Zoom or Prime?

15 11 2010

Here is the story of my switch from zooms to primes and my findings so far.

I have a Nikon kit too that I share with Julie but this feature is about my Canon portrait kit shown above. A year ago I was still shooting weddings with Julie and I used just 3 zooms. A 16-35mm f/2.8L mk11, 24-70mm f/2.8L and the 70-200mm f/2.8L IS. those 3 lenses covered every focal length and I shot them at f/4. Now that I’m shooting both portraits and art, I decided it was time for a change.

Zooms are great when you are covering an event and unable to move around at will. Or when you are shooting groups inside and need to accommodate a latecomer when your back is against the wall. I also love the speed that tiny adjustments to framing can be made with a zoom lens and the near instant capability to get a tighter shot when the moment dictates.

Now that my work is more considered I have the time to look at the scene, design my image and select the lens needed for the job. I create the moments too so I know when they are coming.

What focal lengths to choose
I’m not concerned about ‘holes’ in my focal length range because I can move around to get the framing I want. I now choose a lens for it’s perspective. There are compromises with this approach but I’d rather have 3 or 4 primes than 6 or 7. With this in mind I set about coming up with my fab 4. I was always told to choose lenses that double in focal length with each change ie 24mm, 50mm, 100mm, and 200mm. I wanted to start wider than 24mm and finish wider than 200mm too. I ended up with 21mm, 35mm, 50mm and 100mm. Here’s the story why.

As you can see in the picture above, my complete kit could probably fit in a childs lunch box. I feel liberated now that I have sold my three bulky, heavy zooms. Keeping them was not an option because every now and then I’d be reverting back to my old convenient ways. When I change my kit, that’s it. I need to totally immerse myself in the new kit in order to get to know it inside out.

I’m not a newcomer to primes. From 2005-2008 I exclusively used a Hasselblad H1 with a Phase One P25 digital back and primes. I had 35mm, 80mm, 110mm and 210mm lenses. I eventually sold the 80mm and 110mm and replaced them with a 100mm f/2.2 lens.

The kit was wonderful until it developed a focussing fault. Hasselblad charged me £500 to repair the fault but it was still there. They blamed Phase One and Phase one blamed Hasselblad. It was the camera that was at fault and I got fed up with the bickering and sold the kit in separate components on Ebay.

Wide angle – Choices
I wanted to change my 16-35 for a prime because it wasn’t great optically and I found 16mm too much of a temptation to use and I nearly always regretted having used it when looking back at my work. I looked at the options and decided that the Zeiss 21mm was likely to be my No1 choice of wide angle. If Canon made a fabulous L series 20mm I’d have chosen that. To be sure of a smooth transition to prime I decided to tape up my zoom lens at 21mm using electricians tape and a few thousand frames later I knew 21mm was for me.

There is some general belief that prime lenses are somewhat better than zooms. I don’t find that argument to be true all the time but with the 21mm v 16-35mm it certainly was. The Zeiss prime is in another league. At f/2.8 it is pin sharp, contrasty and doesn’t suffer from chromatic aberration. The only lens I know that is as good or perhaps even better is my Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 zoom. The Nikon wide zoom is absolutely amazing.

35mm – A no brainer
I’ve always loved the 35mm focal length for environmental portraits. It pulls in the background so readily without resorting to a wide angle look. The Canon 35mm f/1.4 L gets reasonable press so I decided to buy one from Warehouse Express. At first glance the pictures it takes exhibit all the qualities I expect of an L series lens. It suffers from chromatic aberration at f/1.4 – f/2 but is perfect by f/2.8. I need to shoot some portraits with it now to really get to know what it can deliver.

In testing I found that an in camera micro adjustment of +5 is needed for my 35mm lens to achieve pin sharp AF at f/2.8 over the 1m – 5m range.

50mm – The big decision
I need a 50mm lens too and this proved more difficult to pin down. There are many choices with three from Canon, one from Sigma and one from Zeiss. I ruled out the Zeiss optic because I want AF. The Sigma reviews were mixed and even the good reviewers had to have their lenses recalibrated. I’ve never had much success with Sigma lenses in the past so I didn’t repeat my previous blunders. That left Canon with the 50mm f/1.8, the 50mm f/1.4, and the 50mm f/1.2L.

The 1.8 is very light, cheaply made and performed quite well from f/2.8 and above. It was only let down by it’s build quality. The f/1.4 might well be the best of the bunch. I’ve tried the f/1.4 a couple of times when I’ve been fortunate enough to be leant one by one of my workshop delegates. But I had a dilemma, if I bought an f/1.4 I’d always be wondering how much better the f/1.2 is. So I bought a perfect, hardly used f/1.2 on Ebay to find out. If I want to swap it for an f/1.4 in the future I can simply Ebay my f/1.2 and get the same that I paid for it.

50mm f/1.2 first findings
It’s big and I don’t know why. The front element is much smaller than the lens barrel. It’s heavy and I don’t know why. My 100mm lens is much bigger and yet seems lighter. It’s very expensive and I don’t know why. You get a lot more ‘L’ glass and IS for your money in the new 100mm macro. I thought the secret that justifys the price tag must be the image quality.

I ran some tests… Well, I think this lens should be called an f/2 because at f2 the image quality is sparkling and worthy of the ‘L’ notation. When you open the lens up to f/1.8, f/1.4 and f/1.2 all that happens is the centre of the image gets brighter. The edges don’t change at all leaving heavy vignetting. The centre of the image suffers chromatic aberration too at these wide apertures with obvious purple fringing in contrasty areas. Hmm

I will not be shooting portraits at f/1.2 because the depth of field is so shallow that it looks like a Photoshop effect to blur the image. It is certainly not a natural or a pleasing look. There are some shooters that will love it I’m sure but I’m certainly not one of them. I’m going to shoot at f/2.8 with this lens and really get to know it’s characteristics. It should be amazing at that aperture and I can’t wait to give it a go.

In testing I found that an in camera micro adjustment of +10 is needed for my copy of the 50mm lens to achieve pin sharp AF at f/2.8 over the 1m – 5m range.

After I’ve got to know the f/1.2 for a while I’ll probably buy a 50mm f/1.4 on Ebay and compare the two. I’ll then keep the best and sell the other;)

100mm Macro f/2.8L IS
Wow! This lens rocks. It is pin sharp wide open right across the frame. The IS is amazing letting me shoot at 1/15th second hand held. And I love getting in there to shoot tight close ups. This lens out performs the rest and any zoom I’ve ever used at f/2.8 including the new mk2 70-200. I’ve used the 100mm for two months now and it is fabulous.

Before I settled on the 100mm I tried out a 135mm L lens but I kept getting camera shake even at 1/500th I seemed to struggle to get crisp pictures. The IS on the 100mm is a game changer. I thought about the 85mm too but I dislike the unnatural blur effect of the 85mm wide open, it is way too heavy and it lacks IS.

I’m not yet convinced to pay over £100 for the dedicated tripod bracket for my 100mm lens because it gets mixed reviews and is exorbitantly priced. The copies from China on Ebay are only £20 but are of questionable quality. No doubt the copies will get better and the Canon units will drop in price when they become more readily available.

My zooms are all sold now and my first all prime shoot is Tuesday. You will be able to follow my progress with my prime lenses on this blog.

Taken from here.

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