7.09.2013

Not "what's my favorite lens????" But: "Which lens consistently brings home the bacon???"

Tiffany Mann in "One Night With Janis."
(click on the image to englarge).

I'm so guilty of loving on esoteric lenses like fast 85's and quirky high speed 50's. The more specialized the lens the more I seem drawn to it and to carry it around with the expectation that I'll find cool stuff to use it on. In the film days I went crazy with lenses in different systems. I owned the 80mm 1.4 Summilux for the Leica R cameras and the 85mm 1:1.2 Canon L lens for the original EOS-1 camera. I even carried around the hulking and flawed 50mm 1.0 Canon L lens until my back started to hurt and my schedule fell behind while waiting for the behemoth to focus. And while I'd love to say that all my favorite work consistently came from these lenses the truth is that there's always some sort of time, access, weight or depth of field compromise that drives me back to more sane camera lenses.

I have a Rokinon 85mm 1.5 lens and it's a focal length I really like. It's fast too. But when I'm setting up to do a portrait in the studio it's not always the lens I reach for. I've had several Zeiss 85mm 1.4 lenses (all manual focus) but I don't think of them first either. Even though I have the best of intentions when I buy the bling glass I always seem to default to one of two more pedestrian lenses with which to make money and make day to day photographs.

My can't live without lens is the venerable 70-200mm f2.8. Every system has one (or in m4:3rds, an equivalent) and for the most part they are universally good. There are certainly single focal length lenses that cover various parts of the 70-200mm's focal lengths and are considered to be wonderful lenses but, on the whole, the 70-200mm 2.8's (and the Canon f4's) are the lenses that do most of the heavy lifting around here. 

If you pitch your tent in the Sony camp you'll probably end up with the Sony 70-200mm 2.8 G lens. The "G" is their version of Canon's "L" lens. It means that it's made to a high standard and offers really good performance. I bought mine a couple of years ago when I bought the first two Sony Alpha cameras, the A77's. But the lens really came into its own for me when I bought a couple of the full frame Sony bodies. At first I had some focus issues with the a99 but I did a very thorough micro adjust and now it's just amazing. 

I was motivated to write about the premium, long zooms when I edited my "Janis" take yesterday morning. The image above jumped out at me for two or three reasons.  First of all it was taken as a "fine" jpeg, not a raw file, and that's the standard sharpening out of the camera. Considering that the lens was handheld and nearly wide open (f3.5?) I'm impressed by the sharpness and detail. Next up, the file was shot at 3200 ISO with no noise reduction beyond whatever is applied by the camera. And what is applied by the camera doesn't seem to have smudged the fine details. Next, given that the file was shot a 3200 ISO I find the color saturation to be very good as well. Finally, the out of focus areas in the background are very nicely soft and happy which is nice for lens that is pretty much all about making non-essential stuff go out of focus.

When I look over the mountains of metadata I have from files since the dawn of digital time I am always surprised (but shouldn't be...) that the images that consistently sell my photographic services have come from Nikon, Canon, and Sony's 70-200mm 2.8 brotherhood. It's a combination of convenience, relatively high performance and focal length flexibility all in one package. 

I did mention that there are two lenses I turn to these days. The other lens is the Sony 85mm 2.8. Not a glamorous lens at all. At less than $300 brand new, it's hardly a status buy. And with it's small, unimpressive front element and obvious plastic construction it won't turn any photographer heads. But...it's performance is very, very good; even wide open. And it is feather light. It's the lens that goes on the camera after the job is done and I want to walk around shooting for myself. 

It's my newest esoteric lens. And it is one I use all the time. I'd like to think that new (to me) Sigma 50mm 1.4 is the lens I'll be using the most but I know it will always to the 70-200mm. It's just too close to perfectly structured to ignore.

Curious to hear which lenses are your "money makers." And I mean that metaphorically so I'm not just looking for other mercenary professionals....

13 comments:

Robin Rowell said...

Like you Kirk, I gravitate towards primes. Also like you, my 70-200 focal length has brought home the most funds. My second place lens would be the Zeiss 35mm 1.4 ZE. I so badly want to justify the purchase of a Canon 85 1.2 or the new Zeiss 135 2.0 APO Sonnar but that 70-200 does such a fine job I can't make myself throw money towards those.

atmtx said...

I love the color in this photograph. I like my 70-200 f4 L but I generally shoot wider.

neil said...

My "money maker" is the Sigma 100-300mm F4. No longer made, but it is quite sharp. A bit heavier than a 70-200mm f2.8, but the extra reach comes in handy. (I shoot figure skating).

Mike said...

Mine is definitely the Canon 100mm macro lens ($350 used). The focal length is great for portraits and the macro capability is an added bonus. People can say the opposite as well - it's a great macro lens with portrait use as an added bonus. Eventually I'll upgrade to the L version w/IS but for now this lens is the bomb, and not just in terms of price. It's flat out amazing.

ODL Designs said...

Olympus 50mm f2 Macro for my products and portraits, now the portraits have been prescribed to the 45mm f1.8 on m43rds while the 50mm still does the product stuff (on an OMD). Interiors I use the 9-18 m.zuiko, events I use the 12-60 for its range and the 25mm f1.4 panasonic for it's speed.

When you think about it, everything else is just pleasure of ownership... with a sprinkle of regret :D

Dave Jenkins said...

My money lens for the past ten years has been the Canon EF 24-85 f3.5-4.5. Not even an L lens, but it does the job. In those ten years I have owned Canon's 28-70 f2.8L, their 24-70 f2.8L (twice!), the Sigma 24-70 f2.8, The Tamron 28-75 f2.8, and the Canon 24-105 f4L. All of them are gone, but the humble EF 24-85 is still here, still doing money pix when I use the Canon system, which I don't much do these days, having mostly switched to micro 4/3s and the Olympus OM-D.

Andre said...

Sigma 180mm Apo Macro for portraits and product photography in the studio. Extremely sharp lens. I like my old 70-210 f4 Nikkor too for general work outside. Sigma's 50 and 85 1.4 see a lot of action too, both are very, very good. I like the Sigma 10-20 too for interiors.

wjl (Wolfgang Lonien) said...

Like ODL, the ZD 50/2 Macro, and the M.ZD 45/1.8. Both for portraits, the former still more for products.

Brad Calkins said...

I'll throw in another nod for the Olympus 50mm f/2 macro, but really for me it has consisently been a mid range macro lens - previously the Canon 60mm macro (preferred over the 85mm f/1.8. They are just versatile lenses! I've owned Canon 70-200mm lenses and while I loved them for outdoor portraits I found I didn't use it much that way - that was a discovery that ultimately led me to micro four thirds. The fact that I had a wonderful lens that I loved the images from still wasn't enough to make its way into my bag when I headed out the door...

The Panny 25mm f/1.4 is another favorite for environmental portraits.

Zeus said...

Good read! Like others here the 70-200 L is clearly the leading lens followed by the 16-35 L. I have all the beautiful fast primes. But those two lenses just always get it done for me.

OnlyTruth said...

How about for APS sized sensor cameras?

Mark said...

Kirk,

If you're shooting Sony, you owe it to yourself to check out the (older) Minolta 80-200 f/2.8 APO zoom. The color rendition on that lens is nothing short of succulent. Coming from Canon's system and their 70-200 f/4 zoom, I was amazed.

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