Prime Time

Given the interest shown in my new lens I thought it would be beneficial to re-post a rambling article from my other blog that I posted back in May. It’s very much my opinion and you may take it seriously or with a dose of salt as you wish 🙂 This is it with a few changes and updates…

Starting off with Brownies and moving on through Rangefinders to SLR’s with fixed focal length lenses has given me a historic knowledge that a new person coming into photography at the entry level today does not have. When I bought my first SLR camera it came with a 50mm lens. This was the standard kit of the time – no zoom lenses. In this, the SLR’s mirrored (pun intended) the rangefinders. I think it was around the time of the Canon T-series cameras of the mid-1980’s that kits started to appear with zoom lenses as an option. The pressure to do this was almost certainly competition from compact cameras being produced which had a zoom lens fitted as standard. Now every consumer/semi-pro DSLR or CSC camera comes with a kit zoom (unless you choose to buy body only). So everyone starts out with a zoom and thinks no more about it – at least the younger photographers probably don’t as that’s what everyone expects on their camera today.

It has been suggested that Zoom lenses hamper creativity by encouraging the photographer to zoom in and out instead of moving to achieve the desired composition and thus other creative opportunities are missed. I’m not sure whether this is really true – In the case of entry level Canon DSLR’s with APS-C sensors it’s usually an 18-55mm lens which in the real world (35mm film sizes) equates to a 29-88mm range – which is actually not too extreme and probably does little to hamper creativity. But some photographers may choose to move on to something like an 18-300mm super zoom as their next lens because of the convenience it brings. You can see where this is going… Less walking = Fatter Fotographers 😉 But it also can bring that ‘look – there’s something over there – must photograph that’ approach which definitely has little to do with creativity. If you’re looking for a single lens solution for when you are ‘weight and space’ limited it’s probably a handy lens to have but for everyday use? – I don’t think so.

There is a perceived wisdom amongst experienced photographers – those who have moved beyond the family snaps and holiday beach shots (not that there’s anything wrong with those!) – that a Prime Lens will always be sharper than a Zoom Lens. This is because of its relative simplicity of design which makes it easier for the manufacturer to handle issues like astigmatism, barrel distortion, chromatic and spherical aberrations… Indeed, just about every aberration you can think of that is related to photography except, perhaps, pornography (if one considers that an aberration) 😉 The theory is that a prime lens will always give sharper results because of this.

I took a look at my own camera bag and lens choices – actually that’s an ongoing thing that I do and maybe you should too. Ignoring the Fuji X-E1 which was bought for family use and for days when I have to travel light, I have two Canon camera bodies – the EOS7D and the EOS5D mkIII. These share two L-Series zoom lenses, a 24-70mm and a 70-200mm. The 24-70mm was my day-to-day lens when using either of these cameras – this has changed since May. The 70-200mm is for sports photography (usually Wingate & Finchley football matches). Both of these lenses are top of the range zooms with the very best glass that Canon produce. They are very fast for Zoom lenses – f2.8 – and maintain that maximum aperture throughout their zoom range. It’s those things that you pay the silly-money for (along with super-fast focussing and weather-proofing!). Do I really need them?

The case for the 70-200mm is virtually water-tight (and I wouldn’t have bought that lens at considerable expense were it not). Photographing in the non-league football environment requires a very fast and high quality zoom lens to capture the action. Night and midwinter games are poorly lit by inadequate floodlights (from the photographer’s point of view) and you have to use a very fast zoom to be able to capture the action. However, outside of that field it’s less of a certain requirement – I’m unlikely to take it on a normal photography outing round the city or to photograph trains because of its weight and size. Also because the requirements are less strenuous – I just need a lens that performs well at f8.

The case for 24-70mm has become less sound with the review of my bag – it has no normal use for football action though it could be handy for close in shots. To do that would require hanging both bodies round my neck and switching between cameras – pro’s do it and I know of a couple of non-league photographers who do it too but I’ve tried it and it doesn’t work for me! The lens comes into its own for things like parading mascots at the start of the game and for the awards night where you can rely on the subjects to be anywhere from 6 to 20ft away and thus need to take advantage of the zoom capability. But beyond that… Does it give an advantage? Is it any better than using a fixed length standard lens?

Another check that anyone can do – and I suggest that those of you using zooms carry it out before making your next lens purchase – look at the settings of your images and check what your average focal length was. You can do this from the exif data which can be displayed by your photo editor. A check on mine shows that the majority of my non-footie photographs are taken between 42mm and 60mm with a preponderance towards the telephoto end of the zoom range. Very few are taken at the 24mm end of the range. This raises the question – do I really need a zoom lens at all? Another experiment that I have been undertaking is with the Fuji X-E1. I have been deliberately setting the zoom to 35mm – roughly the equivalent of a standard lens – when setting up a photograph and, in most cases, I find that the composition just falls into place.

So, with all this thinking taking place and my brain hot enough to fry an egg… I took the decision back in May to buy a 50mm standard lens for use with the EOS5D. It was a decision first mooted something like 6 months previously and one driven by a desire to push myself into being a bit more creative again! The issue was which standard lens to buy. Canon do three at varying prices. You could try the f1.8 at around £80 (that’s cheaper that a lot of compact cameras!) or the f1.4 at around £275 (not too expensive either). Then there’s the L series f1.2 at an eye-watering £1400!!! That’s a horrendous amount of money (says he who spent £1700 on the 70-200mm Zoom) 😦 Then there are the independent manufacturers – Tamron, Sigma, Vivitar. Back in the day (1970’s / 80’s)… Tamron and Vivitar were just about the best independent lens manufacturers. I’ve owned Vivitar lenses in the past and can attest to the quality they had back then. But times change – Vivitar seem to have lost the plot and Tamron’s lenses are not flavour of the month right now. On the other hand Sigma, a relative newcomer, are getting glowing reviews for their optics (although the auto-focus gets a health warning in some reviews).

So I did a comparison of the Sigma 50mm lenses with Canon’s offerings. As mentioned above, with prices, Canon do f1.8, f1.4 and f1.2 50mm lenses. Reviews of these lenses whilst tending to be somewhat subjective, suggest that you get the 1.8 or the 1.2 as the 1.4 doesn’t offer significant improvement over the 1.8 for the increased cost. Sigma, at the time of writing, had the 50mm 1.4 EX DG and the 50mm 1.4 DG Art lenses in their range priced at around £300 and £700 respectively. Most reviews that I read rated the Sigma EX DG as superior to its Canon equivalent whilst the 50mm 1.4 Art lens was seen as being better than the Canon f1.2 lens! Now I can’t test those claims as I can’t afford to buy all the lenses involved and I don’t think the manufacturers will loan them to an insignificant blogger like me. So I have to rely on reviews.

I chose to buy the Sigma 50mm f1.4 EX DG. I felt that I couldn’t justify the cost of Art lens for, effectively, an experiment in my personal photography and I certainly can’t justify the huge cost of the Canon L series f1.2 version. Since moving into the Canon digital camera fold this is the first time I have bought a non-Canon lens.

So, is the Prime Lens any sharper than a top of the range Zoom. 5 months down the road and I have to say Yes. Not by a large amount though, which is testimony to how great the Canon L series 24-70mm zoom is. But for a photographer using the standard kit zoom, the 50mm prime lens would give a massive improvement in definition! To get an idea of how sharp the lens is take a look at my It is a Long Lane post.

Since I originally posted this I have standardised with the 50mm lens on the EOS5D and the 24-70mm on the EOS7D. Very occasionally I’ve wished I had the versatility of the zoom but the emphasis has to be on the ‘very’. Sigma have now discontinued their 50mm 1.4 EX DG in favour of their Art range. I guess having two lenses in competition with each other was untenable but it’s a shame for those who perhaps don’t want to carry the extra weight of the Art lens – if you’re interested in the EX DG version, you can still get them from dealers but stocks are running low. As for my continuing move to prime lenses for the full frame camera, I’ve very recently added the Sigma 150mm macro/telephoto lens and I’ll post a review of that lens when I’ve put it through its paces.

These rambling thoughts are just mine – check out the manufacturers sites and places like DPReview for their information about the lenses discussed. And… Good Hunting fellow Photographers 🙂

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4 Comments

  1. A comprehensive review on this rich topic Martin and I particularly liked your point about checking exif data for focal length. I started out, not knowing much, with an 18 – 200 zoom lens. It came in handy for the shifting events in protests, demonstrations etc and I will forever have a soft spot for it. Turns out I am an up front in your face shooter which I found out the hard way when I added the 50mm 1.8 and having to take more than a few steps back.
    Happy shooting Martin!

    1. Thanks Patti 🙂 I tend to have to take more than a few steps back with some of my subjects – they tend to be somewhat larger and heavier than me and made of hard metal 😉 That 18-200mm has served you well – and is probably an ideal for protests. I’d probably put the 24-70 on for those 🙂

  2. I use my telephoto lens often, Martin, and I have to agree with you. It is often a simple convenience that doesn’t necessarily produce the best photos. It just helps me catch a shot of something I might otherwise miss. So much of my photography is just about capturing a moment, but I have lately really wanted to think about a macro lens. I think I would enjoy experimenting with that. I enjoyed reading your thoughts. I believe I did read this before–it’s a topic that interests me and I’m still trying to decide what I need, versus what I just want. Sometimes that’s the same thing. 🙂

    1. Hi Debra, Yes you did read it on the ‘other blog’. I have refined it a bit and updated where necessary as I now know how good the 50mm f1.4 is. The Green Horn post is an example of what the 150mm Macro Telephoto can do in a studio situation. More photos and a review to follow.

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