My love affair with glass // every lens I’ve owned

This post was originally written in 2011. It’s now 2013 and this post has been updated to reflect more (and more and more) glass purchases.

Hi, I’m Elizabeth and I’m addicted to glass. In the past 5 years, I’ve owned 14 lenses to the tune of $10,250.

80% of the questions I get in my inbox and see on forums is about what lens to buy. It’s probably a more confusing decision than what camera to buy. So many numbers, so many opinions, so many personal experiences. All of these factors can make an accurate recommendation for someone next to impossible. The best thing I can do is share my own experiences and let you draw your own conclusion about where you want to take your glass collection next.

So let me start at the beginning. I started with a Canon 350D with 18-55mm kit lens. But I wanted a really zoomy lens and found a Sigma 70-300mm lens which was only around $200 brand new. Now, I had no idea at this point about aperture or focal length. I took it out a couple times and was so so disappointed that my hand-held shots were so so blurry and camera shakey. I don’t even think I was shooting in manual yet so I didn’t have the power to control this myself. I ended up selling it on eBay.

By the time I’d upgraded to a 450D, I was also now working with the kit lens from that camera which was an 18-200mm.

I had a photography crush on an amazing area wedding photographer and I convinced him to meet with me. So we met and I proudly brought my baby 450d complete with my ‘special’ lens (18-200 kit lens). And oh I so totally cringe when I think about that meeting. How. Totally. Embarrassing. I was very proud, mind you, and he was very gracious not to laugh me down when he suggested that I try a different lens and I was like, “um…but…like…why?” He introduced me to the concept of prime lenses which I understood and tried to explain to me about full frame sensors which I did NOT understand. But I still remember everything he said about it which meant that later on when I started getting it, what he said made sense. Moral of that story? Don’t filter out information just because you don’t understand it. Accept it as seeds and they will grow. But when he suggested I try fixed lenses, I was confused. “But it doesn’t zoom. How do I zoom?” I asked. His answer: “you’ve got legs, don’t you?” He sent me away with an assignment:

Set my zoom lens and leave it. Set it at 24mm and shoot for a day. Set it at 50mm and shoot for a day. 85mm. Etc. Then, I’ll have a good idea about what length fixed lens I should start with.

So I did this experiment and I loved it! I sold my little kit zooms and bought two Canon lenses: 24mm f/2.8 and 85mm f/1.8. For newbies, 24mm is a wide-ish lens and 85mm is nice and long – a great portrait lens.

So then I found out that there was this lens that people called a ‘nifty fifty’ – a 50mm f/1.8 lens that was super cheap. I bought one online and promptly put it on eBay after testing a few times. It was plastic and cheap, noisy and slow to focus and so not suited for fast moving kids. The best thing that came of that lens was that it helped me understand aperture better and of course, now I knew that I loved the 50mm focal length. Shortly after, I bought another 50mm, but this time it was the mid-range 50mm f/1.4. This lens was wonderful. Sharp, fast, gorgeous. It was pretty much permanently affixed to my camera.

Now just to catch you up: my camera was a 450d and I had three lenses {24mm, 50mm and 85mm}. I was a children’s portrait photographer also dabbling in weddings and as I now know, doing a wedding with only 1 camera was a dumb idea. But ya know, you live & learn. Hopefully without any lawsuits for ruining a couple’s wedding! But I digress…

Since I was so hung up on prime lenses now, I decided to buy a second camera so instead of switching lenses so much, I could just toggle the two cams as I needed them and I’d also have a backup. The problem with this set-up? I was running around a lot. Like a lot a lot. And this isn’t so great when you’re supposed to be a fly on the wall at a wedding.

Enter the L series lens.

I asked a photog friend if he had a zoom lens I could borrow for a wedding and he said that he had a 24-105mm f/4 which I knew was an L series lens from Canon. L for luxury. I fell in love and promptly sold my 85mm and 24mm lenses to help purchase this almost-a-thousand-bucks lens. A few days later, I was in love yet again with another fabulous piece of glass. So now, I had the 24-105 zoom and 50mm fixed and was shooting with a 7D. A side note about selling those two lenses to buy the new zoom: they were both absolutely fantastic lenses. The 85mm was especially beloved because I’m a portrait photographer and it was super sharp and crystal clear but being a children’s photographer and, at the time, shooting on a cropped sensor camera {click here to see the difference}, I felt that it put me too far away from the children to be able to interact as intimately as I wanted to. And the 24mm, well it was just quite wide and I didn’t appreciate it at the time.

Shortly after, I added the 5DmkII to my little family of gear and for my next wedding, I hired the 70-200mm f/2.8 L ‘big boy’ lens. I used that one on my 7D and the 24-105 on my 5D and then I used the 50mm for a few of the detail shots like the shoes, flowers, etc. This is still the way I shoot weddings.

Now, after experiencing my first L series lenses, I started to dream about what the L series 50mm f/1.2 must be like and when I caught one on eBay {from a private seller} that was a super great deal, I swiped it up and sold my f/1.4. And if you think it doesn’t get any better than the already impeccable 50mm 1.4, it so totally does. The 1.2 is everything I hoped it would be and so much more.

I’ve rented the 70-200mm f/2.8 L IS II about 4 times now and decided that I love it enough to buy it. So last week, I bought the mkI version thinking it couldn’t possibly be that different. But boy, oh, boy was I wrong! I sent it back and got the mkII version. Lesson learned (kaching).

Update: it’s now 2013 and I’m shooting with Canon 7D and mkIII cameras. I also switched the 24-105mm lens for the (now I realise far awesomer) 24-70 f/2.8. I’m still in love with the 70-200 and the 50mm f/1.2. I recently bought Canon’s new little 40mm so I could keep my close-up filters on it and make that my macro lens. I’m not crazy about wide, but I need something for location shots at weddings. Last week I bought the 17-40mm L series and it ain’t half bad!

When I look back on the past few years, I wouldn’t trade all that experience because of course, my job is all about telling you about my mistakes so you don’t have to make them. But you know, I really sorta feel like I earned my way up to where I am now in terms of gear and I know the difference in quality between all those different lenses and that’s very valuable knowledge to have.

Further Reading //

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  • Great post!  Thanks for sharing!!  :) 

  • Jen

    Elizabeth – this article is so very helpful – thank you!  I like the way you chose to write about lenses – by just telling us about your process.  One thing I’m confused about is your 6th paragraph – why did the 85mm keep you too far away from the kids with a cropped sensor – I’m confused – wouldn’t you be in really tight?

  • Anonymous

    Hi Jen! I love tight shots but I still had to be too many feet away to achieve them with that camera/lens combination. I like to be right in their atmosphere most of the time.

  • Thank you for this post. I read it with keen interest.
    Question: which lens do you keep on which camera?
    And: do you still rent the 70-200? If you don’t mind me asking, what are you waiting on to buy it? 

  • Patty

    Loved reading about your glass experience. I think I’m bookmarking this one!

  • Anonymous

    Hi Diana! The camera that sits around the house is 5d with 50mm 1.2 lens. It’s my go-to camera/lens combo. As for the 70-200, I’m waiting for a couple thousand extra bucks to fall into my lap :)

  • Memoriesbymagnuson

    your are so wonderful for the information you share! I am “just starting out” and your words of experience tell me I’m doing just fine & don’t give up. Thank you!

  • Rodrigo A. Carrasco

    Thanks for sharing! I find very interesting how you were modifying your lens set while improving your knowledge.
    One small question with which I’ve been debating myself: given that you already have a 24-105 (great lens by the way, I love it) do you really think the flexibility of the 70-200 is worth the additional cost over the 200 f/2.8L II? the 200mm is basically half the price of the non-IS 70-200 and also half the weight (which is not minor if you are carrying around the whole day), and most photographers I’ve talked to agree that with zooms they end up using one of the two ends 80% of the time (I do that myself also). The IS of the newer versions of the 70-200 might be the decision variable if you work in low light conditions,  but also require a much larger investment…

  • Harry_potter_is_my_hero

    hey sweetie thanks for this article! I’m still a bit confused though. I’m an amateur photographer and I mostly do portraits (especially tiny babies or family photos). I have a t1i and the kit lens. It gets the job done I’m figuring out how to work around its personality quirks lol I’d love it if you would recommend me one lens to buy or two reasonably-priced lenses you think I might need. I want to be able to do portraits for my friends and also, if one of them gets married, I want to be able to do their wedding photography. Because I don’t charge for my work right now, my budget is somewhat limited. Would you help me choose a lens? thanks so much

  • Andrew Mills

    My first digital SLR was the Canon 350D – mine also came with that 18-55 “kit” lens. That lens was possibly the worst lens I have ever had (this is including lenses going back to mid 80s when I was still using my Praktica with a Tamron Zoom and 2 prime kit lenses) . I upgraded to a 17-70mm Sigma (this one is a crop sensor fit) and it can give excellent results. In fact, it’s better than my 50mm 1.8 and can also outperform my 70-200mm 2.8 L IS in sharpness (if not in focus speed).

    Talking of the 70-200mm, I have the MK1 and would definitely recommend getting the MK2 if you can.

  • Great post! Thank you! Just got the 70-200 f/ 2,8 of Swedish eBay (although not the one with IS…) and I love it! Living with that one and my 50 f/1,4. Thinking of buying a wide lens next, just gonna upgrade to a 7D first.

  • Helen

    I had to laugh when I got your newsletter in my email today. I’ve been umming & ahring about getting a prime lens for a while now & finally bit the bullet only a few days ago & bought the 50mm f1.8 lens online! I debated the 85mm prime but the price difference is considerable & currently not within my budget! Ooh well… like you said, it’s good to learn from your own experiences. Thank you for sharing ya knowledge. Good to get a difference & more experienced perspective!

  • Nikki Brown

    I share your addiction.  Last night, I was shooting a pee-wee football game in New Orleans.  My two zoom lenses were capable enough, but I was getting tired of the shakiness and the slow shutter speeds.  Then I attached manual focus 50mm prime lens.  My shots went from dark and drab to bright and lovely.  I took my best shots with that manual 50 mm lens, which I bought on ebay for $50.  I’m now hooked.  Thanks for great advice!

  • Brooke

    Love this post! I have been agonizing over which lens to buy and was wondering if you could help me out. I have a 7D with a 50mm 1.4 lens. I take family portraits and I take alot of pictures of kids who are constantly moving (indoors and outdoors). I have been debating between the EF-S 17-55mm 2.8 (IS) and the EF 24-70mm 2.8. After reading this post, I am now considering the 24-105mm 4 (IS). I don’t plan on upgrading to FF anytime soon since I just bought the 7D. If the 24-70 had IS, the decision would be much easier and I am reluctant to buy the 24-105 because of the f/4. Any suggestions??

  • Anonymous

    Well actually, after writing this post, I’ve had so many people talking about the 24-105 vs. 24-70 and people saying they’ve used both and preferred the 24-70. I’m wondering if I might like one now as well? I’d go for that based on those reviews.

  • Why did you choose the 24-104 f/4 over say, the 24-70mm f/2.8?  You would have the ability to use a shorter depth of field, while still maintaining a good area of zoom.  I’m looking to make a new purchase soon and I have been considering the 24-70 so your desire and success with the 24-104 has me thinking.

  • JuliP

    Loved this post!   the 24-105/f4 was my first big girl lens purchase and I absolutely love it!  I’ve bought and sold over the last 3 years, but that one stays the same.  it is an amazing lens.   I’ve used the 24-70 and honestly, didn’t love it!  Love my 24-105.   I’ve gotten some pretty amazing bokeh with this baby! 

  • ajn1982

    Thanks so much for this post. I’m at the point of trying to decide which lens to go with next. I have the nifty fifty 1.8, which I agree with you, is slow to focus and super noisy, but I have managed to get lots of great shots with it. Now though am wishing I just bought the 1.4 to start with (the 1.2 is just not within reach at the moment). Was also looking at the 85mm 1.8 on my 60D and had wondered about the distance. I was thinking that for some shots it would still be workable, especially also having a 50mm. 
    Would you look at re-purchasing the 85mm now that your main camera is a full frame? I have heard that the 85mm image quality is gorgeous so am still very tempted, even on my crop camera.

  • Schooner

    I think I’ll be buying the 85mm f/1.8 next week, thanks for sharing….

  • Noor

    Amazing post… and it covered almost every lens I’ve got my eyes on and more. One question: I also wonder frequently about what difference can there be between the 50mm f/1.4 and 50mmf/1.2 L-series lens… and you said there was a lot. So, I would like to ask if the difference is simply due to the “faster”ness of the f/1.2 lens or also because it has much better build quality and all being an L-series lens?

  • Khidra Stevens

    Thanks, great info! I have just recently started Photography as a Hobby and am also looking into what lens to get etc…for my EOS 550D. This has been really helpful! I stumbled across your blog a little while ago and I just love it! Thanks for sharing with us:-)

  • Hi Elizabeth I just stumbled onto this specific post today and it was so meant to be.  I studied photography years ago with the most basic equipment and only recently started doing weddings and portrait shoots again.  I borrowed the money to buy a second-hand 40D with a kit lens so I could just start out shooting and making some money to buy new equipment.  My husband and I got married on the 28th of Jan this year and a week after moving into our home they broke into our house and stole my camera gear!  Obviously I was devestated but the insurance replaced my equipment with the 60D  and a Canon EF-S 17-85mm f/4-5.6 IS USM Lens and even though I only had my VERY OLD  film flash they replaced that with a Sigma super flash (I was very happy).  Long story short I’ve still been feeling quite a bit self conscious about my gear and frustrated as I know what is out there and what I dream about having but after reading your  post on this I feel so much better and know that one day I will get “there” as well.

  • Matoli Keely

    HI Elizebeth, first off i absolutely love your site and am so thankful that you take the time to put so much detail and thought into all your post. You are my go to site right now for all things photography. I was wondering if your lens choices are still the same in this article or have you made some changes since October? I know you are really busy but i would love to hear from you!!

  • Craig Solow

    LOL, I almost rolled off my chair I was laughing so hard. Yes, yes, I too had a similar path. Early on I read a ton of books (still do), and I forget what book it was called, but the writer called it “lens lust”. There is no class for it nor therapy except when you get the bill in the mail. We have many of the same lenses, but one lens I “fell in love with”, is the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8L Macro lens. I satisfied the craving for now, as I feel I have a good kit, but I will just put my fingers in my ears and scream lalalalalalalalala after hearing about the 50mm 1.2 as I have the 1.4 and LOVE it… uggg lalalalalalla!!!!!!!

  • Lisa

    Great, now I have even more of the “wants”!!! Thanks for the info!

  • Kara Baker Photography

    Love this post! I’ve owned many of these lenses myself– Recently I’ve been tempted to sell my macro and get the 85 2.8 and a wider (maybe the 17-40) for weddings since I just sold my fisheye. Cool blog, I’ll be back for sure!

  • Jp Thomas

    Funny thing I have the 350d and trying to see if I can do teathering to my kindlefire , plus I have a nikon d3200
    With the kit lens and only wish to the lens and camera gods for a d7100 or d610 ,== just wishing away .