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Tuesday, 10 June 2014


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This reminds of the first version of the Zeiss 25mm f2.8. Some people called it the worst Zeiss but this lens does have its own character!

...you just talked me into the 17mm f/1.8. As with you, one of my favorite lenses is the 35mm on 35mm, and I had been putting off buying any of the Olympus 17's because of how they get 'ripped up' on the review sites...have to say, tho, the 45mm is a honey, and I was looking for that same look, both in rendering effect, and physical (look of the actual lens that is).

Good to re-note here, in the days of yore, when photography was really a career, and you had a relationship with your local pro-shop (cause you'd never order equipment by mail), they'd let you buy a lens 'on-spec', and you'd test it and keep it, or return it to try another copy...those were the days, when the yellow god was in the firmament, and liveable day rates trickled down like a sweet spring rain...

Those last two (17/1.8 and 25/1.4) would be my two most used primes on my OM-D - the other is the 75, which has that same dreamy rendering of out of focus detail as the Canon 28. And for real abuse of its qualities, I plonk a Nikon T3 macro adaptor on the front and use it for closeup, where its out of focus rendering beats either of my two dedicated macro lenses hands down.

I concur with your preference for 45mm-e focal length and have been enjoying the Canon 40mm pancake on my "old" 5D as a carry-around combo. It's lightweight and fairly unobtrusive. It also has little effect on the look of the proportions of the historic cars I photograph in contrast to the wider angle lenses I have used for many years.

Good article. I have to admit I've fallen victim to the resolution test in the past. I was looking for a 35mm prime and saw the cries of joy online at how wonderfully sharp the new Sigma 35mm "Art" lens was, and how it had trumped all the native glass. So I tried out a copy on my Canon. Well, it certainly was sharp - when it was in focus. Which was certainly not a lot of the time! I sucked it up and paid the premium for the "inferior" Canon 35 f/1.4 and never looked back.

On film, my Voigtlander 35mm has a ton of character. I love the way it renders. I'm pretty sure if you google it you'll find out it's a lens you should only buy if you're planning on throwing it down a flight of stairs.

Gotta love the internet.

This is really part of a bigger problem, where every consumer buys products based on specs, whether or not they're relevant, and companies are plenty happy to create a bunch of irrelevant specs to sell their product.

It's not just lenses - you can't buy a raincoat now without comparing six different types of water repellent fabrics. You used to just buy a raincoat. Now you need to determine what KIND of raincoat you need. Is the rain big drops or little drops? Do you need to block wind? Do you need it to breathe? Should it be made from 42% post-consumer recycled yarns?

Have you tried buying a TV recently?

We've been spec'd to death, to the point where we can no longer make a subjective decision about whether or not a product is right for us based on its performance. Just sell us/tell us something is "the best" right now, and we'll buy it.

Two anniversaries happened in the past week, D-Day and Tiananmen Square, both events yielded iconic photographs. Pretty sure nobody gives a damn what lenses were used or what their MFT charts looked like.

I wish there were more posts, that like this one, deal more with the subjective characteristics of lenses, than the measurable ones.
I have one little lens I love, the 40 2,8 pancake, which is probably the cheapest made by Canon. It just draws the image in a beautiful way, especially at f 2,8. Lens character is dependent on the f-stop used, which is something frequently overlooked when describing qualities.

Mike, for the sake of clarity, I meant I wished there were more posts like this one, in the world wide web, though I could certainly read more of them here at TOP. This is one of the very few places where I can read this kind of thoughtful and sensible posts. Thank you so much for this.

The new Leica DG Summilux 15mm f/1.7 for Micro Four Thirds lens, manufactured by Panasonic by the way, will probably cop the same fate as the Oly 17, for the same fatal flaw: character.

I believe in the different "renderings" of different lenses. I really do. I even sometimes get a hint of being able to see signs of it -- the "hard sharp" vs. "soft sharp" distinction almost makes sense to me. I suspect that it's terribly important, and that paying more attention to it is very valuable. I suspect that it's the basis of the lenses that come through spectacularly for me more often than now.

But we seem to have no way to teach it and almost no way to talk about it.

I keep hoping mirrorless cameras will solve this problem -- by letting us take comparison photos under controlled conditions where the only difference is the lens. But I'm pretty sure the images need to extend to near the edges of the image circle, meaning Micro Four Thirds for example crops too much off a full-frame lens to tell us much (I've done just a few tests with various lenses that way).

I suppose we could have done this in the film era using some kind of jimmied up view camera, but I don't recall anybody doing so. Easier to mount the Leica lens on a Leica and the Nikon lens on a Nikon and just position the tripod very carefully; and I don't remember much of that done to illustrate differences in "drawing", either. These days, there's too much built into the camera -- the whole sensor/filter/microlens pack, and then the image processing software as well.

What a tonic! I have had both lenses and fully agree. As much as I (in my role as a camera shop assistant) tend to champion similar feelings I still fall foul of the test chart brigade. The Canon being sold was the beginning of the end of Canon for me and I have responded to the 17 enough to let a good copy of the 20 mm Panasonic go as redundant.
In comparison to the stellar 75 Olympus, the difference in real terms is not as great visually as many would assume based on the test results.
I feel some frustration with the hijacking of bokeh by the "all blur" crowd. In the article published by Mike in Darkroom Techniques in the 90's introducing bokeh (with your input) there is are obvious references to the quality of the transition of focus to blur, not just a fixation on soft/sharp drop off (the difference between the 17 and 20 is a good study in this). This article, as much as your previously published "in defence of depth" article, are a good reminder to us all not to get too wrapped up in the fad side of bokeh, but to enjoy the real benefits of focus transition in a deeper, more photographic sense.

I'm with you 100%, John. Most of what I read out in the photo-review-o-sphere these days is specs specs specs specs specs ... Many times the pixelpeepers don't even know how to look at a photograph, never mind want to.

It bothers me that the photography world is so obsessed with numbers and reviews these days. It is counter-productive to actually producing photographs that merit more than a technical analysis.

I still rely on the old "chat with a credible friend about a lens you like" and "borrow the lens you like to try it out" mechanisms of picking lenses. I rely on my own eyes to evaluate a lens. I find what I see out of a lens is often at distant odds with all the review raving and pixel peeping. I guess that means I've graduated to Olde Crusty status. Such it is...

Mike, this kind of qualitative equipment review is one of my favorite things on TOP. I hope they carry over to the new format.

I wish there were more posts, that like this one, deal more with the subjective characteristics of lenses, than the measurable ones.
Well, every time Mike does that with discontinued lenses, their price skyrockets on ebay.

Mike, maybe you could offer a special, subscriber only service, where your regular readers could receive advanced notice on lens reviews? (Only partially kidding. )



Mike maybe I am assuming to much but I think we are on the same page. For me the primary consideration when choosing a lens isn't MTF charts and resolution tables. What I look for are the intangible things that make a lens produce magic. Of course this "magic" is what I see with my eyes when looking at a print. One man's magic is any number of distortions to someone else. In the old days you are right, I would ask people I trusted, who shared a common way of looking at things, to give me their recommendation. To tell you the truth I still do. MTF charts etc. are just so much noise in my world. The final arbiter of what makes the cut is how the print looks. I regularly use lenses that the internet snobs soundly slam. One lens in particular produces some of the most stunning 3D like images you could imagine. I have one such image hanging over my fireplace and everyone that walks into the room is stopped dead in the tracks when they first lay eyes on it. The lens shared it's magic with me.

If I may take 2 quotes from your piece, in reverse order:

"...people tend to look at what's easiest to look at."
"... odds are that it might be, for lack of a more exact term, a lens of real character."

we certainly discuss what's easiest to look at. That discussion, repeated often enough becomes what's important. Sadly I think we're hoping to find a lens of real character. Character though is very hard to objectively measure. Real work and risk taking are usually required somewhere along the way.

99.9 % of my shot failures are due observation problems. The rest is because of lens issues.

Just writing to say I read with interest John Kennerdell's piece on the character of lenses. I use mostly vintage lenses in my photography. The character of a lens, as opposed merely to its technical specifications, is important to me, too. Most important.

A superb explanation of lens quality, with illustrations that, do illustrate. I love that it is also an illusive quality, and that "measuring" with the eye is how one discerns it.

"The Spyglass Man" is what should be sold next on TOP. That is photography! Most interesting picture I've seen in a while. And yes, I get around.

Yeah, this is absolutely true. After decades of CAD we are now living in an era of sterile optical perfection - which is why I went right back and am now shooting with vintage glass.

I have a Zeiss 135 that is magic stopped down to f5.6 On Fuji Instant, it's smooth and amazing, on 4x5, it's 'smooth sharp', I guess, nothing harsh but everything clear. Just don't look through the lenses, there's all sorts of stuff in there! And my beat-up, 55 buck, Pentax 150 2.8 for the 67, which 'everyone' 'knows' is a dog of a lens, has made more magic, sharp, smooth shots than any dang lens on my father's Hassys I used for years.

A very good article about a topic that gets rarely enough air time.

Being a hobbyist, and living in the province of a province, I often turn to the internet for info about lenses and most of what can be read are technicalities. Of course, subjective opinions that work for one person may not do so for the second, but if we have the same approach to photography, there's a good probability we'll like similar lenses, or at least be able to recognise certain "qualities" of them.

But that takes work, time and understanding of more ethereal concepts, doesn't it?

The canon 28mm 1.8 was one of my 3 core lenses when I had the EOS system. I fell in love with the look of that lens, especially on the original 1Ds.

If I was looking to buy a lens, I would search the likes of pbase by equipment, rather than look at MTF charts. If you spend your life shooting MTF charts then sure, use them to guide your choice. If you shoot normal subjects then look at photos of normal subjects!

Now I'm shooting large format (wet plate collodion) more than anything else, I only want to know: what is its widest aperture; will it cover my plate and can I afford it?

I lost all interest in synthetic tests thanks to Photozone.de. Now they got better but they used to have only purely synthetic tests and people kept linking at them as some kind of a authoritative source.

Nothing could be further from the truth. If I wanted a more convenient lens, but just as sharp (according to Photozone), I'd get something that takes ages to focus. If I'd want a super sharp lens, I'd get a model with constant reliability and focus issues. On the other hand, some of my most fauvorite lenses of all times tested very poorly on Photozone.

Now it's even worse. People can argue for ages about some tiny difference in test results and be absolutely convinced that one is so much superior to the other - often without ever seeing one image.

But what makes me the most sad - recommendations based purely and only on sharpness. You can ask about a 35mm lens and get recommended a 85mm because it's sharper. Or you ask for a wide angle zoom and end up wondering why even bother since all are crap - just buy a 50 when it's so sharp right?

It's like, the original intent of having a lens - taking pictures which you'd like - is slowly being made unimportant compared to test results, especially for sharpness.

But I must also say, manufacturers are to be thanked for this. If we didn't have cameras wich such insane MPx count, we wouldn't need lenses which have to be so insanely sharp, while completely forgotting all the other lens qualities. I loved the older Sigma lenses (e.g. fast primes). They were able to provide really beautiful rendering. The new ones are just sharp without any character.

When Nikon introduced the 43-86mm zoom back in the stone age, it was blasted in the popular press as garbage, so I didn't give it much consideration until Herbert Keppler pointed out in Popular Photography that it was the principal lens he used with his Nikon F.

His photos looked pretty good to me, so I bought one. While it might not have been up to "prime" standards (the only peeping we did in those days, though, was through grain focusers in the darkroom), it was convenient for a news shooter and the photos looked pretty darn good to my eyes.

These kinds of posts often make me wonder how well the old pre-asph 35mm f/2 Summicron would have been reviewed if it were just introduced today. While it's a cult lens now, it's not that sharp when used wide open and measurements would show that.

At the other extreme, I find it equally odd the notion that subjective impressions are the only ones that count. Witness the wild claims made in audio these days. Actual measurements and blind testing are viewed with suspicion, and preferences are decided by how high costs happen to be.

The truth probably lies in the middle, but there are certainly ways to entertain oneself at the extremes.

I have 11 lenses, except one I have all bought them used. When I checked in Lightroom, I could see, that I am not so keen on zoom lenses, and my Sony 35/1.4 was used in about 25% of all the pictures.

When I bought this lens, it was with a lot of doubt, most of the more in depth technical reviews, where not over flowering in superlatives over it's technical performance, perhaps on the contrary. But I liked some of the pictures I saw with it, and also important, most of the user reviews did mention it's weaknesses, but most of them liked for other qualities see Dyxum

I've always liked my OM 35/2.8, even though it often gets heavily criticised by many. I think of it as a "balanced" lens -- plenty sharp if not a rapier -- pleasing contrast and "natural" bokeh. IOW, it wouldn't test out well on the Inter-tubes. But it sure "makes" fine pictures.


"Character" is a term often used to explain why something (or someone) who is flawed is nevertheless worth having (or being around).

It may also imply that there are situations where you would prefer not to bring them along.

Honestly, my first reaction to the word is that it sounds like an apology, but in fairness it usually comes down to individual style and usage.

If I could find a really good plumber I would overlook some character flaws that I could not tolerate in a bar buddy, and vice versa.

I do read test charts, but mainly because I cannot always gauge whether someone else's opinion is relevant to me, and I cannot always test something properly before buying it. Ideally, both subjective and objective reviews would be positive, but it's foolish to ignore either.

Any good websites with examples of good and bad lens characteristics? For me, 90% or more of photos are uninteresting because of poor composition and story or basic technique. Is there a good way to educate myself on how to discern good lens quality among that remaining <10%?

Please more post like this one,I believe
Henri Bressons photographs to be among the
worlds best and I cant think of a single
one that would pass the internet test for
sharpness,go figure!

Not long ago on a forum someone asked about the old classic 35/3.5 Elmar for Leica thread-mount. It was pretty much panned as not being very good, and that the Summaron was such a better lens let alone the more recent Summicron and with more modern design and lens coatings why waste your time on such a old and inferior lens? I posted this image taken on Tri-X with a 35/3.5 Elmar lens and an uncoated one at that:


Of course I posted with deep regrets that I did not have a "better" and more modern lens mounted at the time.....oh well.

Thanks for the tale John. I was planning to get this lens, but so far I was put aside by the dozens of reviews saying so so things about it. Since where I live we don't have Olympus dealers (believe it or not) I cannot test the lens, I have to order directly from B&H or Amazon. I'm much more interested on the lens character of the lens than on the plain high sharpness. I have the Voightlanders 17.5mm and 42.5mm, both f0.95 and use them at the two highest appertures where they perform the worst, but the images look like comming from a beginning of the 20th century large format lens, which I really like for some of my pictures.

I would not have married my wife based on "specs." I married her on qualities one cannot put into words. Buying a lens is a similar experience. I have seen plenty of dog lenses from major brands, and a few sleepers that most would never consider. An emotional effect in the image is what I want, or else why would anyone want to see them?

I developed a similar affection for the Olympus 17/1.8 when I used it for a month. I could see its very modest technical shortcomings in some pictures, but I really liked its look in ways I couldn't define exactly.

I also really like the snap-focus clutch mechanism that Olympus builds into a few of their m4/3 primes. It's a nice example of creative modern engineering applied to old, but very real, photographers' needs. (I just spent 2 hours trying to figure out Wi-Fi and Apps on a hot new mirrorless camera, and it was soooo not an example of such engineering.)

Mike -- I am pleased by the post because it relates to one of my favorite aspects of photography. Specifically, a photograph offers a reproduction of the subject that is not necessarily faithful, but is instead a depiction or a translation. That certain lenses assist in making a richer, more interesting translation of a given subject is one of the great reasons to look at photographs in the first place. The photograph is different -- sometimes "better" -- than the subject, and the lens is the gateway to this distinction.

Well wow. What a great post. This bit is spot on:
"Fail to deliver eyeball-piercing sharpness and, as a lens maker in the 21st century, you’re going to suffer the slings and arrows of an online community that often looks no further than 100% pixel view on their computer screens."

I don't use Micro 4/3, so I have no experience with these two lenses, but I agree completely with the overall expression of the article. I think this is why many Zeiss lenses are so popular on full frame cameras.

I use (currently, looking for lighter… common Sony, fix it) the Nikon 800e, but I have no Nikon glass. Not that they don't make some good lenses, but I haven't encountered any that really do it for me. Instead I use some adapted Zeiss CY, Leica R, Pentax-A 645 and Mamiya-N 645 lenses (and some current Zeiss ZF).

Speaking of 45mm, one of my all time favorite lenses on a Canon 5D2 (come on, Sony, fix it), was the Zeiss 2.8/45 Tessar CY. Tiny pancake, lots of low frequency contrast and smooth as can be going out of focus. Nice vignette too. But can't use it on the Nikon, like a lot of other cherished lenses in my drawers - the flange-back is too short.

Come on Sony, fix the shutter on the A7r so I can use all of my favorites.

Somebody's comment about how a lens renders the transition from in to out of focus is right on. It has a huge impact on the feel of an image. As does where the frequency of peak contrast is - don't know if that makes sense to any one else - high frequency contrast makes noisy looking images, low frequency contrast makes bold images with umph. Not that a designer must choose one or the other, but I guess what matters is where the emphasis is, how it is balanced.

It is really easy to pass as an expert with the recollection of datas and test charts.
I.E. "What should I buy between this two lenses", if you answer "lens X" and the other asks why, you can say "because in this, this, and this department, the numbers are better. So lens X is clearly better".
MUCH difficult is explaining that in terms of rendering, character, softness, contrast - all things that require articulating a logical response from you. With the former answer, voilà, instant expert!

Lenses aside, these are beautiful photographs, with rich, smooth tonality. I wish you would show more like these, which would be so informative in this era of overcooked, smudgy, digital black and white.

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