Which lens?

This is the beginning of a large article that I have written for my website. Read the rest of it on www.nature-images.eu.

Lenses are the most important part of photography equipment. Many beginners and non-photographers are surprised to hear this, but this is true: Only the level of colour noise depends on the camera; all other aspects of image quality are entirely associated with the performance of lenses. Although cameras are very complicated electronic devices, lenses are optical, electromechanical and electronic devices at the same time, hence they require a much more sophisticated engineering and manufacturing. Digital camera models have much shorter life cycles than lenses. Usually manufacturers need about a decade to make significant improvements to a lens that was already nearly perfect. Absolutely new and technically innovative lens designs appear very rarely. Cameras have a much shorter development cycle: Their models usually get updated more frequently — every 5 years at most; new and better models of cameras are even released every two or three years. Therefore, when we purchase a lens, we do it for at least 10 years, till we are forced to upgrade by competition and by technical progress. With cameras it happens much earlier. Therefore, if selected carefully, lenses serve longer than much of the rest of our equipment. Only supports (tripods, etc.) are more timeless.

Usually lenses are also the most expensive items in our equipment kit. While many have only 2 or even just one camera body, no serious photographer has just 1 lens per camera. 3 was the minimum number of lenses owned by the photographers whom I knew so far. I currently have 8 lenses. The cost of several lenses usually exceeds the cost of a camera many times.

Cameras are rather than lenses “many-purpose tools”: With the same camera you can photograph various subjects, in various photography areas and genres, while a certain lens is usually needed for a certain subject and genre.

All this makes the process of choosing lenses much more difficult than of cameras. While technical specification and a couple of independent reviews are usually enough for making a judgement about a camera, for a correct decision to purchase a certain lens you need to know very well your needs, be clear about ambitions and plans for the future, have a lot of practical experience with other lenses. When people are asking me for lens recommendations, I am, of course, saying: “Get the best lens you can afford!” This is my usual answer of the question “What lens I should buy?”, and I explained the reasons of it in my earlier article — Choosing the Camera Brand. Unlike with many other things that may be overpriced, the price of a lens is usually a good indicator of its quality: Expensive lenses are usually better than cheap although many cheap lenses are quite good. A much more difficult question is “Which one?” Every lens has its specifics, and the choice of lenses depends on a number factors that may be different for different photographers. Therefore, a universally applicable and straightforward answer isn’t possible to give.

This article should be a general overview of choices a photographer has and of recommendations based on my own experience and knowledge. However, I am not going to give definite recipes — “To shoot this, take this lens…” It is the reader who should draw conclusions and make decisions.

Although I use Canon equipment I am mentioning lenses for both Canon and Nikon cameras. This shouldn’t be understood as a recommendation to choose either of the brands but only as an example of lenses with a certain focal length.

What about Sony?

Sony is a very innovative and very promising brand of photographic equipment. However, most lenses for Sony cameras are made by other manufacturers. Although some lenses are really good, there is not a so wide variety of them as for Nikon and Canon. Therefore Sony even recommends to use lenses made for other systems via an adapter with their α series of full-frame cameras with interchangeable lenses.
When I was writing this article Sony was still rarely used by nature photographers. Therefore, I didn’t discuss the lenses for this platform in depth. However, everything I have written here is valid for Sony too.

Parameters and Characteristics

There is a usual misconception that in certain areas and genres of photography lenses with certain technical characteristics are to be used. I often see people writing or saying that, for instance, a 14mm lens is a “landscape lens” and a 100mm one is “for portraits”, etc. This is an extremely simplistic and counterproductive point of view. In reality a photographer chooses a lens not according to the subject but according to the way how he wants it to be depicted. Landscapes can be photographed with ultra wide-angle and with super telephoto as well. Portraits shot with wide-angle lenses often look more dynamic and impressive than those that were shot with a telephoto lens.

The focal length is the most evident technical characteristic and the key parameter for choosing a lens. According to my observations, a photographer decides to get a new lens much more often because he needs a lens with a certain focal length. Therefore, also in this article I structured the discussion of lenses based on this characteristic. The focal length of a lens can be either constant (fixed) or variable. The short name commonly used for lenses with variable focal length is zoom, and lenses with fixed focal length are usually referred to as prime. I described the advantages and disadvantages of both these kinds of lenses in the article Prime vs. Zoom. Actually the biggest practical difference between them is in the need for the photographer to move which greater with prime lenses. Therefore, it is easy to decide which type of lens if better for you: If you can’t or don’t want to move a lot when you are photographing, a zoom lens is what you need.

Since a single zoom lens can have a wide range of focal lengths, it is difficult to discuss them together with prime lenses. Therefore, I am going to maintain the division between prime and zoom lenses also in this article and treat them separately.

Once the need for focal length is clear, other parameters apply in the following order:

  1. Special features and capabilities, such as tilt-shift, fisheye, zoom, work distance, etc.;
  2. Resolution;
  3. Contrast and colour rendering;
  4. Aperture range (maximum and minimum);
  5. Out-of-focus rendering (bokeh);
  6. Level of chromatic aberrations and flare;
  7. Distortion, vignetting;
  8. Autofocus;
  9. Image stablisation;
  10. Protection against dust and moisture;
  11. Build quality, brand.

Once you know what focal length you need, technical specialities and features is the next important thing for lens choosing. In some cases, you have to decide, for instance, if the lens should be with mechanically adjustable optical system — so-called, “tilt-shift”, or if it should be a fisheye type lens, or if you only should need a zoom lens for you work and not a prime… Also you may need to make a decision about focusing distance that you subject would require. This parameter is very different even in the lenses with the same focal length. Unfortunately, not all manufacturers clearly show it in the technical details of their lenses probably because they think that it isn’t an important information. In some areas of nature photography this parameter may play an important role however. For instance, a very short focusing, or working, distance is required for making close-up photographs of small animals so that the surroundings are also visible in the resulting image. Another parameter magnification ratio that is usually stated in the description of lenses is related to minimal focusing distance.

When you know all this and know how much money you can spend, it’s time to start looking for the best lens that fits into this framework of requirements and limits. When assessing and comparing the quality of various alternatives, resolution is the most important quality aspect that photographers normally look at. The resolution results in sharpness, so when someone is talking about a “sharp” lens, he is meaning that this lens has good resolution, i.e. can capture finer details. There are at least three reasons to want the highest resolution. First, the more detailed the image the larger can be the presentation of it, i.e. the larger can be the print of it, or the higher the resolution of the screen it will be displayed on. Of course, modern computer screens or projectors have still a much lower resolution than cameras. However, it is increasing rapidly. For the time of writing, so-called “4K” monitors, i.e. capable of displaying a 8Mp image at 100% size, were already entering the mass market. The first “5K” screen was released 2014 capable of displaying 14.7 Mp. This means that your 14 Mp photographs can be presented on it without size reduction. Certainly, it isn’t the limit, and the resolution of screens will continue to grow. Also new high-resolution or very large display media will appear in the future. Therefore, if you want your images still to look good on large format prints and electronic media in the next decades, you have to produce them with maximum possible resolution already now.

The second reason is related to resolution of the recording media, i.e. of the imaging sensors of our cameras. Lenses made for film cameras don’t provide adequate resolution for modern digital camera sensors. Although adapters for such lenses are still available, using them even with 5 Mp cameras doesn’t make sense. The same problem arises with low-end lenses that were produced for digital photography when you attempt to use them with high resolution cameras. Currently only the best lenses can provide adequate resolution for 35 Mp or 50 Mp sensors of modern full-frame cameras. Due to the natural limitation caused by the optical phenomenon of diffraction it is unlikely that the lens resolution will grow in future far beyond the already achieved maximum. However, we can expect the majority of cameras to have 30-50 Mp sensors very soon. This means that low-quality lenses that we buy now won’t be useable anymore.

The third reason why you need maximum resolution is more typical for wildlife photography. Too often images of wild animals need to be cropped during postprocessing for better composition. This happens, for instance, because the animal has moved in the frame before you released the shutter or because the distance was too large so that the subject appears too small in the photograph. Obviously, the more detailed is the image the more space is available for cropping. Cropping leads to enlargement of the rest of the image because the physical dimensions of the output medium remain constant. For instance, if you planned a print on a 60×70 cm paper sheet but cropped the digital original by 15%, thus reducing its size, the paper sheet size will still remain the same. In the consequence, only 15% less content will be printed, or in other words, the remaining 75% of the original instead of 100% will be stretched to fit the 60×70 cm large medium. Everything in the image will be enlarged by 15% in that case. As a result, a not very sharp and not very detailed image will then look even worse.

The best lenses provide a more or less uniformly sharp image all over the frame surface. However, not very many are so. The wider the lens the more prone it is to sharpness fall off at frame borders and in the corners. Also aperture plays a role: The majority of lenses deliver the sharpest images at apertures that are at least 1 stop smaller than the maximum and 1 stop larger than the minimum while the sharpness improves further towards the middle of this range. For instance, a good lens that has f/1.4 maximum and f/16 minimum aperture would be sharper in the range between f/2.0 and f/11. The best sharpness will be at the aperture around f/2.8-f/8. A wider range of sharpness is another reason that makes us wish lenses with wide maximum aperture. Lenses with aperture starting at f5.6 will usually be good only at f/8 and f/11. While in wide angle lenses f/16 is the most used aperture, in telephoto lenses the sharpness may noticeably decrease already at this aperture value. Aperture of f/22 and f/32 is generally considered as useable only in extremely good lenses that are free of other optical imperfections, such as chromatic aberrations. Otherwise the image will be too blurry due to the effect of diffraction. The urge for such extremely narrow apertures exists only in macro photography. In other areas, f/16 is the upper limit that is enough for the required depth of field.

For all new lenses, it is easy to find information about resolution. Manufacturers are the first source of it because they always publish in the announcements of the new lenses the so-called MTF charts — graphical presentation of resolution and contrast. Resolution is of course the main parameter that the reviewers always test. They do it through photographing either so-called ISO resolution charts or any objects with fine details — postal stamps, banknotes, etc. Then they evaluate and compare the sharpness in the middle, a corner and sometimes at the border of the image shot with different aperture and, in zoom lenses, at different focal length. When you are looking for a new lens, study the official MFT charts and the results of several tests from independent reviewers and make your decision accordingly.

Contrast is the next issue photographers usually pay attention to. Through contrast the ability of the lens to gather and to transmit to the sensor the luminance and the colour of the scenery is described. Good lenses should do it without loss of detail in the image. Therefore contrast and resolution always go together. Photographers talk sometimes about “micro-contrast” meaning the contrast of fine detail. This contrast can’t be as easy corrected in postprocessing as the general contrast of the entire image. Therefore it is important that the lens is capable of capturing the finest details with sufficient contrast.

Usually photographers praise lenses that provide more contrast over the entire image. The colour in such images looks more intensive already when they come out of the camera. Of course, brightness and contrast can be adjusted afterwards in the process of RAW format conversion or in the editing software, but more photographers seem to prefer stronger initial contrast and like the lenses that provide it. I often have heard people saying that Nikon lenses have better contrast and criticising Canon. Indeed, contrast is among things that I like in Carl Zeiss lenses more than in Canon.

Although contrast is displayed in MFT charts, viewing sample images of various subjects at 100% size (so-called 100%) is a better method.

Aperture range is important for choosing lens for several reasons. Two of them are quite obvious: First, a wider aperture allows a higher shutter speed and provides a shallower depth of field; second, a narrow aperture results in more depth of field, thus has an advantage in macro photography or for telephoto lenses. Another reason was already mentioned above: The wider the total aperture range the wider is the range with better sharpness.

A shallow depth of field causes problems with small subjects but in many situations it is preferred because the majority of photographs that the nature photographers create are portraits of animals. A blurred background is one of the basic requirements of this genre. Of course, a shallow DOF is of advantage when there are too many objects in front and behind the photographed subject. This a very usual case, for example, when the subject is in grass or in a tree.

The blur pattern in out-of-focus parts of the image (referred to as bokeh) differs in various lenses and even can be a speciality of a certain brand. Sometimes photographers even are looking for lenses with a special kind of bokeh. Fortunately, it is a parameter that is very easy to evaluate: Just look at sample shots done with the widest aperture and decide if you like the blur.

Also a number of quality related issues exist that photographers aren’t so often confronted with but would want a lens to be free of it. They may become evident in certain lighting conditions. Colour fringing, or chromatic aberration (CR), is one of them. It appears at the edges between very light and very dark elements of an image. Chromatic aberrations can be hardly found in the images made with wide-angle lenses, but lenses with greater focal length may be more prone to it. Modern RAW converters and photo editors can correct the CR very well, and it is isn’t a knock-out criterion in lens choice. There are no lenses that are completely free of it like there are no lenses that don’t have other issues that are normal to any optical system, such as flare, i.e. a phenomenon when the light is reflected by the optical elements inside the lens. Unlike CR, flare can’t be corrected in postprocessing automatically. Some flare artefacts can be removed through retouching, but it is a very annoying and destructive for the image pixels work. To recognise and to evaluate how strong lens flare is, you need to look at photographs done at various aperture when the light source was in the image, for example, the sun shining across the image from one of the corners. If the artefacts that you see won’t appear to you as too bad, you may decide to take the lens. Don’t be very critical, remember that literary all lenses have such issues and ask yourself how often you are going to shoot against the sun.

Distortion is a common problem of wide-angle lenses. Some ultra wide lenses produce images where only objects that are in the middle of the frame preserve their shapes. There are two types of distortion — barrel/pincushion and perspective. Strong barrel distortion is normal for the so-called fisheye lenses but may be irritating elsewhere. Strong perspective distortion is typical for wide-angle lenses and many people don’t perceive it as disturbing in landscape photographs. However, in images with clearly rectangular objects, for instance with trees, it may be particularly unwanted. Certainly, distortion is particularly noticeable in close-up photographs of animals. Some people can live with it and even regard it as an artistic effect, but for my taste, it is just an imperfection that should be avoided or corrected whenever possible.

To a certain extent both kinds of distortion can be corrected in postprocessing, however, always with loss of some parts of the image. Even if automatic correction is possible, for it to be effective the distortion should be uniform: If there is, for instance, a barrel distortion, than it should not be interrupted in some parts of the image. Look at sample images and decide yourself if you like what you see. If the distortion appears too strong or non-uniform, look for a different lens. A tilt-shift lens is the best solution of the distortion problem. Such lenses are also free of many other issues, such as non-uniform sharpness, strong flare, vignetting, etc. However, all this to a somewhat higher price than of normal wide-angle lenses.

For some kinds of photography and for some lenses, autofocus and image stabilisation are either required or nice to have. Autofocus is absolutely important in wildlife photography, when the subject is moving or may move at any moment, or when you just need to change the focus quickly and precisely. Autofocus is a standard feature in telephoto lenses. However, the speed and precision of it is different in various lenses of various manufacturers. Autofocus is not needed in macro and landscape photography. Macro lenses usually have it, but in mine I never turn it on. Wide-angle and ultra wide-angle lenses are normally with manual focusing only.

The same applies for image stabilisation (or “vibration reduction”, in Nikon terminology). Both, in Canon and Nikon equipment it is not the camera but the lens that should provide image stabilisation. Image stabilisation isn’t necessary in landscape photography and is even thought to be disturbing and should be turned off when the camera is mounted on a tripod. It is, however, absolutely required for telephoto lenses used in wildlife photography. All such lenses made by Sigma lack image stabilisation, and therefore are not useable in very many cases when the photographer has to handhold the camera.

A nature photographer would want a lens that is protected against harsh environment influence — is sealed against dust and moisture, has scratch resistant finishing. Most lenses aren’t so. The best protection against dust and moisture is in the big super telephoto lenses of Canon and Nikon. These are also lenses with most scratch proof paint. Since such lenses are usually carried open and used sometimes in bad weather conditions, you should always ensure that the wildlife lens that you are considering to purchase has some kind of environmental protection. Unfortunately, most other lenses aren’t so. All Carl Zeiss lenses have at least very stable finishing and due to exceptionally good build quality are very sturdy. They are an exception. Even expensive lenses of other manufacturers are completely unprotected and very prone to scratches. Among them, tilt-shift lenses are particularly prone to dust and moisture. Also the black paint of current Canon lenses is quite unstable and begins to get off already in the first field use.

Build quality shouldn’t be your main concern if it is going to be an expensive lens of a renowned manufacturer. Normally, such lenses have good or very good build quality. However, it is important to look at it in cheaper lenses. In some cases you’ll have to decide if you should get a cheap lens and be careful when you use it, or to get a more expensive one that may be more reliable and sturdy. Anyway build quality shouldn’t be the main reason for your decision. Other parameters discussed above are much more important. Personally, I would take just the lens I need, even if I would see that it isn’t very well built.

As I already wrote in my article about choosing the camera brand, I don’t regard price as something one should first look at when choosing the equipment. If we can’t afford something, the too high price is an obstacle, and not a factor that makes us not to want or not to need that item. Our needs and wishes aren’t defined by prices, hence the cost of a lens isn’t regarded here as a choice parameter though I am giving a hint about the price range of lenses in a certain focal length range as a number of dollar signs ($) corresponding to the number of digits in the price tag. For instance, $$$$$ means that prices start from 10.000$, and $$$ — that they are less than 1000$ but more than 100$. Except when you buy it used, an SLR lens that is suitable for nature photography wouldn’t cost less than 250-300 dollars, or euros, or pounds. Even the cheapest lenses made, for instance, by Korean companies aren’t cheaper. Usually, depending on subjects and personal requirements, a nature photographer has to be prepared to pay more, much more for lenses. An average price of good lenses for Nikon and Canon cameras varies between 700 and 1500 dollars (or euros, or pounds).

Of course, I am aware that many people can’t afford top-priced lenses. Then they should consider the less expensive alternatives. I will suggest them in gray boxes in this article. With some subjects, such as birds and many other animals there is simply no cheap way to quality photographs. Everyone who is serious about wildlife photography has to be ready to pay dozens of thousands for equipment, or to choose subjects and photography techniques that would require less expensive equipment. For example, someone who can’t pay 15.000$ for a 800mm lens, can have a 300mm one for 6000$ and find a way to get closer. If even 6000$ is too much money, then one can use a wide-angle lens for 700$ or less and go even closer to the subject. If it shouldn’t be possible, other subjects are still there, such as landscapes, plants, invertebrates, etc.

Also a word needs to be said about lenses for cameras with imaging sensors that are smaller than 36×24 mm — so-called APS-C, or “cropped” sensor cameras. This topic is specific for Canon and Nikon technical platforms because other manufacturers make exchangeable lens cameras either only with 36×24 mm (Sony, Leica) or with smaller sensors (Olympus, Fuji, Pentax, Samsung, Panasonic, Sigma). While APS, i.e. full-frame, lenses in Canon and Nikon are absolutely compatible with APS-C sensors, there are restrictions for use of lenses for APS-C sensors with APS cameras. In Nikon, an APS-C lens (identified as “DX”) will fit the mount of a full-frame camera but will render a correspondingly (1.5 times) smaller image. In Canon, the EF-S lenses are made exclusively for APS-C cameras and won’t fit a full-frame camera at all. Some manufacturers of expensive hi-end lenses, such as Carl Zeiss or Schneider Kreuznach, make them only for full frame. Sigma and Tamron produce different lenses for APS-C than for APS. Sigma marks such as “DC”. Tamron‘s APS-C lenses may be more difficult to recognise. The compatibility with Canon and Nikon will be the same as of native lenses. Therefore, owners of full-frame cameras have to watch what lens they are buying. If it is a APS-C lens and you have an APS camera, in Nikon, there is no reason to have a lens that won’t render the whole frame, in Canon, such a lens won’t be useable at all.

So why do APS-C lenses exist when an APS lens can fit both types of cameras? The lower cost ist the main cause of popularity of APS-C cameras. Obviously, a budget camera needs a budget lens. EF-S and DX lenses in Canon and Nikon are just so, as well as their equivalents produced by Sigma and Tamron. APS-C lenses usually accompany a camera body in a so-called “kit” — a set of a camera body and lens sold together, and many occasional users of SLR cameras are completely satisfied with them, or buy another such lens they learn about from a magazine or a discussion in the Internet. Also it is obvious that for a lens to be low-cost also technologies, know-how, materials and manufacturing of APS-C lenses should be low-cost. APS-C lenses made by Tamron or even by Sigma may have similar quality as APS lenses of these manufacturers. The APS-C lenses of Canon and Nikon can measure only with their low-end APS lenses. Some APS-C lenses can deliver images of decent quality but still aren’t good enough for serious photography. Personally, I never have seen a professional or semi-professional photographer using them although there are even professionals who use APS-C bodies at least as a spare camera. I too don’t use them, never had one and don’t recommend anyone who has serious ambitions in photography. Therefore, I just omit APS-C lenses in the following discussion in this article. All lenses that I am mentioning further are for APS sensors.

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Why should you purchase a $12K lens?

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I am sure, for the majority of people spending, or saving, thousands of dollars is a serious matter that is worth to be considered carefully. I also belong to them – not only because I am not swimming in money, but also because I always know that there will be an opportunity for me to invest the saved money into something good elsewhere. At the moment, I have again a hard time deciding if I should save several thousands of euros choosing a cheaper from several alternatives or just to pick the best one.

If I should buy such an expensive piece of gear, is for me out of question, however. If you are serious about what you do and want to achieve the best results, you have to use proper tools. A couple of years ago I read in a discussion on an Internet forum a remark that the price of such a lens is outrageous because it is “like of a car”. Yes indeed, you can buy a new car for a similar amount of money. So what? Then don’t buy the car if you can’t afford both. For a photographer the equipment has clear priority, therefore the choice should be obvious – the lens. (Not to mention that one can always buy a used car very cheap – so what are we discussing?)

A much more appropriate question is again: Which of several alternatives makes sense in terms of money saving or spending? This time I am choosing a super telephoto lens that should become my main wildlife photography tool for at least the next ten years. Of course, every Canon shooter (and not only) knows that EF 600mm 1:4 L IS USM II is not only the best super tele currently on the market but most probably the best telephoto lens this company has ever made. It is also one of the most expensive DSLR lenses, hence the reasons to purchase it and the alternatives need to be considered very carefully. To make it easier for someone who may need to do the same, I decided to share my thoughts and arguments in brief below.

600mm vs. 500mm: focal length

The closest alternatives of EF 600mm 1:4 L IS USM II among Canon lenses are the 500 mm f/4 and the 800 mm f/5.6. The first – EF 500mm 1:4 L IS USM II – has similar high image quality as the 600 mm but is a little lighter and a little cheaper: It weighs about 700 g less and costs about 2000$ less. It looks like a significant difference, and it is indeed. However, these advantages are being relativised by the much greater reach of the 600mm. Additional 100mm of focal lens result in increased magnification by 1.44x compared to 500mm. Therefore, the same  subject would fill 44% more of the frame produced by the 600mm lens. Since more pixels would be captured, the noise to detail ratio will be improved. As a consequence, sensor noise would be much less recognisable and would much less disturb the detail. If compared with my old 300mm lens, it will be even a 4x increase in magnification!

The difference in price between EF 300mm 1:2.8 L IS USM II and EF 600mm 1:4 L IS USM II is almost 100%, i.e. the 600mm costs almost double the price of 300mm. The EF 500mm 1:4 L IS USM II costs about 2000-2500$ less than 600mm. This may also look significant if you consider that you can get a full-frame camera body or a couple of lenses for that amount of money. The choice should be made according to your personal situation and requirements. Someone who urgently needs a new camera or other lenses may prefer to go for 500mm. However, normally a photographer choosing a super telephoto lens would have other equipment. For me the increase of overall image quality mentioned in the above paragraph is a reason strong enough to make me invest more in the lens and to choose the EF 600mm 1:4 L IS USM II.

600mm vs. 500mm: weight

The difference in weight between 600mm and 500mm is in the version II of these lenses not as significant as in the version I. The old 600mm lens was 5.4kg heavy while the 500mm was only 3.9kg and was considered by many wildlife photographers as hand holdable. In both, the image stabilizer, with 2 f-stops of shake compensation, was inferior to current one that is able to compensate for 4 steps. Therefore, both lenses were being used with tripods by most people.

Now the EF 600mm 1:4 L IS USM II weighs as much (or as little?) as formerly the EF 500mm 1:4 L IS USM. Both, 600mm and 500mm, lenses can be regarded in current version II as suitable for handholding although most people would probably still mean that they are heavy and prefer to use a tripod. So the weight isn’t such an important reason for choosing 500mm anymore.

600mm vs. 800mm

The EF 800mm 1:5.6 L IS USM has been an outstanding product among Canon lenses since its announcement in 2008. It took Nikon 5 years to release its counterpart. Despite a narrower maximum aperture of f/5.6 it has some improvements over the much older EF 600mm 1:4 L IS  USM. It was 1kg lighter, had a higher magnification, better IS and some handling improvements. The f/5.6 aperture was still wide enough to create nice out-of-focus background blur at such large focal length. While EF 600mm 1:4 L IS  USM could be used with teleconverters, this didn’t make much sense with EF 800mm 1:5.6 L IS USM whose aperture was becoming too narrow. However, it wasn’t necessary regarding such a large focal length. The image quality of this lens was at f/5.6 better than of 600mm used with a 1.4x teleconverter.  Of course, the price of EF 800mm 1:5.6 L IS USM was proportionally higher than of EF 600mm 1:4 L IS  USM – 14,000$ vs. 10,000$ – but the improvements and benefits were worth it, and for someone who could afford it was the #1 choice.

Then, in 2011, Canon introduced the new generation of super telephoto lenses. This changed the situation completely: Now the EF 800mm 1:5.6 L IS USM is outdated and inferior to EF 600mm 1:4 L IS  USM II in every aspect. With an Extender EF 1.4x III the EF 600mm 1:4 L IS  USM II has similar the same maximum aperture f/5.6 and even a little greater focal length (840mm) than EF 800mm 1:5.6 L IS USM but outpurforms it in image quality, weighs less, has better image stabilisation, and is more versatile (because the focus length can be decreased to 600mm). This all for a similar price of around $12,000-13,000. Nowadays, a purchase of EF 800mm 1:5.6 L IS USM isn’t worth a consideration anymore, and I am wondering who is buying it.

600mm Mk. II vs. Mk. I

The only reason to think about purchasing the Mk. I version is the price. With about 7.000$ for a used one, it is about 1/3 cheaper than a new Mk. II. However, we should remember that it is a cost of a used vs. new lens. The Mk I is now out of production, and you won’t find it in a shop anymore.

The EF 600mm 1:4 L IS  USM appeared on the market in 1999 and had some real improvements in comparison with the previous non-IS version. Canon seems to update its super telephoto lenses every decade. So it is to expect that the current EF 600mm 1:4 L IS  USM II that replaced the previous generation in 2011 will remain up-to-date till 2021-2022. The history of these lenses has showed that the prices were remaining more or less at constant level till the lens was replaced by a new version and the old one was taken out of market. Will you really be happy for the next 10 years with a lens that has worse image quality, is much heavier and technically outdated, but priced at 7000$ – still very expensive? For me, I doubt it. The improvements of the new version are so great that I certainly would be disappointed with Mk. I and would want to sell it very soon if I would buy it now. Having bought a used lens and saved 30% now I most probably will loose more money again trying to sell it again and to buy the Mk. II version in the next couple of years.

Canon vs. Sigma

Sigma has been making 500mm and 800mm super telephoto lenses for Canon mount for awhile. Despite a much lower price, both failed to become popular wildlife lenses, however – not just because they lack image stabilization and are very heavy. The image quality they deliver is noticeably worse and doesn’t justify the price that is still quite high. Therefore, most photographers preferred to pay more for the first class lenses that Canon was offering.

In the last couple of years Sigma has greatly improved its lens technology, so that some new lenses are on par with Canon lenses or even outperform them. As a result, we can expect this company to produce a super telephoto lens some day in future that would be on par with Canon lenses. However, this is only a theoretical possibility and not yet a fact. Therefore, it doesn’t help much those of us who need a lens right now. Since we don’t know plans and road map of Sigma regarding development and production of new lenses, we can’t rely on it.

Of course, the above argumentation against 500 and 800mm also applies for Sigma lenses. To be a real alternative to EF 600mm 1:4 L IS  USM II a Sigma lens has to have similar optical quality and technical features (IS, autofocus, weather protection, low weight…) and the same focal length and aperture. More than that: I has to be cheaper. Will it be ever possible? Who knows…

Be careful with exchangeable camera mount of new Sigma lenses

Sigma 35 mm F1.4 DG HSM has an exchangeable mount and can be adopted this way for any of supported camera systems — Canon, Nikon, Sony, Sigma. This means that if you some day decide to switch to a different camera brand, you can send your Sigma lens to the nearest service, and they will change the mount. The mount is attached to lens body with a metal ring that looks like a cup (see the picture below). There are no visible screws outside, therefore I think that it is fixated somehow before the mount ring is attached. Potentially this part may cause problems. I learned this after some time in the field — during a 43 days long expedition to Pamir and Alai. At certain moment, I noticed that the mount has a play, i.e. the lens moves a little when it is attached to camera. I thought first that the mount lock in the camera was the cause: I had observed already with some other lenses before that one lens attaches to the camera not so tight as the other. But this time it was different — the lens was moving much more. Finally I discovered that it was not the lens-to-camera attachement that wasn’t firm but the attachement of the mount to the lens was loosened so much that I finally had to bind it with an adhesive tape to prevent it from falling off. When I returned home, I sent the lens to Sigma service that fixed it on the same day for free because the lens was still on warranty. I am sure that the reason why the lens was broken wasn’t its quality but my too harsh treatment of it regardless its specific construction. Sigma 35 mm F1.4 DG HSM is an “Art” series lens: It is neither weather sealed nor rugged, and nature photography isn’t primary use area it is intended for. Certainly, it isn’t as sturdy as the Canon and Zeiss counterparts and has to be treated accordingly.

What's in the package: Sigma 35 mm F1.4 DG HSM, hood, pouch

Sigma 35 mm F1.4 DG HSM: lens, hood, pouch

Sigma 35 mm F1.4 DG HSM: First Impressions

Yesterday I added this wonderful new creation by Sigma – Sigma 35 mm F1.4 DG HSM – to my arsenal of lenses. Since its release in November last year, it is being celebrated by so many photographers. Many have already tried it out and published extremely positive reviews. Now, I have this lens in my hands and can form my own opinion as of a nature photographer. I am going to report my experience with Sigma 35 mm F1.4 DG HSM in two or three posts in this blog that will grow to a more extended text in Reviews section of my website.

As always, my tests are only of practical kind and from a view point of nature photography. I claim neither scientific correctness nor objectiveness that can be applied to other areas of photography. For more profound technical tests and comparison with other lenses see specialised sites like “The Digital Picture” or “Digital Photography Review”.

Unpacking

As with other Sigma lenses, the 35 mm F1.4 DG HSM comes with a hood, both caps, and with a very well made case. Although I prefer to use Lowepro and Thinktank pouches with my lenses or to put them blank in a padded photo bag, the tradition of Sigma to supply such a quality pouch with every lens is really nice.

What's in the package: Sigma 35 mm F1.4 DG HSM, hood, pouch

What’s in the box: Sigma 35 mm F1.4 DG HSM lens, hood, pouch, rear and front caps

Sigma 35 mm F1.4 DG HSM is a rather compact lens. Like all 1.4/35 lenses, it is larger than a 50 mm lens but of similar size or smaller as its Zeiss and Canon counterparts. It is very well built, even compared with already good full-frame lenses that this manufacturer produced in the last years. The lens body feels solid although not as heavy and “bullet-proof” as in Zeiss lenses. Just like all other 1.4/35 lenses it has no weather sealing, and thus should be used with care in dusty and wet environment. The focusing ring moves very smoothly and is rubbered. The rest of the body has black smooth finishing – which is in my opinion better than in Canon and all Sigma lenses – though not as good as in Zeiss.

Compare the size of  Sigma 35 mm F1.4 DG HSM (in the middle) with Sigma 150 mm f/2.8 DG HSM Macro and Sigma 15 mm f/2.8 DG HSM Diagonal Fisheye.

Compare the size of Sigma 35 mm F1.4 DG HSM (in the middle) with Sigma 150 mm f/2.8 DG HSM Macro and Sigma 15 mm f/2.8 DG HSM Diagonal Fisheye. All lenses are shown here without front caps. The fisheye has an unremovable hood which adds almost a third of its height.

Since I received my copy of Sigma 35 mm F1.4 DG HSM only yesterday, I hadn’t a chance yet to use it for real photography but couldn’t resist to try it out and did some quick tests in a “home studio”. In these tests, the lens was used with a Canon 5D Mark II camera mounted on a tripod and set to ISO 400. As the target, I used a Soviet 10 roubles banknote which has a very fine pattern of barely visible curved lines. I attached it on the original box that my Sigma 35 mm F1.4 DG HSM arrived in. Of course, all 100% crops shown below are of an unprocessed RAW image.

Autofocus

Currently, most of my lenses are manual focus only. Therefore I can compare this lens only with Canon autofocus lenses that I owned several years ago and with two other Sigma lenses that I currently own (though usually focus manually). I will be able to tell more after I have used Sigma 35 mm F1.4 DG HSM for awhile. My impression during this first shooting was that the autofocus is very accurate and quick – probably on par with Canon lenses such as EF 17-40 L and quicker than in my other Sigma lenses. The motor is silent and sounds more like in a Canon than like in an older Sigma.

Resolution

The resolution is what I was most interested in when I decided to purchase this lens. Sigma did with its 35 mm F1.4 DG HSM a kind of miracle raising the resolution to previously unknown level. According not only to the manufacturer but also to many independent reviews it is one of the sharpest wide-angle lenses currently available. Since, I am going to use this lens very often for landscape photography, resolution is for me the most important criterium. It was the first thing that I tested.

As usually in such tests, to evaluate the resolution of Sigma 35 mm F1.4 DG HSM, I looked at the sharpness in the middle, edge and corner of an image that was made with different aperture setting. I had to adjust the shutter speed every time when the aperture was changing. Therefore, some samples may appear darker than the others: It has nothing to do with the lens but is only a result of different exposure settings.

Zones of 100% crops used for sharpness assessment.

Zones of 100% crops used for sharpness assessment.

Middle

The following samples show the image sharpness in the middle of the frame at different apertures.

f/1.4 frame middle

f/1.4

f/2

f/2

f/2.8

f/2.8

f/5.6

f/5.6

f/8

f/8

f/11

f/11

f/16

f/16

Edge

Here are the 100% crops from the left edge of the frame at different aperture values.

f/1.4 border

f/1.4

f/2

f/2

f/2.8

f/2.8

f/5.6

f/5.6

f/8

f/8

f/11

f/11

f/16

f/16

Corner

The following samples are 100% crops from the bottom left corner of the frame at different aperture values.

f/1.4

f/1.4

f/2

f/2

f/2.8

f/2.8

f/5.6

f/5.6

f/8

f/8

f/11

f/11

f/16

f/16

As you can see in the samples, this lens is very sharp even wide open. The sharpness increases at f/2. At apertures between f/2.8 and f/8, the image is extremely sharp. Even more remarkable is the uniformity of sharpness at all apertures: At extreme edges and in corners it is almost the same as in the frame centre.

Chromatic aberrations

All lenses that I have ever seen were showing chromatic aberrations in certain circumstances. No lens is immune against it, and, of course, not Sigma 35 mm F1.4 DG HSM. However, lenses differ in the strength of CA. In shots with good lenses they should be, if at all, then barely visible. According to what was already reported about Sigma 35 mm F1.4 DG HSM, this lens produces very minor chromatic aberrations. Under studio condition my observations confirm it. For final conclusion, I have to see the images shot at bright light.

The CA in photography are most easily distinguishable in high contrast areas of an image and increase from the frame middle to edges. For the samples shown below I have cropped a square between the middle and the left edge of the test image.

f/1.4

f/1.4


f/2.0

f/2


f/2.8

f/2.8


f/5.6

f/5.6


f/8.0

f/8


f/11

f/11


f/16

f/16

To my eyes, the CA are very well handled in this lens. In the test images they are very little noticeable at all aperture values. I’d expect them to increase at strong light but overall this issue is in Sigma 35 mm F1.4 DG HSM within the usual range for any quality wide-angle lens.

Macro capability

Wide-angle lenses aren’t macro lenses but I use them often for close-up shots of amphibians and reptiles. Therefore, the capability for close focusing and possibility to achieve a good frame composition with a small subject are important to me.

Although Sigma 35 mm F1.4 DG HSM doesn’t offer such an extreme wide angle of view as fisheye lenses and doesn’t pull out the foreground, it appears to be useable for small, but not too small, subjects, such as frogs. The minimum focusing distance of Sigma 35 mm F1.4 DG HSM is 30 cm, but the working distance is only around 15 cm which is not very close, on one hand, but on the other, close enough for larger subjects, such as snakes, tortoises, or larger lizards.

Below you see how an image of a small frog shot with this lens could be. The toy frog shown here was about 5 cm long.

A close-up shot of a 5 cm long frog at a distance of around 15 cm from the lens front (i.e. at minimum focusing distance of 30 cm).

A close-up shot of a 5 cm long frog at a distance of around 15 cm from the lens front (i.e. at minimum focusing distance of 30 cm).

Carl Zeiss’ top-class service for top-class lenses

A disclaimer: I have no business relations with Carl Zeiss AG, and this article isn’t intended as advertising – neither hidden nor open. Everything written below reflects solely my personal opinion.

Last Sunday was the first sunny and warm weekend after the unusually long and snowy winter here in Central Europe. Since I had to stay at home for the last 6 months, for me it was the opening of this year’s photography season. I went to a nearby place where the breeding activities of common toads were already under way. Actually, this wasn’t a photographic excursion. Instead, I was going to try out some new gear that I had got for an upcoming videography project. For this work, I took with me my Zeiss Distagon T* 3,5/18 ZE and Planar T* 1,4/85 ZE along with Sigma 150 mm f/2.8 DG Macro.

Near the end of my filming activities, I decided to capture some more of the landscape with the Distagon lens and put it on the camera that was mounted on a rig. When I was attaching the follow-focus device, I removed the lens hood for a moment and then put it on again. Either I was already tired or had lost cautiousness after months of inactivity, but I put on the hood a little tilted and damaged the locking mechanism. If you try to put a plastic hood on a Canon lens in a wrong way, it just wouldn’t lock, but nothing would get broken unless you have applied too much force. Usual hoods just have a thread in plastic that latches on the lens. In Zeiss lenses the hood is more high-tech: The lock is a real mechanism that has several parts and is all made of metal. Its construction and locking function is much more complex than in plastic hoods of other manufacturers.

Carl Zeiss Distagon T* 3,5/18 lens hood

Carl Zeiss Distagon T* 3,5/18 lens hood

The hood should be attached in a way that the label “Carl Zeiss” shows on the top side. First, three cutouts at the edge of the hood mount need to be aligned with suitable notches on lens’ front ring. After that you rotate the hood a little clockwise and it clicks in place: Metal plates inside the lock snap on the groove in the lens’ front and fixate the hood. I had used this lens for about two years already and never thought that improper alignment can so easy cause this lock to get stuck. After that the hood can’t be attached anymore. This is exactly what happened last Sunday.

While a plastic hood of other lens manufacturers is relatively cheap and, if it was broken, can be replaced with a new one, Zeiss hoods are expensive, so that repair makes sense. This hood of Distagon T* 3,5/18 costs over 120€ and not only reduces flare and improves image contrast but also protects the lens that costs 1300€. Therefore, I wasn’t going to use the lens without hood which had therefore to be repaired as quickly as possible.

On Monday, the next day after accident, I sent a parcel with the broken hood to Carl Zeiss service. I am not sure about other countries, but in Germany Carl Zeiss lenses are being serviced directly by the manufacturer. So, my lens hood went straight to Carl Zeiss headquarters in Oberkochen. This morning, on Thursday, less than three days after, I received it back – repaired, probably on the same day when they received it… But more than that: The service was completely free of charge.

I always have been amazed by technical quality and artistic performance of Zeiss lenses, and if I could afford, I’d purchased all ZE, i.e. Canon mount, series of them. Now I am also impressed by their service. Thank you, Carl Zeiss!

Loosing a Carl Zeiss lens cap may be expensive

Guten Tag Hr. Tiutenko,

ein org. Zeiss Deckel würde 22,– Euro kosten. Alternativ haben wir einen Objektivdeckel ohne Beschriftung für 5,90 Euro.

Good afternoon Mr. Tiutenko,

an original Zeiss lens cap would cost 22.– euros. Alternatively, we have a lens cap without label – for 5.90 euros.
— a German Carl Zeiss dealer

A plastic lens cap with “Carl Zeiss” label on it costs almost 4 times more than a blank one. If you have a Zeiss lens with an original cap, be careful not to lose it! I have lost one a couple of months ago and had to get a replacement. Above you see a reply from a Carl Zeiss dealer.

Canon EF 300 mm f/2.8 L IS USM and Extender EF 2x III

Canon EF 300 mm f/2.8 L IS USM and Extender EF 2x III

I recently updated the teleconverter to Extender 2.x III. (Previously I had the version II.) This is the first image taken with my main wildlife lens – Canon EF 300 mm f/2.8 L IS USM – and Extender 2.x III on EOS 5D Mark II (hand held).

Carl Zeiss 2.8/25 T* ZF on Canon as Herping Lens

Image

Today I tried out the Carl Zeiss 2.8/25 T* ZF with a subject that I actually planned this lens to use for. Above you see my first herp photo with this lens – a Common Frog (Rana temporaria). I had no flash with me this time, and was shooting with high ISO – 1600. Nevertheless the shutter speed was quite slow – 0.8 sec – due to narrow aperture – f/22. Even with this aperture which is maximum for this lens the background blur is quite strong when the subject is so small and so close. The frog was only about 5 cm from the front of the lens.

To eliminate overexposure in the top of the frame, I am using this lens with a B&W gradient filter.

The image presented here is a full frame, and with normal processing – gradation curve, saturation and vibrance increase, sharpening.

Bottom line: This view angle is not as wide as in fisheye lenses, and with small subjects the background is too much blurred even at maximum aperture. Shooting with f/22 is very difficult because the image in viewfinder is almost black. On positive side, the distortion is virtually absent. The lens provides typical for Zeiss nice realistic colour rendering and contrast.

Carl Zeiss 2.8/25 T* ZF with Canon EF Adapter: First Use in the Field

Image

I tried the Zeiss 2.8/25 T* ZF for the first time in the field yesterday. As I mentioned in another post to this blog some time ago, this is a Nikon mount lens that I purchased for its unique working distance of only several centimeters. This makes wide-agle shots like this one possible. Unlike with fisheye lenses that are typically used for this kind of photography, with the Zeiss 25mm the distortion is not noticeable. Since I have Canon cameras, I use this lens with an adapter. This means, that all controls are manual. Since the aperture also has to be set manually, the image in the viewfinder is dark. To my big surprise, however, the Live View image was lighter, and focusing was much easier.

Herping lens for Pentax

In May this year I have posted a list of close focusing wide-angle lenses that are suitable for herp photography. Here is another lens for this list that I found later:

smc Pentax DA 10-17mm F3.5-4.5 ED (IF) Fisheye

This lens has a KAF bajonett and hence is suitable only for Pentax DSLR. It has not only very nice short focusing distance of only 14 cm over the entire zoom range. In so-called “super macro” mode its working distance can be reduced to only 2.5 cm. This lens also allows precise manual focusing even with autofocus turned on.