Lenses are the real deal

Smartphones have crushed the camera market like a bundle of dry twigs.

The iPhone 11 has smooth and subtle HDR, panoramic stitching, image ‘stacking’ that eliminates noise, background blurring, and probably 9 other “wow” features I don’t know about. What used to be 15 minutes of post-processing is now automatic, in the phone, on the spot.

And connectivity. Phone users shoot and share in one smoothly choreographed set of hand movements. I wait until I get home for a nostalgic ritual of 90s-era technology: booting a PC, connecting a USB cable or extracting a memory card, opening File Explorer, resizing thumbnails, clicking, dragging, dropping… Or, I could waste another half hour futilely trying to get that clunky Nikon “app” to connect to my camera through a router…

So what does a camera offer that a phone can’t – at least today?

I like to troll photography forums with stuff like “nobody cares if the corners are sharp”, “no one sees noise in the shadows” or “color accuracy only matters to bridesmaids”. And I get flamed. But people either like an image or they don’t, and they decide in about 5 seconds. They come for the subject and, maybe, stay for the aesthetics; “image quality” doesn’t mean much unless it’s a 4 foot print in a gallery show. People are buying large sensor cameras based on high-ISO noise specs and then adding “film grain” in post processing.

When I look back at my photos I find many of the ones I really like are about geometry, perspective, depth and scale. That means lenses. Not boutique lenses from Zeiss that cost thousands and have fantastic lab test results to wave around; just lenses that do distinctive and interesting things.

The iPhone 11 has 3 “lenses” and yes, they’re cunningly wrought jewels made by the elves of Rivendell, but they’re still tiny and have limitations. The visible wavelengths of light are what they are, and they define optical possibility. While many lens properties can be emulated by clever software, there are limits; and don’t get me started on the “AI” hype. Real lenses still matter, big time.

8mm fisheye


Extension tube on a 12mm wide angle


100mm macro


300mm telephoto on APS-C (FF equivalent 450mm)

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