Cyberborean Chronicles

Upgraded lens kit

For a while I’ve been happy about my all-in-one setup with Sigma 18-250 mega-zoom. But after a year of shooting with that lens, I began to look at a better equipment in terms of optical quality but still not sacrificing universality as possible.

There is nothing wrong with the Sigma 18-250 in general: it’s a pretty good lens for its price label and especially, for its zooming capabilities. An extraordinary focal length range makes it very convenient and versatile, but it comes with a price: obviously, the technology is still far from providing consistent image quality across that range. All mega-zooms suffered from the sharpness problem and Sigma is not an exception here (though looking good among many competitors, according to the reviews). After some time, a user usually learns how to work around shortcomings of specific lens model (like avoiding certain focal lengths and aperture values), but this limits shooting possibilities, of course. For instance, stopping Sigma down to f8 usually fixes the sharpness problem (at least, in the center of the frame) that means that quality of daylight outdoor shots will be pretty good: but it’s all.

To summarize, what I wanted was a mid-range zoom combining high optical quality with a focal length range still suitable for everyday use as a general-purpose default lens. I understood that this range cannot be as broad as 18-250mm (specifically, that the telephoto capabilities will be lost) and that it will cost extra money: I was ok with that.

With regards to Sigma 18-250, I plan to keep it in my bag as a telephoto zoom – perhaps, eventually replacing it with a true telephoto like Sigma 70-300mm  (this is where I feel pity of losing that lens in exchange to 18-250!)

Canon EF-S 15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM

Someone described optical characteristics of this lens to be “the best of Canon beyond L-series”. No idea, but image quality is very good; I have no doubts, it’s the best from the lenses I ever used with my EOS 600D before – sharp and lively across the entire frame, starting from the maximum aperture at all focal lengths .

26mm (cropped) f5.6, with polarizer

Focal range of 15-85mm (24-136mm on 1.6x APS-C) is very useful – while still not as versatile as a mega-zoom, it covers, maybe, 90% of my zooming needs. And extra 3mm at the wide end is a great help for landscape and architecture photography.

15mm f8

15mm f8. The leaning tower in the center isn't a distortion: google 'Nevyansk tower'

I was expecting to get a true wide-angle like 10-22mm for city/landscape shots at some point, but the wider end of this Canon lens makes less sense for this. At the longer end, the lens is somewhat slow (f5.6 max) but practically, it is compensated thanks to 4-stops image stabilizer. Actually, I had no problems with shooting without tripod indoors at 85 mm and ISO not larger than 400.

The lens features an extremely quiet and fast ultrasonic (USM) autofocus motor with full-time manual adjustment. There is no need to bother about AF/MF switch: you can just grab the focusing ring to override AF setting at any time: it’s another great advantage over my old lens.

But the biggest advantage is, of course, extremely sharp and crisp images I like a lot.

Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II

In the Soviet Union, educational books were sold below their manufacturing price. I suspect the same kind of charity Canon does with its 50mm f/1.8 lens model.

In that shop, I could not resist to add this tiny piece of a cheap plastic to the heavy and respectable 15-85mm. Initially, I expected that it would be a helpful add-on for a niche territory of occasional low-light indoor shots, but this lens disclosed a lot of surprises.

Well, it is extremely cheaply built, toy-like lens for some laughable money. Its design is unchanged since 1991, it has an ancient slow and noisy autofocus motor and a tiny awkward focusing ring that is barely usable. Image stabilization, FTM autofocus – forget about it. But all this is compensated by its superior image quality and creative possibilities it discloses for everyone who are willing to spend some time to play with this lens. And it’s a lot of fun, you can believe me.

1/1600 at f1.8, ISO 100, overcast day

1/60 at f1.8, ISO 400, electric light (with a tripod)

As you can see, 50mm (80mm APS-C) focal length and wide aperture makes it ideal for portraits, especially in the complex and limited light conditions. Also, the fans of close-up will be enjoyed with shallow deep of field effects this lens provides.

This is not an easy lens and perhaps, it would discourage those who are used to point-and-shoot at the full auto mode. Paper-thin depth of field at wide apertures (where the most interesting capabilities are exposed) makes the autofocus practically useless: only manual focusing on a still camera. I even found that it is difficult to focus accurately using the viewfinder and that for the best result, I have to use zoomed live view (this is where the folding screen of EOS 600D helps a lot).

On lesser apertures, this lens is less interesting but still shines with very sharp realistic images with a natural-looking perspective and without distortion, CA and other artifacts. If you need the straight lines to be straight, this lens will do it.

And nevertheless, my gut feeling is that I just started to explore this lens and there are much more surprises there: maybe, this is what some people call an art.

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