Choosing good enough isn’t settling down. It’s wisening up.
I used to own a high-end printer, and never used it. Now, the replacement is a cheap A4 “large tank” 6-ink affair that produces visible dots and prints that would probably fade in a week, if left in the sun. And I love it.
An advanced (human) printer would probably scratch their head, wondering whether the greasy blob inside mine is quite right.
And I might similarly balk at the printer’s choice of slow, cheap, zoom lens.
This line of thought seems neatly summed up by sayings such as “horses for courses”, or “the best camera is the one you use”, or 80/20, or …
But it’s just as naive and incorrect to think “If I can afford it, I’ll get the best in every domain of my hobby” as “I’d love model XXX but can only afford model YYY”. What we reduce to the sole dimensions of performance and cost hides a much more interesting gammut of options.
In order to optimise our spending and its impact on the quality of our work and our satisfaction with it, is to know where to go cheap and where to go all in. And that part is hard.
With no disrespect to Leica or Hasselblad, my personal n°1 spot for lens making goes to Zeiss. The other two are capable of making lenses that perform at least as well. In fact, I’ve yet to see lenses with more impressive MTFs than the XCD range that was released with the X1D. And this translates well to real life. At 200%, my X1D files are sharper than most cameras/lenses delivery at 100%. Hasselblad XCD lenses are sharper than anything else I’ve used, and not by a small margin.
But Zeiss know how and where to set performance sliders (resolution, CA, LoCA, distortion, flare, …) in order to create a more interesting aesthetic. While my XCD lenses are sharper than my Otus, the Otus produces a much nicer look. Recently, I’ve been talking with the manufacturer of an 18K cinema camera intended to bring digital tech to IMAX filmmaking. They confirm this, and told me that (some) Sigma Art lenses manage to use that resolution fully, while the Otus range doesn’t. In my experience, though, Otus-made images look nicer than those made with the ART range, or the XCD range for that matter.
That’s obviously subjective, but it’s a very deliberate choice by Zeiss. In fact, I believe their crazy expensive prime lenses, made for ARRI’s top of the line offering, aren’t as sharp as fairly affordable photo lenses. Since the cinema world has barely caught up with 4K, why should they? On the other hand, Zeiss has studied all the aberrations left in the lenses in order to ensure they create the most pleasing look for the filmmaker. Resolving power, on those 30 grand lenses, is good enough. Aesthetics are exceptionally good and consistent throughout the range. It’s not just about minimizing LoCA, but about making it show in pleasing hues rather than the unnatural green / magenta duo), for example.
Laowa strikes me as another master of good enough. It’s not that their lenses have high enough resolution, or fast enough apertures, at a cheap enough price point to make a dent in the market. Rather, the Laowa designers seem to be experts at distributing resources where it matters most, rather than focusing on hype or lowering prices at all cost.
And that’s the thing with good enough. Whatever we do, there is a global envelope of available resources that cannot be stretched, and good design uses that envelope wisely, with a clear intention in mind: the sharpest possible, the most neutral possible, the fastest possible, the most aesthetically pleasing, the cheapest, the lightest, the most robust …
Say you’re Bernard Arnault and throw ten million dollars at a designer for the best lens ever. That financial envelope allows you to fit more into the design – using exotic glass, superpolishing, space age coating, cost-no-object machining … – but you still have to make compromises. Can the lens weigh 26 kilos, for instance? On more than one aspect, this lens will still have to be good enough. And inferior to other, far cheaper ones! Don’t believe me? Let’s park a Yaris and your Veyron in a busy car park’s tight spaces.
Finding your good enough sweet spots is both challenging – a photographic version of “know thyself” – and fun. My recent obsession over the GFX100s vs X2D debate has made it very obvious that both cameras are good enough in some respects, too good for my needs in others and, sadly, not good enough elsewhere. Hence the difficult decision.
To my eyes, the X2D files just look a lot cleaner. But the GFX looks more film-like, whic is one of my goals. Both have too many pixels for my liking (too good), yielding terribly heavy files (not good enough), with the GFX a lot better in that respect. The X2D is recognised as having the better IBIS, but the GFX has the more interesting zooms, and is better with adapted lenses. I like the GFX’s platform approach and dislike the X2D’s system appraoch. And the X2D price just isn’t good enough.
At the end of the day, it’s the final images that matter most to me. In that respect, I just will not tolerate good enough and want the best possible colours and tonal range. So the X2D will probably win. If I buy anything, to begin with.
Likewise, dynamic range matters more to me than ISO ability. Human eyes are used to seeing pitch black but no human eye-brain experiences highlight clipping, which I absolutely loath. ISO3200 is plenty good enough for me. Others, less interested in cinematic suspension of disbelief and more in capturing the natural world, for instance, will feel the opposite way and will revel in 51200 and 10 bits of DR.
So, here’s the deal.
We tend to consider product selection in the light of the the polar opposites of absolute best performance and price. When in fact, choosing in a satisfactory manner is far more concerned with deciding what dimensions can be good enough and which you cannot, will not, negociate. It’s what makes you you, and your photographs yours. Give it good enough thought.
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