Cheap Lenses: Worth the Investment?

Here’s my philosophy about buying lenses: For most uses, I prefer those made by my camera’s manufacturer. Even when used with really wide-angle lenses, the focal-length multiplication factor 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.

Porsche Speedster in Infrared

The now disocntunued EF 15mm f/2.8 lens for my Canon system costs about $6p0. 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. The 16mm Zenitar f/2.8 is a manual focus 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.

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 infrared 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 Porsche Speedster was made with the camera set in Aperture Priority mode. Exposure 1/100 sec at f/16 and ISO 200. The image file was digitally hand colored later in Adobe Photoshop.screen-shot-2016-09-28-at-1-12-14-pm

Joe Farace is the author of the now out-of-print book “Digital Monochrome Special Effects” that’s available from Amazon, either new or used at bargain prices.

Author: Joe Farace

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