photography: how good / sharp do your lenses need to be?
Olena, who I photographed during a recent individual workshop in New York.
camera settings: 1/320 @ f/3.5 @ 800 ISO (available light)
I was trying out the new Tamron SP 24-70mm f/2.8 VC (B&H) for the images I shot during this workshop. (It comes in a Canon version too.) It appears to be a fantastic lens. Build quality is good. The feel of it is good. The zoom ring has a nice throw. And it features stabilization! Nice touch.
However, shooting other images at wide open aperture, I wasn’t sure I was happy with the edge performance. Zooming in on the image on the back of the Nikon D4, I felt my Nikon was sharper.
So I decided to do a few comparison test shots between the Sigma 24-70mm f/2.8 (B&H) and the Tamron SP 24-70mm f/2.8 VC (B&H) that I had for review purposes, as well as my trusted Nikon 24-70mm f2.8G (B&H)
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The quick comparison tests that I shot were of … yes, a wall of a building. And I know that this goes against the grain with some photographers who get all esoteric about the “look” of the images they get from certain lenses, and how sharpness isn’t everything, and how they don’t photograph brick walls, blah blah blah … but this *is* a better way of assesing a lens’ performance, than just gushing about it on a forum. It has to be tested in some way. And while I don’t have brick walls for clients, I do shoot for large spreads in wedding albums, and the lens quality most definitely DOES show up very quickly when the image is printed at near 100% of the camera’s base resolution. What I am trying to say here is, the lens sharpness most definitely does count. A lot!
Of course, there are other values against which a lens’ performance should be held, such as: barrel distortion or pincushion distortion, and also the lens’ bokeh. (And to re-iterate this again, bokeh is not the same as shallow depth-of-field! For me, as much as I love smooth bokeh, it is of a lesser concern. Two lenses that I often uses, the Canon 24-105mm f/4L and the Nikon 24-120mm f/4G VR (B&H), have pretty harsh bokeh if compared to some other lenses. Both the Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 and the Nikon 24-70mm f2.8G (B&H) have much smoother bokeh. But, as I mentioned, the bokeh is a secondary aspect for me over sharpness and convenience. The lens has to be convenient and easy to use!
This brings us to the other part of this topic, if I am so specific about image sharpness, why not use Zeiss lenses? Well, the times that I have used Zeiss lenses, I’ve been very impressed. Specifically the
Sony 85mm f/1.4 Carl Zeiss Planar T* (B&H), that I had for review purposes.
- bokeh – a few notes
- photo session using various 85mm lenses
The way the Zeiss lenses feels when you turn the focus ring? woaaah, it feels good. But that is exactly the downfall for me … I had to manually focus them. Not convenient. For the way I shoot, I need speed. The lens (and camera) has to respond fast! And focus accurately! And be sharp.
So yes, sharpness of a lens is very important to me … along with flexibility of the lens … which is why I have a strong preference for zooms. Even though I have a good range of prime lenses, two main lenses that I use to photograph weddings, are the 24-70mm f/2.8 and the 70-200mm f/2.8
- recommended lenses for wedding photography
Back to the informal lens test between:
- Tamron SP 24-70mm f/2.8 DI VC (B&H); also available in a Canon mount (B&H)
- Sigma 24-70mm f/2.8 (Nikon mount) (B&H); also available in a Canon mount (B&H)
- Nikon 24-70mm f2.8G ED AF-S (B&H).
Download the hi-res files here for the three lenses, as shot at f/2.8 at both the 24mm and 70mm zoom settings. Keep in mind that these are informal test shots to confirm for myself what I had suspected while taking photos of Olena – that my Nikon lens was superior.
These images were shot with the Nikon D800 (B&H), so the images are huge. So it could well be argued that when reduced in size for smaller prints, the difference between these lenses would be less noticeable. That certainly is a valid way of looking at it, especially if your budget is limited.
The Sigma has a kind of hazy look which I didn’t like at all, and it appeared soft at the widest aperture. Even though the lens is the most affordable at $900, it isn’t a lens I would use. It just doesn’t stack up against the other two lenses.
The Tamron is appealing because it offers stabilization, but the image quality fell down at 70mm, especially towards the edges. At 50mm, the Nikon lens again was better than the Tamron. At 35mm, the lenses appear about equal to my eye. At 24mm, the Tamron had performance that stood up to the Nikon though, and even better than the Nikon in the extreme corners. At $1,300 it is more affordable than the Nikon which costs $1,900
For me though, the Tamron fell down in its performance at the longer focal lengths. I need crisp especially towards 70mm, where it is important for portraits.
All this comes down to a salient point – the Nikon lens is generally superior. That’s it. It is sharp throughout the range, and I can rely on it.
And I feel that that is how good our lenses need to be – that we can rely on them for crisp images, whether for our own casual photography, or for professional work.
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