Bringing out the Big Glass – The Pros and Cons of Professional Lenses


Ever looked at the photographers at a major sports event? Most commonly you will see a barrage of massive lenses, often 300-600mm in focal length and with massive front elements. The photographer at a wedding may have a 24-70 f2.8 and a 70-200 f2.8 lens, again both much bigger than the lenses found on most enthusiasts' cameras. So why have these lenses and what are the pros and cons?

Lets start with the Pros.  The reason that these lenses have such large front elements is simple, to let more light in. The wider the aperture the less likely you will need to use a high ISO with its potential degradation of the image.

Another effect of the wide aperture is to allow the photographer to create images with a shallower depth of field.

Professional level lenses will also use higher quality glass, usually with more of the special surface coatings that reduce both flare and internal reflections. Nikon use Nano coating, this is covers the rear element of the lens reducing flare caused by reflections from the sensor itself. All of these surface coatings lead to higher image contrast and better colour.

As well as using higher quality glass, pro lenses will have more complicated and tightly designed lens elements. Elements are the groups of different lenses within the lens. One of the effects of these elements is to reduce distortion such as pin cushioning, and barrel distortion. This distortions most often manifest themselves as curvature in images with straight lines.

Professional lenses are usually much sturdier than lower cost equivalents. The barrels are often made from metals rather than plastics and they are also weather sealed, providing protection against the elements. I recently had the misfortune of having a Nikon 24-70 drop onto a concrete floor, the metal barrel protected the elements and as such it could be repaired back to A1 condition.

Finally, with the increasing number of megapixels in modern cameras, low cost lenses are not going to keep up with sensor resolution, whereas a good quality pro lens should.

canon ef mm f . l is usm
Big,Expensive but with good reason by jp1958, on Flickr

The most obvious of the cons is cost. Professional lenses will often cost two to three times more than their cheaper equivalents, so replacing your entire lens set up for professional glass is going to take some investment. That said, lens technology does not advance anywhere near as quickly as sensor technology and investment in professional lenses should last you literally decades. If you do decide to go pro, think about whether you will want to go full frame in the future, there is no point in investing in a good range of APS-C glass only to find it will not work on your new full frame camera in the future.

Nikon NIKKOR AF-S DX 17-55mm f/2.8G IF ED 02
Nikon's 17-55 2.8 is APS-C not Full Frame – by Josh's, on Flickr

Another consideration is the weight. Pro lens weight is often double if not triple normal lenses. Pack two or three of these in your kit bag and you will certainly know that you have been carrying them by the end of the day. On smaller cameras they can also upset the overall balance of the camera.

Lastly, because they are so big, they mark you out as a photographer. The effects of this can range from the minor, strangers constantly asking you to take their pictures with their camera to the ugly, being marked for a potential theft. When using a pro lens, try to keep it out of sight when not in use, to avoid unwanted attention.

So do you need a pro lens? Well only you can answer that question. Hopefully this article has gone some way towards helping you make your mind up.

Jason Row is a British born travel photographer now living in Ukraine. You can follow him on Facebook or visit his site, The Odessa Files. He also maintains a blog chronicling his exploits as an Expat in the former Soviet Union

About Author

Jason has more than 35 years of experience as a professional photographer, videographer and stock shooter. You can get to know him better here.

Thanks Jason for your time writing this article and the one on theft. It’s always great to know tips and tricks to evade unfortunate events like those.

Not all pro glass is heavy, it all depend on if it’s a zoom or a prime. One could carry around 3-4 primes and stil not be bothered by the weight as one would with a 70-200mm f2.8. And that’s a tip for those who worry about theft. Use small primes on small pro body will not make you stand out as much as you would with a 70-200mm f2.8. So a tip for those who want to get pro glass, but don’t want to cash out for the big glass zooms just yet, buy some primes for the focal length you use the most. Lets say you’re into landscapes, buy a 24mm, 35mm and a 50mm with an apereture of around f1.8 (the f1.4 have a bigger bulk in regards of lenshousing) and combine them with a travlers zoom 28-200mm (or the 17-200mm for the crop-sensor). Then you don’t need to use the bigger camerabag, yet have quality glass ready when the situastion calls for it.

I’m actually considering selling my 70-200 and replacing it with the 135 f/2. I find myself taking a deep breath before I pull it out of the bag. And after a 8-10 hour wedding with 2 bodies hanging from my Rapid straps by back doth protest somewhat!

I am have the 70-200 2.8 and it is the price you pay for sharp pictures. I also have the 24-70 2.8 and I had the misfortune of having it smash on the hard lava in Hawaii. It hit in the edge the front and the lens would not the barrel jammed and would not focus but it kept on shooting even the Nikon D200 kept shooting with the bottom busted off. In 10 years I have never so much as scratched piece of equipment but when I did it was pro. Thinks happen.

I also thought pixels did not matter till I upgraded to the D800 and I can say pixels matters.

I am also going to say not everyone needs pixels or a pro lens. For me it immediately took my photography to another level when I bought pro equipment but I did not start there as I progressed in my photography so did my equipment. Everyone has to decide based on their needs.

First Glass than MP. I also used a D300 on very expensive glass for nature and wildlife. 70-200 f2.8 and 300 f2.8 with TC1.4 and TC2.0. I was waiting for Nikon to give us a D400 but looks like we never see it. so I bought the D800. the detail is fantastic and sure MP do count if you have the glass. Agree it also brought out the best in the D300. I agree, Primes are fantastic, I only use 1 zoom, 70-200 f2.8 but with a 24mm and 50 mm I dont see the need to spend all the $$ on a 24-70.

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