Through a Lens Expensively

Sigma 28mm Macro LensIn the wake of that photography class with Joseph O. Holmes that I took last year, I’ve only been able to make halting further progress in developing my camera skills. There just hasn’t been a lot of time to continue to take pictures as often and as intensively as a class environment allows, is one excuse. The other is that I’ve been dissatisfied with the lenses I’ve had for a long while now.

Aside from the absolutely middle-of-the-road 18-70mm lens that shipped with my Nikon D70, I’ve been using two others for about eighteen months now. First is a 50mm f/1.8 that produces beautiful results but works satisfactorily under relatively few conditions. It functions well with little light and its depth of field is evocatively abstract, but it’s visual range is fairly narrow and it’s not really the kind of lens that matches my aesthetic.

I’ve also got a highly imperfect but otherwise likable 70-300mm f/4-5.6 Nikkor telephoto zoom. As it turns out, I’m really a telephoto zoom kind of guy; I feel very comfortable with the reach of these lenses, the way they allow me to traverse great distances to capture small details and, let’s face it, to gently invade people’s privacy from afar. (A friend worries that if I upgrade to a longer lens, I’ll become a full-fledged pervert.) What’s more, I’m crazy for the spatial flattening effect that these lenses produce. Composing photographs through a telephoto lens feels very much like designing to me; the lens compresses space dramatically, reducing depth to a shallow, almost flat phenomenon, and the result feels akin to shifting nearly geometric shapes around on a plane.

Who’s Telephoto Zoomin’ Who

The problem with my 70-300mm Nikkor is that it doesn’t have a particularly fast f/stop (for those who, like me, have trouble remembering what that means, the lower the number, the better. Read a tedious explanation of the concept here.) Especially when the lens is fully extended, it’s highly prone to the unsteadiness of my hand, and since my hand is pretty damn unsteady, the result is that a lot of my photos come out blurry. You really need a tremendous amount of light in your environment to get decent pictures out of this lens, as I was lucky enough to have this past Saturday. When the sun’s out, though, it brings people outdoors too, and this lens suddenly becomes a tremendous amount of fun.

Right and below: Sunny side. Un-retouched, un-manipulated photos taken with my 70-300mm telephoto zoom this past Saturday. More shots and enlargements at Flickr.

What I’d like to do is upgrade to a telephoto zoom with Nikon’s Vibration Reduction (VR) technology, which uses special, high-tech magic beans or something to compensate for shaky hands and unsteady cameras. There’s a version of my lens that adds VR, but I have my eye on the crazily far-reaching 80-400mm VR. Unfortunately, it checks in at a ridiculous US$1,430. Even at that price point it’s not truly a professional lens, and reviews indicate that it’s highly imperfect. Yikes.

28mm Later

In the meantime, I picked up a Sigma 28mm f/1.8 Macro over the weekend, on a recommendation from my friend Naz. It has a fixed focal length, which is a little odd to get used to for an amateur like me.

I’ve relied on the lazy luxury of zoom lenses for almost the entirely of my short picture-taking career, for better or for worse. Rather than being able to passively hone in on a faraway detail, this lens forces me to move the camera — and my body with it — within range of the subject. It’s a different kind of picture-taking physicality; if you’re an experienced photographer, you know this already, but hey, this is a world that’s still new and wonderful to me.

The best thing about this lens, though, is that it’s very fast at f/1.8, making it great for low-light situations. I’ve learned a few really reliable rules about the craft of photography, and one of them is that you should buy the fastest lens you can afford. The speed of this one is all the more remarkable for its relatively affordable price tag of just US$270. At that rate, anyone can play. Well, mostly.

Right: Rain check. A shot from my new Sigma 28mm Macro lens from Sunday. More shots at Flickr.

I went out in this weekend’s torrential Nor’easter with the Sigma and tested it out in the unreliable and murky daylight of the worst storm we’ve had in New York in years, apparently. It worked reasonably well, producing satisfyingly sharp and well-lit images. It’s not perfect, certainly — the build quality of a Sigma compared to even the cheaper Nikon lenses is quite pronouncedly inferior — but at this price range, it’s completely appropriate for someone who shoots sporadically and with only moderate pretentious to photographic art.

Between this and my 70-300mm telephoto zoom, I feel like I have two relatively affordable, relatively capable lenses that will help me produce most of the kinds of photography I like. But here’s another of those few lessons I’ve learned about photography: there’s almost no end to the amount of money that one can spend trying to capture the perfect shot.

  1. Khoi,

    Don’t be so hasty to upgrade your zoom. Have you tried bumping up the ISO setting in your camera to compensate for the lack of light/shakiness of your hand?

    If you havn’t you should do so. Before I got my 70-200 f2.8 I was using my dads old 85-300 f4-5.5 and bumping the ISO up made a world of difference!

  2. I’ve got the exact same setup (kit lens, 50/1.8, 70-300) but have been lusting after the 70-200 2.8 as Gareth mentioned… Perhaps I will get a faster 28mm as you did though, because I don’t shoot with a telephoto as much anyway.

    You’ve inspired me 🙂

  3. A small monopod could save you around $1,350 and dramatically enhance the steadyness without all the hassle that comes with a tripod.

  4. As Gareth says, much improvement can be gained tweaking the camera settings. I would love to get some more lenses, but I think there is far more that I should learn about the actual camera itself.

    The last shot you posted – love it. I’m not sure why people complain about rain in my parts.

  5. I had to save my pennies for a long, long time, but a Nikon 17-55mm f/2.8 is the hands-down favorite in my equipment bag. Incredibly well-built and a joy to use. Between that and an older 80-200 f/2.8 most of the everyday range is covered. I cut myself off at anything that would put a rig in the 5 pound range. If it’s a pain to drag around it’s never going to get used.

  6. Here working with a 50mm/f1.8 – but next one will probably be a pro zoom from Canon, like the 24-70/f2.8.
    But before that, I’ve got a looooot of picture to take, to hone my framing skill. It’s a good day to learn photography!

  7. I’ve given up zoom lenses for fixed ones. I chose structure over freedom – after some use I know exactly what my lenses cover even before I look through the viewfinder.

    Prime (fixed) lenses are much cheaper, work well with less light and produce much sharper pictures.

  8. K, funny you should mention the Sigma — just a month ago I picked up a Sigma 30mm f/1.4 — and I’m really addicted to the extremely shallow depth of field.

    The lens is not super sharp in the corners, but who cares? The DOF is so shallow I can take a portrait where her eyes are dead focus but the ears are in a blur. Beautiful! Now suddenly everywhere I look, the world is all about shallow DOF. What’s that expression? Give a guy a hammer and every problem looks like a nail.

    Between that 30mm and the 17-55mm f/2.8 David mentioned, I’m happy.

  9. I’ve got almost the same set up for my D80. I’ve got the kit lens plus the 50mm f/1.8 but instead of your 70-300mm zoom, I went with the 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 VR Nikkor. It’s really amazing what the VR does for the camera…you can take some incredibly sharp shots even in fairly low light. It constantly surprises me.

    I think my next lens will be the Nikkor 50mm f/1.4. I’ll probably dump the 1.8 when I get that.

  10. Khoi! You and I have gone through much of the same experience in that I was enjoying the kit lens w/ my d80 along w/ my 70-200mm for awhile but eventually realized I needed some more options too. I too have the 50mm f/1.8 now and it’s been great.

    I picked up an 85mm f/1.4 from to bring to SXSW this year. I paid about $100 to play with a $1k lens for a couple weeks. It’s a great way of playing with some of the pricier lenses before dropping down the cash when you make a decision.

  11. Ah the curse of new glass. It’s quite the expensive curse as well. The other issue – what the hell kind of back brace to buy to help facilitate the carrying of all this equipment!

  12. Prime lenses (fixed focal length) are the way to go. I’ve shoot with a Canon Digital Rebel, and I just upgraded my 50mm f/1.8 to a 50mm f/1.4. Wow – I never want to take that lens off.

    The guy at the camera shop talked about how much they can really improve your photography. A teacher of his told him to shoot with nothing but a 50mm for a year and he would see dramatic improvement in his abilities.

  13. I recommend renting like Brian did before deciding to make expensive upgrades. I rented from a couple weeks ago, and played with a Canon 70-200 F4L for a week. This is one of the more affordable L series lenses and I was just going to buy it for ~$600. Glad I didn’t because while it’s a fantastic lens, it’s actual applicable use wasn’t right for my style and I would’ve had a great lens that I rarely used.

    And I agree, capturing the perfect shot is seemingly as expensive as you can tolerate — as well as a lot of luck (for beginners like me anyway!)


  14. I was at a complete standstill until I got my 50mm 1.8. Things really picked up then – and subsequently slowed down again.
    They finally picked up when I discovered black and white. I was going to all my photos thinking that there isn’t any that I like – then I started playing with b&w. Now there’s lots and lots. You really get control over the mood and feel of the image that you can’t with colour.

  15. I shoot with a Canon but pretty much am in the same boat. I ended up getting a 28-70mm f/2.8 for a walk around and it can produce that same type of shot you describe in the article just fine.

    It also will help with the shakeyness because it gets significantly harder to take a steady shot when working in the telephoto range.

  16. Congratulations on using the prime lens! Keep that prime on your camera for a couple months. You’ll learn photographic composition and your personal way of looking in those 2 months than you would in years with a zoom. It’s too easy to get lazy with a zoom. With a prime, you really have to work to see & compose.

  17. You probably already know this, but boosting the ISO sensitivity is not good practice, as it adds noise. As a general rule it’s best to keep your camera at the very lowest ISO setting, which is what the sensor was designed for.

    Many of the best pictures ever taken in the history of photography were taken with a 50mm lens; I believe that’s all Cartier-Bresson ever used. I would also vote for no zoom…a 50mm and if necessary one telephoto will produce the best quality while still keeping life fairly simple.

  18. I was looking at getting a 50mm f/1.8 for my Nikon D40 until I found out it cant auto focus with it. While I try and only use manual focus I think loosing that flexibility is a big hit. Damn buying a camera that uses different lenses.

  19. I’m not surprised you found the 28mm to be more natural to use — the crop factor of the APS-C sensor means that the 28mm acts as a “normal” lens on your Nikon. “Normal” meaning better replicating the human eye’s field of view.

    And don’t forget the 1/[effective focal length] rule when you’re trying to avoid camera shake. If you’re at 400mm on the lens, then the effective focal length is actually 600mm on your D70, and any shutter speed slower than 1/600 is likely to encounter camera shake.

    As an alternative to the monopod, I might also suggest a chainpod, which is a little more discrete, and portable.

  20. I agree with Thom about shooting on a 50mm, and Rob about shooting on a prime. Since it’s a “normal” lens, i.e. the closest to the human eye, everything looks “regular” unless you shoot well. It challenges your framing and exposure skills the most and forces the decision-making process a bit more. I wish my pocket cam had a prime.

  21. Hello all…I work at a local New Orleans camera shop called Lakeside Camera. I also own a D200 and absolutely love the Nikon 17-55. I must say the one lens I’ve been blown away by is the Tamron 17-50 f/2.8! At 1/3 the cost of the Nikon version and just as sharp, I find it is a little bit more contrasty. Check it out.

  22. I just bought a Sigma 80-200mm 2.8 APO HG MACRO HSM (what a name!) lens and it is just fabulous. F2.8 throughout the focal range, super fast with a great DOF, I just love it. I have a Nikkor 50mm/1.8 as well so now I need something to replace my 18-70mm lens, something in the 2.8 would be nice.

  23. Brad: Yes, Cartier Bresson *often* used a 50mm lens, but he didn’t have the 1.5x multiplier of a small digital sensor turning it into an effective 75mm. With the Nikon’s you’d need to use a 35mm to approximate the 50mm field of view, or a 28mm to attain the arguably more natural FOV of 42mm.

  24. I love the newer sigma EX series lenses. I’ve got the 70-200 f2.8, 30mm f1.4, 18-50mm f2.8 and 10-20 f4-5.6. They’re all well built and as sharp as the canon equivalents. If you want long, the 70-200 f2.8 is impossible to beat for the price. And wait until you get a chance to use an ultra-wide angle. Ooooh, fun. 🙂

  25. Aww, man. I just sold my 80-400mm VR on ebay. I could have sent it to you for a test drive. I used it extensively in Africa, and the lens just rawks. Not the greatest for low light, but more than adequate when the sun sets. The pictures are crisp on VR setting. A bit slow in focus, but not terrible. You can try buying one on ebay for 25% less probably than new.

  26. Hey buddy, it’s not the tools that make the image….it’s what’s in you’re heart. Forget all this lens crap. Fall in love every time you walk out the door. I hate this shit.

  27. Good to hear you like the Sigma. I just ordered a 70-300mm Sigma for my D80. At $139, it should hold me over until the VR lenses get more reasonable. Looking forward to some light privacy invasion.

  28. I own the 80-400 VS and for a light weight far-reaching tube, it is actually quite sharp…. rent one sometime. You might like it!

  29. i use sigma too as my second lense to my eos 350 D, for me it cheapest lense for large aperture like f2.8 , but for moving object i’m prefer canon lense, sigma to slowly for me to get the focus.

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