Help me take pretty pictures.
February 27, 2012 8:41 AM   Subscribe

Relatively new Canon dSLR owner planning a trip to some Really Beautiful Places. Looking to invest in a lens that will help me take some amazing shots while I'm there as well as on future adventures.

I’m not new to photography but this is my first SLR. I’ve just spent a couple months learning the camera and I think I have a good handle on it. I’m planning a big Southwest road trip in April (Grand Canyon, Zion, Page, Bryce) and I plan on spending a lot of time taking pictures. I hike a lot and generally travel to scenic places so whatever I get will be getting a lot of use through the years. I’m willing to spend a bit of money on something decent, though I’m not a pro and have no intention of ever going pro. Whatever I get will probably be my only lens purchase for a while.

What I have: Canon T3i (crop) with the 18-55mm kit lens and the “Nifty Fifty” 50mm f/1.8

I also have access to my wife’s 100mm 2.8 (thanks, AskMe!) and a Sigma 200mm zoom a friend loaned me. Between the two of us we’ll probably be taking those along, though I might leave the zoom at home since I’m not crazy about it.

I’d like something wide, something I can use to take beautiful sweeping vistas and sunsets, with and without people or other things in the foreground. It would also be nice to be able to zoom in a bit at a lizard or a mountain lion just before he mauls me. Something sharp and clear.

I’ve had some suggestions so far (17-40L, 17-85IS, Sigma 10-20) but would like to weigh some more options. Samples of shots taken with the lenses, and reasons why I should choose a particular lens would be helpful.

Bonus question: Should I get/do I need a tripod? What kind? I’m interested in taking waterfall shots in Zion as well as sunset and sunrise shots. I'll be getting one eventually, I'm sure, but is it worth it to have one on this trip?
posted by bondcliff to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (17 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I'll answer the easiest part: Yes to the tripod. Long-exposure shots (on the order of minutes) in that setting are routinely amazing. Not sure if the T3i meters that long, but on my XTi, I put it in shutter priority mode, set for 30 seconds, get the light settings, and scale from there using ISO. (For long exposures you want as low-noise as your camera can go.)
posted by supercres at 8:49 AM on February 27, 2012

Best answer: I'd stick a circular polarizer into your kit to make the most of those big skies and any water in shot.
posted by merocet at 9:00 AM on February 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The 17-55IS is a brilliant lens—L quality, and the IS is awesome. f/2.8 is super helpful in low light environments too. It's definitely pricey, though. 17mm on a crop lens might still be a little tight for what you're looking for though, so maybe you do want to go with something in the 10-20 range.

Here are some photos I took in Paris with the 17-55:

You might considering renting a lens (or a few) if you're interested in trying them out. It's not super cheap, but it's definitely cheaper than buying a lens, especially if you're not quite sure what focal range and such you want yet. I rented the 17-55IS through Borrow Lenses and had a great experience, but there are plenty of other online rental places out there.
posted by deansfurniture5 at 9:05 AM on February 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Doh, here's the clickable link for my photos taken with the 17-55:
posted by deansfurniture5 at 9:05 AM on February 27, 2012

Make sure you can go wide if you're seeing beautiful scenery -- I think the t3i has the cropped sensor, so the 50mm is more telephoto than you might think. I bought a t2i recently, and I bought a Tokina 12-24MM F/4.0 Pro II for going wide. I want it wide enough for scenery, but not so wide (10mm and smaller) to look really fisheye. It's a little more expensive than other wide-angle canon lenses, but I picked it because of this review with sample photos (it's for an older version of the same lens), that it's f/4 all the way through the focal lengths, you can switch between manual and autofocus without having to look for that little switch, and it is better on chromatic aberration and fuzziness at the edges than comparable Tamron or Sigma lenses. I haven't played with it much, but I'm happy so far.
posted by AzraelBrown at 9:42 AM on February 27, 2012

Whatever you get, make sure you get an IS lens. Many architecturally beautiful churches and museums do not allow tripods. The churches in particular are often low light. An IS lens will allow you to get acceptably sharp shots in these situations, that you really wouldn't have a chance to shoot otherwise.
posted by cnc at 10:14 AM on February 27, 2012

Best answer: I second the Canon 17-55mm f/2.8 IS. It's a spectacular lens. If you're happy with the zoom range on your 18-55mm kit lens, it'll be great.

For a while, I had the Tokina 11-17mm f/2.8 which was also a fantastic lens. It's great for taking pictures of scenery and buildings, especially interiors, but for people, it's not so great. When we started having kids our photo needs changed drastically, so I sold the Tokina 11-17mm and got the Canon 17-55mm.
posted by zsazsa at 10:26 AM on February 27, 2012

Best answer: Tripod, tripod, tripod. If you can't afford a remote release, at least use the timer function on the camera.

As for samples from each of the lenses mentioned, I've only used the 17-40 wince I started doing tags properly. Note that those photos are all on full-frame cameras.
posted by notsnot at 10:27 AM on February 27, 2012

Most people are recommending the sharpest lenses, but I'll throw in the mix for consideration a very versatile lens: Sigma 18-250 OS. Rather than standing around changing lenses, this one lens can probably do it all. If you need an even wider picture, you can stitch overlapping shots in a panorama program.

I don't have this, I have the early original Tamron 18-200; this Sigma is a good step better in sharpness (but my Tamron still does ok for me). Tamron's 18-250 version is twice the price of the Sigma. If price was no object, I would go Tamron because mine has certainly been banged around hard for 4 years without any problem.

I have a bag full of nearly every possible lens except current superwides, but I usually go out with just my 18-200 and the 50mm macro for nearly everything. No, the 18-xxx is not as sharp as the primes or more limited range zooms. But it's good enough and makes everything easier and the bag lighter.

I gave up the digital pixel peeping and got back to taking pictures.

If you consider one of these from either brand, I can say to take test shots at the widest settings (and all positions) to make sure it is aligned its best. Some come with a noticeably soft edge on the wide end, easily exchanged or adjusted.

There are plenty of samples from these on Flickr.
posted by caclwmr4 at 10:45 AM on February 27, 2012

Best answer: Four lenses is (almost) always too many for travel photography. At least two of them will sit in your trunk/pack/hotel room the entire time. Better to have two very high-quality lenses that will get you 90%+ of the pictures you want than slog around four lenses, the majority of which won't see any use.

I understand the temptation to leave the zoom behind: the kit standard zoom isn't bad, but it really isn't good, either. It's the focal range you'll most need, however. 50 is far too long on an APS-C sensor for broad scenic shots, anything indoors, most candids, etc. Unless you find yourself doing exclusively sports and/or animal photography, you'll need something wide. Often. So bring a long lens (200mm for APS-C) and a normal-range zoom. Typically a long lens plus a compatible high-quality 1.4x teleconverter is even better: you get two lenses for the size of one! Sadly, virtually all cheaper lenses look like crap with even good teleconverters.

So: invest in the very fantastic Canon 17-55/2.8 IS. If you don't think it is worth it, rent one for a week or so. Fast, quick, and as tack-sharp as anything you'll likely ever use. You'll only find yourself changing out when you want that really long shot of distant wildlife, etc. Don't get me wrong: I love other lenses for certain kinds of work, but honestly my 24-70/2.8 (18-50ish on an APS-C) stays on the camera 90% of the time. And I can only dream that mine would include the IS feature that Canon offers. (Nikon, sadly, doesn't offer anything VR/IS in the normal zoom range with a f/2.8 or better.)

Regardless of what you pick, buy a high-quality (fully multi-coated) circular polarizer. If you're taking pictures including sky, water, glass, pavement, etc., you'll find it a godsend for improving contrast, color, and quality. You can also rent these if you're not sold yet. (One of the virtues of buying higher-end lenses like the 17-55/2.8 is that they almost all use a 77mm filter size, so you only need one expensive circular polarizer. Until you one day break down and buy the ungoldy expensive but beautiful 200mm f/2L IS and then have to buy a few drop-in filters.)

Regardless, get the equipment a few days before you go and practice, practice, practice. Then have fun traveling and making memories! :)
posted by introp at 10:52 AM on February 27, 2012

I love the Canon 24mm 2.8.
posted by the jam at 11:00 AM on February 27, 2012

And yes, buy/rent/borrow a tripod if you're going to be using that 200mm in anything but ideal circumstances. If you're good with them (you have to try it to find out), a monopod hiking-pole-with-tripod-screw-on-top can work well in a lot of hiking situations. Do not succumb to the temptation to go cheap. A wobbly plastic tripod will work in some small fraction of cases, but not only will it fail you at some important point, as soon as you have any wind it'll shiver like a leaf. But as tripods go you have three major choices:
1. large, heavy rigid tripods: not very expensive, but incredibly annoying to hike with.
2. large, light, rigid tripods: typically exotic carbon fiber, so very expensive, not quite as stable as #1, but close. You can do some tricks to stabilize them in wind, like stringing a little net bag between the legs and then resting your camera bag in it to add some mass.
3. compact, rigid tripods: not good for all shots due to their limited extension, but they're a valid way to get lightweight without breaking the bank. Personally, I have a #1 for studio/plan work and a #3 for hiking.

Which of the above you want is mostly a cost/feature tradeoff. Also, cheap, crappy tripod heads can be a bigger disappointment than just about anything else you photograph with. There are few things worse than constantly fighting to keep your big tele lens from sagging down, down, down because the tripod head won't clamp properly... a thousands of dollars of photography equipment made useless because some engineer skimped on a $2 ball clamp screw. Which style of head movement (ball, p/t, etc.) is really a personal choice. Ball is generally the best rigid default unless you do motion photography (panning to track race cars or sports, etc.).

I'm a big fan of quick-release baseplates: you screw a little plate onto the base of your camera, and whenever you want to put it on the tripod you just press it into a mating slot and it snaps in. Push a lever and you can lift the camera off again. They're not required, but I hate fumbling with little screws and such when it's cold, rainy, or crowded.
posted by introp at 11:22 AM on February 27, 2012

Response by poster: Any specific tripod recommendations? This trip won't involve a lot of hard hiking (we'll have my 80 year old mom with us) but future trips will and on this trip we will be flying and moving around a lot, so light and compact would be preferable. Like the lens, I'm thinking of it as something I'll own for a long time so I'm willing to spend a bit for quality.

RE: lenses: Forgive my ignorance, but if my kit lens is an 18-55mm, will the 17-55 be much wider? I get that a higher quality lens will be sharper, but will I notice the difference in width?

Good stuff so far. Thanks!
posted by bondcliff at 11:39 AM on February 27, 2012

I can't really give advice about all tripods, but I can say what I use now. (And, let's be honest, even a crap-cheap tripod with a built-in head will, dollar-for-dollar, hugely improve your tele shots more than any other investment.) You probably can't go wrong with a decent Manfrotto, Giottos, or Gitzo. Also, check any of the big-name rental sites and see what they rent: they generally can't afford to rent stuff that's crap because of the headaches it causes, but caveat emptor.

My big tripod is one of the old-school Manfrotto 3021BN (now called the 055XB I think). My little hiking one is a Velbon ... looking at their website it looks like the "REXi L" but considerably more scratched-up. It's arguably not big enough for the 80-200/2.8 I often stick on it, but it works well. Because it's aluminum it costs about half what a similar CF tripod would. (Or at least, it did when I bought it.) I use the same tripod head for both systems, again my old Manfrotto 3055. It's heavy, but it works. I've one head that I swap between the two tripods and two baseplates that snap into the head (one for each camera).

I believe my brother owns a Manfrotto 055MF3 (replaced by the, I think, 055CX3?), which falls squarely into the spendy #2 category above, and I've never heard him complain.

Your lens would probably be the 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6. Going to the 17-55/2.8, you won't notice the difference in zoom range, but you will notice the difference in how much light the f/2.8 can gather (faster shutter speeds, more DOF control, etc.), the focusing speed, and you might notice the overall higher image quality (depends on how big you usually display your images). I though you perhaps didn't like your existing zoom because of its performance, not its range.

If you don't like that zoom range, then skip the 17-55/2.8, but I have no idea how one would function with a 50 as the shortest lens. 50mm on an APS-C is ~ 25 degree horizontal field of view, so if you're 14 ft from something you'll have a field of view ~ 5 ft wide. Shooting down a big restaurant table (6 ft) you couldn't fit more than one shoulder width in the frame. Zooming with your feet is great, but at some point you back into a wall, rock, or crowd! The 18-50ish range is so popular because it allows you to go from a classic wide angle (28mm on full-frame cameras, 18 on yours) to "normal" (50 mm, 35 on yours) to portrait (80ish mm, 50 on yours) without having to fumble with a lens change. But if you've figured out how to make it work, then stick with it and ignore my advice on everything but the 200, the circ polarizer, and the tripod. :)
posted by introp at 12:29 PM on February 27, 2012

Best answer: There are several things about the 17-55IS that make it a bazillion times better than the kit lens. The quality is spectacular. The focus on it is crazy fast, so you don't have to worry so much when things are moving. Lastly, it can go to 2.8 across the whole range, so you can work in much less light and still get good exposure.

Honestly, the 17-55IS is probably the absolute best lens you can get for a cropped sensor camera.

Now, it doesn't get much wider than your current lens, so if you feel that you absolutely need a real wide lens, the Tokina 10-16 (I think that's the range) is the one that everyone loves.

It doesn't really matter which tripod you get if you are going to be in controlled environments and don't plan on doing video with it. If you are going to do video, that opens up a whole bag of worms, because cheap tripods aren't designed for smooth movement.
posted by markblasco at 7:37 PM on February 27, 2012

When I was in your shoes (new to the DSLR thing, trying to figure out which lens to invest in) I used my trips as excuses to rent lenses to try them out before buying. I am really glad I did that. The opportunity to put lenses to the test, to see what I was able to achieve with it, whether or not I could live with the weight of it, whether I would bother to switch lenses to use it, or not, gave me a sense of what I really wanted without shelling out several thousands of dollars for the experience. When I finally did pull the trigger on a Canon 24-105 f/4 L, I knew I was getting exactly what I wanted. (And I bought that lens used, saving another couple hundred dollars.)

I'm partial to, but there are others as well. In addition to renting a lens or two, you can also rent a tripod. That will help you figure out what you want in the one you eventually buy.

For the places you are going, you are right to want something really wide. I have rented the Canon EF-S 10-22 a handful of times and have been very pleased with it, and it may well be the next lens I buy. Because of the crop factor I think you will want something that can go to 10mm. Sample shots on my flickr stream: 1, 2, 3, 4.

Have a great trip!
posted by ambrosia at 8:26 PM on February 27, 2012

My favorite lens overall is my 10–22mm EF-S that Canon makes. It is NOT cheap, but it's an absolutely phenomenal feeling to get a shot of Taipei 101 that gets both the ground and the top of the building, 500m up, in the same frame.

Definitely recommend renting one of those guys from and reading Ken Rockwell's article on how to effectively use ultra-wide lenses.
posted by DoctorFedora at 11:39 PM on February 27, 2012

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