The Sterile Look: The Problems with Camera Lenses Being Too Good

When you look at camera lenses made for photographers, we can all say that they’ve arguably become better and better. Lenses today are sharper than they’ve ever been, more contrasty, able to keep lens flare down, and able to render incredible colors. Part of this came from marketing and everyone who believes they are an expert on the internet involving lab test scores to compete for the favor of many. This ultimately translates into awards and sales. This is fine in some ways, but the problem is lenses eventually start becoming something designed too much for engineers and those who don’t necessarily know better, and less for the actual photographers themselves. If you peruse any Facebook group with the more experienced photographers, you’ll see that they bring their own creative vision to life using software and lighting in their own ways.

This is the inherent problem with photography these days. What am I talking about?

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Lomography 50mm f1.5 Helios Zenit image samples (13 of 18)ISO 4001-3200 sec

Photography, cameras, lenses, lighting, etc. are inherently something that is based way too much on numbers and algorithms and less on the actual art itself. The reason is the masses don’t understand art due to the infinitesimal amount of arts education since the Reagan days here in America. It’s a larger explanation and trend of why we’ve run out of ideas instead of just rebooting ideas over and over again. Photography, something that for years was mostly focused on an art form, is instead rendered to numbers.

A great example of this is MTF charts, which show off sharpness and other parameters in a way that makes us understand what’s being done. To that end, the general public tends to just want to go for whatever is creating the highest numbers. Instead, they tend not to necessarily look at images themselves. If you looked at the images and don’t pixel peep (because that doesn’t do justice to any single photo ever made out there) then there is a very slight chance that anyone will ever be able to tell the difference between pretty much anything out there.

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Lomography 50mm f1.5 Helios Zenit image samples (7 of 18)ISO 64001-40 sec

We, as reviewers, know this. Sigma, Zeiss, Tamron, Tokina, and Sony lenses for example all have their own unique renderings and looks. But these days, most people wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between one or the other. Why? They all look the same to most people straight out of camera. Very few people can tell what comes from a Zeiss lens vs a Sigma. Zeiss lenses have a strong character to them that is arguably over engineered–and so does Olympus in many ways. But the issue is that no lenses are delivering a look these days that really makes one manufacturer leaps and bounds more desirable than the other. And so manufacturers rely on different tactics like weather sealing, autofocus performance, and various other parameters.

That’s just capitalism; it makes sense.

But let’s return to the argument about art. Take a look at what Lensbaby and Lomography are doing: they’re creating fantastic lenses with a unique and different rendering that no one else has. The Petzval look? It’s pretty amazing when done right. The Velvet 56? It’s an absolutely beautiful lens when used correctly.

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Lensbaby Composer Pro II review image samples (19 of 24)ISO 1601-320 sec

Then look at what the cinema world is doing and you’ll see just how much more that makes so much sense in the photography world. How many cinematographers use the latest and greatest lenses? Sure, there are a number of them that really like the output but then consider how many also use old vintage glass. There are both technical and aesthetic reasons for this. When you look at the images, you get a look that can’t necessarily be rendered otherwise.

So what am I ultimately getting at here? Cameras, software, and lenses can offer you loads of different creative combinations. But the problem is many photographers just want to go for what’s considered “the best” and instead end up producing work and photographs that everyone else has. Instead, photographers in general should work on creating new and innovative work vs just trying to get the same look that all the bigger names get.

That’s a bigger problem in general; but it starts with the understanding that no one needs all the latest and greatest products out there to create fantastic images.