On Lens Reviews

First up a little photo "philosorant"!

One of the most written about subjects in the photo blogosphere is the quality of the humble (or not so humble) camera lens, their short comings, strengths and usefulness. 

A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away (i.e. before the internet), photographers would rely on word of mouth, assumptions, sparse magazine articles or just the limited choice available, when deciding on their lenses. Often their choice of camera brand set them on a limited path, they chose and moved on happily.

Today we get so much information, almost infinite opinions, and we are continually bombarded with hard numbers, indisputable facts or subjective ratings. If we are looking for the answers we want, we will find them, but often there will be a voice of dissent or contradiction, sowing confusion and frustration.

Most of these views are based on facts and can be proven and in their limited sphere to be absolute and true, but to what end? Lenses sporting a Red ring are assumed to be near perfect, some brands can do no wrong and old glass is naff. None of these are strictly true (or completely false).

Ironically the enemy of some modern masterpieces is this very same information stream. Recently a lens test on the monster $4,000 Canon 11-24 "L" stated that the tiny $200, 40mm was sharper. A damaging claim taken out of context.

We all want to be better at what we do, always crave a creative edge and find ways to improve. This is why the internet's almost endless reviews on the things we covet are so alluring. They claim to be able to give us the "juice" on the things we want, a head start or advantage unseen by others.

Guess what? 

That edge is you, not your gear.

No piece of equipment is ever going to be as important as the user. It's been said often, but it's never been truer*. Sure you need the right equipment and the quality should be as good as your budget, shoulder or conscience can bear, but no more is needed and the more you restrict your choices the clearer they become.

Rather than just "what do you use" the question is "how/why do you use it"?

The relevance of a photograph is purely in the eye of the beholder. The viewer could care less about your gear (the guy asking about your gear is into gear, not your photo). They (the rest of humanity, not fellow photographers) have been looking at photos for over one hundred years and non photographic art for a long time before that.

During that time technology has been equipping photo artists with ever better tools, but the viewer does not care. As proof of this, look at older photos, you know, the ones that inspired you to do this in the first place. Look into the making of your top 100 "best pics" of the last and this century. Unless you are limited to only social media for inspiration many of these would be made with film cameras, often older ones and almost always under extreme technical duress. Saul Leiter could shoot handheld colour at ISO 25 at night, under city lights without a stabiliser, with medium format limited depth of field, manual focus at waist level and with no preview or any real idea how well he had taken the shot until after developing, but still pulled it off!

Are these results any less because of their technical shortcomings or are they all the more impressive?

Most artists will pare their tools down to what works. No more, no less. Give Shakespeare 10,000 more words and would his work be more compelling? Would Caravaggio have painted with more passion if he was confused with a dozen more choices of medium or style?

Now, getting back on track.

If you can trust your own eyes, trust that the lens designer has some idea and trust that you may be able to get a great shot with your lens/camera combo even if the person standing next to you has better gear, then your choices and confidence improve greatly.

"Everyday" Shibuya Japan. OMD 17 f1.8

"Everyday" Shibuya Japan. OMD 17 f1.8


The above photo was taken with a lens that I have allowed myself to be "spooked" into selling due to lacklustre reviews and poor head to head comparisons. I now own it again (Olympus 17mm f1.8) as it was the best option and all of the better ones were found wanting in some crucial way**.

"Poor" bokeh turned out to be excellent out of focus transition, that could look a bit messy in some situations, but in shots like above, allowed (at f1.8!) enough detail in the blurred background to hold interest, giving the photo two defined levels. The lens most often recommended over it (the Panasonic 20mm) has more "modern" bokeh that would have smeared the detail out to a beautifully smooth, but incoherent blur (it also has more practical limitations that the Olympus betters).

Poor or at least not "stellar" sharpness reviews became over time an irrelevance, and a bit of a lie. A bit of sharpening brings out lots of nice detail in a pleasant, non jarring way and the lens is very focus forgiving due to its bokeh rendering (above). It's not "snappy" sharp (well usually not, but it surprises) like its longer siblings, but it is "honest" sharp like film would be and it produces good sharpening for prints.

Maybe it's possible Olympus gave this lens a character and utility that suited its intended use?

In a non scientific, eyeball to print test, it was pitted against the very good 23mm Fuji. The end result of the test came down to the Fuji jpegs vs the Olympus RAW's and the perceived differences in the lenses became a casualty of post processing. In blind testing people preferred one or the other image by colour, tonality or slight compositional difference, but no one picked out one lens as sharper than the other.

I actually learned more about the cameras than the lenses.

My time with a Sony NEX7 was a bit frustrating. The only time everything came together was when I borrowed the 50mm f1.8 for a weekend. The lens was never reviewed as good enough for that high res sensor, but no reviewer touched on the less quantifiable lush and rich looking images it created or how well the camera liked the lens better than the more expensive 35mm I owned. 

Canon's 28mm f1.8 has been well bucketed in forums and reviews, but on a 450D it just sang. Not really sharp enough across the frame for full frame, it hit a lovely balance of bokeh and sharpness, at wider apertures on a crop sensor camera. Its character was similar to the Olympus 17mm, and like the Oly lens, was a pleasure to use. I owned the 35mm "L" at the time, but must admit to liking the 28mm more in real use.

"Cherry lips" Hiroshima Japan OMD 75-300 

"Cherry lips" Hiroshima Japan OMD 75-300 

Price can also be a bit misleading. Modern lenses are all marvels of engineering, approaching levels that even the best glass of only a few generations ago could not come close to. Some of the best lenses made are "sleepers", not sporting great reputations or amazing specs, but are simple, gentle designs that must be a lens designers Nirvana. It has been often quoted that any lens at f# is as good as any other. Looking at Canon 50mm range, the "L" is the lusted after super lens, but struggles to be any better in sharpness at smaller apertures than the $100 50mm f1.8. You are paying for aperture speed and the look it provides, but don't kid yourself, the cheap lens has already reached the realistic top end of needed resolution at f4-8.

The image above was a speculative grab using a "budget" 75-300, a lens I miss, but I rarely used the more expensive 75mm ("The Scalpel") while I owned it. The slower aperture of the lens allowed a nice amount of blur, covering the slight focus miss. If I had my 75mm on that (gloomy) day I would have probably shot at f2/2.8 and changed the character of the image.

One of my favourite photos, taken by a friend at night with a compact camera, has a strong emotional and nostalgic appeal that makes the tool irrelevant. Indeed I believe the photo would be diminished if it was a little "better" technically.

Morocco  (Peta Frost) Canon Ixus

Morocco  (Peta Frost) Canon Ixus

So, the point of my ramblings?

Use your gear, make your mind up from the images that you take in real situations and don't be too quick to jump ship, just because something said to be better comes along. Also don't hold on to gear just because it is said to be the best if it does not work for you. It may be hard to replace a working combination and equally, sometimes hard to identify a poor one.

If you must look at websites to decide on a lens, look at pictures made with it, the rendering, style or look that the lens gives. All lenses have a personality that shows itself over time***.

*Eric Kim on his blog is an example of the new direction on bloggers, going away from gear reviews and into people reviews, philosophy and technique.

**The Leica 15mm back focussed on my EM5, the 14mm that I have owned before always felt a little "under done" though sharp and fast focussing and the 20mm Panasonic had AF/MF issues. Sigma's 19mm came close, but too slow at f2.8.

*** One of the reasons I don't like to use zooms is their personality is much more complex.