‘Choosing the right lenses is tougher than picking the right camera. Kim Brebach from Get the Picture explains why.’
A wise photographer once said: the bigger the camera, the less likely you’ll have it with you when you want it. Most of us use our cameras to shoot kids and pets, sports, city- or landscapes and occasional portraits. Most of us want a camera that’s easy to cart around and can take a few knocks.
Pro shooters who travel light have the same need, and legends like Galen Rowell have proved that you can produce stunning results with simple equipment. His friend Thom Hogan once described how Galen would race past him up a mountain, with only a Nikon F80 and a couple of light-weight lenses in his small chest pouch. .
‘If he were still with us today,’ Thom wrote somewhere else, ‘I’m pretty sure it [the camera in his pouch] would be a D60. The emphasis was on light, light, light. On the lens side, Galen zipped around with an old 20mm f/4UD and the 80-200mm f/4-5.6D (US$99!) consumer lens.’
That was written a few years after Galen lost his life in a plane crash. If he were alive today, would he use one of the new compacts like the Olympus E-P1 or Panasonic Lumix GF1? Or the Sigma DP2? Or would he choose a D60 or D5000 because of the vast lens choices they offer and their all-round competence? These Nikons are smallish cameras weighing less than half a kilo. Canon, Olympus, Pentax and Sony all make similar cameras.
As their prices shrunk and their features grew, many of us took the leap and bought a twin-lens DSLR kit. As time went by, we bought more lenses to supplement the two kit lenses. In my case it was a Nikon 18-135mm for convenience, a Sigma 10-20mm for super-wide angles and a 50mm fixed lens for its f/1.8 speed and because all the critics raved about it.
I hate carrying big camera kit bags or backpacks when I’m out. Instead I got used to slinging the camera over my shoulder and sticking a second lens into my bum bag. It’s an easy way to walk about as long as the gear isn’t heavy. That Sigma was a heavy lens but a bigger problem was that I now had to make serious decisions whenever I went out: which 2 lenses do I take?
One day I took stock of which lenses I’d taken most of my photos with. The result: 80% with the humble 18-55mm, and at least another 10% with the 55-200mm (Seagulls on the right).
Why was it so? I’d bought the 18-135mm thinking it would be on my camera most of the time since it covered the most common range. In practice, it was often just a little short and also lacked the Vibration Reduction of the kit zoom. Worst, it wasn’t as sharp as the two kit lenses until you got to 100mm and over.
The super-wide Sigma produced a few exciting shots with a lot of fine editing, but they were far and few in between. Most landscape shots weren’t sharp enough (really fuzzy in the corners), and the light blow-outs were blindingly spectacular. It’s a special-purpose lens with no practical streak and severe limitations.
The Nikon 35mm f/1.8 prime lens has no real flaws but is no sharper than the 18-55mm kit lens. Yes, it’s faster but the 18-55’s range is more useful so the prime lens went on sale on eBay with the two others.
What do you lose when you go light?
Build quality, size and speed. Nikon’s pro lenses aren’t only bigger, but have more glass inside them and tend to be made of metal. The 70-210mm for example is beautifully made but it’s not the kind of lens you’d throw casually into a bag. Portability is not a strength but speed is: a constant f/2.8 compared to f/3.5 – 5.6. Does it make that much difference? If you’re a pro, the answer’s yes. If you’re an amateur, it’s a lot of extra money and heft for a marginal benefit.
What about super-wide options? That’s a tough question. An improved version of the Sigma 10-20 features a constant f/3.5 aperture and a $1,000 price tag. The new Tamron 10-24mm is lighter (plastic) and just a little cheaper. Nikon’s consumer 10-24mm is closer to $1,500. Tokina makes a couple of good wide-angle lenses but they won’t autofocus on a D60/D5000.
How often do you need a super-wide angle? If you shoot photos of very small apartments for large real estate agents, you’ll need to find the money.
Working out what you Need
My needs are more at the long end of the range. As a mid-range zoom lens that’s light and portable, the 55-200mm takes a lot of beating but beyond 200mm things get more tricky. Nikon makes a 70-300mm VR which isn’t too heavy and gets good reviews. The bad news is that it won’t leave you with much change out of $1,000, which is incomprehensible when you can buy the same lens in the US or from Hong Kong for A$600. Why are we being punished for living in Australia? Because we get more sunshine?
$1,000 is a hell of a lot for a slow (f/4.5 – 5.6) plastic lens, even one with a 450mm reach. Yes, since it’s designed for full frame cameras, the range on a DX (all Nikons except D3 and D700) is 105-450mm. That makes it better value in theory because the longer the tele end, the bigger the ticket price.
Among the alternatives is a cheap Tamron 70-300mm, which gets mixed reviews as they say, and a Sigma 70-300mm f/4-5.6 APO DG MACRO, which sold for $300 and was described in many user reviews as the bargain of the year.
For $300 I was prepared to take a chance. The only problem was that I couldn’t buy one in Australia for love or money, even in the middle of a deep recession that saw lens makers in Japan laying off workers.
A call to the distributor produced a vague answer about a shipment due in 3 or 4 weeks, so I ended up buying it from Adorama for the same A$300 including the hefty $50 freight charge for having UPS deliver it to my door four days later (there was no cheaper, slower option).
This 100% crop is from a shot of Centrepoint Tower taken from Waverton across the harbour. This lens doesn’t need much sharpening across the range, the colours are accurate and the build is rock-solid. The AF is a bit noisy and the macro function a bit clunky but still the only thing the lens really lacks is VR. Given the bargain price, who’s complaining?
We’re back to three lenses but most of the time you know when you need to pack a long zoom, like when there’s stuff on the harbour like the Sydney-Hobart or the Queen Mary coming through the heads. The Sigma is too heavy to go walk-about with as well so it rules itself out for Sunday walks, but a special purpose lens for $300 I can live with. I may buy a second hand super-wide one day to fill that gap, because super-wide angles can be fun.
Meanwhile, here are links to the views of a couple of Nikon gurus on lenses: