Quality Results Without Pro Equipment?
Are you an amateur photographer shooting on a tight budget? How much do you have to spend to get quality prints? Is it possible to create impressive images using less expensive equipment? Yes, it’s possible, although much depends on your goals and even your style of photography.
Over the years I’ve come across examples of photographic elitism, with inner circles within inner circles where you’ll find talented pros (and deluded amateurs) who have spent a fortune on equipment. Too many are needlessly referring to detailed charts, graphs and the asscoiated ins and outs of MFT testing. They get hung up on sharpness, contrast, colour correction, relative illumination, spectral transmission, distortion and lpmm. Don’t get me wrong – I know that there are circumstances where money has to be spent: professional top gear for glossy images in classy coffee table photo publications; high quality medium format cameras and lenses for really large, sharp prints; l-o-n-g fast lenses for breath-taking wildlife and sports photography; Nikons and Canons in protective housings for crystal clear underwater images, and so on…
But beyond all of this, and of equal importance (and much more common), are the zillions of dedicated amateurs who love their hobby dearly but are strapped for cash. At times it must seem to them as if there’s no chance of getting impressive results with their Nikon or Canon consumer SLRs/DSLRs and less expensive Sigma zoom lenses. After all, those lenses just aren’t sharp enough and the cameras not robust and fully-featured enough. Will you get great results without top quality lenses? Yes, in fact you will! Will your SLR or DSLR shoot impressive images you can print to 18x12 and frame, and even sell? Yes, in fact it will. The absence of eminent sharpness does not necessarily mean that the print will lack impact, and sweating over how critically sharp a lens is is questionable if you plan to routinely expand (interpolate) the 3504x2336 pixels of consumer DSLR images for large digital print sizes.
If I believed all I read I might assume it’s almost impossible to produce impressive, adequately sharp images and prints with my current combination of consumer SLR/DSLR and Sigma lens. Occasionally serious amateurs need to immunise themselves against the “I’m-in-the-top-gear-club” snobbery that they encounter here and there. We need to be aware how much this nonsense about pro equipment dependence can make it seem like there’s no other way to get impressive quality. Talented and creative photographers like Erik Stensland, Matt Lancaster and Jeff Alu have already proved that great shots are possible without top-end pro gear.
In reasonably priced image-editing software, to a significant extent, we can manually override noticeable chromatic aberrations, such as red/cyan fringing and usefully improve image softness caused by typical lens deficiencies. (You may get these in a pro lens, by the way!) We can also buy specialised software that will go a long way to correcting the optical deficiencies of less expensive lenses. According to Rob Sheppard, writing for Outdoor Photography magazine, "For lower-priced lenses and cameras, the results are nothing short of amazing." The dedicated amateur can improve the quality of his or her less expensive lenses by using a variety of corrective software techniques and go on to produce large prints that look excellent at typical viewing distances. Achieving this is not particularly difficult.
There’s no point in anyone saying, “Yes, but shoot the same subject with pro gear too and put the prints side-by-side!” Apart from the fact that after processing there wouldn’t be a gulf between the two, this line of reasoning proves nothing since the amateur may not be able to justify very expensive gear anyway. And besides, the impressed, interested viewer won’t be thinking about irrelevant comparisons he or she can’t make. "...in discussing mechanical or optical issues we must not lose sight of the much greater importance of image content..." (Ansel Adams, The Camera, p.73)
He went on to explain that "True resloving power is the ability of a lens (or a film) to render separate, fine detail distinguishably." With that in mind let's consider the advanced amateur who buys a very expensive top quality high resolution prime lens. By consistently using a tripod, mirror lock-up, and mid-apertures he may be able to enhance his small format SLR image resolution. But in the real world how much of this improved "fine detail" will make it through to the print? Printing standards vary, both at home and commercially. Will our amateur need to interpolate (enlarge) the image to get the print size he needs? Is the end product really worth the outrageous expense? On each and every photo forum, top quality lenses engender excessive praise and irrational longing in equal measure.
I’m not belittling those who need top gear for their trade, but in too many cases pro equipment doesn’t guarantee impressive results. I’m reminded of a pro medium format photographer who took a large group photograph and gave us shots that were focussed on the tree just behind where we stood. It’s very significant that nobody noticed but me! Seriously, on the day I could have produced equally acceptable and better focussed results with my gear I mentioned above. I'm regularly asked and paid to take photographs of glass objects, and I've seen the work of a professional who worked for several hours and charged a fortune for rubbish shots. To crown it all I recently I saw a pro scenic calendar with a landscape shot that included a large cardboard box in the foreground! Let's get into the real world here!
And there are courageous amateurs elbowing their way into the pro niche, undercutting rivals by using less expensive 35mm equipment to shoot weddings, getting less than top quality results, yet making a tidy sum for a few hours work. The customers have their memories and are delighted with their albums.
Someone on a DSLR forum wrote: “We've compared photos back and forth many times and it does take top of the line lenses to make The Photo happen.” And: "You will find that better lenses do help take better pictures." And "It's generally held that DSLRs need the best quality lenses to produce the perfect results." And someone who may need real-world therapy wrote in a photo magazine: "... many amateur photographers forget that great shots need great lenses" (Digital Photography User). Can glass resolution and contrast in small format SLR photography really take us this far? For me as a dedicated amateur, this somewhat dated and questionable reasoning only reminds me how relative everything can be in the context of image editing techniques and how prints actually appear at typical viewing distances. The true professional has unique priorities, of course. For example, top of the line lenses are better constructed and will tolerate heavy use.
Let's not get carried away here: we must remember that beyond doubt some lenses are total bum steers and struggling with them adds disadvantages the amateur photographer could well do without. Generally however, many less expensive lenses can deliver very good results in larger prints, particularly after the careful application of excellent SLR techniques in the field and the use of corrective image-editing tools at home.
Under average to strong contrast conditions, a less expensive lens will cause red and blue fringing around the edges of the image. But, as we have already mentioned, if a shot is particularly important, fringing can be removed. Fringing, especially at wide-angle settings, is also caused by light striking the image sensor at a steep angle. Barrel and pincushion distortion are quite noticeable with cheaper zooms, especially at extreme focal lengths. Independent zoom lenses need to be assessed in context — they will never outperform prime lenses.
As an aside at this point, here's something to think about if you're shopping for your first or second lens: should you "buy the best you can afford"? Well, it depends. This advice is rampant on forums but it's not very clever. In truth it's very easy to buy into much more than you will ever need, especially if money isn't a problem. The best solution is to put your brain in gear and think realistically about what you will actually need. What we want is a different proposition! What are your goals? How far do you intend going with your amateur hobby? What will the final product be? Are you going to sell large prints? If you feel you would like to be semi-pro, to make added income from larger high quality prints, for example, you may need to consider investing in a very expensive top-end full-fame DSLR. But that's a big step up.
To date, I have shot mostly hi-res JPEGs rather than RAW images (see The Gallery for examples of images produced from RAW files). To get more neutral results, I set the camera to a customised parameter setting, although it’s worth remembering that with some cameras when Contrast, Sharpness, Saturation and Colour Tone are set to zero, they are in fact set to 3 on a scale of 5. (Don’t turn sharpening off completely.) The neutral JPEG images are loaded into Corel PHOTO-PAINT and immediately converted to a lossless format for archiving and editing. It’s a fact that image-editing improves the performance of your lens! And this, of course, applies to my film scans too. It's definitely worthwhile spending time at the computer adjusting curves, levels and the sharpening values. You can end up with very good images that look reasonably sharp, even at larger sizes, all taken with a lens and camera combination that costs a lot less than the professional equivalent!
To reiterate, software manipulation plays a significant role here for the dedicated amateur who, for whatever reason, will not be buying the best small format gear. If necessary, he can remove or minimise some of the lens’s more obvious flaws and so help to create an excellent image that soars at typical viewing distances. How many will get nose grease on an exhibited print just to assess critical sharpness? Is that why the shot was made? And, if side-by-side comparisons are made, the difference is not as obvious as it used to be.
“ ‘Gadgetitis’ is a psychological condition induced by the desire to compensate for
an inferiority feeling… I believe that photographers should pay far more attention to
studying photographs than apparatus.”
Emil Otto Hoopé
Everyone agrees that top lenses should suffer from less aberrations and produce crisper images, but are those pro lenses necessary to “make The Photo happen”? Particularly in the context of dedicated enthusiasts and their financial restraints, it cannot be reasonably argued that big name quality lenses are essential. Yes, some pros have a different perspective – they have to. But if you are a talented dedicated amateur using consumer gear, there can be no doubt that you will produce prints that are adequately sharp or better, and are tonally balanced. They will really look the business!
So, if you’re feeling a little left out because you can’t afford the pro glass you hear mentioned daily on the photography forums, or pricey DSLRs, costly accessories and unbelievably expensive software others espouse, don’t worry – just get out there and work like crazy on your technique. You don’t actually need to shoot hundreds of shots week in, week out. You’ll wear your ‘amateur’ camera out too soon. Take your time and hone your skills. Use your equipment to its fullest potential, and there’s no doubt that if you have a photographic eye, you’ll soon be delivering results that others will appreciate.