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The Canon Photographers Guide To Upgrading Your Equipment – Part I: Lenses

by Travis Lawton on 12/01/2011

Canon Lens Upgrade Path

This is the first post in a series of posts that will tell all you Canon shooters out there a general upgrade path for your equipment.

You’ve probably heard the term that the best camera (or lens) is the one you have on you. You’ve also probably heard from several people who you don’t need super high-end equipment to create stunning images. While these statements can be true, better gear can make your photography life a whole lot easier. Sure you can mow your lawn with an old school push mower, but a new riding mower would probably do a much better job, quicker, and without having to work nearly as hard.

In this post, we’ll concentrate on the first item that should be on your upgrade list, the lens.

A quick note: you must be careful not to fall into the more-gear-and-better-gear-will-give-me-better-images trap. Some people (myself included, in the past) always want that next thing on their list. They think if I can just get X, my photography will be amazing. While new gear can help, it’s not going to make you the next Ansel Adams.

This post is assuming that you at least have a Canon digital single lens reflex (DSLR) camera. If you don’t, that is definitely priority number one. Look into getting a Canon Rebel series DSLR. These are the less expensive line of Canon’s DSLR’s. Check out our reviews of Canon’s T2i and T3i to help with your decision.

The first thing that many photographers want to upgrade when buying new gear is the camera. It’s the logical choice since that his what everything else revolves around. But it’s also the wrong choice. Many pros will tell you to put your money toward “good glass” rather than the camera. Meaning a good lens on a bad camera is much better than a bad lens on a good camera. Think of it like this: if you had 20/20 vision, you wouldn’t want to put glasses on that are blurry or give dull and muted colors.

Which Lens Is Right For Me?

As lenses are generally an expensive purchase, you’ll probably want to take adequate time deciding on which to purchase. The first question you must ask yourself is what type of photography do you plan to use your new lens for. This will greatly narrow down the list of lenses for you to look at. A lens that is generally used for landscape isn’t going to be very good for shooting sports, and vice-versa.

Even after narrowing down your selection, there’s usually still many lenses to look at. This is because there are several formidable lens manufactures outside of Canon. For example, you can get excellent lenses that will work for your Canon camera from companies like Sigma, Tamron, Tokina, and many more.

Before getting into the different categories, I want to mention a very special lens that I feel should be everyone’s first lens purchase: the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II Lens. This lens is a perfect starter portrait lens, also great as an everyday lens to leave on your camera, gives you good bokeh, great low light capabilities, and last but not least is only a little over $100. That is an unheard of amount for such a great lens.

It’s not all perfect though. It’s not made of the highest quality materials. I’ve had several friends who’ve actually had to buy two or three of them because they keep breaking. Even though I recommend this lens to everyone that has a Canon DSLR, there are some much better ones mentioned below.

Below, you will find some of the most popular genres of photography and recommended lens upgrades for each at a range of prices.

Portraits

The best portrait lenses are generally prime lenses. Prime meaning they don’t zoom. They have a fixed focal length and for you to get more or less in the frame, you have to move the camera closer or further instead of being able to zoom the lens in or out. Prime lenses are usually very sharp and can go to very wide apertures. There are two primary portrait traits that you want in a lens. You want a tack sharp image as well as the ability to blur out the background while keeping your subject in focus thus adding separation to the image.  Another typical portrait lens characteristic is longer focal length to accentuate the bokeh.

  • Tier 2: Canon EF 135mm f/2L USM – This 135mm lens from Canon is unique in that it a very long focal length but capable of delivering beautiful bokeh with its f/2 aperture.
  • Tier 3: Canon EF 85mm f1.2L II USM – Similar to the 85mm f/1.8 but much better build quality and materials, lower aperture, weather sealing, and Canon’s legendary L optics

Honorable mentions:

Landscapes

For landscapes, you want to go wide. The wider the lens can go, the more of the scene you can capture in your image. However you also want lines (such as a horizon) to be as straight as possible. This rules out fish eye lenses as they can go extremely wide however intentionally distort the image. Other qualities you want in a landscape lens, much like portrait lenses, is sharpness. You want every little detail to be as sharp and crisp as possible. Keep in mind that if you are going to be putting these lenses on a cropped sensor camera, you must multiply the mm by 1.6.

  • Tier 1: Sigma 10-20mm f/4-5.6 EX DC HSM – One of the cheapest, super-wide angle lenses you can buy. Although I haven’t used it myself, it’s very highly rated. This is the equivalent of an EF-S lens. That means it only works on Canon’s cropped sensor cameras. This would include all the Rebel series cameras as well as the 60D, 50D, 40D etc. The 7D also is compatible with this lens. This is the ideal lens for a cropped sensor as when factoring the 1.6 multiplication for the sensor, this is the equivalent of a 16mm lens by general terms
  • Tier 2: Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 – While I haven’t personally used this lens, I’ve had several friends who have and have purchased it. However, just like the 10-22mm, this is a cropped sensor only lens.
  • Tier 3: Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II USM – This is the lens used by many professional landscape photographers. It’s a Canon L-series lens so the optics of the highest that Canon produces. Also, this lens offers weather-sealing if coupling this with compatible weather-sealed camera. This lens has the bonus of giving you a very wide aperture in the instances you were looking to use it for some more creative portraits.
Honorable Mentions:
  • Canon EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM – This is a lens I’ve personally owned. I currently don’t own it because, like the other 10-22mm’s, it’s a cropped sensor only lens.

Sports/Animal/Anything Where You Need A Longer Reach

I know the heading for the section is somewhat confusing but that was my way of coming up with a section to talk about those lenses with longer focal lengths. These are the the type of lenses you’ll need when your subject is far away from where you are or if you can’t safely get any closer than you currently are.

  • Tier 1: Canon EF-S 55-250mm f/4.0-5.6 IS – This is actually a great lens for the cost. You get quite a bit of reach (especially on a cropped sensor) and image stabilization. Keep in mind the mm of this lens on a cropped sensor is 88-400mm. One downside is that this lens does have a variable aperture. That means that at 55mm your lowest aperture is f/4 but as you zoom, that minimum aperture goes up, ending at f/5.6 at 250mm. While f/5.6 isn’t too bad, you might have some issues pulling in enough light in low light areas while using this lens.
  • Tier 2: Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM – This is another lens that I’ve owned at one point or another. Although its lowest mm isn’t as wide as the 55, its reach is longer at 300 vs 250. Gets you just that bit closer to the action. The build quality of this lens is also far greater than the 55-250 as well as having the USM (ultra-sonic motor).
  • Tier 3: Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM – Here we have one of the most popular lenses, maybe ever, from Canon. Although you don’t have as much reach with this lens, it has been a go-to for professionals for years now due to its outstanding image quality. The bonus here is that if you buy this for your cropped sensor camera, it will also work on a full frame camera if you upgrade in the future. I listed the f/4 version here but you actually have 4 flavors to choose from with this lens. There’s this one, the f/4, then you have an f/4 image stabilized, then there’s the f/2.8, and finally the f/2.8 image stabilized. Choices choices. FYI, this is the current lens I own (the f/2.8 IS version).

Walk-Around

  •  Tier 1: Tamron AF 17-50mm F/2.8 XR Di-II LD SP – Enough acronyms, jeez. This is a highly regarded lens for it features and price. Although I’m partial to Canon branded lenses, third parties have been stepping up their game in the recent years and are starting to offer great equipment at a reasonable price.
  • Tier 2: Canon EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM – This is on the newer end spectrum of Canon’s lens arsenal. This lens is considered one of the best lenses in Canon’s line for this focal length and features.

Conclusion

Don’t make the mistake of immediately running out and buying that fancy new camera when it comes time to upgrade your system. Think about possibly holding off and spending that money on some better lenses for your current camera. You’ll only be hindering the performance of a new camera by sticking low end lenses in front of it. Lenses cost a lot of money and shouldn’t be purchased without putting at least a little thought into.

Although we’ve only scratched the surface on the various genres and the popular lenses for each, we have given you a starting point to begin looking at upgrading your current lens assortment from whatever level you’re currently at and for whatever genre interests you most. We hope we’ve provided some nice information for you to begin your upgrade journey in the wonderful world of photography.

If you would like us to come up with some more lens recommendations for other genres that interest you, please let us know in the comments below.

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