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Roger Hicks -- Author of The Rangefinder Book

Roger Hicks is a well known photographic writer, author of The Rangefinder Book, over three dozen other photographic books, and a frequent contributor to Shutterbug and Amateur Photographer. Unusually in today's photographic world, most of his camera reviews are film cameras, especially rangefinders. See www.rogerandfrances.com for further background (Frances is his wife Frances Schultz, acknowledged darkroom addict and fellow Shutterbug contributor) .


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How many really bad lenses are there?
Old 04-21-2012   #1
Roger Hicks
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How many really bad lenses are there?

Among the endless discussion of whether Version II or Version III of a particular lens is better, I can't help wondering: if you can't take a good pic with a Version II, what are your chances with a Version III?

Yes, some lenses are better than others: I'd far rather have a 50/1 Noctilux or a 50/1.5 C-Sonnar than a 50/1.2 Canon, because they better suit the sort of pictures I take. But I can see that the Canon would suit some kinds of pictures.

How far can you tell from someone else's pictures whether a particular lens (focal length, speed, marque, let alone version) will suit you? Especially if the differences are as much illusory as real?

Cheers,

R.
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Old 04-21-2012   #2
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a bad lens is an unreliable lens, that falls apart because of cheapo build quality, otherwise there are good arguments for every lens, just as there a different beers, or whiskeys, for example I'm quite happy with my pre-1945 uncoated lenses, others may find them totally unsuitable for their work
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Old 04-21-2012   #3
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Roger: you are preaching to the choir in my case.

I am amazed at the conclusions people draw about the lens' contrast or sharpness for looking at a small JPG on a screen. People say "that is a high contrast lens" and I want to say something about film developing time or adjustments in Photoshop.
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Old 04-21-2012   #4
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bowieknife said it all
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Old 04-21-2012   #5
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And then there's the question of how one treats one's gear. I've seen stuff sold here that looks like its thrown into the trunk at the end of a work day. Expecting lenses to withstand unnecessary bashing about will test just about any gear. I've had so called 'cheap' vivitars and nikon series e lenses that worked as well as the day I bought them, after years of use. And they looked pretty good too.
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Old 04-21-2012   #6
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To tell the truth, I have only used one lens that just could not be made to take a decent photo. I'll grant some have more limitations than others but that is about it. If the limitations of a lens keep you from getting certain shots that you want then it is not for you and a bad lens in the users eyes.

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Old 04-21-2012   #7
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I noticed that, for me, lenses I once considered "bad," I now consider to have "character." You mention the Canon 50/1.2. Years ago I considered the bokeh of this lens as bizarre. I now consider the bokeh one of this len's strengths. If properly used, it can give a lot of personality to a picture (especially a portrait).

I've also learned that not every picture has to be tack-sharp (my pinhole camera has taught me that).

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Old 04-21-2012   #8
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No bad lenses in my book either, but of course it's horses for courses.

I've switched over to ergonomics and IQ in equal shares, and coverage of focal lengths. Currently downsizing to two four-lens sets:

Canon Serenar 28/3.5
Canon Serenar 35/3.2
Leitz Elmar 50/3.5 uncoated
Leitz Elmar 90/4.0 uncoated

Leitz SA 21/3.4
Leitz Summilux 35/1.4 (arriving next month)
Voigtlander 50/2.5
Jupiter-9 85/2.0 (Zeiss cell, set to Leica specs)


I'd like to keep the Jup-9 but someday add a Summicron 90/2.0

Bodies are Leica II and Leica M2 once I've sold off my Leica M3

Lenses that I've never shot but would be wary about: Elmar 35/3.5 LTM and the pre-war Schneider-Kreuznach 35/?? LTM. Also Isco-Göttingen lenses in LTM, I've never read any praise about them yet and eBay prices are low. Apparently all these lenses have a quite bland IQ...
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Old 04-21-2012   #9
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I'm with ya. For example, I've read here and elsewhere about the 18mm lens for the XP1 being crappy. Well, sez who?

If all of the optical people, managers, etc. at Fuji are happy enough to put this (or any lens) into production then just how crappy can it really be??? And compared to what?

Y'all, quit your pixel (or grain) peeping, grab a camera, and let your pictures do the talking.
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Old 04-21-2012   #10
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I pay very little attention to lens tests, reviews, etc. Just generally stick to camera brand: Leica and Nikon (except for I do have some CV lenses). Generally I have been very satisfied. Over the years (many) I've only had one lemon, a Nikon 28mm 2.8 AI. Others tell me this is a good lens so maybe I had a bad one. And more recently the 16mm Sony pancake lens for the NEX. This is one is a dog. That they cripple such a great system with such a bad lens is beyond explanation.
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Old 04-21-2012   #11
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I will trade anyone in this thread any lens for my OM mount Kalimar 35-70 f3.5~f4.5

I assure you there is no redeeming quality to this lens other than the fact that it is, in fact, a lens.
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Old 04-21-2012   #12
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Quote:
Originally Posted by redisburning View Post
I assure you there is no redeeming quality to this lens other than the fact that it is, in fact, a lens.
For a given value of 'lens'...

Then again, I'd have said the same about my long-gone 90-190/5.8 (no mis-typing) Yashinon. But I'd love to try it now as a soft focus portrait lens...

Cheers,

R.
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Old 04-21-2012   #13
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Quote:
Originally Posted by AusDLK View Post
If all of the optical people, managers, etc. at Fuji are happy enough to put this (or any lens) into production then just how crappy can it really be??? And compared to what?
True enough. But there are a few disasters, such as the 43-86 Nikkor and the lens described by Redisburning. Or my Yashinon. What puzzles me is when people start agonizing over the differences between two very similar, very good lenses (different 50 Summicrons, for example).

Cheers,

R.
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Old 04-21-2012   #14
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Even a meniscus lens can do a credible job at moderate angles and small apertures.
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Old 04-21-2012   #15
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Everyone is afraid to appear inegalitarian in the fear that some artiste somewhere might have made a good picture using a clod of dirt for a lens.
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Old 04-21-2012   #16
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Probably depends on the usage. I've definitely seen lenses that were poor choices for portraits, and too much contrast and ugly bokeh are my pet peeves with any bad lens.
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Old 04-21-2012   #17
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Most are bad, I think.
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Old 04-21-2012   #18
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There may be few really bad lenses, however there can be a significant difference which makes the lesser performing one a "BAD" lens.

Like the racer did really bad this time, he came in second.
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Old 04-21-2012   #19
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Bad lens, incarnate...
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Old 04-21-2012   #20
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I used to judge the performance of a lens primarily on sharpness whereas now I tend to look at the end result others have been able to produce on a similar camera to mine. I think the change in thinking has come about due to a couple of reasons:
1) My photography has evolved from a rank beginner to a point where I have found various 'styles' that I like better than others.
2) Budget. I simply can not afford to own the new summilux/summicron lenses. This should probably be point number 1 as it is what has forced me to branch out and look at results obtained with 'inferior' lenses.

I still love the results produced by 'perfect' lenses such as the 35 asph summilux but equally enjoy those produced by more affordable ones like the summarit 5cm and canon 1.2.
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Old 04-21-2012   #21
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Roger Hicks View Post
True enough. But there are a few disasters, such as the 43-86 Nikkor and the lens described by Redisburning. Or my Yashinon. What puzzles me is when people start agonizing over the differences between two very similar, very good lenses (different 50 Summicrons, for example).

Cheers,

R.
the height of any pursuit exists in the minute subtleties that separate one work/tool/consumable from another.

that is not the same as saying that you will find that in an internet discussion on said items. if you want a high end wine experience you can drink two different years of the same wine; same strain of grapes but you get slight differences in taste due to the weather, the iron content of the soil that year or things like that. asking someone about it doesnt really do you much good other than to prejudice your experience.

people with the financial means don't worry about such things. but not many people can afford to simultaneously purchase 4 Leica lenses, 2 Zeisses and a Konica to test side-by-side in a controlled way. such people are reliant on others to figure out which works better to their taste.

IME I have had little success doing so and have been better off when I just bought something on a whim
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Old 04-21-2012   #22
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There are probably some really bad lenses out there. I think a bad lens would have more than one of these "defects" in noticeable amounts: Chromatic aberration, linear distortion, vignetting, jangly bokeh, element decentering, focus shift, field curvature, poor corner resolution... But perhaps a "perfect" lens would have a "sterile" look? Maybe that's ok, and let the oohs and ahhs come from the subject treatment.

I don't quite get that a lens has a Summicron look, or a typical Sonnar character... and when I don't see that am I just being insensitive?

Same with wines, actually... the hints of plum and sage with a smooth finish leaves me wondering if I'm missing something (probably!), or whether two experts would agree with each other's comments!

There are certain lenses that just seem to sparkle for me; something they do with the light I guess... for instance the C Sonnar ZM and the 75mm f/2.8 SMC Pentax-67 AL.
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Old 04-21-2012   #23
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There aren't any bad lenses... just bad photographers producing bad images.
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Old 04-21-2012   #24
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Unless they're designed to be "bad", like those used for Lomography...
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Old 04-21-2012   #25
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A bad lens for one photographer can become a tool for another. The only clearly bad lenses are ones that are built poorly with cheap parts and frequent failures. They end up in the back of a dusty drawer.
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Old 04-21-2012   #26
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Yet, they can still produce an outstanding image in the hand and eye of a good photographer.
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Old 04-22-2012   #27
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Quote:
Originally Posted by redisburning View Post
the height of any pursuit exists in the minute subtleties that separate one work/tool/consumable from another.

that is not the same as saying that you will find that in an internet discussion on said items. if you want a high end wine experience you can drink two different years of the same wine; same strain of grapes but you get slight differences in taste due to the weather, the iron content of the soil that year or things like that. asking someone about it doesnt really do you much good other than to prejudice your experience.

people with the financial means don't worry about such things. but not many people can afford to simultaneously purchase 4 Leica lenses, 2 Zeisses and a Konica to test side-by-side in a controlled way. such people are reliant on others to figure out which works better to their taste.

IME I have had little success doing so and have been better off when I just bought something on a whim
The highlighted sentence is very close to my own viewpoint. But I'd dispute the conflation of work/tool/consumable. Agonizing about whether Version II or Version III of a lens is better is meaningless unless one version makes a significant (or even detectable) difference to the pictures taken by its user - cats and coffee cups being the classic example.

Cheers,

R.
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Old 04-22-2012   #28
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A different twist on this: We all have experienced lenses that we really didn't like. These we put in the back of the cabinet, never used again, and perhaps sold. Some of these were bad, perhaps a bad design, perhaps a bad example, or one that got broken. Some of these just got a bad rap. (When I feel this way about a lens, I try to set up a side-by-side test of some kind.)

In my case, a 55-200 G VR Nikkor produced bad images. It was actually bad. I bought another that gives me great images.
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Old 04-22-2012   #29
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Has anyone ever produced a good image from the early 43-86 Nikkor zoom?
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Old 04-22-2012   #30
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I have two m-mount 2.8 summarons, both in prefect condition one is mediocre at best, the other is the best 35 I have for monochrome

... but having said that I'm confident I would be the only person who could see the difference in a print, and anyway the quality of the light and the processing of the film is 95% of the quality of the neg anyway.

I would much rather use a bad lens in good light than the reverse, I know which would produce the better photo
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Old 04-22-2012   #31
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I think each lens has it's own limitations and we need to be aware of that. For example I love using my Helios 58 f/2 from my zenit in cloudy days but on a sunny day with a lot of contrast, it is a horrible horrible lens, it's when my Takumar gets most of it's use....
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Old 04-22-2012   #32
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If you say "bad" in absolute terms, you have to specify the metric(s). Impossible to say that there are lenses that are bad for everybody and everybody's purpose. Somebody's metrics for "good" might be the opposite of what somebody else is looking for.

However, there sure are lenses that I don't like. For example, the Canon 50/1.2 you mentioned, the Leica 35/1.4 pre-asph, or 35/2 v4, and any ZM lens. Why ? The Canon and Summilux because of their wide-open rendering, the v4 and ZM lenses for their price vs. build quality (I would feel ripped off buying one).

In any case, the longer I use RFs, the more I care about a lens' build, handling, filter size, etc. Most well built lenses are "good" for my metrics.

A mini-van might be a good car. However, I will never buy one.

And what's wrong with people discussing what they like or don't, anyways ?

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Old 04-22-2012   #33
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a bad lens is one that's use is superseded in all manners by an economically realistic alternative.

the Kalimar I mentioned is a good example. if my goal was to make a distinctly unsharp image, I could simply pull the focus on a good zoom a bit towards myself and get the plane of best focus off of the subject to get the same effect. it's build quality, handling, etc. are also clearly inferior to many, many lenses I could buy for the same price.
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Old 04-22-2012   #34
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Roger Hicks View Post
True enough. But there are a few disasters, such as the 43-86 Nikkor and the lens described by Redisburning. Or my Yashinon. What puzzles me is when people start agonizing over the differences between two very similar, very good lenses (different 50 Summicrons, for example).

Cheers,

R.
Roger, your mentioning the 43-86 brings back memories. It was so hyped by Nikon as being revolutionary,and ended up being soft and slow and probably set back the Nikon zoom business for a while. I stuck with primes during my PJ career primarily due to that lens.
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Old 04-22-2012   #35
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No bad lenses in my book either. Some of my lenses are better put together than others, nicer to use, more linear etc etc, but if I can´t make a picture with the lesser of them, then a better one won´t matter.

For instance. I know that toy cameras get the stick most of the time, but just look how Wolfgang Moersch manages to get wonderful images out of these measly little plastic thingeys. He´s a better photographer than I, by a country mile.
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Old 04-22-2012   #36
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You are more likely to find a bad older zoom lens than a bad prime lens (especially a 50 or 35mm) from any era.
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Old 04-22-2012   #37
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Roger Hicks View Post
Among the endless discussion of whether Version II or Version III of a particular lens is better, I can't help wondering: if you can't take a good pic with a Version II, what are your chances with a Version III?

I have had cases where a version of a lens was an absolute no-no: I once borrowed a "V2" (version 2, not the rocket) 35mm Summicron and I just couldn't feel right with it: the aperture "thingy" was just a pain for me to use (having to hunt for that thing while aiming and not looking at the lens itself made me lose quite a few shots).

Then the goggled version of the 35mm Summicron (V1); as much as I loved it optically, the thing did not lend itself to being carried by me like I did the other lenses.

Then there's the so-called V4 50mm Summicron (1969 version): I am so used to the "V5" version with the concave tab, that its handling felt very foreign to me.

Then the early version of the 50mm Elmar (f/3.5): the aperture...who "designed" that (or rather, slept through that meeting)?

I also tried the chrome version of the Canon 50mm f/1.8 LTM lens, and liked it much better than the black/chrome.

Then, I tried the so-called V1 and V2 50mm Summilux(ae?), and really really loved them, but the close focusing of the "pre-ASPH", and option of adding a focusing tab to it closed the deal for me.

So, bref: the handling and how comfortable you are with the gear is just as important as not forgetting to take the lens cap off.
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Old 04-22-2012   #38
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Roger:
-the Leitz Thambar is certainly a 'bad' lens in a traditional sense, pics look as if they were made with a fungus infected mirror reflex lens, but some people seem to be willing to spend $5000 to get one...
-I own a 43-86mm Nikkor, but must admit I didn't use it often enough to say something about the performance, but then, back in the sixties only a few makers built zooms anyway, it would be unserious to compare it to a 50 or 85mm Nikon prime lens !
even the US Navy famously used it on their motorized F bodies, focus locked on infinity, they must have had some reason to prefer it to other Nikkors
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Old 04-22-2012   #39
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I was never able to make a decent picture with a 28-85 vivtar zoom I bought in the 80s - so I gave it away an dsuspect it now sitting, unused due to the advent of digital imaging, in a cupboard somewhere.

I also had an 80s HOya 200 in canon FD mont that broke in two pieces about 2/3 of the way throgh a 7 month trip around Africa in my rucsac. The 135 survived, but the focus became pretty gritty (as did the canon 28)
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Old 04-22-2012   #40
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Quote:
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Roger:
-the Leitz Thambar is certainly a 'bad' lens in a traditional sense, pics look as if they were made with a fungus infected mirror reflex lens, but some people seem to be willing to spend $5000 to get one...
Hmmm... When I borrowed one, I expected to be underwhelmed. I wasn't. My Shutterbug review is here: http://www.shutterbug.com/content/le...-portrait-lens . Subsequently, I bought the one I borrowed (though not for $5000). Yes, conventionally, if you're after sharpness and contrast, it's awful, but I certainly wouldn't draw any parallel with a fungus infected mirror reflex lens. Used for what it's meant for, with understanding, it's gorgeous.

Cheers,

R.
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