Stop obsessing over the latest lenses – It’s probably the least important part of shooting

Good photographic practice should consider all elements of creating an image, from technique and lighting to mastering the equipment and using the right tools for the job. It is imperative that a competition photographer knows their equipment and knows what equipment to use.

However, some camera manufacturers have a vested interest in tricking you. Some bloggers cling to unverified information because it gives them an air of authority. Today on the lexicon of the Woo of the photographer we come back to the optics.

Modern lenses have too many elements. The theory goes. In the search for fidelity and the correction of “flaws”, we ran beyond evocative rendering and straight into dead, lifeless and boring shots. It’s a compelling story. I can think of many instances where this is true. Musicians constantly use vacuum tubes and record to objectively less faithful media in order to inject a little more “life” into their recordings. So it should make sense that photography could be subject to the same concerns. In this case, the war for ultimate sharpness has left us with boring clinical lenses.

The literature on low element count lenses is not as complete as on microcontrast. The online debates aren’t that intense either. The most comprehensive argument for low element count lenses comes from Yannick Hong in both its own website and a 2019 article here on DIYP. Yannick is clearly a talented photographer. And unlike the unnamed Youtuber sworn enemy of my blog, Yannick makes the effort to show his work. I think his findings are a great starting point for exploring low element count lenses. Let’s start.

By Yannick:

Based on my “good” gear manifestolenses must not be (or aim to be):

Sharp: all lenses today are SHARP. Most modern lenses emphasize sharpness in the edges and corners where NOTHING OF INTEREST REALLY HAPPENS (most of the time).

Corrected at maximum aperture: It’s a modern belief that you’re supposed to get perfect corner-to-corner resolution at the maximum aperture of the lens. WRONG.

Amazing in bokeh: Achieving blurry circles of confusion in your shot is as impressive as your ability to afford the lens.

One-dimensional: And there you have it, the result of 1–2–3 transforms your lenses into a specialist lens for extreme low-light photography and nothing else, thanks to the addition of up to double the number of glass elements in the barrel.

Now, I’m not sure I agree with Yannick that lenses shouldn’t be sharp, decent at maximum aperture, and amazing at bokeh. It sounds like a photographer’s dream. But his rationale goes on to explain that these factors can only be achieved with the kind of in-lens correction that saps the life and realism of your image.

It’s pretty damning stuff. And while I encourage you to consult the examples that Yannick uses in his two articles. I thought I would try to replicate his results. After all, good science is based on reproducible findings and peer review.

To check Yannick’s results, I went to my garden with my old Nikon D700 equipped with the classic double gauss 50mm 1.4Dand the overcorrected Zeiss 55 1.8 on my Sony A9. Obviously we’re looking at two different cameras here, but look beyond the cameras to see how much more life we ​​can find in the old lens:

Checking results, old vs modern lenses:

Oh. Wow. To be honest, I didn’t expect that much of a difference. The modern Zeiss 55 is noticeably sharper, but the 3D pop is completely lost. Colors are also flatter on the Zeiss.

Let’s convert the images to black and white to check the microcontrast.

The 55 is clearly sharper, but look at the way the Nikon lens image jumps out at you. You feel like you can almost reach out and grab it. While the Zeiss lens still looks great, but I wonder how useful it would be in various applications.

If you’ve been following the show long enough, you probably know what I’m doing here. I’m lying to you to prove how easy it is to get your audience to see what you want them to see. Both images are from the Zeiss 55mm, and one has lens corrections turned off. ‘3D pop’ is just barrel distortion.

2nd round

I actually experienced it. But hopefully now, when you look at these images together, you notice what’s really there: differences in sharpness, vignetting, distortion:

Sony A9 with Zeiss 55mm 1.8

Glorious Nikon D700 with 50mm 1.4D

Different? Perhaps. Without life? Only because both are uninspired plant images.


The problem with the minutiae of lens design conversations is that we prioritize our lenses with our own responsibilities as photographers: it is composition, passion and novelty that breathes life into our images, not arbitrary quality. of the objective. “Leica glow” is a halo (and often a missed focus). “Zeiss pop” is uncorrected distortion. Canon’s famous color science is that they are a little warm and a little magenta, Nikon’s is that they are warm and green. These are biases derived from the fact that people who are willing to spend tens of thousands of dollars on lenses often know what they are doing. (Click here for a load of images taken with Leica cameras that are surprisingly “glow-free”)

I want to end my diatribe with a message of hope. It’s that there are no arbitrary limits to the quality of your image. It should be just as absurd to you that a picture is praised for the lens as a painting is praised for oils. You are free. Go shoot with the lenses you love to use.


All this is not to say that there is not interesting information about low element count lenses. One of my college professors, Mike Gray, did his Ph.D. on single element lenses. Commissioning giant glass domes and using photo paper is film. Here is a fascinating short excerpt from his thesis:

“All commercial cameras have always struggled to produce a sharp overall image with varying degrees of success. The majority of cameras, however, use compound lenses with many glass elements working in concert to refract light in order to obtain a plane of focus flat on the whole image (Kingslake, 1989). This aesthetic is reminiscent of our perception of the world: uniformly sharp. Therefore, I align the photographic aesthetic to which we are accustomed with visual perception rather than ocular vision. Photography strives to re-present the world in terms of our own conscious visual experience, beyond the capabilities of the human eye. In this respect, “sight photography is superhuman and takes care of much of the post-sensing processing the brain would have to undertake to see the world as sharply everywhere.

Based on this information, the designation of the camera as the “mechanical eye” is a misnomer and the camera should instead be referred to as the “mechanical visual cortex” because cameras do not recreate vision as it is experienced. by the eye; they imitate vision as it is perceived by the mind. Another conclusion is that in representing the world with a flat field of focus, the purpose of photography has always been to record visual “truth” as it is perceived by the mind and not as it is experienced by the body, or more precisely the eye. This is an important point in my research because I aim to divert photographic aesthetics from the flat field of focus experienced in the mind towards what is hypothetically experienced in the eye (d’Alessandro, 2008 ). The technology employed in this research can be described as the devolution of photographic technology to a fictional point in history where recording media are far superior to optics. The combination of unsophisticated lenses and high-fidelity, but relatively insensitive recording media, produces an effect that can be discussed in theoretical as well as aesthetic terms.

Mike Gray

Second endnote

There are many ways that the light colors are still not corrected after the first set of corrective glass elements. The light adopts a spiral behavior which rotates in the lens. This is where manufacturers use special compound glass elements (Nikon ED glass for example) to homogenize the light faster to save on size. ED glass is a fusion of glass and other types of minerals that speed up the AC correction process. After the light is homogenized, it will provide the effect similar to one-eye vision. If you look at an object (a cup) with two eyes, you will be able to distinguish what is in front and what is behind. Close one eye and your depth perception will be confused. (emphasis mine)

The light does engage in spiral behavior.

Light is a wave? I think you add an extra dimension to the concept of light as a wave.

About the Author

Josh Wells is a photographer based in Perth, Western Australia with a passion for storytelling, unique imagery and fun, personalized photo shoots. You can see more of his work on his websiteand also be sure to follow him on Facebook and instagram. This article was also published here and shared with permission.

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