By now, you’re a few pages into this book, you have read about several different types of Canon lenses, and learned some essential information about them. And you understand the issues that position certain lenses at different price points. Lenses vary greatly in price, and they are generally split among three groups: 1) the EF-S crop-sensor body-only lenses, 2) non-L-series EF lenses, and 3) L-series EF lenses.
The EF-S lenses, discussed earlier, are generally crop-sensor equivalents to EF lenses and follow similar pricing as non-L-series EF lenses. Both EF-S and non-L-series EF lenses are considerably more affordable than L-series lenses. The iconic red ring encircling the end of Canon’s L-series lens barrels is the visual indicator of premium lenses. (The L in L series is rumored to stand for several things, like low dispersion. However, Canon and others claim it stands for “luxury.”) L-series lenses are among some of the best lenses in the world, and they demand a higher price.
To understand why some lenses are more affordable than others, let’s look at the factors that determine price: quality of glass, construction quality, maximum aperture, and Image Stabilization.
Quality of Glass
All Canon lenses are made with a level of precision that results from many performance-testing, designing, and engineering hours. However, some lenses are less expensive than their L-series counterparts, based partly on the glass used and the manufacturing process. To quote Canon’s highly technical but informative EF Lens Work III, The Eye of EOS, “The Canon EF lens L series possesses a level of quality sufficiently high to be called professional.... This name is reserved only for those few lenses that can meet stringent standards of performance, using fluorite (an artificial crystal), a ground and polished aspherical surface, UD, super UD lenses, and other special optical materials.” Fluorite and UD (ultra-low dispersion) glass are extremely high-quality materials for lens construction and command a premium in combination with other superior construction materials used in L-series glass (Figure 1.14). Glass in higher-end lenses tends to flare or ghost less, as well as provide optimal contrast and lower levels of distortion and vignetting (but not in all cases).
Figure 1.14 The iconic red ring around the end of the lens barrel paired with the red L symbolizes Canon’s highest-quality glass and lens construction.
This doesn’t mean that non-L-series lenses are poor performers. In fact, the glass quality in lenses like the EF-S 10–22mm f/3.5–4.5 and the EF 70–300mm f/4–5.6 IS is noted for being just as sharp. Canon glass is engineered, at each level, to perform with the highest quality possible. In the end (and at the end of this chapter, also), the choice between L-series quality glass and non-L-series quality glass is a budget issue and depends on your practical and professional use of the gear.
When it comes to overall construction quality, L-series lenses are made to take a bigger beating than non-L-series lenses. Most are contained within relatively thicker metal barrels and mounts that are weather-sealed to protect the expensive internals from the elements (Figure 1.15). Many non-L-series lenses (and some L-series) are constructed with mostly plastic lens barrels or a combination of plastic and metal. Consider that trio of 50mm lenses highlighted earlier. The EF 50mm f/1.8’s lens barrel is plastic, as is the EF 50mm f/1.4. However, the EF 50mm f/1.2L is a solid chunk of metal, increasing its weight (along with other factors such as the amount of glass it contains) and ability to take abuse under extreme conditions.
Figure 1.15 The small rubber flange on many of Canon’s L-series lens mounts helps seal the lens to the body of the camera, preventing dust and moisture from entering both pieces of gear.
As for the weather sealing on many lenses, take it from someone who has field tested the weather sealing—it works. I once dropped and fully submersed a 24–105mm f/4L attached to a Canon 5D in a river for several seconds. After pulling it out, frantically wiping everything down with my shirt, rushing it all back to camp and setting it out to dry for several hours, the lens was fully functional with only a few water spots noticeable at aperture values higher than f/11. The camera did not fair so well since it was a pre-weather-sealed version of the 5D.
The L-series lenses are also more likely to be those that have the widest apertures available. Aside from the super telephotos longer than 400mm, there are not many L-series lenses that do not open up to f/2.8 or wider. The widest aperture available on any Canon lens exists in the 50mm f/1.2L and the 85mm f/1.2L. Extremely wide apertures mean larger lens diameters, which mean lots of glass. And when it is extremely high-quality glass, those wide apertures play a part in the higher price.
The maximum aperture opening is a point on which many people base lens purchases, but it is important to consider your own applications for different lenses. For example, Canon makes an EF 16–35mm f/2.8L, which is considered to be a fantastic ultra-wide zoom, great for everything from landscape to editorial photography. However, if you are primarily a landscape photographer, where f/2.8 might not be used as much as more closed-down apertures, you might consider the EF 17–40mm f/4L. It is still a higher-quality lens, but with f/4 as its maximum aperture opening, it contains less glass and comes in nearly a thousand dollars under the price of the former.
Canon has many alternate versions of lenses, with their biggest difference in features being their maximum aperture openings. This is especially noticeable in their telephoto range. Personally, I am a fan of the EF 300mm f/4L IS and the EF 400mm f/5.6L lenses when it comes to longer glass. They are constructed with very-high-quality glass, but they are literally pounds lighter and several inches shorter than their counterparts sporting f/2.8 aperture openings (Figure 1.16). For an outdoors shooter, these lenses are easier to carry long distances and take up less space in the camera bag, leaving room for other lenses and accessories.
Figure 1.16 Photographers choose lenses based on style, quality, and often size and weight. On the left, an EF 400mm f/2.8L IS (the most previous version) weighs nearly 12 pounds, and on the right, an EF 400mm f/5.6L is nearly three pounds.
Photo by Sam Norman
I still use an EF 400mm f/2.8L IS for shooting college football each fall, though. Having the two extra f-stops of light (correlating with two stops of faster shutter speeds) comes in handy when stopping the action—not because I enjoy hefting a 10-plus-pound lens around for several hours every Saturday. If all games were day games, when the light was bright and I could afford to lose a couple of stops of light to the lighter f/5.6 lens, I would be tempted to cart it to the field instead.
Stouter lens construction and wider apertures make for physically larger lenses. Therefore L-series lenses are the largest Canon makes, no matter the focal length. Place an EF 70–300mm f/4–5.6 IS and an EF 70–300mm f/4–5.6L IS side by side, and compare the difference (Figure 1.17). They are the exact same focal length, but the L-series lens is considerably larger in circumference and weight due to its hardier construction. The heavier weight of L-series lenses is a turn-off for some. However, weight is simply the result of the higher build quality. Some folks enjoy the way the heavier lenses help them stabilize handheld shots (I even know some photographers who add more weight to their long lenses to make them “seat” heavier in their hands).
Figure 1.17 The L-series version of the EF 70–300mm is larger and much heavier than its non-L-series IS relative.
Another technology that increases the price of certain lenses is Image Stabilization, discussed later in the book. For those with unsteady hands or who work in low-light environments, this price difference may be worth it. It is technology that only gets better as it advances, and the Image Stabilization available on some lenses currently offers up to four stops of stability. IS increases the size and weight of the lens due to the internal mechanism that controls the technology, so take that into consideration when adding to your lens kit.
As with most tech products, today’s innovations in professional-grade equipment tend to transfer to consumer-level gear over time. Image Stabilization is a great example of trickle-down technology. It can be commonly found in non-L-series lenses—albeit not all of them. Fortunately, no matter what your budget, you are more than likely able to enjoy some of the largest innovations in lens construction and operation of all time in Canon lenses, at all price points.
Buying New, Buying Used
Lenses are long-term investments when it comes to acquiring photography gear. Therefore, many folks (including myself) deliberate quite a bit over purchasing glass. One of the burning questions is whether one should purchase new or used.
There are several advantages that come along with buying new, all of which are similar to purchasing any new technology. New lenses offer up the latest and greatest technology to aid the photographer in the image-making process. Buying new from a reputable retailer usually means you get a warranty for the gear (go ahead and register your newly purchased gear at www.usa.canon.com/cusa/registration/professional/professional_cameras).
Like insurance, the warranty is for those “you never know” moments. However, unlike extensive insurance, warranties typically do not cover all types of damage to newly purchased lenses, so be sure to read the fine print. Buying new also means you can assume you are obtaining a pristine copy of the lens, free of defects, and if it isn’t, the warranty comes in handy.
Finally, new and recent versions of lenses also come with support from Canon and Canon Professional Services (CPS). For the most part, Canon Professional Services is available for those who obtain professional-grade equipment, such as L-series lenses. However, several non-L-series lenses are supported as well.
The drawback to buying new glass, however, is the expense. The primary reason to buy used is simply to save money. I have nothing against buying used glass. In fact, half the lenses in my kit were purchased used. However, there are a few things to consider before plunking down money for used glass. First, make sure you are shopping from a reputable vendor (some of which might even offer a warranty for used gear). I am a fan of B&H Photo (www.bhphotovideo.com) and Adorama (www.adorama.com), both of which have great used departments with many options from which to shop. In the business for many years, KEH (www.keh.com) is another resource. Also consider photography rental businesses, such as LensRentals.com. I have purchased used lenses from them and would not think twice about doing it again. They have great customer service, and both lenses I purchased were in exquisite shape when shipped to me.
This brings me to the second point to consider when buying used: lens condition. All of the above vendors thoroughly check the equipment they intend to sell before it is put on the market, and each of them has a very similar condition rating for their products. When shopping for used gear online, be sure to consult the descriptions for each value used to rate lens conditions, and if you have any questions, contact the seller.
I prefer to buy used lenses that have no scratches on the front or rear elements and show little to no sign of wear on the barrel. Scratches on the lens elements may not show up when the aperture is set to wide open, but they may begin to appear the more you stop down the aperture to achieve greater depth of field. Although wear on the lens barrels—especially for L-series lenses—may not matter too much to some, it might indicate some internal wear as well, as a result of being knocked around or dropped. I also want lenses on which all of the rings (zoom and focus) operate appropriately and the autofocus and Image Stabilization (if included) work well.
If you are purchasing from a local colleague or a friend, check for those issues mentioned above, but also spend some time with the lens(es). Ask to handle and possibly field test the glass before making a purchasing decision. Used lenses (and used camera gear in general) are much like used cars. Some have more mileage than others, some do not have as many or the newest features as others, and normal wear and tear needs to be taken into consideration. Overall, though, doing your research and smart shopping will most likely land you great versions of the lenses you want without paying for new.
Renting camera gear, especially lenses, is a relatively new opportunity for folks to get their hands on all types of equipment. Two reasons for which you might consider renting a lens: needing it for a one-time-only shoot or photographic experience and testing a lens you are considering purchasing. I do not have much need for an EF 85mm f/1.2L, but occasionally I will rent one for a few days for a fraction of the price it costs to purchase a new or used version.
If you are comfortable with the lens kit you have for your Canon DSLR, but occasionally want to shoot with another perspective, renting is a great alternative. It is even a smart alternative to borrowing a friend or colleague’s lens because most rental services offer insurance in case of an accident. If you scratch the front lens element of your buddy’s new EF-S 18–200mm f/3.5–5.6 IS, you might be obligated to replace it for much more than the nominal insurance fee.
If you are thinking about buying a new or used lens, especially any pricey L-series lens, consider renting it first for a few days. Use it extensively during the time you have it, putting it through its paces with your shooting style. This trial period will hopefully inform your purchasing decision. Remember that 85mm I was just talking about? After renting one, I didn’t buy it. However, after trialing an EF 50mm f/1.2L, I was convinced that it belonged in my bag, resulting in a visit to my local camera store.
So, where do you go to rent lenses? Check locally for any camera shops that rent. Many smaller shops are adding rentals to diversify their business, and with renting locally comes a level of support that few non-local entities can achieve. There are also several great online rental services, such as LensRentals.com, LensProToGo (www.lensprotogo.com), and BorrowLenses (www.borrowlenses.com). I have been a LensRentals.com user for years (several of the images in this book were made with gear I rented specifically for it). Online rental services usually offer more gear and also make it easy for the renter to return lenses back to headquarters.