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?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?
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.