Off Brand Lenses, Are They Good?

In Master Photography Roundtable by Jeff Harmon2 Comments

Jeff Harmon hosts with Erica Kay and Connor Hibbs joining him at the round table to talk about how branding impacts us as humans, branding affects photographers, and what we think about off brand lenses.

“Off Brand”

Jeff: In today’s episode we are going to talk about off brand lenses.  To start with let’s talk about the connotation of “off brand.” Right of the bat that sounds bad doesn’t it?  Somehow our world is one where brand name is a thing. A BIG thing! If you don’t have the brand label on a thing then the quality of that thing is not good enough and we judge people using things that don’t have the brand labels.  Before we get into the lenses themselves, I wanted to explore that whole idea a little first.

Humans and Branding

I remember a time in my youth where this became very visible to me.  I was in 7th grade and it was the 80s. I even had hair back then! All of a sudden there was this thing that swept through the school where everyone who was anyone absolutely HAD to have jeans labeled Girbaud. It was like the week before Levi branded jeans were pretty cool, but suddenly if you didn’t wear jeans with Girbaud then you were definitely not cool.  Like today, I wasn’t all that big on fashion and was mostly oblivious to what the cool kids were doing since I was never one of the cool kids, but this even got to me.

The look of the Girbaud jeans was nice.  I remember liking them, but they weren’t anything all that special or even very different from the Levis branded jeans.  Still, because it was what all of the “cool” kids were wearing I went home one day from school and told my mom we needed to get some Girbaud jeans.  Looking back, I can’t believe the power the brand was given.

It turned out that the Girbaud branded jeans were retailing for like $120 a pair because of the huge demand.  I don’t know what they were retailing for before the school craze had suddenly decided that these jeans were the hot thing but I know the price had gone up from what they were at originally and now there was no way I was going to be cool.  I didn’t realize back then that my being cool had little to do with the jeans I wore and I would never really be cool.

Looking back, it is so interesting how this changed my view about the Levis branded jeans.  Prior to going to school I was very happy with my jeans. I thought they looked good and having had experience with them in the past I knew they would last through the school year, though as a young teenager I wasn’t so worried about that as my parents were.  

Having this sudden Girbaud craze happen in an instant made them not good enough and it wasn’t for any real reason.  They didn’t suddenly change into something that was going to fall apart or look any worse. They just didn’t have the hot label.  More importantly, the hotness of the label was established by a fickle set of teenagers.

I bring this up because I think we as humans are overly swayed by a lot of things that don’t matter when it comes to brand.  Not only do we want to be one of the cool kids that has the hottest brand, we tend to stay extremely loyal to a brand even when the brand does things that should give us reason to consider supporting a different brand.

Erica, Connor, what do you think?  Does brand affect you?

Erica: I feel like I am not too brand aware outside of photography.  Don’t really care about brands of clothing, cars, food, etc. Inside of photography however, I care a lot more and can see that I definitely prefer brand names.

Connor: I don’t feel like I am all that brand aware either.  Hasn’t been a big deal for me in nearly any area of my life.

Branding in Photography

Jeff: I also notice the role branding plays in photography.  You need it to work for you as a photographer for example. You establish your brand as you do work with clients.  Your brand represents the service you provide, the quality you provide. You want that brand to help you with your business.  So in that regard it is a good thing.

In another regard it is unfair in branding with photography.  To some degree, because most clients don’t actually know and understand photography, we are judged based on the tools we use.  Erica, if you show up to a wedding shoot with a tiny little camera that doesn’t “look” professional isn’t that going to affect their confidence in you?

Erica: Yes.  I have a backpack I use for some of the earlier activities with wedding shoots and then show up later that night with a full roller bag full gear.  When I come with the backpack I get looks like that is all you are going to use? Where is all the gear. We paid for this and I sure hope you can get it done.

Jeff: The other thing that is so interesting with many of our listeners is just how loyal to the brand they are.  Amazes me when there are questions in the Photo Taco Facebook group where someone will ask a question about a PC and almost without fail another listener will comment about how the way to answer every PC question is with a Mac.  

They feel this need to not only support the brand they have chosen but also seek out others who have not chosen that same brand and tell them they are wrong.

The point is, branding goes into a lot of our decisions and we want to talk about the role it plays in lens selection.

High Quality Lenses

Jeff: Let’s switch gears a little here and talk about the importance of high quality lenses.  I think we will all agree that it is absolutely critical photographers use high quality lenses, right?  

Erica and Connor: Yes, for sure.

Jeff: Above the difference a new camera body will make for sure to me, with maybe the only thing that can more directly impact your image quality being some really good training.

Connor: For sure.  Not sure if I would put training in front of high quality lenses, they are pretty even, but in front of pretty much anything else.

Cheap Filters – Don’t Do It!

Jeff: It won’t matter how good that imaging sensor in the camera body is if you put bad glass in front of it. That includes filters.  I have heard so many photographers recommend getting a cheap UV filter to put on the front of a lens to protect the front element and it drives me crazy.  

Sure, the UV filter does a little to protect that front element, but putting a $15 filter on the front of a $2,000 lens makes absolutely no sense.  You just turned your high quality lens into something that is not. That cheap filter is simply not doing as good a job with the light passing through it as your expensive lens.  Please, please, please don’t make this mistake. Erica and Connor what do you do to protect your lenses?

Erica: Not much, lens caps if I remember and am not in too much of a hurry.

Connor: Almost nothing really.  Lens hoods sometimes and lens caps sometimes.  Have a Tamron 24-70 that is ALWAYS on my camera without anything really in the way of protecting it.  Has a lot of tiny scratches on the front element but it really isn’t that big a deal.

Jeff: The front element on good lenses is really tough and even if they do get small scratches on there it doesn’t tend to affect them much.  I have seen some pretty scratched up front elements produce incredible images.

Not to say you shouldn’t try and take care of your front element.  Lens caps do a great job. So do lens hoods. I just don’t think you are doing yourself any favors by putting a cheap UV filter in front of your nice lens.

Going to talk about the importance of good glass and our advice on off brand lenses, but first we need to thank our sponsors of this episode.

Instant Improvement in Image Quality – Good Glass

Jeff: Now that my little rant about cheap filters is over, let’s talk about good lenses being one of the very best ways to improve your image quality.  This is a choice photographers face pretty quickly as they start their journey to master their photography.

I remember starting to read everything I could find on photographer after I got my first DSLR, then I found podcasts and YouTube videos filled with people telling me I needed to upgrade my camera and upgrade my lenses.

Erica: I upgraded both the camera body and the lens pretty fast solely based on a massive number of times I heard I needed to do that.

Jeff: When you look back on that Erica, did you think you made the right decision or would it have been better to wait a little?

Erica: It worked out for me.  Not sure I needed to do the camera at the same time as the lenses, but I was on a path to being a professional so the timing there would have been really close even if I hadn’t.  Fully agree though that the lenses are the thing to invest in so that you can really get better.

Connor: I shoot a Canon 5DM2 and a Canon 6D.  Both are full frame, but both are fairly old now and yet I am getting really good results using them.  It happens a lot as I shoot a wedding or other portraits where Uncle Bob will come over with his new Canon 5DM4 to show me he has better equipment.  I talk to him a little about photography and it is apparent very quickly he has no idea how to use the expensive camera he is holding.

Jeff: I am a big believer that people jump far too quickly to upgrading their camera body.  I think branding works against us here a little too. The camera makers are marketing to us all the time that we need their top of the line camera.  

I can only imagine how a salesperson in a camera store lights up when a photographer walks in and says they think they have outgrown their camera.  They will show you that top end camera and then tell you the lenses you have won’t work with it so you need new lenses and then there is a kit the store is selling.  You could be spending thousands of dollars on that gear and not really need it yet.

I do agree completely that the quality of the lens in front of your camera is very directly related to the image quality you are getting.

Investment in high quality lenses is critical.  Kit lenses, those that come with a camera, are usually the cheapest kind of lens a camera maker can produce so that they can make your camera function while keeping the costs down and they just aren’t good enough.

Not to say it is impossible to get good images using a kit lens, because you can with the right shooting conditions.  Though it is limiting. You can’t get to wide apertures like 2.8 or 1.8, being stuck at 4 or 5.6. You have no chance at low light shots because the lens won’t go fast enough even if your camera sensor is more capable.

You don’t have to spend insane amounts of money to check it out either.  The nifty fifty is a great way to dip your toes in and see what good glass does to your images.  $100 for Canon 50mm 1.8 that is great, Yongnuo makes one that is even less expensive. Seriously good way to get going with good glass.

Off Brand Lenses

We have seen this question come up from the listeners very consistently.  After hearing so much about how important it is to have high quality lenses they want to know if off brands are something considered “good” or not.  You can understand why because the cost differences are usually pretty significant and we are all used to the whole “you get what you pay for” thing.

Erica, what do you think about 3rd party lenses?

Erica: I own a Sigma 50mm Art prime that I love.  It is amazingly sharp. I don’t shoot at 50mm all that often, but when I do it is the lens I choose.  Before I bought it I compared it to the Canon 50mm prime, I am one of those that still goes into a photography store.  They weren’t very different and I could save a lot of money on the Sigma version and so I did. Worked out very well for me there and I love it.

On the other hand, I owned a Tamron lens a few years ago I did not like.  Think it was the 28-74mm lens. Something like that. It was really soft and I sold it pretty quickly after buying it. My experience is varied a little, but I wouldn’t hesitate at all in buying Sigma Art lenses.

Connor: I love the Tamron lenses.  That 24-70, the G1 version, is pretty much always on my camera and I love the results I get with it.  I can’t see any reason I need to spend more money on a lens.

Jeff: I have Tamron glass too, the G2 series.  I love them. Seems to me that thing that has happened was the big guys like Nikon and Canon waited too long to update their lens offerings and the 3rd party makers like Tamron and Sigma had time to catch up.  

They caught up on image quality first.  Then they caught up in the most recent releases on build quality.  Both Tamron and Sigma have excellent build quality that rivals that of Nikon and Canon.  To the point where there is no way I as a hobbyist photographer can consider anything else.

There is such little difference between the brand and the off brand I can’t justify spending the money it takes to buy Canon branded lenses for my Canon camera.  Just no way.

There are some other off brand options too.  Yongnuo has some very inexpensive lenses that have high image quality, though I think they are behind on the build quality.  Mostly plastic lenses that I doubt would last for longs periods of time.

Same with Tokina.  I own a Tokina lens that enabled me to do some astrophotography.  Does a pretty good job but the edges are very poor and the build quality is not there.

Then there is Rokinon/Bower/Samyang.  The same manufacturer who releases lenses under 3 different brand names depending on where you are in the world.  Doesn’t make a bit of sense to me why in this global economy these days they want to split up their brand like that, but that is how it works.

Anyway, they are seriously good for astrophotography.  They are manual focus lenses but they are so clean for how wide they are and really better than pretty much any other option no matter that brand for astro.

Connor: I forgot to mention Rokinon, I have one I use for my video because it is so clean.  Very nice lense for video.

Jeff: The point of the episode here is to have an open mind when it comes to off brand lenses.  Not to say you shouldn’t choose name brand. If that is in your budget then you are going to get a very high quality lens with great build quality and have the capability to produce some fantastic images.

Just keep an open mind.  Check out the off brand offering.  Rent them both and see if you can actually tell a difference between the two.  If you can’t, which I bet happens a lot, then you can save yourself a lot of money and still get some great glass.  If you feel like you can tell the difference, then you will know that and make an informed decision.

Doodads:

Jeff: Frio Universal Locking Cold Shoe Adapter ($13 https://amzn.to/2nVOh89)

Connor: Logan 350 – 1 Compact Elite Mat Cutter

Erica: iFootage Cobra 2 C-180 Monopod ($180)

Reminders:

Comments

  1. I really enjoy your program guys. In the August 23rd episode, I notice the recording being played with a delay much lower in volume. Not sure if there is crosstalk from your mixer, or if the delay effect got bumped or something? Don’t think it’s headphone bleed because there is such a delay. Any ideas?

  2. Author

    @Brandon,

    Thanks for listening and reaching out on the audio quality. I didn’t do anything differently between the 8/23 Off Brand Lenses episode and all of those prior or the 8/30 episode. Have you listened to the 8/30 episode about Nick Page an my reaction to Nikon full frame mirrorless? Was the issue there?

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