Having picked reader’s mind about their favourite lenses, then given my opinion on what makes a lens great, here comes the most difficult episode of this trilogy for me to write.
The basic truth is that no one should really care what the best lens is. HCB would have produced great photographs with a plastic lens, we all know that. But can I add something more intelligent and actionable than that about the gear/photographer duo, something that would help the novice pick a good lens and make the most of it?
Here’s a photograph of Venice made with a plastic 18-200 zoom on a 10Mpix camera from CCD prehistory. While I’d give it a more lively finish today, I still think the image works quite well. Having recently jumped ship from Canon and heavy L-lenses, the Nikon 18-200 was the best lens in the world for me, at the time. I’d have elloelled at the idea of a preposterous 1.5Kg 85/1.4 lens, back then.
Then, along came Sony with its minute NEX-5n and M-mount compatibility. A dream come true. For me there was no turning back. The subtlety and richness of tone and colour was so far ahead of anything I had ever tried before, it made my previous Canikon glass look as desirable as a proctlogy appointment on wet winter evening.
Then, just to prove how non-crappy and useful Nikon glass is, here’s what Paul Perton posted on this blog a couple of years ago, using a 40 year-old 50 mil from Nikkor … Ouch 😉
This could continue for quite a long time …
Below is a series of photographs made with different camera systems using lenses that I may have considered top of the line at the time.
The fact is these photographs were made using very different lenses, each of which added something special to my image making, something that felt important to me at the time (sometimes, I was just on a testing mission, but most often, these were lenses I chose to bring with me on location).
Maybe that just tells us I’m spineless as a photographer.
After all, you didn’t see HCB switching lens types every 6 months. In the gear/tog relationship, the human component being should always be the directing force, right?
Well, I’m not entirely sure.
As artists, we are sensitive little creatures. And, while it’s essential we develop a strong vision that dominates all our photography for it to be meaningful to ourselves and others, being receptive to the drawing and ergonomic qualities of gear comes a close second. Just as acrylic on aluminium and oil on wood don’t bring out the same qualities in a painter, sensor size and lenses add a lot of variety to a photographer’s palette.
Understanding how a lens’ intrinsic qualities serve your vision is the key to making the best use of it.
This doesn’t happen overnight, and it isn’t stable in time (well, at least, the instability bit is my excuse for gas 😉 )
Your experience may vary, but here’s a typical road we follow:
Feeling slightly insulted ? Me too, I was that man and still am to a great extent 😉
Thing is, I’m not taking the mickey or criticising.
Not only have most of us been through this, I actually think it’s a good thing. Provided ego and blind brand following are left aside, the various stages in our lens rolling sink in and permeate us, leaving us with a better understanding of what we really enjoy and work well with.
Granted, it often ends up being more expensive than going to art school in the first place and there’s a lot less sex involved, but it’s still a worthwhile learning process that shapes us, if we are willing to be shaped rather than cling to marketing-imposed dogma.
We know we’re making progress when we feel a convergence and see higher keeper-rates from each of the lenses we are using.
Case in point: I recently used 3 top notch lenses that have redefined what I like and expect : all 3 from Zeiss (until then, I was more of a Leica guy). The ZF2 25/2, the ZM 35/1.4 and the OTUS 85/1.4.
These 3 gems have broken my age-long love of Mandler-era Leica products (as you can tell from my expanding Gear for Sale page …). They (particularly the OTUS and ZM) brilliantly bring together the pleasantly soft rendition of Mandler’s best designs with older Zeiss rigour and structure. Mandler without the painterly excesses. I can’t think of more stimulating lenses to use today, for my style of photography.
More importantly, they make me create photographs that are a natural extension of my existing style and take it much further.
So, a change of gear, but a merge of previous likes from Zeiss Biogons and Mandler Leicas rather than a radical change of thought.
Co-author Philippe is undergoing a similar process with the ZM 35/1.4 which is making him enjoy the 35mm focal length when he’s usually more of a 50mm photographer.
And yet, while the ZM 35/1.4 was an instant hit with me, many of my initial photographs with the OTUS were disappointing. And it’s taken me several years to enjoy photographing with the ZF2 25/2.
Over the past 2 months with the OTUS, I’ve gotten used to the focal length, and, more importantly to the very specific rendering of this lens, which hides its unparalleled resolution in a silky smooth and understated drawing. Getting the best out of it without producing soggy-looking images was a challenge that kept me occupied for weeks and hundreds of shots. Now, it feels like an external organ (sounds less glamourous than I mean), an integral part of myself, and handing it back to Zeiss will be very sad indeed, when the times comes.
‘you still here ?
Now might be a good time to leave, as I don’t have a definitive answer to the original question 😉
But, still, here’s my advice.
1) If you’re interested in a specific lens, try to analyse why, using the various criteria described in the previous article in this series, for instance. You may enjoy the focal length, the rendering, the apparent sharpness, the lab results, the strong colour cast, the aesthetic flaring, the intuitive ergonomics, the small size …
2) Then, try to analyse how that fits in your worldview and your type of photography. Are you a dreamer? Do you crave technical perfection? Is vintage your favourite flavour of anything? Are you a spontaneous photographer or someone who requires much thinking and planning … How do the lens’ identified qualities help or hinder that? This article can help you define who you are.
3) Try to isolate some photographs where the effect formulated in point 2 is most obvious. How did you make those? What was the mental process? What are you excited about in the result? How can you replicate that result? Likewise, isolate photographs where this magic fails to materialise and find out why? Wrong subject? Wrong aperture? Wrong composition? If you can’t test the lens before buying it (so often the case), try to find reviews that provide plenty of sample photographs and not just charts or studio test scenes.
4) Next time you’re out making photographs, focus on a specific aspect you want to improve. Are you filling the frame more, is your photograph more abstract, are you composing in a square, is your depth of field much bigger, are the colours cold and sad, … whatever it is you want that new lens to help you with, check on the spot. This is one of the reasons I find the Sony EVF so valuable. It gives me a far better sense of the finised product than an OVF or rangefinder, but that’s just me.
Over a few days / weeks, you will gain an understanding of how to use this specific lens to create the type of photograph you enjoy. The learning can be the position of the sun relative to the lens, a specific post-processing routine that works with this lens, a type of subject that’s particularly suited … You don’t have to be extremely specific about all of this, the important part is being able to put simple words on it and recreate it.
You’ll know it’s working when you require less and less post-processing to obtain the desired feel. If that doesn’t happen, the lens isn’t for you.
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I have being using Leica cameras and lenses for about 8 years+, switching from Nikon D80 to M8,M9,Monochrom,M….owning most of Leica’s great lenses and ending up selling almost everything and switching to Sony RX1r.
My main problem with Leica was lacking good EVF. As my vision with age started deteriorating it was even harder for me to use the Mesucher especially after dark.I personally think that Sony cameras are very good and I love Zeiss glass as well and looking forward to Sony digital future.
Hey Sergei, thanks a lot. Age is a factor I dodn’t even include in the discussion but you’re right, it plays a major role in our choices. How are you enjoying the RX1r? Is is as great as the descriptions suggest? That and the M Monochrom are two camera I would have loved to try. Someday, maybe, Sony will make a camera combining both the leaf shutter and the monochromatic sensor, with a great lens on the front 🙂
On a related note, and earlier in the process of deciding which great lens to buy, I offer this: Much as when I once composed music on commission, and all my efforts would be focused on the medium requested – a women’s choir, piano, baritone voice and chamber ensemble – my approach to photography starts with the tool – the choice of camera and, more importantly, the lens – rather than the subject.
When I venture out for the day, I choose one or two lenses that I anticipate will most likely be required for the range of subjects anticipated and as I walk about see the world through those lenses before putting the camera to my eye. To better learn what each lens is capable of and how it renders light and color, I would go out repeatedly with only the one lens, whether that be a Canon 85 f/1.2, a Linhof Technorama with 90mm Super-Angulon, a Sigma DP Merrill or an iPhone6 camera. Over the decades, I discovered that, while zoom lenses offer more flexibility, they also make me lazier. While not exactly devolving into snapshots, my images with zoom lenses are more “generic” than with prime lenses, which demand I take the business of photography more seriously.
Leonard, thank you for the insightful comment. Two things I find most interesting are interrelated: leaving home with only one lens, and relying only on primes. I agree entirely with you that the huge majority of photographs made with zooms (however good the photographer) are documentary. Zooms let you get the shot from anywhere so you do not think about framing in terms of moving about to establish the proper relationships between components and the proper perspectives. Plus zoom are always slower than primes and don’t allow the same degree of subject isolation. And, on top of this, they tend to be very good performers these days, but still lack the personality of the best primes. They measure well but don’t create mood as easily.
Thought provoking article. I am a Fujifilm guy (X100T and XPro1), but af is poor especially on xpro1. Thinking of ageing, how do you have experience of wearing glasses and using the manual focusing Loxia lens ?
Hi, focusing is very easy with the Sony EVF. You can magnify the image 7x and 14x and/or use focusing aids that highlight the in-focus zones in a colour you choose. The better quality the lens, the better this works. With a Loxia it’s totally fool-proof, even in very low light. But it’s not suited to sports or fast moving subjects. It’s OK for slow objects and static scenes.
Nice rant for the blue blood lens hounds in this world. I won’t own the caliber of glass you discuss but am convinced I can make images that are every bit as pleasing using the concepts you touted. In fact, shooting with a former midrange Sony SLT using acclaimed third party and excellent legacy primes (I will save you the embarrassment of mentioning their brands) and comparing their results to Zeiss glass samples, the science of optics and sensors has negated much of the differences in IQ. The only real limitations I see are mine.
I’m off Nikon myself and enjoying a matching pair of discontinued 24MP Sony bodies with great features and advantages over ye olde DSLRs. And like you, I’m on a tripod much more often shooting still lifes with seven capable primes, but have several zooms for moving objects. All this meaning, as you also conclude, that the gear only does what you tell it.
Ultimately, there’s probably very little bad gear out there and the main quality we can expect from ours is to make us feel comfortable and confident. That said, let’s not bash Zeiss. We’ve reviewed Leica, Nikon, Voigtlander, Zeiss and others on this blog and the 2 reasons we talk more about Zeiss is (1) they have the intelligence to send us lenses to review (2) they offer world class quality at one third the price of their main rivals. It doesn’t mean Zeiss is all we think of. To me, one of the best lenses on the market, at any price, today, is the Sony 90. But Sony hasn’t sent me one and I already own 3 lenses in that focal range so won’t buy a fourth just to review it.