Permalink 08:19:54 am, by lenses, 1482 words, 8230 views   English (US)
Categories: Reviews

Sub $1000 All-Purpose Lens Roundup

It's been over a year since I last updated this site and Jon and I have been beavering away on various other projects. Still, our love for photography and its various technicalities and equipments have never wavered and this site will be evolving into a more blog-like format with a more personal touch rather than just objective lens discussions.

We had a large 10 lens roundup planned and actually shot all of the necessary crops (that's over 1,200 photos!) but it just became a nightmare trying to process and formally present them all given our current non-Whichlens time constraints. Also, since the review does not cover the new fast wide zooms such as the Cosina, Tamron and Sigma 16-50, 17-55 etc it is a little outdated anyway. We thought these observations might be interesting to the general public, so up they go.

We reviewed:

Canon 17-85 IS
Canon 18-55
Canon 24-85
Canon 28-135 IS
Sigma 18-50
Sigma 18-125
Sigma 18-200
Sigma 24-70 EX DG Macro
Tamron 28-75
Tamron 18-200


In terms of sharpness, I would rank the lenses as (from highest to lowest)

1st tier - Canon 28-135 IS, Sigma 24-70, Tamron 28-75
2nd tier - Canon 17-85, Canon 24-85, Sigma 18-125, Sigma 18-50
3rd tier - Canon 18-55, Sigma 18-200, Tamron 18-200

To be honest, none of these lenses were unacceptable in terms of sharpness. Stopped down, they were all pretty good.

Canon 17-85 IS - It's quite soft in the corners and there's a fair amount of chromatic aberration from 17-35mm. It gets a lot better after that and is a very competent lens from 35-85.

Canon 18-55 - This is the kit lens that comes with the Canon 350D. It really has no redeeming features other than being small and light. Stopped down, its performance is ok so you could always keep it for use as an 18mm lens in a pinch.

Canon 24-85 - Above average sharpness, especially in the corners. It's quite an old design, probably the oldest of this group. Stopped down, it's pretty good, no surpises either positive or negative.

Canon 28-135 - Good performance at all apertures and focal lengths. Optically, it really can't be faulted. It's the best of the Canons tested in the roundup.

Sigma 18-50 - Despite a lot of positive comments online, I found this lens a little disappointing wide open. It was sharp at f/4 and above but nowhere near as sharp as the Tamron 28-75 2.8 at 2.8. 18mm was also quite soft though things improved markedly by 24mm. Also, there was significant vignetting at 18mm though that tends to be the case with fast/wide lenses.

Sigma 18-125 - A surprisingly good performer, especially given its price. Reasonably sharp wide open and sharper at 125mm than the superzooms at 125mm.

Sigma 24-70 - Physically huge but excellent results. Optically the best lens overall in the roundup. I had heard a lot of negative comments about the older versions of this lens (distinguished by the lack of a MACRO designation in the name) but this lens did not disappoint.

Tamron 18-200 and Sigma 18-200 - Very similar results though the Tamron was slightly better. Not as good as the 18-125 at like focal lengths though. Design compromises probably had to be made to achieve such a wide focal range.

Tamron 28-75 - Good sharpness wide open, no surprises stopped down, just sharp images.

Handling & Ergonomics

In terms of portability and usage, I would rank the lenses (from highest to lowest)

1st tier - Canon 24-85, Sigma 18-125
2nd tier - Canon 18-55, Sigma 18-50, Tamron 28-75, Tamron 18-200
3rd tier - Canon 17-85, Canon 28-135 IS, Sigma 18-200, Sigma 24-70

Canon 17-85 IS - Very similar in size and weight to its older 28-135 IS cousin. Thankfully, the build quality has not worsened and the USM motor is still there.

Canon 18-55 - It's light and compact, a big plus, but on the other hand, it feels very cheap and it's not internal focussing (i.e. the lens extends slightly).

Canon 24-85 - I used to use a Canon 24-85 as my main lens until I switched to prime lenses. The USM motor in the Canon 24-85 makes it a real pleasure to use. Build quality was acceptable though nothing stellar.

Canon 28-135 IS - The second largest, heaviest in the roundup. It is well built and has a USM motor so focus is silent and fairly zippy. It has image stabilisation as well so despite the size and weight, it is also has the most features of all the lenses in the roundup.

Sigma 18-50 - The Sigma 18-50 is designated as an EX series lens, their high-end range. The build quality is good and the motor is a lot less whiny. The 18-50 is the most compact of the 2nd tier lenses.

Sigma 18-125 - The motor on the Sigma 18-125 is noisy. It has a very high pitch whine but at least it is quick. Quicker than its 18-200 cousin for sure. The build quality is good especially for the price.

Sigma 18-200 - The Sigma well built though not quite as nice as the EX lenses (the 18-50 and the 24-70). It has a similarly noisy motor to its 18-125 brother.

Sigma 24-70 - This is another Sigma EX lens and as such, is built like a tank. While this lens is optically excellent, I don't think I'd be willing to lug it around. It has the dubious honour of being the biggest and heaviest lens in the group and uses 77mm filters. On top of that, the motor makes an awful grinding noise though it is quick. The auto focus/manual focus toggle method is a bit weird too, involving lots of pushing and pulling.

Tamron 18-200 - This lens is big but light, giving it a plasticky feel. The lens is fit together well but it doesn't feel as substantial as the Sigma 18-200. The motor is lower pitched than the Sigma which makes me perceive it as less noisy. AF speed is average.

Tamron 28-75 - Good build and reasonable size. The autofocus is a little slower than the competition but at least it is relatively quiet and it very rarely hunts for focus. Some people do use it as a main lens though 28mm is not wide enough for me.

Concluding Comments

With the exception of maybe the Canon 18-55, there were no real lemons in this roundup. The Sigma 18-50 was a little disappointing given that it's an EX lens. I was hoping since it's not a huge lens, you could arguably call it an 18mm f2.8 prime lens which just happens to zoom as well. However, the mediocre performance wide open kills it for me. Nonetheless, stopped down it performs admirably. If you really need a fast, wide zoom lens, there are new lenses that have come out in the last few months which may be more suitable. I have listed them in the "Other Alternatives" section of the article.

The Canon 17-85 optically isn't as nice as its older 28-135 cousin because of the softness at 17-35mm. There is a lot more chromatic aberration as well. Of course, the Canon 28-135 doesn't even reach 17mm so it's not exactly a fair comparison but I think if I had to have a wide/long zoom, I'd just go with the Sigma 18-125 instead.

The Sigma 24-70 is a good choice if you can manage the heft of the thing. For those using it in environments where the camera would be on a tripod most of the time and motor noise is not an issue, then it does deserve a recommendation based on its excellent results.

In the world of lenses, the Tamron 28-75 and Canon 28-135 are old stalwarts. This was the first time I've been able to put the two side by side and compare them and really, there were no surprises. Both excellent buys.

The Sigma 18-125 is the pleasant surprise of the roundup. It's cheap, light and optically good. It's a shame the motor is so noisy, but if you can live with it, it's a good lens and especially good for beginners trying to find their way around preferred focal lengths.

Of the superzooms, the Tamron pips the Sigma to the post because of its slightly quieter motor and slightly better optical performance. However, if you want a superzoom and price is no object, really you should be buying a Nikon 18-200 VR on a D200 body. With that combo you get weather sealing, a USM-style motor, vibration reduction (image stabilisation) and excellent optics.

Final Recommendations

If you skipped this whole article to just read this last bit, then buy:

If you are on a budget - Sigma 18-125mm
If you need a fast lens - Tamron 28-75mm
If you need longer reach in one lens - Canon 28-135 or Tamron 18-200

Other Alternatives

As I said earlier in the article, a lot of new lenses have hit the market since. The Sigma 17-70 2.8-4 has gotten a warm reception and may be a viable alternative to the Sigma 18-125 as a starter lens. Having a fast 2.8 aperture is most handy. There is also the Tamron 17-50 f2.8, Tokina 16-50mm f2.8 and Canon 17-55mm f2.8 IS which from the samples I've seen would all be first tier lenses in their own right. Among this new group, I'd probably pick the Tokina 16-50mm f2.8 because of the wider 16mm focal length.

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Permalink 10:33:19 pm, by lenses, 920 words, 75933 views   English (US)
Categories: Reviews

Sigma 30mm EX DC f1.4 vs Canon EF 35mm f2

The Sigma 30mm EX DC f/1.4 Prime Lens is one of the few lenses I’ve ever gotten excited about. The lens was announced way back at the last PMA show, and has since been lusted after by many because of its great features, manageable size and reasonable price. I managed to snap one up yesterday at Bic Camera in Tokyo, Japan, the very day it was released. I am comparing it against a classic Canon prime, the 35mm EF 2.0, one of the main lenses I use. This article is just a mini-review. I will do some more extensive tests and a bigger update in July after I return home.

Image Quality

View the samples - center crops and corner crops. The Sigma sweeps the board for sharpness and contrast at every aperture for the center crops. Its weakness is at the corners, where it less soft than the Canon 35mm but also more chromatic aberration (color fringing). The Sigma has a touch of softness at f/1.4, but stopped down by just one stop to f/2.0, it becomes extremely near its optimal sharpness. The Canon is soft at f/2.0 and f/2.8 but shows similar performance at f/4.0 to the Sigma at f/2.8. Overall, the Sigma is optically the better lens of two. I have also added some bokeh samples shot by the Sigma at f/1.4 and the Canon at f/2.0. It's a fairly subjective issue, so I leave readers to make their own minds up about it.

Build Quality

The Sigma lives up to its designation as an EX lens, a top of the line product. It feels solid and has a smooth action in its focus ring. Its finish is the typical Sigma peach finish found on other high end Sigma lenses and the tops of IBM Thinkpads. It definitely puts the Canon EF 35mm f/2.0 to shame and actually surpasses the Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM as well. The Canon creaks a little if you squeeze (it’s squealing because it hurts), and has a looser focus ring. The Sigma has a wider focus ring than the Canon making it easier to grip and turn. Size and weight-wise, the advantage goes to Canon. The 35mm is a diminutive that travels well, whereas the Sigma is at least 30% larger and heavier. That been said, the Sigma is still a manageable size and travels almost as well.


The Sigma is a clear step up from the Canon. Although not quite internal focusing, the front lens element does not protrude past the filter thread, so if you were to put a filter on the lens, it would not move when the lens focuses. The Canon on the other hand, has a front element that does move back and forth out of the body during focus. The Sigma also has full time manual focusing, you can adjust focus manually regardless of the autofocus switch on the side of the lens. This is a feature that is only found in Canon’s more expensive USM equipped lenses. The Sigma also has HSM, a USM equivalent. The focus is fast and much quieter than the Canon, which has a traditional motor that is very buzzy in comparison. Focusing speed is similar for both lenses. Both lenses have focus distance scale windows.


This review almost reads like a Sigma press release, singing high praises to the newcomer. The truth of the matter is, the Sigma is a superb lens. It is better than the Canon EF 35mm f/2 and definitely satisfies my requirements for a prime lens in this range. However, one must not forget that the Canon is just over half the price of the Sigma and as always in the lens world, you get what you pay for. The Canon is still an excellent value for those looking to get into primes. It’s better than most zooms at that range and you get an extra stop of light over its Canon EF 28mm brother. If you own a Canon 35mm, do not hesitate to upgrade to the Sigma 30mm. The optical quality is better, you get an extra stop of light, you have a non protruding front element and you have full time manual focus. The only down side is the extra weight and size of the lens. The final important point worth mentioning is that 30mm does not equal 35mm. For my style of shooting, 35mm was always a bit too much and the slightly wider angle of the Sigma feels absolutely spot on for a general purpose prime. However, there will be those who feel that 30mm is too wide and so it may be worth buying or keeping the Canon 35mm instead. Those with extremely deep pockets would do well with the Canon 35mm f/1.4L, which is more than twice the price of the Sigma, but as most L’s, an excellent lens in all respects but price, size and weight. As for me, I have finally found my all purpose prime.

Some real-world samples

p.s. if you are wondering what I have been traveling with on holiday: Sigma 15mm fisheye f/2.8, Canon EF 35mm f/2 and a Canon EF 50mm f/1.4. I usually travel with a Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L and a Tamron 28-75mm f/2.8 but I decided to try going without them for once. Not having zoom wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it might be. The extra stops of light on the 35mm and 50mm definitely came in handy as well.


Permalink 11:36:12 am, by Cho Email , 584 words, 19958 views   English (US)
Categories: Reviews

Tamron 28-75mm f/2.8 XR DI vs Sigma 28-70mm f/2.8 EX DG

This is a test between the popular Tamron 28-75mm f/2.8 and the seemingly unnoticed Sigma 28-70mm f/2.8 that was recently released. The Tamron is popular favorite because of its excellent optics, low price and manageable size. The Sigma is clearly a wannabe usurper with an even lower price, even smaller size and hopefully better optics? Read on and find out.

The two lenses are well built and nothing less than you’d expect in this price range. The Sigma has the trademark Sigma peach finish which makes it nice to grip but does wear over time. The Sigma is slightly shorter than the Tamron but has a similar diameter. Both use 67mm filters.

One of my main criticisms of the Tamron is that the autofocus can be a little too leisurely. It takes a full 1.6 seconds from shutter press for the Tamron to rack from infinity to closest focusing distance and bank to infinity again. The Sigma on the other hand, takes only 0.8 seconds. However, this dramatic difference is not the whole story. The real world focusing test of focusing on one object, then moving on to one further away, then another even further away and the back to the original object shows the Tamron is actually only very slightly slower than the Sigma. Furthermore, the Sigma hunts more than the Tamron which puts the Sigma slower in certain circumstances. Finally, the Sigma AF motor is louder and has a more pronounced grinding sound than the Tamron motor does. It is difficult to call a clear winner here, but I would have to give the edge to Tamron because it doesn’t hunt like the Sigma does. The motor is also more discreet than the Sigma, which is a bonus.

These two lenses are so close that the 50% crops I produced for the website are virtually useless. The usual compromises show themselves. Softness at f/2.8 and f/16. Best sharpness at either f/4 or f/8. I did my analysis at 200%. At 28mm, they are equals. At 35mm, 50mm and 70/75mm, the Tamron is very slightly sharper at all aperture values. However, the difference is very slight and I doubt it would be noticeable in real world conditions. The Sigma’s color balance is slightly warmer than the Tamron, a trait common to their lenses. I would rate both as very sharp lenses. I made comparisons to my 35mm f/2 and 50mm f/1.4 primes and while the two zooms aren’t as sharp as the two primes, the difference is slight and shows mostly at wide apertures.

This is both a case of “you get what you pay for” and the law of diminishing returns. At the time of writing, the Sigma can be had for as low as $270 and the Tamron is $360 with a $40 rebate available as well. The difference buys you less hunting on autofocus, a more discreet autofocus motor, an extra 5mm telephoto reach and very slightly greater sharpness. I think as far as great sub $300 lenses go, the Sigma is the way to go, but if you can stretch an extra $50 and don’t mind dealing with the hassles of rebates, the Tamron is still the king of the hill. Of course if you are all about quality and money and portability is no issue, you should just suck it up and get the Canon 24-70mm L at $1,200.

Buy the Sigma 28-70 f/2.8 EX DG from Adorama for $270
Adorama.com has what you need and much more!!!


Permalink 06:09:24 pm, by lenses, 1015 words, 2220 views   English (US)
Categories: Reviews

Photography on Shoestrings

By JonHuang

There are a lot of things more expensive then photography. Yachts. Flying. Custom cars. Politics. There are a lot of things cheaper too--a rear lens cap costs $6.99, when it's no more complicated than the screw lid to a peanut butter jar. You know it; slap the word "photo" on something and it costs five times as much. Add "professional" to double. Add "digital" and roll a 6 or greater to quadruple word score!

The point of the matter is, there are non-photographic things that can be adapted for photographic uses. Here are my favorites.


  1. Microfiber lens cloth
    A thick, fluffy but lint-less cloth is the basics in lens care. But why settle for an expensive 6x7 square when you can get a towel meant for electronics for a little bit more (or often, the same or less). Cut with scissors. If you really want to save, go for the giant car towels.


  2. Eclipse cleaning solution
    Please please please don't use tap water to clean your lenses. You'll leave ugly mineral deposits that can solidify on the glass. Alcohol can cause fogging and doesn't lift oils. Household glass cleaners will damage the anti-glare coatings you paid so much for. Eclipse cleaning solution is the photographic solution, but the photo industry isn't the only one that has had to clean coated glass!


  3. Sensor cleaning
    I'm not going to explain this one. Suffice to say that a $100 service at your local camera store can be done with a cut off plastic spoon, a rubber band, some cleaning solution, a pec pad and a brave heart. Link.

  4. Blower
    The first step in cleaning is the blower (DO NOT use compressed air--it can damage components with too much force or chemical exhaust). But who you kidding, Giottos? This isn't a fancy tripod you're selling us, it's a baby's snot-sucker.


  5. Bags, cases, and storage

  6. Tripod bags
    Tripods are funny shaped things; you can't just stick them in your backpack, that's for sure. What about your golf bag? Too many pockets? Try a baseball bat bag.



  7. Camera Bags
    Frankly, I'd recommend buying a good camera bag. It's worth it. But if you're really, really cheap I'd tell you that the insulation on soft-sided 6/12/18-pack cooler totes. As a side benefit, a lot of them don't look like please-steal-me-camera-bags. (I found one that looks like a purse below). If you're packing a lot, try a diaper bag--no one will steal that!

    I found these at amazon. They're stylish, but rather expensive. Since we're working the ugly and cheap, I suggest your local target--I bought a clutch of these to hold studio lights at about $3 each.



  8. Drybox
    Way too many people keep their lenses on the bookshelf. That's a good way to ruin them. Aside from dust, pets, and children playing telescope, the major killer of lenses is mold. Eats the coatings, secretes an acid that etches the glass, making them unrepairable. I keep all my glass in airtight boxes with a silica air dryer. My boxes don't say "Pelican" on the side though--they say things like "25 LINKED SHELL FOR CANON" and "50MM NATO COUNT 200."

    Manufactured for the US government to be hardy, waterproof, and indestructible, Ammo cans come in all sizes and shapes and cost 10% of Pelican boxes, which were manufactured by private industry to be hardy, waterproof, and indestructible. Both are crazy heavy though.

    The most common size you'll see for sale is the 50mm, which is about the size of a few lunchboxes stacked together. If you're buying the large ones, I recommend your local surplus store--shipping can be killer on these. Keep in mind that Ammo cans usually open on one of the narrow sides (like a trash can, not like a suitcase).

    You'll also need silica gel packets. You can buy them online, or you can start saving the ones that come in cracker boxes, dry seaweed, etc. They look like little packets with tiny pink balls in them (they turn blue when they're saturated, heat in over to reactivate). If you pull a packet and it feels like it's full of sand, throw away. That's a different kind of desiccant; one use only.



  9. Printing

  10. Inks
    Don't use generic inks. They have a smaller color gamut, low availability of custom profiles, and will make your prints less than the best they can be. Just pay the outrageous $1 a mL extortion and write to your congressperson.

  11. Paper
    Kirkland professional smooth gloss photo inkjet paper, available only at costco, is an excellent deal. Costco used to sell deeply discounted Ilford inkjet paper, but stopped when they started selling their own Kirkland brand. Ilford is made in Switzerland. Kirkland paper is made in Switzerland. People swear that it's the same (except for a slightly different core?), draw your own conclusions. It's under $20 for 100 8x11s.

  12. Misc

  13. Monopod
    I don't recommend that you take a stick or cane and shove in a 1/4" threaded screw. That would probably work though--did you know that your tripod mount takes the same standard screws you see at the hardware store? Lots of possibilities there.

    Anyway, if you're looking for mobile stability on the cheap, try picking up a 1/4 inch eye bolt and filing off the tip. This screws into the bottom of your camera, making a ring to thread a goodly length of rope into. Tie a loop at the end of the rope and step on it, pulling the rope taut. This should make a triangle between the rope, your body, and your forearms (brake your elbows against your body). With some practice, this should give you a bit more stability. I'll MSPaint a picture sometime.

  14. Remote triggers(canon)
    If you're using a Canon 300D or 350D, your cable release trigger is a standard 2.5mm audio jack. You can roll your own cable release, or use certain cheapo handsfree sets. Or even your PDA or universal remote, for the wireless.

That's it for now. I may do a future article like this about substitutes for the photo studio environment. Happy shooting.

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