Lens FAQs

What do you shoot with?

Preface: For paid work, I shoot a range of subjects for advertising agencies, and specialise in architecture and interiors. That means that (fortunately) I rarely need that dreaded combination of long and fast. If I did, the buying decision at least would be painless: Canon's IS tele's are peerless, as is confirmed by the presence of a fusillade of white-painted exotica trackside at all major sporting events. This, then, is what many years of obsessive testing has yielded: a go-anywhere, shoot-anything mobile 35 megapixel kit that packs into four bags.

Bag 1: Base Kit (optimised for architectural photography: low distortion, flare-resistant and unbeatable from f8-16)
• Canon full frame DSLR (currently 5D) + Canon 24-105mm f4 L IS (walkabout lens)
• Sigma 12-24mm (cherry picked sample; only used from 12-15mm)
• Sigma 16-35mm f2.8 L Mark II (the best from 16-23mm; superior to all primes apart from the Zeiss 21mm and . . .)
• Leica 19mm f2.8 Elmarit ROM (unrivalled on sunny days: narrowly inferior to the CZ21; better than the Canon L)
• Contax Zeiss Distagon 28mm f2.8 (nothing touches it from f8-f16; cheap, too)
• Zeiss Jena Flektogon 35mm f2.4 (see above)
• Contax Zeiss Planar 50mm f1.7 MM (see above, but extend range from f5.6-16)

Bag 2: Light
• Canon 24mm f1.4 L (cherry-picked sample)
• Canon 35mm f1.4 L
• Contax Zeiss 50mm f1.4 ('ninja star' version: this lens makes me weep at f2.8. Magic.)
• Canon 85mm f1.2 L Mark II (Not once have I craved the Leica, Pentax or Zeiss versions, especially after testing them)
• Canon 135mm f2 L (obviously)
• Metz CT45 (utterly trusted workhorse)
• Sigma EM-140 Ring Flash (usefully cheaper than the Canon version for occasional use)

Bag 3: Reach
• Canon 70–200mm f4 L IS (I'm too lazy to carry anything heavier, and this is very special indeed)
• Canon 300mm f4 L IS
• Canon TC-14 Extender (great with both the above)
• Canon 400D (Much cheaper than a 200/1.8 when you have a 135/2 L! Also is backup.)

Bag 4: Specials
• Zörk PSA + Pentax 645 FA 35mm f3.5 (Stitching / shifting base kit. The 35mm FA is simply a wonder.)
• Pentax 645 55mm f3.5 SMC (lovely manual focus; insanely sharp, beautiful bokeh, cheap as chips)
• Zörk MFS + Rodenstock 80mm Apo Rodagon N f4 (it tilts! it shifts! it's among the sharpest lenses known to humanity!)
• Pentax 645 120mm f4 1:1 Macro (awesome in the macro range: shift-ability is a bonus)
• Pentax 645 150mm f3.5 SMC (Better than the 180/2.8 Sonnar; chokingly brilliant at middle and long-distance)
• Sigma 50mm EX f2.8 1:1 Macro (When you just can't get enough DOF. Better than the Canon version from f5.6-16)

I must confess that I also have kept a Pentacon 6 Zeiss Jena Biometar 80mm f2.8 (a late 4-digital sample) that is so beautiful (and cheap) I can't bring myself to sell it, even though the Apo Rodagon enlarger lens pretty much makes it redundant. I recently tested them head to head to convince myself to discard it, but the images were so fine I relented: even the Rodenstock N couldn't make it look bad. Maybe I'll need the extra stop one day. It also makes a great Canon 90mm TS-killer when mounted on the Arax shift adaptor.

Any doubts or regrets? Well, I could do better than the Canon or Sigma at 15mm, but not without hacking the camera for the Leica. However, it's rare that I need to go wider than 19mm and the Canon LII can't handle it with aplomb down to 16mm. The much-loved Zeiss 21mm Distagon got squeezed out between the indispensable 24L and the surprisingly fine Leica 19mm: for interiors, I don't miss it's tricky waveform distortion, which is even worse than the Elmarit's. However, The next generation of full frame 35mm sensors may make the Distagon's unrivalled resolving ability compsulory for WA shooters.

Very occasionally I'll do a job the long f4's aren't fast enough for, and I'll shop all over again for a Sigma 120-300/2.8, but it's an expensive lunk to have hanging around for once-in-a-blue-moon use – even though it represents excellent value compared to a 'proper' sports lens. The 400D makes such a great lossless 1.6x converter for lenses like the 85/1.2L and 135/2 L that it entirely makes up for never having had the Canon 200mm f1.8 L and for 95% of uses, the 70-200mm f4 IS L is so good I rarely want back the f2.8 versions.

The 24-105L makes a reaonsable fist of the unpredictable: normally I know in advance when I'll be working in low light; then it's time for Bag 2, where the stellar lenses are kept. I previously had the lighter (and brighter) Tamron 28-75mm XR f2.8, which is a truly great lens. Was the loss of a stop worth the gain in IS and reach? On balance, just – but only just. When Canon IS-update the 24-70mm f2.8, I will almost certainly switch to it, but IS really is invaluable for hand-held work, especially when ISO400 and 800 are so useable on the 5D.

What's interesting about this list is that you don't always need very expensive lenses to get the very best results: you just need to know which lenses work best under which conditions. It really is necessary to have three 50mm lenses, for instance: all the fast primes are superb from f2.8-f4, but relatively poor from f5.6-f16, where even the best and most exotic are actually outperformed by lenses such as the Canon 50mm f1.8! The best 50mm by far at f2.8 is the Zeiss Planar f1.4 with the so-called 'ninja star' aperture blades; the best 50mm at f8 is the Planar f1.7 . Together they cost less than half the next best thing from Leica. You also need a short macro for optimal f16-f22 performance . . . .

The lenses I reach for first for something technical critical, such as copy work, are also some of the cheapest: almost any 80-150mm prime is fantastic: the Biometar 80mm and Pentax 645 150mm never fail to surprise me; each costs less than a Hasselblad lens shade. It really does pay to explore.

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