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Character
  • Preface: This post is in no way, shape or form saying that modern lenses are superior to vintage lenses. I am just asking for a little more clarity when it comes to describing what is meant by terms like character, clinical, and organic, words which are tossed around so much these days.

    The online forums are brimming with opinions on what constitutes a good lens. And many of those commenters would have us believe that lens reviews, which consider factors like extraordinary resolution and an absence of aberrations and vignetting to be the hallmarks of good design, as entirely misguided. In sum, they prefer vintage lenses with character to optically flawless modern lenses, particularly mirrorless lenses which rely on in-body optical correction. Which is not to say that lens reviews are infallible: most don’t have the resources to measure sample variance, and the majority fail to mention factors critical to filmmakers, such as focus breathing, focus shift, and actual light transmission (T stops).

    Yet, if one prefers lenses with character, exactly which imperfections are considered desirable? Mediocre resolution? Heavy vignetting? Starbursts? Cats-eye bokeh with onion rings? Loads of chromatic aberration? Barrel and pincushion distortion? Coma and astigmatism? Swirly bokeh? Ghosting and purple/green flares? Low contrast?

    As far as in-body optical correction is concerned, I defy anyone in a blind test to determine which lens – the Olympus 45mm f/1.2 PRO or the Leica Nocticron – utilizes it on the GH5.

    I don’t believe in magic: the characteristics of a lens are measurable and are able to be described. If that were not the case, lens reviews would be utterly meaningless. Even something as seemingly intangible as music can be evaluated: how closely does the performance adhere to the dynamics and phrasing dictated by the composer; is it legato or staccato; is there note-to-note tension; or is the music pushed and pulled beyond all recognition? A music critic working for the New York Times could write that a Mahler symphony conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas was dope, but unfortunately, that wouldn’t be very useful to readers.

    For me, a great lens would be fast (f/2 or faster), have high resolution and contrast, good resistance to flare, warm color rendition, little vignetting or chromatic aberration and soft round bokeh with no onion rings. Not that I can’t appreciate some of the qualities of lenses like the Helios, but I’m not sure I’d want to sit through an entire feature film with swirly bokeh.

    When looking at footage from vintage lenses, what are the characteristics that stand out and make them more desirable than modern lenses?

    Over at cinematography.com, a forum member posted a link to a comparison by Shane Hurlbut of Cooke vs. Leica (the link is dead now I guess), and another forum member commented:

    "I’ve watched it a few times and found it extremely interesting. When I first heard about the new Leicas, they seemed like a real lens for the future. Spec-wise as good as it gets. But then as I started to track down and watch productions shot on them I found myself noticing (repeatedly) this strange flatness to the images that somehow felt ‘off’ to me.

    I couldn’t begin to pin down what it was about the look of the shows that felt off to me, but after seeing Shane’s comparison it became clear to me. The Leicas are just too perfect. In a still image you’d never notice it, but in motion it’s there – this almost imperceptible flatness to the image, that seems to rob them of some sense of depth.

    I still can’t put it clearly into words, but something about the way the Leicas render moving pictures really puts me off. I don’t understand why I love the look from Master Primes (which are also kinda ‘perfect’) and yet the Leicas throw me, but there it is".

    I realize Cooke lenses are supposed to be otherworldly, but what’s needed is a vocabulary that describes precisely what it is about certain lenses that rock one’s world, not ambiguous statements to the effect that ‘that lens is too clinical looking’ or ‘this lens is more organic looking’. Some readers will disagree (‘I just tell my client that idea sucks!’), but I believe it is incumbent upon visual artists to be able to explain, articulate and express the aspects of their craft: especially so in a collaborative medium like filmmaking.

    Can anyone imagine the chief optical engineer at Leica or Cooke telling one of their underlings to add a touch more mojo to one of their designs?

    FWIW, if, as one forum member noted, Hurlbut was indeed comparing a 75mm lens to a 100mm, and if indeed he dismissed it as inconsequential, and viewers were none the wiser, then that is fucked up big time as well.

    Few would dispute the artistry of Christopher Doyle, who swears by Zeiss, Cooke and Angénieux lenses, but were I to shoot something with any of those lenses, no doubt my YouTube channel would be inundated with comments saying my images look soulless, sterile and clinical. Because most of the magic is in set design, camera movement, focus pulling, focal length, costume design, lighting, haze machines and grading as much as anything else that makes an image look cinematic.

    It’s also about time that certain forum members shut the fuck up and admitted that brand loyalty is all they care about. A Canon fanboy over at EOSHD refused to acknowledge that the EOS R has more in-body sharpening than any other FF mirrorless camera even though PDN’s rigorous lab tests prove it. Blackmagic Design ambassador John Brawley refused to recognize that the thinner filter stack of the BMPCC4K is ruinous the performance of native fast wide angle lenses even though Brian Caldwell said it was so. And I believe Tony Northrup demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that Canon’s supposed superior color science is nothing but rubbish.

  • 2 Replies sorted by
  • First: Very nice post - I totally agree with you.

    Second: A lot of people like to talk very "loud" and it works, because they say nothing with many many words. Thats why most of them don't want - and don't have the brain to - make clear objektiv statements (or think before they talk).

    Third: Normal highend productions (like Hollywood blockbusters) are filmed with modern lenses - and its no problem, but if you only shoot bushes and your cat for years, I think having a lens with (very) interesting flaws helps a lot to distract from ones stupidity.

    I prefere modern lenses but with no electronical corrections, like the Olympus 4/3 highend line (can't afford Zeiss,...). Because I want my viewers to focus on the content, not my lens setup and I don't want in-camera corrections, as they tend to be worse than corrections done in postproduction.

    From my (limited) experience: Those Olympus lenses (14-35mm and 35-100mm) are very neutral in colour, sharp (need some softening on face closeups), little vignetting or chromatic aberration and (soft) round bokeh. On the other hand, they breath as hell when focusing (after all they are made for still photography).

  • You're not totally wrong. It is possible to describe in great detail all of the characteristics of a lens scientifically. Unfortunately, most people who get into the arts are not really inclined to perform all of those measurements in great detail.

    It's also difficult (and subjective) to define what makes a given image look nice. Reviewers tend to focus quite a bit on characteristics which are fairly easy to test and define - sharpness, chromatic aberration, and vignetting are easy to test and demonstrate. Some other qualities such as coma are much more difficult to test and demonstrate (and some exotic lenses like the MS Optical 50/1.1 even allow coma adjustment).
    Choice of lens may also depend on subject matter or a specific look that one is trying to achieve. Shooting something which is supposed to take place in a coldly glowing futuristic world devoid of humanity (Matrix? Blade Runner)? Ultra-sharp high-contrast modern lenses. Shooting a warm love story? A softer vintage lens might be a more flattering choice. Do I need to know all of the scientific measurements for a lens to make that call or can I just choose one that gives the general look that I want?

    It goes beyond lenses too, and even worse, there are people out there who will resort to bombarding someone with technical terms to demonstrate why their opinion on something is more correct. After I had the gall recently on some facebook group to suggest that the Arri sensor is a good sensor, but not magical, and that most of the "Arri look" that people love is due to in-camera processing, he started trying to bombard me with talk about signal-to-noise ratios and special RGB glass in the Bayer array. You know, because Sony, Canon, Nikon, and every other camera manufacturer with an enormous R&D department can't figure out how to make good red, green, or blue filters.

    We have a strong tendency to see something that we like and decide that we like the way the thing looks and it's not always easy to describe why (and when explaining to most other people, even simple explanations are seen as tedious). Like, I have both the Panasonic 12-35 and 35-100 and I have the Olympus 12-40 and 40-150. The Panasonic lenses are fine. They look nice enough.
    The Olympus lenses tend to look much nicer to me, though. They seem to have better contrast, tonal separation, and rendering of colors to my eye, but I haven't done any scientific tests to say why. I'm not sure that I need to - I just end up choosing which I'll use for a given shoot based on whether I'm going handheld or on sticks (the Panasonic have IS, the Olympus do not).

    Anyway, you couldn't be more right about tribalism and brand loyalty. Just because I prefer the look of my vintage Canon lenses for a lot of things to technically superior modern Zeiss designs doesn't mean that someone who prefers the Zeiss look is wrong. Do you like the look of your ultra-modern Sigma Art lenses? Cool. Prefer the look of a single-coated Industar from 1950? Cool.