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My wife and I are driving through the Black Hills, Mt.Rushmore, on to Yellowstone and Glacier National park. I currently own a Canon 70d, using my 15-85mm & 55-250mm Canon lenses. Knowing I'll never take such a trip again, I want the best quality pix I can get. My questions are, will I get obvious better photos with L lenses, and what lens choice makes the best sense? I've looked at both versions of the Canon 16-35 ....f2.8 & f4 (which somehow gets better reviews and is "cheaper")....and the 24-105. The 16-35 is perhaps a better choice on my crop camera, but isn't much of a zoom. The 24-105 has more zoom, but not much on the wide end. Will I really see photos better enough to warrant the cost? Any thoughts or advice would be great thanks!!

Edit- From one of Bob's comments below: "I've probably shot 30,000 photos with every Canon crop sensor model they made.... Till the 70d... Which I own. I've taken shots in Hawaii,... Mexico, Colorado etc... With a variety of lenses, ... Settling mostly on what I now have due to retirement budgetary restraints. All those years I wished I had quality L glass... Because, as someone said, a lot is in the eye. I feel I have that. I shoot only in manual mode, and look for those color popping... Sharp scenes I suspect comes with "good glass"."

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    What type of photos are you wanting to take? – Harry Harrison Aug 13 '16 at 19:29
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    Only you can answer the question: "is it worth it?" But have you considered renting some of the lenses to try them out and come to your own decision? – Harry Harrison Aug 13 '16 at 19:31
  • Scenery... Mountains, trees.... What one might want or expect to see in Yellowstone! – Bob Huston Aug 14 '16 at 1:40
  • @BobHuston, for some of us, landscape shots are what you take while you wait for the wildlife to show up. :) – inkista Aug 14 '16 at 1:50
  • I'll be living right at the edge of Yellowstone on the Colorado River... The YARD is full of Bison... They practically come on the porch – Bob Huston Aug 14 '16 at 2:50
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Will I really see photos better enough to warrant the cost?

Honestly: Probably not. Taking better photos has a lot more to do with the knowledge, experience, and creative eye of the photographer than it has to do with the minor differences between reasonably comparable lenses or camera bodies.

Unless you can articulate what it is about your two current lenses that limit your ability to create the photos you wish to create the slightly better optical quality and slightly faster maximum apertures likely won't make any real improvements in your photos. In fact, unless you are aware of the limitations and how to deal with them when using wider apertures you could actually wind up with pictures that are not even as good as you might get with your two current lenses.

The primary advantages of the three "L" lenses you are considering are in the areas of durability and resistance to adverse environmental conditions. Those attributes are critical to working pros who put their gear through the wringer every working day. Yes, they are a little better optically than your current lenses. Their "sweet spots" are larger in terms of the focal lengths and apertures at which they perform at a slightly higher level. But they are much closer to your current lenses in terms of optical performance than they are to the true premium lenses in each category such as the EF 11-24mm f/4L, EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II, or the EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II. Even those lenses only make a noticeable difference when used at or nearly at wide open apertures. At f/5.6 or f/8 there's very little real world difference in optical quality.

If you really want to increase your ability to get shots on your vacation that you can't get with your current lenses, you might consider an ultra-wide angle lens such as the EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5. But that would only be good if you are interested in capturing wider vistas than you can with your current 15-85mm.

All those years I wished I had quality L glass... Because, as someone said, a lot is in the eye. I feel I have that. I shoot only in manual mode, and look for those color popping... Sharp scenes I suspect comes with "good glass".

There's nothing "magical" about L glass. For instance, the EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS is better optically from about 24mm and up on a crop sensor than the EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II. It's also nearly the optical equal of the original EF 24-70mm f/2.8L when the "L" is on a FF body and the 17-55mm is on one of the more recent crop bodies. The newer 24-70mm is a lot better optically from 24mm all the way to 70mm at every aperture, even the wider apertures, because the newer high resolution cameras revealed the flaws of the older 24-70mm.

At the f/5.6-f/8-f/11 apertures used for most landscape shooting pretty much every current lens from Canon, Nikon, Sony, Pentax, etc. are very good across the frame assuming they are in proper alignment and designed to have a flat field. There are some very expensive lenses designed for certain uses that leave field curvature uncorrected. That's one of the things that makes the EF 85mm f/1.2L a "portrait lens" with such a unique look. Such a lens, even though costing thousands of dollars, is not a suitable lens for most landscape work.

I suspect those color popping sharp scenes have more to do with catching the right quality light at the right angle with a camera mounted on a rock solid tripod. I've known many a landscape photographer to go to the same spot day after day after day until they finally get just the light they want. One day it may be too cloudy. The next day there might be too much, or maybe not enough, moisture or dust in the air. The next day it might be raining. Just because you are standing in the same spot from which an iconic photograph was taken doesn't mean you'll always have the same light, even if you have the same angle of the sun. There's nothing like the light coming from a low angle sun late in the afternoon after a thunderstorm has just passed overhead and the sky is clearing in the west. The light is so saturated and golden you can practically feel its warmth as it bathes everything it falls on in technicolor and makes the world look like a Kodachrome slide. Yet the same spot at the same time of day the day before or the day after may look flat and lifeless under dreary skies.

In the digital age we can "fix" the light in post a lot easier and with a wider latitude than we could in the color darkroom, but we still can't move the sun from one spot in the sky to another.

Here's my suggestion: For the next couple of weeks go out the same time every day with your camera, tripod, and cable release to the most scenic spot in your area. Go when the sun is most favorable for your selected location, probably early morning or late afternoon. Take the best shot you can using the tripod and cable release. If the shutter time is under 1/200 second use mirror lockup as well. On even numbered days use your 15-85 at somewhere between 55-85mm. On odd numbered days use the 55-250mm at somewhere between 55-85mm. If you have a 50mm f/1.8 or other prime lens, throw it in the mix as well. At the end of the two weeks edit the best capture of each day and compare the 14 photographs. Let us know what you think of the 14 photos and how each compares to the others.

There's an old saying that's been around a long time: Gear doesn't matter.
That's really only half the story.
The full truth is: Gear doesn't matter - until it does.

When the limits of your gear truly begin to matter to you and where you are in your growth as a photographer you'll know it.

P.S.- The reason the 16-35mm f/4 gets better reviews is because unless you really, really, really need the f/2.8 aperture to shoot moving subjects in low light the f/4 lens is just as good or even better at all apertures above f/4. And it's cheaper to boot.

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    Two years ago, I spent 1800 $ in L lenses, and can confirm @MichaelClark 's answer 100%. It takes a lot of knowledge and experience before you ever get to the limits of the non-L lenses; until then it seems it was a big waste. – Aganju Aug 13 '16 at 22:39
  • I've probably shot 30,000 photos with every Canon crop sensor model they made.... Till the 70d... Which I own. I've taken shots in Hawaii,... Mexico, Colorado etc... With a variety of lenses, ... Settling mostly on what I now have due to retirement budgetary restraints. All those years I wished I had quality L glass... Because, as someone said, a lot is in the eye. I feel I have that. I shoot only in manual mode, and look for those color popping... Sharp scenes I suspect comes with "good glass". – Bob Huston Aug 14 '16 at 1:46
  • @BobHuston As someone who shot about 10-12,000 frames with the 55-250 before upgrading to the 70-200 IS II, as well as having shot probably well over 100K with the 24-105 I think I can safely say that there's not a whole lot of optical difference between your current glass and the three "L" lenses you are considering. The difference is in build quality and how much punishment they can take before they break or get out of adjustment. Even the mighty 70-200 IS II only makes a real difference because of the improved acutance even at wider apertures needed in marginal light. At f/8 the 55-250 is.. – Michael C Aug 14 '16 at 1:56
  • ...pretty close in terms of image quality. There aren't many shots I've gotten with the 70-200 in full daylight that I couldn't have got with the 55-250, apart from the narrower DoF from using a wider aperture. – Michael C Aug 14 '16 at 1:57
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    There's nothing "magical" about L glass. For instance, the EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS is better optically on a crop sensor than the EF 16-35mm f/2.8 II. It's also nearly the optical equal of the original EF 24-70mm f/2.8 L when the "L" is on a FF body and the 17-55 is on one of the more recent crop bodies. The newer 24-70 is a lot better optically because the newer high resolution cameras revealed the flaws of the older 24-70. – Michael C Aug 14 '16 at 2:06
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Couple of things to keep in mind.

All L lenses are EF and designed for full frame

You have a crop camera. Putting lenses that are designed for full frame on it is not a bad thing, but they're going to be bigger and heavier than they have to be in order to project that larger image circle. And, as you've noted, you're not likely to find an ultrawide lens that's going to actually be ultrawide on a crop body. Your 15-85 is already going wider than both of those lenses. Your 15-85 is, in fact, the crop-body analog of the 24-105. And the 16-35's crop analog is actually the 10-22 or the 10-18, in terms of focal length and crop factor.

The cost is not proportional to the improvement

While an L lens might cost two or three or four times as much as a non-L USM/STM counterpart, it won't be two to four times sharper/prettier. It will be nicer. The higher-end glass and additional correction elements are liable to mean the lens will have better contrast, maaaybe be sharper, maaaybe have better CA control (the crop lens designs can actually do this more easily than full-frame lens designs can). Just me, but a 24-105 on crop vs. your 15-85 is probably a lot closer in performance than you think.

L lenses will have better build quality. They may have additional features that non-L lenses don't have, such as IS or USM, or focus-limit switches, or zoom locks. But those all vary by individual lens. Weather-proofing in a particular is extremely variable among the L lenses.

The Ls will be larger and heavier than your current lenses

How much backpacking/hiking are planning on doing?

Just my personal opinion, but my 24-105L, much as I love using it, only became a beautiful landscape lens for me when I moved to full frame. For my uses, it just isn't wide enough for good landscape shooting on APS-C, only going to 35mm equivalency.

Your 15-85 is probably more than sufficient to deliver, especially given the image quality compromises of the 24-105 @24mm (CA, distortion, and softness are all evident there; no lens is perfect, even Ls). The 24-105 is, after all, the full-frame kit lens, and has some IQ compromises in order to accommodate its 4x zoom range--most picky glass aficionados prefer zoom ranges of 3x or below for strict image quality). If you are going for this range of L glass, but with budgetary concerns (not something most L purchases accommodate), consider the 17-40/4L. Or renting.

But understand that the 16-35 and 17-40 L lenses are not designed to be high-quality walkaround zooms for crop. They are designed to be ultrawide lenses for full-frame. You'd probably be better served, bang for the buck, getting an EF-S 10-18, 10-22, or Tokina 11-16/2.8. Your 15-85 already goes wider than either of the "ultrawide" Ls.

The only place where I think you might really be better served in hopping up to the Ls is if you were thinking of swapping your 55-250 for a 100-300L or 100-400L if you were going to be doing wildlife shooting at Yellowstone. Because the 250mm reach just isn't going to cut it, and a non-USM lens isn't particularly fast at locking focus on bounding wildlife. And the 70-300 IS USM doesn't perform as well as its L counterpart in more obvious ways.

I would also urge you to consider rentals. "Once in a lifetime trip" generally means shooting subject matter that isn't common to your everyday life or regular shooting. This probably means glass that isn't actually what you need most of the time, but only for this one occasion.

  • Most of the CA and distortion with the 24-105 are in areas that would be cropped out of the picture on an APS-C camera. But as you point out, APS-C only lenses can be made smaller, lighter, and cheaper with the same performance. – Michael C Aug 14 '16 at 2:27
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    From Brian's 24-105 review at The-Digital-Picture: "Weather sealing seals the deal if you are going afield - note that Canon recommends a UV filter for complete weather sealing on this lens. I can't tell you how much "weather" this lens can take, and don't condone the practice, but I've cleaned my 24-105 L under a gently-flowing kitchen faucet. Do note that this is not a "waterproof" lens." – Michael C Aug 14 '16 at 3:10
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You want the 24-105L if you are shooting mountains. That's a great lens.

I disagree with those who say your photos won't get better. In fact you will really see the difference in sharpness and contrast and detail compared to your 55-250, which frankly is way too much throw on a crop body IMO.

However I agree that although your images will immediately get noticeably better technically, they won't be any better photos. If you're shooting nature and you feel a sense of wonder, you want to impart that feeling to your images. A lens can't do that. You can go out today and just look at light. Don't even bring a camera. Always be looking at light, wherever you go. Mountain photos especially are all about splashes of light and color.

If you want to learn to get better nature photos, there are a lot of classes and field trips offered. If you live near a big city there are always classes and workshops. I know that deep down a lot of this is really equipment lust, we'd be lying if we didn't admit that. But if you really want your photos to have more impact and to convey your feelings of nature, taking classes is the best investment of your money.

That said, I've had the 24-105L for a long time and it's really a great lens day in and day out. If you have the cash, go ahead and get the lens, flip the 55-250 on Craigslist, and carry the 24-105L and the 15-85mm for wide shots. In fact down the road I'd trade the 15-85 for one of Canon's shorter-throw but higher quality wides. Great setup for your body.

Also if it were me I'd look at a lot of mountain photography and see what I like and figure out why I like it. Anything you can do to train your eye.

ps Shoot at dawn and dusk, that's when the light's the best.

  • The 24-105L is one of the most versatile lenses available for both full frame and crop bodies. Worth every penny. – Jim Garrison Aug 14 '16 at 0:50
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    @BobHuston, sorry. I deleted my comment, and worked the points in to my answer. :) For the curious, I always found my 24-105 too long at the wide end on crop, and only a great landscape lens on my full frame and the EF-S 15-85 is not only a better fit on crop, but damn close on performance, wide open at the wide end. – inkista Aug 14 '16 at 1:59
  • I've likely shot near 100K frames using the 24-105 on FF bodies. I've probably taken a couple of hundred with the 24-105 on crop bodies, even though I've put more total shutter actuations on the crop bodies I've owned than the FF bodies I've owned. Those couple of hundred frames with the 24-105 on crop bodies were when I've done AFMA with the 24-105 on the crop bodies in case I ever needed to put it on one of them in an emergency. In my view it is a great all purpose lens for FF that can stand up to whatever physical punishment you throw at it. On APS-C bodies it is not wide enough to be ... – Michael C Aug 14 '16 at 2:42
  • ... a walkaround lens and not long enough to be a "long" lens in a two lens setup. – Michael C Aug 14 '16 at 2:43
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Knowing I'll never take such a trip again, I want the best quality pix I can get. My questions are, will I get obvious better photos with L lenses, and what lens choice makes the best sense?

First things first: Unless you already have them, you'll get more bang for your buck by spending money on components that can improve your shots and enable some that you might otherwise miss entirely.

Get a good circular polarizing (CPL) filter, which will help you cut down glare and give you bluer skies, greener foliage, prettier water, and less shiny metal surfaces. Buy the size that fits your largest (filter size) lens, and get a set of step rings to adapt it to the other lenses you're carrying. Even an expensive CPL is a lot cheaper than a pricey lens, so buy one that's well made and neutral in color rather than one of the many very cheap ones.

A solid tripod will let you get sharp photos with longer exposures, letting you get well-lit landscapes when the light is fading. You'll get some of the most dramatic lighting when the sun is low in the sky, and at those times you'll be happy to have the flexibility to use slower shutter speeds. Used with the camera's timer or a remote control, a tripod will also let you take shots with you in front of the camera, so it won't look like your wife took the trip alone. It's worth paying for quality but you don't need to spend a fortune on whizzy features like super lightweight carbon fiber legs. A ball head is compact and easy to use.

You'll likely encounter water along your trip, and one or more neutral density (ND) filters can help you slow down your exposure to smooth out the ripples in lakes and make streams and waterfalls look all soft and dreamy. You'll use ND filters a lot less often than you will the CPL, so if you're picking one or the other go with the CPL.

If you've got mountains in the distance, there will also be flowers, insects, and other small objects to shoot all around you. A macro lens is the best option for filling the frame with small objects, but a set of extension rings is lighter and much less expensive. Choose a set that has electrical contacts so that the camera can still control lens functions.

It's hard to argue that a camera bag will improve the quality of your shots, but you can't take shots at all if you don't have your camera with you, so make sure you have a bag that you don't mind carrying on walks. Even in the car, a good bag keeps your gear safe and accessible.

About those L lenses: The lenses in Canon's L line are certainly excellent, and probably better than the lenses you've got. The big question is whether the differences are worth paying for to you. There are objective measurements of lens quality that you can look at, such as MTF charts, evaluations of chromatic aberration, and so on, but nothing beats putting the lens on your camera, shooting a few hundred shots, and comparing the results to images taken with the lenses you have. To that end, you should consider renting the lenses you're interested in and taking them out for a spin.

In fact, renting could be the answer to your entire problem: you can rent any or all of the lenses you mentioned for an entire month and still spend only a fraction of the cost of buying outright. That'd give you use of the lens for your trip without breaking the bank, and if you choose you might even be able to buy the lens and with a partial credit for the rental fee (lensrentals.com does this).

  • Thanks Caleb... Good advice... And thanks for the lensrentals referral. I saw their link somewhere but didn't know if they were trustworthy... Or if the lenses they rent are good representations of new versions. I have a polarizing filter... But a cheesy tripod. You suggest a ball head? – Bob Huston Aug 14 '16 at 19:26
  • Caleb, which of the lenses I originally referred to would you rent... Or would you consider a L quality telephoto? – Bob Huston Aug 14 '16 at 19:27
  • The style of tripod head doesn't really matter aside from convenience; as long as you can lock the head in place you're good to go. Ball heads are nice for traveling because they're compact, secure, and quick to adjust in any direction. – Caleb Aug 14 '16 at 19:29
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    I've rented a number of lenses from lensrentals.com and they've always arrived on time and been in excellent condition. I can't really help with focal length -- it just depends on what you want. I think I'd want a combination of wide angle (for broad vistas) and telephoto (to get closer to interesting features). ND filters aren't clear -- they're darkened like sunglasses so that they reduce the light entering the lens. Good ones should be completely neutral, though -- they shouldn't affect the colors of the scene. Cheap ones usually have a slight color cast. – Caleb Aug 14 '16 at 19:37
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    lensrental.com is the best in the business. They're a company dedicated to doing whatever it takes to deliver what they promise to the customer. – Michael C Aug 15 '16 at 13:10
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My questions are, will I get obvious better photos with L lenses...

The L lenses usually have better color and contrast compared to their cheaper counterparts. They usually have quicker and more reliable AF and are faster (more light come in to the lens). Don't expect all your images to be automagically better. But the chances are, that you will be able to bring home more keepers.

One benefit of L lenses that does not directly translate to better image quality is that their front elements do not rotate when you focus. This is useful in landscape photography where the rotation interferes with your setting of your polarizer.

...what lens choice makes the best sense?

Your trip offers three types of shooting:

  • Landscape. Usually benefits from short focal lengths. I think for the places you are going to visit you should have something that allows shooting as wide as 13mm or so. Take a look at the Canon 10-18mm lens. It is inexpensive, has good reviews and if you do not carry a tripod, the image stabilizer will allow you to stop down more or shoot when other people already left. The 16-35 IS would be great if you had a FF camera.
  • Geothermal features in Yellowstone. Same lens considerations as for landscape. Make sure that you bring a polarizer that mounts on your wide angle lenses. It makes a huge difference.
  • Wildlife in Yellowstone and Glacier. Not all wildlife will come to your porch. Bears ,wolves and herds of elk would be an example. In addition, best opportunities are often around dawn and dusk, inside of a dark forest or in overcast weather - all cases where the light is not plentiful, especially when they combine. This is the area where a good L lens makes most sense. I would suggest that you rent or buy the 100-400 IS II or 70-200/2.8 IS II.
  • Color and contrast are as much about taste as they are a determining factor in which lens performs better, especially in the digital age when you can draw independent light curves for every single image you take if you so desire. The differences, while they may be measureable in the laboratory, are very subtle in the real world. All the color accuracy and contrast in the world in a lens does no good if the color isn't balanced properly. – Michael C Aug 15 '16 at 11:43

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