A Box for Lenses & Digital Sensors

Northcoast Misc. AU11-411

Weather has not been all that propitious for photography on the northcoast of California: either too much sun or not enough. What those of us who are landscape photographers want is Goldilocks sun: not too much or not too little, but just the right amount. Enough clouds for drama and color, but not so much that the sun is blocked out altogether.

After several days of constant sun, we finally got a day with some clouds. It looked like it might make for a promising sunset, so I headed off to Patrick’s Point. But at Patrick’s Point it was completely clouded over, no sun at all. Further south, however, it was more promising. There was enough of a clearing to produce a nice sunrise on the Arcata Bottoms. Even better, there was thin layer of mist along the ground. Would’ve made a nice shot if I had the right glass with me. Unfortunately, assuming I would be shooting at Patrick’s Point, I only had with me a couple of wide angle lenses; so the best I could get is what I got above. A longer focal length would have led to a better photograph. But one does the best with what one has.

While I was photographing the Arcata Bottoms, I ran across a lady who was trying to get the same shot with what looked like an iPad. Seeing my DSLR, she said what I often hear say: something along the lines of, You’ll get a better shot because you have a “nicer” camera. In one sense, this is true. I did have a “nicer,” or rather better, camera. But this misses the point, because it’s not just the camera that is responsible for the ultimate image. If I had a Holga lens attached to my camera, my photos would have paled in comparison to those shot with an iPad or any decent cell phone or point-and-shoot camera. Indeed, if you took the cheapest DSLR on the market and attached a Zeiss or a Leica R lens to it, then took the most expensive DSLR, and attached a kit lens or a superzoom to it, guess which camera would produce the best images? A digital camera is just a box for lenses and digital sensors. What primarily determines image quality is not the price paid for the camera nor how many features the camera sports, but the qualities and capabilities of the sensor combined with the optical quality of the lens used to transmit light to that sensor. The only significant difference between $500 entry-level cameras and $5,000 pro camera is that the professional cameras tend to have better sensors and features that enable the photographer to more easily focus and use lenses.

The common view that cameras are the most important technological components in producing photographic images, rather than sensors and lenses, runs deep. Photographers in America tend to be camera-centric. When people decide to get a DSLR, the first thing they usually think is, What kind of camera should I get. What is the best camera I can get given my budget? Often very little thought is given to the lenses that will go with the camera. Many consumers who wouldn’t shrink from paying $500 or more for a camera balk at paying more than a few hundred for a lens. But when it comes to image quality, $500 spent for a new lens will often go a lot further toward producing high quality images than an extra $500 on a camera. Nowadays, you can get a 10mpx used Nikon D60 for under $300. That $300 camera, when combined with a $500 prime or short zoom, will be capable of taking better landscape photos than the $8,000 Nikon D3x sporting an old Sigma or Tamron kit lens.

The camera-centric approach of consumers can be seen in the fortunes in various camera companies. All of the major camera companies of course make their own lenses; and indeed, most of them started out as optics companies and only later branched out into cameras. But those companies that remained primarily lens-centric, or were perceived as lens-centric, did not do as well as companies that became, or were perceived as becoming, camera-centric. Both Nikon and Canon, the leaders in sales of DSLR cameras and SLR lenses, make great lenses. But they are perceived to be primarily the makers and sellers of cameras. In the public mind, Nikon is primarily thought of in relation to cameras, not lenses. When Canon isn’t thought of as a printer company, they are thought of as a camera company. Leica and Zeiss, on the other hand, even though both companies either have or continue to make cameras (and Leica cameras are about as good as you can find), are primarily thought of (when people think of them at all) as lens companies. These companies tend to be noted for their glass, not their cameras. Now which of these companies dominate the market? It’s Nikon and Canon, not Zeiss and Leica.

This camera-centric approach, however, strikes me as placing the emphasis in the wrong place. Since even the least expensive entry level cameras are capable of making great images, provided they are paired with lenses of sufficient quality, the emphasis should be on the glass, not on the cameras.