Can a trio of interchangeable, artistic lenses impress the whitecoated boffins in the N-Photo lab?
Lomography is full of surprises. This hipster retro specialist operates a regular production line of plastic lo-fi cameras, instant cameras, and quirky films in all kinds of formats and has helped relaunch classic lens types.
The Neptune Convertible Art Lens System might seem like a random off-the-wall idea, but the design has its foundations in the history of lens design. Way back in 1840, optical pioneer Charles Chevalier presented a ‘convertible’ lens with an interchangeable barrel, an idea that Lomography has resurrected for the 21st century.
The system consists of a base unit that attaches to the camera lens mount and a series of three additional lenses that attach to this base. The base contains some of the optical elements, the diaphragm and focus ring, while the add-on lenses provide three different focal lengths.
The Thalassa is a 35mm f/3.5, the Despina is a 50mm f/2.8 and the Proteus is an 80mm f/4. By today’s standards, the apertures are modest, but these add-on lenses are far smaller and lighter than their modern equivalents. Each one would easily fit in a trouser pocket or, quite possibly, even a shirt pocket.
However, there are significant mechanical and operational limitations. For a start, all three lenses are – not surprisingly – manual focus only. Not only that, but there are no mechanical or electronic connections to the camera body, so your Nikon DSLR will not know which aperture setting you’ve decided to use. It’s not just focusing
The Neptune system gives you three lenses in one, with interchangeable front lenses offering 35mm, 50mm and 80mm focal lengths
that has to be done manually, but exposure metering too – very oldschool, to say the least.
The add-on lenses feel weighty and well made, but the base unit feels crudely fashioned by comparison. The focus ring works smoothly, however the aperture ring is quite tight and rough, and the aperture markings have no click-stops. Worse yet, the bayonet mechanism for attaching the lenses has a very weak
‘click’ or detente when you twist them into place. None of the lenses came loose or fell off during testing, but neither felt particularly secure either.
However, there’s good news too! These might look like the kind of cheap, novelty conversion lenses you could attach to a smartphone, but they’re a far cry from that. In fact, optical quality is surprising! All three lenses produce exceptional detail rendition, insignificant distortion, hardly any vignetting and very little chromatic aberration either. A modern prime lens might beat them in overall resolution, but not for contrast or ‘punch’.
The other surprise is how these lenses make you work. Having no autofocus or in-camera metering might sound like a limitation, but it’s also liberating. Manual focusing might seem tiresome, but it’s simple and almost immediate.
With manual exposure control, you make more mistakes but you discover more too – you find out how underand over-exposure can produce attractive creative effects that your in-camera meter will always prevent.
It’s hard to make a case for the Neptune Convertible Art Lens system of price and specifications alone, but when you factor in the effect it can have on your photography, it becomes a more interesting proposition.
Individually, the Neptune lenses are far smaller than equivalent modern prime lenses