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focal length lens comparison (in-studio)

Despite answering this question at length in a previous post, I still get a considerable number of people who continue to ask the question: What kind of camera/lens should I buy?

My answer hasn’t changed much in the last decade: What kind of photos are you trying to take?

undefinedIn the thumbnails above, the lenses are:

  • 0001. Zeiss Distagon ZF 35mm f/2
  • 0002. Nikon 105mm f/2.8 AF Micro
  • 0003. Nikon 28-70mm f/2.8 at 28mm
  • 0004. Nikon 28-70mm f/2.8 at 35mm
  • 0005. Nikon 28-70mm f/2.8 at 50mm
  • 0006. Nikon 28-70mm f/2.8 at 70mm
  • 0007. Nikon 135mm AF Defocus Control f/2

Lens choice can dramatically change an image. Personally, I’d rather have a $1500 lens on a $500 body than a $500 lens on a $1500 body. For me, images are all about the lens. (Lens purchase choices, well, that’s another whole can of worms. Ask Ken Rockwell. After all, by the time you’re on-location shooting an assignment or commissioned work, that decision has already been made.)

Some photos simply aren’t possible without a particular focal length, just as sometimes a photo has more to do with a unique lens choice than with the subject itself. It’s not practical, affordable or likely that a photographer would have at his or her disposal every possible lens choice at every possible opportunity of making an exposure. Therefore, as important as it is to make lens purchases carefully, I believe it’s even more important to know exactly what to expect from each lens available to you as you dig through your bag.

Most photographers already own lenses. I chose these particular lenses for this experiment because they were in my bag. The purpose: to impart valuable knowledge using the gear already at your disposal. This exercise is simple enough for any photographer to copy in order to gain a powerful visual of why it’s so important to be intimately familiar with the gear that’s already in your bag. Only have one zoom lens? Try the experiment at every single focal length on the lens.

My friend and assistant Peter sat for me (in between assists with families during a portrait marathon) as we pulled lens options from my bag. I’d been holding off on this post do the same experiment on-location in order to illustrate the difference in depth of field and bokeh from each lens; these are very important lessons and considerations as well. When I get around to it, I’ll make it a separate post.

If you are comfortable with and have access to shooting with off-camera flash or strobes, give controlled light a try. Here, I’m using strobes set at 1/8 power with 50-inch soft-boxes. The strobe and camera settings were constant and the white balance in camera was dialed to “custom,” set by the strobes. Each frame was exposed at ISO 200, f/5.6 at 1/250.

Our control group was not without flaws; for example, I did not stand in the exact same place when shooting each frame. Instead, I stood where I would have likely stood during a regular studio session to keep my subject roughly in the same general area of the frame, which had me standing farther away with the 135mm than with the 35mm, for example, and not nearly as close as I typically would have been with the 105mm.  I was also shooting within the constraints of the backdrop.

Lining these images up next to one another illustrates exactly what I’ve come to know from each of my lenses: my 105mm and 135mm, both primes, render a full-stop more brightness than my 28-70mm zoom. The 28-70 is not my favorite close-up or headshot portrait lens (notice the distortion?) but, of course, Peter is an adult, not a 2-year-old.  And I digress here, but my love for Zeiss glass is validated every time I pick it up in how incredibly it performs — sharpness, color rendition,  brightness, just an overall make-people-look-good lens, which surprises me in a 35mm.  If I didn’t shoot primarily kids and weddings, I’d call Joel at Adorama and work a deal to trade all my Nikon lenses (plus probably an arm and a leg to cover the difference) for the entire Zeiss lineup — but until Zeiss incorporates autofocus, that just isn’t practical for me.  (Joel, btw, is the one who found me the 135mm I’d been looking for.)

In all fairness, there are a few things I should mention about each lens.  When I’m shooting in-studio with the 105mm, I’m considerably closer to my subject than I was standing in this experiment.  I love how the 105mm grabs tight close-ups of eyelashes!  I can’t beat this lens for macro and detail shots.  Although the 28-70mm zoom did not produce my favorite result from this experiment, I should mention that it is my most versatile lens and I use it 90 percent of the time when shooting weddings and families.  Had we been shooting outside, we could hear the bokeh from the 135mm singing off the page — it’s almost criminal to use this lens in-studio given what it’s capable of doing on-location.

I should also mention: I’m not married to my lenses. In the time between shooting these images and publishing this post, I’ve sold both my 105mm and the Zeiss. I know what they can do, and I know what photos I’m trying to take. Gear is just that: the paraphernalia in the bag that a photographer chooses to capture the photo he or she is trying to shoot. More important than owning the “right” or “perfect” lens is knowing how to use and what you can reasonably expect to get from the lens you already have.

Zeiss Distagon ZF 35mm f/2

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Nikon 105mm f/2.8 AF Micro

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Nikon 28-70mm f/2.8 at 28mm

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Nikon 28-70mm f/2.8 at 35mm

Nikon 28-70mm f/2.8 at 50mm

Nikon 28-70mm f/2.8 at 70mm

Nikon 135mm AF Defocus Control f/2

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