A Sunday Review of a Classic. The Olympus Pen FT 70mm f2.0.

Every once in a while it's nice to see which direction everyone is breathlessly running in and then walk calmly in the opposite direction. Sometimes that's how I feel about lenses. Everyone is chasing the ultimate in sharpness and high performance across the field of view but I don't know to what end. And I'm pretty sure that the people chasing perfection aren't really certain of why they want the uber lenses for anything more than an additional validation that their gear is not the weak link in their chain. Validation via gear has a long history and I imagine that very few of us who started adult life as technical types are immune to the lure of measurable superiority; no matter what we have been coached to say. I am not immune. I'm in awe of the Sigma 50mm Art lens but I'm totally aware that it's not adding anything much to the mix. That would come after I grab the tripod and lock the mirrors up, etc. 

But I'm not ready for the silly dalliance of a Holga camera right now, either. When I get into a mood that makes me talk about lenses and photo enthusiasts so dismissively I know it's time to go for a nice walk with an old classic. It always seems to blur the lines between good and useful; between art and science.

I grabbed one of my old favorites from the Olympus drawer today. It's a rattly, scarred sample of the ancient 70mm f2.0 lens that was made for Olympus's line of half frame cameras. The family of cameras were called Pens. The top of the line, interchangeable lens, single reflex camera body was the Pen FT. It was most cool in the black enamel version. 

The 70mm used six optical elements in five groups and is very compact with a 43mm front filter ring.
When I used it on previous iterations of the new, digital Pen cameras I led myself into believing that the lens wasn't the sharpest lens in the line up and also suffered from low contrast. My appraisal today is changed by the addition of the EM5.2 and it's elegant focus peaking, along with my new regard for technique; specifically, shielding the front element of the lens from stray light. (How fun it is that I get to learn the same lessons over and over again, decade by decade).

I am certain that the current, 75mm f1.8 Olympus lens for the OMD cameras is a much better performer on the test bench and under controlled conditions but it in no way obviates the value of the rest of the lenses available for the micro four thirds cameras. I have found that if one shoots the older lenses with care, and with a nod to their provenance and old age, one can get very good results indeed. 

The early part of the 1970s will not be remembered for the amazing front surface multicasting technologies of lens making. We are somewhat spoiled now with lenses bathed in nano crystal multi-coating and other rare, advertising spawned coating formulas. It's almost hard to make a modern lens flare like a mad bastard short of shining very bright lights directly into the front elements. Not so with lenses from the time machine. But that doesn't make these lenses unusable it merely means that we have to use the techniques that were in place in that time period to interdict the nastiness of flare causing "glancing light." 

Here's the simple tutorial: Keep direct light and bounced light off the front element of the lens. Always. This means one should use a lens hood but one should also try to block even more light with one's hands or a black card. Doing this defeats veiling flare and gives you back the true contrast that the lens is capable of delivering. So does this mean that the lens can never be used with a light source in the frame? The answer to that depends on whether you are intent on measuring the symptoms of veiling flare or whether you are nostalgic for some fun flare that might add something to your overall image. 

I also advise taking filter off the front of the lens because these nearly always do more harm than good and add two more air glass interfaces to the optical mix. Clear filters rarely are.

My second secret to getting good performance from older classics is to use them at their optimal f-stops. We modern photographers seem to be in love with the idea of shooting with the apertures of our lenses wide open. We like the mystical properties of images in which the majority of the frame is blurred to the point of unrecognizability. But the art and craft wasn't always this way. Most fast lenses made in the days of manual focus were given speedy apertures to enhance one's ability to focus accurately. And looking through the dark and uncertain viewfinder of the Pen FT cameras makes one an instant believer in fast apertures with their attendant shallow depth of field which makes images snap into and out of focus in a very obvious way. 

With lenses of this vintage I always expect that they will hit their peak of performance two stops down from their widest, marked aperture. On this lens that would be f4.0. I would expect the "envelope" of best performance to extend from f4.0 to about f8.0 where the dreaded and feared diffraction effect would take over. While this would be the range of optimal performance there is nothing to say that you can't use the lens wide open at f2.0. I've done it many times. I can see a difference but many times getting an image and being able to handhold and image is more important than the theoretical advantages of the "envelope."  On a sunny day like today I was able to keep the camera at in it's optimum ISO performance "Ziplock Baggie" of performance which is 200. I was also able to use f5.6 to f8.0 for almost every shot, but I did include several examples of the camera shot at f2.0 just to show you the effect and let you judge the "ruinous degradation" for yourself. 

A view of Lamar and 12th Street, just a mile west of the State Capitol, from 
a friendly parking garage roof.

My walk took hours today because I made a big, circuitous loop and stopped a lot just to relax and stare at the life in front of me without having the camera in front of my face all the time. At the beginning of my walk I felt jittery and anxious though I'm not sure why. Could be the ambiguity of general social progress, the indecision that is the one unchanging aspect of my business life, or my loneliness self-imposed by my selfish need to spend time lost in thought. Whatever the cause sitting on a bench at the graffiti park did me a world of good. So did the quart bottle of Gatorade I bought from a food truck vendor who'd set up shop on the adjacent street. But my moments of quiet disquieting reflection led me to the wall above and it proved to be a good test of the lens's color depth, contrast and sharpness when used relatively close.

I climbed up the dangerous, loose soil path on the right side of the wall so I could savor the view of the center of Texas from a high perch. This gave me a chance to show off the rendering of the lens at infinity. Or there about. All the while I counted my blessings at having a camera with such a nice EVF, complete with focus peaking. Being able to accurately focus the lens where you want it to be focused is the third leg of the stool of high quality imaging (we covered the other two parameters above).

The image above suffered at my hands. I forgot to "shield" the lens from the light from the sun which was bouncing everywhere on top of the hill. When I came back to my monkish office and looked at the work on the monitor it was obvious that flare was working its evil on my rendition of Tag-ish Intensity so I did the unthinkable... I went for the "deHazing" slider in Lightroom and let it do its voodoo work.  Now the wall is represented as I saw it...

This just about sums up the generational gap in camera use. The guy on the left with his cargo shorts and phone versus the older gentleman on the right with a "real" camera and his camp cargo shorts. 

click into this one if you want to see how sharp and convincing the 70mm lens can be if you use it correctly. You have to give me credit for getting it right once, okay?

I love the 140mm equivalent focal length of the 70mm when used on the OMD cameras. 
Fun sometimes to stand back and shot tight.


My walk took me into the JW Marriott on Second Street and Congress Ave. Nice bathrooms and a Starbucks on the second floor. But in the public spaces on the fourth floor is a little alcove and I've always admired the way the light strikes the drapes there in the afternoon. Do you know of a place where the light is always lush and tempered and welcoming? You should hang out there and read a book. But back to the subject at hand----I decide to shoot this one at f2.0 (it could have been 2.8, it doesn't show up in the Exif info...) and to my mind it's pretty well defined and workable. I guess I won't fear shooting at the wide aperture now that I know we can hit good focus with the newer cameras.  The image below is also part of the wide open (or nearly wide open) test. You can zoom into the original file and see tons of detail in the draping. 

I finished my walk reluctantly. I was really getting into the meditative quality of just putting one foot in front of the other and scanning the landscape as I moved forward. After the stop at the JW Marriott (Second largest in the world according to the Austin rumor mill) I stopped being interested in the camera and the lens and started to become more interested in the look of the people on the street and the way they were moving through the space. I stuck the camera on my left shoulder and forgot about it for half an hour as I wended my way back to the car and drove back into the western hills to my house. It's always interesting to take the time to go out and walk and be by yourself. It's fun to do so without feeling that you necessarily need to be productive in that moment of time either. 

Another Sunday nearly gone and another week just ahead. I'm always happy to wake up and get going each morning. I always remember the old Japanese idea: One Step Forward and Everything is Darkness. Meaning, I think, that we can't know what awaits so we should live well in the moment. 

Even if that does mean using older lenses. 

Sometime on Monday (if my calculations are correct and Google's data honest) the VSL blog will reach what I once thought was an unreachable milestone. We will enjoy our 20,000,000 page view. 
I'll break in to let you know when we achieve it. If you are reading this on a feed go directly to the site and click through once again so we can get to our goal honestly and quickly. thanks. KT


Anonymous said...

I love that first shot.


Ramon Pertierra said...

I need to discipline myself to do this.