Westminster fountain at sunset

by Jorge Córdoba

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I'm looking to purchase a new lens. The types of photos I take are:

  1. Portraits
  2. Candids
  3. Street
  4. Random objects here and there
  5. Architecture
  6. Occasional landscape when on vacation

They are ordered in descending order of preference and frequency. I know that the 85mm would be an ideal choice seeing that I love taking portraits, but the 28-135 seems to have pretty good review and it's definitely good for street, or any general walkaround when I don't want to change from prime to prime all the time. Of course I plan to get a 85mm eventually if I were to buy the 28-135, thing is which one of them would be a better investment for now given a budget constraint. (ie if I buy one I'll need to at least wait another year or so before I buy another)

Note that I already have a 50mm f/1.8 and am only a hobbyist photographer.

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The 28-135mm though is a rather average lens in the grand scheme of things. The aperture is both variable and not very large (f/3.5 maximum). I think you'd personally be better off getting the 85mm f1/8 USM. –  Nick Bedford Dec 2 '10 at 5:09

6 Answers 6

up vote 5 down vote accepted

Well, a prime lens is usually much better optically than a zoom and usually has much better light gathering ability, which in this case is pretty clear. Having said that, the flexibility of a zoom is hard to ignore, especially if it is a good one, and your interests are spread about a bit.

I think, if you're not looking to sell your results professionally, then the zoom will give you more ability to cover the range of interests you have and do it quite well. Ideally, if money were no object, then a series of high quality of primes would be better option for professional work, but you'll be lens swapping more. So, given the circumstance, I would probably recommend the zoom and then recommend that you start to acquire some different prime lenses as the opportunity arises (either new or used, don't ignore the used market) and you find focal lengths from the zoom that start to interest you most.

By the way, all that isn't to say you can't get professional grade output from the zoom. You certainly can, but the conditions under which you can do it are more limited.

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Haha yeah I definitely know that a prime has better optical quality. Would the fact that I have a 50mm f/1.8 make the outcome any different? Oh and I'm only a hobbyist. –  jon2512chua Nov 29 '10 at 2:55
3  
A good 50mm is always something to keep in your kit regardless of any other option! So, no, it wouldn't change my advice. I'm not a Canon shooter, but Pentax has a similar lens (18-135mm) that I plan to get soon because it's a great option for walking around just about anywhere. I would have loved it for a two week vacation in Italy I had recently where my 28-105mm pretty much never left the camera, and I have a lot of lens options, but that range was pretty much in the sweet spot for all the things I was shooting, near, far, and wide. –  John Cavan Nov 29 '10 at 3:06
    
"A good 50mm is always something to keep in your kit regardless of any other option!" I second that!! –  t3mujin Nov 29 '10 at 11:29

I'm assuming you have a APS-C cropped sensor camera (e.g. 50D, T2i etc) rather than full frame (5D, 1Ds). In that case both the 85mm (a superb lens) and your 50mm (a very good lens) are fast short tele primes. The 28-135 is a normal-to-tele zoom. The 85mm is in some ways a 'better 50mm' for your camera. The 28-135 is more flexible. However, please consider a wide-to-normal zoom too. For example, the 15-85, the 17-55 f2.8, the Tamron 17-50 f2.8 (non-VC) etc. The wider-than-normal viewpoint is worth getting to know, and 28mm on a crop cam is not wide at all.

If you do have a 5D/1Ds then 28mm is OK, though a 24-105 would probably do the camera more justice.

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Regarding the 85mm prime:

I own the 50mm f/1.4 USM and the 85mm f/1.8 USM, and I'd say the 85 is close enough to the 50 in most uses that it's probably not worth having both 50mm and 85mm lenses for most hobbyist photographers. I could easily do without the 85, but I'd never give up that 50. (My wife just got the 50mm f/1.2 L, but we're keeping the f/1.4 so we can both have 50mm lenses mounted to our respective cameras simultaneously.)

I do recommend, though, that you use the money instead to upgrade from the 50mm f/1.8 to the FAR nicer 50mm f/1.4 USM model (~$340). There's a huge difference in build quality and focus-motor speed, and small differences in optical quality.

For your zoom needs:

The 28-135 is OK, but not amazing in optics or versatility. (I'm assuming you have a crop-sensor camera like the Rebel/50D/7D series, and not a full-frame 1Ds/5D-series camera.) As others have said, 28mm isn't very wide on these bodies, and with a walk-around versatile zoom, the wide end is often your limiting factor.

You may want to consider the EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM, which is an amazing but expensive lens at ~$1000. This was my walkaround lens when I had a crop-sensor camera (I've since moved to the 5D Mark II, which EF-S lenses are not compatible with).

It's far nicer, in my opinion, than the 24-105mm f/4 IS L that I got with the 5D.

You should also highly consider the relatively new EF-S 15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM (~$720), which I don't have any experience with, but is getting great reviews and looks like a promising alternative to the 17-55 but at a lower price, smaller size, and reduced weight.

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Interesting comment about the 1.4 being so much nicer than the 1.8. tempting! ;) –  AJ Finch Dec 5 '11 at 14:47
    
I rented the Canon 17-55 f/2.8 and the Tamron 17-50 f/2.8 (VC), to do side-by-side comparisons. I recommend exercises like this to the poster, although I think I fell into a trap that hopefully you can avoid: I started looking much more closely at details such as apparent light levels in the photos vs what I was seeing in the room, and became confused as to whether or not things were better. The Canon definitely focused very quickly in the situations I cared about (indoors, in low light) and it was neat to handhold 1/10th-second shots. –  khedron Dec 5 '11 at 16:40

Usually a prime lens (85mm) is more suited for street photography: is smaller, lighter and can operate in low light. That zoom is a pretty nice lens, but with a f3.5 aperture you'd have to start to crank up the ISO when daylight goes down (usually a tripod is not an option in street photography). Someone could be tempted to use a lens at the lowest f-stop possible in low light, but keep in mind every lens lens has a lower image quality when operated with that aperture: the 85mm at f1.8 or the 28-135mm at f3.5 won't has has sharp and, if possible, you should use a slightly higher aperture.

On the other hand 85mm may not be wide enough for street photography and the 28-135mm can easily be easier to use for streetphotography...

It's a matter of comprimise, choosing lenses is tough!

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Considering the facts that you're not a professional, you already own a 50mm prime and your photography interests, If I were you I'd definitely go for the 28-135mm.

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You will never regret buying that 85mm

It's a beautiful lens.
It's fast.
It's an ideal length for general portraiture.

Having a fixed focal length drives creativity: you don't have to think about what focal length to use, in stead, you will think more creatively about the other options you have (angle, exposure, etc).

It's the quality and specific nature of this lens that would lead me towards it.

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