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I am primarily an amateur photographer but I do take small jobs from time to time. I'm looking to upgrade my equipment but I'm not sure if I should be spending money on my body, glass, or both. I have two common issues that I'd like to improve.

  • I shoot a lot at ice rinks and find that even in servo mode I get a lot of shots that are slightly out of focus. I try to keep the AF target on face masks but many shots will come out focused an inch or two off (ears, hands, etc). I'm shooting F/1.8-F/2.8 to get action stopping shutter speeds so you can really tell when the focus is even a hair off. I don't know if this is a limitation of my camera, lens, or the human operator.

  • Most of my paid work is indoors shooting candids where a flash is inappropriate. I feel like I need to use a higher F-number to get more subject in focus but I usually can't do it without upping to ISO 3200 unless I'm using a flash. By the time I clean up the high ISO noise in Camera Raw I end up with an image lacking detail. So far this hasn't been a big problem because the photos are typically used in magazine prints only an inch or two wide but it's still driving me nuts.

Here is the equipment currently in my bag:

  • Canon Rebel T2i
  • Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 II (no IS)
    • Collecting dust, came with my old Rebel XTi.
  • Canon EF-S 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS
    • Purchased with my T2i. This is my workhorse lens but I'm disappointed with the soft images it produces at higher focal lengths. Stopping down makes the images acceptable but that's not always an option. My eyes want more contrast and color but considering how inexpensive this lens is I can't really complain.
  • Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM
    • This was purchased with an older camera and doesn't get used much anymore. The images are too soft beyond 200mm and the AF seems sluggish.
  • Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM
    • I am extremely happy with the images I get from this lens. I use it indoors all the time and also paired with extension tubes for some macro work. Some of my best ice hockey images have been from this lens even though I didn't have sports in mind for this lens.

My initial plan was to upgrade to a 60D or 7D body but after doing some reading it occurred to me that I might invest in better glass first. I'm unsure of what will help improve focusing, image quality, high ISO shooting, etc. Maybe it's a new camera, new glass, photography lessons, or a little of everything?

I'm looking to keep my next round of purchases under $3,000 and am willing to trade in some of my used equipment to offset costs. Would anyone care to make a recommendation? I'm looking at the EOS 60D and 7D bodies. Not sure if the 7D is overkill for my needs. I'm also looking at the EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM lens to be my new workhorse but I'm concerned that it may not be wide enough on an APS-C body and the lack of IS might be an issue. There's also the EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM but I'm thinking it wouldn't be wise to spend all my budget on that lens right now (or maybe not?).

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(Rolled back edits as per meta.photo.stackexchange.com/questions/1601/…) –  mattdm Jul 12 at 1:59

10 Answers 10

up vote 18 down vote accepted

I would gravitate to lens choices over the body. There's a couple of reasons...

  1. The lenses will be useful in the future when another opportunity to purchase arises.

  2. Fast glass, such as f/2.8 zooms, are very helpful in low light. These are, often, pro grade lenses as well, so that helps sharpness.

In the end result, you'll have these lenses for years, the bodies will come and go. So, that investment will pay long term dividends starting now. The other thing to keep in mind, cameras like the 7D will start to appear on the used market and so you may find you'll have budget when that happens and you'll have nice lenses for it when it does.

Now, having said that, the big upside to a 7D now is the speed of the camera. The frame rate is high and that helps a lot in the situations you shoot in. A common technique in these environments is to shoot a bunch of frames of the same scene, it ups the odds that one is sharp.

Still, I'd go lenses first if you have a cap on spending.

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6  
+1 Good advice. Concerning the 7D: its resolution is identical to the T2i. However, in addition to the faster frame rate, it also has better autofocusing, which could be an important consideration. –  whuber Apr 11 '11 at 15:33
    
@whuber - Ah good point on the resolution, I was thinking it was 14mp for some reason... –  John Cavan Apr 11 '11 at 15:34
    
Wow, thanks so much everyone for the great info. I'm going to think about this for a while. There's been a lot of talk about 70-200 L glass. My experience has been that F/4 is just barely tolerable in an ice rink and that IS is useless when there's so much action. That would lean me towards the EF 70-200mm f/2.8L USM but I don't feel right about buying a telephoto without IS. The EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM looks perfect but I don't know if it's worth the $$ for my purposes. What situations would I need IS in a fast f/2.8 lens? I don't really know why I feel wrong about not having IS. –  MDaubs Apr 11 '11 at 15:51
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@MDaubs - IS is important if your shutter speeds are slow, but if you're shooting action, you may have less of a need for it since you'll want shutter speeds above the focal length of the lenses anyways. Great if you can spend the extra dough for it, but I would necessarily worry about not having it. –  John Cavan Apr 11 '11 at 15:57
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All good points about glass, however when AF performance is important, glass is only half the solution. The speed of a lenses AF doesn't do anything to actually "lock" focus...that is entirely a function of the camera body. You need to pair good glass with a quality AF system...and in this case, that is the 7D. –  jrista Apr 12 '11 at 3:26

what's holding you back is that you are too gear-minded. Rather than thinking "I have this gear, now how can I use it to do what I want to do", you're thinking "what new gear do I need to do what I want to do". That way you will always be "held back", because you're never going to actually fully use what you have, will constantly be worrying about what you don't have yet.

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I'm not sure this is quite fair for this particular question. MDaubs is making a reasonable assessment of the lenses he or she has and his/her usage of them. Just about every hobbyist photographer could probably stand to be less gear-focused and more photograph-focused, but if your lenses are a collection of budget zooms it's reasonable to consider upgrades. –  mattdm Apr 13 '11 at 7:59
2  
As much as I'd like to disagree your assessment is at least partially accurate. I said that I'm not impressed with the softness of the 18-135 zoom but if I shoot in manual mode and take plenty of thoughtful shots I can get photos that I'm very happy with provided there is enough light for me to stop down. On the other hand, I will never be able to manually focus during a hockey game so I am somewhat limited by my equipment when it comes to AF. In the end I think it's a little of both. Either way I'm being pretty picky about relatively small details. :) –  MDaubs Apr 13 '11 at 14:29
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the idea for that hockey game is to pre-focus on a spot you want to capture before the action starts, then set the camera to manual focus and keep that distance locked in. I use the same technique photographing aircraft demonstration teams, which fly too fast to use AF accurately even in good weather. It takes some practice, but it works well (especially if you have enough light to stop down some, increasing the field that's in focus). –  jwenting Apr 14 '11 at 6:44

There are lots of good lens recommendations being made, but I'd like to also suggest the Canon 135mm f/2L. For hockey shooting I assume you're away from the action so the longer focal length shouldn't be a problem. The f/2 lens will give you an additional stop of light over the f/2.8 lenses, and this lens is often cited as one of (if not) the sharpest lenses in Canon's lineup.

As an event shooter, I often used this as my "from the back of the room" lens and it worked out really well.

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See the review at the-digital-picture.com/reviews/… . –  whuber Apr 12 '11 at 6:02
    
Also photozone.de/canon-eos/… –  mattdm Apr 13 '11 at 8:01
    
@MDaubs: since your current description of what you use sounds like you get the most out of your one prime lens, I second the recommendation of looking at other primes; if not this one, Canon makes a lot of others in various price ranges. –  mattdm Apr 13 '11 at 8:03

You are right to be looking at the 60D and the 7D. If you are into sport shooting, as it appears you are, then the 7D will suit you better. That will help you dramatically with the focus issues, and it'll give you a slight boost in ISO performance as well.

As far as lenses, you should consider two things. First of all, a 70-200mm lens would serve you very well for the ice rink shots.

For the indoor work, it depends on what kind of work it is. If you are the type to get really close, you might consider getting a prime lens that will help you to get close, or the 17-55mm 2.8.

If you get these 3 things, I think you'd do well.

Total: $3,680

It's a bit more than you wanted, but these prices are Canon's, brand new. If you look at a site like BH photo video, or Amazon, you should be able to find some better deals.

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+1 Great combination. The 60D doesn't appear to be sufficiently better than the T2i to be worth consideration, though. –  whuber Apr 11 '11 at 15:35
    
Thanks @Pearsonartphoto, @whuber. Knowing this I think I would upgrade the body to a 7D or not at all. I did not consider the EF-S 17-55mm 2.8 but @cabbey has me thinking that I shouldn't spend money on EF-S glass. I won't be moving to FF bodies any time soon, but this lens could be in my bag for decades. I don't see any EF lenses that cover that focal range though. Does anyone think 24mm on an APS-C is too tight for general use? I rarely find myself taking wide shots and I'm not into landscape photography. –  MDaubs Apr 11 '11 at 15:58
    
I just noticed that the EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM got some really good reviews, calling it on par with L-series image quality. Anyone know if I can expect the EF-S 17-55 to outperform my EF-S 18-135 (that I don't find particularly impressive). –  MDaubs Apr 11 '11 at 16:21
    
@MDaubs: Almost certainly. The general opinion of the 17-55mm 2.8 is that it would be an L lens, but Canon doesn't call any lens L that's an EF-s. –  PearsonArtPhoto Apr 11 '11 at 17:40
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@MDaubs Having shot a few thousand photos with the EF-S 17-55, my main (really only) complaint is the zoom is too loose: not up to L build standards. Optically it's good: almost no CA and the barrel distortion at wider angles corrects easily in post. It's supposed to have good resale value if you ever decide on a FF body, so considering it a $1200 commitment might not be the best way to balance cost and benefit. BTW, pay attention to filter sizes: a 67 mm filter for the 70-200 won't fit the 17-55; get 77 mm filters (e.g., polarizer) and a step-down ring. –  whuber Apr 12 '11 at 5:58

For the body, stepping up to the x0D range will get you a little better IQ on higher ISO, allowing you to keep the shutter speeds and stop down the iris to get more DOF. Assuming you stick with a crop sensor format then your current glass will all be able to come along. The kit lens on a 60D is one you already have, so skip that and go body only... a 60D body can be had for $1000, leaving $2000 in your budget for a nice fast lens.

As far as glass goes, if you have any aspirations to ever move up to "bigger and better" cameras, stop buying EF-S glass now. The 17-55 f/2.8 you mentioned is a nice lens, and can be had for $1200 most places. If you're doing a lot of hockey, you could also look at the 70-200 f/2.8L which can usually be had for $1500. It doesn't have IS, but with a constant 2.8 all the way out to 200mm you're going to get enough light coming in that combined with a higher ISO capable back you're probably going to be ok with just supporting it on the boards with your arm. (I'm assuming a tripod/monopod is out of the question.)

Another thing you might consider is spending some of that budget on upgraded workflow software. Lightroom (and Aperture) in my experience can ususally get better quality results when you really have to dig deep into the raw to get an image than the bundled software from Canon does, and give better tooling than camera raw alone, or even camera raw as an input to photoshop. Unlike the back or the glass, that's one you can preview for free... (at least lightroom, not sure about aperture) just download the demo and pull in some of your shots that you were less than thrilled with and see what you can do with them.

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The T2i has the same sensor and pretty much the same noise characteristics of the 60D/7D which are better than the 50D and those before it. –  Eruditass Apr 11 '11 at 20:41
    
@Eruditass, same sensor, but different software. One of the key differences is that the 60D and 7D both allow access to the "sweet spot" iso values which the T2i does not; also I seem to recall reading that the firmware on those levels didn't really do the best at dealing with the noise compared to the 7D (and I assume 60D since they're very similar bodies). –  cabbey Apr 11 '11 at 22:24
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Yes, but the noise characteristics, especially in RAW where you get the best results anyway, mostly depend on the sensor. By sweet spot I assume you mean intermediate ISO stops. The amplifiers today generally are factor of 2 only, so those intermediate ones are just done in software. If you mean higher ISO, in JPEG that might be true, but again in RAW, hardly any difference. –  Eruditass Apr 12 '11 at 1:42
    
There's a fair amount of evidence that the even multiple of 100s ISOs are the software pushed ISOs. Specifically they're all 1/3 stop pushed in software over the "native" ISOs. eg 400 is 320 + 1/3 stop push in software and 250 is 320 - 1/3 stop with a software pull. They certainly are the cleanest/least noise ISOs on most of the recent Canons. –  cabbey Apr 12 '11 at 14:32
    
Yes, we agree on the pushed/pullled point. Where is the the evidence that they are better? Intuition and observations of many others say otherwise: photo.net/canon-eos-digital-camera-forum/00L9oA dvxuser.com/V6/… They have more noise, less DR, or both if not implemented in an suboptimal way as there is less power available on a camera. Second, you can apply those same software pulls/pushes... in software, on your PC. Also, the native ISOs which are hardware based are 100, 200, 400, 800, etc. –  Eruditass Apr 12 '11 at 16:34

I have shot some youth basketball recently and find the 70-200 2.8L IS to be invaluable, it is the only lens I use on the court. The IS is not necessary, but I do not think I would by this lens without it.

For wide angle, the 16-35 2.8L is the choice for me, but I just bought it to replace the 17-55 2.8 which I do not like.

I don't think you can go wrong with L glass and I agree that for shooting sports IS is not necessary.

My current body is a 7D which I like a lot, the 50D was just ok, I have not tried the 60D.

If I were you, I would spend the money on the 70-200 2.8L IS, and start saving for the 16-35 2.8L.

If you are still in doubt rent a couple of them and give them a test drive, or buy from a reputable dealer where you can return them if you are not satisfied.

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.. I've heard a lot of good things about the image quality of the 17-55 but never used one... what don't you like about it? –  MDaubs Apr 11 '11 at 17:34
    
@MDaubs - I bought the 17-55 specifically to upgrade a Tamron lens to take pictures of my child. Within a week of using it, the 17-55 on a 7D, the pictures started to regularly be out of focus. After a couple of weeks the camera started acting strange with error messages and reporting that it had focused when it obviously hadn't. So I sent the lens and body to Canon and they repaired both of them. But I still feel I am not getting consistent focusing performance from the lens, the camera is fine, and with the 16-35L it is great. –  Dave Nelson Apr 11 '11 at 18:48

I had the 450D and upgraded to the 7D recently, and am quite sure its a much better camera for action/sports (not that this was my motivation), but I think the improvement you'll get out of a more appropriate lens (something with USM to replace the 18-135!) will be more significant than the improved focus tracking in the 7D.

Given how much you like the 50mm, maybe its worth investing in another prime to keep costs down?

It really depends how much the distance varies between you and the 'action'. If you're using much the same focal length for half an hour at a time, then you might do well to invest in a ~30mm prime and one or two of the 85mm, 100mm, 135mm primes. There's L and non-L options for each.

Wider than 50mm

  • Canon 28mm f/1.8 USM ~$350 — this would be my pick
  • Canon 24mm f/1.4L II USM ~$1700
  • Canon 35mm f/1.4L USM ~$1200

Longer than 50mm

  • Canon 85mm f/1.8 USM ~$400 — this is probably the most appropriate
  • Canon 85mm f/1.2L USM ~$1800
  • Canon 100mm f/2 USM ~$400
  • Canon 100mm f/2.8 Macro USM ~$500 — or this if you like macro
  • Canon 100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM ~$900 — or this if you crave IS too!
  • Canon 135mm f/2L USM ~$1000

It's probably also worth remembering that your photos can be heavily cropped and still have sufficient resolution for a 2-inch wide magazine print, so shooting with a prime even half the focal length you'd ideally select on the zoom may be OK. That said, even a low quality zoom will produce a sharper image once scaled down that far, so its probably much the same either way.

If you need the zoom due to rapid/regular change in focal lengths, then a replacement for the 18-135 'workhorse' would depend on what focal lengths you really value in that lens (especially if you're happy to use the 50mm and a zoom lens that's only wider/longer as needed)

Similar range zooms to the 18-135mm

  • Canon 28-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM ~$400 — not L but better image quality and cheap!
  • Canon 24-105mm f/4L IS USM ~$1100 — L quality, better quality again
  • Canon 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6L IS USM ~$2300 — L quality, loooong (but not very wide)

Wider / Longer zooms (if you mainly use one end of the 18-135mm?)

  • Canon 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM ~$1000 — wide aperture thanks to shorter zoom ratio
  • Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 USM ~$1100 — wide aperture as above

Of course, apart from the 70-200 you're losing about 2-3 stops compared to equivalent primes (the 70-200 only loses 1 stop)

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Thanks! You got me thinking... do I really need a telephoto zoom? I'm not sure I do. My 50mm prime is effectively 80mm on my T2i and that's become my goto hockey lens even though there's no zoom. The 50mm was never purchased for the purpose of shooting hockey games. An 80mm or 100mm prime would be an affordable way to "reach" more rink, crop less, and reach my desired level of detail at a fraction of the cost. Doesn't solve my AF issue but I always wanted to move to a better body anyway. –  MDaubs Apr 13 '11 at 14:48
    
Actually, it might improve your AF as well — some AF sensors are more sensitive when used in conjunction with wide max-aperture lenses (i think the threshold is usually f/2.8) so its worth checking if your T2i (or upgraded body) perform better with a wider max aperture. And of course USM is faster than non-USM (i.e. new prime vs your 18-135), so might lock on faster. –  drfrogsplat May 9 '11 at 6:12

The first and last piece of equipment that is holding you back is yourself.

Unless you have very specific technical requirements (e.g. 5x macro), you can frequently improve your photos by investing in expanding your creativity rather than your equipment.

Shoot the best you can with what you have - you will develop as a photographer faster.

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You mentioned you major problems are accurate focus in large apertures and high noise in high ISO. My understanding is that you already have very fast lenses (correct me if I'm wrong). I can't see how buying a new lens will solve these particular problems. Especially, the noise problem, the only way to deal with that is to get a body with a better (larger) sensor. Then, a 5DMkII is the logical option. If budget is a concern, and since you don't need movie mode (do you?), then a used 5D may do a great work for you.

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5DmkII + Sports = Pain, Frustration and Loathing. I own one, they're totally NOT suited to action photography unless you're a manual focus wizard. The 7D beats the pants off the 5D2 on AF performance. –  cabbey Apr 11 '11 at 16:07

Your primary weak point is your lenses. They're all variable aperture, budget lenses.

The difference between the EF-S 17-55mm F/2.8 and the 18-55mm kit lens is very noticeable, as an example. I did exactly this and never went back. In fact, I won't buy a zoom lens until I can get it at F/2.8. A stop is a lot of light to be gaining, not to mention the benefits of the better glass. Even if it costs a lot more.

  • F/2.8 for the same exposure at all focal lengths.
  • Very good image stabilisation.
  • Significantly reduced chromatic aberrations.
  • Sharper overall.
  • Faster, silent auto focus with USM.
  • Less barrelling and/or pin-cushioning.

If you are inclined to get a full frame body, I'd be inclined to get two lenses at least.

  • 24-70mm F/2.8L
  • 70-200mm F/2.8L

You won't regret it.

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