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Starting out with Primes (vs zooms)

MichaelVMichaelV Member
edited December 2014 in the gear
I made a big mistake early on and that was starting out with zooms.  Actually, someone told me once that I should start out with the 85mm.  At the time, I was thinking "Why the 85mm?"  It seems like a zoom would be be good for general purpose work.  My assumption back than is still true today.  Zooms are "good", but only "good" not "great".  

If I had to start out again, I would shoot for the following lenses:

16-35 L F4 IS
24mm L 2.8 IS
85mm L II 1.2
100mm L 2.8 IS Macro
135mm L 1.8
70-200mm L 2.8 II

35mm 1.4 Art
50mm 1.4 Art
120-300 2.8 Sports

So, in my opinion, I think its not worth considering a zoom in the 24-70 range.  There are matters of practicality which would make you get a 24-70 especially with event work where you have to move fast and changing a lens or switching to another body is not an option.  However, my experience is the best quality is achieved with primes between 24-70.  The Canon 70-200 2.8 II and Sigma 120-300 2.8 Sports are two zooms which are very sharp, prime-like and make for outstanding photos.  The 16-35 is not that great, but its the best option right now for wide angle shots.  

I own the Sigma 50mm 1.4 Art and the photos I have taken are extremely sharp.  In fact, this might be the one and only lens where I am dialing back the sharpness post-process.  It is razor sharp.  If you want to photograph something for archival purposes where you desire the maximum sharpness. This lens is where its at.

In any worthy discussion of lenses, I must point out the value of a good tripod which is most always at least a few hundred dollars.  Monopods and cheap tripods are, at best, mediocre.  A good or great tripod is a "must have".  A monopod is good as an expedient solution to stability, but its mediocre at stabilization.  

Flash is another worthy point.  Flash stops motion and the resulting shot is very clear.  There are limits to flash like you cant light up an entire football field stopping the players in motion for example. 

If I had a wedding for myself or close family today and had some technical control over the photographer.  I would want any still shots done with a great tripod and prime lenses of the L or Art variety.  For any shots involving motion, I would leave it up to them as I know shots would be missed if all prime lenses were used.  During the portraiture, I would be disappointed if they selected a zoom lens for the shoot.  If they used that Canon 24-70 or 24-70 II 2.8 I would be a little suspicious because Ive had some trouble with that lens myself.  Right out of the box it was sent to the repair depot for re-calibration.  If the photographer was using the Canon 70-200 II 2.8 IS it would be thumbs up.  Ive had nothing but great experiences with that lens.  That would be the only zoom lens I would understand them doing portraiture work.  Its at least as sharp as any of other primes except for the Canon 50mm and the Canon 300mm II 2.8 IS.  Actually, the Canon 300mm II 2.8 IS is the sharpest lens one can buy for a Canon body.  If you were looking to get the sharpest portrait possible with a lens and had unlimited room it would be the Canon 300mm II 2.8 IS.  Good luck trying to get one at $6.5k per...  


  • I don't agree with some of this, but interesting perspective. Your initial premise that starting with zooms is a mistake, and that zooms can only be good but not great - that isn't my experience. I do agree that a prime lens has the potential of delivering better IQ than a zoom. (I say "has the potential" because there are a lot of mediocre primes too...)

    I don't know the Canon lenses, but I would classify my Nikon 24-70 and 70-200, for example, as great lenses not merely good. Also, I think for beginning photographers, starting with a zoom (inexpensive "kit" zooms like 18-55 and 55-200 are common on Nikon) is actually a good idea. Over time, they can start seeing what focal lengths they like to shoot, and where they might like some more creative options such as increased subject isolation or higher shutter speeds or lower ISO afforded by the larger apertures that a prime will bring.

    On the sharpness-of-a-lens thing - I think there is a degree of "you get what you pay for" here, so yes, if you get expensive primes they would be expected to deliver you the best IQ possible at that exact focal length. However, I think lens sharpness can also be hugely overrated in a practical sense, as there are many other variables such as composition, lighting, subject interest, technical characteristics (aperture/shutter/ISO), post-processing, etc. These variables have the ability to dwarf any possible perceived benefit of a presumably better lens.

    In other words, we can shoot the Zeiss 55mm f/1.4 Otus and compare to someone shooting at 55mm on an 18-55mm kit zoom. If we don't do as well in the above items as the guy with the kit lens, his photos may be better...
  • I agree with what NikonGuy says, general (most if not all) clients, couldn't care less about the "small" increase in sharpness. All the other variables mentioned makes a much higher impact and most people wouldn't know nor see the difference in "image quality".
  • I'm pretty much just starting out with a DSLR after taking a lot of photos with a Canon Powershot which could go full manual. I got the kit lens with my Canon T3i, an 18-55 mm, and soon saw the limitations of the max aperture of 5.6 at 55 mm. I picked up a little better zoom, the 28-105 mm F/3.5-4.5 "macro", and have used it a lot. I then picked up the 40 mm F/2.8 "pancake" lens. In another post on this forum, I am now comparing the 40 mm prime to the zoom I thought was pretty good. I now have a feel for the better results from the prime. My experience outside of family and vacation photos are three recent charity events I volunteered for, and since examining the results of the lens comparison I have tried to imagine using just the 40 mm lens instead of the zoom. In my case, I like event photography - so far - and am not sure if I could use just a prime lens. My first lens was a zoom, I have a prime lens, and I don't have any issues with the sequence of how it happened.

    I guess it all comes down to what you are taking pictures of. But, as far as learning about photography, and the ins-and-outs of cameras and lenses, I guess either way - prime first or zoom first - would not have made much difference to me. I still would have learned what I already have learned.

  • MichaelVMichaelV Member
    edited December 2014
    I  know the Sigma and Canon world, but I dont know Nikon at all. 

    Here is what I know about the full frame Canon world:

    -  Canon cant create anything excellent under focal length 24mm.  They do create good enough zooms in the under 24mm segment.

    -  Canon cant create an excellent zoom in the 24-70mm focal length.  The closest they come to excellent is the 24-70mm 2.8 II when it actually works, but I wouldnt call it excellent...just very good.

    -  Canon 70-200 2.8 II IS is an excellent lens and a standard lens which every Canon camera owner should own.  Its really that good. However, for below 2.8 in that range you need a few select primes.  

    Most clients care about your personality and charisma than the actual photos.  So, yeah, you can get away with many lenses as long as you get good enough shots.
  • MichaelVMichaelV Member
    edited December 2014
    Let me add a little bit about the Canon mount primes.

    The one lens I enjoy for landscape is the Canon 24mm 2.8 IS.  Since its a small lens with image stabilization and 2.8 you can get some great low light shots hand-held.  The smallish lens and a Canon 5D Mark III makes for a nice little lightweight package to carry around.  Its certainly better optics than the Canon 24-70 2.8 II.  

    The Canon 35mm IS 2.0 and Sigma 35mm 1.4 complement the 24mm.  The big debate rages which is better.  The Sigma 35mm 1.4 is better optically plus has the 1.4 aperture, but the Canon version does have the IS in a smaller package.  Around here I find myself without a tripod or a monopod a lot so I would have to move towards the Canon 35mm IS 2.0.  I have found that my hands are less steady than the average photographer for whatever reason so I am one of those guys who really enjoys the IS. 

    For as sharp as it gets photography and creative wide open aperture shots, I like the Sigma 50mm 1.4 Art.  I was taking some Christmas tree shots with this lens and could see the dust particles on the bulbs and the reflective view of the messy room.  This might be a lens where you unsharpen during post-process. Its razor sharp.  

    The Canon 85mm II 1.2 is in a class of its own.  Its counterpart is the Sigma 85mm 1.4 which is much cheaper and the biggest difference is focus accuracy.  The Canon 85mm is a slow focus and the Sigma is of the faster variety.  No zoom lens can replace either.  I dont own the Sigma, but I do own the Canon.  All of the pictures I take with the 85mm 1.2 seem to pop and are of a more unique variety than any other lens I own.  Most always I got for wide open aperture when using the 85mm.  You dont buy this lens to narrow it down, but to widen it up to blur the background.

    The Canon 100mm Macro 2.8 creates those memorable shots of the ring and other things up close.  

    The Canon 135mm is a sharp lens which complements the 85mm.  The 85mm offers the perfect working distance indoors, but the 135mm is a little bit sharper.  The 135mm is cheaper, but the 85mm is faster.  Debating which is the better portrait lens is for one of those Youtube episodes.  

    At first it seems like zooms can easily replace the primes, but they cant.  They are not as fast and cant create the same shots.  The primes can recreate the zoom shots, but the zooms cant recreate the prime shots.  As for all out optical performance, the primes are superior except (in the Canon world) if you are less than 24mm.  Canon just cant seem to create a sub-24mm lens which we all can stand up and applaud.  Us Canon users just have to settle on "good enough" for our wide angle shots.  

    Yes, there is a bit of juggling with the various lenses involved in switching them out.  Yes, you might get a little dust on the sensor.  However, like I said, if I were to do it again I would not have any Canon mount zoom between 24-70 laying around here.  It would be 24mm, 35mm, 50mm, 85mm, 135mm along with the trusty 70-200 2,8 II and 16-35.  Thats what I would do personally and I would take a class on juggling as I know it would be a tad bit more work. 

    I could easily work in the primes to any number of circumstances from day to day.  For example, red carpets where I get shots of each person coming in.  The 50mm would create a nice working distance for full body red carpet shots.  If I needed to get closer and didnt have the luxury of distance I could switch to the 35mm.  It does require just a tad more work, but you do get used to it. 
  • "Here is what I know about the full frame Canon world:

    -  Canon cant create anything excellent under focal length 24mm.  They do create good enough zooms in the under 24mm segment.

    -  Canon cant create an excellent zoom in the 24-70mm focal length.  The closest they come to excellent is the 24-70mm 2.8 II when it actually works, but I wouldnt call it excellent...just very good."

    Would love to see you say something along the lines of "In my experience..." or "In my opinion..."

    Canon makes stellar lenses below 24 like the tilt shift series, the 16-35 f4 (one that you previously said you loved and raved about) etc.

    The canon 24-70 II is also excellent or it would not have received such high praise from lens rental businesses and pros alike.

    While individual experiences always differ, saying that "you know" Canon can't make a good lens in the FL's you mentioned comes across just a little to...authoritative. 
  • I hate to be the Simon Cowell of online photography review, but it is what it is.  Professional lens reviewers are far too kind in my opinion and you oftentimes have to read between the lines of the various reviews to get the real story.  Professional lens reviewers dont want to offend anyone over at Canon and so they walk a fine line when writing such reviews.  I, on the other hand, dont mind stepping on a few toes over at Canon and believe its fairly healthy to do so in order to get superior products developed and made.    

    What I took away from the various reviews about the Canon 24-70 2.8 II, and my own personal experience, was there were issues right out of the box.  Neil, if I remember correctly, had some issues with his initial copy and had to get another one.  Bryan at The Digital Picture went through a few copies.  Right out of the box my Canon 24-70 2.8 II was a lemon which I had to send back to the repair depot.  This is not opinion, but a real world experience...a fact.  We shall see.  So I guess if you are an event photographer with steady hands and just so happen to get a good copy than it might be "excellent" for you.   

    I raved about the Canon 16-35 F4 because it was better than what we had before, but its still not something I could classify as "excellent".  Not every lens in my bag gets the coveted "excellent" rating.    

    To be clear, only one lens in my bag is "poor" or "fair".  All of them are "good" to "excellent".  Probably the one lens which I would say I might rate under "good" is the Sigma 180mm macro which I might sell in the future.  It works but its closer to the older Sigma line than the newer editions.  

    I stand by my statements and Canon is free to prove me wrong on the points I outlined here.  Many of the lenses in their lineup are starting to grey and need some updating.  Nikon, Sigma and even Sony are close on their heals.  Neil defected to the Nikon line.   Maybe a Simon Cowell is needed to go in there and shake things up at Canon.  I think they have become too comfortable.  

  • MichaelVMichaelV Member
    edited December 2014
    For the record, I did use the Canon 24-70 2.8 II at an event the other day.

    As an NYC area based photographer there is simply not the luxury of space and assistance. Also, you cant take all your lenses to an event for reasons of space and security.  Switching from lens to lens can be a bit hectic especially in tight quarters.  If I was the White House photographer and had the same resources maybe I could do an event with all prime lenses.  Since I am just at these gigs solo these days and dont have all the resources the Canon 24-70 2.8 II does have a purpose in my bag.  

    I never said it was a bad lens, but a "very good" one which does have a purpose.  However, I would do it all with primes if the conditions allowed me to do so.  For landscapes and other scenes where I have all the time in the world with no worries than I use the primes in my bag to get the job done.
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