#114 Incredible India (3): gear wars

By philberphoto | News

Aug 04

I left for India with a total of 8 lenses, plus a multiplier; all for my Canon 5D II, ranging from the EF-15 fish-eye to the EF 200L f:2.8, which could reach 280mm with multiplier. 6 Canon lenses, including the 35L and 135L, both part of Canon’s so-called “holy trinity” of great primes, the workhorse 24-105L f:4.0 zoom, and lastly the small 24mm f:2.8. 2 lenses were not Canon, but Zeiss, the ZE 50 Planar f1.4 and the ZE 85 Planar f:1.4.

Why this mix? Simply because, when I moved my way up the Canon range of lenses, I wanted something better than the EF 50 f:1.4, but reviews for the 50L f:1.2 were very mixed. Some love it, some love to hate it, some purely hate it. So I thought spending that sort of money for a lens that fails to convince more than a segment of the Canon user community was not smart. I considered the Sigma 50 f:1.4, but users report that it suffers from a very inconsistent quality and from AF issues, so that turned me off. Then my dealer suggested going manual focus with a Zeiss, and I thought “why not give it a try?” I got the ZE 50, mounted it on my then current 40D, looked through the viewfinder, and was sold.

After two weeks in India, I come back with some 3000 shots, and start wading through the ones that were “good”, and the ones that were “better than good”, worthy of PP and maybe posting. And that is where matters began to cristallise. The 2 Zeiss lenses accounted for 25% of the total number of lenses, 50% of the total shots, and 85% of the ones I ended up posting. Now you could say that this is because I had a 50mm and a 85mm, both ideal focal lengths for portraits. Not quite, because 135mm, where I had the great L, is also ideal for head shots, and 35mm is my favorite all-round focal length. And, of course, a 24-105 lens, in L quality, should be able to deliver great shots of every nature.

For those of you who walked though the two previous episodes with me, let me take you to Ja├»pur, where an astronomy-enamoured maharadjah had this huge instrumentarium built. Weather was iffy, cloudy, with rain a threat. So I thought: let’s take the 24-105 and not bother with switching primes in dusty, possibly wet conditions. Here is the result:

I really wanted to love that shot. And there is nothing wrong with the IQ. But where is the sparkle, the joy, the Wow! factor? Now for a portrait or two… and still, no sparkle, or not that much?But it was so good to just let the AF take care of matters. At portrait range, in full daylight, it couldn’t fail, and didn’t. Focused shots every time. Which I wasn’t getting from my MF efforts with my Zeiss. Which lost me shots that I regret missing even today. Like this:It’s not bad. In Internet low-res, you might not notice it, but I missed focus. S*#t!!! Or this one, which is worse:As you can see, the rendering is not the same, even though my PP was. So the first step is to say, which many people do, this “story” about Zeiss colours and micro-contrast and 3D effect is just arrant nonsense. It can easily be made up in PP, and they will all look the same. I tried to push contrast, and/or saturation, and failed to make the shots come to life. Utterly failed. I stopped using that lens after that day. No way was I going to not use my best lenses when I had such great opportunities.

Step two was to think: OK, this 24-105 is a workhorse AF f:4.0 zoom. It is just not fair to compare it with MF f:1.4 primes, and that argument has value IMHO. But I had two fantastic Canon L primes, among the best. The 135L and 35L. 35mm on FF is my favorite focal length, slightly ahead of 50mm, so that lens was getting a lot of use. That is, until we went to a Jain temple in Ranakpur. This temple has breathtaking detailed sculpture, both inside and out. As shown the pictures are shot with Canon’s finest, 35L f:1.4, used comfortably at f:3.5 and 1/50s.The problem is when I retake this shot with ZE 85, f:4.0 and 1/200s. Obviously, they are not the same, because of such different focal lengths. But still…Not convinced? Too much difference between the two shots? Let’s try another one.and the other brand…

This time, I am sure that you know which is which… When I reached that conclusion, I was in shock. The Zeiss pics were so much more to my liking… I started reading up on forums, and entered into discussions with other Zeiss users. They all started with native Nikon and Canon lenses, all moved up to the best lenses of both breeds, and all were shocked at their first exposure to Zeiss. Most of them kept one or more native lenses for when they need AF, which I didn’t.

The result: 6 Canon lenses ended up on the used market, while I started to acquire more Zeiss as they released more lenses in EF Mount. Such as the all-time-great Distagon 21 f:2.8, the tremendous 100 Makro Planar f:2.0.

Does that mean that Canon lenses are bad? Certainly not if you are shooting anything that requires autofocus. Manual focus, with its longer shooting cycle, and never-quite-certain results is not for everyone. And some Canon lenses are really good. The L telephotos, which are very highly praised. Also the delightful fish-eye 15mm

The 135L, which is good for much more than portraits. A lens of stunning sharpness, and very good colours as well:

But, if I have been convincing, you will know which was the brand that made the lens this shot was taken with

But both shots, whatever lens they were taken with, pay tribute to that fabulous country that I so learned to love, the one the name of which is a promise of exotic mystery and beauty, the one that keeps this promise and goes beyond the limits of my imagination. India, I’ll be back!

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