Since the trans-continental relocation of the global behemoth that is Paul Amyes Photography (PAP) I have been hunkered down in the research lab deep in thought. To continue with my quest for photographic world domination I have been contemplating a new fine art project with a commercial bent that trades heavily on nostalgia for a bygone age.
While studying photography at art school I took two units in fine art photography and I was particularly taken with alternative processes, namely gum bichromate and cyanotypes. I experimented with taking digital images and then turning them into an A4 sized negative and using that to contact print onto papers that I had coated. To tap into that nostalgia thing and enjoy a retro photographic process I initially thought about capturing the new images on large format and using the resulting negative to make the contact print. There is something very beautiful about a large format contact but this is countered by the very damaging effect a large format camera has on your bank account. So this made me think about using digital capture and then making a negative from the file. It is not particularly difficult and at art school I experimented with paper negatives and ones made using overhead projector sheets. The paper negatives were best oiled with WD40 and they produced an image which was softened by the natural fibres of the paper. OHP transparencies gave a sharper image but the out put still looked like a modern image. Then I had a brain wave. What if I took older lenses and adapted them to a modern high-resolution digital body. The Sony A7r is now appearing on the second had market at very reasonable prices, and these will continue to fall as Sony introduces a new updated model every other week (a slight exaggeration perhaps). But before I splashed out some serious cash I thought I better find out whether the motley collection of old lenses I’ve got tucked in a shoe box in my equipment cupboard would be suitable. I decided to put them on an m4/3 camera and see how they perform.
The test was relatively straight forward. I’d use my Olympus EM1 as the camera body and mount the lenses using the relative adapters. The camera would be hand-held with the image stabilisation set manually to the focal length. The camera would be in aperture priority at base ISO (which for the EM1 is 200) and I would shoot wide open and then stop down full aperture stops until f8 – any smaller aperture and the results would be clouded by diffraction. I’d use focus peaking to focus accurately and I would refocus after every aperture change to avoid focus shift.
The lenses were:
Olympus Zuiko 50mm f1.4 MC. This was the third version of the lens and was introduced in 1984. I had fond memories of the lens and it produced some cracking images for me.
Olympus Zuiko 35-105mm f3.5-4.5. This lens was introduced in 1983, which is when I bought it. It cost me a small fortune, if I recall correctly £189, which at that time was two weeks wages. At the time I thought it was worth it and I used it as my every day do anything lens right up until 2003 when I switch to Canon because I could no longer get my OMs serviced. This was a lens that figured prominently in my plan.
Voigtländer 35mm f2.5 Color-Skopar. Introduced in 2004 this was another favourite lens, it was tiny, and very sharp. I loved using this with Ilford Delta 400 on my Bessa R2. Again a lens I had very high expectations for.
Voigtländer 75mm f2.5 Color-Heliar Introduced in 1999 this was a lens I feel I should have liked. It is wickedly sharp and with its ten aperture blades produced wonderful bokeh. But for some reason I just did not click with it – I think it was the minimum focusing distance which made it possible to only get a head and shoulders portrait rather than a full headshot.
The images were shot with the camera in RAW and then opened up in Lightroom and examined at full screen size and then at 100%. There was no post processing done. The results weren’t really a surprise, but they were somewhat disappointing as they revealed some uncomfortable truths and some pleasant surprises. Here are the results:
Olympus 50mm f1.4 – wide open there was significant colour fringing, low contrast, and overall the image was soft getting worse at the edges. Stopping the lens down brought about significant improvements – the chromatic aberration all but disappeared by f8 and the corner sharpness really started to improve from f4. The bokeh was nice and smooth. A good start.
Olympus 35-105mm – at 35mm and wide open the colour fringing very apparent even before pixel peeping at 100% and it didn’t improve any by f8. At 105mm and wide open the CA was significant but it does improve by f8, but is still visible. Edge sharpness was nothing to write home about wide open but by the time it was stopped down to f8 it did improve. Surprisingly the bokeh was better than expected at both extremes of the focal range.
35mm Color-Skopar – chromatic aberration was quite well controlled wide open and just improved as it was stopped down. The edge sharpness was slightly soft wide open but improved dramatically once stopped down to f4 and kept improving past that. Bokeh was a bit iffy, something that Voigtländers are often criticised for on the inter web.
75mm Color-Heliar – straight off the bat this was a very strong performer and for me was a real surprise. Wide open CA was virtually non-existent and disappeared by f4. Edge sharpness was very good from f4 onwards. The bokeh was just gorgeous. The 10 aperture blades produce very smooth tonal transitions and lovely perfectly round bokeh balls.
Of the 4 lenses the poorest performer is the 35-105 zoom. In reality this should be expected in a thirty year old zoom lens design, but it is disappointing to me as I had such a high regard for this lens based upon my extensive use of it. Countless rolls of Fuji Velvia and Kodachrome 64 over a twenty year period had convinced me that it was a good performer. However slap it on a digital camera and the results are quite frankly so-so at best and absolutely pants at worst.
The 50mm has a lovely creamy dreamy quality to it that would make it very suited to fashion and beauty portraiture. The 50mm has a very nice smooth tonal fall off which now makes me question whether sensor size is as significant factor for this and that perhaps lens design also plays a considerable part.
The 35mm Color-Skopar was OK – meaning it wasn’t good or bad. I’d be interested to see what it does on a full frame sensor.
The 75mm Color-Heliar was a revelation, and it is certainly the standout lens here. It was when introduced an underrated lens when introduced with the Bessa rangefinder film cameras and was quickly replaced with an f1.8 version. But since then this lens has developed quite a following with people adapting it for use on digital cameras. Voigtländer took a classic lens design, gave it modern glass and coatings, boosted the lens aperture blades to 10 and produced something rather special. For shooting studio portraiture it would make anyone look good. Definitely a keeper lens and quite possibly the kind of lens you’d buy a camera body for just so you can use it. If only the 35mm was that good – I’d go out and hit the camera shops and dent the credit card straight away.
Modern lenses are technically very good, most of the problems with vignetting, corner and edge sharpness and colour fringing are now corrected in camera by software. They are sharp and contrasty which appeals to a great many photographers who have only known digital imaging. The legacy lenses are sharp in the centre of the frame, but they have lower contrast and this doesn’t give the edge acuity that many digital photographers want. But this also makes them more attractive because they have character and render images in a more 3D way with smoother tonality. The test has shown that the Olympus Zuiko 35-105mm is really not up to the demands of a high-resolution digital sensor. Nostalgia destroyed by the brutal reality of modern digital imaging. The other three lenses could stand some further experimentation.