Love Your Lenses

Camera - - IN FOCUS -

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

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