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Thursday, 04 November 2021


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Very well stated Mike. So true and elemental foundation of creative photography.
Look at Hidos work, Todd Hido.
I believe in an interview, he made a statement that HALF his pictures he took were through the windshield of his car. Imagine that....


And here we are, where ever you go on the internet, how sharp is this lens, or this lens, this one not so much, on and on and on

And you have this highly recognized photographer using a Windshield as a lens element for pretty much most of his landscapes.

I've just bought a Sony 24mm f2.8 G. It seems just about perfect apart from epic barrel distortion but this is gone when you tick the box and in doing so load the lens profile so does it matter? Maybe not.

The resistance to flare, contrast, sharpness and colour all seem outstanding but all this excellentness got me thinking that maybe lenses can be too good. Maybe the film era primes I have and use do still have their charms even in these days of excellent and just about fault free lenses.

A wonderful article! One that will never be posted on camera/lens sellers' websites, but probably should be, and one that should be mandatory reading before any 'test site' is revealed.

Since I am more of the 'quick to buy, slow to sell' photo acquisitor lineage, I have retained some lenses that I've been told by numerous websites are no good. Fortunately I checked what pictures I've taken with some of those lenses, and find that many of my favourite pictures ('best' is another can of worms) have been taken with those derided lenses. So now I happily shoot with those 'bad' lenses as well as 'good' lenses, and I can calmly stay away from those 'super' lenses that I can't justify buying anyway.

The bit about Zeiss lenses being particularly bad is kinda stunning. Sonnars were always some of my favourite portrait lenses, first the 180 2.8 on the clunky Pentacon Six, then the 150 2.8 on Hasselblad. And particularly because of the beautiful out of focus areas rendition. It's gotta be the case of to each his own...

[Yeah, that stuck out to me too. Dunno now why I thought so back then. It was a long time ago.... --Mike]

The famous Leica Look is why I got my M240 with the nifty fifty 50mm f1.4 . I could not justify paying over 14000 for the Noctilux
lens.My 50 year 35mm f2.8 Summon still produces wonderful images.

Very interesting article and very interesting comments. I'll certainly remember the Todd Hido quote next time someone is moaning about the negative effects of protective UV filters.

It's also interesting to hear about the negative response to bokeh. Theses days I often see images that are about little else other than bokeh, so small and insignificant is the alleged subject matter and narrow the plain of focus. It also irritates me greatly, when I see classic and wonderful lenses being dismissed because their not sharp wide open, when they were simply not designed to be used in that manner. And for that matter lenses with modest maximum apertures, being dismissed in favour of those with higher, when the modest lens is often superior when used in the f/5.6-f/11 range.

Perhaps an extreme example: I've gotten photographs I'm quite happy with from a Brownie. Right, a single-meniscus lens with all the aberrations you could ask for. And as far as lens tests go, I had trouble working out the range of focus, because the processing place I used to print my pictures automatically used sharpening software. It was really hard in some shots to tell where things started to get fuzzy.

The missing intangible: Testing done with perfect technique, flawless light, steady tripod, scrupulous focusing... resulting in terrific results. Then someone buys that lens and handholds the camera at a less than optimal aperture in awful light and then wonders how the lens got such a good review.

Conversely, a lens made to be used wide-open, handheld, in bad light can test bad when the test is a conventional two dimensional chart, where flatness of field, evenness of exposure, and edge to edge resolution are prized. Proof, check out the 1994 Popular Photography Magazine's test of Leica's trio of M mount Summiluxs (35, 50 and 75mm) which caused an uproar in Leica world when two of the three lenses received "F" ratings. This upset people that had been using them for years with great results.

Regarding the advice to never sell a good lens, absolutely agree! I have bought multiple 35mm and 105mm Nikkors and 5 50mm Summicrons after telling myself that they were past their prime ( pun, get it?). Today, I buy a new lens and keep the old one too.

Photos made with a single element meniscus fixed focus lens in a box camera-
"Along the Riverbank Bike Path with a 'Bent and a box",

Ah... mir. Still a great resource for Zuiko / OM system


My late uncle, an electronics engineer, once told me he thought it stupid that guitarists paid lots a money for amplifiers that gave a clean sound when all their songs (that he had heard) had a distorted guitar tone. I may have changed his mind by pointing out that some songs may need a clean sound and others a distorted one. A distorting amplifier can't produce a clean sound, but the clean sound of another amplifier can be distorted by the use of an effects pedal.

I suppose the equivalent of an effects pedal for an 'over-sharp' lens would be a filter of some sort. Or Photoshop*.

* other photo-editors are available. :-)

I think our culture has a fixation on the quantifiable. Go look at online forum for near any hobby and you’ll find a good number of people obsessing over that what can be measured with numbers.

We base decisions at near every level of society on mainly measurable things and gear head photographers and photography media have escalated this to near art (ha see what I did there?). We’ve made the grave misjudgement that if we can find the gear that puts up the best numbers, we can use it to make quality work, or further that only such gear can be used to make quality work. This in spite of enormous amounts of evidence that says otherwise.

A big part of this is the driving factors of capitalism: camera companies must be seen to produce things of value if they are to continue to exist; so they use measurable quantities such as sharpness, aberrations, distortion, etc etc to attempt to differentiate their product from others’ and further to sell us on the idea that the right quantities of each will let us produce quality work, and even further that lack of those correct quantities is an anchor weighing us down. The tangible and measurable makes for easy marketing.

Go to the comments on any recent DPreview article on the re-realeased Pentax limited lenses and you’ll see the chasm between photographers who care about mtf numbers and the like, and those who who also put stock in the ineffable qualities that attract people to those lenses. Pentax is a company that, while they’ve shown they can compete with the big guns on mtf charts, must by necessity also rely on an aging back catalogue of lens designs. In part because of this they often refer to non-measurable qualities in marketing materials for many of their lenses.

This often leads the MTF chart/ brick wall brigade to essentially accuse them of making things up and trying to ascribe value to old designs for marketing purposes, but really it’s just that many of us are conditioned to simply disregard non-measurable qualities as either non-existent or too subjective to deserve any weight.

Some good reading on this is the late philosopher Robert M. Pirsig’s two novels.

"You can't buy wine by the label, books by the cover, etc"

If this were always true we would not have Harlequin romance novels.

[Reminds me of a bit a comedian did once...his point was that of course you can buy the book for its cover, because it's what tells you the title of the book and what's in it, and "that's why books have covers." He said it a lot funnier than I just did, of course! --Mike]

Re the Lens Rentals (LR) lens tests, I’d caution that the results tell you only what LR tests for, which may not be what the photographer is looking for, and even Roger states that in many of his posts. Even still, I agree that LR is mostly excellent reading, and on my go-to list.
I also remember reading Thom Hogan’s guide on what to look for when buying lenses, mainly from the perspective of what aberrations can be corrected for in post processing (and the degree & difficulty in doing so).
Both useful, both written from very different perspectives, and both come with their own caveats.
Joys of the subjectiveness of humans :~)

Ha! As of e-mails becoming articles:
Many years ago I asked you (in e-mail) how do you process Tri-X in D-76 and your answer became one of Sunday Morning Photographer column (at least it was on Fotopolis.pl). I remember being very stressed and wondering if it was appropriate to ask you about it :-) And then so happy reading your answer! And I remember that thrill every time the new issue of the SMP column or 37-th Frame magazine came out :-)
The good old days :-D
All best from Poland!

My own definition of "sharp" is when the viewer never loses the sense of endless detail--the illusion that the only thing preventing more detail is the ability to get closer to the print. That is a demanding standard, but a realistic one--for things intended to be sharp and detailed, seeing it go blurry as one approaches the print violates expectations.

For me, though, it limits print size more than lens selection.

Of course, we often intend parts (or all) of images to be blurry. And then the quality of the blur perhaps becomes important. We technical types try to quantify and describe, the way painter technicians might quantify and explain the effects of different brushes. We hope, though, that the effects being measured are utterly inconspicuous to the viewer--something that works entirely beneath conscious notice, but that still works. So, objective description is not necessarily masturbation, but calling it that can undermine the important, simple fact of objective measurement.

Subjective sharpness is a state of mind--an illusion. But without some degree of objective sharpness, subjective sharpness doesn't survive.

And, yes, that Zeiss Jena Sonnar 180/2.8 for the Pentacon Six is perhaps the most beautiful medium-format portrait lens in history. I have a couple, adapted to most of my cameras of 6x6 or smaller format. But it is not nearly as sharp as more modern lenses of similar image circle and focal length. (The CZJ Sonnar 180/2.8 was formulated in the 50's and updated in the 60's, but the basic design goes back to the 30's.) For portraits, that little bit of residual spherical aberration that allows such pretty faded-edge bokeh is a feature, not a bug.

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