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Beginner's Guide to Portraits
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Canon SLR Lenses
Choosing Lenses for Canon SLR Digital

The most asked question concerning the Canon SLR digital is “what lenses do I buy?”  It’s a bit like asking a stranger what clothes you should be wearing.  Everyone’s needs will differ, and lens choice is indeed as personal as your clothes.

But just like fashion folk can make recommendations as to what will be the appropriate dress for certain occasions, there is some fairly standard lens buying advice that can be given.  With that in mind, we offer the following:

The 1.6 Factor

There are a lot of places on the net where you can find people who will tell you what lenses they are using and what they like.  For a first timer shopping for his lens set (or someone looking to add a lens to their collection) these sites are very useful.  So far, at least, there are no Canon digital specific lens sites. 

Places rating the various Canon lenses available are nearly all from the standpoint of the Canon film cameras.  While there are certain characteristics common to the film cameras and digital, there is also one big factor that’s very different – the 1.6 multiplication factor.

We won’t get into the debate about what this really means, but for all intents and purposes the effect of the 1.6 factor is that every lens you purchase will have its focal length multiplied by 1.6 when used on the digital SLR.  This results in two very important effects:

1)     Your lenses become longer (duh).  A 200mm lens effectively becomes a 320mm lens.  Truly very wonderful if you like longer lenses.   However, that 17mm lens now becomes a 28mm lens, which isn’t so great if wide angle is your thing.

2)     Because you are using only the center 80% or so of a lens, the problems that often occur with lenses related to edge effects (such as distortion) become far less significant.  This is particularly important when you consider reviews of lenses that typically take these edge problems into account when doing the ratings.

Because of these two effects the information you read about Canon lenses needs to be taken with a grain of salt.  If someone tells you the all-time most used lens he owns is a 50mm lens and you think to yourself “hey, I should be using that focal length because my shooting is very similar to his” you have to stop and remember that a 50mm lens won’t be a 50mm lens on your digital – in order to get that length you’ll need to use a 32mm lens (or the closest equivalent).  If someone tells you that a certain lens isn’t very good because of the barrel distortion at the edges, you need to remember that if that’s the only problem with the lens, it won’t be a problem.

Note that there are now appearing (as of this writing) some lenses specifically made for digital cameras.  However, the film lenses are still the ones that have stood the test of time.

With that in mind, there are several useful sites that rate lenses both from an objective standpoint (using measurable tests) as well as a personal preference standpoint (based on user feedback).  Here are the three we like:

User experiences about Canon lenses.

More user experiences on lenses (and other photo equipment).

Objective lens performance tests

Cropability (or why you want to use zooms almost exclusively on your D30)

Okay, it’s probably not a word, but it does sum up another major difference between the D30 and the film world.  In the film world (even in the world of the small format 35mm) unless you’re shooting slides exclusively you have a lot of latitude when it comes to composing your image.  You can crop into your image and effectively increase your zoom, and recompose your image by shifting things right, left, up or down.

If you are going to be printing from your D30 images your ability to crop becomes a lot more limited.  Producing a 4x6 print gives you some room, but if you are going for a Super B print (13x19 inches) or even an 8x10 you really don’t want to lose any of those precious pixels (see this discussion). 

Because you want to get as close as possible to your final composition, the issue of using zoom lenses versus fixed becomes very clear – in general, you’ll want the zoom nearly every time.

The zoom will give you the ability to compose just right and today’s modern zooms suffer from nearly none of the problems zooms in the past did.  With the exception of macro and very low light lenses, zooms on the D30 are really the only way to go.

Lens choice and usage

Wide Angle:  Wide angle lenses are the most difficult lenses to use of all.  Because the number one factor in good photographs is a clear subject, a wide angle tends to subvert the essence of a great image.  Things that are not part of the subject start to creep in right away, and soon you’re left with a big mess, a kind of snapshot that most amateurs make with their point & shoot cameras.

The best use of wide angles come in interiors, where you can’t get back far enough, and environmental portraits, where you’d like to place the subject within the environment.  Landscapes are a type of environmental “portrait”, but it’s easy to get carried away there.  If you are shooting an image of the Devil’s Tower, you really don’t need to see miles and miles of the scenery surrounding it.

Some of the best wide angle scenery shots include very close foreground images, such as flowers, that frame a much larger background subject.  Takes a whole lot of work to get good at using a wide-angle lens (probably why I don’t use mine often).

Medium Range: The medium range lenses are where you’ll do the bulk of your work.  For years great photographs have been made with the fixed 50mm lens on many a rangefinder 35mm.  Good head and shoulder portraits (the “traditional” portrait shot) are usually made with lenses in the 80-120mm range.  It’s said that our eyes have an angle of view that corresponds to the 100mm lens, which is why a lot of images taken there seem so natural.

Telephoto: A good telephoto is a must if you do any sports or nature photography.  You cannot get close enough to the animal, whether that animal is a midget owl or a linebacker playing for the St. Louis Rams. 

A long lens will also let you pick out details in the landscape, often isolating patterns that cannot be seen with any other lens. 

Macro: A macro allows you to get extremely close to your subject, which is often so small that details the naked eye will not reveal can be seen.  Like the wide-angle, it’s a difficult lens to use, and for similar reasons.  You must be able to identify your subject, and with a macro lens that often means hunting around with the lens itself until you can see it yourself. 

The natural world is almost the exclusive subject of macro photography, although man-made objects up close can be interesting at times.

What about the new DO lenses?

Anyone who follows camera news knows about the upcoming DO lenses from Canon.  You can read about the technology here.

So far, the only lens announced is that 400mm prototype (and it didn’t make it in this first half of this year as promised).  Should you wait for a new crop of lenses to make their appearance?

It’s anyone’s guess, but it’s pretty safe to say these will be expensive lenses.   Whether Canon will be able to keep the same excellent quality without increasing weight and size at a same aperture zoom is something we may not know for years.  It’s basically like everything else in life: you can wait and see if things come out that are better, or you can take a chance and have fun now.  I vote for having fun now, but those of you who are young enough to spare a few years might very well want to wait around (if I were in my early twenties I’d think I had plenty of time ahead of me).

Lens Variability

There's been a lot of discussion on DPreview lately concerning how some people's tests are finding some lenses not to be as good as reviews indicate, while other lenses seem better than are commonly thought.

It appears there is a lot of variability in the quality of lenses from all the major manufacturers, which is disconcerting at best.  It also raises in my mind the value of ratings from web sites (noted above) that take user's own experiences into account -- the greater the universe sample the better.

If the same lens can vary so much in quality it would behoove anyone interested in the best to get some kind of return policy on every lens they buy.  Most major stores and online sellers will offer this (B&H, for example, offers a 14 day free exchange or return policy). If you buy a lens that is highly rated and doesn't perform well for you, the odds are that you've gotten a "bad" one, and should try again.  As a general rule there's a very good reason the top rated lenses are so rated.

Our Lens Collection

Here’s what we own and our impressions (and a tip of the hat to www.luminous-landscape.com, which does a very similar roundup of lenses, albeit from a film camera standpoint.  The site does contain a lot of D30 information, and the owner/operator now operates almost exclusively with a D30, but his lens roundup was written prior to his D30 use).

All lenses are pictured actually mounted on a D30, which will give you a much better idea exactly how big each of them is.  They are shown with and without a lens hood -- most pros will seldom shoot without a lens hood for good reason, and you shouldn't either.   Weights are noted next to the lens description.  I’ve omitted Photodo ratings, although you can look them up if you like.  As noted earlier, these ratings were not done with digital in mind, and have to be taken with a large dose of salt.

I’ve also included the approximate street price of each lens, effective 7/9/01.  While discounts vary widely, this will at least give you an idea of the ballpark price of some of these fairly pricey items.

Further note (as of 7/15/06): We switched (as many have) to a newer Canon digital SLR, the excellent 20D.  But the same remarks apply to it as the D30 and the new 30D insofar as lenses go.  The Digital Rebel (and excellent lower cost camera) would also work well with these lenses, although the weight of the camera might be a factor (it's so light it will end up very "lens heavy" with pro quality lenses).

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Canon 28-70mm f/2.8 L

Weight: 30.8 oz

Street Price: $1100

Without a doubt the best and most frequently used lens in our collection.  It’s heavy as sin and looks so imposing no one will mistake you for a casual shooter, but the images it produces are crystal sharp and the D30 effective range is 45-112mm, which is perfect for portraits, landscapes and just about every situation you don’t need a very wide angle or extreme telephoto. 

This is my “desert island” lens – the one lens I’d take with me if I were forced to live with just one.  70% of the images on this site were taken with it.

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Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 L

Weight: 2.8 lbs

Street Price: $1200

Considered by many as the best zoom Canon makes, the 70-200mm lens is the kind of lens that will draw attention from almost any situation you are in (not always a good thing, but one that will definitely make you feel like a shooter).  I cannot tell you how many times people have commented on my camera when this lens is mounted, or made asides to their friends (“That man is a professional photographer” I’ve heard explained to others again and again). 

The lens is the size of a ’57 Buick and weighs almost the same, and mounted to the D30 with battery grip you’re holding something that Arnold uses in his workouts.  Indeed, after a day of carrying it around you’ll be as pumped up as any weight lifter.

But the images this lens produces are nothing short of remarkable – sharp and clear even wide open at the long end, this is a truly luscious lens.  With a D30 effective range of 112-320mm it provides you with a long view that 35mm film users lust after.  It’s even more remarkable mounted with the 1.4x or 2x teleconvertors (see below).

This is my second favorite lens and about 25% of the images on this site were taken with it.

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Canon 17-35mm f/2.8 L

Weight: 19.1 oz

Street Price: $1250

The last lens of the Canon f/2.8 L zoom “set”, this lens is a favorite of nature photogs and anyone who wants a truly wide angle lens.

Unfortunately, in the D30 world this becomes a 27-56mm lens.  Wide angle, yes, but nothing approaching the truly spectacular wide angle look it has with film cameras.  With wide angle lenses, every little millimeter is important, and the inability to get much wider than a “standard” 28mm lens is a big disappointment to many.

The good news is that this lens on the D30 exhibits none of the problems many shooters have reported with it on film cameras.  Wide angle lenses usually have most of their difficulties with the edges, but on the D30 this isn’t even a concern.  I’d rate the quality of images it produces nearly on par with both of my other f/2.8 L lenses.

I’m not much of a wide angle user, however.  This lens gets used the least of all my lenses, and is one I often leave behind on a shoot without missing it.  I used it extensively when I shoot interiors of the Governor’s mansion, but mostly it’s a niche lens in my collection.

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Canon 100mm f/2.8 Macro

Weight: 21.1 oz

Street Price: $600

If you need one macro lens in your collection you must consider this terrific lens.  At an effective 160mm on the D30, this one will allow you to get very close to your subject without getting close, if you catch my drift.

It works very well with the MR-14 ringlite. 

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Canon 28-135 f/3.5-5.6 IS

Weight 17.6 oz

Street Price: $470

This is the lens many people consider when equipping their D30.  It has much to recommend it – a wide range (45-216mm effective), image stabilization (which allows the handholding of the camera at much slower speeds than normal) and a lens quality which approaches the pro standards.  It has been said this is the finest “non-L” lens that Canon makes.  And it’s price certainly makes it attractive to those who cannot afford the better glass.

I have it mounted full-time on my backup D30 body, and often carry it with me just to have a camera (“Always carry a camera”).  While not exactly small and light, it certainly is much more compact than all but the 17-35mm zoom.  The images it produces look very good indeed, nearly on a par with my pro glass.  It also can double as a “macro” lens, since its close focusing abilities at the extreme zoom range make it possible to get to 1:2 on the D30.

I dislike variable aperture intensely, however.  IS doesn’t really make up for the lack of f/2.8, particularly at higher zoom lengths.   This is not the lens I’ll ever use if I have to shoot in low light.  And, truthfully, it’s not the lens I’ll use on any critical shoots.  Can I see the difference between it and my L glass?  You betcha.  After having paid a lot of money for the D30 it just doesn’t seem sensible to scrimp on lenses. For just knocking around and shooting candids, however, nothing can beat it.

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Canon 50mm f/1.8

Weight: 4.6 oz

Street Price: $85

Everyone has at least one low light lens in their collection, and it’s usually either this feather light lens or the much heavier (and much more expensive) 50mm f/1.4.

You’ll gain nearly another stop with the f/1.4, but if you don’t do a lot of low light shooting it may be hard to justify its $350 street price.  Buying this lens, on the other hand, is almost a no-brainer. 

With the 80mm effective length on the D30, it may double as a portrait lens.  I don’t do a lot of low light stuff, so this lens doesn’t get used much, but when you need it, nothing else (with the exception of that f/1.4) will do.

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1.4x and 2.x Canon Teleconverters

I use these exclusively with my 70-200mm 2.8 lens.  The 1.4 turns that lens into a 157-448mm f4, and the 2x turns it into a 224-640mm f5.6 monster of a lens.

They don’t add much weight to the lens, but the 70-200mm is already a beast to carry and these little attachments seem to make a big difference, both in length as well as heft.  I can definitely tell when I have one of them on the big gun (and so can others – mount the 2x on your 70-200mm and you won’t be shooting any candids).

On the D30 the image quality remains very, very good – I wouldn’t hesitate at all using them under nearly any conditions.  There are, however, two drawbacks.  First, you lose one stop with the 1.4x, and two stops with the 2x.  That can be a problem, particularly since you need to shoot faster to get sharp enough images at these lengths.  Outside, during the day, I wouldn’t worry at all.  Low light conditions are going to be problematic.

The second problem is that of focus – auto focus has a hard time dealing with the 2x in particular.  This isn’t a terrific problem, since at these lengths you’ll probably want to manually focus most of the time anyway, but it worries a lot of people.  Given that you can carry a 640mm f5.6 pro quality lens around for a fraction of the cost of the 600mm f4 (current street price around $8700) it makes a lot of sense to me.

(Then again, to be fair, you wouldn’t actually need to buy that 600mm lens to get the same focal length.  Canon makes a 400mm f/5.6 lens, for around $1300, which would give you that 640mm range.  But it weights 3 lbs and is about the same size as the 70-200, so you’d effectively have to carry both of them to get close to the same capabilities.  That doesn’t make a lot of sense to me).

Both converters run less than $400 each.


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