Lenses are like the eyes of our cameras, they don’t process information, they just transmit it to what’s behind. Perfect vision, or perfect eyes are always going to be an advantage in seeing, and many would argue the same can be said for the lens of cameras. Though despite this, in recent years there has been somewhat of a trend for the opposite, a trend for using lenses that impart an arguably imperfect character on to an image. Extreme examples of this are the lomo crowd and their plastic lenses. Then there’s the use of antique petzvel or aerial reconnaissance lenses to create crazy swirling bokeh. Of course, outside of these extreme examples, it can be said that all lenses have a character of some sort, and when buying a lens it’s that character we are choosing. But which is the right character? Should we pursuing perfection in our lenses character, or imperfection? And is imperfection in lenses actually a potential source of perfection in the photographic outcome?
What is perfection?
I think before I get into discussing perfection in lenses specifically, it might be valuable for me describe what I see as perfection by definition.
Perfect can be defined as “without flaws” but to have something that has no flaws you must first define what constitutes a flaw. The problem with defining flaws in any subject where there is even the remotest chance of subjective opinion affecting the issue, is that personal taste gets in the way. One mans trash is another’s treasure being the well known adage that sums this up nicely.
In actuality, the things in society that are widely regarded as perfect, are – in my opinion – better regarded as the average. Really, more often than not, they are just the thing that most appeals to the most amount of people for the most reasons. I suppose in mathematical terms I’m talking about the mode, rather than the mean average, but you get my point.
To my mind this is something that sometimes seems to get forgotten. I think sometimes people just get hypnotised by general consensus – everyone else seems to think “this” is good, so never mind the “other”. Bizarrely these opinions, once taken on in volume can somehow – despite all logic – become the norm. I’m sure you can think of examples how modern society has defined “perfect” to be normal in a way that is of unnecessary detriment to the alternative…?
Then again, there will always be a place for people liking something different. These norms, even ones that are focused on supposed “perfection”, give rise to contrarians and rebels; those who like to break free from what is widely accepted and perpetuated as normal and in one way or another pursue the abnormal, or the imperfect. This can give rise to fashions and fads and of course some of those fashions and fads rise to such levels of popularity that they themselves are integrated into, or perhaps even change what society sees as normal… or even perfect.
What I find odd about all this is that – for want of a slightly better phrase – “fit for purpose” can be missed or overlooked. What I mean by this, is that in a society when one direction pushes perfection and the other direction pushes the contrary, what can be overlooked is the thing that is right for the individual. This might be an individual person, usage case, or moment in time, whatever, but it is where societally defined perfection, or indeed the contrarian created opposite doesn’t necessarily fit. Either might fit, but there is just as much chance, if not more, that what fits is something else in between.
And this “fit for purpose” is actually what gives way to true perfection for me. As when one thing is entirely right and correct for another, or indeed where a series of things work together just right in harmony, as sense of perfection can become apparent. And if even just one of the things is taken away and replaced with something else – even if the replacement is the closest thing that society would deem as the perfect iteration of that thing – the whole can fall apart.
Perfection, true perfection, is therefore about harmony. It is where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. It is perhaps where the whole, when viewed as such, hides the imperfections; or where like a jigsaw puzzle, all the previously apparently disparate shapes slot together to form a perfectly formed picture…
Lenses and perfection
There is obviously a point to my abstract ramblings, and that point is one that quite specifically relates to lenses. In the world of lenses there is an awful lot of focus on what is “good” and “bad”, where it would make more sense to identify some character traits as incompatible or disharmonious. After all, if perfection is about harmony, identifying points of disharmony would be a better place to start than trying to identify what is objectively good or bad.
The misinterpretation of incompatible as a cause of disharmony
The problem is, disharmony can easily be confused with technologically incompatibility. For example, in my opinion, the rise of digital has played a big part in this drive toward much greater levels of “perfection” through the objective “good”. Digital photography enhances a lenses chances of “failure” by introducing greater chances of some of the more unattractive aberrations such as colour fringing, certain types of flare and possibly more…? This is almost always looked upon as a failing of a lens, which of course, in part, it is. But, the digital medium itself also plays big part in the occurrence, or at least amplification of these aberrations. The nature of a digital sensor when compared to film is very different, and these differences do play a part in these issues.
Yet despite this, the blame is almost always pinned on the lens; lenses that cause colour fringing or flare on digital cameras are always seen as “not good enough”. I can see that this conception has come about because it’s possible to make lenses that don’t cause such aberrations on digital, but does it make those lenses better?
The answer – at least in my opinion – is no, it doesn’t make them better lenses, it just means they are more technically compatible with digital cameras. When talking about lenses that when used with a digital camera result in largely unattractive aberrations, it’s equally valid to say that a digital camera isn’t good enough for the lens. Or to be a little more balanced in the view, the hypothetical lens and camera just aren’t technically compatible with each other. But the reality is, neither technical compatibility, or indeed technical incompatibility are by themselves precursors to the creation of a perfect image.
Take the Leica Apo-Summicron 50mm or the Zeiss Otus 55mm as recent examples of such lens manufacturing achievement that remove all but the slightest of extremely minor aberrations. Given the right subject, photographer and whatever-else-variables you add into the mix, these lenses are abundantly capable of being partly responsible for exceptional photos. The problem is though, these objectively near “perfect” lenses, are also sometimes referred to as being “clinical” in their rendering. This is because, despite them being near perfect lenses, they are of course not suitable for every type of photography, or photographer.
For some reason, I always think of Ming Thein when I think of these sorts of lenses. I know some people don’t like his work, but I actually really like a lot of what he does. A lot of it is clinical, clean and precise and I find a satisfaction in that, a satisfaction in the attention to detail perhaps. This attention to detail and the style of photography that it creates is often actually quite reliant on technological compatibility. He has his “ultra prints” that require absurd levels of captured detail and very little room for imperfections like distortion.
But, if you read Ming’s review of the Zeiss 28mm ZF you will find mention of artistic advantage brought about by its inherent field curvature. This is arguably an imperfection, yet even someone with such high standards of “perfection” like MT can see the benefit in this field curvature for some types of his photography.
Of course, all this makes things fairly complicated, if it was as simple as finding the “perfect” lens, or as close to that as possible, it would be as simple as identifying objective flaws. The problem is, when you start identifying objective flaws as “bad”, there is always the possibility that the very thing that has been identified as a flaw can actually be party to the creation of something good, or dare I say even perfect.
Some objective flaws in lenses are actually quite widely accepted as fairly palatable, vignetting for example. Though more often than not objective flaws – largely speaking – are much less well regarded, and it’s often the case that lenses that suffer with these flaws get pigeonholed as “bad” without due consideration to the potential usage case of the lens. When, for example, reading that a lens suffers quite badly from distortion, and maybe isn’t that “sharp” wide open, it’s quite easy to get wrapped up in the idea that there will be a “better” lens out there. But the point is, there might not be a better lens out there for the goals of a particular photographer or usage case.
The Imperfect Voigtlander 50mm 1.4
These particular “negatives” are true of the Voigtlander 35mm 1.4 classic and many people don’t like the lens for them – and that’s fair enough – but when reading about it as a lens it might be quite easy to write it off in consideration of these negative factors. Of course, as a lens it is actually capable of being party to the capture of beautiful characterful photos. And depending on the photographer and their chosen subject matter, it might actually suit a large percentage of the photos taken with it. I actually own the lens in question, and thanks to only taking photos of people at parties and in pubs with it for years, I’d barely even noticed a lack of sharpness when shot wide until I read about it. The distortion, whilst noticeable, was only ever a “problem” when taking photos of straight lines – which I rarely did.
On top of this, who’s to say distortion in a lens can’t be a positive aesthetic attribute anyway. Personally I think, along with a vignette, a bit of barrel distortion can draw the eye quite nicely to the centre of an image and add a stack of character in the process.
Take the above photo by Matt Marshall (a photographer I know through twitter). Taken with the Voigtlander 35mm 1.4, you can clearly make out distortion in the walls of the buildings. Seen as a purely architectural shot it might be considered an issue that the walls are distorted. But if you forget your eye as a photographer, the one that spots things like distortion and attaches them to a shortcoming in gear rather than the intent of the artist – as most non-photographers would – it actually makes for a very interesting photo. The lack of people, the light and haze in the background, the distortion of the walls somehow add up to give the image a sort of dystopian feel.
The also Imperfect Leitz Summarit 50mm f1.5
Another great example of a lens that is often regarded as bad is the Leica Summarit 50mm f1.5. This lens is was what came before the Summilux, it was was one of Leicas earliest lenses that was faster than f2, and though reasonably impressive for its day it’s not a particularly “good” lens by today’s “high standards”. From about f2.8 and up, short of it still being rather prone to flare, it’s a pretty damned sharp lens. But below f2, especially at f1.5 the sharpness drops and everything glows. And the bokeh is quite simply crazy! For my tastes – and I’m quite forgiving – this is not the ideal carry-everywhere lens. I’ve used it as one, I just personally prefer something with a little more consistency to the results.
But, it can take wonderfully characterful photos. And is in fact, in my opinion, is particularly good for portraiture. Since it is quite old, microcontrast is low, so although it can resolve detail, it doesn’t emphasis flaws in skin. Shot wide open the glowing feel it gives also adds to the gentle flattering rendition of skin. I’ve taken a few ok portraits with it, but it’s not really my most shot genre of photography. There are some photographers who have particular success with it, at least in my opinion.
This shot is by photographer Sandy Phimester (another photographer I know of through twitter), he has put the lens to what I think is it’s ideal use. The swirling crazy bokeh and near soft focus make for a portrait that has an appearance of it almost melting. Of course it’s use was also combined with the choice to shoot Kodak Ektar, with a subject with long red hair in long green grass. There are a collection of parts that work together to create an overall very pleasing aesthetic. The lens is of course one of those parts, a key part in fact, since to my mind, if you took it away and used something else it might not work so well as a photo. For example, if the same shot were taken with a Zeiss Otus – a lens that on paper has a similar basic specification, but is widely regarded as the best lens with that spec – the photo would very different, and I suspect, not nearly as pleasing… To my tastes at least…
It’s all about finding a balance
For me, what this all points to is an idea of harmonious balance; a point at which an image ceases to rely on its constituent parts. The point at which many factors and motivations come together to create brilliant photo. At this point a the choice to shoot with a vintage lens, a modern lens, a “perfect” lens or a “poor” lens becomes invisible and what is left is purely the right aesthetic for the image. It is when an image ceases to rely on any individual part, it ceases to be about any piece of the puzzle. The parts of the puzzle disappear and the full picture, or to break from the aforementioned analogy, the perfect photo, is revealed.
At this point, the choice of lens becomes both entirely relevant and indeed entirely irrelevant at the same time. It is relevant to the photographer, in as much as it is testament to his or her’s skill and creative eye. But to the viewer of the image, the third party, it is meaningless what lens was used. If the image to the viewer feels like a perfect image, that all the pieces of the puzzle fit together to create something of aesthetic perfection, then whatever the lens used, that lens, for that photo, was the perfect lens!
Which of course actually means something quite interesting; it means finding the perfect lens is easy, it means all lenses are potentially perfect! The difficult bit is choosing what to point a lens at… not to mention getting all the other variables right…!
Thanks for reading