This has become THE number one question asked to me. “I have xxx amount of dollars or I have xxx camera, which lenses should I buy”? It’s a question that is very difficult to answer, not least because it gets asked 20 times a day. Hopefully this will cut down on those emails! Try not to ask which lenses to buy in the comments. This blog gives you all the information you need. Read it, decide what is important to you and go from there! 🙂
What follows is not the definitive list of lenses to buy. It’s my opinion. Please treat it like that. Many will disagree and may well be quite right too! All I can do is base this post on my own experience, with the plethora of lenses I own and have used.
I want to cover other makes of cameras with this evolving blog post but for now it will be purely for Canon lenses. I will cover the GH1, Nikon, Sony at some point later. My most experience is with Canon Lenses.
First let us cover the fundamentals of what you need to know about sensor sizes and how your camera will affect which lenses you buy.
Currently there is just one solitary Canon that has a full frame sensor for Video and that is the 5DmkII. The 1dMkiv is an APS-H sensor and a 1.3x crop. All the others are a 1.6x crop called an APS-C. The full frame sensor is massive compared to the APS-C. It’s easy to forget just how much bigger it is. Look at this image below and you will see what I mean.
So the above image is shot with a 14mm L series lens. Designed for full frame and is as wide as you can get without going all fisheye on the Canons. It’s an amazing lens and one of my favourites…problem it is expensive and as you can see only wide when used on the 5Dmkii, on the other sensors it is cropped, making it not so wide. It’s still a 14mm on any camera, it’s just the equivalent field of view (EFOV) that has changed. On the APS-C sensor it has the EFOV of 14mm x 1.6 which equals 22.4mm, still wide-ish but as you can see above, nothing like the spectacular wideness of the lens on a full frame body.
This is the most important factor you need to think about when buying lenses. Is it worth spending over $2000 on a wide angle lens that is no longer wide for your crop sensor camera? Personally I think no. For full frame users, there is nothing like it, it’s amazing. But for the rest, don’t get this lens unless you are planning to upgrade to a full frame sensor very soon.
That is the biggest issue really. Do you buy lenses designed especially for your 1.6x crop (called EF-S by Canon) or do you get lenses which are future proof if you decide to move up to a full frame camera (called EF by Canon)? All the EF lenses are compatible with all the Canon cameras. It does not work the other way around. Some lenses by third party manufactures will work on the 5Dmkii despite being designed for the crop but will vignette heavily, unless they are zooms so you can zoom in slightly to avoid this…more on that later.
Canon’s premiere line of lenses are the L series. They are magnificent, expensive but worth the price. Build quality is almost uniformly excellent and the range of glass they have is enormous. These lenses are completely compatible across the whole range of cameras….There is one caveat. These lenses are getting sharper and sharper. I have the above mentioned 14mm II and the new 70-200mm F2.8II and they are actually too sharp in my opinion for video, for stills they are amazing, but in video they can accentuate some of the main issues we have with the camera, mainly moire and aliasing. I recently shot a project in Italy. A lot of it with the 14mm and the new 70-200 and I have had more moire issues than I have experienced before and I am certain it is down to them being simply tack sharp and this means all the detail can be seen and that is when we have moire issues. I am not saying don’t buy these lenses. If you do, make sure that your sharpness is turned all the way off (as it should be all the time) and look out for it. Below is a section of a shot where you can see the issues on the water…
Am i bothered? Yes and no. I can easily use a filter to knock back the sharpness of the 70-200mm version 2 (not on the 14mm though and it wont take filters). My old 70-200 was more forgiving, but these lenses are investments for me and I know that Canon will improve these cameras. It shows you just how incredible these lenses are for the money, their sharpness is almost too good for the video function of the cameras!…and this guys is the key thing you need to know when buying lenses.
It is the glass that is your investment, NOT the camera.
Your lenses should last you for years, through many bodies, so always take that into account when buying lenses.
Zooms or Primes?
Tough one this…prime lenses are generally of higher optical quality and are generally faster (as in can let in more light so better in low light and better for shallow depth of field) but are of course a fixed focal length so it’s harder to shoot with them. Zooms are great flexible lenses but PLEASE avoid those kit lenses. A zoom must have a constant aperture to be useful in video. Constant aperture means it maintains it’s F-Stop no matter how much you zoom in or out. Without this the iris stops down making the shot unusable. Of course constant aperture lenses cost more, but like everything in life, you get what you pay for. Canon’s L series of zooms are amazing. Although some like the 24-70mm could really do with updating to give them IS. IS is image stabilisation and I believe is absolutely essential for video work as it reduces the rolling shutter artefacts that we can get. Canon also do a very nice zoom for the EF-s with IS, it’s the 17-55mm F2.8 IS. Great lens, the crop sensor equivalent of the 24-70 but with IS, not an L series though. No EF-S lenses are L series. One of my favourite L series zoom lenses is the 24-105 f4 IS. Nice range and IS although a little on the slow side. It’s one of my favourite interview lenses.
So Zooms are easier to shoot with as you can vary your focal length, are not as good in low light and the good ones cost money! There are some third party zooms out there which are very good. I haven’t used most of them but Sigma and Tamron make good lenses and the Tokina 11-16mm is easily my favourite crop wide angle lens. An absolutely essential purchase for 7D and T2i users. Yes, if you are a T2i user expect to spend a lot more than your camera on lenses and accessories. The downside of owning a dirt cheap camera! 🙂
Right…let’s get down to what to buy and why. We can cover more of the type of stuff above as we go along. First off I am going to break it down into type of sensors assuming money is not an issue and then after that into budget.
I love the Zeiss ZE (The ZF’s are Nikon mount). They have excellent image quality, amazing build quality. Have hard focus stops unlike the Canon lenses and lovely long focus rotation for more accurate rack focusing. In a way I prefer the ZF lenses as they have manual apertures which can be modified to make them cine lens smooth but they focus in the opposite direction to Canon lenses so it may do your head in!
The Zeiss lenses are probably the best there are for video. They don’t have the bells and whistles that the L series have…no auto focus, no IS but they do have amazing metal build quality, incredible optics and wonderful focus control. Not ideal for stills though as they don’t have that amazing L series autofocus. It’s a shame the longest non macro they do is 85mm…I would love to see a 135mm F2 from them. The 100mm macro is good but focus, like any macro is tough and worse still the barrel moves in and out as you focus, it does not have internal focusing, no using with a matte box is tough, using a follow focus is practically impossible. I prefer the Canon one over this due it’s closer focus and the excellent IS.
Zeiss also has the CP.2 PL lens (positive lock) lenses for all the Canons. These are essentially re-housed ZE lenses. They have the same filter size and length and have pinpoint accurate focus marks. Great it you have the budget…They also have EF switchable mounts for these lenses so nice and flexible. PL mounts are always permanent mods to your cameras so do this only if you have no plans to ever use stills glass again…
Lenses for full frame cameras
Well the 14mm F2.8 II is the most amazing wide angle lens I have ever seen. Yes it is super sharp and can cause the moire to be visible especially on deep DOF shots but it really is in a class of it’s own.
Alternatively look at the 16-35mm F2.8L. A constant aperture zoom lens with a nice range and nice and wide, although quite distorted at the wide end and a little soft.
Next up would be either the 24mm F1.4 or the 35mm F1.4, although the 35mm is due an update and is not as sharp as I would like. The 24mm F1.4 is stunning and your best wide angle low light lens out there. An essential purchase. The Zeiss ZE is a lovely 35mm lens but slower at F2
From here we go to the Canon 50mm F1.4 or even better if you can afford it the F1.2. The F1.2 is an L lens and one of my favourite lenses. Amazing for stills and video. Is it worth the price difference. If you can afford it yes, otherwise get the F1.4.
I am not a fan of the 85mm F1.2. I hate the focus ring on it, too loose and too inaccurate. I much prefer the Zeiss 85mm F1.4. An amazing lens.
If you have the cash I adore the Canon 100mm Macro F2.8 IS. Make sure it is the L series version. Amazing lens, great IS and wonderful image. I just think the build quality is not quite as good as some of the other L series lenses. Feels plasticky. But I never travel without it…below are two short films, one shot entirely with the 100mm macro the other a lot…
Next up is the other essential lens for your collection…the 70-200mm IS. MAKE SURE IT HAS IS…long lenses need it. You have two options here. The much cheaper and much lighter F4 version of the more expensive and very sharp F2.8 II. If you want one with more low light capability then go with the F2.8. If you are shooting daylight mostly get the F4. It’s much much lighter and a heck of a lot cheaper. For more flexibility get the F2.8.
Well those are the essential lenses for the full frame camera!
Lenses for crop cameras
First and foremost get the Tokina 11-16mm, it’s better than the Canon 10-22mm as it’s constant aperture even though the range on the Canon is better. Get it. This one of the only EF-S lenses I recommend getting. It is the best wide angle for the 1Dmkiv too, zoom in slightly to lose the vignetter and it’s the widest lens you can get for that camera. Same trick works for 5dmkII but only at the full zoom…16mm making the zoom part of it and for me the lens too, pointless for this camera. Save up and buy the 16-35mm much more use…BUT, $700 for a 16mm F2.8 prime ain’t bad! See…am full of contradictions!
Next up is your 50mm equivalent for the crop…Take a look at the Sigma 30mm F1.4 (EF-S) only or the Canon 35mm F1.4 (universal). The Sigma is WAY cheaper and I hear good things, although never shot with it myself…Just remember, it won’t work on a 5DmkII!
Then I would look at the Canon 50mm F1.4 or the F1.2…you 85mm equivalent…
The Macro 100mm will be great here too…especially as it becomes an EFOV of 160mm!
Then the same as the full frame…the 70-200…
I recommend getting as few EF-S lenses as possible, make yourself future proof!
Nikon lensesGreat lenses if you are on a budget. There are loads of old ones on ebay and you can get some bloody good bargains. Also they are generally not as sharp and therefore quite forgiving! Get a Fotodiox Pro adaptor and away you go! I bought a 20 years old F1.2 50mm for $250 from ebay. It’s awesome! This is the way to go if you are really on a budget…
I am on a real budget!
Well if you are REALLY on a tight budget then get one lens. You can shoot everything you want with a standard lens. That’s a 50mm on a full frame, 3omm on the crop sensor. So if you have a T2i, 7D get the Sigma, it’s a great price and has great image. For the 5Dmkii get a 50mm. The below film was shot entirely on a Zeiss 50mm F1.4 and the music video below was shot on a 50mm F1.2
Telephoto lenses are really important too, so on the T2i/ 7D look for an 85mm F1.4 and for those really wide shots the Tokina as mentioned earlier.
Full frame users have to pay more as EF lenses are generally more. So if you are on that budget then it’s Nikon all the way for now!
Canon FD lenses
Avoid the Canon FD lenses. You need an adaptor with glass in it to make it work with the EOS cameras and they simply do not work well. Soft am afraid! A real shame as there are lots of affordable FD lenses out there…
Special effect lenses
Samyang do a nice 8mm fish eye for the crop sensor and it’s pretty cheap if you can source them…
I love the Canon Tilt Shift lenses although these are not cheap. They are designed primarily for architecture photography and you can alter keystone lines so they are straight when looking up at buildings but can also be used to make things look really nice and miniature. Also check out the Lensbaby Composer lens, again, special effect but a lot of fun. Check out the pool shot in the below film shot on the 24mm F2.8 TS lens.
As with all special effect lenses use sparingly. But great fun to use.
This is the end of the first draft of the lens blog. This will be continually updated, so keep an eye on it!