About These Reviews
Your Equipment Doesn't Matter (click and read)
Your equipment DOES NOT affect the quality of your image. The right equipment just makes it easier, faster or more convenient.
It took me decades to realize this.
It's mandatory to read Why Your Equipment Doesn't Matter before you waste too much time worrying about cameras.
You are far better off worrying about how to use what you already own to make great photos than trying to spend your way out of bad photos.
Here's a secret: buying new gear will NOT improve your photography. For decades I thought "if I only had that new lens" that all my photo wants would be satisfied. Nope. I still want that "one more lens," and I've been shooting for over 40 years. There is always one more lens. Get over it. See "The Station" by Robert J. Hastings, as published in "Dear Abby" in 1999, for a better explanation.
This site is my personal opinion based on what gear works well for me and my particular style of photography. To use words of Ansel Adams on page 193 of his autobiography, this site is my "aggressive personal opinion," and not a "logical presentation of fact."
I do this website for laughs and to help people out. I also do all this alone - no one proof reads or checks facts, so there can be mistakes.
I'm also a big kidder. I never said any of this is true and I like to fool arond now and then and simply make stuff up.
Don't take anything here as seriously as something you read scribbled on a bathroom wall. In fact, it's easier to put things on websites than it is for a vandal to write on a restroom wall.
Sure, I'm biased: I'm reporting on what works well for me what I'm trying to do personally. How else could I give you the depth you deserve? I'm more concerned with portability and speed and ease of use for real photography in the field than I am with laboratory performance. I'm not doing this in a vacuum. I do this site for fun and don't charge anybody for anything. No camera makers are paying me or even loaning me anything. I buy and use the same equipment from the same places you do with my own hard earned cash, just like you. No one is buying me free lunch to alter my opinions.
I do this site for fun and kid around a lot because I can. I never said that anything you read here is true, in fact, some of it is just plain fooling around because that's my personality. Every month or so someone takes me too seriously and takes offense. Lighten up. If you knew me personally you'd know I don't take anything seriously. Maybe I should code all the things about which I'm kidding in green text so those people can figure it out. Feel free to ask if something's unclear. Don't believe anything you read on the internet just because it's on the internet. Most people find my attitude, honesty and to-the-point directness hilarious and helpful, and no one can please everyone.
Everyone does different things, so everyone has different needs. Remember that good equipment for me may not be the best for you. I'm one guy putting up a website trying to help. One person's experience can't possibly address every possible use and misuse of equipment.
Because of this some people take it personally when some piece of equipment isn't for me like the Sigma DSLRs and I say so. Would you really want me to say everything is great? Remember, even though the world finds me first on its search engines, this has always been and remains a purely personal website.
All these reviews are based on my actual usage, and often ownership, of these items. Also many people keep asking me for my opinions, and so for some things I've posted those opinions based on press releases and specs. Read the review and you'll see exactly the level of intimacy I have with the item.
I need my equipment to let me get great results fast in field conditions that change rapidly. I'm not shooting test targets in a studio; I'm out chasing fleeting light in nature, or shooting in industrial compounds trying to get my shot before the guards sick the dogs on me. I value speed and ease of use and utility for creating compelling images over emperor's-new-clothes technical minutiae.
As an artist and photographer we look at the big picture. We look at a complete image as a whole. Designers of digital imaging equipment have to worry about individual pixels, we don't. Yes, even the subpixel level is important in the design of chips and algorithms. In photography the important part is the whole picture and how easy and practical it is to get that photo.
Unfortunately many technically-oriented hobbyists waste a lot of time worrying about things blown up way too far pixel-by-pixel, instead of stepping back and seeing the whole picture in the proper perspective. Those people measure "quality" by looking at numerical specifications of bit depth, resolution charts and resampling algorithms instead of looking at the actual images and deciding for themselves as I and other artists do. Artists and hobbyists measure and define quality very differently, which is another reason my site seems to stir debate. I work in the real, gritty world of grabbing shots before the light changes, not a lab.
I started this site in 1999 to share my photos among my friends and post my experience with certain cameras so I could find them easily when I forgot what I had found worked well after live film testing. This is a private site; I have never even gotten to adding meta text or submitting anything to any search engines.
I had no idea that by 2002 my site would become the world's most trusted and popular source of technical information world wide through the Internet. I feel like Forrest Gump; I never asked for this fame, people just bestow it on me. I was interviewed for an article in "Electronic Publishing" and flown to Italy to lecture in 2003, referenced in England's "Black and White Photography" magazine in September 2003 and Brazil's "Fotografe Melhor" magazine in November 2003, for instance, and in every case it was strangers approaching me based on this little website. It's probably because I'm really just a photographer (see my work here) who actually knows what is and what's not important to create compelling images, and then I just say it like it is since I'm not sponsored by anyone to say nice things.
The only reason I ask for tips above is because of all the traffic I get it costs me a lot to maintain this site and encourages me to spend personal time on it for the benefit of complete strangers. Believe it or not, I get as many readers every month as Popular Photography has annual subscribers, and every one of my readers actually reads something, instead of putting the magazine on the shelf each month since the $10 renewal let a Cub Scout selling subscriptions win a cool prize.
I've been doing serious photography for over 30 years and have made 100% of my income from digital imaging since the 1980s. I've been taking pictures even longer. This experience instills the wisdom to separate significant advances from marketing fluff. I started as a little kid back when just having a built-in meter or a coupled rangefinder was a hot idea, eliminating the need to carry a separate meter or rangefinder!
The reason you see so much here about Nikon is that Nikon's quality, just like all other 35mm equipment maker's quality, varies widely among products compared to what I get in medium and large formats and therefore requires a lot of investigation to find the right lenses and cameras for me.
Large and medium format equipment is usually all excellent, so I usually am very happy with whatever I get and don't have to wind up experimenting with every lens under the sun as I do with 35mm. Of course all this trial and error, costing me hundreds of dollars in film alone, is your gain because I'll tell you my results here.
I learned all this the hard way: by shooting a lot of film and spending time looking at it.
Of course you may disagree, that's why I point out that these are what work for me. At least I am a photographer and presenting all this to you as any other news media does: presenting the facts and letting you to decide. I'm not a for-profit magazine reviewer, technical hobbyist or camera company PR person. I'm just posting my opinions for my personal reference.
Because lenses do vary from sample to sample you may see different results than I do.
Most normal and telephoto lenses are pretty similar from sample to sample.
On the other hand, I've seen great differences between different samples of the exact same make and model wide-angle lenses. This is probably due to the much tighter mechanical tolerances needed in short focal length lenses.
Therefore, when I like a lens that means that your lens could be worse, or if I hate a lens that yours may still be great. All a test of a given lens sample means is that the design is at least capable of that level of performance.
That means that my or anyone's test of a certain lens is a test of that individual sample of lens, not an absolute test of all samples of this lens.
Lenses are not computer software that is duplicated with accuracy measured in astronomical terms. Every lens is like a person: they all turn out differently from the others.
The only things that tend to vary between lens samples are sharpness, diaphragm calibration (exposure), color balance and autofocus errors.
Flare and distortion are locked more deeply in the original design of the lens and not very subject to manufacturing variation.
Even a poor lens still looks plenty sharp through the viewfinder in a camera store. I shoot film and only pay attention to what I see on that film.
Everyone has different criteria, and that's a second reason no one agrees on how good any piece of equipment is. In fact, if you see too many people all agreeing on how good or bad a certain piece is, you probably ought to suspect that none of them really has a personal opinion from trying the actual piece and are in fact just parroting what other idiots on the Internet parroted from someplace else.
I travel a lot. You probably do, too, unless you work in a studio all day. Therefore small, light equipment is preferred to heavier equipment. I often use filtration, so lenses that work well with screw in filters attached are preferred.
Remember that everyone needs equipment for totally different types of work. There is NO perfect camera (except the recently discontinued Mamiya 6 system) for every application. Beginners often think that it's easy to answer "what's the best camera," but without knowing where you want to go and what you want to do with the images it's impossible to say. Ask six competent photographers for opinions and you'll get twelve different answers, and they'll all be correct.
See my section on formats. Many people use the 35mm format because everyone else does, even though for many popular forms of photography, like landscapes, one should be using a larger format if one is serious about doing something with the results.
Everyone has different standards. I'm a very tough grader on lenses. There are only a couple of 35mm SLR camera lenses that I've seen that I'd call reasonably flawless. The others all have visible image defects, which is simply the way things are. Most large and medium format lenses are just about perfect, which is why you see so much more ink spent reviewing 35mm SLR lenses and not larger format ones.
I also shoot a lot under available light and with slow film. Therefore I often shoot lenses wide open, and need them to perform well there. Most lenses get much better as you stop them down. When I grade a lens I am strongly biased towards their performance at the larger apertures, and much less so at the smaller apertures. There is also less difference between lenses when they are stopped down, as many of the defects visible at wide apertures improve with stopping down.
Most people aren't as picky as I am, so most will be quite happy with lenses I don't like. Everything tried out and reviewed here is pretty good equipment and any of it should be just fine for casual use, especially if you are shooting prints.
If you are an amateur you probably are using print film. If this is the case, you can ignore worrying about lens quality because you just won't see it on the little 5x7" prints you get from the one-hour lab. You won't even see anything about your colors or exposure, because those are screwed up for you in the printing process for you at even good labs. Any of this equipment is so good that you just can't see how good it is in a 5x7" print.
Shoot slides if you really want to see how good your colors and exposures are, as well as how sharp things can be, unless you are doing your own printing.
With prints smaller than about 11x14" you really aren't taxing much of the performance of which a good lens is capable. You are only seeing 10% of what your equipment might be able to do if you only make 8x10" prints. You are lucky, because you can ignore reading these boring lens tests because you won't see any differences between what I call a dog and the best lens on earth. You can go out and create great images without worrying about all this. Be happy knowing that whatever lens you want to put on your SLR will give you great results mostly dependent on your ability, not the lens itself. If you want to make gorgeous, sharp 20x24" prints than you'll probably appreciate the differences between lenses.
To me and most other reviewers a "good" lens is a sharp, technically accurate lens in the scientific sense. If your work is more interpretive in feeling and you prefer a softer rendition, you again don't need to worry about scientific lens quality. Scientists don't create images, artists do. Scientists just make lenses.
I test on Velvia transparency film and look at it with Peak 8x and 22x loupes. Crazier people use microscopes, however the higher magnification and collimated light sources means they spend more time looking at the grain than the image.
I usually go up to La Jolla's Mount Soledad (900' or 275m elevation) and photograph the city of San Diego at infinity focus. This puts all parts of the frame in focus at infinity. This way one can look for sharpness at all points of the image. For general photography his is superior to test charts because it tests for all resolutions in all orientations at all points of the film. Traditional test charts only measure resolution in fixed steps in two directions at only several points of the image.
That tells me how sharp a lens is.
All lenses should be sharp, it's only usually 35mm camera lenses that vary. In other words, I don't get too excited when a lens is very, very sharp because this is normal. Sharpness is not an exotic aspect of performance. Unsophisticated camera collectors who don't make pictures don't know any better than to place a lot of importance on this. Don't. Much of the difference in sharpness I see between lenses is very subtle (read almost invisible), and therefore only important when I am selecting one lens over another. It's nowhere near as significant in any photo as how the lens is used to make that photo. The sharpest lens in one format is still not as sharp as a pretty bad lens in the next bigger format. If you want no to have to worry about sharpness just work in a larger format. This is very important.
To check for distortion I find some straight lines, typically a building or the La Jolla ocean horizon, and photograph them placed along the long side of the image. Sometimes a square brick wall is used for this. I lay a ruler against my chromes and look for any light peeking between a potentially curved line on my film and the ruler. Watch yourself and use a ruler because the ordinary light falloff in many images tricks our eyes into seeing barrel distortion that may not be there.
To test for flare and ghosts I find a place in the sun that has a close view of a shadowed side of a building. I shoot images with the sun in them and look in the dark shadows to check for ghosting. I'll also test this at night outdoors with lights shining straight into the lens.
Falloff is usually checked by shooting an evenly lit clear or overcast sky. Sometimes very wide lenses have to be tested with a blank wall, since the sky varies over large angles.
A good lens still looks tack sharp at 22x, regardless of format. Most medium and large format lenses can do this easily at all reasonable apertures. Unfortunately, 35mm reflex cameras and lenses vary a lot more in their quality and don't usually meet this standard. That's too bad, since the 35mm cameras are the ones that need the sharpest lenses they can get since the film is so small.
WHY DIDN'T I TEST A CERTAIN LENS?
I'm a photographer, not a camera reviewer.
These are tests of lenses I've used or at least have an interest in personally. I know it seems like I've shot every lens in existence, but to be honest I haven't.
I don't bother with the discount lenses so I don't mention them. If you care, my opinion is that the best independent lenses come from Tokina, then Tamron, and the poorest mechanically are from Sigma. When I'm limited on cash I prefer to buy used camera-brand lenses, not new discount ones. By all means, if you want to, buy from a place that will let you return something and try out a discount lens if you insist.
Lens quality has nothing to do with the quality of the images that are produced with it. A sharp lens makes it easier to produce sharp results, but a talented artist can get his or preferably her point across with any equipment. I prefer sharp representations, but that's certainly not the only valid interpretation.
I put this information up here because I'm good at it and have spent the time researching this. I want you not to spend too much time worrying about making photos of resolution charts and wants you to to go out and make great images. Don't be an armchair camera collector who, if he makes any images at all, makes really boring ones.
I hope I help debunk some of the snake oil out there. Doing this for no commercial purpose gives me the complete freedom to say what I mean. I hope you find these reviews helpful.