The Tyranny of Lenses

I'm noticing all kinds of lens problems these days. 

Oh, no, not problems with the optical quality of the lens itself. Rather, problems in people grappling with the choices that involve lenses. Logic problems. Bias issues. Supply issues. Choice issues. 

Let me outline some of what I've seen:

  • Loyalty issues. Between just Canon and Nikon we've got 200 million lenses out there in closets and bags and that are of the classic EF and F DSLR mounts. People spent good money on those lenses and don't want to give them up. First off, if they sell the old lens and buy new, they get less than they expect for the trade-in, and they often perceive (usually incorrectly) that they won't get anything of value in return for the extra money they had to put out for the new mirrorless lens.

    It's a little like wanting to keep the tires from your old car when you buy a new 4WD truck. Yeah, you could do that, but you shouldn't want to.

    What Canon and Nikon (and now Sony in their most recent round of G and GM lenses) are getting right in their new mirrorless lenses is that they are generally just simply better lenses than you've been using on your DSLR. The one exception to that tends to be the exotics, which were already about as good as we're going to get.

    Nikon, in particular, has been creating lens after lens in the Z-mount where the mirrorless one is clearly better than the equivalent F-mount one. The Z-mount f/2.8 zoom trio is the best f/2.8 zoom trio I've seen from anyone, any mount. The 14-24mm f/2.8 S is better than my 14-24mm f/2.8G. The 24-70mm f/2.8 S is better than my 24-70mm f/2.8E. And my sample of the 70-200mm f/2.8 S is just a teeny bit better than my 70-200mm f/2.8E.

    Do I want any of the older lenses still? No. Could I use the older lenses on my Z cameras? Yes.

    But most people get hung up on their loyalty to their old lenses, and then cost completely stops them from replacing them. Canon users have a more seamless EF-to-RF adapter than Nikon users have F-to-Z, so the Canon users get caught up in this cost-bound-loyalty thing a bit more than Nikon ones do. Meanwhile the Nikon users often complain that Nikon has broken their "legacy loyalty" and often use that as an excuse to try another mount.

    Let me be clear: there are very few SLR/DSLR lenses that I'm holding over into the mirrorless era. I even sold my 58mm f/1.2 NOCT.

    People get too attached to what is in their closet that they aren't always using, and they allow that to impact their decision making.

  • Choice issues. In the mirrorless mounts we have huge disparities in available choice, mostly because the various companies transitioned at different times and have had differing lengths of times to produce lens sets.

    The early transitioners, Olympus/Panasonic and Sony, have a huge array of lenses to choose from, as does the fairly early transitioner (Fujifilm).

    Canon recently dropped EF production to promote more RF production, but they're still at only 21 lenses in RF and 8 in M. Coupled with the next problem (supply) and the fact that many of these RF versions are expensive lenses, it's still somewhat difficult for Canon users to make a DSLR to mirrorless transition without complaint.

    Nikon is slightly worse in terms of choice, with 17 Z-mount lenses (2 are DX). What happens is that someone who wants to transition from DSLR to mirrorless—or even start out in mirrorless—stumbles with lens choice: something they would want isn't yet available (or sometimes not even hinted at in a Road Map). So these people look at the lenses they have in their gear closet because they're forced into the loyalty issue. But that doesn't feel right. They were willing to make the change, but if they do, they feel stuck with some older lenses. Eek.

    For me, the choice issue—even with Sony I have some choice issues—forces me to rethink what I really need versus what I want. For my Nikon Z and Sony A systems I'm using much more limited lens sets. Funny thing is, I'm enjoying that, which means I probably had more lenses than I really needed.

    People put a little too much weighting into the choice that's available today. If a lens is really needed, Canon, Fujifilm, Nikon, Olympus/Panasonic, and Sony will all get around to making it. So the critical bit is "do you need it today?"

  • Supply issues. Today's lenses are sophisticated. They have stepper or other advanced motors, and they have semiconductors in them that are handling lots of communication/control. The plant that burnt down in Japan made some of those parts, which has put a strain on parts supply. The pandemic added to that, as plants started lowering their production due to economic slowdown, but weren't prepared to ramp up as fast as the economy-bounceback needs.

    So balancing lens production lines got tricky, real fast.

    Nikon was originally caught up in this, but the good news for them is that because their mirrorless body sales are lower, new Z-mount demand hasn't built fast. That means that most of the Z-mount lenses got balanced out in production fairly quickly. As I write this, other than the recently announced macros and 28mm, only the 85mm f/1.8 S continues to be in short supply. Things should balance out reasonably quickly. 

    Canon, on the other hand, has a long list of RF lenses in short supply, and many of them are critical lenses, such as the 70-200mm f/2.8L or the 100-500mm f/4.5-7.1L. Indeed, some dealers I talk to believe that the lack of RF lens supply is impacting sales of Canon RF bodies.

    Personally, I'm fine with waiting for a lens to come into supply. I'm a little unique in that my gear closet is strong enough that I'm pretty sure I have something that would suffice as I wait.

    Get on a wait list and be a little patient. This problem should go away over time.

  • Gap issues. Every mirrorless mount has lens gaps. Some might argue that the DSLR EF and F mounts had some gaps, too, but if you dip into all the lenses that were produced in those mounts, I'm pretty sure you'll find what you want.

    Nikon Z-mount has the most obvious gap issue at the moment: no real telephoto presence. The only ways to get to 200mm are the 70-200mm f/2.8 S and the 24-200mm f/4-6.3, and you can only get to 200mm (without a teleconverter or the FTZ adapter). Canon RF has a dearth of common primes. Sony FE is missing telephoto exotic options (e.g. 200mm f/2, 300mm f/2.8, 200-400mm f/4, 500mm f/4). And this is just in full frame. Things get crazier in crop sensors (other than the m4/3 mount, which has probably the most complete set of available lenses).

    I worry a bit about the telephoto side of things, because I rely upon them for much of my work. Canon, Nikon, and Sony all have 200mm+ issues that give me pause at the moment. Yet all seem to want me to buy a US$6000+ body this year ;~).

    Again, it's patience that solves this issue. Lens gaps go away with time. Unfortunately, that time can be extended, because none of these companies are really going to produce more than 6-10 new lenses a year. 

  • Logic issues. Jeff Keller at dpreview recently published an article about choosing a new system for future once-in-a-lifetime trips. He quickly got bogged down, partly because of lenses. One strange point I fail to understand: he chose a higher priced product with a smaller sensor because he wanted three lenses instead of two? Moreover, once equivalency is taken into account, one thing he slammed the Nikkor lens on actually would be in its favor over some of its range, plus he gave up some focal length at the wide end, where small differences are actually large.

    I think a lot of folk were confused and surprised by Keller's logic, because, well, we don't understand how he got to the conclusion he got to despite his explanation. Obviously, there's a hidden bias in there that didn't really come out in the article. Lines like "the factor that drove my decision-making was not image quality, which was the first thing on my 'must have' list" just make you confused. Not to pick on Jeff, but I see this a lot: people make up a desire/need list then don't go where that list dictates they probably should. Jeff listed his upcoming Galapagos trip as dictating many of his decisions, but having been there many times, I'll tell you that I'd rather have one lens going from 24-200mm on my camera than two lenses. Because tours tend to move fast through the trails, you have to stay on the trail, and the group has to stay together (so slowest person loses), changing lenses isn't something you can always take the time to do without missing shots. I'm biased against superzooms such as the Nikkor 24-200mm, but I'd still have picked that choice over two lenses for a Galapagos trip.

    My personal Galapagos solution is two bodies. Think of it as a safari on foot (though you don't need an exotic). One body/lens for close-in and larger subjects, one body/lens for far and smaller subjects.

    Make sure you're evaluating the right things the right way.

Unfortunately, the cumulative sum of all these things—including that many with DSLRs already have what they need—is making for a market that's lower in volume than the camera makers want it to be. What volume there is tends to be in those making the DSLR-to-mirrorless transition, and that's only going to be a temporary volume. Post R3, Z9, and A1 I'm seeing I'd be Last Camera Syndrome myself. Maybe I'd pick up a few lenses, maybe not. 

It's incumbent upon the camera makers to figure out marketing messages that help you break through the above problems and get to your personal solution. 

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