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Monday, 06 May 2013


Just a thought. People liked your photos made with two different 40mm lenses. I wonder if maybe you took better photos with that focal length, or because of other possibly secondary characteristics of the lenses - for example they're both pancakes, they feel and look nice on a rangefinder. I know it gives me a lot of satisfaction using the similar Summicron 40mm (I know you prefer the Rokkor) for reasons that are not 100% obvious. But I like using it, and maybe that feel-good factor trickles down?


A bit surprised not to see the 20mm 1.7 Panasonic not mentioned in this post. Mine is currently being used on its third camera body (a Panasonic DMC-G3.) Set at the lens' 'sweet spot' of f5.6 there is a quality that is special.

"So the question for today is: how important is the optical quality—the look in pictures—of lenses now? Does it still matter, or not so much?"

Lately, it seems it matters even more, if you make prints. It's now much easier to make 24x30's and up than it used to be to make 16x20's... and "real" gallery sizes, for whatever reasons, seem to start around 30x40. Also, just recently sensors that are so good they don't limit even the best lenses have become fairly accessible.

The first decision one has to make now is not what lens to buy, but what print size to shoot for.

For me, there is no one right answer to your questioh, Lens quality and lens selection depend on what subject and emotion you, the photographer, want to produce, and how to present,in the way of jpegs, small prints, big prints, transparencies, or ???, and who your want as the audience for the output. How you get that output is the craft you use. You match the tools to the task. Since most of us aren't rich, and don't have a set of bearers to carry out equipment, we must limit our choices to the best approximation of our "ideal". I tend to agree with DiPerna, the output 'object' is the art, the making of it is the craft. True whether you are a photojournalist, portrait specialist, landscape shooter or whatever. If, like me, you are a 'generallist', who shoots whatever I find of interest, and will use any technique if it helps get me the output I want, then your kit will be very different from someone who does panoramic landscapes or who likes to do macro, or who specializes in flowers, etc,, etc,

We often lose sight of the fact that the lens is only one component (but a vital one) of the image making process. There is lots of other stuff that either contributes or detracts from the final image.

As a youngster, back in the 1960's I would rush out on my bicycle to buy the newest edition of Popular Photography magazine for 35 cents and read about the Group f/64 and the images that they made. I never understood the excitement about Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and the others until many decades later when I finally saw their original images hanging in a San Francisco museum.

Wow what a difference!

The printing process made all the difference in the world.

At the time I saw those original images I was making still-life images myself and I vividly remember an Ansel Adams still-life which he made in 1932. The original was rich in detail and expressed a fill range of tonality. It was a wonderfully expressive print. This was something that no magazine could capture due to the limitations of the printing process.

There is a poor reproduction of this image here:


No technical details were provided except the year 1932. For sure this was made using a large format camera and most probably he used an un-coated lens. This image still looks great today over 80 years later.

I thought about how he made that image and I learned that you don't need new technology to make great images and I learned that it is combination of art and technique that is needed to create a great image.

"So the question for today is: how important is the optical quality — the look in pictures — of lenses now? Does it still matter, or not so much?"

It still matters, but not so much. ^_^


I agree the Olympus 75/1.8 deserves special recognition. After renting and returning it, I gazed longingly at my credit card debating the merits of additional debt. Eventually I will own that lens. Rental of the Voigtlander 17.5/0.95 had a similar effect.
Regarding the Zeiss vs. Leica comment in your post, I think I can hear the Leicaphiles sharpening their knives again... Keep a "sharp" eye out!

I don’t know anything about film photography and have no nostalgia for the time when men were men and photography was pure. That being said I do have an appreciation for the contribution that particular lenses make to an image. They are a key element. The solution that the photographer applies to making a digital image is all about the characteristics of the lens and sensor. Just as with lens and film in non-digital photography.

Unless you are a magician, digital images are not infinitely malleable. They depend upon the character of the lens in large measure. It easy to discount the care and skill that digital photographers put into making images in the camera. There is considerable skill used to visualize and expose an image regardless of the equipment used. Software is also part of the process from the click of the shutter onwards but this is a set of variables that the photographer can learn to anticipate and use in the creative process. Much like film photographers do when they choose materials having particular qualities.

I feel like it does to some extent. I don't know if I could tell the difference consistently in a print, but when I edit files, the quality difference between the M.Zuiko 45 mm f/1.8 and the Panasonic 20 mm f/1.7 (or the M.Zuiko 17 mm f/1.8) is instantly noticeable. I have not tried the M.Zuiko 75 mm yet (partly because of expense, partly because I can't imagine what I'd do with a 150 mm-e lens), but everyone does seem overjoyed with it.

For me the "properties" of a lens have never been visible at all. I've never been able to detect the "Leica look" or the "Zeiss look" at all. There's sharper and less sharp, there's various optical flaws, there's things like "bokeh" and stuff. I can see all those things, if I look.

I've never put these together into the "look" of a lens, though, possibly with the exception of old school portrait lenses.

This is in part because I really don't care about those things. I care about content, and the way the technical features of the picture either support or fail to support that content. I have long suspected that it is ALSO in part because things like the "Leica look" are largely imaginary. Of course the aficionados can see it, but that doesn't mean that it's there. But, as indicated, I don't really care about those things, so I am happy to let the aficionados continue to see it, and I don't concern myself with to what extent it exists. My vague suspicions are as far as I go.

OK, I could be setting myself up for missing an obscure pun, but I've now seen it twice on TOP:
it's manor, not manner (to the manor born).

[Actually, originally it was "manner"--from a little stage play called Hamlet. It's unknown whether "manor" was originally a deliberate play on words, intended as a different meaning, or a mis-hearing, but it came later than "manner." Both can be used correctly. --Mike]

... the humble Minolta 40mm ƒ/2 M-Rokkor for the CLE...
That made me feel good as I own that little lens. Another lens which brings compliments even from non-photographers is the Zuiko 50mm F/2.0 macro, a lens for the FT system, not the MFT. In my experience, this is the best lens ever made and incidentally the one used to this day by DPreview for ALL it's tests of Olympus AND Panasonic gear (mounted via an adapter).
And, Mike, thanks again for the entertaining reading, as usual.

Mike, it's funny but back 30, 40 years ago it was fairly easy to find out what photographers used. If they were featured in photo mags the gear was always mentioned because the magazine's target audience was mainly gear heads. The Time Life series of books generally mentioned gear used plus many accomplished photographers published how-to books that mentioned what gear they used to make an image. I also would send letters to various photographers asking them what they used for a particular photo. Some would be very helpful, others would ignore you and a few would tell you to **** ***.

You ask, how important is the quality of the lens is to me. Well for me quality translates into the lenses signature look, not build quality. I have purchased some very expensive well built lenses that I immediately sold because the look I got with them did not fit into anything I was interested in producing. So for me they did not have the quality I was looking for. The quality I look for is generally not part of the spec sheet.

I like to think it's important (to me, at least). I've finally had a couple chances to shoot a bit more with the Nikkor 85/1.8G that I acquired during Nikon's recent promotion. It was overdue as I enjoyed shooting with my Minolta 85 on my Sony A700, and have missed it since switching to Nikon. It gets rave reviews, but I think that they're more along the lines of "amazing lens for the money". It is sharp. The Minolta was usable at f/1.4 (DOF was too shallow for me, though) and sharp at f/2 and the Nikon is certainly a match (probably better, but I'll never have an opportunity to compare). The Nikon lacks the character that the Minolta provided (in addition to offering character of its own in the form of CA that, despite claims that it's "easy to get rid of in post", I find it hard to eliminate).
That's not to say that older lenses are better. My Sony CZ16-80 had a clarity that I really liked. I think that more than sharpness, I appreciate that "micro contrast" that people talk about when discussing Nikon's nano coatings, or when discussing CZ lenses.
I'm bothered by the idea of a lens that's heavily corrected, even if automatically, by jpeg conversion engines (either in camera or in software). The Panasonic f/2.8 zooms come to mind. We read that we lose detail when we try to use software to emulate a zoom lens (cropping), a shift lens (perspective correction), or fix distortion; we get noise in corners when they're brightened to compensate for heavy vignetting. And I'm afraid that as manufacturers have success selling such lenses, they'll become more commonplace, and truly good lenses will become rarer.

I like the concept of using the same lens for everything, so that all of my work is unified under one vision, although I often doubt how important that is. I can't tell when HCB switched from his Sonnar to Summicron, nor can I tell when Guyaert started shooting less Leica and started shooting more film Canons with zooms, although I can tell when he switched to digital, as opposed to Manos, who's film Leica and digital Leica work looks practically identical. Heck, I saw a recent video of Eggleston shooting a Voigtlander 35/1.2 on his Leica, and I'm sure I wouldn't be able to distinguish between the work of that 35/1.2 and his older Summicrons.

I don't know, is any of it really that important?

It seems to me that very nearly all of the qualities that most of us appreciate in lenses are imperfections of one kind of another. Obviously, a lens that simply isn't very sharp, is decentered, or that suffers from excessive chromatic abberation isn't going to win many hearts and minds. But a little vignette or focus rolloff, technically imperfections, can really give a lens character that you can fall in love with.

When Pixar was making WALL-E, director Andrew Stanton wanted it to have the look of old 65mm-shot science fiction epics. They rendered out some test scenes and Stanton was not satisfied. He thought it looked wrong. So they went back and tweaked some things and he still wasn't happy. So then they tried once more, and simultaneously shot the same scene on 65mm with models, and screened them side-by-side. And there it was. Roger Deakins was brought in to consult, and he said of the situation some thing to the effect of "now the Pixar engineers are working hard to move away from what some lens designers in Germany have been chasing for decades... absolute optical perfection." It seems the problem was that the Pixar software was using "theoretical lenses" of absolute flawless perfection. The solution was to rewrite the code to introduce the sorts of imperfections one finds in real world lenses. Only then did the movie have the look that felt right.

Mike, any lens will do when all one wants is to make mediocre photographs and post them on Facebook. When our interest in photography starts getting serious, however, lenses are of utmost importance.
I don't think of myself as a serious photographer - hell, I don't even think of myself as a photographer -, but there's one thing I learned in my still short experience with photography: lenses are the most important part of photographic equipment. Digital cameras have these automatisms that make photographing fool-proof and all those great configurations, white balance, bracketing, ISO, et al, which make people believe bodies are the most important part of the equation, but the truth is - the camera is just as good as the lens you mount on them.

Lens quality was certainly the strong suit of film photography. A lens can be pretty "doggie" today, and if your camera has "auto-fix", like my Nikon D90 does, you'd never know it.

Not the time to make Leica-o-philes mad, but never thought the specs on that stuff was "all-that" either; they could on for pages about the "look" and the "roundness", etc., etc., but every time I used a Leica, a lot of their stuff wasn't near as sharp as Nikon/Canon stuff less than a third of their cost, and it would show on the print as well!

Probably time to start talking about how most people confuse sharpness in conventional photographic prints, with the sharpness of the grain in the enlargement. Shoot it with an ASA 25 film, blow it up, and you'd be amazed how unsharp it was, then you'd realize just the effect of pin-sharp grain, reproduced sharply on the print; fooling the eye.

As a Zeiss-O-phile myself, I'm fully willing to admit that the stuff had a certain "look", which I loved, but for sharpness, it was a crap shoot. Every Hasselblad Zeiss I owned above 80mm was sharp, so I never had to think about it, but I met some pretty "doggie" Zeiss retro-focus stuff below 80mm that was catch as catch can. Never did end up with a 50CF I liked, and my first one was darn soft! Sent it to Hasselblad and they said it was "within specs"...NOT!

As for the sheet film stuff I made most of my living with over the years, my Red Dot Artars were great, I still own a 8.25, 10.75, and 12 in Compur shutters (with threaded filter adapters by Grimes!), but as for Schneider? Crap shoot again, especially in the mid 1970's to early 1990's. All over the place. Nikon didn't get famous selling view camera lenses cheaper than Schneider, they got famous selling sharp view camera lenses you could trust out of the box! Even then, the 450 I had was a dog close up!

With digital? Who knows what's going on in the computer...I'm just happy when the stuff actually auto-focuses correctly. Again, love Zeiss, but probably not worth the money, bad post processing in digital might kill the Zeiss "look" anyway.

When I started, and was learning about this stuff, my biggest constraints were availability and budget. I stuck with Canon film cameras because more decent-quality lenses were available in the used cases of camera shops around town, Nikon being more in vogue for pros then. Even so, I dreamed of finding a deal on the L-series Canons, new lenses of any brand were way out of budget, and stuff like Zeiss, Contax and Leica was so pricey and exotic, it was only sold at the shop in the suburbs catering to lawyers and doctors. Talking to pros, I realized that they bought lenses by general consensus -- Nikon shooters might say "Nikons have good lenses," not necessarily referring to individual ones -- although pros seemed to have similar kits. Certain lenses were "the ones to have." I'm not sure that any of them could talk like you do about the quality of the out-of-focus regions and such, but they knew that these were considered good lenses. (And a big reason they used any particular system was that they knew a guy who could fix them fast, well and cheaply.)

I think that's still the case now. There are a few lenses that are the "ones to have" -- now they'd be the big pro f/2.8 zooms -- and all the others are just middling replacements. Do I think about optical qualities of lenses? Yes. Do I love everything about the lenses I have now? No. Can I get better ones in my Canon system? Maybe, although they'd have a different set of strengths and weaknesses, but not really, since one of the weaknesses is high cost. Would a different system be better? Again, maybe, but the strengths and weaknesses again, and I've already learned what the Canon sensor behind my lenses is doing. I'd love to have that Leica R 35/2 in Canon EF, for $400 or so. But that's not happening. I'd love to have the 24/2 that Canon doesn't make in EF. My 24-105 is a perfect range for events, if the darn thing wouldn't need to get fixed every year. So to answer your question, I have the lenses I do because they're the closest to optimal that I could get. I guess there's a theoretical perfect lens kit, and the actual, obtainable one.


1. Most "pro" photographers WERE lens nutters; talking incessantly about certain qualities they really liked in them, and comparing a lot of notes. The reason? Find the one you like, and forget about it. Once you had the stable of lenses you knew you could trust, you never had to think about them again. Once I bought my 'blad stuff, never worried about the 80, 150, 250 again, never even thought about lenses. Ditto for my Artars, and Nikon view camera stuff.

2. In the good old days of local "pro" camera stores, if you had a relationship with them, and bought all your stuff there, they'd let you take a lens on 'approval'. Can't tell you how many times my boss bought a view camera lens in the late 60's into the 70's, and sent it back because he didn't like it, and then got another and tested it. Happened all the time. Rarely got one, especially German, that was OK first time right out of the box.

Rarely do we know what lenses Ansel Adams used. The same goes for his contemporaries. Guessing by what was available 60-70-80 years ago we may not want to know. But if you have ever seen an orginal A.A. print you'd ignore mundane details on hardware.

So even the concept of "lens image quality" isn't as clear as it used to be, not by a long shot.

Perhaps because we don't have a word for it?

Just imagine discussing "the out of focus bits" before we had a word for "the aesthetic quality of the blur in out-of-focus areas of an image" that everyone could understand.

This "quality of a good lens that consistently drawns compliments" might be called "mike" (after 名詞 or みけ meaning a "tortoise shell pattern" another beautiful but illdefined pattern).

Pronounced "mee-keh".

Maybe "mikeh" might be a better way to write it? It could catch on.

Something about the idea of calling what most people do `digital imaging' grates a bit; not just because it sounds a second-rate alternative to photography (whether or not you were saying so), but more because I don't think shooting RAW and slapping on a preset in Lightroom or ACR, as most seem to do, touches on the wealth of available digital imaging techniques.

To answer the question, however, the GH2 has taught me quite a bit about lens quality. Just before I bought it, I acquired a Pentacon 50mm f/1.8 and ran some benchmarks against Canon and Panasonic kit-lenses - with predictable results, the olde-worlde prime beating the pants out of both lenses for sharpness and close-focussing distance; being a hexagonal iris, I'm increasingly aware of the quality of bokeh when it's wide open versus slightly stopped-down, at the live-view stage. Further experience in the field - or rather, in the city - showed me just how dire the Panasonic kit (14-42mm) lens is for distortion. I also - once - rigged-up an old Centon 500mm mirror-lens from days of initial forays into photography and was shocked at how dire the quality was - did anyone ever make a decent photo with such a thing?
So, yes, I'd say lens qualities are definitely important. But to a viewer not familiar with the particular lens or reasons for choosing it and therefore living in an unfiltered perception of all possible images from which a selection might be chosen, should the results be appreciable at print-time?

I think that even an approximately objective (pun intended) evaluation of the importance of the qualities of a superior lens for a great photograph is impossible, since nobody (or at least very few people) will bother/be able to photograph the "decisive moment" with different lenses for later evaluation by a panel of disinterested observers. Most of my photographs that people have commented on favorably were taken with lenses I like. A completely circular argument, since I would not have shown them the photographs in the first place if I didn't like the way the lenses drew the scenes. That said, and with the additional caveat that I've only used one sample of each, the lenses that have produced my most popular photographs are the following.

(1) The 75mm 1:3.5 single-coated Xenotar on the Rolleiflex 3.5F. I like it because it is pleasingly sharp, but sometimes draws in a beautifully lyrical way when it flares "just right".

(2) The 43mm 1:4.5 and 80mm 1:4.0 on the Mamiya 7. The two lenses are "transparent" in the sense that I have succeeded in making the 43mm look "normal" and the 80mm "wide" or "short tele" depending on the precise framing and perspective.

(3) The 45mm 1:4.0 lens on the Fuji GA645W. Maybe because it's the biggest camera I have been able to carry while mountaineering.

(4) The 28mm 1:2.8 lens on the Ricoh GR-1, because I had it handy while on technical mountaineering outings in the 90's and the naughts, and because I had acquired a good sense of how this lens "synergized" with Fuji Velvia when shooting in the Alpine environment.

(5) The Nikon 20mm 1:2.8 and 85mm 1:1.8 (F mount, AF-D) lenses, probably because they were my two-lens kit for the best part of a decade, and I shot a lot with them.

I really only do two types of photography. One is technical - mostly macro, which is optically demanding enough - but also microscropy. You have entered a diffrent world for microscope lenses. It will drive you a bit crazy - it can take an hour to get a single shot right. I think telescope lenses fall in a similar relm.
However, my main camera work is landscapes so I cannot empathize with portrait, street, etc. photography. With landscapes, the deficiencies of many lenses are amelioriated. That distortion causing that hill to look a little lopsided? Who's going to notice? Vignetting? Easily fixed in post. So, sharpness is my primary concern - and 90 percent of print sharpness is technique I think. Even then, a lot can be done in post. To me, the print is king (full stop). I regularly have 16X24 or 20X30 prints made mainly for me, sometimes to sell and I frankly don't care how my images look on-line. Most of my work is done with zooms (please don't faint, Mike) and I am very pleased with the results - and, in the end, I only have to please me! I can't be hauling 20 pounds of glass on a 10 mile hike.

I agree with your post and with the featured comments that say or imply that lens selection is a different game in the digital era than it was in the film era.

Michael Reichmann recently (April 18) invited readers of Luminous Landscape to describe in the LL discussion forum their idea of "a camera with character." Interestingly, even though most readers of that forum seem to shoot digital, almost all of the cameras offered up as having "character" were film cameras.

And why not? The whole point of digital technology is its malleability, the promise that something can be almost anything you want it to be, from the camera's user-interface through the final appearance of the photograph. That flexibility is kind of the opposite of "character," a word which--whether one is discussing people or cars or photo gear--implies stubbornly immutable traits, quirks, proclivities, and eccentricities that may be variously charming to some and infuriatingly frustrating to others. (Owners of vintage British sports cars regularly experience both of those feelings simultaneously.)

I'm always amused when a photographer says that a lens used digitally "is too sharp for portraits" or "exhibits a particular color cast." You'll be processing the image anyway, for heaven's sake, and the effects of those lens characteristics (like so many others) can easily be adjusted to personal taste in the digital workflow. With digital, "personal taste" in the appearance of photos is probably determined as often by software choices as by hardware choices--including lens characteristics.

"How important is the quality of the lenses" is a great question because with digital the camera software compensates for lenses so cheaper lenses give an acceptable result. This is why it sounds novel to see Fuji state their lenses are optically corrected.
I just look at the Print, sized 16 x 20, and decide if I am happy with it. If not, it is down to my post-processing. I was never one to blame lenses even in the film-days. I'd just "buy a lens to solve a problem". Now with digital, I tend to buy lenses the same make as the camera. With Zeiss producing lenses for my Fuji XE-1, I don't know if I will buy them unless there was "something missing" from my shots.

First I'll admit that I don't print much, prints take precious space and an iPad with a Retina display serves nicely to display photos in a smaller format.

That said, lenses do matter, but perhaps not in obvious ways. The changes in how we do and discuss photography have more clearly brought up groups that value different kinds of qualities in lenses. There are the sharpness and resolution fanatics, the lo-fi shooters, the ones looking for the creamiest bokeh... New lenses are generally better than older lenses, but so are also demands if the best MTF is desired. Run of the mill lenses may also have a certain run of the mill look; some people want something more distinctive. Then there's simply the tactile feel and practical operation of a lens, e.g. pancakes seem to have made a strong comeback.

For me personally the look matters. But realizing what the look is and where to find it has been a long path and I suspect that for many the look of the lens is unimportant while the light and framing matters. Many amateurs don't even have a distinctive style.

From a purely practical perspective, though, most of the time it's easier to pick a lens that delivers the desired results rather than to try to replicate the look digitally.

This is coming from a non-professional (photographer) that's been at it for 40 years or so.

Back when I was using film and making prints in the darkroom, I thought lens choice was super important. Now, with my digital cameras, I don't care so much about lenses. I suspect the change in attitude is due to the expansion of post-processing control provided by modern software. The prints I now get out my inkjet printer are really, REALLY superb compared to what I was able to get out of a darkroom session. So it seems to me that a great lens 'back in the day' would add a bit of 'pop' to an image that would otherwise suffer from my darkroom printing skill. Now I can get that same 'pop' (or more!) with a few moves of the contrast or exposure sliders and maybe the application of some other computer slight-of-hand.

This is all to say that I'm very much enjoying being able to buy cheap, old, what were once called so-so lenses on my Fuji camera body and getting beautiful images... better than anything I got with Leica glass and a darkroom. Happy days are here again!

Photography has not essentially changed at all in 160 years. It has always been and still is the projection of image through a lens to some sort of light sensitive surface and then fixing that image so that it can be kept and shown to others. Whether daguerrotype, wet plate or CCD array, no difference.
Lens needs to be fit for the purpose. Low resolution is enough if the film is 8x10 or bigger and final image is made via contact printing. Nikon D800 or Sony A900 needs very high quality lenses and good technique to get the maximum possible quality out of the system.
I have clearly found that wide angle film lenses do not adapt well to mirrorless digital sensors. The angle of light rays is too acute or something. That is why I am not at all surprised that new $1000 digital lens is much better than a more expensive Leica lens that was optimized for film. My $200 kit lens is better than my $2000 Summicron 35. Digital M (and the GXR module) are the only ones designed for those lenses so should give much better results than a NEX or OMD.

it is of the utmost importance to me for my hobby. if i was shooting for a living i probably wouldn't care as i'm sure i'd be more interested in efficiency and cost effectiveness versus soul.

i find i don't like the look of hyper-corrected modern lenses or macro lenses and i certainly can't replicate the look of my old favorites (of which your humble m-rokkor is one) in post processing (though i can come close to replicating my favorite films).

Like many who have commented here, I have enjoyed using a variety of lenses. The game, however, has changed. Post processing software provides powerful new tools for working with our files, and we have options for making subtle and/or dramatic modifications to the images. Optics coupled with software interpolation is a new system that replaces the optical lens alone.

Some have expressed reservations about the software interpolation that current Fuji lenses use to correct for their optical shortcomings. There may be a new class of changes (distortions) introduced by software processing and they will need to be worked out. But maybe we have new, more powerful tools for image making that we are still in the early stages of understanding. In the years after digital music recording was introduced there were raging arguments about whether digital recordings could be musical. The tools are always changing and our task is to use them as convincingly and as expressively as possible.

Mike, I have two items for your "editor." At the beginning, the familiar expression is "to the manor born." Second, in the eighth paragraph, some letters got switched. Try "proselytizing." Can you go back in and edit after you've posted a piece? I read nearly everything you put up, and enjoy and learn from it. Thanks.

The Contax G 90 f/2.8 on my Sony Nex-6 does that. People love the shots from it. It's the reason that I've kept the camera.

The problem is that we have a reductive, if-it-can't-be-measured-it-doesn't-matter approach to everything. We keep talking about image quality as if it was a singular thing - sharpness. As you've discussed extensively, it's not: sharpness is just one of many qualities. However, it's the most easily measured, so we fixate on it in a misguided attempt for certainty as to which lens is "best." We can't see the forest because we're too busy counting leaves on the trees.

Character, color rendition, tonal gradation, warmth/coolness, etc. - all of these image qualities are much more subjective and as of yet are not really quantifiable and/or we lack the vocabulary to intelligently discuss something so complicated, so we don't discuss these factors nearly much.

Of course, when we do consider a more subjective factor, we still try to quantify it and determine a "best" camera/lens based on it. E.g., any discussion on depth of field and bokeh, especially as it relates to smaller format cameras.

And to answer your question - yes, the look that a lens produces is absolutely crucial, and can lead to more enjoyment in shooting.

For example, I recently sold my Micro Four Thirds Panasonic 20mm because I preferred the look that the Panasonic 25mm produced. By the "objective" measurements, the 20mm is very close to the 25mm: it's about as sharp on the charts, and only gives up 1/2 stop of light. The 25mm's subjective aspects, however, appealed to me much more than the 20mm's - from how well does the lens matches my eye, to the quality of the colors, to how the tones cascade. Despite the significant price difference between the lenses (and the not inconsiderate volume/mass difference, too, it was a no brainer to keep the 25mm and sell the 20mm.

In one sense it is true that in the age of digital that the characteristics of a lens are not so important, but I do find a lot of the modern lenses quite souless in that they are very clinical in their sharpness. Sharpness is definitely over rated these days, I think because it is now possible to magnify images on screen to 200 or 300% it seen as an empirical way of quantifying how good a lens is. For me what is more important is how a lens draws and renders a subject. I'm not a lens nut by any means but I like to feels that the lens is working with me to produce what I want.

When judging lens optics quality by the IQ of its prints, IMHO:

a) Lens optics quality quality matters when mated to top flight bodies (e.g. D800, 5D Mk III). To take full advantage of the latter's top notch sensor and pinpoint control options.

b) For mirrorless and less stellar digital DSLR and RF bodies, sensor quality matters more. "Any" modern lens that's native to the body ought to do.

In particular, sensor size and pixel quality matters most to photographers like me who (by choice or necessity) don't have (or carry) enough lenses to cover all angles. With sufficient sensor real estate and pixel quality (resolution), we can "zoom" ex post and crop accordingly and still get a decent sized print.

Speaking only for myself, I like to be able to salvage poorly composed photos by cropping (especially pictures taken in less accessible places or caught at a "decisive moment"). I also want to be able to use the camera's native aspect ratios other than the full-sized default. As for lens choices, speed rather than focal length, matters more to me because I almost never use a flash.

I sometimes joke that many years ago I got myself in trouble, as I became aware that I preferred some lenses to others - it has cost me much financially. Though I have enjoyed them, no one else seems to have noticed, that's okay with me. A couple years back I compared my Canon, Contax and Leica (R) 50mm (f/1.4, 1.4 & 2.0) lenses on a DSLR (using adapters) and was amazed at the magnitude of the differences. To me it's become very important.

I think with tremendous progress in computer aided design, most modern lenses will give you some kind of same-ish acceptable standard of quality. Where personality and eccentricities still excite the heart though, is with the old-time lenses whose flaws were responsible for much of what Leica fans call "glow". I owned a 1970's 35 Summilux for example that behaved very erratically but sometimes thrillingly with light sources. On balance though, I just couldn't live with the atrocious flare...

The Summaron 35/3.5 on a Fuji XE-1 has obvious weaknesses around a strong core. It works well for some scenes. I don't know how to post-process the same weaknesses into a shot taken with the outstanding "kit" lens set to 35 mm.

I'll more or less echo one of the general themes here, that lenses "mattered more with film." When moving on from my initial year with a 1st version collapsable 50mm Summicron on an M6, I "chose" the last pre-aspherical versions of each of the 50mm Summilux M (for the extra stop) and 90mm Summicron (for the reach) because, well, I just couldn't afford those ASPH versions. It turned out that these both had what I came to appreciate as really beautiful, characteristic looks wide open (if you could ever agree that coma can be beautiful, which I think it can). The low-light music (mostly jazz in New York in the mid-00s) work that I did with these lenses and Fuji Neopan 1600 (no longer around on either side of the Pacific now I believe) was almost more about how _those_ lenses drew on _that_ film than anything else (almost more than the subjects I was photographing now that I look back on it). So while lens "choice" doesn't always end up being _your_ choice, sometimes the universe gives you just what you need when you need it. A year or two later, I was shooting ASPH lenses on an M8 and decrying the look as "clinical" and "digital," go figure... (I shoot about 80% digital and 20% film, and only in 6x7 and 4x5, these days).

My one experience with somebody thinking they could recognize the "look" of a lens was when the friend who got me into my Leica M3 asked if a particular photo was shot with the 90mm Summicron I had. No, as it turns out, that photo was shot with my Tamron Adaptall 85-210 zoom on a Pentax Spotmatic.

Happy lenses are all alike; every unhappy lens is unhappy in its own way.

Leo Tolstoy

Mike, no offense to your friend and his test, but this statement is a little misleading:

"a $7,000 Leica 24mm ƒ/1.4 Summilux-M produces visibly inferior results to a $1,100 Sony/Zeiss 24mm ƒ/1.8 E-Mount on a NEX"

Well yes, neither is a 120mm Zeiss Makro Planar, which was made for the Contax 645 and widely regarded as one of the best lenses ever made, any good on an NEX.

But I firmly believe that if you were to put a 35mm summicron aspherical on a Leica M Monochrom, the results would be quite different, and you would have the combo that would really make you happy. My advice is: do not rent it, because you will be in deep financial trouble.

Yes, I believe that good lenses are worth seeking and investing in. BUT the relationship between today's cameras and lenses is completely different than it was with film cameras.

Each generation of cameras and lenses features higher levels of electronic collaboration. Lenses today pack their own computers and communication facility. If the camera's firmware "knows" the lens it will know how to correct most of the lens's abnormalities as they relate to the camera's particular sensor.

This relationship bears almost no resemblance to the nicely-crafted-but-rock-dumb film camera lens (ex: Leica Ms) which projects light onto an (almost) flat piece of emulsion-coated plastic.

This is also why it's been my sad observation that adapting even the most finely crafted and expensive film-camera lenses to today's digital bodies is a waste of time and money. The cameras simply have no way to correct the lens's image for the sensor (which bears no real resemblance to film). So you end up with a much inferior image from, say, a 24mm Leica Summilux on a NEX, on a OMD E-M5, on an X-Pro-1, compared to the camera's own line lens. Longer focal lengths (50mm+) can work a bit better but, at best, might achieve par with an electronically integrated lens of the same focal length. Of course you sacrifice AF and perhaps IS for...what?

So it was with a heavy heart that I concluded last year that it makes no sense to mount my drawer full of beautifully crafted Leica M lenses onto any of my non-Leica digital cameras. The results have uniformly and unquestionably not compensated for the inconveniences. My $300 Sony SEL50mm f1.8 kicks the ass of my $8,000 Leica f1.0 Noctilux on a NEX.

So, again, I do believe that good lenses are worth seeking and investing in. But to achieve optimal results you need to do your shopping with, and for, your specific camera. Screwing 20th century vintage rocks, even former gems, onto 21st century electronic camera bodies is no formula for image quality excellence.

I think lens "personality" has largely given way to competent post processing.

So I tend to look more for lenses which lack negative characteristics which would limit their usage by being uncorrectable in PP and noticeable at my regular print sizes. If I want something "quirky" I'll add it later.

For example good even sharpness across the frame is more important to me than high centre sharpness or extreme speed because I mainly shoot urban landscapes and print quite large.

The only thing that really concerns me is contrast and colour cast, but most modern lenses other than the cheapest consumer stuff are usually adequate in this area.

However for me it's seldom worth buying the F1.4 lens if the F1.8 version is a third of the price (Nikon 85 G lenses).

To me, lenses are still important in digital. Some optical characteristics cannot be easily manipulated with software.
For example, many Leica lenses have this "lumpy" rendition of OOF surfaces. It preserves some structure and is very different to the diffuse "bokeh" produced by Zeiss optics.
I don't like USM sharpening, even if it's slight. Especially not when it is applied selectively. Good optics can provide a natural sharpness which I find pleasing. Not-so-good optics often fail there. Perhaps it's what we call "micro contrast" rather than resolving power alone.
Finally there is the texture thing. Some lenses are able to observe fine surface irregularities better than others (The 100mm Makro Planar comes to mind). You can't really emulate this using software.

Every lens is/has "a way of seeing things" wether you use a lensbaby or an Oly 75/1.8. Personally I do not really want to "see" the lens. Neither possitive nor negative. So the lenses that do their work without screaming "I'm a summiluxcron" work (and are dirt cheap) best for me. The rest I fix in proces (using DxO if needed for instance). But hey, most people I know don't use F8 and aperture priority and a full side to side and front to back DOF.

Latest buy Sigma 19 mm, that works great at F8 (and at 2.8 if the subject is in the centre of the frame).

How do I select lenses. Well at F8 they should top excelent in the ephotozine tests, so the humble kit lens Pana 14-45 at F8 compares loosely to the prime Olympus 45 at F8...so I'll opt out on that lens in favour of the Sigma 60 if that tops excelent at F8 as well (selling in Europe for 170 euro or soimething like that). Any lens longer then 60 is not worth using in my book (distorted perspective) so I couldn't care less about the sharpness of the lens, since what good is a ultra sharp lens if I don't use the focal lenght.

Now if I shot portrait (which I don't) with a micro 4/3 I would use a 1.8 45. If I shot macro (which I also don't) I would opt for the Oly 60 (great optics).

But since I don't I only own a few zooms (9-18) and (14-45), a Samyang 7.5 for VR 360, a 19 mm prime for landscape and soon a 60 mm prime for landscape tele. Total amount spend. Under 1000 euro and these 5 pieces of glass represent everything I need as lenses go.

Greets, Ed.

I went from a super zoom to nikon's cost effective 35mm 1.8. This prime gives me more opportunities to get a workable picture, but a good picture is always brought fourth through post processing.

I'm reminded of the disputes over the wonderful warm rounded spacious sound of a good old HiFi "valve" (US "tube") amplifier compared to the cold clinical clarity of a good transistor amplifier of better measured qualities. Turned out that some of that wonderful warm rounded spacious sound came from the addition of small amounts of slightly delayed reflected sound via valve (tube) microphony. That was added distortion, but as it happens it was a kind of distortion which compensated for some of the natural defects of trying to reproduce sound in one acoustic environment which had been recorded in another via the rather small conduit of two channel stereo. The more distorted valve amplifier sound really did sound more realistic four good reasons.

We see things in the world via an eye with a hemispherical sensor with a tiny high resolution central patch. The brain stitches up the image we see from a very rapid series of "exposures" focused on the interesting details, and performs extraordinary feats of lens & sensor defect correction. While in one visual environment (such as indoors) we look at a photograph of something interesting taken in another different visual environment (such as out of doors). The narrow channel between the two is the lens, camera, and post processing. A good photographer has learnt how to take interesting & pleasing photographs of certain specific kinds using carefully chosen equipment & techniques.

This is an art. There's far more technology in it than making a drawing with pencil & paper. But because we don't fully understand how we see things it's possible to produce technologically superior lenses which make less realistic photographs.

It seems that lenses are important up to a point. I mean if you're shooting through the bottom of Coke bottles the ideas you're trying to express have to suffer whether using film or a digital sensor.

Even during the film era I was not enamored with lenses as long as they were decent, and Nikon always met my standard of decentness. One exception, which was an eye-opener, was the experience of shooting with a Leica 35 Summicron-M: even though my pictures weren't stronger in a creative sense, the creamy Bokeh provided endless personal fascination even though a casual viewer of those pictures never seemed to notice how the background was rendered.

For those among us who don't care to spend too much time post processing, the character of a lens is important. I have a couple of ZM lenses and I'm not sure I have the skill or the inclination to reproduce those Zeiss colours on my computer. The fact that, thanks to the lenses themselves, I don't have to is just fine by me.

The qualities of lenses are of utmost importance. I shoot primes: 14, 25, and 45 mm on M43. Every time I think about changing platforms, it's these lenses that keep me with M43.

I'd love to have a nice fast zoom that covers this range, but every zoom I buy lets me down. I like shooting the plants in my backyard, but I use the 45mm and get as close as I can, instead of using a macro lens, because the 45 has such nice out of focus backgrounds.

I've returned cameras because the handle poorly or don't focus properly, so cameras do matter. But I think finding the right lenses is the hard part.

Lenses matter more on digital, not film. Witness the change in quality of the lowly AF kit zoom. Ye olde 28-80 AF zoom was a real dog, but sold well on Rebels, F5x's and equivalents. Now we get 18-55's which are optically comparable to the better mid-range zooms of the AF film era. Why? Because the crap became easily visible to even the simplest consumer. Viewing images on screen made lenses that produced acceptable 4x6's from ISO 400 film look like the complete dogs they actually were.

So we are actually having a real golden age of lenses, even the bad ones are comparatively quite good (at least optically, build quality not so much).

@Sarge: Lenses matter just as much on lower-end cameras, if not more. Yes, Sensor quality matters but combining a good sensor and a mediocre lens still delivers mediocre results.

Mike: The ZA E 24/1.8 is a real gem, I miss mine and only sold it when it became clear that owning both NEX and m43 systems was untenable and the OM-D handled the stuff the NEX-7 did well better than the NEX-7 handled what the OM-D did well. That said, I'm surprised you are selling the Sony 85/2.8 SAM, on the LA-EA1 adapter that lens was the other constant presence in my NEX-7 kit, I never did find a 50 which truly fit well in between those two, but I suspect an adapter or converted C/Y 50/1.4 Planar would have.

Responding to Ed's "partial" featured comment about the lens intruding. I also don't like photos where the optical configuration of the lens shouts itself out. Thinking low-viewpoint-ultra-wide-angle-tidal-rock-pools sort of thing here. Just to pick one example.

Hi Mike,

I'm with Kevin Purcell, " みけ " needs to be a recognized photographic term.

For me, the only definable qualities that I can perceive* are bokeh quality, field curvature, and to a limited extent, vignetting Of the first two, I've never seen useful field curvature in any modern lens, only on an adapted c-mount lens and a Nikon mount Vivitar 24mm/f2. When I say useful, what I mean, is curvature strong enough to be useful for isolating the subject as an area of importance. Since harsh, biting, sharpness is a universal characteristic of digital photography, any additional of distinction between very sharp detail and soft background counts for quite a bit more than in film days. Making sharp photographs is easy. Making sharp photographs where there are enough un-sharp areas to make the sharp areas seem significant is hard.

I'll go out on a limb here, and guess that perhaps those lenses you used that got the compliments did so because you were so comfortable with them that you were ready to press the shutter when the right image came along. Perhaps they produced just the right kind of local contrast in combination with the film, developer, paper, and print size you picked.


*un-sharpness I usually attribute to poor technique, or iffy sensor quality. Different kinds of distortion have never bothered me outside of stitching.

Lenses matter, lenses took photo, not the camera.
That's why i prefer fixed focal and somewhat old lenses adapted on Nex and made the Pentax DA*55 f1.4 my walkaround lens on the bigger body

To my eyes, "perfect" lenses lead to perfectly boring pictures. Yes, we can process the images in a way to dumb down the image quality, but then it just looks processed. It loses the organic nature of lens-film-subject interaction. Most of us can spot an Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop action a mile off. Seriously, folks. You aren't fooling anybody.

I have a very nice collection of high-end OM Zuikos that require compromised digital camera setups to use. Most of the time, I use film just so I can get the most out of them. For me, it's about the lenses first, cameras second.

Newer lenses made for digital just don't have the right look. There is just something wrong about them even though they are so right.

My first consideration for any photographic topic is cost. I have never sold a print or in any other way made money from photography, and so I find myself reluctant to shell out much money on the hobby. As a result, I have owned few lenses and each was carefully considered when I decided to purchase it. Factors I have considered:

  • specialty function (ie - macro, long telephoto for birding)
  • "quality" as assessed by committee (ie - fredmiranda forum reviews plus B&H and Amazon user reviews). Here I look for what the detractors say and then look amongst the praise for anyone who praises the lens in a way which disagrees with the detractions. In my mind cheap praise is the least useful critique, and after that cheap complaints. If I find people who are considering specifics then I start to find value, so I look for specific complaints and then try to see if others have a different experience of that specific complaint. Ideally in this process I want to discover that a lens is reasonably sharp and has reasonable contrast.

    I don't care about autofocus, I tend to focus manually. I don't care about weight, I'm super strong. Ok, that's a lie, but I'll make personal sacrifice if it means I can make pretty pictures and don't have to break the bank.

    I currently own one wide-angle zoom (tamron 17-35), one normal prime (canon 50/1.8), one macro prime (sigma 105/2.8) and two telephotos (canon 55-250 and sigma 50-500 with a broken autofocus motor). My only remaining lens-lust is in the telephoto arena. I like to shoot birds and I don't like to use a blind or hidden feeders, so I tend to try to photograph them while walking around somewhere pretty. This leads to handheld shots all to often, and that's a quality-killer. A faster telephoto would be a boon. Neither of my teles are consistently sharp enough or contrasty enough for my tastes (although a few shots from the 55-250 came out surprisingly well! it's just not consistent. or maybe I'm not consistent).

    To answer your specific question more precisely: There are some optical qualities which I desire in a lens, but I don't demand the best of these qualities. Good is good, and is good enough for me. A lens that's consistently soft is disappointing, as is one that is consistently washed out. If I can avoid those image quality detractions then I don't need the sharpest, nor the most contrasty. Good is good enough. The nuance of image character beyond these basics are not compelling to me in a lens, and hopefully I bring some of that to the table with my talents instead.

  • @ David Saxe: "Personally, I know of no great or near-great photograph that is considered so because of the quality of the lens the photographer used."

    You make a keen point, David. Very few (if any) famous photographs gained their renown from the camera and/or lens used to create them, nor even for technical merit (sharpness, contrast, yadda).

    As to Mike's rebuttal, however, it is simultaneously true that many of the most renowned photographers of the 20th century were keenly, sometimes obsessively, attuned to their cameras and lenses and sought the best kits that fit their budgets (which were generally quite tight). Unlike today, however, photographers tended to work with the same equipment much longer and consequently developed deeper instinctive knowledge for the best operating ranges of their gear, particularly film/lens couplings.

    So while the lens used to create a particular mid-century iconic image might be unknown it's likely that the photographer knew that lens extremely well and chose it for its particular characteristics.

    I'm laughing at the people on here that are referring to f/2.8 as "fast", it's fast only in the era where people are used to marginal zooms with sliding f/stops between 3.5 and 5.6. In the olden days, f/2.8 was your "slow" and cheap lens, and in fact, what most "pros" bought who didn't need the speed for photojournalism, later on, you might try to inch down to f/2 or f/1.8. F/1.4's in anything but the normal size were crazy expensive and not worth the money, as most were marginally useable wide open; maybe you got it so you could actually focus in low light.

    Those on here saying "look" is mostly eaten up in digital processing are in most cases correct. I'm a Zeiss fancier as well, and since I cannot hand focus any of my digital cameras without replacing the "light-pipe" screen with one that actually works like an old-time screen (ala Katz-Eye), it's far more important to have full digital inter-hash with the body, than the Zeiss "look", which can be bunged up with a slight change of almost any contrast, saturation, sharpness setting.

    Have a pal that shoots Nikon, and bought all the expensive Zeiss stuff, and it DOES look better, when he can actually focus it, which is rarely. He should have replaced the screen right away! He also bought the Nikon 24mm tilt and states it's a "dog", with lots of color fringing, he's thinking about buying DxO to fix it...

    Lenses are like music from your stereo system....early on you just like the music.... but as you become more a tuned to sound over the years... You want more on "how" it sounds and the equipment that will make that sound..


    I agree about photographer's obsessions "back then" but it was hard to find a lens in the 1960s (before CAD) that would in modern terms be regarded as good, and when you did it usually traded one characteristic for another (great portrait lens, great landscape lens...)

    When lenses were designed with slide rules and experience, and manufacturing was still largely by hand, good also meant a lot of money. Buying a lens was a very serious long term investment for an often hard up 'tog, so getting it wrong was a disaster.

    Most consumers never noticed because they were printing 6X4" prints at the drug store or using film which wasn't particularly fine grained. But even consumers (now) are used to seeing shots on an HDTV resolution screen close up. About 9X the area of a 6X4.

    But the general standard of what I would call medium priced lenses and up from all makers is now actually pretty good. $500 for a wide or short tele prime, or $1000 for a standard zoom should easily cope with A3 print and in many cases much larger, at least in terms of resolution and contrast.

    "We don't see things as they are. We see things as we are". -Anais Nin

    The comments on the "Which Lens" post were very interesting. Taken all together, they remind me of a Schopenhauer quote,"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; Genius hits the target no one else can see."

    Seems to me that specs only talk about the talent.

    Remember the Pulitzer Prize winning photographs that were traveling the country recently (may still be, don't know)? I saw the exhibition three times - none of the placards for the images indicated the type of camera, focal length of lens or even whether it was film or digital. A good story (image) just is. Who cares how it was made. We need better vision, not better equipment.

    "Okay, although I don't know how you'd know, because you're always looking at the photograph made with the equipment the photographer chose. But even given your point, part of what I'm asking is how important the quality of your lenses is to you. That is, when you're choosing which one(s) to buy."

    In my case its really simple. I buy the same brand as the camera and my only choice is maximum aperture vs. how much I want to spend or can afford.

    For Nikon F my favorite was the 20mm f4 mirror up lens, still have but don't shoot film.
    For 67 it was the 47mm super angulon on a graphic xl superwide body.
    For 67 portrait the Pentax 165 f2.8.
    For digital my favorite is the 50mm f2 Zukio macro wide open on 4/3.
    If I had to pick the one lens one body it would be the D800E with 60 f2.8.

    Only lens I've ever had that never, ever, ever disappointed me is the Zeiss 35/2.8 C-Biogon in M mount. I am currently shooting the many-times-more-expensive Leica Summilux ASPH. It is faster but at the apertures where I shoot most often, 2.8-8, the Zeiss makes a nicer picture every time.

    When I scan a transparency I made with my TLR or 4x5, I'm now working with optical-chemical-digital. I don't think it's an accident that the initials are OCD.

    Most lenses produced for digital systems are designed to meet today's obsession with "sharpness". How often do we hear of a lens designer being asked to make something artistic? Or that draws a certain way? Or that has its own signature?

    And yet there is demand. To feed this need people look to older lenses, adapted glass from other systems, cheap stuff from Communist Russia, "toy" lenses, etc.

    It would be nice if the two worlds would meet, so that all the digital optical technologies at the lens designer's disposal could serve an artistic and not purely functional purpose.

    Until then I will keep using my Pentax FA 43mm Limited and FA 77mm Limited.

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