The photographer and the lens
January 30, 2008 1:44 AM   Subscribe

What lens to buy?

I'm thinking of upgrading my lens arsenal.

To wit, what say you about the following combination to replace my Canon 50mm 1.8 II.

-Canon EF 28mm f/1.8 USM
-Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM
-Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM

My interests are pretty eclectic, and I don't particularly restrict myself to one style or the other. However the plan is to slowly turn photography from a hobby into a source of income; as such I want to do more free lance gigs (I've done a few already), and expand my stock portfolio.

Would this combination of lenses work well? I know there is nothing truly wide, but Canon doesn't make an affordable (i.e non L) and fast prime that's truly wide, especially on a x1.6 sensor. I figure seeing how used I am to shooting on 50, it will feel, comparatively, 'wider'.

A possible alternative, that I'm not wild about, is simply getting the 17-55 2.8 IS. However I'm much in love with the speed and quality of primes, as well as their low weight and that they are pretty cheap. Plus, I'd like to keep my options open if I decided to switch to a full frame camera (EF-S lens aren't compatible) at some stage in the future.

I'm not really sold on third party lens. The gestalt seems to work better when it's homogenous.

Can you see any weaknesses? Something I've forgotten? Any advice would be swell.
posted by oxford blue to Shopping (23 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Agreed with what you plan.

Consider a nice fast 120mm instead of an 80?

Ebay makes lens buying fun.
posted by mattoxic at 1:51 AM on January 30, 2008

Response by poster: I was thinking about that, but I read this in a review of the 100mm 2.0:

That said, I would choose the Canon EF 85 f1.8 Lens if I were to have one similar-priced portrait lens on a 1.6x crop DSLR. The Canon EF 100mm f/2.0 USM Lens feels a bit tight indoors on these cameras.

I think down the line (though after buying these it may very well be way down the line) I may pickup for 100mm 2.8 macro just for a little extra reach, plus OGM macro (lots of fun).
posted by oxford blue at 2:01 AM on January 30, 2008

What exactly do you want to photograph?

The lens arsenal you list is great for portraiture (85mm) to reportage (28mm) - fast, available light lenses - people oriented I would assume, outside of the confines of a studio/controlled light limitations.

Within that assumption, I could think of nothing more that you'd need.

I have a slight preference for a 21mm to use in interiors - which is great for real estate/interior design situations. At the other end of the spectrum I have a 180mm 2.8 for shooting performance - both of which are areas of photography that are easy to get into and earn money from.
posted by strawberryviagra at 3:15 AM on January 30, 2008

If you're thinking about getting the 100mm macro, I'd probably skip the 85mm. I have the 50mm, 85mm, 100m, and 17-55mm, and I get a lot more use out of the 100mm than the 85. The 17-55mm is probably overpriced, but it's good for when you only want to carry one lens.
posted by 0xFCAF at 4:11 AM on January 30, 2008

I'm selling my 100mm f2.0 on ebay right now.

It's a nice lens, I have taken some really nice portraits with it. The above posters are right, it does feel pretty tight indoors, especially in candid situations.

That said, I'm really only selling it because I replaced it with the 70-200 2.8.
posted by davey_darling at 5:30 AM on January 30, 2008

50 / 1.4 without a doubt. Solid, fast and nice angle. Course, it's not an L, but it is widely considered to be L glass quality without the same build quality. However, the 1.4 still has the nicer, older metal mounts that the Ls and the older Canon lenses have.

If you're on a full-frame body, i.e. 5d or 1D1M3 go for the 85 / 1.8
posted by damiano99 at 5:35 AM on January 30, 2008

nth-ing the 50mm f/1.4 - I upgraded after breaking the 50mm f/1.8, and it is so much better. It feels faster, focuses faster and quieter, has the distance scale, and has a more standard filter thread size.

As others have said, though, it all depends on what you use the lens for the most - but as far as an all-purpose lens, 50mm pretty much hits the spot.

Some people say that to achieve an equivalent 50mm focal length on a 1.6x crop DSLR, you need to use a 30mm lens or thereabouts - there's a few in the Canon lineup that may be suitable (the 28mm f/1.8 is one).
Check out the Canon EF and EF-S lens group, or perhaps the other groups dedicated to some of the lenses you're interested in...
posted by Chunder at 6:18 AM on January 30, 2008

I have the 28 f/1.8. I used it quite a lot on my Rebel XT. I use it very little on my 5d, what with having a 17-40 to cover that lens. I do still pull it out for concerts from time to time.
posted by notsnot at 6:19 AM on January 30, 2008

I have the 85mm f/1.8. The focus is fast, the bokeh is nice, and it makes a good portrait lens on the XT. It's very tight. Good for head shots, but unless you are out doors, not for much else.

The next lens I plan on buying is the 28mm f/1.8. It seems to be the most versatile of the lot you've listed; it's much closer to a normal lens then the 50mm on a 1.6 crop body. I haven't used the 50mm f/1.4, but I wouldn't bother with that. I find the 50mm on a 1.6 body to be an odd length -- though I do use my 50mm f/1.8 fairly often.
posted by chunking express at 6:45 AM on January 30, 2008

I recomend the 35mm f2. It's a crappily built lens but it actually takes very sharp pictures. it's also really nice at f2. It vignettes heavily wide open, so you have a sort of instant holga effect. It's a really inexpensive lens and works out to a little more than a 50mm equivalent on the cropped sensor cameras.

The 35mm 1.4 is supposed to be a killer lens. I've never seen one in the flesh but I hear they are wonderful.

I find the 50mm to be not as useful on the small sensor cameras. It's a pretty good portrait lens, but otherwise...not so much. The 85mm is a lovely, lovely lens, with really nice boceh and it's just smooth as silk. I have it (and actually can't #$^#$^ find it) but carry the 100mm instead because they are so similar. I have a 5d though, so we're talking apples and oranges.

I have the 24mm 2.8. It's a piece of crap. I think the 28mm 1.4 is a really good bet. You can use that on the 5d someday too. It would be awesome. I will be jealous.

After shooting with only primes for a long time, having a nice normal zoom would be really good. think about it. Every time you open your camera up you are exposing the sensor to dust, which can ruin your day (I had to retouch 600 images from a wedding this summer that had massive amounts of dust on them). You slam that zoom on there and your ready to go. I would never recomend an f4 zoom (although I consider the 17-40 because I need wide and I'm poor), but 2.8 is pretty fast. Only a stop better than f2, which is quite fast.

One other thing, I don't think you can close focus with any of these lenses. Definitely not the 85mm. That's a big reason I got the 100mm. I'm not sure about the 28mm...I'm guessing no. I'm not sure either about the 17-55. But if you want to do any macro or detail shots, it gets to be a big problem. You may be able to rig some extension tubes on one of them, I'm not sure. I don't think so.
posted by sully75 at 6:48 AM on January 30, 2008

btw...I generally hate review sites but fred miranda reviews have been really helpful in the past. the forums have reviews on pretty much everything and you can see people sharing experiences on whatever you are looking to buy.
posted by sully75 at 7:01 AM on January 30, 2008

The 85mm definitely doesn't focus close; I think you need to be about a meter away from your subject. The 50mm and the 28mm will focus much closer, though probably not close enough for macro work. That said, macro photography is so niche you'll probably want to buy a macro lens (1:1).

Also, I wouldn't worry too much about dust. Being able to swap out lenses lenses is one of the big pluses of owning an SLR. (Though, i'm not a big fan of zooms so I may be biased here.)

Non-USM lenses are hard to go back to after you've used a USM lens; I wouldn't bother looking at the 35 f/2, 28 f/2.8, etc.
posted by chunking express at 7:23 AM on January 30, 2008

chunking...the 35mm f2 is a gem. It's got the ugly focusing sound and cheap build but it's an awesome lens to work with, particularly at the price. the 28 is pretty lame. I might have a bad copy though. I've heard a lot of people like it, and I think mine might have gotten less sharp over the years.

I found that I couldn't do even basic still life photography with a lot of the wider primes. Not macro, just pretty close. I found the 50mm, 85mm and 28mm all focus about the same distance, relatively (just the 28mm you are physically closer but you are getting about the same amount of stuff in the picture). The 35mm you can actually get a little closer, I'm not sure why.

It's definitely nice to swap out lenses. Lately I've found a lot of occasions where it kind of sucks though too. I did 35 portraits on Saturday and swapped lenses many times and a zoom would have had some advantages. I love shooting at f2 or less though, so I guess I'm screwed.
posted by sully75 at 7:36 AM on January 30, 2008

As a fellow prime fiend, I would highly recommend the 28 f/1.8, especially over the 35mm that a lot of people here are mentioning. The build quality's higher, the focus is faster, the USM ring is a lot "nicer", the colours are smoother, the shadows are deeper and it's just all round better, especially stopped down inbetween 2.2 and 5.

However, the 50mm is probably the best lens out of those three. For some reason, 50mm lenses are just made much better than other ones. But the lens length is just far too long for me for general street shots. My 50mm hops on and off my camera when I'm doing portraits etc, but the 28mm lives on it most of the time.

A good 90% of the shots in here were taken with a 28mm:
posted by Magnakai at 8:21 AM on January 30, 2008

Oh, and while the 85mm is very good, for a telephoto the 100mm macro lens might be worth considering for a bit of added versatility. It's a bit pricier, but the quality is very high. Lovely, lovely bokeh.
posted by Magnakai at 8:28 AM on January 30, 2008

btw the 50mm has some build quality problems. Someone mentioned this to me and I checked mine and the autofocus was front focusing badly. I sent it back to canon (under warranty) and they fixed it. It's spot on now. Apparently there is a QC issue with that lens and focusing.
posted by sully75 at 8:36 AM on January 30, 2008

You might look at the Tamron 28-75mm f/2.8. It's not a prime, admittedly, but it's a darn good lens. A lot of people consider it to be nearly the equal of L glass. Add the 50mm f/1.4 if you still need that primey goodness and/or the 100mm macro if you want a bit of extra reach.
posted by kindall at 9:05 AM on January 30, 2008

As indicated upthread, this totally depends on what you're shooting. Primes are great, but if you are in any live environments (events, concerts, journalism, etc.) that demand flexibility, you may find yourself wanting a zoom lens down the road.

I love me my primes, but I finally picked up a nice 17-35 2.8 (I'm a Nikon guy), and it is just awesome.
posted by asuprenant at 9:32 AM on January 30, 2008

I just realized you are asking about buying all three lenses. If you do get a zoom, for the price of those three lenses you can probably get the 28 - 70mm f/2.8 L is probably the way to go. The non-L zooms are slow (in terms of fstops) and probably don't perform that well. Mind you, zoom lenses are heavy.
posted by chunking express at 10:20 AM on January 30, 2008

there's also the Sigma 30mm f/1.4 DC HSM; it's crop-sensor only but reviews far better than the 28mm f/1.8 USM and from my limited experience (mounted on a friend's XTi) would be a better wide-angle choice than the 28.

I have the 50 f/1.4 and the 85 f/1.8, and on a crop camera, there's a fair bit of room between them, and you may find yourself using the 50 where you expected to use the 85; this is by no means a bad thing, as I've found the 85 great for getting in a little tighter than expected, and absolutely stunning for low-light event photography.

also, I had an AskMe a few months back (here) that may be of some help to you.
posted by heeeraldo at 11:39 AM on January 30, 2008

For what it's worth, I've heard the 30mm sigma is a touch on the soft side. I haven't seen extensive reviews though. I think Mike Johnson at The Digital Photographer had one for a while, was really excited and then ultimately dissapointed.

And yes, it doesn't work on full framers.
posted by sully75 at 1:40 PM on January 30, 2008

I would like to nix the 50 1.4. My copy is falling apart after 2 years and most of the PJs I've talked to have a 50 1.8 because it's as poorly built as the 50 1.4 but much, much cheaper and only 2/3 stop darker.
posted by jedrek at 2:51 PM on January 30, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks for all the advice; Its given me a lot to think about.

Sorry for the confusion, but as chunking express says, I'm thinking about getting all three. The combined cost of which is just a few hundred dollars over the cost of the 17-55 2.8 IS.
posted by oxford blue at 3:24 PM on January 30, 2008

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