Around Town / Baby / Thoughts / Travel

The New Glass

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So I finally bought some new lenses for my camera, and I like them.

This isn’t going to be a super technical review.  If you are in the market for new lenses for the first time, I highly recommend checking out the Digital-Picture.com.  They have reviews for pretty much every lens available on the market with really useful comparison shots so you can see what the actual picture difference is with different lenses.  It’s no replacement for going to a camera store to try things out in person, but I found it really helpful for helping me narrow down my options.

Although I was seriously, seriously tempted this summer to upgrade my camera body, in the end I came to the conclusion that my photographer friends were right: it’s better to upgrade glass before upgrading a camera body.  A new body will have to wait until the Rebel wears out or falls off a boat or something.

Given my budget and the range I was looking for, I knew top-of-the-line, red-ringed L-series glass wouldn’t be an option.  Instead, I ended up with a Sigma 17-50mm 2.8 and a Canon 85mm 1.8.

I hadn’t thought to consider a 3rd party lens until I stopped by a camera shop in D.C. and asked the guy behind the counter on his thoughts.  If you are looking for a new lens, stopping by a real camera store is worth approximately 10,000 Amazon reviews.  Not only can you try before you buy, but the people who work at camera stores are usually serious camera junkies.  They know what they are talking about and, since few of them are getting rich working their day jobs, they generally have good opinions on what will give you the biggest bang for your buck.

When I told this particular camera guy what I was looking for: a wide-angle zoom with better low-light capabilities than my kit lens, he had me try out the Sigma 17-50.  I tried it out, like it a lot, went home, read all sorts of reviews, found out many people like the Sigma better than even the most similar Canon lens and so, armed with that knowledge, I pulled the trigger and bought it.

Why then the 85mm 1.8?  Well, mostly because I still wanted something with a longer focal length but I didn’t want a giant (and expensive) telephoto lens.  The 85mm 1.8 is also a really good all-around portrait-lens.  I love my nifty-fifty, but I needed a lens I could get a little further away from Will with (I think we’ve well established how much he loves to try and eat my camera) and one that might be useful for other portrait-type photography as well.

Since I think for beginners like me, its sometimes hard to visualize what different focal lengths and apertures look like, I’ve taken a few comparison shots to hopefully illustrate the differences between the kit lens and the Sigma and the 50mm and the 85mm.  I took all of these shots one right after another and all from the exact same spot in the room so that the only differences in picture quality should be a direct result of the lenses rather than the conditions.

These are also all completely unedited shots.  They aren’t beautiful to look at, but I think they give a good idea of how these lenses perform under the sort of less-than-ideal shooting conditions most people are working with.  If you look carefully at the photos and the specs, you’ll be able to pick out the differences between the lenses pretty easily.

The subject (a Starbucks iced coffee) isn’t very exciting but it stayed put much better than Will did when I tried to use him as my test subject — though Will did end up making a few cameo appearances in the end.

First up, the Sigma versus the kit lens zoomed all the way out (17mm and 18mm, respectively):

Sigma: 17mm f/2.8, shutter speed: 1/25, ISO: 200
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Above you have the Sigma shooting wide open at 17mm.  It’t not a beautiful shot but look at the detail in those couch cushions and the lines of the coffee table.  Super crisp and clear.  Also notice how many full chairs are in the shot (3).  Shutter speed is 1/25 which still requires a steady hand but with the ISO all the way down at 200, that’s a far cry from the 1/10 shutter speed with the kit lens below.

KitLens: 18mm, f/3.5, shutter speed: 1/10, ISO: 200

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This is the kit lens, same shot (minus the people in it).  The shutter speed is slower to compensate for the f/3.5 versus the Sigma’s f/2.8 so the people in the shot are blurred as they make even the slightest of motions.  Notice only 2.5 chairs in the frame.  In my living room the difference between 2.5 chair and 3 in a shot is trivial; out in the world though, the difference between 17mm and 18mm is slightly more dramatic.   Last thing, if you’ll notice, the lines in this photo just aren’t quite as crisp.  This is due mostly to camera-shake shooting at such a slow shutter speed, but the quality of the lens glass and build contributes here as well.

Now here’s a comparison between the Sigma at 50mm and the Kit lens at 55mm:

Sigma: 50mm, f/2.8, shutter speed: 1/13, ISO: 200
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I took the above shot with the aperture wide open at 2.8.  Nice crisp details, nice bokeh (blurred background).  Also, because I can shoot at f/2.8, my shutter speed is still at a fairly manageable 1/13.  Not bad for a dark background, dark subject, indoors and shooting with a low ISO.

Kit Lens: 55mm, f/5.6, shutter speed: 1/5, ISO: 200
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The detail on the Starbucks cup here on the kit lens is pretty good (the zoom is also longer so that’s why it looks closer).  Unfortunately, because of the way this lens works, f/5.6 is as open as I can get for this focal length.  To compensate for the f-stop, the shutter speed here was a kind of absurd 1/5, which means that just normal breathing was enough to render Chris and Will blurry.

Next up: the 50mm vs. 85mm.  These shots were taken from the exact same spot so the difference in frame is just the difference between 50mm and 85mm:

85mm f/1.8, shutterspeed: 1/30, ISO: 200
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Nice, pretty.  The beads of condensation around the middle of the cup are especially nice.  With the f-stop at 1.8 there is a whole lot of blur going on.  I think this lens shoots better up closer to f/2.8.

50mm f/1.8, shutterspeed: 1/50, ISO: 200
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The difference between the 50mm and the 85mm is more pronounced when taking pictures of real people instead of iced coffees, but the nifty-fifty still makes for a great shot.  I still love the 50mm, but the extra focal distance you get with the 85mm is the reason to buy the lens.

So what’s the verdict?

The Sigma is such an massive improvement over my old 18-55 kit lens.  It’s the lens that lives on my camera 95% of the time now.  My photos look so much crisper and more vibrant.  The different is perhaps a bit hard to see in the resolution on this blog, but it’s pretty striking in real life.  There is also a bigger difference between 17m and 18mm than I fully realized before I bought the lens.  It’s really fun to play with more wide-angle shots.

One thing many people don’t always realize right away about the kit 18-55 lens is that the aperture changes with the focal length so even if you can shoot at f/4.5 at 18mm, you stop down to f/5.6 as soon as you focus at any further distance; which means you have to slow down your shutter speed, which means shots get blurry quickly.  With the Sigma, I can open up my aperture to f/2.8 at any distance from 17-50, which is part of the reason it handles so much better in low light.  I still have to crank my ISO, but at least I can keep my shutter speed fast enough to keep things crisp and in focus.

One other thing I really like about the Sigma is that its much heavier and a little bigger than my old kit lens, but not awkwardly so.  The Rebel is a pretty lightweight little camera so it can be a bit trickier to handle when attached to big, heavy lenses.  The Sigma is probably about as big and heavy as I’d feel comfortable using without having to ever think about whether my hands are shaking and messing up the shot.

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(yup, Will is actually that pale in real life…)

Chris has asked me a couple times which lens I like better, the 17-50 or the 85.  Honestly, I can’t decide and I don’t think I need to–they complement each other pretty perfectly.  I love the range on the Sigma but I’m quickly realizing that nothing beats the clarity and the ease of using a prime lens like the 85 or the 50.

Whereas the wide-angle of the Sigma allows me to put a scene together in my view-finder, the 85mm allows me to zero in on a subject from a little further away–a wonderful thing when I’m taking pictures of Will or even when I just want to get a shot of something that is happening across the street from me.

The build quality of the 85mm seems much higher than that of the 50mm.  Physically, its heavier, a little longer, and it just feels more solid.  That’s not a knock on the 50mm though.  I still think it’s one of the greatest lenses ever made for the sheer picture-quality-to-price ratio.  The difference is really of what/who you want to take pictures, and the convenience of being about to put some distance between yourself and your subject.  The 50mm will give you great close-up shots of a newborn laying on the bed 24 inches away from your camera, the 85mm will give you those same great close-up shots of a newborn on a bed, or of a toddler playing in the grass — without having to stick a lens right in his face.

If you have a really nice telephoto zoom lens that covers the 85mm range and you aren’t doing a lot of kid-type photography, the 85mm might not be the most useful lens in your arsenal.  Then again, if you have a really nice telephoto zoom and the camera to support it, you probably aren’t reading this blog for lens-buying tips either.  Lenses seem to get exponentially more expensive the better the aperture and focal length range on them.  They also get a lot bigger and heavier.  With a bigger camera a huge heavy lens might not be such an issue, but since I’m packing my light-weight little Rebel all over town, smaller lenses are much easier to manage–and easier to keep in good condition.

So, those are the new lenses!  Did I forget to mention anything? If so, let me know if the comments!  Have you bought any new lenses or made any other exciting purchases lately?

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(I took both of these shots, plus the other two non-iced-coffee shots with the Sigma)

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6 thoughts on “The New Glass

  1. Love your reviews and the pics! I want a 17-70, but it’s 1,000 USD. I hadn’t thought about buying a Sigma…. I have a Nikon D500 and the two lenses are have are nikor. Maybe I will try a sigma, which is half the price…. I want something with lots of range but with bigger aperture than what I have. the 85 sounds really good too!

    • I too looked at the 17-70 but I can’t remember why I decided against it now, so many lenses, I can’t remember! It’s always so hard to decide, some Sigma’s are better than some Canon’s, some Canon’s are better than other Canon’s, some lenses by Nikon are different or the same as Canon. It’s true what they say, there is no absolutely perfect does-it-all walk around lens yet–it really comes down to personal preferences.

  2. I am going to pull the trigger (press the shutter?) on a DSLR camera soon! It will be my first foray away from regular point-and-shoots (I know, I am a little late to the party). I have been doing some research for a few months and am debating between the Canon EOS Rebel T3i and Nikon D5100. At this point as a beginner I am just going to start with the kit lens. But I am so excited! I’ve been saving up Amazon credit card reward points for this purpose.

  3. We also went with a Sigma (though for a telephoto lens, 70-200mm f/2.8… we’re in Nairobi, so you’ve got to have a safari lens) and are very happy. Anyway, a question for you. Do you re-size your photos for the blog? If so, to what size?

    • I do resize them or embed them, makes the page load faster for sure. There are a couple of ways to do it.

      The simplest way is to upload the full size photo but then, when inserting it into the post you can hit “edit” and “scale” I then scale the picture down to 1024 X whatever the vertical is.

      When I’m working on our big desktop computer, I’ll either save a copy of the file as a “for web” size in PSE or I’ll export it from iphoto and save it as a 1024x whatever sized photo.

      Since being back in the States without PSE, I’ve been uploading my photos to flickr and then just copying the embed coding into the html of my posts. This is by far the simplest, fastest way to do things–once the photos are up on flickr to begin with. It also saves a huge amount of space if you are working with a .wordpress blog. If you need help figuring it out, just let me know!

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