Cheap, soft, and lightweight, with woefully slow autofocus and shoddy build quality; however terrible they might be, plastic lenses are great value. Quite why people get so agitated about this topic is a bit of a mystery because cheap glass can be amazing. Here’s why.
A few weeks ago, Fstoppers writer Oliver Kmia put together a list of his favorite budget lenses for Canon and Nikon. While thousands of people found this article incredibly useful, a few hardened pixel-peepers couldn’t stop themselves from angrily declaring that recommending plastic lenses is unacceptable. This sniffy attitude overlooks the fact that many people don’t need the features that top-end lenses offer, and nor can they consider the expense. Given this combination, budget lenses are the obvious choice, completely justifiable, and more than up to the job.
Cheap glass is a good option as long as you understand what the results are going to be, and why your nifty fifty might be literally five times lighter and thirty times cheaper than one of the best on the market. Will your photos be thirty times worse with the budget option? Of course not.
So let’s consider what you’re missing out on when you spend $42.60 on a 50mm lens compared to $1,269. The more expensive option offers you a few extra stops of aperture, creating gorgeous bokeh thanks to its razor-thin depth of field, and more flexibility when shooting in low light levels. Alongside that, the lens coatings mean it will cope infinitely better when you point it at a very bright light source, such as directly into the sun. Autofocus will be dramatically quicker, accurate and more consistent, especially in low contrast situations (those back-lit portraits again). Images will be noticeably sharper, especially in the corners, and with less vignetting. It's more likely to withstand challenging weather conditions and can take a few bumps before needing a repair.
Would I love to own Canon’s 50mm f/1.2? Absolutely. Can I afford it? Not at the moment. Photography is only one part of what I do professionally, and the work I do with the 50mm is in turn only a small part of that, so I’m much better off renting a lens in the event that I need it (especially if I can pass that cost onto the client). For my day-to-day shooting — overwhelmingly for screen rather than print — I use a dramatically cheaper piece of plastic, and for good reason.
Most of this everyday work takes place in a forest that is full of sand, and I’m typically shooting in between climbing rocks, which means that my hands are covered in magnesium carbonate — i.e., chalk. As camera equipment seems to hate fine particles of dust, my expensive lenses tend to stay at home.
The weight-saving is dramatic. I spend a huge amount of time on the road and if I’m not shooting for print, there’s little need for me to haul expensive glass around. One recent job took me on a budget flight from Paris to Belgrade via Vienna, without the option of any checked luggage. Three days of photographing for Skochypstiks, an urban clothing brand, for social media meant that I was more than happy to use Canon’s 50mm f/1.8. The results are of course not as sharp as if I had used Canon’s f/1.2, but sharpness was not the objective here; being fast and light was much more important — as was affordability — and the client is delighted with the results.
Not all cheap lenses are a good choice, so it’s worth doing your research. Going back a few years ago, I made the mistake of trying to fill a gap with a low-end zoom and ended up regretting my decision. An event was coming up and I realized that my slightly ancient Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 had seen better days. Given that this lens only comes out a few times a year, I thought I’d risk buying myself a second hand, non-Canon option. I knew that at f/2.8 it would be soft, but I didn’t realize how soft, and nor did I anticipate the awful fringing I would get when shooting in bright sunlight. Compared to my old Canon, the lens is pretty much unusable anything wider than f/3.5, so I’d have been just as well off with a good f/4 lens rather than a cheap f/2.8. You learn from your mistakes.
So perhaps here’s the lesson: have a look at Kmia’s list and spot how many zooms are there. Very few. And of those zooms, check out many have a fixed aperture, or an aperture wider than f/4.5. There's a pattern emerging.
Plastic lenses have their place: if you want to save on weight and cost and don’t mind sacrificing a few extra f-stops and a degree of sharpness, don’t be bullied by the arrogance of a few noisy professionals who think that gear is paramount and "real photographers" don’t shoot with affordable glass. The plastic fantastic can be an option as long as you do the research and have the right expectations.