Choosing zoom lenses can be confusing, regardless of the camera sensor format and brand(s) of equipment that we may own. The vast majority of us are not independently wealthy and investing in new camera gear is something not to be taken lightly. This article discusses some of the basic considerations that come into play when choosing zoom lenses.
NOTE: Click on images to enlarge. Photographs have been added to serve as visual breaks.
It wasn’t that many years ago when photographers would just assume that prime lenses would deliver significantly better image quality than zoom lenses. Modern optical design has come a long way over the past number of years. The image quality now possible from zoom lenses can more than meet the needs of most photographers.
On a personal basis I have long preferred using zoom lenses over primes. I simply love the flexibility provided by variable focal length lenses. I’ve owned prime lenses in the past and my current Olympus kit includes two primes… the M.Zuiko f/2.8 macro and the M.Zuiko 45 mm f/1.2 PRO. I view both of these as ‘specialty’ lenses. Neither of them gets a lot of use, especially the M.Zuiko 45 mm f/1.2 PRO… but both serve very important roles under specific photographic conditions.
My extensive Nikon 1 kit includes three prime lenses (10 mm f/2.8, 18.5 mm f/1.8, and 32 mm f/1.2). These lenses were the workhorses of my video business, but I almost never used them for still photography. We all have different needs and preferences, so this typically comes down to a matter of personal preference.
At the end of the day, image quality likely won’t be a concern for most photographers when choosing zoom lenses over primes. There may be particular situations when a specific zoom lens may be a little ‘soft’ on the long end. This is most commonly found with long telephoto zoom lenses. Stopping a lens down a bit is often sufficient to compensate for some slight softness on the long end. It can be helpful to do some test photographs, or read some credible lens reviews to help ensure that a zoom lens under consideration will perform as needed.
If most of your photographs are posted on line, or not printed to large sizes, standard variable aperture lenses may be good choices. On the other hand if you are more discerning with your work and you often produce large photographic prints, investing in higher quality zoom lenses would be advisable.
Constant Aperture Versus Variable Aperture Zooms
Most fully developed camera systems will offer a selection of constant aperture and variable aperture zoom lenses. The biggest advantage with variable aperture zoom lenses is usually price. When comparing similar focal length ranges variable aperture zoom lenses are usually significantly more cost effective.
If most of the photography that you do is under good light, or if your camera system has very good IBIS or vibration control performance, variable aperture zoom lenses can make a lot of sense. I used the Nikon 1 system exclusively for 4 years and all of zoom lenses in that system are variable aperture.
When travelling with my Nikon 1 kit I usually took three camera bodies and three zoom lenses (J5 with 6.7-13 mm f/3.5-5.6, J5 with 10-100 mm f/4-5.6, V3 with 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6). This approach was incredible in terms of the flexibility it provided with efov capability of 18 mm to 810 mm packed into one medium sized shoulder bag. I could simply look at a photographic opportunity and pull the right camera/zoom lens combination out of my shoulder bag and quickly get my shot.
Although this is changing with more faster variable aperture zooms coming to market, most lenses of this type would typically go from f/3.5 to f/5.6. Compared to constant aperture zooms this would put a variable aperture zoom at a 1 to 2 stop disadvantage at the long end. Again, for many photographers this is a non-issue if they usually shoot in decent light.
Investing extra money in constant aperture zoom lenses usually comes down to a photographer needing more flexibility. Both from lighting and compositional perspectives.
When I was contemplating my initial purchase of Olympus gear I chose three M.Zuiko f/2.8 constant aperture PRO zoom lenses (7-14 mm, 12-40 mm, 40-150 mm). Shooting at f/2.8 was critical for my safety video projects as it enabled me to be much more efficient on-site as I could leave my studio lights at home. This allowed me to significantly reduce my on-site shooting time. Something that clients appreciated.
f/2.8 Versus f/4 Constant Aperture Zooms
Another important consideration is deciding between various constant aperture zoom formats. Often this comes down to choosing between a constant aperture of f/2.8 versus f/4.
The faster the constant aperture, the more flexibility the zoom lens will provide. For example, the M.Zuiko PRO 12-100 mm f/4 zoom just didn’t make any sense for my video business as it simply wasn’t fast enough for my specific needs.
The downsides of f/2.8 constant aperture zoom lenses tend to be increased size/weight, and cost when compared to their f/4 brethren. Depending on your specific needs, this is when considering a smaller sensor camera system can make some sense if using f/2.8 constant aperture zoom lenses are critical for you. As discussed in an earlier article, using M.Zuiko f/2.8 PRO zoom lenses results in a more cost affordable, smaller, and lighter system when compared to full frame.
Choosing an f/4 constant aperture zoom comes with a 1 EV penalty, but provides lower cost, as well as size/weight benefits. When I was using full frame gear I had f/4 constant aperture zooms as well as a couple of variable aperture zoom lenses. Full frame f/2.8 constant aperture zooms were too expensive, large and heavy for my requirements. It really comes down to your individual needs.
I did end up adding the M.Zuiko PRO 12-100 f/4 IS zoom to my Olympus kit. Not for my client work, but mainly for travel and to augment my M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS when out hiking with my camera gear. While I enjoy the convenience of the M.Zuiko PRO 12-100 mm f/4 IS, I tend to use my f/2.8 zoom lenses much more frequently.
Focal Length Range
Deciding on which focal length range to choose can be a difficult decision. Sometimes we can get caught up in the specifications of a lens, and don’t properly assess our individual needs.
It can be beneficial to go through a random selection of our previous work and count the percentage or number of photographs captured at various focal lengths. This will provide some statistical basis for a future lens purchase. Or, you may be looking to expand your photography into new genres. If this is the case doing some research with other photographers or well respected websites can be helpful.
When my wife and I were trying to decide which M.Zuiko lenses would make sense for her kit we looked at two M.Zuiko variable aperture zoom lenses… the 14-150 mm f/4-5.6 II and the 12-200 mm f/3.5-6.3. One of these would become her ‘every day’ lens.
She decided that size and weight were more important than some additional reach. Since the 14-150 II was smaller and 38% lighter it was an obvious choice for her. When shooting with Nikon 1 she most often used a 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 which provided an efov of 27-270 mm. The M.Zuiko 14-150 II gave her a bit broader range with an efov of 28-300 mm and was very slightly lighter than the 1 Nikkor.
To address her interest in photographing birds and nature we also purchased the M.Zuiko 75-300 mm f/4.8-6.7 II zoom. This is the only non-weatherproofed M.Zuiko lens we own. For her photographic interests having two variable aperture zoom lenses in her kit is sufficient.
Regardless of the camera format that we use it is important to take a systems approach when buying lenses. I’ve met many photographers who rushed some initial lens purchase decisions, only to regret some of those decisions later. You can save a lot of money and heartache by taking some time to plan out your camera lens system in advance. When switching systems/brands it can often take a number of years to fully implement a lens plan. Holding off on a lens purchase to save a bit more money over time to get the zoom lens that best suits your needs is a prudent decision.
Some lenses may provide a unique focal length range which can significantly expand its functionality. The M.Zuiko 40-150 mm f/2.8 PRO is one such lens. It provides an efov of 80-300 mm at f/2.8. Most other f/2.8 constant aperture zoom lenses provide an efov of 70-200 mm. The additional 100 mm of reach is of significant benefit when photographing birds and nature in dark settings. There are a number of reasons why this zoom my favourite M.Zuiko lens.
Minimum Focusing Distance
One factor that is often overlooked when considering zoom lenses is minimum focusing distance. Purchasing lenses with short minimum focusing distances can enhance the overall flexibility of your kit. For example the M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS has a minimum focusing distance of only 1.3 metres. This distance isn’t affected when teleconverters are used which makes the M.Zuiko 100-400 mm a good lens to use for close-up photography of insects and other subject matter.
Not all lenses are compatible with teleconverters. If you plan on extending the reach of your gear it is important to confirm teleconverter compatibility. Equally important to is get an assessment of the quality of related teleconverters.
The amount of weatherproofing provided in various zoom lenses can vary significantly. Some lenses are not weather-proofed at all, while others may only have a degree of weatherproofing at the lens mount. This partial weatherproofing may help protect your camera body/lens in a light rain, but may be inadequate in many other situations.
Not having to worry about your camera gear getting wet in a heavy downpour can significantly expand your photographic potential. After more than 2 years of using my Olympus equipment I still have to remind myself that I don’t have to care about wet weather or photographing around waves breaking on the shoreline. Until a photographer uses equipment with excellent weatherproofing (i.e. IPX 1 rating) it is difficult to explain the feeling of liberation and freedom that it creates.
Computational Photography Technology
There’s no doubt in my mind that the future of cameras will include a dramatic increase in computational photography technology. It is realistic to think that many camera manufacturers will restrict certain computational photography technologies to only operate with their branded lenses, or even with only certain lenses in their portfolio. Buying third party or off-brand lenses will come with a risk that not all of your camera’s features will work with them.
If you are using an older camera body you should not assume that it will be fully compatible with the newest generation of lenses. Based on the design criteria used by a lens manufacturer, an older camera body may not be able to fully utilize the capabilities of a lens. This is sometimes noticeable with auto-focus speed and accuracy.
Years ago I owned a third party, long telephoto zoom lens. It operated without any issue with my Nikon D800, but the auto-focus was noticeably slower with my older Nikon D7000. Subsequent firmware updates improved things somewhat, but there was always a slight performance difference.
Impact of Post Processing Software
Over the past number of years we have seen some very interesting technologies using artificial intelligence appear in various post processing software programs. These technologies help to extend the functionality of the camera gear that we own, and can redefine what we find acceptable in terms of shooting at higher ISO levels.
Some software does a great job with automatic lens corrections. Software programs can do an excellent job improving the performance of various lenses, including variable aperture zooms. It is prudent to consider the software that you use as part of your integrated camera system.
Regular readers will know that I have been using DxO as my RAW processor for many years now. It is an integral part of my overall camera systems approach to the point that I would not buy camera gear that was not supported by DxO.
As humans most of us can rationalize almost any purchase once our emotions get involved. We get excited about something new and shiny and the next thing we know our wallets are lighter and we own that new thing. Unfortunately our rationalizations always come home to roost. This is the main reason why many of us have camera gear that collects dust in a closet rather than being used on a regular basis.
To get the most from your zoom lens investments it is critical that you take a systems approach with your equipment. Doing some analysis of the focal lengths needed, shooting conditions, and planned subject matter can lead to sound zoom lens investments that will remain relevant and functional for many years to come.
Photographs were captured handheld using camera gear as noted in the EXIF data. Images were produced from RAW files using my standard process. This is the 1,074th article published on this website since its original inception.
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