The Key To Great Photography Is A Good Lens, Right? :: Digital Photo Secrets

The Key To Great Photography Is A Good Lens, Right?

by David Peterson 10 comments

opinion The Key To Great Photography Is A Good Lens, Right? You wouldn’t be the first one to think that. Quite a few inexperienced (and sadly, experienced) photographers seem to believe this, and it’s completely false. In the grand scheme of things, the lens you’re using is one of the least important aspects of photography. After all, it’s just the piece of glass the light travels through to get to the sensor. Yes, it has to be up to a certain standard of quality, but it’s bogus to say it can make or break a photographer.

Expensive lenses are like expensive cars. They tend to serve one purpose, and beyond that, they aren’t much better than a standard lens.
Photo By Flickr User: bobaliciouslondon

When you think about it, so much more matters. You can have the greatest piece of equipment, but if you don’t have the skill to operate it, what does it really matter? I happen to be a very inexperienced race car driver. I’ve never raced a day in my life. If you were to put me in a Formula One racer right this instant, do you think I’d get any better at racing? Not a chance. I’d be way too timid and unsure of myself to perform anywhere near the level of the athletes.

Expensive Lenses are Highly Specialized

It’s no different with lenses. There are a lot of very expensive ones out there, but you won’t know how to use them if you aren’t a well-rounded and experienced photographer. Much like a race car, they are highly specialized. Many of them only have one purpose, and if you don’t use them for that particular purpose, they really aren’t that much better than a standard lens.

Do you think the police would ever allow you to drive at race car speeds on the highway? Nope. Similarly, a nice lens won’t do much for you it you aren’t using it for the shooting situation it was designed to handle.

The real key to becoming a great photographer

As they say with music, tone is in your fingers. A camera, a lens, a flash, they’re all just the tools you use to make photography happen. Nobody would ever say an artist is great because she uses great paintbrushes and canvas. They always say she’s skilled.

A camera is like a musical instrument. You won’t get good at it unless you practice. I’ll put my money on the photographer who is out there taking dozens and dozens of pictures with a cheap point and shoot model over the one who sits at home all day surfing through Ebay looking for deals on the next lens up from the one he’s got. The more pictures you take, no matter what camera or lens you’re using to take them, the better the photographer you become.

Sure, there might be some lens flare and chromatic aberrations in this image, but who can deny the power of the lighting and the emotions? So much more important.
Photo By Flickr User: live-14zawa

The lens only controls the quality of the light entering the camera. How much does that matter if the picture being taken has no emotion, uninteresting composition, a lack of color, or any number of problems most amateur pictures tend to have? Photographers practice the art of photography to get better at capturing emotions, using shapes to guide the eye through the photo, and dialing in the settings to get perfect colors every time. You don’t get any of that without practice.

Don’t buy a new lens until you absolutely need it

If you do decide to buy a new lens, you need to know why you’re buying it. Are you buying it because someone told you it’s the best lens, or are you buying it because there’s a specific picture you want to take, and you need a certain feature of the lens in order to take it? Always buy for the latter reason, never the former.

Only experience will teach you which tools you truly need and which ones you don’t. You can do an awful lot with starter lenses than most camera salespeople would like you to believe. As you grow accustomed to those tools, through years of use, you’ll eventually figure out their limitations. Then, and only then, should you upgrade to a “better” lens.

You might want to get a new lens to get more magnification in macro photography. This one was taken with off-brand Tamron lens, and it turned out very nice!
Photo By Flickr User: 55Laney69

In summery, you won’t become a better photographer by purchasing a new lens (although you might end up doing it anyway to justify your new purchase ;-) ). You’ll just make it easier to get certain images, just like a race car makes it easier for racers to go faster. Don’t expect the world from your lenses. Take more photos, and you will be a better photographer. I guarantee it.

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  1. Thomas Louw says:

    The best equipment does not equal good results, I agree that the expertise of the user gets results.
    For me sharpness is not negotiable then composition (which I have never yet been satisfied with) thereafter exposure color accuracy etc.

    My philosophy, you should have at least 1 very sharp lens (the very best your budget will allow) (Try not to buy twice)

    I use two lenses that are very sharp F1.4*50mm and a F2.8*100mm (macro) I have discarded the kit lenses I also use a Canon 100-400 F5.4 which is reasonably sharp.

  2. Scott says:

    Good article with some good points but all things being equasl quality glass can make a big difference. First, I've never seen a pro using kit lenses. And second, throw regular street tires on a Ferrari and it won't beat a Mustang on a road course. Throw good rubber on that Ferrari and the Mustang is toast. Both sets are round and made of rubber but quality matters.

  3. Susan From Vermont says:

    I agree with what you say about buying a lens. When I got my first DSLR, I bought two "kit" lenses that covered the range of focal lengths from 18mm to 300mm. For quite a while I was satisfied with them, partly because learning to use the camera itself was high priority. My next lens purchase was a 150mm macro lens, because I needed it in order to get more than simply "close-ups".

    Now I am planning additional purchases - two faster lenses, that also have a reputation for very sharp images. Eventually will probably also acquire a full-frame camera, keeping my crop-sensor as a second body. They would complement each other nicely. Also, since the lenses I have on my "wish list" are full-frame lenses, they will work nicely with both bodies.

  4. Susan From Vermont says:

    Your postings are always thought-provoking and informative. Here is my take on what is important: Taking a photo is both a simple and a complex process. As you said, no matter what equipment is being used, knowing how to make the most of its capabilities is necessary. Most cameras and lenses these days have a fairly decent level of quality, which means that the content, composition, and artistry decided by the shooter is what will make or break an image.

    That said, the quality of the finished product can be affected by the equipment in a detrimental way. For instance, if you are shooting in low-light conditions, and your camera cannot deliver low-noise images at high ISOs, you will not get as good an image. If you are shooting with a lens that does not have sufficient aperture to provide more light, again your image will not be as good.

    It all comes back to deciding what is important, and my answer is: "it depends". Depends on the objective, depends on the photographer, depends on the equipment. All are intricately interwoven in how they affect the final outcome!

  5. emery carrier says:

    Wish i had read your column a while ago,i spend a lot on lens for nothing,i always taught
    it was the lens fault so i would change or buy a better one.

  6. huevi says:

    Your word about buying a new lens is correct, If I read these words 2 months ago I wouldn't buy a new.
    Now I don't use my new lens ....:(...waste money
    Anyway thank you very much,

  7. Daniel Rye says:

    Hi David, generally I think you write great tips for photography, however the statement that the lens is not important, I think is a bit too bold. I think a much more correct statement would be that: "the quality of the lens" is not important for a good photo.
    What IS important in a lens is to knowingly choose the Focal length (e.g. if it is a 35mm a 50mm, or maybe a 35-105mm lens), and also the Aperture is important as it determines how shallow a depth of field you can get. And both these 2 factors I find important for the way the content of the picture is communicated.
    The quality of the lens that achieve those, I agree is less important, and cheaper 3rd party brands like Tamron or Sigma can easily achieve those things, and with acceptable quality.
    Fpr example. When I am taking portraits, I love using a 50mm with aperture 2.0, which allows me to include part of the persons environment, adding to the personality of the portrait, while the background still being out-of-focus so that it does not steal the attention of the person in the portrait. This however, can be achieved with a very, very cheap lens, but would be close to impossible or at least very difficult with many point-and-shoot cameras.
    I do however agree with your main point of the article, that it IS the photographer that takes the picture, and not the camera, and a new lens does not automatically make you a better photographer. (though certain lenses CAN open the doors to approaching new styles and ways to shoot.)
    I do enjoy reading your tips, and I hope your are not offended, that I state my (slightly) different opinion so bluntly.

  8. Mohammad says:

    Hi David,
    This is absolutely true. You will or you would grow out of your equipment. When you see your equipments are limiting you then it is time to upgrade.

  9. Lindsey Janich says:

    some great tips thanks for the great read


    ISO 800 for take photographs in the theaters, understand my english?, thank you veri much.
    I Wish a section in Spahish for Mxico.

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About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.