Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Lens Upgrade Hell

My walk-around lens (Canon EF-S 17-85mm) choked. On vacation, where it was the only lens I had with me (i.e. "walk-around") it was giving me error messages rather than showing me the image (that it sometimes took anyway) telling me that I needed to clean the contacts. I cleaned them and it continued to choke.

taken just outside of Kelowna, BC, in-between chokes
According to my new, internet lens-buddies, this was a not uncommon occurrence with this lens. And I had my choice of what to do about it: 1) I could send it to Canon, who would charge me more than the lens was worth to fix it; OR 2) I could buy what may-or-may-not be the device that needs fixing on e-bay, buy the tools required to swap out said device, watch videos that purport to demonstrate how to swap out said device that may-or-may-not be the culprit, and then attempt to fix it myself; OR 3) I could take this opportunity to sell the lens (the glass is perfect) and buy an upgrade.

Door number 3.

And thus I embarked on the search for what that upgrade may be. Anyone of you who has ever tried to find the perfect walk-around lens knows that I had just entered the deranged realm of the astigmatic brain and the pixilated gaze. FOR WEEKS!

It was so simple when I was about to purchase my first DSLR. Then it was just a matter of asking for advice on one photo forum and taking what seemed to be the most sensible suggestion. It was the right choice for six years.

Ah, but now that I know more (or just think I do) and am familiar with more sites that are supposed to help me make an informed decision, I spent weeks narrowing my choices down and then rented the two top contenders based on quality and my checkbook. And then went over the same ground that had led me to these two lenses again and again.

The sites that talk about and/or demonstrate lens image quality are wonderful tools and will drive you to drink (or to substantially increased drinking).

The Optometrist Approach: Which is better, number one or number two? The people who go to the enormous trouble of taking lenses through all of their settings with some sort of image quality chart (a popular one shown below as rendered by Stephen H. Westin here: are doing us all an enormous favor. 

 These tests do reveal a lot.  And, after overuse, can reveal one to be obsessive/compulsive and in need of glasses. AND, some of us then feel the need to reproduce (very badly) what these experts have already done. Over and over. And then one comes to the conclusion that nothing looks clear, just more or less clear. 

--Seriously though (for a minute), I really do recommend taking a look at this excellent site for one of the easiest to use tools where you can plug in two different lenses, match f/stops and cameras and compare the results. Just don't drive yourself nuts with it: 
Pause for my kind of clarity with my trusty macro lens.
Hamamelis × intermedia 'Jelena' blooming right now

Now if you want to take this sort of thing further--and who wouldn't?--there's a subset to the Optometrist approach some have called:

Pixel-Peeping. One wants a sharp lens. Yes one does. But it would seem that there's sharp and then there's SharpIf I'd wanted 
Sharp, I should have been willing to spend multiple-times more money on "L" glass--professional grade for full-frame Canon cameras. But mine is not full-frame, and I am far from professional. To peep at pixels then is to compare relative lack of perfections but not to achieve perfection. One throws images up on a computer screen, enlarges a portion of an image until all one sees are pixels or just short of that, and then gazes at relative soft edges.

However, is this how one actually looks at photographs? No. I know this. I don't even print my images, so they remain computer-screen sized which makes most decent shots look like they were chiseled by fairy hands. Ah but I know those pixels are there, lazily spilling out over their borders. It maddens me. And yet I have little choice. Better not to look. Though I do.  

And then when I have thoroughly driven myself and my spouse crazy, I turn to the only people left who can stand to work these questions even further into the ground:

Internet Forum Opinions or Seeking Swarm Intelligence: Oh god, this is the worst. Why would I seek the opinions of strangers? And why would their opinions matter unless they owned both lenses? And why would they own both lenses? 
Actually, what they hate helps more. Loving a lens just means you haven't found it to get in the way of your photograph. It hasn't frustrated you or ruined a shot for you. Looking at your photos tells me nothing other than your skills or lack thereof as a photographer. I don't really care. But if you tell me that you dislike the soft edges this lens always delivers or that you find the focus ring to be sticky, that tells me something useful.
And yet what I really want is for someone to tell me I'm making the right choice. sigh

I did make a choice and am satisfied with it. So now there's just the drumming of fingers until UPS arrives with my new lens. Just in time for several weeks of rain.

Another macro lens shot while I'm waiting.
Dwarf Maiden Grass
Miscanthus sinensis 'Adagio'


  1. What did you choose?

    I especially love your macro shots, and would like to know what you're using there, too.


    1. Thank you! I used my 60mm macro for the two shots on this post. I also have a 100mm macro. Love them both.
      I rented a 15-85mm and an 18-135mm STM and choose the 15-18mm.

  2. So cool. Do you tend to use Canon lenses?

    (Still Jan S here.)

    1. Yes. I've thought about using other brands, but seem to stick with Canon for this camera. And you, what do you shoot?

  3. I wanted to know what you ended up choosing glad that you mentioned it in the reply. And like you I tend to go with the opinion of the "haters". Anyone that feels so strongly as to rant about problems in a lens has most likely used it enough to find out it's flaws. Here in Canada our lens cost so much more then the US, so it's a huge decision to fork out that kind of money.

    I love what I have, but I am always looking for something new. Ahem...going to have to sell a lot of cards to get the bigger stuff I'm craving.


    1. Yes, I thought about that after Jan asked (thank you, again, Jan.). All my fussing and then leaving out the important bit!
      The expense really can be daunting. And Canon adds insult to injury by charging for lens hoods. But that's a whole other topic. Adorama, here in the States, gave me a decent trade-in/trade-up price, so that eased the pain a bit.
      Just curious: what lenses are you craving?

  4. Nikon has a site where you "try" out the lens before you buy. It is an app to show you what you will see through the lens. Renting is always a great idea so one gets practice, but it it hard when using a "temperamental lens" for most people. I consider Macro lenses temperamental because it takes time for many to get accustomed to them. I own two. As for sending them back...I always would because the cost of them is so high. I put my investment in lenses so I would get them fixed. I am like you also in checking reviews. Two of the most highly reviewed lenses I still don't own and that is because of the high cost. But someday...hopefully.

  5. Very nice! Another plus for Nikon who, by the way, includes lens hoods with their lenses. And as far as getting a lens fixed, if it had been one of my Macros, I would have contacted Canon about it myself. But I realized that as frustrating as it was at times, I'd been wanting/needing an upgrade on my walk-around lens. This just gave me the excuse.

  6. I am so glad I didn't have to deal with that decision. I was lost once you got past Door Number 3.

    1. Sorry, Jason! Show it to Judy; she'll probably get it. And I got pretty tangled up in my own calculations along the way. So glad it's over. For now.

  7. Hi Emily - Thanks for sharing the weblinks. Nice resources I needed to have. A quick piece of unsolicited advise. The lens and camera do not make the picture. That is you. Unless you are A fabulous lens will not make a weak picture any stronger; and, other than some obsessive photographer, no-one asks about what lens was used when they see a strong picture.

  8. Thanks so much for stopping by, Saxon! And I agree completely. It's just that when faced with having to make an expensive purchase, I go all nerdy and feel the need to research every possibility . . . several times over.