Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Camera Lenses 101: Standard Zooms

The Tokina 28-70 f2.6-2.8 ATX-PRO: a standard zoom for FF/film cameras.

Of all the niches in the camera lens market, that of the standard zoom is by far the most crowded for the simple reason that these are the lenses that most people want to own and therefore, offer a lot of money-making potential to manufacturers, who produce accordingly. And this is already on top of the already dime a dozen kit lenses populating the world.

Question: why do so many kit optics show up on Craigslist, Ebay, and the like? Answer, people simply want to upgrade to better glass. So, hat's out there?

The standard zoom covers the most popular focal lengths in a single optic, typically in the 16-55ish range for crop and 24-70ish for full frame/film. So, whenever addressing the standard zoom, now you know what kind of lens I'm talking about. That issue settled, let's examine why people would want to dump their kit lenses in the first place.

First up: all kit lenses are slow aperture, typically f3.5-5.6. While this aperture is fine outdoors, inside, its dark and, especially on the long end, just about mandates the use of flash, which is not always desirable. On top of that, the vast majority of bundled kit optics are of poor, sometimes all plastic, build quality, not exactly the thing that inspires confidence. For these two reasons alone, many serious photographers will, in time, want to upgrade their kit zoom lens to something sturdier. So, what's out there?

The first class of standard zoom is the fast, constant f2.8 model. Made by everyone, such lenses are far better than the kit variety for use indoors. While going from f3.5 to f2.8 on the wide end isn't much of an adjustment, getting 2 extra stops of aperture in going from f5.6 to f2.8 on the long end is a true liberation for those looking to shoot without a flash. When it comes to bells and whistles, there is an endless range of add-ons that can include stabilization, weather seals, sonic drive AF, or any combination of the three. Naturally, price reflects these extras determine price. Speaking of price, they can range from the $400s for third-party, no add-on versions to around $1,800 for top manufacturer glass.

For people who don't want to spend so much, there are the in between models, typically sporting f2.8-4 or constant f4 apertures. Like the 2.8 lenses, these can vary greatly in price depending on how dressed up with extras they are. However, in all cases, they're not going to be as expensive as the f2.8s, typically selling for $300 to $1,200.

In all, the questions for anyone looking up upgrade their kit zoom are the following: what features do I want and how much am I willing to pay? In the end, only you, the buyer, can answer.

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