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Oct 312014

A “go” bag is a bag you keep near you in cases of emergency. It’s supposed to contain everything you need to survive for the next 72 hours. Knives, dried food, some medicine, etc.

Canon users, these are my lens recommendations for your photography go bag.

  • Canon EF 40 mm f/2.8 STM pancake lens
  • Canon EF-S 10-18mm f/4.5-5.6 IS STM ultrawide angle zoom
  • Canon EF-S 24 mm f/2.8 STM pancake lens

Now, for the TL;DR version, in which I tell the story of all the lenses I’ve loved.

Informal glossary for people who are new to camera reviews so we’ll be on the same page. Please feel free to skip ahead if you know these terms:

1. Prime lens- a one piece lens that doesn’t “zoom in or out”

2. zoom lens- a lens that moves to “zoom in or out”. a zoom lens is not necessarily a telephoto lens. you can have an ultra wide zoom where the tele end is only 22 or 18 mm.

3. APS-C- Canon’s smaller sized DSLR format. you multiply a lens’s focal length by 1.6 to get its equivalent focal length IF the lens is mounted on a full-frame (35mm) body.

4. kit lens- the “default” inexpensive zoom lens that’s paired with your DSLR when you buy it. you can also opt to buy just a DSLR body sans kit lens

5. EF- canon’s lens mount that works on both full frame and APS-C bodies (on Nikon, it’s FX)

6. EF-S- canon’s lens mount that works only on Canon’s cameras with the smaller APS-C sensors (on Nikon, it’s DX)

7. normal lens- people say it’s something that’s around 40 to 50 mm focal length, that approximates the field of view of the human eye.

8. pancake lens- a really small, flat lens, like a pancake


I got my very first DSLR in April 2007. It was a Canon 400D body paired with Canon’s most famous nifty 50, the EF 50mm f/1.4. I bought this prime after much research because it was Canon’s cheapest “good glass”, and the nifty 50 has a long, respected history in photography. All the review sites recommended getting the EF 50 as a starter lens, whether to upgrade your kit lens, or as your first lens. I ended up just getting this prime, and buying a 400D body sans kit lens.

However, the 50mm mounted on an APS-C body made it the equivalent of 80 mm on a full-frame body. 80mm is already a bit too telephoto for me. I had to step back a lot when I wanted to get more of a scene in. Because it was already a medium telephoto on my camera, I didn’t actually get to enjoy its much-vaunted “best normal lens” reputation.


Canon EF 50 mm f/1.4 USM

I used just this one lens for a whole year. It was really good discipline training because I had to really plan about how I’m going to get a shot because my view was too “zoomed in” because on my camera, a 50mm normal lens is a medium telephoto. I couldn’t just snap away because if I did, I’d only get a somewhat close-up view of what I wanted to shoot.

After a few months, I was already able to anticipate what kind of view I’d see if I’m standing at a particular distance from an object. I also love the f/1.4 aperture, it allowed for great shots in low light.

Manila at night, 2007 (used the Canon EF 50 mm f/1.4 for this)

Manila at night, 2007 (used the Canon EF 50 mm f/1.4 for this)

However after a year I got tired of having the super “Zoomed in” view all the time and having to adjust for it. Thus began my journey to find the perfect lens for me.

I bought two lenses next, both second hand. one was the Canon EF 28-105 mm f/3.5-4.5 zoom lens, another is the Canon EF 20mm f/2.8 prime. I bought the zoom lens because it was really cheap, although I rarely used the far telephoto end. The wide end of 28 mm multiplied by 1.6 is 44.8 mm on a full-frame body. In other words, its wide end is a normal lens focal length, and I wanted to try that, afterhaving used the EF 50mm for months but not actually enjoying its true normal lens focal length.

from top to bottom: Canon EF 28-105 mm and Canon EF 20 mm (see how bulky it is?)

from top to bottom: Canon EF 28-105 mm and Canon EF 20 mm (see how bulky it is?)

I got the 20mm also because it was cheap and I wanted something that could approximate 35mm on a full frame, the favorite focal length of many street photographers. (20mm multiplied by 1.6 is 32 mm.)

I eventually sold it because I found the Canon EF 20mm too long and bulky. I replaced it with a tiny, near pancake sized Sigma 24 mm f/2.8. It was cute and light, but while it mounts on any EOS model Canon and syncs electronically; because the Sigma is old, from the mid 90s (I bought it second hand),  autofocus works, but theaperture is limited to only f/2.8.

Sigma 24 mm f/2.8 prime lens (around normal lens length on my camera not really "super wide" like the label on the front element says)

Sigma 24 mm f/2.8 prime lens (around normal lens length on my camera not really “super wide” like the label on the front element says)

I sold both that and the 28-105mm sometime in 2008, and replaced it with yet another secondhand all-around zoom lens, the Canon EF-S 17-85mm.

I bought it pretty cheaply, 50% off retail. It’s a smidgen wider than a kit lens, and has a little more telephoto reach. Like the 28-105mm I had some years back, I rarely used the telephoto end of the 17-85, as my preference is for going in close and shooting wide.

Canon EF-S 17-85 mm f/4-5.6 walk around zoom

Canon EF-S 17-85 mm f/4-5.6 walk around zoom

To recap, by 2009, I had only two lenses- the Canon EF-S 17- 85mm zoom lens, and the Canon EF 50 mm prime (which is “longer” than a normal when mounted on my APS-C body).

I wanted something wider though. That was when I got the Canon EF-S 10-22 mm ultrawide angle zoom lens, the first non-second hand lens i bought since my very first lens, the aforementioned Canon nifty 50. Ever since then, that has become my favorite lens.

Canon EF-S 10-22 mm f/3.5 - 4.5 mm USM

Canon EF-S 10-22 mm f/3.5 – 4.5 mm USM

I used it all over Manila shooting graffiti and urban landscapes, took it to Taipei, Bali, Guam, Chiang Mai, and Penang. Before I finally sold it off this September 2014, I even took it to Chile.

Taken with the telephoto end of the 10-22 mm. I had to get very close though because 22 mm is still pretty wide. Bali, 2012

Taken with the telephoto end of the 10-22 mm. I had to get very close though because 22 mm is still pretty wide. Bali, 2012

When I went to Chile, that was my primary lens. I was tempted to bring the whole kit and caboodle with me, but I limited myself to two lenses- the 10- 22 ultrawide and the Canon EF 40mm f/2.8 pancake I bought in 2012.

Canon 100D body with Canon EF 40mm pancake lens

Canon 100D body with Canon EF 40mm pancake lens

For the longest time I have prayed to the camera gods for Canon to release a smaller and lighter form factor normal lens. I was so jealous of Nikon’s 35mm DX prime. in 2012, they finally came out with the teeny tiny Canon EF 40mm, and at only $200 retail, it was a no brainer to get it.

I did wish they made it 30mm instead of 40mm though. 40 mm on an APS-C crop body is pushing it into medium telephoto already, but Canon wants to push out a lens that both full frame and crop bodies can use cause they’re too cheap to make an EF-S exclusive unlike that Nikon DX 35 mm (DX is the EF-S of Nikon. FX is their EF). Hmph.

It was why I was overjoyed to hear that Canon is coming out with a Canon EF-S 24mm late this 2014! The retail price is also supposed to be only $200 or a little under that, and I’ll definitely get it.

But back to the ultrawide, why did I sell it? If i loved it so much? Because in May 2014, they announced the Canon EF-S 10-18mm ultrawide zoom (only their second ultrawide ever for APS-C bodies). It’s only $350, compared to the almost $800 initial asking price of the EF-S 10-22 !

Did they cut corners to get this low low price? Yes, but they were acceptable compromises. The lens mount is no longer stainless steel, but plastic. But for me that’s a benefit, as it made the lens much lighter. Big guys may not notice the weight, but every additional gram shaved off camera equipment is a plus for my neck.

Another “flaw” compared to the older ultrawide is the 10-18 mm starts at f/4.5instead of f/3.5 and the telephoto end tops out at 18 mm instead of the 22 mm of the older model. For me though f/4.5 is okay, newer camera bodies have such high quality high ISO settings! Gone were the days when anything above ISO 400 is noise-central. I also didn’t mind that the long end tops out at 18 mm, as I’ve mentioned above, I use the wide ends the most. The new ultrawide’s glass is good though, and that’s what matters the most.

I like the crazy distortions of ultrawide angles, and going in really, really close. Valparaiso, Chile, April 2014

I like the crazy distortions of ultrawide angles, and going in really, really close. Valparaiso, Chile, April 2014

I vowed to myself at that point to sell off three of the four lenses in my inventory, and I did just that in September. (It took an average of 3 weeks to sell the three.) Could you guess which three?

1. The Canon EF 50 mm- I never used it anymore after I got the 40 mm pancake, the focal lengths are too similar and the pancake is much lighter.

2. The Canon EF-S 17-85 mm zoom lens- I never used it anymore as I’ve got my favorite focal lengths covered by the ultra wide and the 40 mm. I rarely  shoot anything more telephoto than that. And if I end up needing to “zoom” some more, I just walk closer.

3. My beloved Canon EF-S 10-22 mm ultrawide zoom lens- I sold it to be able to buy the newer and cheaper Canon EF-S 10-18 mm the moment it hit Philippine shores. I was able to sell it for $400, which wholly covered the $350 price of the brand new 10-18!

To recap, my current line up as of October 2014 is the new Canon EF-S 10-18 mm ultrawide and the Canon EF 40 mm pancake. The moment the cheap and tiny Canon EF-S 24mm pancake is available here, I’m getting that too.

These three will be the first time since 2007 I’ll have an all brand new line up (nothing secondhand), and they’ll be also my cheapest lineup ever! Never before in the history of mankind (it’s midnight, excuse my grandiosity) has such lightweight and high quality glass been so cheap! (Good lenses are usually $400 up.)

Another benefit to having these two new lenses (and the third soon-to-arrive one), is they all carry Canon’s newest STM focusing technology for quiet and fast video autofocusing. Previous lenses, while they had great glass like my EF 50 or the EF-S 10-22 ultrawide, were made for stills, so the autofocusing in video mode left a lot to be desired (not to mention in-camera focusing was pretty crap until 2014).

Here's a random photo of Valparaiso I shot to break the monotony of reading this long-ass text.

Here’s a random photo of Valparaiso I shot to break the monotony of reading this long-ass text.

I’ve neglected to mention cameras so far because for me they aren’t as important as the lenses.

I just prefer to use the lightest available. I hate heavy cameras because they hurt my chest, shoulder, and neck, and they take up a lot of space.

I always buy the cheapest CURRENT GENERATION camera. I never buy old cameras. Digital cameras nowadays are not static mechanical devices. They are mini computers, and I don’t want to pay good money for obsolete technology. Every new generation will have faster processors, faster and more accurate autofocusing, and much more refined high ISO settings.

When on a budget, don’t settle for buying an enthusiast-level $1,500 DSLR from the previous generation. Buy the cheapest from the current generation, that $1,000 will knock the boots off the $1,500 previous-generation camera.

Unless you’re a dedicated professional photographer, you wouldn’t need what makes an expensive camera expensive. These usually have zero to do with image quality and more to do with convenience. More frames per seconds, more external buttons for convenience, brighter viewfinder, weather sealing, two memory card slots, are a few of those benefits. These are not frivolous add ons, and they’re worth the additional $1,000 per tier that Canon and Nikon asks from you if you’re a professional who goes to Syria and needs the weather sealing.

But for ordinary enthusiasts, these are things you can safely cut from your budget and still achieve great image quality. All tiers from the current generation have the same image processors anyway, improving on the ones from the previous generation.

Most image-related improvements in DSLRs now improve only incrementally nowadays, but video-related improvements are improving exponentially (as of 2014).

My current DSLR is the cheapest Canon has, the Canon 100D. It’s so small it’s only a little bigger than my palm. 

It’s half the price of my previous DSLR, the Canon 60D (which I sold late 2013). The Canon 60D wasn’t the cheapest Canon at the time, it’s considered a mid-level camera.

And yet my cheapest, lowest-tier 100D beats it in almost every metric that matters to me: high ISO settings, ease of shooting video (autofocus speed, etc), and weight and form factor. I do miss the brighter pentaprism viewfinder of the 60D (the cheaper 100D only has a pentamirror finder), but hey, it cost $600 less!

This tiny lightweight body was perfect for travel, a trusty companion to me in Chile. Paired with the Canon EF 40 mm pancake, it looked no bigger than those newfangled mirrorless Panasonics!

Before the 60D, I owned two other Canons (400D and 500D), all the cheapest bodies from the current generation when I bought them. For all four, I always buy in Spring (March or April) six months after they’re first announced. There’s usually a very very slight discount after the yearly February camera trade shows (there’s two a year, spring and fall).

And that’s the story of my camera “go” kit. Through via negativa over 7 years (‘07 to ‘14), I’ve figured out what kind of shooting I like best, and built a cheap, small, lightweight system to help me do just that. And sold off the rest of my gear.

* All photos here taken by me.

** I’m not a gear fetishist, I don’t normally caption photos with the specs of my kit. This post is an exception as it talks about gear recommendations.

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