In defense of standard, slow, zoom lenses. What's not to like?

Musee Des Beaux Arts. 

 Many photographers I know, and many photographers who broadcast on YouTube and DP Review, look down on any zoom lens that isn't f2.8 or faster all the way through its focal lengths. The idea being that you'll finally be able to shoot in low light situations without difficulties. Another part of the supposed allure is "bokeh" (which really refers to the quality of the out of focus areas but which has been bastardized by common misuse to mean any out of focus background) or one's ability to easily throw a background into an anonymous blur of visual ambiguity. At a certain level there is also a wide spread belief that because "faster" zoom lenses are bigger and more expensive they are able to make images of better quality. By that I mean higher sharpness, butch-er contrast and more resolution.

Most of the f2.8 standard zooms are 24-70mm focal length range lenses which, for me, means some wasted engineering at the wide end and a total lack of happiness at the (modestly) long end of the lens. They are certainly not providing a focal length at the "telephoto" end that I find useful. Too short by about 30mm....

In addition to being frightfully expensive (and too short) the 24-70mm, f2.8 zooms are much heavier than their more pedestrian counterparts. Unless one is constantly shooting in low light, or training to carry weights around all day, these lenses represent an overkill case that's almost funny. My preference in lenses, regardless of your chosen system, is the new classic 24-105mm f4.0 or the Nikon version, the 24-120mm f4.0. Yes, you might "lose" a stop at the wide end but you'll gain a much great range of focal lengths and, oddly enough, you might find the slower lenses to be just as sharp at f4.0 or sharper.

I wish that Pentax made an f4.0 constant aperture zoom lens in the 24-105mm range, or even better, in the 24-120mm range but, sadly, they don't. What they do make for the full frame K-1 is a nicely compact 28-105mm f3.5-5.6 zoom lens that makes very good images, indoors and out.

Counterintuitively, I took the 28-105 with me to Canada to shoot in just about every situation. Belinda loves museums so the big Musee Des Beaux Arts was fixed on the radar from the beginning of our trip planning. I knew that it would be mostly darker rooms with brighter lights just on the painting and sculpture --- but my interest was not copying art work but making photos of the interior spaces, the venue and the people appreciating the art. In the "olden" days I would have taken several different prime lenses, each with a fast f1.4 or f2.0 aperture. But this was vacation/holiday and I just didn't have the energy to switch, switch, switch lenses all day long. Not if an alternative existed...

The advantage of a mid-brow, standard zoom lies in its smaller size, lighter weight and also its lower acquisition price. My total investment in the system in hand at the museum was about $1500. That was the price of a used, but mint, K-1 body, with 36 really nice megapixels, and a brand new standard zoom. One of the key features that makes the K-1 a good travel camera is that it has really great high ISO performance and very effective in body image stabilization that works with every single lens you attach to it.

Instead of relying on a wide aperture to provide a fast enough shutter speed to both hold the system steady and also freeze subject movement I went in a different direction and depended on the camera to produce clean raw files at ISO 1600 and 3200 while leaning on the I.S. to allow me to shoot at shutter speeds as low as 1/15th of a second with no real image quality concerns. Even when stuck at f5.6 and 105mm I felt that the images were as good as any I'd gotten with older, fast lens techniques. It also meant that I didn't need to carry along multiple lenses or multiple lens and camera combinations.
The Chinese Gardens at the Botanical Garden.

Where a small, less highly spec'd standard zoom comes into its own, though, is in exterior photographs during the day. Overcast, sunny, raining, etc. It doesn't really matter as long as you have a camera that delivers ISO performance that matches your taste in ultimate image quality. For the image just above I was shooting at ISO 100 and f8.0. I'm sure my shutter speed was somewhere around 1/400 or 1/500. I can't really imagine what advantage an f2.8 zoom lens would have had in this situation. By f8.0 nearly every lens I've used performs very well and having both the extra zoom range and the smaller lighter profile made for a more enjoyable shooting day.

The reality of lens design is that lenses with smaller apertures can be made to a higher performance standard than faster lenses with bigger glass elements. It doesn't always happen but the math points to smaller lens elements being easier to make and quality ensure. I presume that there are also more difficulties in assembling and calibrating the more complex designs required by faster lenses.

I think Pentax struck a nice balance between price ($499 US) and overall performance. But I'm also impressed by the lens I left at home; the Panasonic Lumix 24-105mm f4.0 (constant aperture). 
The optical performance of the Lumix is really superb with the lens mostly at a high level for sharpness and contrast already at wide open. I find the two ends of the focal length range to be excellent at f4.0 while in the middle ranges, if you want the corners to be sharp you might need to stop down to f5.6. The lens and S1 camera together, using dual I.S., are as close to perfectly stabilized as I've found across all systems for sensors bigger than micro four thirds. And its performance with the 24-105 is close to that of the Panasonic G9 with the Olympus Pro 12-100mm. Pretty amazing.

Given the sensor performance of the S1 I can only imagine that the system would be great for travel. It's too bad I wasn't ready to bring it along on our travel adventure but I didn't have enough hands on experience yet with the camera to be comfortable. Next time.

Anyway, don't reflexively turn your nose up at a slower-than-f2.8 standard zoom lens. You may be passing up a sharp, well behaved optic that fits into your travel and shooting parameters much better than a more "prestigious" fast lens. And you'll save enough cash opting for the slower lens to pay for the plane tickets for your next adventure.

That's all for now. Write as comment. Tell me about your favorite mid-range zooms. I'd love to know what's out there.....


Aldo said...

Hi Kirk,
great article! I bought the same lens last year, never thought I would use it so much.
Just yesterday I did a couple of danse performances, all in lowlight situations (between 3200 and 6400 ISO, 1/100 and 1/125 sec and f-stops between 3.5 and 5.6). The 24-70 would have been too short, the 28-105 was perfect! I shot in raw and jpeg, but in my view, the jpeg-files were amazing. The autofocus worked like a charm despite the never ending complaints. All in all I am very pleased with my choice. aldo

Phil Stiles said...

I agree completely, and the reason is the high ISOs available in today's cameras. I have a Sony system, with the flagship an A7r3. My two zooms are the 24-105/4 and the 70-200/4. Both are sharp at f/4, and with the high ISOs available, are adequate for almost any light level. If not, there's a world of manual focus fast primes. My favorite for portraits is the Olympus OM 100/2, a manual focus lens that focus peaking makes easy to use. It wasn't quite a bargain, but it sure is sweet.

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

Loving the kit lenses on steroids. KT

Legstrong Willams said...

Reading this made me smile because I've been contemplating selling my Sony 24-105/4 to "upgrade" to the 24-70/2.8 for reasons I haven't even been able to justify to myself. Call it GAS, call it searching for the ultimate in IQ, I don't really know. I took it along this weekend to a friend's tailgate and combined with the A7III, it produced - as usual - stellar images that people raved about on social media and video that I appreciate more and more.

You've helped me step back from the ledge ... for now.

ODL Designs said...

Two brilliant lenses for me are the 40-150 f4-5.6 and 9-18 f4-5.6 Olympus lenses. I often travel with them and 1 fast Prime.

They are light, sharp enough and have good close focusing. Can't really go wrong.

JohnW said...

Years ago when I bought my X-T1 I opted for the 18-135mm (27-200mm) kit zoom. The lens gets regularly panned as being substandard, especially for Fuji, but I haven't found it to be that way in real life. No, it is definitely not a "Fujicron" or up to the standard of their 2.8 pro zooms. But in the words of Michael Reichmann ... "it's good enough" and I can shoot all day without changing lenses unless I really need something wider. With careful processing I can get a more than adequate 13x19 print and no has ever looked at one and said "You should have used a sharper lens".

In any case, unless you are doing commercial paid work, absolute sharpness has never been the decisive criteria for what is and what is not a "good" image. Content is king, queen, and emperor.

Dave Jenkins said...

I've owned the Canon EOS 24-105 f4 twice. It's a great lens, but I wound up selling them both times in favor of the light but sharp 28-105 f3.5-4.5 "consumer" zoom. I've owned three of them, going back to about 1994 and they always did a great job for me. Probably half the photos in my book "Rock City Barns: A Passing Era" were made with that lens.

A few years ago I had some correspondence with the great travel photographer Gerald Brimacombe, who told me that he carried nothing on his trips but a single Nikon body (he was using the D610 at the time) and just one lens, the 24-120 f4. He said he had adapted his way of seeing to the range of his lens so that he could do everything he wanted to do with that one zoom.

Eric Seale said...

For me, it's the Oly 14-150mm f/4.0 - 5.6 II lens. Small, light, remarkably good optics (not up to the Pro series lenses, but darned good). Mount it on one of Olympus' smaller bodies, and you've got a fantastic travel kit.

Gato said...

For my Panasonics my "serious" lens is the Olympus 12-100 f4 (24-200 in FF equivalent). I had owned the Panasonic 12-35 and 35-100 and found the break at 35mm (70 equivalent) drove me up the wall -- I should have known that from my Nikon days. The 12-100 does everything I really want to do.

For daily use, however, I have gone back to the Pana 12-60, the kit 3.5-5.6 version. It's lighter, smaller, and cheaper to replace if anything awful happens. Image quality is within half a hair of the more expensive lens -- with both lenses shooting conditions and my technique are the real limit on image quality.

Having grown up with film in the days when ISO 400 was fast I have no problem dealing with f4 or 5.6 -- just crank the ISO and keep going.


Tim Auger said...


Common sense?

Of course you're right. But a tremendous amount of the clobber we all buy is way over-specced for the purpose we have for it.

I've been going over a whole lot of old files recently, mainly Pentax stuff going back as far as the *istD, and I'm impressed how good technically a lot of the shots are, with a 6mp, then 12mp etc. camera, and fairly modest lenses. Sure you play to the strengths of the equipment, but paying a lot of money for redundant weight and bulk doesn't seem like a good idea to me.

And in-body stabilisation has changed things radically.

Dogman said...

I was very surprised at the image quality and overall utility of the Nikon 24-120 f/4 VR. The lens gets little respect from online reviewers but users seem to really like it. When one came my way in like new condition for less than $400 I jumped on the deal. Very happy I did. Sure there's distortion and vignetting but those are easily correctible in LR. The only downside I've found is that it's a heavy lens and carrying around a D800 or D810 with this lens can wear on the muscles. Normally I like prime lenses over zooms but convenience and utility sometimes win out over absolute image quality.

sixblockseast said...

This is encouraging as I look forward to using the new Fuji 16-80 f/4. I assume you might give it a try sometime soon?

James Moule said...

My every day lens is the Sony 24-105/f4 usually on a Sony A9 body, sometimes on a Sony A7RIII. I am amazed at its sharpness at all focal lengths. I rarely carry a second lens even though I own seventeen Sony/Zeiss lenses.

I would only use a different lens than the above if I were using a tripod and intending to make a huge print or if I needed a focal length less than 24mm.

For wildlife photography, I use an Olympus body so that I can use their amazing 300mm prime. In that case I will also carry the Oly 12-100 f/4 for general use. Ditto amazing sharpness at all focal lengths.

Tony Nyberg said...

Hi Kirk

Totally agree on the lens front

I have always found it slightly funny that photographers spend a lot of money for high resolution cameras, to then spend huge amounts on fast lenses which render all the resolution out of focus, but wax lyrically about how beautiful and smooth the lack of detail is.

The saying use to be "f8 and be there"
I guess now it is "f1.2 and be anywhere"

Kirk, as a someone who loves photographing women how do you feel about these high res cameras, because when I saw the sample shots for the new Sony and Fuji my first thought was women are going to hate this, there is no romance in all that sharpness, so unforgiving on makeup artists. So combined with these uber lenses it is just brutal.