Sometimes “best” does not mean “better”

Please bear with me, this post will start as ramblings of a photography nerd who’s not really very good at photography, but will move on to talk of more general technical discussions.

I recently had a discussion on Google+ about a camera lens that I bought recently — the Tamron 16-300. I like the lens, or I wouldn’t have bought it, but the discussion was about the fact that the specs of the lens are at best mediocre, and possibly worse than other cheaper lenses.

It is true, a lens that spaces between f/3.5 and f/6.3 is not exactly a super-duper lens; it means that it can’t take pictures in low-light conditions unless you give up on quality (bring ISO up) or use a flash. I was also suggested just before that the Canon 24-105 f/4L which is according to many the best lens of its kind. But that’s not a better lens for me.

The reason why I say this is that I have considered the best lenses ever and have turned many down for various issues — the most common of which is, of course, price; I’m not good enough as a photographer to desire to spend over ten grands on gear every year. The Tamron I bought is, in my opinion, the better one for the space I was trying to fill, so let’s try to find what space I was trying to fill first.

First of all, I don’t have professional gear; I’m still shooting with a three years old Canon EOS 600D (Rebel T3i for the Americans), a so-called prosumer camera with a cropped sensor. I have over time bought a few pieces of glass, but the one I used the most has definitely been the Canon 50mm f/1.4 which sounded expensive at the time and now sounds almost cheap in comparison — since this is a cropped sensor the lens is actually an 80mm, which is a good portrait length for mugshots and has its use for parties and conferences.

This lens turns out to be mostly useless in museums though, and in general in enclosed spaces. And for big panoramas. For that I wanted a wide-angle lens and I bought a Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 which is fast enough to shoot within buildings, even though it has a bit of chromatic aberration when shooting at maximum aperture.

Yes I know it’s getting boring, bear with me a little longer.

So what is missing here is a lens for general pictures of a party that is not as close-up as the 50mm (you can get something akin to the actual 50mm with a 28mm) and something to take pictures at a distance. For those I have been using the kit lenses, the cheap 18-55mm and the 55-250mm — neither version is, as far as I can tell, still on the market; they have been replaced by actually decent versions comparatively, especially the 18-55mm STM.

Okay nobody but the photographers – who already know this – care about these details, so in short what gives? Well, I wanted to replace the two kit lenses with one versatile lens. The idea is that if I’m, say, at Muir Woods I’d rather not keep switching between the 50mm and the 11-16mm lenses, especially under the trees, with the risk of having dirt hitting the mirror or the sensor. I did it that one time, but I found it very inconvenient, and thus why I was looking for a zoom lens that would not make me bankrupt.

The Tamron is a decent lens. I’ve paid some €700 for it and a couple of (good) filters (UV and CP), which is not cheap but does not ruin me (remember I paid $600/month for the tinderbox, and that stopped now). Its specs are not stellar, and especially at 300mm f/6.3 is indeed a little too slow, there is some CA when running at 16mm too, but not bad enough. It pays of in terms of opportunity: in many cases I’m not setting out to take pictures of something in particular, I’m just rather going somewhere and bringing the camera with me and when I want to take a picture I may not know of what at first… if I have the wrong lens on, I may no be able to take a picture quickly enough; if I did not bring the right lens, I would not be able to take a picture at all. With a versatile zoom lens as my default-on, I can just take the camera out and shoot, even if it’s not perfect — if I want to make it perfect I can put on the good lens.

Again, I could have saved a few more months and bought a more expensive lens, the “best” lens — but there are other things to consider: since I did have this lens I was able to take some pictures of a RC car race near Mission College, without having to find space to switch lenses between the whole track pictures and the cars details. I also would not be sure that I’d be bringing a lens that’s over $1k alone around with me when not sure where I’m going; sure the rest of the lenses together already build up to that number, but they are also less conspicuous — the only one that is actually bigger than someone’s hand is the Tokina.

This has also another side effect: it seems like many places in California have a “no professional photography without permission” rule, including Stanford University. The way “professional photography” gets defined is by the size of one’s lens (the joke about sizes counting is old, get over it), namely if the lens does not fit in your hands it is counted as “professional”. By that rule, the Tamron lens is not a professional one, while the suggested Canon 24-105 would be.

Cutting finally down to the chase, the point of the episode I recounted is that there are many other reasons beside the technical specs, for which decisions are made. The same discussions I heard about the bad specs of the lenses I was looking for reminded me of the discussions I had before when people insisted that there are no reasons for tablets, because we have laptops (for the 10”) and smartphones (for the 7”), or about using a convenient airline rather than one that has better planes, or… you get the gist, right?

The same is true when people try to discuss Free Software or Open Source in just terms of technical superiority. It is probably true, but that does not always make it a good choice by itself, there are other considerations – hardware support used to be the main concern, nowadays UI and UX seems to be the biggest, but this does not mean it’s limited to those.

This is similar in point to the story of Jessica as SwiftOnSecurity posted, but in this case I’m not even talking about people who don’t know (and don’t care to know) but rather about the fact that people have different priorities, and technical superiority is not always a priority.