Why fast legacy wide angle lenses may "disappoint" on a NEX

Started Aug 20, 2013 | Discussions thread
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Mel Snyder
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Why fast legacy wide angle lenses may "disappoint" on a NEX
Aug 20, 2013

I've noted several discussions about “disappointing” legacy lenses, especially wide angles. The fast 50mm lenses of the film era are great – the macro 50mm-range lenses, even greater. Telephoto legacy lenses in the 90-300mm could be terrific. Many 35mm and even 28mm lenses, also very good.

So why are fast wide angles like the Canon FD 24mm f2 often so disappointing?

Part of the good reputation of legacy 50s is that the companies poured everything they could into those lenses, because those were the lenses that Popular Photography and Modern Photography used to test cameras in that era. Part is also because today, 50mm lenses on APS-C mirrorless are most commonly used for portraits, flowers, night street shots etc. - not sweeping scenics.

Part of the disappointment with fast extra-wides on the NEX - like the Canon FD 24mm f2 - can be traced to differences in how we "legacy photographers" used fast wide-angle legacy lenses when they were new – and how they are being used on APS-C and MFT cameras today

  • Back in the 1970s and 1980s, fast wide angles were photojournalism lenses, designed to bring back images of people and their environment in low light. They weren't designed as "studio lenses" to shoot critical subjects like food or small machined products. We used them to shoot annual report photos, breaking news at night, factory interiors for slide presentations etc. When reproduced in print, the images were typically 4x5 or 5x7 on an 8-1/2 x 11 inch page, or a tabloid newspaper page.
  • Back in the 1960s-1980s, when these lenses were in their heyday, we shot with "large format" the kinds of subjects that forum members now shoot with mirrorless and DSLRs. By "large format," I mean at least 120 roll film, more likely 4x5 cameras. Sure, some pros of the 80s were shooting portraits with 35mm SLRs, but most pros were shooting with cameras appropriate to the subjects and intended use – and by “use,” I mean publication. 35mm was considered the realm of photojournalists and amateurs - and few of the latter purchased 24mm f2 lenses.
  • Many publications REFUSED to accept 35mm color transparencies for anything, even tiny head shots; some even refused 120 roll film images. Why? They were too hard to clamp into their Hell Graphic Systems, Crosfield Composition and Scitex scanners for production of separation negatives. We used to have to have our 35mm images copied to 4x5 transparency film for many magazines to accept them for anything. Our black-and-white prints, if published, were produced as halftones - 60-72dpi for newspapers, 120-150 for better magazines - nothing close to the resolution of a modern laptop screen or a Retina iPad. 50 years ago, I was so aghast at how badly the lab guys scanned my images on the Easton (PA) Express’ plastic lathe that I taught myself how to do it. The plastic etched sheet was pressed into a wet paper matte, dried, and then molten lead poured into the paper to make a printing plate. Welcome to printing, 1963 era. 
  • Black-and-white paper prints produced from negatives made from today's "legacy" 35mm lenses were typically 8x10 or 11x14. Rarely did anyone but “art photographers” produce print images as large as a typical home computer LCD screen. 11x14 paper cost $2 a sheet at a time when the hourly wage was about $3 a hour, and you needed a expensive Omega condenser enlarger with an f2.8 lens to get exposure times of less than 10 seconds. In that era, we cut a single 11x14 sheet into "test strips" perhaps 1-2 inches wide before we made a print full size. Making prints bigger than 11x14 meant big trays, big sinks, big darkrooms, more chemicals. Lens defects, if any, were largely masked by the incompetence of amateur darkroom skills.
  • If we shot 35mm transparency color (Kodachrome, Ektachrome) the slides were typically projected onto lenticular screens or white walls – neither amenable to a 60s-70s version of pixel-peeping.

Fast forward from 1983 thirty years, and mirrorless photographers who never used these lenses in the film era begin buying them and using them for pixel-peeping flower images and detailed scenics. A 24mm on an APS-C sensor is a much-desired concept because 24 + 12 = 35mm film equivalent on an APS-C sensor.

But that is using these fast wide angles for subjects they were never intendedin the film era. Faults we never noticed in the film era become glaringly obvious in the NEX era.

With rare exceptions, like the Leica M rangefinder lenses, few ultra-fast lenses of the pre-computer era are truly competitive with the quality of modern kit lenses and software designed/corrected lenses when mounted on a NEX system today – especially a stunning instrument like an NEX-7.

The 50mm f2 Summicron M was reputed to be the best lens of the film era, and many consider it to still be the best in the digital era. The only reason why Leica M lenses of that era are so consistently excellent today is that they were dramatically over-engineered (and overpriced!) for their era. And even then, lenses like their pre-aspheric 35mm f1.4 Summilux need to be stopped down to f2-f2.8 to be competitive with today’s computer-designed and software-corrected lenses.

The Summilux in 1980 cost $500, about $1400 in today’s economy – but replacement can cost $2500 or more, due to their rarity. In all likelihood, the SEL35 beats a Summilux wide open.

By comparison, wide angle lenses like the Canon FD 24mm f2 can be quite good on a NEX if they, by chance, exceeded factory specs in the pre-computer-design era. However, those specs could let pass many lenses that perform poorly on APS-C sensors.

And that's why legacy lenses can disappoint when mounted on a NEX.

I don’t own any E-mount Zeiss lenses in the 24mm range, but I’d suspect they’d significantly outperform the best of the 24mm f2 lenses from 30 years ago. I happen to own a 24mm f2 Canon FD that I bought in the mid-1980s, and it performs very well – but is much too heavy to carry routinely, unless I know I will need its f2 capabilities. My FD 85mm f1.2L is magnificent on my NEX-6, better than I ever appreciated in the film era – but it is WAY too big and heavy to carry routinely, either.

PS: If your Canon FD doesn’t focus to infinity on your adapter, take the adapter, lens and camera to any good camera service person, and they can adjust the lens to focus to infinity.

One image with my Canon 24mm f2, probably shot f4-5.6

Another Canon FD 24mm f2 shot, made through an apartment double-pane window

 Mel Snyder's gear list:Mel Snyder's gear list
Sony Alpha NEX-6 Sony Alpha 7 Sony E 16mm F2.8 Pancake Tokina AT-X Pro 11-16mm f/2.8 DX Leica Summicron-M 50mm f/2 +13 more
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