Which lens to buy, or not

I think one of the most asked gear questions I get is which lens to buy.
Let’s first make one thing clear, I love that people mail me questions and I always answer them (and will continue doing that of course), some of those questions however trigger me into writing a blog post about them, and without a doubt this is one of them.

The message
Before we can look at what gear to buy I think it’s very important to realize what you are doing with your gear, for me it’s very simple, I like to tell a story, move my viewer or just enjoy them with a nice image. Realizing this can probably already safe you some money, but let’s start at the beginning.


The stages of a photographer
Please do read this as a it’s intended and that’s with a lot of tongue in cheek, so don’t be offended.
When I explain stuff to my students I sometimes use the following stages of a photographer.
Stage 1 : I’m the most awesome photographer in the world, every shot I take is the best ever.
Stage 2 : I’m doing just fine, I improve and I’m having fun, and people seem to enjoy my work.
Stage 3 : Man I suck, I think I’m just gonna quiet and start something else.
Stage 4 : Now if I get that new lens I will get better images, or that body, or……
Stage 5 : You know what…. forget about gear it’s about telling the story

In between these stages there are a lot of “substages” but the message I would like to get to you is that in the end it all boils down to one thing, and one thing only and that’s telling YOUR story and move your audience. I will never claim that a better lens is throwing away money, however I do want to say “be cautious”. Over time for example you see the bigger brands re-releasing lenses with catching advertising like “now even sharper, more contrast, more…..” etc. and although this can all be true you have to realize that, especially in the higher segment, you are paying a lot of money for something you already own.


Let’s take an example, a while ago Canon released a new version of my favorite lens the 70-200 f2.8 IS L, and although of course I’m curious I will not buy the new version. First off I would have to pay a lot of money for the upgrade, second of all the old 70-200 f2.8 IS L is already razor-sharp has great contrast and is in my possession, I will not say the new one isn’t better, however will I see a difference in my prints, on my website or in the publication I shoot with it for my customer ? The answer is very simple NO.


And this is just one example, however this does not mean I will never upgrade a lens. I strongly believe that if you can lift some limitations from your gear that you experience as a draw back it’s always wise to upgrade. For example I love to shoot sports in my spare time, at the moment I use the Canon 100-400L IS for that and although I really like the lens I would probably buy it’s replacement, the lens is a bit soft wide open, it’s not the fastest kid on the block and I feel it lacks some overall rendition that the 70-200 does have, not to a point that it annoys me, but certainly to a point that I think that if it’s replaced by something that’s affordable and a bit faster I will do the upgrade, however reality also kicks in that if I would have to pay more than let’s say 1500.00 for an upgrade I would realize it’s just my fun lens and would pass on it. Because as with all you guys I can only spend my money once.


So what lens do I buy?
Because a lens will determine the look of the image I strongly believe it’s very important to cover the range you need. For model/fashion/glamour photography this means I always advise to cover at least the range 24-200 meaning for the canon system I will advise the 24-70 and 70-200 lenses, and the fastest you can afford. The reason for fast glass is sometimes overlooked but very important. What you have to realize is that when we shoot in a studio environment we almost always close down, this means that some people think we would only need a f4 lens because closed down it still performs very well (even wide open by the way), however what’s often forgotten is that the Auto Focus system of your camera works with light, the more it gets in the better it will perform, and in the studio there’s not a lot of light, in most cases we don’t run with the modeling lights on full power and in 90% of the cases the light is also hitting our model under an angle, this is a situation that is not Auto Focus friendly to put it mildly, so getting a f2.8 lens is always a good idea instead of the f4.


Now I do break this rule myself just a little bit. I do cover my range but I choose the Canon 24-105 f4 L IS lens instead of the 24-70 f2.8L and the reason for this is actually very simple, I love to do video and the 24-105 has IS and this really helps a lot to smooth out the video, plus the longer range makes it a great walk around lens when I’m doing street style shooting. In the studio it’s slightly slower than the 2.8 version (which doesn’t have the longer range and IS) but to be 100% honest in the studio I mostly use the 70-200 when I shoot with Canon (normally I shoot Medium Format in the studio).

Primes vs zoom
Same story here to be honest.
Some people will claim that primes is the only way to go, and although they are in most cases 100% right that the primes are sharper, have some more contrast etc. but as you might have guessed I don’t advise primes to most people. I do own the 50mm 1.4 because I love the light capturing qualities of that lens, but when I shoot with primes I feel myself moving around to much to get the shot I want and that way loosing the compositional ideas I have. When I use a zoom I can very quickly change from 3/4 to full body or portraits, but MORE importantly I can change my angle of view very quickly, for example you can shoot a 3/4 shot on 70mm and on 150mm, both will give you the same area of the model BUT both will show you a different surrounding area, on 150mm you can for example make sure the ugly power outlet at the side of the scene is not in the image, whilst with the 70mm you can make sure that that beautiful lamp on the side of the image is seen. In other words both lengths will give you another rendition of the scene showing more or less of the scene.

This option and the increased speed in working gives me the flexibility I need in my shoots, and let’s be honest in the end result I will not see much or no difference between a very good zoom or a very good prime. And please don’t overwhelm me with mails with reviews, graphics etc. I know there is can be a huge difference in those tests, but just make some real live shots, print them out on A3 (full double page spread) and see if you can really spot a difference that is huge. And do take into account that you are limiting yourself in telling your story, or slowing down the workflow because you have to change lenses constantly, plus the added impact on your budget that could have been spend on improving your skills with workshops, DVDs, getting better models, nice locations etc.


In my heart I’m still a technical kind of guy, I love new gear, I love progress, and man do I love sharp images. However above all I love to tell a story without thinking about which lens will render a slightly sharper image but limiting my view, versus getting the view I want but having a little bit less sharpness, which will probably disappear when I print out my work…….. I always say “In the end we want the nail to go into the wall, I don’t care if I do that with a hammer from brand X or brand Y as long as it goes in and quick”. Well that might be a bit simple but in the end I think it does say what I mean.


Don’t see this article as a reason to buy cheap lenses (although the can be fun), invest in good glass, invest in fast glass but don’t over invest. A good lens is priceless and the difference between most $150.00 lenses and $1000.00 lenses are clearly seen in bokeh, sharpness, color rendition, overall corner to corner sharpness and distortion but please keep it “real” and don’t overspend on your glass forgetting where it really boils down to…. telling that story, getting the vision you have in your head onto the sensor.

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