Wednesday, May 21, 2008

What Lense(s) Do You REALLY Need?

Disclaimer: Written by a Nikon user from that point of view.

As DSLRs become ever better regarding their noise handling abilities at high ISOs (> 800) and with the proliferation of shake cancelling technology (be it Nikon's VR, Canon's IS, etc.) we can get by (i. e., take good photos) with lenses that a few years ago would not be considered suitable for "pros" to use. Bumping the ISO to 800-1600 or higher is possible (the Nikon noise reduction DOES work superbly well) and the VR can add 2 to 3 stops of margin. Given that, do we NEED to drop the coin required to add a "fast" lens or two or three to our gear?

A typical fast lens with a constant aperture of f/2.8 for example will cost in the near-$2,000 range for something 200 mm and below. Are those lenses really necessary or worth it with the other technology that we have available to us?

As usual, the answer "depends."

I use a Nikon D300 and usually have attached to it Nikon's 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 G ED-IF AF-S VR DX Zoom Nikkor. (OK, the only important part of all of that alphabet soup is the 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 VR part.) This is hands-down the best lens I have ever used from a convenience standpoint. Further, the images are tack sharp and the VR works like magic. It is much lighter than either the fast 28-70 mm, f/2.8 or the 70-200 mm f/2.8 (which, to cover not even quite all of the same zoom range, I would have to carry both).

The beauty of the 18-200 is that I can leave it attached and be sure that I can capture virtually anything that comes up during the day, even without a tripod. This is the ultimate "walking around" lens. Get one.

There are times though when that lens won't do it. Consider the following situation.

I live near Fort Worth, Texas, and I was shooting an indoor rodeo at night down at the Stockyards. I was using an f/2.8 lens with a monopod and was able to shoot, using available light, across the arena. To capture the action I couldn't go too low on shutter speed. Most of the night I was shooting at around 1/80 with ISO was at 800. I was pushing the envelope about every way I could. If I had been using my 18-200 zoomed all the way in the maximum aperture would have been f/5.6 and I would have needed 2 additional stops to capture the shots but the aperture of the 18-200 was maxed out so the only thing left was ISO. The 2 stops would mean that ISO had to go up to 3200 and the noise, even with high ISO NR, could become unmanageable. Without the additional light gathering available with the f/2.8 lens I couldn't have gotten the shots.

That said, we each have to judge for ourselves whether the extra cost of a "pro" lens is a good value.

More to follow on this. Next time I'll discuss where to put the most $$ - lens or body.

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