Love Your Lenses
The masThead of this magazine has always reflected our primary interest – cameras. It’s straight to the point, just like Car, the brilliantly-titled British motoring magazine (and, like us, they pared down a longer title to something more succinct).
While it’s true that a camera is nothing without a photographer working it, a photographer is essentially nothing without a camera to work with. It’s often fashionable to downplay the camera, but the reality is that visions can’t be achieved unless the camera has the features and specifications to make them possible. A camera is also nothing without a lens. When I first started in this job, it was definitely the camera tech that interested me the most, but over time I’ve really come to love what lenses can do. In fact, I’ve become a bit of a lens fanatic. The window ledges around my office are lined with the various vintage lenses I’ve acquired along the way through one way or another… often thrown in with the cameras purchased for my classic 35mm SLR collection. As long as the body had the right standard lens on it, I wasn’t all that interested in anything else so, for quite a long time, these ‘extras’ were simply packed away in drawers. Then, as things began to change in lens design and technology, I started to get really interested in both the new and the old.
What’s particularly remarkable is that, despite all the recent developments designed to optimise optical performance, some old lenses really deliver brilliant results. And cheap ones too, such as the Russian-made Jupiter-8 50mm f2.0 on my Zorki 4 rangefinder camera (there are a few non-reflexes in the collection) or the PK-mount Hanimex 28-80mm f3.5-4.5. It wasn’t made by Hanimex, of course, but it’s one of my favourite ‘golden oldies’ from the era when the Australian brand was a very big deal, both here and internationally.
With the huge choice of mount adapters now available for mirrorless cameras, it’s possible to revive classical glass with varying degrees of functionality (including none at all) and revisit some idiosyncratic optical characteristics. The mirrorless revolution has also initiated a new era in exciting lens designs which exploit the smaller sensor sizes to work wonders with compactness (such as Panasonic’s brilliant 100-400mm), or the shorter flange back distances to create more exotic optical designs, especially with wide-angles. Olympus, Fujifilm and Sony are, like Panasonic, all doing brilliant things with their mirrorless lenses – as is Zeiss. The revival of the great German marque as a major player in accessory lenses for both mirrorless cameras and D-SLRs is another aspect of the current renaissance as is, as an aside, Sony’s determination to out-do its optical partner with its own G Master high-performance models (channelling Minolta’s superb G series pro-level lenses). And what about Sigma’s aptly-named Art series? More Japanese-made lenses delivering the sort of performance that was once only obtainable from the finest German optics courtesy of Zeiss, Leica, Schneider or Rodenstock.
Yet modern design and manufacturing techniques mean high performance no longer necessarily means high prices. I’ve just been testing a couple of the Korean-made Samyang XP series EF-mount primes (report coming up in the next issue) and not only are they beautifully finished on the outside, but the optical performance is on a par with something costing twice the price or more. Manual focus only, but depending on your point-of-view, that could be an advantage.
And you can go even cheaper with the myriad Chinese brands arriving on the market with all sorts of exotica. This growing list includes Yongnuo, 7Artisans, Laowa, SainSonic, Zhongyi Optics, SLR Magic, and the German-Chinese joint venture HandeVision. There’s even a revived German lens maker called Meyer-Optik-Görlitz, which is using various classic optical designs including the 80-year-old Primoplan. Still in Europe, Lomography is going back even further with its New Petzval 85mm and 58mm Art lenses complete with brass barrels and Waterhouse Stops inserts. The original four-element/two-group petzval optical design originates from the 1840s. At this end of the development timeline, microchips are now precisely controlling apertures, focusing and image stabilisation, and a growing number of modern lenses can be fine-tuned via firmware upgrades.
But the best thing about lenses is what you can do with them – the creative possibilities or simply the thrill of a new way of looking at things. The world appears very different at 8mm… and at 800mm. It’s the lens that’s most closely linked to our vision – both eyesight and idea – which makes for a unique relationship… and a productive partnership. Many photographers fondly describe favourite cameras past and present, but what about a favourite lens… or, more than likely, lenses? After all, these are the real image-makers.
So let’s celebrate lenses because without them, we’d still be struggling with pinholes… and left in the dark.
paul burrows, editor