I dropped by Barton Springs Pool today to make some photographs to remind me of what the pool has looked like since I saw it first in 1974...

The Leica SL and the Zeiss 50mm f1.4 seemed magnetically attracted to each other from the minute I put them in the same room together. I did menial accounting work this morning and then broke free after lunch to commune with this swimming pool. 

I can't quite put my finger on it, can't quantify what I'm seeing, but I think these shots are quite different from my usual landscape-y work. 

The sensor in the camera is pretty unique. I think it is only shared, in part, in the original Leica Q camera; not the Q2. I love the way it handles colors and contrasts. I tried, mostly, to make images at its native ISO, which is 50. 

The lens has a wonderful hard and soft combination which makes me smile every time I use it. If I zoom  in there's endless detail at any point on which I've focused. And, just inches in front or behind, a mellow falling off. 

Had so much fun photographing with this combo I almost forgot to swim. 

I love that the railings on the ladders that help swimmers exit the pool are so...graceful. I believe these railings to be the originals but I have no proof of that...

Many fast lenses from the 70s, 80s and 90s got bad raps. They were dismissed as being soft when used wide open. I'm started to think a whole lot of reviewers committed user error. Egregiously.


When I buy a used, manual lens from the time periods mentioned in the headline I'm generally impatient to see how they perform. If they work well wide open then logic suggests that they'll be even better stopped down. I recently put an old, mid-1970s, Canon FD 50mm f1.4 on a Leica SL camera body and performed one of my quick and dirty tests. I opened the lens all the way up, aimed the camera into a mirror and shot a portrait of the lens. Handheld. No IBIS. No crutches. No cheats.

To my eye the critically focused part of the image, just above (the ring on the lens with type), is nicely sharp. Good sharp. Happy sharp. And yet, looking back at articles, blog posts and even YouTube videos reviewing this lens at various points in time, you would think those reviewers and I had quite different lenses. They suggest the lens is soft wide open. I suggest user error.

I was an early proponent of mirrorless cameras. I wrote extensively about them starting back in 2009. And I've never stopped. Since I am a steady user of many manual focus lenses the top feature I like on mirrorless cameras is the ability to look at a composition through a good EVF and then punch in and magnify the image in the finder a lot so I can dial in perfectly sharp focus. By that I mean the point of sharpest focus corresponds exactly to the point I want in focus. The point at which I was aiming. 

But I've had decades of experience focusing with SLR and DSLR cameras that lacked these features and I understand why reviewers keep saying that "such and such 50mm f1.4 lens from 197x is "dreamy" (meaning unsharp and lacking contrast) when used wide open but sharpens up nicely from f2.8 on up."

I think it's because, at the time these lenses were "tested" most "reviewers" were flying by the seat of their pants. Didn't spend hours everyday practicing their focusing skills on the job, and were robbed of the chance to become manual focus proficient by the almost complete acceptance of auto focus lenses. And autofocus cameras ---- which, incidentally, are not engineered to help photographer manually focus.

Today I worked with an almost new, manual focus, Zeiss 50mm f1.4 ZF lens, with a lens adapter to allow this Nikon F mount lens to work on my L mount Leica SL. When I went to focus I discovered just how sensitive that lens can be in respect to focusing technique. Even at the highest degree of image magnification in the 4.4 million dot EVF you have to be careful while focusing and be keenly aware of that exact focusing plane. At least you have to if you intend to use the lens at its widest aperture....

Almost every well made 50mm f1.4 MF lens from Nikon, Canon, Zeiss and Leica is capable of very good performance when used wide open. At least that is so in my experience. You might not brag about the corner sharpness or the edge acuity but they are nearly all adequately sharp where it counts. Right there in the center of the frame --- extending out and covering at least two thirds of the frame with good optical performance. The spot in which most subjects are found.

I'm beginning to sound like a broken record player playing the same groove over and over again but.... you have to test your gear yourself. The way you use it. And if you are new to manually focusing lenses please be aware that it's not a thing most people immediately master. Good, accurate manual focusing takes some learned skill as well as a good camera with the ability to assist you in getting good focus by magnifying a smart part of the overall image for you to work on. 

I'm beginning to think people who review lenses in exchange for views or money are uniformly poor at the task. If you want to know about the real capabilities of a lens then test it yourself or find someone who uses the lens in which you are interested and look through their work. Seeing is the best test.

It can be frustrating when reviews are flawed but I guess the silver lining is that bad reviews damn good lenses to low prices. Oh.....Wait!....I see how that could work well for me.