Sunday, June 1, 2008
In the digital age, the advantages of a big maximum aperture are greater than ever
Invariably, the lowest ISO setting on your camera is the setting that maximizes its dynamic range. Lower ISOs are the Holy Grail for the most complete range of tone, from shadow to highlight. Regardless of low-noise characteristics of images made at high ISO settings with some top-tier cameras, less dynamic range means images with a "flatter" look and less "pop." And, depending on the model and brand of your camera, it may not be equipped with the latest in noise-reduction technology or sensitivity to light.
Maximum dynamic range lets you achieve good results from shadows through midtones to highlights. With an evenly lit, controlled studio scene, the relatively flat light will allow you to get away with higher ISO settings. But when shooting a sunset outdoors, there's a challenging range from deep shadows to bright sky, and higher ISOs can reduce the ability of the sensor to capture the full dynamic range that it's capable of recording at lower settings.
While sensors keep getting better, you also have the option of working with some very capable noise-reduction software, two examples being Noise Ninja or Nik Dfine. It's surprising how much you can fix a photograph, but the problem with the software approach as a matter of practice rather than the occasional fix is that you're making post production work for yourself.
Aperture settings do have a meaningful effect on the quality of the image. The question arises: What's the difference between shooting an ƒ/2.8 lens at ƒ/4 or ƒ/5.6 and shooting an ƒ/4 lens at ƒ/4, or an ƒ/5.6 lens at ƒ/5.6? The adage always has been that lenses aren't at their sharpest when set at their maximum aperture, but perform their best near the middle of their range. Lenses with larger maximum apertures tend to have the middle of their range at larger ƒ-stops, so when it's not imperative to shoot wide open, there's this additional advantage.
Additionally, when you do shoot wide open, corners may be darker. Again, you can get around this in postprocessing with any number of programs that compensate for this defect, but the most efficient photographer will always opt for getting the shot right at point of capture, thereby eliminating extra work in the computer.
Speed for handholding in low light is the most obvious advantage of a fast lens, but there are others worth noting that add to the user experience and the creative techniques you'll have at your disposal.
Light In The Viewfinder. For many of us, our eyes aren't what they used to be, and shooting in low light can be a strain when trying to compose in the viewfinder. Fast lenses let more light through, so you'll have an easier time seeing what you're doing.
A seldom talked about, but nonetheless potent argument for bright lenses is photographer inspiration and confidence. We find this comparable to watching a sports event through expensive light-gathering binoculars that deliver an HDTV-like big-screen view. The excitement of a rarified image is palpable, and the same is true when composing through a large-aperture lens. You have to see it to believe it.
The Depth-Of-Field Advantage. The craft of creating powerful compositions is generally a process of eliminating distraction and isolating prominent aspects of the subject or scene. This is accomplished by cropping out clutter—zooming in, changing your position or cropping the final image—but it's also accomplished by controlling the background. When you want to isolate your subject from its background, using a big aperture narrows your depth of field, allowing you to create a soft, pleasing background with fewer distractions. This effect is possible with slower lenses, but the effect is stronger and more pronounced as the aperture size increases.
Sensor Size & The Tele Advantage. Price is always a factor when talking about fast lenses. They're simply harder and more costly to make, especially when you get on the long end of the focal range.
Olympus has chosen to develop its system around the Four Thirds sensor that doubles the apparent focal length, thus its relatively compact $2,200 150mm ƒ/2 becomes a potent Zuiko 300mm ƒ/2, besting the capabilities of a 300mm ƒ/2.8 at twice the price and half the weight of a traditional full 35mm-film format. Matching fast lenses to the new sensors offers a staggering new set of options for going big with a smaller budget and smaller camera bag.
We've covered the benefits of fast lenses, so let's consider the drawbacks. The first is price. As we've already mentioned, price is usually a factor when talking about lens speed. Olympus offers its 14-42mm ƒ/3.5-5.6 ED Zuiko Digital Zoom lens for about $250. Compare that to its new 14-35mm ƒ/2 ED SWD Zuiko Digital Zoom lens, which goes for about $2,300—nearly 10 times the price. While it's true that there are other features in the ƒ/2 model, such as its SWD AF system, that add to the difference in price, it's a considerable leap to gain the extra speed and constant maximum aperture throughout the zoom range. But for some, when the difference between getting the shot and not getting the shot comes down to speed, the pricier, faster lens is worth every penny.
Another consideration with fast lenses is their size and weight relative to slower lenses. Though it's not a hard-and-fast rule, generally, a faster lens will be larger and heavier than a comparable slower lens. Sigma's 18-50mm ƒ/3.5-5.6 DC HSM weighs 8.8 ounces and measures 2.7 inches in diameter and 2.4 inches in length. Compare that to Sigma's 18-50mm ƒ/2.8 EX DC Macro HSM, which weighs in at 18.9 ounces and measures 3.1 inches in diameter and 3.4 inches in length. The weight and size increase isn't due to the speed boost alone, but it's a significant contributing factor.
Despite their more expensive price tags and relatively larger designs, fast lenses offer indispensable benefits when you absolutely need the extra light. And the new benefits of digital cameras dramatically expand the options for photographers seeking optimum quality in their photographs. Using an overused cliché, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
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