Rodenstock Sironar 150mm – this lens is so sharp and contrasty you could smell the grease when looking at the print.
Mike Johnston has an excellent blog called The Online Photographer. I usually start my day by checking to see what’s new on TOP as the regulars call it. Recently he asked the question: “I’m asking how important the quality of your lenses is to you. That is, when you’re choosing which one(s) to buy.”
My idea of “quality” might be different than the usual consumer definition. This is what I responded to Mike’s question:
The signature of a lens is of utmost importance to my photography. I utilize it as a painter uses different brush strokes to mold the look he/she wants. I have differing photographic styles (portraiture, landscape and still life) that require different lens signatures to fulfill my vision.
A lens I love for landscape probably will not be my first choice for portraiture. All my personal black and white photography is done with film as I find the type of film used and how it is developed just as integral to my vision as the lens signature. Please note I am not saying film is superior, it just works better for what I want to accomplish.
I strive to create photographs that are true to my vision, not technically perfect photographs. MTF charts, pixel counts, resolution etc. mean nothing to me. Like Frank DiPerna said, ‘show me the print on the wall.’ That’s all that matters to me when I choose the tools I need to create the image I have in my mind. Today it might be a lens with smooth bokeh, tomorrow a lens that is razor-sharp and contrasty.
While putting my kit together I spent a lot of time viewing as many photographs as possible. If a photograph had a ‘look’ that I resonated with, I would find out what was used to create it if at all possible. My intent was not to copy but to learn which lens and what capture media produced what results. For 35mm I ended up with two systems, Leica and Nikon. Each system had lenses that ‘worked’ for me. Please note they were not always the latest version of a lens but sometimes a golden oldie. I am not saying Leica and Nikon are better lenses than Canon or Olympus etc., just that they gave me a look I wanted. So for me what worked was first determining the lenses I wanted to use, then the capture media.
Not surprisingly I also have a preference for enlarging lenses but that is a whole different story 🙂
In addition to this I would like to add. I recognize that many of the qualities of old lenses and film can be replicated using a digital workflow. Bokeh is one such lens signature that is extremely hard to handle in a digital environment if your lens does not have good bokeh to begin with. I used a high end digital camera for a number of years and got quite adept at getting what I wanted from Photoshop. In the end digital is not my first choice for my personal black and white work. For commissioned work digital is the only way to go because these days customers are more interested in getting the finished product quickly than they are in quality. For me it’s not an “us or them” mentality when it comes to choosing film over digital for my own creative personal work, it just works better for me.
So some would say I put the cart a head of the horse. Lens selection drives my choice of camera body. I haven’t found a camera body yet that added to the creative artistic impact of an image. Lenses however contribute the most. Don’t just look for the sharpest, contrasty lens with beautiful MTF curves. Lens choice is part of your artistic tool belt. Not just focal length, but signature as well.
All this is an important part of taking your photography from great snapshots to images that have emotional impact.
Photo by David Hamilton – he used Minolta lenses exclusively due their lower contrast. I started off with Minolta cameras and lenses but got tired of the lower contrast images. I found I could use Nikkor lenses which had better contrast and simulate the Minolta signature with filters. The Minolta lenses were not as sharp as the Nikkors either. You can always reduce the sharpness in the print but if it’s not there to begin with you are out of luck if you are looking for a sharp contrasty image.
Boy holding pet – Coba Mexico. I used a Rolleiflex TLR with Tessar 3.5 lens. I love Tessar’s for their great bokeh.
Schneider 210mm lens wide open and front standard rotation. This lens is not only tack sharp stopped down, it has nice out of focus qualities when shot wide open.
Mexican cemetary – Leica 50mm Summicron shot at f2. Another lens that has great bokeh and is tack sharp and contrasty when stopped down. I have used other 50mm lenses that would render the background in an ugly blotchy manner. Not what I was looking for in this image. Although that might be a quality I want in an image that is meant to cause tension in the viewer.