Ancient lenses on brand new cameras. How fun!

Found object off Sixth Street in Austin, Texas.
Close up of same.

One of the main reasons I bought a Sony a6300 was to see how well my fairly large collection of Olympus Pen F, film era, lenses would work with the new generation of Sony imaging sensors. I knew from having owned both a Nex 7 and a Nex 6 that the lenses would cover the APS-C format. But on the older Sony cameras some of the wider and faster lenses had issues with odd color casts in the corners and whatnot. Have modern sensors conquered old issues?

Yesterday I shot some images with the 38mm f1.8 and they looked good. No problems with chromatic aberration or weird color cast corners. Today I decided to spend a little time with another old favorite. It's the 40mm f1.4 lens from the old Olympus half frame system. It's attached to the a6300 with a $20 Fotodiox Pen F to Nex adapter. We all went out for a walk...

I found the above image adjacent to the historic Scarborough Building on Congress Ave. and Sixth St. Never saw this unusual and ancient vent system before and the sun was hitting it in a nice way. I stopped to snap a few frames. Now, it's important to keep in mind, when evaluating a lens that's more than 40 years old, against some of the modern "ultra-miracle" lenses made for digital cameras that it's not actually an even playing field, in some cases. Not equal at all.

The new generations of digital lenses don't have to be designed and manufactured with nearly as much care.... A lot of the heavy lifting is done in-camera with software. Lousy resolution in the corners? They can fix that with a bit of interpolation and geometric correction! Not as sharp as we might want? There's a lens profile for that! Ditto for outrageous vignetting. I think most buyers of kit lenses and inexpensive primes, made for manufacturers' own camera systems, would be a bit chagrined if the in-camera magic was turned off and they actually saw how much distortion their lenses produced. And how much vignetting there actually is in the compromised lens designs. And how much sharpening was being applied to yield an impression of high sharpness. But my old Olympus lens doesn't get the in-camera spa treatment.

Nope. The ancient Olympus lens doesn't have any electronic connections. No way to tell the cutting edge cameras of our time how to fix its optical issues. And there are no profiles in post to help them along either. It's pretty much a reality that what you see is what you get with older lenses. If the lens designers didn't do their job correctly in 1969, and the factory floor didn't do their job correctly in 1969, then you got a lens that made images that look like crap. Surprisingly, that's not what I see from many of these little, solid, metal barreled optical systems. 

The image above was shot handheld at 1/125th of a second. There is no internal image stabilization in the a6300 body, and certainly none in the lens. Just the trembling fingers of a middle aged man, wrapped carefully around the camera body while bending over precariously to line up a shot. Fingers trembling with the demon scourge of the hand held shooter = caffeine. And yet. And yet when I pulled the images into Lightroom I saw sharpness and depth in the files. Miraculous given that none of the usual crutches of contemporary photographers were involved in the image's creation. Just an old lens, a new sensor and a mildly faulty stabilization device (me). 

While I understand that eventually computational techniques, coupled with massive data sampling (huge resolution sensors), will one day reduce the compromises involved in software lens correction to a minimum I can not help but wonder just how much better the lenses of today might be if they were produced to the standards that many makers were very capable of meeting forty or fifty years ago.

Could it be that a lens designed to perform optimally, without the need for a mathematical helping hand up, might be turbo-charged into stellar performance if the number crunching and  profiling applications were put to the task of making exemplary designs stellar? I would guess that's the impetus behind the Zeiss Otus lenses and, of course, the real Leica lenses. But I can't help wondering if the same precision and tolerances, applied to average lenses, might make us a whole lot happier.

Just a thought. 

So, how do I find the performance of the ancient 40mm f1.4 Olympus Pen lens on the newest copper wire, BSI, Sony APS-C sensor? It's pretty darn good. Which makes me wonder if the Olympus OM lenses from the 1970's and 1980's might also have merits which I have not yet plumbed. Might be interesting to find out. Hope I haven't already missed the run up in that market...


Dave Jenkins said...

"Which makes me wonder if the Olympus OM lenses from the 1970's and 1980's might also have merits which I have not yet plumbed. Might be interesting to find out. Hope I haven't already missed the run up in that market..."

The Olympus OM system is my all-time favorite. I used it with great satisfaction for 13 years and carried it on assignments to 27 countries and around much of the US until aging eyes necessitated a switch to auto-focus. Recently, though, I have been buying OM lenses with a view to eventually picking up a Sony A7-series body. You had better move quickly. . .

Chris Irwin said...

These portrait workshop photos were taken with an OM 50mm F1.8 on an EM-5 mk1. I was pleasantly surprised and it wasn't too hard to focus, even without peaking:



Robert Hudyma said...

The Olympus OM Zuiko lenses play nice with the Sony A7 and its a real pleasure to see these lenses making pictures again. Same to be said for the screw mount Takumars, the build and optics of these lenses are also superior. Be sure to try the 50mm f1.4 8-element Super-Takumar (hard to find now). Pentax faithfully copied the classic Zeiss Planar design.

My A7 bag has Sony, Nikon, Olympus, Pentax and Tamron optics, an optical smorgasbord.

James Pilcher said...

I am disappointed by modern lens designers; they are lazy. "Good enough" and "we'll fix it in post" show a complete lack of professional pride and integrity. I put up with the lazy compromises because I like autofocus. In my business (database design and programming) we have a tongue-in-cheek saying, "Code fixes everything." Of course, that's a euphemism excusing poor design and implementation. I see software-corrected lenses being no different; poor design and manufacture covered up by software.

Sharp words, but oh so true.

I need to find a few old Pen lenses, Kirk. I guess I'm off to eBay...

Eric Seale said...

I can't speak to how they work with Sony bodies, but I've had nothing but good results using old OM lenses on my Olympus OM-D bodies. Granted, the coatings aren't up to modern snuff (a good recipe for J. J. Abrams' style lens flare), but a well-cared-for OM lens can give you good results in a small package.

Anonymous said...

For most people good enough, really is good enough. Anything more is casting pearls before swine.

As an artist, what some people call lens defects, I find to be useful tools. Sometimes when putting a Tiffen Double Fog on my lens, I think of HCB's often quoted thought on sharpness.

bpr said...

Re: OM lenses. Yeah, they play nice on my A7r.

The 24/2.8 I tried was the sharpest legacy 24 I have played with and the 85-250 is remarkable for an 80s zoom with that kind of range. The 35 shift was damned close to the Zeiss equivalent and easier to use.

I got rid as I'm lazy and find the Zeiss C/Y lenses have nicer colour with less work - the Oly lenses, crisp thigh they can be are a bit cool (cyan) and contrasty to my taste.