20.36.05Should You Buy a Cheap Camera Lens or an Expensive One?
WHAT DO YOU get for your money? That’s the question everyone looking to buy a piece of tech asks themselves. It also happens to be the question this recurring feature will try to answer. Is it worth spending extra on high-end gear, or do you get what you need with cheaper models? Every month, we’ll look at some of the cheapest and most expensive products in a given category, testing each to see what their limits are and help you figure out when you can cheap it out, and when to plunk down some extra cash to get what you need.
HI/LOW: SLR LENSES
The legendary photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson described photography as being about what he called “the decisive moment,” capturing that image frozen in time that is the essence of the subject. Although much of what Cartier-Bresson was taking about was learning to see that perfect moment, the equipment you use also plays a part in capturing it.
This desire for perfect photos is what drives many of us to spend big bucks on lenses. One of the reasons to buy a Single Lens Reflex (SLR) or mirrorless camera is the ability to swap lenses. You can use different lenses for different situations, or upgrade to better lenses over time. Sure, a lot of photographers don’t bother, sticking with the lens that comes with the camera. But the deeper you get into photography, the more you realize that you’d be happier with your results if you picked up a quality lens.
So how big is the difference between a lens that costs a few hundred dollars, and one costing over a thousand dollars more? What kinds of gains does your money buy? Are the quality improvements substantial enough to be noticed by the untrained eye?
I decided to find out. I took two lenses and shot a series of images with them side-by-side, using the same camera and settings. The two lenses were both made by Nikon: a 50mm f/1.4 that costs about $350 and a 58mm f/1.4 that costs about $1,700, both lent to us courtesy of Borrowlenses.com. I chose two prime lenses like this because they offer better image quality than comparable zoom lenses, and that’s what we were looking for: quality photos. Both lenses offer excellent aperture ranges, and having a wide aperture (such as the f/1.4 of these) makes it easier to create an attractive, defocused background in an image.
Looking just at the specs of these two lenses, you’d think that they are the same: they have similar focal lengths and the same aperture ranges. So why the huge price difference? My tests show that both are great lenses, shooting sharp, clean images, but that the 58mm lens is sharper, leading to images of better overall quality.
One thing to note here: most modern SLRs come with a zoom lens as part of the kit you buy. These invariable produce worse images than the fixed focal length, prime lenses I tested. Take it as read that both of these lenses are much better than the one that came with your SLR camera.
Test 1: The Cat Photo
First, I took photos of a jaguar statue, carved by Mexican artist Jacobo & Maria Angeles, which is painted with intricate detail. On first glance, the two images look identical: both lenses captured the details of the painting well. However, a closer look shows that the 58mm lens captured more detail, which produces a more striking image. Look at the eye: the 58mm shot (on the right, click to see it full size) shows more of the details of the brush strokes and dots, which makes for a more compelling photo. The background is also worth looking at: the defocused foliage has a softer, more organic look on the 58mm shot that helps the statue stand out from the jungle (well, my back garden), while the 50mm produces more artificial looking hard circles with halos that detract from the statue. Photographers refer to this defocused organic look as Bokeh, and it makes a lot of difference when you are trying to make the foreground object stand out. A background with plenty of Bokeh looks soft, diffused and non-intrusive, while one with the halos and sharp-edged blobs of a cheaper lens draws the eye away from the subject.
Test 2: The Selfie
Next, I tried a self-portrait. Again, both of the images are sharp, with great detail. But the 58mm lens (on the right) has an edge again: looking at details like the hairs on my chinny chin chin and the pores on my nose, the 58mm shot looks more natural with smoother detail and tone.
Test 3: The Check-In
Shooting on the streets of Cambridge, Massachusetts, I came across two cherry trees in blossom in front of the former home of Edith Lesely, the founder of Lesley University. The differences between these two shots are subtle: both lenses captured a good amount of detail across the images, capturing the paler hints and shades of the cherry blossoms well. The 58mm (on the right, click to see it larger) has the edge here again, though, with details like the pink blossoms against the white paint standing out a little better than the 50mm, especially in the center of the frame.
Test 4: The Landscape
Next was a bucolic shot of a bridge over the Mystic River. For this, I put the camera on a tripod and stopped the lens down to f/16 to make sure that I had plenty of depth of field. Again, the 58mm had a slight, but significant, edge here, with better detail and clarity. The reflections of the sun on the river are also telling: with the 50mm, they have a starburst look, caused by light reflecting within the lens elements. On the 58mm, the starburst look is less visible. To be fair, I could have removed this on both lenses by using a slightly wider aperture, but the idea here is to compare them. If you look at the bottom right corner of the image on the 50mm version, you can also see how much detail is lost in the waves, while the 58mm image remains sharp to the edge.
I balanced my own tests with a comparative review of these two lenses done by DXOLabs, and I can definitely rate the 58mm higher than the 50mm. Based on the visible details within my own images, and DXO’s objective measurements of sharpness, transmission (the amount of light the lens lets through) and chromatic aberration (the color fringing caused by different frequencies of light being diffracted differently by the lens elements), it’s clear that while both lenses are good, the 58mm is better.
But is it worth the extra $1,350? For most shooters, no. The $350 lens shoots excellent images, and a lot of photographers won’t notice the subtle differences between the two — especially if they’re not generating large prints. Camera lenses are like wine: when you get to the good stuff, a subtle improvement costs you a lot more, and some people can taste the difference. Others are happy with a cheaper bottle that tastes just fine, and the $350 50mm f/1.4G lens shows that you don’t need to spend that much to get a lens that is much better than the cheap zoom your SLR came with.
It’s a truism to say that buying a more expensive lens isn’t going to make you a better photographer. Our old friend Cartier-Bresson himself used one camera and one lens—a Leica with a 50mm—for most of his career. But he was regarded as one of the greatest photographers of the 20th century because he knew exactly how his camera would perform. A good photographer takes the time to understand their equipment so they can get the best image, irrespective of how expensive their kit is. If you spend $350 on a lens and really learn how to use it, you’ll be closer to the ideal of photographers like Cartier-Bresson, who used good equipment to take great photos.
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