In Praise of the All Purpose Lens for most Commercial Work. Video or Still.

The two lenses I used today to complete a job that required stills and video. 

I'm always impressed by the delusional pursuit of perfect lenses. There is a power in the process that is capable of sucking money out of my bank account faster and more frequently than any other part of my expensive photography habit. I recently acquired a Sigma 50mm f1.4 Art lens. It's spectacular. You'd think I would use it for everything but it's only been out for a few walks and it's been toted along but unused on a handful of assignments where I imagined that it might make a critical difference in ..... something pertaining to my work but it ended up staying in the bag and mostly just taking up space.

Over the years I've made the same kinds of errors in critical thinking over and over again. The acquisitive/rationalizing part of my brain tells me that the ultimate lenses will help me make much better photographs. It persuades me that all my clients will see and appreciate the difference that an ultra-cool-expensive-flashy-fast lens will make in the work I do for them. And I follow that bad part of my brain and rush to the store or to my computer keyboard and throw caution to the wind in my breathless desire to own the best. Almost without exception the most prestigious lenses I ever buy inevitably get sold off a while later. Always at a loss that exceeds any sort of depreciation.

I think my least wise purchases over the course of my career were the purchase of a brand new 80mm Leica R Summilux 1.4 for my (also bad choice) Leica R8 system. There was nothing wrong with the lens. In fact, it was really, really sharp, had flawless bokeh (I measured it on the same brand of Bokeh-Meter used by the savants at DP Review -- It was a 9.5 on the Kroniform Thyquisty Coefficient of Wunderblur. Beaten only by a Lens Baby...) but the cold hard reality was that 80mm is a shitty focal length for me and I should have known better before casually tossing down north of $2500 for a lens I used maybe three times and liked maybe once.

The second was an Olympus 14-35mm f2.0 zoom that was made for the now deceased Four Thirds system. It was supposed to be a beautiful lens. It was $2200. I could never get it to focus on the sensor plane. It loved the space behind the sensor and enjoyed the space in front of the sensor but it plainly reviled the actual focal plane of any Olympus camera I ever owned. I even
went to the trouble of sending the lens and an E-3 body to Olympus to get them to try and match it. I finally tossed in the towel and walked away.

There have been lots of other dalliances as well, just none that stung as badly. I once bought a 15mm Zeiss Hologon only to remember later that I am not an architectural photographer and am generally uncomfortable shooting anything wider than 24mm. And lets not forget the wildly pricey Nocto Nikkor. Or the 75mm Summilux f1.4 for the M. The take away from all this is that I don't think things through as well as I should. Especially when confronted with cogent and direct evidence. Even when said evidence is waved right in my face.

Now, before I get in to want I really wanted to say I will admit that I've met smart photographers who carefully researched and then purchased really great lenses and have kept them and worked with them for years and years. We're not all crazy out there but some of us just don't like to examine the realities of our work and implement the findings discovered there to our own working lives. Maybe we think we need better optics to make up for some failing in our vision or technique; but for the life of me I don't know where those technical deficiencies lie for me. Vision? We can certainly quibble about that but I think I've got the math part of the tests down pat.

Here's the meat of my observation today: The boring, all purpose, wide ranging (but not too wide ranging) zoom lenses from just about every system I've owned are the ones that produce the most consistent images, fuel most of my projects, satisfy the majority of my clients and make me the most money. There. I've said it. In spite of owning interesting or spectacular or costly or prestigious prime lenses it's the wide to short telephoto lenses that make me feel most comfortable on event shoots, documentaries, run and gun stuff, street shooting, and even architecture.

When I shot with the Canon full frame system the first lens I bought as a 24-105mm f4.0 L lens. It was quickly joined by 50mm lens, wry wide angles, super fast short telephotos and macros. When I look back at the system through the objective magic of exif info on Lightroom I can see that easily 70% of the images I took with the 5D mk2 were done with the 24-105mm, followed by the 100mm f2.0, followed (way in the background) by the 20mm f2.8.

If I do the same with the current m4:3 system I find that, even though I own lots of primes like the Sigma 30mm f1.4 or the Rokinon 50mm f1.2 the majority of my shots are split between the Olympus 12-100mm f4.0 and the Olympus 40-150mm f2.8. If I subtract theater photographs from the tally then it shifts quickly to a overwhelming dominance by the 12-100mm. And why not? Those are the lenses that correspond to both my vision and to the realities of the kind of work we most often do.

If we were out at dinner and a giant meteor hit my studio and demolished every molecule of my camera equipment; ground it into fused glass and cosmic dust, I'm sure the first lens I would buy for the Nikon system would be the 24-120mm f4.0 and the only lens I think I would buy for the m4:3 would be the 12-100mm.  (I suggest that we'd all be out at dinner, including Studio Dog, because I don't want to jinx myself and attract malevolent space debris....).

Today I had an assignment to shoot a team building exercise for a company. It was done in the ballroom of a downtown hotel. I needed to document the 45 minute event with still imaging and also video imaging. I needed to switch my brain back and forth between the two media. There was no time to change lenses, no time to muse about the bokeh of some obscure single focal length, and no time to play switch the primes and juggle them. I needed to be able to shoot video with one camera and the pull the other camera up and shoot photos.

There was no gap in between. No stepping back and considering this or that. Just the process of comping a scene, adjusting exposure, nailing focus and shooting.

Parking downtown is a hassle. It's expensive but the biggest issue is just finding available space. Even the surface lots fill up quick. I decided to park in the same spot I usually do when I head downtown to take a Sunday walk for my own photos. It's about a mile from the hotel hosting the event. I packed two cameras and two lenses; a microphone and audio adapter for the Panasonic. I packed a small flash for the Nikon... that I never used.  I also brought along a monopod for the Panasonic which....I never used. The event was too fast moving, too frenetic. The cameras worked better as handheld tools.

I shoved everything into my Amazon Basics photo backpack, paid the max on the parking meter and headed into downtown on foot. It was already in the mid-80s at 9:30 in the morning but it didn't bother me much. It took about 15 minutes to get to the Driskill Hotel and a few minutes to cool off in the A/C.

Having similar lenses on both camera formats made the next hour and a half easy for me. I could go in close and wide or stand back across the room and compose tighter shots. I could go in for details with either camera and lens. The stabilization in both worked well and I came home with a couple hundred keeper frames and 45 segments of decent video.

I can't imagine a way I would have been able to make good use of a 15mm wide angle. I can't imagine how limited I would have been with just a 70-200mm or the equivalent. Being able to go from 24mm right up to 120mm on the Nikon meant that the only opportunities I missed were ones that snuck by my slow reflexes. With 24mm to 200mm on the Olympus/Panasonic I had an embarrassment of riches. If I were as wise as I wish I was I'd just buy and use the universal, standard 24 to something zooms. Like cameras sensors it seems to be hard to get a bad one these days. They all seem great to me.

Want a great DSLR system? Get any Nikon or Canon full frame body and begin by adding the 24-120mm or the 24-105mm (brand dependent). You could stop there and make great photographs of just about anything for years and years. No other investment really required. If you shoot m4:3? Pick the body you like best and then pair it with the 12-100mm. It's about as good as it gets. Wish I would take my own advice. I'd be driving that Bentley now. Wait. Isn't that the same sickness, just applied to cars?  (Seriously though, if I had unlimited funds my real "aspirational" car is ..... the Honda CRV. Yum!). I'll probably never limit myself just to a standard zoom but it's a goal worth striving for..


  1. I wonder if there's an entry in the DSM titled "Holy Grail Syndrome?"

  2. Mike, do you mean to say that I might be able to get money from my health insurance company to compensate for future lens purchases??? ;-)

  3. I bought the 12-100mm lens pretty much entirely on your recommendation. It is everything you say it is. It is almost my entire shooting range in one lens.

  4. How I wish the 12-100 had been around before I bought the Panasonic 12-35 and 35-100. I've been thinking for months I should make the switch -- shouldn't cost more than a couple hundred once I sell my two lenses, jut need to commit to having the money tied up for a few weeks while I make the transition.

    I often tell beginning photographers I could run a family or portrait photo business with just the 24-105 or 24-120 and a full-frame body. Need a longer lens? Just switch to APS mode and keep shooting. Pick up a 70-200 when they can afford it.

    (For those who wonder, I'd use APS mode so I could show camera JPEGs as proofs without having to crop or explain cropping to a client.)

  5. Kirk, isn't HGS ("Holy Grail Syndrome") a pre-existing condition?

    I am glad you wrote this article, by the way. I have been mentally "packing" for an upcoming Eastern Europe tour, and wondering which lenses to bring along. I could make it a lot easier on myself by just bringing the LX100 with its firmly attached Summilux f1.7-2.8 24-75mm (FF eqv) lens, and stay within luggage weight limits, as well. So, thanks.

  6. Your comment about what the client sees/cares about hits home. I doubt any successful photographic art depends on sharpness and/or perfect background blur. (Maybe Andreas Gursky's grocery interior, but that is a fluke of the art market.) Jay Maisel sings the praises of the Nikon 28-300. Not as a perfect lens but as a perfect tool to capture images in his style of photography.

    Architecture photography is a different world where resolution and accuracy do matter, and it is a world of wide lenses. There are other special worlds with special requirements - astro photograhy, macro photography, and a whole range of scientific photography through various instruments. But unless you are satisfying a technical audience who wants images as documentation of specific things, ultimate resolution is only important to other photographers.

  7. Edward, I'm in absolute agreement with everything you wrote here. There are specialties where distortion, lack of corner sharpness, etc. are job killers but the routine work rarely needs perfection. Seeing something well is usually enough.

  8. Kirk, The big camera companies should pay you NOT to write. You make too much sense and cause us to question why we spend so much and get so little in the end results. But don't stop, Nikon, Canon and Sony will survive.

  9. I find there are extremes on both ends of the hunt for lens bliss. The uber lens search carries all the risks you mention. And for me, the search for the legendary bargain lens of old has led me too a closet full of one-side-soft wonders.

    My happiest find recently was a $200 28-75 Tamron 2.8 that actually works well on my K1. Modern enough, compact, and sharp on the long end.

  10. See this. It is on target. :-)


  11. Kirk, after a couple years of constant lens swapping 'on assignment' (exacerbated by my habit of buying mostly primes), I bit the bullet and bought the Olympus 12-100.

    Maybe I lucked out with an exceptionally good copy, but I'm relieved to say it surpasses all my expectations. Sharper than expected, supremely flexible, pleasant enough bokeh, and reassuringly sealed for any hiking/snowshoeing/skiing/mountain biking trips.

    I find most people/clients are much more impressed by a photographer's ability to work with light and composition than specific minutiae in lens performance.

    The results from using bounce flash to document some recent high-profile retirements has blown minds, and I yesterday I taught a colleague how to replicate the effect with the unit's budget canon rebel kit and 480EX flash.


Comments. If you disagree do so civilly. Be nice or see your comments fly into the void. Anonymous posters are not given special privileges or dispensation. If technology alone requires you to be anonymous your comments will likely pass through moderation if you "sign" them. A new note: Don't tell me how to write or how to blog!