A short walk leads to a short story about how bigger isn’t always better.
Yesterday, I went for a walk. Partly, it was to take advantage of the increasingly long summer days in Southern California. Partly, it was an excuse to get out of the house. Despite my double vaccination and a growing number of businesses in Los Angeles beginning to reopen, I am still getting to enjoy just a bit more time spent at home than is absolutely necessary. Of course, my destination wasn’t accidental. I was heading to Samy's, the local camera store. At around 2-3 miles away, it’s not exactly a short walk from my house. And, even if we live in a world of uncertainty, one thing I can confirm for sure is that I have officially spent enough money on photo gear by this point, and there is absolutely nothing left that falls into the need category.
Still, I had previously placed an online order for a particular clamp needed to mount my monitor to my rolling stand through a different retailer. It had been backordered for some time, so I figured seeing if it was in stock would give me an excuse to walk to Samy's. Honestly, I wasn’t expecting it to be in stock. I just wanted to walk.
As has become a habit on my afternoon meanderings, I decided to take a camera with me. That particular day it was the Nikon Z 7II. Just like I wasn’t expecting the clamp to be in stock, nor was I expecting to necessarily shoot any amazing images. I simply wanted to practice a bit of “seeing.” This is what I call the practice of simply training my eye by being more aware of the world around me. Not shooting for the portfolio. Just training myself to see. Because I really am “that guy,” it is not at all unusual for me to lug along a full professional kit, complete with an assortment of professional lenses, when just going for a meaningless afternoon walk to take pictures of random mailboxes that happen to catch my eye. There is absolutely no reason to do this. But, well, I’m a strange guy. Yet, on this particular day, I decided to do the sensible thing and mount the Z 7II with a far lighter option in the 24-70mm f/4 S lens rather than go for any of my more expensive (and heavier) options.
Now, this won’t be a full review of the 24-70mm f/4 S. Nor will I try to make the case that it is a superior lens to the 24-70mm f/2.8 S. The latter lens is my absolute favorite in the Z system so far and the one lens that I wouldn’t enter a commercial job without. But this, as I said, was not a professional job. And, as I strolled casually over uneven city sidewalks on my way to the store, I began to think about the many ways in which less can often be much much more.
Almost every photographer will have a kit lens at some point. Depending on your choice of camera and brand, the kit lens itself will vary greatly in both quality and dimensions. The very first Nikon lens I ever had was the all-knowing 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 G ED-IF AF-S VR DX zoom kit lens that came with my D200. It covered roughly 27mm to 300mm in equivalent full frame terms.
I never did any scientific tests, but based simply on the size, price, and variable aperture, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that it was never intended to be the flagship quality lens in Nikon’s lineup. But it was affordable and, especially as a beginning photographer at the time, it did everything I needed it to. And just like the D200 itself was inseparable from my hand in those days, the 18-200mm almost never found itself detached from the mount. Now, to be fair, initially, this was because it was the only lens I owned. But, even as my collection of less expensive primes began to take shape one by one, the 18-200mm was still the team captain and the lens I used to capture everything from travel photography, to sports photography, to portraits, to my first few paying jobs.
Was it the sharpest, fastest, or best-built lens in the Nikon lineup? No. But it also wasn’t the most expensive. And, more importantly, I was able to accomplish the tasks necessary for me to get some great images.
Now, am I advocating that everyone goes sell their top-of-the-line expensive glass and revert to only using kit lenses? Of course not. As your career and/or passion for photography grows, so will the quality of the tools that you use. That’s only natural. But part of the reason why I so fondly remember those early days of just owning that one lens and literally using it to shoot everything is that it reminds me that your gear is not going to be what makes you a good photographer. That’s not to say that certain tools aren’t better than others for certain jobs. But it is to say that, if you are just now getting started and you’re concerned that you won’t be able to create great stuff simply because you can’t afford the high-end gear, there’s no reason to worry. Use what you have access to and let your creativity set you apart rather than being overly concerned with tech specs that really only matter to other photographers.
All of which brings me back to the 24-70mm f/4 S. When I tried out my first Z camera, the original Z 6, the f/4 was the first lens I got to use along with it. When I ultimately decided to invest in the Z system, the 24-70mm f/2.8 S was one of the first lenses I bought. I’ve been using the 24-70mm f/2.8G ED on my F-mount bodies for years. So, that combination of zoom range and aperture is pretty much a staple for me. But the choice was based on preference and practicality. It was not a decision based on anything lacking with the f/4 version.
In fact, were I to be a younger photographer just starting out, the f/4 might be attractive for a number of reasons. For one, there’s the obvious advantage of costs. It’s not that, at nearly $1,000, the f/4 is cheap. I am relating it to my original kit lens for the D200, simply because it’s the lens that is often sold in a package with the Z bodies. But with the quality, sharpness, and more refined zoom range, I’m not sure I would exactly term it as a kit lens, more just a less expensive option of a photographic staple. Still, it comes in at about half the price of the f/2.8 S. So, if you are on a budget, this might be an attractive option, especially if you can get an even better deal by getting it discounted as part of a retail package with the camera.
It is also smaller. One thing that I actually don’t like about the lens is that, in order to start shooting, you have to turn the ring to unlock it and extend the barrel. I’m not a big fan of this setup because, if I’m in a hurry and just want to grab my camera out of my bag and start shooting, having to remember to unlock the lens first is an extra step that I might not have time for. With that said, depending on how you use the lens, this design could have great benefits. The reason for the whole locking situation is that it allows for the lens to be incredibly compact when not in use. All the way collapsed, the camera plus lens combination is roughly the size of a smaller camera with a prime lens attached. This makes it very easy to find room for in your backpack and very light around the neck when needing to walk around with it for long periods. This makes it ideally suited for travel photography, personal photography, or even some event shooting when you have ample light and won’t miss the added aperture of the f/2.8 or a faster prime. So, while it was an extra step to remember to unlock the camera when I was out on my walk shooting for fun, it’s safe to say that not every sight is so interesting between here and the camera store. So, those long periods where I could fully contract the lens and just focus on walking without tripping over the crosswalks were greatly appreciated.
And while my main reasons for reaching for the f/4 over a more expensive option are largely based on practicality, it’s important to point out that while you might be sacrificing a stop of light or certain ergonomic advantages, one area where you won’t be sacrificing is image quality. Again, I’m not a lab coat kind of guy who has spent weeks doing side-by-side tests to determine the mathematical differences in sharpness between one lens or another. Because I own the f/2.8 and am used to shooting with it, I can say from my own non-scientific sense, it does feel like the f/2.8 focuses faster and maybe a hair sharper. But, I can also tell you that, in actual day-to-day practice, the image quality difference between the two feels much more like something that only I, who have access to the raw files and will inspect every minute detail, am going to actually notice. Never once have I taken a shot with the f/4 lens and felt like I was left wanting for additional detail. Sure, I could use a bit more bokeh. That is one area where f/4 just isn’t f/2.8. And f/2.8 just isn’t f/1.2. But as much as we all, including myself, love bokeh, I think we can agree that there is more to photography than background blur.
So, should you splurge a bit more on the top-of-the-line lens for your camera system or take advantage of the cost savings by sticking with the kit lens? I can’t answer that for you. It will be based on your particular needs and financial situation. But what I can tell you from starting my professional career with my original kit lens or intentionally opting for smaller kit lenses over more expensive lenses a surprising number of times is that smaller lenses like the 24-70mm f/4 S for the Z system are perfectly capable of getting the job done. And, depending on your work, they might even be the perfect tool for the job.