Building on the “M is for Manual” post from a week or so ago, we can now talk sensibly about lenses.
If you own a digital SLR camera (like a Canon Rebel or a Nikon D80), chances are it came from the manufacturer as part of a kit, with a “free” neck strap, a few other doodads, and some kind of zoom lens attached to the front. And here’s the bad news: chances are that that kit lens is an el-cheapo of dubious quality. Let’s put it this way, if the enormous lens you see a professional sports photographer lugging around is a Ferrari, the kit lens on your new SLR is almost certainly a Yugo or a Ford Pinto.
Camera manufacturers know a couple of things: (1) first, even a savvy consumer will likely ignore the quality of the lens and focus his or her attention on the camera itself, in the process becoming enamored with fairly meaningless metrics like the number of megapixels (“Geez, Lorna, with a bazillion megapixels, we could outshoot Ansel Adams!”); (2) second, they can sell a kit at a premium because the camera is “ready to go,” and make a nice profit by including the cheapest possible lens.
Experienced photographers, on the other hand, know a dark secret: the camera is only one part, and often a modest part, of the total investment necessary to take good pictures. The real money—the real investment—is often in the lenses.
This was particularly true in the days of film cameras, where the quality of the lens and the quality of the film determined the quality of the final image, and the camera had little or nothing to do with it.
In the digital age, the image sensors built into cameras play a much more important role. Nevertheless, the lens—not the camera—remains the single most important factor in determining the quality of the final image. Put a crappy lens on a great camera, and you’re going to get a crappy image. Put a great lens on a crappy camera, and you may be surprised at just how good the resulting image looks.
So, what do you need to know about lenses? Not much really, but you do need to understand the two most important features of any lens: FOCAL LENGTH and MAXIMUM APERTURE. Future posts will address each of these in turn and hopefully point you towards (a) what lens will give you the “look” you want, and (b) what lenses offer the best quality and value.
(“Lensbaby” is actually a company that manufactures selective focus lenses that make for some sweet effects. See http://lensbaby.com/. I don’t own one, but they look like fun.)