Compact lenses, great photos?

Sports and wildlife photographers in particular are famous (or notorious) for investing in and carrying around lenses that are often just huge: large, long, and heavy. Is it possible to take great photos with small, compact lenses, or is an expensive and large lens the only option for a hobbysist photographer who’d want to reach better results?

Winter details, captured with Canon EOS M50, and the kit lens: EF-M 15-45mm f/3.5-6.3 IS STM.

I am by no means an authority in optics or lens design, but I think certain key principles are important to take into consideration.

Perhaps one of the first ones is the style of photography one is engaged with. Are you shooting portrait photos indoors, or even in a studio? Or, are you tripping outdoors, trying to get closeup photos of elusive birds and animals? Or, are you rather a landscape photographer? Or, a street photographer?

Sometimes the intended use of photos is also a factor to consider. Are these party photos, or something that you’ll aim to share mostly among your friends in social media? Or, is this that important photo art project that you aim output into large-format prints, and hang to your walls – or, in to a gallery even?

These days, digital camera sensors are “sharp” enough for pretty much any purpose – one of my smartphones, Huawei Mate 20 Pro, for example, has a 40 megapixel main photo sensor, with 7296 × 5472 native resolution. That is more than what you need for a large poster print (depending on viewing distances and PPI settings, a 4000 x 6000 pixels, or even 2000 x 3000 pixels might be enough for a poster print). There are many professional photographers who took their commercial photos for years with cameras that had only 6 or 8 megapixel sensors. And many of those photos were reproduced in large posters, or in covers of glossy magazines, and no-one complained.

Frozen grass, photographed using Huawei Mate 20 Pro smartphone.

The lens and quality of optics are more of a bottleneck: if the lens is “soft”, meaning that it is not capable of focusing all rays of light in consistent, sharp manner, there is no way of achieving very clear looking images with that. But truth be told, in perhaps 90 % of cases with blurry photos, I blame myself rather than my equipment these days. There are badly focused photos, I had a wrong aperture setting or too long exposure time (and was not using a tripod but shooting handheld) and all that contributes to getting a lot of blurry looking photos.

But it is also true, that if one is trying to achieve very high quality results in terms of optical quality, using a more expensive lens is usually something that many people will do. But actually there are “mainstream” photography situations where a cheap lens will produce results that are just – good enough. It is particularly the more extreme situations, where one is for example trying to get a really lot of light into the lens, to capture really detailed scenes in a very consistent manner, where large, heavy and expensive lenses come to play a role. This is also true of portraiture, where a high-quality lens is also used to deliver good separation of person from the background, and the glass elements, their positioning and the aperture blades are designed to produce particularly nice looking “bokeh” effect (the out-of-focus highlights are blurred in an aesthetically pleasing manner). And of course those bird and wildlife photographers value their well-designed, long telephoto range lenses that also capture a lot of light, thereby enabling the photographer to use short enough exposure times and get sharp images of even moving targets.

A cropped detail, photo taken with SIGMA 150-600 mm f/5-6,3 DG OS HSM Contemporary tele-zoom lens on a dim winter’s day.

In many cases it is actually other characteristics rather than the optical image quality that makes a particular lens expensive. It might be the mechanical build quality, weather-proofing, or the manner the focusing, zooming and aperture mechanisms, and how control rings are implemented that are something a professional photographer might be willing to pay for, in one of their main tools.

In street photography, for example, there are completely different kind of priorities as compared to wildlife photography, or studio portraiture, where using a solid tripod is common. In a street, one is constantly moving, and also trying not to be very conspicuous while taking photos. A compact camera with a compact lens is good for those kinds of reasons. Also, if the targets are people and views on city streets, a “normal range” lens is usually preferable. A long-range telephoto lens, or very wide-angle lens will produce very different kinds of effects as compared to the visual feel and visual experiences that people usually experience as “normal images”. In a 35 mm film camera, or “full-frame” digital camera, a 50 mm lens is usually considered a normal lens, whereas with a camera equipped with a (Canon) “crop” sensor (APS-C, 22.2 x 14.8 mm sensor size) would require c. 30 mm lens to produce similar field of view for the image as a 50 mm in a full-frame camera. Lenses with this kinds of short focal ranges can be designed to be physically smaller, and can deliver very good image quality for their intended purposes, even while being nicely budget-priced. There are these days many such excellent “prime” lenses (as contrasted to more complex “zoom” lenses) available from many manufacturers.

One should note here that in case of smartphone photography, everything is of course even much more compact. A typical modern smartphone camera might have a sensor of only few millimeters in size (e.g. in popular 1/3″ type, the sensor is 4.8 x 3.6 mm), so actual focal length of the (fixed) lens may be perhaps 4.25 mm, but that translates into a 26 mm equivalent lens field-of-view, in a full-frame camera. This is thus effectively a wide-angle lens that is good for many indoor photography situations. Many smartphones feature a “2x” (or even “5x”) sensor-lens combinations, that can deliver a normal range (50 mm equivalent in full-frame) or even telephoto ranges, with their small mechanical and optical constructions. This is an impressive achievement – it is much more comfortable to put a camera capable of high-quality photography into your back pocket, rather than lug it around in a dedicate backbag, for example.

Icy view was taken with Canon EOS M50, and the kit lens: EF-M 15-45mm f/3.5-6.3 IS STM.

Perhaps the main limitation of smartphone cameras for artistic purposes is that they do not have adjustable apertures. There is always the same, rather small hole where rays of light will enter the lens and finally focus on the image sensor. It is difficult to control the “zone of acceptable sharpness” (or, “depth of field”) with a lens where you cannot adjust aperture size. In fact, it is easy to achieve “hyperfocal” images with very small-sensor cameras: everything in image will be sharp, from very close to infinity. But the more recent smartphones have already slighly larger sensors, and there have already even been experiments to implement adjustable aperture system inside these tiny lenses (Nokia N86 and Samsung Galaxy S9 at least have advertised adjustable apertures). Some manufacturers resort to using algorithmic background blurring to create full-frame camera looking, soft background while still using optically small lenses that naturally have much wider depth of field. When you take a look at the results of such “computational photography” in a large and sharp monitor, the results are usually not as good as with a real, optical system. But, if the main use scenario for such photos is to look at them from small-screen, mobile devices, then – again – the lens and augmentation system together may be “good enough”.

All the photos attached into this blog post are taken with either a compact kit lens, or with a smartphone camera (apart from that single bird photo above). Looking at them from a very high resolution computer monitor, I can find blurriness and all kinds of other optical issues. But personally, I can live with those. My use case in this case did not involve printing these out in poster sizes, and I just enjoyed having a winter-day walk, and taking photos while not carrying too heavy setup. I will also be posting the photos online, so the typical viewing size and situation for them pretty much obfuscates maybe 80 % of the optical issues. So: compact cameras, compact lenses – great photos? I am not sure. But: good enough.

More frozen grass, Canon EOS M50, and the kit lens: EF-M 15-45mm f/3.5-6.3 IS STM.

Stretching the little Canon to the max

There has been these endless discussions among photography enthusiasts on the strengths and weaknesses of various camera manufacturers for decades. It has been interesting to note that as the history-awareness has increased, some of this discussion has moved into a sort of meta-level: rather than talking about the suitablity of certain camera equipment for (certain kinds of) photography, the discussion has partly moved to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of entire philosophy or product-line strategy of various manufacturers.

Canon is an example that I am interested here, particularly as this is the manufacturer whose products I have been mostly using for the past two decades or more. The dominant criticism of Canon today seems to be that they (as late adopters of mirrorless systems camera technologies) are now spreading their efforts into too many directions, and thereby making it hard to provide anything really strong and credible for anyone. The history of Canon is great, of course, and I think that they still have the best user interface for their digital cameras, for example, and the back catalogue of Canon lenses is impressive. The problem today nevertheless is that it is difficult to see if Canon is still committed to continuing the DSLR camera and lens development in professional and enthusiast levels long into the future (as their recent releases of EOS 90D and 1D X Mark III DSLR bodies seems to suggest), or if anyone with an eye towards the future should invest into the RF mount lenses and EOS R series full-frame mirrorless cameras instead. (RF system is the most recent Canon camera family, it was announced in September 2018; Canon’s full-frame DSLR cameras have used the EF mount lenses since from 1987.) And what is the destiny of APS-C (“crop frame”) cameras, and the EF-M mount system (introduced in 2012) in all of this?

I have long used crop frame system cameras and either EF or EF-S (yet another Canon lens family) lenses, due to the nice balance that this combination provides in terms of versatility, compact sizes, image quality and price – which is always an important concern for a hobbyist photographer. Few months ago I made the move into the “mirrorless era”, deciding to invest into the most affordable of these alternative systems, the Canon EF-M mount family (my choice of camera body was the tiny, yet powerful EOS M50).

The initial experiences (as I have reported in this blog already earlier) have been mostly positive – it is easy to take a good photo with this system and some decent, native EF-M lens. And it is nice that I can use an adapter to attach my older, EF mount lenses into the new, EF-M mount body, even while the autofocus might not be as fast that way. But the fact is that most of the new Canon lenses now appear to be coming out to the other, mirrorless Canon system: the full-frame RF mount cameras. And it is particularly the “serious enthusiast” or advanced hobbyist category that seems to be left in the middle. Some, more sports and wildlife oriented Canon lenses and cameras that would suit them are being published in the DSLR (EF mount) ecosystem. Some of the most advanced lenses are coming out in RF system, but the prices of many of those are more in the professional, multiple-thousands of euros/dollars category per lens. But the R system bodies seem to be missing many of the features that true professionals would need from their camera systems, so that is not really working so well, either. And those amateur photographers (like myself) who have opted for Canon EF-M mirrorless mount system are mostly provided with compact lenses that do not have the image quality or aperture values that more advanced photography would profit from. And investing into a heavy EF lens, and then adding adapter to get it to work with the EF-M body does not make particularly good sense. That lens is not designed for a mirrorless system to start with, and the combination of ultra-compact camera body and heavy, full-frame DSLR lens is not a balanced one.

So, the advanced hobbyist / enthusiast crowd is sort of asking: Quo Vadis, Canon?

Some people have already voted with their feet, sold their Canon cameras and lenses and bought into a Sony or Fujifilm ecosystems instead. Those competing manufacturers have the benefit of simpler and more clear mirrorless (and APS-C) camera and lens strategies. They do not have so many millions of existing users with legacy camera and lens equipment to support, of course.

I am currently just trying to make the best out of my existing cameras and lenses. My lakeside camera walk today involved mostly using the Canon L-series 70-200 mm f/4 EF lens with the old APS-C, DSLR body (550D), which has better grip for handling a larger lens. And the landscape photos and detailed close-ups I shot with the new M50 and the sharp 22mm f/2 EF-M lens.

Maybe the third-party manufacturers will provide some help in strengthening the EF-M ecosystem in the future. For example, SIGMA has announced that it will soon port three of its good quality prime lenses into EF-M system: Sigma 16mm, 30mm, and 56mm F1.4 DC DN Contemporary. Hopefully there will be more of such quality glass coming up – also from Canon itself. Producing good quality lenses that are also physically small enough to make sense when attached into an EF-M camera, and which have also affordable enough price, is not trivial achievement, it looks like.

SIGMA lenses.
New SIGMA lenses for the Canon EF-M mount cameras.