Lenses are forever, right?

Started Nov 13, 2015 | Discussions thread
philip pj Senior Member • Posts: 1,608
The best lenses are forever

LF lenses were not sharp on other formats simply because they did not need to be, given all the film real estate of 4x5 or 8x10. They simply needed to cover the image circle well enough, and of course IC is strongly correlated with lens performance - hence the hasty redesigns by Rodenstock etc for MFD.

No one ever thought of LF lenses as really sharp, even back in the day. The best of them was the Schneider 110mm f5.6 Super Symmar XL:


So I think variance in formats is confounding the discussion here - you have to do the analysis inside a particular format. You simply changed the format you were shooting.

'In the film era, if you wanted top quality images, you used at least a 4x5 inch piece of film.'

Except that in the film era, people used the cameras that suited their needs and would work in their shooting environment, which cut 4x5 out of almost all pictures - quite literally. Guys would use change bags, take forever to set up for one shot, could only shoot stuff that did not move due to tiny apertures and punishing ISO levels. LF photography is the very essence of reductionism in photography, which is why all LF images look like they were shot in a vacuum sealed hermetic environment.

Top quality images of the real world outside this self-imposed cloister came from both medium format and 'small format' - better known as 135 or 35mm photography. Not many top quality images of the Vietnam War were shot on LF. Nor mountaineering images. Nor travel images. Nor just about everything else that matters.

'It turns out that many of the older lenses reveal new resolution capabilities when used on high resolution sensors.'

The better ones, certainly, courtesy of the optical science pointed out by Dr Nasse. The quality was always there in fact, but the recording material was inadequate in the postage stamp size it ended up at - 36x24mm.

'..new, sharper lenses are desirable.'

Old, sharper lenses are very desirable, never more so in fact, thanks to Sony.

Lens coatings continue to improve.

This is more complex. The German makers simply did what they do - improving their product steadily over time, with little fanfare. Zeiss invented and pioneered coatings, then kept on developing them until the stage was reached where all surfaces were multi-coated as a matter of course.

The Japanese used MC as a promotional feature (and still do), hence the Pentax SMC lenses way back in the 70s (from memory). Which leads to the point I wish to make - lens coating science was already very good decades ago..so forgive me a little scepticism of 'nanocoating' etc. emanating from PR conscious makers in the age of 'digital ready' lenses.

'Have you noticed the element count of lenses rising over time?'

In general yes. But taking some of the best from yesteryear, my (1993 design) CY 21/2.8 is a 15/13 lens whereas the modern version is 16/13. Why the extra element? To make up for the special glass that is now so expensive Zeiss could not use it and still sell the lens at an affordable price. So that is progress for you. If the better coatings argument held true you would see large increases in MTF, but we do not. 1998's Leica Summicron-M 90AA is still cutting edge, for example.

There is also Leica's preference for as few elements as possible to use for the needed correction, very important in M mount cameras to constrain lens size/weight. More elements = more correction spread = cheaper fabrication. Fewer elements = high tolerances and QC.

The 50AA lens - just 300 grams - is an 8/5 design, yet it is in the minds of many experts the best 50mm lens made - ever. The Otus 55 is 12/10, but CZ always opted for more elements, still do.

It's simply more economically viable to use more elements / special glass and CAD assists the Sigmas and Tamrons and C/N to get near to keeping up with the best. Zeiss and Leica had so much knowledge before that era dawned, handed down from gifted designers in-house.

there is now a big market for manual focus lenses.

There has always been a big market for manual focus lenses (not least from Hollywood), and now it is far smaller than it ever was, thanks to C/N deserting that arena for the temptress Auto Focus, and dumbing down photographers in the process. Vast numbers of them will never use a manual focus lens, which is why the dominant players eschewed them. Many photographers struggle with buttons, for God's sake.

'Zeiss has stepped up in a big way here. Leica never stopped emphasizing MF lenses.'

Which is why both failed in the burgeoning (D)SLR marketplace 15-20 years back. They refused to compromise optical quality.

'There will be others.'

That would be surprising, outside fringe makers.

'This rich ecosystem means that, if you’re, say, a Nikon shooter who cares a lot about image quality'

Nikon is a graveyard for lens aficionados and nothing Sigma do will change that simple fact borne of the F mount's registration distance. So the benefits of backward compatibility turned into the prison of a closed system, ring fenced from other lens makers.

I'd go so far as to say Nikon shooters are metaphorically stuck in a narrow ditch in a large field of flowering plants and trees, full of splendor they can never participate in. Even trying to focus many manual focus lenses effectively and consistently on a Nikon is problematic, to be kind.

Zeiss said this week they are refocusing their design strategy toward Sony, having been bitten badly with the Batis fiasco. Sony sold more cameras in Germany in August than either Canon or Nikon.

The new Loxia 21 is as good as anything similar they have made for Nikon F mount, and is a small 395 grams against the Milvus 21/2.8 (the reformulated tarted up vsn of the 530 grams CY lens of 1993 noted above) being 735 grams.

Wow, Nikon users will love carting that one around in the back country!

'reminds me that image quality alone never made a great picture'

At least the word 'alone' made it into that sentence, a lot of people think it's irrelevant. cheers.

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