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The diminutive Paralympics Gold medallist Helena Lucas in her 2.4mR

Controversial?

I recall some years ago, the erstwhile large format camera user Tony Clark, (yes he of London Camera Exchange, Southampton), saying to me, “There’s no substitute for good glass.” In other words, if you have the best camera in the world, but shoot through a poor quality lens, the photograph will not stand scrutiny. Add in today’s ever higher resolution cameras to the mix and the importance of a good lens acting as the conduit for light to reach the camera, becomes increasingly relevant. Brought about by my use of my Nikon D800E for some 6 months now, I have a question for you to ponder over. Given the comprises that have always had to be made in the manufacture of a zoom lens, are we not better using a no compromise, (other than price), prime lens and cropping into your high resolution images when necessary? Now, any of you that have attended one of my workshops or PhotoTreks will probably have witnessed my verbal condemnation in doing this, citing that it is not ‘best practice’ and you should endeavour to achieve the best image in camera, in the field, at the time. My viewpoint has not changed and I will always continue to teach ‘Best practice’. But....

As many of you know the summer of 2012 has been particularly busy for me photographing various yachts and dinghies along the south coast of England. For this I use two camera bodies usually fitted with a 24-70 F2.8 or 300mm F4 on one body and 80-200 F2.8 lens on the other.

Old habits die hard and I started off the season predominantly using my D2xs Nikon – big, bulky but dependable. It is used to being doused in seawater and living to tell the tale. (To be honest, I was apprehensive as to how my new D800E would cope in this regard with the wetness, but three months of hard use down the line, I shouldn’t have worried.)

However, after processing a few events worth of images, I started experimenting with those from the D800E. Having 36 megapixels to play with, there is a massive amount of recorded detail available. As such, I have found the speeds of the images need to be higher, just as you would when using a longer focal length lens. With such detail, experimenting with crop sizes and print definition has proved interesting to say the least.

I have mentioned before that one of my images taken on the 12mp Nikon D2xs has been produced by Hampshire County Council as a six foot by four foot picture hanging in Lymington Library. It looks great. As it is a large image, you look at it from a commensurable distance. Pixel peepers may be picky up close, but they are not looking at the whole picture, (practically of theoretically!).

For a great deal of my sailing work on events such as Cowes Week and the Paralympics, the images are destined for magazines where a double page spread is the largest reproduction, so around A3 size at 300ppi. This picture however is viewed at normal reading distance, say 12 inches, so it must be defined and cut the mustard professionally.

Now, ignoring the mathematics, what this means is that an image from my Nikon D800E can be cropped to an eighth its original size, interpolated and an acceptably defined A3 photograph can be produced, just like the opening image of gold medallist Helen Lucas above in fact*.

So, by using a lighter lens such as the 200mm or 300mm, which is so much easier to handle than a 500mm, it is likely to produce a better taken shot as there is less chance of muscle fatigue and therefore it should be a much steadier taken image. The determination of aperture and speed is still pertinent of course as you still have to ensure a sharp shot, but the effect of a 500mm or longer lens can now be reproduced successfully by cropping in.

Let’s expand this further. For street photography, usually I carry a couple of lenses, a 24mm F2.8 and 35mm F2 prime. Sometimes I may add a 50mm prime in my pocket as well. All are small, light and discreet but there are occasions when I need extra magnification. This means adding an 85mm maybe or carrying something even longer, which stands out like a sore thumb. By using the smaller lenses and knowing that I can effectively crop the image to give that of a lens twice the focal length and still produce a decent sized print, maybe this is the way to go?

Gone are the comprises of a zoom lens’s optical ability and weight, in come super sharp, lightweight lenses with usually better chromatic aberration and optical distortion.

Of course, this is no good for utilising the D800E’s 36mb detail to produce really large prints. Then I will want every single one of them, but, I am sure I will crop in more now, knowing what is capable. Is this laziness or pragmatism?
Perhaps with the highly regarded Fuji x100 with its 35mm fixed lens and the new RX1 camera from Sony also with a fixed 35mm lens, in the future we’ll all be walking round with massive sensor capability and one fixed super high quality lens! Food for thought.

Add in that entry level cameras now have 24mb as a starting point, the old adage about good glass still holds true and perhaps even more so.
However, as the majority of photographers don’t actually print their images, instead simply reproducing them on a computer screen, none of this matters much anyway!
Discuss! Let me know what you think.

Keep practising
I am

NB * I know you cannot see the image above at 300 ppi, as your screen on has 72 or 96pp. You’ll just have to accept my word for the fact that it is acceptable printed as discussed.