7.09.2018

Test lenses with your own usages in mind. Not through the eye of a reviewer checking all the boxes...

Ballet practice at Zach Theatre. 

I love reading lens reviews by good writers, and the reviews are usually both accurate and at the same time not always cogent to my photographic needs. Here's a case in point, I wanted a lens for my Nikon cameras that could handle the longer end of the focal length ranges; the 70-300mm area mostly. The Nikons are a second system for me (after the Panasonics) and I didn't want to dig in too deeply as I did the last time I owned a little collection of Nikon stuff. My belief is that many of the less expensive options in lens from Nikon are more than sufficient for most tasks and that the very expensive lenses in each category represent a poor expense, unless you constantly use the high end lenses at their tip of the spear performance range. 

If I were an indoor sport photographer shooting in dimly lit arenas then the faster aperture of the 70-200mm f2.8 lenses would seal the deal for me; but I'm not. I cover different kinds of work and, for the most part, I rarely have to follow fast action in poor light so I am loathe to spend something like $3,000 on a lens unless I know I'll be using it at its peak potential over and over again. 

It's funny how the reputation of lenses can change over time as well. The first generation of the Nikon 70-200mm f2.8 lenses were heralded by less careful reviewers as a miraculous new optic that changed the paradigm of fast, medium telephoto zooms forever!!! Most people bought that view point  and repeated it. Until it was found that the lens had severe breathing issues. As one focused closer and closer to the minimum focus distance with the lens set at 200mm the actual focal length shifted all the way down to 135mm. Then followed some better testing methodologies and it was found that the Canon equivalent, while at least as sharp, did not change focal lengths with closer focusing. The initial reviewers revised their premature worship for the Nikon lens and Nikon has just now caught up to Canon on their third try...

Consider a lens that I've been playing with for a while. It's the Nikon 70-300mm f4.5-5.6 G VR. It was introduced to much fanfare in 2006 or 2007. It was formulated for full frame at a time when many of the Nikon lenses were designed mostly for DX (APS-C) cameras. It had an ED element. At the time the reviews were pretty uniformly positive. Thom Hogan called it, "Highly Recommended."

It was not an inexpensive lens in its time, priced around $750. It was enormously popular because it handled a good range and did so with very good performance over most of the common metrics. it was much lighter than the "pro" lenses. It had capable VR. But, like many longer zooms, part of its design compromise was a slight decline in overall image quality near the long end of focal length range. During the first few years of its existence this was accepted as being a marginal tick against what was an excellent overall performer. 

Lazy writers grabbed ahold of the idea that the performance was less than perfect at the long end and amplified that idea until it became the one flaw for which the lens became known. The lens, once a great choice for a wide range of photographers, is now relegated to used shelves at the princely asking price of between $200 and $250 for a mint condition copy.

Being a gear contrarian I couldn't help but pick one up. I went to Precision Camera to find one and was amazed that they had four used copies, all priced at $249. I picked the cleanest, most sparkly, and happiest looking one in the bunch and bought it. After reading reviews I expected to be punished by a performance at 300mm that would make the bottom of a Coke bottle look like a better optical option. 

Imagine my surprise when I tested the lens on a Nikon D800e and found it to be, actually, quite satisfactory at 280-300mm and excellent at every focal length between 70 and about 240mm. And I generally use lenses wide open these days so that's were I test them.

Satisfied that the lens would embarrass me less than my own technique shortcomings I started to use it on all kinds of commercial jobs. Anything I shot in full sun, mostly at one stop down from wide open, was great. Focus acquisition was fast and accurate and the VR worked nicely. The big test for my use was in the dark and poorly lit rehearsal studio at Zach Theatre. The space is big and the ceilings about thirty feet high. The lighting all comes from older florescent fixtures affixed to the ceiling. I worked with my usual exposure triangle, first setting a handholdable shutter speed (1/125th), aperture wide open at f5.6 which resulted in the need for an ISO setting of between 3200 and 6400. 

When I examine the image above at its full size (images here are uploaded at 2198 pixels on the long side) from the Nikon D800e I can see perfectly rendered, individual strands of hair on the one young woman who is in sharp (intended) focus. I can see the weave in the fabric of her tank top. In short, the image passes the "use test" for my intended purposes. 

It's also light enough to use all day long. 

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying this twelve year old lens is the end all and be all of 35mm optics, and I'm not saying the extra two stops of aperture wouldn't be critical for sports or other high motion shots. What I'm trying to get to is the idea that fewer shots need the "absolute best" performance one can buy and many, many shooting situations can be well done with lesser than state of the art tools. 

My take is that one should be able to judge a lens (or camera) based on how that person works. What that person's photographic interests are. What level of perfection they are compelled to achieve and how much they can afford to spend on the effort. The 70-300mm did not mutate itself over the its retail life time from a "pristine optic" that was "highly recommended" into a pile of crap that no one in their right mind should consider using. We have more or less just fallen victim to the sales mantra of a new medium = sales guys who leverage the web to convince us that we can not drive unless it's in a Maserati.... Not so, a Honda Accord or Toyota Camry still work fine for daily commuters; and that's who most of us are as photographers.

If you are wiling to test with an open mind you will often find treasures of a slightly earlier time that are more than adequate for the job you have at hand ---- and often for a fraction of the price of the newest and shiniest lens.

I get it. I get it. You are a sports guy shooting in the far north of the U.K. in the dead of winter in a blizzard at dusk and you need every photon you can capture just to see an image at ISO 25,000. I'm a guy in Austin, Texas who has to buy lots of expensive variable ND filters just to be able to shoot at reasonable apertures in the blazing sun. Buy what you need. I won't judge. 

3 comments:

Michael Walsh said...

Hi Kirk
The Olympus 40-150 f4-5.6 does everything I need and only cost £70 ! By the way we have Austin type sky’s in the sunny U.K. at the moment - had to use a ND filter yesterday !
All the best

William Collinson said...

Love your sentiment in this post, and couldn't agree more. When I was shooting 6mp Nikons (D50 and D70s) I had a Quantaray-branded Tamron 70-300. It was, at those resolutions, tack sharp out to about 250mm and usable all the way out. Its only real sin was it was prone to flaring into bright light sources, but even that could be used to render a particular "look" when I wanted. I paid $70 for it at a Vegas pawn shop, and shot many school events with it.

As an aside, which ballet school uses the Zach Theatre's space for classes?

Mark Davidson said...

I shot for several years with the venerable Canon 24-105 that came with my original 5D.
It made a ton of money for me but I read a lot of articles that proclaimed it "mediocre".
When the 24-70 f2.8 L vII was introduced to breathy acclaim of optical sweetness I decided to rent one to see what optical squalor my 24-105 was forcing me to live in.
Shooting extensively at a conference all weekend with the new lens the most immediate difference was my frustration at not being bale to reach 100mm. Sharpness was fine and I noticed a faint improvement in sharpness but not so much that I could not be convinced that some deficiency in my technique was more likely to blame.

I noticed the same thing back in the 70's with film. OTOH the 50mm f2 Summicron did seem to be really different.