View Full Version : Are Process Lenses Good for Taking Portraits?

nick rowan
22-Feb-2000, 17:25
Are process/flat field lenses, such as the Schneider G-Claron, Rodenstock Apo-Ro nar (contemporary) or Goerz/Schneider Artar or Red Dot Artar (classic) ok to use for taking portraits, at say 5-10 feet from the camera? I have read and heard that many large format photographers use these lenses in the field for shooting landscapes and scenics--primarily because they are smaller and lighter and thus easier to transport--but am wondering if these same lenses will deliver OPTIMAL results when focused at much closer camera-to-subject distances, such as in a p ortrait situation, in both a studio setting as well as on location. Some people have told me that the flat field lens is designed for producing optimal results ONLY at 1:1 (and moreover, only at f/22); others have told me that this is not t rue, and that a good "copy" or "process" or "flat field" lens--as long as it is of good quality--will work excellently at any focused distance (and at several a peratures of f/22 and smaller). I am more aware of the latter group defending th ese lenses in their use for infinity-work (ie for landscapes, vistas, scenics et c) than for all the focused distances BETWEEN infinity and 1:1, such as would be encountered in a half-figure portrait at 5 feet, for example. To that end, I wo uld be interested in hearing from anyone who has used the process lens for porta iture, not just for scenics. Is the process lens for this use just as good--ie j ust as sharp--as a "standard-design lens", such as the Rodenstock Sironar N or S or the Schneider Apo-Symmar? Or would the "standard-design lens" perform bette r than a flat-field lens for portaiture? Or, on the other hand, would the flat- field lens--precisely because it is optimized for 1:1 work--actually yield SHARP ER pictures than the standard-design lens, at such close distances? Finally, of all the process/flat-field/copy lenses available, which in your opinion do you think are the best (the sharpest, yielding the best tonality etc) or which do yo u like the best--taking into account of course the ultimate subjectivity of all such judgments. I will be using this lens primarily for 4 x 5 work as a long le ns (but possibly for 8 x 10 too) for photographing people--and am considering fo cal lengths of between about 300mm and 480mm.

jim Ryder
22-Feb-2000, 18:35
I have used a 150mm red dot artar to good effect in out door 3/4 portraits on a 4x5. Mine is extremely sharp with not too much contrast. Nice sharp liquid eyes, nice lines on the skin. These portraits are contact printed or enlarged slightly to 5x7. I would prefer a longer lens to get further away from the subject and to get better draw, but 150 works for now. I also have a nice 150mm 7.7 kodak anastigmat in a shutter which makes nice portraits. Even though uncoated it actually gives a littel more contrast and is almost just as sharp. The artar's strength is its sharpness which may or may not be a plus when attempting flattering commercial portraiture. But to capture the lines of emerging maturity it works well. I have no experience with top of the line modern optics to compare this to. If state of the art definition and sharpness is important to you and it sounds like it is you may want the more expensive lens. However, if there is any place where a picture can be too sharp, it is probably portraiture. Someone may want a sharper portrait than what an artar can deliver but I don't know who. Especially since very few portraits are enlarged very much.

Doug Paramore
22-Feb-2000, 19:24
Nick, The process lenses should exhibit excellent sharpness at portrait distances of five to ten feet even at larger aperatures. However, unless you really enjoy retouching I can't see why you want critical sharpness unless you are doing research on skin problems. Sharp lenses and large format negs are an awful combination for portraiture. At best, you could use a soft focus filter and take a little of the edge off, but that combination does not give the glow to skin tones that a softer focus lens if capable of. If you are going to use the lens promarily for portraits, why not get one of the variable sharpness lenses made for protraits. Just about any of the process lenses are sharp at closer ranges...they were made for reproduction of tiny letters and images in the printing industry. The Artars work well for scenics as do some of the other process lenses, but you need to do some testing. Some will have a focus shift at medium to long distances because they are optimized at close distances. It is not my intention to tell you what to use for portraits, but I sincerely believe that exteme sharpness is not the way to go. No one likes to see an image of themselves with every little flaw razor sharp. There is a difference in razor sharpness caused by the lens and the illusion of sharpness brought about by proper lighting and contrast. Good shooting, Doug

nick rowan
22-Feb-2000, 19:26

Thank you for your early reply Jim--I would be interested, of course, in hearing from anybody else... In response to your answer, I should elaborate on my original question by saying that I am planning to make 20x black-and-white fibre enlargements from 4 x 5 black-and-white negatives--so that is one reason why SHARPNESS is so critical in my lens selection. Secondly, perhaps contrary to "traditional" portrait aesthetics, I am going for a very "harsh" or "clinical" or relatively "unflattering" effect in these portraits, so I would like to get a lens that will provide enough contrast or "punch". Are the older- design Artars and Red Dot Artars--as well as the newer G-Clarons and Apo-Ronars for that matter--noticeably lower in contrast (due to their single-as-opposed-to-multi-coating) than a multi-coated lens, such that these lenses would not be appropriate for my needs? Or do you feel this can be compensated for in the film/print processing? But these issues of lens coating and contrast aside, I am still interested in general whether the flat-field lens can perform just as well or is just as appropriately equipped as the normal-design lens for shooting half or quarter-figure portraits.

C.W. Dean
22-Feb-2000, 19:31
Speaking as a professional portrait photographer, I can verify that optically these process lenses will make fine images at the distances you mention but for my purposes, they are much too sharp and worse much too slow. I have used up to 24" Artars for portraits both commercially and experimentally with success. The bulk of my work is sold to individuals and they dislike sharp, sharp details especially skin blemishes and flaws which are rendered in minute detail by the process lenses. Also, consider that most are no faster than f:9, then figure how much light you need to expose at f:9 knowing that you'll probably want to stop down a bit. I guess my point is that they are fine lenses but you need a lot of light, a lot of working space, a lot of bellows, and subjects who won't complain about the razor sharp detail.

nick rowan
22-Feb-2000, 20:59

Thanks alot for your reply.

I should have mentioned in my original question that sharpness is so critical in my lens selection because 1) I am making 20x mural-size fibre-based enlargements from 4 x 5 negatives and 2) deliberately going for a "non-traditional" harsh or clinical look in my portraits, with as much "unflattering" clarity and detail as possible. In addition to sharpness, I would like to get a lens that has adequate contrast or "punch". Do you think that the older non-coated or single-coated Artar or Red Dot Artar lenses--as well as the contemporary single-coated G-Claron or Apo-Ronar lenses--have enough CONTRAST to provide the result I am looking for? Or do you think that this lack of contrast--if there is one--could be made up completely in the film or paper processing (B/W)?

But getting back to the thrust of my original question--if you are saying that process lenses are perfectly fine for making portraits, why would photographers NOT use these lenses over "normal-design" lenses in these situations, given the fact that they are so much smaller, lighter, and less expensive? Or put a little differently, is there ever a time when a photographer would OPT DELIBERATELY to use a process lens for shooting a portrait, OVER using a normal-design lens? For the particular unique "look" or "effect" that it might yield, in contrast to the regular design? And if this is the case, exactly what might this AESTHETIC difference be between the pictures that these two types of lenses produce? (I have noticed a certain understandable "flattening" of space or volume so far in the 305 mm G- Claron I rented for my 4 x 5, but maybe I'm wrong about that.) Does the process/flat field/copy lens yield a different look than the normal-design lens, and if so can you describe or define what that look might be? Per your reply, would the process lens actually produce images SHARPER than normal design lenses--and thus would this lens be actually be BETTER SUITED than the normal design lens for making billboard-sized enlargements, as I am doing?

Your answers to as many of these questions as possible would be greatly appreciated--

Thanks alot.


Ellis Vener
23-Feb-2000, 00:09
I should think that your lighting will play a bigger part in the equation than t he lens choice (if you are choosing from modern lenses).

The Masked Informer
23-Feb-2000, 06:03
Process lenses are useless for portraiture, they're far too sharp! :-)

jim Ryder
23-Feb-2000, 09:02
Because you are working on the margin, I now believe you need the best, multicoated modern lens you can afford. For what ever reason, whether it is sharpness, contrast or draw your extreme application and expectation call for the best. No compromise no fear. I do notice that my artar is not as contrasty as other lenses I own. For your demand to capture skin tones in all their beauty I think contrast will be of utmost importance. It may be possible to adjust in the processing, but if the lens doesn't caputre the range it is gone. In your case I am surprised you are not moving up to 8x10 and greatly simplifying your problems. The magnification will be 1/2, resolution and tonal range greater and with an even larger camera your subjects may respond even better. If you have not already, look at Avedon's portraits, In the American West (I believe) which are also greatly enlarged. He used 8x10 and a very long lens. Learn how he did made these impeccable images.

Pete Andrews
23-Feb-2000, 12:20
With process lenses, we are talking about lenses made to the very highest standards. They are computed for higher colour correction than all but the most exotic of "normal" lenses, and for the very minimum of geometrical distortion. They are only cheap on the secondhand market because of this sort of snobbery. The cost new is what one would expect to pay for optics of the highest commercial quality. Neither is it true that they are more prone to flare. Their narrow acceptance angle probably makes them less susceptible to flare than many multi-coated general-purpose lenses. Besides, Nikkor have supplied all their process lenses with multi-coating for many years.

Put aside your glass prejudices and think about it. Until very recently, every image destined for reproduction, even at poster size, had to pass through one or more of these process lenses on its way to the printing press.

Paul Schilliger
23-Feb-2000, 15:48
Nick, if it's too sharp, and people get upset because they see every wrinkle and every pimple, you can always use a Sailwind "Glamour Soft" filter on the lens and have the "Imagon" ef fect: a sharp image and a diffused one on top of it.

Doug Paramore
23-Feb-2000, 22:57
Nick: Lens design can definately be a factor in contrast, more so than single or multi-coating of the lenses. Lens coating can be a factor if you direct light directly into the lens. The old Tessar design,which has been around forever, offers super contrast. It is a four element lens and plenty sharp for large format work. Even uncoated, it offered above average contrast. There was a time years ago when the process lenses offered superior sharpness over the other lenses, but that is no longer true with modern computer designed lenses. I own and use two process lenses, one of which is an Artar. I love it for it's old time precision and solid barrel mounting, but it is a pain in the behind to use in low light. Aperatures of f9 and f11 are about as wide open as most of them go. The apparent change in space and form in the negs from the lens you rented is probably due to change in focal lenght. A 305mm is normal for 4x5 portraits, as is a 360mm, but you need a lot of bellows extension. I think you will have to use a slower film at a 20x enlargment for finer grain. That would further dictate a faster lens for portraits unless you can put a lot of light on the subject. As mentioned by another respondent, contrast can be enhanced by lighting and development. Look at some of the work done by Hurrell and other Hollywood photographers in the '30s and '40s with uncoated lenses. They are wonderful, full of contrast and brilliance...obviously multicoating didn't make a difference as their lenses weren't even coated. They did however, use efficient lens shades and they lit with spotlights. I sincerely believe you would be better off with a modern lens of 305 mm for head shots or maybe a 250mm for half-length portraits. By modern I mean a lens made in the past 20 years or so. It will not need to be multicoated. Double these focal lengths for 8x10.(Also cost). I hope this helps. Doug

nick rowan
24-Feb-2000, 23:05
Thank you for all who replied. I have one more question, though--and that concerns the "look" of pictures produced by flat-field lenses vs. normal-design lenses. I recently did a test with my 4 x5 camera, comparing a 360mm Apo-Ronar, a 355mm G-Claron, and a 360mm Schneider Symmar-S, photographing the same person at about 5 feet away, with each of these lenses on 4 x 5 b/w film. I may be mistaken, or misled in advance by the phrase "flat-field", but I could have sworn that the pictures taken with the flat-field lenses flattened the overall space and reduced the three-dimensionality of the person's body and face in the picture. (I shot the person lying down on the floor.) The normal-design seemed to render the "volume" of the person's body adequately, while the flat-field lens flattened that volume and made the subject appear more two-dimensional, in the same way--for those who are knowledgable in art history--that Cezanne and Picasso flattened space in their paintings, by compressing the background with the foreground. Does this make any sense?? Has anyone else noticed this characteristic about flat-field lenses--particularly when using them to photograph people?

I don't want to make my subjects flatter--if anything I would like to accentuate their tactile mass, volume, weight, and physical presence. Should I rightly avoid using "flat-field" lenses as a long lens for my 4 x 5 camera and instead choose a normal-design lens, or am I completely mistaken in my observations of the pictures I took?

I would appreciate anybody's input on this. Thank you very much.

Nick Rowan

Doug Paramore
25-Feb-2000, 22:58
Nick: I cannot explain the difference you might see in the prints from using flat-field lenses. The flat field designation concerns the ability of a lens to focus on a flat plane and to keep the objects within that plane the same size and in focus. In reproduction work, the lens is used to copy flat work, such as photos and news copy onto a negative from which printing plates will be made. Many so-called normal lenses focus more on a curved plane. This is especially noticable with large format short focus or "wideangle" lenses. With the short focus lenses, the zone of focus is in a wide, sweeping curve. That is the reason for "focusing in" with the lenses, or focusing closer than the actual object to allow the edges to come into focus. The depth of field is used to bring the distant objects into focus. This could be less in the very latest designs, but it was a fact of life for the older wide angles. It is not a problem once you get used to working with wide angles. That is not what you asked and I drifted off the subject. I was just trying to explain the effects of flat field lenses. Flat field does not mean the actual flattening of an object by the lens. That is a result of focal length and distance to the subject. Hope this helps. Doug

nick rowan
1-Mar-2000, 16:36

Thank you very much once again for your detailed reply. I am sorry for not replying sooner, but I have been out of computer-range since last Tuesday.

Since posting my original question on the Large Format Q & A Forum, I have tried out a (Schneider) Apo-Artar lens (also a "process lens", but perhaps optimized at distances greater than 1:1), and detected less perspective-flattening than I felt was the case with the G-Claron and Apo-Ronar. I have also rethought my initial conclusions about the flat-field lenses, and now think that perhaps it is the fact that these lenses focus everything along the same plane as you say--instead of along a curve--that gives me the ILLUSION of there being a flattening of space. (I certainly never meant to say or suggest that the actual SHAPES of objects in the pictures were altered.) Maybe the difference between the flat-field and normal-design lies in the way the two types render depth of field. Or maybe it doesn't have anything to do with either of these factors, but with the fact that they are less tonally rich or nuanced optically, I'm not sure--I just feel there is something different about the pictures they produce vs. a normal-design lens, such as the Schneider Symmar-S, which I tested them against. Would you agree?

But as I said, the Apo-Artar exhibited less of this quality/these characteristics than the G-Claron and Apo-Ronar--and in fact was noticably sharper than these 2 lenses, so I am going to go with the Apo-Artar. In a word, I preferred the "palette" of the Apo-Artar.

Since you seem to be so knowledgable about lenses, could I pose another question to you? I would like to take pictures of people with my 4 x 5 camera, using a long lens, instead of the normal 150mm or 210mm. I want to use a long lens not because I can't get close enough to my subjects, but because I want to COMPRESS THE SPACE between them and the background, to DRAMATIZE the palpability of their physcial weight and presence, so to speak.

Do you know if a so-called TELEPHOTO-DESIGN lens brings about greater compression of space than a normal-design long focal-length lens, IN THE SAME FOCAL LENGTH? Once again, does the telephoto lens produce a different effect or look, than a normal-design in the same focal length? ( I know all about the fact that a telephoto lens requires less bellows, but am not concerned with any of that--I simply am interested in the "look" of the pictures.) Someone at a camera store recently told me that alot of commercial photographers in LA who shoot cars, use TELEPHOTO lenses on their large format cameras, to achieve a dramatic compression of space--but I negelected to ask him if these photographers chose the telephoto over a long normal-design specifically for its possible unique effect, or JUST to cut down on bellows draw. Thanks alot.


PS Which large-format process lenses do you have/like especially?