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01-01-2012, 11:53 PM   #1
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Trying to figure out what makes a good lens/picture...

I've only had my K-x for less than 1.5 years, so I'm still kind of new at this. I'm kind of thinking out loud here, but I'd welcome anyone else who can help me figure some things out. Basically I'm trying to determine why I like some of my lens so much better than others. To put it another way, what it is that makes photos of identical scenes taken with one lens so much better in my eyes than another?

I suppose there's two part to how I'm thinking about this.

Aspects of the lens:
I'm most interested in the pictures that get taken, but I definitely know that there are physical and mechanical aspects of lenses that are preferred. Some lens seem too heavy or unbalanced for my camera. Some seem to have more trouble focusing in darker settings or getting good pictures in such settings. (I'm not referring to lens speed here. I don't know if it makes sense, but some lens just seem to love light more than others... Can that be true?) There are also lens issues of how much throw there is in the focus and how and how much the zoom works. Some lens just seem a bit flimsier than others. Of course there is also simply the matter of preferring full manual to completely auto. I do like auto metering, though some lens seem to require compensation more than others. I haven't gotten used to using the green button consistently, so that seems like extra work to me, and I sometimes forget to do it. I like autofocus, but I also have no problems with manual focus. Using catch-in-focus on my K-x has performed quite well and better than my eyes and K-x viewfinder can do. (I did have to adjust for a little front-focusing.) Some lens are just less attractive than others or seem ill-proportioned to my K-x. Some lenses just seem to get more good pics than others, but I'll take that up in the next part.
So, the physical lens aspect is fairly easy for me to identify. Of the lenses I have, I really like
  • The Pentax M50 1.7 is like an engineered work of art. Size, detail, heft, focus silkiness... It's beautiful.
  • I just got the DA 18-135. So compact, quiet, fast, looks great on the K-x.
  • The Pentax F 35-70. I don't want to call it cute, but it is such a compact, versatile lens with kind of a retro look.
  • The DA-L 55-300 kit lens is amazing. I have to work at taking a bad pic w/ it. As a dad at a soccer game, I think it makes me look semi-pro without looking pretentious w/ some huge outfit. It's perfectly suited to its purpose.
  • I wish I could like the Tamron SP AF 24-135 more. It's a gorgeous lens, and does everything well. It's just a little too big and heavy for the K-x. Hence the purchase of the 18-135, but I'm delaying on selling this beauty since I think it would be an amazing lens on a full-frame camera. (Before the Tamron, trying to find a less expensive walkaround lens, I got a Vivitar 28-105 Macro Focusing Zoom. Great lens, but again just too big, and manual focus on a walkaround lens was more work than I wanted.)
(So, combined with the physical aspects, I think this category also includes what I think most people describe as a lens' IQ: its ability to focus quickly and accurately with correct metering.)


Aspects of the photo: It all started with my first lens, the DA-L 18-55 kit lens. It's a handy enough lens, but I was getting a bit frustrated since it seemed I had to work so much to get shots that were significantly better than my old point-and-shoot. Then I tried out the 55-300 and realized just how great the K-x could be! But what is it about a picture that makes me like one better than another? In the lens review database, we can grade a lens on sharpness, aberrations, and bokeh. There clearly are some types of bokeh that are too much of something, but generally something 'creamier' is easier to appreciate than 'busier.' Aberrations are also rather easy to discern in terms of flare, CA, edge/corner softness, and distortions. The less of that the better. Sharpness, however, is where I'm having some difficulties as I look at my pictures. On one hand, I view most of my pictures on a computer monitor where filling the screen means I'm looking at them at about 35% of full size. (That's about 16x11" for me.) A picture can look great... but then I've fallen prey to the lure of pixel peeping, and at 100%, the pic no longer looks so sharp. I realize that 100% detail can be important if I need to do some cropping. I also realize that I can do a little sharpening in PP. As I look at my pics, however, sometimes the issue does not seem to be entirely one of sharpness as it is also of contrast. It seems to me that greater contrast enhances the appearance of sharpness. Is that true? I would include a photo's color saturation as part of its contrast characteristics. It's color accuracy (fidelity to the real thing) is another good quality. Further, there is the matter of what I think most would call the 'temperature' of the photo. Some lens are cooler or warmer than others, and it seems that Pentax lens have a characteristic temperature which I'm guessing is related to the lens coating.

As I said at the outset, I'm kind of thinking out loud here about why I like some lenses and photos better than others. I'm doing so to figure out how to take better pictures. (Composition of photos is probably more important than most of this, but that's not an issue of the camera or lens.) I'm also finding out why I like some lenses better than others and why different lenses are needed for different situations. So here are some things I've learned:
  • The perfect picture (in terms of color, sharpness, contrast...) does not make for the perfect picture in every situation.
  • Post-processing can enhance a pic quite a bit. I suspect that very few professional photos come straight from the camera to print without a little attention in pp. Once I learn how to use my equipment well to take better pictures, it's probably worth the time to learn how to use my Photoshop Elements better.
  • A good pic does not need to be pixel sharp across the whole frame. Softness around the edges is sometimes desirable if you are trying to keep attention in the middle ninth + of the frame (thinking of the rule of thirds).
  • Unless I'm planning to print at poster size (which I'm not), I should stop looking at pics at 100% zoom onscreen!
If you've managed to read this far, I hope I didn't waste your time! Still, comments, corrections, and other opinions and observations are welcome!

01-02-2012, 06:48 AM   #2
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Half of the equation is the photographer him/herself. Having the best gear doesn't necessarily mean you're going to get the best photos

The way I look at it is that the camera should simply not get in the way of your capturing the photos you envision. Thus, the lens should allow for the composition you want while not introducing any significant distortion that would otherwise ruin your photo, and the sensor should give you ample resolution, dynamic range, and clarity.

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01-02-2012, 09:57 AM   #3
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You've identified some of the factors involved in making a photo. But we can think of any potential photo as a multi-variate problem to be solved, with a near-infinite set of acceptable solutions. It's probably futile to try to brute-force our way through all those solutions to find an optimal picture. Realistically, any photo is our "best shot" at the moment, using tools (camera, lens, lights, etc) and settings we might be comfortable with, or are experimenting with, or whatever. All pretty imprecise, eh?

And also not necessarily relevant. No, having the 'best' gear (and even knowing how to use it) doesn't produce the 'best' photos, else all pros would be shooting Leica. Good gear, well-applied, may indeed produce technically sparkling images. But a perfect picture of boring crap is still boring crap. IMHO the mark of a compelling photo is that it can survive technical imperfection, even lousy reproduction. Some of the most significant photos in history have been blurry blobs that yet seize our attention. Many great photos are commonly seen in terrible reproduction. Content DOES trump IQ. The togger's vision DOES outweigh the gear used. Fine photos ARE shot with Holgas.

I have a zillion lenses, including 50 Fifties. Each has its own flavor when its images are examined. Printed on a newspaper page, those differences would go unnoticed. If I shot for mass-media reproduction, just one AF 50/1.4 would be the only Fifty needed. Yet I keep and use all the others because I *do* appreciate their fine differences. I just don't delude myself that they matter in the real world. Nor do I delude myself that a specific lens really matters. I know what I like artistically. But pragmatically, all that's needed is something that delivers.

One last thing: Presentation trumps all else. Almost any non-trash image can look good if it's presented properly. My first digicam (which I still use) was a 1.1mpx P&S with a clear fixed-focus lens producing 912x1216 pixel images. Printed small, its shots are indistinguishable from contact prints from a 6x9cm folder. Processed, printed, mounted and shown properly, I've sold poster-size prints of its output. Such prints do not withstand pixel-peeping. They aren't intended to. They grab eyeballs, and that's all that matters.

Gear is fun, but vision is what matters.
01-02-2012, 10:21 AM   #4
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QuoteOriginally posted by Adam Quote
Half of the equation is the photographer him/herself.
I would say 100% of the equation is the photographer. Camera and lenses are just tools. Some fit better for a particular job, but a talented photographer will always find ways to make the best use of what is available in any situation.

Having said that, camera/lens combinations have their own character and will produce different results. Being able to pick the right combination is an attribute of a good photographer, one who mastered both the craft of photography and his/her collection of tools.

Also let's not forget that there are "technically correct" (or better) pictures, and then there are "successful" pictures. A technically correct is just that, an accurate representation of the field of view. A successful picture is the one that has reason to exist; it transcends the subject and has a life of its own.

To make a "correct" picture, the right equipment is essential, to make a "successful" one, equipment is irrelevant for the most part.

01-02-2012, 11:59 AM   #5
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@demp10: I like your distinction between a correct and a successful picture. Another way I might put it is that the correct picture is a matter of science involving the lens, camera, FL, aperture, etc. The successful pic is a matter of art involving composition, seeing light/color/patterns, etc.
As both RioRico and Adam note, and I fully agree, the successful photo really depends on the photographer. OTOH, what I'm trying to get past is that I have had a number of potentially 'successful' photos spoiled because I have not 'correctly' made use of my gear. I'm trying to grasp the science/physics/gear part and assimilate it so that I don't have to think about it so much and can focus more on getting the successful photo.
01-02-2012, 12:57 PM   #6
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QuoteOriginally posted by mgvh Quote
I have had a number of potentially 'successful' photos spoiled because I have not 'correctly' made use of my gear. I'm trying to grasp the science/physics/gear part and assimilate it so that I don't have to think about it so much and can focus more on getting the successful photo.
Mini-CV: I've been shooting a long long time, and it was my job long ago. I'd pretty much quit film 20 years ago and moved to electric imagery. Went digicam a decade ago and got my first dSLR (K20D) 3.5 years ago. And now I shoot some film again too.

I was successful and satisfied using an advanced P&S (Sony DSC-V1) but it lacks lens choices, which is why I got the K20D, DA10-17, DA18-250, FA50/1.4, then a zillion more lenses. But in some ways I feel like I've moved backwards. Even with full manual controls on the P&S, it was easy to shoot spontaneously or to concentrate on the composition, to let the tech details be handled by the camera or by me in PP. The K20D with either AF or MF lenses isn't so immediate, doesn't encourage such carefree use. The big dSLR demands more attention and time and work.

I don't let tech details deter me. I may shoot with an AF zoom, or a projector lens on bellows, or anything in-between, gear-wise. I can apply as much or little automation as I want with any gear. It's not hard getting technically acceptable pix, especially with some judicious RAW processing. So at all stages of the picture-making process, I can apply zero-to-much thought and intuition. I may or may not think about details of DOF, highlights, composition. Often, they don't matter. Nail the focus and worry about everything else later.

Yes, it's good to try to get everything right in-camera. No, it's not mandatory. Just do whatever it takes to take and make the picture.
01-02-2012, 01:06 PM   #7
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Shoot film. It will slow you down and require you to think about composition more because every shot costs real money.
01-02-2012, 02:46 PM   #8
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I'd be broke trying to learn how to shoot with film!
I can say, however, that getting into photography more seriously has really changed me in some ways. Now, when I drive to work or go for a run, I'm constantly looking for and noticing light and patterns and what might make for an interesting photo. That aspect alone has slowed me down and helped me observe and appreciate beauty in creation.

01-02-2012, 03:51 PM   #9
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My random ideas:

With manual focus lenses, a sharp lens with good contrast wide open is easier to focus accurately and quickly. That at least gives you more in-focus shots to choose from, and you'll probably just like that lens better.

It took me a while to develop a "lens type mindset", so I could seamlessly switch from a DA lens to screwmount without forgetting some key operating detail (like SR).

The computer monitor is a key element in digital photography and a tricky one. I got a new monitor last year and suddenly all my lenses were awful! Make sure your monitor is not lying to you - maybe calibrate, print a lot, view on several different screens, etc.

Try to get some feedback from a non-technical person on whether they like a photo. I am always too close to the process of taking the shot or processing. My wife can tell me whether it actually works without thinking "maybe I should have opened up the lens instead of raising ISO."
01-02-2012, 04:28 PM   #10
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QuoteOriginally posted by Adam Quote
Half of the equation is the photographer him/herself. Having the best gear doesn't necessarily mean you're going to get the best photos

The way I look at it is that the camera should simply not get in the way of your capturing the photos you envision. Thus, the lens should allow for the composition you want while not introducing any significant distortion that would otherwise ruin your photo, and the sensor should give you ample resolution, dynamic range, and clarity.

I have always thought there was this nebulous quality I called 'interface' (as a metaphor, in the 80's) that's all about how you work with and through a camera or lens. It's not always technical and 'staying out of the way,' ....often there's a relationship there, even the best optics or specs might just not feel or 'see' right for you, might even at times correct out some of the very ways you might see the world on a given palette, etc, ...it's not always about what's most technically-correct or highest-specced or whatever (sometimes it *is,* but not always.)

I think our poster here has broader questions that are really more about different lens types. But sometimes you like what you like.


A brilliant lens you don't like the feel of doesn't mean you get the better photo. An old lens you really get along with might well catch the light and your hands just right. I have this thing where I think we do photography with our whole bodies and all our senses, and the machine's definitely deeply involved, but it's not always about what the machine says. I was always kind of a 'sharpness fiend,' but the more I'm cheering on people and especially kids with their I-phones, the more I tend to think, 'This big machine is more and more about the fall of light and the passage of time.'


Either way, sometimes it's not abut a lens or camera as an object. I always kind of taught photography as something you do with your whole body and all your senses. And the more and more technical precision comes cheap and easy when it once was ...really hard for most people... the more and more it has to be *personal* if one wants to make use of all these controls and know-hows all.

Sometimes a piece of glass can connect one that way. Or much-fail-to.
01-02-2012, 06:59 PM   #11
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I've entered my photos in a two juried shows and one local competition in 2011. I won best photo in the competition. I'd entered three photos, two taken with my K-5, one with a Pentax 50:1.4 and one with a Pentax 50-135, both of which are superb lenses. The photo that won was taken with a Canon S90 point and shoot. Go figure. For a December show, I again submitted 3 photos. Again two were shot with the K-5 and one with the S90. The S90 photo was the only one juried in. It got an honorable mention. Not bad with over 400 art pieces submitted.

Obviously I'm not going to claim that the Canon is as good a camera as the K-5. I love my K-5. I've put over 8,000 shutter clicks on it since I got it in July, yet, the S90 is the camera that I've won awards with. It's almost always in my pocket.

I can take from this is that I'm a better opportunistic/street photographer than I am a landscape photographer. This also reinforces, for me, the idea that the best camera is the one you have with you, and that the photographer's eye is the final determining factor in photo value. Notice that I say value not technical quality. Pushing for absolute technical perfection is all well and good, but once a photo is good enough, it's good enough.


Last edited by mysticcowboy; 01-02-2012 at 07:05 PM.
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