June 2, 2008

High Quality Lenses

If you are concerned about the quality of your photo gear and want to step up to a more professional oriented kit, spend money on glass. It’s better to own the best lens you can afford than the fanciest camera body.

And don’t be fooled into thinking that only Canon, Leica and Nikon make good glass. There are plenty of good third-party lenses.

Here’s how to spot the signs of high-quality glass. Different manufacturers have different designations for it, but virtually all of them employ some kind of high-quality glass in their top of the line, and even some of their economy lens designs. Nikon lenses use ED glass (Extra Low Dispersion), Canon lenses use UD glass in their “L” series lenses, Tamron uses LD to signify their high quality glass, Sigma uses EX DG for their top glass.

These lenses exhibit better contrast, sharpness, and color fidelity. They also tend to exhibit less chromatic aberration. They may be more expensive (some are very expensive), but if image quality is important, the price is worth it.

This post sponsored by Lensbabies.

Join the conversation! 35 Comments

  1. Scott,

    I had a chance to attend the PMA Australia 2008 Imaging Technology Show over the weekend and got to try out some very expensive bodys (including 2 glorious minutes with the famed Canon 1DS MK III).

    It was funny how the general public where all flocking around the bodys, but the guys in the know spent most of their time around the glass and pods.

    But ultimately, I have learnt not to call them ‘glass’ around my wife, especially when she found the receipt. (“You spent [Expletive omitted] how much on a piece of glass?” I think was the direct quote)

  2. Scott,

    I had a chance to attend the PMA Australia 2008 Imaging Technology Show over the weekend and got to try out some very expensive bodys (including 2 glorious minutes with the famed Canon 1DS MK III).

    It was funny how the general public where all flocking around the bodys, but the guys in the know spent most of their time around the glass and pods.

    But ultimately, I have learnt not to call them ‘glass’ around my wife, especially when she found the receipt. (“You spent [Expletive omitted] how much on a piece of glass?” I think was the direct quote)

  3. I just bought the Nikon 14-24 2.8 lens full frame lens for my D300. This lens is a worth every cent. (and believe me that’s a lot of cents) I bought it for a camera that wasn’t full frame because I am looking to the future with all my glass and don’t want to be stuck with a pile of digital lenses when I decide to take the jump to full frame. I will suffer a little with 14mm being 21mm on my cropped sensor for a while but I have a great piece of glass that will grow with me. My only other complaint is that you cannot put a polarizer on it do to the shape of the front glass. I will live with this for a wide angle lens that has virtually no distortion at 14mm.

  4. I just bought the Nikon 14-24 2.8 lens full frame lens for my D300. This lens is a worth every cent. (and believe me that’s a lot of cents) I bought it for a camera that wasn’t full frame because I am looking to the future with all my glass and don’t want to be stuck with a pile of digital lenses when I decide to take the jump to full frame. I will suffer a little with 14mm being 21mm on my cropped sensor for a while but I have a great piece of glass that will grow with me. My only other complaint is that you cannot put a polarizer on it do to the shape of the front glass. I will live with this for a wide angle lens that has virtually no distortion at 14mm.

  5. oooohh i really wanted to go to PMA Aus. this year but couldn’t make it down from Cairns.

    Is it worth buying L series glass for a prosumer 400D? does body quality lower or heighten the quality of the lens in any way? like, if i put a 50mm f/1.2L on a 400D and a 1DS MKIII and shot the same photo using the same settings would I see any difference (apart from the 11 megapixel difference of course)

  6. oooohh i really wanted to go to PMA Aus. this year but couldn’t make it down from Cairns.

    Is it worth buying L series glass for a prosumer 400D? does body quality lower or heighten the quality of the lens in any way? like, if i put a 50mm f/1.2L on a 400D and a 1DS MKIII and shot the same photo using the same settings would I see any difference (apart from the 11 megapixel difference of course)

  7. Don’t forget Olympus…arguably having some of the best glass around

  8. Don’t forget Olympus…arguably having some of the best glass around

  9. I agree, lens quality is (for me anyway) very important. I wont shoot with out a good piece of glass on my camera. Once you can see the difference you wont be able to go back. Kinda like seeing high def after thinking DVD was great quality.

  10. I agree, lens quality is (for me anyway) very important. I wont shoot with out a good piece of glass on my camera. Once you can see the difference you wont be able to go back. Kinda like seeing high def after thinking DVD was great quality.

  11. Craig, better lenses extract the best out of your camera, not the other way round. In the days of films, no matter what camera you use, you only need the best lens to get a good photo.

    Anyway, I think you can hardly find a big difference if you ‘down setting’ your 1DS to shoot at the 400D mode, provided that you use the same exposure setting, same AWB, same low ISO and the proper cropping of the image.

  12. Craig, better lenses extract the best out of your camera, not the other way round. In the days of films, no matter what camera you use, you only need the best lens to get a good photo.

    Anyway, I think you can hardly find a big difference if you ‘down setting’ your 1DS to shoot at the 400D mode, provided that you use the same exposure setting, same AWB, same low ISO and the proper cropping of the image.

  13. I would have to totally agree with you. It all starts with the glass.

  14. I would have to totally agree with you. It all starts with the glass.

  15. I notice a world of difference with my Canon EF 24-105 f/4 L IS USM lens on my 400D, it is like I bought a new camera, so much better is the image quality now!

  16. Thank you, Scott, for making (in my opinion) the most important point about photography equipment purchases. I tell people to invest in glass all the time! I did want to make one additional point about 3rd-party lenses in regards to using them with Canon cameras…

    I am a technical training specialist for cameras at Canon’s tech support center for the U.S. And I can tell you first hand that not all 3rd-party lenses perform as advertised. The problem is not with the glass itself, but with the electronics and firmware built into these lenses.

    Canon does not provide any special blueprints to 3rd-party manufacturers so that they can make EOS compatible lenses. So many 3rd-party lenses can cause an error on Digital EOS bodies (error 99 being the most common). Basically, 3rd-party manufacturers have to reverse engineer Canon’s own lenses to figure out how to make an EOS compatible lens. Many are able to pull it off, but some (especially older lens models that were released during the days of EOS film bodies. And when Canon went digital, the cameras became much more sophisticated in how they communicated with the attached lenses. So remember that there is a reason that these lenses are less expensive. as long as your willing to take that kind of risk, then you can find some good deals. I, on the other hand, do not like taking chances when I’m trying to capture that “decisive moment”.

  17. Thank you, Scott, for making (in my opinion) the most important point about photography equipment purchases. I tell people to invest in glass all the time! I did want to make one additional point about 3rd-party lenses in regards to using them with Canon cameras…

    I am a technical training specialist for cameras at Canon’s tech support center for the U.S. And I can tell you first hand that not all 3rd-party lenses perform as advertised. The problem is not with the glass itself, but with the electronics and firmware built into these lenses.

    Canon does not provide any special blueprints to 3rd-party manufacturers so that they can make EOS compatible lenses. So many 3rd-party lenses can cause an error on Digital EOS bodies (error 99 being the most common). Basically, 3rd-party manufacturers have to reverse engineer Canon’s own lenses to figure out how to make an EOS compatible lens. Many are able to pull it off, but some (especially older lens models that were released during the days of EOS film bodies. And when Canon went digital, the cameras became much more sophisticated in how they communicated with the attached lenses. So remember that there is a reason that these lenses are less expensive. as long as your willing to take that kind of risk, then you can find some good deals. I, on the other hand, do not like taking chances when I’m trying to capture that “decisive moment”.

  18. Body versus lenses: the dirty fact is, you can easily spend many times more on your lenses than on the camera body. In fact, many of those who do this type of thing “seriously” do end up spending many times more on lenses than on the electronics boxes to which they attach. This is not coincidental.

    On the other hand, no matter what lens you have on your Digital Rebel, you’ll never be able to shoot 6 frames per second and you’ll never be able to have a 1/8000 second shutter release: if either of those is important to you, then you’ll need to get an upgraded body.

    Think of it like any other complex system, say your computer. What are the most important aspects to you? Starting at the top of that list, which component (and you really only have two to consider, so this is easy: lens or body) is most responsible for it? That’s the one you’ll want to upgrade next.

    All said, getting a new lens is often eye-opening. No matter how many pixels your camera sensor has or how fast it can snap photos, if the lens is “soft” or distorted you will not like your pictures. Of course, *every* lens is soft to some degree, so “soft” or not is more a personal subjective call than a strong objective scientific fact. Perhaps “sharp enough” is the better description.

    Personally, I’m still quite enamored with my new 40D body (fixed my #2, 3, 4, and 5 complaints about my old 300D system: startup speed, shot-to-shot speed, viewfinder clarity, high-iso clarity) as well as my new lenses (which fixed complaints #1, 6, & 7: 70-300 sharpness, image stabilization geeklust, larger zoom walk-around). See http://tomdibble.wordpress.com/2008/05/20/moving-to-the-mid-range-the-canon-40d/ for my comments along those lines.

    Finally, I’m a bit curious about the second-hand lens market. It seems that you can sell a lens for not a whole lot less than what it went for new (assuming you kept it well taken-care-of). So, it’s perhaps a bit too pound-foolish to be spending a lot extra on lenses whose benefits you will not see on the body you own today / could possibly afford this year. I’ve also heard that rentals of high-end lenses are a good approach to verify the lens is as good as you expect it is before plunking down cash (you wouldn’t buy a $2k used car without a test drive; you shouldn’t buy a $2k new lens without an equally aggressive test drive).

  19. Body versus lenses: the dirty fact is, you can easily spend many times more on your lenses than on the camera body. In fact, many of those who do this type of thing “seriously” do end up spending many times more on lenses than on the electronics boxes to which they attach. This is not coincidental.

    On the other hand, no matter what lens you have on your Digital Rebel, you’ll never be able to shoot 6 frames per second and you’ll never be able to have a 1/8000 second shutter release: if either of those is important to you, then you’ll need to get an upgraded body.

    Think of it like any other complex system, say your computer. What are the most important aspects to you? Starting at the top of that list, which component (and you really only have two to consider, so this is easy: lens or body) is most responsible for it? That’s the one you’ll want to upgrade next.

    All said, getting a new lens is often eye-opening. No matter how many pixels your camera sensor has or how fast it can snap photos, if the lens is “soft” or distorted you will not like your pictures. Of course, *every* lens is soft to some degree, so “soft” or not is more a personal subjective call than a strong objective scientific fact. Perhaps “sharp enough” is the better description.

    Personally, I’m still quite enamored with my new 40D body (fixed my #2, 3, 4, and 5 complaints about my old 300D system: startup speed, shot-to-shot speed, viewfinder clarity, high-iso clarity) as well as my new lenses (which fixed complaints #1, 6, & 7: 70-300 sharpness, image stabilization geeklust, larger zoom walk-around). See http://tomdibble.wordpress.com/2008/05/20/moving-to-the-mid-range-the-canon-40d/ for my comments along those lines.

    Finally, I’m a bit curious about the second-hand lens market. It seems that you can sell a lens for not a whole lot less than what it went for new (assuming you kept it well taken-care-of). So, it’s perhaps a bit too pound-foolish to be spending a lot extra on lenses whose benefits you will not see on the body you own today / could possibly afford this year. I’ve also heard that rentals of high-end lenses are a good approach to verify the lens is as good as you expect it is before plunking down cash (you wouldn’t buy a $2k used car without a test drive; you shouldn’t buy a $2k new lens without an equally aggressive test drive).

  20. Great tip for us beginners!

  21. Great tip for us beginners!

  22. Is there a website similat to DPReview (http://www.dpreview.com/) for lenses?

    I am very interested in purchasing a new lens and this post was a very good read since I was leaning towards a Canon lens only because I own a Canon. Getting some help on choosing an appropriate lens would be nice.

  23. Martin: I find http://www.fredmiranda.com/ to be a good source for lens reviews. Click on “Reviews” and find the lens you are looking for. I’d also add a visit to http://lens-reviews.com/ and http://www.the-digital-picture.com/Reviews/ before putting any money down. For the more analytic bent, http://www.photozone.de/Reviews/overview includes several fancy charts and graphs with every review (perhaps what you meant by like DPR).

    Finally, of course, experience with a lens is always the absolute best review source: if you have a friend with that lens, or can rent it, or can buy it from a local shop with a generous return policy, do it!

    Otherwise, a Google or Amazon search for the particular lens (eg, “Canon 28-135 IS”) will often lead to raw opinions, although you’ll have to invest more effort to figuring out how reliable that person’s opinion actually is (ie, read other reviews he gives, compare that opinion with others expressed, etc; the same thing with any user reviews site).

  24. Martin: I find http://www.fredmiranda.com/ to be a good source for lens reviews. Click on “Reviews” and find the lens you are looking for. I’d also add a visit to http://lens-reviews.com/ and http://www.the-digital-picture.com/Reviews/ before putting any money down. For the more analytic bent, http://www.photozone.de/Reviews/overview includes several fancy charts and graphs with every review (perhaps what you meant by like DPR).

    Finally, of course, experience with a lens is always the absolute best review source: if you have a friend with that lens, or can rent it, or can buy it from a local shop with a generous return policy, do it!

    Otherwise, a Google or Amazon search for the particular lens (eg, “Canon 28-135 IS”) will often lead to raw opinions, although you’ll have to invest more effort to figuring out how reliable that person’s opinion actually is (ie, read other reviews he gives, compare that opinion with others expressed, etc; the same thing with any user reviews site).

  25. @Martin just be careful when deciding on a lens strictly based on information you find online. At least 50% of the time, you can assume people holding forth on this lens v. that lens have seen, touched or used neither.

    The best advice you can get is from friends who own the lenses, camera stores where you have a trusted relationship with the vendor and by testing them on your own.

    The online resources, including this one, are a great place to start. But try to tough the glass yourself to see if you like it.

  26. @Martin just be careful when deciding on a lens strictly based on information you find online. At least 50% of the time, you can assume people holding forth on this lens v. that lens have seen, touched or used neither.

    The best advice you can get is from friends who own the lenses, camera stores where you have a trusted relationship with the vendor and by testing them on your own.

    The online resources, including this one, are a great place to start. But try to tough the glass yourself to see if you like it.

  27. I really appreciate your site, podcast and info you share with everyone. I was wondering why you guys never even mention Sony / Minolta when discussing photographic topics I.E this lens topic. Sony has some good glass also (Zeiss and G ) also the old Minolta G lenses aren’t too shabby either. How about showing the A mount some love? Thanks for all the photo info, you guys are the best.

  28. I really appreciate your site, podcast and info you share with everyone. I was wondering why you guys never even mention Sony / Minolta when discussing photographic topics I.E this lens topic. Sony has some good glass also (Zeiss and G ) also the old Minolta G lenses aren’t too shabby either. How about showing the A mount some love? Thanks for all the photo info, you guys are the best.

  29. Tom and Scott, thanks for the replies :)

    I even did a quick search on the TWIP flickr group page and found some good information as well.

    Currently I have a stock lens that came with the Canon Rebel XTi, a another lens that a friend gave to me which is pretty good for some good basic shots and then ofcourse the Canon EF 50mm lens.

    I feel it is time to really invest on a lens. I don’t know why I didn’t think about actually going in person and trying them out. I think I will go visit Samy’s Camera here in LA and play around with what they have.

  30. Tom and Scott, thanks for the replies :)

    I even did a quick search on the TWIP flickr group page and found some good information as well.

    Currently I have a stock lens that came with the Canon Rebel XTi, a another lens that a friend gave to me which is pretty good for some good basic shots and then ofcourse the Canon EF 50mm lens.

    I feel it is time to really invest on a lens. I don’t know why I didn’t think about actually going in person and trying them out. I think I will go visit Samy’s Camera here in LA and play around with what they have.

  31. @Greg we’ve answered this question 1000 times but will do so again. The complete idiots that run Sony PR have decided we don’t matter. Accordingly, we’ve decided THEY don’t matter. You won’t see any coverage of Sony on our site unless and until Sony decides to provide us with review units and media support. Or, if you’d like to purchase some Sony equipment and donate it to us, then we’ll review it :)

    In all seriousness, there is a reason they have such low market share. They are arrogant and unresponsive and 92% of our audience uses Nikon or Canon. I can serve 92% of the audience or two percent. What would you do?

  32. Scott:

    I did not know that. Thats too bad they are like that. Thanks for the response and keep up the good work. I learn a lot from your site……

  33. Scott:

    I did not know that. Thats too bad they are like that. Thanks for the response and keep up the good work. I learn a lot from your site……

  34. I want to get a fisheye lens for my Nikon D70. Obviously the Nikkor is the best lens. However I don’t thenk I should pay so much for a lens that will spend most of its time in my camera bag. Does anyone have any experience with the third party fisheye lenses.

  35. I want to get a fisheye lens for my Nikon D70. Obviously the Nikkor is the best lens. However I don’t thenk I should pay so much for a lens that will spend most of its time in my camera bag. Does anyone have any experience with the third party fisheye lenses.

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