"You should date your cameras but you should marry your lenses." A quote often attributed to photographer, David Hobby.

As long as you stay within in a single camera system it makes some sense to buy the very best lenses you can afford and think of the camera bodies as disposables. Just about every camera maker out there makes some very good lenses and some camera makers also churn out some boring, mediocre lenses as well. If you are going to go to all the trouble to set up appointments, recruit helpers or models and spend time making photographs you might consider making careful lens selections, with the idea that you may be keeping your lenses for a very long time. Even if
you plan on changing the bodies year after year.

While the overweening tend to try to define and grasp at the "ultimate" camera in a maker's line up the reality is that the sweet spot for most people pursuing art or commerce would be well served by selecting a second tier camera. The cost savings will be enormous, the loss of image quality minute. 
The money you save can be plowed back into the lenses which, I suggest, have a lot more to do with the finished quality of an image than just about any other parameter. 

For example, I rushed out and got myself a Nikon D810 last year. I'm going to say that if I need huge files, take the time to shoot on a big tripod and (importantly) focus very carefully, via live view, I've got a more than even shot at making photographs that are about 5-7% better than the images I could get more easily out of a Nikon D750 camera. Even in the middle tiers my jury is still out as to whether or not (using the same discipline in my shooting) the D750 is any better than the older, D610 model. I might have been better served by just buying two of the D610s instead of the D810 and using the difference to upgrade a lens or two. It would probably make a bigger difference in what I eventually get out of all the cameras.

The crazy thing is that most of us dutifully change bodies every couple of years in the pursuit of higher sharpness, better contrast, enhanced nano-acuity(tm) or some other imaging parameter which is actually more effected by lens quality than advances in imaging sensors and their attendant processors! 

I came to understand this when I put a Leica 80mm Summilux R series lens on a Sony A7R2 body via an adapter. The lens is a significant improvement over the 85mm Alpha lens I also borrowed. And that lens is no slouch. Had I been using a zoom lens on a previous body and then switched to the new body and the Leica lens I could have confused the underlying high quality of the Leica lens, and it's contribution to the overall look, with the much ballyhooed enthusiasm among the masses for the performance of the A7R2 body. 

Also interesting is that I was initially underwhelmed by the imaging performance of the D810. I didn't think it was much better than the D750. Coupling the D810 with the Sigma 50mm f1.4 Art lens changed my opinion about that body. Its performance is highly dependent on the quality of the lenses you use in front of it. While the Nikon 50mm lenses are relatively good they perform best at apertures like f4 and f5.6 while the Sigma is sharp in a generous part of the center of the frame, even at f1.4, and gets progressively sharper across the frame as you stop down. While the performance of the D810 is improved when coupled with the Sigma 50mm Art lens the performance of the D750 is similarly improved and gives the images the kind of bite one really likes to see. 

I wasn't sure the Sigma 50mm 1.4 Art lens would be worth the money it costs but it is immediately obvious, once you start using it with a high resolution body, that it is in a different league than the middle market prime lenses and, most especially, it had much superior optical performance when compared to just about any zoom lens. I consider my Sigma 50mm to be a "gateway" lens that got me hooked on the enhanced performance of better lens systems and left me with a sense of dissatisfaction with some of the other lenses I routinely use. It left me wanting to get that same kind of performance in other focal lengths. 

While I would be curious to see if there would be much improvement in the 85mm focal length area should Sigma create an Art lens in that range but, I find the Nikon 85mm f1.8 G lenses to be one of the best 85mm lenses I've shot with for under $1,000. If I could put the Leica 80mm Summilux on my Nikon bodies I would certainly love to compare. But the area where I knew my collection of lenses might benefit from overall improvements was in the wide angle region. 

With several major jobs ahead of me that required some wide angle imaging (architectural interiors, assembly line images, environmental portraits, etc.) I decided to take a chance on the Sigma 24-35mm f2.0 Art lens. I was less interested, at the time, in the fast maximum aperture and more interested in the reports I kept reading about its high performance overall. I called Precision Camera and asked and they had several copies, new in the box, for the exact same prices as B&H and Amazon. I always think it's best to buy local when I can so I meandered up highway and bought one. I am superstitious about lenses so I always ask my sales associate to choose the most pleasing serial number when confronted with a choice...

I used the 24-35mm f2.0 Sigma for about 500 images on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of this past week and then spent time Thursday evaluating its performance in the real world. Here's what I found out: 

1. The 24/35 is a very heavy lens! About two pounds. Which never sounds like a lot until you put it on a camera, with battery grip, and carry it over your shoulder for a while..

2. The lens design is optimized for sharpness and a pleasant contrast and tonal personality but it is designed that way at the expense of some pronounced barrel distortion. You can see it when you are shooting. It also exhibits a good bit of vignetting when used wide open. I was shooting entirely in raw and I use Adobe Lightroom. That program has a built in profile for this particular Sigma lens and I checked that box. With the software enabled the linear distortion and the vignetting just vanish.

I was leery of software correction five or so years ago when most cameras had lower resolution because any time you stretch a corner or edge you lose pixels. With the newer, high resolution cameras the effect of the lose is negligible. I only cared about the distortion and vignetting when I shot interiors or exteriors of buildings because the distorted frame becomes obvious in these situations. 

3. I found myself using the lens in pretty tight and nearly wide open and I was surprised to see how quickly backgrounds would go out of focus; even at the widest focal lengths. Years of shooting with small size sensors helped me forget how limited depth of field can be when shooting full frame cameras down around five feet away from subjects. It's both a blessing and a curse. 

4. Even wide open the lens is remarkably sharp and detailed. Stopped down to f4.0 you get the impression of endless quality and resolution. Not in a showy, hard edged style but in a life like and  very believable way. 

5. The lens focal range is tiny. But that's what it is. Interesting to me how small the differences are as you rotate the control and zoom through the range. Even more interesting is that fact that we used to carry around a 35mm, 28mm, 24mm, and a 20mm on assignment. I don't get a 20mm with this lens but that's fine with me, I think 35mms is pretty darn wide. This is more of a focal length optimizing tool rather than a full on zoom. You know you want to be in the wide arena but you just haven't settled into the exact focal length. Maybe you are looking for 30mm. This is what the 24/35mm does. It fine tunes. 

6. How do the images post process? They are very good. Exemplary. They make me laugh at my own silliness when I look back and consider some the wide angle solutions I've actually used. In some situations an apt comparison is walking leisurely versus running five minute miles.

Should you run out and get one? How the hell should I know? If you are going to put one on the front of a micro four thirds camera I'd be inclined to say "NO." How much use is a 48-70mm lens that weighs four times what your cameras does? Would you even carry it around? If you are a professional portrait shooting advertising photographer who sometimes needs to shoot wide (under duress) and you want something that will make your clients suck in their breath when the see the final results printed at 40 by 60 inches then, you might give this one your consideration. 

If you are one of those people who has to ask how much better or more useful this is than the 24-300mm f4 to f6.3 you bought last week then you are not reading the right blog for you. 

While I love this lens and will get lots and lots of use from it I have to ask myself one question: Now that I've used it and evaluated it would I buy the Sigma 24/35mm Art lens again? Hmmm. Maybe. But the whole process got me thinking about just getting a 24mm f1.8 (Nikon) and a 35mm f1.8 instead. In the end I love the idea of carrying the 24/35mm and the 50mm, supplemented with the Nikon 85mm f1.8 instead. There's something about an insanely sharp trio of well behaved lenses that covers so many of the day to day needs that's intoxicating. 

Finally, back to the lead in. You marry the lenses and date the bodies. When I auditioned the files of the Sony A7r2 and experienced shooting full frame with a (nice!!!) EVF camera body I had a twinge-y feeling that it might make the basis of a good, new system. Except that the ergonomics and the battery life suck hard. I decided to stay in the Nikon system for now. But ---- But! If I had decided to do the unthinkable and change I could continue to use these Sigma lenses with the aid of a simple adapter. And if I switched to Canon (not a plan right now but who knows where video is also concerned ---- hello C-300ii) Sigma has a program available that will switch between Nikon and Canon mounts for you. One lens family usable on three makers's systems. Sounds like a marriage to me....

All shots executed with the Panasonic  fz 1000. 
Now that's a great camera!!!

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neopavlik said...

I just bought the Nikon AF-S 18-35mm G variable aperture lens.
It is super light and I'd basically use it for walk around or strobes so I don't need a wide aperture until I know which prime in that range I'd want (tentatively thinking the Nikon 24mm 1.8G and/or Tamron 35mm 1.8 ).

Art in LA said...

So what about a camera like the Sony RX10? Here you're married to conjoined siblings, right? It's sad that you can't re-use the RX10 lens 25 years from now like you can with interchangeable lens system cameras ...

Gato said...

So I just bought the Panasonic fz1000 - which has a pretty sweet lens, but it is permanently attached. As were the lenses of my Sony 828 and R1, lenses I would have gladly married had they not been, as Art in LA put it, conjoined to the camera.

Aside from that, I wonder what will be the lifespan of today's lenses, especially those with stabilization, autofocus, and complex focus and zoom mechanisms.

Art in LA said...

The rational me says I would be fine with just an RX10 or FZ1000, get rid of everything else except for the smartphone. But, as a hobbyist, part of the fun of photography is the gear collection. I love multiple facets of our "sport" -- finding the shot/clicking the shutter, photo editing and sharing, gear collection Unfortunately, gear collection can be driven by irrational choices and 1-click shopping. It's fun though, right?

Nowadays, for friends stepping up from a smartphone, I will probably tell them to get something like an RX10 or FZ1000 (the SUV/CUVs of cameras), and then move onto an ILC or DSLR solution if they have more specialized needs ... at this point, I will tell them to marry those lenses! Hmm, so we're polygamists in a way.

Tom Northenscold said...

I agree that you marry the lenses, but dating the body sounds like a rationalization for GAS. I'm going on four years with my D800 and see nothing on the horizon tempting me to retire it. The image quality improvement in the D810 was negligible. I don't use my D800 for sports or birds in flight, so the improved AF was not important to me.

I like knowing my camera like the back of my hand. Maybe that is irrational, but there you have it, that's how I feel. The main thing I consider when making a camera buying decision is what the camera allows me to do that I couldn't do otherwise, or couldn't do very effectively. With the D800 it was printing large, keeping in mind that my primary body at the time was the 12mp D700. I love making 17x22 inch prints on my Epson 3880. When I bought the D700 it was the much improved high-ISO performance over the D200 and the full frame perspective. I do a lot of photography at our church, where the lighting can be challenging and flash is a no-no. I know how to light, but there are times when you just can't light. High-ISO is not always a crutch.

I sometimes ask myself what new camera body would tempt me. I suppose something with the high-ISO performance and speed of the D4s married with the resolution of the D750 or D810 would be of interest to me. I haven't been interested in full frame mirrorless because the vast majority of the weight in my system is in the lenses, and I'm not yet sold on EVFs. If I did video work I'd be all over EVFs.

If acquiring and learning new gear is part of the joy of photography for someone, then I say have at it. For me that's not where it's at. I love being able to do new things and expand my capabilities.