Lens Buying Considerations

Over the past while I’ve had some readers contact me by email with various questions about buying lenses. Some have specifically asked why I chose particular lenses and not others. This article attempts to answer a few specific reader questions, as well as provide some general lens buying considerations.

To begin, I’d like to address four specific reader questions…

Why did you choose the M.Zuiko PRO 12-40 mm f/2.8 over the M.Zuiko PRO 12-100 mm f/4?

The biggest factor for me was gaining one stop of light. This allows me to shoot my video projects at an aperture of f/2.8 rather than f/4. I always prefer to capture my video clips at lower ISOs which would not require additional work in post. Using the PRO 12-100 f/4 would have resulted in a full stop higher ISO. Another factor was the potential focal length duplication between the PRO 12-100 mm f/4 and the PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8.

The fact that the PRO 12-100 mm f/4 has lens-based IS was a non-issue for me since I shoot with an Olympus OM-D E-M1X. This camera body has superb IBIS performance which was more than adequate to shoot video handheld with the PRO 7-14 mm f/2.8 or the PRO 12-40 mm f/2.8. Overall the PRO 12-40 mm f/2.8 was a much better fit for my needs. It was also smaller, lighter and less expensive than the PRO 12-100 f/4.

Would you consider the M.Zuiko 12-200 mm f/3.5-6.3 for travel?

While this lens would be an ideal travel lens for many photographers, it would not be of any interest to me personally. For most of my travel needs my Nikon 1 gear makes more sense given its size/weight/performance characteristics.

If for some reason I was going to use my Olympus gear for a travel photography tour, and I wanted to travel reasonably light, I would take an E-M1X body. Two zoom lenses (PRO 12-40 f/2.8, PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8) and the MC-20 teleconverter. I would not bring any tripods/monopods with me. Obviously these two lenses would be larger and weigh more than only taking a lens like the M.Zuiko 12-200 mm f/3.5-6.3.

Overall these two lenses would give me much more shooting flexibility with a combined focal length range of 12-150 mm at f/2.8. Bringing my MC-20 teleconverter would extend the reach of my PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 to 300 mm at f/5.6. The combination of these two lenses and teleconverter would give me an equivalent field of view from 24 mm to 600 mm.

Even if I added my PRO 7-14 mm f/2.8 and 60 mm f/2.8 macro to a potential Olympus travel kit, it would still be reasonably small and light compared to a larger sensor format camera kit covering the same equivalent field-of-view and apertures. My E-M1X, three PRO M.Zuiko zooms, and macro lens would all fit in a single, mid-sized shoulder bag.

Will you be adding any prime lenses to your Olympus kit?

We have no plans to add any additional prime lenses. At the present time we have two M.Zuiko prime lenses in our kit. The 60 mm f/2.8 macro and the PRO 45 mm f/1.2. Since we prefer shooting with zoom lenses, we view primes as ‘specialty’ lenses for specific tasks like macro and low light portraiture. We chose the two M.Zuiko primes we own because of their fast apertures and weather sealing.

Did you consider any M4/3 lenses made by other manufacturers?

No, we did not. The selection of M.Zuiko lenses we purchased met our requirements very well. We also wanted to ensure compatibility with any new functionality that may become available in the future through Olympus E-M1X camera firmware updates. Previous experience with another M4/3 brand did not go as well as we would have liked. This was another reason that we did not consider other brands of M4/3 lenses.

Now, let’s move into some general lens buying considerations.

How long is a piece of string?

Asking someone else what lenses you should buy is akin to asking them how long a piece of string is. It depends on a lot of things. Ultimately there is no plausible answer until someone clearly defines the subject matter they will be photographing. The lighting conditions. Their shooting preferences and creative objectives. The focal length(s) needed. The camera body they will be using. And, their budget.

Which company makes the best lenses?

There is no answer to this question. You’ll get a different response depending on the ‘fanboy’ with whom you speak. The ‘best’ of anything is based on the specific needs of an individual and the points of reference one chooses for their lens evaluation.

Primes versus zoom lenses

Not that many years ago photographers would almost automatically choose prime lenses over zoom lenses because of image sharpness concerns. That thinking doesn’t necessarily make sense today. In preparation for this article I went on the Olympus website and looked at some MTF charts for comparison purposes. What I found was instructive.

Let’s look at two scenarios. If you wanted the best performing lens (based on published Olympus MTF charts) at 12 mm (efov 24 mm) and at approximately 40-45 mm (efov 80-90 mm) what lenses would you choose?

For the 12 mm focal length our choices are:

  • M.Zuiko 12 mm f/2.0
  • M.Zuiko PRO 12-40 mm f/2.8
  • M.Zuiko PRO 7-14 mm f/2.8 (looking at the 14 mm MTF chart)
  • M.Zuiko PRO 12-100 mm f/4

All three of the M.Zuiko PRO zooms beat the 12 mm f/2.0 prime in terms of MTF chart performance. It would be a close call between the PRO 12-40 and the PRO 12-100 for the best MTF performance at 12 mm.

One could argue that this isn’t a fair comparison since we have a much older, standard prime up against 3 different PRO zooms of newer vintage. Let’s compare the 40-45 mm focal length.

Our lens choices for the 40-45 mm focal length are:

  • M.Zuiko 45 mm f/1.8
  • M.Zuiko PRO 45 mm f/1.2
  • M.Zuiko PRO 12-40 mm f/2.8
  • M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8

Which lens has the best MTF chart performance in the 40-45 mm focal length range? It may surprise you, but the MTF chart winner is the M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8.

What this exercise shows us is that we should not make assumptions about lens performance simply based on the old prime versus zoom lens assumption.

We also should not assume that an older generation, more expensive, faster aperture prime will have better optical performance than a new generation, less expensive, somewhat slower prime lens from the same manufacturer.

Modern lens technology has advanced significantly over the years. Regardless of the brands of lenses you own, and the format of camera you use, it can be insightful to compare MTF charts of newer versus older generation lenses within the same lens family.

If lens performance is a significant issue for you, it is important to go to the manufacturers’ web sites and look at the published MTF charts. Remember that higher performing lenses will have contrast and resolution lines that are higher up on the MTF chart. Typically top performing lenses will have contrast scores of 90% (0.9) or higher. Resolution scores are virtually always lower than contrast scores. The contrast and resolution lines of top performing lenses will also be at consistently high levels across the MTF chart. This indicates consistent performance from the centre to the edge of the frame. It is common to see some performance drop off on the edges in MTF charts for most lenses.

There are photography websites that do extensive, formal lens testing and provide graphs of their test results. These types of articles are worth investigating.

Choosing a fast prime lens can make sense if your photography involves a lot of shallow depth-of-field work. Or, if you need a fast lens to shoot in low light conditions. We also need to consider that aperture is not the sole determinant of shallow depth-of-field. Lens focal length, distance to subject, and subject distance to background can all impact depth-of-field and subject separation.

It should be noted that lens manufacturers use different MTF chart test methods. Some MTF charts are based on bench testing, while others use simulated data. There is no industry standard for MTF charts. Some manufacturers use 10 lines/mm for contrast and 30 lines/mm for resolution with their MTF charts. Panasonic uses 20 lines/mm and 40 lines/mm. Olympus uses 20 lines/mm and 60 lines/mm. Since these differences exist, MTF charts should only be used to compare lenses of the same manufacturer, not to compare lenses from different manufacturers. If you would like to read a comprehensive article on MTF charts, our friends at Photography Life have some very good information.

Do you need weatherproofing?

Not every photographer needs to have lenses that have weather proofing. In inclement weather you can use protection like rain sleeves if needed. The questions to ask yourself are how often will you be shooting in inclement weather, and what degree of weather proofing do you want with your camera and lenses? If the body you’re using isn’t weatherproof then obviously there’s no point in spending more money on weatherproof lenses… unless they offer some other important attribute. If one of your objectives with your camera kit is a maximum amount of flexibility and capability, buying gear with excellent weatherproofing can be worth the added investment.

Constant aperture or variable aperture zooms?

If you want the largest range of focal lengths at the lowest cost, variable aperture zoom lenses will provide the best bang for the buck. If you seldom, if ever, shoot in lower light conditions a variable aperture zoom lens can make a lot of sense. On the other hand, a constant aperture zoom lens will give you a lot more shooting flexibility in lower light conditions, and also from a creative standpoint when you may be concerned about depth-of-field.

Check the MTF charts when comparing constant aperture and variable aperture lenses. The differences between the lenses may not warrant spending extra money on the constant aperture version. From a pragmatic standpoint this may be especially true if you only use your images online, or only produce small sized prints.

Manual focusing rings

Not all lenses have manual focusing rings. This feature can be helpful when trying to focus under difficult lighting conditions. Over the past 6 months or so I have come to really value the focus clutches on my M.Zuiko lenses and the added functionality they provide.

Special lens coatings and glass elements

Less expensive lenses will not have the same degree of special lens coatings and glass elements to help minimize flare and other optical performance issues. The technical details on a manufacturer’s website will indicate what special coatings and glass elements have been used in a specific lens.

Size and Weight

At the end of the day the most important factors for you may be the size and weight of your overall camera kit and the lenses you use. Moving to a mirrorless camera system, a smaller sensor camera system, or using f/1.8 primes instead of faster and larger primes may make sense for you.  Choosing variable aperture zoom lenses over constant aperture zoom lenses will also reduce the size and weight of your kit.

IBIS and VR capability

The in-body image stabilization of your camera, or the built-in image stabilization/vibration reduction of the lens itself, can significantly extend the shooting potential of your kit. This can be a critical consideration if you are like me and hate using tripods.

Impact of post processing

Your skill level working with post processing can help improve the appearance of your photographs to a significant degree, especially when shooting in RAW. While post processing will not overcome all of the potential image quality issues associated with a particular lens, it can help produce an acceptable outcome that meets your needs.

Balance budget with overall lens system capability

Very few photographers have unlimited camera gear budgets. The vast majority of us have to balance our available budgets with our camera gear requirements. Some trade-offs are often required. Taking an overall system perspective with lens buying considerations is a wise approach. Determining your overall system needs, then prioritizing lens purchases, can help you build a robust, integrated system over time as your budget allows.

Old bodies sometimes don’t perform well with new lenses

We can sometimes run into difficulties when we try to match up an older camera body with new generation lenses. For example, auto-focusing performance can sometimes lag noticeably. This was the case for me a few years ago when I was using full frame gear.  I purchased a Tamron 150-600 mm zoom to use with my D800. I had no issues at all with auto-focus performance with that combination.  However the lens did suffer from some noticeable focus lag when used with a Nikon D7000. This issue was more pronounced with early copies of the Tamron 150-600 mm lens.

Deciding when, or if, a camera body should be replaced can be a difficult decision. If your old camera body is in very good shape with a relatively low shutter count, it may make sense to look for used lenses of about the same vintage as your camera body. At least you’ll know that the camera and lens were originally designed to work together. Buying good, used lenses will also help you add capability to your camera kit at a lower cost.

That concludes our summary of some lens buying considerations.

How you can help keep this site advertising free
My intent is to keep this photography blog advertising free. If you enjoyed this article and/or my website and would like to support my work, you can purchase an eBook, or make a modest $10 donation through PayPal. Both are most appreciated. You can use the Donate button below. Larger donations can be made to tom@tomstirr.com through PayPal.

As a reminder to our Canadian readers, you can get a special 5% discount when ordering Tamron or Rokinon lenses and other products directly from the Amplis Store.

Word of mouth is the best form of endorsement. If you like our website please let your friends and associates know about our work. Linking to this site or to specific articles is allowed with proper acknowledgement. Reproducing articles, or any of the images contained in them, on another website or in any social media posting is a Copyright infringement.

Article is Copyright 2020 Thomas Stirr. All rights reserved. No use, duplication or adaptation of any kind is allowed without written consent. If you see this article reproduced anywhere else it is an unauthorized and illegal use. Posting comments on offending websites and calling out individuals who steal intellectual property is always appreciated!

9 thoughts on “Lens Buying Considerations”

  1. This is a wonderful page, Thomas, thanks so much for sharing!

    A typical rookie mistake some folks including myself make is treating the lenses and bodies as two different purchases, and eventually people end up buying way more than actually needed.

    As a travel photographer with a penchant for low light handheld shots, and as a new entrant to the m43 space, I have been agonising about a system choice- Specifically, whether OIS is more effective than IBIS.

    The M1X offers 7 stops IBIS on the 12-40 and the E-M1 Mark II offers 6.5 stops of IBIS with the 12-100.

    It seems that the M1X IBIS will offer much more stability at 7 stops, than the E-M1 Mark II can, through the entire 12-150 range.

    But the question I haven’t found an answer to yet is : does IBIS really outshine OIS? If so, is the 12-100 wasted on the M1X body for a merger 0.5 stop of IS, at the cost of f/4?

    If IBIS does trump OIS, it seems to be more sensible to get an M1X with the 12-40 and 40-150 + TC, rather than getting an M1 Mark II with the 12-100, 40-150 and TC (the TC also costs a stop if IS)

    My gut feeling based on handheld tests tells me that pure IBIS may be less effective than IBIS+OIS at focal lengths higher than 100mm.

    Apologies on the long drawn post, Thomas; if possible would you mind sharing your thoughts about The efficacy of IBIS vs Dual IS at long focal lengths?

    1. Hi Rick,

      Thanks for adding to the discussion with your comment!

      The decision to choose between the PRO 12-100 f/4 and the PRO 12-40 f/2.8 is one with which many of us have struggled. When I originally got some loaner gear from Olympus I selected the PRO 7-12 mm f/2.8, PRO 12-100 f/4 and the PRO 40-150 f/2.8. My original thinking was that the added IS with the 12-100 f/4 lens would be worth the additional weight and cost. It wasn’t until I had the opportunity to actually use the various lenses that I made the assessment that for my needs the 12-40 f/2.8 was a better fit. I quickly discovered that I could shoot the PRO 7-14 mm f/2.8 handheld at 4 to 5 seconds without much difficulty, and even had some success at up to 8 seconds handheld with that lens. I’ve since learned that I can also use the use 12-40 f/2.8 at quite slow shutter speeds. So, at the end of the day, gaining the extra stop of light with the PRO 12-40 f/2.8 was a much more significant difference in overall system capability than was offered by the IS in the PRO 12-100 f/4 lens. Colin’s experience was different than mine… so you need to do what’s best for your needs.

      Since the E-M1X offers 7 stops with its IBIS system compared to 5.5 stops of IBIS performance with the E-M1 Mark II, my experience was that the E-M1X provided a lot more handheld capability. It’s true that the PRO 12-100 f/4 lens reduces the difference between the two cameras in terms of IBIS performance… but that’s only with that lens and with the PRO 300 mm f/4. I shoot a lot of handheld macro photography, including Handheld Hi Res macro images with the E-M1X (even doing the occasional Handheld Hi Res macro image while holding the E-M1X with one hand). This capability is far more important to me than gaining a small IS benefit from the PRO 12-100 f/4. The E-M1X also offers in-body features like Live ND which is very helpful for waterfalls and similar travel images. I have a PRO 7-14 mm f/2.8 which does not accept typical screw on filters… so Live ND can be an important capability when using that specific lens.

      There are a couple of other things to consider. The first is overall comfort and efficiency when using the camera bodies. I did not find the E-M1 Mark II the least bit comfortable to hold and use… but that’s just me. Lots of other folks love that camera. Within the first 24 hours of using both the loaner E-M1X and E-M1 Mark II bodies that I got from Olympus, I ruled out the E-M1 Mark II. In terms of comfort, ergonomics and efficiency the E-M1X simply runs circles around the E-M1 Mark II… again for what I do. If you haven’t bought a M4/3 body yet, I’d strongly suggest shooting with both cameras to learn first-hand what suits you better. The E-M1X and E-M1 Mark II do share some common capabilities… but they are very different cameras in terms of shooting experience. The second thing to consider is that there is a pretty strong rumor that an E-M1 Mark III may be announced in February 2020. It may make sense to see what that model offers before jumping on an E-M1 Mark II.

      I recently had to make a decision about a back-up M4/3 body for my regular photography and for my client video work. Since my earlier experience with another M4/3 camera brand was disappointing, I only considered Olympus models. After considering the E-M5 Mark III, the E-M1 Mark II and the E-M1X, it was a very easy decision. I realized that I just wouldn’t have been happy with the other options… so I bought a second E-M1X.

      Not sure if this has helped… or only muddied the waters further!

      1. Thanks so much for sharing your advice, Thomas!
        I believe the 1.3 won’t be on sale till Q2 at least, and I have a few travel opportunities in between where I need to have a light kit.
        Eventually I hope to have a 2 body travel kit, and my only concern with the M1X has been its size and weight.

        I will do as you advised and check out the M1X with the 12-40 and 40-150 to evaluate the stabilisation.

        Unfortunately the EM 5.3 is not significantly lighter than the 1.2, else that would have found a place in the dual body travel kit for me.

        When shooting in a library or similar dark building, I usually stop down for front to back sharpness (that in fact is one of the reasons I want the m43 system for the extra DoF at wider apertures) – so that’s where the extra IBIS of the M1X grabbed my attention. 🙂 the rumour mills are saying that the 1.3 may have the same IBIS as the M1X, so maybe I could pair the 1.2 and 1.3 in the dual body travel kit..

        1. Hi Rick,

          I’m not a technical photographer at all… it does strike me that the IBIS performance in the E-M1X is likely directly linked to the dual processors in the body. I doubt that the E-M1 Mark III will offer the same IBIS performance without dual processors.

          In dark buildings another approach you may want to try is shooting at a wider angle focal length (i.e. the M.Zuiko 7-14 f/2.8)… you’ll get deep depth of field without having to stop down as much.

          Another photographer warned me about trying out an E-M1X. He told me that once I used one, I’d be hooked. 🙂 I’ve now passed that warning on to you…


  2. Good advice as usual. When traveling with the MZ PRO 12-40 and 40-150 I found myself frequently missing opportunities because of needing to switch lenses. Now I have a MZ 12-100 IS PRO this has become my carry everywhere lens, dealing with the impact of higher ISO when needed in post processing. However, now that the MC-20 is out, the combination of that with the MZ 40-150 PRO would make a great wildlife setup, more flexible than the (excellent) MZ 300 IS PRO I have now.

    1. Hi Colin,

      Thanks for sharing your experiences and adding to the discussion! Choosing the M.Zuiko PRO 12-40 f/2.8 over the PRO 12-100 f/4 was not an easy decision in terms of my Olympus gear. Now that I’ve been using my kit for over 6 months I have no reservations about my lens choices. Adding the MC-20 proved to be a great decision. It gives the PRO 40-150 f/2.8 so much additional versatility.

      When we travel I typically shoot with a pair of Nikon 1 J5’s fitted with 6.7-13 and 10-100 zooms and a Nikon 1 V3 with the 1 Nikkor 70-300. Shooting with a trio of Nikon 1 cameras allows me to instantly switch change focal lengths without the need to switch lenses out. The combination gives me an efov of 18 to 810 mm between three small bodies. I find this to be a very flexible travel kit.


    2. Thanks for sharing that feedback, Colin, I have myself been in a quandary about the 12-40 vs 12-100 with respect to lens switching.

      I am quite enamoured by the prospect of using the 40-150 with the MC14 or MC20 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *