New Camera Lenses: Where Does My Money Go?

For the past 18 months I have been playing around with a Canon EOS 500D, taking photos around my town and generally having fun. Up until recently the only lenses I had to suit it were the kit lenses, an EF-S 18-55mm F3.5-5.6 IS, an EF-S 55-200mm F4-5.6 and an EF 50mm F1.8. They are all decent lenses, and they’ve served me well so far but I felt like it was time to invest in some decent glass.

My main reason for having an SLR is for travel photography while touring on the motorcycle, and for street photography when I can drag myself out of the house. So this mainly consists of landscapes while travelling and the majority of the remaining shots not requiring very high focal lengths. I’ve had my heart set on a Canon EF 24-70mm 2.8L lens for almost a year now, and I was planning on buying one with my tax return this year (along with all the other photography gear I need for an upcoming holiday). Unluckily, I didn’t count on the tax office deducting a large chunk of my return this year to repay my university loans. This mean I couldn’t afford the Canon lens. I still needed something though, and after looking around on B&H for a few days I settled on the Sigma equivalent, the Sigma 24-70mm f/2.8 IF EX DG HSM, and a Bower 14mm f2.8 Wide Angle.

I have had these lenses for 3 weeks now and I can say with complete conviction that the Sigma lens isn’t performing anywhere close to the standard I expected. I know a lot of people who already own a pile of L-series lenses will say “That’s what you get for buying an third-party lens”, but I spent some time comparing these lenses, and comparing the specifications side by side one could be forgiven for expecting them to be of similar performance. Both have Ultrasonic autofocus, both have an aperture of 2.8 across the zoom range, and both are priced at $US1400 retail. This isn’t consumer price-territory. The most glaring issue I have with the Sigma is the autofocus. It’s a common complaint with this lens, and a few minutes with Google will reveal hundreds of instances of people having trouble with the autofocus performance of this lens. In my case, it’s neither consistent or accurate, sometimes it will focus forwards of what I am actually focusing on and other times it will focus too far. Switching off the autofocus is the best thing I did, and focusing by eye instantly increased the sharpness of the photos coming out of the camera. This lens is sharp and optically I cannot fault it, there is very little distortion or aberration in any of the images I shot with it. I was really suprised.

But that’s not what I paid for. I already have several manual lenses that perform just as well as this lens optically, and they did not cost me over $1000. What I paid for is a lens that is just as sharp as those older lenses with the convenience of fast, quiet and accurate autofocus. The time I have to spend focusing with this lens means many shots will simply be missed, or won’t be captured in anything other than a blurry approximation of what I wanted when I was looking through the viewfinder.

I e-mailed Sigma and after showing them some example of the lazy autofocus their solution is to send the lens, and my camera, to their service centre in this region for calibration. After considering it for a few days I said Poppy to that and I’m sending it back to B&H for a refund and I’m buying the Canon EF 24-70mm 2.8L like I planned to in the first place. While I did get the lens for $US899, quite a lot cheaper than the $US1400 retail price quoted by Sigma, I still have had to pay over $200 in import taxes, and I am looking at another $100 in postage to get this lemon back to B&H. All this has taught me is that if I’m going to buy a electronic lens for my camera I am better off in the long run buying one from the camera manufacturer.

I did mention earlier I also got another lens, a Bower 14mm f2.8 Wide Angle. After reading my experiences and how I feel about the Sigma, anyone would think I would want to return this lens with the Sigma and get the Canon EF 14mm f2.8L II USM wide angle. Certainly the Canon is the better performer, and with USM autofocus it’s easier and faster to use, and at 650g it’s near enough to make no difference to the Bowers 600g. But the Canon lens costs $US2239, more than 5 times the price of the Bower which costs a mere $US419. It performs well enough for what I want it for which is mainly landscapes, but it’s also quite reasonable up close as well:

Quite Reasonable

I’ve only just started playing with this lens but every time I take it out I love it just a little bit more. The manual focusing and aperture control take a little while for anyone who hasn’t used a manual lens to get confident with, but that’s really only a small issue when you’re getting a lens that has the potential to perform very well while costing what is practically peanuts compared to similar lenses. Unlike the Sigma where I really need the autofocus to be fast and accurate to avoid missing shots, I really only want this lens for landscapes so I can afford to stand there for half an hour taking photos and adjusting settings without a problem. If you need a lens that you can just bring up to your face and shoot with minimal fiddling around then this lens probably isn’t for you, but for me, it’s perfect.

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Posted: Sunday, August 7th, 2011 16:03
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