Friends don’t let friends buy superzooms.

I’ve said it a million times. And every time, people chime in:

No! It’s perfect! So much zoom!

I don’t want to carry more than one lens!

It’s so cheap!

You don’t understand, the newest version is so much better!

They don’t have “so much zoom.” More accurately, you can get some great prime lenses or non-super zoom lenses that go out to the same long focal lengths.

If you don’t want to carry more than one lens, why are you buying into a modular camera system? Get a fixed-lens camera and be done with it.

18-200mm

They aren’t cheap. They’re expensive. You end up buying them new rather than used, and then you replace them and buy the lens you should have bought in the first place. If you had bought the right lens used to begin with, you would have saved all that money.

And yes, I do understand. Yes, the newer version is better than the older version. But it still faces the same problem that the F-35 faces. It’s a compromise solution. No, the F-35 is not “the worst.” I actually have a lot of faith in it. But 1) I don’t know jack about aircraft, and 2, that wasn’t my point. The point was that they were trying to make one plane do all the jobs they needed done, instead of what they’d had success with in the past, multiple specialized planes.

The United States Military faces the same problems that you, the photographer face, and I can speak with more authority on the lens topic. Go with the set of specialized lenses that do the job well, instead of the one do-it-all lens that’s a mess of compromises.

18-200mm

The impetus for this particular post was when I was going through my sumo photos during the recent rebuild of my website. Sumo is interesting. Like boxing and MMA and any sport where ultimately, the only person who knows if you took a dive is you, there’s been endless controversy about how fixed or how real the matches are, and in the end… it doesn’t really matter.

300mm

I’ll never be a dyed-in-the-wool sumo fan. But going is ridiculous fun, just so you can wager nothing against your friends on which of the two you know nothing about will win the match in front of you at the moment. Shooting good photos and having a good time with friends is why I go to sumo. You’ll never catch me sad over the outcome of a match. I do occasionally care when long-time stars retire. Kotooshu was memorable. Even ignoring his long career, there aren’t many Bulgarian sumo wrestlers that get sponsored by Bulgaria yogurt. How can you not love that?

But going through my old photos of Kotooshu and Asashoryu… I was sad. I was angry that I was shooting with a potato of a lens, the Nikon 18-200.

Yes. Of course I was young and stupid and made the classic beginner mistake. That’s why us old hands tell you to stay away from superzooms; because most of us learned the hard way.

300mm

When I got my first Nikon SLR (a D200) I was full of optimism and joy, and wasn’t yet adept yet at reading between the lines of Ken Rockwell’s always glowing reviews. A friend had gently warned me off, but I didn’t listen, and I was confused why my brand new pro-level camera wasn’t taking images as great as I’d imagined.

For now, lets gloss over my own personal skills. That bit… yeah. I’ve gotten better. I swear.

The important bit here is because I had made the classic mistake… buying an expensive camera and attaching a potato of a lens to the front of it. I could tell what was wrong, but it took me years to develop the vocabulary and understanding to express what my mind instinctively knew… that this lens was crap.

Later, I got my first prime lens, a 105mm f/2.8 micro… and that’s then the lightbulb went. I could see the jump in image quality and I knew for empirical fact that my camera was capable of so much more. I think I went years just using that 105mm and a beat-to-hell 50mm f/1.2 that I had picked up for 3,000 yen because the whole world was convinced that DX was the future, and no one was going to be using that old 35mm glass anymore.

I think that 18-200mm lens went two or three apartments before I opened it up one day to discover it had gotten all moldy. And my heart was not broken. It was kinda a relief. I had an excuse to do what I should have done years ago, and get rid of the lens.

300mm

The problems of the 18-200 are not just the problems of the 18-200. They’re the problems of any superzoom, and to some degree, any zoom.

A prime lens is designed to do one job, and to do it to the best of the engineer’s capabilities. A zoom lens is always making compromises, attempting to to the best it can at all the jobs inside it’s range. The bigger that range, the more compromises that need to be made.

There are some great working zooms out there, but photographers end up carrying multiple zoom lenses specifically because there’s a limit to what engineers have thus far devised… the sacrifices in image quality that the superzooms make is just too huge.

So please, if you’re considering your early lens purchases, avoid the superzooms. Go for lenses with apertures f/2.8 or larger, and don’t be afraid of primes. Prime lenses are awesome. And remember:

Friends don’t let friends buy superzooms.

300mm