#496. In search of the elusive magic…

By philberphoto | Opinion

Jul 19

DSC07897_3Recently, 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…

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So, does the child in you live on, who was/is in love with everything magical?

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  • paulperton says:

    My Nikon 24-70 sits abandoned in the cupboard. Set aside for an elderly Leica M9 and two multi-decade old lenses, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it, but photographically-speaking, that’s not where I want to be right now.

    Same destination, different route?

    • philberphoto says:

      No doubt in my mind, a M9-cum-older-Leica-lens” has serious magic-making potential! I remember Boris’ images in Patagonia with his much-beloved Leica M 90mm f:4.0 macro. Wow! Very, very Wow! Have fun! That said, when you meet pascal next, it would be interesting to test the much more recent Zeiss ZM 35 f:1.4 on your M9. That is a magical lens of the highest order!

  • Jeffrey Horton says:

    Enjoyed reading this! The gear odyssey is sometimes painful. I haven’t bought a zoom, or even thought about buying one since discovering Zeiss primes. I’m still pretty happy with my D810, Zeiss 21 f/2.8, 35 f/1.4 Voigtlander 58 f/1.4 and really loving my only Nikon lens the 105 Macro f/2.8G. Really attracted to the new Hasselblad X1D but not sure where I will find the money to buy one. I had previously gone all Leica M. I love the character of the lenses, but in the end wanted higher resolution sensor, so went back to Nikon. Will be interesting to see what Photokina brings in the Sony and Leica camps. Thanks again for all the DS posts, I really love this site!

    • philberphoto says:

      Thanks for the kind words, Jeffrey! We, too, would love to try the new Hasselblad! Though, in our opinion (I discussed this with Pascal, I am not using a roayl “we”, or not yet, at least), they made a design choice that limits its appeal. By incorporatin a leaf shutter you get somes pluses (lower vivration, higher flash synch speed), but you limit the lenses youcan sue to ones that also incorporate a leaf shutter. That excludes the wealth of MF lenses out there, some of them both good and inexpensive, that could have been adapted to the Hassy. In this sense, thy failed to deliver a “medium-format-A7”. But still, th eappeal is strong…

  • artuk says:

    I own the much criticised FE 24-70mm f4. I looked seriously at the new GM 24-70, but although it’s drawing style looked better through the viewfinder, the added size, weight, lack of OSS, abd reportedly weaker performance at 70mm made it seem not worthy of it’s very significant price. The 24-70 f4 gets the job done on 24mp, provided you avoid it’s very widest angles – it’s sharp enough, and the colour and contrast are ok, particularly stopped down when its more than good enough for stock and portrait work.

    In comparison, I wanted my Batis 85mm to br “special”, and although it is extremely “sharp” and can draw with a certain “3D” effect and a sharpness that is like “being there”, in other ways it disappointed because the colour, bokeh and drawing style just weren’t that “special”.

    So in one way I understand your reaction to the GM 24-70, but in another way I also use a more humble equivalent that gets the job done and is “good enough”. The GM undoubtedly gets the job done with greater aplomb (more sharpness on high resolution sensors, much better bokeh, and a generally pleasant rendition of colour and contrast) – and in the end I think that’s all most people want from a standard zoom.

    It’s a lens I really covet on some levels – but that which I don’t think would warrant it’s size, weight and price with my 24mp camera and my shooting style and common uses. It would be lovely to try one and make comparisons to it’s cheaper sibling and other lenses, but its not an opportunity that I want to pay the price of admission for right now.

    • philberphoto says:

      Art, I think if I did indeed buy a Sony mid-range zoom, I’d probably opt for the f:4.0 for just the reasons you mentioned. If it is a “good-enough-to-get-the-job-done” kind of lens, the f:4.0, cheaper, lighter is probably a good idea.

      • artuk says:

        I’ve never really understood all the negativity about the FE 24-70mm f4, although it is somewhat expensive, and I’ve never used it on anything above 24Mp, whereas I think on the A7r and mk2 it’s weaknesses become more obviously. I feel you are slightly unfair to the GM as having looked at it extensively, and looked at other peoples samples, it has a different “feel” to it’s images than the F4 lens and I think it’s drawing style and bokeh seem rather nice – quite “Minolta G” like perhaps?

        Pascal and I exchanged some messages here and a couple of emails in response to some previous comments and he suggested I might like to write a guest article about some of my experiences from a long trip. I was unsure what particularly I would like to talk about (equipment and photography rather than just travel) – perhaps the Fe 24-70mm f4 would be a suitable topic – albeit not a very exciting and sexy one?

  • Alan says:

    Removing aberrations at maximum aperture (which is what lens designers now strive for) also tends to remove the “magic” from many modern uberlenses. Older, simpler lenses with more uncorrected optical defects are the ones that deliver the goods.

    • philberphoto says:

      Well, Alan, in DearSusanSpeak, if the magic is removed, the lens doesn’t get überlens status. Only lenses that do deliver magic and do it without any (other than minor) optical flaws get awarded überlens status. Experience shows, though that the better lens designers get closer and closer to achieving this even with zooms. Sony are almost there, there is every reason to believe that Canon’s latest are getting there as well. I havn’t tried the latest Leica (for S or for SL), but they are contenders. The unfortunate aspect, though, is all those zooms are seriously large, heavy and expensive.

      • Bob Hamilton says:


        As you know, I own the Sony GM 24-70mm (used on the A7r2) and the Leica S 30-90mm zoom (used on both the S type 006 and 007 cameras).
        The Sony lens, if not quite as good optically as the Leica lens (splitting hairs here) is a superb performer for my type of photography (principally landscape) and any difference between the two is really unable to be noticed in most circumstances and at sensible print sizes. I would say that its performance is a match for the Batis 25mm and the Loxia 35mm and 50mm lenses, all of which I own and use.
        For my pastime of hillwalking photography, such a zoom makes obvious sense as it allows me to replace the three primes mentioned with one lens which not only saves backpack space and some weight but also gives me more flexibility over the choice of focal length and the ability to frame the image exactly as I want. It is so good that I have pre-ordered the 70-200 mm f2.8 GM lens and will dispense with the 70-200mm f4 I currently own when it arrives.
        I previously owned the Sony Zeiss 24-70mm f4 lens and was extremely disappointed by it, finding it extremely soft over the outside 20% to 25% or so of the frame, even stopped down to standard landscape photography apertures, and, particularly, at focal lengths wider than 35mm and longer than 55mm. It may be acceptable for reportage or other types of photography where total frame sharpness is not essential but, I have to say that, for landscape work, it was an unmitigated piece of crap and, judging by informed internet comment, my example was not unique.


  • Bumpy says:

    Always hard when intangibles not captured by common metrics make one resort to magic as a differentiator. This piece is a well considered and written attempt to describe image features that elude common lens metrics (sharpness, contrast, color, and on the subjective side but still well understood bokeh).

    Another blog/photographer I admire, Kasson, has recently run a series on depth of field that illuminates an interesting effect that improved sharpness has on a photograph. It seems that abberations that limit peak sharpness reduce the slope of the falloff of sharpness as you move away from maximum sharpness at point of focus. This bears directly on the nature of the transition from sharp focus to oof areas, with ‘sharp’ lenses having a steeper falloff in sharpness per unit of distance away from point of focus. This effect is particularly acute at distances less than 100 meters and aperature wider than f4.

    Although this may seem an inherent lens characteristic, falloff can be controlled to some degree by the photographer! Since DoF depends on distance to subject a greater distance results in more DoF which is essentially a less steep sharpness falloff from point of focus. At very close distances even a small increase in subject distance can have a relatively large change in DoF (say from miniscule to very small). This, however, changes composition unless you make a corresponding change in focal length which changes DoF – and Kasson did not model enough focal lengths for me to guess whether the net effect cancels out or leaves room for real photographic control. Stepping back then cropping may be the extent of control available from changes in subject distance. Alternately stopping down makes for much more significant changes in sharpness falloff, esp. wider than f4 – a sharp lens stopped down one stop vs. a less sharp lens may have similar sharpness falloff and better match transition from in focus to oof. This was not intuitively obvious to me but bears consideration when selecting aperature and comparing lenses.

    I haven’t the time lately nor really the right lenses to experiment with this in my own shooting yet, but I recommend the Kasson series as very enlightening look into DoF generally as well as comparing ideal lenses to more ordinary lenses. At the very least I admire Kasson quantifying in a more sophisticated way the relationship between lens characteristics and DoF (which itself is a more sophisticated metric than mere maximum sharpness captured by MTF).

    In any event it is a real pleasure to read such a fine attempt to describe ‘magic’ in imaging. It is a perfect term for the elusive qualities that distinguish the very best images that every passionate photographer pursues with all their heart. Thank You.

  • Mel says:

    Superb photos that elicit feelings deep within.
    Evocative writing that tugs at the imagination.
    Two good reasons to visit Dear Susan (again and again).

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