Recently, I tried the Sony FE 24-70 f:2.8 GM. My lenses have been all prime lenses for years but, even before that, I had forsaken zooms. Too large, too heavy, not good enough, that was my thinking. I then sold my soul to Zeiss and Leica, and forsook AF as well. Real men do it with MF, right?
That time, however has passed, since I purchased the Sony FE 85 GM, a lens with AF. Having already reneged once, was it time to renounce everything I loved, and buy a zoom?
The answer rests on factors that are at the core of my picture taking. And, I contend, maybe not everyone else’s as well, but not only mine.
So, how does the zoom come out? At first, things look good. The time of unsharp lenses is past. Distortion, the bane of even good zooms, is easy to remove, including in camera. Colours? Check. Bokeh? Check.
With that in mind, you would be forgiven for concluding that the Sony zoom is now my mainstay go-everywhere shoot-everything lens. For that to happen, I’d first need to buy it, and I have (so far) declined to do so.
It is not that it is a zoom. Actually, conceptually, I’d love a really good zoom. Such as a practical, modern version of the Contax C/Y 35-70mm.
If it is not because it is a zoom, if it has sharpness, colours and bokeh going for it, why do I find it resistible?
The answer is: no magic! That is hardly a useable answer, since my brand of magic can leave another person stone cold. So, how to put this in words that make sense for readers of DearSusan?
For want of a better description, I tend to see things in layers. First, the obvious, the in-my-face, the large, the close-up, the main subject. Then, the overall, the big picture, the composition and framing, the sharpness, colours and contrast. Then only the detail, the subtlety, the background and bokeh. And lastly the dark and the unspoken. Of course my description is a lot more clinical and scientific than what actually takes place, which is integrated and organic.
And it is my experience (note, I don’t make claims to speak for others, though my guess is I am far from alone) that the deeper layers are the one that matter the most.
Now what does that all have to do with zooms?
Well everything, it seems. To make it simple, when I grade a lens, of whatever description, I find that no lens today really messes up the first layer or the second. All lenses do that well, including the cheap-and-cheerful 50mm “plastic-fantastic” primes, and even some (though not all) kit zooms and compact cameras. All lenses made today are sharp, colourful, contrasty, and totalerably free of major bugaboos.
Things get trickier with the third layer. First, nothing from the background should be problematic for the user, yet not many lenses have bokeh that is never out-of-sorts. Then the relationship between in-focus and out-of-focus is not that easy to keep under control. Even the mighty Sony FE 85 GM can get it wrong at times. Then the balance between sharpness, contrast and detail. It is so easy to appear detailed and with lovely colours, but at the expense of contrast and apparent sharpness. Just as easy, in fact, as to appear really sharp and contrasty, but in a manner that overshadows detail and subtle colours. I was shocked to find that out in my shootout of the hallowed Contax G 45 f:2.0. Superb contrast and sharpness, but trounced on detail and colours by the 2 Leica I compared it to (Elmarit R 60 Makro and Summilux M 50). This is also where pixel-peeping can be a blessing or a curse. If all is well (meaning you have a superb shot), you will be in awe of what the 100% crop reveals. If all is not in order, the 30Mp+ 100% crop will be merciless, and you will curse yourself for missing what could have been such a great shot.
But the last layer is where the magic lies IMHO. Let me clarify: why do we find shots so compelling by masters of photography when they are black-and-white (no colours), very low contast, hardly any sharpness to go by, and not much detail at all ? Because all these factors might make a picture “better”, or “more spectacular”, or “more impressive”, or whatever. But not more appealing, and certainly not more magical.
That is where zooms fall down. Probably because of the compromises their complex requirements entail, they do everything “well enough”, which means they don’t do it really well. Oh, sure, they are sharp, and contrasty. But, as the Sony FE 24-70 GM, one of the world’s best zooms, showed, not much magic at all.
For me, while the “early layers” may pique my interest, raise my eyebrow or drop my jaw, it is the magic that makes me come back to that picture again and again.
So there is a kind of parallel course between me and lens ability. Only the very best modern lenses can expedite all layers equally and incorporate magic into the shot. Lesser designs concentate of the must-haves (sharpness, contrast etc..) but offer nothing more.
Which is exactly the opposite of much older designs. They had huge flaws, but, such as they were, they didn’t stop some magic from shining through, at least on some shots.
Have I owned such flawed magic-makers? Definitely. My Leica R Summilux 80 f:1.4, or my Zeiss ZE 50 Planar f:1.4 and its sibling 85mm Planar. Flawed, yes. But oh, so magical at times. Yes, at times only. When I avoided all the trouble spots, which means the subject was kind enough to lend it self to that… Did I own lenses that were technically very strong, but entirely magic-free? My Sony-Zeiss FE 55 f:1.8 (I am going to get killed for this, I know, but Sony-Zeiss have just released a new 50mm f:1.4, which they themselves call better, so now at least I am not alone is suggesting that the FE 55 is not an überlens).
This goes some way to explaining why modern lenses are criticized for being “soul-less”, for clinical, cold rendering etc. It seems that today’s lens design choice is simple: make no shot ugly, at the expense or making no shot magical. Because, unless you delve into older lenses and are ready to put up with quite a lot of c**p, modern lenses that achieve enough technical excellence to let the magic shine though are hideously large, heavy and expensive, except for certain Leica rangefinder designs that avoid the weight and size, but often at the expense of an even higher price. One way you can mitigate this is if you accept slower lenses, which can be magic machines at a lower cost and weight (think Leica Elmar ans Super Elmar). But, of course, that too has its limitations.
To put it in a nutshell, the lenses I owned that offered some magic are the ones that I have now sold and have seller’s remorse over. The lenses that made no magic are the ones I have now sold and have buyer’s remorse over.
Now you could say that the photographer has everything to do with producing magic,and, of course, up to a point you’d be right. If he (she) does a “pure postcard” shot, say an iconic monument at mid-day framed in the centre and at f:8.0, I very much doubt I’d see much magic in it. I could see beauty, yes, but magic is more than that. On the other hand, many times, when I seek to imbue a shot with magic, it requires the camera system, and primarily the lens, to play along. The best photographer in the world can’t put into his/her picture what the camera didn’t capture, or captured wrong, and no amount of PP can put it right. And magic has so much to do with the minute, the elusive, the mysterious, the not-obvious, the delicate, the ephemeral…
So, does the child in you live on, who was/is in love with everything magical?
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