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