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Lens Performance: What Matters

In my February 10 Thoughts on D800/D800E Features, I wrote:

One reader asked me if I would be reviewing the Nikon 28-300 zoom! It almost felt as if my 4 year old were asking me about Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy. While zooms are much better than they were even 5 years ago, one’s image quality standards have to be rock-bottom to posit that a 28-300 would be a good lens on a 36MP camera.

I shot the 28-300 briefly on the 12MP Nikon D3s, and it was an underperformer there, and that’s 12MP, not 36MP. Shoot a top-grade lens, and your expectations change, forever.

It’s worth clarifying these remarks.

Although I discuss high performance with lenses, performance does not simply mean maximal corner-to-corner sharpness. For example, I have also long argued for approaches to landscape photography that minimize sharpness for much of the subject in juxtaposition with a narrow zone of high sharpness, namely my Landscape Photography at Wide Apertures (also published in the print magazine Photo Techniques). Well, I am bored with conventional landscapes too.

Sharpness and contrast are about visual impact, part of how the lens draws. A lens that does not deliver sharpness over the entire frame can still produce stunning results. The question is, does it deliver the level of contrast or some other visual style that makes its images compelling? If it does, it’s a lens I want to shoot, even if its corners and edges are never very sharp.

Perhaps the best example of compelling visual impact is the seminal Leica 50mm f/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH. Consider the Sony NEX-7 or Leica M9 an accessory, just so that one can shoot the 50/1.4 Summilux. Ditto for the 50mm f/0.95 Noctilux-M ASPH, which offers a different but no less compelling image rendition. The Zeiss 21/2.8 Distagon and 35/1.4 Distagon and 100/2 Makro-Planar also come to mind in this regard (as do some others). And some Nikon and Canon lenses qualify, but are subjectively different.

Each lens has a style; I happen to prefer the Leica and Zeiss drawing style; I find most Nikon and Canon designs to be less visually interesting, though many are compellingly sharp. It is a matter of preference, not a technical claim. With my photo tour clients, I see firsthand how some respond to a visual style they might not have experienced before, by using a Zeiss lens (for example), or trying an f/1.4 Nikon lens at f/1.4 (versus an f/3.5 zoom). It’s not a test lab thing— the excitement of their reactions is of great satisfaction to me, having opened up a new avenue for expression for them.

Now back to that Nikon 28-300— Zeiss and Leica have many decades of experience in making prime lenses (non-zooms) that perform with visual impact, yet I wish their lenses were better in certain ways! Now think about the challenges in designing (and manufacturing with precision) a lens that must perform over a 10X zoom range. More than a few things have to be compromised.

I am unexcited by most zoom lenses (well, maybe all of them). I would use a zoom only to cover subjects for which I cannot move for perspective, or when grab shots are needed, etc. In that sense, the 28-300 is extremely versatile. And it might allow one to grab an image might otherwise be missed. But I don’t walk around shooting at random, 28mm here and 107mm there and 223mm there, etc. That feels haphazard for me, unfocused in intent. Exceptions exist of course, but for a consistent style and best results, I think one is best off shooting one or two prime lenses (I am not talking about constrained event situations or special cases, obviously). One solution is just to carry two camera bodies, say with a 21mm and a 50mm, or any such combination.

What did the great masters of photography do without zoom lenses?

I own most Canon and Nikon zooms, and they gather dust except and unless I need to shoot some kind of event where I cannot choose my perspective. I simply found that my pictures with zooms were on average inferior to those I made when forced to deal with one focal length, which sharpens my eye and moves my feet.

While zooms can be used skillfully and I do use them for specific purposes, too often they are a crutch for unfocused ideas, and this should be apparent to anyone observing a parent with a new DSLR and children— the worst way someone approaching photography can learn. See my Photo Tips for some ideas on how to explore new approaches.

See also :

Reader comments

Andreas Y writes:

I own a Nikkor 28–300 VR and use it extensively on my D700. My next-most-used lens would be a Sigma 180 macro, which appears ridiculously sharp on that camera.

In the past, I owned a Nikkor 70–200 VR, Nikkor 70–300 VR, Tamron 28–75, and spent some time with a friend's 24–70. These lenses all got sold after I had a chance to run side-by-side comparisons with the super zoom. After a skeptical start, I came away convinced that while some of these zooms have an slight edge over the 28–300 across part of the range, none of them decisively beat it like a good prime lens. This opinion was further reinforced by reading your excellent reviews.

My thinking these days is that if I want the convenience of a zoom lens, then shoot with the super zoom. But for the ultimate in image quality, primes are the way to go, not some supposedly premium zoom.

I will say that leaving the sealed Nikkor 28–300 VR attached to my D700 for the entirety of our two-week trip to Iceland provided some piece of mind, particularly when shooting in high winds while getting peppered with volcanic dust. Even our underwear was thoroughly saturated with dust after such days. Changing lenses in those conditions would have been a nightmare!

DIGLLOYD: There are always exceptions for good reasons. As for the 70-200 VR, it is a dog, but the 70-200 VR II is vastly better, assuming one gets an optically OK copy, which I did not for my first test sample— see my review in DAP.

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