Cameras and Lenses Don't Matter

Started 9 months ago | Discussions thread
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Jared Willson
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Cameras and Lenses Don't Matter
9 months ago

The more I have been working with my Leica M9 and M(240) over the past few years, the more I have come to a rather startling conclusion, at least it’s startling to me. In terms of technical image quality, the camera and the lens make no difference. That’s right, they don’t really matter.

All right, I know what you’re thinking. This is just a troll post; I am just trying to elicit a dramatic response. All right, I am trying to get a response, but not in the way you probably think. I’m trying to get people to examine what is really important to them in their particular style of photography before assuming the camera or the lens will improve their photography. We all hear that it’s the photographer that makes the difference, not the equipment, but underneath it all I don’t think we really believe it.

Here is an example. Really, it’s THE example I want to use. Below are two extremely boring pictures of an extremely flat subject. One was taken with a Leica M(240) at base ISO with an Apochromatic Summicron 75mm Aspherical lens shot at its best aperture—f/5.6 This is one of the finest lenses ever made for 35mm format cameras. The other was taken with a Panasonic GF1 micro 4/3 camera with a consumer grade 14-45mm zoom lens at 37mm also shot at it’s optimum aperture, f/8. In both cases a tripod was used. In both cases a 2s self-timer was used to minimize motion blur. In both cases the focus was checked carefully. In both cases the white balance was set manually. The raw images were brought into Lightroom where I matched exposure as closely as I could between the two. I also adjusted the vignetting on the Leica shot (the Panasonic does this in-camera).

Image One

Image Two

No sharpening was applied in either case. No noise reduction. No contrast optimization. No white point or black point set. I then up-sampled the Panasonic GF1 shot to the same 24 megapixels as the Leica using Photoshop’s “bicubic smoother” algorithm so it would be possible to compare the shots at the same pixel scale when viewing at 100%. Some might argue this gives the Leica an unfair advantage, but it seems like a better choice than handicapping the higher resolution camera by down-sampling it to the lowest common denominator. Finally, I exported both images as high quality JPG’s at a typical size for web use—long edge set to 1024 pixels.

O.K., be truthful now. Can you tell which is which? I don’t mean are there any differences—of course there are. Even though I set the white point manually in both cases, the color response is not identical between the two cameras, and in one case the camera wasn’t quite level. So you tell me. Which has that famous Leica glow? Which has the better “rendering?”

I’m not going to make you wait for an answer as to which is which. That WOULD be trollish behavior. The first image was shot with the Panasonic and the second with the Leica. For those of you who think they can recognize the “Leica Look” on a web posting, I think you are crazy.

What about if we look at 100% crops? Is there a difference if you make a really big print? What about center of field performance vs. edge of field? All right, here are some 100% crops of each from the center and lower right portions of the images. Obviously, when viewing at a pixel peeping level you can tell the difference. Noise is better controlled in the Lecia, and low contrast resolution in particular is much better preserved. I can even see a hint of the texture in the matting on the Leica crop from the lower right—it’s sort of a checkering effect that’s really present in the original. But could you tell the difference in a print?

Panasonic - Leica Crop Comparison

O.K., to test that out I made some prints. I blew up a portion of each image to simulate the size of a 16x20 print, the largest size that most photographers commonly use, and then printed them out on 4x6 glossy paper using my Epson 3880 printer with appropriate paper profiles and careful output sharpening for each print. Could I tell a difference? Yeah, particularly in the noise level. The Leica didn’t really show any noise even blown up to 16x20 equivalent, but the same can not be said for the Panasonic. That pretty well covers the difference in image quality, though. Both 16x20 simulations were certainly usable, even sharp.

Crops of 16x20 Prints

The print on the right is from the Panasonic, and the print on the left is from the Leica.

So, what’s my point? Basically, that we obsess over totally the wrong things in our cameras and lenses. Pretty much everything of reasonable quality these days is easily good enough to make satisfying 16x20 prints as long as you can control the picture taking situation; as long as your camera is tripod mounted, you can control the lighting, and your subject is perfectly flat you can arrange for a sharp image corner to corner almost no matter the camera and lens.

The problem is that most subjects aren’t flat, most of us don’t wander around with tripods, and the lighting is often changing and dim and coming from the wrong direction. That’s why I think what we should be obsessing over is not technical image quality but other factors. Can we choose an f/ stop to isolate our subject to our taste? For landscapes, can we get the depth of field desired? Is the lens subject to flare? How are out of focus details rendered? Are the camera menus organized in a way that we can get to the settings that really matter? Can we reliably nail focus (either manually or with autofocus)? Is noise well addressed at the ISO’s we are going to be using? Are frame rates sufficient for the objects we will be photographing? Is the camera too bulky? Are the controls too small? These are the items that matter, not megapixels or MTF charts, not anti-alias filters and sensor technology. If we spent half the time worrying about composition, perspective, and lighting that many of us put into pixel peeping and camera analysis, me included, I expect our photographs would benefit tremendously.

- Jared

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