Large Format Lenses for Portraits (2nd ed.)
© 2012 Jeroen Bruggeman for largeformatphotography.info
Here you’ll find reviews of lenses for 4x5” and 5x7” negatives, targeted towards their usefulness for portraits in the broadest sense. The appeal of large format is the combination of high resolution and beautiful tonality. Moreover, 5x7” (and larger) negatives make possible breath-taking contact prints too.
From the inception of photography onwards, photographers have been interested in photographing people. At the beginning, lenses had no shutters, exposure times were long, and sitters had to stay motionless for a long time. Many different kinds of lenses were developed over the years, among them specialized ones for portraiture that rendered pictures considered more flattering. Those older lenses, specialized or not, have been documented relatively well (some references are at the end).
Paradoxically, information on more recent lenses (1930 onwards) that are conveniently mounted in shutters by their manufacturers is much harder to come by. Comparative tests of these lenses rarely, if ever, focus on their performance as portrait lenses in any detail. While lines per millimeter, contrast, and other technical properties are surely interesting, a technically superior lens according to such criteria is not necessarily a great lens for portraits, and warrants additional examination—a loophole that I attempt to fill.
For the remainder, I’ll presume that you have a basic understanding of large format photography, i.e. you know how a camera works, what a bellows extension factor is, and how film development affects the results; see the sources mentioned at the end in case you want to catch up.
Skin tones in focus, and out-of-focus bokeh (creamyness)
Because humans are less good at sitting motionless than buildings and trees are, and small apertures therefore can’t be used, it's important for a portrait to have a smooth transition from the sharp to the unsharp areas, and a creamy rather than busy appearance of the latter. In other words, distant and proximate objects out of focus should fade into the background rather than show up contrasty lines around them, a desirable property called bokeh. For the highlights, a lack of bokeh is related to the edgy shapes of 7 or 5-blade irises in modern (and some older) shutters, in contrast to the superior circular irises in Compur, Compound, and other shutters that are no longer built (see Fig.1). For all the rest, bokeh is a combination of out of focus contrast on the one hand and lens design on the other hand. Differences in bokeh between lenses are most outspoken wide open, and the smaller the aperture, the smaller the differences in general, but for particular lenses, e.g. the 240mm Apo-Ronar versus the 240mm Fujinon-A, there remains a visible difference also at f16 (at least under natural light conditions).
Of course bokeh is not the only property that matters; large format is also chosen for its tonality and sharpness, in various orders of importance, and for people photography in particular, it's very important how in-focus skin tones come off. They can vary from harsh and contrasty to delicate and smooth. Finally, there are big differences between (and among) artificial light sources and natural light, a topic that merits a review of its own.
Figure 1: Highlights (cropped images), Above with a five-blade iris, resulting in edgy highlights, below with a many-blade iris resulting in circular highlights.
Although lenses of the same type and brand differ somewhat in sharpness across specimen and across focal lengths, they typically show up a highly similar distribution of sharpness (1) over their apertures (e.g. optimal at f16–f22), (2) over distance (e.g. optimized for short range), and (3) over the center-to-edge range (e.g. sharp almost to the edge versus only in the center); and, they have the same characteristics for bokeh, color rendition, contrast, and flare, that together determine skin tones. We may thus speak about the personality of a lens in terms of these traits. Sharpness, the most varying trait, is the least of our concern for portraits because most large format lenses are sufficiently sharp anyway, also for giant enlargements. By the way, for enlargements above one meter, the difference between 100 ASA and 400 ASA film has a noticeable effect, and the latter’s grain becomes visible; then substituting 100 for 400 ASA can have a stronger impact than a different lens might have, not to mention disturbances of wind and traffic (the latter can also blur prints).
Sharpness set apart, we can generalize to a reasonable extent other personality traits of a tested lens to other focal lengths of the same type and brand. For example, my 240mm and 300mm single coated Apo-Ronars produce exactly the same quality images, and their only differences are their focal lengths and image circles (and 10 grams of weight, for that matter). Lenses of the same type of different brands, e.g. Plasmats by Schneider and Rodenstock, often have a “family resemblance” but different personalities that need to be examined each in turn. This is especially the case for Tessars and Dialytes, which are are very broad families.
Compared to other fields, like architecture and table top, most portrait lenses can do with smaller image circles: relatively small amounts of tilt and swing are used, hardly any shifts, and portraits are shot at close range. However, because anything more than small back tilts and swings distort facial and body proportions, mostly front movements have to be used (except when distortion is deliberate, like in Fig.2), hence a reasonably large image circle is convenient nevertheless.
Practicalities of testing
Because human subjects have limited patience, it was obviously not feasible to test all lenses though all apertures under the same conditions on the same sitter. As a baseline for comparison, not included in this report, I took for each lens two slides of the same building filling the frame (at f22 and a wide aperture), i.e. by walking further away from the building with a longer lens. All 150mm and 210mm lenses were additionally tested indoors from wide open to f22 on the book covers on my shelf, using orthochromatic (i.e. ultra fine grain) film. Finally, I gathered additional information as I use most of my portrait lenses also for architecture or landscape. Those tests on non-living and non-changing material facilitated comparison. All lenses (except the short focal lengths at the end) were tested from their widest aperture stopped down to at least f22 on human sitters. When I compare sharpness across lenses below, I will by default speak about the camera without movements. On the basis of the tests I will make an overall judgment of each lens. On a scale from objective to subjective, I can be most objective about sharpness, contrast, and flare, then color, skin tones, and bokeh in the middle, while my overall judgment on a lens' usefulness for portraits and the quality of its results are at the subjective end of the spectrum.
Standard lenses (150mm)
I’ll now proceed along focal length starting with 150mm, the standard lens for 4x5” that most users of this format have. Due to the possibilities for movements of large format camera’s, a standard focal length is much more, and more widely, useful than a standard lens on smaller formats, also for photographing people. For those who came to large format from 6x6cm camera’s, like me, a 150mm lens on 4x5” has the advantage over a 6x6 standard lens of having some more room on one end, where you need it, and a little less on that other end where you don’t want it.
150mm Rodenstock Sironar-S, Sironar-N, and some other German Plasmats
According to a widely known review of future classic lenses by Kerry Thalmann, the Rodenstock Sironar-S is the best general purpose 150mm lens, and even the very best of all large format lenses. It’s a six-element Plasmat lens with a unique combination of the following properties: A large image circle with sharpness closer to the edge of it than other 150mm lenses, which makes this one well-suited for architecture and table top; high resolution at all apertures (given intrinsic limitations of lens design that pertain to all lenses); perfect color rendition; good skin tones under most conditions—but not all (see below); excellent contrast (but on rare occasions too high); absence of flare i.e. you can photograph into the light; and, all that at a relatively low weight. For most of these individual properties there are other lenses, but this lens is the only one that has all of them combined.
A rarely occurring shortcoming of the Sironar-S in hazy daylight, in between sunny and overcast, is that contrast of skin tones can be too high. This happened to me about four times in a decade, on different kinds of film. Also unflattering for skins is a very close range (about half a meter), at which the Sironar-S is incredibly sharp, but seems to exaggerate the actual contrast of the skin. These contrast problems can not be solved by overexposing and under-developing, as that treatment would yield too low contrast of the remainder of the photo.
Figure 2: 150mm Sironar-S, here as short focal length on 5x7”, comparable to 110mm on 4x5”. This photo (and other 5x7" below) was scanned from a contact print and therefore looks less sharp than the negative actually is.
The Sironar-N is lighter and much cheaper than the Sironar-S. Its image circle is smaller, which does not matter for portraits on 4x5" at all, and its color rendition and flare reduction are good. My specimen is a Sinar-picked Sironar-N, very confusingly named Sinaron-S. Different versions of Sironar-N have been built over the years, and mine is from the late nineteen-eighties (10990614). It comes in an ultra light modern Compur shutter with a 5-blade iris, of which I’m not so fond (see Fig.1). This lens is very sharp at all apertures, although slightly less than my S. Also contrast is a little lower, which is an advantage for skin tones. A hazy weather situation (see above) I didn’t encounter with my N yet, but in all other conditions it sometimes depicts skins more favorably than the S, and never worse, while the minute difference in sharpness is irrelevant for portraits at any size of enlargement. However, one might say that in general, all Plasmats have too much contrast for close ups, including this one.
Practical advantages of the Rodenstocks are that they are small enough to fit into camera’s folded, e.g. a Technika-III, whereas Schneider and other brand Plasmats don’t fit in, and require large filters. The recent Schneider Symmar-L supposedly has a larger image circle than its predecessors, equal to the Sironar-S, but that's only its circle of illumination, as it’s circle of sharpness is clearly smaller than the Sironar-S’s. Furthermore, when using flash lights, the Symmar-L yields ugly skin tones with way too much contrast. For photo’s of people, I see only disadvantages of the Symmar-L with respect to the good old Symmar-S (see the 210mm Symmar-S below, which has the same personality as the 150mm). When also considering filter size and weight, the Sironar-N comes out as the best of my 150mm Plasmats for people photography. Because of its sharpness, it’s also well-suited for architecture and other applications.
Figure 3: 150mm Sironar-N at f5.6. To prevent her eyes from shifting out of focus, she laid comfortably on a black velvet backdrop.
As German Plasmats are excellent general purpose lenses and often useful for portraits too, are they also the best lenses for portraits? Unrelated to lens quality, it happens to be the case that for close ups, any standard lens, no matter how good, distorts proportions due to its short distance to the subject, e.g. it makes a nose or a shoulder close by look proportionally very large. This can be a desired effect sometimes, but in general, close ups are to be taken with longer lenses.
So far it’s only a matter of choosing another focal length. More interesting are the issues of bokeh and skin tones. For bokeh, German Plasmats are certainly not the worst lenses (those are some Japanese Plasmats) but not the very best either. They can be somewhat messy in their unsharp areas, which becomes more visible in contrasty backdrops (Fig.4). With low contrast backdrops, everything looks fine, though (Fig.16). For skins, however, they are sometimes too harsh, especially more recent ones.
Figure 4: Above, all Plasmats have somewhat messy backdrops if constrasty, here a 210mm Symmar-S at f16 (cropped). Below a 300mm Ronar at f16 (cropped), a bokeh king that deals more subtly with sunlit concrete.
150mm Voigtländer Lanthar versus Sironar-S
Let’s now compare the Sironar-S to a Lanthar 150mm from the 1960’s. Despite it’s age it costs about the same as a brand new Sironar-S. It’s a 5 element lens in a #1 Compur shutter—with a circular iris—and is therefore a little heavier than the Plasmats that are in #0, and than Tessars that are also in #1 but have 4 instead of 5 glass elements.
At f5.6, the Lanthar and the Sironar-S are equally sharp. Stopped further down, the Lanthar is very sharp too, although a little less than the Sironar-S. The Lanthar is at f5.6 less contrasty than the Sironar-S (but almost equal at smaller apertures), and it features superior bokeh. In German this combination of high resolution and high bokeh is called “duftige Schärfe” (fluffy sharpness). Humans do look better with a Lanthar at this aperture, although in my low quality scans this might be hard to see (Fig.5).
The Lanthar’s aperture goes as wide as f4.5, while the maximal aperture of the Sironar-S is f5.6. At f4.5, the Lanthar has clearly more bokeh than at f5.6, less contrast, while it’s sharpness is nearly as good as at f5.6. It’s impossible to get such good bokeh with a Plasmat—any Plasmat.
Beware that at wide apertures, the sitter must be in a position to stay motionless, because the slightest movement, e.g. while the photographer inserts the film holder, results in a visible displacement of the sitter with respect to the plane of focus. In favor of f4.5 can be told, along with stunning bokeh, that on 400 ASA film you can take indoor pictures with natural light on clouded days. We will see below, however, that there are much cheaper f4.5 lenses that have the same, or almost the same, bokeh.
Figure 5: Above, 150mm Sironar-S at f5.6 (cropped). Below, 150mm Lanthar at f5.6. It has less contrast than, but equal resolution as, the Sironar-S.
Figure 6: Above, 150mm Lanthar at f5.6, below at f4.5, both very sharp at the plane of focus, but at f4.5 the background is more fluffy.
The Lanthar has a subtle and unique tonality that I haven’t seen from any other lens, which is most outspoken in black and white photos of foliage; there it looks as if this lens has inbuilt yellow and green filters. For skin tones the Lanthar is great, too, but there it's equaled by other great lenses such as Heliar, Tessar, and Ronar. The same high level of flare reduction that the Sironar-S gets from special ED glass and multiple coatings, the Lanthar gets from it’s outlandish radio active glass (plus coatings). This implies that you should not keep a Lanthar close to your body too long.
So far the good news about the Lanthar, net of the health warning. However, it has a circle of illumination that is small by modern standards, and it’s circle of sharpness is yet much smaller, yielding mushy corners at just a small amount of front movement. This needs not to be a problem for most portraits (or landscapes), but renders the 150mm Lanthar almost useless for architecture, industrial, and most studio photography. Furthermore, resolution and bokeh in the most used range of apertures for general purpose photography (f16–32) are the same as an average Plasmat’s—high resolution and reasonable but not very nice bokeh. It’s aperture range ends at f32 while Plasmats’ modern shutters conventiently go on to f45 or f64. The Lanthar’s color rendition of my lens was weird, and looked like 17th century paintings. This could be easily resolved by exposing the front element to UV-light, i.e. a week of sunlight will do. (Remove the shutter to protect it from rain and dust.)
Figure 7: 150mm Lanthar at f11, ultra sharp, however equal to Plasmats like the Sironar-N, and slightly less sharp than the Sironar-S.
To get great bokeh, there are much cheaper lenses than the Lanthar, among others some Tessars. Tessars have been built for over a century by many different factories, creating a wide variety of lens personalities with not many family traits that all of them share, except for bokeh, which is better than Plasmats’. Other traits, e.g. color, flare, distribution of sharpness, and contrast differ considerably, and not all Tessars are suitable for portraits, as we will see. A cheap ($200 on ebay in 2010) and light weight (140 grams!) Tessar is the Fujinon-W f6.3, a single coated lens built in the nineteen-sixties and seventies. Confusingly, Fuji also named its 150mm Plasmat Fujinon-W, to be distinguished from the Tessar by its maximal aperture of f5.6 and it’s larger weight and size. The circle of illumination of this Tessar easily covers 5x7” with room for movements, but the circle of sharpness doesn’t, which however is no problem on 4x5”. Throughout the aperture range it is surprisingly sharp (obviously less than the Sironar-S), and bokeh is good but not quite as good as Ysarex’ bokeh (a 210mm Tessar reviewed below, which also exists as 150mm). Also color rendition is good. However, this lens has too high contrast for people photography, making skins oftentimes ugly. To get the example (Fig.8) about right, the photo had to be printed with reduced contrast, even though it was taken at a shady spot. Otherwise, faces turn graphical. This lens is quite useful for architecture and landscapes on 4x5”, though, and especially for light weight back packing trips.
Figure 8: 150mm Fujinon-W at f5.6 (cropped); bokeh is good, but this photo had to be printed with reduced contrast (i.e. using filter 1) to make the face look okay.
Now a real treat, a 150mm Xenar (f4.5), which is Schneider’s version of the Tessar, in a Compur #1. There also exists a f5.6 Xenar, but who would want to miss out bokeh at f4.5? Mine is a Linhof selected one, which means that it’s better than an average specimen, and it cost only $125 in 2011. Throughout the aperture range, it has very pleasing bokeh, in fact better than any modern lens. In the range f4.5–f8, the Xenar is a bit less sharp than its contemporary Lanthar, and it’s bokeh is less spectacular than the Lanthar’s, however both sharpness and bokeh are still very good. At f11–32 it’s as sharp as the Lanthar, whereas Xenar’s bokeh in this range is better—at just one tenth of the Lanthar’s price! To put this result into context, if you have 200 MB scans of two Delta 100 negatives, taken at f11 by the Xenar and the Sironar-S, respectively, and print them 1 meter wide, then to see a small difference in sharpness you will have to come as close as 15 cm from the prints. Further away, which people normally do with such a size, you will notice a difference in bokeh, which is in favor of the Xenar. Also Xenar’s color rendition is good. For sure, the Xenar produces very pleasing portraits because of its soft contrast, which attenuates skin blemishes and produces an old-fashioned dreamy look. The circle of illumination is large enough to just cover 5x7” whereas the circle of sharpness isn’t, but who cares for $125? This lens instantly became one of my favorite portrait lenses, and I use it especially at dangerous places where I don’t want to risk my expensive Lanthar to be mugged. However, the Xenar has flare galore, which can be a nuisance. In that respect, the Lanthar is light years ahead of the Xenar.
Figure 9: 150mm Xenar at f4.5. Cape Town, South Africa. In the sweater, individual threads are clearly visible at the plane of focus, and additional tests were necessary to figure out that the Xenar is just a little less sharp than the Lanthar at this aperture.
An old Zeiss specimen (f4.5) that I tested was unsharp at all apertures, while Zeiss normally produces excellent lenses. No luck with this one; last in, first out.
Additional tests of a 180mm Bausch and Lomb Tessar), the 210mm Ysarex below, and a buch of tests by a reader (of the first edition of this review) pointed out that in general, Tessars do have better bokeh than Plasmats, despite their variability of other traits.
150mm Schneider Xenotar
Another contender for portraits is the 150mm Xenotar f2.8, built in the nineteen sixties, a 5 element lens of similar design as the Zeiss Planar (that was never made as a 150mm for large format, though). It weighs seven times as much as the Fujinon-W (above), and if you work with it on your camera you get the feeling that you are budging a spacecraft through a swamp. Opposite to its size, it has an image circle smaller than any other 150mm lens made for 4x5”, limiting front movements considerably, even when stopped down. This lens has an odd size Compur shutter (#2), requiring specially drilled lens boards, an adapter, or remounting in a Copal #3. The iris is circular at all apertures, which is an advantage over modern Copals.
I bought my Linhof selected Xenotar on ebay for $750 (in 2009) but Xenotars tend to be much more expensive. Why would one want this weird and oftentimes inordinately expensive lens? For me it was a combination of insanity and nostalgia; my first Rolleiflex had a Xenotar that I loved. Colors photographed by a Xenotar do look very delicate, which I like, but not everybody does. At f2.8, the lens is still somewhat sharp in a flimsy plane of focus, and bokeh should be tremendous—but it isn’t! The Xenotar draws contours around everything unsharp that contrasts, thereby ruining bokeh (see Fig.10). For sure, the Lanthar, Heliar, and Ronar draw smoothly vague contours that look much better.
Sharpness increases substantially at f4, and when stopped down to f5.6, the Xenotar is supposedly sharper than any other lens at f5.6, a claim that can be found on multiple websites. When put to the test, however, the Xenotar at f5.6 turns out to be only as sharp as a pedestrian Sironar-N. This is actually very good, and makes possible very large sharp prints, but it isn’t as impressive as Xenotar mythology suggests. Xenotar’s aperture range ends at f32, and along the range f5.6–f32 it’s as sharp as average Plasmats are but never better. No complaints about sharpness, but no wow either. Along with high weight, price, and size, lousy bokeh, and a small image circle, another drawback of the Xenotar is flare. In most circumstances one needs a lens shade or a compendium for it, which however does not entirely resolves the problem. Flare can sometimes yield a charming antique look, but as this lens’ results look modern in other ways, the combination with flare is a visual oxymoron to me. Flary images made with an uncoated Heliar or Tessar look consistently old-fashioned and therefore a lot better. In sum, the Xenotar is very special in a few good and in many bad ways. You really have to be blinded by love to keep it. My love didn’t last.
Figure 10: 150mm Xenotar at f2.8, showing messiness in the unsharp background (cropped).
Aperture and focusing
After this round of 150mm tests we can expel a popular myth: A lens with a maximal aperture of f5.6 (e.g. a Sironar-S) is supposedly more difficult to focus than one with f4.5 (Lanthar) and certainly more difficult to focus than a f2.8 lens (Xenotar), right? No, it isn’t! Why? Because modern Plasmats are more contrasty wide open. As it turns out, contrast has a stronger effect than aperture. The Sironar-S is easier to focus than the Lanthar, because the latter is far less contrasty wide open. The Xenotar, which also has low contrast wide open, is slightly easier to focus than the Lanthar, due to its larger aperture. The Xenotar is indeed brighter than the Lanthar and clearly brighter than the Sironar-S, but the latter is still easier to focus due to its substantially higher contrast. Magical qualities have been attributed to the wide aperture of the Xenotar, but in practice, the Sironar-S is easier to work with, both focus-wise and weight-wise. Notice that at apertures f8 and wider, the quality of the ground glass and the robustness of the camera become critical for correct focusing. I replaced the standard screen on a camera by a Beattie screen, and could then focus the Xenotar dead on at f2.8. But the Beattie is dark at the edges and becomes opaque when using movements, while it’s much more expensive than regular screens.
For close ups without distortion of proportions, you’ll need a lens longer than 150mm for 4x5”; 180mm lenses are not much different in view but almost as heavy as their more useful 210mm counterparts, so I skip that focal length and jump to 210mm right away. By the way, some 180mm lenses are great for portraits on 4x5” and cheap as well, e.g. the Xenar (see the 150mm above) and the Heliar (see below for a 210mm). All 210mm and longer lenses reviewed here allow for sufficient movements on 4x5”.
Lens shades and compendiums are much more effective for longer lenses: While for a 150mm, a (long) lens shade easily gets into view, necessitating a shorter and therefore less effective one, on a 240mm and longer lens you can put a long shade without getting it into view, and eliminate flare almost completely. Moreover, longer lenses typically have larger image circles than shorter lenses, and the excess of light inside the camera bounces around in the bellows and creates some flare as well. This is yet another reason to have a compendium or shade for a longer lens, even if it’s a multi-coated modern one.
210mm Schneider Symmar-S
The first lens in this range that I bought (2001) was a Schneider 210mm Symmar-S, a Plasmat that can be found fairly cheap second hand. Among lenses of the same brand, type, and focal length, there is always some variance in sharpness, as said at the beginning. I must have been lucky with my Symmar-S, because whereas in theory, the 150mm Sironar-S would be my sharpest lens, in actuality my older 210mm Symmar-S is equal to it. It’s resolution is also very high when making close ups (compared with specialized short range lenses), in fact on 5x7” it’s too high to my taste, while on 4x5” it’s fine. It has better, i.e. a very little lower, contrast for portraits than a Sironar-S and a Symmar-L. Other focal lengths of this type that I owned (150mm, and 100mm for 6x7cm) had a highly similar personality. I rarely use this lens for color, but it’s results are good, perhaps slightly colder than a Sironar-S. Flare reduction is a bit more difficult against the light than for a Sironar-S, but generally okay. Apart from the most difficult conditions against the light, for portrait photographers there is not any advantage whatsoever to be found in more recent Schneider Plasmats.
Figure 11: 210mm Symmar-S, here used as standard lens on 5x7”.
210mm Voigtländer Heliar
For superior bokeh and skin tones than Plasmats can provide, there exists a Lanthar 210mm, but that’s very expensive while there are other options that are much cheaper and equally good in practice. Let’s start with a lens similar in design as the Lanthar at about one third of the Lanthar’s price, the Voigtländer 210mm Heliar (mine was built in 1933). It comes in a #3 Compound shutter with a smoothly circular iris. Heliars were made in a range of focal lengths, also 150mm. The 210mm Heliar is fairly sharp at all apertures, just a little less than the Lanthar 150mm, but highly suitable for portraits, in my view even more so than “too” sharp lenses like the Symmar-S. At f4.5–8 you can make vintage images out of reach for any modern lens, with divine bokeh and skin tones. Although it’s officially not apo-chromatic, color pictures look not bad at all; many Heliar users take beautiful pictures of flowers. Lanthars and Heliars are family members with somewhat different personalities, and the Heliar can be seen as the elder sister and the Lanthar as her younger brother. The Heliar is clearly more flare sensitive than a Lanthar (but not nearly as bad as a Xenotar). This can either be solved to a satisfactorily degree by a lens shade, or used deliberately as a desired effect. The circle of sharpness is large enough for portraits on 5x7” but too small for architecture on that format.
Figure 12: 210mm Heliar at f4.5 on 5x7". At small apertures the Heliar behaves more like modern lenses, although always softer. It goes without saying that the unsharp areas are done with Scheimpflug, not Photoshop, a point that might be missed by a new generation of digital photographers.
210mm Rodenstock Ysarex
The Tessar type lens at this focal length in this review is a Rodenstock Ysarex f4.5, which was also built as 150mm and various other focal lengths. It has the same Compound shutter as the Heliar above. There also exists a f6.8 Ysarex but bokeh at f4.5 is obviously more appealing. Strangely, it weighs substantially less than the 210mm Xenar, which is also a f4.5 Tessar and has the same shutter. Both 210mm Ysarex and Heliar fit into a closed Technika, while the Xenar is too large. Rumor has it that the same glass was used as in the Voigtländer Lanthar, which I doubt. My guess is that some of the same ingredients might have been used but in a different proportion. In any case Ysarex’ colors have more oomph than Xenar’s. Bokeh is good at all apertures, which is a common Tessar trait, and is much better than Plasmats’. Wide open Ysarex’ bokeh is nearly as fabulous as Heliar’s. Wide open it’s almost as sharp as the Heliar, and when stopped down two stops it equals the Heliar throughout the remainder aperture range, i.e. less sharp than the Symmar-S and therefore perfect for portraits. Flare reduction is superior to the Heliar and the Xenar, and skin tones are equally good. On 5x7” the image circle is large enough for portraits and landscapes but too small for architecture. For any subject on 5x7” where sharpness is more important than bokeh or where movements are required, I would use a modern Plasmat, and neither Heliar nor Ysarex. Taking its limitations into account, the Ysarex is a superb portrait and landscape lens, and the 260 euro I paid for it in January 2012 I consider a very good deal. A Heliar is about three times more expensive, and is only in a small aperture range a very little sharper, which isn't important for portraits, while having more flare, which can be important.
Figure 13: 210mm Ysarex at f4.5, on 5x7”.
203mm Kodak Ektar
I include among the 210mm lenses the 203mm Kodak Ektar because for portrait photographers the difference in focal length with a 210mm is insignificant. The 203mm is a single coated, 4 element Dyalite lens with a maximal aperture of f7.7. It’s resolution is almost as good as a Symmar-S. Slightly less sharp than the über sharp Symmar-S means that it has plenty of sharpness, superior to Tessars and Heliars, and I certainly won’t suggest that its resolution is questionable; large prints (1 meter) look spectacular. Its (center) sharpness is said to be maximal wide open, but when comparing portraits I can’t see a difference between f16 and at f7.7 (on TMax 100). The color rendition is okay, but a little less good than its contemporary Tessars and Ronars. Anyway, photo’s look old-fashioned in a lovely way. Bokeh is generally neither better nor worse than Plasmat’s, but it looks quite different and very 1950’s; wide open, bokeh is nicest. At any aperture, skins look very pleasing. Moreover, Ektars are light, small and cheap, and perfectly-suited for back packing trips. The only real problem is the Supermatic shutter; when you’re done focusing, it takes about an hour and a half to set the shutter and aperture, and by that time, your sitter has usually walked away. And then there is the specially drilled lens board that you need for the shutter’s odd size, and the horrible 5-blade iris that ruins your highlights... First I thought about having this lens remounted in a new Copal, but then for half of the price the remounting would have cost me, I found a 203mm Ektar in a Compur #0 shutter with a round iris, which solved all my problems in one stroke. I also use it on 5x7” but then it’s circle of sharpness is a bit tight for movements.
Some people replaced their 203mm Ektar by a 200mm Nikkor-M (Tessar), but so far nobody showed me a portrait by the latter that convinced me; some of those portraits were good thanks to the photographers, but could in my view have been better with a different lens. For color, however, the Nikkor is better, and I’ve seen very convincing Nikkor landscapes both in color and in b&w.
Figure 14: 203mm Kodak Ektar at maximal aperture (f7.7).
210mm (8 1/4") Goerz Dagor
After this review came out for the first time, a reader asked for a test of a Goerz Dagor. At that time, my 210mm Symmar-S had just died when the camera was blown from a railway platform, and I needed a replacement. That became a 210mm Dagor (nr 770221, built just after WWII), which then became the subject of this additional review. The Dagor has six lenses in two groups, similar to, but not identical with, the Plasmat design. Having a smaller aperture (f6.8) than the f5.6 Plasmats, it's a much smaller lens and easily fits into a closed Technika, despite the large Ilex shutter. (Other specimen of the 8 1/4" are in other shutters). It's a lens type with a long history, many famous users, and it has been constructed in a wide range of focal lengths. In my view, it's images have the same mood as Orson Welles movies, even though this statement is objectively incorrect because his movie camera lenses were different designs altogether. Nevertheless, the Dagor is a character of its own, unlike any other. It's remarkably contrasty for a lens that old, but for portraits this can be a problem sometimes when it renders skin tones less flattering than one wants them to be. Bokeh is good, although at a distance from the superior Heliar and Ysarex discussed above. Color rendition is said to be less good than Plasmats', which is kind of true but when starting out with that expectation, colors turn out to be remarkably interesting, if not downright good, for many purposes (e.g. cityscapes) except portraits. Nowadays this can be largely corrected digitally and is no serious objection. Wide open it's sharp only at the very center, and skin tones look quite pleasing, also off-center. At f11 it's sharp in a circle that covers 4x5" (at portrait range at least), and skin tones are refined even though having a fair amount of contrast. When stopped further down, however, and the circle of sharpness and depth of focus further increase, I start asking myself if showing all skin blemishes in minute detail adds refinement or is overkill instead. The answer is neither one or the other; at different occasions one wants different lenses. For landscapes and architecture in black and white, this lens is a blast, and stopped down to f22 or further, it has sufficient coverage for the amounts of shift used for architecture on 5x7". It's sharpness compared to other 210mm lenses is slightly better than the Heliar, but close to it, and clearly less sharp than the Symmar-S. This difference might sound more dramatic than it actually matters for enlargements put on a wall. For most purposes, I prefer the groovy Dagor to the clinical Symmar.
Figure 15: 210mm Dagor at f6.8 (cropped). Notice the highlights in the backdrop.
240mm Rodenstock Ronar
Similar in perspective as 210mm is 240mm, a focal length that offers some interesting lenses that are unavailable in 210mm. 240mm Tessars, Heliars, and f5.6 Plasmats are too heavy and too big, and not at all necessary because there are the much lighter Rodenstock Apo-Ronar f9 and the Fujinon-A f9. The Ronar 240mm, f9, in #1 Compur or Copal, is a 4 element Dialyte lens optimized for close range; late versions of it were optimized for further distances. It’s image circle just covers 5x7”, but for the latter format you actually need a 300mm (see below). It was built for a very long time till the turn of the century, initially uncoated, then single coated, and finally multi coated (MC). My 240mm (nr 6089669) is from the nineteen sixties and single coated, which for portraits yields the best contrast, i.e. a little lower than is considered optimal for buildings, landscapes, and table top photography, while having better flare protection than uncoated lenses have. Moreover, multi coated ones cost twice as much as single coated ones, while a sufficiently large compendium or lens shade yields perfectly flare-free results–no need for MC.
Portraits shot with this lens feature an intergalactic gorgeousness. In the range from close up to about 5 meters (15 ft), the range for most portraits, this lens is tack sharp, with a butter-smooth transition from sharp to unsharp areas, divine bokeh at all apertures, yummy tonality, and colors better than in real life (or almost).
Ronars are so sharp at close range at any aperture that they show up people’s sub-atomic particles of their skin, but to my taste not in an unflattering way like Plasmats do. Skin tones with the single coated Ronar look divine, both in color and in b&w. Beware that for close ups with long lenses at f9, the depth of focus is so small that the slightest movement of the sitter shifts the plane of focus away from where you want it to be. If the sitter can't stay motionless, or if multiple sitters slightly move with respect to each other, I use f16 or f22 and flash lights. Focusing at f9 is basically not more difficult than for lenses with wider maximal apertures, but the bellows extension combined with front movements at very close range can make focusing more difficult, although I never missed a portrait as a consequence of it. Here you have a large format Leica for close range, which at $300 or so outperforms much more expensive lenses hands down. As said, older Ronars were not intended for long distances; at about 2 meters from the subject, a 210mm Symmar-S catches up in sharpness—never in bokeh though—and at 4-5 meters (at f16) it overtakes the Ronar, while the latter is still sharp enough at that range. The Ronar’s way more pleasing bokeh and superior color rendition tip the balance in its favor, at that distance and aperture that is. At longer distances, even at the Ronar’s optimal long distance aperture around f22, it becomes a different story. In a comparative test at 700m distance at f22, my 240mm Fujinon-A (see below) is more than twice as sharp as my 240mm Ronar. Also Ronar’s colors are not so perfect anymore as close by. I couldn’t care less because for long distances I have other lenses, and for me, the Ronar is a breath taking specialist that is to be used and judged as such.
Figure 16: 240mm single coated Ronar at f16, a mind blowing lens.
This is a small and light weights Plasmat (f9), hence ideal for traveling, multi coated, and at least as good in every way as much heavier and bigger f5.6 Plasmats are. In a first series of tests, I photographed a ship at 700m distance, a building at about 150m, and shoes close by filling the frame. This lens turned out to be incredibly sharp at any distance. It has been said that this lens is optimized for short distances, but (without a more scientific approach) I couldn’t find a difference in sharpness between short and long distances. And at any distance, this lens is also quite sharp wide open. Color rendition is perfect, and the image circle is vast, which makes possible many other applications along with portraits, e.g. as wide angle on 8x10”. It has fairly similar bokeh characteristics as German Plasmats, which is okay but disappointing compared with a Ronar, and wide open it does not come close to a Heliar, Lanthar, or Ysarex. Contrasty backdrops are best to be avoided. In studio portrait settings with a plain backdrop, bokeh of a Fujinon versus a Ronar (showing up in hair and ears) becomes virtually indistinguishable, though; in the comparison that I wanted to show of a portrait with a plain black backdrop (Fig.17), not any differences in bokeh or sharpness can be seen, so I left the Ronar’s photo out. However, Fujinon’s skin tones are a very little more contrasty and harsh and therefore a little less flattering than a single coated Ronar’s.
Figure 17: 240mm Fujinon-A at f16. Skins look very slightly less pleasing than with a Ronar. The sitter became tired of my testing three lenses at many apertures on her.
Sometimes useful for 4x5” close ups and generally important for 5x7” is a 300mm lens, of which I tested three Dialytes. Plasmats, Lanthars, and Heliars of this focal length weigh a ton and cost a fortune, while Tessars are cheap but still weigh a ton. The much lighter 300mm Ronar is a super performer having qualities identical to the 240mm tested above (nr 6125189, which is from the same era). Therefore no need for further elaborations. At some point, single coated Ronar’s became multi coated, and (at the same time?) the lens design was changed such that this lens became sharp at long distances. I have a specimen from 1985 that is in a modern Compur #1 shutter, which has a more circular iris than the Copal but more edgy than the old Compur. (Lenses can’t be transposed from new to old Compurs, though, their diameters are slightly different.) This Ronar version costs about twice as much as the single coated one, has the MC advantages that it can be used without compendium/lens shade and can be focused a little easier, but for portraits it has no advantage over older ones at all, and to my taste it has a bit too much contrast.
Another Dialyte is the 300mm Fujinon-C, f8.5, which comes in a #1 shutter. When examining slides of my test building shot at f22, it was extremely hard to notice a minute superiority of the Fujinon-A 240mm, so sharp the Fujinon-C is. Tonality, contrast, and colors of both Fujinon’s look identical, which means very good but in my view slightly too contrasty for skins and less divine than single coated Ronars. Wide open the Fujinon- C is noticeably less sharp than a Fujinon-A (or other Plasmat) wide open, which renders skins nicely smooth. It’s bokeh is absolutely gorgeous, and in several studio portrait sessions, both shot wide open and at f16, both close up and at 3 meters distance, I could not see any difference in bokeh or in sharpness with my 300mm Ronars. To conclude, the Fujinon-C is a super quality general purpose and portrait lens. Moreover, at longer distances, it’s far superior to the old Ronar, and it’s image circle is much larger than of other Dialytes, which is an advantage over the MC Ronar. For human skins, however, the single coated Ronar is slightly better. A test portrait by the Fujinon-C turned out so similar to the 240mm Fujinon-A (see Fig.17) when reproduced in this document that I left it out.
For some time, I owned a 305mm (12”) Goertz Red Dot Artar, also a Dialyte, optimized for long distances. In the center of its image circle it can be an excellent, if not a great, portrait lens, except with sunshine when contrast becomes graphical. Problematic is the narrow circle of sharpness, which is clearly too small for 5x7” and even tight for 4x5”. Therefore I sold this lens, and bought a longer one (16.5”, 420mm) that I wanted to use on 5x7”, where it’s twice a normal lens. Going against popular myth, I have to tell you that both my Artars compared unfavorably with the Fujinon-C, and eventually I decided to use no Artars anymore.
Figure 18: 305mm Red Dot Artar on 6x9cm.
Yet longer focal lengths?
After taking large format portraits for over a decade, I’m convinced that twice the focal length of a normal lens is long enough, and in most cases, a somewhat shorter lens is better, i.e. 210–240mm on 4x5”. Longer than twice the focal length is really a bad idea, also in terms of weight, size, bellows extension, and price. Furthermore, those lenses increase the distance from the photographer to the sitter to the point of deteriorating their rapport, reflected in dull stares. At close distances you can more easily keep up a conversation and the sitter’s mood while fumbling the knobs of your camera. Finally, the larger the negative, the shorter the range of lenses you need for portraits. While I sometimes, though rarely, use a 300mm on 4x5”, I felt that 420mm on 5x7” was way too long.
Shorter focal lengths
Now shifting our attention from long to short lenses, I encountered the opinion that short focal lengths are supposedly unsuited for portraits. In my view, however, they can sometimes be great (see Fig.2). Moreover, a close distance to the subject also facilitates rapport, while a long lens makes the sitter feel pushed away at a distance. Short lenses are often called “wide angle,” which is quite confusing unless one says how wide their angle actually is; most large format lenses are wide angles anyhow, in order to cover an area larger than the film plane to allow for movements. If you go for a cheap lens in the range 100–135mm, bear in mind that many of those lenses have small image circles. Consequentially, I sold my brand new 120mm Symmar-L and 135mm Sironar-N, and bought a cheap old Kodak 135mm Wide Field Ektar instead (f6.3). No regrets! Wide open, it's already sharp (for portraits), and when stopped down to f16 onwards it's really smashing, sharper than the 135mm Sironar-N. It covers 5x7” with a little room for movements hence it allows for tons of movements on 4x5”. With lots of front displacement on 4x5”, corners gradually become less sharp but not in an ugly way like the Symmar-L. Ektar’s skin tones look better than Plasmats’, and bokeh looks okay, similar to the Ektar 203mm, which has a different lens design though. Kodak colors are a matter of taste, they look neither as saturated as a Sironar/Fujinon nor as subtle as a Xenotar; for me they are fine, while for others they are fantastic. I don’t have a 135mm Sironar-S for comparison, but compared with my 150mm Sironar-S under exactly the same lighting, the Ektar has much more flare against the light. You may find this charmingly old-fashioned, like I do, or annoying instead and prefer the Sironar-S. I like the Ektar’s personality, though, and I’ll surely keep this old beast.
By the end of 2011, I noticed a 135mm Ektar on ebay for $ 726. If this lens becomes that expensive (nearly three times what I paid) then I would not buy it. First, nobody really needs a 135mm for portraits, and for other purposes there are much better second hand options, e.g. an equally expensive 135mm Sironar-S for 4x5”, and for 5x7” a much cheaper 125mm SW Fujinon f8, which both have better coatings and color rendition than the Ektar. The much larger image circle of the Fujinon is really handy on 5x7”, and in my opinion overrides the Fujinon’s burden of extra weight.
If I travel light with a general purpose 4x5” kit, I often carry with me only one lens (150mm), but sometimes also an ultra-light Angulon 90mm f6.8, Linhof selected, which however I used for portraits only once; in the example it produces amazing skin tones, despite the direct sun light (Fig.19). Wide open, it's only somewhat sharp at the very center, but stopped down to f16 or further, it performs very well, provided that you find a good specimen, e.g. Linhof selected or self-tested. The modern Super-Angulon 90mm f5.6, with a much larger image circle, is also very good at skin tones under difficult conditions.
Figure 19: 90mm Angulon 6.8 at f16 (cropped), at Saint Louis, Senegal. Flare on the left was due to a leak in the bellows and has nothing to do with the lens.
I hope this review was useful to you and covers a sufficiently large range of lenses, while debunking some popular myths on the fly. There are surely some other good portrait lenses out there that I missed, e.g. Commerical Ektars, and the modern Cooke portrait lens (PS945) that I find too expensive for what it could do for me. Perhaps you need no lens at all, and like to shoot through a pin hole, or with an Industar lens from the former Soviet Union, which is almost as unsharp as a pinhole and costs no more than lunch. Finally, there are special soft-focus portrait lenses, usually very expensive, like the Rodenstock Imagon. While Industars are cool, soft-focus lenses I find terminally tacky, and I would not want to be found dead with one. Obviously, others disagree and love those lenses.
Along with reviewing a series of lenses, I hope that I’ve also shown that in large format you can actually take great portraits relatively cheaply, and you certainly don’t need a posh lens to find a proper audience for your work. Older Tessars and Dialytes are often undervalued, hence cheap, while in many circumstances they yield far better portraits with much better bokeh and skin tones than brand new or celebrity lenses. Moreover, if for a given type of lens you go for a single coated one, you pay only half the price of a multi coated version while getting more flattering skin tones. You might also consider for a given focal length to have multiple lenses with different personalities. This might relieve you from looking for “the” best lens, which in general is nonsensical: Different lenses have different qualities and shortcomings, which play out under the conditions that you use them. The best lenses for certain purposes are not the best general purpose lenses, and vice versa.
On a historical note, it’s rather tragic that no American and French lenses are being made anymore, and that current German lenses are not nearly as good for portraits as the best ones from the past. In Japan there is at least the very good Fujinon-C. At the time of writing, only Cooke in Great Britain did a serious effort at making a portrait lens. If we can’t afford or don’t want their lens, we should at least send them our moral support for their courage and dedication. Given that most people are interested in looking at good photos of people, this global predicament is weird. Would it be a matter of education?
Let’s finish by listing my favorite portrait lenses, a bunch that I call “the seven samurai”: 150mm Lanthar; 150mm Xenar (f4.5); 203mm Ektar; 210mm Heliar; 210mm Ysarex (f4.5); 240mm and 300mm single coated Ronar. Each lens in this group is top notch while the group as a whole has sufficient variety in personalities and focal lengths. Without much change of the overall group quality, one could swap focal lengths of given lens types.
Last but certainly not least, remember that despite this long story about lenses, expression and composition are more important for portraits than the choice of lens is. Choose your lenses with care, but then throw my review out of the window and pay all your attention to your model—and to your creativity!
Ansel Adams (1980) The camera. Boston, Little Brown.
Steve Simmons (revised ed. 1992) Using the view camera.N.Y.
Numerous lens test have appeared in the magazine Viewcamera.
Brief introduction to large format by Ken Lee
Bokeh by Shuler
Bokeh tests of 200-240mm lenses by Perez
Vintage lenses by Jim Galli
Serial numbers and years
Brochures of lenses
Cooke portrait lens
Sharpness tests by Perez and Thalmann
Annotated sharpness tests of Ektars by Perez
Best modern general purpose lenses according to Thalmann
Repairs at S.K. Grimes
French site on LF photography and lenses
Thank you to my friends, ex-girfriends, and a couple of paid models for sitting through my tedious test sessions. Also thanks to critical readers of the first version.