You Don't Need That Expensive Lens for Your Photography

You Don't Need That Expensive Lens for Your Photography

When you’re starting out as a photographer, it’s natural to lust after the lenses at the top of the food chain. You know the ones. Sometimes they have red rings around the front, or they are the portrait lens that can obliterate a background. Maybe you want the zoom lens that can survive a monsoon.But are these lenses worth the price of admission, which is sometimes north of $1000 or $2000? In 99 percent of the cases, the answer is no.

Can You Even Tell the Difference?

This image was shot with the Nikon 58mm f/1.4G lens. It's very expensive. But is it worth it? Could this shot have been made with other lenses and looked about the same?

This image was shot with the Nikon 58mm f/1.4G lens. It's very expensive. But is it worth it? Could this shot have been made with other lenses and looked about the same?

This isn’t a post that’s going to talk about DXO scores or show you the same photo shot with three different lenses. That’s been done. Of course at the extremes you’ll see the difference, but that means nothing to the average (or even pro) shooter. I’m arguing that all of these lenses produce images that are more or less in the same ballpark to not matter to most photographers.

I’ve switched systems from Canon to Nikon twice now. Both times, when I first entered each system, I went straight for the fast glass – The Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM and the Nikon 85mm f/1.4G. Ditto for the 50mm (ish) lenses – the EF 50mm f/1.2L USM on the Canon side and the 58mm f/1.4G for Nikon.

Canon and Nikon make f/1.8 versions of both lenses, available at a much cheaper prices. For instance, a Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM lens runs about $110, vs. $1299 for the f/1.2 version. Nikon’s f/1.4 85mm lens, at $1596 is a full $1120 more than its f/1.8 counterpart.

The funny thing is, when I started second shooting for other photographers, I noticed that they often went with the cheaper, smaller, lighter versions of staple focal lengths (and in some cases, older versions of those lenses). At my brother’s wedding last month, the photographer kept an 85mm f/1.8D plastered on his camera the entire time. These were the moneymaker lenses for these photographers and it didn’t matter that it wasn’t the largest of apertures written on the side.

So when coming back to each system I had the option to return to my favorite “bokeh machines,” but in the interim new choices emerged. Nikon has been on a roll with a series of lighter and less expensive f/1.8 versions of its lenses, including the 85, and Canon finally updated their nifty fifty with an STM version. Both of these lenses pack a punch much larger than their price tags would suggest.

I thought about my wallet, and then I thought about my back, and decided to go for the 1.8 versions of each lens the second time around.

Take a look at these two photos, can you tell which one was shot with the more expensive lens? Do you find yourself longing for one bokeh look over the other? Does it even matter?

Park ranger shot with Canon EF 85mm F/1.2L II USM.

Park ranger shot with Canon EF 85mm F/1.2L II USM.

Halloween kids shot with Nikon 85mm 1.8G lens.

Halloween kids shot with Nikon 85mm 1.8G lens.

The photo of the the park ranger was shot with the Canon 85mm f/1.2 lens and the photo of children on Halloween was shot with the Nikon 85mm f/1.8 lens. Big price difference, but not a huge look difference.

Having tasted the forbidden fruit of the 1.4 and 1.2 lenses, do I miss them? No, I don’t.

Let’s take a look at the 85mm lenses as a case study. The Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM was one of my most used lenses. It was also one of my heaviest primes, and it felt like it on a shoot. It was beastly and didn’t balance well on anything less than a 1D X. Focus was slow as molasses, and nailing it at f/1.2 was an exercise in frustration. When the focus did hit at 1.2, there was tons of chromatic aberration to deal with anyway. I often found myself shooting this lens at f/2.0 or f/2.2 just to make up for these shortcomings.

If the 85mm offered a more tangible benefit, such as faster focus or weather sealing, then it would perhaps justify the price tag, but it doesn’t. When I switched it up to the 85 mm f/1.8, I got a lens that focused faster, was sharp wide open at the same apertures I’d be using the f/1.2 version at anyway, and it was much lighter and smaller. The only advantage of the 85mm f/1.2, aside from letting in a small amount more light, was bragging rights. Bragging rights don’t make a good image.

Let’s take a look at the 50s on the Canon side as well. If you’re a video shooter this is even more of a no-brainer. The newer and less expensive version (the STM model) has a silent autofocus motor, a benefit for video in that you won’t hear the lens constantly hunting for focus. As Canon’s “nifty fifty” offering, it’s light, small, cheap, and cheery. And it’s pretty damn sharp, even compared to its more expensive f/1.2 sibling. In fact, I disliked the lack of sharpness at the extremes of the f/1.2 that I didn’t even use it enough to provide something representative for this post, something that’s the opposite of the STM model, which is often on the front of my camera.

Quality vs. Cost and the Middle Ground

This raises an interesting cost-to-benefit ratio question – if the top lenses aren’t necessarily worth it, what about lenses that fall, price-wise, in the middle, like the Sigma Art series?

I’ve only really had seat time behind the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art, but one thing to think about is how Sigma, Tamron, and other companies are forced to reverse engineer the lens mounts for Nikon and Canon. While the optics are top-notch (and in some cases, much better than the native offerings from the big two when it comes to the 50mm Art), focus accuracy is difficult for the lenses to nail because they don’t have all the information that a manufacturer has about a mount. Autofocus performance seemed, at least to my eye, to be inconsistent on the Sigma 50mm Art. You can also see some issues that always seem to come up when a new camera is released because of this lack of information-sharing. Canon and Nikon don’t allow specific lenses to be registered for third-party lenses, and so you’re forced to microadjust with a special dock or perform a global adjustment for all lenses on the body – something that’s a pain if you’re shooting multiple bodies and third-party lenses.

That said, if your photography is not necessarily based on fast moving things that need these can be a great option as well – Sigma and Tamron have been on a roll lately when it comes to sheer image quality out of their lenses.

What are your thoughts on the debate? Are the expensive lenses worth it or are the cheaper options a better choice? What about third-party lenses? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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32 Comments

Thanks for sharing this Wasim, it's good to keep perspective on what the equipment that we want will actually provide us. Does a lens that costs 50-100% more than another really justify that increase? You certainly don't get 50-100% more sharpness or image quality most of the time, so it's helpful to consider when shopping for new gear and upgrades.

I definitely agree with you here, and I just wish comparison images were "really" comparison images with actual similarities. Maybe shot from the same camera, with the same settings, at (relatively) the same time, at the same subject, in the same pose. But I guess that's something I should do if I want to see more of it out there. :D

It's not an isolated thing, and of course it's not always possible with comparison articles, just a personal pet peeve of mine. It doesn't take anything away from the message here.

stefano giovannini's picture

Great post. Some photo sites just tend to push the most expensive lenses. Too much attention to the bokeh to conceal poor composition and content. 1.8 is fast enough. 1.2 you can get only the eyes in focus in a portrait, with lips and and nose way out of focus.

This is the first time I've seen someone use a compare slider with two completely different scenes. Compared to the amount of time it takes to write an article, walking outside to shoot the same thing with the two lenses for an apples to apples comparison doesn't take much time. *sigh*

Wasim Ahmad's picture

As I mentioned in the post, I haven't owned these lenses at the same time so walking outside to compare isn't possible, but there are plenty of articles (including the one I linked) that do compare head-to-head. I'm trying to be more reflective rather than presenting a technical comparison here - in actual, day-to-day use I don't miss any of the more expensive lenses that I've owned.

Trevor's point is valid and if you really wanted to hammer it home as he suggested, renting the missing lens for comparison would have worked as well. Nice write up though and the points are valid.

If you don't have the content, don't write the article. You did not support your thesis in any objective way.

Anonymous's picture

It was an opinion piece, not a review or comparison.

Anonymous's picture

I've written this before but I liken it to a 2WD vs 4WD vehicle. The former will get you to 95% of the places you would ever go with the latter. Bottom line: where do you need to go? The answer is different for everyone.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

That's a good analogy. I was going to make a similar one about how I once owned an Acura TSX, and now I own a Honda Accord and they're almost the same car (in fact, the TSX is the Accord in Europe, so it's no surprise that most of the switchgear and such are the same). The last TSX even used the Honda Civic Si engine and transmission, essentially.

William Howell's picture

So if one does not need expensive lenses, does one need expensive lights? Does a two thousand dollar mono bloc strobe make better light than a $500.00 light? Does a $12,000.00 pack and head system make better light than a three thousand dollar pack and head unit, both with the ability to stop motion?

I think there is a difference in high quality glass, much more so than the aforementioned analogy, the 85mm f/1.4 is a superior lens compared the f/1.8.

Anonymous's picture

I think superior isn't necessarily the best way to put it. Each is more appropriate (superior) for different situations. Perhaps one is better for more situations!?

I would choose the 85mm 1.8 and a good (not an extremely expensive one) flash all the time vs a 85mm 1.4. You are going to get better photos for sure. Of course there are extremes where the 1.4 is the best lens for the shoot (for instace, in a place where they dont let you use flash). But if you are a portrait photographer (most of the photos in this article are portraits, and we are discussing "the" portrait lens, 85mm) I can assure that the only thing better to a 85mm 1.8 with a flash, is an 85mm 1.8 with two flashes. Period. No competition there.

Jim Hofman's picture

I just switched from Nikon to Fuji and bought their legendary 56mm f1.2 lens on sale for US$800. It's the deal that keeps on giving. The 56mm is the sharpest lens I've ever owned and is flawless (except when it tries to focus in really low light). I've always lusted for a super-fast lens and it's actually affordable when it goes on sale (down from $1,000).

Wasim Ahmad's picture

I would have to agree with you on that one. The price/performance ratio on that lens is great. I do wish minimum focus distance were a little closer though, I find myself butting up against it quite a bit. Also, one thing I like about what Fuji does is that they differentiate the widest aperture lenses from the lower priced version with useful features, such as weather sealing. So while a lens may be cheaper and you give up some light gathering ability, you get weather sealing, so there is a clear reason to get one lens or the other. Also, the APS-C sensor would seem to amplify the depth of field argument for an f/1.2 over an f/2.

A pertinent article. For a long time I was seduced by the lure of expensive lenses and the detailed and glowing reviews given to them by the pixelists, but I have wised up a lot and use cheaper and more ergonomically friendly lenses for the majority of my shots these days. If anything, the quality of the results is more satisfying to me.

Hussain Hijazi's picture

I wish my talent would improve proportionate to the price difference I am paying to upgrade my gear :) The Nikon 1.8g series is just an amazing bargain value for money. On the other hand, we always strive to have the best tools for the job, and more expensive lenses are usually better whether in IQ, build, durability, weather sealing, appeal, etc... So I guess yes, you can take amazing photos with cheaper lenses but you can take even better ones with more expensive lenses; all things being equal.

I won a lot of pool matches using cheapo or average sticks, however, my performance improves significantly with a custom McDermott one. That being said, I agree that talent/technique has a way bigger impact on your photography than your gear. I can't ski nor surf to save my life, and no boot or board would ever change that!

Gear Acquisition Syndrome is real and some photographers struggle with it. I know one photographer who is constantly buying gear only to turn around and sell it at discount a month or two later. One has to question if he really need that equipment in the first place.

Meanwhile I shoot with my 8 year old Canon camera and small stable of lenses I use constantly while perfecting my craft.

Jacques Cornell's picture

All of this factored into my decision to switch from DSLRs to Micro Four Thirds. I'd rather have a tiny, light, affordable lens of modest aperture that's excellent wide open than wrestle with the compromises and costs of high-end glass for little practical gain.

I did the same thing 3.5 years ago! :)

David Martin's picture

I'm a Micro Four Thirds user with few regrets, but I confess to having scarfed up a used Olympus 35-100 mm f/2 lens that weighs 4 pounds and is an optical marvel, even if it represents exactly the kind of unweildy bulk I was trying to escape. Its photos of flowers and palm inflorescences from 50 feet away raised my expectations of the little cameras and led to purchasing a couple of PRO lenses.

When you are getting started you often think the limitation is the gear even though people tell you otherwise. Then when you can afford both you realize the 1.8 may have technical advantages and be the better tool for the job. Running a business means you will have multiples of things as opposed to one great thing.

Jozef Povazan's picture

You got it all wrong in your title :). It is not about how expensive any gear is! It is about what you can create with it.
Give Lanny Mann a 35mm lens and watch what comes out of it and then compare it to crowd of hundreds other 'aka trying to be wedding photographers' and what they produce with the same set. Priceless comparison! Gear is important and once you reach certain level in your skill-set a better gear moves you even further, since you become faster, more precise, and even more creative! It is like a hammer for carpenter. Yes they can go and use cheap ones all life, yet they learned how much energy they safe by using a lighter and more precise one and can with it better and faster without questions....
I am not saying people should by expensive gear. The opposite is the truth, start with simple and build your knowledge, craft it and when you reach maximum what a lens could give, the time comes to move on higher etc... until you find your match for your style and skills and then you stick with that right workhorse on your camera since you know now you can create and shoot a heck with that tool you trust and like to work with.... Happy shooting guys, gear does matter yet comes after your knowledge what and how to use it :)... If you want to see minimalistic approach to gear check name Fer Juaristi and you will be amazed what one can do with 2 lenses and 2 camera bodies. That is it !!! Jaw dropping experience !!!

Rob Mynard's picture

I would say the subject really comes down to knowing what you want to create lets you choose the right tools. Too many photographers that I talk to (I run a camera store) haven't put enough thought into what they're going to shoot, so they think the sharpest, fastest, shallowest, most weather sealed, etc. will give them the most options when something comes along.
I'm a wedding photographer and carry my gear all day so knowing what I'm going to shoot helps me carry the smallest kit to achieve what I need. As it is I carry a mix of fast f/1.4 primes in the 35mm and 105mm, (both of which require the f/1.4 for specific low light or shallow abilities), while rounding out my kit with f/1.8's for the 24mm and 50mm (for group shots or environmental reportage both of which are rarely shot at wide apertures).

In the case of the Canon 50, the 1.8 has a shortcoming of fewer aperture blades, creating almost a pentagon-shaped bokeh. One must be aware and work around this. Even still, I agreed with your conclusion in this case and felt the 1.8's price was a fantastic bargain.

There are some good performing lenses at the "lower end" of manufacturer's lineups, like the Canon 10-18. I think the Sigma Art series makes a compelling argument as being one's best lenses in the arsenal.

I agree. Especially for amateurs like me, using a very expensive lens isn't going to make my pictures more attractive or more interesting. Manufacturers want you to think that using their very latest camera and best lenses is necessary to get better pictures. An investment in a decent photo course will probably be better.

Tomash Masojc's picture

Ok, if look at that two photos with 85mm i can see difference, and quite very obviuos, and photos aren't even big.

Wasim Ahmad's picture

Which one did you think was better and why?

Anonymous's picture

The one with the lens he has. ;-)

Harry lener's picture

Topics like this one like a Billion +1 To day is not about lens quality its about RETOUCHING SKILLS
What sells to day? A look @ Editors Choice awards = Amazing!

Pete Tapang's picture

Great article! I'm really glad that you didn't post identical comparison pics, because a lot of the time that's the only way people will notice a difference. In real world shooting the audience isn't going to look at your image and say "man, you should do a comparison with L glass to see if it looks better." We as photographers can look at an image and wonder in our heads what gear the photographer used, but the rest of the world won't, they just like good images. I'm not gonna lie though, I still suffer from GAS sometimes lol. I guess it's just part of the fun.