(...Continued from Part I)
...So anyway. I've been writing for photo enthusiasts for an amazing 22 years now, since Darkroom Photography accepted the very first article I wrote. And over the years, not being brain dead, I've naturally developed some personal opinions and theories about how photo enthusiasts tend to think and feel about a wide variety things—filtered, naturally, through my rather idiosyncratic conceptions. One of the more obvious things I've witnessed is that people have gradually had to make a switchover from buying things based on a brief hands-on impression to buying "on paper," by which I mean from research, most of which is done on the internet now. In days of yore, photo-writers like me tended to habitually and casually deride people who made their decisions "standing at the camera counter." Well, careful what you criticize. Nowadays, with traditional camera stores having been decimated at the same time that frequency of purchases has gone way up, most people don't have much choice but to buy things "sight unseen" at least occasionally. I've done it myself, believe it or not. I'm sure that early in my career I expressed the very mission of a camera reviewer as follows: the average buyer only gets to stand at the counter and play with the camera for fifteen minutes. What would he find out after three months that he can't learn in those fifteen minutes? I considered that my basic duty—to tell the prospective purchaser what he would find out for himself if he only had more time. But now...being able to stand at a camera counter and feel and hold whatever you're considering, and click the shutter and work the controls and the lens and see the viewfinder for yourself, well, that's actually something of a luxury now.
The necessity of shopping on paper has led to some curious obsessions. One of them that I became aware of in the early '90s was that some people, for some reason, really wanted to "have all the focal lengths covered." The way you saw this for a while was that good-quality normal zooms would be 35–70mm, or sometimes 28–70mm, and the better quality telephoto zooms were 80–200mms. And people would worry about the ten millimeters in the middle. That didn't make any sense to me then, and it still doesn't, but it was the way a lot of people thought—I heard it a lot. Of course, it only makes no sense if you come from the experience of actually using the lenses. It does make sense (well, a little) if you're just looking at things on paper. And of course some people, when they collected prime lenses, liked to "have everything covered"—they wanted a 20mm and a 24mm and a 28mm and a 35mm and a 50mm and an 85mm and a 105mm and a 135mm and so forth; I'm sure that, for those folks, that thinking carried over into their feelings about zooms.
In about 1993 I did a big survey on CompuServe and wrote up the results for Camera & Darkroom. I was trying to figure out how many lenses most people had and what sort of set was the most common. Without going into all the details blow-by-blow, what I found was that most people owned two or three lenses. Those who owned one prime almost always used a 50mm or a 35mm. Those who used two, as you'd expect, most commonly had a moderate wide-angle and a moderate telephoto. (That was the case with me. I learned on a 50mm, which I used exclusively for three years or so, and then I switched to a 35mm and an 85mm. I had a job for a while where I was supposed to use a 28–70mm zoom, but I'd switch back to my 35/85 combo whenever the boss wasn't looking.) For those who had three lenses, there was more variety—for a fair number of these people, although I think still a minority, one was a zoom, and some people skewed wide or long—one guy shot mainly airplanes in flight and had a 50mm, a 180mm, and a 300mm. Others would have a 20mm, a 28/35, and a 50/55/60. (That included Salgado for a while around that time—he was quoted in one article saying he used a 28mm and a 35mm on Leica M6 cameras and a 60mm macro on a Leica R. That changed in time, naturally.) But for the most part the three-lens kits broke down about how you'd expect—a normal or moderate wide and a short portrait lens, with an extra lens for whatever that person's specialty interest was.
For those who had four lenses, the results were still less conclusive. And when it came to the pros, the data got hard to interpret. Not only do pros have to cover more bases—they never know what they'll encounter—they also had to please art directors and clients (one of my studio partners hated 28mms but kept one around just for when the A.D. would say, "let's see that with a 28"). But a news photojournalist who had recently been written up in the magazine had a kit that was fairly representative at the time: a 20mm, a 35mm, a 105mm, and a 200mm. Even then, though, there were a couple of adventurous pros who were doing most of their work with just two zooms, despite owning a motley of other lenses. One guy was even doing 100% of his work with just two zooms, a 20-35mm and an 80-200mm. Pretty radical, in those days; more common, I'd guess, now.
(After writing this, I got a nice note from Jack Foley, the newsie we featured yesterday. He said that when the Herald News went digital, eight years ago, they issued him an AF-Nikkor 17–35mm ƒ/2.8 and an AF-Nikkor 80–200mm ƒ/2.8—both for use on APS-C cameras—and, according to Jack, "even eight years later, I say that these two are fabulous, wonderful, fantastic hunks of photo gear. Honestly, I cannot imagine a better brace of lenses.")
But getting back to that idea of having all the focal lengths "covered." At about the same time that idea was at its peak, I had a Zeiss Contax 28–85mm ƒ/3.3–4. This covers all the focal lengths I personally ever use. It was a magnificent lens, but very big and heavy (85 x 99.5mm, unextended, and 736g—and it's bigger than those specs imply because it extends quite a bit). At the same time, I was learning about the history of the Tessar, and one of the few remaining true Tessar-types at the time was the Zeiss Contax 45mm ƒ/2.8 (60 x 18mm, and 90g—or just slightly bigger than a body cap!).
So my reasoning was, why "cover" more focal lengths? That's just one sort of versatility. Why not "nest" focal lengths—a prime within the range of the zoom—and give yourself versatility in some other way?
And what are the ways? Well, it strikes me that there are two or three. Let's say your main lens is going to be a big, heavy, expensive, fast, all-purpose zoom with spectacular image quality, and it covers the range you need covered. This is the lens you'll use when you're shooting concertedly and seriously—when you have an assignment, when you've got an extended amount of time exclusively for shooting—when you're really working. Your second lens might serve one of three purposes: it might be small, so you could have something easily portable for going through life with, when you're just carrying your camera around; it could be fast, to make up for the fact that even fast zooms are slow; or it could be a closeup lens—a macro—in case you had a need and a use for that. (This last one made more sense back when most zooms did not focus close, a particular bugbear of the late Herbert Keppler of Popular Photography fame.)
Of course there's a fair amount of overlap between those three purposes. If your main lens is ƒ/3.3–4 like the big Zeiss Contax zoom, then an ƒ/1.7 50mm is pretty fast by comparison, but it's still a heck of a lot smaller and more portable. And many people like using macro lenses as "normals"—Leica even briefly recommended using its 60mm ƒ/2.8 macro R lens as a normal lens.
So, for a while, this was what I recommended as a "perfect two-lens kit." I'd say, sure, go ahead, knock yourself out, go ahead and get that multi-purpose zoom you're hankering after; but then augment it with a 50mm ƒ/1.4 or ƒ/1.7 as your second lens for low-light use.
This advice did not instantly become Universal standard practice amongst photographers seeking a two-lens kit. :-)
I did get the Zeiss Contax combo for myself for a while. The idea was that I'd put the 45mm on the camera for everyday carrying around—for grab shots and record shots, here and there—and switch to the big 28–85mm zoom when I was shooting more purposefully or concertedly, and needed more flexibility, and didn't mind the weight. (Basically, what that comes down to is this: one lens for when the camera is mainly hanging from your shoulder, one for when the camera is mainly in your hands.) The problem was that I couldn't focus the 45mm very well on the camera I had at the time (I probably already needed a bit of diopter correction, but hadn't realized it yet), so, although I got a few really superb shots from it, it went the way of all lenses soon enough.
I have another problem with my nested zoom/prime two-lens strategy...namely, if I equip myself with a superb zoom and a good prime in the right focal length, I will use the prime exclusively and never get the zoom out of the bag. That's just me. I could easily imagine the opposite—somebody using the zoom exclusively and never getting the prime out of the bag. (More about this in a minute.)
Meanwhile, something interesting has been happening. I talked in Part I about the switch from a 50mm normal to an inexpensive standard zoom as what we now refer to as the "kit" lens, the basic lens the camera comes with. But now, the two-lens kit is becoming increasingly common—look, for instance, at these examples from Pentax, Canon, Nikon, Olympus, and Sony. I don't have access to relative sales figures to quantify their popularity, and I doubt the popularity of two-zoom kits has surpassed the popularity of one-zoom kits, but there's little doubt that two-zoom kits are becoming more and more popular. And, clearly, the reasoning of these offerings is of the get-all-the-focal-lengths-covered variety.Another digression. When I lived in Chicago, for a while I got in the habit of ending my epic morning commute with a trip through the drive-through at the local Dunkin' Donuts shop near the office. Each morning I'd buy the same thing: large coffee with all the additives, and three "long johns," which are oblong donutoid pastries with white icing on top. I would then munch on these throughout the morning at work. When the long johns were fresh, they were good. And every Dunkin' Donuts is supposed to discard day-old donuts so that everything they sell is always fresh. (Not hard since they only cost something like 3–7¢ each to make.) But this donut shop was owned by hard-working recent Asian immigrants, newly enough arrived so that only the matriarch of the family spoke a game but broken sort of English. They obviously considered that throwing away otherwise perfectly good donuts just because they were a day old was an intolerable waste, so, about one time out of three, my morning long johns would be stale, and I'd end up throwing them away once I got to the office.
So one day, I went to the donut store on my lunch break, parked the car, and went into the shop. I traded pleasantries with the proprietress, who knew who I was from my morning visits. Then I explained to her very carefully and politely that I did not want to buy stale donuts. If they were not fresh, I didn't want them. She seemed to understand. "Okay, only fresh, okay!" she said, very cheerfully.
This went fine for a few mornings. Then, one morning, when she was handing over the bag I'd purchased, she said, "I not forget! I remember what you say! I give extra! Four! Extra!"
I thanked her, but I didn't quite know what this meant. Until I got to the office. The donuts were stale, so she'd given me four instead of three.
Okay, now how does that reasoning work? If I don't want something at all, how does more of what I don't want make it better? If I don't want it, I don't want more of it. I stopped going to the donut shop, which was probably better for my health anyway.
In any event, that's kind of how a two-zoom kit strikes me. Kit lenses aren't actually that crappy these days—they're actually surprisingly okay. But still, having two slow, large-ish and not-very-well-built lenses instead of one doesn't seem like an unmitigated improvement to me—even if you like, and prefer, zooms to begin with.
Of course, that might be because when you get right down to it, I don't really care for zooms at all. That's a minority preference, these days.
The versatility offered by this two-lens kit is of a very specific nature: not speed, not additional focal-length range...just portability. But that's what would be important to me. Put the pancake on an E-30 and you'd have a very elegant, reasonably light, eminently carryable camera without an awkward big zoom swinging around and whacking into people on elevators and getting in the way in the car. The zoom, as a complementary lens, is of ungodly high optical quality, focuses very close, and is both fast and waterproof—and covers more focal lengths than I'd personally ever need.
I don't shoot Olympus, but if I did....
With Nikon's new 35mm ƒ/1.8 you could put a decent pair together in the Nikon range for an APS-C camera, too. The 35's faster than the Olympus pancake, and wide enough. Although perhaps still not ideal.
What's ideal? Well, for me, the Panasonic 20mm ƒ/1.7 that I do own and use. You could pair that with the slower but versatile zoom of your choice—normal, long, or wide. (Assuming you could actually get any of them.)
Of course, the problem there is it assumes you're on board with Micro 4/3, which most people aren't. For better or worse, most people are tied to their system choices, which they've already made.
If I were specifying "dream" or imaginary gear, a perfect pair in my view would be, on an APS-C camera with body-integral IS, a 19–57mm ƒ/2.8 (that's approximately a 28–85mm-e 3x zoom), and a relatively compact 25mm ƒ1.7 with a closeup converter (that's approximately 38mm-e).
Of course we don't get to have the equipment we imagine.
In any event, I seldom recommend a two-lens kit of a zoom plus a fast normal any more. The reason is purely practical—there just aren't very many good fast normal primes for digital cameras in most makers' lens lineups. It's easy to recommend a 50mm ƒ/1.7 or ƒ/1.8 as an adjunct to a zoom for a film camera, because 50mm moderate-speed normals are thick on the ground and cheap as dirt (in fact, if you recall, I gave a nice one away the other day). They cause very little pain either to procure or to carry. But for reduced-format digital cameras, fast primes of normal focal length are a headache—there aren't very many non-legacy alternatives available, and those that are tend to be expensive and not quite the right focal lengths.
And, when you get right down to it, I'm not even totally convinced any more that the "nested" zoom/prime strategy for a two-lens kit is a very workable idea, as a practical matter. For instance, I would personally use a two-lens kit of the Panasonic 20mm and the Panasonic 14–45mm on my GF1, but then I'd streamline it by, um, getting rid of the 14–45mm because I would probably never use it. I just don't care for zooms, is all. That's not a value judgment, so please don't bust my chops, please. It's just my personal preference. I admit that it's possible that there is simply a natural bifurcation between zoom users and prime users, and that people might generally tend to fall into one or the other of the two camps and don't actually much like to switch off between them. That doesn't make one or the other preference "better," but it means that a two-lens kit of one prime and one zoom might be wrong for almost everybody.
This requires more research. I'm sure I'm about to hear opinions about all this from a lot of TOP readers, and that will make a good start!
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Original contents copyright 2010 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Julian: "I'm lucky enough to take pictures for a living, and I typically use zooms for work and primes for fun. I shoot Canon full-frame, and on assignment I lug around a 16–35mm ƒ/2.8, 70–200mm ƒ/4 and often a 24–105mm ƒ/4 or 24mm shift lens too. But when I'm just out with a camera, I will take one or all of my fast lightweight primes—28mm ƒ/1.8, 50mm ƒ/1.4, and 85mm ƒ/1.8."
Featured Comment by Glenn Brown: "The lens choice thing is very personal and dependent on your work. For my corporate work, 90% of my stuff is on the Nikkor 85mm ƒ/1.4. But if I walk out the door for fun it's a 35mm ƒ/2."
Featured Comment by John Krumm: "As an Olympus E-620 user, the two-lens kit I find quite useful for people is the 12–60mm and the 50mm ƒ/2. The 50mm ƒ/2 is great for darker events and portraits and detail work, the 12–60mm for everything else. But I still would like that little pancake."
Featured Comment by mfbernstein: "Lens design can be counterintuitive sometimes. Until recently I shot with Olympus DSLRs, and the 12–60mm you mentioned was my main lens. Still, after a while I wanted something smaller and faster for certain occasions, and tried the pancake 25mm ƒ/2.8—but I missed the better image quality and faster focusing of the zoom!"
Featured Comment by V. I. Voltz: "Whenever anyone discusses lens or camera choice, I recall running across a field in Yugoslavia, with bullets flying everywhere and the spaces between the bullets mostly filled with explosions, while trying to carry a large bag containing two Nikon N90s bodies with MB-10 grips, a 28–70 and 80–200 zoom, two Nikon SB26 speedlights, and sundry cables, accessories and 40 or so rolls of film. I made it out without a scratch, although it still comes back to me at times. After that I started using a Leica M6 with a 35mm and a 75mm lens, no matter what anyone 'insisted' I use."
Featured Comment by Adrian: "Does a Rolleiflex 3.5F count as a two-lens kit?"
Featured Comment by Georg: "It seems to me that the perfect two-lens kit consists of two identical Zeiss ZM Sonnar 50/1.4. One of them sitting on an M9, the other one on an Olympus E-P1."
Featured Comment by Tilman Paulin: "I basically had a 'two lens kit' on my last hiking holidays. A Sigma DP2 (41mm equiv.) in my pocket and my Nikon D80 with the 18–135mm kit lens in my backpack. Only got the D80 out of the backpack when I couldn't get the shot done with the DP2 (which didn't happen too often). This worked great since it kept me from opening and closing my backpack all the time. Enjoyed my trip quite a bit and got great pictures too.... :)"
Featured Comment by Wibbeler: "For Canon newbies, I often recommend getting the 50/1.8 even though that 'overlaps' the kit. The lens is by no means the perfect prime, but it it's an inexpensive way for people to try some of the many benefits of fast apertures and higher optical quality. I consider its existence and use on Canon's entry level SLRs an important differentiation over Nikon's entry level SLRs where the similar Nikkor 50/1.8 won't autofocus."