Do Quality Lenses Really Matter?

Do Quality Lenses Really Matter?

I recently returned from a month-long trip to Antarctica, with brief side trips to Buenos Aires and Tierra del Fuego. While the location of what I’m about to discuss here really doesn’t much matter, it may help to inform the concept a bit.

As a photography adventure tour leader, instructor and lecturer, I’m often asked about whether lens quality really matters. I mean, why pay through the nose for a pro quality lens, when for 1/3 the price you can get a perfectly functional consumer lens from your camera manufacturer or from a third-party equivalent? Well, dear readers, I’m here to explain why you might want to shell out the extra dough.

While in the Antarctic, I had the opportunity to camp out overnight (sleeping bag, no tent!) on a glacier on spectacular Ronge Island. With 24 hours of daylight in January, I eagerly anticipated photographing most of the night, which I did end up doing.

I shoot two systems, Nikon 35mm (D850) and Fuji medium format (Fuji GFX). I reserve the Nikon for wildlife images, when the action is fast and furious, but for any landscape or portrait work I exclusively use the GFX with its excellent Fujinon lenses.

Here was my dilemma. Around 1:00 AM, I was happily photographing the sweet light bathing the icebergs and glaciers using my Fujinon 120mm lens, which is equivalent to about 90mm in 35mm photography. Like I said, I was literally a happy camper.

But then I was distracted by movement in the distance coming from the right. Turns out it was a gorgeous three-masted research schooner, looking to anchor for the night. As I scrambled into my bag to fetch my Fujinon 250mm telephoto (200mm equivalent in 35 mm), I realized that I had left it back on ship. Damn!

What choice did I have? I knew right then that this would be a test of my Fujinon lens. I continued shooting, although the schooner was so far away it looked like a toy. Here is what the original file looks like, straight out of camera.

Can you believe how small that schooner looks? For me, the strength in the image lay with the schooner amidst the icebergs. So I had no choice but to crop the image beyond what I have ever done before.

Amazingly, the resulting image held up, as you can see in the lead image to this blog! Of course having 50 MP to start with helped, but my experience is that even with lots of megapixels there is no way most images would be able to take that much cropping without falling apart. There is no doubt in my mind that the combination of the GFX dynamic range and its large pixels was boosted by the quality of the lens itself. And so, with that lead image, I rest my case.