Buy The Best Glass You Can Afford

How many times does this internet truism get played per day? What does this mean? Is there anyone out there that wouldn't buy the best glass they can afford? On the surface of it, the statement just makes sense and nobody can go wrong giving that advice can they? It puts all the responsibility on the recipient and none on the advice giver but it certainly makes the giver of the advice seem wise and very informed.

On the flip side you've got the easy-answer advice. Whatever the consensus is at the moment of the best-est it the lens that trumps any other decision and all the others options just pale in comparison. Of course the qualifiers piled on top of that build up. Stuff like "it's great if you you don't know what you're doing". Well not exactly that but it's kind of like that or optionally whatever you're pointing the camera at isn't important enough to warrant the best.

Today's rant isn't really a rant it's more of some anti-anxiety medicine for those that are in the unenviable position of needing to make a decision on gear. I swear it's actually harder, or more anxiety inducing today with all the information available, marketing, and worst of all opinion and general wisdom. Although I do talk about this kind of thing a lot let me boil it down to a couple simple rules.

  1. Buy what you need or alternatively what you desire. Obviously need comes first but desire has it's upsides.
  2. Don't worry so much. It's hard to go way way way wrong.
  3. Get what actually makes you happy and feel good when actually using it.

Number One

Let's cover the first item. I'm a big fan of the cheapest most versatile solution to cover "need". I'm also a big fan of balance when it comes to this first requirement. I've talked about two "kit lenses" here more than once. Both of which have absolutely zero to offer in the lust/desire or wow department (well at least on the internet). The Fuji 18-55mm and the Canon 24-105mm f/4 L version I. Actually the version II of that lens falls in the same boat. Another lens I don't own nor have I talked about that would fall into the same category would be the Nikon 24-120. All of these lenses are pretty darn "good". There shortcomings are well known but somewhat overblown (except for the 18-55 Fuji which gets the full fanboy treatment as does everything Fuji).

Here's the thing all of these lenses will cover 99% of anything that presents itself you might want to photograph (forget long distance but that's a different beast that has it's own set of good-enough lenses). All of them can be had for next to nothing, especially the Canon 24-105 f/4 L. That's a lens that I'll keep until it breaks (unlikely it's built very well). Even if I don't have a Canon body at the moment I'll keep it. It's just too versatile not to have and represents zero investment. What's more important is there are absolutely no pictures I've made with it where I have thought "I wish I would have had a better lens". None.

Of course while using that lens I've thought many times "Oh I wish it was faster, or something". If I were a landscape guy I might have thought "I wish it had way better corners at 24mm" but that would be in limited circumstances. Here's the point, while using that $500 do-it-all lens it's fairly easy to get a feel over the course of time what you really really really need and desire. You may end-up figuring out a 35/1.4 or a 24 TS-E or maybe a 100/2.8 or a 135/2 will suit you far better than a 23-70 f/2.8. The point is you'll know based on your own experience without being pre-disposed to "the best". Why do all the sharpness/best-est freaks never ever never recommend a Zeiss Otus? or for that matter a tilt-shift??? A tilt shift will do more for sharp/detailed landscape photos than a 24-70/2.8 will against a 24-105/4 for sure.

Number Two

Really, it's hard to go way wrong. The biggest way to go wrong is really to get a piece of gear that you just don't like using, or carrying, or rubs you the wrong way. More on that in a minute. Let's take dynamic range for a moment. Everyone like more dynamic range right?? You can't argue with more is better. Here's a couple things to consider.

  1. The internet echo chamber will tell you Sony's sensor has way more dynamic range than the Canon sensor, or this sensor, or that sensor. Really? Well it would appear so at ISO 64. What about ISO 100, 200, 400, 800??? Well turns out it turns into a nit very quickly. I would never trade that ISO 64 advantage in the shadows in for better focus, handling, or even joy in use. NEVER. That's me but that alleged "two stop" advantage exists only at ISO 64 and it's only in the shadows. I'll discuss that some other day with some examples in use.

  2. All of the better-ness in the world means nothing if not in use or exposure is sub-standard, or focus is off even a hair. It's nice to fantasize about how all the best-est stuff will eliminate those real-world things but they won't. If you're at the point of making any sort of real investment into gear all of it will do a great job, absolutely great job if the above are in the neighborhood of optimal. In fact no matter what you end up with, they will do a better job than the "best" when those factors are even a little off. Don't sweat it so much. Again I make a case for buy stuff you actually love using it will help more.

Number Three

I submit that the only way to go way wrong is getting a bunch of stuff you absolute do not love to use. This one is a bit tougher because it takes your own actual experience and really can't be shortcut by out thinking it. The best thing you can do is to go slow. Don't try to acquire way way too much all at the same time. Hence my love/recommendation of those inexpensive non-glamorous lenses I mentioned along with a ton of other examples I didn't.

An Extreme Example

Wide

Phase One did everyone a huge favor that has gear anxiety. They did me a big favor in that I don't have to offer up examples that can be somewhat contrived or appear so even if they're not. In fact even though I'll provide a tiny bit of commentary and a couple illustrations the best thing you can do is take a look for yourself. Forget all the text, just download the provided RAW file and process it yourself in Lightroom or Capture One or whatever you have that supports IQ3 RAW files. There's a lot to learn hear from someone else's RAW file.

Points to consider:

  • The entire camera kit here, the XF camera with parts, the IQ3 100MP back, and the 110mm LS lens are north of $45,000
  • This is not a dynamic situation, you can tell, it's a very very hold still picture.
  • The aperture is f/8 and actually relatively far away given it's a very short tele (VERY) and it's full length shot horizontally.
  • The shutter speed is very hand-holdable 1/320s but was probably tripod mounted (a guess)
  • The ISO is not in the stratosphere, it's 3200 and the file as shown is SOOC so not pushed or prodded -- yet.

Okay so… WTF? This is like the best you can get right. Best resolution, best lens, best dynamic range, best everything. This is it. Is this sharp? Holy carp, no crap, carp, crap that's some noise. What is going on, where's my perfect pristine picture. Welcome to the real world.

Here's what's really going on here as you can see above. Back focused. oooops. So, really not that dark, do that math on the above shooting parameters. I regularly shoot in far darker environment. Static subject from not real close. This should be easy to nail focus on right? I'm sure a few pictures from this session were actually in focus, one would hope. Even so, my $3500 Canon 5Ds R with 24-105 f/4 L would smoke this image in terms of actual detail resolved. Probably both in the subject (because it would have nailed perfect focus every time in these conditions) and possibly even in the other portions where this is well focused because it appears to perform better at 1600 and 3200 ISO just from my own experience.

Of course this camera and lens will blow the 5Ds R out of the water at ISO 50 in an optimal environment for what it does really well. Dynamic range as well, if that happens to matter at ISO 50 where it might shine if the other parameters don't come into play. Guess what, in either case show me the corners that are so so so so important when comparing "better" in most lens comparisons. It's also why I keep my Canon 17-40 f/4 L. Sure I might replace it with the 16-35 f/4 when it eventually breaks or it actually matters for what I shoot with it.