Rationalizing Zoom Lens Sets

If you don’t want the preamble, just scroll down to the Recommendations heading.

In dealing with several email questions lately, I've come across folk who've been swayed by what can be a false logic propagated by the camera makers. 

Consider the trio of must-have FX f/2.8 lenses: 14-24mm, 24-70mm, 70-200mm. Obviously, you can stand at one spot and shoot at any focal length from 14mm to 200mm with that trio. Some people interpret that as a "must"—that there can't be any gaps or overlap in their lens focal lengths. You've covered every angle of view from 10 to 104° (horizontal axis).

One needs to examine where the demand for those lenses came from, though. Photojournalists. People who were often forced to shoot from one position. That group—which had considerable sway on Canon and Nikon, because they were in organizations that bought large numbers of cameras in the 90's and 00's—had some very specific needs. To be able to cover any event from potentially fixed positions with just three lenses that fit into a reasonably-sized shoulder bag was a given. 

That's not necessarily the way most people do (or should) shoot, though. 

First, there's our old not-much-talked-about subject: perspective. One thing the landscape photographers learned many years back was that manipulating perspective made a big difference to their images. Used properly, perspective in landscape work can pull different elements together, or force them apart. You can show how wide a canyon is or you can show the flowers on the slope of a huge mountain that are being fed by the snow run-off, for example. 

If there was anything I learned from my years following Galen Rowell it was to put my body in places that others weren't, and to use lens choice to drive how elements in the composition stood out, grouped together, or otherwise related. I can't count the number of times I've been at "famous" locations watching all the photographers go to the "established" photo spot when I've been elsewhere, getting a more interesting, different shot. Add to that the fact that I can't remember the last time I took a photo with my tripod at eye level, and…well, you get the idea: I'm not in one place using a zoom to compose. 

That was the way photography worked at one time: the infamous foot zoom. But using your feet produces different results than spinning the lens ring. 

Second, who says 24mm and 70mm are the right break points for lenses? Indeed, Nikon themselves says otherwise: 16-35mm, 24-120mm, and 80-400mm fit in here somewhere, right? Why can't I have 18-35mm, 35-105mm, and 105-200mm lenses? Or 16-28mm, 28-85mm, 85-200mm? 

Aside: most optical designers will tell you that they can design great, sharp, no-real-problem 2x to 3x focal length zooms, but trying to extend the range to 5x or more means that they start making compromises that take a bit away for the optical quality. Note: 14-24mm is <2x, 24-70mm is <3x, and 70-200mm is <3x. To get 14-200mm (14x) in three lenses implies that you’re going to be in about the 3x range for each lens, so there aren’t a lot of break points that don’t have overlap.

Indeed, my most used focal lengths tend to be in the 20-28mm range. Oops. I have to change lenses right in the middle of that if I use the lens trio everyone says I should. That's actually one reason why you find the 16-35mm f/4 in my bag some of the time instead of the 14-24mm. Let's see: one lens to cover my most used focal lengths, check; takes filters, check. 

Next, we have the "why not have overlap" question. As I just noted, my most used wide angle focal lengths are in the range where I'd actually want overlap. Personally, a 14-28mm and 20-50mm would serve me well, as I wouldn't be taking one lens off just because I need a bit different focal length. It's only when I would need an extreme difference in focal length that I'd be changing lenses. Tamron makes a 15-30mm that fits right in there, for example.

Note that primes don't solve this last point, as it means you’re always changing lenses or perspective to get different shots, though they can help. For instance, I'm usually just as happy with a 20mm prime and the 24-70mm as I am with two zooms. In fact, happier, as it means that I don't have to carry a second heavy zoom lens. Actually, I do it opposite of that most of the time: I carry often carry the 16-35mm/14-24mm and either the 50mm or 58mm prime. 

If all that weren't enough, focal lengths on lenses are rounded. Sometimes by a lot. 

Just because the maker says the lens is 24-70mm f/2.8 doesn’t mean it is. What if it really is 24.8-69.5mm f/3.2? More often than not, the official focal length range turns out to be overstated when you actually measure lenses. Worse still, many lenses (the older 70-200mm f/2.8G VRII is one of them) have "focal length breathing”, which means that they change focal length as you focus. In the case of that 70-200mm, it loses over 60mm at the long end when you’re focused in close. Hmm. Now how do those zoom lens overlap points work for you? It means that for close subjects I’d have a gap between the 70-200mm f/2.8 and 200-400mm f/4. 

The maximum f/stop of most lenses is also rounded, but worse, f/stops are theoretical, not practical. In the movie (now video) business, we use t/stops (transmission stops) that are carefully calculated for the lens. That’s because we absolutely have to set the same exposure between camera one with that 35mm f/2 lens and camera two with the 85mm f/1.8 lens on it otherwise we create problems in cutting between the two cameras. If you set f/2 on both lenses, you get slightly different exposures (my 35mm is t/2.1 and my 85mm is actually a better t/2). Sure, you could “grade” the two takes to try to remove the differences, but it’s always better to just start with as much “right” as possible. Life is then always easier downstream.

One reason why this article came to be is Sigma’s recent 18-35mm f/1.8 DX and 50-100mm f/1.8 DX. I’ll be getting around to reviewing them soon, but these are impressively sharp lenses. Enough so that that it has changed my thinking as to my optimal DX lens setup. For mid-range, I’ve been using either the Nikkor 16-80mm or the Sigma 17-50mm f/2.8. Remember, we’re talking DX here, so the new Sigmas are really 28-52mm and 75-150mm equivalents, and the older Sigma I was using was really 26-75mm equivalent, while the Nikkor is 24-120mm equivalent. 

Now go back and read what my favorite focal lengths are ;~). The Nikkor 16-80mm gets me the 24-28mm (equivalent) part I like to shoot in, the new Sigma barely touches 28mm, leaving me to fill the 20-27mm part of my favorite range with something else. Now look at my favorite DX wide angle lenses (11-16mm, 11-20mm). One overlaps, the other doesn’t, and right in the wrong place for me. If I pick the Tokina 11-16mm and Sigma 18-35mm to shoot with (both fast apertures so good for lower light work), I’m stuck with the crossover creating a gap right where I like to shoot. Using these lenses together will essentially force me into some different perspectives than I normally like to shoot the wides with. 

“All prime” shooters tend to be a lot like what I’m being forced into: they shoot with their favorite focal lengths the way they want to, but any time something “between” comes up, they use their legs and change perspective (or they just don’t shoot ;~). 

But that new Sigma is also right smack dab in the focal lengths that I shoot the least (mid-range). So maybe I don’t need it at all. But it’s the best darned DX zoom I’ve seen to date in terms of optical performance (and is getting up there with some good primes). Shame to give up great optical performance now that we’ve got all these great sensors that can resolve lots of detail, right. 

A lot of DX folk are going to love those new Sigmas. They've got all the latest focus technology and really do look “better” on virtually every test I’ve thrown at them so far. (When you can easily pick out a lens when you’re just looking at a bunch of pixels, you know there’s a difference ;~). If they have a weaknesses it would be the size and weight for the limited focal length range you get, and maybe a hint at not being up to a few other lenses in focus speed. 

So what do you do when confronted with such a situation? You go back to your needs and make sure you’re meeting them. f/1.8 on DX is a very fast aperture: only one other DX lens gets you there, and interestingly, it’s 35mm, or the top end of this new lens’ range. Nikon’s recent 20mm f/1.8 can be used on DX, but it is still in the range of the Sigma. Ugh. 

In the end, while I’ve changed my “What’s in the Bag” specifics, I’m not sure things are going to stay as they are. Do I need the 21-34mm part of the Sigma lens? If not, the 20mm f/1.8 and 35mm f/1.8 DX are fine for me. Indeed, I find myself bouncing back and forth between two thoughts: 10-24mm, 35mm, 50mm, 70-200mm versus 11-16mm, 18-35mm, and 50-100mm. . 

While it’s true that the average DSLR shooter only buys 1.5 lenses, it tends to be more binaural than that: most DSLR purchasers never go beyond the kit lens they got with the camera, and if they do, they get the “other” part of the kit, the kit telephoto. Then there’s the rest of us: we tend to collect lenses over time and build shooting kits and are looking at all the parameters and our shooting habits, just as I’ve outlined in this article. 

We’re not a small group. But we’re not the biggest group of DSLR users that Canon and Nikon sees. Thus the third party lens makers are important to help us fill our DX bags (FX has had 50+ years to fill our bags). But the new Sigma now puts us in a quandary, right? 

Okay, Sigma, it’s time to pony up: we need a 12-18mm f/1.8 Art and a 35-70mm f/1.8 Art to put together a truly interesting kit, right? Just make those with the same level of performance and build.

So what are my recommended zoom-based sets these days?

FX Quality

Nothing really surprising here. Nikon’s updated two of the trio of most used lenses, and the optical qualities of both those updates are good enough that you might not need primes. But—why is there always a but where Nikon’s concerned—the zoom and focus rings on the 24-70mm and 70-200mm are reversed from each other. As many of you know from my reviews, I really hate that. I have to remember which lens is mounted on the front of the camera all the time.

Over time, I've started to have more and more reservations with the 16-35mm. That's because at 45mp (D850) and doing the inevitable lens distortion corrections, you're moving values across a lot of pixels in the corners, and thus the corners simply aren't as good as they could be if you weren't doing that. Still, for many, that's acceptable.

This is a great set for a D5 shooter, and it’s a great set for a D8xx shooter.

FX Acceptable (20/24mp cameras)

The variable aperture zooms are quite fine with the 16mp, 20mp, and 24mp bodies, but show a bit more weakness than the f/4 variants on the D8xx bodies. But I’m not afraid to use any of these lenses on any current Nikon FX body. If you’re opting for small and light, get the variable aperture lenses. If you’re trying to extract every last possible bit of acuity across the frame, go f/4 all the way. 

Note again that the 16-35mm has considerable linear distortion you need to correct. Note also that the mid-range is where this set is weakest, especially wide open.

This set is a great choice for D600, D610, and D750 shooters, especially ones who aren’t low light challenged.

DX Quality

Another acceptable alternative is the Sigma 17-50mm f/2.8 for the 18-35mm f/1.8, but on 24mp cameras you’re going to see an acuity difference compared to that f/1.8 zoom, so if “quality” really is driving you, the set I described is the proper choice. Note that the 18-35mm f/1.8 has some issues with autofocus performance using the outer sensors, particularly on the D500. 

I’ve tended to opt for faster lenses here because of the light deficit the DX sensors fight (compared to FX). Good thing all these zooms are excellent, despite the fast apertures.

This set is a great companion for D7200 and D500 users. (Hey Nikon, where are your DX lenses? buzz, buzz ;~)

DX Acceptable

At the wide angle end, pretty much all the various zooms from Nikon, Sigma, Tamron, and Tokina are good, but with slightly different weaknesses. I eventually moved from the Nikkor 10-24mm to the Tokina 11-16mm, but I could argue for the Sigma or Tamron variations just as easily. The Nikkor 12-24mm f/4 is acceptable, too, but some people don’t like starting at 12 (18mm equivalent), and it’s getting old in the tooth and needs a remake to bring it up to modern standards. Likewise, in the mid-range there are a lot of fine choices, as well. At the telephoto end, if you’re not going to go with the fixed aperture zooms (f/2.8, f/4), which are clearly in the quality category, I find the latest AF-P 70-300mm to be the best compromise of the 55-200mm, 55-300mm, 70-300mm choices. But, note that you need a recent Nikon DX DSLR body to fully use it.

One final comment. 

Nikon’s got me with FX lenses. DX lenses? Not so much. Sometimes I wonder whether Nikon is actually afraid to deliver too much quality and performance in the DX line. That would be a shame, if true, and incorrect product marketing and brand reinforcement in my opinion. 

There was a time when I could say with a straight face that Nikon’s products were all essentially as good as you could get. Both at a given price point and when ignoring price. These days that’s not true at all. Even in FX I can find some lenses that outperform Nikon’s offerings (Zeiss Otus anyone?), though rarely in zooms, the subject of this article. But with DX, in particular, it’s just not true at all in the lens lineup. I see acuity on the 24mp DX sensors with the Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 that I don’t see with any Nikkor. 

Nikon really needs to push the envelope more. In too many cases their lenses have gone from “best in class” to “very good.” That’s certainly as low as I’d ever want to see them drop.

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