How Much Does Lens Sharpness Matter in Wildlife Photography?

Sharpness is the feature of a lens that receives the most attention among all the others and for a good reason. With very few notable exceptions, crisp photographs are the most desirable subjects for wildlife photographers to capture. When I’m taking pictures of birds, one of the first things I seek is fine feather detail. This is especially true in the photographs that I take of myself. However, how important is the quality of a lens when it comes to photographing wild animals?

What is Lens Sharpness?

In short, a lens’s sharpness is its ability to resolve detail on the subject. But lens sharpness isn’t just a single metric – the same lens that’s sharp in some cases may be below average in others. For example, let’s take a look at our sharpness measurement from Imatest for the Nikon Z 50mm f/1.8 S lens:

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Even though this is one of the sharpest lenses we’ve ever examined in the lab, you can see that the sharpness varies depending on the aperture as well as the part of the frame that you’re focusing on. This lens is really one of the sharpest we’ve ever tested. The Nikon 50mm f/1.8 S performs in the same manner as the majority of lenses, namely that it is sharpest in the center and that it has a “sweet spot” of the aperture values that provide the sharpest results (in this example, somewhere between f/2.8 and f/5.6).

The optical formula of a lens is what determines how sharp it is and how well it can resolve details in an image. It is common for designs that are more current and complicated to provide superior sharpness and fewer aberrations, although this is not always the case.

In general, costly and unusual telephoto lenses, such as 300mm f/2.8 lenses, 600mm f/4 lenses, and so on, tend to have optics that are among the sharpest of any lens now available. However, there are also a large number of inexpensive telephoto lenses available on the market, some of which do not have the same level of optical quality. Does it make a difference? Well…

A Sharp Lens Does Not Mean Sharp Photos!

When individuals talk about having a “sharp photo,” what they really mean is that they have captured a lot of detail in the image. The sharpness of the lens is only one of several factors that affect this particular detail.

To put it another way, do not anticipate that simply purchasing the most recent 600mm f/4 lens would immediately result in stunning photographs of razor-sharp animals. There are a great number of other aspects that need to be considered initially.

The subject’s distance is one of the most important considerations. If the subject is brought closer to the camera, more minor details, such as bird feathers, will take up a more significant proportion of the frame, allowing you to record more information about them. Additionally, being closer helps lessen the impacts of distortion caused by atmospherics.

The focal length of the lens is another important consideration. If your subject is quite a distance away, even the most incredible 400mm lens in the world will not be able to compete with an average 800mm lens in terms of the level of detail you are able to resolve. This is because an 800mm lens amplifies the subject considerably more than a 400mm lens.

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This is one of the reasons why it is such a bad idea to estimate the sharpness of a lens based just on sample images, particularly if you are not viewing the raw file versions of the image. For instance, if you take a picture of a bird up close with an inexpensive 70-300mm zoom lens, the resulting image will seem sharper than if you take the same picture with a high-end 300mm f/2.8 lens.

There are several more considerations, such as the following:

1. Speed of the shutter and movement of the subject: If you choose a shutter speed that is too slow, you will obtain motion blur, which is a significant factor in the loss of sharpness.

2. Incorrect focus, sometimes known as front-focus or back-focus, may make even a $10,000 lens appear inferior to the lens on a simple point-and-shoot camera.

3. The use of sharpening in post-processing will not miraculously recreate lost detail, but it will make the detail that is already present more obvious.

4. Noise in the image is the result of photographing in conditions with poor light and a high ISO. This combination is a recipe for losing details. Removing the noise in an appropriate manner can be helpful, but eliminating the noise too much might make the issue even more severe.

To put it another way, the overall degree of detail that is captured by your camera is determined by a variety of factors in addition to the resolving power of your lens.

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A Below-Average Lens Does Not Mean Blurry Photos!

It should come as no surprise that lenses with a higher degree of sharpness are able to resolve a more significant amount of detail (at least, provided that everything else is done correctly). This is helpful for a variety of tasks, like cropping your photographs and printing them slightly more prominent.

But if you fill the frame with your subject and there is ample light, you’ll be able to capture remarkably equal levels of detail with a cheap telephoto compared to a super-sharp exotic lens, as long as your print size is appropriate. This is true as long as you don’t blow up your prints too large. To put it another way, if you are using a recent lens and still obtaining fuzzy shots, it is highly improbable that the resolving power of the lens is the cause of the problem.

With the help of my Nikon 70-300mm AF-P DX lens, I was recently able to approach a Southern Lapwing in Jardim Botanico So Paulo in So Paulo, Brazil, from a very close distance. This is an entry-level telephoto zoom that costs $400, and while it is absolutely good, it is not likely to be mentioned in the same breath as some of Nikon’s more exotic prime lenses. In spite of this, the image is incredibly crisp when seen up close because I used the correct focus, a shutter speed that was sufficiently quick, an ISO that was suitably low, and a subject that filled the frame. It is not the lens that is the limiting element in generating a huge print; rather, it is the pixel count of the camera.

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To be fair, the circumstances were very close to perfect. If I had used the 70-300mm on more challenging subjects or done considerable cropping, the lens’s shortcomings would have been more apparent. However, this demonstrates that a simple telephoto lens, or even one that is below average in quality, does not automatically result in blurry photographs of animals. It is preferable to fill the frame with an inexpensive lens rather than crop the image severely with a more costly one.

Should You Upgrade to a Sharper Lens?

It might be difficult to decide whether or not you should get an update. When you upgrade to a lens that is either more expensive or has better overall performance, sharpness is not the only quality that will noticeably increase. For instance, upgrading from the Sony FE 200-600mm f/5.6-6.3 G to the Sony 600 f/4 GM will not only provide you with a sharper image but will also speed up the focusing process and increase the maximum aperture to f/4. To tell you the truth, the difference in the two lenses’ resolving powers does not have as much of an impact on the overall sharpness of the photograph as these improvements do.

When I first started photographing wildlife, I used a Tamron 150-600mm G2 lens. Later on, I switched to a Nikon 500mm f/5.6 PF lens, which allowed me to capture much more detail in my images. In this particular instance, the most visible advantages were the faster focusing and the reduced weight of the lens. Both of these aspects had direct effects on the quality of the photographs that I took. In the lab, the 500mm f/5.6 is shown to be superior to the other lens, and this is something that may be observed in the field on occasion; nevertheless, for me, the other qualities were the ones that made the biggest impact.

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As a last point of discussion, I’d want for us all to retreat a little bit if that’s at all feasible. The preoccupation with sharpness that many photographers have these days is borderline ridiculous, and I must admit that I am one of them. I adore prints that have a crisp appearance when seen up close. But even the most incredible wildlife photographs I’ve ever seen have a few flaws when you get too close to the lens and press your face against it. Before you go out and spend a ton of money updating your lenses, you should make sure you understand what you’ll be getting in return and how it will specifically benefit your photography.

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