Expensive 3rd party primes – are they worth it?

When does a lens become the emperors’s new clothes

distagon 21mm

When is it the name that counts?

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.

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?

Specialist Lenses

TS-E 17mm on Canon 1Ds mk3

TS-E 17mm on Canon 1Ds mk3

Now there are times when good glass can really show – hence why I have an EF14 2.8L II, and the two new tilt/shift lenses TS-E 17 and TS-E 24 mark II.

It’s also why I’ve the new EF 8-15mm zoom fisheye on order.

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.

Fast Lenses

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

Auto focus

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 ;-)


Zuiko 24/2.8 mounted on Canon 1Ds mk3

Zuiko 24/2.8 mounted on Canon 1Ds mk3

I’ve written several articles about using old lenses on modern cameras, such as my old Olympus Zuiko 24/2.8.

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.

Mamiya 55mm 645 lens with shift adapter on 1Ds3

Mamiya 55mm 645 lens with shift adapter on 1Ds3

Specialist lens

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]


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  • ad venture

    Hello Keith . I did a search of your reviews, checking on the Zeiss Distagon 15mm T F2.8 lens. Is that one you might be reviewing in the future? I use a 16-35 2.8 II on a 5DII now for real estate and want to upgrade both camera and lens. I shoot wide and thought the Zeiss might be a worthy upgrade instead of the 11-24, both at the same price point. Otoh if the 11-24 has similar image quality as the Zeiss for the same money it would be the choice.

    • kacoooper

      Unlikely I’m afraid – most reviews here are of lenses I actually own.
      Now I’ve got the 11-24, and the TS-E17, there’s no real use for a 15mm in my line-up, even if it is exceedingly good (and the 11-24 is really good at 15-16mm).

      My EF14 2.8L II may soon be departing – it’s just not going to get much use, and is an excellent (and expensive) lens just to have sitting around as a paperweight ;-)

      • ad venture

        Thanks for the reply.

  • Hi Keith, I have to agree with your general down to earth opinions on lenses here.

    I’m sure there are some occasssions when the extra sharpness of Canon’s TSe 24mm lens would be noticeable over my EF 17-40mm but for the most part I shoot landscapes at apertures f/8-16 and the performance of my 17-40 is more than adequte.

    Before I turned pro I used to spend a lot of time coveting the next new lens I could buy but now I need to make money from my equipment I am far less interested in the diminishing returns you often get once your equipment is at a certain level.

    I am happy to spend money on new equipment if it will make my images better/more saleable etc but I doubt very much whether people who buy my prints would really notice if the corners were a bit sharper thanks to a new Zeiss 21mm distagon etc.

    The only people who really seem to notice such things are photographers and in my experience they don’t buy prints very often.

    • Thanks – when I look at the work I’ve done with a lens like the TS-E17, the money I’ve made has come from shots that this unique lens gives me, rather than the fact that it’s particularly sharp.

      You are indeed spot on about who worries about sharpness! I’ve not had a client yet come back to me and point to a bit of softness in the corner of an image ;-) The only people who walk right up to my big prints straight away are indeed photographers :-)

  • Jack Bell

    I have ZE35, ZE 50 Macro and owned ZE 85. All used on 5D2 and 1D4.
    They’re MF, super solid, very expensive and heavy.
    I find most of the time using Canon 24TSE II, 50 Macro and 85/1.8. The ZE 35 is nice, but not as good as 50 macro. The Macro-Planar is very ggod, but the second copy of Canon Macro is as good. The 85/1.8 is far superior than ZE, especially around infinity. I have no intention replacing Canon 100 Macro IS II with ZE 100 Macro.
    After 4 years of cherry picking of lenses I can say that if you get a good copy of Canon lens keep it. They’re cheaper, often much cheaper, lighter and have AF. The most notable difference is colour. The ZE lenses are warmer. Finally, keep the camera body. I had visibly different results from these lenses on my two cameras. So much for the “equipment tests” on the internet – a waist of time.

  • Nigel Craig

    While not arguing with the general thrust of the article, in my own case I found two Zeiss ZE lenses worth acquiring. I recently hired a 24TSE Mk2 and borrowed a Zeiss 21/2.8 for a few hours, to test on my 5D2. I was really surprised how close my 17-40 ran the 24TSE, suitably stopped down, which is how I would use it (all tests using live view, manually focussed, hefty tripod). Possibly my copy of the zoom, a recent insurance replacement, is a good one and I’ve heard rumours that Canon has “silently upgraded” this lens! On the other hand, the Zeiss 21, about which I was sceptical, really does seem to deliver a level of resolution that I don’t get from anything else and I was surprised how well ACR lens corrections dealt with the “moustache” distortion – anyway I got a good deal from Robert White and went for it. I also got the Zeiss 35/2 ZE which is a very sweet lens – it’s cheaper than Canon’s 35/1.4 and I don’t need 1.4. I’m fine with manual focussing wide angles. From what I read, not all the Zeiss SLR lenses are that special. Apart from the ones I’ve got, I understand the real stand out star is the 100/2 macro, but I wouldn’t forgo AF at that focal length and with AF and IS I think real world resolution of Canon’s 100L is difficult to exceed.

  • I fully agree with most of the thoughts expressed in the article.

    My own experience of old 3rd party lenses is quite mixed. The (c:a 1980 vintage) prime Zeiss Contax lenses I used with my Contax bodies produces excellent results with Contax bodies, but merely mediocre results when used on an Olympus E-3 body with its fourd thirds sensor. Old lenses were, of course, designed for their own generation of camera bodies for 24×36 mm film frames.

    For some reason, my old Yashica 2,8/135 mm lens on the E-3 produces much better pictures than the almost legendary Zeiss 1,4/85 mm, or any of the other old Zeiss lenses I own. When new, the Yashica cost but a fraction of what any of the Zeiss lens did.

    On the other hand, the 1,4/85 mm seems to mate quite well with a Canon 5D body, which is using a full-frame sensor. The Zeiss 4/18 mm on the 5D also produces technically nice pictures, albeit with a very pronounced light falloff towards the edges.

    To me, a modern manual lens such as the Samyang 3,5/8 mm fisheye used with the E-3 seems to produce pictures which are at least as good, from a technical point of view, as those taken with the Zeiss 4/18 mm used on a 1980’s Contax.

    However, I doubt any of those vintage lenses produces better pictures than modern prime lenses used on the DSLR:s they are designed for, even if they were made by Zeiss or Leitz or Nikon or any other quality producer back in the 19xx. (On the other hand, it would be interesting to use an old Angenieux zoom made for 16 mm movie cameras on the E-3.)

    I have to admit it’s fun to use those old Zeiss and Yashica lenses on moderns DSLR:s. But to rely on them for serious work with a DLSR – never.

    • Thanks – it’s fun to try out some of the lenses I’ve collected, but it’s not often one ends up coming out on a job with me ;-)

  • Very sensible words, you now just need to tell me that at f8, my 24mm Mk1 TS-e lens is as good as the MkII!