Lights, Camera, Action
April 13, 2012 9:03 PM   Subscribe

Help me buy Canon lenses without breaking the bank.

I finally decided to take plunge and buy the Canon T3i with a couple of lenses. I responded to the question asked before very recently here, but after reading the responses there, I am not sure myself, so asking this again in a different way. Also, some of the recommended lens are beyond my current budget.

What I need from the lenses:

1. A "everyday" lens - portraits if family inside and outside the house, but not just static in-the-face "passport" photos. I would like to take photos when people are doing something interesting, so there should not be any blur. I will have an extra Flash unit, but would prefer to minimize its use. I may want to use the video capabilities of the T3i to record some videos, but not looking to shoot movies...

2. A travel lens - portraits, landscapes and buildings. Nothing too fancy, just touristy pics. If the lens works inside dark buildings without blur or grainy noise, that would be awesome, but I understand such lenses cost a lot. I would settle for using the Flash in such cases

3. A wildlife lens - No, I am not aiming to sell pictures to National Geographic, but I go on occasional wildlife trips, especially outside the US (no, not African safaris). Again, no great expectations, but good low-light performance is a plus. Think early morning in Summer

Now for the questions:

1. Amazon sells the T3i+the 18-55 kit lens for 799, but individually they sell for ~740. Of course, the lens is sold by a 3rd party, but the seller seems reliable and Amazon is backing it up. Are there any hidden things I am missing by going the separate pieces route?

2. Given the 3 requirements above, what couple of lenses would work? I cannot afford the L-series lenses, but I am confused between Canon's other lenses. The post I referenced above mentions the EF-S 17-85mm f/4-5.6 IS USM, but that has a $500+ price tag.

I am searching on Craigslist in Portland (working there temporarily), Chicago (friends) and Denver for used lenses, but not much luck (I may not be searching well, though).

Suggestions please people?
posted by theobserver to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (28 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
KEH has great deals on graded used lenses. Check out these four categories:
Canon brand fixed focal length (aka prime) lenses
Non-Canon brand prime lenses
Canon brand zoom lenses
Non-Canon brand zoom lenses

Go shopping for whatever's in your price range. Also, most Canon users will tell you that you must pick up the Nifty Fifty (50mm f/1.8) for a price at or around $100. It's the cheapest prime lens you can get and an invaluable addition for a beginning photographer. There's no cheaper way to explore what narrow depth of field will get you.
posted by komara at 9:19 PM on April 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: You can pick up the 50mm 1.8 lens for about $120 and it's outstanding value for money. It's a cheaply made lens, but it's a cheaply made lens for a good price.

For a wildlife lens, perhaps you could consider renting. Save the money and get a better everyday lens (although I'm not a Canon owner anymore, so I can't comment on what that would be).
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 9:19 PM on April 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

Photography on the net has a sprawling marketplace forum. You need to register to see it.

Fred Miranda is also a good place to look.

I've heard good things about the 17-55mm f/2.8 IS lens. The street used price is about $800, but the quality is fantastic.
posted by Mercaptan at 9:34 PM on April 13, 2012

Oh, fyi, neither the 18-55 mm kit lens nor the 17-85 mm lenses will be good performers in low light. They simply don't open up enough.
posted by Mercaptan at 9:46 PM on April 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

For indoor shooting, there's really no substitute for a good flash-- even if you do find a good lens that opens up enough, oftentimes that narrow of a depth of field is extremely limiting if you're not doing artsy portraiture, and instead just want to take a picture of a few people. And no, the pop-up flash does not count as a good flash; do not use at any cost (I'm exaggerating, but not much). Get as much Speedlite as you can afford and learn to bounce it (and/or get a Lightsphere, which I'm fond of).

With a flash, my kit 18-55 f3.5-5.6 has taken on whole new life. I used to use my 35mm f/2 much more before I used the flash, and found it really limiting. On a crop body, the cheap 50mm is even more limiting indoors unless you can regularly get 15 feet away from you subject.

Even for outdoor shooting, you'll find that the flash really helps fill in the dark spots, so backlighting is slightly less of a concern.
posted by supercres at 10:11 PM on April 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: The third-party lenses are hit-or-miss, but one of the hidden gems among them is the Tamron 28-75 f/2.8. It holds a constant max aperture of f/2.8 throughout the zoom range and many photographers say it rivals the image quality of the Canon 24-70 f/2.8L at a third of the price (around $500). It gets 4.5 stars on Amazon, and if you look at the reviews there you should be able to get a feel for what people like and don't like about it. It isn't especially wide on a crop body, unfortunately, but the large max aperture and zoom range would make it a reasonable "everyday" and "travel" lens.

For wildlife I think you're going to have more trouble. Good low-light performance with a long focal length (as is typical for a 'wildlife' lens) usually means a $1,500+ lens like the 100-400L (which isn't even all that good in low light) or long primes in the 300-500mm range. The 'budget' lenses in this class (sub-$250) would be something like the 75-300 or the 55-250, both of which are f/4-5.6 lenses that would fare poorly in low light. I think your entry level here if you want 300+mm at faster than f/5.6 would be the 300mm f/4L or 70-200 f/4L (with or without IS). Unfortunately, fast long lenses are virtually always L-series, but you could probably get some mileage out of the 55-250 by pushing your ISO settings.
posted by jdwhite at 10:51 PM on April 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Bear in mind of course that pushing the ISO does not help with focus. Trying to use AF in low light with a 55-250 at 250mm (thus a max aperture of f/5.6) is likely to be a frustrating experience. You may have to do some manual focusing in darker situations.
posted by jdwhite at 10:54 PM on April 13, 2012

Best answer: Consider getting the T3i with a 18-135 f/3.5-5.6 IS lens instead of the regular kit lens. B&H has the combo for $999 right now. This will serve as a good walk-around lens and, along with a Speedlite, will cover everything you've asked about short of wildlife photography.

I use a Sigma 24-70 2.8 as my walk-around lens and even with the extra light it can pull in it's still only good indoors without a flash in the brightest of buildings. To consistently go without a flash indoors it's going to take a fast prime. Everyone starts with the 50 1.8 but Canon also makes a 35 2.0 which is closer to the 50mm ideal with the T3i's sensor.

Wildlife photography is going to be expensive. I've got a cheap Tamron 75-300 4-5.6 and at the long end it takes a high ISO to get a stable shot and has a lot of chromatic aberration. As has been said above, you're looking at well over $1000 for a good wildlife lens.
posted by thecjm at 11:34 PM on April 13, 2012

The 50mm f/1.8 is compulsory. Image quality is fine, it's cheap, and bright enough to take pictures indoors without flash.

For wildlife you should get the IS kit long zoom the 55-250mm. It's really plasticy but it's cheap and stabilized. There are tons available second hand because its a kit lens in bundles at places like Costco where they sell a body with two lenses in a box.
In fact you could just buy one of those bundles and you'd get the long zoom and the standard zoom (which would be your travel lens).

Beyond that I'd save up for a camera with a full sized sensor.
posted by w0mbat at 12:16 AM on April 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

Seconding the Tamron 28-75, I shot professionally with two of them for a couple of years and they are sharper than the 24-70L although with much worse build quality. Tamron lenses in general are pretty awesome optically, a cut above Sigma if you're looking at third party glass.

The 50 1.8's a good lens but I always found 50mm to not be quite portraity enough on a cropped sensor, the 85 1.8 is probably my favourite cheap telephoto prime.

My advice though would be get the cheap two zoom lens bundle and just take a ridiculous amount of pictures until you figure out what you want to shoot. Modern DSLRs are wonderful things, compared to ten years ago we're living in a crazy scifi future photographically and I don't think there's an awful lot you couldn't achieve with the basic setup, a bit of technique and a tonne of practise. Remember that there's an entire marketing industry determined to convince you that you'll only get good results with more expensive equipment.

If there's an area you find that an expensive lens will help you with then rent one out for the weekend from someone like Calumet and see how it affects your photography and how it handles on your camera body and in your hands.
posted by brilliantmistake at 1:56 AM on April 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

The 50 f/1.8 is a great deal. However, I've found that if you accidentally drop the camera, lens down, it will break.

For comparison, the more expensive 50mm f/1.4, with better build quality, under the same treatment just gets kind of gritty on focus, to the point where AF doesn't work, but you can still do it manually. So really, don't do that.
posted by aubilenon at 2:16 AM on April 14, 2012

Best answer: I say get the kit lens, or the 2 kit lens packages. You've never owned a DSLR before - you are about to get a jump in quality that will boggle your mind, you don't need to drop an extra 2k on glass to get it.

Hanging on photography forums too much can really distort your thinking when it comes to gear - as I say this as someone who's spent a reasonable wack on camera equipment myself over the years. If you spend too much time on forums you'll end up thinking you need a different lens for each photo you take. Not true. Especially for the beginner.

Everyone likes to hate on kit lenses, but I tell you what, if you treat them right, you can you get fantastic results from them. Will they have the resolution of a lens three times the price? No. Is the resolution good enough for a 12 or more megapixel image that you will likely never ever view at anything close to 100%? Yes. Is it challenging to tell the different between a kit lens at f8 or f11 compared to a lens costing three times as much? More than you might think. You won't get the creamy bokeh and low light performance of a fast lens, but you may not want it. A kit lens will give you a taste of wide angle, "normal" view, and perhaps a soupcon of portrait length, too - especially on APSC. The second kit zoom - whatever that is - will give you a taste of telephoto.

I urge you to take the cheap "taste" you can get with these two lenses before dropping a bomb on more specific niche lenses. You may find you don't take as many photos of one particular type as you might think. For example, I currently have a Pentax DSLR and coveted their beautiful 15mm prime lens for several years. But when I looked at my photos, the vast majority were taken at longer focal lengths, and I decided to get the 28-75 tamron lens mentioned above and that's effectively married to my camera now. I wouldn't have known this without experimenting with the 18-55 kit lens first, and I saved myself a lot of money in the process. You might go the other way.

I know what it's like, those forums always telling you that you don't know what you're missing etc etc. I humbly submit that someone who's just dropped a grand on a complicated magnifying glass is going to want to justify that decision to themselves and the world in general any way they can. Nobody starting out with a DSLR needs an expensive lens. And nobody needs an expensive lens to take amazing pictures. Experiment with the cheap lenses that come with your kit, and see what you like. And stay away from those 18-250 superzooms, the convenience is not worth it!
posted by smoke at 4:27 AM on April 14, 2012 [4 favorites]

I can't agree enough about the 50mm. For the price, there is no better bang for your buck. I think just using this one lens the majority of the time and your legs you can get great shots without a telescoping lens. Also, you won't have to change your lens on the fly which is a pain.
There really is no easy way to keep the cost down with a longer lens. Any decent lens 100mm or longer is going to cost you more than $500. If you don't have the cash now, just get one lens and shoot lots of pictures. Your shots won't look better if you don't practice, no matter how expensive your equipment is.
posted by drug_dealer73 at 6:45 AM on April 14, 2012

The f1.8 50mm is possibly the best value-for-money glass you can get. The f1.4 is four times the price, and fifty times the awesomeness. If money is an issue, start with the 1.8. You can sell it on ebay later.

The EF 75-300 is the second-best value-for-money lens in the entire world.. It struggles for sharpness at the extremes of zoom, but you will get pictures you can print at A3 and frame on your walls, and you will because you are *proud* of them. Downside: You will start hankering for $4000 EF-L gear. Hanker. Hankering is almost free. (hankers quietly)

At the other end, consider getting some extension tubes. It's hard to describe how much fun you can have with a cheap-o extension tube, a prime lens and an ant. Seriously. Hours of fun. With an ant. Find a spider, and you will never be bored again. Ever. DO NOT BUY CANON EXTENSION TUBES. I mean - why pay extra for the branded version of (literally) nothing? Buy the Kenko ones. In most places, the spiders come for free.
posted by Combat Wombat at 7:12 AM on April 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

Buy the 50mm, either f1.8 or f1.4, depending on what you are willing to spend. For the travel and wildlife lenses, rent before buying, so that you don't get stuck with something that disappoints (and cheaper lenses more likely to disappoint, but even expensive ones can too.)

In my beginner mistake days I bought a couple of cheap lenses that turned out to be a huge waste of money. Now I rent first, always before buying. I am partial to, I've rented from them for years and have also purchased a used lens from them as well. Alternatively, you can decide that for trips you are going to rent lenses that you might otherwise not be able to buy.
posted by ambrosia at 8:05 AM on April 14, 2012

Best answer: I'd like to point out one thing that hasn't been mentioned yet - you are shooting with a crop sensor, so a 50mm lens is going to be an effective 80mm. This is a great focal length for portrait work, but no so great as an all-around/every day kind of lens. For that, you want something in the 35-50mm effective range (22-31mm).

For the uses you are thinking about:
1. I would reccomend buying the 35/2. This will allow you to take photos in most situations, only using the flash inside or when it is quite dark. The other alternative is the kit 18-55. This isn't a particularly great lens, but will give you bit more versatily. It will be very limited indoors or in the evening. You will need the flash much more often (an external flash will make you life much easier here).

2. The 18-200 is considered one of the better travel lenses. It is expensive, bulky and will have low light limitations. Travel is about the only area where the kit 18-55 will shine. It will keep your camera fairly light and setting at either focal length extreme will give you reasonable landscape or portrait shots. I have travelled a lot with my camera and I find that I keep my 35mm lens on most of the time to reduce bulk and weight.

3. Wildlife photography is a tough one. Many dedicated wildlife photographers like the 300mm focal length (on full frame sensors). Peope that only do some nature photography will use the mush more versatile 70-200mm. For wildlife, you are going to want to keep your exposure times short, which means shooting at a large aperture. The 70-200/2.8 (non-IS) is still $1500. You could go with the 70-200/4, but I think you would be better off buying a cheaper telephoto lens now (55-250 or 70-300, ranging from $200 to $300) and waiting until you can afford the 70-200/2.8 if this type of phototgraphy is something you reallly enjoy.

In general, don't be buying any L glass any time soon (or even slightly better lenses such as the 50/1.4). They are great lenses, but not worth the money when you are starting out. First, there is the risk of damage. If you drop one of these, you are out a significant amount of money. Second, you don't yet know what focal lengths you favour. When I first started out, I really wanted a 70-200/2.8, but it turned out that what fit my photography style was a 35/1.4.

Also, don't buy third party lenses until you know what you are doing. Each brand and lens has their quirks. Many of them have quality control issues, which can really mess with you when you are starting out.

To sum up it all up, buy the kit 18-55 and/or 35/2, and the 55-250. This will do most of what you want. When you get tired of their limitations, think about the 18-55/2.8 and 70-200/2.8 (IS vs. non-IS is a whole other debate).
posted by Ctrl_Alt_ep at 8:38 AM on April 14, 2012

The 50mm lens is my most-used lens. It's the one I usually keep on my camera.

Food blogger David Lebovitz's guide was actually really helpful to me when I was first looking at lenses. It's food photography driven, but it gives you some first-hand recommendations based on his usage.
posted by theuninvitedguest at 8:58 AM on April 14, 2012

Best answer: I would get the kit zoom lens and the 50mm 1.8, and spend some time with that to figure out what you want to upgrade to. Honestly, getting good low light performance at a wide range of zooms is expensive. Having the 50mm 1.8 will allow you to play with wide open aperture shots, and will work good for portraits.

I ended up with the 50mm f1.8, the tamron 17-50 f2.8, and the canon 70-200 f4 is, and that covers almost everything I want to do, but at that point we're talking around $2000 in lenses.

Until you have time to play with stuff, I wouldn't suggest buying any fixed length lens other than the 50mm 1.8 now. If after a little while with a zoom lens you find that a lot of your photo's are taken at around the same zoom, you could then buy a fixed lens which matches up, and you know you'll be happy.

Another thing to keep in mind is that your camera body may last you 5 years or so, but if you treat them right, you can use your lenses for decades. That is why people spend thousands of dollars on lenses to match up with a sub 1k camera. The lenses will continue to work for the next camera you get.

As far as image quality goes, in the hands of a new photographer the kit lenses that are available today will all get you 95% of the way to a more expensive lens. The main differences for you right now are going to be the focus speed and loudness, and the depth of field and low light performance.

If you really want to invest in some great glass now, than get the canon 17-55 2.8 IS, and the 70-200 f4 IS. That will cover almost everything you'll want to do, give you IS so that you can work better in lower light, and open up wide enough to give you some nice shallow depth of field images. You'll be out about $2500, but you might not ever want or need to buy another lens ever again.
posted by markblasco at 9:05 AM on April 14, 2012

Another vote for the Tamron 28-75 f/2.8. Not only is it a third the price of the Canon 24-70L, it's half the weight. Really great walking around lens, the range is pretty good on the APS sized sensors. Not quite wide enough is the main limitation.
posted by Nelson at 9:17 AM on April 14, 2012

what smoke says. get the kit lens. (maaaayybe the 50mm) wait before you buy anything else until you get a sense of what you NEED.
just got the nikon d5100 myself (used to have the d200)...its a very similar camera to the canon you're thinking of and i could argue its superiority until i'm blue in the face, but, y'know...mac/pc, canon/nikon, apples/other apples...they are very similar. (the nikon iso goes another stop or two to 25K, but it does get a bit noisy/fuzzy...but i like low light situatiuons) the thing that really blew me away: the kit lens. kit lenses used to be a total joke back in the day...not anymore. I assume it's just because theyve thrown enough robots into the mfg process. really impressed with the VR (IS in canonspeak), the quickness of the AF, and the quality.
Let your kit lens tell you what you need next. bumping up against one end of the zoom or the other?...get a wider angle or telephoto. shooting in the dark and frustrated that your apeture doesn't open wider?...get a faster lens. not able to focus close enough? get a macro. and etc...
(for me, the special needs lens it a 10-20mm flat field (not fisheye) wide angle zoom that i use for shooting lets you stand in a corner and shoot both walls without the lines being all curved...great for shooting small spaces and making rooms look bigger...but sit the family on the couch and they look like they're a mile not for portraits)
posted by sexyrobot at 10:31 AM on April 14, 2012

Response by poster: Great answers so far. I agree with smoke in that I was/am terribly confused by reading the forums as well as reviews on Amazon. If I think about it brutally, indoor parties with children and travel (landscapes with people in it!) are the two common times I will use the camera for - with photos of people performing on stage (either during the day or on brightly-lit stage) coming a close third.

Oh and I forgot to mention that printing my own glossy coffee-table book with photos and descriptions is one of my goals I am working on this year.

I am currently leaning towards kit lens, then 50mm 1.8 + Speedlite and then probably the 55-250mm. Hopefully, I can save enough for an L-series lens (hankering after the 100-400mm L IS USM I saw a friend use).

Renting seems to be a great option right now, so will check that out.

I currently have the Panasonic FZ7, a superzoom, but it had a good lens and with a range till 432 mm, I did take some great photographs and am kind of spoiled because of the zoom on the built-in lens. Indoors, however, it is pathetic beyond measure.

Do I need a UV filter (Hoya 58mm UV (Ultra Violet) Multi Coated Glass Filter) and a polarizer too? Any decent camera bags?

I am also going to be at a Uni convocation, with bright sunlight and no way of getting close to the stage - any specific lens suggestion for renting?

Sorry for so many questions, but I am kind of excited to be able to get good quality shots
posted by theobserver at 11:12 AM on April 14, 2012

Re: filters, some people seem to think it's good to have an extra piece of replacable glass in front of the lens to protect the front element; others state that anything that would break the filter would destory the lens anyway and small scratches on the front element have less impact on image quality than another layer of glass, so it's better to go without a filter unless you really need one (ie. a polarizing filter to reduce reflections). I tend to support the second theory.

I have a Crumpler Daily L camera bag that I really like because I can completely remove the inside padding and use it as an everyday/laptop bag. A bag of this size will comfortably fit all your gear (while not weighing too much or being too cumbersome) plus a laptop, if you don't mind the weight.
posted by daniel_charms at 11:51 AM on April 14, 2012

Tamron lenses in general are pretty awesome optically, a cut above Sigma if you're looking at third party glass.

Sigma 30mm f1.4 and 10-20 are probably better than the Tamron equivalent and are the best of my lenses. The 30 is better than the canon 50 f.14, IMO.

About 75% of my shots are either the 30mm or 10mm. 10% my canon 100mm f2.8 macro. 10% my 50mm f1.4 and 5% my 70-200. The longer glass being mostly used at weddings and events. IMO 50mm is just too damn long as a walk-around lens on APS-C.
posted by pjaust at 1:45 PM on April 14, 2012 is a helpful place but it can skew your view of what is reasonable to spend, especially when you are new. One of the more helpful places on that site is the lens sample archive where people post photos using specific lenses so you can get some idea of what they can produce. I would recommend looking specifically at the threads for the kit lenses- the 18-55 and 55-250. You will see some spectacular shots.

Everyone says you must get the nifty fifty. I did and don't like it for what I shoot- it's too long on a crop sensor in my opinion. Yes, it's only $100 but $100 is a lot of money. $100 to a real shutterbug is pocket change. The UV filter question is loaded and the answer is that there is no correct answer. I don't use them, I use the hoods but it's a personal decision. I would hold off on a polarizer until you have a better idea of what you are doing. Cheap polarizers suck and good ones are pricey.

Don't be afraid to think about buying used- especially for the bodies. The lenses you can use for decades, the bodies will have a useful lifetime of 5+ years. I made the mistake of buying tons of lenses and gear before I knew what I was doing and what I really needed. Gear won't make me a better photographer, getting out and taking shots will.
posted by karlos at 1:47 PM on April 14, 2012

Oh, and get a real flash.
posted by karlos at 1:48 PM on April 14, 2012

One thing that hasn't been covered, on a budget a 100mm / 2.8 can also be quite useful for indoor, flashless photography. It works well for indoor sports for example where a flash can be distracting to both players and onlookers. This is especially true on a crop sensor...

That said, I would go with the kit + 50mm then move to some of the other lenses when you have a better feel for the camera.

One last thing, ebay is actually a reasonably good source for "new in box" canon lenses. It has it's risks, but around the holidays lots of people buy 7Ds or 5Ds as a kit. Often they will turn around and sell the kit lens at a substantial discount. This is one way to move up from the T3i kit lens to one of the better kit lenses canon bundles with a 7D or 5D...
posted by NoDef at 2:22 PM on April 14, 2012

My entire Canon kit was assembled from eBay auctions and everything worked out great. Don't be afraid of the eBay.
posted by the jam at 6:04 PM on April 14, 2012

The 50 f/1.8 is a great deal. However, I've found that if you accidentally drop the camera, lens down, it will break.

Seconding aubilenon's comment. I've had my nifty-fifty broken 3x already (I play rough with my equipment), so:

Get a rubber lens hood, and install it! Now! When (not if!) you drop your camera, it will provide a good bit more cushioning on that first, high-energy impact (assuming it lands lens-down, which is likely). When not in use, the hood retracts back over the shaft, but still provides a layer of rubber protecting the edge of the lens. You can get a cheap one for ~$10 off Ebay - this isn't about picture quality, so go cheap.

As an optical engineer, I'd disagree somewhat with the "don't bother with a protective filter" argument; when the first surface gets non-trivially scratched, the whole lens is pretty much a goner. It's almost the most fragile, and most-forward, part of your entire system.

BTW, a "good" flash means one of two things:
1. A flash that "speaks" with your camera settings, adjusting itself for proper distance and exposure, OR
2. A much, much cheaper flash that has manual adjustability, with a looooong learning curve until you understand how to adjust it properly. (Fortunately, with review LCDs on-camera you can retake the bad shots, usually.)

Option #1 can easily be as expensive as a decent lens.
posted by IAmBroom at 9:37 AM on April 16, 2012

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