How many lenses to use was the question central to my previous post. One reader, Ken, rightly scolded me in the comments for rehashing an overworked subject. I guess I should have asked for more context and not just for a number of lenses.
So let’s see if I can make this one a little better. Instead of asking which is your favourite lens ?, let’s focus on why it is your favourite lens.
Below is a collection of possible whys. Which is more important to you, for what application / context / photography conditions … ?
Alternately, if you’re thinking about acquiring a lens yourself, you can use these lens attributes to help make a more informed decision by asking yourself which matters most to you. All too often, we are “instructed” by reviewers to buy certain types of gear because they measure better. There many other considerations for choosing a lens and this list can help you prioritize.
I’ll start with this attribute as it ranks highest in my personal value system.
My tech background has always made me see a form of poetry in MTF curves, but I soon realised just how misleading the purely analytical point of view can be. Two Zeiss lenses are a good example of this : the Distagon 1.4/35 ZM and the OTUS 85/1.4. Both have epic MTF curves. The sort you usually only expect from Rodenstock Digarons and Dumbledore’s telescope (header image). So I approached both as perfect equipment with no specific personality and fell on my arse when I first reviewed the photographs they produced.
(1) Both draw quite differently.
(2) Both are very expressive, even the ZM 35/1.4 which is not designed for the Sony A7r and suffers technically from the mismatch.
The ZM 35/1.4 is more transparent and delicate than anything else I’ve used yet. And the OTUS draws with a glow that’s also unlike anything else I’ve seen. While neither may be your personal taste, for me, it seems impossible to make a bad photograph with either, largely because of their rendering.
The Sony Zeiss FE 55/1.8 is quite the opposite to the OTUS (in spite of its marketing “Mini-OTUS” moniker). Its very high contrast can seem dry in certain occasions but gives strength to a photograph, particularly in dull light or when you need to hold on to detail in highlights. That lens needs taming, as it can lead to soulless images, but in loving hands it is a stunning tool as well.
Given how difficult it is to test lenses before buying, these days, determining whether the drawing of one design will appeal to you is no easy task. And ranges or types of designs don’t help much: the abfab Zeiss ZM range has lenses with very different styles in it, for example. And the first two lenses above are both Distagons, yet also draw very differently (though both have lovely boken and great neutrality). I’ll try to find or create a resource for that one day. In the mean time, here are very basic guestimate rules :
So, does rendering rank high in your priorities and what do your fave lenses do in that respect?
This covers a whole lot of ground. Sharpness is often the first item to come to mind when the word quality is mentioned but what I really mean by this is an absence of particularly strong optical defects.
That Sony Zeiss FE 55/1.8 again, is a good example. It looks very clean and free of aberrations. My Leica Elmarit-R 19/2.8 is probably sharper in that it reveals more details (at f/8) but it flares like crazy. The almost-perfect ZM 35/1.4 is handicapped in the corners at wide aperture and at infinity when used on the Sony A7r’s thick sensor filter. This happens in a configuration very rarely used but it is enough to deter a lot of people who will prefer the technically more reassuring Sony Zeiss version.
So, optical quality goes way beyond sharpness and includes such aspects as resistance to flare, transparency, low distortion, … For me, it’s hard to be excited about a lens just because it lacks optical defects. Unless photographing documents for an archive, absolute orthoscopy isn’t a requirement, whereas the ability to impart a strong personality to any scene is a simply tremendous asset.
Advise to beginners : before you spend money on an optically perfect lens, head straight to eBay and buy a 40-year-old design for less than 100 bucks. Use that for 3 weeks and you’ll be detoxed forever. That’s provided you don’t get a lemon. On thing manufacturers do much better today than 4 decades ago is quality control. If you do get a bad lens, sell it back and repeat the experiment. There’s so much an old Olympus OM or Minolta or Voigtlander can do that you may be shocked (in a bad way) when your $800 optical marvel turns up at your door and looks … frigid.
But your mileage will probably vary, so what’s your take on this?
Will Paul Perton please come forward? 😉 On a DearSusan field trip in Paris last year, Paul, Philippe, Caroline and I took pictures of the exact same spots. When I reviewed Paul’s photographs on the rear screen of his camera, my jaw dropped. It was like elaborate post-processing had been applied to the photographs where mine felt a little sterile. Drat!
Paul was using an older variation of Leica’s lovely Summilux-M 50/1.4. Unlike more recent versions, this is a relatively affordable lens and about as neutral as Nigel Farage. Grunge may not be the appropriate word, but you get what I mean. Strong personality.
Now, because I’m much more mature than Paul, I don’t own hooligan lenses, but here’s a comparison to illustrate the idea.
Above is a photograph inside stunning Gloucester Cathedral (on location article soon on DS) made with the Zeiss Distagon 25/2 ZF2. The photo has been seriously massaged to obtain this result and remains squeaky clean. The amazing sensor has a lot to do with that but the very pure lens is also to be lauded/blamed. Below is a much less neutral image of a far easier scene.
To me, this goes beyond drawing to include coloration and, possibly, aberrations that contribute to the look.
A grungy lens is a mixed blessing. It can do things that post-processing can’t but it also adds a filter to your source file, so neutrality is no longer an option. One or two in your arsenal can be fabulous. To a lesser extent than Paul’s brilliant Summilux, I feel my Leica-R collection adds that dimension to my pics. Since these lenses rarely see any use, that’s apparently no longer a strong selling point for me, though.
What about you? Do you have strong personality lenses in your bag? Do they get aired or stay at home?
The old cliché stating that the best camera is that camera you have with you extends to lens as well.
As reader Andreas rightly pointed out in the previous post, some photographers face harsh environments in which opting for the practical lens is not laziness but your only option.
Before using an OTUS, I’d have placed size and weight high on the convenience priority list. Today, less so. Size matters (now, now …) because a huge lens makes you very conspicuous. But weight is not as much of an issue to me. I’d rather leave home with only one heavy lens I love than with 2 lightweight but bland alternatives. That’s just me.
Other factors in convenience:
Do any matter to you ?
I’d love to say that price is of little concern to me, but it ain’t so. That OTUS 85/1.4 I’m loving with all my soul is a loaner. That ZM 35/1.4 has now gone back to Zeiss. And my list of exotic glass is much shorter than I’d like and rightfully deserve 😉
There are many partial solutions to this problem that may help you place price lower down your consideration list.
You can buy used lenses. For famous and reliable brands, the battered old troopers can be the best performers. My Summicron-R 35/2 is an example of this. It has seen so much use it’s as pale as an old Karate grand master’s black belt. If fresher looks matter, you can buy from reputable dealers such as Marco Schouten.
You can have only one lens. If that lens is a constant source of pleasure, you can live with it for years without feeling frustrated.
You can consider the less glamorous brands. Pentax and Olympus, for instance, make excellent lenses that don’t come close to a Leica’s asking price but will deliver great results with their own specific look.
But sometimes, you’re after that rare Hexanon. Or maybe you’re in love with that modern Leica look. And money matters. What do you do then ? Wait until you can afford one or settle for a second best you like less? Is the best lens the lens you can afford today or the lens you’re willing to wait years for?
Here’s a simple test: do your photographs look the way you like without post-processing ? Mine do with some lenses and don’t with others. I tend to post-process anyway, but that’s only to bring out some qualities already latent in the file. It’s a lot harder to force something completely artificial onto a photograph without resorting to an Instagram-like cookie-cutter filter that will bore you to tears in a few days.
Whenever you find a lens that does this for you (pop without PP) forget about the rest. Forget sharpness issues mentioned in lab-rats reviews. Forget the price (sell all your other gear if you need to). Forget the size, weight (carry just that lens). Forget the age. Just like many musicians will only play on one instrument, you might just make you best work with just one lens if it suits your style perfectly. You’d be surprised.
So, what’s your favourite lens, and why?
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