Sunday 13 May 2012

My First Lens Upgrade Project

I've had my Canon 450D for about a year now, and my lens array almost as long. At present, my kit contains:
  • EF 50mm f/1.8 II aka 'nifty fifty'. The only lens I'm happy with.
  • EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6. This lens is okay, but annoys me sometimes.
  • EF 55-200mm f/4.5-5.6 II USM. This lens is increasingly really annoying.
Also, I've got some big events coming up (trips to Seattle and Florence, also the Olympic fencing), and I really don't want to miss out on those shots of a lifetime. 

Considerations are that I would like to stick with the Canon system - yes, the grips etc are too big, but no current full frame cameras are meant for children-size hands anyhow. I'd like to upgrade in future to something like the Canon 5D mk III. Not this year, probably not next year ... but sometime. This, however, means that I need to primarily consider EF mount lenses, rather than the cheaper EF-S mount, unless I feel like replacing glass when I upgrade.

So why am I finding my current kit irritating and limiting?

Well, between tiny hands, not so awesome muscles, and various other things, there's quite a lot of shake when I try and take pictures at 100+mm, or in low light conditions. This means I seriously need to consider image stabilisation in my lenses. I lose a lot of otherwise awesome shots because I simply can't hold the camera still enough. Yes, a tripod would help with this. I do need a monopod or full size tripod one day. At this point, however, I think a new lens or two is probably cheaper and more flexible, although I am researching tripods on the side, as it were.

The upshot is I've been reading a lot of bewildering information about various lenses available for my camera. And it truly is bewildering - between poor site design, ambiguous google results, and my profound lack of knowledge, I've been feeling a little overwhelmed.

Most advice articles say something like "when upgrading, consider what you use lenses for" with the goal of pinning down which focal range you use most. Looking at my photos, I tend to take pictures of very small things and things very far away. I would like a macro lens, but that would be in addition to the current range of things I can do. Talking to another member of the London Photography Meetup Group on our Kew Gardens walk, he said "Well, you're kind of between a rock and a hard place then, aren't you?" which I believe is an accurate summation of my dilemma.

I use pretty much everything in my current range from 18mm through to 200mm, and keep wanting more at both ends. Oh, and smaller f-stop numbers. And a pony while I'm at it.

Ponies aside, I can't afford L lenses (Canon's pro lens range), so I'm going to have to compromise somewhere.

I've been using dpreview to read up on lenses, suggested to me by ... someone. It's got a nice interface for presenting only the lenses I'm interested in.

Thinking about my current issues (and budget limitations) I think it's more important for me to upgrade the telephoto lens than the zoom lens. I walk around with the zoom lens more, and take more shots with it ... but that's partially because my success rate is significantly higher. With this in mind, I've narrowed down on a few candidate lenses. Prices are from a google search, price included as a baseline retail price.

Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM. This is one chunky lens. Someone had one at the Kew Gardens walk, and let me play with it a bit. It's really quite nice to use, and I think the extra range would be something I'd very quickly become addicted to. However, it is large. And heavy. £300 or so, £420 from amazon.

Canon EF 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 DO IS USM. Those two extra letters mean that it's a lot lighter, smaller, and more expensive. Also reviews seem to indicate it sucks.  £840 and up, £1103 from amazon.

Tamron SP 70-300mm f/4-5.6 Di VC USD. This lens gets good reviews, and has lots of technical acronyms in the name. From what I can tell, it's basically equivalent to the Canon, perhaps with better build quality. On the other hand, I haven't heard of this brand before, not that I'm overly educated in the field. £225 and up, £319.27 from amazon.

Sigma 70-300mm F4-5.6 DG OS. No reviews on my chosen review site, but a bit further afield gets me a couple of articles. It seems to be an okay lens, nothing special, but annoying if you want to use polarised filters. Affordable at £176, and £286 from amazon.

Sigma 120-300mm F2.8 EX DG OS HSM. Again, very good reviews, and lots of fancy letters. The major problem with this lens is the gap in range it leaves me, as explained below. But ... that f value is really, really, really shiny. And HUGE. And horrifically expensive. £1441, £1991 on amazon. Although there seems to be another model at £999 ish. Still too expensive.

All these lenses have something in common: they leave me without the zoom range from 55mm to 70mm (or 120mm in the case of the expensive Sigma). 55-70mm isn't too large a gap, and isn't a range I use much anyway. On the other hand, 55-120mm is quite a large gap, which covers quite a lot of range I do use. It's a wishlist lens anyway.

I know I need to get myself to a brick-and-mortar and play around with the various lenses to see what I can do with them, and whether I actually like the way they go. Still, it looks as though I'll be shelling out around £200-350, depending on which lens I go for and from whom I purchase. Of course, these are also all new lens prices; I've yet to investigate secondhand prices, which is of course the next step. Along with finding reputable sellers in the UK. Then again, I'm really tempted by having a lens with a warranty. Also, I probably need to get a UV filter and hood for whatever it is I get.

Is there anything I haven't considered? Have I missed a really good candidate? Got tips for where to buy (and try) any of these in London?


  1. I have a Canon EF 28-135 whic hI quite like as a general lens when I'm not using my Sigma 30 1.4.

    Although I mostly use my Olympus m4/3 with either the Canon FD 85 1.2 or 50 1.2 on adapters, both of which take lovely photos if you take the time to manual focus.

    1. Hm, I don't think I'll get quite the range I'm after with the upper end at 135, although I'm considering that as a replacement for the 18-55mm ... and then I'll need another wide lens. Still, how does it go for up close work like this?

      Annoyingly, manual focus is quite a long time distant in my future - my visual acuity simply isn't anywhere near good enough, and the only fix is getting lasik, which relies on my prescription not changing. You lucky people and your working eyes.

    2. There's a bunch I did back after OSDC2007 here:

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  3. A couple of wild and crazy ideas:

    - you can get a reversing ring which allows you to mount that 18-55 the "wrong way around" on the camera, turning it into a useful macro lens (manual focus, no aperture control, mind).

    - you can also get a reversing ring for 58mm <-> 52mm filter thread which would let you put that 50mm reversed on the front of the 55-200, again for macro work. Not sure how the auto-focus works out in this scenario - I've only tried it with manual focus cameras, but I think it would be OK.

    - you can buy some "close-up" screw-on filters to fit your existing lenses, for reasonably cheap, again for macro work (and with definitely working autofocus).

    I don't think you should worry about EF vs. EF-S at this point. By the time you score a full-frame camera (unless you start shooting film) I suspect you'll be able to afford L glass anyway and the cheaper EF's that you so carefully bought will probably stay in the bag. ;) (Although the 5D MkI's are getting pretty cheap now, so maybe not.)

    You seem pretty interested in the 300mm focal length, which I totally understand. I used the Canon 70-300 (non-IS, non-USM, but basically the same optically) for ages and got some great shots with it. If you think it's heavy (IS adds some weight), just wait till you pick up some of the serious L lenses. Stay away for the DO (diffractive optics). Tamron make good stuff (and have been around a long time), although I haven't used that lens. Likewise Sigma.

    You do get what you pay for in this game, but you can also do a lot with cheapie lenses. Some of my favourite shots were taken with the Canon 70-300.

    My rig now is a 7D, with 24-70mm f/2.8L, 70-200mm f/2.8L and the 1.4x extender. I say this not to make you jealous, but to suggest that there is an end to gear acquisition!

    I have a bunch of other stuff that now stays in the bag. I could probably use something wider (or just a 5D!) and a longer zoom wouldn't go astray sometimes, but... this does almost all of what I want to shoot (and doesn't break my back to carry around). I need the f/2.8 because I shoot fast moving stuff in the dark (dance and theatre). Sure I could use a 5d MkIII and the series II versions of those lenses, but I'm at a point where I can focus on my photography, plus I look "pro" enough for people to take me seriously. ;)

    Anyway, you don't care about being "taken seriously" now, right? So grab that 300mm something and go have fun. "Proper" macro lenses are probably out of your price range, but you can do a lot with the hacks I've suggested (or look for a cheap FD bellows and get an EF-FD adapter, and take out the glass!).

    1. Hey, cheers for the info!

      Unfortunately, manual focus is right out for me - I lack the visual acuity for it, which is A++ annoying.

      Screw on doohickey - I have an Opteka .45x Wide Angle HD^2 thingy, which screws apart to be either a macro or wide angle lens. It has some pretty bad distortion zoomed right out, and I'm sourcing an adapter ring for it for my 18-55mm. I did try a little macro photography with it, but was defeated by the shakes. I think that I need an IS lens to really make the most of it for macro work at this stage (annoying). Also, it's heavier than any two of my other lenses put together. It has a tendency to stay in the box.

      As for out of reach ... well, if and when I return to the workforce, it shouldn't take more than a year, probably less, to save up for a 5D whatever. I'm good at saying 'no' to random expenses when I really want something ;) I mean, it's only socking away 10 quid a week for a year, and I'll have plenty of cash for it. I won't be able to afford L glass at that stage though, which is why I'm looking at EF lenses.

      As for being taken seriously - meh. I'm not serious. Serious is for other people.

  4. You don't need IS for macro - you need a tripod! Preferably also a remote shutter release (and investigate how to do mirror lock-up on your camera, so that the mirror movement doesn't make the camera shake when you hit the shutter). You might even be able to use your phone as a remote shutter release.

    You're going to have issues with focus when doing macro work regardless - your AF will do some of the work, but you might need to manually select focus points at least (or just eyeball it, which I understand is difficult for you).

    Have fun! :)

    1. Well, I already manually select focus points most of the time - I just don't fiddle with the lens directly. I have a little tripod, but it has a tendency to kind of slide and fall over, esp with a heavier lens. I do think a monopod would be beneficial, although for real macro work, obviously i'm going to need a tripod and shutter release.

      As for shutter release with my phone, I'm pretty sure my camera only does IR, and my phone doesn't do it, annoyingly.

      Having fun is what I plan on doing :)