Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The One Canon Lens for Photojournalistic Coverage of Outdoor Events (Super Zoom Lenses)

Over the past week, I photographed two events at my children's small private school...one as an observer and one as a participant. (It's much easier to photograph an event as a non-participant!)

In any case, during the event when I was an observer, I put the Canon EF 70-300 F4-5.6 IS USM on my Canon 5D with the assumption I'd mostly want close-ups of the children. On the other day (when I was an event participant) I brought the 5D again, but had two lenses: the Canon EF 24-105 F4L IS USM and the Canon EF 70-300 F4-5.6 IS USM again.

On the day I had just the 70-300, I did run into some circumstances where I wanted a wider perspective. But being outdoors and fairly mobile, I just retracted the zoom to 70mm, ran some distance away from the children, turned around, and took the shot. Of course, during a little run like that, you're liable to miss a few shots..! (I can just imagine telling the wedding couple at an outdoor wedding to go back and walk down the aisle again so I can run some distance and get a wider perspective...:p).

On the other day when I had two lenses, the 24-105 came in handy when I was taking shots of the people around me...especially, when I was right in there with them participating in some group activities. It was a little difficult, though, to get any decent shots of the people that were far away from me (we were quite spread out over a large grassy area).

Later--when I got a chance--I changed to the 70-300 lenses to get candids...mostly of children who, hopefully, wouldn't notice me focussing on them. This was fine until the children got into groups and lines for some games. Again--as I did on the previous day--I had to run back away from them to get them all into the 70mm view.

Two cameras
When people pay me to shoot an event--like a wedding--I normally bring and wear 2-3 cameras with 2-3 lenses to cover a wide-angle, normal, and telephoto perpective simultaneously. When I travel or go to an event that I'm covering with little concern for fiscal remumeration, I don't want to walk around with two or three cameras hanging from me! Not only is it nicer to have only one camera to tote around, but having multiple cameras hanging from me puts me in "work" mode...and tells all the people around you that you're truly a camera geek!

No, I'd rather have one camera and one lens (maybe one additional small lens that fits conveniently in a pocket) when I'm traveling or photographing my kids. Yet, I want that camera and lens to yield "professional" images that could be sold as prints or stock images should I happen upon shots with such promise.

One Good Camera + Lens Combo
I've toyed with the one perfect camera + lens scenario a number of times over the past couple of years. I have seen the Canon EF 28-300 F3.5-F5.6 L IS USM out there on the market and thought that 28-300 on a full-frame sensor would do a pretty good job of covering most shots I would want when traveling or when photographing my kids' school events.

So, what's stopping me from buying it? A $2300 price tag and mediocre image quality reviews. And if I'm going to pay that amount of money, I would want to replace a bunch of my lenses. The 28-300 can't replace my Canon F2.8L zooms (24-70 F2.8L and 70-200 F2.8L IS) or my F2.8 - F1.4 primes, which are critical in indoor low-light situations. And although I don't use my 17-40 F4L zoom that often, when I need it I *need* it. I suppose the 28-300 could almost replace my 24-105 F4L IS, but I'd have to be convinced the image quality is close enough before I could get rid of a dependably good performer like the 24-105; same with my 70-300 F4-5.6 IS.

Canon has recently come out with a EF-S 18-200/3.5-5.6 IS that covers the equivalent of 29-320mm on a full frame DSLR; but it's gotten even more mediocre reviews than the 28-300, and I don't have a good APS-C format DSLR (1.6X crop factor) to put it on...and don't really want to buy one this year.

I started looking around at third-party lenses, but the only one that came close to what I wanted while achieving acceptable image quality was the Sigma 50-500mm (nicknamed the "Bigma"). But I'd be giving up any wide-angle coverage. I guess I could carry around something like a 24mm F2.8 in my pocket for wide-angle shots; but I hesitate to give up on my quest for that single affordable, good quality lens that I can just leave on the camera the whole time. Also, even though I've owned a good third-party lens or two in the past, I'm most comfortable sticking with the original manufacturer's lenses to keep compatibility issues--especially with future DSLRs I might buy--at bay.

Since I'm not afraid of older Canon lenses (I've had a great Canon 80-200 F2.8L zoom that went out of production in 1996), I started to look for a blast from the past. Well, I found the Canon EF 35-350mm f/3.5-5.6L USM zoom, which apparently went out of production in 2004. It doesn't go as wide as the 28-300, but it's got more telephoto reach (350mm vs 300mm). From my past use of a 24-70mm on a 1.6 crop factor DSLR (24mm becomes effectively 38.4mm on the APS-C sensor), 35mm on a full-frame DSLR should work quite well for me, especially outdoors. The 35-350 doesn't have the image stabilization (IS) of the newer lens, but it's about 10oz lighter than the latter.

What about image quality? I haven't been able to find a side-by-side comparison on the web, but I've been led to believe there isn't a huge difference in image quality: both are "L" lenses with the superior build and image quality that the "L" designates; but the image quality ratings are dragged down for both by their trying to perform well at such a huge range of focal lengths.

It seems that the image stabilization is pretty important for some commentators and the wider wide-end is a big factor for people with 1.3X or 1.6X crop factor sensors. People complain about the heaviness of both, but--as I said--the newer lens is the heaviest (those IS systems add significant weight).

Well, I discovered you can get a used 35-350 in immaculate shape for about half the price of the 28-300. I saw a "bargain" quality 35-350 selling for around $800 without a hood; but I fear getting a well-used lens that is no longer in production because getting it fixed could turn out to be difficult. No, give me a lightly-used out-of-production lens every time!

So, I went and bought the 35-350 L and haven't even received it yet. You can be sure I'll post some sample shots and some observations in coming weeks. I should also get a chance to compare it head-to-head against the newer 28-300 L in about a month because I plan to borrow that for an outdoor wedding. Keep an eye out for that if you're interested!

Michael Grace-Martin is a professional wedding, portrait, event, stock, and fine art photographer based in Upstate New York. He is also the author of this blog. All images and text are (c) Michael Grace-Martin Photography. His main website is: http://www.mgm-photography.com/.

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