View Full Version : lens sharpness and clarity

Herb Cunningham
25-Oct-2003, 08:18
I had a long conversation with one of our more famous camera makers, and he said that if one is using f16 or smaller, the new lenses do nothing for you in terms of image clarity or sharpness. We did not get into acutance, and other things that are somewhat subjective, but it leaves me with the question. Why would you pay $1800 for a new model schneider that is available as a goertz or eastman in the used market for $500? I am speaking of mid length 5x7 lenses, say 180mm to 270mm. This question makes the assumption that the lens design is the same, i.e. same number of air contact surfaces and a basic design, say a tessar.

Donald Miller
25-Oct-2003, 08:31
The greatest advantage to a new lens design, in my opinion, is multicoating. I shoot a 8 1/4 inch (210 mm) Dagor on my 8X10. The lens is blazingly sharp. The cost was $230.00.

Ernest Purdum
25-Oct-2003, 09:18
Hooboy! Big question. Besides multicoating, which is indeed an advantage, though not as big an improvement as single coating is over no coating, a new lens comes mounted in a new shutter. This is important to those to whom the lens is a tool used to make a living. In addition to dependability, the new shutter will probably offer greater accuracy.

Many people buy new cars even though they know that depreciation startsd at the end of the car dealer's driveway. The rest of us can be thankful they do, because otherwise there would be no used cars available.

There are much bigger advantages to new lenses once you move away from the moderately long Tessar or similar types you mention. Recent shorter length lenses offer greater coverage, larger focusing apertures and/or usability over a wider range of distances, in addition to to multicoating and new shutters.

Bruce Watson
25-Oct-2003, 09:20
If it's the exact same design, the only thing you gain is the coatings, a gain that can be considerable. The coated and uncoated lenses may be equally sharp, but the coated lens will be show more contrast and be less prone to flare problems.

Coatings give you more options. Because the light transmission through an element is much greater with a coating, you can use more elements and have more glass-air interfaces. If you can use more elements, you can make a lens that improves on many of the abberations, especially the higher order aberations. You can also get bigger image circles with modern lens designs.

What I did was to buy new if I couldn't find the lenses I wanted used. I ended up with a mixed set, from a new Schnieder 110mm SS-XL to a 1950s 14" Goerz RD Artar in a Compur #2 shutter. Both designs deliver outstanding sharpness and stunning images. If only the photographer were equal to the task ;-)

So, if you can find a lens that does what you want on the used market, and it's coated (single or multi), go for it. Spend the "extra" money on film...

John Kasaian
25-Oct-2003, 09:44
I've had a similar obseration. The only currently manufactured mc lenses I have are a pair of Nikkor M in 300 & 450mm. Beautiful lenses, though my 50+ year old sc 14" Commercial Ektar(all these lenses are tessars BTW)is very much their equal and even surpasses the nikkors when wide open---f6.3 opposed to f9! The image circle too, is substantially greater on the 14" C.Ektar than the 300 M. The biggest thing IMHO going for the Nikkors are their modern, light copal shutters and multicoating. I'll stick with classic glass unless there is a pressing need to do otherwise(as was the case with my Nikkors)

neil poulsen
25-Oct-2003, 09:52
Personally, I still like to stick with modern optics and modern coatings. Based on totally anecdotal data, I think one gets better color fidelity. I have an acquaintance who shoots 8x10 with a 12" or 14" Commercial Ektar, and his color photographs definately have that 50's look. Older lenses are also susceptable to fungi that may not be that obvious when first purchased. I got nailed by fungi in two older lenses I had purchased, a 120mm Angulon and a 12" Goerz Red Dot Artar. Needless to say, it made them more difficult to sell.

For cost versus benefit reasons, I've standardized on Symmar-S lenses. They're sharp, yet affordable. Perhaps I wouldn't see that much difference between these and current models, since I tend to photograph at f16 or smaller. Based on input from a Schneider technician, nor do I think that multi over single-coating adds that much value. Still, these Schneider lenses can also develop Schneider-itis, little white specs that form on the inside of the barrel. After a point, I can't believe that these specs won't have an effect on image quality, despite Schneider's claims.

You mentioned purchasing new. Provided a modern lens is in good shape and has the appearance of being treated with care, I have no qualms about purchasing used. It's much less expensive.

Ron Bose
25-Oct-2003, 10:13
Isn't there any issue with sample consistency as well ?

With modern manufacturing the optical performance is much more consistent due to better quality manufacture and quality control procedures.

Whereas in lenses from the early 1900s do you not have to try out each lens on an individual basis ? I.e. one lens will be a dog but another may be a peach ??

Ted Harris
25-Oct-2003, 11:01
There is no way to answer this question in terms of generalities. You need to compare two or more specific lenses to get any meaningful answers.

Just saying the lens design is the same is not enough. Even within a specific lens series (e.g. Rodenstock Apor Sironar N or Schneider Apo Symmar) there are many many small design changes made over the lifetime of the lens series manufacture.

Clearly there are instances where the observations of the original poster are accurate but, without further information, they are no more than ancedotal.

David A. Goldfarb
25-Oct-2003, 11:08
I tend toward modern (1970s and later) lenses for 4x5", which I enlarge, and classic lenses for 8x10" and 11x14", which I contact print. I prefer the look of certain classic lenses (mostly Heliars and Dagors), but they don't always hold up as well to enlargement and weren't necessarily designed to.

If you want a modern lens on a budget, there are some great deals to be had on single coated f:8 Super Angulons and Symmar convertibles that are really fine lenses in good shutters, often under $500. I have a single coated 150/4.5 Xenar, and though it is generally thought to be a budget lens that is quite sharp. It's not as nice as my 135/3.5 Planar, but it's much more compact, takes a smaller shade, and I can close the camera with it mounted, so I often use it for that reason.

Jim Galli
25-Oct-2003, 11:25
I'm going to have to add an observation here. I see LF as an area where the baby boomer generation that has come of age and is monied can fight against our modern world of instantaneous gratification and poor quality. Many folks are at that point where they can throttle back and enjoy some years in the pursuit of excellence. That said I think ignorance and learning curve kick in. You've got the money and someone tells you an Ebony and a 110XL are "the best" so that's what you go for. The knowledge that diffraction limitation is a great equalizer and that there are MANY beautiful older professional lenses out there comes later for some, and I have to say after attending a recent work shop, never for others. For a lot of folks the only way they can be sure of getting the quality they're in pursuit of is to buy something new that says Schneider-Kreuznach or Rodenstock on it. For others of us trying different things is part of the adventure and adds to the fun.

25-Oct-2003, 12:33
IMHO.... Besides the aforementioned issues of coatings and shutters, a lot of advances have been made in glass technology and production techniqes. There are many more glasses available to the designer now than when "classic" lenses were made. Software for optimizing lens design is readily available for your home PC which would have required a mainframe in the not-very-distant past (and which was not available at all when the "classics" were designed). And techniques now exist to mass-produce aspherical surfaces. Look at the advances made in recent years in wide-angle lenses for 4x5. I think that's where the difference between "then" and "now" resides. Everything being economically driven, I don't think you'll see much change in longer lenses for [the relatively small market of] 8x10 and larger. And in that realm the classics are just fine.

John Alexander Dow
25-Oct-2003, 13:29
When I started in LF about a year ago it was because I baulked at the price of a new 40mm Hasselblad lens. I did not know very much then about what is available and I wanted the surety of quality that you get if you buy new. The camera was not so important but Robert Price was sure I needed and Ebony RSW so I got one to go with a 80mm SS XL and 150mm symmar.

With these two as a "base level" which are sure to deliver sharp pictures (which was the point of LF in the first instance) I am now much more interested in older lenses as I love the effects that one finds on older photos.

So I paid for insurance really in an arena I was not fully familiar with.

Had I not taken this route I might still be wondering...


Gene M
25-Oct-2003, 20:54
Sharpness, clarity, who cares ? Gimme an interesting photo.

N Dhananjay
26-Oct-2003, 20:01
Even coatings are not that much of a big deal if you pick your battles with care. A Dagor has only two air glass surfaces and four cemented surfaces - you would find it quite sharp even in uncoated specimens. In fact, I'd wager that single coated Dagors (and related kinds of designs) would fare better than multicoated multi group lenses with many more air-glass surfaces. Multicoating really made a huge difference to 35mm cameras - it made the multi-element, multi-group zooms and retro-focus lenses actually feasible, but IMHO, its beenfits in LF lens design is much more modest. Use a lens shade and I doubt you could pick out what lens made what picture, especially in B&W. Color rendering, as someone mentioned earlier, might make the job easier in color. As far as higher order aberrations etc are concerned, if you can actually see that kind of stuff in the minimally enlarged LF negative, you must have a great set of eyes. Kerry Thalmann and Chris Perez did a bunch of lens tests and basically reached pretty much the same conclusion as your famous camera maker.

The one area where modern designs shine is probably in the wide angle designs where they have made considerable strides, relative to the older generation of lenses. The greater coverage of the Super Angulons etc have delivered much wider lenses (with much better performance) than were available earlier. But in general, older designs hold their own remarkably well - the energetic market for used Dagors, Protars, Artars etc should attest to that.

Quality control is a bit of a company level kind of affair. You would find veyr little variation in the excellent Eastman Kodak lenses, for example. But other designs do show greater variation - the Turner Reich is often cited as one instance. So, when dealing with older lenses, it calls for a much greater amount of research and digging for info, whereas the modern glass may not require that. But if you know what to look for, sampling variation is not necessarily an issue.

Cheers, DJ

N Dhananjay
26-Oct-2003, 20:02
An error in my previous posting - Dagors have four air-glass surfaces, not two.

Martin Patek-Strutsky
27-Oct-2003, 00:07
As my starter kit in 4x5 I recently bought a Super Angulon MC 8/90, Symmar-S MC 5,6/240 and Sironar-N MC 5,6/150, all in near mint condition for altogether USD750.

Looking at prices like that I can see only romantic reasons or the need for special effects to justify using historic lenses.

It seems to be much easier to find such bargains on Ebay in Europe as in the US...

27-Oct-2003, 07:20
Although I love the look of my old (coated) Dagors, I disagree with the basic premice that there's nothing to be gained from a "new" lens if both are stopped down more than f:16. It may well be true in the center of the image, but on the edges, the newer MC lenses will produce much better contrast, and quite possibly better sharpness due to a flatter field than the older designs. It may not be much, but there are occasional conditions for which it will make a difference.

John Kasaian
27-Oct-2003, 07:54
FWIW, I don't really thnk the issue is whether or not there is nothing to gain by using modern lenses, but whether or not the gain is significant to justify buying a brutally expensive (for most of us)lens. I think that would have to depend on a requisite set of circumstances presenting themselves that demands using the latest technology. Most decent lenses of any vintage will provide excellent contact prints---we've won the war through the use of overwhealming brute image size---using a 22nd century "wunderlens" would be like buying a ferrrari testa rosa to commute to work on an L.A. freeway, it'll sure get you there, it'll be fun and you'll get plenty of attention but you'll never get to put all that horsepower you've paid money for to use while you're in gridlock and under the watchful eye of the Highway Patrol.

A Pro on the otherhand, might have to assure his clients by using gear thats atate of the art, and new technology in reproduction and display prints could likely require all the advantages that glass recently shipped from Rodenstock, Nikkor et al... can provide. There are no doubt other reasons, but I think thats the gist of the arguement as I see it. Until NASA, Eddie Bauer and Williams-Sonoma put me on thier payrolls, I'll stick with my Kodaks, Wollensaks, and Goerz(and love every minute of it!)

Frank Petronio
27-Oct-2003, 21:51
After buying Leica and Hasselblad lenses, large format glass doesn't look so expensive, at least in 4x5 sizes. $500 on eBay buys a slightly used beautiful late model mid-range German 4x5 lens - I think that's a great deal.

Emmanuel BIGLER
29-Oct-2003, 09:38
There is an advantage for long focal lenghts in large format to use modern lens designs even if they are stopped down to f/16 or smaller. Although classical geometrical aberrations are reduced to a small amount at f/16 (where diffraction starts to compete with residual aberrations), the longitudinal chromatic aberration is not influenced by stopping down the lens. Simply the paraxial focal length varies with the wavelength. So even if you are stopped down to the diffraction limit, a newer lens design has better correction of chromatic aberration due to newer glasses that were not available to the designers in the past. This is important for long focal lengths. For wide-angle lenses, new glasses and aspheric surfaces allow better coverage and reduced weight for the same level or a better overall quality. For standard lenses @70 degrees or so of coverage, I agree that the imporvement might be less visible except for multicoating and resistance to flare.