Lenses: Sexy versus useful. I'm leaning toward useful.

It's a near constant in photography; we all love the idea of the fast glass with the rare earth elements and the big expanse of glass across the front. It comes from a constant source of self-delusion, we think that lenses with big apertures and the ability to suck in billions more photons per nano second will make our photographs mystically marvelous. I've fallen for the trap over and over again. I got caught again in the snare just a week or two ago and a few weeks before that as well. 

I think the lens sickness is even worse for people who shoot smaller format camera systems. We're subconsciously (or with both eyes wide open) trying to compensate for the more limited ability to put stuff out of background in our photographs by constantly looking for lenses at every focal length that might be a stop or two sharper than the standard/serviceable lenses at the same angle of view, always hoping that the newest lens computations, coupled with premium glass, will give us high sharpness and the ability to do what our full frame cameras seem to do in a more effortless way; drop things out of focus.  

Here's some advice from the field: Don't bother spending the big bucks to go from f2.0 to f1.2. You won't get what you are looking for and you'll spend dearly for the privilege of trying. 

I packed up my fast glass this last week and went off to shoot an advertising/marketing job. I had dreams of shooting heroic faces framed against gelatinous nothingness, important machines separated from their stark backgrounds by the laws of optics and physics but in nearly every case the regular and routine photos that I take for work (and for play) seem to call for more detail, more context, more  parts in focus. 

There were a few shots where I needed to isolate a small, handheld object; in almost every situation I found that "longer" was just as good or better than "faster." If I wanted to isolate an object then stepping back a few feet and zooming in with a longer lens nearly always was more interesting and effective than staying close and trying desperately to accurately maintain focus through the process. 

The new, sharp, Rokinon 50mm f1.2 UMC was out of my camera bag and on my camera for a little while during the shoot but it quickly became obvious to me that in the modern age a lens like the 12-100mm f4.0 Olympus Pro zoom could run circles around the more traditional lens. Even though it's (gulp!) three stops slower.  It was just so much easier to get exact composition along with a perfect balance of sharp and unsharp with the zoom. 

The Online Photographer recently ran a series of posts about picking lenses. One of the articles proposed a "nested" approach to lens buying. The idea is to buy an all purpose zoom like the 12/100mm. Ostensibly you'd buy one which had a focal length range that is centered around your preferred angle of view, and the lens would also have a high enough performance to be sufficient for the bulk of your work. The lens would probably be bulky so the other part of the advice was to also choose a second lens that would be a single focal length lens also having high performance and, perhaps, a fast aperture. One would use the all purpose lens for .... all purposes and use the nested, "prime" lens for those times when you wanted to divest yourself of the burden of hefty machines and get more in touch with your photographic spirit animals. 

I'm on the fence. I think it's great to be able to change your perspective on lens choice day by day but at other times I pine for the discipline to understand and accept that a lot of lens buying is just emotional compensation for not being as good at this art/craft as I should be after years and years of practice. 

Lenses, especially zoom lenses, have gotten really good lately. Cameras have more or less pounded down the need for high speed apertures to prevent noisy files. That means the only real reason to own "fast glass" now is depth of field control. I guess it makes a certain about of sense to have some fast, middle focal length options. Maybe a 50mm equivalent and an 85-90mm equivalent as well. For those times when the background is just trashed; or needs to be trashed. 

But if I were putting together a system and wanted to stay within a limited budget I'd be looking at all purpose zoom lenses first and foremost. If I still shot Nikon my first lens would be the 24-120mm f4.0. If I were still in the Canon camp it would be the granddaddy of wide-ranging normal zooms, the 24-105mm f4.0. If I were still banging away with some full frame Sony bodies I'd be all over the new 24-105mm G f4.0 lens. In the m4:3rds realm it's always a toss up between range and speed. I made my choice with the Olympus 12-100mm f4.0 but I have a feeling I'd be just as happy with the Olympus 12-40mm f2.8 or even the Panasonic/Leica 12-60mm f-something to f-something.

I've found that these are the lenses that most people; pros and amateurs, use 90% of the time. The next up would be longer and faster zooms like the venerable 70-200mm f2.8s and equivalents. In last place are the wide zooms and after that, and only then, do people pull the primes out and frustrate themselves with tightly constrained choices. 

These are transient thoughts. A hangover from my daylong shoot last Saturday. Ask me again tomorrow and I'm sure I'll be extolling the virtues of my collection of prime lenses once again. But stick around and watch me pack that camera bag for the next job. It's zoom rich. It's prime poor. 

I chalk it up to the mythic boundary that supposedly exists between our professional work and our avocation.  

2018 Lens of the year. Yes, I know. It came out a while ago...

Random hat shot. Concentric circles and oddly sensual curves.


  1. This is an interesting post. Since you posted below about the G85 and the 25 f1.7 lens and the TOP posts about choosing lenses I have been thinking about primes for my G85. There are a multitude of interesting primes for m43, 15, 20, 25, 30 all with reasons for their use. However, for what I want to do in both still photography and video a zoom longer than my kit lens is probably the way for me to go. Now to figure out which one fits my needs at price that I can afford. Some things never change :-).

  2. Kirk - but what about the shallow DOF and the bokehlicious hipster look?

    Actually, I was in Kazakhstan ( yep! ) earlier this year and my Olympus 12-40 even wide open was sometimes a problem. I did find myself wishing I could have softer OOF areas behind portraits.

    Should have packed an Oly 45mm 1.8 I guess...

  3. Kirk, you are on your way to that smartphone camera for work and play! :)

    I have had the Oly 1240PRO for 3 years. I use it for travel, but other times I invariably find myself doing better work with any of several primes. I actually don't know why. I'm not trying to say the pro zoom has optical issues.

    Did you notice how Olympus released the 12100PRO along with the 25PRO? I think that was no coincidence.


  4. Yes this makes sensem the first lens I pick is a zoom. For my GM5 I wanted small, so the 14-42 pancake was the choice. Then I filled in with the compact 35-100mm and the 100-300mm. The 7-14mm was last. These are my most used.
    @Fred for size and cost I would recommend the 45-200mm Panasonic or the 100-300mm. Both got newer refreshes to be weather sealed, and able to be used with the IS of the G85.
    I don't see a major difference between the 100-300mm and the 3x more expensive 100-400, but I did buy a custom tripod leg for my original 100-300, that keeps it still. It was from Germany about $80 at the time.

  5. In reality, they can all be useful. I use both the 12-40 and 40-150 Olympus zooms, but more often use a set of 3 fast primes, 15/30/75 when shooting indoors under natural light conditions. Even at 1.4 on the 30 I can get enough context to show what's going on. And from a distance the 75 at 1.8 will do the same while giving me a nice touch of isolation from the background without rendering it a field of bokeh balls.

    All lenses are useful if you need them to do what they are designed to do. And also, fast lenses can be stopped down. The real key is to not over spend. Like you said, the f2ish version is probably a better investment than the f1.2ish version.

  6. I'm not much of a zoom user myself, but I will readily acknowledge an advantage of wide-range zooms that you did not mention: As expensive as a zoom such as the m.Zuiko 12-100mm f/4 might look at first glance, it is considerably less expensive than buying each of the prime focal lengths it covers. For someone like myself, who happily uses a 50mm-equivalent lens for the majority of his work, this is no great advantage. For people who want or need a wider range of focal lengths, a zoom is almost always the more economical way to go, with little if any sacrifice of image quality.

  7. I have to agree that most of the time shallow depth of field is not aways necessary or desirable.The Olympus 12-100mm really is an amazing all purpose lens and for me does what I need most of the time. For the times I want to isolate a subject the Olympus 75mm f1.8 is the perfect tool for me. It is a little long for many but I have always liked 135mm for portraits and I think it is an amazing lens. Thanks for your hard work on the blog. It is aways great to read it with my coffee in the morning.

  8. I do a lot of low light documentary style work where adding lighting is not an option. The 1.2 lenses allow me to use a higher shutter speed and a lower iso. There is more to fast lenses than bokeh balls.

  9. I find if I want ultimate flexibility I'll grab a zoom or two, the result is often mediocre because I get lazy and zoom instead of using my feet and head more.
    If I want to challenge myself to be more creative I grab a prime or two.
    Sometimes I hedge my bets and use the 12-40mm zoom on 1 body and 75mm prime on another.

  10. I usually use a zoom first to find which prime would work best if I've got the time to switch to it.

    As someone mentioned; certain low light conditions or if I've pre-planned exactly how it'll look, I can use a prime until I switch back to a zoom to get a different look.


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