Saturday, May 2, 2015

Consumer vs. Pro Lens Comparison for Landscape Photography

Notice: This post might seem a bit boring to you if you're not in to photography.  It is more about my personal thoughts on what lenses I need to get more than anything, but might be useful to someone else who is at the same place in their studies as I am. 

After studying and looking at many different camera lenses, I was excited when a friend from school recently offered to let me borrow her husband's Nikkor 80-200mm f2.8 professional grade lens.  I went to try it out for a quick sunrise shoot near Boulder.  I found a spot where you could get the Boulder Flatirons AND Longs Peak in the same frame from an angle south of town.  This location is quite a distance away from these two landmarks and would required a telephoto lens.  I scouted out the area the evening before and found that 200mm would be just about right for the shot.  I took the big 80-200 and compared it to my 55-200 kit lens.  The next morning I took some sunrise shots with it, then I picked a location to do my experiment once the golden hour was over.

Both images were taken with a d7100 body on a tripod at 200mm focal length and aperture of f8.  I did no post processing. Here are the results:

55-200 VR kit lens

80-200 pro lens
Obviously, the difference between the two can't be noticed until zoomed in a bit on the screen.  The one thing that jumps out at you is how much more contrast there is in the cheaper lens.  The colors are deeper on the kit lens too.

55-200 100% center crop
80-200 100% center crop
At the center, the two are very similar.  The 80-200 seems just a hair sharper, but not enough to make a difference for the prints I make.

55-200 100% edge crop
80-200 100% edge crop
At the edge at 100% there is a pretty big difference in sharpness.  The kit lens is pretty blurry, while the pro lens is about as sharp at the edge as it is in the center.  Keep in mind this might be partially due to the fact that we are using an FX lens on a DX cropped sensor camera and therefore not even using the edges of the lens, so we can't truly see how sharp this lens is at it's edge if it were used on a full frame body.  I suspect (and hope) it would still be pretty sharp though compared to the first image.

Sooooo….What does this mean for a landscape photographer?  I know that many of the pro lenses are built for specific shooting situations.  They perform better in low light when hand held (I usually use a tripod), they are better at shooting moving targets (I usually shoot mountains that don't move), and as seen in this quick comparison, generally have better optics (in this situation with blurry edges, there are techniques that can be done to compensate).  They are also built much bigger and  stronger (which could be a positive or a negative if you're like me and do most of your photography during hiking trips and don't want to carry more weight).  They are MUCH more expensive (I am a poor art teacher).

In my opinion, a 2.8 lens is a bit overkill for landscape photography.  I would almost never even use the f2.8 aperture because I want a huge depth of field to capture the entire scene in my shots.  The only difference between the two lenses that matters for me is the image sharpness and quality.  All the other advantages that come with pro grade lenses are not even really helpful for landscapes.  I simply cannot justify spending thousands on a lens for minimal improvement in sharpness.  There are newer higher end consumer telephoto zoom lenses that rival the 2.8 lenses in image quality when stopped down that I am looking at.  The 70-300 has pretty high praise from its reviews.

Anyway, hope this was helpful!  It was fun getting to play around with some new equipment.  Here's a parting panorama from the sunrise earlier that morning:

Boulder Flatirons and Longs Peak with Mt. Meeker in the Rocky Mountain National Park Colorado
Flatirons and Longs Peak - Prints Available

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