GLASS (aka Lenses)

May 05, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

©2016, Terry Mercer

Over the years, I've learned that one thing that is consistently true far more often than not: Having ANY camera is better than not having one.   it's far better than no images, and no ability to start learning to capture moments & memories. The second thing, a great camera body but a mediocore lens, and using 'automatic' settings, you'll get mediocore to good images inconsistently.

20160424-IMG_237220160424-IMG_2372 - Mallard Duck IN FLIGHTIf it flies like a duck, quacks like a duck, and well... this is a duck, just a duck... on an afternoon flyby while shooting pictures of an Osprey.
Just a duck ... doing a fly by... while we were shooting images of the Osprey we've been checking in on for weeks.

Everyone has to start somewhere, and the worst of today's cameras are often better than some of the best cameras available when I was first starting. I started around age 10, with a simple 126 Instamatic, 12 to 24 exposures at a time, and very selective pressing of that shutter... and often weeks or months before I could afford to develop and print the images to actually see how I did. However, I learned to enjoy photography, enough that in the 70's I learned to roll, develop, and print my own film. Every chance I had, I'd borrow better camera... and up grade whenever possible. You can imagine how quickly I embraced the instant gratification, fast answers (about exposure & composition, especially), and less expensive options of digital photography back in the early 90's. I think my first digital camera was only .3 megapixels, but it was perfect for 'web site' images of products, prototypes, and quick family stuff... and could be easily emailed and shared among family & friends without spending any money. So the money I was spending on film & printing, was converted to money spent on upgrades, body's and glass. It was during that time I also learned the fact that having great glass is vital. Even on a mediocore body, great glass and the right settings WILL help you create & produce good to great images more consistently.

One might think lens quality only matters with removable lens cameras, but that's not quite true. It effects filters, screw on tele & wide angle adapters, and virtually anything you put in front or behind your lens... whether removable or fixed. The better and more consistent the quality, the better and more consistent your images will be. It wasn't until about 20 years ago, when I played around with a cheap CP (Circular Polarizer) vs a very expensive 'multi-coated' glass CP. The difference was as huge as a cheap pair of plastic lens sun glasses vs a more expensive quality multi-coated glass pair that are QC'ed (quality controlled). Plastic scratches more easily, and the cheap glass tends to have more flare issues. The sharpness of the focus, and the even potential for distortions are different. Magnification (focal length mm's, cropping, and higher ISO's) would also significantly effect and impact the visual significance of any disparity, exponentially.

Image Stabilization (IS) or Vibration Reduction (VR) can also be important, and useful, generally allowing the user to gain a stop or two of light (meaning slower shutter speed, lower ISO... and still sharp image, even free hand). But quality IS lens are more expensive. Personally, I'd most usually select a non-IS "L" (professional grade) lens over a consumer grade IS lens that has a higher f-stop minimum, with very few exceptions.

There are a variety of issues and considerations when it comes to lenses (GLASS).

  • What is it actually made of?
  • What is the minimum f-stop? Is it consistent or variable? (hint: consistent is better)
  • What are the mounts made of? (metal or plastic, metal is better and matters 99% of the time)
  • How 'tough' (durable, weather, dust, and drop proof) is it?
  • WHO is the manufacturer, and their quality and consistency of a given model.
  • Does it offer any image stabilization?

Generally, the more expensive the lens, the greater the quality control, and more consistency there is from lens to lens, and through the available f-stop range of that lens.

Next, the 'faster' the glass (i.e., wider the f-stop, lower the f-stop number) the better the optics of that lens. Few people have the opportunity to use glass with a consistent f-2.8 ability, or faster. And most of your long lens are lucky to have a f-stop of even 5.6 when fully extended. Understanding the importance of the f-stop, is part of learning about the exposure triangle... and DOF (depth of field)... and Boken (intentional blurring of the background)

The way things are 'put together' is really important... and impacts how long things last, and how well they work. If you are really out there, shooting often, and in situations out doors that you can't control, eventually your camera (and/or lens) will get dropped, ran into, tripped over, or find it's place in some other accident scene. That's just life. Having a back up is important, but having tough good quality equipment will help you even more.

Over the years, I've learned to favor the PRO GLASS... since I shoot mostly with Canon's, the "L" glass is nearly always my first choice, though it is usually far more expensive than the other options, it is what I use 99% of the time. I have my favorites, for different purposes... but the L glass has never let me down, is weather resistant, and tough. Over the years, it's been dropped, fallen, knocked over, ran over by a football or basket ball player, and sadly hit the ground as I was falling a few too many times. But, they have survived. In the last 40 years, only twice have I had to have a "L" lens repaired because of some accident, and never (yet) had the optics damaged. I've had cameras drop off mounts, people trip over tripod legs (twice), atheletes bump and almost tackle me, horses charged right at me, motor cross bikes jumping over me & my camera, and I've been smashed against the rocks while taking under water photos too close to shore when the wave hit. It's all part of the gig... the quest for capturing something that is truly different, unique, and provokes some thought or emotion. 

Now, while Canon L glass is my personal favorite, only serious photographers will get much of the often expensive L glass, though many of my "L" lenses are 10 to 15+ years old, and still working. And I dang sure didn't start there. Over the years, I've tried a variety of lens form a variety of manufacturers. And I really have to give a shout out to my second favorite manufacturer of Canon mounted lenses: TOKINA. They are heavy, all metal, and tough! I've also never yet seen a Tokina lens I didn't like (and I've had a few over the years), and used the hound out of them until I could get a comparable "L" lens. Tokina's generally aren't as quick with the auto focus, and not always as quiet as the "L" glass (more mechanical sounding, rather than the ultra quite), I've generally found the quality of the glass, and the images I was able to capture quite pleasing. They are usually a very solid option, and have some great choices.

Over the years, I've tried a wide variety of manufacturers, and some have been impressive, so really not. Consistency of the manufacturer's quality is important. Personally, I would seriously have to think twice, and really 'touch and try' anything made by Phoenix, Sigma, or even Tamron... and with few exceptions (Sigma has a $26,000 bakooka lens (200-500 f2.8) that is interesting, but at 26 pounds, and nearly 2.5 feet long, about as big around as a pie pan. The 'green monster' is not something most people will ever see outside of photos, and clearly not ever own). Tamron is getting great reviews on their new 150-600mm lens, which is quite affordable at under $1500 (especially compared to the Canon L version at over $12,000).

Sigma & Tamron tend to be generally 'better than nothing,' but usually have lenses that have to be babied... and don't hold up as well as better made lenses. I'm happy to test and try just about anything, but until I see it 'in action' and every day use, and see how it holds up in everyday tough situations, I'd think twice about spending money on most of their lens. These manufacturers often and mostly made of plastic, not weather resistant, and seldom have multi-coated, or more than a few elements of glass within the lens. Often, but not always, their products are considered disposable... like those cheap sunglasses, and just better than nothing, especially when they are under the $500 price point.

So, double check, and test the lens, make & model, before you purchase, when ever possible. Both the Canon "L" lens AND the Tokina lens I've used are 'tanks' - all metal, tough, with finely created multi-coated glass.

The SONY brand G-Series glass (whether e or A mount) is great glass, metal, and pretty tough. I use those on my Sony video cameras with a great deal of happiness.

Sorry, I don't know much at all about the options for the Nikon, Fuji, Olympus, or other brands. Canon & Sony are the brands and types of cameras I've used most since the 90's. But the logic, considerations, and problems tend to be about the same.

Maybe you have some questions, or something to add?



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If you have any questions about photography, please feel free to ask. I might not know the answer off the top of my head, but odds are I can either help you find the answer or know someone that knows the answer. After nearly 45 years of playing with hundreds of different cameras, both film and digital, I probably don't know specific 'make and model' info... but I UNDERSTAND PHOTOGRAPHY, and the PRINCIPLES & CONCEPTS of capturing and creating good to great images.
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