Lenses are like fine wines. Shrouded in mystery.

I'll see your Leica camera and raise your lens to a Zeiss something or other. It does have a nice silver ring around the front through

A rite of passage for any young man – and it is a predominantly male-centric issue – is the first time you go for a meal in a posh restaurant and some bloke called a sommelier subjects you to the thinly-veiled intense scrutiny and rigmarole that is the theatre of choosing wine.

He proffers you the list, so you emulate what you’ve seen everyone else do before you and casually glance through. You occasionally sagely nod, under the pretext you have any idea of the differences between a Bordeaux and Buckfast Tonic. All you are actually doing is checking the price to see how low you can go without looking like a cheapskate. You make your selection, and the unwritten script says the sommelier is duty bound to offer back the compliment: “A fine choice, sir.” Even though he knows you have no idea whether a heavily oaked Chardonnay should be buttery or have an intriguing ferrous hint.

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Then the snooty waiter uncorks the beauty at your table and pours a little bit for you to taste and give your approval. Which, of course, you do. Despite going through the uncomfortable operations of not knowing whether to swirl it around the glass, inhale its delicate aroma, spit or swallow. You still say yes, of course, as you feel elated that what he has served you is definitely wine of some sort and not Ribena. And if you do finish it and desire to imbibe another, you’ll definitely order “the same again” to avoid going through the farcical palaver a second time.

Ah yes, some Leica Ms... a nice M9 and an M240 with some very nice Leica glass. Take that, Zeiss...
Ah yes, some Leica Ms… a nice M9 and an M240 with some very nice Leica glass. Take that, Zeiss…

So where does photography come into this? Well, there are remarkable snobby similarities between wine and your choice of optical glass. For the inexperienced or uninitiated, actually there is no problem. You don’t really know anything about lenses, so you make your choices on whether it fits and works perfectly with your camera, what focal length it is (and more often than not for the majority of buyers, it’s a zoom) and how much it costs. Perhaps whether it fits in the gadget bag. And, crucially, how impressive it makes your camera look when bolted to the front.

Buyers like this live in a world blissfully unaware of the strange nomenclature and history around certain lens designs, what the maximum aperture is, how many elements there are in what group array, what the MTF charts say or colour shifts. Pincushion distortion, chromatic aberration, achromatic lenses, AIS, VR, IS… WTF?

Lenses are one of the last bastions of old-world scientific boffinery that, if you were to allow yourself to be suckered in, could have you studying scientific results for days. Enough to make you go batty. You’ll soon be harking back to the beautiful bokeh of a Summicron compared to a Summarit or Distagon, or how the number of blades in the diaphragm can completely alter the look and feel of the picture.

Medium format - good, with a big image circle. Zoom - not so good for the optics snob
Medium format – good, with a big image circle. Zoom – not so good for the optics snob

So here’s the big secret. I spoke to lots of working pro photographers – many of whom are pretty damn well known – and all agreed that quality lenses make a huge difference to your pictures. But not one of them studied charts, knew those antiquated names or even cared.

But what did come out was pretty much consistent. Invest in good quality lenses and they’ll pay back in spades for years. Especially manufacturers’ own primes, and fast ones even better. If you’re into zooms, then try to stretch to the constant-aperture fast ones. The pro ones. The expensive ones, I know. Because if you do stick with photography as a pursuit for many years, you’ll eventually end up buying them and loving them anyway.

Yes, we have a winner. A Schneider-Kreuznach 120mm tilt shift for medium format. I love this lens so much for what it stands for and how cool it looks. Hardly ever use it though!
Yes, we have a winner. A Schneider-Kreuznach 120mm tilt shift aspheric for medium format. I love this lens so much for what it stands for and how cool it looks. Hardly ever use it though!

If you can’t quite stretch, just buy a fast 50mm prime like Canon or Nikon’s f/1.8 jobbies which are about £100 or less, especially used. A whole new world will be opened up to you of low-light shooting, lovely out-of-focus highlights and just a tad of snobbery. You’ll never regret buying nice glass.

I bought a Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR not long after it came out, and sold it a few years later for £50 less than I paid for it new. And if you were lucky to see into the future years ago and bought a Nikon 28mm f/1.8 lens then they go used for twice what they were originally. Similar for certain Leica lenses, although that really is a strange world of collectors, myths and overdrafts.

Yes, lots of lenses have slightly different characteristics and resolve better than others, and some vignette a bit, and others are a bit more prone to flare. But photography has so many more variables than the scientific characteristics of the lens.

A bit like fine wine, then. Except that once you’ve necked your Petrus, it’s nothing but a memory and a hangover.

  • First published in Practical Photography magazine