Expensive 3rd party primes – are they worth it?
Very expensive prime lenses, when are they worth it?
Is that new prime lens really going to help your photography?
Keith looks at expensive lenses. When do they make a real difference to your photos and when are you just fooling yourself.
Updates and notes added over time
When does a lens become the emperor’s new clothes
With the likes of Zeiss producing more lenses that fit onto my Canon EF mount camera, I’m often asked about the merits of such lenses for ‘taking better photos’
I use a Canon EF 24-70 2.8L for a lot of our commercial work with a 1Ds3 , and no clients have ever complained about lack of definition in images [2018 and it’s a 50MP 5Ds – still no complaints].
When it comes to large prints, I’ve found that poor sharpening and preparation of images makes for huge variation in print quality, massively swamping relatively small lens differences.
But surely a better lens makes a difference? Well, I’ve heard of people using expensive Zeiss glass, who just print everything at default settings with no colour management or specialist processing
Gold plating one end of a chain doesn’t make it stronger than all those other weak links…
So is it all a big con that people with more money than ability fall for?
These are lenses for relatively specialist uses and I’ll tend to use them at modest apertures (f/5.6 – f/10) to benefit from their resolution and image quality.
For the shift lenses, they are manual focus, which isn’t an issue for me.
The other common use for prime lenses is where you want a faster lens, for low light use, or to make use of the narrow depth of field at small apertures. I don’t do much of this sort of work, but I’d pick lenses such as the EF 24mm f1.4L II, EF 35mm f1.4 L, EF 50mm f1.2L, EF 85mm f1.2 L USM II and EF 135mm f2.0 L
Although these lenses work well at wide apertures, no lens is going to give stellar levels of sharpness across the field of view at f/1.2 – but then that’s not what you’re using f/1.2 for. Stop these lenses down to f/8 and performance probably won’t differ much from cheaper versions with smaller maximum apertures (the sub £100 EF 50 1.8 for example)
When on a job, there’s a limited number of lenses I want to take with me, and at normal focal lengths I just don’t see problems with the EF 24-70 2.8L
At longer lengths I’m happy with the 70-200 2.8L IS and don’t currently see any need to get the Mk.2 version (which is impressively sharp, I’m told by people with one) – I should note that I don’t do nature/sports work, so my need for and experience of long telephoto lenses is limited, although I’m tempted by Canon’s new 200-400
[2018 – I just dropped my 70-200 and broke the IS, so perhaps time for a used mk2 version?
BTW the mk1 was still good enough for a recent set of images of Leicester from the air – 6 foot by 4 foot prints from a 5Ds and using Topaz AI gigapixel for upscaling
2019: The lens was fixed and is still serving me well…]
The elephant in the room in many discussions about the qualities of third party lenses is autofocus. I use it in a lot of my work. It’s what makes my preference for hand held shots in many areas much easier to successfully implement. Certainly if I’m using wide apertures, I want good AF that works in low light (take a very large pinch of salt with some of the AF related threads you see on forums – user error and inexperience is not something you often start a thread about…)
For much of my industrial/architectural work I will use manual focus, particularly if I’m using my shift lenses, which have no AF.
3rd party lens options
Why would you pick a third party prime lens?
Several reasons spring to mind, some reasonable and some akin to the arguments you see on audio discussion forums where people are happy to pay absurd amounts of money for gold plated loudspeaker cables.
As an ex electronics engineer, I’ve always admired the salesmanship of people able to sell such useless ‘benefits’ to those with more money than sense ;-)
I’d also note that just as in photography, falling for such guff seems to be a phenomenon exclusive to men…
2019: There’s a good article at lens rentals that explains aspects of sharpness and MTF charts
2019: In the years since I first wrote this article, I’ve been most impressed by the improvement in quality of lenses from Sigma, and specialist lenses such as the Laowa lenses I’ve tested. In fact all lens manufacturers I’ve looked at seem to have raised their game, making (IMHO) the really expensive options even more difficult to justify
I’d add in lenses such as the recently announced Samyang 14/2.8 (£250 vs £1800 for my EF14 2.8L)
None have autofocus, but for some types of photography, this is no problem.
This is a splendid way to explore different aspects of photography with limited outlay on kit. There are masses of old film lenses about, many at vastly less cost than when new.
You may quickly discover how much lens design and manufacture has improved over the last 40 years, but if like me, actual photo content often trumps absolute detail, you will have fun and learn a lot.
2019: I’m testing a Canon EOS RP and finding that many of my old lenses are very easy to use
Sometimes there just isn’t a lens available of the sort you might want, so a 3rd party option may be just what you want – you take the hit on AF, but do get the features you need (although I should again note that ‘need’ is one of those fluid terms sometimes used when buying new kit)
Resolution and image ‘quality’
Here we move to an area where cost savings are not the issue, and once again, no AF.
First up, remember that when you read -some- reviews and descriptions of such lenses you are reading the comments of fans of such kit. Think of cars… few who choose to buy a BMW or a Mercedes make their choices based on purely technical parameters, even if they did appeal to them for justification and validation.
Look carefully for examples of image and lens qualities described in terms as exact and precise as morning fog – try to grasp it and it slips through your fingers.
Beware too of equating a good looking photo with meaning that the lens that took it was particularly good.
Just because someone can take good photos, doesn’t mean their ability to judge the finer points of lens performance is any better or more relevant than yours.
Now there is nothing wrong with being really confident that your chosen kit helps your photography – confidence is a key part of exploring just what you want to get out of photography. Just don’t let others confidence in their buying choices intimidate you.
It never does any harm to ask why you want a particular item of kit – can you make a case for it to someone you know? If not then think what it is you are really after?
I’ve a whole collection of fairly good Mamiya medium format lenses, indeed I’ve used some with a shift adapter on my 1Ds3. Do I use them for my work or landscape photography? Nope, they sit with the rest of my MF film kit, waiting for that day I decide to try film again. Well, that’s not quite true, since the 35/3.5 (with a plain M645->EF adapter) is the day to day lens I keep on my old (backup) Canon 1Ds
For me, all my best images are about what’s in the photo, and finest detail is not often the key element of the image. For my landscape work I’ll not usually have a tripod with me and for my architectural shots (where detail is important) I’ve some very nice shift lenses which I usually (but not always) use with a tripod.
If you do go for the big name option, don’t forget all those other factors that go into making a great print, else you will end up with very sharp detailed RAW files and not a lot more…
Whilst I’d love to have a detailed look at some of the Zeiss lenses, I just keep thinking that an awful lot less people would covet them if they were of the same quality, but had a less well known name on them.
One point to note is that I’ll be replacing my 1Ds3 with a new camera some time, when we could easily see 40+MP. What will this show from existing lens performance, and will it suddenly make all my lenses look like they were made from bottle ends? I suspect not – we shall see ;-)
Update 2012 – so I had hoped… the 1D X was just not the camera I was waiting for
Update 2015 – at last the 50MP 5Ds gets to replace my 1Ds3 – and all lenses are better
2019 – one of the best ways of improving your photography? Learn to print well
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