I keep seeing articles and videos on underrated and overrated features of photography, so it’s time to step out in front of the firing line with my contentious answer to the above question.
Fellow editor Alex Cooke’s recent article titled “If You Could Only Shoot With One Lens, What Would It Be?” got me thinking. We have discussions based on similar questions on a daily basis, and are usually pretty in sync. But his answer to that question, while not completely different to my answer as I too would go for a prime, did prompt me to finally write this article: What’s the most overrated lens?
These sort of questions are invariably quite tricky because you have to tick a number of boxes for your answer to be a viable candidate for discussion. That is, a lens must be good enough that it has mass appeal and is a common feature in camera bags around the world, but not so good that calling it overrated would be unfair. I have had a knee-jerk response to this question without it ever being posed quite as directly; a lens that is as staple as any and in almost every beginner’s gear article you’ll ever read. But for the sake of discussion, I’ll go through what my thought process would be if I didn’t already have my answer.
I’ll add in a caveat to say that your answer can be both very specific (a particular model, of a particular brand’s lens) or the more difficult route of naming a type of lens (say, all 35mm lenses.)
In terms of types of lenses that are common, the 24-70mm and the 70-200mm are always around and about the discussion over kit. I’ve owned at least one of each for as long as I can remember, and it’s difficult to say they’re overrated. Particularly for coverage of events, weddings, and assignments, you’re well supported with this duo. You could put forward arguments for one particular model or brand of each being overrated, but having used Canon, Sony, and Sigma, I haven’t found it to be the case quite yet; so that’s out.
The next up for consideration would be the UWAs. No UWA has been particularly prevalent to my eye, or unjustified in its prevalence, and the type of lens as a whole is crucial to many genres. Then we move on to prime lenses. The 85mm is a popular choice and raved about; so it could be a candidate for being considered “overrated”. Is it though? Not to my eyes. I’ve had one of the cheapest version of this prime — Canon 85mm f/1.8 — for a long time and I would certainly upgrade to an f/1.2 if I could justify the cost. But we’re getting warmer, and for me, we’re right next door.
So what do I consider to be the most overrated lens?
The 50mm f/1.8
Not specifically the Canon, or the Nikon, or any of the other brands. All modern f/1.8 50mm lenses. Every photographer upon buying their first camera has this little cheap prime rammed down their throat at every turn. I’m not unreasonable — I promise — I’m aware of its upsides; it’s by far the cheapest way to a wide aperture, it can sort-of fit in to a number of different photography genres, and it’s nice and light. I’m not saying it’s a bad lens, what I am saying is it’s overrated.
It is in the must-have, god-like lens tier and for me, it doesn’t warrant it. The 50mm is a half measure; for portraits you’d generally do better with a longer prime, or even dropping down to a 35mm. For landscapes, it again sits in that awkward range between wide-angle, and longer. For the more niche categories of photography it’s even less useful. I can honestly say that in all my years as a photographer, on private shoots, commercial shoots, and shooting just for fun, I’ve never thought “ah the 50mm would work nicely here.”
Yes, it’s cheap, it’s light, and it’s a good way for beginners to play around with narrow depth of field, but should it have this title of a staple in photographers’ camera bags? Absolutely not. If it wasn’t cheap, it’d be completely forgettable. So while it has its perks for beginners, the reverence for the 50mm f/1.8 is just confused driftwood being washed along by sound advice that it’s a nice lens for beginners.
Shoot me down or offer an alternative lens that’s overrated in the comments below.
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