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In Praise of Inexpensive Lenses

When I was a semi-professional 4×5 landscape photographer I often spent a half-hour shooting a single sheet of film and several hours enlarging it to the best of my ability. I sought the sharpest possible result. And now in the digital age, I still pursue sharp images.

Phillip Reeve writes on his website that he has two hobbies, photography and photographic equipment and they rarely intersect. I too enjoy both creating photos and testing lenses. The two hobbies are different.

My second hobby has led me to discover that lightweight inexpensive lenses perform well at the smaller apertures that I usually choose for depth of field.

I enjoy taking my Sony a6400 along on daily walks and often take the smallest zoom lens available, the 16-50mm. It weighs only 117 grams and is very flat. Photo writers often recommend that you ditch this cheap “kit lens” and replace it with a “real lens”. But in my tests, it matched my best 35mm Zeiss prime at f/5.6 and smaller apertures.

Sony a6400 with 16-50 kit zoom extended.

Zooms and Primes

When zoom lenses first became common, I thought they weren’t good enough and only used primes. But with time zooms improved and I learned that they often match or even exceed the sharpness of primes, especially at small apertures and with a bit of sharpening in edit.

At large apertures, cheap lenses are reasonably sharp on center. It’s off-center where they may be soft. But when I do use large apertures, I want blur off-center to highlight the central “star” of the shot. Of course, composition goals might dictate placing the “star” off-center, but I shoot it on center, where lenses are best, and crop for composition.

Isolated “star” subject
Another isolated subject

Quantitative Testing

I love imatest test results. When first investigating a lens, I Google “lens-name, imatest”. I find that a good starting point. But if lens “A” has imatest result of 2,000 lines and lens “B” tested at 3,000 lines, how do I relate that to my photos? To answer that I seek test pics. Cameralabs and Phillip Reeve offer test pics on and off-center at all apertures. Also, I often shoot my own tests.

Shot with the Sony E PZ 16-50mm f/3.5-5.6 OSS at f/11.

My favorite test subject is a sloped shingled roof. As Lensrentals founder Roger Cicala teaches, an oblique shot shows sharpness and field curvature. He also teaches that field curvature is rarely a problem. More about that later. Roger likes to shoot grass and that works, I’ve come to like shingled roofs.

All roof shots except “composition shingles” were made with Sony a6400 and 16-50mm kit zoom.

The test roof
Composition shingles

Sharp lenses capture the grainy quality of the crushed rock on composition shingles. Wood shingles are good too. Another advantage of an oblique subject is that if you miss perfect focus, it’s probably there, a bit higher or lower in your frame.

Recently I shot this roof with several 35mm primes and zooms at all their apertures. I examined the sides of the image to determine at what apertures the sides reach their best sharpness. This was f/5.6 to f/8 for most good lenses and every lens I tested had sharp sides at f/11. My cheap 16-50 “kit lens” surprised me by achieving sharp sides at f/5.6 and smaller when slightly sharpened. That’s excellent.

Crops of test roof. Color shift is present in the entire roof image above

Center crop (left), right side (center), and right side sharpened (right).

My Zeiss ZA 35mm f/2.8 had sharp sides wide open. When I saw this, I was amazed and delighted. But then I realized that even though this lens has sharp sides wide open, I would usually stop down to f/11 or f/16 for depth of field. And on the occasions when I did use large apertures, I would want soft sides. So the outstanding performance of this lens was of little advantage over lesser lenses.

Shot with the Sony E PZ 16-50mm f/3.5-5.6 OSS at f/11.
Shot with the Sony E PZ 16-50mm f/3.5-5.6 OSS at f/11.
Shot with the Sony E PZ 16-50mm f/3.5-5.6 OSS at f/11.

Why I Don’t Fret About Field Curvature

I usually want depth of focus and use small apertures where field curvature disappears. And if I’m using larger apertures, that is to isolate the central “star” of the shot and I want blur off-center.

Shot with the Sony E PZ 16-50mm f/3.5-5.6 OSS at f/11.
Shot with the Sony E PZ 16-50mm f/3.5-5.6 OSS at f/11.
Shot with the Sony E PZ 16-50mm f/3.5-5.6 OSS at f/11.

A “Good Lens”

The widely accepted definition of a good lens is one that’s sharp over the entire frame at a wide aperture. The ZA 35 mentioned above would be considered “very good” because it achieves that wide open. But I’m happy as long as my lens is sharp over the entire frame at least by f/11. To date, every lens I’ve tested meets that. And because I like light weight, I often walk around with my cheap lenses, which are my lightest.


About the author: Alan Adler lives in Los Altos, California. He has been an avid photographer for 60 years. He is also a well-known inventor with about 40 patents. His best-known inventions are the Aerobie flying ring and the AeroPress coffee maker.

Atomos Just Unveiled an HDMI-to-USB Capture Card that Costs Only $80

Atomos—the purveyor of HDMI monitor/recorders like the popular Ninja V—has just released a 4K HDMI-to-USB capture card that lets you turn your professional camera into an ultra-high quality webcam for streaming or video conferencing. The best part? It costs just $80.

HDMI capture cards like the popular Elgato Cam Link 4K are one of the easiest, highest-quality options if you want to turn your professional camera into a webcam for streaming or video conferencing. But getting your hands on one has been extremely difficult ever since much of the world locked down in March and everyone began working remotely.

Since then, just about every camera company has released some sort of bespoke software that lets you do the same thing over USB—see here, here, here, here, and here—but if you want the best possible quality, using an HDMI output is still the best way to go. Enter the Atomos Connect.

Officially announced yesterday, the company has dubbed the Connect “a convenient, reliable, and affordable bridge between professional 4K video capture and high frame rate UVC streaming over USB.” The key word there is “affordable.” Atomos envision everyone from gamers to educators jumping on the opportunity to pick up a capture card that comes in at about half the price of the $140 Cam Link 4K.

Spec wise, the Atomos Connect can accept an input up to 4K/30p from the HDMI output of your camera and outputs up to 1080/60p video straight into any computer with a USB port—no need for additional drivers, software, or a power supply. And if you own a Atomos Shogun7, you can use the Connect to pair the recorder with your Mac or PC and switch between up to four cameras that are all recording at once.

Whether you want to use a popular streaming solution like OBS Studio, set up a multi-cam “production” at home, or you just want to up your Zoom game by turning your full-frame mirrorless camera into high-end webcam, the Atomos Connect is a relatively cheap plug-and-play solution that will get you there. To learn more or if you want to order one for yourself, click here.

(via DPReview)


CORRECTION: The original version of this article stated that the Atomos Connect can output 4K video. This is incorrect. It can accept up to a 4K/30p signal but can only output up to 1080/60p. We apologize for any confusion.

Testing Out the Cheapest 35mm Film Scanner on Amazon

Photographer and YouTuber George Muncey of Negative Feedback recently set out on an ill-fated adventure in film scanning. He went out and bought the cheapest 35mm film scanner he could find online—the DIGITNOW! 135, which costs a whopping $60 on Amazon—and tried it out so that you don’t have to.

There’s not a lot of introduction required here. Muncey went on Amazon, found the cheapest 35mm film scanner money could buy, and put it to the test to see if it even approached “good enough.”

The point was to see if this is a viable option for someone who is just getting into film photography and doesn’t have much money to spend on a scanner or getting film professionally scanned. And if you’re looking to get the cheapest 35mm film scanner that pops up when you do a quick search, this is it (note, the picture shows the US model):

You should watch the video to see how it went, but we won’t keep you in suspense: the scans did not turn out well. In fact, as Muncey puts it:

The scans look like they were photos taken on an early 2000s camera phone, definitely not a nice film camera. And if you can get past the rather shocking quality, there’s a lot more waiting for you…

There’s some lovely color inaccuracy. None of these photos look how they were meant to. And if you can get past that, there’s dust… and a lot of it. There’s almost more [dust] than image.

Muncey describes the results as “potato quality,” and while the black-and-white film scans avoided the pitfall of color inaccuracy, they were still chock full of dust and scanned at such poor quality that it’s really just not worth it. Long story short: do yourself a favor and pick something up that’s at least a little bit nicer.

Check out the full video up top to watch Muncey suffer a little bit trying to set up and use this scanner, and if you haven’t gotten enough by the end, check out the followup video he published a few days ago where he buys the cheapest 35mm film camera on the Internet:

(via Fstoppers)