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What’s The Best?
Lens Selection: Con$umer Or Profe$$ional?
Q Do you, as a pro, always buy the best lens available, or can you work with some of the less expensive optics?
San Francisco, California
A If photography is your business, then you need to make investments in equipment that meet your needs and are cost-efficient, just like any other businessperson. Photographers who are under contract to one or another manufacturer, as I am with Canon, may need to use the latest gear to produce images relevant to the sponsor’s needs, but that’s another issue. I typically work with a mixed arsenal of professional and consumer-level lenses. But the real answer to your question is another question: It all depends on what you’re really trying to accomplish with your photography.
Most manufacturers offer more than one level of lens quality. As an example, Canon and Nikon both market “kit” lenses (these are the basics, packaged with the camera body), consumer lenses and professional-level (read “expensive”) lenses, the Canon L series and the Nikon ED series. The main advantages of high-end optics are greater light-gathering capability, improved sharpness overall and to the edges, and better-quality finishing, which manifests in water- and dust-resistance and sometimes speed of autofocus.
We all want the sharpest optics possible, but what do you need, and more importantly, what can you afford? I’m seeing a lot of great new optics out there from Canon, Nikon, Sigma, Tamron and Zeiss, to name but a few manufacturers. We need high-level optics to complete the promise of high-resolution sensors, now climbing upwards of 30 megapixels. But I also see photographers obsessing over high-end optics with pretty steep prices when they use their images in low-res ways: posting to Instagram and Facebook, publishing to Internet sites, making an occasional print no larger than 13×19 or even appearing in a magazine (standard maximum of 8.5×11).
Consumer-level lenses today are better than the best optics we had only a few years ago when film was the only medium. I just purchased a Canon EOS 7D Mark II with the kit lens EF-S 18-135mm ƒ/3.5-5.6 IS STM attached, and I’ve used it on several assignments. This is the equivalent of a 28-216mm zoom on a full-frame sensor. No, it’s not an L lens, but it works very well, and I could publish the images from it on the cover of this magazine any day. Take into consideration that many of our consumer DSLR cameras are either 4/3 or APS-C; they crop the image circle of the lens by 1.5x, 1.6x or more to eliminate a possible falloff of sharpness at the edges, thus not taking full advantage of all of the benefits of the high-end lens. These cameras can achieve excellent results with consumer-level lenses, and there are a lot of focal lengths available in this category.
If you’re working with full-frame high-resolution sensors (such as those found in the Canon EOS 5D Mark III and 1D X, the Nikon D810 and D4S, and the Sony a7R) and you want to put all their capabilities to use in capturing images intended for high-res captures and very large prints, then you’ll need to consider investing in lenses that are up to the task. These are, among others, the Canon L, Nikon ED, Sigma DG and Zeiss Touit. If you want or need the best, and can afford it, then look at these fantastic tools. Your clients may demand the sharpest image possible (even though they publish at 8.5×11 inches like all the other magazines).
If you make very large prints in the 30×40 and larger size, you’ll want to use the best available equipment so you’ll know that the limiting factor in quality images is you! But whether amateur or pro, I’d rather see photographers working with the range of tools they need to achieve their creative visions than to have only one or two of the expensive top-performing lenses that they can’t use to the fullest. Then there are those who just want the best, and can afford to own it all, and who am I to argue with that?
Confidence In Your Equipment
Q I’m having trouble getting sharp images from a telephoto zoom that I recently purchased. How do I determine whether the problem is a bum lens or my own technique?
A We want our new stuff to be awesome right out of the box, but you’re wise to at least entertain the possibility that malfunction lies in the hands of the photographer. Yes, I’ve had a couple of bad lenses over more than 40 years of using a variety of camera systems, but in most instances, after some testing, I’ve found that the limiting factor was me and not the gear. I remember a particular telephoto lens that I was sure wasn’t sharp. Time and again, I’d come back from a shoot and not be happy with the results. I finally slowed down, put the lens on a tripod and photographed a static subject with fine detail, and there they were, tack-sharp images! The problem was clearly my casual use of a long lens, thinking I could handhold it at lower shutter speeds. It hurt my pride a bit, but once I adjusted my technique, I was very happy with the optic.
But assuming that you’re using meticulous technique and properly setting up the camera and lens combination, here’s a testing process you can apply to evaluate the sharpness of your new lens.
First, check to see that the camera’s autofocus is working properly in combination with the lens. Many of the newer camera bodies have the capability of calibrating the camera’s autofocus to a particular lens. While the focus in the viewfinder may look perfect, the autofocus may be positioned in front of or behind your subject, which may be evident when you review your images. Whenever I add a new lens to my collection, I first calibrate it to the camera by using a lens calibration tool, a fancy title for an angled paper target that, when photographed, reveals the exact position of the autofocus and what micro-adjustments, if any, need to be made within the camera’s settings to achieve perfection. Three good options are the Datacolor SpyderLensCal, the LensAlign MkII Focus Calibration System and the Focus Pyramid Autofocus Lens Calibration Tool.
If the AF calibration doesn’t immediately reveal the problem, then take the time to set up a thorough test situation by eliminating human and environmental variables that could compromise the lens’ performance. These include camera settings, camera movement, missed focus, internal camera vibrations and subject movement.
1 Set up a target. Lens charts are available online, or simply use a double sheet of newspaper taped to a wall. (This gives you an actual use for the Classified sections, which contain the most detail.)
2 Mount the camera/lens combination on a sturdy tripod and position it so that the target is parallel to the camera’s sensor and centered in the frame. To eliminate vibrations internal to the camera, use a mirror lock-up mode or, preferably, if your camera has it, Live View mode, which automatically locks up the mirror. To avoid touching the camera at capture, fire the camera with a cable release or remote.
3 If you have Live View capability, you can set the focus on the target by magnifying the image on the LCD screen and use a loupe to achieve precision. Otherwise, focus the camera initially using the autofocus capability of the camera/lens (that you’ve previously calibrated).
4 Photograph the target with proper exposure at different ƒ-stops and a low ISO (100-200) for best quality. Expect to see the best quality from the lens at two ƒ-stops smaller than the widest opening. For example, an ƒ/4 lens would be sharpest at ƒ/8.
5 Evaluate your images on the computer monitor to determine whether to send the lens back to the manufacturer or work harder on your technique.
Investing In Quality Printing
Q I’m interested in having digital shots made into prints suitable for framing and hanging. I don’t have a color monitor other than the screen on my MacBook Pro. I’ve sent images to one printer and the prints came back a half- to full stop darker than I expected. I’m reading blogs that tell me to purchase a quality monitor and to calibrate it for accurate color and dark/light tones in the files I send to the printer, but I’m reluctant to spend $1,000 for a monitor I won’t use much. Is there another way?
A Even if you have a calibrated monitor, you can’t be sure it will match with the printer’s setup; and, of course, different media (canvas, paper varieties, metal) can produce vastly different color results. You’ll need to work with a printer who gets more involved in the work and is eager to be sure the print you get is the one you wanted. This probably will cost more, but not as much as a complete monitor and printing system of your own, complete with paper, ink and maintenance costs. Working from proofs is labor- and time-intensive, but yields verifiable results. You send the printer a file and they send you a piece of the image as a proof. You then request any color and tone adjustments, and they send a new proof. Usually, you can get it perfect in a couple of rounds. One printer you can work with online or in person is Fine Print Imaging in Fort Collins, Colorado. Go to www.fineprintimaging.com for both online express and custom ordering.
Editor’s Note: George Lepp’s colleague Robert Agli should have been credited for the photograph of Lepp working with the CamRanger that appeared on page 40 of the December 2014 issue. OP regrets the error. See George Lepp’s website for upcoming workshops and seminars at www.GeorgeLeppImages.com.