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  1. #1
    Join Date
    Jul 2004
    Location
    Grafton, MA
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    1,714

    Are "L" lenses worth the $$$$?

    You know, something I have to remember as I answer lens recommendations is that I may not necessarily use a lens the way most people are using lenses, so I guess I need to take it a little easy on the third parties...after all, I'm the world's biggest cheapskate (I'll eat up $5 in gas to save $2 on a DVD!).

    It's just that the evolution of my kit follows a frustrating path that I see all to many photographers taking:

    Period #1 - Buy a couple of lenses that you can afford to get started...
    During this period I started with the DReb Kit, the Canon 50 f1.8, and the Sigma 55-200. Did a couple of paid gigs, and even more free portraits. Learned that the 50 f1.8 was the only lens that got me results that were as sharp as I wanted, the others were consistently soft (however, the jury's out as to whether the softness was due to optics, AF accuracy, or user error - I'll bet if I looked at the EXIF on a lot of those older shots, I'll see that I had no business handholding at those SS's). I still have the 50 f1.8, the others are sold - lost about $100 on the sale.


    Period #2 - Business is picking up, time to upgrade the lenses to the sharpest, fastest, most affordable glass I can get away with...

    During this period, it was my belief that "L" glass was overrated, and that there were some great third party options for hundreds less - this was partially true and partially wishful thinking. This was the period where the money started to come in from the first round of (barely) paid weddings. I bought the following lenses:

    Tamron 35-105 f2.8 ($150) - not very sharp on my DREB, heavy as all get out. Sold it for $125.

    Tamron 28-75 F2.8 ($370) - SHARP on my Dreb and 20D, lightweight with nice build. Focus hunted in dimly lit churches and reception halls. Sold it for $350.

    Sigma 18-50 f2.8 ($350) - SHARP on my Dreb and 20D, solid build. Focus hunted in dimly lit churches and reception halls, then pretended to lock on when it really wasn't. Traded it + $100 for Canon 17-85.

    Canon 135mm f2.8 SF ($289) - Sharp with good Canon non-L prime image quality, it was a focal length I couldn't get used to at the time (too short for tele, too long for portraits). I also hadn't yet realized that the 1/FL rule needed to have the CF added in! Sold it for $279.

    Canon 85 f1.8 ($289) - I picked up this lens with the proceeds from the sale of the 135. This one's the real deal...the lens that taught me what good bokeh looks like. Still have it!

    Canon 80-200 f2.8L ($800) - This should probably go in "phase 3" but I bought it during "phase 2". This lens convinced me of the color, contrast, and "undefinable magical quality" of "L" lenses, but didn't provide me with a reason to upgrade my other lenses. In fact, if anything, it kept me from upgrading for a longer period of time because it focused just as poorly in low light as the others (no USM). Still has the best color/contrast/whatever of all of the lenses I own. Still have it!

    During this period, I got my first USM "L" lens (the 28-70L). That lens was a revelation! The Tamron was just as sharp, but the Canon had better color, and a generally more "creamy" quality to the pics. The real bonus, however, was how quickly and accurately the lens focused. My OOF shots dropped dramatically when I switched from the Tamron 28-75 to the Canon 28-70L.



    Period #3 - All Canon, all the time (AKA - realizing you get what you pay for)

    During this period, I realized that it was my non-Canon glass that was causing so many unusably OOF shots. It started with my 28-70L mated with my 20D + 550EX flash. The system that was engineered to work together worked the best together, Duh... I upgraded my kit accordingly:

    Canon 28-70 f2.8L ($600) - Already said it, this lens woke me up to why pros demand "L" lenses. I was happy with the image quality of the Tamron when I bought the Canon (though I wasn't using the Tamron much because I preferred the FL of the Sigma 18-50), and in side to side tests, the Tamron was just as sharp, but the "indefinable" "L" quality was definitely present, so the images generally looked more "3D" than the Tamron could produce. Did I mention how fast and accurate the focus was/is? This was the first lens that could focus quickly, accurately, and consistantly in all of my venues - no matter how dark! Still have it!

    Canon 17-85 IS (Traded Sigma 18-50 + $100) - Thought I could get away with a Canon USM Non-L, that the IS would make up for the loss of speed, and that sharp sample images I took with the lens would translate to the real world. Unfortunately, the Sigma 18-50 it replaced was sharper, and the Canon 28-70 I shot beside it produced more "pro-looking" output. In my "real world" the 17-85 produced muddy, "kit lens looking" images. I traded it + another $100 for a Canon 17-40L.

    Canon 17-40L (Traded Canon 17-85 + $100) - This lens proved to me that USM "L's" are better - the 28-70 wasn't a fluke. Sharp, contrasty, with fast, accurate AF. This one focuses anywhere I ask it to as well. Still have it.

    Canon 35 f2 ($200) - Bought this one for a fast, wider replacement for my 50 f1.8. Loved the FL, and image quality, didn't like the slow, buzzy, hit-and-miss AF (by this time I was spoiled by USM). Still have it, but it's for sale.

    Canon 35 f1.4L ($1050) - My new baby, gives me the perfect FL of the 35/2 with the "magic" image quality of the "L" glass and USM...also the most expensive lens I've bought - ouch!

    Bottom line is that "L" lenses command such a premium because they work. It's not just the exotic glass and the "magical" image quality, it's the entire package. It's how well they're built. It's how well they focus. It's about stacking the odds in your favor so that when a fleeting instant comes your way, you have a better chance of capturing it.



    Through all of this I have realized that the axiom "you get what you pay for" applies to photography more than just about any other field. I spent a year, a lot of tme and money, and missed a lot of images becuse I was trying to avoid paying the premium that the "L" lenses command. None of the lower priced lenses could deliver up to my expectations. They all were a compromise. Many (Tamron 28-75, Sigma 18-50) of them had top notch optics, however, a lens with the best optics in the world is useless if it can't focus when you need it to. Beautiful moments happen in an instant, your camera needs to keep up. An L lens won't make you a better photographer - lord knows I've taken plenty of bad pictures with my L glass, it will just give you equipment that will keep up with you.

    Now, I didn't intend this to be a book. In fact, it started out as a response to Andy's "Am I nuts" thread. But as It took on a life of its own, I realized that it might help answer the question: "Do I really need an L?". There are so many new posts about "Which lens should I buy?", that I thought a rundown of all the lenses I have owned (though I left a couple out - Peleng 8mm FE and Sigma 10-20), and which ones I got rid of (and why), might help a few folks navigate the confusing process.

    Also, please don't think I'm an "L" snob. The best lens for you is the best one you can afford! I wish the 3rd parties had performed better for me - buying them, wrestling with them, cursing at them, and selling them was a PITB. I just want to give a little encouragement to those who are on the fence about making the investment. My path was a frustrating one (and one I see all to many photographers taking - just look at the FM Buy and Sell boards). If you have the means to make the investment, don't cheap out. You'll never regret the investment in good glass, though you might regret an investment in almost-as-good...
    Last edited by jamison55; 02-01-2006 at 11:20 AM.
    www.jamisonwexler.com

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  2. #2
    Join Date
    Nov 2004
    Location
    Connecticut
    Posts
    1,118
    Great post Jamie,
    I (and I am sure others) really appreciate your insite on lenses. I myself don't have any L, but that is strictly because I can't justify the costs (I don't use my camera for anything but casual use). If I ever get immersed into the professional game I will almost certainly spring for L's. Without even picking up or using an L lens it is obvious that they are second to non in quality, this is proven by looking at the wite streak on the sideline of every professional sporting event!
    Thanks for the post!
    Ken
    Canon dSLR User

  3. #3
    Join Date
    Jul 2005
    Posts
    8,163
    That's definitely some food for thought. Although I think I went straight from Period 1 to Period 3. Still keeping Bigma...well...for obvious reasons!

    Need some primes yet though. I'll go Canon but I highly doubt they'll be Ls....unless I really can hold off...
    Last edited by cdifoto; 02-01-2006 at 10:03 AM.
    Ouch.

  4. #4
    Join Date
    Apr 2005
    Location
    Near St. Louis
    Posts
    3,528

    Very Interesting Read. . .

    Jamie -

    Thanks for the post you rotten bastard, now my monetary requirements for my next lens purchased nearly tripled! LOL

    Honestly though. Being able to be apart of this online community and others, hearing their stories and somewhat following your "lens path" via threads, I was seriously set on L glass. I wasn't going to accept anything else. To summarize your post; PERFORMANCE, RELIABILITY, BUILD QUALITY, IMAGE QUALITY - These are the reasons for owning the L lenses. These are all important to me. Its much like a tool. You by the best tool and it lasts you, sometimes a life time. If you buy the cheap tool, you'll end up wasting more money or buying enough cheap ones to pay for two or three of the best ones.

    But heres the ticket. Do I really need an L? - or probably better and more popular - Can I get away without buying an L? I have no illusions of being a PRO or really any real possibility of becoming one in the near future. What I have always told myself is - if I really get into this and I can realistically earn money at it, I will use my earnings to upgrade my equipment. Up until lately I had been following the PRIME solution. I wanted the best quality for the money I had to throw at photography. That meant PRIMES. They are by far the best bang for the buck lenses available today. My hit list includes the 85 1.8 USM, 50 1.4 USM, 28 1.8 USM, maybe the 20 2.8 USM - The 135 F2 L and the 200 F2.8 L. I picked up the 85 1.8 - absolutely lovely lens, just as Jamie stated. I won't be parting with this one, ever. However, I realized that while its nice to have good fast primes, I am growing tired of constantly switching lenses.

    Intesting test i did, which some of you may have read in my thread, others might not have read. I showed 4 different people 4 images, 2 to a set, set A and set B . Set A were taken with the Tamron and Sigma L alternatives. Set B was taken with the Ls, 24-70 and 70-200. All 4 people chose set A over set B. They all thought the images looked better and they believed they were from the more expenseive equipment. Kudos to the photographers who took them I guess. Does that really help me decide? Nope. Images at PBASE might look good but they do not inform you about performance of the lens. The images only represent image quality and post production techniques. They don't speak to build quality of the lens, AF performance, build and feel. . .

    So are L lenses worth the Money, even if the benefits can't be seen by most of the people who may look at the images?

    I think its really all about one thing and one thing only. If you can get the job done without them and you are happy with the results, No, Ls aren't worth the money. If you feel that Ls provided that little extra that makes you feel that now, you can get the job done anytime anywhere, if they give you that little bit of confidence that the non Ls could give you, then yes, they are worth it.

    Some thoughts of mine on the topic.

    Real good post Jamie. I didn't mean to make you put all this thought and effort into it all, but thanks for the good read.

    Update: If your making money with photography, Ls make sense, they are efficient and they perform. You need to depend on your gear. If Ls are dependable, which they are, and if they save you time, they save you money. Time and Money are valuable things when you are a working photographer - that should be all the convencing one should need.
    Last edited by aparmley; 02-01-2006 at 10:56 AM.
    Nikon D90 | Sigma 10-20 HSM | DX 18-105 f3.5-5.6 VR | DX 55-200 VR | 35 f/2.0 D | 50 f/1.4 D | 85mm F/1.8 D | SB-800 x 3 | SU-800
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  5. #5
    Join Date
    Feb 2005
    Location
    Oklahoma
    Posts
    196
    Good informative post Jamie.

    btw, I still plan to give you a call shortly.

    Mr. P

  6. #6
    Join Date
    Oct 2004
    Posts
    2,124
    Depends what you want to do of course and money you want to spend. Buying an L for your "most used" thing is probably worth it because thats the situation you would most take advantage of it.

    Tim

  7. #7
    Join Date
    May 2005
    Location
    Crapville, Australia
    Posts
    5,148
    Great read Jamie.

    I pretty much skipped phase two but your story is very close to mine.

    I started out as an assistant to a wedding photographer in around 1990ish.

    He used a combination of FD and EOS gear at the time; a T90 (legendary camera in my opinion) and two EOS 620s - but no L-gear. These were my inspirations, yet neither perfectly felt right to me. The T90 had the pro build and handling but the EOS 620 had AF.

    Enter the original EOS-1, basically an AF T90. My Dad worked for QANTAS at the time and so I took off for New Zealand for a day simply to buy gear duty free (duty in Aus was around 30% at the time so the saving was worth it as the air fare was free through Dad).

    I poored all my life savings into the aforementioned EOS-1, an EF 28-80mm f/3.5-5.6, an EF 75-300mm f/4-5.6, an EF 50mm f/1.8 II and a Speedlite (think 430EZ).

    I had heard of L lenses but as I had no experience with them (and they were very expensive) so I passed on them thinking that the pro-body was more important at the time (which in hindsight was completely wrong).

    Then in late 1993 my boss did a wedding for a Canon employee - and she got him the 28-70mm f/2.8 L as a loan for the job. We were both so impressed that we immediately ordered one each. A short time after I became good friends with the head of CPS at the time, so he was always pushing exotic glass my way for 'trial' - everything from the top down - pretty smart marketing by Canon because I have since sunk a lot of dough in the brand.

    The next L was the 70-200 f/2.8 and then I think the 85mm f/1.2. The rest is a blur.

    EOS-1 with PDB-E1 to EOS-1N HS (and EOS-1N RS) to EOS-1V HS and now EOS-1D Mark II N.

    Get the junkie hooked and you have a client for life I guess. Photography gear; my vice.

    The rest is history.
    Last edited by cwphoto; 02-01-2006 at 04:34 PM.
    Christian Wright; Dip Phot
    EOS 5D Mark III | EOS 600D | EOS-1V HS
    L: 14/2.8 II | 24/1.4 II | 35/1.4 | 50/1.2 | 85/1.2 II | 135/2 | 180/3.5 Macro | 200/2.8 II | 400/2.8 IS | 16-35/2.8 II | 24-105/4 IS | 70-200/2.8 IS II | 100-400/4.5-5.6 IS
    580EX II | EF 12 II | EF 25 II

  8. #8
    Join Date
    Jul 2004
    Location
    Formerly South Wales. Now South Carolina.
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    7,147
    Personally, I don't have any L-Glass.

    My experience is that the Canon 18-55 will focus hunt and then lock on to nothing while the subject is clearly out of focus.

    The Canon 50mm f1.8 is soft pretty much all the time.

    My Tamron 28-75 is pretty sharp although focus can be hit or miss at times.

    My Tamron 17-35 is sharp and locks on every time.

    My Tamron 70-300 locks on most of the time and is pretty sharp too

    For the moment I don't envisage buying new or more lenses since I'm pretty happy with what I have and can work within limitations imposed by my equipment.

  9. #9
    Join Date
    Nov 2004
    Posts
    1,807
    my "path" has been somewhat similar to jamison's, and has been full of frustrating missed moments, ruined images, and the selling of equipment (pain in @ss, lose $$$ and time).

    1. when i started off i was mostly shooting landscapes. i already had a 50mm f1.8 mk1 from way back, and the first lens i purchased was a canon 17-85 IS, but didn't like the optical quality - sharpness far below expectations, low contrast. it was also very expensive for what it was and IS didn't prove to be all that useful at it's focal length. didn't use the 50mm too much - lack of experience meant i didn't play around with available light or shallow DOF much.

    2. returned the 17-85 and replaced it with the 17-40L and 28-135 IS. i like this combo. tried doing some available light shots with the 50mm f1.8, and was very impressed at what was possible. though right away i noticed that the bokeh of the 50m f1.8 wasn't very pleasing.

    3. purchased a sigma 15mm diagonal fisheye to cover the wide end on a 1.6x crop body and was very happy with it. at the time the only alternative was the canon EFS 10-22 - it was new and was VERY expensive. it had also been receiving mixed reviews and i didn't like the idea of a lens that couldn't work on full frame, so i skipped it. still doing mostly landscapes at the time.

    4. bought a tamron 28-75 f2.8 for available light shooting. i was thrilled with the optical quality, but noticed a lot of difficulties with autofocus. i assumed it was due to the difficult and moving subjects, poor lighting, and the 1/60 or 1/80 shutter speeds. i used the 28-135 IS less and less because the tamron was opticall superior. i kept the IS lens now only because it had the longest focal length among my small collection. shot two stage shows with the tamron with good results. though looking back, the subjects were well lit against dark backgrounds so anything could've focused under those conditions. these were the only times the tamron performed well under "low light". i had also just purchased a sigma 500 super external flash, but intended to use it for high speed flash sync outdoors. i didn't know much about flashes at the time. i tried a competing sigma 24-70 f2.8 but didn't like it overall, and returned it.

    5. started to use bounce flash indoors whenever possible, and very quickly ditched shooting with available light only. i was still using the tamron though, because it covered a good range, i was mainly shooting at around f5.0, and the 28-135 wasn't sharp until f8. i was still getting a lot of miss focus/ OOF shots though, even at f5.0!

    6. read something about L lenses focusing better than 3rd party, so tried using the 17-40 for the tamron's purposes, and saw a night and day difference in AF capabilities! autofocus was quick and was able to lock focus almost every time in any situation. the 17-40L quickly replaced the tamron for indoor shots, and those OOF focus shots pretty much just went away. the tamron started collecting dust.

    7. replaced the 28-135 IS with th 70-200 f4 + 1.4x TC. i went to several performances and blasted away tons of shots with the 70-200's excellent autofocus. i was now completely convinced of canon's superior AF capabilities over third party products. then i took the tamron off the shelf one day to shoot some low light shots with moving subjects (flash wasn't an option) and the damn thing couldn't even lock focus! i took the 17-40 f4 out and it locked focus EASILY! i settled for shots that were a stop underexposed with the f4, but at least i even got shots! that tamron's f2.8 aperture couldn do a thing for me. by this time i had been shooting much more than just landscapes, where autofocus speed and accuracy were critical. the tamron's failure was the point where i decided i would only buy canon USM lenses from then on.

    8. purchased 68mm of extension tubes for macro shooting, and started using the 50mm f1.8 most for this purpose (i always shoot macros on manual focus BTW). but i was quickly reminded of how ugly the bokeh of this lens could be. i hadn't used the 50 very much because the autofocus was about as bad as the tamron. i made several attempts at utilizing it in my shooting, and with some successful results, but AF was very inconsistent.

    9. sold the tamron, then purchased the canon 70-200 f2.8 L, canon 50mm f1.4, and canon 400 f5.6 L. all were excellent. i saw a huge difference between the 50mm f1.4 and f1.8. not just in the bokeh, but with AF. it focuses quickly, accurately, and even when i don't expect any lens to be able to. the 50mm f1.8 is now one of my most used lenses, where the f1.8 version was my least used lens.


    "Bottom line is that "L" lenses command such a premium because they work. It's not just the exotic glass and the "magical" image quality, it's the entire package. It's how well they're built. It's how well they focus. It's about stacking the odds in your favor so that when a fleeting instant comes your way, you have a better chance of capturing it.

    Through all of this I have realized that the axiom "you get what you pay for" applies to photography more than just about any other field. I spent a year, a lot of tme and money, and missed a lot of images becuse I was trying to avoid paying the premium that the "L" lenses command. None of the lower priced lenses could deliver up to my expectations. They all were a compromise. Many (Tamron 28-75, Sigma 18-50) of them had top notch optics, however, a lens with the best optics in the world is useless if it can't focus when you need it to. Beautiful moments happen in an instant, your camera needs to keep up. An L lens won't make you a better photographer - lord knows I've taken plenty of bad pictures with my L glass, it will just give you equipment that will keep up with you.

    ...might help a few folks navigate the confusing process.

    Also, please don't think I'm an "L" snob. The best lens for you is the best one you can afford! I wish the 3rd parties had performed better for me - buying them, wrestling with them, cursing at them, and selling them was a PITB. I just want to give a little encouragement to those who are on the fence about making the investment. My path was a frustrating one (and one I see all to many photographers taking - just look at the FM Buy and Sell boards). If you have the means to make the investment, don't cheap out. You'll never regret the investment in good glass, though you might regret an investment in almost-as-good..."


    i really agree. now i won't buy anthing that isn't known to focus well. i guess it doesn't have to be an L, but it does have to have USM, no known AF problems, and good optical quality. i'm not sure if ALL third party lenses are poor at focusing, but 3 out of 3 in my personal experience is enough to scare me away for a long while. i guess if you don't deal with shallow DOF (needing accuracy) or moving subjects then third party or non USM stuff is fine. now i only have one 3rd party lens, which is the sigma fisheye. it's only used for landscapes and has massive DOF, so even though the AF isn't all that great, it isn't really a concern with this particular lens. i think the premium price for L lenses and other canon stuff is well worth it. like jamison said, i can pay to have the odds stacked in my favor to capture those fleeting moments, but i sure as h*ll can't pay to bring those moments back. for some of us it's more than just money.

    BTW if anyone's wondering, i've got L lenses but i'm not rich AT ALL. in fact, i'm broke as h*ll because of this photography thing, but i think the results are worth it.
    Last edited by ReF; 02-03-2006 at 06:21 AM.
    canon 17-40 L, 70-200 f2.8 L, 400 f5.6 L, 50 f1.4 & f1.8, 1.4x TC, sigma 15 f2.8 fisheye, flash 500 DG Super, kenko extension tubes

    note to self: don't participate in sad, silly threads unless you're looking for sad, silly responses.

    "anti-BS filter" (from andy): http://dcresource.com/forums/showpos...94&postcount=4

  10. #10
    Join Date
    Jan 2005
    Posts
    25
    Just wondering, do you still have the peleng - and if so, do you like it? I'm really thinking about getting one.

    Thanks

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