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Are The “Best” Lenses The Most Expensive, And Do You Need Them?

By Max Bridge on June 29th 2016

Lenses can be VERY expensive but often there are cheaper alternatives which have a slower aperture. We all want the more expensive versions, it’s natural to, but do we actually need them? When does necessity take second place to desire? Especially when there are viable alternatives. When the difference in price can be hundreds of dollars it’s important to make the right choice.

The Best Lenses Aren’t Always The Most Expensive

In some cases, the cheaper versions can even have other benefits over their far more expensive counterparts. If a lens has a slower aperture it will be smaller, lighter, less intrusive, and cheaper (usually). So are the more expensive versions always the best lenses? Not necessarily.

Best-canon-lenses

Usually, when purchasing a lens we consider a number of things; sharpness, quality of bokeh, build quality, focus speed, size, weight, weather sealing, price, and a few others. Across the board, size, weight and price will be won by the slower aperture variants. However, is it always the case that the more expensive versions win in every other category? Should you always be aiming for the more expensive version if you’re willing to spend the money and lug around heavier kit?

[Rewind: See our Ultimate Guide to Prime Lenses]

In the image above you can see the Canon 85mm f1.2L II. That is a beast of a lens that takes lovely photos, and a legend in its own right – even before Brandon Stanton brought attention to it even more to the masses. It costs roughly $1900 new and I sold it not that long after buying it, trading it in for a Sigma 85mm f1.4 which costs a fraction of the price. Why did I do that if the lens produced such lovely results?

The photo above was was taken with the 85mm at f1.2, and at 1.2 the photos this lens produces are beautiful. However, its focus speed is atrocious. If you’re photographing fast moving subjects, like children, then there is no use in having a lens which is slow to focus, and it doesn’t matter how sharp it is if you always miss the moment.

This next photo was shot using the Sigma. Had I shot it using the Canon lens there would have been almost no difference. Modern lenses are generally of such high quality that when we talk about differences in sharpness we’re typically just splitting hairs. It tends to be the other categories (focus speed, weight, weather sealing, chromatic aberrations, light transmission and so on) where the big differences are seen.

Yes, I did lose a little bit of speed, going from f1.2 to f1.4, but that was more than made up for, in my opinion, by the giant gains to focus speed. Is this advantage solely related to this lens? No. It’s not universally true, but it’s a bit of a cautionary poster boy that serves as a reminder not to automatically assume that all of the more expensive lenses will be better in every category. Julia Kuzmenko, our resident high-profile retoucher and beauty photographer, recently wrote an article comparing the Canon 100mm F2.8L with the non L. In that article, she spoke of how she prefers the non L, citing focus speed as a major reason.

[REWIND: THE CANON 100MM MACRO VS 100MM MACRO ‘L’ FOR FASHION & BEAUTY PHOTOGRAPHY]

nikon-nikkor-l200mm-portrait-wedding-leica-noctilux-50mm-photography-slrlounge-kishore-sawh-4

Which Is The Best 70-200? f4 or f2.8?

I suppose “best” is the wrong word to use, when it comes to these lenses at least. A more accurate term would be ‘appropriate’, as all versions are excellent.

The 70-200mm is a workhorse for many in our industry, including me. It comes with me to every shoot and tends to be the lens I use most – With this article, I am specifically referring to the Canon and Nikon 70-200mm lenses with IS / VR as those are the ones I have experience with. Sorry, I can’t speak for other brands – Canon and Nikon both offer f4 versions of their 70-200mm lenses.

As mentioned, when purchasing a lens there are lots of factors to weight up. With budget being one of them, I initially started off with the Canon 70-200mm f4 IS version and the image above was taken with that very lens. In all categories, other than aperture, the f4 matches the f2.8. There are a few slight differences in vignetting between the two but these are so minor that they do not merit discussion.

[REWIND: BEST LENSES FOR WEDDING PHOTOGRAPHY ACCORDING TO 13 TOP WEDDING PHOTOGRAPHERS]

Therefore, the decision to switch from the f4 to the f2.8 was purely to get that extra stop. At the time, I shot with the Canon 5d Mk II and was never happy to go above ISO 800, the extra stop of light really helped there. In addition, with my family photography I love to use a very shallow depth of field and at 200mm and f2.8 the lens performed wonderfully.

Does this mean I recommend that everyone fork out the extra cash and buy the f2.8? No. Unless you, like me, have NEED for the extra stop then you’re doing yourself, your wallet, and your back a disservice, and the f4 would undoubtedly be the better choice. When it comes to the Canon/Nikon 70-200 it is that simple. If you need the extra stop get the f2.8 version, but ensure you actually need it. If you’re shooting in studio and typically around f/8, clearly it’s not required, and at f/8 you’d be hard pressed to find a difference between the two.

Side note – With Nikon, it is a little more complicated as the f4 is not weather sealed. Other than that the two versions are very similar and hence the same logic applies.

You can find the various versions of each lens by clicking on the following links:

Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L – $1,949

Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L IS USM – $1,099

Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/4G ED VR – $1,396.95

Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II – $1,896.95

Summary

This was certainly not the most in depth of lens comparisons, and it was never meant to be. Instead, I‘d like you to take away the notion that to get “the best” (or most appropriate) lens you don’t necessarily need to fork out for the more expensive version. Consider what you need and DO NOT assume that more expensive will mean better in every category. It just doesn’t. Our Editor-In-Chief, Kishore, regularly shoots with and still loves the old Nikon 80-200 f/2.8 ED, as seen below, and that can be had for a fraction of the newer 70-200s.

Incidentally, if you’re in the market, Nikon has some great sales on some of their best lenses right now. Find them here.

nikon-70-200-zoom-bikini-swinsuit-swimwear-beach-police-miami-reflector-photography-slrlounge-kishore-sawh-2

[REWIND: WHEN ARE YOU READY TO RAISE YOUR PHOTOGRAPHY PRICING?]

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About

Max began his career within the film industry. He’s worked on everything from a banned horror film to multi-million-pound commercials crewed by top industry professionals. After suffering a back injury, Max left the film industry and is now using his knowledge to pursue a career within photography.

Website: SquareMountain 
Instagram: Follow Author

16 Comments

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  1. Alfie Goodrich

    That 80-200mm f/2.8 ED IF is one I own and use all the time. Great lens. Those E Series Nikkor lenses, like the ones you have in your photo to head-up this article, are hidden gems and always ave been. When they came out, they were shunned by most pros and snobs. They’re cheap and wonderful quality. I have a few but the 75-150mm f/3.5 E is amazing. I paid 1000¥ for mine and found another for one of my students, which was 2000¥. The helicoid bokeh with the lens at 150mm and f/3.5 is beautiful. Nikon’s F-Mount is why I stay with the brand. Lenses from 1971 I can mount without any need for an adaptor or modification. Back to 1956 if you make a small mod on the back of the lens. I still use every day in my work lenses I have owned since I was ten years old. I have most of my old Mamiya RB67 lenses and have adapted them on to the Nikon too.

    I’m very lucky, living in Tokyo, to have a multitude of cheap, great quality glass to choose from. 

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  2. Bob McCormac

    A good choice is also the Tamron SP 70-200mm F/2.8 Di VC USD. It rivals the equivalent Canon lens and is $800 cheaper.

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    • Max Bridge

      Never tried the Tamron although I have heard good things. I did have the Sigma 70-200 OS once, I think it was in-between the Canon f4 and f2.8. Gotta say, I wasn’t overly impressed with that. Hopefully Sigma will revamp that lens in their current, len dominating, style.

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  3. Daniel Chouinard

    Nikon also has a 180mm f/2.8 which is really cheap, light and produces really nice and sharp pictures. I don’t understand people who carry a 70-200 zoom when we mostly use it at the max all the time

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    • Paul Wynn

      Hi Daniel. I use the 70-200 about 50% of the time, it’s my go to lens for events, parties and weddings. It gets used at all sorts of focal lengths depending on my position and how many people will be in the shot. I always carry that lens plus 50 mm and 20 mm primes.

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  4. Warren Surette

    I have the Canon 70-200 F4 and love the photos at wide open the price difference is vast between the F2.8 and the F4. I also have the Sigma 85mm F1.4 and love the photos, the canon 85mm F1.2 is just not sharp enough wide open so you are correct in stating that sometimes the cheaper lens maybe the best lens for you. Enjoyed reading your post.

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  5. Paul Wynn

    Thanks Max for the excellent article. I regularly use two older Nikon lenses, they work fantastically well and only cost a fraction of the price of modern offerings.
    http://www.tellitphotoweddings.co.uk/blog/95-old-masters-new-life

    Overall I have largely realigned my kit towards faster prime lenses, which for me are more user friendly and represent better value for money compared with highly priced fast mid range zooms, such as a 24-70mm f2.8.

    The only exception to this is a Nikon 70-200mm f2.8, which as you rightly say is a workhorse. I have tried other brands and f/4 versions but for me, I believe this one is the best for flexibility and performance.

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    • Max Bridge

      Thanks for the comment Paul.

      There’s certainly some bargains to be had when it comes to older lenses. Back in the days when I used to do video work I had a load of old Pentax lenses. They were very cheap, sharp and perfect for video. The worth of older lenses will completely depend on the use intended, as it always does.

      Glad you agree on the 70-200. Don’t know what I’d do without mine. Ha ha

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    • Anders Madsen

      Agree with Paul Wynn on the 28-105 f/3.5-4.5 – it’s remarkably good for its age. I bought one as a backup for my prime triplet (35/50/85) but found it to be very useful for closeups as it will do 1:2 macro and I routinely use it when shooting for my clients.

      Used in the studio at f/8 it is probably outresolving my D610 and the only weakness I have found is a tendency to flare more easily when shooting in bright conditions – something that probably is to be expected, given the age of the coatings. A bit of care when setting up the lighting and it’s delivering very usable images.

      I have a similar vintage Nikon 70-210 f/4-5.6 that I bought mostly to see if I would ever use the focal length (and it turns out that I rarely do), and while it is plenty sharp from 70-135 mm, it does show its age a bit above 135 mm. Wide open it is definitely soft at 200 mm, but at f/8 it performs so well that I have actually shot images for paying customers a couple of times, and nobody complained.

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  6. Victor Iwotor

    Great article!
    This is a subject I have struggled with personally. My take away from this is simple: instead of “best” lens, it should be “most appropriate” lens for your particular “need”….with your budget in mind.

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  7. Steven Pellegrino

    For the past several years I’ve made a living as a photojournalist with two older Nikon lenses – 35-70mm 2.8 & 80-200mm 2.8. Super sharp lenses, built to last and just over $1,000 FOR BOTH! My photos are published in The Washington Post, The Economist, The Daily News, CNN and many other outlets.

    I never know the lighting conditions and many times I have to open them up to 2.8. The few times I have to go wider than 35mm, I carry an inexpensive 24mm lens and just switch lenses for a few shots.

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    • Max Bridge

      Thanks for the comment Steven! Really helps to show people you don’t need “the best” lenses to create work worthy of publication.

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  8. robert raymer

    Excellent article. When giving people advice on which lens to buy I always ask them a host of other questions like what they shoot most, lighting they are usually shooting in, subject matter, and a number of other things. They thing I’m crazy, but you need to know all of these things in order to pick a lens because it is never a matter of which lens is best, it is a matter of which lens is best for you.

    That said, lately I have been considering buying lenses based more on “character” (which I have a hard time describing) than anything else. Being a film shooter in addition to digital I have a host of older lenses around. While they may not be as optically advanced as newer lenses, they often have a look that I love, specifically the Nikon AI-S series lenses and the often maligned “DC” lenses, which are on my “wish list”. Also, being an experimenter I decided to buy a cheap adapter to use an old (1960s) Zeiss 80mm on my D800 and love the results.

    The result is that now while I still have a few new lenses I would like to add to my kit, I find myself considering certain older lenses as much, if not more often.

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  9. Brian Worley

    The 70-200mm f/2.8 lens will also give more precise AF than the 70-200mm f/4 lens on Canon bodies.

    This is because virtually all Canon EOS DLSRs have a central AF point, sometimes others, that automatically switches to a higher precision operation when f/2.8 or faster lenses are used.

    Faster AF: with more light coming in to the camera the AF performance also increases with f/2.8 or faster lenses. Typically more of the AF points work as cross-type instead of line-type AF points and they are working over a larger area. In low light conditions this can make the difference between sharp focus and a missed shot.

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  10. adam sanford

    You forgot that a 70-200 f/2.8 can be 2x teleconvertered and retain AF function, whereas a 2x teleconvertered f/4 zoom might lose AF function (depending on your body).

    Point: f/2.8 lens

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    • Max Bridge

      Very true Adam. Thanks for pointing that out.

      Really, I omitted many things. The point wasn’t for an in-depth comparison, more an illustration of a point. That said, it’s still useful for those who would want to use a teleconverter to know.

      Thanks!

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