2.20.2013

I like this lens because it's good and crappy at the same time.


For a couple thousand bucks you can get a pretty good zoom lens from Canon, Nikon, Sony and most of the other camera makers. For five to ten thousand dollars you can get a really good lens from Leica. And when I say really good I'm using the most common criteria = painfully sharp. But legions of Holga and Lomo shooters, as well as generations of photographic artists, continually show us that sharp only really counts in razor blades and show-off-tography. No one really cares about ultimate sharpness if the content of a photograph is compelling or thought provoking. We're mostly interested in sharp if we're trying to make a catalog style image of a product.  I have my carefully chosen product lenses but they're not always my first choice. In fact, if I'm not trying to make a faithful image to sell something I could really care less about absolute, nut-crunching sharpness.

Maybe that's why I now have a bit of a soft spot in the camera bag of my heart for a disturbing little lens that Sony stole from Minolta, rebadged and then abandoned, like an unwanted pet. I thought about it when a recent, churlish commenter took me to task for doing what I do best....buying lenses. I had a rationale when I bought the Sony orphaned lens and I gave it but I didn't know someone would expect me to defend my choices in detail. 

But here goes. I bought the Sony 24-105mm f3.5 to f4.5 lens a couple of weeks ago for a small amount of money. The lens was new at the store but had been there for about four years. That's how long ago it had been discontinued by Sony. It's a little gem. About the size of a typical 50mm 1.8 but much weightier. It came with the typical, wide angle capable, petal shaped lens hood. And a box. And a warranty card.


I bet you think this is pretty outrageous vignetting for a lens that's supposed to be designed for full frame, right? But wrap your head around this, all three images in this article were done with the Sony a57 which is an APS-C (or "cropped frame") camera. So the vignetting at f4 and 24mm is astoundingly bad. Really miserable. Yes, it clears up as you stop down a bit but who stops down anymore?

Another attribute of this marvelous optical system is it's blasé effort at being sharp.  If you do everything right and the winds are blowing from the northeast you can see vestiges of sharpness scattered through the frame....just.  But most of the sharpness is obscured by the flatness inherent in the product. And by flat I don't mean it's a lens from the pancake family of lenses. I mean that it's pretty lackadaisical about showing up with much in the way of contrast.

So, to recap: Vignettes like a bastard. Sharp as jello. Snappy as the worn elastic in the waistband of a fat man's underwear. But small and gem-like.  What's not to like?


So I tossed it on the front of my cheapest Sony camera and tooled around downtown. Truth be told I was so casual about shooting with that camera and lens combination that I didn't realize that the camera was set to manual focus for the first half of my walk. But I learned a fun fact. Every time you turn your Sony off and then turn it back on again the camera resets the lens to infinity. Cool. No lost shots for me.

I'm being a bit flip but I guess my point is that for my fun work the lens isn't really a big "make it or break it" thing. And I'm kidding when I say it's no sharper than kleenex. Like almost every modern lens, stopping down two stops from maximum sharpens it up enough.

I guess after having owned Zeiss and Leica glass for decades part of the appeal of the Sony 24/105 is that my expectations are lowered. So I'm constantly being surprised when the lens turns out to be better than I thought it was. When it hits above its weight class.

On another level I'm having fun figuring out how to incorporate the "weaknesses" of the lens into some sort of art. The vignetting doesn't bother me at all when I shoot portraits with the lens. It's kinda fun. And the more pedestrian level of sharpness is actually rather nice for some kinds of portraits.

Over the course of the infiltration and overwhelming conquest of film by digital imaging we've become so f***ing binary in our assessment of images that it makes me tired. We apply manufacturing metrics instead of looking (as we should) through the lens of "art." The dumbing down of image making brought with it a simplification of the appreciation of our art. Now instead of relating to content and concept the vast majority of new adherents analyze images based on flatness of field, sensor noise and the appearance of sharpness to the exclusion of all other parameters.

To dissect a joke is to kill it. 

What this lens reminds me is that getting to the heart of something is much more important than struggling to get to a sterile sort of perfection. It's okay to have faults. Both for humans and for lenses.

Never before have so many boring photographs been so damn sharp.

I'm learning to turn up the "vivid" control in my jpegs and then yank in some "detail" control in post processing. The lens will take care of itself.

Funny, I wrote about this nearly a year ago, but I did a comparison between some modern m4:3 lenses and their counterparts (Olympus Pen half frame lenses) from forty+ years ago and I found that, with the exception of contrast (easily correctible, or should I say, "changeable"), the older lenses were just as proficient as the "cult" lenses of right now. But they were more subtle and layered. Nothing's really changed. Only our perception that somehow perfection might be accessible.  Suckers.











12 comments:

milldave said...

Dear Kirk,

As a prehistorically-long lurker on this blog, who NEVER comments, this is my first post.
And why?
Because I'm reading through the last entries from Monday, after returning from a business trip, all comfortable and relaxed, then....BOOM!
This hits me bewteen the eyes!
My wife is forever complaining that my portraits of her are too sharp, too harsh, too unforgiving.
So much so, that I'm thinking of giving up using my digital camera (Pentax K5 and Limited lenses) and going back to my film set-up from the 70s and 80s.
I do limited post-processing, mainly because I don't have the patience in front of the computer and I'm not so enamoured of "creating" my portraits, rather I want to capture what I see.
I want to have the subtlties that older lenses gave us and not the razor cut of the modern.
Please continue with the "lesser" lens combinations that give you such pleasure to use and us, the readers, such pleasure to see a master's touch.
Thank you.
David

Anonymous said...

A while ago I was cleaning out my attic and found a box from the days when I owned a dark room.

In the box, along with the dark room accessories, was a soft focus filter, which was one of maybe 3 filters I owned when I was a teenager (the others where a red one and a polarizer).

Back then I, and the photography market as a whole, understood that people usually look better with a little blur rather than razor sharp. One of the first accessories I bought for my camera back then was that soft focus filter.

I had forgotten that soft focus filters ever existed.

As I (and my looks) get into the 50s I definitely see the wisdom of that lost knowledge.

LeftCoastKenny said...

Never before have so many boring photographs been so damn sharp.

Love that. I've always thought sharpness was highly overrated.

Bill Beebe said...

I'm going "down market" with lenses as well. Started with the Olympus 15mm lens cap, then the two Sigma lens bundle in E-mount for my NEX-5N. Small, very compact, fun. What adds to the fun is the fact all of this has been very, very inexpensive. Low cost equates to equipment I'm not afraid to use and use often. No more presumptions.

Jim Simmons said...

But when an image only really really works if it's razor sharp, you need that painfully expensive tool in the kit. Sigh.

Andy said...

I had a lens like that: the Nikon 28mm f/2.8 (non-D version). It had heavy vignetting, and a weird purplish cast, and zooming in to 100% made it obvious it wasn't terribly sharp, even at 5.6, but it produced images just like the first one in this post (of the motorbike) – something almost romantic about the look. Hard to describe really. I loved that lens on my D70.

I also feel similar about the lens on my X100 when it comes to flare – it's quite prone to it, but it does it in a pleasing (to me, at least) way: no harsh small flare spots, just a full frame 'glow'.

Kirk Tuck said...

My sharpest lens, by far, is the under $500 Sigma 70mm Macro. Better than the lenses I own that cost thousands of dollars... And the 30mm that Bill alludes to above is quite sharp at f4 and could be had for under $150...

Anonymous said...

What a great find that Sony lens is. I agree that modern lenses are just too sharp and characterless. For portraits I have started using a Tiffen Soft F/X1 filter. There's no visible softening or halos, but people just look a little better.

Here's how one of the great Hollywood photographers solved the problem of oversharpness: Just as he opened the shutter, he would give the tripod a little kick.

Andrea Costa said...

I have a nice Jupiter8 50mm russian lens that stopped down to f/8 is scarily sharp, and opened up to f/2 has a so lovely bokeh... a lens that I got with an old 50$ russian rangefinder (that is fun to shoot, too)...

AlexG said...

I have that lens it really is a cracking lens, a pre war Zeiss design sonar I think but anyhow it was worth using the idiosyncratic Zorki with it. Works beautifully on a µ43 too, I love it for portraits. Perfection is so over rated

Joe Gilbert said...

I love the "Kirk Tuck" vernacular you so skillfully blend with intelligent thought.

Uptightness is inversely proportional to skill.

Biro said...

Sharpness AND resolution are extremely useful at times... but overrated in perhaps 90 percent of all cases. Meanwhile, I wonder what I could pick up one of these Sony/Minolta 24-105s for today? It might provide an excuse to purchase the new A58.