Two of the sharpest lenses I’ve ever owned, the Fujifilm XF16mm f1.4 (left) and the XF50-140mm f2.8 (right).

The other day I was engaged in a conversation on Twitter with another photographer. What prompted the conversation was a tweet he’d written directed towards new photographers in the process of buying their first camera. In the tweet he suggested that when looking to buy their first camera, new photographers should forego the kit zoom lens usually sold with most entry level cameras and instead buy a 50mm prime, the ubiquitous “Nifty 50.”

Guaranteed better.

Another example of Fujifilm lens making mastery, the XF16-55mm f2.8 zoom.

Not only was his recommendation to buy a 50mm prime over the kit zoom, he guaranteed that the 50mm would make your photos better. That’s right, guaranteed!

Me being me (meaning completely unable to keep my sarcasm in check), I replied, “that must be one magical lens.”

His reply, technically correct as it was, explained that with fewer moving parts than a zoom lens, and a faster aperture than the kit zoom, (usually f1.8 on the inexpensive 50’s, and variable from around f3.5-f5.6 on the 18-55mm zooms), the “Nifty 50’s” were sharper, and that the faster aperture allowed for using a lower ISO and therefore the potential for less noise when shooting in low light situations.

So, as far as he was concerned, sharper + less noise = guaranteed better.

But, do either of these metrics, together or individually really make your photos “better?”

Yes. Sort of. Maybe?

The Fujifilm XF10-24mm f4. Not a prime, not all that fast, but more than sharp enough.

If increased sharpness and lower noise are your only measure of “better” then I guess sure, your photos will be better. In fact, I too will guarantee that if all you do is look at your photos zoomed in at 100% on your computer monitor, looking to see how sharp they are, or how little noise they have, then buying that “Nifty 50” will indeed make your photos absolutely incredible, masterpieces really. Oops, there’s that sarcasm again.

But here’s the thing. If your photo is grossly over exposed, or the post processing is so over the top it makes your eyes hurt, and you put zero thought into how it’s composed, nobody is going to care how sharp it is or that it has no visible noise. If your image has no artistic merit, no compelling reason for viewers to give it more than a passing glance, how much “better” did that lens really make it?

It’s a right brain kind of thing.

Yes, a sharper lens is certainly better than one that’s not very sharp. And who doesn’t want their images as sharp as they can be? Too, if you shoot in low light a lot, then a lens with a fast(wide) aperture, enabling you to use lower ISO’s just makes sense. But again I ask you, are your photos guaranteed to be better because they’re sharper and less noisy?

Me personally, I’d argue that the artistic merits of an image are a far better standard by which to judge “better.” If you truly want your photos to be better, learn to choose your subject matter. Learn how to create a compelling composition. Learn how to best utilize light, and work on understanding how aperture, shutter speed and ISO affect exposure, as well as how to effectively post process your photos. It’s through the mastery of these aspects of photography that you’re more likely to guarantee your photos get better.

Not once while walking through a shop have I ever been stopped in my tracks by how sharp an image on display was. Nor have I ever heard, “I love how noise free that photo is,” when someone leaves a comment on one of the photos I’ve posted to Instagram.

Yes, sharper lenses are better. And who wouldn’t prefer less noise in their photos? But all I can guarantee you is that your photos might be sharper, or have less noise.

4 thoughts on “The magic lens.

    1. I do kind or understand where he was coming from, but he really had blinders on. To him, sharper was better, period. With the artistic merits of the image a completely different argument.

      As far as I’m concerned that’s just too much pixel peeping and not enough art making.

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