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by Russell McMahon

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I have gone through quite a few lens reviews and questions on this site that recommend expensive lenses over their cheaper counterparts. From what I've seen in the reviews, there is a marked improvement in sharpness (esp. at 100%) for the premium lenses over their cheaper counterparts (E.g. Canon EF-S 17-55mm vs 18-55mm). Besides this, many of the premium lenses also have a wider max aperture which may be fixed throughout its focal range, and this is a tangible benefit to composition. Build quality is another benefit, but that doesn't impact image quality.

So, my question is what other benefit does a premium lens provide over the regular lenses? Do premium lenses have any impact on image composition & photographing technique (I'd suspect that the added bulk can be a hindrance at times)?

Note that I am not considering specialized lenses like 600mm and the likes which do not have any regular counterparts. Also, by counterparts, I mean lenses having similar focal length range and apertures.

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6 Answers 6

up vote 7 down vote accepted

For one, Canon's premium lenses ("L") will allow you (with a matching body) to shoot in environmental conditions that are considered harmful for the non-premium ones. In a way it will have an indirect effect on your composition.

Depending on the amount of post work you are (not) willing to do, the premium lens will get you better color rendering, glare control, etc.

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Thank you for the nice example on colour rendering on the 50mm f1.4 vs f1.8 –  ab.aditya Feb 22 '11 at 8:20

The higher quality optics, higher spec coatings, fixed aperture, etc. etc. all impact the image directly. Less distortion, sharper results, less colour haze caused by poor coatings, often 'better bokeh' (though that's highly subjective).

Combine with the better build quality and you have a far superior product. I've had a cheap 70-210 Nikkor (plastic body, etc.). It slid from my bag on which it was resting, mounted on a camera, about 15 centimeters onto grass (so a soft landing). It cracked, the aperture ring destroyed, it was dead. A pro lens, with its superior quality, would have survived far worse than that.

It was cheap, so the financial loss wasn't great. But it's an inconvenience I'd rather not have to deal with when out in the boondocks with no dealer near to get a replacement when I'm on a shooting trip. That alone makes the pro lens worth having if you're a serious photographer (unless maybe you never shoot outside major cities with dense dealer networks with guaranteed stock of anything you may need).

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Additionally the better lenses will be faster focusing.
Their auto focus is usually more accurate.
Their clarity and contrast will be better.
They will be more durable.
Their handling will be better, usually easier and more precise.
And in some cases they will be more weather resistant.

On the face of it all of this has no bearing on image composition and photographic technique. But that is not quite true, for two reasons:
1) using high quality equipment means there is less of a barrier between your intent and a creative result. This allows you to concentrate more on the goals of your photography and less on the equipment.
2) the joy and delight of using really good and responsive equipment makes photography a joyous experience. And this in turn is a powerful stimulant to your photography. Yes, I know there are hardy photographers who can make anything work but the majority of us are not possessed by an urge to work at a disadvantage.

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+1 for Autofocus. Depending on what you shoot this can be a deciding factor. –  eWolf Feb 22 '11 at 13:24
    
+1 for the delight factor –  fmark Feb 23 '11 at 1:41

I'm seeing a few things that are missing from this, so I'm going to repeat a lot of what's been said, but add in a few extras.

  1. Reduced aberrations. While this is related to added sharpness, it in fact is more than just that, it takes into account some weird artifacts that are on the edges of the images in particular.
  2. Durability- The more you pay for a lens, the better off you'll be in this sense.
  3. Increased Contrast/ reduced lens flare- Usually better lens will have better AR coating, which will reduce lens flare, and increase contrast.
  4. EF lenses can be used on all recent Canon cameras, EF-s cannot. If you upgrade to a full framed sensor some day, this might make a big difference. (Similar considerations apply to full-frame lenses from other brands as well.)
  5. Weather sealing - You are much less likely to get water, dust, etc leaking into a pro lens, because of additional protection against the elements. I would trust a L lens in a light sprinkling, I wouldn't trust a cheap lens...
  6. Uniform max aperture setting- They tend not to change during their zooming range, making composition a bit better.
  7. Faster focusing, not to mention quieter.
  8. Pro lenses tend to preserve their shape when zooming/focusing, making some things easier.

Most of the other benefits somehow fit into the sharpness or speed categories you began with, so I won't include them.

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All good points. One point I'd add is that it is not just the EF lenses that command a premium. There are some EF-S lenses too, like the 17-55mm f2.8 lens I mentioned in the question, that fall into that category, albeit without the "L" tag. –  ab.aditya Feb 24 '11 at 4:50

You've listed a number of advantages of the "better" lenses.

  • build quality
  • wider apertures
  • better optics (which leads to things like sharper images)

About the only "pros" I could think of for the lower quality lenses would be

  • weight (usually lighter due to plastic build and/or less glass)
  • cost

Image composition (framing, positioning, etc) generally won't be affected by these things; shooting technique might be. For example, smaller apertures means one might need to make alternate arrangements involving more light.

I get the impression you're fishing for reasons why you shouldn't spend money on good lenses, but frankly I can't really give you good ones. If you care about your photos (and I suspect you do, or you wouldn't be on this site), buy the best lenses you can afford.

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only reason I can give to use a cheap lens is if you're going into an environment where you'll be a very short period of time yet it would destroy any lens. For the few shots you'd take before throwing it away, no need to waste money on quality glass. But how many of us regularly shoot in such environments? –  jwenting Feb 22 '11 at 8:13
    
I'm trying to quantify the "better" optics bit of premium lenses. The sharpness is one of the easiest to visualize aspects in this regard (as I've already noted in my question). However, I'm looking for their performance on other aspects like colour rendering, glare etc (@ysap has provided a nice example) - some of which can be overcome through better technique. –  ab.aditya Feb 22 '11 at 8:38
    
most of those things are hard to quantify. But consider that higher grade lenses, like higher grade filters, will have better and more expensive multi layer coatings while cheaper lenses may have only single layer coatings (and maybe none at all on internal elements). –  jwenting Feb 22 '11 at 13:33

Some of Canon's professional lenses are painted white. When you take them out in public, you'll stand out more (whether this is a benefit or not depends on your personality and what you're trying to accomplish).

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I've seen very sad individuals carry around cheap knockoff lenses they had painted white so as to look like something more expensive :) Of course for the professional there are aftermarket sleeves to hide the white exterior (especially important for nature photographers). –  jwenting Feb 22 '11 at 10:42

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