The Seven Most Useless Test Images When You’re Interested in a New Lens

The Seven Most Useless Test Images When You’re Interested in a New Lens

As every photographer who’s suffering from GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome), I am currently searching for a new lens. While trawling through popular online shops, I couldn’t help myself, but laugh about some useless review images of the products.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to point my finger at anybody (okay, just a little). That’s also why I won’t link to the images or products (If you spend a few minutes, you’ll find plenty anyway). I just want to save you from wasting your time checking inaccurate sample images when you’re in search of a new lens (alternatively, I want to make you waste your time by searching for any lens and check the samples).

Hint: The cheaper the lens, the higher the probability that you’ll find a sample image of the following categories (please, don’t take my occasional tantrums too seriously):

1. Flowers at f/2.8 and Below

Okay, flowers are beautiful. We all love them, and they make a great decoration in our homes. I get it. But, does it really justify tons of photographs of plants as sample images for every lens on the market? The truth is that photographing flowers with your lens wide open (that means with an aperture of f/2.8 and below) will rarely help others judge the quality of a lens.

How often will you use your future lens to shoot flowers? If your planning to shoot portraits, landscape, or architecture, why do we have to look at images of flowers? The answer is easy: Almost every household has some. A flower is probably the first halfway beautiful object that you’ll discover after unboxing your lens. Plus, there’s not much effort in shooting it. Problem: Whenever there’s not much effort involved, the lens won’t be pushed to its limits, so the sample is quite insignificant.

Macro lenses are a different topic, though. Some people focus on shooting plants and want to discover the possibilities of the lens. You can judge how close you can get and how big (or small) the focal plane will be. In that case, images of plants might help you. In case of a standard zoom without macro specs, that won’t make sense, though, especially not without sharing the camera settings.

Setting: Wide open. Subject: Plants. Classy!

2. Light Painting and Fireworks

“Wow! You can even photograph a firework with this lens,” said no photographer ever. It’s really hard to find a lens that isn’t able to capture fireworks. Even though it requires some skills and knowledge, the technical demands for light-painting and fireworks are quite low.

As you have to deal with bright lights in a dark environment, you usually want to use a mid to small aperture. A smaller aperture generally allows you to increase the shutter speed. In case of a firework, you will have enough time to capture the light trails while the background still remains dark. Experience, as well as try and error will help, but almost every lens is able to shoot at f/8.

Light painting and fireworks are a cool way to practice photography with beginner’s gear, but looking at the images shouldn’t influence your decision to purchase.

Any lens could have helped here. This image was shot with a 50mm prime, but that doesn't really matter.

3. HDR

Yep, I’ve just seen it. There are indeed some cruel people who upload HDR images to prove the quality of a lens. That’s wrong! Morally and aesthetically. Please don’t fall for these images. HDR (high dynamic range) is a technique that many of us tried at some point. By shooting different exposures and combining them into one single image, you get more detail in your highlights and shadows. HDR indeed gives you some advantages when used with care.

It doesn’t give you an advantage for assessing the quality of a lens, though. Visible HDR is a hardcore way of post-processing and has nothing to do with the pre-processing (yes, I just made that up) that your lens does, especially if it creates awkward ghosting, dark spots, or other artifacts.

Probably my personal best attempt to destroy the photograph of a great subject. Yet, I didn't try to evaluate a lens with it.

4. Amateur Portraits of Your Family

Please, people: stop it! There are photography groups where you can get proper critique to improve your portraiture. Amazon, on the other hand, might not be the place to expose your spouse. And if you somehow have to do it, please don’t use the kinky images.

Family portraits and private images of your life simply don’t belong into the biggest marketplace in the world, unless they are professionally done and help people understand the characteristics of a lens, camera, or whatever.

Photographs of someone’s birthday party won’t tell us anything about the quality of the lens, neither will an image of your daughter playing with a Barbie (just seen it) or your daughter with her best friend (did you even ask her parents for permission?). There is social media, but even there, you might ask your 14-year-old before you publish portraits of her. It could prevent a family crisis.

Use a photograph of your pet. He or she would mind less.

5. Blurry Images as Proof for Bad Quality

Let me admit that I’ve also been there. When I got my first DSLR, it came with a Tamron 18-200mm (also a great product if you want to check out images of berries, leaves, and cats in the reviews). While that lens is far from being perfect, I made it worse. Because of my lack of knowledge about the relationship between focal length and blur, I rated it below what was fair.

Most of my photographs were kind of blurry when I zoomed in. Of course they are when you have a shutter speed of 1/50 sec. Even today, I have problems shooting at 200mm with a shutter speed of 1/200 second, especially when I’m still a little bit nervous because I looked at bad test images!

Some lenses really suffer in quality at their extreme focal lengths. But you should be careful when you see amateurs’ work. Often, it isn't proof of bad glass, but bad grip.

6. Photographs of Moving Objects

A pin-sharp photograph of a racing car is impressive. A slightly blurry picture of a car can still be cool and artistic. A photograph of a tree in the wind to prove sharpness of a lens doesn't help.

People get crazy ideas when they are keen to prove to themselves what a good purchase they made. We all know this feeling. You spent some money on new gear, and now, you want to test it. The worst decision is going out and taking pictures of the first things you see. Mostly, it’s trees, flowers, cats, and dogs — neither impressive, nor helpful. Thanks for sharing your world, but please use Instagram for that.

7. Sample Images of the Manufacturer

Did you ever hear the saying: “the photographer makes the photograph, not the camera”? It’s true. A professional photographer can create stunning images even with the kit lens of your Nikon D3300. Most sample images of the manufacturer aim at provoking you to buy something new, because you expect to shoot photographs of the same quality. Actually, in many cases, the photographer could have shot the same image with any other lens of a similar focal length.

The differences of the lenses can just be found in the details. Only when you get to see a photograph in very high resolution can you actually assess the small blemishes of the lens. Sample images of the manufacturer can help you, though. Check your own glass, and you might find out that other photographers shoot great images with it. It’s not always the gear; sometimes, it’s you. That’s my personal therapy for GAS.

Conclusion

It’s hard to evaluate the quality of a lens by only reviewing random images of other users. In fact, many of these images result from a justified excitement and the urge to do something with the lens. While some people really do elaborate testing and write profound reviews, many (if not most) of the published test shots are excited testimonies of customers who are proud of their new purchase.

If you’re really keen to know about a certain lens, there are many professional reviews on the web apart from the place where the lenses are sold. Fstoppers, for example, regularly publishes reviews of lenses and other gear. It’s certainly a great way to feed your curiosity and avoid bad purchases.

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14 Comments

Leigh Miller's picture

So what's your solution or did I miss that?

Blake Aghili's picture

I think it largely depends on how YOU use the lens. So rent before you buy and experiment for yourself and see if fits your workflow.

William Nicholson's picture

Bingo!!!! Winner Winner Chicken Dinner. Cost less to rent than to figure out how to get your money back from a lens you bought and now hate so it sits in the bag.

David Pavlich's picture

I pretty much agree with the exception of #1...well, partly. A nicely done shot of a flower at f2.8 or faster can give you a good sense of the quality of background blur. Certainly, not to only reason to choose a lens, but for a lot of us, one of the major factors.

Do you have to be so snarky?

So you don't like images with wide open aperture, you don't like images at f/8, images in motion - nee. OK, so what kind of images do you want to estimate the lens quality? As one already mentioned it depends on how you use your lens. I do landscape photography and I'm mostly interested in the quality at f/8. The least I'm interested in is the quality of the bokeh

Nils Heininger's picture

It's not about what I like, but what's useful. An article for that is coming soon!

Even click-bait posts need to be better researched than this. 'The 7 most.....'

Come on, man, work harder to get your clicks. Should this whole article not just be 1 line - 'Refer to reviews that reflect your use case the closest and recognise the technical aspects that impact your outcomes the most' or 'Share images with context of the use case' for the reviewer?

Who is asking for an article like this, I'd like to know?

The real problem amateurs and enthusiasts like me often face more than pros, is whether we should go after things like 'corner-to-corner sharpness' , 'how much of chromatic aberration is bad', or even sometimes 'should I even consider shallow depth of field at wide angles so that I need a wider aperture?' Very often lens reviews focus on lenses' divergence from perfection, and not on the practical usability for non-pros. We would really appreciate practical tips on if a lens is still usable despite its flaws. We look to the professionals for that, not Amazon reviews.

Edo Photo's picture

One solution that has been the most effective for me. Personally all of my Canon lenses that I have bought have been tested against the IQ charts from Bryan's The Digital Picture. It is by far the most extraordinary resource for seeing what a lens is actually supposed to do and you can look for the same performance and images from your pictures. If you know your lens is/isn't sharp at f2, you can take your pictures at f2 and understand exactly what you're getting.

When I bought my 50 1.4, the results were disgusting. I went through 4 versions before I found the ultra reliable one that I've been using for the last 6 years. No motor issues, etc. Besides a couple of the lenses being utterly broken brand new, I was able to reference Bryan's charts and know exactly what I was getting.

When on the street in Tokyo, my 24 -105 that has been serviced several times was acting kind of funny with focus. What I did was look for a sign that had very super high contrast, sharp edges and shoot the image of it right in the center. After tweaking the AMFA, the center came back nice and sharp as as expected and then I continued on to shoot whatever I was shooting.

That site also help me to sell my very first lens, which was the 85 1.8. Shooting wide open when I was new to photos was an amazing thing. That said so many of my images was coming out pink. I was shooting wide open. On the TDP site I could see the performance charts - lo and behold wide open that old lens has an extreme amount of purple haze aberration. It affected so many of my pictures I ended up getting rid of the lens. To me it was basically unusable.

My point is is with the tests that certain sites make, especially dpreview, it's near impossible to see what or how the lens actually performs. The only other site I can think of that did that kind of testing that TDP does is photozone and I think they are gone.

In a nutshell ...TDP ftw

I’m sorry but if you describe aperture by the fstop number I stop reading immediately. F1.4 isn’t smaller then F8 it’s considerably larger. This is the same nonsense I read about DOF. At least know the technical aspects before writing the article.

Nils Heininger's picture

I'm sorry to hear that, and partly you're right. But you repeated the mistake - only the other way around. F1.4 obviously would be smaller than F8. But F/1.4 isn't smaller than F/8. The dash makes the difference. See: mistakes happen. But you're right that I'm in a position where they shouldn't. I beg your forgiveness. Thanks for mentioning, even though I wish it was a little destructive. But so is my article.
Cheers!

Kirk Darling's picture

"The truth is that photographing flowers with your lens wide open (that means with an aperture of f/2.8 and below)..."

The f-number is the denominator of a fraction. That means a larger numerical figure refers to a smaller entity (i.e., the aperture "hole").

Thus, f/2 is a bigger hole: Larger, wider, higher, faster (lets more light through at a given shutter speed) than f/4.

At f/8 the aperture is a smaller hole: Smaller, narrower, lower, slower than at f/4.

F/2.8 is a "high" aperture; f/1.4 is a "higher" aperture than f/2.8.

Nils Heininger's picture

Mea culpa! I should have clarified that. But as we're talking about a kind of colloquial article, I also used the colloquial language, which is wrong (and I also admit knowing about this, but ignoring it in real life, which is still wrong). Sorry for that. On the other hand, I guess it's less confusing for beginners to understand what I'm saying, even though it might direct them to the wrong track. Still, it's by no means the focus of the article. Experienced photographers, on the other hand, will still know what I mean (you did). In the future, I'll find a better way to work around it. Thanks for mentioning it in a productive way.
Cheers!

Kirk Darling's picture

Back in the day, I think we had a more direct relationship with lens apertures. For one thing, we always saw the full aperture range engraved right there on each lens. We also looked at the aperture and experienced it more. We saw the leaves contract when we removed the mechanical lens from the camera. We always checked out the appearance of the leaves when we cleaned the lens or bought a used lens. We used to actuate them manually and look at them.

Now that I come to think of it, I haven't even seen the leaves of my lenses in years.

So the concept of the f-numbers being the denominator of a fraction relating to the actual size of the hole may be much of a more foreign theoretical concept to newer photographers who only know it as a number on an LED screen.