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  1. #1
    Join Date
    Jul 2004
    Grafton, MA

    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.

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