Cheap Lenses: Are They Worth the Investment?

Here’s my philosophy about buying lenses: For workaday use, I prefer those made by my camera’s manufacturer. Even when used with really wide-angle lenses, the focal-length multiplication factor that is built into most digital SLR’s robs us of truly wide-angle results but ultra wide angles are expensive aren’t they? Nyet! I don’t mind purchasing used lenses because I’m going to use them anyway but everybody likes a bargain and some of the best deals on cheap wide-angle lenses are provided by Russian optics. An EF 15mm f/2.8 lens for my Canon system costs about $660. A new 15mm lens from third-party manufacturers can cost $420 but I purchased a new 16mm Zenitar f/2.8  on eBay for $99. I’ve seen them sold directly by importers for $175 but either way it’s a good price, if the lens is worth the investment.

What’s the bad news? The 16mm Zenitar f/2.8 is a manual focus (remember those days?) lens that will not couple with your camera’s metering system. Old school advice is to focus with the lens wide open, then stop down to the desired aperture so you can get correct exposure before making the shot. I’m too lazy for all that, so I set the lens to my desired aperture, place the camera on Aperture Priority mode, and let it pick the shutter speed.

But, Mr. Bill, I can hear you saying, stopping the lens down to the working aperture means the viewfinder will be dark and if it’s f/16, how will I ever focus? My favorite method for focusing with these inexpensive wide-angle lenses is to set the lens at its hyperfocal distance. The hyperfocal distance is a specific point of focus where any object that is between the distance from this point and infinity is in focus. Here’s how to do it: After you select an aperture you rotate the focusing ring setting that aperture opposite the infinity mark. On the 16mm Zenitar this produces a depth-of-field from five inches to infinity that effectively turns my camera into a digital point and shoot SLR.

The good news is that the 16mm Zenitar is a rectilinear full-frame fish-eye lens that fills the 24x36mm frame or a cropped portion of whatever size your digital SLR chip may produce. Image sharpness is more than acceptable at smaller apertures. Fit and finish are what you might expect from a 70’s era Japanese lens but certainly worth every penny I paid for it.

The 16mm Zenitar f/2.8 is my favorite lens when shooting with a Canon Rebel Xti that has been converted to infrared use partly because of the wide angle effect it produces but also because I can set it at the hyperfocal distance. The above image of a classic Buick convertible was made with the camera set in Aperture Priority mode at ISO 200. Exposure was 1/60th of a second at f/16. The image file was digitally hand colored later in Adobe Photoshop CS2 but that’s another story

Joe Farace is the author of “Digital Monochrome Special Effects” that’s available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and your friendly neighborhood book or camera store.

Author: Joe Farace

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