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What is a good general purpose lens – one lens to rule them all?
If a zoom, for shooting assignments/projects: probably the 24-70L or the equivalent EF-S 17-55mm 2.8 for crop body cameras. Fast, sharp and useful for many applications. I always have this lens handy, no matter what assignment. The 24-105mm F4 IS L is also an excellent candidate, particularly for travel. It’s a great compromise between a wide focal range, aperture and IS, at a very reasonable size and weight, while delivering high quality images.
If a prime: probably the 35mm L or the 50m 1.4. Sharp and lightweight. Remember that you can always crop an image in post, but you can’t magically crop “out” in post.
For someone totally new to photography:
Keep it really simple: the 50mm 1.4. It is small and sharp and will help you get the basics.
For your first L lens: (a lens for someone getting more seriously into photography):
If you are just starting out, you probably already have a 18-55 or 28-80 equivalent zoom, so adding a 70-200 F4 L zoom is a great first L lens. Reasonable cost and size, and great image quality for your buck.
What about for low light work?
The L primes are all good candidates for super low light work. If they can’t do well, either you aren’t doing things properly (ie. shooting at ISO800 instead of 6400), or it’s too dark to do anything (most of the time, have a wedding ceremony).
And for weddings?
I bring around 10-13 lenses for the weddings that I shoot, so it is hard to say what to use. Depends a lot on your style.
I find these ones I use the most: 35mm L, 85mm L, 70-200 2.8 IS L Mark 2 and the 24-70 2.8 L. But I usually bring another 8 lenses.
The 70-200 2.8 IS L Mark 2, the 300mm 2.8 IS L and the 135mm L. Very sharp, very fast focusing lenses. You will feel right at home next to the pros from Sports Illustrated. If you need extra range, put a 1.4x or 2x extended on them. They will still work beautifully.
The 85mm 1.2 L Mark 2, the 135mm L and the 70-200 2.8 IS Mark 2. All ridiculously sharp, fantastic color. The 85mm 1.2 L Mark 2 can be slow to focus. Beginners beware.
The L primes are all very popular with filmmakers, and in particular, the 85mm 1.2 L and 135mm L. The bokeh on those optics makes it look like you are shooting with $100k cine lenses. If you are making a skateboarding movie, you will want the 15mm fisheye, of course.
Of course, the 24mm TS-E Mark 2 and 17mm TS-E tilt shift lenses. But if you are an architectural photographer, you already knew that.
Something that will give a different look?
The 45mm tilt shift can produce some hauntingly images (when used properly – it has a bit of a learning curve).
News photojournalism and documentary work?
Tough call. Really depends how you shoot. For fast situations, the three L zooms are what I would reach for (the 16-35 2.8 Mark 2, the 24-70 and the 70-200 Mark 2). For slow, low light work, the L primes are the obvious choice.
A lens that will make my spouse less upset at me for ruining the monthly budget?
Haha. Well, in that case, the 70-200 F4. Sharp, inexpensive for an L lens, and the long focal length will make your spouse look 10 pounds lighter. Who wouldn’t appreciate that?