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Friday, 08 February 2019


...Digital imaging isn't quite as much about the lens image as photography was...

Digital imaging is photography. Please don't play into the hands of those who would denigrate digital photography by making that non-existent distinction. This from someone who still expends considerable effort practicing chemical photography, but also enjoy digital photography.

The bold headers seem a bit "shouty." I've never noticed them before, or the sans serif font. your presentation is usually so measured, calm and soothing.

[The TypePad compositor won't let me do a simple "1., 2., 3.," etc. listing. It switches to it own formatting automatically. There are workarounds, but they're a pain, and this time I just said the heck with it and did something different. With the compositor interface they always seem to "fix one thing and break another." --Mike]

Eight law: the Arthur Kramer law. The sharpest lens in the world is a tripod.

I first read that on CompuServe. It really helped improve my photography.

Thanks Mike, your lens "axioms" came at just the right time for me. I'm now photographing with the Sony A7ii, which was too hard to resist at the price for a full frame camera including a 28-70mm kit lens. My Nikon D500 is inside a camera bag on the shelf for now. After taking a look at my most captivating images in Lightroom and using the metadata to isolate the focal length, it confirmed that my eye gravitated to a wider view of the world. This led me to take the dive and purchase the Sony-Zeiss 16-35mm F4.0 lens. It is NOT a cheap lens and way more than I thought was a reasonable price...Yet, it does measure up in build and image quality, while at the same time working out to be a lens that feels right in my hands, works well with the A7ii and I can tell that it will take the hard use, serve me well and last a long time. The images do have the "look" I strive for and bottom line: this lens make me happy.

[Yes! A good lens is one that makes you happy. --Mike]

What a great post, MIke! And needed too,

"The Third Law and its Corollary merely exposes the bankruptcy of the "online project" of manic, obsessive testing of lenses for technical perfection. It might be an engaging pastime, but it just doesn't matter."

Bravo, Mike. I have expressed this very opinion on some forums, to no avail. The endless search for ultimate sharpness is not only pointless, it is never ending.

I'm convinced that the internet, although it has benefits, is a damaging force in our lives.

Ben's Own Sixth Law:

"The appropriate number of lenses to own is n+1, where n equals the number of lenses you currently own."

Corollary to Ben's Own Sixth Law:

"There is no cabinet, drawer, or other piece of furniture that is sufficient to hold all the lenses you own. Thus, there is always a lens out on a table or on a window sill (such surfaces are collectively known in Ben's house as 'free-range horizontal lens storage')."

Stephen's corollary is based on the Pareto Principle:

Own the 20% of lenses that are used for 80% of your photographs. For the other 20%...rent.

So, are you going to change the name to The Online Digital Imager (TODI)?

I can't tell you which lens is technically the best lens I own. I'm not sure. I don't spend much money on lenses. I have an inkling it is the surprisingly sharp bargain that is the Nikon 35mm f/1.8 DX; that lens was responsible for some lovely results last year.

But my 'best' lenses all have obvious issues. It's what makes me use them.

The Nikon 85mm f/1.8D: flares seriously in many conditions; this makes it *awesome*. The Helios 44 I use with a focal reducer on a NEX-6: it has all sorts of problems but it's an outstanding lens to use at gigs in small, bustling venues, because you can put those problems into service to convey timeless, raucous atmosphere that a super-sharp lens might fail to do. The Lensbaby Composer: this was designed to emphasise error not light transmission and it is the better for it.

The punditsphere still confuses f-stops with price points. It's especially evident with the way the recent crop of f/1.8s and f/4s are being reviewed. Even Canon fans (blessed with a brand that has historically produced affordable f/4s they need not be ashamed of) now fall victim to this error.

If a lens is outstanding at a modest maximum aperture, how is it perceived to be worse than a nominally faster lens you have to stop down beyond the same aperture before its errors are equally controlled?

I truly dislike the 14mm (21e) Fujinon- it looks like a short tele, bigger than my FF snub nose Nikkor 20mm! But when I see those crisp snappy results, from corner to corner- I just stare in wonder and amazement!

I see. Thanks!

"Eight law: the Arthur Kramer law. The sharpest lens in the world is a tripod."

Corollary: the slowest, least responsive camera system in the world is attached to a tripod.

Corollary to the First Law: never buy a used lens.

The second law is paramount and should not be violated.

For a long time I couldn't understand why/how Minolta's 35/1.4G got such poor reviews. It produced my favorite images and yet got little love from the test charts.

From these principles (and others) I conclude: shoot with what you have. We don't have to delay our projects waiting for the perfect camera or lens.

I took these words from a wise photography blogger to heart.

Related to the third and fifth laws is another: "If you really want a particular lens, but you cannot afford it, there is probably another lens that will get you almost all of what you want from the more expensive lens."

Examples for me include: 1) A large format 210mm Fujinon L that I could afford in place of the 200mm Nikkor M that I could not. My lens is not as small or light as the Nikkor, but I'll bet nobody could ever tell the difference between the photos if I had both lenses and made comparison shots. Plus, my lens is still small and light compared to the larger Plasmat design 210s. 2) A used Canon 80-200mm f/4 in place of the 2.8 version. I use it during the day. I can shoot it at f/4. It is good enough.

Other examples outside the large format world include a 25mm f/1.8 Olympus instead of the f/1.2 version (and it is so much smaller and lighter!), or third party lenses that do the job (and are increasingly in some instances becoming preferable to the OEM's lenses).

Oh yeah, one more rule: "Your lens does not have to be new. Used is often just fine."

I’ve learned the hard way that the best used lenses are usually the ugliest ones. Beware of “mint” old lenses. They were never loved enough to be used.

The right number of lenses to own is naturally all one's current lenses and one more.

Or to paraphrase Leo Tolstoy:
All good lenses are alike; each bad lens is bad in its own way.

And that is why I have probably a hundred or so lenses.

"Commentaries...I do believe that lenses are less important now than they used to be.

I don't agree with that *at all*!

When I started using Sony full frame the only macro lens was FE 2.8/90 - a huge beast (for me) to carry in the field. I was used to 50mm from film days -- Nikkor Micro 55mm f/2.8 -- but was only 2:1 w/o a tube.

Then, Sony released its FE 2.8/50 Macro and I was in heaven (well, almost!).


I won't post an example at 450px (violates one of the laws you cite) but will link to one:


"Third You can make successful photographs with any lens, no matter how bad.

There is no way to record the detail of a small flower with a bad lens.

That a full frame macro lens can be so light and sharp is quite something!

Thus, I say that advances in optics have made newer lenses very important in the digital age, IMHO!


The Camera is just a light tight box.

The Lens is the heart of the camera.

Both cannot do things by themselves.

The Photographer is the Artist that creates the Picture.

I love Mike's Seven Laws o' Lenses.

But then I got stuck on this: Digital imaging isn't quite as much about the lens image as photography was.

I always wanted to learn photography and make photographs. But I have digital imaging gear. Can I make photographs anyway? If I avoid layers and brushes and stacks and HDR, can I say that I'm making photographs and not digital images? If I still think the lens is more important than the software, am I a photographer and not a digital imager? Maybe it's OK to be a digital imager and I'm just overthinking this? (That's been known to happen.) Well, Mike, once again you've given me something to ponder.

It's arguable whether "Always buy a good lens" should be a corollary to your first law :-) So much depends on how "good" is interpreted.

All I’ll say is one of the best pics I ever took was with a cheapo Soligor F 4.5 max aperture zoom, which I should NOT have been using under the low light conditions at the time....

Do not tell a soul. 7atrians 25mm 1.7 for B&W work on Fuji X. It costs $400 whoops I mean $79. All metal and impressive finish and very smooth actions in both aperture and focus movements.

Some softness in extreme corners is about the only weakness I can find and a none issue for me. Amazing flair resistance and has that slight lower contrast, perfect for B&W look. Cheap can be good. If this was sold as a premium lens I would have believed it.

There is a variant on Ctein's axiom known as 'tfb's third observation':

there are differences which you believe you can detect which do not show up in testing, or, if they do show up, it can be shown beyond doubt that the human sensory system is hugely inadequate to detect these differences..

As for Ctein's axiom this does not apply only to lenses, and its principal application has historically been elsewhere. Entire industries have been built around this. I will not name them as there is no need.

Another lens law should be the lens in the hand is worth more than two in the bush, or in this case the two lenses on pre release just spotted on a rumour site, agree with the other points though too many times I've fallen for selling lenses I should have kept and then bought lenses on a whim as I suddenly had cash 😀

My Rikenon XR 70-150/4 comes to mind. Cheap as silt though rare, relatively small though dense, internal zoom, inbuilt shade. Don't use it much but not worth selling.

Thanks for the law requiring me to keep it!

Four lenses I should not have sold:
1) Leica 35/2 Summicron-M aspherical.
2) Leica 90/2 Summicron-M (1980s vintage).
3) Kodak 10"/6.3 Wide Field Ektar.
4) Kodak 14"/6.3 Commercial Ektar.
The sales helped keep food on the table and the bills paid for a while, but man, did they produce lovely images.

Good day, Mike.
Rule 1, unfortunately, applies only to oldies goldies, those charming manual focus lenses we all openly or secretly crave :)

The rest?
Canon EOS is dead. Nikon AF-D and AF-S are dead. Minolta A mount? Same. Olympus 4/3? Yep.
How long will Canon R last, or Nikon Z, or Sony FE for the matter, is anyone's guess. How long fully electronic lenses can operate, is also matter for reflection.

Perhaps, Rule 1 ought to be rephrased as:

A) Never sell a good manual lens.
B) Use as much as you can a good AF lens, as its days are always numbered (either by mount changes, or spares drying up).

Very sad, actually...
Makes me feel like checking out Ebay and local listings for some old, nice glass to keep a long time to nurture my photography, and melancholy.

My wife and I finally got around recently to watching Downton Abbey. 10 minutes into the series I asked what lenses they used. The fixed focus lens'd scenes were drop dead gorgeous. What tipped me off to the optics was the way the focus transitioned into out of focus. In total, of course, the mixture of optics, color grading, lighting, and composition were wonderful in a calm, classic way. But those Cooke lenses...

Eighth law. No one cares which lens you used for any given image, except you.

I wonder, if a lens, for me, is a combination of its max aperture, focal length, and the size of the film it's gonna be slapped in front of, does that make me a worse photographer than the one living by these laws?

[Of course not. What's wrong with living by your own laws? --Mike]

Digital certainly changes the equation, mainly because it is possible to do so much lens correction in software, but also because:

  • Many types of artefact created by lenses on sensors are different from those created on film. Sometimes too much sharpness just creates more aliasing and false colour.
  • Sensors have less 'grain' at equivalent exposures, which enables greater enlargement and reveals more artefacts.
  • Ironically, less grain also makes images look too soft, even though they have more resolution.
  • We tend to look at our images a lot more closely, to an extent that is irrelevant for the viewing of normal prints. This is why we get so hung up on measurements.
  • Prints look very different from images on a display. When did you last see a lens test involving prints?
  • It is relatively trivial to alter sharpness, contrast and colour, and even overcome diffraction using deconvolution.

In other words, we are much less constrained by the limitations and qualities of lenses. About the only things that are hard to 'manage' in a digital sense are bad ghosting flare, nasty bokeh, and a big difference between centre and edge sharpness at optimum apertures.

I tend to like lenses that are consistent and predictable, and which don't exhibit these undesirable traits to a serious extent. My excitement derives from the images, not from the tools, and 90% of that is down to me. This level of control is liberating to me, not boring.

The tool is just the means to produce data with the required attributes to create images with the desired qualities. I like a camera that handles well and is portable, but I rely far more on my digital processing skills than I do on the camera or lens, provided it doesn't get in the way.

For evidence of this, simply look at the impact of computational processing on phone cameras.

Digital has been mainstream for about 15 years now, but the real implications do not seem to be permeating through to mainstream photography. We still seem to cling to what we think we know, which in many cases is no longer applicable.

I like Ctein's premise that if you can't see it, it doesn't matter. Not only is this hard to refute, but it is also largely predictable.

Most digital cameras are already far better than most people require, but most people's understanding of how to exploit them is not.

" I do believe that lenses are less important now than they used to be."
I will have to disagree on this. Mike, your statement holds true in as far as we may not need lenses to be as good wide open because of the high ISO capabilities of digital cameras compared to film. However, I believe that lens rendering is vastly more important to achieve a "look" with digital capture. Just look at what is happening in cinematography. While manufacturers keep releasing new lens designs that can cover larger sensors at increasing resolution, many cinematographers turn to older lens designs to counteract the clinical look of digital capture.

"Corollary: the slowest, least responsive camera system in the world is attached to a tripod."

True if you're a sports photographer. I've photographed fashion and dance in a studio with a camera on a tripod without any probs. YMMV.

Over the past 8 months 90% of my picture making has been created using my current favorite / perfect lens, the 4.25mm f1.8 lens on my iPhone Xs Max.

I can second Michael Houghton’s comments about the Nikkor 85/1.8D. Great, imperfect lens. I recently tried to put together a 35mm outfit and realized I didn’t need any new lenses: the 20, 28, and 85 AFD lenses will work quite nicely.

Funny, I have been bored lately and have been using some of my M42 lenses on my M43 camera. I have them from 28mm up to 200mm and on my M43 camera they are (a) stabilized, and (b) I have some digital focusing aids I can put to use.

Of course, the focal length effectively doubles.

For a huge challenge, I got an EOS-M43 adapter to use my Sigma 600 f8 catadioptric lens. That’s a cheap 1200mm telescope with a lens mount, essentially. It is hard to focus and has distracting bokeh, but come on, it’s stabilized 1200mm!

Oh, and I have that lens you pictured. Got it from KEH and I think it is awesome.

8th law: If you pay for a lens that is sharp in the corners wide open, you will get a lens that is good for shooting two dimensional things.

The first law!
I have an irrational phycological barrier against zoom lenses. This stupid self imposed limitation caused me to sell the only zoom lens I ever enjoyed using. I have an Olympus OM system and they had a second tier zoom, a 28~48mm f4 constant aperture lens. This tiny little gem allowed me to back up without worrying about what was behind me. It provided the only zoom range I ever found useful personally for 35mm. And, although I sold it for 4 times what I paid for it I still kick myself every time I look for a replacement on that auction site.
Dumb! Dumb! Dumb!

Having used the same two focal lengths for a very long time, they need to be both durable and repairable.

Durable as used nearly every day.

Repairable, as no matter how careful you are, at some point damage is inevitable. (Due to stupidity, when climbing a fence, camera slips off shoulder, hits metal fence post and lands on a drain cover, lens down. Total drop of at least eight feet.)

Small dent in covering of camera, from hitting post, but otherwise fine. However, front of lens pushed in at an angle. Phone repairer, who makes kicking tire noises. “Sounds like it might need a new focussing unit.” It didn’t and is still going strong, fifteen plus years later.

Obviously we need to buy more lenses!

I'm going to write out Law #6 on a Post-It note and stick it to my forehead. Then, every time I look in a mirror, I'll be reminded to want what I have! In a GASsy world it's so easy to think that some shiny new thing is going to make photography more rewarding. It's the making of pictures that's the thing, not what you're using to do it.

Don B. I happen to have a 2/150 and for many years it has been like Mike said: " the really sad thing is that it's sitting in the back of somebody's closet and never gets used.". Well, it does get used. I take it out of the cabinet once a year because it is so pitiful sitting there next to my unused Leica M6. I use it for a day on a E-520 and then pack it away for another year or so. This has been going on since I moved to M4/3s with Pen-1. Some 10 years already?

Mike, loved the article. Great job.
Corollary to Law #1: Never sell a lucky lens. Way back in the early '70's, I managed to acquire a used Hanimex 90~230mm zoom for my Minolta XE-1. Those were the days of foreign exchange crunch in India; import of photography equipment being prohibitively expensive, getting hold of a lens like this was finding buried treasure. That lens transformed my photography. I made many successful portraits of my stunningly beautiful wife, then barely 20 years of age, and even took the lens with me, hiking through the Kulu valley trying to get some images worthy of entry to a government sponsored All India photography competition on 'Children of India'. Well over 30,000 entries were received, if I remember correctly. The image that secured me a place in that competition was shot with that 'ol Hanimex. There was magic in that lens. I have no idea from whom John Hannes, of Hannes Import-Export Australia (hence 'Han' and 'I-MEX') imported that lens, but hats off to him.
After I moved to Nikon, I could never repeat my success, not even with the legendary 80~200mm f4.5 zoom-Nikkor. I still ache for that lens.

The optimal number of lenses is N-1, where N is the number that will cause distress in your marriage or relationship with your partner.

Have broken the Sixth law, and because of the First, there's no going back.

A special thank you to all the readership that have commented favourably in the past on the Nikkor 105mm f/2.5 AIS. A nice condition one came by the local photographic shop, at a very reasonable price, and my curiosity got the better of me. It is lovely, and likewise the photos taken with it. Thank you also, to the previous owner...

Mike, I confess, I violated your Sixth Rule. I came across an absolutely wonderful little lens, a Voigtlander 50mm f/3.5 Color-Skopar (Tessar-derivative) unit. And it was even attached to a Vito BL Camera. And all for $34! I love it, especially with black and white film! I suppose there is another rule about not having too many cameras, but this little gem is a lot of fun.

May I offer you the definition of "corollary"? It is a further result that follows easily from that already proved.
It is not the same as "converse", ie when having shown that A implies B, you wish to prove also that B implies A. It is often not true (all popes are Catholic, not all Catholics are the pope).
So while it is observed that bad lenses may make good photos, and that good lenses can produce bad ones, these are independent propositions which happen to be converses...

One thing about lenses is how beautiful some of them area. Turning the focus ring on a vintage manual focus lens is such a pleasure.

I still have to fight the muscle memory of reaching up to turn the aperture ring.

Ilkka, Hi :}
You are blessed with your 2/150. If I had The Faith in Mr Zuiko's electronics, I would make you an offer! I used mine a couple of times a month when I wanted creamy backgrounds and pin sharp somewhere else.
But the old saying that camera bodies are disposable, and good lenses you keep forever is gone with the new age of electronic pulses which you can't even see.........

It actually made me smirk. If I can say-so. I've learnt to see the world on a 43*1.5= 64.5mm. It is hard to go back to anything shorter or longer. It is a breathing portrait distance for my eye. Thanks Pentax for letting me have this still japan assembled lens at a reasonable price at that moment (before the price hike).

In this day and age when a lot of people change lenses like they change underwear, your article is refreshing. Seems like no one these days gets to know their lenses and cameras by simply using them for a long period of time.

So I should still have my Olympus 24mm shift lens, since it was a good lens? AT least the Leitz 90mm Summicron was stolen, so it's not my fault I don't still have that. My first Tamron 85-210/4.5 Adaptall-2 zoom (only lens I've had people look at photos from and say "that must have been with your Leica!") at least I could adapt to a mount I could then adapt to modern mirrorless!

If you do slow work, then it's today more possible than ever before to use lenses for cameras they weren't designed to go with; but that's pretty new (mirrorless world). And I don't do slow work, so lenses that can't keep up (even if that's due to the adaptation) aren't actually very useful.

Mike, Regarding law one...
For a guy who admits that he usually only gets around to picking up 2 or 3 of the lenses in a 4 lens kit for any of his camera systems (Wide, Normal (35-40mm), Short Tele, Tele-Zoom) how many lenses live at your house?

For me, it is 4 Fuji, 6 Micro 4/3, 8+ Nikon (MF and AF) (I am sure that there is a Nikon or two that I am forgetting) and 5 Leica/Voightlander/Jupiter/Industar...

That makes around 23+ for me. For the last 2 or 3 years, other than my wife's equine events, I have almost exclusively shot using a 35mm-e focal length (a subset of the OCOLOY). Counting the 70-200 for the equine events, that is 4 of the 23+ lenses that regularly get used.

One of the best posts (and comments) in some time. It made me think about my own lens collection.

Having about a dozen lenses for my Canon EOS camera, recently I have started to think that maybe I have too many lenses and should winnow the population. Most are primes, but I generally either use a 24-105mm or 17-40mm zoom. There are some lenses I have used only once or twice.

The zooms work for me.

Although I keep telling myself that Mike says 40mm is a great focal length and I have a 40mm Canon prime ...

Somewhere, there's a corollary to the sixth law that revolves around the question of "how much gear to carry." For most of my photographic life I've only had one or two lenses for any camera I've owned. The one exception was my 5x7--then, I had everything from a 90mm Super Angulon to a 14" Red Dot Artar and carried them all. Nowadays, I've got several lenses for my Pentax K-1 but the one that's usually on the camera is the 31mm f/1.8. A lot of times, if I'm just walking around looking for pictures I grab the camera with that lens and leave the bag at home.

You just made me feel much better about my meager lens collection. Thanks!

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