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Wednesday, 30 July 2014


I find that I want lenses that are "invisible," like those two huge zooms you mentioned. (Come to think of it, I want the same thing from a camera.) The shorter the list of things I have to worry about, the more mental effort I can put into nontechnical things like framing and timing.

Better gear only means fewer excuses ;-)

I wonder these days how much lenses really matter when LR makes adjustment so easy. I tend to look at a digital image as data - which I want to be as complete and uncorrupted as possible - which I will then use to create an image. I am not sure if some subtle lens qualities survive the transformation.

should not "picturesque" be the word?

Neither camera imparts magical qualities to your pictures—they will not cut your eyeballs with zippety-zappety contrast or nuke your subjects with the X-ray vision of super-high resolution; rather, these cameras are "merely" magnificently, supremely difficult to stress. Within physical limits (by which I mean, shooting in a dark room will still result in imageless pictures, image noise is still image noise, and so forth), you may do almost anything either camera is capable of doing without negative imaging consequences.

definitely agree on thinking about lenses and their properties as a hobby separate from photography. a decent photographer can make due with any lens and get good results.

i could be perfectly happy shooting with what is technically my worst lens (probably a jupiter-3, though there are other contenders), yet i like to explore all kinds of lenses for the fun of it. mostly i'm not interested in getting the best performance out of them though (the differences in best performance between most lenses aren't that great or interesting in my opinion). i'm more interested in stressing them to see what kind of interesting looks that produces.

i have an rx1, which is technically amazing having almost no sweet spot and yet has a beautiful distinctive look to it. despite this i often choose to shoot instead with a leica m 35/1.4 lux pre-asph that has many flaws simply because i enjoy the way the optical flaws look too.

All of what you say may be true, but it omits the potential in post-processing - there's an assumption that I want to be using one preset (probably as close to no-op as possible) in ACR or similar and will just lap-up the lens's foibles.

We can correct for drop-off easily; not just by cranking some slider with a preconceived idea of what vignetting to correct, but precisely by taking a reference image of a dull wall and countering it.

Similarly we can correct for distortion easily; not just by cranking some slider for barrel or spherical controls "to taste", but with parameters precisely measured for the lens at various focal-lengths, apertures and subject-distances, thanks to the lensfun project.

Best of all, if the subject is conducive to a panorama treatment, we can throw naively converted files into Hugin (free and open-source), which can calculate and compensate for lens distortion precisely as seen in the source images; blend with enfuse biased toward exposure, and the vignetting drops out since corners that are dark in one frame are correctly exposed in the next.

TBQH I fail to see the fascination with sitting there plugging at one RAW file at a time in Lightroom - continually choosing what looks like the correct vignetting correction for each of 300 images then coming back and repeating it a month later after the rose-tinted goggles have cleared is akin to dust-spotting in terms of manual, repetitive, boring and menial labour.

And, as you imply, sometimes we point the camera in the right direction, too. Not much point correcting for every technicality if the ball's kicked out of frame.

This has been a very nice, concise overview essay on practical camera lens issues, Mike. Thank you for "reprinting" it.

For readers who enjoy this type of material may I suggest Canon's EF Lens Work III. This was formerly a private-distribution book that Canon decided to make freely available as a series of PDFs. Even if you're not a Canon shooter there's plenty of excellent general material in there!


My own perspective is that today's lens optical qualities are so far down the chain of total image quality factors as to be nearly negligible. Yes, in the age of passive imaging media the lens generally had a powerful influence on the final image.

But lenses today are merely "Eliza Doolittle" players in Pygmalion-like performances. Enormous strides in computer-aided engineering design, materials sciences, and manufacturing technologies produce "kit" lenses that surpass yesterday's "premium" lenses. Beyond that, however, today's active electronic recording media and infinitely malleable digital post-capture chain can compensate for most lens design deficiencies, either in-camera or later. Light fall-off, chromatic aberrations, geometric distortions, purple fringing, even sharpness fall-off are all generally digitally fixable often automatically without your awareness. Quite amazing to me!

But that fluidity is where so much of image troubles really start. The same powerful tools that can nudge image quality upward can, and often are, used to tastelessly or excessively degrade and distort images. Spend an extra $1,000 on a premium lens that minimizes edge blur and fall-off only to later commit slidercide and make its images look worse than Henry Fox-Talbot's first tries.

Not only have electronics produced a golden age of cameras (as was speculated in an earlier TOP article) but it's also delivered a golden age of lenses. But I sometimes wonder if that's had any real influence on the general quality of photography. Maybe in some sectors (advertising). But it sure seems to me that the advancement of the lowly camera phone, coupled with "social media", has unarguably had the most powerful impact on photography in history, for "better" or "worse".

But I've digressed.

Nice motto below the letter blocks on Zander's t-shirt.

Mike, I like and subscribe to your message. I use the Zeiss ZM lenses. I have always liked their contrast and color rendition from my film camera days and was happy to be able to use them on an M8 and now M9. They have those middle of the road qualities; modest apertures allowing optimal optical correction, no focus shift (ex-the f1.5 'Classic' Sonnar), round apertures for more pleasing out of focus rendition, plus top quality manufacture even if built to a relatively expensive price point. More importantly, they are consistently good, within their limitations, which, with the ability to adjust in-camera ISO and use photoshop corrections, are a non-issue.

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