#199. Should we still be collecting lenses ?

By pascaljappy | Opinion

Feb 08

Close to the top of the traditional photographer’s 10 commandments was “covet not thy camera but keep all your good lenses forever“. On paper, it made perfect sense. Lenses are expensive but lose little value (almost none if you buy them second-hand) compared to cameras. Plus a good lens is tool you gradually learn and love and will want to pass on from camera to camera.

Up in the sky - Sony NEX-5r & 16-50mm kit zoom

Up in the sky – Sony NEX-5r & 16-50mm kit zoom

For me, examples that come to mind are the Leica Elmarit-M 90/2.8, the Leica Summicron-R 50/2 and a few others. On top of excellent their technical performance, even on demanding high-resolution sensors, these provide a look that really pleases me with a subtle blend of exquisite detail with well controlled contrast and revealing but “non-violent” clarity (a very personal taste, but lenses such as the Zeiss 21/2.8 ZF2 are just over the top for me).

Cormorants at the end of the Bussleton Jetty in western australia. Sony Nex-5N and Leica Elmarit-M 90/2.8

The End of the Jetty. Sony Nex-5N and Leica Elmarit-M 90

Plus, the new age of mirrorless cameras provide excellent focusing options that blows traditional SLRs such as my Nikon D800e into the weeds.

Misty fields - Sony A7r & Zeiss FE 35/2.8 ZA

Misty fields – Sony A7r & Zeiss FE 35/2.8 ZA

And, finally, however great their optical qualities, modern lenses do away with the controls many of us have learned to use (in case it isn’t clear, I’m talking about aperture control and a focus ring that’s not fly by wire πŸ˜‰ ), with a plastic feel – even when made of metal – that’s not conducive to collecting or long-term gear lust.

But something now appears to be broken with this reasoning ! Something I cannot prove and is simply gut feeling, but has stopped my collector instinct dead in its tracks.

KO in the snow. Nikon D800e & Leica Summicron-R 35mm

KO in the snow. Nikon D800e & Leica Summicron-R 35mm

That paradigm shift gut feeling is ever-increasing lens-sensor coupling. In-camera optical aberration correction is changing the game for lens collectors.

In spite of what many not-so-independent bloggers (those early reviewers) have initially led us to believe, all is not going smoothly between the extraordinary Sony A7R and equally fantastic Leica-M lenses, for instance. Not by anyone’s fault or design (?), probably. M cameras perform a whole bunch of corrections and so does the A7/A7r.

Only, very different ones and each manufacturer to support its own lines of lenses.

Y road in the snow. Sony A7r & Mamiya 645 45mm f/2.8

Y road in the snow. Sony A7r & Mamiya 645 45mm f/2.8

While this sounds obvious, it shouldn’t. Companies are failing at an alarming rate for not understanding tomorrow’s world, or today’s for that matter. Leica showed signs of “getting it” when they chose DNG for their RAW format. But while their lens system could be as an open system, they are fighting this as strongly as Sony are fighting the fact that the A7 and A7r could be ideal cameras for legacy lenses.

Both companies are closing their systems with all their energy. And I would bet my final cent that they will pay for the mistake.

A snow covered road in Provence. The road ahead. Sony A7r & Mamiya 645 45mm f/2.8

The road ahead. Sony A7r & Mamiya 645 45mm f/2.8

What this means for us photographers is that lenses will not be made to perform as well as possible in isolation but on a specific camera. And that yesterday’s optical stars may not be tomorrow’s when not mated to their intended sensor. As many disappointed Leica owners have found out the hard way (ask co-author Philippe who unhappily sold his Summilux-M 50).

A startled cat. Is that a Mamiya, I see ? Sony A7r & Mamiya 645 45/2.8

Is that a Mamiya, I see ? Sony A7r & Mamiya 645 45/2.8

In my house is a shelf full of treasured lenses collected over a long period and in which I do not find as much pleasure as before and which – I feel – have reached their maximum potential on 36Mpix sensors. I expect to sell quite a few and investigate other ranges. Philippe will tell you more about his wonderful foray into cheap Zuiko territory and I will soon report on medium format Mamiya glass that is both incredibly cheap, superbly built, very good and with which you can have a lot of tilt-shift fun.

Optical "miniature" effect - Sony A7r & Mamiya 45/2.8

Optical “miniature” effect – Sony A7r & Mamiya 45/2.8

My guess is the future of lens collecting will change drastically as new generations of highly specialized sensors and electronically corrected official lenses appear on the market. I’ll probably sell all my expensive stars of yore, buy one or two of the officials for when sharpness is the number criterion (really not that often) and look around for cheap thrills such as Olympus, Mamiya and Bronica offer, for when fun and charming looks rule the day πŸ™‚

Be seeing you.

  • paulperton says:

    The A7 as a platform for legacy lenses was my plan. I’ve waited to make my purchase to let the technology and teething problems settle, but as the big day has drawn closer, I’ve become increasingly leery.

    Occasionally using Cornerfix on my NEX-7’s images is one thing, finding my Leica and Zeiss lenses have suddenly become less optically reliable is another. Sorry Sony, but until you address the problem, you’ve turned me from an enthusiastic devotee into a non-buyer.

    • pascaljappy says:

      I understand the feeling … The thing is, I’m really not sure whether Sony will address the problem or actually make it worse. If commercial wars hinge on sensor/lens pairs, it’s likely the concept of legacy lenses my vanish altogether. Or maybe it’s just the wine talking πŸ˜‰

  • Hi Thanks’ for this excellent opinion. I’m also a user of the Sony A7 and of the Leica M9, as well as plenty of other mirror less camera. Nowadays, I have to make a choice: should I keep my brilliant Leica lenses or should I sold them and take cheaper one. I have initially purchased the excellent Fuji X-Pro 1 with their very good lenses. But I was a little bit disappointed by the fly by wire technology, the lack of AF speed, and the issues to make the focus in some non perfect but usual circumstances. The image quality was good, but it was not a reliable system. I then chose to use some manual focus lenses on it. I was satisfied with the result when I placed a 30 years old 50mm Summicron on it. It’s a different way to focus, but at the end the images are very sharp.

    Now on the A7, I saw that the VoigtlΓ€nder lenses are very good performers. The 21, the 28 Ultrons and the 35 and 50 Noktons are very good and very sharp lenses on this camera. It’s not coupled to the camera, but it’s anyway a good way to take good photographs.

    I hope that you’re not going to be right with your thoughts, but there’s indeed a good probability.


    • pascaljappy says:

      Thanks ! That’s exactly how I feel. Should I keep the expensive Leicas. At the moment, they are not seing all that much use. They simply do not provide enough advantage over cheaper & more fun alternatives or over Zeiss lenses designed for the A7r that are simply better (on this camera) from a technical point of view. What’s more the idea of investing in Sony / Zeiss glass is not very exciting as those lenses might not be all that excellent on other, future cameras using different sensor approaches). The Voigtlanders are probably a great way to go ! I loved the ones I used to own and sold for more expensive Leicas. Time to swing the opposite way ? Cheers, Pascal

  • I think you’ve hit upon something that’s good to discuss and think about.

    I’m “hooked” on modern camera systems and their ability to provide flexibility and freedom to “see”. Coming from large format film days when single focal length lens designs required years of math calculations to “get right”, it’s shocking to me just how good zoom lenses can be.

    A little mirrorless running with even a cheap kit lens can give outstanding results. To imagine we might argue over AF speed when “back in the day” focusing accuracy with anywhere near the speeds of current contrast detect AF systems was, oh how shall we say?, lacking.

    As lenses paired with image processing engines yield “cleaner” files (from the perspective of chromatic aberration, vignetting, and resolution control), the “need” for early optics could disappear. Olympus, Panasonic, and Nikon all seem to be well on their way toward making lens choice less exacting.

    The less time I spend cogitating lens choice means more time spent on making images. Which is to say, I like where the industry is headed these days. Just give me a FF 36mpixel Sony A-somethingorother in the old NEX form-factor and you’ll have me _completely_ “hooked.” πŸ™‚

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thanks Christopher, I agree entirely. In fact the Ricoh principle of matching a lens to a sensor might be more widely seen in the future.

      Having now tested quite a few lenses, both expensive and cheap, I’m much less interested in collecting expensive glass than having fun with much older and cheaper, with which the A7r is impressively tolerant.

      I think your wish for the NEX 36Mpix will soon be true, by the way. That said, shutter noise aside, I can find little fault in the A7r. And prices will soon be falling πŸ™‚

      • Well then, if prices will be falling, I can see where a nice A7R could be a great adjunct to my Canon Boat Anchors. While I still don’t like the EVF on those things, I’m sure I could find a way to love everything about the rest of the camera. πŸ™‚

        Having said that, I wonder what Canon will announce later this year? And will it be worth waiting for? There’s long been rumored a big mpixel sensor in the (near term) offering.

        I’ve thought a bit about how camera manufacturers are finding ways of “correcting” lens problems in-camera or during image processing. It’s an amazing world where we might not need to hunt for the “best” glass to ensure a generalized “peace of mind” when out image making. It sort of does an “end run” around optical physics.

        • pascaljappy says:

          I hope you are right πŸ™‚ Let’s pray the big players don’t use this in camera correction to close their systems even more than they have already done.

          For me the A7r is no adjunct (possibly to an Arca-Swiss and IQ260 back πŸ˜‰ ) Ha ha. Call me a fan boy.

  • padam says:

    I am a bit curious about the new manual FE lenses Zeiss is going to release towards the end of this year, sounds interesting for many, because:
    -Small size
    -Do not need to be rangefinder-coupled (like Leica or ZM lenses), so simpler, lighter and cheaper to make (but not cheap in absolute terms of course)
    -Can made to focus closer without any adapter
    -And of course lens corrections will be supported.

    Hopefully the quality control will be better on these than on most Sony lenses and the performance is going to be very high. So maybe these will provide serious competition the the pricey Leica lens.

    But for older lenses I still think the answer is yes but with caveats. There are still some less-known lens out there which are somewhat under-appreciated to Leica glass, which is definitely a challenge to get at a “bargain” price and they can only go up in value.
    And if it does not work out, it can be sold with little to no loss at all (profit, even)

    The downside is that some time (or luck) is needed to acquire them.

    My two current favorites are the OM 100/2 ED and the Voigtlander 180/4 APO (little, less known brother to the 125/2.5). Both are quite rare, nicely built, relatively compact and light, with very good close focusing and most importantly, sharp but with a distinctive fingerprint (especially the Zuiko), that is more appealing to me than the resolution war, which can be countered much better with a bigger sensor as opposed to even more megapixels because of the diffraction. But it gets countered by the size and weight of the optics. So 35mm looks to be a nice compromise.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thanks Padam. I think the under-appreciated lenses you mention are today’s real treasures for the A7r. Not only because theyare cheap but because of their distinct look – that most modern lenses lack – and the tolerance of the A7r to their slight technical blemishes. To me, these make more sense today than the expensive Leica-M. Never thought I’d say that.

      As for the future Zeiss lenses, if they are compatible with other systems such as the Touit are, we could be in for a real treat. No special adaptation to the A7r would me great lenses that can later be used on other platforms and a build and handling that’s more pleasant to the current crop of fly by wire offerings.

      Interesting times πŸ™‚

      • padam says:

        The Touit lenses do not make that much sense to me (apart from the 12mm which has no direct competitor at the moment). They are expensive, noisy and slow AF, the manual focus works drive-by-wire (not very nice imho) and the built quality is not quite at the ZM/ZF level, so for APS-C I would probably go for the Sony and Fuji factory options instead – and save a few quid to buy on more MF glass of course πŸ˜‰

        So I hope that these new ones will be aimed more at Leica quality and feel but who knows.
        I am not sure about interchangeable mounts, I think it will be made specifically for the E-mount (just like the 35/2.8 and 55/1.8) but we’ll see.

        Meanwhile the MF lenses are much more system-independent even with their issues. I still need to sort the wide angle and I have my sights on sg but it will be a long hunt I feel πŸ™‚

        In some sens a rangefinder lens is still “at home” on a rangefinder camera such as the M9 considering how it was designed to ‘work’, but the enormous cost coupled with serious reliability issues with the sensor kills it for me.

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