DPP Home Gear Lenses The 3-Lens Solution

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The 3-Lens Solution

Be prepared to work in any situation with an efficient set of high-quality optics that covers the majority of focal lengths

Professionals are highly discriminating in their gear choices, and everyone has their favorite lenses. Some photographers see in 20mm while others see in 105mm. So we all have go-to lenses that we would be lost without, but sometimes jobs come up that call for focal lengths out of the usual comfort zone. Having a solid, sharp three-zoom set will equip you for any eventuality.

In a difficult economy, pro photographers often have a hard time saying no to a job possibility,
even if it involves working outside of their comfort zone. Being able to say yes to a challenging situation without spending the money that you're earning on new equipment just to get the shoot done, however, will come down to being prepared in advance. For those who haven't considered it before or for photographers looking to upgrade efficiently, with even a basic three-lens kit you'll be capable of taking on a wide range (pun intended) of focal lengths and projects. Many of the DPP readership already are invested in a lens system, but just by adding three key lenses to your arsenal, from ultrawide to telephoto, it's possible to cover almost any photographic situation that will arise while also traveling light and spending as little as possible.

As a professional, you're probably already well versed in lens technology, and you know the lenses that work for the majority of your photography. In this article, we want to show you a three-zoom kit that will fill in all of the gaps and give you the confidence of knowing that no matter what the job, you have the optics to get it done. In 2011, we ran an article about professional go-to camera and lens combinations. Think of this article as being related, but looking at the opposite challenge. Here, we're showing you a combination of lenses that won't get used every day, but will give you endless options.

First, why not a single "superzoom?" There are a variety of superzoom lenses that offer extended range and more than satisfactory image quality. But for pros, these lenses are somewhat lacking, principally in regard to aperture. Because these superzooms are built to be an economical choice rather than a primary purchase, these lower-priced lenses often lack a constant aperture as you zoom, slowing as you extend from wide to telephoto. For example, an 18-200mm ƒ/3.5-6.3 zoom has a maximum aperture of ƒ/3.5 at 18mm and a maximum aperture of ƒ/6.3 fully extended at 200mm. Not only are these lenses slower than the ƒ/2.8 constant apertures of zooms built for professionals, but the variable-aperture lenses are less bright because of their inherent design (i.e., smaller in diameter than larger apertures).

There's no arguing that wide-range superzooms like an 18-200mm or a 28-300mm are incredibly convenient, but by and large they're produced as an "all-in-one" solution that will work for most situations. Ironically, that also makes them the fallback choice in most situations. Wide focal lengths require different optical corrections than longer telephotos, for instance, which is one of the reasons why many wide-angle lenses lack image stabilization. Even standard focal lengths in between wide and telephoto can have their own unique optical demands.

Consequently, superzooms can't match the image quality of shorter-range pro zooms and especially not primes, which are built for a single precision focal length only. The greater the range of focal lengths built into a single zoom, the harder it is to correct for all of them at all focal lengths. Pro lenses also are built better with more rugged, weather-resistant construction to match the needs of professional shooters in more extreme environments. For these reasons, the three-lens kit is going to better meet the needs of professionals in terms of both image quality and low-light capability.

When looking at the speed capabilities of lenses for your three-lens kit, a number of zooms are available with faster (ƒ/2.8) and slower (ƒ/4 and variable) apertures, so which is the right lens going to be? Is fastest always the best? The answer depends. Obviously, faster lenses will let in more light for faster shutter speeds in a given light level, especially useful for handheld and low-light photography. But the answer is a little more complex than that. Fast lenses also provide a brighter viewfinder image for easier composing, manual focusing and autofocus confirmation. With many higher-end DSLRs, fast lenses provide better autofocusing accuracy due to the wider base for phase-detection AF systems. Faster lenses are generally considered to be pro models, as well, with better optics and AF systems, so while most photographers consider the extra expense a symptom of the faster aperture, the overall difference in cost actually brings a few other advantages, as well.

On the other hand, faster lenses cost a great deal more than slower lenses in a given focal length. They're also bulkier, heavier and require larger, more costly filters. If you're on a tight budget or want to travel light, slower lenses can be a better choice, especially as many of them are pro models offering excellent image quality and build while sacrificing at the most a stop or two of light. Still, consider that lenses tend to provide their best performance stopped down from wide open. An ƒ/2.8 zoom, for instance, will perform best at ƒ/4 or ƒ/5.6, while an ƒ/4 or ƒ/5.6 zoom would need to be stopped down even further. It's a difficult choice, but most pros prefer to be safe rather than sorry by choosing to invest the money for the extra leverage that a faster aperture can provide.

As for choosing between primes and zooms, the single focal length of prime lenses are sharper, and at the same time, they're less costly. Pro prime lenses also are much faster; 24mm through 85mm ƒ/1.4 primes are available in many cases, as are 200mm ƒ/2.0 lenses. The fastest pro zooms, meanwhile, top off at constant apertures of ƒ/2.8. Obviously, you need a great many amount of primes to cover the focal range of even a single zoom lens, so the extra cost of a zoom is mitigated, but it might make sense for many photographers to augment a three-lens zoom kit with a prime lens, especially with one or two focal lengths that find the most frequent use.


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