About Thomas Fitzgerald

Thomas is a professional fine art photographer and writer specialising in photography related instructional books as well as travel writing and street photography. 

The Difference a Good Lens Makes

The Difference a Good Lens Makes

It never ceases to amaze me the difference a good lens can make to your image quality. I know this sounds like an obvious thing, but until you've used some high end glass, you don't really know just how much of a difference it can make. There's a lot of misinformation out there on the internet (shocker) when it comes to what makes a good lens, or even the importance of good quality optics to begin with. One well known and somewhat infamous blogger, has even stated that the lens actually makes no difference in terms of image quality. Nothing could be further from the truth.

I was reminded of this recently when I took out my Sigma 70-200 f/2.8 out for the first time in a while. I hadn't been using this lens much, mainly because of its weight and size. It'a a pretty big hunk of metal and glass. I reviewed this lens a while ago, but I don't think I really appreciated it. While the Canon and Nikon (and possibly the new Sony) have better lenses in the 70-200 line, the Sigma is still really impressive. I had mostly been shooting with the Nikon 28-300 for my zoom needs lately, and while it's a good lens in its own right, and very flexible, it can't touch the quality of the Sigma.

Apart from some minor straightening or cropping, Images are straight out of the camera as Raw files converted in Lightroom

As I said at the beginning, there's a lot of misinformation out there about what makes a good lens. There's this notion that the main qualifier of a lens is its sharpness, or maybe its control of aberration and vignetting. There's much more to it that this though. While these are important consideration, contrast and colour and both be affected by the quality of a lens. The quality of the Bokeh can also be another important factor.

With the sigma, the first thing I noticed, after not having used it for a while, was the contrast and the colour. Straight out of the camera, the shots were rich and deep and had strong natural colours. When using other lenses, I would normally bump up the contrast a bit, and maybe tweak the vibrance, but with these shots the contrast was already there. While these examples are probably not great artistically, and you may not get the full effect seeing them scaled down for the web, it really struck me when I saw them on my big monitor in the the studio.

I also think that there are some people who also confuse image quality that comes from a camera's sensor, with what comes from a lens. In fact, I would say that among perhaps some less experienced photographers, that is a common misunderstanding. I'm not trying to be patronising here either. It think this is partially due to the level of the discourse and misleading information around such subjects online. This may be a little controversial to some people, but the thing is, most modern sensors are not that different, at least in terms of the basics.

While some may get better dynamic range or may be better in low light, when it comes to the basics of colour or contrast, there's not that much difference. Yet I regularly read on forums and on comments about people who have switched camera brands to get "better colour" or "punchier images straight out of the camera". I've read so many times about people getting a new camera and saying "It's so much better than X camera", but I have to think that, especially with modern cameras, much of that is because they got a better lens when they switched systems. I'm not saying that the camera or the sensor doesn't make a difference, it's just that the lenses contribute to a good deal of this too. Well, in my opinion anyway.

While some of this is down to camera processing, I also wonder if sometimes people have a better impression of one system over another, because some cameras come with better lenses, or have better lenses available for them. I think this is especially true in mirrorless right now. I have been disappointed with some of the image quality from my Sony A6000, but I know this is to do with the lenses and not the sensor, or the camera.

When I used my high quality adapted Nikon or Canon lenses on the camera it's like a different camera. Which is both a damning indictment of Sony's Aps-c lenses but also a vindication of the sensor, because with good quality lenses, the image quality is as good (in some ways better) as any other camera out there.

Conversely, Fuji's X-Series of cameras has a great reputation for colour and contrast and out of the body image quality. And while some of this is obviously due to the X-Trans sensor, and the camera processing, a great deal of what makes Fuji's system so attractive is the fact that Fuji's lenses are superb. Fuji knew the importance of the lens in the equation, and from the very birth of the X-series system they've been putting out superb glass. In my opinion, and I know this is probably somewhat controversial too, Fuji's lenses are one of the biggest selling factors of the system (after the size and form factor).

Which get's me back to my excellent Sigma 70-200. It's big and heavy, but it's able to produce some stunningly rich images. And I must point out that I'm using a 7 year old Nikon D700 to shoot with. There's that old adage that it's not about the camera, it's about the photographer. Well, the same could be said about the lens to an extent.

Just to be clear, before you take up the pitch forks, I'm not saying that the camera sensor has no impact on image quality. Of course it does. Dynamic range in particular can make a big difference, and if you need big prints, then resolution is important. But, in my opinion, in many cases, depending on the type of photography, there's far more of a difference in the lens than the sensor. I'm also only talking about pure image quality here too. There's far more that goes into what makes a "good" camera, and that includes handling, ease of use, durability and so on. Different form factors can suit different people and so on, and much of choosing a camera comes down to personal preference. Of course you'd never think that given the heated "debates" on the subject, but that's a whole other story!

Street Photography Diary: Issue 15

Street Photography Diary: Issue 15

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Milestones & Journeys