This is probably more appropriate as a blog entry where I usually place my rants, but there is also a lot to be learned here.

A short while ago I posted a lens choice article by Ken Rockwell and stated that I agreed with most of it.  There were a few minor points I didn’t agree with, and one large issue.  He did it again!  Reading this article by him again this week I saw the same glaring issue which I disagreed with about mid-range zooms.  Ken Rockwell isn’t the only one.  Many professionals will tell you they don’t own or don’t use mid-range zooms.  The statement “I don’t know a single professional who uses a mid-range zoom” needs to be qualified.  Perhaps, if all you know are professional landscape photographers this ‘could’ be true.  I still doubt it.

In his defense he might think that anyone reading his site has like interests in photography.  Or, they might be like me who reads his site because he’s an entertaining writer, controversial, and knowledgeable about photography on a grand scale.

Any professional who shoots weddings, events, photojournalists (a mid-range zoom is their second most used lens right behind the 70-200mm zoom), or studio photographer uses mid-range zooms as their bread and butter lens.  It's at least in their top 3.

I’m not even sure I agree that a landscape photographer wouldn’t be well served by a quality mid-range zooms.  What is a mid-range zoom?  A 24-70mm, 28-70mm, 35-70mm, 24-105mm, 24-85mm, or any zoom close to this range.  The professional grade lenses are usually F2.8 lenses with the exception of Canon’s excellent 24-105mm and Nikon’s 24-85mm which are both F4 lenses with IS/VR.


Characteristics of a professional mid-range zoom: 

Sharp images throughout the focal range.  Excellent color rendition and strong contrast.  Noticeable barrel distortion on the wide end, and some pin-cushioning distortion on the long end.  Bokeh (defocused area) is usually rougher than you’d want.  Fast handing, fast focusing, and an extremely useful focal range for studio portraits, events, weddings, and so forth.  Very well built.  Most take 77mm filters.


Why not use a mid-range zoom for landscape photography?

There are several reasons you might make another choice.  First, focal range overlap.  Most landscapes will be captured with a wide-angle zoom (16-35, 17-40, 17-35, etc) or wide angle prime.  Beyond that you’re usually doing telephoto landscapes with a 70-200, 200, 300, or something longer than 70mm.

When you’re trying to travel light a big heavy mid-range zoom might not offer that much benefit for the small chance you’ll use the focal range between your wide-angle zoom and your telephoto zoom.  Also, many primes are lighter and faster.  Kinda sorta.  At least the old manual focus primes are, and the mid-quality primes of F2.8 like the 24, 36, 50..  The really high quality primes like the Canon 24mm F1.4 and 35mm F1.4 are big heavy pieces of glass.  The Nikon 28mm F1.4 is also a big heavy beast.

 

Why use a mid-range zoom for landscape photograph?

There might be several reasons.  The most common being you’re not a professional landscape photographer and you already own one that you use to photograph the kids, family events, and the such.. and you don’t need to spend more money to cover that range.  Or, you’re a professional photographer who already heavily uses a mid-range zoom and landscape photography is a hobby.

Modern professional grade mid-range zooms are very good optically.  At the apertures most often used for landscape photography (f8, f11, or smaller) ‘optically’ even the very best primes offer very little improvement over a mid-range zoom.  You’ll be splitting hairs to see a difference in sharpness, color, or contrast.  You will see less distortion with primes.  Still, with modern software the small amount of distortion common in mid-range zooms is easily corrected with a mouse click.

How good optically are they?

Angkor Vat Cambodia, a reflection in time  

Take a look at this image of Angkor Vat captured with my 24-105mm F4 IS Canon L lens.

 

This 1:1 crop of an Angkor Vat temple clearly shows people you can't see in the full size image  

Now take a look at this crop (full size crop) and the resolving power of this lens.  Remember, this was taken with a 1dsMarkII, a five year old camera body.

There would have been very little noticeable difference of this scene, between the 24-105mm F4 IS, and the top of the line Canon 35mm F1.4  And let's not forget, I was shooting this at F8-F11 where the 24-105’s sharpness sweet spot is, and I had image stabilization.  The image stabilization, especially if the light was marginal, might have given the optical edge to the 24-105mm.

I also own the Canon 24-70mm F2.8 L lens and it’s even sharper!  Freaky sharp.

 

A beautiful Muslim girl who lives on my soi  

Look at this image.

 

1:1 crop of Muslim girl  

Now look at a crop of the above image.  It really couldn’t be any sharper on a practical basis.

I’ve owned the Nikon 28-70mm F2.8.

 

"Charlie" a Blue Front Amazon parrot flies through the room  

Not bad?

About as good as you’ll need for any sort of practical sharpness.


Are there instances where a faster prime in these ranges offer advantages for landscape photography?

Yes.  Caves, temples, and many instances of general use like inside museums, buildings, and any instance where you don’t require the depth of field (DOF) of the smaller apertures and the light is marginal.  You can end up carrying an awful lot of expensive fast primes to cover all these instances.

I routinely carry a very lightweight Sigma 20mm F1.8.  It goes for about $300 and I’ve found it invaluable inside temples, caves, and even museums and buildings.  I recently used it for the shots inside the Death Railway Museum in Kanchanaburi when I was offered rare access and it’s the only lens I had with me which was suitable.

 

Summary:

Sure, if I was a dedicated landscape photographer and that’s all I ever did, then a mid-range zoom probably wouldn’t make my “must have” list.  However, if I was an average amateur hobbyist who enjoyed shooting landscapes, a mid-range zoom would probably be a lens I already own for other uses, and as I’ve shown above it can be very useful for landscape photography within that focal range.

Who should definitely own a mid-range zoom?

  1. A wedding photographer
  2. A photojournalist
  3. A studio photographer
  4. Anyone who enjoys photographing family events
  5. Anyone who just enjoys visiting places and wants a single zoom lens in the most useful range

The list could stretch out quite a bit longer, but you get the point.

I know Ken Rockwell and other dedicated landscape photographers are trying to make a point about their being better choices for their type of photography.  But the casual photographer/reader will probably be misled and ill served by these statements.

It’s always good to have all the useful information to make informed decisions.

When you’re just getting into photography a quality mid-range zoom will probably be one of your first lens purchases.  If you’re a professional who uses a mid-range zoom as one of their bread and butter lenses (wedding, studio, events, photojournalism) you’ll for sure own one.  And if you’re a seasoned photographer you’ve probably already added at least one mid-range zoom to your lens collection as well as many primes, and you’ll just pack your bag with the best lenses for your current outing.

I think you’ll be hard pressed to not find a quality mid-range zoom useful in a big way.