lens is that it weighs very little. This is not an insignificant advantage for me as I like to travel light and find this lens very practical. And finally there's the "speed" issue. Admittedly this is a relatively 'slow" lens at f/3.5 - f/5.6. This might be an issue if you are looking for a lens for use in very low-light  conditions or want shallow depth of field for portrait work.

In summary, this lens is an excellent value for the money. With advancements in the number of megapixels in today's cameras (even entry-level models) I suspect camera manufacturers have to improve even their more affordable models so they can "resolve" the level of detail the modern sensors can achieve. Unless you already upgraded to a faster and (much) more expensive lens, this is one that you should get, specially bundled as a kit. For the $100 it costs you, you can hardly go wrong.

Sigma 10-20 mm f/4-5.6 EX DC HSM - the "wide-angle"

 

 

This is my wide-angle lens of choice. In an APS-C sensor format the 10-20 mm focal range corresponds to roughly 16-32mm (in 35mm equivalent terms) which is pretty wide. You can get some really interesting effects with wide-angle lenses and they are a lot of fun to use. By contrast with the lens reviewed above, this Sigma lens is very well built with quality materials and... you guessed it, quite heavy as a result. The filter size is 77mm so be prepared to buy an expensive polarizing filter to go with it. This is an HSM (Hypersonic Motor) lens so auto-focus is fast and silent in my experience. Regarding sharpness, I find this lens to be quite good, especially when stopped-down by one or two stops. Sigma recently launched a faster (f/2.8) version of this lens but reviews have showed that this older model is actually sharper. My only quibble with this lens is distortion. Not that I wasn't expecting distortion with such a wide-angle lens, that's to be expected. However, I wish the distortion was a bit more "well-behaved". The distortion near the 10mm end is quite complex (not a simple "barrel" distortion) and thus difficult to correct in post-processing. However, depending on your subject matter, this might not matter at all. I find that landscapes tend to be very "tolerant" of distortion. Architecture shots, not so much...

If you are considering buying a wide-angle lens this is a good bet, specially considering that the Canon "equivalent" (the Canon EF-S 10-22mm)  is almost twice the price at the time of writing.

Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II - the "fast lens"

 

 

Whenever a beginner asks me what "other" lens they should get besides the kit lens that shipped with their first DSLR my answer is typically the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8. There is no better deal out there for such a "fast" lens, period. I also firmly believe that you haven't truly experienced the joy of using a large sensor DSLR until you get your hands in a very fast lens such as this one. When compared with the kit lens, the shallow depth of field you get with a f/1.8 aperture will improve your portraits and low-light shooting by orders of magnitude. Stopped down (at f/4 or so), the 50mm f/1.8 is also an extremely sharp lens. The only downside with this lens in my view is build quality (which is poor) and a somewhat noisy (but still quite fast) auto-focus motor. The bright side of this (no pun intended): it's extremely light and easy to carry around. All in all, this is a must-have lens in my book and the best part of it is, this is ironically the cheapest lens in Canon's line-up and can be had for less than $100 at most stores.

Canon EF 35mm f/2 - the "decisive moment lens"

 

 
Henri Cartier-Bresson, the famous French photographer popularized the "decisive moment" in photography. It's reported that he used a 50 mm prime lens in his Leica for most of his iconic street photographs. For this type of photography it's advantageous to use a "normal" lens (as close as the human eye perspective as possible). Being small and fast is another advantage. With an APS-C size camera, the EF 35mm f/2 fits the bill almost perfectly.  The effective focal length (35 x 1.6 = 56mm) is a tad on the long side but close enough. (Small diversion:  I actually owned before this lens the Canon 28mm f/2.8 lens that, while decent, never really excited me. The focal length was closer to "normal" but it wasn't fast enough, nor sharp enough. These days the main reason to buy prime lenses is for speed given that zoom lenses have caught-up in sharpness to a great degree. You can get excellent f/2.8 zoom lenses anywhere so f/2.8 is not fast enough for me in a prime lens).

Back to the 35mm f/2, this is also an extremely sharp lens by f/2.8 to f/4. It's light and "unassuming" so it can be carried around discretely in most street shooting situations. Build construction is good (but not great). My only dislike is the the auto-focus motor which is a bit noisy. If you are looking for an all-around fast prime lens and find the 50mmf/1.8 a bit too long for indoors or street shooting, then I would heartily recommend this lens. 

Canon EF 100mm f/2 USM - the "Portraitist"

 

 
When doing portrait work a long lens is often more flattering? to your subject. A new "rule" I read somewhere goes something like this: "never photograph someone with a lens shorter (in mm) than their waist in inches". I wish I knew who wrote this (we are tongue firmly in cheek here:).  A long lens, and especially a fast one, will also give you a shallower depth of field, everything else being equal, and this can work very well for portraits. The Canon 100mm f/2 is almost too long on a APS-C body (160 mm equivalent) but it is nonetheless very usable. The Bokeh (appearance of the out-of-focus areas in the image) is smooth and pleasing. Stopped-down just a little, this is probably the sharpest lens in my kit. With its USM motor auto-focus is fast and very quiet. It is truly a pleasure to work with. While this is technically not a macro lens, I've taken some close-up flower shots that came-out quite good so this might be another use for it. For portraits, however this is my favorite lens. Highly recommended.

Sigma 18-125 f/3.8-5.6 DC OS HSM - the "Swiss Knife"

 

 

Buy from Amazon

 

I went through a phase a while back where I truly believed that having one of these "all-purpose" lenses was a good idea. You take a single lens with you and you are covered from wide angle (18mm) to telephoto (125mm). What is not to like? Well as they say, "wanting is sometimes better than having". This lens is akin to a Swiss knife: does a lot of things ok but it doesn't do anything really well. Don't get me wrong, this lens is not bad. The optical stabilization works very well, the zoom range is about right for 90% of the situations and the build-quality is actually very good  for the price. However the images coming out of this lens don't excite me. There is something missing in contrast and sharpness and I can't help but think this is due to the compromises that inevitably must be done with such an ambitious design. So sadly, this lens is hardly ever used. Like my swiss knife, it sounds like a great idea but more often than not it stays home, in the nice box it came with.

 

Lenses I once owned

 

Canon EF 24-105 f/4L IS - the "Workhorse"

 


This is a lens that I had a love-hate relationship with. It is also the most expensive lens I have ever bought (maybe that's why). The Canon L (Luxury) series of lenses are known for their first-rate build quality and optical excellence and I must say that, in those counts, this lens should not disappoint anyone. It is really built like a tank; smooth and precise in action like an expensive Swiss watch. So why did I sell it? The first  reason is that I shoot with an APS-C (crop sensor) camera. Considering the 1.6x crop factor, you end-up with a lens that has excellent telephoto capability (168 mm equivalent) but lacking in the wide-angle department (38 mm equivalent). The second reason I sold it is weight. As you probably already sensed from my other reviews, I tend to favor light lenses over heavy ones; portability over build quality. This lens literally weighed more than my camera and that is not a sensible choice in my book. But If you don't mind the weight and especially if you own a full-frame camera like a Canon 5D Mark II, I would definitely recommend this lens.

 

Canon EF 28mm f/2.8

 

 

I mentioned this lens already in my review of the 35 mm f/2.8. I was looking for a street photography lens when I bought it and the 28 mm focal length (45mm equivalent) sounded close enough to a "normal" lens when coupled with an APS-C sensor. I found the focal length to be very suitable to street photography indeed. The build quality of the lens is also good and auto-focus is fast. Where this lens disappointed was in sharpness and speed. While I can't say it was a soft lens, it wasn't very impressive in this department, specially for a prime. It certainly didn't measure-up to my 35mm f/2 or the much cheaper 50mm f/1.8. It is also not a very fast lens. There are some excellent f/2.8 zooms out there such as the new Tamron 18-55 f/2.8 VC that are well rated and furthermore include image stabilization. As I mentioned before, If a prime lens doesn't  offer a significant speed advantage (an f/2 or f/1.4 maximum aperture for example) then I'm hard pressed to justify buying one in a focal length that could just as well be covered with a zoom. So in summary, this is a good lens but with a peculiar position in the market given the new choices available today. If you find one used for cheap, go for it but otherwise I would recommend looking elsewhere.

Comments, questions, suggestions? You can reach me at: contact (at sign) paulorenato (dot) com

 
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