As I grow increasingly “long in the tooth” so to speak, I look back over the last twenty years or so since I first picked up a camera and reflect. I entered the professional arena of photography relatively late, being in my mid-twenties before I began to think about photography more in terms of a profession rather than simply an enjoyable hobby. Since then, it’s been a wild ride. I’ve used all sorts of lenses and have been fortunate enough to evaluate a host of lenses for published tests, many of which can be found right here on Digital Photography School. As of late, I’ve noticed a marked difference in the way I approach lens flaws in my reviews.
This has caused me to reevaluate how I approach not only my own professional lens tests but my attitudes towards my own lenses and personal photography.
Why do some of us expend our energy searching for a “perfect lens” and feel that a lens’s flaws are determinants of our work? This is the question we’re going to examine today.
Come along with me for a unique investigation of the attitude we often take towards lens flaws and why many of these individual nuances are completely paradoxical and can actually bolster the creative magnetism of your photographs.
A question of character
Consider for a moment what you might consider to be the “ideal lens.” Not in terms of focal length or aperture but rather the quality of the image it is capable of producing. Think about its sharpness and contrast, the way it renders colors, its vignetting, and distortion.
Naturally, I think many of us would like a lens that has maximum sharpness from corner to corner, crisp contrast, zero distortion and vignetting while producing true, rich color tonality.
Why do we think this way?
What I mean here is why do we feel as if a perfect lens equates to a lens which carries no inherent flaws?
I think we can all agree that issues such as massive chromatic aberration aren’t desirable in any situation. However, I suggest we should begin to embrace other behaviors present in our lenses more as inherent character traits that can enhance our photos rather than issues to be avoided.
Going further (and likely stepping on a few toes), the approach that lenses ought to present the scene or subject as optical perfection could be viewed as quite a photo-modernist attitude.
We find ourselves bombarded with highly-advanced digital cameras capable of enormous resolving power.
Naturally, and rightfully so, we seek out lenses that we feel will bring out the most potential from our cameras. And yet, many of these lenses tend to present themselves as benignly unobtrusive tools that only serve to channel light into the camera while adding as little flavor as possible.
These are new concepts for a new time that have not always been so, at least not intentionally.
An unfortunate byproduct of this “lens sterilization” approach is that many, especially those who are just beginning their journey as photo makers, feel a looming sense of inadequacy if their lens or lenses present themselves with so-called lens flaws.
This is a dangerously slippery slope that can often breed the notion of gear dependency over-reliance on one’s own creative opinion and self-expression.
Famous lens flaws
It’s arguably true that some of the best examples of the benefits of embracing the flaws present in your lens come from the recent resurgence of photographers opting to use vintage film lenses with their modern digital cameras. Not only are these lenses relatively inexpensive compared to more modern lenses, but they also carry unique characteristics that have come to be desired.
Case in point, the fabled Helios 44-2 lens.
The interesting thing about the Helios (and other vintage lenses) is that it offers a distinctive “swirly” bokeh that has become prized by portrait photographers and others.
Even more interesting is this swirl is brought about by the type of technical “flaw” with the lens elements, which results in the signature spherical aberration of the bokeh.
You can also approximately simulate this effect in Photoshop, which I describe here in this article.
There are, of course, other lenses that have been embraced due to their inherent optical qualities as of late. These include the cult classic Kodak Aero Ektar, the Zeiss Jena series, and the Lomography Petzval along with many others.
The Petzval, purposefully engineered to offer heavily swirling bokeh and vignetting, is especially interesting.
The bottom line here is there could very well be a predominantly apparent splitting of the schism with photographers choosing lenses that offer more inherent character. This makes for more unique photos as it is left to the user to determine the exact application where and when these lenses work best.
Embracing the imperfections
Let’s face it, there are many cases where we have to make do with the lenses we have, myself included.
I used my very first digital camera for years with only the “kit lens” included with the camera.
The lens wasn’t considered an upper-tier piece of glass, but it was all I knew and, for me, it was beautiful.
Looking back, I can’t find a fault other than my assumption that it wasn’t good enough because it was the lens that came in the box. This is highly revealing of the common mentality of today’s photographic climate. It’s quite easy to look at our gear as the scapegoat for what might be lacking in our photography simply, well…because.
There’s no denying that we all evolve as photographers and with that evolution, we must recognize that we will eventually outgrow our tools.
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t shy away from our lenses because they might exhibit properties that are undesirable by the common mentality of our age.
Your lens isn’t sharp corner to corner? It has a heavy vignette at its wide-open aperture?
Think about these problems from a practical standpoint for a moment. How often do you add in a post-crop vignette in Lightroom during post-processing? Do you ever add an intentional Gaussian blur?
These questions hint at a deeper insight into our own approach to photography. Could it be that the very characteristics that we desire in our photographs tend to be viewed with a negative connotation depending on the context?
What’s the endgame?
The purpose of these thoughts is to show that the merits of any camera lens are truly based in the eye of the beholder.
Sure, there are some poorly-made, un-sharp monstrosity lenses out there that hinder rather than help you make the photographs you want. At the time, many of the lens flaws we have been conditioned to abhor possibly aren’t as detrimental as we might think once we drill down and identify for what they are.
This is the main objective of this article.
It could very well be that the old cliche’ of “the best lens is the one you have with” carries with it connotations which extend past mere practical convenience. This is especially applicable if you are new to photography.
As a professional photographer who has used some of the best modern lenses on the market, I can tell you my favorite lenses have been those that fit my own proclivities, regardless of their inherent flaws and quirks.
So I will leave you with this bit of hard-learned wisdom; there are no perfect lenses, just as there are no perfect photographs or perfect photographers for that matter.
All lenses have some measure of flaws, no matter their cost. Just because you might be using a “kit lens” or one that happens to have several so-called lens flaws, doesn’t mean that you can’t go out and make terrific photos as long as you shoot what makes you happy.