A Lens for All Seasons

As poetic as the title sounds, it really is an exaggeration. There are a multitude of lenses in different focal lengths as well as zoom ranges and specialized ones, so when I read the April 2011 headline in Popular Photography which reads “The Do-it-all lens” and showing a Sigma 85mm f/1.4 lens, I thought to myself “That’s a tall order to fill!” then proceeded to read the article.

I have the Canon 85mm f/1.2L Mark II lens which, interestingly enough, is only slightly mentioned in the article. I guess because it’s probably too expensive to even be seen with the other paltry lenses in the bunch (okay, that was a little uncalled for). Actually, I think it’s because it’s too slow for “walkabouts”. You’ll miss many a deciding moments because of the slow auto focus (see Kai Wong’s review of the Canon 85mm lenses at YouTUBE/DigitalRev).

Since I generally use the 85mm for portraits, and the article says I can use it for other things, I decided to do the reverse: see if my standard zoom can be used for portraits that look as good as the ones out of the 85mm lens. But first, a bit about lenses.

There are two main categories for lenses: prime and zoom. Before zoom lenses there were only prime lenses. These are lenses that have a fixed focal length. No zooming allowed (you’d have to use your feet to zoom in on a subject). Photographers became a bit lazy and started to get bothered by the constant changing of lenses for different occasions so the zoom lens was born. Both types of lenses fall into the following categories: wide, standard, medium telephoto, telephoto and super-telephoto. Within those categories are even more categories. You can get a bit dizzy just thinking about it!

Wide Angle Lenses

These are lenses with focal lengths of 8mm to 35mm (on the norm). These are good for group shots, majestic images of inside cathedrals, landscapes, anything BIG. So a wide angle zoom is a lens that has several of these focal lengths like the 16-35mm f/2.8L lens from Canon (which is a very nice lens).

Standard Lenses

These are lenses with focal lengths of 50mm to 70mm. So a standard zoom lens would have these focal lengths like  24-70mm f/2.8L lens from Canon. The reason they are “standard” is that at 50mm, the perspective of the lens closely matches the perspective of what the human eye sees. So taking pictures with a 50mm lens, produces photos that render what the photographer literally sees. This is a good focal length for reportage photography and is the standard lens on older SLRs of yore like the Canon AT-1 (which I still have and was my first SLR). 35mm lenses are also use for this type of photography.

Medium Telephoto Lens

These are lenses with focal lengths between 80-135mm. This is the “portrait zone”. The 85mm f/1.2L II (known as the “bokehlicious lens” by Kai Wong) and the 135mm f/2L (known as Canon’s sharpest lens) are examples of prime lenses in this category.

Telephoto Lens

These are lenses with focal lengths between 100-200 (yes, I *did* say that 135mm is “medium”, but zoom lenses in this category encompass that range). The 70-200mm f/2.8L II (the lust of all Canon-nites) is probably the best tele zoom bar none. Unfortunately, it only fits Canon DSLRs.

Super Telephoto

Well, as the name suggests, these lenses are quite long. Usually used for paparazzi, safari photographers (you REALLY don’t want to get close to elephants in the wild), bird watchers, secret agents, etc. They are also VERY expensive. The Canon 800mm f/5.6L lens costs about $13,000!

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Okay. Let’s get back to photos! I decided to compare the bokehliciousness of the Canon 85mm f/1.2L II and the Canon 24-105mm f/4L lens at 105mm. When you look at zoom lenses, generally they are marked with the most common focal lengths as shown here:

Zoom Lenses

The lens on the left is a Sigma 28-300mm DG Macro lens. It’s relatively inexpensive and the quality of the images are nowhere near on par with the Canon lenses, but it’s quite versatile because of the focal range. Large focal ranges generally don’t produce quality images (due to optic shtuff that I won’t get into here) so when looking for a zoom lens, get one with a relatively small range (e.g. 24-70mm, 24-105mm, 70-200mm), with a fixed aperture and some type of image stabilization, like the Canon lens on the right (unless you were a former sniper-turned-photographer who hasn’t forgotten how to hold rock steady).

I first attached the 85mm to my 5D to take some high action shots of Max, my most active cat, and then compare it with the zoom photos. Here’s the first shot with the portrait lens:

Action Max! / Canon 5D Mk II, Canon 85mm f/1.2L II, f/1.2, 1/80, ISO 400

Wow! I had to use my ninja reflexes to capture this shot! Notice the nice bokeh. It’s so creamy and smooth! “BOKEHLICIOUS!” This is due to the wide aperture of the lens. Now let’s see if we can keep up with Max and get another impossible shot of him with the zoom lens.

Action Max 2! / Canon 5D Mk II, Canon 24-105mm f/4L at 105mm, f/4, 1/5 (with the miracle of IMAGE STABILIZATION), ISO 400

We caught him JUST in time before his cat-like reflexes kicked in! Notice that we still have a nice bokeh, though not as bokehlicious as at f/1.2, but very good indeed. This is also due to the distance from Max and the focal length used.

When shooting portraits in a studio, you would generally use apertures of f/5.6 or smaller for sharpness and because there is no need to blur the backdrop if you’re using one. You want to use larger apertures if you have a scene in the back that can distract from the subject. Let’s take a “portrait proper” of Max (if we can keep up with him) and see what that looks like.

Action Max 3! / Canon 5D Mk II, Canon 24-105mm f/4L at 105mm, f/5.6, 0.3 sec (with the miracle of IMAGE STABILIZATION), ISO 400

We still get some background blur (could be because of Max’s high speed movements).

Standard zooms make good “all around lenses” if their apertures are wide enough with range of situations including low light or with some image stabilization, though it’s better to have a wider aperture so that your shutter speed is faster, thus better freezing the subject. My preference is using a 50mm prime instead, since I like the reportage style of photography also known as “street photography”. Some use telephoto zooms for this kind of photography because they don’t want to be in the subjects face (no pun intended), but I like to get up close and personal and shooting from the hip is very inconspicuous (see “Shooting in the down low”). The lens would also have to have a wide aperture of no less than f/2.8, in my opinion. I’m aiming for the Canon 50mm f/1.2L because I want the highest image quality and the most bokehliciousnessness that I can get. The Canon 50mm f/1.8 is also a good option, but the bokeh is not as “creamy” as the f/1.2.

Now go out and shoot!