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Monday, October 27

A brief word about lenses

This post first appeared on the blog ("FogBlog" or "FB") of my pal Phil Rogers in October 2012. I came across it again recently and thought it contained a lot of common sense regarding lenses and their qualities. With Phil's permission, I've reproduced it here. The photographs are scans of darkroom prints. See if you can recognise yourself in the pen pictures Phil paints - I know I can. :(

By Phil Rogers

I will warn you in advance - there are a lot of photographs in this weeks FB. It is strange really and doesn't seem to make any sense at all, but quite a number of years ago, a weird phenomenon overtook the world of photography, and it doesn't actually seem to be getting any less. If anything it is on the increase. And I find it hard to get myself into the mindset-cave where it is residing like some big cave-dwelling thing, waiting to devour passers-by.

Surely, photography, any form of photography, is all about the image. I would hope that any of you reading this that aren't even of a photographic bent would realise this. Snaps of Auntie Tony and Uncle Sally, Nobby the Cat, your children, neighbours, friends, that tree that looms over your garden, a house, a bowl of pasta… get my drift… a photograph needs subject matter, and more to the point, the subject matter needs to be the reason for the photograph.

I've been doing a lot of legwork in the ether in the past few weeks, checking out lenses and their out of focus characteristics, and also the way they handle contrast and skin tones and detail, and having done all this, I have come to the conclusion that photography, which was once a means to an end, seems to have become an end to a means.

I'm going to be contentious here, but at the risk of getting my baseball cap knocked off my head by the youth with the cudgel, I'll say it always: Photography looks like it has become almost exclusively a 'lads' hobby.


Let me try and explain how I came to this conclusion at the risk of alienating any female readers. In much the same way when I was young, male teenagers of 14 and 15 and 16 yearned for a Yamaha 125, or a Kracker (Kawasaki) or a Suzuki moped, now, men (and some women, but mostly men) of a certain age, seem to have have become obsessed with cameras and lenses.

And it is a strange obsession, because it doesn't actually seem to have anything to do with what you can do with a camera. No, it is more of a 'let's-have-it-up-on-the-ramps-and lets-check-this-beauty-from-underneath' type of attitude.

I fully understand that the fascination with the beauty of cameras has been there from the start, and I have that fascination too, however it seems to have turned a corner and now what we are getting is the wholesale grading of every lens ever made with buyers in search of some magical extra something that will make them a better photographer.

So what you have is:

Either everything shot wide open. Or everything shot with a regard as to how sharp a picture is.

If it isn't sharp or if it isn't pleasantly smooth, then the lens seems to get disparaged. Subject matter has nothing to do with it. Common problems like closeness of subject matter and it's inherent lack of depth of focus, and landscapes and apparent depth of field, are discarded. Hardly anyone mentions the use of tripods or monopods in aiding a steady camera, or mentions the influence a mirror will have in its movements. There is no talk of how a lighter-bodied camera can actually make things worse. Photographic technique and craft? Forget it.

If a lens isn't sharp at maximum aperture, if it doesn't have bokeh smoother than James Bond, then it is almost totally disregarded and the madness and hunger drives them ever onwards. I think I could understand this if interesting photographs were being made, but they aren't. Not by a hole a million miles wide they aren't.

Lenses, and the whole point for their existence, photographs seem to have become a diversion from the main meat and potatoes. We have entered the world of the Cool Wall, but with small bits of glass and brass and aluminium and lubricants. On the Top Gear Cool Wall, millionaire's toys are paraded around with an audience hungry for petrol fumes and 'fun' and a total disregard for anything nearing practicality.

I used to love Top Gear, but I stopped watching it years ago because it became a semi-pathetic parade of middle-aged men strutting around with their flies open. Everything became about the fastest, loudest, smoothest, most expensive, most exclusive. 'Petrol Heads' the world over fired up by this boy's-own attitude became intent on using up as much of the finite resource that is oil as possible, with scant regard for the planet's future (don't worry… I'm not going to soapbox). Do you know what I mean?

And this Bigger, Stronger, Faster, More attitude has now saturated my rather quaint world. My Morris Minor Convertible has been nicked and pimped. I spotted it the other day, harassing some Grannies. Gone are it's wooden panels and old world charm, it is now sporting Twin-Carburettors, a jacked suspension and a 22 inch Sub-Woofer.

Instead of transporting its occupants on a pleasant Sunday drive for a spot of fishing, it now cruises to the nearest Drive-Thru for the consumption of mechanised meat. (And whilst I am on the subject, if you eat meat, you'd better get used to becoming a vegetarian: there's no way we can sustain current meat production for the populations the world has. Remember the hydroponics plants so beloved of Science Fiction films? They're coming my friends. It's the only way to deal with the coming Hungers.) Anyway, stop looking at your burger… it's back on with the lecture!

When I started taking photographs I started because it was part of my college course and because my inherent curiosity about the world seemed to click ('scuse the pun) with making a photograph. I became fascinated with what things looked like in Black And White. I also became fascinated with maybe trying to single out things in this crazy world that looked a little different to my eyes. In a few words, I found a creative pursuit that would enable me to express myself in fuller terms than just playing the guitar.

My pursuit was borne of creativity and is still fired by it, and will continue to be so till I stop. Yes I love cameras, for what they can do, but they are a means to an end and not the other way round. Anyway, in the interests of the subject matter of this FB, I have compiled my own tongue-in-cheek… 


Sub Zero
Leitz Summicrons and Summiluxes and Noctiluxes
Cooke Portrait lenses
Anything of historical note with an aperture wider than f1.8
Large format lenses from the golden age of Pictorialism
Zeiss Planars and variations thereof
Zeiss Sonnars and variations thereof
Dokter Optik
There's bound to be a few more, but this isn't meant to be a definitive list


Plastic lenses from plastic cameras
Lens Babys
Nikon/Pentax/Canon/Olympus prime lenses with a highly regarded reputation (Like the Pentax SMC 50mm f1.4)
Ancient prime lenses from the 1950's and '60's
High End Mainstream Manufacturer lenses (the likes of the ED Nikkors)
Kodak Ektar
Anything else other than the pinnacles, with Leitz or Zeiss engraved on it
Some Russian lenses
Nikon and Canon Rangefinder lenses
Certain Schneider, Rodenstock and Fujinon Large Format lenses
Nikon large format lenses


Zoom lenses
Canon FD
Most 'ordinary' Rodenstock and Schneider and Fujinon large format lenses
Ordinary mainstream lenses from the likes of Nikon and Pentax and Canon
Rollei MF SLR lenses

Seriously Uncool

Anything by Vivitar, Tamron and other third party manufacturers making lenses for a less well-off mainstream camera buyer
Cheap Bundled mainstream Zoom Lenses
Lenses from people like Soligor - basically manufacturers now long extinct, who were possibly questionable at the time anyway

You'll probably disagree with the list, but then it is just knocked up with only a tiny amount of thought at a ridiculously early hour of the morning whilst recovering from too much wine, so feel free! This situation has led me to become convinced that what we now have is a:

Look at the lens on that!
Check out them f-stops
Got Symmetrical Dialyte?


So, is there any point in this activity at all? To be honest, I think the answer to that is no, and yet everyone seems to do it! I'll just ask one question (and the ghosts of Eugene and Ansel and Henri and Wynn and Edward and Clarence are right behind me on this). Are you going to make a photograph with that lens or are you just going to snap away at random objects and then see how sharp/smooth your new acquisition is?

It is almost getting to the point where one questions a photograph anyway these days. This is an enormously complicated subject and way beyond FB, because I could ramble on for far longer than anyone could be bothered with, but the photographic world seems to be morphing (a terrible word) between having a tool that one uses to interpret your take on the world and a gleaming chunk of metal that you polish on your driveway every week.




More Expensive…

Does this make any sense to you? I sort of know what I am trying to say, but I am finding it hard to express myself (unusually). Anyway, I have actually been there and done it, but only in a modest manner. I've printed and checked and enlarged, and I will now bring out my soapbox and say that really it doesn't seem to matter very much at all. What matters most is your subject and the way you have observed it. That my friends is the whole point of picking up a camera in the first place. It is your recorder of the world you are travelling through.

Anyway, enough of my personal opinions - you lot must get sick to the high teeth of them… but as I have said before this Blog is my little domain and I can do what I like. Just to show how very little difference things make (to me) I have included some images made with prime lenses from several different manufacturers. It isn't an exhaustive list, just what I have to hand.

The only slight difference between any of them is film - it is a mix of Rollei RPX 100, Kodak Tri-X and TMAX 400 and Ilford Delta 400, and camera - SLR and Rangefinder, and camera-shake. See if you can see a difference that is worth spending hours mulling over, other than the fact that the subject matter might or might not be interesting. The horizontal banding on some of them is from my ***ing scanner… 

Here goes:

The above were made using a Pre-Ai 50mm f1.4 Nikkor on a Nikon F2. Possibly my favourite lens - totally sharp wide open and detailed stopped down.

These were from the highly regarded SMC-M Pentax 50mm f1.4, used on a Pentax MX. Notice much difference? The OOFA on this lens was always particularly nice.

And again - the above were from a 1980's Russian 50mm f2 Jupiter 8 used on a 1950's Leica. Whacker-whacker-whacker… can you tell what it is yet? Character is what you get with this lens - it is soft but does that make a difference?

The three above are from a pantheon of photographic achievement - quite remarkable seeing as it is nearly 80 years old… a 1934 50mm f3.5 leitz Elmar (uncoated). A very well made lens with great qualities. Better in the 3 to 30 feet category and beautiful OOFA.

I'll even add some different focal lengths into the mix. This is the sharpest lens I own - a Pre-Ai 55mm f3.5 self-compensating Micro-Nikkor - it is astonishing. So astonishing that they adapted it for film camera use when making the original Star Wars films. It isn't nearly as good at infinity though - but you can't touch it for extreme close to near distance.

Ok, we'll take it down a shade now - the above were made with the humble 40mm f2.8 D.Zuiko on an Olympus Trip. Nothing too tardy here I can tell you - very sharp all round with nice qualities.

Something a bit wider now - the three above were made with a Pre-Ai 35mm f2 Nikkor. Sheer quality and great OOFA and sharpness - also a favourite lens. It has great 'pictorial' qualities.

And finally, some bottom feeding. The lens above is a Nikkor again, however this time the widest I own - a 28mm f2.8 (non-zoom) Nikkor on the lowly AFS600 compact which I purchased for the grand sum of £5. The lens is actually very sharp indeed and with minimal shutter lag, if you want an all electronic film camera for general purpose picture making then this would be a good choice… if you can find one! The rewind motor is as noisy as hell though.

So there you go.

Be honest, can you notice any discernible difference other than subject matter and focal length? Of course lenses are different and the variations are enormous, and owning a nice lens, is a nice thing, but it really isn't the be-all and end-all as far as I can see. Maybe I am being naive and stupid, but to me, the important thing is to make photographs.

I had fun making these photographs and printing them - they are my take on things. They haven't been over-analysed, or mulled over (very much) - they are all, to a man, photographs, not lens tests. So try and get on with things.

In the words of Bobby McFerrin: Don't Worry, Be Happy
And in the words of Tommy McFerrett: Nae Worries, Any Lenses, Happy Bunny

Life is short, good light is shorter. Stop reading about differences, spend the time on learning photographic craft skills - they will always see you right - and get out and make some photographs you can be proud of!

Anyway, as usual, take care, God bless, thanks for reading… over and out.


Eric said...

Hello Phil! That was a very entertaining read. Thank you!! Your right of course that we should enjoy our lenses but not get too hung up about them. But most of us do! Your message that it is nice to use good lenses but just about anything we have will do the job if the subject matter is there is a good one.

Simon Dewey said...

Well said!

Stallberger said...

At least i expected nice Pictures made with Prakticar Zoom Lenses. :D
But you are right, i used some "uncool" Lenses and liked the results very much.

John Carter said...

I liked the way you presented this subject.

Joe Iannandrea said...

There are words here to trumpet from the ramparts. It seems the custom of speaking as though lenses themselves, and not the images we make with them, are either sharp or not has lulled us into thinking this is actually the case. This very minute someone out there is getting ready to drop a months wages on a piece of glass because an MTF chart shows the nth degree extra corner sharpness, though they'd sooner shoot hand held at 1/30th than bother with a tripod because if they're steady enough no-one will notice the blur. They need to hear it.

David M said...

We-e-e-e-ll, yes. I agree in principle although my lists might be different.
I suggest that we should be kind to the people who like lenses and cameras. For us, we happy few, the image is important but there are others, with different interests. Let me suggest that we think of ourselves as the engine-drivers, or firemen, and our goal is to get from York to Peterborough on time.
Train-spotters have quite different interests and as far as I know, cause no harm to anyone, as well as sustaining the manufacture of bobble-hats and notebooks.
So, think kindly of the lens people. I'm sure that they always speak well of you. They may even envy you and your ability to turn out a cracking snap with that hilariously obsolete kit.

John Robison said...

Look up "The 50mm lens and metaphysical doubt"
It was written by Mike Johnston and was on the Luminous Landscape site. Another good read about common sense in talking about lenses.

Bruce Robbins said...

I've seen that one, John. Sometimes I think I've read everything that Mike has ever written. He's the best when it comes to that sort of thing.