I've always thought that short tele lenses must be relatively easy to design and manufacture, because there seemed to be so few poor ones—even back when lenses weren't so "bunched at the top" as they are now. And the good ones could be quite special—some became renowned for their beautiful properties. Over the years, some of the best lenses I used were short teles.
The situation has become a bit more confused lately by the plethora of sensor formats. People have naturally turned to lenses designed to cover larger image-plane areas as "short teles" because of their perspective—a 50mm fast Planar type could be used as a 75mm angle-of-view-equivalent on APS-C, for instance. This has been changing, with more lenses, the Pentax 55mm ƒ/1.4 DA for example, designed specifically for the smaller formats. But even so there's been evolution, as these telephoto types have tended to be more highly corrected, with eight to 11 elements, as opposed to their traditional five- and six-element ancestors.
The trouble is that they're too bleedin' sharp for portraits. From a gestalt perspective, we don't see other faces "accurately." Never mind that we're more sensitive to the feature distinctions of people more closely genetically related to us (the famous, or infamous, "all ________'s look alike" syndrome), but our minds are very good at instinctually separating persisting facial features from transient ones. The texture of makeup and temporary pimples just aren't needed for recognition purposes, and the brain tends to naturally "throw away" that information. It's not that we don't see it, but we overlook it. To be psychologically accurate, portrait photographs should too.
Yes, you can "soften" sharp shots in post, but, like "soft filters" in the old days, it seldom looks right—at least not until you achieve a certain level of Photoshop expertise—and it's a headache to do. In pictures of faces, you don't want to see how a model's makeup was applied, and you don't need a topographical record of your subject's skin pores like a map of the moon, or a centimeter-by-centimeter report of how oily their skin is. But of course no one will buy less sharp lenses on purpose, because what if you want to use it for something you want a sharp picture of?
Superfast lenses to the rescue. ("Superfast" used to be any lens faster than ƒ/1.4.) Not only do such lenses allow you to use ISOs closer to base ISO in more situations, but hopefully the improvement in image quality and sharpness as you stop down will be easily visible, giving you a sort of "sharpness control" with aperture. My favorite fast 85's from film days looked progressively sharper as you stopped down to ƒ/2.8 or even ƒ/4—choosing ƒ/2 or ƒ/2.8 made a useful change in image sharpness.
Here's a quantitative lens test just as an example, from the excellent and useful Photozone site, showing an older Planar-type normal lens that covers 24x36mm. Of course there are always other factors to consider, but as far as sharpness is concerned this lens gives us some very useful controls. If you want less center sharpness, you can choose ƒ/1.4; highest center sharpness, ƒ/4; best balance of center and edge sharpness, ƒ/8.
All fast lenses are worse—less sharp—wide open than stopped down, as anyone can see from any sort of quantitative lens test. And lensmakers are beavering away improving the correction of their lenses at all apertures. But what we hope for with a superfast lens, even a highly corrected one, is that it's not too sharp too wide open, but will give us some useful properties to choose from just by changing the aperture setting. If you want a lens that's consistent up and down the aperture range, hopefully there's a slower general-purpose lens in the range that meets that need.
Fuji's XF line has such a slower lens—the XF 60mm ƒ/2.4 Macro. Here's the Photozone test of that lens—note that there is little distinction in the apertures until diffraction takes over at smaller apertures, and that center sharpness actually measures better wide open than at ƒ/8! An impressive result even for a slow macro.
Fuji, however, has been missing a fast portrait-length tele. Given how many professionals are starting to shoot with their Fujis—see for instance Nathan Elson's impressive video—the eagerly awaited (and apparently delayed) Fujifilm XF 56mm ƒ/1.2 is likely to be in high demand.
Early sample images are beginning to emerge, and the indictations are strong that the 56mm has that other requirement of an ideal portrait lens—namely, pleasing and unobtrusive blur characteristics.
The lens, like many superfast lenses, will be big, heavy, and expensive. The upside, however, is considerable—it's that it will be a lot smaller, a lot lighter, and a lot less expensive than its full-frame equivalents.
Compared to the Canon EF 85mm ƒ/1.2L II USM for full-frame for example:
Canon: 3.6x3.3" (9.14x8.38 cm), 72mm filter
Fuji: 2.88x2.74" (7.32 x 6.97 cm), 62mm filter
Canon: 36.16 oz (1025 g)
Fuji: 14.29 oz (405 g)
Those are big differences. As regards cost especially, the Fuji is still a "save-up-for-it" lens for most people, but at least it's not a "you-have-to-be-depreciating-it-on-your-taxes" lens.
One would get less apparent depth-of-field with the full-frame lens at the same apertures.
Fuji has done an impressive job of filling in its still very new X-mount lens line in a short time. (Can someone tell me when the first lenses shipped and how many there are now? [see below]) The new XF 56mm ƒ/1.2 will greatly increase the overall usefulness of the system and its appeal to working photographers, in my opinion.
There is one downside to shooting Fuji...you have to not be too sick of the ubiquitous '10s-decade "X" product designation. Of course, with a son who now prefers to spell his name "Xander," I'd best shut up about that.
Fujifilm XF 56mm ƒ/1.2 pre-order at B&H Photo
UPDATE from Adam Lanigan: "Having just emerged from some serious CoL/GAS with the X-T1, I have investigated this to no end. The intitial lenses were: 18mm ƒ/2, 35mm ƒ/1.4, 60mm ƒ/2.4, and 18–55mm, in Spring/Summer 2012.
"Fuji's lens roadmap is here, showing all of the current and planned lenses by Fuji and Zeiss (though not including Samyang). According to that chart there are currently 12 between Fuji and Zeiss, with three more available shortly (Fuji 56mm, Fuji 10–24mm, Zeiss 50mm macro), and a total of 20 by the end of this year."
Mike replies: Thanks! And, how impressive is that, in less than two years? Very, if you ask me. I suppose you could say that they couldn't sell cameras without offering lenses, but that hasn't stopped Sony.
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(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Rob L (partial comment): "I really love what Fuji has been doing—they, along with Sony, have been making so many neat cameras, and trying new things, that it's been fun to watch even if you don't own anything from either company."
MM: "Roger Cicala recently wrote: 'I think we’ve reached the point where we can assume any product remotely connected with photography has an X in its name somewhere. Maybe if we all quit mentioning that letter, they’ll stop using it. Twenty years from now, young photographers will make fun of us old-timers by saying things like 'you’re still shooting with X equipment, aren’t you?' A century from now they'll describe the timeline of photography as the wet plate era, the film era, the digital era, and the X era.'"
David Miller: "'In pictures of faces, you don't want to see how a model's makeup was applied, and you don't need a topographical record of your subject's skin pores like a map of the moon…' What is that low-pitched rumbling noise? Oh, I think it must be the sound of Yousuf Karsh rolling over in his grave!"
Mike replies: I'm not arguing against sharp portraits. If that's what you want, today's fast lenses will give it to you in spades—just stop down a bit.
Moose replies to David Miller (partial comment): "Karsh's kind of LF portraiture is a different game. I've known this for some time, but it was brought home to me more strongly a couple of years ago, when I had the luck to be able to stand undisturbed for quite some time in front of a very large print (4x5'?) of his famous portrait of Winston Churchill. The combination of a great deal of clear detail with absolutely no edgy, excessive sharpness is something I think may simply not be possible on 35mm or even small medium format film, let alone smaller formats."
Robert Hudyma (partial comment): "There are many techniques to achieving a pleasing portrait where total sharpness is not desired. The choice of the lens and the selected aperture will set the character of the final image. The Fuji, Sony and Micro 4/3 cameras have inexpensive adapters that can take film camera lenses and attach them to the mirrorless bodies. There are a lot of fast (ƒ/1.2 or ƒ/1.4) and inexpensive lenses in the 50-to-58mm range that would be a good choice for pleasing portraiture. That would be my way to go for making portraits using a mirrorless today."