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Friday, 23 September 2016


I can't help but think that Asymptosis is the bedrock of of being an audiophile.

I have been biased against Sigma lenses since many years ago when the build quality seemed marginal--and what was up with that funky splattered looking finish they used to use. Anyway, I recently overcame my prejudice and purchased a 17-70 from their Contemporary line, and I have to say I am very happy with it. The build and finish is nice for a relatively inexpensive lens. It is not without shortcomings, but I like the way it renders and it is a great range of focal length on APS-C. I use it more than any other lens. Sigma has definitely come up in my eyes.

Reminds me of last week at the opera, when I thought: ‘That diva does not have the looks and her Body Mass Index is much too high, so she has to be a star performer, otherwise she wouldn’t be here.’

And of course she was!

OK, you convinced me: I'll buy the Sigma Art 50mm. Now I only need a body to mount it on.

The first part of this article reminded me of The Greatest Mistake (TGM) when it comes to equipment: people give too much attention to bodies and overlook lenses. Maybe because all those wonderful little numbers are related to bodies - ISO, frames per second, et al -, and the optical properties associated to lenses are frequently obscure to the majority of consumers.
In fact I remember having fumed when I read an article on dpreview in which the author allowed himself to designate lenses as 'peripherals.' Our digital world turned cameras into little image-taking computers, making lenses seem superfluous and antiquated devices. This is where TGM strikes harder: once people built photographic systems around their lens collection; now they buy bodies based on specs and lenses are an afterthought. It's silly, but that's how things are today.

Going a little way back - and dramatically shifting subject -, I wonder whether Peter Croft has any experience with cassowaries. I've just been offered one - I have friends in Australia who raise cassowaries in a New South Wales ranch -, but I have some concerns about how a cassowary will adapt to an urban environment - especially living in a 2nd floor apartment. Any tips?

Gosh, I can remember when the thought of a 50/1.4 for nearly $1000 - not from Zeiss, but from Sigma, of all companies - would be utterly absurd ... and here you are talking about it as good enough to not hold you back.

Manufacturers really are doing a good job over the last couple years in getting the market to expect and accept higher priced products. A few years ago, after Nikon's D600 and Sony's A7, it looked like were were heading for an era of affordable awesomeness (could the $1000 FF DLSR be far off ?) Not the sub-$2000 FF bodies are the poor man's cameras that nobody really wants. APS-C bodies are back in the $1000+ range. Panasonic's G series is starting around $900 now ... forget an entry level body with a built in VF to compete with the $500 entry level DSLRs any more (other than the Sony A6000, and they were quick to rememdy that with the nearly-$1000 A6300). We've come to accept $1000 pocket cameras (RX100-IV) $1600 point & shoots (RX10-III).

All of which might be a good thing. The race to the bottom wasn't going to do us any good in the long run, and I've often bemoaned the fact that it's getting harder and harder to find "good stuff" any more ... quality household items.

Given where digital SLRs are in terms of image quality while using higher ISOs, I would question the need for an f1.4 lens at all. Combining autofocus and a wide open fast lens seems like a recipe for lots of near misses in terms of critical focus. As you point out, look at the filter sizes for these new f1.4 lenses. I once owned an f1 Noctilux with a 58mm filter thread. A good f2 lens is way smaller, less expensive, quicker to focus, and entirely sufficient. Unfortunately, most manufacturers (Leica excepted) construct their f2 lines as cheaply as possible.

It's not just the price of the lens but what you have to give up to buy it. People with excess money (a consumer surplus in econ-speak) will evaluate the price differently (or not at all) than those who would have to forego (for example) a new car or braces for their son/daughter.

I think asymptosis and Veblenitis may be related conditions (and strangely prevalent in dentists and lawyers).

This is one of the sharpest 50mm lenses for full frame.
But I'm not impressed. It can't hold a candle to the Olympus ED 25mm F1.2 Pro for the micro four thirds systems.

I've taken it one step further.

I am still maintaining multiple lens kits. Mostly because I haven't been able to give up my Nikon DSLR, ( especially for wildlife photography), but Canon lenses are the best for me to adapt to mirror less cameras (for stilla & 4k video) to maintain AF, IS/ IS, and in body camera control.

So I have assembled a kit of "excellent for the size & price" lenses in Canon mount, plus a small Nikon mount kit.

The "core" of both the Cabob and Nikon kits are the Sigma 17-50 2.8 OS (APS-C) and a Sigma 50 1.4 non-ART lens for portraits. Those 2 lenses are under $500 total used (around $250 each, or less)

I also have the Canon 70-200 4.0 IS ($600 used) and the Nikon 70-200 4.0 IS ($900 used.)

On the Canon side, for use on a Sony A6300 and Panasonic GX85, I have the Canon 24 mm 2.8, 40 mm 2.8, 50 mm 1.8 STM, and the Canon 85 1.8 The total investment there is about $600, with the 85 mm accounting for about half of that.

Finally, I have a Sigma 150-600 Contemporary (about $750) for my Nikon D7200, and a Panasonic 100-300 mm for the GX85 (about $300 used) for lighter / more casual wildlife work.

Those are all Very Good+ to Excellent+ lenseson APS-C.

I was able to sell off my expensive 70-200 2.8 II zooms after I finished doing low light event work this spring. I also sold my Nikon D810's for the same reason. I only really needed either of them for that extra stop (of speed or noise reduction ) when doing high ISO work.

For generalist work you can put together a pretty great lens kit for the same cost as a single premium lens. If I were still a pro I would add the 24-70 2.8 & 70-200 2.8 II pair back into the mix, but I wouldn't change a lot else.

This is way down from the days when I owned 18+ high quality Canon "L" lenses and a full frame DSLR, around 2004-2008. The newer, less expensive lenses made since 2010 (especially the Canon lenses) are fantastic for their price point. As are the newer APS-C cameras.

As much ad i loved expebsive, specunlined lenses like my Canon tilt shift lenses, or the 85 mm 1.2 II for portraits & fashion, I think I am now right at the point of rapidly diminishing returns.

I should also mention that my Samsung S7 Active has a pretty great, mostly waterproof smartphone camera. With great Dual Pixel auto focus & some "pro" controls.

The most I've ever paid for a lens was $300, the next under that was $250. Both were pancake normals, as it happens. Purchased used, like 90% of my gear.

The single most expensive item I've purchased is the body I'm using now, a Nikon D700. I paid $940 for it 3 years ago, I'm seeing it offered for half that now. I'd probably get another D700 if my current one croaked.

I keep a spreadsheet over all my photo-related purchases. Since 2007, I've spent $5,700, which I guess is the cost of the new Summilux-SL including lens hood.

The things limiting my photography are time, and my own inherent laziness pursuing the craft. But it's nice to know I can exchange money for (near) perfection.

I really think that your "All you need a lens for is not ot hold you back" is wonderful classic advise if you're main interest is in Pictures produced, particularly, the printed picture.
I think I would add a little more to it though.
Having said that, you have often spoken with fondness about the 'Look' of Zeiss lenses, or for that matter the Sigma Art 50. You are a 'lens guy' and as such, always seemed to attach importance to factors other than technical adequacy -(the point where the lens no longer 'holds you back') My reading of your comments over the years has been that you know a pretty fair amount about them, that you value the look of the lens over sharpness (as long as it is adequate) and the the look of the print trumps everything.
I really agree with that.
So I would add that similar lenses with different looks can both be good enough to 'not hold you back' and still offer valid reasons to have strong preferences.
Generally speaking lenses have continually improved to the point where most lenses that are not severely price constrained in manufacture can meet the constraint of 'not holding us back' if judged by any moderate print size.
But above that there is still room for preference, and most of us have them.
But I still think your 'not hold you back ' standard is a great way of thinking about what you really want a lens to do. It is great advice.
And a great way to gently refocus on the Picture rather than technical attributes mostly visible at 100%
But technology has whetted our appetites for looking ever more closely at things. It is one of the differences that digital photography has by it's nature. A clear two edged sword---but it is here to stay.
As for Leica, I'm not sure it's possible anymore to ignore the luxury brand aspect. They make wonderful products that have had the benefit of fewer cost constraints because there is a percieved value beyond function.
So I think Asymptosis is very real, but a little like the 'golden ear' arguments about the mintiest of things in audio components. They can never be won, because who am I to say what you can hear?
Disposible income is highly variable, so we can only really make good choices for ourselves.

Jerry Seinfeld has a wonderful line that seems to apply...."Did you ever notice that no matter the speed limit, anyone who drives 5 mph faster than us is a 'Maniac' and anyone who drives 5mph slower than you is a Moron ?"

Price sensitivity is also known as price elasticity of demand (PED) in economics. Sensitivity or responsiveness of demand relative to the price of a product depends mainly on (a) availability of substitutes and (b) the income level of the buyer. The case you cited of the lakeshore property and your rich friend is a classic example of price inelasticity of demand because the property had no substitute ("location, location, location") and he had the discretionary income to spend on it.

Other factors which determines PED include: necessity of the product, brand loyalty, proportion of price to income, life cycle of product.

I also think Leica knows its market and set the price of its 50mm SL accordingly.

Personally, I can't get excited about something so freakishly huge- no matter how good it is. If you're throwing a major criteria such as size completely out the window- it should be nothing less than spectacular. I'm impressed when someone makes something incredible in a compact size- like the 40mm Voigtlander Ultron or the 28mm(e) lens in the Ricoh GR, two very diminutive, yet stellar performers!

With all due respect to Ken Tanaka and you, Ken didn't invent the word 'asymptosis', Its been used in economics and other math areas for a while now. I believe there is a pub or blog called "Asymptosis" with the motto 'always approximating'. However, your thesis is right. For some os the best lenses, any improvement is buried in the noise of other image degrading factors, and can only be measured under laboratory conditions - if then.

I think the fundamental cause of GAS is that it's difficult to put discussions about gear into proper perspective. It's not your fault, but it's hard to read this and not hear the taunting, evil voice saying, "This lens is better than anything you have. You'll never take a good photograph without this. Why do you even bother? And by the way, those pants make your butt look big."

I hate to say this, but I think Leica has become much more of a luxury goods company than the hard-core engineering-based company we all grew up knowing. In this respect, they remind me very much of high-end audio companies, that also started out as engineering companies, but as the high-end audio arena diminished in size, moved towards a luxury market that defines high-end audio today. Ken's *asymptosis* was never truer than it is in high-end audio. And what goes with this of course, are the ever-increasing prices for "stuff", whether it be $10,000 Air-Tight moving coil cartridges, $30,000 Shindo preamps (touched by Ken...the master himself!) or 50mm Leica primes. So, I'm right Mike on this one...there are other, much more affordable alternatives, that for all *practical* purposes, are good enough. The term "fit for purpose" should be the order of the day.

We've discussed differences in how lenses render images before, always inconclusively. I'm inclined to think the differences are tiny and mostly irrelevant these days, except for badly flawed lenses (I replaced the Nikon kit lens with their excellent 17-55/2.8 back when I had a D200 because I got notable veiling glare frequently with the kit lens, for example). Oh, and except for photos that depend heavily on the bokeh of course.

Now that there are full-frame mirrorless cameras, it's fairly easy to address this somewhat scientifically -- we can put different lenses in front of the same sensor and electronics, expose it to the same scene out front, and see if anybody sees differences, and what those differences look like. Images can be presented blind, etc. ("Fairly easy" is relative; any serious attempt at science is a LOT of work.)

I don't own a full-frame mirrorless, so I can't be ground zero on this effort, though.

It is obvious that you are not a supremely talented lensman who needs, really needs that last scintilla of quality so you can go to places like the White Mountains in California and take boring pictures of bristlecone pine trees over and over and over and over again to assure and reassure yourself that you are only using the finest lenses made.
Technically perfect boring photos demand the best!

If I had a mirrorless full frame camera or a Pentax K-1, I would go for a 50mm f/1.4 Takumar with Super Multicoating plus an adapter (or a K mount equivalent for the Pentax) and save some $. I have thought about doing this to have a nice 100mm equivalent on my Olympus. I don't think I would see the difference unless I had to have autofocus. How would you come out on that one Mike?

Mike, you don't understand this at all, at all. The Sigma IS the reason for the the new Leica lens. If you own Leica, or merely own a Leica, you need to feel assured that what you have is the best. When a product emerges and that product is widely viewed as "the best", it becomes essential to have a competing lens that can at least argue the case. The price of the lens is immaterial. What is on the line is the state of mind of superiority of whole brand and its dedicated followers. As such, a mere $5000 or so is very small change indeed.

"The ongoing quest for perfection or improvement even after the differences and distinctions are so small that they cease to have any meaning."

I think the proper medical term for that affliction is "bradykinetic radiodrome".

My first thought upon seeing the word was that "Asymptosis" referred to "not having symptoms". If you're constantly pursuing new and better camera gear to correct problems that don't exist, I suppose it could be applicable that way, too.

The Sigma Art series lenses, not just the ones for full frame are the best value for value available today. I now have 5. I first purchased the 35 1.4 and was shocked at just how good it is. I then got the 50, then the 20 and recently purchased the F1.8 zooms for cropped sensor Nikon D500, both the 18-35 and 50-100. All of these lenses are amazing in build, sharpness, boken, design and function. The zooms are definitely the most amazing, never done before in that they can stay at F1.8 across the entire zoom range. Gotta say, I told you about Sigma Art series well over two years ago with the intro of the 35. Nice to see you've come on board finally :)

[Yes, I think you were the one who clued me in on those lenses, but it's hardly a case of "finally"...I reviewed the 35mm ART last February. --Mike]

Back when I had Canon DSLR's I had the Sigma 50mm and 85mm f1.4's and at the time I thought I'd never need or want better lenses. Of the two I thought that the 85mm was better but the 50mm was very very good too and those lenses were my benchmarks.

These days I have MFT and a Sony A7 and my benchmarks now are the Sony 55mm f1.8 and the Voigtlander 25mm f0.95. I think that those two lenses are the best AF and MF lenses I've used.

In a moment of interest/boredom I tested the Sony 55mm against my film era 50mm lenses and it was easily better. The sharpness across the frame is very good indeed but in reality if I can stop myself from pixel peeping a Minolta Rokkor 50mm f1.4 (or even the f1.2 which isn't as good) is good enough for me.

Do you see where the new 25 m f1.2 Olympus prime has 19 elements? 19 ELEMENTS for a prime??? is that a record?, and it's only m 4/3

"... injecting metaphysical doubts into the heads of the weak-minded." Absolooly! Sure fits most geeks (photo, audio, etc, etc) that I know.

When it comes to fifty millimeter lenses, good-enough, is true of all of them. Even the lowly Canon 50mm f/1.8 lens (with plastic mount) is a great performing lens. As someone once said about something else, some may be better than others, but none of them are bad.

But the Sigma 50/1.4 Art is huge for a normal lens! That's why I now mostly shoot the Sony 55/1.8 (though there are other normal lenses I also use...)

Regarding the point of the article (or was it talking about the Sigma?), asymptosis sounds accurate. Nowadays it's easy to get caught up looking at pixels, looking at pixels off center, looking at distant tree branches in corners against overcast skies...you get my drift. At some point one needs to say "this is enough" and focus on getting the content right in the photos.

As the 17th century English poet Robert Herrick said, "enough is as good as a feast."

My late dad told me, "Always use equipment that is better than you are."

Mike, your link to that article on LL is now a subscription service. Don't know whether he had your OK but Steve's Digicams site also has the article, or folks can google it and click that link.

I still have a 1960s screw mount 55mm f/1.8 Super Takumar that renders lovely images. I tried it a few years ago on a digital Pentax body with a K mount adapter. Unfortunately I lose auto f-stop control, so it is a pain to use. Alas!

For me the greatest test of a good lens rather than any other is that it inspires the use of it. I often take my Sigma for a walk, even if it is just around the house, to see what I can see. One of the great pleasures of photography.

A while back I determined that the camera companies were taking a page from the computer companies'unending upgrade playbook, not only with the new versions of cameras every two years (think of how conditioned we are to think of this period as a long time between models), but also lenses. Do the Sigma 50 1.4 and 85 1.4 lenses look nice? Certainly. Are they wonderful lenses? Probably. Do I need them more than the Nikon 85 f/2 mf lens that I just purchased on Ebay for $99 to use on my eight-year-old D700 with its just-enough 12 MP and wonderful color? No. Do I need them more than than the Nikon 50 1.4 pre-AI that my father just gave me and which I can get modified for $25? I'll let you guess the answer.

I certainly do not begrudge anyone who wishes to purchase these lenses. It's just that I wanted off the ever-escalating cycle of lens upgrades with their accompanying costs.

The entire world of amateur photographers has been in a state of asymptosis with regard to lenses since, oh, about 1954 or so.

For several decades now, camera lenses have been good enough to produce technically faultless pictures for personal or aesthetic purposes. Indeed, they have been good enough for all that period for all purposes, but for perhaps the most demanding technical ones such as surveillance.

I own a Leica Summilux-M 1:1.4 50mm ASPH. I bought it more than ten years ago, because I had seen images made with it on an Epson RD1 that were simply amazing. I had to have this lens, period. I once bought a piano. The man who sold me the piano said that I was incorrect. A piano isn't expensive, he explained, it costs a lot of money. We went from the Netherlands to the factory in Germany together, saw all the handwork and the dedication and I agreed. I bought the piano. Still own it, and it is perfect. The company, Seiler, a family business since 1849, went bankrupt because of Asian competition. A bloody, bloody shame. Likewise, my Leica lens isn't expensive, it costs a lot of money. I also own a Nikon D800 and bought the Sigma Art 50mm 1:1.4 lens, because I wanted this same quality when I switched to my Nikon. It is a great lens and I truly admire the company for making such a great lens. I use it when I need the Nikon, but otherwise I always pick the Summilux. The 'Lux is simply amazing. The sharpness, the contrast, the color rendition and the unsharpness, the smoothness of the focusing, simply amazing. It has a signature, I can recognize images made with it. With the Sigma lens I cannot get the same results, not for me that is. The images don't sparkle in the same way. I don't know why. And then, the size difference. My Sigma is like a small truck and my Summilux like a Fiat Cinquecento. In the meantime my Nikkor 105mm macro doesn't focus anymore, the same for my Nikkor 18-200mm, my Nikkor 17-35mm 1:2.8 makes a terrible noise when I use it in autofocus mode. But my Summilux is fine and will most certainly outlive me. I don't know why Leica costs what it costs, and it certainly would be great if the company could do it for less. But it is no reason to bash the company. Buying Leica hurts because Leica costs a lot of money. But it only hurts on pay day, the rest of your life it is a sheer joy. Love your blog, Mike.

This one event from decades ago sticks in my mind. It's just one event, it's anecdote rather than data. It probably doesn't mean anything.

But, a friend liked one of my pictures a lot (and I admit i thought it was good), and said "I recognize the look, that was shot with your 90mm Summicron wasn't it?" But it wasn't; it was shot with my Tamron Adaptall 85-210 slow zoom. (Which was a surprisingly good lens, the only thing really wrong with it was that it was slow and they told you that up front. First zoom I ever owned.)

Ever since then I've been deeply suspicious of people thinking lenses have signature looks, other than heavy flaws.

John Robison, thank you very much for the link to Mike's wonderfully sane and richly illustrated article. What a treat! I couldn't agree more.

A minor correction: asymptote refers to the limiting line itself, not the curve that approaches it.

Mike -

Do you or perhaps some of your readers know the manufacturer of the car, to a photo of which you posted a link in this ("asymptosis") article.

When I used to walk to school in the early 1940's, I entertained myself by identifying different models of cars I'd see on the way. The fairly considerable knowledge I had then of grill patterns, etc., vanished long ago, but it irritated me that I couldn't identify the car to which you linked. I assume it's American (left-hand drive), and of the vintage I was used to seeing then, and I'll take a shaky stab at its being a late 30's Buick Special.

[Okay, I've changed my guess about three times. First I said a Buick Century, but no. Then I said 1938 Buick Series 48 Special sedan. It's definitely a Buick and definitely a '38. I'm going to go with the 1938 Special Model 41 as my final guess, because of the chrome details and the shape of the bumper. Unless I find out something else in the morning. --Mike]

Another interesting topic, Mike. I see an underlying assumption to this post and most of the comments, that optical perfection is a prime concern to and for photographers. Outside of camera club members I've seen few people look at a print and say, "Wow, that sure looks like it was taken with a sharp/perfect lens!" Well, maybe if it's of a White Mountains bristlecone pine.

My last Nikon lens was the Sigma 50mm Art. I sent it back to B&H and put my D800 up for sale three days after I got the lens. Yes, it was super sharp, had great bokeh (whatever that is), had minimal coma or fringing. For me it also had no soul, which is true of many digital era lenses.

My wife is not optically perfect, but she still looks nice and has great character. Sure some guys, like the Donald, trade in wives when the old model starts to look less than perfect. Some guys maintain multiple models, though that's difficult. But most of us treasure other characteristics than optical perfection, though we do dream.

I think it's the same with any tool; we develop preferences for this or that, but in the end it's what we can do with the tool that matters and how it fits our idiosyncratic preferences best, not some abstract idea of perfection.

BTW, I still remember you saying that your favorite 50 was the old manual Pentax kit lens. Mine too, though the Voigtlander 58mm for Nikon gives it a good run. The Pentax 50mm 1.4 on a Fuji body is my favorite middle range portrait lens.

It should go without saying that preferences in lens rendering are a subjective matter. But having said that, I should also say that there are a number of astute obversers who disdain highly corrected, technically "perfect" lenses, including the Sigma Arts and Zeiss Otuses, for what they regard as flat, sterile renderings. Those folks may have a point.

And on the subject of high quality plus value, we must not forget Voigtlander, which has been producing some outstanding M mount lenses that sell for a fraction of their Leica counterparts. Are they the equal of the Leicas? Perhaps not, but they aren't far behind either.

There will always be something that measures better. Whether it looks better is a totally separate issue.

I get wanting great gear, but I'm pretty sure all the gear I've ever had was better than my ability to use it. I still liked the photos I got with my nifty fifty and had the extra cash to go places to shoot what I had.

Probably just me turning into "Get off my lawn!" man.

If you like your $5k lens, go for it. I'd rather have a $250 lens and go on 4 $1000 trips to use it. YMMV and that's cool too.

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