What's Micro Contrast? This blind test may help define it.

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Jack Lam Forum Member • Posts: 61
What's Micro Contrast? This blind test may help define it.

As I am doing a research on lens character and the preferred esthetics of lenses, I am increasingly puzzled by the concept of "micro contrast". It is such a controversial topic. Some photographers consider it the ultimate lens character, the holy grail of quality lens. Others dismiss it as sneak oil - a redundant concept that can be more accurately described by existing scientific terms.

The most interesting part is, we don't seem to agree on the very definition of micro contrast. Many believe that it is unmeasurable. They say micro contrast is more than just contrast, sharpness, or resolution. It is the beauty of detailed tonal transition from bright to dark. Some look at micro contrast with a zen-like approach and insist it is something to meant be felt, not measured in numbers. It is the extra oomph. The FORCE. Something that is only seen by discerning eyes.

One can only imagine, a simple blind test can help lead us to a consensus on the definition of micro contrast. But I have yet to see such a blind test on the inter-web. So here it comes.

I shot the following tabletop scene with TEN 50mm lenses. All ten lenses are widely-loved on their own right. They come from a variety of vintage with varying element counts. Some are very expensive cinema lenses. Some are less expensive common lenses. There are no bad lens in this line-up.

Detailed method:

At shot at f/2.8. ISO320. Spot metered on a specific patch of gray on the hat for consistent brightness. All shot with standard color JPEG all-zero settings straight from a LUMIX S1H camera. Shot on tripod with shutter delay. Focus was checked and double checked in live view before each shot was taken. If a slight field curvature in the focal plane is detected, I prioritize for the hat band and the dog. Only very minor tweak in exposure + convert to B&W in Lightroom. Text added in Photoshop. JPEG export quality set to max, sRGB, sharpen=0. Each image is a 3848x1785 center crop from a 6000x3368 image.

To participate in the test, please view each original image.

Please reply with the following:

1) Rate the micro contrast of each lens (1= least MC; 5 = most MC)

2) Which area of the image is most revealing to you in micro contrast? Why?

3) If you think this is an insufficient test of micro contrast, please explain.

When we have a good number of responses, I will post the model of each lens used.

I know this will inevitably spark some debate on this contentious topic. Please help keep this a civil and constructive experience. I believe our taste for good lens characters are after all, personal tastes. They are as psychological as they are physical. I hope this discussion will eventually help shed light on what our common denominators are when we define a good lens, and we may learn a thing or two from it.

Jack Lam



Full composition (downsized, slate blurred out):

Here are the test images:

 Jack Lam's gear list:Jack Lam's gear list
Fujifilm X100S Fujifilm X20
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