a teatray in the sky

friday gear day – lens round-up

Posted in 5D Mark II, Defrag, Gearheadedness, Photography by firthefirst on September 24, 2010

quite a few people asking about the gear I normally shoot with.  simple answer: it varies.  the same way T-mobile reception varies.  or Paris Hilton’s drug intake varies.  it varies a lot.  but unlike T-mobile or Ms. Hilton, I’m willing (and able) to qualify and quantify that statement a bit more.  plus, I can never resist opportunities for making lists.  so sit back and enjoy another Friday Gear Day.

what you’re seeing above (from left to right):

  • Canon 50 f/1.4 USM
  • Canon 100 f/2.8 L Macro IS USM
  • Canon 16-35 f/2.8 L II USM
  • Canon 24-70 f/2.8 L USM
  • Sigma 100-300 f/4 EX DG APO HSM
  • Sigma 150-500 f/5-6.3 APO DG OS HSM

these are the puppies that I consider bringing along with me on any given excursion.  how would I rank them?

1. Canon 24-70 f/2.8 L USM

This is my go-to lens for general shooting purposes and the reason I love full-frame shooting — you simply get to use better lenses than you do when shooting on an APS-C crop cam.  There is no equivalent for the littler Canons; the closest you can get is the 17-55 f/2.8 IS USM and the 15-85 f/3.5-5.6 IS USM.  the 17-55 doesn’t get you as wide, and the 15-85 doesn’t get you f/2.8 or even fixed maximum aperture.  the 24-70 is robust, sturdy, and yeah 24mm is a huge difference over a lens that starts at 28mm.  I know it doesn’t have IS but … that’s like demanding that your ice cream have a cherry on top or else you won’t eat it.  really?  it’s still damn good ice cream to begin with, so if you’re going to full frame, get this lens. 

also recommended:  the 24-105 f/4 L IS USM for those of you who want IS or are shooting predominantly landscape (the extra 35mm on the long end is super useful)

for APS-C:  I’d look at the 15-85 or the 17-55 mentioned above.

2. Canon 100 f/2.8 L Macro IS USM

I’ve always been a wide-angle aficionado but once I got this lens I’ve been its biggest fan.  it’s a little more limited in use than the 24-70 but just barely.  you can use this for shooting people, landscapes, action, macro, wildlife, architectural details… name it and it will probably do the job and do it in tack sharp fashion.  the IS is also mind-blowing: record video with this thing and it will almost appear as though you’re set on a tripod.  for photography, this totally allows you to shoot macro handheld without a ring flash and almost (almost!) get away with it.  you’ll still probably be limited to f/13 and wider but certainly good enough for casual shooters.  I never thought I’d use a 100mm lens as a walkaround but it turns out I do it all the time now.  did I mention it’s super light?

also recommended:  the old Canon 100mm f/2.8 Macro USM.  no IS and not an L build, but a heck of a lot cheaper and still a great sharp-as-a-katana lens

for APS-C:  the EF-S 60mm f/2.8 Macro USM is alright I guess (I own one) but I would go ahead and get one of the 100mm macros instead; they focus quicker and will give you more working distance between you and your subject, which is a good thing

3. Canon 16-35 f/2.8 L II USM

ah … UWA’s … the ultra-wide end of the photographic spectrum.  there is something wild and unruly about a lens that captures more than your peripheral field of vision.  honestly, it’s liberating to shoot with one of these things and it’s something everyone should try.  but as liberating as it is, it is also difficult and demanding to compose well at focal lengths below 24mm, and honestly, it’s not meant for all subjects.  it’s probably why the 16-35 has dropped below the 24-70 and 100 macro even though I have so much fun with it; it’s just not as well-rounded.  still, if I’m going anywhere that may involve shooting landscape or architecture (and I usually am), then it’s going into my bag right away.

also recommended:  the Canon 17-40 f/4 L USM.  just about as good, and if you’re using this to shoot landscape you probably don’t need f/2.8 all that often.  lighter and cheaper by far

for APS-C:  the EF-S 10-22 f/3.5-4.5 USM or any of the 3 awesome Sigma UWAs (8-16 f/4.5-5.6 DC HSM, 10-20mm f/4-5.6 EX DC HSM, 10-20 f/3.5 EX DC HSM) since they’re mostly cheaper and just as much fun

4. Canon 50 f/1.4 USM

there’s a lot of terms for prime lenses that rock the 5-0 focal length.  I call mine Fiddy because it’s pretty gangstah.  in terms of pound-for-pound greatness, few lenses come close to this level of price and quality (the 85 f/1.8 is definitely a contender and a noticeably large hole in my lens lineup).  for those people looking to graduate from variable-aperture-zoom-lens-noobdom, thou shouldst start with either this fellow or his gap-toothed sibling, the 50 f/1.8.  the subject isolation.  the bokeh.  the joy.  see it and believe.  this thing is always in my bag because it takes up less space than the 24-70’s lens hood.

also recommended:  the cheapo ugly duckling, the 50 f/1.8.  you will rarely ever spend $100 this well (short of a steak dinner at Lawry’s)

for APS-C:  still the 50s.  these will end up being a nice 80mm-ish lens on a crop sensor and allow you to get some great portraits

5. Sigma 100-300 f/4 EX DG APO HSM

I’ve got a lot to say about sigmas … but I’ll hold onto that thought.  this is probably one of the best lenses Sigma has ever put out in terms of optical quality, and is an extremely functional lens for landscape and wildlife shooting.  the 100-300 is a rare Sigma beast in that it doesn’t exhibit much of the yellow coloration that most other Sigmas do.  I’ve yet to try it with a 1.4x extender but I have a strong urge to.  its also far lighter than its size would suggest, and is easily handholdable for reasonable amounts of time, balancing very nicely off the 5D Mark II body (not so much off of Tina’s T2i).  the focal length is still in the range where you don’t miss IS that much.  only shortcoming is the lens hood, which in surprisingly non-Sigma-like fashion is really lousy.  it glares like crazy when sidelit, causing lens flare, and it comes off when bumped by just about anything.  a disappointing finish to an otherwise great lens.  totally outperforms the 150-500 to the point of embarrassment.  if I’m going to shoot animals, I’m strapping this lens onto the 5D Mark II

also recommended:  Canon 300mm f/4 L IS USM.  I thought about this one for a while before getting the sigma but the zoomability of the sigma is nice since I’m not a dedicated wildlife shooter.  also, I’m intrigued by the Canon 400 f/5.6 L USM, and I’m hoping it gets revised soon to incorporate IS.  at which point I will probably buy it (Tina be forewarned)

for APS-C:  any of Canon’s 70-200 lineup will get you this same focal distance in grand fashion and not necessarily for more money.  if you want to shoot wildlife, get the canon 300 f/4 L IS USM and a 1.4x extender

6. Sigma 150-500 f/5-6.3 APO DG OS HSM

variable aperture, slow, heavy, clunky OS, and horrible optical characteristics (including particularly harsh bokeh).  still, it gets you all the way from 150-500 millimeters on a anorexic budget.  looking back, I would not have picked up this lens over the Canon 300 f/4 or Canon 400 f/5.6.  I don’t think I even would have picked this up over Sigma’s 120-400 and my current preference is just to shoot with the 100-300 and crop down as needed.  this actually results in at least even image quality as shooting with the 150-500.  it’s still sort of fun to shoot at 500mm though … we’ll see if I can figure out how to wrangle better image quality from this animal

recommended alternatives:  the newer Sigma 50-500 f/4.5-6.3 APO DG OS HSM just does everything better than the 150-500 … makes you wonder why they bothered releasing the 150-500 in the first place

thoughts about Sigma Lenses

I probably have bought as many or more sigma lenses than anyone I know, and I want to talk about them for anyone who’s considering purchasing one.  what I’ve owned and shot with:

  • Sigma 10-20 f/4-5.6 EX DC HSM
  • Sigma 17-70 f/2.8-4 DC Macro OS HSM
  • Sigma 18-200 f/3.5-6.3 DC OS
  • Sigma 70-300 f/4-5.6 APO DG Macro
  • Sigma 100-300 f/4 EX DG APO HSM
  • Sigma 150-500 f/5-6.3 APO DG OS HSM

I’m qualified to discuss sigma lenses the way Sylvester Stallone is qualified to discuss Rambo movies.  the verdict is this: Sigma lenses are incredible value buys.  with the exception of a few true through-and-through duds (like the 150-500), for the most part, they perform at 80% of their Canon counterparts but at about only 50% of the cost.  people will often be counseled to spend their money on high-quality glass, because high-quality glass lasts.  well, that’s true, but that’s also dangerously misleading.

when you are first starting out, a big question is “what do I shoot?”, not in the day-to-day sense, but in the sense of what manner of photography you are interested in pursuing.  it’s hard to know until you’ve tried your hand at a few things.  even once you’ve tried everything out, you may simply find you enjoy being a generalist and want to be able to get a photo in any situation.  here’s where Sigma’s value proposition really shines.

say you’re the proud new owner of an APS-C cam and looking to delve into photography; all you’ve got so far is your rather worthless kit lens.  where do you go from there?

  • Sigma 17-50 f/2.8 EX DC OS HSM – $670 on amazon
  • Sigma 70-300 f/4-5.6 DG OS SLD – $360 on amazon
  • Sigma 10-20 f/4-5.6 EX DC HSM – $440 on amazon

for under 1500 bucks you’ve got the entire range from ultra-wide to telephoto zoom covered, including a fixed-aperture f/2.8 standard zoom.  try covering anything close to that variety of focal distances with Canon or Nikon glass, for that kind of money.  you simply can’t.  throw in a canon 50 f/1.8 for $100 if you want to explore fast primes.  switch out the 70-300 or 10-20 for a Canon EF-S 60mm f/2.8 Macro USM if you want to explore macro photography.  all the sigmas come with lens hoods and pouches, whereas you have to buy those separately for all non-L Canon lenses.  a minor touch, but a class one.  once you figure out what kind of photography you really want to do, you can start shelling out for red-striped lenses (of which, a single lens is going to cost you as much as those three sigmas added together)

unless you’re an anal pixel-peeper (don’t be) there is little enough difference between the canon and sigma lenses.  if something is ruining your photo at this point, it’s probably not the lens.  it’s your composition.  it’s your subject choice.  it’s your aperture choice.  it’s your shutter speed choice.  it’s your focus placement.  in other words, it’s you.  canon glass will not make you a better shooter than sigma glass, just like Shaquille O’Neal high tops will not make you a fearsome basketball player.  you’ll just be a guy in shoes 14 sizes too big (I saw and held this man’s shoes up close back in fourth grade.  my entire fist, forearm, and half my upper arm fit inside)

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3 Responses

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  1. photographyfree4all said, on September 24, 2010 at 2:35 pm

    Wow! I’m drooling at some of the lenses you have, man! Thanks for posting this and the in depth discription of each lens and how you use it. I’ve saved it for my future reference. great post.

  2. Henry said, on October 8, 2010 at 4:57 pm

    Wait, what about the one you shot with? That’s not in the picture!

    • firthefirst said, on October 8, 2010 at 9:58 pm

      I had to use my old Sigma 70-300 f/4-5.6 APO DG Macro lens for this … the one you were using on my 30D in yellowstone. I was actually surprised to find it works on a full frame camera


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