What's the Most Overrated Lens?

What's the Most Overrated Lens?

I keep seeing articles and videos on underrated and overrated features of photography, so it's time to step out in front of the firing line with my contentious answer to the above question.

Fellow editor Alex Cooke's recent article titled "If You Could Only Shoot With One Lens, What Would It Be?" got me thinking. We have discussions based on similar questions on a daily basis, and are usually pretty in sync. But his answer to that question, while not completely different to my answer as I too would go for a prime, did prompt me to finally write this article: What's the most overrated lens?

These sort of questions are invariably quite tricky because you have to tick a number of boxes for your answer to be a viable candidate for discussion. That is, a lens must be good enough that it has mass appeal and is a common feature in camera bags around the world, but not so good that calling it overrated would be unfair. I have had a knee-jerk response to this question without it ever being posed quite as directly; a lens that is as staple as any and in almost every beginner's gear article you'll ever read. But for the sake of discussion, I'll go through what my thought process would be if I didn't already have my answer.

I'll add in a caveat to say that your answer can be both very specific (a particular model, of a particular brand's lens) or the more difficult route of naming a type of lens (say, all 35mm lenses.)

In terms of types of lenses that are common, the 24-70mm and the 70-200mm are always around and about the discussion over kit. I've owned at least one of each for as long as I can remember, and it's difficult to say they're overrated. Particularly for coverage of events, weddings, and assignments, you're well supported with this duo. You could put forward arguments for one particular model or brand of each being overrated, but having used Canon, Sony, and Sigma, I haven't found it to be the case quite yet; so that's out.

The next up for consideration would be the UWAs. No UWA has been particularly prevalent to my eye, or unjustified in its prevalence, and the type of lens as a whole is crucial to many genres. Then we move on to prime lenses. The 85mm is a popular choice and raved about; so it could be a candidate for being considered "overrated". Is it though? Not to my eyes. I've had one of the cheapest version of this prime — Canon 85mm f/1.8 — for a long time and I would certainly upgrade to an f/1.2 if I could justify the cost. But we're getting warmer, and for me, we're right next door.

So what do I consider to be the most overrated lens?

The 50mm f/1.8

Not specifically the Canon, or the Nikon, or any of the other brands. All modern f/1.8 50mm lenses. Every photographer upon buying their first camera has this little cheap prime rammed down their throat at every turn. I'm not unreasonable — I promise — I'm aware of its upsides; it's by far the cheapest way to a wide aperture, it can sort-of fit in to a number of different photography genres, and it's nice and light. I'm not saying it's a bad lens, what I am saying is it's overrated.

It is in the must-have, god-like lens tier and for me, it doesn't warrant it. The 50mm is a half measure; for portraits you'd generally do better with a longer prime, or even dropping down to a 35mm. For landscapes, it again sits in that awkward range between wide-angle, and longer. For the more niche categories of photography it's even less useful. I can honestly say that in all my years as a photographer, on private shoots, commercial shoots, and shooting just for fun, I've never thought "ah the 50mm would work nicely here."

Yes, it's cheap, it's light, and it's a good way for beginners to play around with narrow depth of field, but should it have this title of a staple in photographers' camera bags? Absolutely not. If it wasn't cheap, it'd be completely forgettable. So while it has its perks for beginners, the reverence for the 50mm f/1.8 is just confused driftwood being washed along by sound advice that it's a nice lens for beginners.

Shoot me down or offer an alternative lens that's overrated in the comments below.

Lead image by smsx_supp_612.

Rob Baggs's picture

Robert K Baggs is a professional portrait and commercial photographer, educator, and consultant from England. Robert has a First-Class degree in Philosophy and a Master's by Research. In 2015 Robert's work on plagiarism in photography was published as part of several universities' photography degree syllabuses.

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I bought the Sony 24-105 G lens. I bought it for traveling though, not for work. It had good reviews across the board, no matter where you looked. I found it to be quite drab, with horrendous distortion at all focal lengths. It worked for some landscapes, but portraits? Forget it.

Funny. I shoot lots of portraits with that lens and find it totally fine.

Glad it worked out for you. Maybe, more of a personal let down for me than it being over rated. Or something could have been wrong with my copy.

I used it in Mexico for a week long swimsuit and boudoir shoot with 30 models... loved it and didn’t mind it being F/4 at all considering I wanted my photos to showcase the model and the locations.

IMO it’s a fantastic lens.

Not that your photo isn't great, because hot damn, but I have to play devil's advocate here and say the model makes that image, not the lens.

Using an attractive model doesn’t mean you’ll automatically come away with a good photo. I chose the equipment, location, shot, and edited the photo...but that’s another conversation.

The original comment said to “forget it” for portraits. I’m just showing I used it primarily for portraits because it served the purpose and performed well.

Exactly. I agree, lens is only a fraction of the equation, and I also agree that it's perfectly acceptable as a choice in this picture. I just wanted to make it clear to everyone else.

lens has nothing to do with these images. the model is forgettable. feels like the kind of models we were looking at 20 years ago and totally irrelevant to any conversation about beauty in 2019.

So edgy. You should be a edgelord.

That's the point. If it's a good shot, who cares what lens it was.

Amen, bruv

Don’t be so scared to travel outside of your mama’s basement.

50mm is fine for portraits. You won't get the compression effect, which is often desirable, but nevertheless it is fine.

I think people also forget that the final image is not the only factor in the debate of if a lens is “overrated” or not.
Yes, image quality is of upmost importance but we all also have to keep in mind speed of AF in all types of light (low, high, artificial, backlit...), how it reacts to light (flaring, vignette, saturation, etc) and in these discussions many people haven’t shot a particular lens in all these types of lighting/situation.

Unlike most, I actually did.

I used it exclusively on my A7Riii and have no problems. Tact sharp.

The correct expression you’re looking for is actually “it is bad form” but since you don’t make mistakes I’ll assume you’re just a dumbass.

Simple speak to text fail on my part, thankfully dickheads like you exists to police the forums

Thank you for your service

Speaking of a decent travel lens. I've always wished Sony had something similar to the Nikon 28-300mm.

They’ve got a 24-240

I never said it was good, I said it exists.

In my opinion, it's the 24-70mm. It's not a real portrait lens and it's not really a telephoto lens. Personally, for portraits, I use 50mm, 85mm, and the excellent 180mm f/2.8. For events (which I do very little now), I use the 24-120mm f/4 on top of my primes.

I sold my 24-70 a long time ago and never felt that I needed it.

Funny, I am in the process of selling my Otus 55mm f1.8 because the 50mm f1.8 S is very very good, and also because it seems crystal clea that both the 55mm f0.95 and the 50mm f1.2 will be significantly better than the Otus.

Yeah... right... regardless, the Otus 55mm f1.4 has just been sold! I feel a bit lighter... seriously I can't believe you had the time to take a screen shot, add idiot and 2 arrows... I envy you man! :-)

I used to have the old 28-70 f/2.8. I had it for almost ten years and loved it. The weight killed me and it was not great in the corners so family photos were getting a bit challenging.

The 24-120 is great for parties, dance floor and when lots of people are around. It does not focus as quickly but when doing parties it is usually performing quite well.

I just find the 24-70 to be a middle lens, nor there or here.

agreed! never long enough or wide enough.

Yep, same here. It's a plain vanilla range for mine. I use a 50mm f/1.4 for anything that could use those fields of view.

LOL, "not real portrait lens". Technically, all lenses can be used on whatever field of photography.

Canon 85mm f/1.2. Good at just about everything except... shooting at f/1.2.

I have owned all three versions of the 85L and the 1.4L/IS is the first that I trust shot wide open.

Haha, I was going to jump in and say this. Replaced mine with the 1.8 and I've been just fine. The 85mm is more a conversation piece than it is practical.

Agree. Meanwhile, just about any Canon Youtuber has one :-). It seems people have it because they think they are doing something wrong if they did not.

Sold mine and went back to my 85 1.8. Small and light, fast focusing and tack sharp. Never let's me down.

Which one ? I love my Art 105

Love my little Canon f/1.8 50 mm but I guess I'm who it's made for. With everything else kit zooms, it's the best lens in my bag.

Yes, my old f/1.8 50mm may not be my best lens, but it's certainly the best value and I still use it. Not sure I'd agree with calling these overrated at all, probably because I never thought of them as a particularly amazing lenses. Perhaps even an underrated lens, because I wouldn't have guessed that I'd still be using it, but I am.

That was me for a long time, too. It's a very common story. I have always had a soft spot in my heart for the nifty fifty.

Any Leica Lens is overrated and overpriced

How about every fisheye lens ever? They have their niche, but I suspect fisheyes are the lenses that give young photographers the most distorted difference between expectation and reality for usefulness.

Haha. There's a follow up photo to the wandering eye boyfriend meme?

thought I recognized that girl!

And she looks ready to rumble lol

Came here for this comment; was not disappointed.

And the one she's talking to is from that same shot at well.

Vintage lenses in general, but particularly FSU lenses. Yes, they're fun to use and often have oodles if character, but FFS let's not pretend like we haven't made progress in optical quality in the past 7 decades.

What the author considers a weakness of the 50mm lens, I consider a strength. It is a compromise lens, as far as focal length. Good for applications where changing lenses is not possible or convenient, or you want to travel light and bring only one lens, etc.. In the Leica world were people can often only afford one lens, the 50mm is a very popular choice for that reason. Cartier Bresson for the most part, used only 50mm lenses, and his work is quite amazing. Having said that, I fully agree with the author when he states it will not begin to approach the possibilities to be had with wides and long portrait lenses. My own pet peeve with modern lenses is that many of them are rated highly solely because of sharpness, whilst other variables like character, rendering, bokeh suffer as a result. I shoot with many vintage lenses because I like the vibe they produce.

Otus 55? Asking for a friend.

I shall shoot you down! It's called the "nifty fifty" for a reason, and not for its affordability, I argue, but for its versatility as a tool for capturing "normal" images in creative ways. Zooming with one's feet, you can capture effective environmental portraits at a distance, or close, separated shots with nice bokeh. Portraits not your style? Take to the streets to catch culture and cityscape. Rather be in nature? Go for a hike for some landscapes or floral shots. Traveling? Take the fifty anywhere, even shooting indoors under dim light. Compact, light as a feather, unassuming...check, check, check! These lenses are sharp, colorful, quick to focus, and easily capable of achieving professional results. And, as you say, among the absolute best value offered by lens manufacturers. Overrated? No! Good sir, I submit that you have criminally underrated this lens type by labeling it a plaything for beginners and find your arguments to the contrary to be uncompelling and superficial! By brushing off the fifty's upsides I believe you gloss over and miss why the lens is so revered - because it combines extraordinary versatility with excellent image quality, encouraging creativity from the photographer, which is what we're all about.

I think a better survey would be what focal length, not which "lens" as a 24-70 has 46 and a 24-105 has 81 lengths to choose from. I seem to be a 28mm kind a guy.
The 50mm does a lot of things pretty well, it's like a Camry. I have three, Nikon micro, a vintage Nikkor 1.2 and a Contax. The 1.2 gets the most use because of the look .

While I generally agree with your points on the 50mm lens for full frame or film.. I feel like this was written in 1984. When was the last time a 50mm was offered as a kit lens or any salesman tried to sell one with a camera body? Additionally, not everyone has a full frame DSLR and on an APC body a 50mm f/1.4 or 1.8 becomes like an 80/1.4 (75mm to be precise) and when was the last time you saw a super sharp 80/1.8 or 1.4 for as cheap as a 50/1.8? So on APC it's quite useful.

I think he's talking about the 50mm field of view. For me (I use Fuji X Series) I would read his article as being about 35mm lenses in my system.

The Nikon Z6 and Z7 both come available with a 50mm f/1.8 as a kit.

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