Don't optimize your purchase, optimize your technique

The hot wide angle lens on the market right now is the Nikon 14-24 mm 2.8 zoom. And it's a technological tour de force. Exotic lens elements. Nano coating. Hyper Drive focusing (I made that up). And the consensus is that, wide open, it trounces all the lenses in the focal range. By a long shot. It's currently around $1,800 US. If you shoot fast and wide you'll want one whether or not you are a Nikon shooter. Very cool.

But....what if you're a different kind of shooter? What if your wide angle work is outside in the middle of the day? What if you had the good sense to use some of your money to buy a great tripod? What if you'd rather spend your money on food and shelter?

Here's the secret that drives lens junkies crazy: All good lenses are great two stops down from wide open. Almost without exception. Take a 14-24 Nikon and compare it to an Sigma 10-20mm lens and at f5.6 or f8 you'll probably be amazed to find that they are pretty darn close.

This is something I learned a long time ago in two different ways from two different people. Charlie Guerrero (Master Photographer par excellence) showed me on an old Leica that the 35 mm f2.8 Elmarit was actually much sharper than the Summicron 35mm f2 inspite of the fact that, at the time the Sumi was four times the price of the Elmarit. Stopped down to f4 they were pretty even but at 5.6 and 8 the Elmarit walked away with it. Same thing with 50 mm lenses. If you test them at f4, f5.6 and f8 the 50mm f2 lenses absolutely school the 50 1.4 lenses. In fact Charlie used to take cheap lenses and expensive lenses and do a test for our students. He'd have them shoot the pricey lens handheld in regular daylight while shooting the cheaper lenses on a tripod. Same aperture, same shutter speed (well about the "one over the focal length" rule...) and whatever lens was on the tripod was clearly better.

Erwin Puts, an expert about Leica lens design explains in detail why it takes a factor of 16 more precision to grind a lens one stop faster than another lens. His postulate is that all things equal the slower lens is the better lens by dint of manufacturing tolerances.

All I know is that I put my cameras on tripods when I'm looking for high quality and I try to shoot my lenses two stops down from wide open whenever quality is more important than mobility.

The shot above was done with an old, used Olympus 11-22mm zoom lens. One of the lenses that originally came out at the launch of the now "antiquated" Olympus e1 in 2003. Even though I'm using consumer grade Olympus cameras with my 11-22 I find it wonderfully sharp, contrasty and well corrected when I shoot it correctly.

I guess the point of this blog is that the lens isn't nearly as important as we make it out to be. I used to buy all kinds of super fast lenses until I came to realize that I like to see an adequate amount of things in focus. When I made this earth shattering discovery it just naturally followed that I came to believe technique to be worth more than expenditure.

Maybe it's just human nature to resent buying one's way into a craft. I think we love the idea of succeeding with egalitarian tools. As the year progresses and I spend more time shooting and less time shopping I seem to be finding that the enjoyment is not so much in attaining perfection as in having fun. And having some cash left over to buy a round at happy hour.

Loving the 11-22mm and all my recent down market purchases. I love relying on my vision more than on my wallet.


jefflynchdev said...

Great post Kirk and oh so very true. Unfortunately once someone has gotten bit by the gear bug the disease is extremely hard to cure. I suppose its better to think of it as a small scale economic stimulus package rather than as the insidious malaise that it is. The quest for that perfect lens/camera/filter/printer/paper/strobe goes on and on. And I used to think drinking was an Irishman's only problem. :-)

Rockhopper said...

I only have three lens, 17-35mm / 70-200mm / 24-85mm macro

That is all I need, I was given a t2 convertor for the 70-200. I can do all types of photography on this simple set up. I really dont know why people want more kit than they are going to use.

The only big purchase was a sb 900, I can do all genres of photography. Its you that makes the image not a piece of over priced glass.

My final test at college was on a kodak cardboard camera 36 frames with a built in flash. We had to shoot a feature of a real CEO of a real company within a 8 hour deadline. Imagine the look of surprise when the photographer turns up with a party camera. However as we all learnt on that day you can still shoot pro results on the absolute minimum of kit. A good post Kirk,


cidereye said...

Interesting piece as ever Kirk and very thought provoking.

Far too many people think throwing money at a problem is almost always the solution when so often wisdom dictates that a more cautious (cheaper?) approach can be just as effective when used correctly. I get sick to the back teeth of so many photography forums these day's and people coming on saying they are going to update to camera "z" or lens "y" as soon as it is launched because that will improve their photography no end. I still chuckle at the excellent interview with David Bailey at the launch of the Olympus EP-1 and his answers given that he was mostly using large format etc . If anyone's not seen it it's well worth a watch, his bemusement to all around him and the interviewer at times is priceless.

Watch it here:- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c9PKYSuK_gk

Peter Frailey said...

Kirk, Nice job. I hope I didn't waste my cash on the 14-54, rather than being content with the kit 14-42. Just hoping to stay out of ISO1600 as much as possible with the slightly faster lens.... though much heavier, on my E520.

Laura Huber said...

Kirk - the swim website looks nice. The only page that felt odd as I clicked through was getting to breaking news and the top image/block being aligned/weighted to the left where as every other page the top image/block is centered.
It made it feel like the page design shifted. Took me a second of flipping back and forth to figure out why it felt different.

MyVintageCameras said...

as always great common sense advice. For $1800 I can take my old camera on an exotic trip the the Arctic Circle. Guess which one is more likely to happen?

radsaq said...


for $500 the 14-54mm is pretty good from a price/performance perspective (not to mention size/weight). Furthermore, it can function as a not-terrible portrait lens in a pinch and focuses down to 1:4, so you've got closeups covered, too. Oh, and it's weatherproof so you don't have to worry about it sucking up dust/moisture.

kirk tuck said...

I think the 14-54 is one of the best lenses around and the fact that you can buy the first version in mint shape for around $300 convinces me that we Olympus owners should all own three of them.....

Anonymous said...

I never get the chance to use the 2.8 zooms because of costs, but I miss the extra stop for the better bokeh versus the run of the mill consumer zooms I use. My impression of stopping down on my cheap sigma zoom is that sharpness goes up to parity with better lenses, but I can't catch them in subtler measures like contrast and pop.

Shawn said...

The 11-22 is a fantastic lens. My favourite lens of all time on any system, Such a useful focal length range: 22 mm equiv is wide enough for almost anything without having to worry about the perspective and volume distortion working at sub-20 mm equiv focal lengths, and 44 mm equiv is long enough to use this as a "normal" lens, which is useful in so many situations.

peter Appleby said...

My new mantra is "less is more". I bought a used OM 50mm f/1.4 in excellent condition for $40 shipped on craigslist, using with a 4/3 adapter. I'm having loads of fun playing with it, just getting back to basics with manual settings. We can do our thing without breaking the bank! Keeping the gear lust expense low is possible.

Lili said...

Excellent points yu make there, Kirk.
Unless one has an overweening need to shoot fast action in low light with the very good stabilization one most cameras these day one can get sharp image at ridiculously slow shutter speeds.

was shot with my E520 and the 14-42 kit lens (the one with the plastic mount) at 1/6 sec at F3.5.
IS/VR has become the new tripod, at least to a point.
As you point out, stopped down, ALL decent lenses become superb.

Kurt Shoens said...

A tripod really does make slower lenses perform well. It surprises me that so many photographers don't want to use them. Even Mike Johnston of TOP said as much in his reviews of the latest high ISO performers from Nikon, Canon, and Sony. He demonstrated high ISO with a wintry night photo from the Sony hand held that I would taken at ISO 100 on a tripod.

Speaking of TOP, thank you for your fantastic answers in your interview about your latest book. Sadly, Amazon sent me a note today that they're still trying to locate a copy of that book to send me.

Ron said...

Dang, Kirk, you keep pushing us in the other direction, away from gear, gear and more gear. Keep at it, it takes 21 days or so to change a habit. Your posts really strike home with me and they continue to raise the voice in my head about improving technique, as opposed to buying it. (reminds me of golf, but that's another story.)

Each time I read your blog, I take a longer look at the gear collection I've accumulated and recognize how much of it I really don't need. When I'm honest with myself about which body and lens I really LIKE to use, it comes down to the simpler, smaller, lighter, MINIMAL setup.

The one area I have the hardest time letting go of is with the client impressions, especially the first-time clients. I've had the experience of setting up large-scale lighting and overhearing client comments like, "This guy knows what he's doing," and at other photoshoots I'll set up a more minimal (strobist) setup and notice the blank stares and "WTF" looks in their eyes. (I don't have as much problem with established clients who have the experience of satisfaction with previous work.) And even after seeing the results, I still sense some apprehension in their response. Sadly, I believe there is a certain amount of "theater" around how we present ourselves, and by extension, if our gear looks "professional" in their eyes. (maybe it's me, not them, but something is going on.)

Either way, I appreciate the ways that your posts push us around and slaughter the sacred cows that many of us might be worshiping.

- Ron

Mark Crowley said...

That post was one of the wisest I've read all year. Much appreciated.

Anonymous said...

So... what you are saying is that I really need to buy the expensive bodies and keep my Ef glass? j/k.

Thanks for sharing.

I am now subscribed.

I am guilty of only going for the high end glass, but with wedding photography, f/1.4 or f/1.2 is a necessity rather than a luxury, however my favourite lens is my 70-200 f/2.8 IS at f/5.6... or the 35L at 2.8..... not wide open.

Lanthus Clark said...

I am a total gear miser! I hate to spend money on... well anything really, if I don't have to. I also discovered years ago that my clients really don't care what camera I use or what lens is attached to the front of it. They simply care about the product I deliver them at the end of the day. As long as the gear I have can meet the requirements they are after I am set to go!

Therefore I have almost always bought second hand/refurbished if I could and if I couldn't I have been quite happy to haggle over prices in my local camera store. (It helps to be on very good terms with the manager, always!)

I read a piece once about a landscape photographer called Galen Rowell who gave someone the advice to simply stop down a bit on their cheap/light lens and you wouldn't be able to tell the difference when compared to a much more expensive lens. He was right, and I have implemented that advice ever since.

One of my favourite lenses is also Nikon's cheapest, the wonderful 50mm f1.8D which is simply awesome when stopped down to f2.8, and when used on a crop frame camera it has the added advantage that the slight problems on the edges are simply cropped out. "Pro" quality on a budget!

Have a great day Kirk!

Robin Wong said...

Kirk, that 11-22mm is my favourite lens, absolutely love it!!

tonyg4 said...

Hi there
I was looking for a new camera and chose the Fuji-film X-S1, no lenses to change nice range from wide angle to extraordinary telephoto and good enough IQ for the web and occasional print. I took little or no account of the various camera reviews.

I will enjoy your ruminations and wanderings about the life of a photographer, I hope you continue to show pictures in your blog, I like your style.

Me, I'm retired living a relaxed life in Birmingham, UK. Taking the odd day out to snap when the weather is encouraging.

Ravi Bindra said...

Whilst I agree that all lenses are the same stopped down and that slower ones may even have better characteristics for sharpness, contrast, CA and curvature you do still lose 1 or 2 stops of light and the creativeeffects of large apertures is also lost.

On the other hand, I have discovered the ridicolously low prices of Canon L glass. FD, but still great lenses and focusing is so easy on the Nex. Today I will try out the FD85/1.2 against the Apo Leica R 90/2 (which were also cheap until the M came out). I also have the FD20-35/3.5 in my bag.