Why You Shouldn’t Obsess Over Lens Sharpness

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How overblown is the issue of lens sharpness? It’s a loaded question, I know. If you were to give any credence to the chatter found on numerous photography forums, blogs, and test sites found around the Web, one might be inclined to think that lens sharpness is the only thing that matters. Unfortunately, a lot a people do indeed buy into the hype. I say “unfortunate” because the current cult of lens sharpness and the zeitgeist that they have fostered has, perhaps, done more harm than good for consumers who are simply looking to get the most value for their money when purchasing a new lens.

To help keep lens-related anxiety to a minimum, here are a few thoughts that you may want to keep in mind when preparing to buy a new lens or when assessing the quality of lenses you already own.

Lenses are Tools, That is All

Like a camera itself, a lens is just a tool that you use as an extension of your creativity. A “good” lens doesn’t automatically produce good work; a “bad” lens doesn’t automatically produce bad work.

OYMPUS ZUIKO Lenses
Photo by huzu1959

 

Good and Bad are Relative

A good lens doesn’t mean it’s the best lens ever produced or even that it’s the best lens within a particular system. But, often, good is more than good enough. Kit lenses, for example, typically get a bad rap; this, however, is often undeserved as their bad reputation is usually more a function of perception than reality. Of course, no one in their right mind would seriously suggest their variable aperture kit lens can compete in every way with a “pro” level constant aperture zoom. But if the bottom line is the creation of an interesting photo, what does it matter? If the people looking at your image can’t tell (or don’t care) whether it was made with a supposedly bad kit lens or a lens with a decidedly stellar reputation, then you don’t have much to worry about.

18-55
Photo by Emilio Küffer

 

Lens Sharpness is Subjective

Who knows what sharpness even means? Everyone and no one. When some people talk about sharpness they are referring to overall resolution; others are referring to contrast or “micro contrast.” There are those who are mostly concerned with how a lens resolves fine detail, while others may place more value on center sharpness or edge sharpness. It seems everybody’s got their own interpretation of what sharpness is and, by extension, they’ve all got a preference for one kind of sharpness or another. If a lens meets your standards for sharpness, that’s all the justification you really need for it.

sharp (23/365)
Photo by Tim Geers

 

There are Traits Other Than Sharpness

When considering the overall value of a lens, there are properties other than sharpness to take into account. Vignetting, flare resistance, focus speed, build quality — these are some things that any prospective lens buyer should think about.

Forget About MTF Charts

MTF (modulation transfer function) charts were devised as a graphical, objective representation of the optical performance potential of a lens. These charts have their place I suppose, but photographers tend to prefer real world testing. It’s one thing to read a chart and attempt to draw a conclusion based on plot points on a graph; it’s quite another thing to take a lens out and actually use it…in real life, so to speak. Perhaps you do lose the purported objectivity of the chart, but hands-on use is far more meaningful.

Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM MTF Chart Comparison
Photo by Will Cobb

 

Remember That Image Editing Software Exists for a Reason

One of those reasons is to help compensate for a lens’ imperfections. Whether you need to sharpen an image, correct distortion, or brighten up the corners, this can be done quickly and easily in post-processing. Granted, it is preferable for a lens’ tolerances to be such that you don’t need to do much work in post; but the fact is there is no such thing as a perfect lens. Software can help mitigate optical imperfections.



American novelist Tom Robbins once philosophized that humans, to our detriment, “waste time looking for the perfect lover, instead of creating the perfect love.” Photographers, don’t waste your time looking for the perfect lens. It doesn’t exist. But there are lenses out there that are perfect for your specific needs; in fact, I’d be willing to bet that you already own such a lens. All that’s left for you to do is learn to put it to perfect use.

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Profile photo of Jason D. Little
Jason Little is a photographer (shooting macros, portraits, candids, and the occasional landscape), writer, and music lover. You can see Jason’s photography on Flickr, his Website or his Blog.

6 thoughts on “Why You Shouldn’t Obsess Over Lens Sharpness

  1. Profile photo of Reid McClure (32Groove@gmail.com)Reid McClure (32Groove@gmail.com)

    I really like the way you think and write Jason. Some of us get too wrapped up in the specifications (marketing hype) instead of just taking to the field using what tools we have at hand. I know I’ve lost some creative energy “obsessing” about perceived equipment inadequacies. Thanks for the “refocus”!

    1. Profile photo of Jason D. LittleJason D. Little Post author

      I’m pretty sure we’ve all been there, Reid. Then you realize that studying charts is nowhere near as fun as actually shooting. Thanks for reading!

      1. Ricardo Santos

        And then there are websites like dxomark that help you deciding which lens to buy.
        I’m very happy with all the decisions I made. I know I can create beautiful photos with an entry-line dslr and a kit lens, but pro lenses make that work A LOT easier 🙂

  2. John Gunkler

    I’m also a busy amateur Trumpet player, Jason. We are notorious for forever seeking ” the perfect mouthpiece.” Recently, during a discussion, one of us said, “There’s no such thing as The perfect mouthpiece.” The best trumpet player I’ve ever met was there and he said, “I must take exception with that. I have a whole drawer full of them.”

  3. tamara p of thentherestwo.com

    I received my first DSLR camera as a gift and within 2 yrs. knocked over a tripod which jammed one of my kit lenses… the 18-55mm. Now, I’m wondering should I just replace it with the standard 50 mm lens? Any suggestions? I just have the basic, starter camera. Canon Rebel EOS T3. My other lens is a 75-300. Any help would be much appreciated. PS I also was curious about an old Kalimar lens #K84711858, 35-135mm lenss. Is there any way to modify it to work on this new DSLR camera? I’m ignorant when it comes to all of this so bare with me. 🙂
    Thanks!

    1. Profile photo of Jason D. LittleJason D. Little Post author

      Hi Tamara, a 50mm is always a good choice; a must-have in my opinion. Of course you lose the versatility of the 18-55 but, depending on your style of shooting, I don’t think it’s a deal breaker. As far as the Kalimar 35-135, you’d have to know what mount it is and then find the appropriate adapter. I know that particular lens was made in Minolta MC and Pentax K mounts, but that’s all the info I have on it.
      Good luck!

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