DSLR filter: Help me pick my first non-kit lens!
June 5, 2012 2:46 PM   Subscribe

Several years ago, I purchased a Canon Digital Rebel XT (EOS 350D) with the kit lens (EF-S 18-55mm). I've gotten a bit better since the early days, and I have a good eye, but I'm still not well-versed in the really technical stuff. In any case, I'll be taking a trip to Scotland later this year, and I'd really like to use my first overseas trip in over ten years as an excuse to upgrade my lens to something nicer. Complications: I'm also getting married soon and of course paying for said overseas trip, so my budget is pretty low, at least in terms of lenses—no more than $500, and preferably below $400.

I tend to take a fairly even mix of macro, portrait, and landscape/architecture shots, so I'm essentially looking for a solid, general-purpose lens upgrade. (I'm usually not shooting action, so that's lower priority.) I'm guessing that all of this means I should only be looking at zoom lenses, but if I'm being an idiot, please feel free to (gently!) let me know.

Note: I'd prefer not to bring the kit lens along with me on my vacation (the less I have to carry with me when I'm walking around all day, the better), so recommendations should be limited to true replacement lenses rather than supplements. I can supplement with niche lenses a few years down the line, when I'm more skilled than I am now.

So far, after some research, the Canon EF 28-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM is at the top of my list. Is this a good choice? Is it wide enough for a decent landscape shot, considering the 350D's sensor? Or is there something else in the same price range that I should consider instead? The review I've linked suggests that background burring might leave a bit to be desired, so if there's something else in this range that improves in this area without sacrificing elsewhere, I'd be interested to know what it is. (Or, perhaps the reviewer is being picky enough that at my skill level I'll never know the difference. Fine with me!)
Bokeh (foreground and background blur quality) is fine, but the 6-blade aperture is not going to deliver excellence with OOF (out-of-focus) highlights when stopped down. And, creating a diffusely-blurred background is not one of this lens' specialties due to an only moderately wide aperture. At 135mm, the background is magnified/compressed enough to create some blur if the subject is relatively close and/or the background is distant from the subject.
As a side note, before my trip I'll also be getting Custom SLR's C-Loop mount and Glide Strap (comfort ahoy!), and I plan on purchasing the recommended hood for whatever lens I end up with (let's skip the hood vs. UV-filter debate). But, if you have any other off-hand camera/photography travel tips/suggestions you'd like to share, please do!
posted by divisjm to Technology (16 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
The 28-135 was the first lens I had. It's pretty versatile.

Honestly I stopped using it as soon as I got a 50mm prime. I'd recommend the 1.4, because it's so much better constructed. The 1.8 is almost as sharp and almost as fast, but manual focus on it is difficult, and mine came apart (I am not at all gentle with my equipment).

My meta-recommendation is to rent lenses to try them out. I don't know the camera shops around you, but I'm sure there's some good ones. Also there's always Rentglass which is cheaper, but less convenient.
posted by aubilenon at 3:08 PM on June 5, 2012

I borrowed a 28-135, and I wasn't crazy about it. Further, on a crop body, there's no wide end.

I'd recommend either the Canon 15-85 or the Tamron 17-50 as a replacement zoom. The Tamron will be faster, but third-party lenses can sometimes have focus issues. The 15-85 is slower and a little more expensive, but you could find a deal on one, especially if you're willing to grab a used copy.
posted by Sticherbeast at 3:20 PM on June 5, 2012

I'm essentially looking for a solid, general-purpose lens upgrade.

A solid, general purpose lens upgrade: Sigma 30mm f/1.4

Lens talk is all subjective, so take my opinion in stride. But: you can't go wrong with a nice fast prime lens of normal length. This one is a gem. Unless you are going to spend a good amount of money, zoom lenses are just a bundle of compromises. The 350d is capable of really fine photographs, but not if you stick inferior lenses in front of it.
posted by gyusan at 3:30 PM on June 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have that lens, and it's pretty decent. I also have the 1.8mm prime, which is a steal for the price (even given its pretty cheap construction), but use the 28-135 a whole lot more. Actually, I only use those two lenses, but when you're traveling and walking around, the 28-135 is a lot more versatile.

I agree that the bokeh is not OMG awesome. It's okay. I think it's a very reasonable and versatile lens at that price point, though.
posted by MoonOrb at 3:44 PM on June 5, 2012

The Canon 35mm f/2 was my first thought, until I saw that you didn't want to take two lenses. I would not only take a prime on a trip.

The lens you picked is a good one, but like Stitcherbeast mentioned, you're not getting super-wide with it. If you want to take pictures of buildings or plazas, that might be an issue, unless you want to take multiple exposures and stitch them into a panorama later (which is easier with a tri- or monopod).

Maybe the 17-85 f/4-5.6? (Again, I'm echoing Stitcherbeast.) It's slow, so you'll have issues indoors or at night (stay away from built-in flash!). It's also outside your price range.

I would try playing around with your current kit lens now to see if you'll miss the 17-28mm range of the zoom. If not, the 28-135 should work a treat.
posted by supercres at 3:44 PM on June 5, 2012

Don't buy, rent! Renting is way cheaper, you can try out a couple of different lenses before making a commitment. I like borrowlenses.com personally, have had great experience.

I rented both the 15-85 (slow, and lots of vignetting) and the 24-70 (gorgeous shots, but HEAVY.) I eventually purchased a used copy of the 24-105 (a little slower than the 24-70, but much lighter, so for me a happy tradeoff.) The 24-105 is my walking-around lens now.

When I travel, I also always rent a 10-22, and am always glad I did, so if you were willing to consider bringing a second lens, I'd suggest that. I've been really pleased with some of the shots I've been able to get on it, and have never begrudged carrying it around.
posted by ambrosia at 3:45 PM on June 5, 2012

Unless you are going to spend a good amount of money, zoom lenses are just a bundle of compromises.

I used the Sigma 30 1.4 back in the day, and it's very nice. Get it if you'd like it. I have a prime lens as my main walkaround lens myself.

That said, it's no longer true that prime lenses are always better than zoom lenses. This was once true a few decades ago, but optical engineering has improved by quite a bit since then.

What you gain from using the 30 1.4 is the fact that it's faster. There's also the fact that being stuck with one focal length often forces you to be creative.

However, aside from the speed, it is not any better optically than the Tamron 17-50. If you don't believe me, check out the MTF charts from the reviews for the Sigma 30 1.4 on the 350D and the Tamron 17-50 on the 350D. The lenses keep pace in the center, but the Tamron zoom performs much better in the corners and borders than the Sigma prime.

The point is, it's a compromise either way. The Sigma is only really sharp in the center, but it's faster, whereas the Tamron is slower, but it's sharp across the frame. What's more important to you?
posted by Sticherbeast at 3:46 PM on June 5, 2012

I went with the Tamron 17-50, and it is pretty fantastic. It doesn't have vibration reduction (although they do have a version with that feature, the image quality is not supposed to be as good), but it goes down to 2.8 across the whole zoom range. That 2.8 is what is going to help give you more background blur, which is what you are looking for.

While having a good prime lens or two is always a great idea, I think from what you posted, going with a prime is not going to satisfy you. You want an easy to use all in one solution, which leads you to a zoom. the big range zooms, like the one you listed, will give you more range than your current lens, but I don't know exactly how much of an increase in image quality you will see. They have to make sacrifices somewhere to get such a large zoom range.

The only downside I have found with the Tamron 17-50 is that the auto focus is not as fast as the better canon lenses I've used (I've got the 70-200 F4 and it is fantastic and focuses instantly), but I think the zoom speed would probably be comparable to your kit lens (although to be fair, I haven't used the kit lens in a long long time). This is only an issue if you want to be getting action shots, which you mentioned wasn't something you would be doing. Everything else about the lens is fantastic.
posted by markblasco at 3:52 PM on June 5, 2012

The 28-135 was the first upgrade lens that I got (also for a trip abroad!) and it performed well (also on a 350D!). It's a solid performer and probably will last you a few years until you decide you want to upgrade to a higher end lens (my neighbor raves about the 17-55 2.8 IS EFS, but I think that's $1000 or so.

I do tend to avoid third-party lenses; I don't find them as reliable, though they can seem like a great deal.

None of the zooms in that price range are revelatory--it's all about compromise!

As for general tips, I am strongly in favor of the Gorillapod--a flexible tripod that can attach your camera to any post, pole, rock, tree, what have you, AND the super cheap Canon RC-1 remote to trigger pics of yourself and your new spouse.

Have fun!
posted by Admiral Haddock at 3:54 PM on June 5, 2012

Thanks so much for the thoughts so far. I'd like to offer a few clarifications at this stage (...but keep the suggestions coming!):

(1) I'll definitely consider renting before committing, but I'd also like to have a few picks in mind before doing so. Thanks for this suggestion; it hadn't occurred to me that this was an option.

(2) Although I would prefer to carry just one lens, if two really is the smarter way to go and this could still be accomplished in my price range (even if that means still using the kit lens as one of those), I don't necessarily object. I don't see myself being thrilled with the idea of switching back and forth all the time, but I suppose I don't usually adjust the zoom between shots now all that much anyway, unless we're talking about altering between portraits and landscapes. (Besides, the note about forcing creativity actually does appeal to me. I love trying to get interesting angles on what might otherwise be dull shots, so hey, why not.)
posted by divisjm at 4:03 PM on June 5, 2012

If you wanted to go prime, the Canon 28mm f/1.8 is a good lens in that price range. I've taken some lovely pictures with mine. On a crop sensor camera it's equivalent to a 44mm, so basically a little wider than standard. Also the 50mm 1.8 is amazing value and for about your budget you could buy the pair. I've since upgraded to a body with a full sized sensor and I'm still using these lenses all the time, along with a 100mm f/2.0. As you can tell, I love wide aperture primes that are fairly priced.
posted by w0mbat at 4:08 PM on June 5, 2012

The combination of the Tamron 17-50 2.8 and the Canon 50mm 1.8 is a nice combo, since you get a great zoom, and if you want to do some more shallow focus stuff, the 50mm 1.8 does well with that, and has fantastic image quality. If you are OK buying used than you can certainly afford both.
posted by markblasco at 6:39 PM on June 5, 2012

What do you do with the pictures? Web albums, 4x6 prints, large prints? Do you need shallow focus? Do you need very low light capability?

Consider the 18-200, 18-250 (discontinued, available only used now), and 18-270 Tamrons and 18-200 and 18-250 Sigmas - all have IS versions. And the Canon 18-200 IS.
posted by caclwmr4 at 6:57 PM on June 5, 2012

I won't repeat the solid advice you've received here from others. Instead, here's a fantastic resource: http://www.pixel-peeper.com/adv/

Search for photos taken with specific cameras and/or lenses at specific focal lengths, aperture, etc. I find it an invaluable resource when comparing lenses and when considering a new one.
posted by fakelvis at 12:39 AM on June 6, 2012

Thanks again to everyone who offered their advice. After reading these responses, doing some additional research, and thinking more deeply about what I'm really looking for in a lens, I think it's likely that I'll be going with the Tamron 17-50mm and the Canon 50mm f/1.8. I've realized that I really don't want to loose any width versus the kit lens; in fact, I would much prefer to add to it. I may well rent before committing, but judging by what I see with those lenses and the EOS 350D body on Pixel Peeper (what a great site!), I think I'll be quire happy with those two, and still within my budget if I go used.

In short: Every single one of these answers helped me in some way. You're all awesome, and I'm totally psyched about trying these lenses out, both here and (hopefully) in Scotland. Thanks!
posted by divisjm at 11:58 AM on June 6, 2012

Quite! Quite! (Quire? I mean, I know I'm a bookbinder, but sheesh.)
posted by divisjm at 12:02 PM on June 6, 2012

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