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There seems to be a lot of discussion surrounding the differences between a so-called "pro" lens vs. the kit lenses that come with consumer grade DSLR's and whether or not a pro level level lens can make you a better photographer, I felt it was time to address this issue. To being with, I would like to address the differences between a pro lens compared to a non-pro lens.

Certainly the first and most obvious difference is in the price. Professional level lenses tend to be 3 to 4 times more expensive than consumer grade, or non-pro, lenses. The next question that jumps into my mind is whether a pro lens is 3 to 4 times better than a non-pro lens? Such a determination is very subjective however, most would agree that a pro lens is not 3 to 4 times better than a non-pro lens. So what are the differences between these two classes of lenses?

1 - Professional grade lenses are built differently than non-pro lenses. This is an accurate statement. Pro lenses tend to be built with metal frames whereas non-pro lenses tend to be made of hard plastic. As a result, pro level lens are able to withstand a great deal of abuse that would likely destroy a non-pro lens. Just watching the evening news you see API photographers in war torn areas dodging bullets and avoiding explosions you quickly see the importance of a strongly built lens. In addition, pro-level lenses are extremely well sealed and are designed to better prevent dust and water from leaking into the lens than are non-pro lenses.

2 - Professional grade lenses produce less chromatic aberrations (CA) than non-pro lenses. Chromatic aberration (CA) occurs when a lens fails to properly focus all the different colors to the exact same focal point that results in a color fringe appearing at the edges of objects in the photograph. Lightwaves vary in frequency from one another and it is this difference in frequency in lightwaves that we interpret as color. And because each color is coming into the lens at a different frequency, they each tend to traverse through the glass at slightly different angles. Because of this, preparing glass to accommodate all the different frequencies and to focus them at the exact same spot is incredibly difficult and requires the glass to be made with extremely narrow tolerances. This is one of the keys to why pro lenses tend to be so expensive compared to non-pro lenses. Fortunately, all digital editing software can easily remove these color fringes and unlike color film photography, CA is not a big concern among digital photographers.

3 - Professional grade lenses produce less vignetting than non-pro lenses. Vignetting is a common feature of all lenses and is the result of the lens design itself. This occurs when light is coming into the lens at increasingly larger angles as you move further away from the center. As a result you will get less and less illumination the further away from the center you go simply because there is less light to be measured. Vignetting has been around ever since the first lens was developed, so much so that we have come to expect a little vignetting in our images. Indeed, many photographers not only accept this vignetting but they use software to increase the amount of vignetting in their images. It has been said that vignetting tends to funnel the viewers' attention toward the main subject of the photo. Whether or not this is true remains a judgment call that only the viewer can answer. But what is true is that professional lenses are designed to minimize vignetting and ironically most professional photographers then re-add this missing vignetting into their photographs.

4 - Professional grade lenses produce less focus shift and field curvature than non-pro lenses. This category is perhaps the most important difference between these two groups of lenses. Not so much the issue of field curvature but focus shift is a tough one. Until now, all the previous issues, along with field curvature, can be easily address using software solutions, however focus shift is not such an easy thing to deal with using software techniques. But don't despair, modern lens technology has, by and large, removed the bulk of focus shift from both pro and non-pro lenses alike. Certainly some lenses tend to produce more than others, few modern lenses are to the point of being unusable due to focus shift. And for the most part, the difference between pro and non-pro lenses with respect to focus shift is rather small. Field curvature, on the other hand, vary dramatically between pro vs. non-pro lenses. Barreling and pincushion distortions are one of the better measures used when rating a lens and the trend is certainly in favor of pro lenses. However, both barreling and pincushioning are easily removed using software techniques.

5 - Professional grade lenses tend to have a wider aperture than non-pro lenses. This is perhaps the second reason for the difference in price between a pro and a non-pro lens. While all lenses can produce images in low light environments, lenses with a wider aperture allow more light to reach the sensor resulting in faster shutter speeds and sharper low light images. This is where the term "fast" lens stems from. In addition, lenses with larger aperture can produce images with smaller depths of field.

Summing this all up, clearly a non-lens can be adjusted via software to produce images on par with a professional lens. From CA to depth of field to barrelling/pincushioning can all be ameliorated using modern digital editing software. That said, I would like to also point out the similarity between the two lenses and that's found in the "sweet spot". In the center of a lens radiating out to approx 1/3 of the way to the edge is the so-called "sweet spot" of the lens. It is here that all lens perform at its very best and it is here that you will find no difference between a pro lens and a non-pro lens. In fact, you can crop the sweet spot from the cheapest non-pro lens and put it side-by-side with the sweet spot of a pro lens and even an expert could not tell the difference between the two. Here in the center portion of a lens is a place in which all lenses perform beautifully.

So this brings me to the central question can a professional lens make you a better photographer? But before I answer that question, let me first diverge from lenses to automobiles. Let's consider for a moment that an expensive sports car, say a Maserati Grancabrio can be like a pro lens and a Honda Civic can be like a non-pro lenses. Clearly a Honda Civic will get you from point A to point B as can a Maserati Grancabrio, however getting there in the Grancabrio would be far more satisfying than a Civic. And while a Civic will round a corner and take the turns in the road like a Grancabrio can, the feel of the Grancabrio taking the turns is far more exciting, far more invigorating and far more satisfying compared to the Civic. In fact, I think most will agree that just about anything you do in a Maserati will be more interesting and more enjoyable than in a Honda Civic.

Turning this analogy back to lenses we can say that both pro and non-pro lenses can produce wonderful images in the same way both cars will get you from A to B but there's something special about the feel of a pro level lens - the sturdy and strong build, the smooth glide of the focus ring and the solid feel that makes the experience of using this lens far more satisfying compared to a non-pro lens. And if you enjoy your photography more, you'll push yourself to expand your skills at photography and in turn you'll l pay more attention to your photography and all of these combined will indeed improve your photography and thus make you a better photographer.

Therefore the answer to the question is yes, a professional lens *can* make you a better photographer.
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  1. Rick M's Avatar
    I think perhaps yes, if your talent has exceeded the capabilities of the "non-pro" lens. Many unskilled photographers have pro glass, they just never live up to the capabilities of their gear. Pro glass in the hands of someone capable of maximizing it's potential leads to a better photographer. On the other hand, sometimes the unskilled photographer gets "lucky" and walks away with a great shot, all the better with a pro lens. In my opinion, great photography comes down to skill, gear and opportunity, we can control about 67%, the last 33% is the hard part.
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  2. Eye-level's Avatar
    Well that depends on what kind of Civic you are driving...trust me there are some bad @ss Civics around...

    No it won't make you a better photographer but it *can* help...

    Using whatever lens you have a whole lot WILL make you a better photographer and more deserving of using a pro lens...

    Remember a pro camera and/or a pro lens doesn't make you some "elite" type of photographer only the practice of photography itself can do that.

    It is nothing like driving a car!
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    Updated 04-12-2013 at 06:52 AM by Eye-level
  3. FredKingston's Avatar
    I missed the original thread where the question was asked..."What distinguishes a "pro" lens ?" I don't recall that Nikon has a designation on their lenses that define all the above points... ???????
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  4. Dave_W's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by FredKingston
    I missed the original thread where the question was asked..."What distinguishes a "pro" lens ?" I don't recall that Nikon has a designation on their lenses that define all the above points... ???????
    I'm pretty sure I did not indicated this was in reference to a specific thread. This blog is in reference to the on-going conversation about "pro" lenses vs. "non-pro" lenses. Although the term "professional" lens is not officially used by Nikon, nor is the term "kit" lens or "non-pro" lens. These terms, however, are widely used by photographers, both professional and hobbyist alike.
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  5. FredKingston's Avatar
    I understand that. I think the terminology is ambiguous...
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  6. Dave_W's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by FredKingston
    I understand that. I think the terminology is ambiguous...
    Yes, I agree. The two are very ambiguous. That's the reasons I began this blog with what I believe are the main factors that differentiate as so-called "pro" lens from a "non-pro" lens. Since there's no official definition for either type, a term like this is defined by a consensus opinion and hopefully I was able to capture at least the bare minimum of what most would consider the difference between a pro vs. a non-pro lens.
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    Thanks/Like Ijustwant1 Thanks/liked this post

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