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Pro vs Cheap Camera Lenses

Cheap Camera Lenses - Sharp

What Camera Gear Do You Need For Good Photography?

Do we need to invest in expensive camera gear to produce high-quality images? I wrote this article more than a decade ago to help frugal photographers see that a very modest investment in camera gear can often achieve excellent results. The points made here regarding the differences between cheap & expensive lenses are even more relevant today. I hope you find it of benefit!

Pro vs Consumer Camera Lenses

The photo above was shot with a 3 megapixel DSLR camera (Canon D30) that I purchased used for less than $50.00. I used a cheap auxiliary close-up filter ($16 for a 3 filter set) to get this close up image using the kit lens.

Do I Need To Buy Expensive ‘Pro’ Lenses and Gear?

“Kit” lenses are the standard zoom lenses that are typically bundled with low-modestly priced DSLR and mirrorless digital cameras. The truth is, there is little difference in sharpness when comparing professional lenses with high price tags to lower priced lenses bundled with cameras. In 2003, Popular Photography Magazine, in an article entitled “Zoom Lenses: Cheap vs Expensive” compared expensive professional lenses offered by Nikon, Canon, and Minolta to their cheaper, consumer level equivalents. Note their observations after comparative testing: “Sharpness, usually considered the single most desirable quality in a lens, varied little between the $1,000–$1,500 pro and $100–$450 entry-level zooms. In fact, based on sharpness alone, we couldn’t determine whether 11×14 test prints were made with budget or pro glass. And that’s only half the story. . .” The conclusion? When it comes to sharpness, there is no clear advantage in buying pro grade lenses.

“Based on sharpness alone, we couldn’t determine whether 11×14 test prints were made with budget or pro glass…” -Popular Photography

Sharpness - Cheap Camera Lenses

The photo above was shot with a 40-year-old manual focus zoom lens (Kiron 80-200mm F4.5) on an early model DSLR camera (Canon 20D). The lens was purchased used on eBay for $25.00.

More expensive lenses usually have more durable construction needed by busy pros and wider / faster apertures (e.g. f:1.4 pro lens maximum aperture vs F:3.5 in consumer lenses). The heavier construction, larger glass elements (needed to let in more light for wider apertures), and fancier coatings add greatly to the cost of professional lenses. These are specialized features that are highly valued by pros who do portrait or wedding photography. Wider apertures produce the smoothly blurred backgrounds and “bokeh” that are often seen in wedding photography. And, the sturdier construction is important to hard-working pros who use their equipment on a daily basis.

A helpful article in this regard is “Why I Need Pro Lenses” by Steven Bedell in Shutterbug Magazine. A professional portrait photographer, he explains the key benefits of pro lenses. However, these special qualities may not matter much to casual photographers! In most photography, the two key qualities needed from a lens are sharpness, and, sufficient depth of field to keep the entire landscape in sharp focus. Those two demands are easily met by most well-designed kit or consumer grade lenses. Lack of sharpness is simply not an issue in modern lens design. The depth of field at the sharpest apertures (F:8 – F:11) of most modern lenses will render a landscape in sharp focus. Take the money you save by not buying expensive glass, and visit some of the faraway places worth photographing!

Cheap Camera Lenses - Sharp

The lens used to shoot the photo above is a 40-year-old Tokina manual lens purchased on eBay for only $5.00!

There are, arguably, more esoteric benefits of expensive lenses such as more complex coatings that enhance contrast, minimize aberrations and control flare. Also, use of glass with special qualities may provide small enhancements to image quality. And, the beautiful, soft background blur that comes with lenses with apertures of F1.8 or wider cannot be duplicated with slower lenses. However, these benefits are subtle at best and are not essential to creating great photos. Skillful post-processing of raw image captures can also address many of these minor image flaws. Truthfully, capturing an interesting subject, along with good light and composition are far more important than these minor technical issues.

Of course, I am not against professional lenses. The point is to stop worrying about what you own or can afford. You can do excellent photography with affordable consumer quality lenses and digital cameras. The lens is not what makes a great photographer. Your eye is still the best lens you can own.

Quality Photography on a Budget

This is a topic fraught with controversy and, at times, raw emotions. Nothing makes some owners of expensive lenses more upset than suggesting that moderately priced lenses can be just as effective under most conditions. I was once thrown off an online photography forum for daring to suggest that you can get pro quality results from consumer grade lenses used within their limitations. However, if you are not demanding sharp results when shooting wide open (sharpness at the widest apertures is a weakness of most inexpensive lenses) you can get competitive results from consumer lenses by stopping down the aperture to F:8. If you do not need faster lenses for freezing action in poor light, then the results from your consumer grade lenses should be virtually indistinguishable in a print at normal viewing distances and viewing online.

Most likely, if you are getting blurred photos it is either because of not keeping the camera steady, or having a moving subject at slow shutter speeds. Learn how to use your kit lenses properly, carry a tripod when needed (to ensure maximum sharpness), and make some great photos!