View Full Version : Imperfection and character: The Camera and lens as drawing instruments!

Asher Kelman
April 26th, 2007, 04:05 PM
We often ask this question of any camera, "What is the noise level?"

Yes Canon does better!

We debate which lenses have outstanding MTF charts.

Yes, the Mamiya 7 lenses might be king of the pack but you could argue Leica or Zeiss.

Many of us no longer think much of cameras and lenses as having individual qualities like different paint brushes.

I wonder about this. In fact perfection of lenses and no grain brings us to some sort of boring vanilla perfection.

Our human subjects are increasingly delivered to the viewer without blemish.

Isn't this a dismissal of the natural patina of humanity and art?


April 26th, 2007, 08:00 PM
Ah, my type of discussion!

And perfect timing since I just opened a bottle of local reserve Zinfandel and am sipping the first pour while my pork tenderloin roast finishes up on the barbie... (For those interested in such things, roasted asparagus and portobello tortellini in a light garlic-cream sauce and parmesan cheese-toast will accompany the tenderloin and Zin. Fresh pear and apple slices with a very nice Cambozola and vintage California Port will be desert.)

Now back to lens and camera characteristics... Simply stated, I do consider the "look" from given systems. Less so in my DSLR's as I am fairly restricted to stay within my manufacturer's group, but definitely a consideration in my Large Format gear and film selections. I have tested many lenses and settled on a batch that has imaging traits I respect. I am happy share my selections and logic in choosing them, but it is really a matter of personal tastes so I am not sure others will find it of interest...


Asher Kelman
April 26th, 2007, 08:16 PM
Well Jack, you are in artistic mode!

Now are you already eating?

I'd love to know your taste in LF lenses and what each brings to you. This is something that one acquires only after much trial and error or the help of a guru.

Bon appetit,


Kevin Bjorke
April 27th, 2007, 12:09 AM
I don't know why the thread name is "Imperfection" -- different designers have different notions of what "perfect" might mean.

The fact that a 6x6 camera (much less a view camera) draws differently from a compact is surely big part of its attraction (or vice versa). The same can be true of digi and film. All are "perfect" for some picture, and imperfect for others.

http://farm1.static.flickr.com/6/8036071_819fda3051.jpg (http://www.flickr.com/photos/bjorke/8036071/)
6x6 - too close for a 4x5, too soft for a digi

April 27th, 2007, 11:05 AM
I'll summarize in the interest of brevity...

Keep in mind I think these are generally subtle differences -- like comparing the strengths and weaknesses of neighboring vineyard's Merlots -- and as such, any of these traits can be "right" for any given artist's desired rendering. that said, I find lenses fall into a few main categories, I'll call them 1) sharp and brittle, 2) sharp and smooth, 3) high-contrast, 4) mildly sharp, 5) pleasantly soft and 5) just plain won't focus.

Given the above, I find many modern lenses fall into category 1 being almost so sharp they have a brittle appearance. While many definitely prefer this look, I find it a bit too "clinical" for my tastes. Rodenstock APO lenses and Schneider SSXL lenses tend to have this primary characteristic.

By contrast, I find many Schneider Symmars (APO and pre-APO) and Fujinon lenses to be smoother and not so harsh -- they fall into category 2. This is my personal target group.

Nikkor lenses vary in sharpness from super-sharp to normal, but almost all have very high contrast. Again, this adds a look that many prefer for their style, but for me it adds an edginess I don't find appealing. This would be an example of category 3.

Almost all of the classic older lenses fall into category 4 -- adequately sharp, with varying degrees of softness as aperture changes due to un-corrected optical aberrations. Many are unusably soft wide open yet become practically as sharp as any modern lens stopped down. Most have lower contrast as they are either un-coated or only single-coated. I would say omst Tessars, Dagors, Protars and Artars fall into this category, each with their own unique signature. Others will have a soft glow wider open with a partially-sharp image inside the halo. (Many tessars -- AKA heliars and xenars -- at wider apertures do this.)

Probably the best example of this trait is not a tessar, but the Cooke PS945 9-inch (229mm) Portrait lens -- probably the nicest lens I've ever shot with, but quite rare and a killer at $3800 or so if you can even find one to purchase... But a glorious rendering, offering ultra soft yet usable wide open, to crisply sharp when stopped down to f11. Plus all of the oof areas remain buttery-smooth at all apertures. It's real magic is it offers every option in-between those extremes at the intermediate apertures. A truly magical lens. Wollensak Veritar and Verito portrait lenses offer similar characteristics, but IMO the final rendering is not in the same league of elegance as the Cooke. Sink-strainer portrait lenses do not come close to the Cooke either. Finally, do not listen to anybody that says they can replicate this look with filters or in Photoshop -- the look this lens produces simply cannot be replicated as the effect varies as the distance from the focal plane in the image changes...

Category 5 is held by almost all of the antique lenses -- the old brassies and smaller barrel lenses that are finding their way back to popularity. I do not have broad personal experience with these, but from what I've seen, you cannot go wrong trying any of them as they are pretty cheap and each have their own unique look. Never crisply sharp by today's standards, but never ugly soft ;)

Category 6 is basically what bargain, entry-level LF lenses offered -- nothing remarkable in this group, nothing super sharp, nothing elegantly soft, just basic functional performance. They'll make an image, but no hidden gems in this group that I know of.

Okay, I've bored you all enough!

Asher Kelman
April 27th, 2007, 02:08 PM
Thanks for your contribution Jack! This is so informative.

That Cooke lens seems a gem!


Dawid Loubser
May 1st, 2007, 07:58 AM
Jack, a very informative summary of lens character.

The problem comes when people have to agree on which lenses have which traits! I have never shot MF or LF in my life (always been confined to 35mm) but I agree that as soon as a photographer knows what characteristic he looks for in a lens, and knows how to exploit it, he can start building a unique style for himself.

My favourite lens of all time is Canon's 100mm f/2.8 Macro. In my opinion, this exhibits what you'd call category 2 (Sharp and Smooth) and I especially like the look it achieves either with fairly high ISO Black and White film (e.g. Ilford) or, since we're in 2007, B&W converted RAW at very high ISO. As long as you use a camera that produces non-patterned noise, my style centers a lot around the subtle interplay between the lens' sharp smoothness, and the grainy rendition of the image. I use it for candid street and low-light photography all the time. I actually prefer pushing ISO than getting a faster lens for dark situations, as, for my needs, the depth-of-field at e.g. f/1.2 is just too shallow.

Regardless of my rambling, let me just say that I know what you (and Asher) mean - some lenses have particular characteristics, and one is often drawn to them, compelled to use them, regardless of technical merit.

Canon 100mm f/2.8 Macro (of course, at this small image size, no noise grain is visible)

May 1st, 2007, 12:03 PM
"...my style centers a lot around the subtle interplay between the lens' sharp smoothness, and the grainy rendition of the image. I use it for candid street and low-light photography all the time."

That's what "reality" looks like to me, most likely because I was imprinted by Tri-X in Leicas and Nikons in the Fifties and Sixties. Smooth digital shots don't seem to be of the real world even if I've taken them myself. It's not rational, it's at a level below that.

Dawid Loubser
May 1st, 2007, 11:48 PM
Well Will, at least I'm not the only one who actually likes a bit of digital grain!

May 2nd, 2007, 09:30 AM

Thanks for posting that example above -- it shows how personal these characteristics are... To my eye, the background highlights are not all that appealing. The mid nad dark tones are fine, but I am "annoyed" by the kind of course or clumpy halo-ing at the high contrast linear edges on the oof background elements. I tend to prefer the look when they transition or blur together into a cottony nothingness. I'll try and find some examples.



May 2nd, 2007, 01:22 PM
Here is a quick example. Again, I realize this effect may not appeal to everybody, it is where our indivual preferences come into play.

This shot was done with the Cooke SF lens I mention above, but used at about a 1:2 reproduction ratio on 8x10 film. The result was scanned and converted to B&W. It is hard to tell from this small jpeg, but there is very sharp detail in a very thin plane on the pear skins, which fades to the cottony softness I was referring to above as you move your eye around the surfaces of the pears. You can see the effect pretty readily in the edge of the plate and on the wood grain of the table.


(Note: In the end, this image did not work for me as I found the harsh black diagonal from the background darkness behind the pear too prominent and distracting.)



Dawid Loubser
May 14th, 2007, 09:44 AM
To my eye, the background highlights are not all that appealing. The mid nad dark tones are fine, but I am "annoyed" by the kind of course or clumpy halo-ing at the high contrast linear edges on the oof background elements. I tend to prefer the look when they transition or blur together into a cottony nothingness.

Hi Jack, I actually agree with you on that one. The disturbing background is actually not me lens' fault, but the photographer's - a terrible, bright background, taken at f/5. I suspect, however, that most lenses wouldn't look great in that setup. In retrospect, I posted a terrible example for the subject at hand, this one illustrates my point about Canon's 100mm Macro better (grain coupled with smoothness):

(the 'ugly' background grain, however, is JPEG compression, not ISO grain)

I have an old Ramsa 135mm f/1.8 lens that applies the "cottony soft" effect a bit way too much, but otherwise achieves a similar look to what you posted with the pears. I guess older lenses ahve that pleasing look - maybe it's not the Film at all that looks so appealing about old photographs! Your Cooke lens, however, does seem to emit a beautiful compromise between detail and softness, very very pleasing indeed...

So, is there an EOS adapter for it, and what will shipping/handling be to Johannesburg, South Africa? :-)