Friday, February 03, 2006

How Important is the Lens?

If you're into photography, like I am, you will notice that photographers have a tendency to get tempted into believing that the quality of one's equipment has a direct correlation to the quality of one's photographs. Like golfers who are sure that breaking 90 is just a matter of picking up the latest and greatest set of clubs, or who marvel at Tiger Woods and then run down to buy the titanium driver he used to eagle at the Masters, many photographers invest several thousand dollars in expensive cameras and glass in the belief that only equipment separates them from making photographs that will have "National Geographic" beating at their door.

I think this is mostly a male phenomenon, and it is seen widely at sporting good stores, at the Snap-On Tool truck, and at gun shops. Men, as opposed to Man, seem to have a lust for tools that you just don't see in women. I plead guilty as charged; I like fine mechanical objects, and have a variety of expensive gadgets from custom bicycles to beautiful shotguns to expensive fly fishing reels. None of these make me a better cyclist, shooter, or fisherman (none of them make me worse, either). All of them give me extra enjoyment of the activity. It's just nicer to ride along listening to the sound of a well-made derailleur clicking away, or to shoot a round of sporting clays while looking at a beautiful crotch walnut stock, or to pull line from a silky smooth reel.

I've never known a woman who really cared one way or another about her tools. As long as they were functional, they were good enough. The women I've known also don't seem to take care of tools, whether it's being careful to use wooden or plastic utensils with non-stick cookware, knocking the dirt off of gardening tools so they don't rust, or even maintaining a car. I fully expect my fine tools and toys to outlast me, and to look as good decades from now as they do today; any sort of tool or utensil that my wife also uses inevitably ends up dying a premature death from neglect or abuse. It's not a matter of ignorance, either; how many times do you have to replace a skillet before you figure out that using a metallic spoon to stir sauce is suboptimal? Or that screwdrivers and chisels, while superficially similar, are not to be used interchangeably and that neither is a substitute for a hammer. Even a disposable razor displays the difference; the man's lives on for a week or two, being rinsed out carefully with hot water so it dries without rusting, while a woman's is left inside a damp shower and corrodes to dullness in a day or two.

But I digress... back to the subject at hand.

When it comes to photography, 90% of a photograph is the subject and composition. If your images are crummy, then it's probably not your equipment. As the saying goes, "a poor craftsman blames his tools."

However, that remaining 10% is the image quality, and if it isn't there, the 90% is worthless. For example, there are a lot of moon shots on the Internet, taken with a variety of different cameras and lenses. Some are obviously much better than others, and since the subject is a glowing object surrounded by black, composition isn't much of an issue. What is the difference? Image quality.

As we all know, image quality is affected by several things, including the film/sensor size and resolution, the resolving capability of the lens, and the photographer's technique as applied to steadiness, proper exposure, and proper focus. I have found that the secret to obtaining 'good' images is a tripod, a quality lens stopped down a couple of stops, and careful attention to composition, focus, and exposure. Given that everything else is the same, better lenses make better pictures.

How much better is 'better'? Well, I for one can see the difference between my Sigma 18-50 DC 'kit' lens @ f/8, and my Sigma 50/2.8 EX pro-level lens (or my Pentax SMC Takumar 50/1.4) at f/8. The prime lenses are noticeably sharper. The same was true when I compared pictures from my 55-200 DC 'kit' lens @ f/8 and my 70-200/2.8 EX pro-level lens at f/8. You can see the difference that better optics make, even though it's a small difference. (As an aside, I've looked at a couple of full-sized images from Sigma's new 18-125 DC lens, and while the focal length range is compelling, the lens just isn't as sharp as the EX series. It would be great for snapshots... if you're into snapshots... which I'm not.)

Now, I will further qualify 'better' as being a noticeable improvement. Even though the images from the better lenses look better on the computer monitor when viewed full-size, when I make 5x7 prints it's darned hard, if not impossible, to tell the difference. However... I didn't buy my SD10 dSLR to make 5x7 and smaller prints. My personal standard of a 'good' image is one that looks good when sized and printed to at least an 8x10.

Post-processing is important, and it is surprising how much a marginal image can be improved, but nothing beats an image that was 'good' at the moment the shutter closed.

I am also a competitive marksman, and shooting and photography have one thing in common; average shooters occasionally make a good shot, good shooters can shoot up to the capabilities of their equipment, and great shooters are limited only by their equipment. If you aspire to be great, don't let your equipment be the limiting factor when it comes to the quality of your performance. Buy good (not necessarily expensive) lenses!

And, for Pete's sake, take care of your equipment!

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