The problem with modern lenses

Jan 1, 2019

Yannick Khong

We love it when our readers get in touch with us to share their stories. This article was contributed to DIYP by a member of our community. If you would like to contribute an article, please contact us here.

Jan 1, 2019

Yannick Khong

We love it when our readers get in touch with us to share their stories. This article was contributed to DIYP by a member of our community. If you would like to contribute an article, please contact us here.

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Gorgeous A7r2 + 35 1.4 ZA (12 elements including 2 Asph and 1 Super Asph) combo shot on Ricoh GR (7 elements lens)

When I wrote about the right kind of lenses at the beginning of the year, I laid out clear indications of

When purchasing the right kind of lenses, there are some characteristics that people should not be buying for most photographical practices. I then wish to talk about modern lenses.

Here’s a recap of what I call the Lens Intention Diagram.

Based on my “right” gear manifesto, lenses shouldn’t be (or aim to be):

  1. Sharp: all lenses today are SHARP. Most modern lenses emphasize sharpness in the edges and corners where NOTHING INTERESTING IS TRULY HAPPENING (most of the time).
  2. Corrected at max aperture: It is a modern belief that you are supposed to get perfect corner to corner resolution at the maximum aperture of the lens. WRONG.
  3. Amazing at bokeh: Achieving blurred circles of confusion in your shot is as impressive as your ability to afford the lens.
  4. Unidimensional: And there you have it, the result of 1-2-3 turns your lenses into a specialized lens for extreme low-light photography and nothing else, thanks to the addition of up to double the glass element count in the barrel.

The Outdated Quest for Speed led to the Quest for Resolution

Up until fairly recently, camera sensors couldn’t achieve usable image quality above ISO 1600. Fast lenses were then great options to freeze motion in low ambient light but they were not well corrected. Fast forward a few years later, many camera sensors have reached or crossed the useable ISO limit of 6400. This increase in sensitivity gain would allow lenses to be used at smaller aperture rather than at their native to correct for chromatic aberrations. Yet the birth of the Zeiss OTUS and Sigma ART prime lens series in late 2012/early 2013 encouraged the idea of a massive highly corrected fast aperture prime lens described as optics with “no-compromise”. This was wildly accepted by photography gear critics and a community of image resolution seekers, yet the results of such a thing are quite far from versatile.

The Wrong Message

Derp

Even today, the lens review industry considers “high performance optics” to possess properties located well below the high-aperture and optical correction by glass element line of the diagram. This, of course, educates the consumer to seek “optical correction” in order to fully enjoy the value of his high-resolution camera. The message is usually transmitted through:

  • 100% crops of each areas of the frame, emphasizing corner and edge correction for edge to edge resolution.
  • 100% crops of the blur circles of confusion (the bokeh)
  • Numerical “sharpness” values based on how many “lines of resolution” is measured
  • Persecuting vignetting and distortion as defects of the lens

Often referred as a “cold and clinical lens”, such an ideal lens has quite limited abilities, especially if the user wishes to shoot other things aside from high-contrast for “ultra-lowlight or ultra-thin-dof handheld photography”: a lens in the red zone, below the “line of realism” wouldn’t perform as well for spaces, still or moving life capture compared to a another with much less correction and much more 3d as well as tonality. These high-speed lenses not only cost more since their require more corrective glass, but the micro-contrast treatment would need to be applied at abuse.

Modern prime lenses fall below what’s natural

Nikkor AF 50mm 1.4D left, Sigma 50mm 1.4 ART right. 7 elements vs. 13. On the right, notice the lack of contrast in the background as well as the lack of tonality on the status head. This behavior is very similar to a cheap zoom.

If we look at those approximative diagrams per brand/system, we notice the gravity of the obsession for optical correction.

By either cheapening glass quality or relying too much on micro-contrast treatment (ineffective against too many glass elements), modern lenses are barely able reproduce the imperfect life despite heavy post-processing by the user. Of course, they were built to photograph in situations where the human eye cannot reach or recognize. Their rendering are often described as “digital” or “flat”. You can rarely cheat the diagram (all of this applies to lenses 35mm and up, wide angles operate on another criteria).

The example below once again demonstrates the loss of color and micro-contrast jumping back and forth between old Nikkor and Sigma.

Older prime lenses don’t just have “character”, they simply record life.

Nikkor AF 35mm f2D (6 elements of multicoated pure glass)

Many people shoot film because they believe in a “there-is-something”, “true”, “organic” and “genuine” reproduction of life with “interesting” or “unique” character. Simply put, those low-element count multicoated “film” lenses were built for maximum physical transparency, 3d rendering and rich tonality. These also possess such life recording abilities when used on a digital camera. If we look at most lenses made before the surge of high-element count primes, many of them share common design and rendering properties.

Lenses used by professionals then, lenses used by the professionals in the know, now.

Nikkor AF 105 f2DC (6 elements of multicoated pure glass)

Solution for modern lenses: improve glass and coating quality on old designs

The late 9 elements Zeiss ZF.2 35mm f2 Distagon is very close to striking the absolute balance of maxed-out quality glass and coating while flirting with the limits of optical correction before losing the ability to reproduce life. A lens of such versatility would definitely produce more life-like images than the digitally flat ones that the review world is advocating. Had manufacturers revisited old optics such a philosophy, we would witness the true evolution of life-like image quality. Sadly, the solution will require way too many changes in the industry.

Zeiss Distagon ZF.2 35mm f2 (9 elements of leaded crystals)

A Call for Change

Nikkor AF 85mm 1.8D (6 elements of pure multicoated glass)

If people are listening right now and realizing the gravity of the situation, here are some suggested changes in photography gear talk:

  • A clear indication of lens application specialty based on where the lens is situated within the lens intention diagram.
  • If a lens is made for extreme low-light and thin-dof shooting, don’t suggest using it on anything else!
  • An honest discussion on the lens’ renditional abilities based on how it measures on the 3 opposing properties of the lens diagram.
  • A better and simplified (5th grade level vocabulary) education of lens usage in relation to modern sensors of high gain and advanced SNR firmware algorithms (i.e. encouraging correction by aperture instead of correction by glass element)
  • A strict demand for true improvement to modern optics by rejuvenating old designs with improved high quality glass and coating.
  • A better and simplified education of lens design (what plastic elements do vs. full glass vs ED, etc…) to justify eminent increased pricing.
  • A more critical and educated demography of users.

New Lens Acquisition Behaviour

Simply buy the lens design that is made closest to your desired photography style. There’s a high probability that most of the lenses made for capturing life are affordable, out there and deemed “obsolete” by today’s review standards. Although these are increasingly hard to find in good shape, I wish you good hunting!

Tudor looking at the Voigtlander 58mm shot with Nikkor AF 85mm 1.8D (6 elements of pure multicoated glass)

About the Author

Yannick Khong is a photographer based in Montreal Canada. You can find out more about Yannick on his website, and follow his work on Instagram and Flickr. This article was also published here and shared with permission.

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14 responses to “The problem with modern lenses”

  1. Stefan Kohler Avatar
    Stefan Kohler

    This!
    Best article this year! … wait … well. It‘s awesome :-)

  2. Michael Estwik Avatar
    Michael Estwik

    Here we go again.

  3. Gerrit Smith Avatar
    Gerrit Smith

    Older. Love them

  4. KC Avatar
    KC

    Not the article I expected. I do think you may be constructing the argument to meet a specific conclusion. A lens designed for a film camera is different than a lens designed for a digital camera. The only true way to test and compare them is on a bench, not camera bodies.

    Film can record an image accurately when the light rays hit the emulsion at some very oblique angles. The limitations are physics.Sensors are like shooting through a grid. The image has to be “assembled” (de-mosaic) to connect the dots. The Foveon sensor comes closest to film in terms of structure. The grid effect is not optimum for oblique light rays.

    The amount of elements can affect an image if the internal reflections and overall transmission are not controlled well. The F/Stop is a mathematical measure, but the T/Stop is the more effective transmission measure. You’ll find that on complex cine lenses. In simpler terms: F/2.8 may be T/3.5 in reality.

    As for Sigma versus any OEM, Sigma makes (excellent) non-specific lenses. They’re not designed for a specific sensor or camera body. The lenses are “adapted” and configured for specific camera bodies. This includes firmware to correct camera specific flaws.

    It’s similar to Tessars. The same formula is used on all sorts of cameras. It’s adaptable and scales to the format.

    It’s a great topic.Lenses do have an impact on an image. Yes, sometimes digital is too sterile, too perfect.

  5. Daryl Avatar
    Daryl

    Interesting point of view, the diagrams great. Parsing optics, articulating, categorizing, it all makes for a great read, and I agree with your conclusions, sometimes. Other times I sit in front of my large monitor and marvel at the gorgeous image my modern camera/state of the art lens had rendered.

  6. akadaver Avatar
    akadaver

    Here we go again. Saw Yannick’s name, knew what I was in for. This guy has one crackpot axe to grind and a variation on this article seems to make the rounds a couple of times a year.

  7. Stephan Hughes Avatar
    Stephan Hughes

    I’m all about vintage glass. I am also incredibly cheap and cannot justify/afford buying modern equivalent lenses

  8. Tyler Avatar
    Tyler

    Great article, although – a hair biased, but a great read and I love older lenses! I use them frequently.

    I usually map lenses out by price, speed or usability for an application plus overall image quality. You can have a cheap lens that will cover most applications, but you’ll forfeit image quality if it’s not used strictly in “middle of the road” settings and optimal lighting.

    You can have very highly specialized lenses that will not fit all applications, and you may pay quite a bit for a lens that didn’t perform the way you expect because it’s application wasn’t understood at the time it was purchased.

    We also have camera sensors and lenses that run circles around film photography twenty years ago. The dynamic range on a D850 or A7r III combined with a premium lens is nothing short of amazing, but very easy to misuse – for better or worse.

    That being said, I’m not sure what ‘imperfect life’ is – the A/B comparisons look nearly identical. The background contrast is irrelevant because it’s beyond the depth of field – although – comparing the LH side of each to the RH side of each (statue) – it’s roughly the same.

    “Optical” illusions – per say.

    Many modern lenses, on the contrary, perform a lot better than the credit they are given. I agree, there is something delightfully familiar about classic film lenses – like the bokeh, which depends on the speed of the lens, how many aperture blades – and the shapes of those blades – but modern lenses like ART, Zeiss, etc – will run circles around many lenses (not all) – but it all boils down to knowing how to take the exposure and processing the final image.

    If an image looks digital or flat, it’s has nothing to do with the lens that costs $1k+…….

    Film, on the other hand, is not a “one size fits all” outcome. Positive (slide) film, vs negative film are two different beasts. Different brands, ISO/ASA, etc… all varied, as did their tonal & color curves. Getting the most out of this meant ensuring the film wasn’t expired, that it was accurately processed in clean chemicals and not mishandled before prints are made.

    In that vein, something digital and sterile has an advantage – especially for applications that require accuracy and creative control.

  9. Rifki Syahputra Avatar
    Rifki Syahputra

    couldn’t say it better..
    great article

  10. Contrary old git Avatar
    Contrary old git

    Wildly exaggerates the premise and could do with proper proof reading too.

  11. Michael Avatar
    Michael

    Maybe this explains why Sony/Sigma shooters’ portfolios more or less have that same dull look.

  12. sour.org Avatar
    sour.org

    Really seems like he’s coming up with a system which supports his own opinion, with little concern over real world data.

    Either way, I love my old lenses. I buy newer stuff here and there but my old girls live in the bag.

  13. Jimmy Harris Avatar
    Jimmy Harris

    This is a very persuasive article. I especially like the meaningless triangles with words written on them that you’re calling a “lens intention diagram”. It inspired me to make one too. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/ad50889525ff0baa7cff39ea04dd66553674ffca2e7b2380e5597ac23996166d.gif

  14. Jerry Roe Avatar
    Jerry Roe

    I shoot video almost exclusively with Canon FD lenses.