All right ! You have now completed this first course on lens evaluation in the field. Thank you for being with us all this way. We want to congratulate you for reading through this information and hope that you have derived as much pleasure from the experience as we did writing it.
If I had to recap in one sentence it would be to say that all lenses come with a combination of aberrations that define their rendering and usefulness for any particular type of photographic endeavour.
As photographers, we need to understand it’s impossible to create lenses without these aberrations. All the designers do is reduce as many as they can to the level they find tolerable for the intended application.
Some lenses are generalists (in particular zoom lenses that come bundled with medium range cameras) whereas others are highly specialised designs. A copy lens is design to afford a very flat field and low astigmatism and will often do this at the expense of other traits that portrait photographers might find intolerable.
On the contrary, a 85/1.4 lens intended specifically for portrait photographers was recently launched. It’s a very recent design benefitting from all the expertise of the brand and all the high-power techno-wizzardry at their disposal. And yet, this lens uses only spherical lenses. This gives you the slight softness at full aperture that some users would be displeased with, along with fabulous bokeh, both highly desirable for a portrait photographer.
So, at the end of the day, focus on your specific tastes and needs alone when you decide to buy a lens.
Or a camera for that matter.
A few years ago, my wonderful wife offered me a year of weekly wine-tasting lessons from a local cellar-master. Week after week, we analysed colour to estimate age and terroir. We trained our sense of smell one sent at a time, then with a combination of two in the glass then with three so as to familiarise ourselves with primary, secondary and tertiary aromas. We watched legs grow to guess at alcohol. We tasted great cheap wines and terrible expensive wines, then vice versa.
It was a fascinating journey but the greatest part was the end goal. The expert training us hadn’t done so to make us discover the origin of wines with a blindfold. His goal was far more intelligent and beneficial to us. He had given us an advanced education so we would be able to analyse what we like in a new wine (for example in a restaurant or abroad) and be able to describe it to a wine merchant back home to find something similar for ourselves.
This course aims at empowering you in the same way with photographic equipment. Because …
How many times have you heard the platitude “it’s not about gear, it’s about the photographer”. That’s the same as “content is king” in marketing. Utter and absolute nonsense only meant to dumb things down to a level where easy recipes can be sold to a naive buyer.
But the fact is gear matters tremendously ! Here are two examples :
(1) There are fun videos on YouTube where pro photographers are given low quality cameras for an afternoon. The results speak for themselves. The photographs these highly trained and creative photographers produce wouldn’t make it pas round 1 of an amateur photo competition.
(2) Recently, a friend of mine heard that I was reviewing a very high-end wide-angle for a prestigious brand. He owned a copy of that lens and told me he was unsatisfied with a very specific aspect of it : strong field curvature on close focus. As a landscape photographer who always uses a foreground object in wide photographs, all his backgrounds were sharp in the center and very blurred on the edges, whatever the aperture. Obviously unacceptable for his use and yet, the majority of users of this $3,000 lens love it.
Plus, buying gear is just plain fun. A good acquisition provides a pleasure that lasts for years or decades. Great gear (which can be cheap as dirt !) plays an important part in our hobbyist lives!
It is all about gear. And how it matches your needs.
So what’s the next step ?
Well, first, recognising that testing lenses is not the correct way of choosing 😉 Yeah, I know, I’ve been pestering you about if for 10 messages, but just stay with me 1 second!
It’s good to have an understanding of the aberrations at play in order to judge whether a lens is a good or a poor performer. But, testing for aberrations is judging them from a negative perspective. You are essentially trying to find its faults.
Imagine meeting a potential life partner interested only in finding YOUR faults. Would that be a sound base for starting a long-term relationship ? Obviously not.
This can only lead to seeing the worst in your gear and missing out on the great parts. Take that B&W “Exhausted” photograph (2nd from top). It is made with the Zeiss C-Sonnar 1.5/50 ZM at full aperture. There is so much flare and chromatic aberration that the out-of-camera photograph looks like fireworks, but the end-result just sings. That same lens was used (on the same day) to make the photograph below. Aberrations? What aberrations? That photo could be printed 40″ wide it is so sharp and delicate. Colours are superb. 3D is perfectly natural.
Once you understand what a lens does and how and why, the most important step for you is to determine whether you like that or not. And this is probably the most important step you can take on your way to chosing gear to become a creative photographer! Because testing gear is finding fault. Finding fault and, with the method outlined in the previous pages, deciding whether the flaws are a serious issue for you or not. But ultimately, it is all about finding faults. Negative thinking never gets you very far in the world. Particularly not in the world of creativity.
So, now that you know how to test lenses, you must start to worry less about faults and begin to focus on creating an alphabet of positive aspects of lens rendering, just as I learned to describe wines I like.
And finally, as rational as our decision forming is, all purchases are irrational. We must all acknowledge the little child that is still inside us and that is shouting “I want that one” or “Oh, no, it’s very good but I don’t like it”. Letting the child’s intuition guide you intelligently is the final step towards successful gear acquisition. Gear that will stay with you for many years, that will serve you well, will not necessarily depreciate over time …
So we will be back! This introductory course is just a part of a larger one that we are currently building to help you do just that: perform a very rational analysis of a lens or camera, then look into the more personal and subjective aspects of purchase decision-making, and assemble the perfect camera bag for your style, level of proficiency and budget.
This course will look into the following topics:
It will condense all that we have learned over a collective century of shooting and is intended to fast-forward you to simple, yet informed, decision-making and to provide a lot of fun in the process. We will help you avoid the numerous expensive and demoralising mistakes we made over the years. And, more importantly, we will answer your questions personally.
We want you to succeed as photographers and will help you to our best ability. But that’s not all. Before we release this course, we want to hear from you ! We want you to tell us what you are struggling with the most and what topics you would like us to include in the course. We want you to tell us the type of learning you’d prefer. Are you a video person, or is text like this page the best. Do you need and prefer interaction with us and stimulation or are you the type that prefers to digest things at your chosen pace and alone?
So let us know now, in the comments below or privately by clicking the link below.
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