Plastic, the 30+ year old lens certainly is. Fantastic remains to be seen 😉 Can a cheap and old design be of any use on a (relatively) modern mirrorless camera that’s not even the right format for it ?
Feeling the aperture ring jump hesitantly from one notch to the next brings up chills through my spine. If this was an expensive Hassy lens, feeling anything remotely as wobbly and fragile would put me in shock. But this is the very plastic, decades-old Nikkor 50/1.8 kit lens that came with my beloved F-801 and which my wife just asked me to clear out of a drawer with all the other “old crap”.
Yes, the haptics are all wrong, the lens is smaller than the adapter and frame coverage is never going to be good. But, besides this, what’s it like a what it was designed for: making images? You tell me. This, above, it full aperture, at infinity, straight out of camera. You can compare to the output, below, of a native lens (on a very different day).
The very different look of the two photographs is precisely what makes those older lenses valid on modern cameras. Corner sharpness ayatollahs will inevitably disagree, since they can only see MTF percentages where others see rendering. But those who photograph for aesthetic purposes might find this comparison interesting (anyone want to comment that rendering isn’t a thing? 😉 😉 😉 ) Good luck recreating that look in PP! And why would you, if a lens can save you the time and achieve the results 100% of the time.
Let’s get the performance elephant out of the room. At full aperture, detail on most of the frame is just about good enough to feed the sensor’s pixels. The file doesn’t look as katana-sharp as with native lenses, but it’s really good enough.
There is a little glow around highlights that gives the image a slightly painterly effect, though not as much as the glorious Leica Summicron-R 50.
In the corners, performance drops visibly, which is predictable for a lens of this format (and, for the zillionth time, if you’re looking at corner sharpness at full aperture on landscapes, you’re probably doing it all wrong 😉 ) Still, since there is no 50ish f/1.8 lens in the X1D range, you can probably consider that a resounding success for the little lad.
What’s far more interesting is the look provided by this lens.
Two signature moves are the higher contrast and the hue shift towards blue/magenta.
I love the former, the latter would drive me up the bend, nuts, crazy. As an occasional retro blast, I find the weird colours quite a lot of fun. But, as a daily driver, no thank you. My past Sony cameras taught me the hard way that correcting colour shifts are the hardest and most unpleasant form of PP. Anything corrective, rather than creative, gets old really fast.
However, when a bit more neutrality is called for, we can escape the shifty curse in several ways : closing down, correcting in PP, getting closer up and converting to b&w. Let’s explore all of these.
Philippe and I recently worked together on the USP of a common client. As the name implies, a USP has to be unique. It also has to be specific. And, in spite of what Nicason are trying to make you believe, there is absolutely nothing wrong with being the lens that gives the smoothest background at mid aperture and mid distances in b&w shots (particularly for a 50€ item). In fact, there’s a fair chance portrait photographers would be all over that baby! It’s only quantity-obsessed media, and manufacturers, that want us to believe in the do-it-all lens lie.
Moving on. As most owners of f/0.95 lenses soon realize, there can be too much of a good thing. In most close up situations, f/1.8 with a MF sensor, is just not very useful. See the photograph above. While I love, love, love, love, love (is it 5 times ?) the background in that shot, it would be nice to have a depth of field that spans more than a micron. Some parts of this photograph are tack sharp. Only, there’s barely enough for the eye to anchor down on something.
Close down, and most of the single-trick-pony shenanigans go away. Vignetting becomes tolerable, colour shifts largely disappear, corner sharpness issues fade into DoF.
Oddly, the same can be said of moving closer in. The general blue-ish tint is still present (the first pot above should be Ferrari red) but it’s uniform across the field and, dare I say, quite pretty!
I’ll mostly skip the correcting in PP part. Working on colour shifts that aren’t uniform accorss the frame isn’t my idea of fun. But a simple white balance tweak as above, now that’s OK. A couple of seconds, season to taste (or to grey card) and presto.
But, let’s be serious here. The main reason for using a non-native lens on any system is to inherit the lens’s default look. So, any “corrective” PP seems counter productive.
Here are a few more photographs of flowers using the all auto white balance from the camera. Some are severe crops, as the flowers are small and the minimum focus distance of this lens really isn’t something to write home about.
To me, the general look, while probably not 100% true to life, is really nice.
What those old lenses (the good ones) are really great at is natural transparency. The photographs feel much more alive than those made with modern lenses.
And there doesn’t seem to be an ounce of nastiness anywhere in the design. The transition from sharp to out of focus is buttery smooth, the 3D is perfectly realistic, the background (even very agitated background, such as in the photograph above) is relaxing.
Lenses like that make us all realize how much we have lost (with notable exceptions) in the search for sharpness levels that benefit no one. What’s the point of a lens that’s sharp enough to print 80″ wide, which you might do once in your life for the sake of it, but are hard and unpleasant on 100% of your photographs? Recent designs have been able to combine the sharpness and the smoothness (the Zeiss Milvus 50 and 85 are absolute masters of the genre, and Philippe’s Laowa 100 Macro scores really high here too). But, here’s a lens that costs less than a meal in a posh restaurant and does it all just as well. Makes you think, doesn’t it?
And then, there’s monochrome conversions. All of these are a simple click on the grayscale checkbox in Phocus. No fancy filters added.
Now, we all know that mankind evolved to see in b&w (that’s why all photographs of Darwin are in b&w) and that it’s silicon valley that had us genetically reengineered to sell more clicks in colour ads. They also wiped out our memories, it’s OK if you don’t remember.
And, in b&w, old lenses just come alive …
That combination of soft micro-contrast, high global contrast and slight haze around highlights is a well established recipe for simple beauty. The subject no longer really matters. You can see why Edward Weston nicked peppers from Whole Foods to photograph their shape, just because. Old lenses are just wonderful for that purpose.
Modern designs are often the exact opposite: life and global contrast are reduced by the large number of optical surfaces (each degrades the signal) and are geared towards better micro-contrast.
So these old lenses shouldn’t be crticized for their lack of performance over a range of arbitrary metrics invented solely to support dubious marketing, but recognized as an alternative to the modern (absence of) look.
Of course, you are perfectly entitled to an opinion that sways in favour of a good, modern look. That’s my case as well, and I did spend a lot of money on a very modern set of no-frills lenses. But let me put this into perspective with two final thoughts, from my morning newsletters.
One was about our collective move to a more puritan state of mind and towards a very nondescript personal look. We, as humans in a post #metoo and post covid world don’t want to stick out as much as we used to. I can’t help see a parallel with our photographic gear. It has to be more productive and less expressive. And we all know what that path leads … rarely a happy ending.
The second was about silence. About how city dwellers have rediscovered the luxury of silence and don’t wan’t to lose it again. At a very personal level, I feel the same about complexity. In my interior world, simplicity has extremely high value. Because something simple doesn’t steal your energy and time towards low value purposes. Something simple lets you do your thing with pleasure and no interference. I view complexity as a troublesome noise over a precious signal. And old lenses tend to simplify the look of photographs. To me, that’s not being a Luddite. I would never go back to film, because digital has simplified processing so much. But the digital look, I can definitely do without.
This lens is going nowhere! Plastic? Possibly. Fantastic? Definitely!! And I should really clean drawers more often! 😉
Like what you are reading? Subscribe below and receive all posts in your inbox as they are published. Join the conversation with thousands of other creative photographers.