Sunday, 17 December 2006

What lenses (=glass) to choose for a Canon Digital SLR Camera

Glass makes all the difference. The impact of the lens on the quality of your final product – the photo – is much larger than the camera’s. A 350D and a 20D have no difference in image quality – the difference is in the ergonomics. Investing 300 US$ more in a lens will have a significant impact. That’s why lens selection is critical!

As you could read in my last article “Buying a Digital SLR Camera – Canon Or Nikon”, I went with Canon for a couple of reasons. Therefore this article is only for buyers who consider Canon.

There are basically 3 options on how to get started

  • Minimum budget available, every $ counts
  • Plan for/ buy a solid, medium-quality, value-for-money lens collection
  • Plan for/ buy a high-quality lens collection

All prices mentioned are as of Dec 2006 in the US. But let’s start with the beginning.

If you already have a digital SLR, you will most likely know what lenses you want. However, for the first time buyer this is a big challenge. And as there is quite some cash involved, it is worth spending time on research and recommendations what lenses to buy with your camera. Otherwise you might be disappointed or have to buy twice. What to buy depends on

  • What would you like to shoot? In what light conditions?
  • What is your preference on “value for money”/ “quality for money”? (E.g. Are you willing to pay 100% more for a 20% increase in quality)
  • What is your budget?

If you know your preferences upfront, you will be able to negotiate a better deal or profit from large package rebates. Canon normally has the “Triple Rebate” program (for US citizens) on in Nov/ Dec each year. You can save (and spend) a lot of money here. In summary, the more you buy the larger your discount will be. You can easily save 300-500 US$, when buying a camera body + 2 lenses. Just search for “Canon Triple Rebate”. At the moment you can find the form here (2005 version), but it might get removed:

There are similar offers in other countries (e.g. “Cash Back Program” in Australia).

Your lenses will last years, maybe a decade. Compared to a camera body, which gets upgraded about every 3 years. Lenses are a long-term investment. Also high-quality lenses hold their value relatively well, in case you want to sell.

When buying a lens, you pay for
  • Optical quality
  • Built quality (plastic or metal lens mount / barrel construction)
  • Features (zoom vs prime, weather-sealed, IS (image stabilisation), USM (ultrasonic motor for fast, silent autofocus)

I strongly recommend to try before you buy. Go to a camera shop and ask to put the lens on the same camera you are using or want to buy. Check the feel and weight. Bring your own empty memory card and take a few shots. Decent camera shops will have no problems with that. If you want to stretch it a bit, put the camera on a sturdy surface and take few shots with different settings. Do the same for each lens you are considering. Go home and inspect the results at 100% in Photoshop to compare the quality.

A few things ahead:

Canon’s EF-S lenses
EF-S lenses only work on cameras with an EF-S mount (=crop body camera = APS-C size sensor = non full frame sensor size) like the 400D (= Rebel XTi in the US) and 30D. EF-S lenses will not work on a body with full frame sensor size like the 5D. In case you upgrade to full-frame later, you will need a new lens. EF-S lenses are smaller and lighter than comparable EF lenses (EF fit on all Canon digital SLRs). However, there are some EF﷓S lenses with a great reputation and very good optics. Be aware of these facts and decide for yourself!

Sensor Size And Focal Length
Because of the smaller sensor size (=APS-C sensor size) of the 400D and 30D series (compared to the full frame 5D), all ranges are multiplied by 1.6. This means a 17-85mm lens is practically a 28-135mm lens on a 400D/30D. This is very handy for telephoto as a 200mm lens on a 30D has the same range as 300mm lens on a 5D. The drawback is that 17mm becomes 28mm, which is not really wide if you are going to shoot architecture, interiors and landscapes.

Canon L Series Lenses
L glass (L for luxury?) is Canon’s high-quality lens line-up. These lenses offer the best optical performance and are solid built. Most of them are large and heavy. All have the famous red stripe around the end of the lens barrel. Prices start at about 600 US$ for a 70-200 F4L USM. The 100-400 f/4.5-5.6L IS USM costs 1300 US$ and weighs 1.5kg. And yes, for 7000 you can get a 600mm F4 IS USM ;-))

IS = Image Stabilization
As a rule of thumb, a shutter speed of 1/focal length is required to get a sharp photo. E.g. 1/200 sec at 200mm. With a slower shutter speed (e.g. 1/25) the result can be blurred due to the shake of the camera in your hands. IS is a technology integrated in some Canon lenses to compensate the camera shake. You gain about 2 stops. Means at 200mm a sharp photo can be taken at 1/50. A 4 times slower shutter speed (= 2 stops). That helps in low-light situations, which require a slower shutter speed. As you can guess, you will not need IS if you work on a tripod, you must switch it off.

Ultrasonic motor for fast and silent autofocus.

Prime vs Zoom Lenses
Prime lenses have a fix focal length (e.g. the EF 50mm F1.8) and therefore the field of view cannot be adjusted. You cannot zoom. You have to walk closer or further to the object. Prime lenses are easier to build and most have excellent optical quality. Therefore Primes are relatively cheap compared to zoom lenses (with a similar high optical quality). Zoom lenses are much more convenient.

I would not recommend a prime for a complete beginner as the only lens! However, some do! With a prime lens you will learn a lot about focal length, perspective and technique in general. E.g. the optical great, but cheaply built (all plastic) EF 50mm F1.8 II can be collected for 100 US$, new. (50mm prime is very easy to design/ manufacture).

3rd Party Lenses
Lens manufacturers like Tamron and Sigma sell lenses that fit Canon cameras as well. Some of them only fit cameras with EF-S mount just like the Canon EF-S lenses. When looking for high quality zoom lenses, there can be significant price differences between a Canon and a 3rd party lens. Research the web before you buy. Some models are considered poor. Some have an excellent reputation (Sigma 24-70 2.8, Tamron 90mm Macro).

3rd party manufacturers are the only ones offering large zoom range lenses for Canon like the 28-200 or 18-200. The large zoom range comes with a compromise in optical quality. However, I like my Tamron 28-200 as a light-weight, small travel lens. If you are backpacking, hiking or want to travel light you might want to check out the Tamron 18-200 or 28-200. Stop them down to F8 and they deliver solid results outdoors. Yes, I envy the Nikon crowd for the Nikkor 18-200 VR (750 US$), which is supposed to deliver outstanding results.

I personally see 3 options on how to get started, when buying a digital SLR for the first time

· Minimum budget available, every $ counts
· Plan for/ buy a solid, medium-quality, value-for-money lens collection
· Plan for/ buy a high-quality lens collection

Minimum budget available, every $ counts

To get started into the digital SLR world as a student can be tough. You can get a nice package deal for a camera + lens + memory card. That gets you started.

Current offers at B&H (Dec 06)

400D (silver) + EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 USM + 2 GB CF card: 830 US$
350D + EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 USM + 2 GB CF: 650 US$
350D + EF-S 17-85mm f/4-5.6 IS USM + 2 GB CF: 990 US$

The Canon low-end kit lens (EF-S 18-55mm) has a bad reputation. It will get you started and you can learn the trade. Use it between F8 and F11 for maximum sharpness. But you would get much more out of you camera with a nicer lens. You can consider the 50mm F1.8 prime (see “Prime vs Zoom Lenses” above) for 100 US$, but make sure you try before you buy. Not everybody likes prime lenses.

If you have a few dollars extra, consider the EF-S 17-85mm f/4-5.6 IS USM or the EF 28-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM. The 17-85 often gets offered with a discount (100 US$) in an “advanced kit” when bought with a camera.

Both lenses have a solid optical quality and offer IS (image stabilisation) and USM (ultrasonic motor for fast, silent auto-focus). If you prefer wide-angle (landscapes, architecture) go for the 17-85. If you like “to zoom in close” choose the 28-135. These are lenses worth keeping with a digital SLR to build a lens collection for different photographic purposes.

Again, please try both on the same camera before you decide. Check the zoom range, try to get a large building/ bridge in the frame. Be aware that the 17-85 is an EF-S (see for limitations above!) Pls also read the next section, as it will depend on what other lenses you are planning for.

Plan for/ buy a solid/ medium-quality/ value-for-money lens collection

EF-S 17-85mm f/4-5.6 IS USM + EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM
If 17mm is wide enough for you and you don’t mind using EF-S lenses, this is a great combo. Both lenses are around 500 US$. The 17-85 is available in discount kit offers.

You can also consider the EF 70-200 F4L USM instead of the 70-300. The 70-200 F4L is a high-quality L lens and considered a bargain. Compared to the 70-300 you loose some range and IS (image stabilisation). Weight and size are similar. An IS version of the 70-200 F4L was released this year, 1100 US$

If you don’t like to buy an EF-S lens, I would recommend the EF 28-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM as a starting point. However, if you would like to add a wider lens, it becomes really, really difficult! There are not many options:

EF 17-40mm f/4L USM (650US$): You will spend 150 $ more than on the suggested combo above (17-85 + 70-300) and only cover 17-135. This is a nice lens a) on a full frame camera and b) in combination with other L lenses. It does not really match the focal range of the medium quality zooms.

Sigma 12-24mm f/4.5-5.6 EX DG HSM: 700 US$, 615g, heavy, so-so reviews

The only other alternatives to go wider are lenses that fit only EF-S mount cameras. So if you would like to go wider than 17mm and don’t mind buying EF-S,you can plan for

EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM + EF 28-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM + EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM
The EF-S 10-22 costs 680 US$ and gets excellent reviews! This lens does not include a lens hood. The Canon original model (EW-83E Lens Hood = little plastic piece) sets you back an other 40 US$. Other alternatives are the Tamron 11-18 (530 US$, including hood) or the Sigma 10-20 (500 US$). Both have a smaller focal range than the Canon.

Plan for/ buy a high-quality lens collection

If you want the best quality, go for the L series lenses. You might not be able to buy all at once, but if you are confident that you want to go down that path, do not waste a penny on anything else.

EF 17-40 F4L + EF 24-105 F4L + 70-200 F4L
This combo will cover a wide range. If you need a longer lens, e.g. for outdoor sports, consider the 100-400mm 4.5-5.6 L IS USM.

Do you need/ want “fast” lenses for low light work (without tripod/ flash)? If so, consider the F2.8 zooms: EF 16-35 F2.8 and EF 70-200 F2.8 USM / EF 70-200 F2.8 IS USM. Or choose a prime with a focal lens that suits your needs.

Popular prime lenses are:
· 50mm 1.2L
· EF-S 60mm 2.8 USM
· 85mm 1.8 US
· 100mm 2.8 Macro

I hope this is a good summary and will give you some indication on what to buy. Do your own homework and take great photos ;-))


Gdog said...

Excellent article--very informative! I just bought a Kiss Digital X (400D/XTi) in Seoul about a month ago. I started out with the 50mm 1.8 and last week bought the Tamron 17-50 f/2.8--a wonderful lens that is the best bang for your buck. The quality rivals many of Canon's "L" lens according to the pixel peepers at many online photography forums.

Eric said...

I have a 300D and my main lenses are Tamron at this point. Not all are great, but for a fraction of the Canon lenses I have a 28-300 f/3.5-6.5 and a 28-75 f/2.8. Of course I have the 50 f/1.8 for those occations that call for flash-less photography or small DoF.