Continuing the tour through my camera bag, we come to the gear that takes up the most room – the lenses. The previous two articles discussed the bag itself and the camera body. Here are the links if you haven’t read them yet.
It’s interesting that most people when they think of a camera, think of both the body and the lens combined. And granted, one is not much good without the other. One day I was with friends at the horse races and was using my 70-200mm long lens. One of my friends said, “Wow, what a nice camera.” (Here’s a tip; it looks even nicer with the lens hood on.) I doubt she would have even noticed if I had a modest 50mm lens on.
But those of us that have camera bodies with interchangeable lenses know that the body and lenses are two separate components. Together they make up what I like to think of as my artistic instrument.
Before going over each of my lenses I want to revisit something I said in the first article and that is that all my gear is selected to support my creative vision. It’s not the technology that drives my buying decisions but rather a limitation in what I’m trying to achieve. If I want to do something and my gear restricts my vision, it’s time to start looking to either replace it or add to it.
With that in mind, when it comes to lenses my creative vision extends from the broad, all-encompassing landscapes at one end to the intimate landscapes at the other. That means I need a collection of lenses that range from extreme wide-angle to strong telephoto. So, let the tour begin.
My Wide Angle Lens
Let’s start with my wide angle lens. It’s the newest addition to the stable. It’s the one that’s on the top row to the right.
I am currently shooting with the Canon EF 16-35 f/2.8L II USM lens and it’s a bute. The 16mm comes in handy on my full-frame camera body when I want to capture the big picture like the Bryce Canyon amphitheater from Sunrise Point, the sweep of Sand Dollar Beach along the Big Sur coast or the vast Milky Way at night.
I had a Canon EF 17-40 f/4L USM lens prior to upgrading to the 16-35. And as far as angle of view goes, there’s not much difference between the two. But at f/2.8 the 16-35 is a whole stop faster than the 17-40 which makes a big difference in night photography. This is an example of upgrading my gear because what I had was limiting what I wanted to do.
This lens doesn’t get used as much as my other lenses but I really appreciate it when I need it.
My Go-To Lens
OK, so this is the lens I grab most often when I’m out shooting. It is the middle lens.
It’s the Canon EF 24-105 f/4L IS USM lens. I bought this lens when I traveled to Greece and Egypt with my daughter on a school field trip. I wasn’t going to be able to take my whole camera bag and wanted one lens that would have a range from wide-angle to a moderate telephoto. And it turned to be a great decision. I don’t go anywhere without it.
I use a tripod for virtually all of my landscape photography. So blurred images are not a problem. But there are times when I want to leave the tripod behind and hand-hold the camera. This is when blurs are possible (because I’m not made of carbon fiber nor do I have three legs) and this lens is perfect for reducing or eliminating then. The IS designation in the camera name stands for Image Stabilization which means it can compensate for slight camera movements when the shutter is pressed and you still end up with a sharp image.
This is such a versatile lens that it’s easy to see why I turn to it so often.
My Telephoto Lens
I have a monster telephoto lens that I absolutely love.
It’s the Canon EF 100-400 f/4.4-5.6L IS lens. My vision often focuses on details in the distance and this lens is perfect for isolating them. In fact, the subject doesn’t have to be far away for this lens to isolate them. I was photographing rhododendrons with this lens back in May. They were just 30 feet from where I was standing and they fill the frame beautifully.
This lens is also image stabilized so I can shoot with it hand-held although I have to be really careful.
Here’s a tip on shooting hand-held, especially with a telephoto lens. Make sure your shutter speed is one divided by the focal length of the lens or faster. So if I’m shooting at 100mm then the shutter speed needs to be 1/100 sec or faster. If the focal length is 400mm then the shutter speed needs to be 1/400 sec or faster. Image stabilization gives you a bit of leeway so in the case of 400mm I could get away with 1/200 sec or maybe even a tad bit slower.
Speaking of sharpness, I’ve had problems with this lens even when mounted on the tripod. And it’s not the lens. I have seen a fly on the nose of a big horn sheep at 100 feet with this lens. No, it’s the weight of the lens. This lens is so heavy that it causes the camera to vibrate when the mirror flips up prior to the shutter release. And it will continue to vibrate for several seconds. What I’ve found I need to do is lock the mirror up and delay the shutter from firing for 10 seconds after pressing the shutter button. This allows any vibrations to subside before the shutter fires.
The way I do this is to use the built-in delay feature on my camera body, setting the delay time to 10 seconds. This combined with mirror lockup gives me sharp images. When I press the shutter button the mirror flaps up and the camera/lens/tripod starts vibrating. But the shutter doesn’t fire until after 10 seconds, by which time the vibrations have stopped and the image is sharp.
I also need to be aware of wind as that will also cause vibrations.
It’s taken a while and a few too many blurred images to figure this out but let me reiterate, it’s not the lens that’s the problem, it’s vibration.
Canon Lens Terminology
There are come codes in the names Canon gives to its lenses. Each manufacturer has its own set of codes. So to give you an idea of what to look for in a lens name, here are what the codes mean.
EF refers to the lens mount on the camera. The camera communicates with the lens via electrical contacts. This is what makes autofocus and auto-aperture possible. (Did you ever wonder how that happened?) Different camera manufacturers will have different mounts. That’s why you can’t put a Nikon lens on a Canon body, not at least without an adapter.
The L designation is what Canon gives to their professional grade lenses.
USM stands for Ultra-Sonic Motor which refers to the technology used for autofocus. All autofocus lenses have built-in motors that focus the lens. USM technology means a faster, more quiet focusing.
Types of Lenses
You will notice that all of my lenses are zoom lenses. That is, they have a range of focal lengths. The wide-angle lens has a range from 16mm to 35mm. My go-to lens has a range of 24mm to 105mm. And my telephoto lens has a range of 100mm to 400mm. You’ll also notice that there are no gaps in-between lenses. All of my lenses overlap. So, I can choose the focal length that is perfect for the composition I’m after, anywhere from 16mm to 400mm. And this extreme range is covered with just three lenses. That’s the advantage of zoom lenses.
But many photographers prefer prime lenses. These lenses have a fixed focal length. The reason for choosing prime lenses is that the optics are generally of a higher quality than zoom lenses. For example, both Canon and Nikon have legendary 50mm lenses with extreme sharpness.
The difference in optical quality between zoom and prime lenses used to be significant back when zoom lenses were first introduced. That was when lenses were designed without the advantage of computers running sophisticated design software. But over the years that gap has shriveled to the point where the difference is negligible except for the most critical work. And given the kind of work I do, the difference is not noticeable. So, I choose creative freedom over technical perfection.
Zoom lenses come in two flavors. Most have a variable aperture. When zoomed the least, the maximum aperture is the widest. When zoomed the most, the maximum aperture is the smallest. My 100-400 lens above is just such a lens. At 100mm the widest aperture is f/4.4. At 400mm the widest aperture is f/5.6. With these lenses, the barrel typically lengthens or shortens with the change in focal length.
The other type of zoom lenses have a fixed maximum aperture. This is where the maximum aperture stays the same throughout the zoom range. My 16-35 and 24-105 lenses are this type. With these lenses the barrel stays the same size and elements within the lens move back and forth to change the focal length.
What’s the difference between an expensive professional lens and a more affordable prosumer lens? In a single word, quality. But what determines quality.
· Sharpness: It’s one thing to be sharp at one focal length but zoom lenses need to be sharp at all focal lengths. Additionally, it’s easy to be sharp in the middle of the field of view but what about the edges? All of these factors are taken into consideration when the lens is designed.
One other sharpness consideration is a phenomenon called diffraction. This has nothing to do with the quality of the lens design and the exotic elements used in it. This happens to all lenses regardless of their cost. Diffraction occurs when the lens aperture is very small, say f/16 or f/22. It results from the light interacting with the edges of the diaphragm as it passes through. It scatters slightly, reducing the overall sharpness. The effect is more pronounced with small apertures. The only way you can avoid this is to not use small apertures but you do this at the expense of depth of field. The effects of diffraction on a high-quality lens will not be as great as on a prosumer lens but they are still there. It’s something to be aware of.
· Chromatic aberration: This is a colored halo you see on the edges of a dark object against a bright background. This happens because lenses do not focus all the colors the same. This that this is how light naturally behaves. Blue light is bent more than red. To minimize this, different types of glass are used in some of the lens elements.
· Vignetting: Vignetting is where the image is darker at the corners and edges then it is in the center. This is more likely to occur in wide-angle lenses than in normal or telephoto lenses.
There are several factors that go into producing high-quality lenses – the lens design, the materials used in the lens elements and quality control during the manufacturing process. Professional lenses have very sophisticated lens designs. My 24-105 lens has 16 elements in 14 groups. That means there are 16 individual pieces of carefully ground and polished glass arranged in 14 groups. That’s a lot of glass (which makes lenses heavy). And some of the elements are not made from ordinary glass but rather exotic blends of glass. Other elements are aspherical which makes them much more complicated to grind and polish.
Quality control is another essential part of the manufacturing process. Leica lenses are known for their extremely high quality and a major factor is the quality control that goes into their manufacturing. This is also a major factor in their high cost.
Making a lens is a complicated and fascinating process. I think you’ll enjoy this video of how Canon makes their 500mm lens.
Pretty interesting, isn’t it? And you can own one of these for a mere eight grand. Just putting one of these in my car would increase its overall value by 25%!
A Few More Lenses
I have two more lenses that I haven’t mentioned.
One of the first Canon professional lenses I bought was the Canon EF 70-200 f/2.8L USM lens. It’s another beautiful lens. But when I got the 100-400 this lens got set aside. I was about ready to retire it and trade it in when something unforeseen happened. We were preparing to take another trip to Europe, specifically Norway. I didn’t want to take my complete camera bag; that would be too bulky. My trusty 24-105 was going; that’s a given. But I wanted more reach. So, I looked to ThinkTank for a fanny pack (They now call then ‘lumbar packs.’ I guess ‘fanny packs’ is too vulgar.) that would be mobile and easy to use. And the one I ended up with would hold my camera and 24-105 lens but it wouldn’t hold the 100-400. It did, however, hold the 70-200. So the lens was saved. Whenever I want to go light I use the fanny pack with the 70-200. It’s worked out very well.
There’s one more lens that was among the first professional lenses I bought. It’s the Canon EF 24-70 f/2.8L USM. It’s the lens on the left in the photo. It’s another great lens. But I haven’t used it in over a year. It’s sitting in my camera bag, ready to go but when I reach for a lens in that focal length range I always reach for the 24-105. So, what to do with it?
I’m considering a tilt-shift lens. It has a fixed focal length and Canon makes four of them – 14mm, 24mm, 45mm and 90mm. So, what does a tilt-shift lens do?
Well, the front elements tilts up and down. So what, you ask. When photographing the redwoods in Northern California, when I point the camera up the trees appear to converge. It’s called ‘parallax error.’ By tilting the lens up while leaving the camera level the parallax error can be corrected or even eliminated. (By the way, when I point the lens down the trees appear to diverge.)
The tilt also allows you to get an extreme depth of field. It’s the same as what large format photographers do when they tilt the front panels of their view cameras.
The shift part means the front of the lens slide from side to side. And why is that useful? Because you can take panoramas with it. Slide the lens to one side and take the shot. Slide it to the center and take the next shot. Slide it to the other side and take the final shot. And then merge them in Lightroom.
Now, here comes the important question. Would this lens help to expand my creative vision? Are there things that I can’t do now that this lens would enable? The answer is a strong ‘Yes.’ But these lenses are really expensive, so I must be patient. When I’m ready to do it, I’ll trade in my 24-70 for the 24mm tilt-shift and not look back.
So that’s the scoop on lenses. In the photo of my camera bag you can see that the lenses take up a little over half of the room. That means there’s still a lot more to talk about. For example, filters to name just one. Stay tuned.
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