Lens trumps the camera?

It is sort of interesting to think that maybe cameras have already got “good enough”? By this I mean that the capabilities of the camera body are no longer the real bottleneck in photography. Following the field, it is easy to find anecdotal stories about professional photographers relying on their 10-year-old, even much older equipment, with no need to update or upgrade. And this does not count in the “retro” photographers who for various reasons prefer the film cameras and vintage equipment.

As digital cameras include microprocessors, and the light-sensitive sensors are based on semiconductor technologies, the development of new cameras has gained a lot from the “Moore’s Law”, and quick progress in manufacturing faster and faster silicon chips. It is today particularly in the design and marketing of smartphones where this “speedrun” is obvious, with the next generation following the previous one in every six months or so. But even in smartphones, the sales are slowing down, and one reason appears to be that the existing phones are already – good enough.

The brains of a digital camera are its processor, the system chip. This is where sensor information gets processed, operations such as AF (automatic focus systems) are coming from, and where any in-camera postprocessing of photos takes place. I have been mostly following the evolution of DIGIC series of image processors by Canon, and it is obvious that many genuinely useful features for photographers have come from the new processor generations. In addition to being able to fit in data from lens and light sensors to produce more-or-less optimally exposed photos, the newer generations have e.g. introduced face-detection autofocus, which can automatically find faces in a group photo, and set the depth of field so that all of them are sharp. Mostly the new generation usually just provides incremental improvements in the some fundamental areas such as speed of image processing, noise reduction in low-light conditions, or speed and preciseness of autofocus.

It is nice to have a fast-shooting, fast-focusing camera that does all sorts of intelligent things like scene detection, and is able to apply many settings automatically. On the other hand, much of the art and craft of photography is in learning to think about the key dimensions of photographs, and about developing the ability to make use of technology to produce a certain kind of creation. The “smart” processor might be useful in removing the danger of technically failed shots, but it might also slow down a bit the ability to experiment, and learn from mistakes? I know from my own experience how easy it is just to give the “Program” (the ‘semi-auto’ mode in Canon) the reigns, and then end up living in somewhat smaller creative sandbox, as the result.

Putting over-emphasis on the latest features in cameras has also the danger of missing out other important dimensions of cameras as physical tools. The mechanical construction of a camera, the size and shape of it, how the physical dials and control buttons work – all of this have a very significant effect on the handling and ergonomics that matter a lot while taking photographs. Consider the latest smartphones, for example. In many cases the wide-angle and normal focal length photos can be shot with a smartphone with technically excellent results. However, most professionals still prefer to have a tool that is designed to be a camera also in ergonomic terms, while taking photographs all day long. The slippery smartphone with virtual, on-screen buttons just does not provide same kind of experience and sense of control.

Thus, in many cases one can actually save some money by settling for an older-generation model in the camera body, and investing into lenses instead. This can be a bit tricky, of course, as new camera and lens generations sometimes also come with new lens mounts; the autofocus and metering systems, for example, might rely on new pins for exchanging information between the lens and the body in new ways, or -as in the case of mirrorless cameras – the lenses are redesigned to take advantage from the smaller shape of mirrorless body (that is, moving the lenses physically closer to the image sensor). In many cases, however, the manufacturer standard lens mount still applies, or there is a perfectly working adapter available, to fit new lenses to older generation bodies, or the other way around.

Thus, one way for an enthusiast photographer to move forward in the actual image quality and range of photos one can achieve, is to stick with a bit older camera technology, but put the available savings into updating the lenses. In interchangeable lens cameras there are different basic options for the lens selection, and this relates to the style of photography one is working on. A street photographer, or one that mostly shoots people and events, can do nicely with a “normal” lens – or in portraiture with a short telephoto. In this lens range, the maximum aperture, sharpness and absence of various distortions what one is paying for, in a good quality (or “professional”) lens versions.

I think that I have pretty decent situation in wide angle and normal focal lenght photography at the moment, but there is much to improve in the longer telephoto lenses. Particularly my growing interest in nature photography translates into need for long-range, bit-aperture and sharp lenses. And unfortunately those things do not come cheap. Below are a couple of interesting alternatives for a Canon EF mount – I’d be interested to hear any comments or experiences you might have of these, or other EF mount telephoto lenses!

Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM (Photo credit: Canon.)
Sigma 150-600mm F5-6.3 DG OS HSM | S. (Photo credit: Sigma.)