Posted by: kerryl29 | April 28, 2014

Two Steps Forward and One Step Back (Hopefully): The Wonderful World of Photographic Compromises

Last month I posted an entry entitled “The Sweet Spot,” which described my early experiences with Nikon’s new(ish) AF-S 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR lens and some of the rationale that lay behind my decision to purchase it.  In the comments section, Jerry of QuietSoloPursuits wrote the following:  “I understand the need for a longer lens, even for landscapes, but my understanding is that the longer the range of focal length a zoom lens has, the more that image quality drops off, and you seem to be a stickler for quality. I would think that you would opt for something like a 200-400 mm lens to go with a 70-200 mm.”  This was–and remains–an excellent question, and the answer to it serves as an apt segue into a larger point that I hinted at in the linked piece:  the seemingly never-ending set of tradeoffs that are a part of virtually every photography-related decision that we, as photographers, make.

Jordan Pond in Fog, Acadia National Park, Maine

Jordan Pond in Fog, Acadia National Park, Maine

80-400 or 70-200/200-400?

Let’s start with a direct answer to Jerry’s question, with his premise in mind:  the greater the zoom range, the worse the optical quality of that lens, all other things being equal.  This is a quick and dirty generalization that just happens to be true.  The 80-400 is a 5X zoom lens; something like the 70-200 is less than a 3X.  Coupled with a 200-400 (2X) you’re almost certainly getting better image quality from shots taken with either of the latter pair of lenses than you are from the 80-400.  But what are you giving up by going with the two lens option?

Lower Antelope Canyon, Arizona

Lower Antelope Canyon, Arizona

1) Avoidance of lens swapping:  virtually the same focal length is covered with a single lens rather than two, so for just about any telephoto shot I want to take, I can use the 80-400.  With the pair of lenses, I’d have to swap in and out any time I wanted to go over (or under) 200 mm.

2) Weight:  the 80-400 weighs about 3.5 pounds.  There are two 70-200 Nikon options–a fixed f/2.8 and a fixed f/4.  (There are third party options as well, but in the interest of making this relatively easy to follow, I’ll stick with comparing Nikon branded lenses.)  The 2.8 version weighs roughly 3.4 pounds.  The 4 version weights just under 1.9 lbs.  But then there’s the matter of the 200-400/4 and its 7.4 pound payload.   To summarize:


Lens Combo.

Weight (lbs)



70-200/2.8 & 200-400


70-200/4 & 200-400



If you don’t think a six- or seven-pound weight difference is a big deal, you haven’t spent much (any?) time lugging a 35-pound pack on lengthy hikes.  So there’s a significant weight savings by going with the 80-400 option.

LaSalle Canyon Waterfall, Starved Rock State Park, Illinois

LaSalle Canyon Waterfall, Starved Rock State Park, Illinois

3) Space.  It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway:  the 80-400 takes up a lot less space than either of the combination options.  The 200-400 is almost five inches wide and more than 14 inches long.  The 70-200/4 is 3.1 x 7 inches; the 70-200/2.8 is 3.4 x 8 inches.  Either combination of the two lenses, and a single camera body, will take up the entirety of a go0d-sized camera bag or backpack.   The 80-400 is 3.8 x 8 inches.  In other words, the 80-400 is a bit larger than either of the 70-200 options–alone.  Factor in the 200-400 and it’s obvious which of the choices takes up less room.

4) Cost.  This is my personal favorite.  The 80-400 costs just under $2700.  (As I mentioned in the earlier entry, I paid $400 less than that due to an instant rebate that was available at the time of purchase.)  The 70-200/4 is roughly $1400; the 70-200/2.8 is approximately $2400; the 200-400 runs $6750.  In sum:


Lens Combo. Price
80-400 $2700 ($2300)
70-200/4 & 200-400 $8,150
70-200/2.8 & 200-400 $9,450


The cost differences here are staggering.  The price I paid for the 80-400 is than 1/4 that of the 70-200/2.8-200-400 combination–a difference of more than $7000.  The difference compared to the 70-200/4-200-400 combination is nearly $6000.  To put this in some perspective, the single most expensive piece of photographic equipment I’ve ever purchased is the D800E camera body, at just under $3300.

McConnell's Mill, McConnell's Mill State Park, Pennsylvania

McConnell’s Mill, McConnell’s Mill State Park, Pennsylvania

All of these 80-400 benefits come at the price of some image quality–exactly how much is difficult to quantify, so I’m not going to try.   I have used all of these lenses, including the 200-400/4 (which I borrowed from a wildlife photographer friend of mine), and while the 80-400 does give something up (as expected), it’s no slouch by any means.  I consider the IQ compromise to be a fairly modest one.  While it’s not the lens I’d recommend for someone who wants to extract every last bit of IQ out of the D800E’s sensor come hell or high water, neither are any of the other zooms in this discussion.  If I wanted the highest quality that I could achieve with my camera, I wouldn’t be shooting zoom lenses at all.  I’d have a bundle of prime lenses–including some very heavy, very pricey ones–that I’d be hauling around in a pack that would make Atlas himself book a chiropractic appointment.

This is, in fact, exactly the sort of tradeoff that I’m talking about.  It’s not a matter of whether to compromise, it’s how you choose to do so.  In essence, I’ve decided that–for me–the 80-400 is the best option given a whole host of considerations (such as how much money I’m willing to spend, how much weight I’m going to lug around, my personal photographic proclivities, and so on).  Someone else might weigh these considerations–and others–differently and come to a very different conclusion.  But regardless of the specific choice one thing is certain:  compromises will be made.

Fog & Sun, Bear Rocks Preserve, Dolly Sods Wilderness, Monongahela National Forest, West Virginia

Fog & Sun, Bear Rocks Preserve, Dolly Sods Wilderness, Monongahela National Forest, West Virginia

Devil’s Advocate

Just to further illustrate the point, and demonstrate how it impacts everything, consider the matter of “the ultimate image quality.”  I mentioned above that, if I wanted to squeeze every bit of quality that I could, I’d be using (mostly very expensive) prime lenses on my camera, but that’s not entirely correct, because the fact is that if image quality was so important to me that it trumped everything else, I wouldn’t be using this camera format at all.  I’d be shooting with a large format camera, probably with a digital back.  The camera I use, the Nikon D800E, is arguably capable of the highest image quality for  a digital SLR, but there are other formats that are inherently capable of higher image quality than anything that can be achieved with any small format camera.  This was even more emphatically the case back in the film era, but even today, despite remarkable leaps forward in terms of IQ in small format cameras over the past 10 years, medium and large format cameras are still capable of doing better–significantly better, in fact.

Sparks Lane Morning, Cades Cove, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

Sparks Lane Morning, Cades Cove, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

But these other formats represent substantial tradeoffs of their own.  Nearly 15 years ago, before the digital era had shown clear signs of maturing, I was seriously contemplating moving to either medium or large format from a 35mm film camera system and spent a lot of time investigating the options and weighing the pros and cons, and the vast majority of these considerations remain relevant (many have in fact been amplified) in the digital age.  Image quality is gained–at least when one is able to conquer the additional hurdles of properly using the equipment–with the larger formats.  Those hurdles are numerous and substantial, particularly for large format systems.  There’s also a huge cost penalty (to the tune of thousands–tens of thousands in many cases–of dollars) if one wants to retain the benefits of digital capture.  (If you’re willing to stick with capture on film, the (hardware) equipment costs actually may represent a decrease as medium and large format film gear is comparatively inexpensive these days, but much of that advantage is canceled out by the ever-increasing cost of diminishing stocks of film and developing capabilities.  Besides, all of the numerous benefits of native digital capture disappear when film is the capture medium, to say nothing of the expense and difficulty of scanning medium and large format film.)  And, of course, there are massive portability and flexibility downsides, particularly for large format camera systems.  Even highly experienced large format photographers need several minutes to set up their cameras in the field.  Composing, metering and focusing are lengthy, painstaking, time-consuming processes.  As one large format photographer once told me, “you miss a lot of shots with large format,” meaning that it was nearly impossible to successfully adjust to rapidly changing conditions or events.  Generally speaking, you had one shot–at best.

Mt. Hood from Trillium Lake, Mt. Hood National Forest, Oregon

Mt. Hood from Trillium Lake, Mt. Hood National Forest, Oregon

Medium format represented a kind of middle ground compared to 35mm (small format) and large format:  better IQ than small format, but not as good as large format.  Far more portable and easier to set up than large format, but decidedly less so compared to small format.  More flexible and with more options than large format, but nowhere near what small format offered.

So in the greater scheme of things, every step-wise improvement that could be gained in image quality required a concomitant tradeoff–sometimes multiple tradeoffs–elsewhere, whether it be in terms of cost, flexibility, number of associated options, portability, time, ease of workflow or something else.  And, generally speaking, the size of the tradeoff corresponded with the quantity of the improvement in IQ.  It’s when that proportion is out of whack–say a comparatively large improvement in IQ without giving up much or a small IQ loss while gaining a lot–that the decision making process is eased.  That’s essentially what I saw with the 80-400 situation that I laid out above:  I gave up a little bit of IQ relative to the other options I laid out, but (relatively speaking) I gained an awful lot by doing so.  That was a fairly easy choice to make.  Often times the decision making locus is far more complicated.

Heart of the Dunes black & white, White Sands National Monument, New Mexico

Heart of the Dunes black & white, White Sands National Monument, New Mexico

I’m just summarizing the situation–a full-blown exposé would require a more thorough vetting of the other advantages and disadvantages of the various formats–but I’m sure you can spot the trend:  you’re always compromising.  I’ve largely centered this discussion around the specific subject of IQ–and what you have to do to move up each notch to improve, but the general gist of this gestalt can be applied to just about any aspect of photography you like:  you’re essentially always weighing whether it’s worth giving something up to achieve something else. Consider the decision about gaining depth of field (by stopping down the lens) at the cost of shutter speed.  Or gaining a light advantage (raising the ISO) at the expense of more noise and less dynamic range.  Or gaining depth of field (stopping down the lens) at the cost of a potential loss of acuity due to increased diffraction.  It’s endless:  give some of this to get some of that (or vice versa).

In the end, the sooner that we reconcile ourselves to the need to compromise, the more energy we can put into evaluating the circumstances and making the choice that best meets our  personal needs, goals and limitations.


  1. Le foto sono fantastiche e le spiegazioni chiare.
    Grazie. Buona nuova settimana. Ciao, pat

    • Ringraziamenti molto!

  2. Great post!

  3. Incredible pictures, love the trird one!!!

  4. Lots of wonderful shots and great wisdom.

    • Thanks very much!

  5. What a great post. I’m so glad I found you. The price alone would steer me into the 80-400mm! It sure would be handy to have a 400m lens and that variety. At the other end, I use my 18-200mm lens a lot when I travel because I don’t have to swap lenses.

    • Thanks. All-in-one lenses, such as the 18-200, were made for travel photography, so what you’re doing makes perfect sense to me.

      • Glad to know I’m on the right track 🙂

  6. Enjoyed your discussion. May have mentioned this before but what one intends to do with their images is also an important consideration. At age 64 I’m not real interested in trying to sell any of my images, not that anyone would spend good money for them, so that frees me up to take photos that are good enough for my blog using equipment that I don’t mind having with me all day.

    When I was much younger I was obsessed with image quality and control of things like, camera shake, shutter speed, and depth of field, etc. I think that obsession drained a lot of the spontaneity out of the pictures taken during those years

    • Yes, anticipated output is an important consideration and definitely factors into the tradeoff equation. Good point.

      What it is you’re photographing, and how you want to go about it, must factor in as well, I think. For instance, some of the things that other photographers might view as encumbrances that merely slow them down are intrinsic to the experience for me. There’s nothing objectively correct or incorrect about these things, but one’s predilections will certainly factor into which compromises to make (and which not to make).

  7. Such a wonderful post. Explained with great detail. Especially love your ending paragraph. I too agree with the fact that everything in life including photography, we have to come to a compromise. Thanks for sharing such a good write up. Sharing it with my twitter followers. Cheers.

    • Thanks very much–much appreciated.

  8. Such beautiful work!

  9. One, awesome photos as always!

    Two, thanks for the shout out.

    Three, I’m glad that I’m not buying Nikkor lenses. 😉

    Everything that you wrote is true, everything in photography is a compromise, and it depends on what we typically shoot that determines the compromises that are best for us. I recently purchased a 300 mm prime telephotos lens with close focusing capabilities to use for birding and near macro photos. As soon as I saw the images that lens produced, my first thought was that I just had to buy more prime lenses, then reality set in.

    First, I’d have to win the lottery to afford all the lenses to cover the focal lengths that I would want to cover, and I may end up with enough money leftover to pay some one to help me carry them all.

    And secondly, I’d never get any photos, as choosing the correct lens and getting it on the camera would take far too long in most cases.

    Anyway, thank you for a very well written and helpful post, it’s always good to hear other photographers opinions and reasons for using the equipment that they do.

    • Thanks.

      Yeah, you’ve run across the reality of dealing with prime lenses if you’re into more than one very specific type of photography. For some people, nothing but primes is the way to go. (There are no zoom lenses for large format cameras, after all.) But the compromise (there’s that word again) involved with carrying three zooms (plus one prime–my macro lens) is one well worth making–in my case anyway. I love the flexibility provided by the zooms I have.

  10. Great post!

    Perhaps a bit off topic, another way to increase 35mm format resolution is to merge images with multiple panned shots. Special heads and leveling bases can be used for this, but tilt/shift lenses are an efficient alternative, especially with today’s processing software.

    • Thanks, Tom. Yes, good point about being able to stitch images together for additional resolution; I do this from time to time (though not too often with the D800E). And certain the shift capability of a T/S lens is a significant aid in this regard…though it’s worth noting that ANY stitch method requires the subjects in the image to be almost perfectly stationary.

  11. Love the way you carried the compromise concept into life in general. Very zen….
    But most of all, the Mt Hood image simply took my breath away. I’d call that one a true wall-hanger. So utterly lovely and serene.

    • Thanks very much, Gunta. If you’re interested in a bit of the back story of that Mt. Hood image, I posted an entry about it roughly three years ago: Perseverance.

  12. Hello,fabulous photo and nice post! I like it!

  13. Great post, you’ve neatly summarised the reality that whatever we do photographically is a compromise. I use a Canon bridge camera which gives excellent results for the cost, and is readily portable. However, it doesn’t give anything like the quality of the DSLR + big lens combos of many wildlife photographers around here; but I can’t afford either the money or time commitment to go that route at present. But the bridge camera gives results that are fine for a blog. So I’m with centralohionature on being realistic about what one intends to do with the images.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking article!

    • Thanks for taking the time to weigh in.

      And, agreed=–without question, cost and intended use of the final product should be factored into any photography-related decision.

  14. Reblogged this on Haven of Inspiration.

  15. stunning… will keep your blog on my email list to review. thanks eve

    • Thanks very much–much appreciated.

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