The ideal lens kit?

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NB: All focal lengths mentioned in this blog post are MFT focal lengths. To get the equivalent full frame (35 mm) focal lengths, you have to multiply by two.

I have been looking for an ideal lens kit since I started my journey in the Micro Four Thirds system a few years ago. It has been a combination of trying to find which lenses are the best optically, the most practical in use, the most value for money, and what lenses actually fit my style of photography and the subjects and genres I want to shoot. I have recently bought some new lenses and sold some old ones and think that I might have found an ideal kit.

Over time, I have come to a few conclusions as to the ideal lens kit:
1. Fewer, smaller and more versatile is better
2. A few (max three) primes at favourite focal lengths + a zoom to fill in the gaps makes sense.
3. I like a natural or slightly compressed perspective.
4. I like shooting landscapes and I am interested in people photography.

Fewer, smaller and more versatile is better

The advantages of having fewer lenses are many. I want few lenses so I can bring all of them with me if I want without having to carry a lot of weight. I want as small lenses as possible for the same reason (but I am willing to sacrifice a bit for the sake of optical quality and weather sealing). I also think that few lenses means that I get to know them better. Especially with primes, if you have few, you really get to know their focal lengths and how much they will let into the frame which makes it easier to previsualize your shots.

I also want few lenses because I do not want to waste money by having lenses lying on a shelf (even though that might look cool) that I only occasionally use. If possible, I want lenses that can be useful for more than one genre of photography and that may replace more specialized kit for things I only occasionally do. For instance, I occasionally want to make a close up of an object. Maybe I don’t need a macro lens and can get by with a relatively close focusing zoom or prime?

I like standard lenses, and one of their benefits is their versatility. You can use a standard lens for street photography, landscapes, environmental portraits, product photography, music photography, full body portraits, upper body portraits, photojournalism, maybe even a near macro if you have a close enough focusing lens. On the other hand, the typical 25 mm standard lens often feels just a tad too tight as a walk-around lens for travel photography and wider landscapes and citiscapes.

A few primes and a zoom to fill in gaps

I think using a few primes at your favourite focal lengths is useful. It forces you to think more about your composition than a zoom since you have to get everything you want right with the focal length you have. It also gives your photos a consistent perspective (since you use the same focal lengths). Primes are often better optically than zooms since they can be optimized for the focal lengths. They are usually also faster than zooms in aperture (although there is the new Panasonic Leica 10-25 f/1.7 zoom) which gives the possibility to keep the ISO low even in darker scenes and the possibility for shallower depths of field. I also find primes to be easier to use since I do not have to think about finding a good focal length once the lens is on the camera as I do with zooms. As long as there is room to move around, I think primes are ideal.

Zooms are good for versatility, when you cannot move around much and for the occasional shots at less favourite focal lengths. Sometimes you do not know what you are going to get and especially if there is less time to change lenses or less space to move around, a zoom is useful. A zoom could also be useful in environments where changing a lens is less than ideal, like in a cold, windy southern Norway during winter when it is snowing.

Since I like to use zooms for versatility, you might think I have gone for one of the superzooms that are extra versatile. I originally did exactly that, but even if I like the versatility of the 14-140 or the 12-60, the camera bag I use only has room for 3 normal size MFT lenses, one on the camera and two more. I would have to give up one of my primes for one of these versatile zooms or buy a larger camera bag. I don’t want to do that.

Another reason not to use the superzooms is that there seems to be more problems with shuttershock when the GX8 is combined with the 14-140 than with other lenses. I used to own the 14-140 and used it with the GM5. When I bought the GX8, I sold the 14-140. This winter, I tried a used 12-60 f/3.5-5.6 for a few months and it was a very nice lens, but I recently sold it, mainly because I feel that the primes already cover that range well for the focal lengths I use the most and if I need other focal lengths, those would usually be shorter than my primes and I have another, more practical lens that covers those.

Instead, I have opted for the extremely compact Lumix G 12-32 f/3.5-5.6 zoom that fits in a side pocket in my bag. It has less versatility than the 14-140 or the 12-60, but it covers my most used range and I can always have it with me in case I need a zoom to get to focal lengths my primes do not cover. I do see that a telephoto zoom might be useful sometimes, but I am not certain if “sometimes” is reason enough to buy a lens that I will not always be able to carry with me without getting a new camera bag or leaving one of my primes at home. Maybe it is better to do more with less for now and maybe later, if the need should be there, I might consider a tele zoom.

I like a natural or slightly compressed perspective

After using many different focal lengths over time, looking at the results I have gotten with them, and thinking about what I like, I have come to the conclusion that I really like a natural perspective or a slightly compressed one. A more exaggerated perspective as you get with a wide angle lens might be used efficiently to create for instance a landscape with a sense of serenity and calm and I have made a few of those that were successful, but most of my good shots were done with longer focal lengths.

I used to use a three prime set of 14, 25 and 42.5. I used to feel that the 25 was a bit tight as a walkaround lens for travel, but a bit too short for more people-centric street photography or portraits. I would then often use the 14 for travel even if I found the perspective too exaggerated or use a zoom instead. The 42.5 f/1.7 was a good portrait lens that also was useful for close-ups, but f/1.7 at 42.5 wasn’t as nice as some of the other lenses available for shallow depth of field and low light. For landscapes, the focal length was a bit too similar to the 25. I would often want a slightly longer lens when opting to go for something longer than the 25. For portraits, a longer lens is more flattering and better for upper body shots and faces as long as the studio or outdoor space isn’t too small. Something longer than 42.5 is also more useful for events where you would often be at a distance to your subject.

I like shooting landscapes and I am interested in people photography

Most of the photos I have shot until now have been landscapes. I live in rurality in Norway and landscapes opportunities are many. I also like to get out for a walk and the camera is another good excuse to do exactly that. I also like to discover new places and often drive to surrounding areas to have a look around and to see if I can find any good landscape pictures.

I am also interested in more people centric photography. People are interesting. I am currently reading books and looking at pictures by Arnold Newman, Robert Frank and Henri Cartier-Bresson to get inspiration and learn. In the not too distant future, I will probably dive into more people centric photography.

I feel that a natural perspective or a slightly compressed one usually makes landscapes look better than the more exaggerated perspectives you would get with wide angle lenses. For portraits, longer lenses are also useful to get a bit of working distance to the subjects, both to not invade their personal space and to avoid perspective distortion. My favourite focal lengths are therefore slightly longer than the traditional three prime set of 14 or 17, 25 and 42.5 or 45.

My new lens kit

1. Sigma 19 mm f/2.8 DN Art
2. Sigma 30 mm f/1.4 DN Contemporary
3. Sigma 56 mm f/1.4 DN Contemporary
4. Panasonic Lumix G 12-32 mm f/3.5-5.6 compact zoom (in a side pocket)

Since I am not that fond of the wide angle perspective, I have opted to have my shortest prime lens be a wide standard lens or very long mild wide angle. If I occasionally need something wider than 19, I have the 12-32 in the bag. The Sigma 19 is a bit smaller than the Panasonic Leica 25 and just a slightly bit larger than the M.Zuiko 17 mm, mainly because Olympus does not supply a lens hood with their lens.

At f/2.8, it is not a low light super athlete or a boke monster, but it is fast enough combined with the in body sensor stabilization even when the light is dim and since it focuses quite closely, you can actually get a bit of boke if you absolutely must (even though that is usually not what you want a wide standard or a mild wide angle lens for).

Sigma 19 mm f/2.8 Art
Sigma 19 mm f/2.8 Art

I really like the standard lens perspective, but I often felt that the Panasonic Leica 25 was just a bit too tight to fit everything I wanted into the frame. In the past, when I wanted something wider than my 25, I used my Lumix G 14 f/2.5 pnacake, but usually, what I really wanted was something just slightly shorter than 25. The 19 is really nice for being wide enough to fit more into the frame than the 25 while also delivering a natural perspective. It is also sharper than the 14 and almost as fast at f/2.8 compared to the 14’s f/2.5.

I have opted for a second, longer standard lens with a faster aperture for more people-centric shots as my second prime. It gives a slightly longer working distance than the 25 that is useful for parades and people centric street shots. (I know most street photographers use wider lenses even when shooting people centric shots, but if you get really close with a wide angle lens for a street portrait, you get perspective distortion of people’s faces. There is a reason why Cartier-Bresson used a standard lens.)

Thus far, I have used the 30 for landscapes and a parade. Even if I have the 19, the 30 is far enough away in focal length to make the field of view quite a bit narrower. Where I would use the 25 before, I am now usually using the 30. I like a more stringent composition with a narrower field of view. I also suspect that this lens will be really useful for environmental portraits and full body shots in the future.

The Sigma 30 is a bit larger in size than the 25 Summilux, but with the lens hood, not much. In the bag, it is actually smaller since the lens hood reverses over the lens which the lens hood for the 25 does not which I think is a serious design flaw just for the sake of making the lens look more Leican. Both of these Sigmas are sharper than the 25 Summilux at all apertures and cost less in total than the Summilux new. The 30 and 56 are also dust and splash proof which matches the weather sealing of my GX8. For street photography, the Sigmas also have an edge by not screaming “look at me, I have a Leica branded lens with a red dot and yellow numbers”. Their rather subdued form follows function design matches the GX8 well.

If the 19 mm were f/1.4 and dust and splash proof, I might have tried to only have one standard lens in my bag, but with these lenses both being very cheap and very good, and me liking the standard lens perspective as much as I do, the combo seems to make sense even if it is a bit over the top with two standard lenses. I have really loved the Panasonic Leica 25 for as long as I have had it, but after I got the pair of Sigmas, I am now selling it. Having three standard lenses seems silly and it is obvious which of these lenses I prefer even if the Panasonic Leica has really nice colour rendering.

The Sigma 30 focuses just as close as the 25 Summilux, which together with the longer focal length means that it is actually quite useful for close-up shots. (The Sigma 56 focuses at 50 cm at its closest, so the 30 with its 30 cm closest focus gives me larger magnification for close-ups.) It doesn’t give 1:1 reproduction, but it is close enough for nice shots of flowers and apples and other medium-sized objects when out and about. I also own the Panasonic Leica 45 Macro, but I am not certain if Macro is a genre I am interested enough in to own a dedicated lens for. I am a bit hesitant to sell it since the 45 is a really good lens with wonderful sharpness and very nice out of focus areas and since no other lens I have really replaces it. On the other hand, if I don’t do much macro, maybe I would rather have the money than a lens on a shelf.

Sigma 30 mm f/1.4 DN Contemporary
Sigma 30 mm f/1.4 DN Contemporary

My third prime is a short telephoto, but slightly longer than the usual portrait lengths of 42.5 or 45. The Sigma 56 mm f/1.4 DN Contemporary is the best portrait lens for the MFT system if reviewers are to be believed. (Mirrorlessons, Cameralabs, David Thorpe…) It is sharper than the Olympus 75 and has a more practical focal length. At f/1.4 at 56 mm, it delivers comparable shallow depth of field as the Panasonic Leica 42.5 f/1.2 Nocticron, the Olympus M.Zuiko 45 f/1.2 Pro or the Olympus M. Zuiko 75 mm f/1.8, but it is smaller, lighter and cheaper than any of those. The boke is really nice and the aperture blades were designed with the boke in mind. This lens is one of the boke monsters of the MFT system.

The focal length means that this lens demands a step or two back compared to the 42.5s or 45s, so it is not ideal for portraits in a very small studios. The Sigma 30 is good for those. For outside use or for events, the 56 mm focal length will be more useful than the shorter ones since you could get nice portraits at a slightly longer working distance. Many reviewers have compared it favourably in sharpness to the hitherto most celebrated lens in the system, the Olympus M.Zuiko 75 mm f/1.8. At a much more modest price, the Sigma 56 is the obvious lens to get unless you really need the extra length of the 75.

Even if I have not done much portraiture thus far, I have used this lens for landscapes where I want more compression and a narrower field of view. Since the lens is one of the absolute sharpest in the system, it is really nice to use for landscapes. I also find the slightly longer focal length compared to the 42.5 more useful when I want more compression and a tighter field of view. I also used it for shooting cyclists at the Tour of Norway in Lyngdal. It was a bit on the short side for that use case, but it was excellent for shooting bursts and focused fast and the sharpness of the images were excellent.

To sum it all up, I have ended up with a lens collection of three primes of slightly longer lengths than an old-fashioned three prime set. Compared to the alternatives, these three primes are cheaper, smaller, sharper, better and they conform with my aesthetic ideals of a natural or slightly compressed perspective. In addition, I have the 12-32 which gives me an extremely small, stabilized zoom useful for the occasional video or wide angle shot or for maximum flexibility when I don’t have time to change lenses. In a very small package, I have got everything I need for the types of pictures I take now and the genres I am interested in getting into in the future.

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