And it renders reality in a different way. But it’s still true in the smartphone and Instagram era? Or photographers are incurable romantics who think they wield magical items?
Since using digital cameras I mount adapted film lenses. Only in the last year, after switching to Fuji mirrorless, the quality of the optics is so high that rarely I regret my “old” gear. By the way, if you want optimum performance, the tip is to use a camera with its own lenses, especially on aps-c format.
Why use manual lenses built half a century ago? Because the so-called “vintage” lenses (made for 24×36 film) have a character that the majority of digital consumer optics do not have. A lens can excel over others for various properties (sharpness, flare resistance…), but first of all these features, there’s one, maybe, more important.
Each lens filters our view of the world.
I’m not speaking about focal length or angle of view, so, deciding to use a wide-angle rather than a tele, we show the subject from a different point of view. Neither aperture or depth of field, which are creative decisions.
You already know that cameras differ from one manufacturer to another, for sensor size and the software that encodes reality in a series of electrical pulses. Each lens is the result of an amazing work, bringing together skills and disciplines: mathematics, optics, chemistry…
An example. In the early 70s, the U.S. Navy commissioned Leitz Canada designing a telephoto lens for surveillance purposes. The requirements were: superior resolving power, sharp wide open from the center to the edges, especially at infinity, apochromatic correction extended into the infrared, excellent portability. In 1975 the Leica-R 180mm f/3.4 Apo Telyt was extended by Leitz also to private market: the product of Walter Mandler, head of the laboratory of Midland, Ontario, was already part of legend. Some argued that Mandler had reached a result that was considered impossible, thanks to his studies on fluorite. Others said he had designed the perfect schema on paper (no super computers!) and, only after, he would have made the optical parameters of the glasses needed. Finally, others still believe that such a glass could not exist at that time, and therefore the project, perfect on paper, had to wait further innovations by Wetzlar.
Every lens has a character, and sees (and thus renders to us) reality in a different way.
For example, the transition from in-focus to out-of-focus areas is one of the most important aspects to be considered: today lenses tend to separate plans very clearly, with subject in focus well defined respect to the surrounding environment. In other lenses, the tonal transition is gradual and more delicate.
Russians lenses, usually available in M42 mount, for example do not shine in sharpness and contrast (with some exceptions, like Tair), and their Achille’s heel is flare resistance; on the other hand these cheap lenses offer a unique, poetic vision, perfect for portraiture much more than some plastic modern zoom priced four times as much.
In this page I included shots certainly not exciting, but useful to understand the differences when we shoot wide open: where maybe it’s more clear the lens “soul”. If you want to try it by yourself, take a subject and shoot a series of portraits with different lenses. You’ll know right away. If we take a classic portrait focal length from 80-90mm at f/1.4, the trained eye would identify immediately the peculiarities of a brand over another, or even how, the same optic has evolved over time in its various versions. Think about the Leica Summicron 90: three-dimensional, and with little contrast in its early versions, compared to the latest ones: now we have super sharpness, super micro contrast, super resolving power, but we lost, with the old “defects”, even a bit of “magic”.
Leica or Zeiss is the eternal battle. Macro vs. micro contrast, cool vs warm tones, natural vs saturated colors, brushstrokes of light and shade vs sculptural three-dimensionality. That is not a battle between two brands that made the history of photography: it’s an interrupted dialogue between two labs or schools of thought.
Character is a soul with special powers.
Legendary blacksmiths forged magical items with special powers, with at least one property : the cloack of invisibility, the indestructible shield, the flaming sword, and so on. Each of these were forged from special materials or ingredients and, after a long and difficult work, they were imbued with a soul: some items had such a strong will being able to control the mind and body of its user.
Wielding the sword of Sigfrid is not the same as gripping a knife from the kitchen, so we have to consider that every tool we use provides a special power: it changes the way we relate to reality. It transforms us. Gleipnir, the mythical chain that dwarves forged for Odin to capture Fenrir the Wolf, was smooth and soft as silk. It was made with noise step cat, beard of a woman, the roots of the mountains, tendons of a bear, bird saliva and fish breath.
Over the last two years, in particular, the digital innovation in camera industry (both in hardware and software) has reduced this thesis. Erwin Puts – known and experienced Leica man – a few days ago wrote “the truth is that the post-processing software, the digital signal processing, is now the main factor that determines the quality of the image. It is no longer the lens itself”.
Brands like Olympus, Fuji and Sigma have recently made products of highest level, almost rivaling the top standard represented by Leica and Zeiss. But I agree that software has a key role in the final rendering of the image.
X-Trans customers are all familiar with this issue. Used to Adobe, they discovered that lesser-known applications (Iridient Developer, Photo Ninja, Capture One, Aperture) are able to give their shots a crispness and a clarity quite comparable to those of the best full frame cameras.
So, the axis moved from hardware to software in photography too?
In a few years “Photography”, that is now mass photography with everything inside (instagram, selfies, smartphones, facebook), it’s going to be synonymous with “Digital imaging”? I would wait 2015. I believe it will be a revolutionary year in new sensors production. Surely tech innovation will allow, to amateurs and professionals, better choices, both in creativity and quality. But we must never forget who we are: that is good photography is above all “content” .
As photographers, maybe we focus too much on camera gear, MTF resolution, unsharp mask and curves… giving more focus to the medium (which “produces” the image) than the content and the creative idea (that ultimately “make” the photo). In short, the photo is not the file.
We read thousands of pages about objectivity in photography.
Obviously I cannot judge the importance given in this historical controversy. Given that photography will remain a creative interpretation, our gear filters and represents reality at a level independent of our consciousness (the “hardware”). Subjectivity, emotions and creativity, then, are the “software” of our experience.
When we go to select, therefore, a lens, a camera or a brand (in the sense of ” tradition”, as stated above), we must be aware that this decision will change our final result, our mimesis of reality. When we choose our faithful gear, so, we are not only taking with us: we are wearing it.