Three Perfect Lenses

SANSMIRROR: WOULD YOU LIKE TO PLAY A GAME?

YOU: YES.

SANSMIRROR: TODAY'S GAME IS CHOOSE THE THREE PERFECT LENSES FOR EACH MIRRORLESS CAMERA MOUNT.

YOU: IS THIS REAL OR IS IT A GAME?

SANSMIRROR: WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE?

YOU: WHAT'S THE GOAL?

SANSMIRROR: YOU SHOULD KNOW. YOU PROGRAMMED ME.

And away we go.

Actually, let's stop for a moment. That question about goal is probably important. This is a variation on the desert island game (e.g. what 10 records/books/movies would you take with you if you were stranded on a desert island?). My answers might not match yours, and since I'm limiting us to only three lenses, this is going to be very telling in how we prioritize. 

As you might have guessed, this is a game to provoke thinking. Your thinking might not match mine, but are you actually thinking? The limit of three lenses puts a huge constraint that forces you to think about your photographic needs and priorities. In general, my priority here is to build a three-lens set that covers as much of the photographic realm as I can.

Canon M

We don't have a lot of choices, so this should be easy, right? Nope.

I believe two of the choices are really easy: the 11-22mm f/4.5-5.6 wide angle zoom and the 22mm f/2 prime. Both are small, an M trait I'd argue that we want to emphasize. Both are very good performers, well matched to the 24mp APS-C sensor. 

Unfortunately, we need to probably cover something more than wide angle ;~). The 32mm f/1.4 is a really nice, fast, normal lens, so some of you might head that direction, particularly as it keeps the small, excellent theme going.

It's in the mid-range zoom and telephoto range where I hit the brakes on the EOS M system. The two mid-range zooms Canon has created (15-45mm f/3.5-6.3 and 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6) I just can't get excited about, and particularly at their telephoto end, and especially now with 32mp cameras. Neither zoom is at the level of performance of the lenses previously mentioned. And our telephoto choices (18-150mm f/3.5-6.3 and 55-200mm f/4.5-6.3) are what I'd call mediocre at best. I just can't put them in my kit. 

Unfortunately, dipping into the EOS EF lenses with a mount adapter to fix the problem takes away the smallness of the system, so I'm left with a system that performs great from 18-50mm equivalent with a wide angle zoom and two small primes.

What Thom uses: 11-22mm f/4.5-5.6, 22mm f/2, 32mm f/1.4.

Canon RF

We'll be coming back to revisit this set by the end of 2021 as Canon gets the next lenses out the door. The three RF lenses I'd pick right now are the 15-35mm f/2.8L, the 24-105mm f/4L, and 85mm f/1.2L. Simply put, the first and last of those lenses are excellent, while the middle one is a highly credible performer pretty much up there with a few other above-average mid-range zooms. The problem is that this works best with the R5 and R6; these lenses are a bit overkill for the R and RP.

Of course, we also just spent US$5600 on lenses. 

Why not the 28-70mm f/2L? Because then we'd have spent US$8000 on lenses and have a pretty limited focal length range of 28-70mm in our mid-range. No thanks. I don't believe the bodies are up to that level of the RF L-type optics yet. Heck, they're not up to the level of the lenses I've chosen.

I suspect a lot of you Canon R users will be EF Dippers, as in you'll dip into the EF lens range to give you what you want, at least for now.

What Thom uses: the 24-105mm f/4L and the 100-500mm f/4.5-7.1L.

Fujifilm XF

We've got a ton of lenses to choose from in the XF mount (going on three dozen). I can see people going one of three ways here. 

First, we have Keep It Compact and Simple (KICS): 16mm f/2.8, 27mm f/2.8, and either the 50mm f/2 or the 60mm f/2.4 Macro. Indeed, that's what I've picked for my X-T100 (now X-T200), and it's how I get my Fujifilm KICS. This kit seems like a miniature version of what I used to use in the 70's, and it performs really well. 

Next, we have what I call Prime Time: 16mm f/1.4, 23mm f/1.4 or 35mm f/1.4, rounded out with the 56mm f/1.2. Those are really good lenses that also get you playing back closer to the full frame sensor world results with their fast apertures (though obviously, you can get f/1.2 and f/1.4 lenses in full frame, there's a price and size difference that keeps a lot of folk from doing that; see Canon RF). 

Finally, we have the Zoom Zoom: 8-16mm f/2.8, 16-55mm f/2.8, 50-140mm f/2.8. I used that set (with the 10-24mm f/4 in place of the not-yet-introduced-when-I-was-doing-most-of-my-evaluation 8-16mm) for awhile when I was shooting a lot of Fujifilm product, and it's sort of what I settled on with the X-H1.

I'm betting that the Fujifilm crowd will have a lot of differing opinions about the three lenses they would pick. I offer three choices of three here because Fujifilm makes a wide range of bodies, too. Obviously, what I picked for the small X-T100 I keep around was different than what I picked for an X-H1, and I think you'll make the same type of adaptation.

What Thom uses: 16mm f/2.8, 27mm f/2.8, 50mm f/2.

Fujifilm GF

I don't have a lot of experience here, so I'm leaning on some of my shooting friends to help me with this one. 

Personally, I'm not sure I'd own three GF lenses if I owned a GFX medium format body. I suspect that 32-64mm f/4 and the 110mm f/2 or 120mm f/4 macro would be all I'd want. 

What Thom uses: don't have a permanent GF body, but mostly used the 32-64mm on my loaner body.

Nikon Z

Things have changed since I originally wrote this article. For Z50 users, the obvious choices are the 16-50mm and 50-250mm kit lenses, both of which are excellent, supplemented with the 10-20mm F-mount DX zoom on the FTZ Adapter.

For Z5 and Z6 users, a good travel kit is the 14-30mm f/4 and 24-200mm f/4-6.3 lenses. Both excellent and small lenses.

With the appearance of the f/2.8 zooms, the 14-24mm, 24-70mm, and 70-200mm range is really well satisfied by these lenses, and adding a TC2x nets you a usable 140-400mm, if needed.

What Thom mostly uses: 14-30mm f/4, 24-200mm f/4-6.3 for travel, the f/2.8 zooms supplemented by one of the f/1.8 primes, for professional work.

Micro 4/3rds

As with Fujifilm XF, we can build sets of sets given all the lens choices available for m4/3 users. Indeed, one of the reasons m4/3 has had modest popularity is that it has DSLR-like lens availability, but the overall body+lens kits range significantly smaller. 

As with Fujifilm, I'm going to present alternatives:

Prime Time: While the f/1.2 lenses are tempting, I'm still really happy with the f/1.8 and f/2 crowd. The 12mm f/2, the 45mm f/1.8, and 75mm f/1.8 have been my Prime Time for m4/3 for quite some time. That leaves out a more "normal" focal length, but I'm okay with that. If you're not, you have a lot of choices in the 17-25mm range. I'll let you make that call.

Zoom Zoom: Curiously, you can go Panasonic (7-14mm f/4, 12-35mm f/2.8, 35-100mm f/2.8) or Olympus (7-14mm f/2.8, 12-40mm f/2.8, 40-150mm f/2.8). I went Olympus, and haven't looked back. That gives me a bit more focal length range and a fast aperture everywhere, but it comes with a larger size/weight penalty than the Panasonic trio. 

What Thom uses: Mostly the 7-14mm, 12-40mm, 40-150mm f/2.8 zoom set. If traveling really light, particularly with a smaller body than the E-M1m2, the prime set I mentioned.

Sony E

I basically got down to four lenses in my article on lens sets for the APS-C Sony cameras. Can I drop one? Yes, either of the Sigma primes. So I'm either at 10-18mm and 18-105mm f/4 with the Sigma 16mm f/1.4, or the 56mm f/1.4. If you're mostly event, street, landscape, pick the wide angle Sigma, if you're more portrait, sports, and wildlife, pick the telephoto one. 

The good news is that we now have a 16-55mm f/2.8G to consider for our mid-range. I expect it to be my future choice instead of the 18-105mm, but I haven't tested it yet.

I was tempted to say 10-18mm, 24mm f/1.4, and 100-400mm (or new 70-350mm), but the long telephoto zooms are kind of unwieldy on the Sony A5xxx and A6xxx bodies. You picked a really small camera body, so I think you stick with some limits to keep things small and handholdable with ease. Again, there's potential good news with the just introduced 70-350mm f/4.5-6.3G, but I haven't tested it yet, either.

What Thom uses: 10-18mm and 56mm f/1.4. Really. Sort of given up on mid-range and true telephoto. This will probably change with more new lenses, but I need some time with them to tell for sure.

Sony FE

Unless you're a low light and/or prime fanatic, I think this trio is easy to pick: 12-24mm f/4, 24-105mm f/4, 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6. That's a mostly wow 12-400mm combo that performs really well, and is about as compact as you can get for that wide a focal length range on a full frame sensor. 

The weakness is the wide angle zoom (much as with what happens in the Nikon Z mount, though the Sony feels just enough better and more flexible in that it goes to 12mm, and thus makes my list). If you need better, you have the 16-35mm f/2.8 and 16-35mm f/4 options from Sony to consider at the wide angle zoom end, both excellent. 

If you're more into low light with flexibility, then the excellent 24-70mm f/2.8 GM and decent 70-200mm f/2.8 GM have to make up two-thirds of your kit, I think. What you add to that would be a 16-35mm f/2.8 GM, a 20mm f/1.8 G, a 85mm f/1.4 or f/1.8, the 90mm f/2.8 macro, or the 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6, depending upon what you want your three-lens set to do beyond the basic focal lengths. Some of you will say the Tamron 28-75mm f/2.8 should be in there. I don't like my mid-range starting at 28mm. However, once Tamron has their full set (17-28mm, 28-75mm, and 75-180mm) available, perhaps I could be persuaded to go that way. But I'd caution people to not mix and match where your focal lengths on zooms start/end without a lot of consideration of what and how you shoot.

These days, you could also pick a prime-only kit that does well. Moreover, you can pick two directions with that kit: small, or fast. The small version nets you Samyang's 24mm f/2.8 and 45mm f/1.8, and then I'd supplement that with Sony's 85mm f/1.8. If you want fast, then the excellent Sony 20mm f/1.8 G or Sony 24mm f/1.4 GM have to be your wide angle, and the 85mm f/1.4 GM has to be your telephoto, for sure, but I'm not sure that we have a fast 50mm that really matches those yet, so take your pick.

Me, I'm sticking with the the three slower zooms and giving up a little in optical performance and low light ability to stay as small as possible with enormous focal length flexibility. 

Bonus round: A9 sports users get the 24-70mm f/2.8 GM, the 70-200mm f/2.8 GM, and the 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 GM, plus the 400mm f/2.8 if you can afford it.

What Thom uses: 12-24mm f/4, 24-105mm f/4, 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6. 

Wrapping Up

Yes, I'm leaving off the L-mount alliance for the moment. I simply don't have any real experience with those lenses yet in order to make a rational choice. Maybe next year ;~).

Let me know what your choices are. If I get enough responses, I'll put together another article with what you think.


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