What Lens Has Been the Best Return on Investment for You?

What Lens Has Been the Best Return on Investment for You?

I've bought expensive lenses I've barely used and a couple of value lenses that have become workhorses. This one, however, may be the best example of images taken per dollar spent.

I don't like the phrase "bang for your buck," but if that makes more sense to you, that is what I'm talking about here. I should also qualify that by "images taken per dollar spent," I mean "deliverable images." That is, if I take a burst of 50 shots of a moving car or of a posing model, I'm not counting 50 shots. So, the less pithy question is this: which lens has yielded the most amount of keepers for the least amount of dollars spent on it? They don't have to all be portfolio shots, though for me, I'm gauging it by whether I would or did deliver the image to a client. I just want to avoid accidental stat padding with a cheap walk-around lens taking the award, which would contain no useful information.

I could work this out exactly with a few sums and a bit of investigative work, but I already know my top three as the gap between each place is large.

  1. Tamron 28-75mm f/2.8 Di III RXD
  2. Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 (non-USM 1990 version)
  3. Canon 135mm f/2L

This article is going to be about the number one slot, but I'll quickly discuss the other. I wrote an entire article on the 100mm macro as I accidentally bought it on eBay not long after buying my first camera, mistaking it as a great deal on the more modern USM version from this century. I paid about $250 for it secondhand (obviously), and it ended up being one of the most important purchases I ever made, helping me learn proper macro photography and doubling up as an early portrait lens.

Third place, Lord of the Red Rings, and a lens I claimed I would never sell (a claim I still uphold) was one of the most expensive lenses I had bought at the time, though I got a good deal. I fell in love with it, and it has been taken with me on pretty much every shoot I've been on since it arrived at my door all those years ago.

So, on to my most efficient lens purchase and why I think it's an incredible investment. This is in no way endorsed by Tamron — I'm not sure I've even ever dealt with them professionally — and I bought the lens with my own dinero.

Tamron 28-75mm f/2.8

I have owned this lens for about 18 months. When the Sony a7 III became my primary body, I knew I needed a wide-angle zoom for portraiture and some commercial work, but I begrudged paying nearly three times the price for Sony's 24-70mm f/2.8 GM. But, expecting that I may have had to, I looked at what was around and compared specs. A brand new Tamron 28-75mm came in a close second to the Sony, and while it fell behind in a few areas, it excelled in two areas by some margin: minimum focus distance and weight.

Minimum focus distance has always been important to me. In my commercial work, I often photograph details, and in portraits, sometimes, I like to get a more intimate shot via physical distance from the subject. Sony's lens allowed a frankly unacceptable minimum focus distance of 38 cm, while Tamron managed to halve it at 19 cm. That's no close race.

The next major difference was weight. Don't get me wrong, I actually quite like heavier gear for many of my shooting projects. However, for environmental portraits for companies and other jobs in which I am on my feet, photographing for eight hours per day with a lot of moving around, heavy lenses start to lose their mystique to me. The Sony 24-70mm weighs in at 886 g, while the Tamron 28-75mm at 550 g — another substantial difference.

So, at about a third of the price, allowing me to get twice as close, and nearly 40% lighter than Sony's mid-range zoom lens, the Tamron was an easy purchase. What it became, however, was a prolific one.

Becoming a Workhorse

This isn't a review, so I won't dwell on the Tamron's shortcomings — of which there are a few — but I did have initial reservations about build quality. It does feel cheap, partially because of one of the three reasons I bought it (lightness) and partially because of an obviously plastic barrel. But from its first outing to its most recent, it has never let me down. The sharpness, as you can see in the above image, is more than enough for any activity. The 28-75mm focal range is a gnat's fart away from being the tried-and-true 24-70mm staple of most photographers' camera bags. The f/2.8 widest aperture, which is damn near a requirement for this sort of lens, is there and without much of a penalty for using it. In a nutshell, this lens delivered more than I had expected.

For me, a good lens presents itself much like a good washing machine does: it has an answer for whatever you ask of it (so long as you ask the right questions) and well enough that you turn to it without forethought. The Tamron's "look" isn't unique, and it isn't one of the lenses that will curl your toes in delight like my beloved 135mm f/2 or the Fujifilm GF 110mm f/2 R LM WR, but it should not be expected to. It is rather a tool in the purely utilitarian sense and a good one. In my 18 months of ownership, I have taken well over 10,000 images with this lens alone, and my photography clientele and assignments seldom return the same number of files as the wildlife and wedding 'togs. I only take around 15,000-20,000 images per year, which may sound a lot to some, but I promise you it is a pittance. 

So, this workhorse became my most efficient lens not just by virtue of number of images taken, but of value too. So much so, that in the year and a half in my possession, it has already become my most efficient lens of all time, or thereabouts. I have used this lens for headshots, beauty, commercial fashion, product, environmental portraiture, magazine editorials, landscapes, and just about everything else I ever point my camera at.

What Lens Has the Best Return on Investment for You?

To summarize, the Tamron 28-75mm f/2.8 has been a fantastic tool that was superbly priced. It's not a lens I grab when I'm looking to take a risk and try to capture something iconic, but instead a lens that I reach for in a great many scenarios. In an article earlier this week, I referred to it as the best all-rounder I've ever owned, and that's true, as exemplified by the vast spanning of genres I use it for and its unparalleled ROI.

So, what's your best investment?

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28 Comments

Blake Aghili's picture

75-150mm
I use the 150mm side for portraits and beauty shoots.
and the 75mm side for outdoor shoots.

Mark Houston's picture

24-70mm f/2.8..my most used lens, it's the workhorse.

Duncan Gruer's picture

Surely the best value lens is the one that's worth more when you're finished with it than when you bought it!

Deleted Account's picture

You're doing it all wrong.

Nick Viton's picture

24-70mm f/2.8 makes me $ every weekend. It's paid for itself many times over.

Mike Ditz's picture

My lenses don't "make me money" except for the old Nikon 35mm f 2.8(?) I bought at a garage sale for $4.00 and sold for $100. I use the lenses, cameras, tripods, lights, cases, I guess my car too since I drive to locations to make money. But until they start doing without me I'll avoid using that line :)

Christoph .'s picture

Likely my Tamron 70-200 G2. I love the compression of shooting long and I've never had any issue with this lens at such a great price. Really brought out my joy of shooting again so kinda priceless for me.

Then again the returns from my 15-30 G2 are in 6 figures now so it wins raw numbers as an investment

VINICIUS YUZO ZUCARELI's picture

Since I shoot crop my sigma 17-50 f2.8 is as you described.

And the sad thing is that outside of going full frame and getting a 24-70 I don't know where to upgrade. Unless I want to spend 5 figures, there is nothing compelling for me to buy in the near future.

The only downside is that it is noisy and lousy for video because of it, even with off camera mic. If there was an equivalent silent lens that didn't cost that much, I would upgrade.

Jerome Brill's picture

As a hobbyist

Matthew Lacy's picture

I can sympathize. I'm still shooting with (gasp) my kit lenses. Photography doesn't make me any money, so I just cannot justify a new purchase. They work just fine for most of what I do, so why buy more?

Kenneth Silorinne's picture

You can justify any purchase. "It ain't no hobby, if it doesn't take all money you have"

Matthew Lacy's picture

You're right. I could, but I won't.

Jerome Brill's picture

Life is about enjoying what you like to do. I could retire with more money but then I'd have to make up the life I'm living right now. Sounds half as backwards to me and procrastination at it's best. Ideally, you should have enough to cover your funeral at the end. The rest should be used to enjoy your life or given to others. Obviously a little buffer helps throughout, but when it's full, live your life.

Rohan Gillett's picture

I feel a bit lonely saying this here but I’m a Fuji user and my best lens is the 16-55.

Tony Clark's picture

My Canon 100Macro/LIS has paid for itself over and over again.

Kirk Darling's picture

First place for me: The "lowly" Canon 24-105. I shoot all my interior portraits with it. Rarely as wide as the maximum f/4...usually f/5.6 or f/8. My retail portrait clients like both eyes and even Uncle Ron to be in focus with the rest of the family. That lens took maybe a month to pay back its cost.
Second place is the Canon 70-200 f/2.8, which I use for practically all my exterior portraits.

zeissiez lee's picture

My best investments are the lowly Fuji XC 16-50 F3.5-5.6 and Fuji XC 50-230 F4.5-6.7, with a combined price USD300, and the best feature - lightweight. Sample photos: www.zeissiez.com

Ken Plaha's picture

Olympus 12-100mm f/4. It is permanently attached to my camera for its versatile range and yet compact size and weight. f/4 across the entire zoom range is unbeatable and the dof at the long end is amazing.

Gil Aegerter's picture

Thank you for this post. That portrait with the Tamron is amazing -- looks like a fantastic pairing with the Sony.

I'm not a pro but do sell a few images each year. A client invited me over last week to see the 24x30 image she had hung in her dining room. It was taken with a Nikkor 70-300mm f4.5-6.3 AF-P that I had bought for $74 (including shipping) a few years ago. That lens had already paid for itself on its first outing. Pretty good return for an all-plastic lens.

Rick Bingham's picture

So I'm not shooting for money but for fun. Given that, as a Sony crop shooter, I have to say my favorite over the last couple of years for versatility has been the Sony 18-105 f4. With decent light and Clear Image zoom turned on it gets to about 135mm field of view with, again, very decent sharpness. It spends much time on my a6500. And, the price is still right to boot! Of course, for low light, I have the Sigma 16mm which is a great lens also. We'll see if the recently purchased Sony 16-55mm f2.8 takes over. I've loved the first few shots so it could happen!

Tony Tumminello's picture

Of lenses that I own personally: Canon EF 85mm f1.8 USM. Picked it up used for a song quite a few years ago and I still credit it with part of the reason that my workplace responsibilities expanded into the photography/videography realm.

Of the lenses that my workplace has now invested in: Canon EF 100mm f2.8L Macro. Our 85mm f1.4L might be more "flashy" of a lens and incredibly fun to use (especially for videography), but the 100mm macro is what's on the camera 90% of the time that I'm shooting photos in the studio. The amount of client work that lens sees is absolutely insane.

Eric Salas's picture

Sigma 105 Art for Sony.

Sharpest and most flattering lens I’ve shot with. It gets the, “what did you shoot that with?” reaction that I used to get with the canon 135 F/2.

Kreyg Scott's picture

Loving my Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM Lens

T Scarb's picture

I don't make money from my pics, as no one would pay money for them. So the price vs satisfaction I get from the photos ... it would be Sony 85mm 1.8 for me at $550

Nick Haynes's picture

Ditto ditto ditto!

I'm just an amateur too, and it's only been a couple of years since I "returned" to photography, so still feeling my way.

My camera goes with me to thing I do most, which is attending South-Indian classical concerts. I carry two or three primes. The lens most on my camera is that Sony 85/1.8 and, in the few months I have had it it has taken hundreds of pics.

Don Risi's picture

For *business* -- Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8, 24-70mm f/2.8

For *fun* -- Those 2 plus the Nikon 500mm f/5.6 PF.

Alexander Ramos's picture

The 18-135 lenses I use for a couple of APS-C bodies: WR version for Pentax K, and OSS for Sony E-Mount.

Timothy Gasper's picture

Breaking it down:
LANDSCAPE - 18 - 35mm f2.8
PORTRAIT - 105mm f2 DC
EVERYTHING ELSE - 28 - 80mm f2.8