def: meta Something of a higher or second-order kind – AskOxford.com
Or, this is a review about review sites. Specifically, photography equipment review sites.
First some talk about where I’m coming from. I’m an intermediate skill-level photographer that recently had most of my equipment stolen. I had a Tamron 28-200mm lens from my film days that was slow, dark and full of distortion of straight lines (typical of a super zoom). Nice walk around lens for the time (1990’s) – put it on and forget about changing lenses. A Canon 50mm F1.8 was my low light lens. It’s touch long indoors once I switched from film to the Canon Digital Rebel digital with it’s 1.6x magnification factor. To round things off, I had a Tamron 19-35mm F3.5-4.5 wide zoom, purchased to compensate for the 1.6x digital magnification. Not wide enough it turns out, 19mm = 30mm in conventional film focal lengths, and I missed that 2mm shaved off at 28mm.
So, what was I looking to replace my low-end gear with? I decided after a bit of thinking to ditch the one-lens fits all model and get lenses with more specific purposes, and better quality. I also decided to stick with Canon, picking the latest Rebel body the T1i (more sanely called the 500D outside of Japan and N.America). It’s brand new on the market so I’m right on top of technology curve. Picking the camera was easy for me. I’m used to the Canon system, so that’s why I’m not looking at Nikon. Any other system out there does not have the selection of lenses I am looking for. Within the Canon line, I considered the cheaper Rebel XS (1000D) to be a repackaged XTi (400D) with a few updates. One step up would be the 50D, which I would have seriously considered had the T1i not come out. To sum up the differences, The T1i is a 5D with a few features eliminated. I’m not willing to pay for the extra features, and I’d rather have a lighter, smaller camera to boot.
So, now onto the hard part: picking lenses. Picking the camera is easy. Picking lenses is hard, especially for the Canon and Nikon systems. Consider that Canon currently has six models of digital SLR for sale, versus about 60 lenses. Oh, and there are a ton of third-party lenses available for the Canon system to make things even more fun for you.
This is where my review of the equipment review sites comes in. Based on the above, you’ll see that this is primarily a review of sites that cover Canon material, and have a wide range of lens reviews. I’ll mention Nikon only as an aside where I noticed it while looking for Canon stuff.
The sites break down into three types:
1) Review sites. My primary focus was to find some great review sites that would tell me how the equipment worked, and show me some performance data on the lenses. I also read some Camera reviews while trying to decide on which Canon body to buy.
2) Manufacturer sites. Great for getting basic specs on the cameras and lenses.
3) Store sites. Great for getting prices. Only have basic information on the equipment.
Sites are presented in order of overall excellence (for equipment reviews), first is best, all of them are worth visiting.
A well organized site that reviews Canon system cameras, lenses and accessories. The Sigma, Tamron, and a lot of the accessory reviews would be of interest to Nikon users. All the important specs are there (size, weight, F stop, focal length(s) and filter size. A nice review of each lens in real-world shooting practical terms is provided. There are lots of pictures with relevant comparison lenses beside the reviewed lens to give you and idea of the bulk of a lens. To evaluate the lens quality yourself, they give you a great tool – the ISO 12233 crop. It’s a composite of center outer and edge from a test chart that shows you the sharpness, CA, and contrast at a glance. The real power comes in being able to compare to a second lens, by choosing it in the dropdown at the top of the page, and then using your mouse to quickly cycle the images. Mouse off the image gives you your left-selected lens, mouse on the image gives you your right selected image. Great for quickly comparing two lenses. I recommend trying to pick the same focal length and f-stop for each lens to get an apples-to-apples comparison, but you can also try things like taking a cheap lens and comparing it to a good lens – stop down the cheap lens and see if it approaches the quality of the good lens. You’ll be surprised sometimes how little difference there is.
The-Digital-Picture also has an extensive set of reviews for flash, tripod, filters, bags, and more. There are some general articles in the Canon Lenses section teaching you a bit about the Canon system, and some general articles advising you about filters, lens hoods, and purchasing tips. Overall, this is an excellent site for the prospective purchaser of any Canon gear.
dpreview.com stands for Digital Photography Review. They spend a lot of time reviewing cameras, both DSLRs and P&S cameras. This site is of interest to any brand shopper, covering Canon and Nikon equally, other brands to a less extent. If you want an absolutely exhaustive review of cameras, this is the site to hit. Not even these guys can hit every P&S camera though – but you should be able to find at least a previous generation reviewed to give you and idea for the camera you are considering. For DSLR’s this is a great place to compare sensor quality for noise at high ISO’s.
But since I’d pretty much decided on camera body, I was more interested in their lens reviews. To sum up the site – lens reviews are of very high quality and very low quantity. There are seven Canon lenses reviewed. Seven Nikon lenses are reviewed. FOUR Sigma lenses are reviewed. So, on site comparisons are going to be limited. However, I’ll forgive them for this to some extent, because the reviews are very detailed with very good graphics to illustrate lens performance. They use a picture representing the left frame of the camera from centre to edge, with a color key indicating sharpness. You can pick different focal length and F-stops and see how the lens characteristics change. There are little checkerboard icons you can mouse over going out to the edges that you can point at to see an actual 1:1 visual of what the checkerboard looks like on that spot. On the right, two graphs showing you sharpness and CA, with a vertical line drawn corresponding to where your mouse is on the left side is shown. I realize this may be confusing, so you might want to look at an example: the 70-200 F2.8L lens If this is still confusing I recommend the following: Forget the colors and graphs and just look at the little squares. They tell you everything you need to know about what the picture looks like at that part of the frame for a particular set of lens settings. You can also look at distortion and Vingetting by picking from the menu at the top of the tool. You can also compare lenses, but since are so few lenses to compare, I did not use this feature much. One more thing mitigating the small number of reviews – at least they have picked some good relevant lenses to review. For instance, it is absolutely critical that you include the current Canon kit lens, the 18-55mm F3.5-5.6. For one, you need a baseline to compare to if you are deciding whether to spend the $100 for this lens as a kit, or forgo it and buy a much more expensive lens. My advice: I fully intend to buy this lens, as it has consistently reviewed as being of optically decent quality, it includes IS, and it’s a light, walk around lens.
Dpreview has a learning section, mostly to help you with definitions of photography jargon, plus some buying guides. This site isn’t about accessories – just cameras and lenses, thank you very much.
A lot of lenses get reviewed at Photozone. The tradeoff is, compared to dpreview, the graphs are basic bar charts, with no samples from a test chart provided. They spend a lot of time showing you distortion graphs, which I think is becoming a bit out of date, with Photoshop and DXO providing the ability to post-process correct this. Yes, it’s NICE to know this, but not critical. I’d rather see some pics of test images I can compare – you can’t correct for softness after all. That being said, these guys do cover a LOT of lenses. As long as you are ok with reading a MTF50 chart, you’re good to go. The real – world part of the reviews are not as in depth as dpreview, but good enough to give you an idea of the quality of the lens you are dealing with. This site is a must visit owing to the fact that it covers so many lenses.
Alright – the first thing you need to know about slrgear.com is to SCROLL DOWN. Even at 1600×1200, the “meat” links of the site barely made it onto the page, and I normally don’t surf full screen, so I was a bit confused a first as to WHERE all the material on the site was. Bad web design, clear and simple. That bit of nastiness over, lets get to the good stuff. SLR Gear has an impressive list of lenses to pick from, Canon, Nikon and others. If they actually were all tested, I’d pick this site over Photozone in utility. But at least I can get some basic information for each lens, even if it’s just a picture and the marketing blurb from the manufacturers site. There are a lot of reviews, possibly more than Photozone, but me having to pick out the tested units from a list pissed my off enough to bump them below Photozone. The reviews tend to focus on optical performance, with a little added on day-to-day use. One nice feature is the alternatives comparison – very useful early on in your shopping when you are trying to draw up your list of contenders for your particular needs in a lens.
In terms of evaluating the lenses, SLR Gear gives you a 3D graph with an X-Y axis representing the picture frame, and a z-axis representing sharpness, in “Blur units”. No, I don’t know what that means, and the SLR Gear people don’t explain it exactly either. My recommendation is to use the charts to compare lenses relatively within the site, and use a site like The-Digital-Picture to give you a visual idea to what “6 blur units” means. I do like the graphs though, being able to vary the F-stop, and the focal length to see how the sharpness varies is interesting. It pretty much identifies the mid-quality lenses that are sharp stopped down, or outside their extreme focal range, versus expensive glass that is sharp or pretty sharp pretty much everywhere. This is one of the things you pay for with thousand-plus dollar L glass from Canon – with few exceptions, you set your lens at whatever focal range and f-stop you want and a sharp image will result. The cheaper the glass, the more you have work to pick the sweet spot for optimal quality. This is another site you’ll be visiting for it’s wide range of reviewed lenses, plus informative performance graphs.
I have a long history with Photo net, having followed it from inception thanks to Phillip Greenspun’s Travels with Samantha. While it’s not Philip’s site anymore, there is still a lot of good material written by him, especially high-end stuff which he is fortunate enough to be able to afford. The site has some holes in the low end (no one wants to review low end stuff there?) such as the Canon EF-S 17-85 IS USM lens. You are not going to get a bunch of charts here, beyond the MTF charts that the manufacturer provides. In fact, each review is going to be a little different because it’s photographers reviewing equipment – not a lab following a set procedure. So, the reviews are going to be of variable usefulness to you. Frankly, it helps to read a lot of these reviews to get a feel for what each of the photographers expectations are. Some of them have very high standards, others are more forgiving. I’ll leave you to figure out which are which. This site also has some good photography advice articles, and has a photo gallery community, built on the same idea as Flickr, several years before Flickr.
I discovered Bob’s site quite late in my search for lens review sites. It just doesn’t come up high in a Google of “Canon lens review”, not seeing a hit until page 4. That’s too bad, because there are a fair number of lens reviews, on the Canon side with a cursory coverage of Nikon and other brands. The reviews are vary from quite complete to summaries, with a mixture of graphs and pictures to illustrate performance. Bob never uses the same format twice, and will use whatever illustration or graph he feels best to show his point.
Well, a site called “lens-reviews” should be all about lens reviews, right? Sure, it’s all about lenses, but the reviews are kind of thin. You’ll note that up until now, I have not talked about user contributed reviews. Well, is a site that lives off of mostly user rated reviews. The have “editor” reviews of around 25 of the 83 listed Canon lenses, and 20 of the 98 Nikon lenses listed. Frankly, don’t bother. You ain’t going learn anything from this site that you didn’t know from the above sites – we are talking about a 1 page summary review with some ratings for speed, sharpness, build quality etc. Not much in the detail – frankly it’s all opinion that can’t be backed up with solid pictures or at least some measured numbers. That’s why I don’t care about user reviews. Most of them know less than I do about cameras, and certainly they don’t test the lenses. That being said, user reviews carry some minor utility in terms of evaluating the overall quality performance, optics, and reliability. You need to read lots of reviews to learn to identify the outliers and see any trends. Frankly, user reviews have shown me that Sigma still has some quality control issues – if you get a good one great, but there seem to be far more ‘dud’ stories cropping up in user forums than for Canon lenses. Even having said that, I’ll take it with a grain of salt, as I’d expect users to be far less critical of Canon gear, as they expect it to be top quality (and thus don’t bother to check it out) versus Sigma, which has had a past dubious quality reputation. As far as lens-reviews.com goes, skip it. Most sites have user reviews – don’t need another one with crappy editor reviews to boot.
Pophoto is actually a better site than lens-reviews listed above. I’m putting it below because people need to get it out of their heads that magazine = quality. PopPhoto has reviews, sure – but they are quite, forgiving, of flaws. When you get paid for advertisements by the same companies whose products you are reviewing, you have a hard time saying bad things about their products. One of my tests in evaluating a site was to check out a lens that was evaluated very highly at other sites, and compare it to a lens that was evaluated as poor at other sites. Guess what? There isn’t much difference in the reviews on PopPhoto. So, if you read a PopPhoto review, a “Good” lens would be something ranging from Fair to utter crap, and an Excellent Lens would be something ranging from Excellent to Good. Oh, and I laugh at the “subjective quality factor” chart evaluating quality at different print out sizes. That tells me nothing. One other thing – good luck finding if they have your lens reviewed. There is only a search engine that doesn’t filter out tight enough, and list of lenses, that you go through, page after page, through all 116 pages – ugh. While Pophoto is good for a basic review(if you can find what you want), it isn’t going to tell you anything you didn’t already know.
Remember what I said above about user reviews? Fredmiranda is ALL user reviews. I’m only including it here because so many people seem to link back to it for some reason. If you want to read user reviews, this site has a LOT of them. Otherwise, move on.
This is a photography site that happens to have some lens reviews. There is a lot more here on technique and accessories. Not so good for evaluating the latest and greatest. Worth coming back to to read about actually making photos.
This is a meta-site. I’m putting it at the bottom because it doesn’t fit in. It is still very useful. They link to the reviews on other sites. A time saver if you are looking for reviews of a specific lens. I found some sites through this site. They cover Fredmiranda (FM), The-Digital-Picture (DP), Photozone (PZ), SLR Gear(SLR) and Lens-reviews (LR).
A couple of other not so good sites.
– Canon Len Reviews – This site is all about lens reviews, and is well organized. But you start digging and find out that they are missing a lot of reviews. Lots of clicking on the links to find out they don’t have a review results. They cover the low end lenses to some extent mid-end, but look elsewhere for reviews of $1000+ glass. I was laughing at their Canon 10-22mm review. They caution you about using the lens as a “wide-angle portrait lens”. There IS no such thing, unless they mean ‘wide-angle caricature lens’. The reviews are mostly a re-hash of the same states and general advice you will get from other sites, with a general discussion of quality and some MTF charts. This site has the feel of something in construction, or perhaps a site abandoned in mid-construction. Layout is good, lots of content missing.
– Camera labs
This site has a limited selection of reviews for various brand lenses. There are 9 Canon lenses reviewed, other brands are covered in similar scope. They do have video reviews as well, if you are tired of reading. The illustrative pictures used in the reading reviews are not bad. This site could be not bad, if they start adding more lens reviews.
Getting back to Reality
After spending a bunch of time reviewing lens charts and pictures, I strongly recommend getting grounded in reality again and read Ken’s article on why your camera doesn’t matter. After that, read A $150 Camera vs. a $5,000 Camera. Look at the two pictures in the mouse-over example to remind yourself that the actual quality differences in real-world shooting are quite small. Chart pictures exaggerate the differences. Graphs? Their largest differences are relative to about the differences between these two real-world example pictures. The take home message from this should be, if you don’t already have a little point and shoot camera with you all the time, WHY NOT?! A little camera with you beats a DSLR sitting at home when a great photo opportunity comes up. Quality is not that different.I have more good photos taken with my Panasonic Lumix FX33 than with with all my SLRS combined because the Lumix is with me ALL THE TIME. Oh, if you always have your DSLR with you, you’re either a professional, or you’re very dedicated, my hat goes off to both of you’s. DSLR’s allow you to get good pictures in more situations than a P&S, DSLRS do not turn a crappy photo situation into a work of art.
Go read some of Fred’s equipment reviews too – both camera and lens. He approaches things from a different perspective and might give some different things to think about when you are going out to buy cameras and lenses.
For Canon, you are going to be looking at these main sites:
I’ll give Canon kudos for quoting US$ MSRP right off of the product name. Refreshing candor is nice.
Sigma makes a lot of lenses. Pay attention to the alphabet soup names – each letter combination means something, some of the more important ones: OS = Image stabilization HSM = Ring USM type motor (quick, quiet and you can manual focus whenever you want) DC = APS-C small sensor cameras only, such as the Canon digital Rebel.
Tamron makes some amazing all-in-one lenses. I was happy with mine for years, but now am looking for some higher quality stuff, which Tamron makes some of as well.
I keep hearing good things about their wide-angel zoom for APS-C format. I hear less about their other stuff, which is limited in scope compared to Sigma or Tamron.
The Camera Store
A local Calgary store with a decent web site. I would wish for a little better categorization, but since they don’t stock every lens under the sun, it won’t take you that long to find what you are looking for anyways. The information provided is basic, but enough to give you an idea on if you want to research further on a lens. I would note that their prices are very competitive from my comparisons from about April – June of 2009, being lower than the big-box stores.
A large Canadian camera store with stores in the Toronto area, Calgary, Edmonton and Ottawa. Complete selection, but a bit expensive. Decent information on products, and some limited consumer feedback. They have a tool that allows you to select lenses based on the criteria you put in. Too bad it doesn’t work properly. You can pick features, brand – but try picking a focal length range, it will not pull up a correct selection for you. Just pick a brand and type – leave the focal range stuff alone. I will note that Vistek had the highest prices from my viewing between April – June of 2009.
I will quickly provide links to three of the big American mail order sites – these are the ones I see most often recommended by other camera sites. Or for the more cynical of you out there, sponsoring the other camera sites most often.
These sites provide some basic information on what they sell, and have users reviews, often tons of reviews thanks to their large customer base.
So, now you have everything I figured out in the last two months was worth hitting for camera lens information. I’m sure I’ve missed something, and a link will be broken of date 5 minutes after I post it. Perhaps I will update this when I buy my gear – then again perhaps not.