Photography Articles: Why a good lens matters.
This article goes into some of the reasons why investing money into a good quality lens will aid you both right away and down the road.
Although photography itself is either a hobby or business for most of us, there are some folks who collect photography equipment in the same way that others collect baseball cards or beanie babies. This article is not about collecting items for the purpose of making a return on your investment.
Instead, if you realize that a good lens is likely never to be surpassed in quality then its value is going to hold up well against other poorer quality lenses. This means that should you ever get out of the hobby, or decide to sell off a few lenses from your camera bag to get a new one, you will likely get back most of your money.
This is because many used lenses sell today for more than what they sold for as new several years ago. Camera companies only make so many of a lens, although they may produce it for several years. After that, there will always be a fixed supply of that lens, yet every year more people get into photography so the demand doesn't shrink.
On the other hand, cheaper lenses of less quality will be surpassed as new features are added due to a reduction in costs for the cheap new features. For example, at the time I am writing this article Vibration Reduction (VR) or Image Stabilization (IS) is the new fad in lenses. Adding this to a cheap lens does improve it, and this renders the older pre-VR lenses even more obsolete.
Hit your stride
Every lens operates over a series of apertures, call f-stops. Where this range starts and stops can indicate the quality of the lens, however all lenses adhere to the rule that they operate at their best optical performance somewhere in the middle of this range.
What this means is that no lens, not even the most expensive exotic f/1.2 lens is perfect wide open. When a lens is wide open there is often light-falloff in the corners (called vignetting) or other lens-specific distortion issues.
At the other end of the aperture range, the big f-stop numbers, we are really choking down the light being let into the camera. When we force light through such a small hole it bends and the different colors of light often bend differently leading to color fringes. This is noticeable when you see blue or red hazy ghost outlines of subjects in your photos.
So, with these sand traps at either end of the spectrum somewhere in the middle is where our lens will really hit its stride and show us what it can do. Each lens differs as to how far into the f-stop lineup you have to go, but in general, better lenses have a broader happy-range in the middle. In other words, a cheap lens may only show its optical might at one aperture, but in general, better lenses have many apertures that perform well.
What this means for you, average picture-taker, is that for a nice landscape photo on a sunny day, you may look to shoot somewhere around f/8, or f/11, maybe f/16. That's all well and good, but if your lens starts out at a measly f/5.6 it might not hit its stride until somewhere other than where you want to shoot.
This is even more important in low light settings. If your f/3.5 lens can capture the image at f/3.5 imagine how much better it would be had you used an f/1.8 lens stopped down to f/3.5. Yes, both lenses are shooting at the same aperture, resulting in the same exposure, but in one case the lens is being pushed to its extreme and asked to do maybe what it can just barely do. In the other case, we're asking a lens to relax and slow down a little.
I don't know about you, but I do a much better job when I'm not being pushed to my extreme all of the time.
Four Five levels of lenses
In today's photography there are three or four
levels of lenses you will encounter. I have listed
four five here for discussion, but you might argue for
some in-between cases. I had to limit the number so
that this list wouldn't get out of hand.
I have listed these from
worst to best.
- Level IV: A no-name brand of lens which is really slow. It's fastest/widest aperture may be nothing better than f/4 (I know of one lens which starts at f/8!!!) and the color shifting at the other end may be terrible. This does not mean that all brands other than Nikon, Pentax, or Canon are necessarily bad. On the contrary, there are some which I find to be excellent optical wonders. But do your research here for sure.
- Level III: A brand-name lens from a reputable maker, but it is a "consumer" level piece of glass. Here again it may only go to f/4, or some are called f/3.5 yet if you zoom anywhere beyond its widest setting it falls off rapidly to f/5.6 and beyond. Many amateur photographers will spend their entire lives with lenses like these and never complain. That is why there is a market for lenses of this sort: a large part of the population doesn't know any better and is happy in their ignorance.
- Level II: A Level II lens is just a Level III lens
but with a gimmick to marginally improve it. Today,
the major gimmicks are VR and IS (Vibration Reduction
or Image Stabilization). These lenses are slow f/5.6
consumer lenses, but to help you a little the lens can
slightly compensate for some of your hand shake when
you take a picture. At the end of the day the lenses
are still slow (small apertures) with the same
crippling setbacks of their Level III counterparts.
Another Level II gimmick is the type of Auto Focus. Older lenses had a little screw-like device that the camera spun to focus, newer ones use advanced motors and the lens focuses itself. All these improvements do is make usability a little easier, they do nothing to improve the optical quality of the lens.
- Level I: This is a high quality lens through and through. You will be happy for life with a lens from this category. This is a true professional lens.
- Level 0: How can you improve on perfection? The same way lens makers improve on Level III consumer lenses: gimmicks. A Level 0 lens is a great one from Level I, but has had some gimmick like VR or AF-S (the new fancy Auto Focus) added. If you can afford one of these, you will be very happy, but luckily the existence of this category means that for those of us on realistic budgets, a Level I lens could be more easily affordable.
Buy now, use forever
Cameras come and go. There is always going to be a new magic something to make your camera body obsolete moments after you opened the box.
In film days this process was a lot easier to live with as the advances were both a lot slower and less dramatic. In today's digital era your brand new camera will likely be outdated by the time you finish reading this article.
But, glass hasn't changed much in centuries and although scientists are always working to improve things, for the most part a good quality lens which you invest in today will likely be on your camera 5+ years from now and continue to deliver the same high-standard of picture quality.
So, if you buy a good lens now, you will be satisfied for a good long time - probably a lifetime.
Does it matter?
Does having a great lens versus a poor lens really matter?
The purists will argue that some really fantastic photography has been done with some of the poorest equipment and I cannot disagree. However, I feel that the worst shot ever is the one I didn't take, and if my equipment prevented me (rather than my skills or other preparedness) from exceeding then yes, a great lens DOES matter.
A great lens will not make you a professional, you have to know how to use it, and you have to have other skills, like anticipation and planning, to be in the right spot at the right time to get a great shot. But, having the education gap such that you can grow into your equipment, rather than growing out of it, implies a better long-term investment of your money and your learning.
I argue that anyone's photography will be elevated by having a great lens and that a single good lens is better than a bag full of bad lenses. The amount that their photography is elevated depends greatly on their dedication to learning and bettering themselves to maximize the opportunity their equipment can present to them. Thus, they must balance their dedication to the art with their budget when making decisions about if the cost is worth it, and if it all really matters.
Plus, for some types of photography, there really is no way to go without a specialized lens. For example: macro photography. Sure, you can buy add-on filters that let's your regular lens shoot up close, but any of these lens modifiers only amplify any optical deficiencies that your current lens has. Garbage in, garbage out.
For another example: portraits. If you want to take good portraits that rival the professionals, then you need to be able to operate on their level (both their level of skill, and equipment). Just like you can't fake knowing f-stops or ISO numbers, you can't fake the look that a good portrait lens delivers.
For a third example: wide-angle. Yes, there are stitching programs that let you take multiple pictures and automatically stitch them together to make a larger panorama image, but can you rely on the world to always be still so that you can take several overlapping pictures without a tree limb blowing, a child running, or a bird moving?
If none of these examples are of interest to you, or they don't make you look at photography as an art then maybe you're just a casual camera user. That's fine, there is nothing wrong with that, and it sounds like you can save yourself some money by not going overboard on pricey camera gear.