Thursday, April 1, 2010

Search for a wide angle lens part 2 - a systematic approach to lens choice

After being disappointed with the wide angle converter, I started looking for a real wide angle lens to complement my Tamron 28-75.  I solved the budget issue by selling my paraglider, which I hadn't touched for 7 years.  (It sold surprisingly quickly!)  Here's my decision-making process in deciding which lens to get.  Hopefully it can be of some guidance to other photographers in similar situations.

My search started with determining my budget, which was around $500.  As for the focal length, I had prior experience with an 18mm lens (Tamron 18-250 for Pentax) and thought that I would look for 18mm or wider.   I started reading reviews of 18mm or wider lenses in the $500 range.  I found several wide lenses with decent reviews.  I grouped them into two main categories:

Group 1 (wide - normal; capable of general use)
  • Tamron 17-50 f2.8 VC $620 - $25 rebate
  • Nikon 16-85 VR $630
  • Tamron 17-50 2.8 (non-VC) $460
  • Sigma 18-50 2.8 $420
  • Tokina 16-50 f2.8 $550
  • Nikon 18-105 VR $377
  • Tamron 17-35 $333
Group 2 (true wide angle)
  • Tokina 12-24 f4 $399
  • Tokina 12-24 f4 II $499 multicoated
  • Tokina 11-16 f2.8 $630
  • Sigma 10-20 3.5 $649
  • used Nikon 12-24 f4 $710
I started eliminating choices within each group.
In Group 1, I eliminated these lenses for the following reasons:
  • Tamron 17-35. The other lenses have a wider range of focal lengths.  Not worth the savings for me.
  • Tokina 16-50 f2.8. - per tests, Sigma 18-50 and Tamron 17-50 are superior.
  • Sigma 18-50 2.8 - per tests, the Tamron 17-50 is superior.
  • Tamron 17-50 2.8 non-VC - this was a little harder to eliminate.  I eliminated it next because I read a number of reports about quality control issues with this lens.  I also thought the VC version was worth the added cost.
  • Nikon 18-105 VR.  I didn't feel that I needed the extra tele length, and I had read that the 16-85 VR had slightly better image quality.  Plus the 16-85 is wider.  I thought those were more important in the long term than the savings.  I find it reassuring also that the 16-85 VR is one of the lenses that Bob Krist takes with him on his assignments. However, if my budget were tighter, the 18-105VR may have been the best choice for me in group 1 (refurb 18-105 VR is available for $250 through
  • Nikon 16-85 VR.  Although the 16-85 has a more useful range of focal lengths, I felt that the wider 2.8 aperture of the Tamron 17-50 VC was more important.  Notably, I had *not* found reports about quality control issues with the 17-50 VC as compared to the non-VC version of that lens.  Had there been as many reported quality control problems, I may have picked the 16-85 VR.  However, Tamron does have a 6-year warranty as long as you buy the lens from an authorized dealer, which was enough comfort for me.
In Group 2, I eliminated:
  • Tokina 11-16.  I think the Sigma 10-20 would be more useful because it has a wider range of focal lengths and is only 1/2 stop slower.
  • Sigma 10-20.  I think the 12-24 has a more useful range for me.  I don't foresee the need for ultra wide angle shots.
  • Nikon 12-24.  Another lens that Bob Krist takes on assignments.  However, I've read that the Tokina has virtually the same image quality.  Someone posted comparison shots here.  The extra cost plus the used condition weren't worth it for me.
  • Tokina 12-24 vs Tokina 12-24 II.  The version II is more flare resistant, a feature I find important because I like to take backlit shots.  I also noticed that the Nikon mount of the version II ($499) was significantly cheaper than the Canon mount ($589) which I thought implied that the version II offered very good value in the Nikon mount.  I would prefer the version II but would be satisfied with the original 12-24.
So it came down to a choice between a wide-normal lens (Tamron 17-50 VC) or a true wide angle lens (Tokina 12-24).  I thought about it for a while, and considered these factors:

1. A wide-normal lens would be a continuation of my current shooting style. A true wide angle lens would require a change in shooting style.  From a skills development perspective, a true wide angle lens would offer more for me to learn.
2. It seemed to me that a wide-normal lens would tend to focus on the people, while the wide lens would tend to emphasize the setting.  Thinking from the audience's point of view, if I knew the people in the picture, I may be more interested in seeing them close-up.  If I didn't know them, I probably would be more interested in the setting.  Philosophically, I considered whether I was shooting mainly for ourselves (as in a family album) or for others (addressing the photography audience in general).
3. The Tamron 17-50 VC has a significant overlap with my existing 28-75.  I wondered whether the two would be redundant.  I considered what circumstances I would use the 28-75 if I had the 17-50 VC.  I thought the 28-75 would still be a better choice for portraits and in situations where the background was not important.
4. I thought about the kinds of shots I wanted to take that were not yet among the shots I have been taking: photos like those of Rarindra Prakarsa, and like those of Filipino wedding photographer Lito Sy
a.    Lito Sy doesn't publish the photo data for his shots, but for his landscape style shots that I'm interested in, I'm almost sure they were taken with a wide angle lens.
b.    I looked at Rarindra Prakarsa's gallery.  I was guessing they were taken with a wide angle or normal lens, but was surprised that he took them using telephoto type focal lengths, like 50mm on a Canon Rebel Xti body (80mm equivalent in 35mm terms).  One of the lenses he supposedly used was in fact the Tamron 28-75.  I thought that one reason for using a tele length in his shots is to be less obtrusive.  I thought I ought to keep the 28-75 for that reason.
5. I have no experience using lenses wider than 18mm.  To get a better idea of what I could expect from the 12-24, I reviewed flickr pictures taken with the Nikon 12-24 and Tokina 12-24.  I didn't pixel peep so much as try to get a better idea of the kinds of images with those focal length.

I considered the kinds of realistic lens combinations that I may like to have.
  • Combination 1: Tamron 17-50 (general + landscape) + Tamron 28-75 (general + portrait).
  • Combination 2: Tokina 12-24 (landscape) + Nikon 18-55 VR (general + landscape) + Tamron 28-75 (general + portrait).
  • Combination 3: Tokina 12-24 (landscape) + Tamron 17-50 (general + landscape + portrait?) + Nikon 55-200 VR (portrait) or Vivitar 85 1.4 (portrait).
  • Combination 4: Tokina 12-24 (landscape) + Tamron 28-75 (general + portrait).
I thought about the sequence I might use to buy the lenses to get the combinations I might like.
Sequence 1:
a. 28-75
b. 12-24 + 28-75 (combination 4)
c.1.  If I find that I don't use the tele end of the 28-75 often enough, I can sell it and get a 17-50 to end up with a 12-24 + 17-50 combination.  I would then get a 55-200 VR or the Vivitar 85 1.4 to cover the tele lengths. 
c.2.  Alternatively, if I find that I use the tele end of the 28-75 often enough, and I use less of the wide-normal range, I can get a Nikon 18-55 VR for a 12-24 + 18-55VR + 28-75 combination (combination 2).
Sequence 2:
a. 28-75
b. 17-50 + 28-75 (combination 1)
c.1  If I find a need a wider angle lens then I would get: 12-24 + 17-50 + 28-75
c.2  If the 17-50 was adequate for my wide angle needs but that I needed a longer focal length to cover sports, I could sell the 28-75 and get a Vivitar 85 1.4 or a 55-200 VR.  I would also do the same if I found the 17-50 and 28-75 redundant.
c.3 If I find a need a wider angle and a longer tele lens, then I could do both c.1 and c.2.  They weren't mutually exclusive.
Between sequence 1 and sequence 2, I thought sequence 2 was more practical for me right now.  Although I wanted shots like those of Rarindra Prakarsa and Lito Sy, we don't travel often.  If I take shots where the background is a significant element, there may be nothing worth showing (or at least nothing worth occupying a large percentage of the picture).  Sequence 2 also offered more flexibility.  Having chosen sequence 2, I decided to get a 17-50 VC instead of the Tokina 12-24.
I searched online for the best prices, making sure that the seller was eligible for the $25 Tamron rebate, and that the seller was an authorized dealer (so I could use the 6-year warranty if necessary).  I ended up buying from Amazon.  There were a few authorized dealers who offered marginally lower prices but Amazon had free two-day shipping (through Amazon Prime) and every time I've ordered from Amazon the package always arrived on time without delivery issues.

I'll post my impressions of the 17-50 VC after receiving it and testing it.

Disclosure: I will receive a commission from the Amazon Associates program for purchases through links on this blog to Amazon products.