The Spyglass Man, Umayyad Mosque, Damascus, 2008. Shot with the seldom-praised Canon 28mm ƒ/1.8 at ƒ/5 on an APS-C body. Trying to demonstrate lens character with a web-size JPEG is an exercise in futility, but in prints I like how this lens smoothly yet distinctly renders the background layers of an image. Maybe you can see a bit of that here.
By John Kennerdell
Quaint as it may sound now, once upon a time many of us bought lenses largely by personal recommendation. While you might have happened across a test of a lens you were considering in one of the photo magazines of the day, often it was just some other photographer whose judgement you trusted. He’d say, here’s the one you want, it’s good. And, in your innocence, that was all you really needed to know.
Today, it seems, we know better. MTF charts, Imatest, DxO and all the rest—why take the word of any mere photographer when we have instant access to such comprehensive, state-of-the-art tools?
OK, I’m sure there are some good non-rhetorical answers to that question, say in fields like aerial survey or scientific photography where the demands made on lenses are purely technical. But for the rest of us, here’s my case for the old pro who says, yeah, just buy this one. And while we’re at it, let’s defend his choice of test instruments: the venerable Mark I human eyeball.
The topic came up a couple months ago when I decided I needed a medium wide-angle lens for the Micro 4/3 cameras I now use most of the time. The obvious choice seemed to be the Olympus 17mm ƒ/1.8, a thoroughly modern (2013) design from a company that clearly knows as much about photographic optics as anyone in the business. But what to make of all the online sniping? "Disappointing"? "Under-performing"? "Ill-considered"? Among at least some lab-coated reviewers and their followers, this "flawed" lens was generating some serious angst.
Here’s a pet theory of mine: when a well-respected manufacturer releases a premium-priced optic that immediately draws criticism for its supposed lack of sharpness, odds are that it might be, for lack of a more exact term, a lens of real character. Most likely, its designers considered it to be sufficient in resolution (evidently an uncomfortable concept for some people), and were looking at qualities beyond that.
My favorite example of this has long been Canon’s EF 28mm ƒ/1.8. It came out almost 20 years ago and is technically none too impressive on 35mm film, never mind digital sensors. Corner sharpness? Forget about it. Color aberrations, coma, etc.—this is not a lens you want to test too closely. And yet to my eyes it had a lovely look, to the point where I bought an APS-C body just to use it. (28mm is too wide for my tastes, while 45mm-e feels about perfect.) That lens, shot fairly close at mid-apertures, still charms me in ways that none of my other Canon lenses do. They’re reliably good, but the 28mm is unreliably great. By that I mean that it doesn't work for every kind of shot, but when it does, it sings.
The problem here, I suspect, is that people tend to look at what's easiest to look at. And in the digital age, nothing is easier to judge than resolution of fine detail. Fail to deliver eyeball-piercing sharpness and, as a lens maker in the 21st century, you’re going to suffer the slings and arrows of an online community that often looks no further than 100% pixel view on their computer screens.
And it's not just resolution. One pixel's worth of color fringing and you can expect the enthusiasts to pile onto a lens for "chromatic aberration" (which they now call by its initials, CA, like an old friend). Never mind that it's often a lens-sensor interaction rather than a true optical fault, and that, even if visible at print sizes, it could easily be fixed in post. Or "bokeh," Japanese for the defocus aberration. Aficionados like to look at "blur disks" and other grossly out-of-focus extremes of the image. I'd suggest that the real appeal of fine lenses more often lies in the beauty of their transitions from in-focus to out-of-focus. Photographic objectives do things that are both obvious and subtle. The better the lens, the more the subtlety counts.
Even sharpness, which after all is a subjective term, has its varieties. In film days we used to talk about "hard sharp" and "smooth sharp" lenses. No doubt there are technical explanations—for a start, more raw resolution for the former, and generally better micro-contrast for the latter—but the main thing was, that was how the images looked, and you picked the look you liked. Want killer sharpness at the expense of some harshness? You could have that. Prefer a rounder, richer look? Then you chose that. Graphs, numbers, and other scientific metrics couldn’t tell you those things. Your eyes could.
Commuters and Thomas Edison, Bangkok, 2014. Snapped with the Olympus 17mm ƒ/1.8 at ƒ/2. It’s plenty sharp, handles colors and tonalities with real elegance, and autofocuses so quickly that it feels like cheating. Plus it's tiny and solid, and has a handy manual-focus clutch. If this is a "flawed" lens, bring on more of them.
To cut to the chase, I bought the Olympus 17mm and, yes, it’s a sweet little lens. Apparently it doesn’t test especially well, but users love it and now I do too. It works just fine alongside the Panasonic 25mm ƒ/1.4, another excellent optic that hasn’t had to endure the same kind of online abuse thanks to its somewhat higher resolution. In use, as a rough equivalent of the classic 35mm/50mm pair, they're both pretty near as good as it gets. Trust your eyes and be happy, I say.
See John's Category in the right-hand sidebar for more of his contributions.
©2014 by John Kennerdell, all rights reserved
Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Henning Kraggerud: "Yes, and quite often transition between absolute sharpness and out of focus is much more important than resolution pairs on flat surfaces like resolution charts. My new Pentax 20–40mm Limited is one of my nicest-drawing lenses with great strong natural colors yet subtle beautiful color transitions and and impressive micro contrast which pop where needed, and it gets bad reviews."
Seth: "I'm glad to read this, because I was puzzled by most of the other reviews of this lens. Their text seemed almost universally unimpressed, while their accompanying photographs all seemed to show a lens with a perfectly pleasant character. It made me wonder what I was missing."
Albert Erickson: "John and Mike, just so happens I own both the Olympus 17mm and the Panasonic 25mm. I couldn't agree more with John—both are terrific lenses. They are clean, sharp, show great color rendition and fit in a pants pocket. What more do you want from a lens? Thanks for the post; very well said."
PhotoOmaha: "I have definitely had a love/hate relationship with that lens. For me, I could shoot 28mm, 50mm and 85mm all day. I went through three copies of this lens, but at ƒ/1.8, it was basically worthless; the 'bokeh' was horrendous. I do a lot of wedding work, and this should have been one of my go-to lenses. It definitely got left in the bag quite a bit. I always feel, if the lens is advertised to go to ƒ/1.8, why can't I use it at ƒ/1.8?"