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Sunday, February 18, 2007

Why I Seldom Write About Lenses These Days...

Lens connoisseurship has been a significant hobby of mine for more than ten years now. I call it a "hobby" because it really doesn't have very much to do with photography; what careful testing of lenses mainly shows is that the performance differences between good modern lenses are (for practical purposes) small, sometimes vanishingly small—in fact often requiring that selfsame careful testing even to distinguish! As for the differences that can be more easily detected, such as bokeh rendering and flare characteristics, these are largely a matter of taste in most circumstances.

I can't remember exactly when it was—three years ago? Five?—but I also essentially "retired" from writing about lens connoisseurship in public (I still do it with certain friends in private). There are a number of reasons for this. Chiefly, I think, it has to do with what I just mentioned—that testing lens performance doesn't have a whole lot to do with photography—and the fact that this is so widely misunderstood amongst a certain kind of hobbyist, who are eager to argue the opposite. (In truth, lens connoisseurship can sometimes actively interfere with photography...I've become so good at detecting the visual cues of aberrations that I zero in on them all too quickly when looking at pictures, and I personally find it very difficult to find lenses I'm wholly satisfied with.) Secondly, I have come to deplore "drinking wine by the label," and the eternal necessity of fighting against snobbism, prejudice (the word in its literal sense, of "judging in advance"), and a phenomenon I don't have a name for, the hardened tendency of so many consumers to believe that more expensive things must be better (and their assumption that I—rather than they—must have some ulterior motive if I don't automatically accept that view). Third, I have come to realize that a lot of my own preferences, although often strongly held, are really just a result of the fact that I have refined my own personal tastes and values through extended, one might say excessive, investigation. That is, I know what I like. And while I know what I like, I concede that what I like is mainly a matter of taste (albeit educated taste) and I get tired of arguing about it. I no longer find disputation and contention interesting, amusing, fun, or productive; I'm sort of over it, you might say. I know what I know and I don't really care all that much if others agree with me or not.

Another aspect of all this is that digital de-emphasizes some of the importance of the optical characteristics of the camera lens. Bayer array sensors just don't resolve microdetail very well, and they don't seem to "interact" with the lens image like film does to create a unique "fingerprint." Of course, images are more malleable in digital—you can correct even compound distortion with DxO, for instance, and of course there is a huge range of corrections for "grain" and "sharpness" and so forth. And yet, digital just doesn't render highlights as well as film does, and the subtle and distinct ways lenses render highlights is one good reason to care about optics.

Finally, many of the lenses I care about are lenses for film cameras. While it is not true that "no one cares about film any more," it is true that fewer people do. For this reason, writing lens reviews would seem to have less general appeal now than it used to. (Despite this, I keep mulling over the notion of writing a book about lenses.)

This is the first of three related posts, in descending order this time (anti-blog style)—continuing below.



Blogger Player said...

In the film days, the camera was more or less just a light-tight box for attaching what was really important, the lens. With digital photography, the lens is more or less just a light-gathering device.

Instead of lens connoisseurship, we have become software and sensor discriminators.

2:35 AM  
Blogger John Roberts said...

"I know what I like. And while I know what I like, I concede that what I like is mainly a matter of taste (albeit educated taste) and I get tired of arguing about it. I no longer find disputation and contention interesting, amusing, fun, or productive; I'm sort of over it, you might say. I know what I know and I don't really care all that much if others agree with me or not."

I wish more people on the web had that attitude, Mike. Everyone has opinions and preferences, and it's often fun to discuss them. However, I've never understood some people's insistence on arguing to the death over what are ultimately preferences. Why it bothers some people so much that another photographer prefers another brand of camera, or another focal length lens for portraits is beyond me. But the web is often filled with heated arguments over such choices. Arguing isn't interesting for long, and it's the reason I've given up on so many photography sites. Things seem to stay mostly civil here at OP. Keep up the good work!

5:55 AM  
Blogger jon said...

I'm with John Roberts on this one.

I have been confused by peoples reviews of some lenses saying how good/rubbish they as it sometimes doesn't reflect my perception of the same lens. Bokeh being a certain aspect of a lens that can split a room in half (Noct anyone?)

People arguing over peoples views is a bore thus why i've given up on

7:37 AM  
Blogger Greg Clements said...

Dear Mike Johnston,

Please forgive me for sending you a comment that is NOT a comment-but a Question For You. ( I coundn't find your email address anywhere on the net so, given the relevance of your posting and my question I decided to plough on. I am sure that you are busy but I would really appreciate if you can spare a minute to reply. Here we go......

I wonder If I may ask you for advice regarding which 50mm (or thereabouts) Leica or Leica mount, lens I should buy.

I have, for the past ten years or so, been making photographs mainly with a Hasselblad medium format film camera and an 80mm lens. However I now find myself increasingly using my point and shoot Contax T3 camera. The photography that I am now doing is more suited to the smaller format, relegating the Hasselblad to the shelf for long, dusty periods. My back is thankful too.

The ideal camera would be a Leica M8. Perfect size, weight and medium. However, it is expensive and has currently some teething problems. My next best option is buy a Leica lens and fit it to a rangefinder film camera, in the hope that the Zeiss Ikon will eventually be digital.

So with all this in mind, which 50mm (or thereabouts) Leica or Leica mount would you recommend? As yet I have not set a budget as, in all probability, this lens will be my last lens.

I appreciate that everyone has their own preferences as regards lenses, but if you can advise me on how best to begin to make this decision I would be very grateful.

With very best regards to you,

Greg Clements

8:40 AM  
Blogger Glennsp said...

IMHO the problem arises partly because the internet gives more people the impression that their opinion not only REALLY matters, but therefore it is the only one that is RIGHT.
These sort of people always existed, but they have become more prevalent because of the internet.
As with all things photographic all that really matters is the picture at the end of it and whether or not you the individual, like that picture.
Don't get me wrong, I am very interested in what certain individuals think about the various components that make up photographic equipment. This site and Michael Reichmanns are two that come at the top of my list.

8:55 AM  
Blogger Ken Tanaka said...

John & Jon: What's the matter with you guys? You must be nuts not to enjoy endlessly arguing with anonymous strangers (many of whom may be high school students) over pointless nits. I'm right and you're wrong! It's that simple! [big grin]

I, too, have severely curtailed my participation with Internet venues mainly for the same reason. Taking time to write thoughtful, pithy pieces on an Internet forum is an investment of time comparable to devoting such effort to writing an essay in wet beach sand at low tide. I do occasionally still jot a note at a few places but tend to just stay away from forums.

But there sure is an endless stream of people for whom such interaction represents a significant portion, possibly the majority, of their "photographic" lives.

10:10 AM  
Blogger Big Mac said...

I personally disagree that lenses are less important on digital cameras. As high-end 35mm DSLRs have shown, they may even be more important. Bjorn Rorslett and others have shown that lenses that are perfectly good on film bodies can yield unacceptable (and noticeable) chromatic aberration and vignetting on high resolution DSLRs.

Personally, after buying a Nikon D2x, I pay a lot more attention to lens technique and quality than I did in my film days.

Nevertheless, I do agree with you that the "interwebs" in an unpleasant place to state personal opinions. At most forums these days, I restrict my responses to objective issues, such as, "How much does Lightroom cost?"

11:06 AM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

Greg Clements,
I'd recommend the Zeiss ZM 50/2 or the Konica 50/2 M-Hexanon. For a lot more money the Leica 50 Summilux Apo-ASPH is also very good.


11:51 AM  
Blogger Jon Leighton said...

"a phenomenon I don't have a name for, the hardened tendency of so many consumers to believe that more expensive things must be better"

Not that it really actually matters but this is known as a "Veblen good" (

1:57 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

No, I don't think Veblen good or luxury good really is the term I need. I'm not really talking about the tendency of something to be more desirable the more expensive it is (an example: in 1973, when the price of its flagship car rose from just over $5,000 to just under $10,000 because of currency fluctuations, BMW sold MORE cars), but simply the tendency of people to believe that more expensive things have to be better (thus, when I pointed out that a $3,000 amplifier was really just a rebranded $500 amplifier, several people wrote in disbelief, stating things like "how do you know they use the same parts?" etc.). This has been tested with wine: when the exact same wine of the exact same vintage but with different labels is sold for $5 and $20 per bottle, not only will most people perceive the more expensive bottles as being "better" in a taste test, but a significant number of people still won't believe that the more expensive wine isn't better even after being told it's the same.

This seems to be a particular problem with things where people can perceive differences but can't reliably assign quantitative values to the differences--such as the sound of stereo components--or the optical properties of lenses.


2:13 PM  
Blogger PatrickPerez said...

Well, I'm in the boat described about wine. I can reliably tell poor from good, but good from really good; or heaven forbid good from great is lost on me. That's why I limit my wine expenditures to $10/bottle.

As for how it applies to photography, I've only ever been willing to pay for observed better performance or specific attributes. The Zeiss 100/f2 was a beauty all around. I've forsaken Contax film cameras, and now use Four Thirds. Yup, I bought the 50mm F 2 Macro.

5:59 PM  

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