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What lens characteristics are important to you?
Old 04-26-2018   #1
Dogman
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What lens characteristics are important to you?

Something got me to thinking recently about what optical characteristics I value most and least in a lens. I'm sure everyone has different priorities so I thought it would be interesting to hear different thoughts. Doesn't matter if you shoot digital or film or both...we all uses lenses of some type.

Of those quantifiable clinical characteristics found on review websites, I guess I rank "resolution" or "sharpness" as most important to me. And, yes, I know resolution and sharpness are not exactly the same thing. But they're close enough for government work. As long as the picture looks sharp with good fine detail, however the lens maker does it, I'm down with it. I want a lens that is sharp to start off with--I know I'm capable of making unsharp photos (I've done it often enough) but I want a lens that gives me a head start on being sharp. But clinical sharpness can be dull unless there's some spices in the recipe.

"Distortion" would rank second for me. Again, whether the lens maker does it with software or optically is not my concern. I just hate using a lens that makes straight lines a lot less than straight.

"Aberrations" is pretty important to me. But only if so excessive you can't help but notice them. Software pretty well controls these today. Could be that some aberrations add a little spice for flavor so maybe it's not a good thing to be aberration-free.

I guess I would rank "flaring" next although we're getting into the less important stuff. Most lenses have this so well controlled these days it's not an issue at all.

All told, I suppose I value the "look" a lens imparts to a picture. How the characteristics come together to make photos done with it kinda sing.

The things that are NOT important to me include "bokeh". It's become a trendy topic among lens testers. I for one just find it tedious. Some of the "bad bokeh" identified by some websites look better than the "good bokeh" they go ga-ga over. Lack of "vignetting" is so unimportant to me I always add a little in Lightroom, just like I used to burn down the edges of my prints in the darkroom.

I've left out some items like AF speed, build quality, maximum aperture and image stabilization, etc. I'm more concerned with how the picture looks than the mechanical/electronic means that gets you there. I'm sure I've left out some important other things but, hopefully, you get the idea.
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Old 04-26-2018   #2
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Old 04-26-2018   #3
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In no particular order:

I like to have the capability of shooting a flat field and having it be in focus all across the frame.

I like lenses that illuminate evenly, so little vignetting. It is easy to add a vignette in the darkroom, but a bear to remove.

I also want a lens that can deliver crisp detail at large print sizes, which RF lenses certainly are better at than SLR ones. A generality I know, but one I have seen again and again.

An OOF rendering that is pleasing to the eye. I don't have a set definition of this, but have had some lenses that were just too "mushy" some that didn't seem to really soften up enough.

As with most things, it is easier to reduce quality than it is to improve quality, so I tend to go for the best lenses I can find in most cases. That said, I have an old 3.5cm Elmar and a Summitar 50 that I love even if they don't tick the above boxes.
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Old 04-26-2018   #4
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Mostly agree with you, OP, and would add: Price. I'm fairly poor.
As for the point of bokeh, I do notice pleasant or unpleasant bokeh sometimes, but agree that the internet is full of nonsense about it and it's of lesser importance to me, too.
Ergonomics is another important point, if we're not talking strictly optics, speed as well to some degree. On SLRs I value faster glass for the more precise focusing it provides stopped down.

Last edited by retinax : 04-26-2018 at 09:47. Reason: decided not to highjack this thread
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Old 04-26-2018   #5
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I abhor longitudinal chromatic aberration. One reason I sold all my Nikon DSLR gear was all my Nikkor prime lenses exhibited high levels of LCA.

With a digital image first-order barrel/pin cushion distortions are trivial to correct. Higher-order distortion correction is typically remedied by proprietary in-lens firmware. This is not an option for film. I suppose somewhere there are methods to digitally minimize higher order corrections in scanned film images.

Next on my list is coma. At some point coma becomes a distraction. I'm sure we all have different thresholds.

Finally I don't like out-of-focus rendering where circular objects have polygon shapes similar to aperture opening shapes.

For some of my previous work ultra-wide angle lenses with high levels of flare and ghosting artifact levels in contré-jour scenes was a show stopper.

Lastly, I prefer lenses with low levels of field curvature.
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Old 04-26-2018   #6
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Good thread - I have given this a lot of thought. I find I really value close focusing ability (and resent lenses with minimum focus of 1m or more), appreciate compactness/ lightness and lenses with good handling and special character, either where sharpness / microcontrast is so fine as to become a defining characteristic (such as Zeiss 50mm Planar or the ZM 28mm 2.8 and 35mm 2.8) or because the lens just renders beautifully (for instance, Pentax 77mm Limited, Nikkor O 35mm f/2 or Nikkor 25-50mm zoom).
I don't like distortion but it's never a decisive matter, couldn't care less about fall-off / vignetting and actually like how some of my older lenses flare.
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Old 04-26-2018   #7
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The big one for me is a generally pleasing rendition of the scene/subject, which is more often that not a consequence of the optical formula. Second is a gentle contrast which gives way to nice long tonal scale. Finally, a lack of distortion. If these three are satisfied, I'm probably giving the lens serious consideration unless the build quality, size, etc is a problem.

The above translates to lenses like: 50/2 Summicron V1, 75/3.5 Rolleiflex Tessar, 35/2.8 Summaron
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Old 04-26-2018   #8
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Reasonably sharp across the field without stopping down too much.

Decent contrast.

Accurate color rendition, prefer a bit warmer then cooler.

Low distortion.

Low vignetting.

Resists flare.

Minimal or no color fringing.

Neutral bokeh.

This sounds a lot like my little 50mm Elmar. Maybe that is why I like it so much.
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Old 04-26-2018   #9
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Sharp, no flaring and not flat on BW film. Short focus throw, tab and compactness.
The only one I have with all of it is Summarit-M 35 2.5.
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Old 04-26-2018   #10
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it depends on what i'm doing at that time. how much i even care about it depends on the application.
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Old 04-26-2018   #11
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Kind of interesting question - I was thinking about that some time ago and the things that are most important to me aren't usually the top items in lens tests.

1. Ergonomics. If it has a long focus throw (like 180° for a 35mm), I'm not super interested. Same goes with lenses (50mm or less, at least) with a minimum focus 1m or longer.

2. Lens speed. I used to shoot slides pretty often.

3. Price. Well, sorta. Around $1000 is where I'd draw the line, more or less.

4. Distortion, I guess?


The usual stuff - sharpness, contrast, whatever - I figure there aren't many stinkers out there for the cameras I have so it's kind of nitpicking when it comes to that stuff. Rendering I kind of get, but it's gotta be really gross (i.e. thambar) before I'm turned off.
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Old 04-26-2018   #12
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Depends what I'm doing really. Some days when my focus is purely photography, size doesn't matter, but when I'm just carrying my camera around daily I prefer to keep it small. That's my first determining factor. As to rendering, for people and street stuff, I like softer contrast, longer tonal range and don't mind the "playful imperfections" a lens exhibits. For me, the lenses of the 50s-70s hit this balance perfectly with my lenses of choice typically being a 50mm Summicron v1 or v2 rigid. I just grab either and go. I also almost always have my Summaron 35 2.8 with me as well. For me these are perfect. For landscape and serious stuff, the hasselblad comes out to play.
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Old 04-26-2018   #13
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In order:

1. Microcontrast.

2. Size (for instance, CV 35/2.5 M mount or CV 40/2 F mount are sublime ergonomically).

3. Sharpness in the corners as I use the frame edges a lot in composition.

4. Smooth fall off of OOF areas (as opposed to simply bokeh).

5. Build quality. It has absolutely got to be all metal barrels (the great let down of FD lenses is their plasticky bodies despite quality optics). The only exception I make are my kit of Pentax SMC 67 lenses because of no other choice given may of them are lighter or better optically than their metal Takumar versions - and weight counts for a lot with the 67!
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Old 04-27-2018   #14
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What matters:

1. Focal length
2. Cost
3. Speed
4. Optimal resolution/sharpness
5. Autofocus accuracy/speed
6. Flare resistance
7. Focusing distance
8. Size/weight
9. Build quality
10. Weather resistance
11. Dust resistance
12. Whether you include a lens hood if purchased new. Yes please. And can you throw in a cheap bag while you're at it?
13. This should be higher on the list, mayber in the top 3 but I thought of it later -- quality control, sample variation, decentering, etc.


What doesn't matter:

1. "Bokeh characterists" (nobody notices, cares, doesn't matter... You just want to isolate the subject. Nobody notices/cares if bokeh balls are circular or hexagonal. Is given far too much attention in lens evaluations)

2. Corner softness wide open (Shooting wide open? Most likely you've got an isolated centered subject and corners are dark and out of focus...)

3. Pincushion/Barrel distortion (Easily corrected or corrected in-camera)

4. LoCA (never bothers me, easily corrected or eliminated in-camera)

5. Lateral CA

6. Contrastiness -- (easily added in post)

7. Color rendition -- (usually altered in post or in-camera. Doesn't matter anymore...)

8. Diffraction at small apertures

9. Microcontrast (not even sure this exists)

10. Autofocus noise (Seriously? None are really all that loud...)

11. Coating. (Outdated marketing shtick started by Pentax in the 60's -- "Super-de-duper Muilticoated Takumar!). It's 2018, all lenses are coated.

12. Whether a lens has aspherical elements or ED glass. I'm not a lens designer and don't care. Some (most) of my favorite lenses had nothing "exotic" in them. Do what you have to do to make a nice lens. Marketeers? Stop your silliness.

13. How many aperture blades or if they're "rounded".

14. VR/IS on non-telephoto lenses. They're throwing VR on everything these days, aren't they? Telephotos? Sure. A prime? A wide zoom? I'll take it as a standard feature but won't pay more for it. It's not a deal breaker.
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Old 04-27-2018   #15
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Quote:
Originally Posted by aizan View Post
it depends on what i'm doing at that time. how much i even care about it depends on the application.
Exactly.

To name but a few things:

Criteria like zero field curvature, or zero distortion, only count when I'm making reproductions of flat objects (e.g., copperplate engravings).

On the street, distortion or field curvature don't matter at all, IMHO.
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Old 04-27-2018   #16
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Compactness and usability are my main concerns. Ideally I'd like a Camera the size of a P+S, with a 35 1.4. I'd also like it to not become a brick very fast in the event of damage/time. For instance, I rather like the Contax T3 - very expensive. Becomes a very, very expensive Paperweight. That's not for me. Lenses, however - I like older rendering Lenses. To me, that's what Photography looks like. I don't mind vignetting, nor do I mind Lenses not being perfectly sharp. Ideally I'd like distortion to be as low as possible. This is the only gripe that I have with the CV 35/1.4. Otherwise, aside from being a little big - it's perfect.
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Old 04-27-2018   #17
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I take a slightly different approach.

First, there’s certain properties that any lens must have before I consider it remotely useful as a photographic tool. These aren’t in any order - they’re compulsory and must meet by minimum expectations. They are, in no particular order, sufficiently

• sharp into the corners
• low distortion
• low flare
• low aberrations (chromatic, etc.)
• good build quality and ergonomics
• smooth bokeh.

I don’t consider these “characteristics” but essentials. Without them, any lens is useless as a photographic tool unless you specifically want flare or blur - like using a cheap screwdriver that ruins screws and possibly injures you!

As an aside, I use only high-MP cameras like the Nikon D800E (36 MP) and, now, the Sony A7R II (42 MP), so lenses need to be pretty damn good as these cameras will magnify any lens weaknesses!

So, what are my preferences for optical characteristics - which is what the OP is interested in? Actually, there’s just two, though they’re related:

low contrast and muted colour.

I suspect both are technically faults resulting from poorly controlled flare. Advances in lens coatings and optical design through the use of computers have minimised these problems - resulting in today’s lenses producing high contrast and saturation.

Although today’s lenses are technically better than their predecessors, I dislike the images they create. I find them harsh and garish (especially when used with digital cameras), and the look “clinical” - every subject is recorded accurately in high fidelity and looks as if it came off some production line.

The older lenses I prefer - mostly from the 1970s and 1980s, a few exceptional ones from the 1960s - with their muted tonality and colour produce photographs that convey more emotion, that allow a greater connection between the viewer and the subject, than modern lenses, which I feel create more of a barrier to the viewer with their more “technically accurate” rendition.

A previous poster mentioned the Elmar 50mm. If they mean the f2.8 made in the 1950s and 1960s, I concur. This exemplifies all the qualities I want from a lens. Most of my lenses are 1970s-1980s manual-focus Nikon AI/AI-S - the best of which also meet my criteria.
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Old 04-27-2018   #18
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Resolution
Contrast
Focal length(s)
Lens speed (maximum lens aperture)
Function (What is the lens going to do for me?)
Compatibility with camera body
Color (tints, shifts, saturation)
Type (prime, zoom, mirror, macro, portrait, shift, etc.)
Construction/Workmanship
Material
Price/Value
Features (auto vs. manual, IS or VR, weather resistance, lens coating, filter size)
Reputation/History of the lens and/or the manufacturer
Optical defects (pin cushioning, barreling, vignetting, and chromatic aberration)
Ability to handle light reflections on lens surfaces (flare)
Bokeh
Compatibility with my other lenses
Focusing speed
Feel/Handling/Ergonomics
Size/Weight
Diaphragm design and construction
Coverage (ability to handle shifts, tilts, swings, slides)
Lens board size and hole (large format)
Shutter design and construction (large format)
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Old 04-27-2018   #19
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Price and compactness.


btw: Can someone explain what is "micro contrast" to me? I see the term a lot but can't find a comprehensive definition of it anywhere on the net, in all three languages I speak.
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Old 04-27-2018   #20
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Quote:
Originally Posted by nukecoke View Post
Price and compactness.


btw: Can someone explain what is "micro contrast" to me? I see the term a lot but can't find a comprehensive definition of it anywhere on the net, in all three languages I speak.
Global contrast is the maximum difference between the blackest and whitest points in an image
Micro contrast is the maximum difference between adjacent “pixels”. It’s like the unsharp mask in photoshop, increasing the contrast at an edge. I don’t like the term, it reeks of baloney.
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Old 04-27-2018   #21
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1. Ergonomics. Includes things like size, focus throw, etc
2. System usability. How easy it is to use with my other lenses, filters, aperture direction, etc
3. Consistency. If it flares that’s okay, as long as I’m not surprised. I don’t like it when a lens flares or does something weird only when the sun is at a certain angle on the solstice while I stand on one foot.
4. Quality. I don’t want it to break or go out of whack.

Other considerations are on a case by case basis. There is a place for sharp corrected lenses and for uncorrected lenses, a place for slow and fast lenses. But the top four are pretty universal (to much more than just lenses).
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Old 04-27-2018   #22
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Quote:
Originally Posted by NickTrop View Post
What doesn't matter:
...
9. Microcontrast (not even sure this exists)
Exactly

Quote:
Originally Posted by michaelwj View Post
Quote:
Originally Posted by nukecoke View Post
Can someone explain what is "micro contrast" to me? I see the term a lot but can't find a comprehensive definition of it anywhere on the net, in all three languages I speak.
Global contrast is the maximum difference between the blackest and whitest points in an image
Micro contrast is the maximum difference between adjacent “pixels”. It’s like the unsharp mask in photoshop, increasing the contrast at an edge. I don’t like the term, it reeks of baloney.
Regarding photography, a completely meaningless neologism of the 2010 years...
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Old 04-27-2018   #23
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Sumarongi View Post
Exactly

Regarding photography, [micro-contrast is] a completely meaningless neologism of the 2010 years...
As far as lenses go, yes: different lenses simply have more or less contrast... lenses can't have micro-contrast, as it needs to be added intelligently (i.e. by computer algorithms).

It does make sense in digital post-production, though: you can adjust the contrast normally (i.e. in a coarse way, between large groups of pixels), or in a more targeted way (between small groups of pixels). The latter essentially makes fine detail stand out.

The raw converter I use - Capture One - calls micro-contrast "structure": see halfway down https://imagealchemist.net/capture-one-clarity/. The examples it gives are severely overdone to show the effect clearly. I find a smidgen goes a long way...
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Old 04-27-2018   #24
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As cheap as possible, and as much flare and vignetting as possible. Not so difficult to find these qualities combined, at least as long as there are millions of Soviet lenses to get.
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Old 04-27-2018   #25
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(I use mostly vintage MF lenses on digital Fuji bodies.)
Important parameters: Handling, weight, size, price, color interpretation, balance&tradeoff of sharpness and "character", flare resistance, tend to like "contrasty".
Physical dislikes: thin focus ring, too short focus throw, too long and heavy
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Old 04-27-2018   #26
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I like lenses that don't actively annoy me in use and that produce interesting results. I dislike lenses that produce results that bore me.
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Old 04-27-2018   #27
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I have noticed that many are quite indifferent to bokeh... It would be quite high on the list for me - I hate the "nervous" bokeh.... and don't care that much if bricks are not that well aligned...
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Old 04-27-2018   #28
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Quote:
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Reasonably sharp across the field without stopping down too much.

Decent contrast.

Accurate color rendition, prefer a bit warmer then cooler.

Low distortion.

Low vignetting.

Resists flare.

Minimal or no color fringing.

Neutral bokeh.

This sounds a lot like my little 50mm Elmar. Maybe that is why I like it so much.
The 50mm Elmar (f 3.5) is the benchmark where I start when comparing too.
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Old 04-27-2018   #29
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Rich creamy bokeh.
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Old 04-27-2018   #30
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Quote:
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I dislike lenses that produce results that bore me.
If my results are boring, I don't blame it on the lenses.
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Old 04-27-2018   #31
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My important list:

That the lens always works. When I turn the digital camera on it works with the lens, always.

Quality of product is very important to me. It has to stand up to the rigors of working some gigs for 9 plus hours. That means all day and late into the night. (when I was working!)

That I can buy the lens I need is very important. Some camera manufacturers don’t offer what I need.

I need the camera brand that will work best for me. The lens I used the most, in the past, is the 24-70 f2.8.

Your title says lens characteristics but your message talks about optical. I only Am interested in what I described here. The optical characteristics I believe are excellent with the lenses I have bought, at least from the camera manufacturers I have used. My biggest enlargement, I still have a couple samples now in my garage, I had made is 30” x 40”. Try doing that with 35mm film!

I only buy lenses with the same name as the camera I use. Exceptions to this are medium format cameras I own where Zeiss is the prominent manufacturer.

The other items you mentioned I really don’t study this. I’ll leave that for other folks that work at the factories.
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Old 04-27-2018   #32
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Quote:
Originally Posted by bayernfan View Post
The big one for me is a generally pleasing rendition of the scene/subject, which is more often that not a consequence of the optical formula. Second is a gentle contrast which gives way to nice long tonal scale. Finally, a lack of distortion. If these three are satisfied, I'm probably giving the lens serious consideration unless the build quality, size, etc is a problem.

The above translates to lenses like: 50/2 Summicron V1, 75/3.5 Rolleiflex Tessar, 35/2.8 Summaron
When reading the thread title, I figured, "How subjective! The responses will be all over the map." But when I saw the highlighted items, I thought, "This fellow and I think alike" and then when seeing the final lens selection... well I also like my 35mm Summaron and early Summicron (the DR in my case). So perhaps this topic is a bit more reproducible than I thought!
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Old 04-27-2018   #33
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Originally Posted by ptpdprinter View Post
If my results are boring, I don't blame it on the lenses.
My phrasing was insufficiently precise. A boring photo will indeed always be a boring photo, but an otherwise interesting photo made with a boring lens is disappointing because I know it could have been better.
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Old 04-27-2018   #34
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I'm a sucker for variety... a gadgeteer... so I like all effects except the look of obvious ineptitude in lens design. I like the look of new, super-clinical clarity, and the look of vignetting, and the look of low contrast, and the look of a spherical focus plane, and the novelty of having a everything within a vast depth of field in focus at once, and the artistic effects of bokeh, and the inexplicable combination of sharpness and softness from the Thambar, etc.

What I don't like is the obvious crappy look of cheap cameras like Lomo cameras, or cheap kid's cameras with lenses molded from polystyrene, or the gawdawful look from Kodak Disc cameras from the early Eighties, all grain and chromatic aberration.

Scott
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Old 04-27-2018   #35
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1. 3D perspective
2. Micro contrast
3. Shadow detail
4. Sharpness or resolution

These four things enough.
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Old 04-28-2018   #36
Alex Krasotkin
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Old 04-28-2018   #37
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I think by microcontrast folks mean acuity or 3D pop. I notice a difference in boring perfect sharpness and lenses that provide a super sharp but somehow special rendering, like Zeiss lenses tend to give at all apertures. ( I don't own any digital era leica lenses so can't comment on them). Sorry if the term isn't liked, but I would have thought it would be more respected than 3D pop. Anyway I definitely know what I am talking about even if it is hard to describe...

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Old 04-28-2018   #38
RichC
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Quote:
Originally Posted by jamin-b View Post
I think by microcontrast folks mean acuity or 3D pop. I notice a difference in boring perfect sharpness and lenses that provide a super sharp but somehow special rendering, like Zeiss lenses tend to give at all apertures. ( I don't own any digital era leica lenses so can't comment on them). Sorry if the term isn't liked, but I would have thought it would be more respected than 3D pop. Anyway I definitely know what I am talking about even if it is hard to describe...
Doesn’t make sense. That’s like using the word “cat” to mean “fruitbat”!

As I mentioned here, a lens can’t have micro-contrast, which describes the contrast of fine detail in a photograph. So, micro-contrast is something that is added after the photo has been taken, either in the darkroom for film or in postproduction for digital.

In short, a lens cannot possibly have micro-contrast because it’s a change to selected parts of a photo, which by definition can be made only by human or computer intelligence - but a lens isn’t intelligent! So, a lens simply has overall contrast of varying degree.

For darkroom prints, micro-contrast can be increased by, say, the use of paper with a certain emulsion. For digital photos, micro-contrast is often adjusted by the “clarity” tool in many programs such as Capture One (using the “structure” slider) and Topaz Clarity - both of these links from the software vendors specifically mention the term “micro-contrast” and its affect on fine detail.

You can’t just use words any old how to mean what you like...!
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Old 04-28-2018   #39
Stuart John
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Originally Posted by RichC View Post
Doesn’t make sense. That’s like using the word “cat” to mean “fruitbat”!

As I mentioned here, a lens can’t have micro-contrast, which describes the contrast of fine detail in a photograph. So, micro-contrast is something that is added after the photo has been taken, either in the darkroom for film or in postproduction for digital.

In short, a lens cannot possibly have micro-contrast because it’s a change to selected parts of a photo, which by definition can be made only by human or computer intelligence - but a lens isn’t intelligent! So, a lens simply has overall contrast of varying degree.

For darkroom prints, micro-contrast can be increased by, say, the use of paper with a certain emulsion. For digital photos, micro-contrast is often adjusted by the “clarity” tool in many programs such as Capture One (using the “structure” slider) and Topaz Clarity - both of these links from the software vendors specifically mention the term “micro-contrast” and its affect on fine detail.

You can’t just use words any old how to mean what you like...!

People used to refer to micro contrast as the lenses ability to separate subtle differences in tones, so a lens may have a strong global contrast but will render subtle differences in tones the same color. Another lens may show the subtle differences in tones.
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Old 04-28-2018   #40
RichC
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People used to refer to micro contrast as the lenses ability to separate subtle differences in tones, so a lens may have a strong global contrast but will render subtle differences in tones the same color. Another lens may show the subtle differences in tones.
Any authoritative online links for this usage? It’s not in any of my optics books. I guess it’s possible for a lens assembly to affect the contrast subtly, which I suppose could be considered a micro-contrast affect. However, the properties of the glass can’t affect micro-contrast.
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