I’m not much given to laying down the law or to providing rules about photography or anything else but I’m going to tell you now that if you want to take super sharp photos you’re going to have to do something about your choice of lenses.
I’m going to start with a piece of clear advice.
It’s this: Lenses are more important than cameras. Yes, it’s true, Lenses are more important than cameras. A camera is just a light tight box attached to a lens.
This means that if you want to take super sharp photos you must have lenses that you can rely on to make this happen.
Now, if you want to choose your lenses you’re going to have to take certain factors into account.
Are you going to choose a lens which has a camera permanently attached to it? Are you going to choose a lens or lenses where you can attach different lenses to a camera? – these are interchangeable lenses. Are you going to choose lenses with a fixed focal length, sometimes called prime lenses? or are you going to choose zoom lenses?
Just in case you’re not clear what these terms mean, a fixed focal length or prime lens has just one focal length: 28mm for a wide angle, 50mm for a standard, 100mm or more for a telephoto and so on.
A zoom lens of course is extremely convenient because it makes up a package which can include different focal lengths so you can buy a lens which can go, for example from 28mm to 200mm.
Now, before I go any further I’m going to tell you that it is possible to buy zoom lenses that can help you to take super sharp photos.
But and there is a but, it is likely that such lenses will be very expensive and rather heavy. There are some exceptions but you need to choose carefully. So, let’s have a look at some of the things we’ll have to think about.
First of all every lens has a maximum aperture.
So called wide aperture lenses have a lot of glass and a maximum aperture of somewhere around f2. There are several reasons for preferring lenses with a wide aperture:
They allow more light in – this means that you can take sharp pictures when the lighting levels are low.
It’s much easier to focus with a wide aperture lens.
Auto focus systems work better and if you focus manually you can see more clearly.
Wide aperture lenses give you much more control over depth of field (DOF).
DOF is very shallow at wide apertures and this can be vital for some pictures – portraits for example where you want the background out of focus.
So, is it better to choose prime lenses or zoom lenses? Let’s have a look at zoom lenses first. Zoom lenses are very convenient. And they have some clear advantages. From my point of view the main advantages are:
You don’t have to change your lens so often.
This means that when the elephant charges towards you, you won’t have to fumble around choosing a different lens and you’ll get less dust on your sensor if you don’t change your lenses much.
The other advantage is that you can frame your picture in many different ways from the same spot.
This can be a big help sometimes but I have a special accessory – it’s called a leg. Often the best approach to changing your composition is to walk. And there’s a problem: The more convenient and flexible a zoom lens is, the harder it is to get a good quality, wide aperture lens which you can afford and carry.
Many popular zoom lenses marketed as super zooms and most of the kit lenses supplied with many cameras are perfectly suitable for casual use but they are not going to give you super sharp pictures.
I’m saddened when people have spent a lot of money on buying a capable camera and then use a less than top quality lens.
So, if you want to buy a zoom lens and you want to take super sharp photos, look for a zoom lens with a constant wide aperture and a moderate zoom range. Like many photographers I use a zoom for my walkabout lens – a lens I can take with me to the mountains and fields, a casual stroll and use for many types of photos. I usually use my full frame Canon 5D Mark 11 and for this I have a Tamron 28-75mm SP zoom lens. This is a fine lens – especially when price is a consideration. However, if you’re interested in super sharp photos, it’s worth having a look at prime lenses.
Prime lenses have a lot going for them:
They’re easier to design and simpler to manufacture than zoom lenses.
Wide apertures come as standard.
They are less likely to show distortion.
Now you can pay the proverbial arm and a leg for wide aperture prime lenses as well as zoom lenses, so where are the bargains? First of all, every camera maker has a standard lens – that is a lens of around 50mm focal length. These have been around for a long time and the quality is good.
One example in the Canon range is the Canon 50 mm f1.8 often mentioned as the best bang for your buck – but there’s a downside. The construction is, well a kind word is cheap – it’s plastic almost everywhere. The focussing is pretty old style and the manual focussing ring is skimpy.
But the glass is top notch and this lens with its wide aperture is well up to the standard of my full frame DSLR and is a great portrait lens with a crop sensor camera. And it’s very light so you can carry it all day long and if an accident should happen you can replace it for about $100.00.
Using a standard lens makes you take a disciplined approach and you can use it in many different situations – especially if you’re willing to use your legs.
Another way to be sure of getting super sharp optics is to choose a macro lens.
Macro lenses are specially corrected to take 1:1 size pictures of objects such as coins or insects. But they make super sharp general purpose lenses. I used the Tamron 90mm in my film days and now use the Canon f2.8 100mm Macro lens. Macro lenses are not the cheapest but they do provide great value for money and extra versatility. A word of warning: check that the lens really is a macro lens. Some companies use the word macro loosely to mean half size or even just fairly close focussing.
So let’s just say it again, lenses are more important than cameras. and if you want super sharp pictures choose a fixed focal length prime lens or a zoom lens with a moderate zoom range, a constant wide aperture and good glass.
Just to clear up one point – what happens if you want to buy a lens with the camera attached?
My personal opinion is that the marketing gurus tend to emphasize the cameras rather than the lenses. Also, modern digital cameras are made by traditional camera makers like Canon and Nikon and the new kids on the block like Sony and Panasonic who have great expertise in electronics. Some manufacturers like Sigma and Fuji produce cameras with special wide aperture high quality wide angle prime lenses. There’s one other point, some of the new companies have teamed up with famous lens makers: Sony with Zeiss, Panasonic with Leica and I’ve seen HP cameras sporting Pentax lenses. This can be a help as these famous lens makers won’t put their name to poor lenses.
Also, read the reviews and forget the bits about the megapixels and zoom range and concentrate on the comments on lens quality. I like to check dpreviews and the pages from photographer Bob Atkins to get some good advice on lens quality.
Just to finish my advice at this point: Once you have chosen a super sharp lens, it’s vital to know how to use it.
Yes, using your lenses properly can make all the difference. That’s in my next installment – “Using Lenses”.