What Lens?

It should seem fairly obvious by now that lately I’ve been spending more time than usual with the PhotoSoc guys… Now in that kind of company if you want to start a conversation that is guaranteed not to end, just get them started on discussions on gear. Any gear. It won’t matter. But then I work in scientific research (and the associated teaching, of course) for a living. So how could I ever argue anything without the data to back me up? But I digress…

Now over the past few months I’ve been slowly realising that prime lenses are way underrated in the general community. Sure, pros often use them because of their superior optical quality; but for most amateurs (and frankly, many pros), the optics of a good zoom lens nowadays is generally more than good enough. Still, when I went digital a few years ago, I decided to upgrade my standard lens to a better quality one. Not that I had much choice: with a ×1.6 crop factor I still needed a new lens anyway, so the only decision was whether to go for an L-series. Boy am I glad I did! Still, I went for a zoom lens – the EF 17-40mm f/4L, which is apparently one of Canon’s most popular. This is what I normally have on my camera while travelling. With the old 75-300mm in the backpack for when I need more reach. What really annoys me is that switching between lenses is not something I generally like to do. And I often find myself wanting more than 40mm when I have the wide lens on, or less than 75mm  when I have the tele. So the real question is: how important is it to have a zoom lens?

The good thing about shooting digital is keeping an automatic log of everything you do. So I figured I could just mine the EXIF data on the photos I’ve taken since going digital and have the answers I needed. Well, almost. Data first, though: I figured I’d first find out which of my three main lenses I used most (graph on the right). Not surprisingly, the 17-40mm is by far the one I use most. Though last year saw an interesting trend, with a very significant spike up on usage of the 50mm f/1.4. This was easy to explain: last year was when R started her cooking blog, and the 50mm is the best option to shoot that kind of subject. The very significant proportion this year for the tele lens is just down to two factors: we’re only in March, and there was that Richmond Park trip trailing the deer…

The more interesting question (to me, at least) was how I was using the zoom range of the wide and tele lenses. Let’s start with the wide lens first (graph to the right). Again not surprisingly, I use this most of the time wide open. Though about half the time I do zoom in a bit. I don’t shoot at 40mm as often as I expected, but that’s only because generally if I need more reach, 40mm is nothing (even on a crop sensor), so I don’t bother.

With the tele things are rather similar (though of course, reversed). Again most of the time I use the lens at its most natural setting (maximum reach). I use the other end less often, but in general I seem to use less than max reach about half the time. So all in all, it seems the zoom is useful. This lens, though, is one I still would like to upgrade (it’s an old trusty USM, but still consumer grade). And of course I was wondering (when I get to take the leap) whether to go for a zoom or a prime (say 300mm). Now what would really be nice is a lens that could take the full range of both lenses. But that doesn’t even exist; the closest thing is the Canon EF 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6L IS USM, but only on a full-frame sensor. And it would be rather heavy to carry around all the time, even if I could justify the cost.

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