October 05th 2012 by Andrew S Gibson
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Now that my Understanding Lenses eBooks are complete I thought it would be interesting for my readers to know what lenses I use for my EOS cameras and why.
Choosing lenses can be problematic, especially if your local camera store doesn’t stock a lens that you’re interested in. Reviews are one thing, but they can only tell you so much as they usually focus on topics like image quality, build quality and autofocus performance.
This is all useful stuff to know, but it doesn’t help you gauge whether a particular lens is going to be good for creative photography. And after all, that’s what most photographers want to know – is a certain lens going to help them take better photos.
There are two reasons to buy lenses.
The first is to overcome a practical problem. For example, a sports photographer may need a long telephoto lens with good autofocus performance to photograph sporting events from the sidelines. That’s why sports photographers buy Canon super telephoto lenses.
The second is for aesthetic and creative reasons. I bought an EF 85mm f1.8 lens to use the widest aperture settings to take photos with shallow depth-of-field. The image quality and autofocus performance of this lens are good, but this is not as important to me as the creative potential.
These are the lenses that I have owned:
Canon EF-S 18-55mm f3.5-5.6 kit lens
This photo (and the one at the top of the article) was taken with my Canon kit lens. The curve in the horizon is a result of barrel distortion.
This lens came with the EOS 350D (Rebel XT in the United States – the first digital Canon SLR I purchased). When I bought this camera I didn’t know which lens to buy for it. My favourite lens on the Pentax film cameras I used before switching to digital was a 24mm. But on a crop-sensor camera this lens effectively becomes a 38mm lens and the dramatic perspective is lost.
So I stuck with the kit lens at first, with the intention of buying more lenses as I worked out which would be most useful to me. I soon realised that the image quality of this wasn’t much good, and eventually threw it away when the aperture blades kept sticking.
The 18-55mm kit lens is okay to start off with, but it’s not a lens that inspires creativity . For that you need something a bit more special.
This lens is discontinued. Canon has replaced it with the much improved EF-S 18-55mm f3.5-5.6 IS II kit lens.
Canon EF 17-40mm f4L USM lens
La Plata Cathedral, Argentina. Using the EF 17-40mm lens as a standard zoom on my EOS 40D.
I bought this lens to replace my defective 18-55mm kit lens. I bought in Alaska for a little over $700, around £350 at the time – a bargain compared to the current UK retail price. The intention was to use it as a standard zoom on my EOS 350D.
It worked well on that camera but I never realised just how good this lens was until I started using it on the full-frame EOS 5D Mark II. On this camera it’s a wide-angle zoom perfect for landscape photography. In general I prefer prime lenses but the zoom on this lens is extremely useful for landscape photography as I often find myself in situations where I can’t move closer to the subject (if I’m standing on the edge of a cliff for example) and the zoom comes in hand for precise framing.
The 17-40mm f4 is the second least expensive L series lens you can buy. It’s the only L series lens I own and I always notice the difference when I switch to this lens after using one of the others. The autofocus is fast and quiet, and the build quality, balance and ‘feel’ are just much nicer.
A close-up photo taken with the EF 17-40mm f4L USM. The crop factor of the EOS 40D and the 28cm minimum focusing distance of the lens let you get close enough to the subject for interesting details like this. A house number in a street in the town of Chascomus, Argentina.
Using the EF 17-40mm zoom as a wide-angle zoom on an EOS 5D Mark II. I stood on the edge of a cliff to take this photo at Portland Bill in Dorset. I couldn’t move any closer to the subject, so I had to use the zoom to frame the image.
Sigma 10-20mm f4-5.6 EX DC HSM lens
Two charming local girls in Zijuatanejo, Mexico. The street was very narrow so I used my Sigma 10-20mm zoom on my EOS 40D to take the photo.
I bought this lens at the same time as my EOS 40D. I felt the 17mm end of my EF 17-40mm zoom wasn’t wide enough (on an APS-C camera).
I liked the Sigma lens and used it a lot – until I bought an EOS 5D Mark II. After that I found that I used my 17-40mm zoom on the 5D Mark II whenever I needed a wide-angle zoom. The Sigma 10-20mm became redundant, so I sold it.
There is a newer version of this lens available now with a fixed aperture of f3.5 throughout the focal length range.
Sigma 50-150mm f2.8 EX DC APO lens
A local man’s foot in Tarabuco, Bolivia. I was fascinated by the sandals made from old tyre rubber. I took a photo of his foot with my 50-150mm telephoto zoom without him noticing. Probably not the sort of photo you can ask permission to take.
I also bought this lens with my EOS 40D. I thought about buying a Canon 70-200 f2.8 telephoto zoom but chose the Sigma on the grounds that it was less expensive.
I took plenty of good photos with this lens but I found the size and weight a bit frustrating. It was difficult to hand-hold, especially with the lens set to 150mm. I’ve also used a Canon EF 70-200mm lens since then and I prefer the Canon lens. The autofocus and build quality are much better.
In the end I sold this lens too. I wasn’t using it enough to justify keeping hold of it.
This lens has since been discontinued and replaced by the more expensive Sigma 50-150mm f2.8 EX DC APO OS lens. The extra OS in the title stands for Optical Stabiliser and is Sigma’s equivalent of Canon’s Image Stabiliser.
For this photo I focused on the grass stalks in the foreground. The setting sun is completely out of focus but still recognisable. I used Live View to avoid looking at the sun directly. Don’t try this when the sun is still in the sky – there is a risk the bright light may damage your sensor in Live View.
Potosi, Bolivia. The telephoto zoom was handy for taking photos like this from a distance. Without the telephoto zoom, I would not have been close to enough to grab the image and the moment would have passed me by.
Tupiza, Bolivia. I probably could have taken this photo with a shorter lens but may have scared the dog away.
Canon EF 50mm f1.4 USM lens
I bought this lens as I had the idea that a 50mm lens would be a very useful focal length to have. I haven’t used it that much, and out of the lenses I own now it’s easily the one that I would miss the least. But perhaps I just need to make a conscious effort to use it more.
50mm lenses are versatile – you can also use them with extension tubes or reverse mount them onto another lens for close-up photography. On an APS-C camera this lens becomes a short telephoto and is an excellent portrait lens. All in all there’s nothing wrong with this lens – it’s just that I use my others more.
Canon EF 85mm f1.8 USM lens
The EF 85mm f1.8 USM lens as portrait lens.
I bought this lens to use as a portrait lens and general walk-around short telephoto. It has become one of my favourite lenses and I use it a lot.
It has turned out to be very useful for both portraits and close-up photography. I use it with a 500D close-up filter to get closer to the subject.
The Canon EF 85mm f1.2L USM lens seems popular with many professional photographers. I’ve used one and it’s a brilliant lens. But it’s also big and heavy, the autofocus is slow and costs nearly four times as much as the 85mm f1.8. I don’t see any reason to buy it in place of the 85m f1.8.
The 85mm lens comes in handy for animals too – if you can get close enough. Taken at Auckland Zoo.
EF 85mm f1.8 USM lens with 500D close-up filter. This combination lets me get nice and close to the subject. Note the narrow depth-of-field and bokeh (background blur).
EF 85mm f1.8 USM lens with 500D close-up filter. This photo was taken inside at f1.8 and ISO 3200. The wide maximum aperture is useful in low light.
EF 85mm f1.8 USM lens with 500D close-up filter. Lizard in Kew Gardens, London.
EF 85mm f1.8 USM lens with 500D close-up filter. Dongtai Road antiques market, Shanghai.
Canon EF 40mm f2.8 STM pancake lens
The EF 40mm pancake is useful as a walkaround lens.
I like the idea of pancake lenses for their small size and portability. This lens is also amazingly inexpensive (only the Canon EF 50mm f1.8 II and 35mm f2 lenses are cheaper).
I bought it a few weeks ago and have been using it mainly as a portrait lens on my EOS 5D Mark II. The image quality and build quality are superb. The STM (stepping motor technology) autofocus isn’t as good as the ring type USM on my EF 17-40mm zoom but it’s good enough.
This focal length is covered by my 17-40mm zoom but that lens is a lot bigger than this one, especially when used with the petal lens hood supplied. The 40mm pancake is much more discrete, making it ideal for travel photography and also for portraiture. I really like it.
Close-up with the 40mm pancake lens. The addition of an EF 25 extension tube let me get up close to this flower in the Wellington Botanical Gardens.
Island Bay, New Zealand. Long exposure photography with the 40mm pancake lens. The lack of a distance scale means this isn’t the ideal lens for landscape photography as it is difficult to determine exactly where the lens is focused or to use the hyperfocal distance focusing technique.
The 40mm pancake lens as portrait lens. This portrait was taken with an EOS 5D Mark II. The 40mm pancake lens is a moderate wide-angle lens on this camera.
Another portrait taken with the 40mm pancake lens and EOS 5D Mark II.
I took this photo using an EOS 40D and the 40mm pancake lens. On APS-C cameras the 40mm pancake acts as a short telephoto lens, ideal for flattering photos like these.
Lenses I may buy in the future
At the moment I have four lenses (three of them are in the above photo). To recap:
- Canon EF 17-40mm f4L USM
- Canon EF 50mm f1.4 USM
- Canon EF 85mm f1.8 USM
- Canon EF 40mm f2.8 STM pancake
I’m happy with this setup. I prefer to keep my equipment minimal and think I would be even happier with this setup without the 50mm prime. I don’t feel that I need a telephoto lens as I rarely want to shoot anything that is some distance away.
What lenses may I consider buying in the future? I like the look of the Canon EF 24mm f2.8 IS USM lens (above). The IS of this lens would come in very useful for taking hand-held photos in low light.
If I was travelling I would be tempted to take just this lens plus my 40mm pancake and 85mm f1.8. That would cover me for just about any situation and would be a high quality yet portable collection of lenses.
I like the look of the tilt-shift TS-E 45mm f2.8 lens. It has a similar focal length to my 40mm pancake and I could use it for portraiture and landscape work. But then…the Canon TS-E 24mm f3.5L II lens (above) looks very cool as well. It would be difficult to choose between the two. At the moment I’m very happy with my lens setup and don’t anticipate buying any more glass for a while.
If you like this article, then you may be interested in my Understanding Lenses eBooks. Click on the link to learn more.