A re-test of the Contax 28-85mm f3.3-85mm without using Super Steady Shot. Oh my goodness...

I sure liked the color I was getting out of my new, old, used but "like new" Contax C/Y 28-85mm f3.3-4, Zeiss Vario Sonnar zoom lens the other day, but I wasn't too thrilled with the apparent sharpness (or subtle lack thereof) when I really dove in and examined the frames at 1:1 in Lightroom. Even though I am just a humble artist I tried real hard to figure out what an engineer or other technically adept person might do by way of more rigorous testing. I wanted to see if the lens was at fault or if I had mis-set something on the camera to cause an issue. But gosh golly! That kind of analytical thinking comes hard to flighty arts and crafts people so I called to see if there was a "genius bar" at the local camera store, you know, to see if any one had some ideas about, you know, sharpness. 

That didn't work out but I was lucky enough to meet some young geniuses up at the swimming pool when the lifeguards cleared the pool of kids at the top of the hour (to do a body count? To let adult swim laps for ten minutes?) I turned to a couple of the five year old dudes who were sitting next to me on the deck and asked their opinions about the whole lens sharpness issue. One of the kids told me he just didn't keep up with the mirrorless products but the other kid, right off the bat, asked me if I'd had the Super Steady Shot feature of the A7ii engaged. I told him that I had. He just shook his head and chuckled. "Look." he said, "I know everyone loves Image Stabilization but it's really a mixed blessing with those old legacy lenses. Especially zooms." 

"But why?" I asked. 

"Well, because you can't lock in a single appropriate focal length setting for the zooms in the camera menu and that means you are always either over compensating or under compensating with lenses that have no data sharing." The kid adjusted his goggles and snuck another look at the Rolex Submariner Jr. on his wrist. He was anxious to get back in the water.

His friend chimed in: "You also have to consider that with the 4x size of the sensor, compared to smaller sensor cameras, the mass of the moving assembly is harder to control. You'll never get the same results as you would with a smaller format camera; especially one with 5 axis image stabilization." The kids started fidgeting as the clock counted down the seconds till the pool re-opened. I was about to ask about nano acuity (always puzzling for artists but never for engineers and the technically blessed) but the lifeguard blew his whistle and the two kids jumped back into the swimming pool and sped away. 

I got up to leave and the lifeguard leaned down toward me from his perch on the lifeguard chair and said, "Sir, I really wouldn't worry about the idea of perfect sharpness, it's an oversold idea in photography, and so much more depends on your focusing technique anyway..." I nodded and grabbed my towel, and I looked for my flip flops because the deck had gotten hot. 

As I walked away one of the mom's supervising some of the smaller children in the kiddie pool walked over and said, "I'm sorry to eavesdrop but I had the same problem with a Noctilux and an adapter on an A7sii. You really can't fully trust focus peaking either. Especially with higher res files. Be sure to try punching in the magnification and fine focusing at 10X or more. Then you'll know if it's the lens or your technique. But really, the kids were right about the compromises with legacy lenses and Super Steady Shot. Sometimes I'm just tempted to go back to my Mamiya RZ67..."  She gave a little laugh and turned back to smear sunscreen on one of her kiddos. 

I'm a bit slow to understand lofty technical ideas so I sat in my car in the parking lot for a few minutes and wrote down what I thought I had learned on an index card. When I got back to the studio I asked a teenager to Google the owner's manual for my camera and read, several times, about how to turn on and off the SSShot. Then I got the teenager to help me set the control to "off" on the camera. 

I went out today and tried my whole test over again and I was amazed. The five year old swimmers were right. Turning off the Super Steady Shot was just the ticket. When I look at these images on my monitor, even at 100%, they are just as sharp as they can be.

I hope those two kids are at the pool again some time this week, I have some tax questions I want to run by them.


ajcarr said...

Of course, when sharpness really does matter, I highly commend FocusMagic, which is an incredibly easy-to-use deconvolution sharpener for compensating for focus or movement blur. On the Mac, it's a plug-in for Photoshop, which also works with the (far cheaper, but less powerful) GraphicConverter. With it, you might just be able to rescue, e.g., portraits where the AF hasn't quite locked on to the eye. And at $65 with 'lifetime' updates, it's a no-brainer. Have a look at some of the examples on their web site. Be warned, when you click on an area of the photo and let it suggest a degree of sharpening, it's sometimes worth dialling it back slightly.


Anonymous said...

I seem to remember having read that you attended university in electrical engineering and have also written many tech books. I presume the above is tongue in cheek, yes? NL

David said...

I am surptrised that they didn't catch the real problem. That the tinny 135 sensor is just junk. What your lens is like f5.6 compared to mirrorless medium format. You just need a bigger sensor, and we all know the two lenses announced is all you will ever need. :)

Anonymous said...

Ha, ha...well said. Best tech post I have read!

dasar photography said...

Did you try the same lens with the Alpha a6300 ?
I wonder if the 6300 sharpness in on par of the a7II given it has no sensor stabilization.
Let us know.
Thanks for posting

Mike Rosiak said...

Fun read for a lazy holiday morning.

Have you accounted for your own highly disciplined super steady pro photographer grip? It could be in conflict with the automation that expects a less trained pair of arms, and more coffee. 😀

nigel said...

This camera is so simple a five year old child could understand it... someone bring me a five year old child !

Or a tripod.

Robert Hudyma said...

Digital photographers and film photographers speak different languages and some translation is required. If a digital photographer says "image stabilization", the film photographer needs to translate the words to "tripod". But it does not work the other way around. If the film photographer says "tripod", the digital photographer should say "tripod" too. After all, tripods don't need batteries and are switch-hitters since they are happy working with film and digital.

Penfan2010 said...

Brilliant article, I love it! Good reminder for a world full of IS, especially when I've gotten spoiled by how good it is on the Olympus EMs. One of the best things I do love about using the Sony A7 is that it forces me to go back to the good old soothing habits of yore. And I need to remember to shut off steady shot when appropriate. The Conax lens is really sharp.