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The EF-S 15-85mm lens is a relatively recent lens, and I haven't seen too many recommendations on it thus far. However, most of the reviews have been very positive and the lens is said to be optically on par with the 17-55mm. It sacrifices the constant wider aperture for better zoom range that could translate to fewer lens changes. As for the 50mm f/1.8, it is one of the most recommended lenses, dirt cheap and suited to low light & portrait photography.

The two lens combo is also cheaper than the single one (around INR 53,000 vs INR 64,000). The usage scenarios I have in mind are the following, along with my thoughts:

  • General purpose\travel photography - the 15-85mm seems to be more versatile than the 17-55mm for this, especially when light is not a constraint
  • Portraits - the 17-55mm would be quite versatile in this regard (however, 55mm feels a bit short for getting tight shots, and getting close can lead to distortion)
  • Event photography (weddings, parties etc) - the 17-55mm has the low light advantage over the 15-85mm, and 50mm can get a bit long in closed environments
  • Low light shooting - the 17-55mm is more versatile, but the 50mm has a wider aperture

So, which would be a better upgrade for my current setup comprising of the Canon 550D with the 18-55mm IS & 55-250mm IS kit lenses? Are there any alternatives worth considering in this budget?

Note: I had asked a similar question regarding upgrades for the kit lens, but that was without a particular scenario or lens in mind.

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The 15-88mm is not as sharp, especially in the corners as the 17-55mm, at the same apertures obviously. If you will do most of your shooting at the widest aperture, this is pretty important. –  dpollitt Dec 8 '11 at 19:47
    
On the updates: see meta.photo.stackexchange.com/questions/1601/… –  mattdm Jun 5 '12 at 11:11
    
@mattdm Thanks for the edit. The first update had actually been around for quite some time. Adding in the updates as comments for completeness (think that should be ok) –  ab.aditya Jun 5 '12 at 18:02
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I got the 50mm f/1.8 last Dec as @Abhimanyu suggested, and it was quite an experience. However, I went with the 15-85mm as an upgrade for the kit lens due to its better range. Both answers have been pretty useful that way. –  ab.aditya Jun 5 '12 at 18:06

3 Answers 3

up vote 7 down vote accepted

Before you get any other lens, get the 50mm f/1.8. Its a must-have lens for anyone even remotely interested in portrait photography. You just can't go wrong with it. Actually I never used the 18-55 after I got my fifty prime.

For your zoom needs, you would be better off with a third party lens like the the Tamron 17-50 f/2.8 (non-VC). At INR 21,000 ($440) it costs a third of the Canon 17-55mm f/2.8, and has great overall performance.

Here is my story:

I had a similar dilemma a while back. I had a Canon 500D with the 18-55 kit lens and was looking for a new lens. Since my budget was tight I purchased the 50mm f/1.8 and I was blown away by what a difference the wider aperture made. Amazing low light performance and sweet looking bokeh made it difficult to take a bad shot with it.

But with a crop factor of 1.6, I found it a little too tight for indoor use and while 'zooming with your feet' is the norm with a prime lens, I found myself running out of space indoors.

Also I used to shoot a lot wide open and found that shooting a portrait at f/1.8, even getting both eyes in focus becomes a challenge. Get a second person in the frame and there is no way you can get both people in focus. So I started stopping it down to about f/2.8 which gave me workable DOF while still giving great low light performance.

This made me realize that I needed a lens with the versatility of the kit lens and the wide aperture like the prime. I was on a tighter budget and hence purchased the Tamron 17-50 f/2.8 (non-VC). I have not been disappointed since. I still turn to the 50mm f/1.8 when I really need the extra 2/3rd stop or really shallow DOF, but the Tamron is what I use 95% of the times.

I've shot portraits, concerts, weddings and its always performed well. It would be better if it were a little sharper wide open and if the autofocus wasn't as loud, but its overall performance and versatility trump these minor issues.


PS: I'm a huge fan of bokeh and shoot mostly in low light, so I thought it would be useful to show some examples of what f/2.8 lets you do.

enter image description here

This one shows how you can use the shallow DOF at f/2.8 to get sweet bokeh. The 50 prime would have also done wonders here, but you can't keep switching lenses at an event.


enter image description here

This one was shot with just a candle to the left (out of the frame) and the lighter (in the frame).

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I did also consider the Tamron 17-50mm, but am not so sure regarding the reliability of 3rd party lenses (mechanical\electrical issues from reviews). Also, I agree with the 50mm being a bit long on APS-C for indoor use - I had tried setting my kit lens to 50mm and shooting indoors, and quickly found that I'm up against the wall a lot of the time. –  ab.aditya Dec 5 '11 at 18:10
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Nice examples photos btw. –  ab.aditya Dec 5 '11 at 18:10
    
This one is reliable and comes with an India warranty so you are safe. Surely the Canon has a marginal edge, but it costs thrice as much. You can get a Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM with the remaining money if you have to spend it. :D –  Abhimanyu Dec 5 '11 at 18:23
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I got the 50 mm f/1.8 for the time being to figure out if DoF is what I'm looking for. Let's see where this takes me :-) –  ab.aditya Jan 11 '12 at 17:23

I agree with everything you said except low light.

f/2.8 is still not good enough for many situation, the difference between f/3.5 and f/2.8 is very little and can almost be ignored. f/5.6 and f/2.8 is only two stops so you are looking at 1/10 turns into 1/40. If you have the impression that f/2.8 is amazingly good for low light, it is not.

15-85 is more flexible, has good quality (just like the 17-55), is better for travelling, and is cheaper and more recent.

I would go for the 15-85 anytime.

If I have to pay more, carry more, reduce my zoom range and use slightly older IS , just for two stops larger aperture, I would rather bump the ISO up and get all the other benefits, as well as saving some money for a 50mm f/1.4!!

Let's not forget that f/5.6 is at 85mm vs the 55mm of the 17-55

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The Canon 17-55 is a constant aperture f2.8, so f2.8 is available at all focal lengths. And two stops is HUGE. If you are already at ISO 400, two stops means putting your camera on ISO 1600. So 'bumping up the ISO" is rarely helpful in low light (unless you have a $5000 camera) –  cmason Dec 5 '11 at 17:45
    
"Combining an f/2.8 aperture with the 3 stop image stabilization, the Canon EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM Lens is arguably the most handholdable lens Canon currently makes." Quote from the-digital-picture. It is amazingly good for low light. f/2.8 with three stop IS is quite excellent. Isn't that roughly comparable to a 17-55mm lens at f/1? Obviously not accounting for moving subjects of DOF. –  dpollitt Dec 5 '11 at 17:50
    
Agree with @cmason. f/2.8 makes a HUGE difference. Shoot indoors and you are already pushing your ISO to the max. This is where the two stops comes in handy. Plus it gives lovely bokeh. –  Abhimanyu Dec 5 '11 at 17:53
    
Like I said, I would not trade 2 stops for FOUR major benefits mentioned above. I have a 50mm f/1.4 and when I shoot in "low light" I usually shoot in f/1.4 f/1.8 or f/2.0, very rare that I would get a decent shutter speed with f/2.8 , and when you are shooting moving subjects, f/2.8 just isn't enough. My point is, get a versatile lens, and get a cheap f/1.8 or f/1.4 . Also, the 15-85 has a newer IS that is rated at 4 stops vs the 3 stops of the 17-55 –  Gapton Dec 6 '11 at 1:51
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@khedron Yes the shallow DOF can be problematic. I will try to maintain a longer distance between me and the subject to get more DOF if it does not affect the composition too much. However with practice you can overcome the shallow DOF and still get great results. Some of my best photos are of my sister's newborn shot at f/1.4 and the focusing distance is less than 1 meter. I am not a pro but I am proud of having taken those. –  Gapton Jan 28 '12 at 12:06

I have both the 50mm F1.8 and the 17-55mm F2.8 (and the kit lens), I wouldn't really consider having the prime + kit lens as equivalent.

I found that the situations I used them in were quite different, but the 17-55 is what I would have on the camera 80% of the time. The 50mm prime I found useful for party situations, where you want the max aperture and small size of lens, as well as occasional situations where I knew 50mm would be the right size.

However, most of the time the combination of F2.8 + image stabilisation meant the 17-55 was the best bet, and you don't want to have swap lenses in a hurry.

If you find the extra distance the 15-85 buys you is useful, and generally have enough light, then that might be a good choice. However, I quite often found that on a 550D (18Mpixels) I could use 55mm and crop the picture down to the equivalent of an 100mm shot. As you tend to get good resolution from the 17-55, that works quite well.

I found that having the 17-55 on the camera, and having the 50mm in my bag was the most rounded option (and a telephoto lens for some occasions, but not all the time).

share|improve this answer
    
I went with the 15-85mm due to it better range. I agree that the 550D resolution is quite handy for cropping - the higher quality of the 17-55mm should definitely help for this. But, 55mm can lead to a bit of distortion when shooting close-ups. Plus, the 15mm wide end seems pretty useful. –  ab.aditya Jun 6 '12 at 9:47

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