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Venus Laowa 15mm f/4.5 Zero-D Shift W-Dreamer FFS Review

Months after it came out, there is nothing really out there on this lens except for some stock factory pictures and writeups that are predominantly plagiarisms of promotional materials, “why don’t you get to the point” videos, and vapid clickbait reposts of said videos. There are a couple of decent reviews, but I don’t feel like they were really pushing the lens.

So in the Machine Planet tradition of going off half-cocked, I will give you the dirt on this after spending a day shooting the Nikon F version of this in -3º C weather with a Leica Monochrom Typ 246. No need to start simple, or even with the camera body on which this lens (ostensibly) was intended to mount.

A Typ 246 is an all-monochrome, FX, 24mp Leica mirrorless body that can shoot to 50,000 ISO without looking even as grainy as Tri-X. It has a short flange distance, which means that virtually any SLR lens can be adapted to it. It has pattern, off-the-sensor metering, so there is no messing around with exposure compensation or trying to figure out why shift lenses underexpose on Nikon F100s and overexpose somewhat on the F4 (yes, this is true). It also has an inbuilt 2-axis level that you can see in its EVF, a welcome aid when it is cold outside. These features mean that you can use a shift lens handheld. This lens is a ~22mm equivalent on APS-C (DX) nd I believe a ~30mm equivalent on Micro Four-Thirds. This probably is not a lens for MFT, since it is absolutely massive on any MFT body. In fact, it seems really big for a Sony Alpha body…

The physical plant

The first thing you ask yourself about this lens is, “how could a lens out of China possibly cost $1,199?” But this is a shallow (if not also culturally chauvinistic) observation. Your iPhone is made in China, and there is nothing wrong with its lenses. Or apparently, you iPhone’s price. Venus is something of a newcomer in the camera lens market, and it uses the designator “Laowa,” which is a reference to frogs in a well (not kidding… check out the Facebook page). The idea, they say, is to look up at the sky and keep dreaming. That, of course, is possible where the cost of manufacturing a zillion-element, double-aspherical lens is relatively low. The front ring reads “FF S 15mm F4.5 W-Dreamer No. xxxx.” FFS of course stands for “Full-Frame Shift.”

The 15/4.5 lens is available in a variety of mounts. Word to the wise: get the Nikon F or Canon EF version. Nikon has the longest flange-to-focal distance at 46.5mm, meaning that it has the shortest rear barrel, meaning the maximum compatibility with mount adapters (with simple adapters you can go from Nikon to any mirrorless camera, including Fuji GFX). Canon EF is a close second at 44mm. If you have an existing Canon or Nikon system, just take your pick. Your worst choice is buying this lens in a mirrorless version (Canon RF, Nikon Z, or Sony FE), since you will end up locked into one platform exclusively. Remember that this lens has no electronics or couplings, so adapting it is just a matter of tubes.

The lens comes packed in a very workmanlike white box, just like $50 Neewer wide-aperture lenses for Sony E cameras. This is a mild surprise, but nobody maintains an interest in packaging for very long after a lens comes in. Nikon lenses, after all, come in pulpboard packaging that strongly resembles the egg cartons your kids might give to their hamsters as chew toys. The instructions end with the wisdom, “New Idea. New Fun.” And that is very on-point: for most people, photography is about fun.

The lens is a monster, and it’s not lightweight. It feels at home one something at least the size of a Nikon F4 (and balances well on one, btw). On an M camera, you need to employ the Leica Multifunction Grip (or something similar) to effectively hold onto the camera (this combo can still break your wrist…). Weight as ready-to-mount on a Leica is 740g. For comparison, a Summilux 75 (the original gangster heavyweight for M bodies) is 634g. An 18/3.5 Zeiss ZM Distagon is 351g.

The front element is bulbous. And you must remember that you cannot simply set the camera nose down, since (1) the glass sticks out, (2) there is no filter protecting it from damage from the surface the lens rests on, and (3) this is a really expensive lens. This is also a lens whose lens cap you cannot, must not, ever, lose. It is solid, pretty, bayonets on, and probably can’t be replaced. It is not clear why – if you can mount a 100mm filter holder to the front of this lens – that such a holder is not simply built into the lens – if for no other reason than protecting the front element.

I mounted mine with a Novoflex LEM/NIK adapter, which is pretty much the only dimensionally accurate anything-to-M adapter. Proper registration is a big deal because a 15mm lens cell has very little travel from zero to infinity.

The Novoflex’s stepped interior suggests a place to stick a filter — since the lens has no front filter threads — but for reasons discussed below, this is not a big deal. And in the back of the lens, it’s gel filters – or nothing.


First, this lens is easy to handle wearing gloves. Which, given the temperature yesterday, was fortunate.

This is a little bit different from a traditional PC lens, on which turning a knob would make the shift. The Venus has a third lens ring – behind the focus (front) and aperture (middle). This is different from a Nikon PC lens, for example, where the aperture is front and focus is rear.

The shift ring cams the lens back and forth along the direction of shift, 11mm in either direction. You would think this would interfere with focusing or using the aperture ring, but in reality, it’s likely the only ring you would be moving on a shot-to-shot basis. This lens has such staggering depth of field that you will put this roughly on ∞ and forget about the rest, and you will probably turn it to f/8 and leave it there. Shift is locked with a knob that looks like the knob Nikon uses to shift the lens.

There is a small tab that locks the rotation of the shift mechanism, which can be set to 0 for horizontal pictures, 90 or 270 for verticals, and 180 if you are strange. It moves in 15-degree increments. A 28/3.5 PC-Nikkor does not have a lock, which occasionally can make things exciting if you start framing and realize that your shift is now 45 degrees from vertical (or horizontal).

The aperture ring has light clicks and is logrithmic (unfortunately) – each stop at the wide end is the roughly the same amount of movement, but things do bunch up at f/11, f/16, and f/22. It’s puzzling in this price range.

The focus ring has a short throw, infinity to 1m being about 1cm of travel. Set it and forget it. If you’re looking at pictures on the net and wondering why the focusing scale makes it look like the lens focuses “past” infinity, it’s a mystery.

  • At the hard stop and no shift, the lens is indeed focused at infinity. But the scale is off.
  • At the hard stop and shifted, the focus is still correct at infinity.

I verified optical focus at the stop both on a Nikon F4 with an adapted red-dot R screen (grid/split prism/f<3.5), the Nikon F4’s phase-detection AF sensor, and with the Leica.

To understand the strangeness of the Venus focusing ring, consider that in an old-school, manual focus lens, you typically have three things in synch for “infinity.”

i. The lens is at its physical stop, meaning you can’t turn the focusing ring to make the optical unit get closer to the imaging surface. This is normally an inbuilt limitation. It is not typically a critical tolerance on a lens due to the two adjustments below.

ii. The lens is optically focused at infinity, meaning that an infinitely distant object is in-focus on the imaging surface. This is usually a matter of shimming the optical unit or in some lenses or using a similar adjustment for forward/backward position of the optical unit.

iii. The focusing scale reads ∞. In the old days, this was simply a matter of undoing three setscrews, lining up the ∞ mark with the focus pointer, and then tightening the screws. If you are a super-precise operator like Leica, your lens stop/focusing ring/scale are made as one piece and so precisely that no separately applied focusing scale is required.

When a manufacturer of modern autofocus lenses (or even high-performance manual telephotos) is confronted with design constraints, it generally omits the relationship (i), the physical stop, and (iii) the infinity mark. It will do this on telephotos (like the 300/4.5 ED-IF Nikkor) because heat-related expansion might otherwise prevent a telephoto from actually focusing on a distant object. With AF lenses, hard stops are not the best for the fallback “hunting” mode — and with the user relying heavily on AF anyway, there is no need to inject another thing to check in QC. By the way, on a lot of AF lenses, the focus scale is basically just taped on – eliminating the setscrews.

Cheaper lenses, like the Neewer I-got-drunk-and-bought-it-on-Ebay specials, don’t really couple any of these things precisely. The stop is set so that you can optically focus past infinity and yet when the lens is optically focused at infinity, the focus scale might read somewhere between 10m and the left lobe of ∞.

For reasons that are frankly baffling, Venus uses a different idea entirely, which is to match the collimation and the stop – the hard part – and yet to omit matching the focusing scale. This provides no ascertainable benefit unless the focusing ring is not just a ring but an integral part of the focusing mechanism. I don’t see any setscrews, so maybe this is the explanation. And really, something in this price range should have things line up, even if it means adding one more cosmetic part to make the focusing scale adjustable.

On the surface, this design choice is frustrating to perfectionists and degrades the value of the focusing scale. That said, in 99% of pictures you take with this lens, you’re going to set it to the hard stop and get more than sufficient depth of field for close objects just by virtue of stopping the lens down.

If you are reading this, Venus, the focus scale design needs to be fixed.


There was nothing remarkable about shooting this lens, which is a good thing. As long as you realize it has no electronic connections or mechanical control linkages to the camera it… works like any Leica lens.

They used to advise that PC lenses had to be used on tripods. That was true when (1) cameras did not have inbuilt electronic levels and most did not have grid focusing screens, (2) viewfinders blacked out at small apertures and with shift, and (3) through the lens meters freaked out at the vignetting.

None of those conditions exist with mirrorless cameras, where viewing is off the sensor, focusing is by peaking, and signal amplification makes it possible to frame a picture even closed down to f/16. On the Leica Monochrom, for example, it is very easy to use this lens – no different from using any other with the EVF. The M typ 240 series cameras have inbuilt levels that are visible through the EVF; the later M10s do too. A visible level is absolutely essential if you are going to shoot this (or any shift lens) handled.

Speaking of the sky, the sweep of this lens, its vignetting, and its self-polarization mean that in many pictures, the sky will be darker than you expect. Most people will not mind. I suppose you could mount a 100mm filter to the front or a gel in the back, but this is highly dependent on what you are trying to do, your tolerance for the expense, and the light response of your camera.

One thing you begin to realize is that if you switch from a 28mm PC lens to a monster 15mm PC lens, you go from shifting exclusively up to avoid converging parallels – to also shifting down to cut down on excessive sky. You might think of the shift as the “horizon control” adjustment. The challenge is, at the end of the day, that this is still a 15mm lens with a super-wide field. Unlike a 28 or 35, you need to think about both the top and the bottom of the picture.

One other thing you will see in a couple of the pictures in the article is that a slight forward tilt of the camera can make things look slightly bigger than they should at the top. This is user error and the unintended opposite of converging parallels.

With wide lenses, you need to watch 3 axes of alignment – left/right tilt, front/back tilt, and critically, parallelism to the subject. This last point can be a major irritation with this lens since cameras don’t typically have live indications of whether you are square with the subject.


Note: WordPress scales pictures down and not in a flattering way; if you want pixel-level sharpness comparisons to other lenses, there are other reviews out there that do that.

The jury is still out here – at least until I get a sunny day and hook this up to an A7r ii, which is more representative of cameras most people would use with this lens. But the foreman is asking some of the right questions for the verdict we want. Field curvature is also something that needs more exploration. As it stands, though, the lens seems to be more than sharp enough for its intended purpose.

All wide-angle lenses have degradation toward the edges of the frame. Many cameras don’t have the resolution to make it obvious, but this is a well-known reality. Shift lenses have a bigger image circle, which gives them comparable performance (not stellar, but comparable) performance to normal lenses over a wide area. They are “average,” but average in the sense that they are reasonably sharp over the whole frame, not super-sharp in the center and falling apart at the edges.

Put another way, a shift lens for 35mm is essentially a medium-format lens. Medium format lenses do not have the highest resolution – because they don’t have to. But they do deliver their performance over a wider field. But by shifting the lens, you are bringing lower-performing edges of the field into the 35mm frame.

But… you protest… my AIA book has all of these perfect architectural pictures of xyz buildings.

No, it does not. First, they are tiny, and that with the halftone screens, they give off an impression of being much sharper than they are in reality. Second, if you look at an original print closeup – pixel-peeping on prints was never normal when people made prints – you’ll see that the pointy top of that building is fuzzy because someone used a 4×5 or 8×10 camera and shifted it to accommodate the tall object in the picture. But seeing it in a gallery or an exhibit, you would (i) be standing back from it and (2) paying attention to the center of the frame, which is where most pictorial interest is. That pointy top is in your peripheral, not central, vision. The central part still has adequate performance for the purpose.

For this reason, the sharpness of a shift lens can only really be understood in terms of shift lenses or shifted medium- or large-format lenses: if you leave a little sky above a tall building, you don’t have to confront so much the inevitable performance falloff in those last couple of mm of the frame. All shift lenses have this issue, and it goes both to illumination and sharpness. Go to maximum shift on anything, and you can expect image degradation at a pixel-peeping level in the top third of the image.

So what? This is the same thing that people with shift-capable cameras have faced since… forever.

And why do shift lenses exist? The answer is pretty simple; it’s easier to get to a good result than many types of post-correction. If you plan to do post-correction, you have to use a much wider lens than you normally would, you have to crop (because tilting an image in post makes the field a trapezoid that must be rectified), and you have to have an accurate measurement of the scale of the original object. On this last point, if you don’t know the XY proportions of a building’s windows, perspective-correcting it in post-processing will result in awkward proportions. So if you have a 42mp image that needs serious correction to make a tall building upright and correctly proportioned, you may end up with less than 20mp of image by the time the process is over. And since tilting magnifies the top edge of the image, you are magnifying lens aberrations in the process.

Post-correcting does have one advantage, though, which is that you can use a lens that performs highly across the frame. I do it a bit with the Fujinon SWS 50mm f/5.6 on a 6×9 camera: when you are working with a wide lens, from a 96mp scan, you have plenty of resolution to burn in fixing one degree of inclination. This is not so much the case with a 35mm lens on a 35mm body.

As of this writing, Leica just announced in-camera tilt correction for its 40mp M series cameras. This is an idea long overdue, since the camera knows what lens is mounted (or can be told) and the inclinations at the time of the shot. s.

You don’t escape post-processing with shift lenses, particularly when you have to fix skew between the image plane and the subject (rotation around the vertical axis of your body). PC lenses also have distortion to contend with, and simple spherical distortion sometimes seems less simple when the “sphere” is in the top half of the frame. But the corrective action is far, far milder.

The complication with digital and shift lenses is diffraction. With a shift lens, you need a small aperture to even out the illumination and sharpness, but that small aperture cannot be smaller than the diffraction limit without degrading sharpness overall. That’s f/11 on a Leica M246 and roughly f/8 on a Leica M10 or a Sony A7r II or A7r III series camera.

A further complication with all shift optics is dust. Small apertures, smaller than f/5.6, tend to show dust on the sensor. Shift optics have at least one extra place for dust to get into the camera body (the interface where the shift mechanism slides the two halves of the frame).

Sharpness seems to peak at around f/8 on the Venus, which is not surprising. The sharpness itself is good as well as consistent until the very margins of a shifted frame; I did not need to turn on sharpening on Lightroom. As with all lenses, apparent sharpness is higher on closer objects – because their details are bigger in the image, pixel-level aberrations are not as apparent.


The goal is “Zero-D(istortion).” The lens gets close – and better than most SLR lenses in this range, and certainly better than a lot of SLR PC lenses – but not completely distortion-free. Unshifted, it looks like a relatively mild +2 in Lightroom (the shot above is uncorrected except for slight horizon tilt). Shifted might be a little tougher to correct, but you can either create a preset for Lightroom or use some of the more advanced tools in Photoshop.


Yes. It has flare when light hits it wrong. Check out the picture above. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it is an irritation. Luckily, it does not seem to happen very often,

Value Proposition

There is a real tendency to abuse superwides in photography today, usually to disastrous effect due to the inability of photographers to properly compose pictures. Companies like Cosina/Voigtlander have fed into this, as has Venus, with about a dozen high-performing superwide lenses that would have seemed impossible just a few years ago. “Wide” used to mean 35mm; now “wide” tends to mean 24mm, and “superwide” is below 15mm. The Venus has all of the vices of a wide-angle lens, notably posing the question, “what do I do with all this foreground?”

By the same token, shift lenses are very specialized tools. Old-school shift lenses were the least automated lenses in their respective SLR lines; new ones are marginally more automated (mainly having automatic apertures), but they are staggeringly expensive.

The Venus somehow manages to combine the best and worst of all of this. You cannot argue with the optical performance as a shift lens, but the lack of automation (and frankly, ease of use) makes it just as miserable to use on a native SLR body as any old-school shift lens was. You’ll note where people complain about this lens in reviews, that’s what they complain about. I’m not sure that merits much sympathy; you know what you signed up for. What makes the Venus more fun is that it connects to mirrorless bodies that, by virtue of their EVFs, remove a lot of the irritation that would occur using the lens on a traditional SLR body.

Whether you will always be shooting 30-story buildings from 200m away is a matter of your own predilections, and that might be the deciding factor. Unless you are really good with wide-angle shots – or are a real-estate photographer in Hong Kong, you may not have a very solid (or at least somewhat economically viable) use case. But in reality, the market is not driven by professional needs. If it were, the only things that would ever be sold would be full-frame DSLRs, superfast 50mms, and the “most unique wedding I’ve ever seen” presets package for Lightroom.

Bottom Line

Pros: solid build quality, clever shift mechanism, wide angle of view,* reasonably low distortion, actually collimated correctly for its native mount.

Cons: non-linear aperture control,** odd (incorrect?) focus scale calibration,** facilitation of compositional errors you never previously imagined possible,* bulbous front element, no inbuilt filter capability, and a lens cap that only mounts one way.

*Qualities that would be inherent to any lens this wide with shift capability.

**Qualities that do not typically belong on lenses in this price range.

Leica Monochrom Typ 246 x PC-Nikkor 28mm f/3.5

People understand why tilt lenses exist – making super-expensive Canon DSLRs produce pictures that look like they were taken with a toy camera (or making the subjects themselves look like toys). No one knows, though, why shift lenses were once a thing. It’s all a matter of perspective.

The truth, from a certain point of view

Photography always has (and always will) present this problem: needing to fit a large object into a frame that is constrained by lens focal length. Conceivably, with a superwide lens you could, but then you end up with a lot of extra dead space in the frame. Which defeats the purpose of using large film or sensors.


If you want to get the whole thing in frame with the minimum number of steps or expenditure of time and money, your choices are to use a really wide-angle lens, tilt a camera with a more moderate wide-angle up, learn to fly. All of these  are sub-optimal. First, the really wide-angle lens is great in that you can capture the top of the object without tilting the camera. The problem is that making an engaging photo with a wideangle is actually extremely difficult – because it tends to shrink everything. Depending on how the sun is, it also stands a better chance of capturing the photographer’s shadow. Second, tilting up a camera with a more moderate wide-angle lens “up” turns rectangular buildings into trapezoids, which works for some pictures but definitely not others. Finally, learning to fly is difficult. But watch enough Pink Floyd concert films, toke up with the ghost of Tom Petty, or study Keith Moon’s hotel swims, and you might.

Do you skew too?

Assuming you are reasonably competent, you can correct perspective using software, by skewing the canvas. This is a take on the old practice of tilting the paper easel with an enlarger. This was a limited-use technique, generally practiced by people who could not use view cameras and tripods but still had to come up with a presentable representation of a tall object.  There were (and substantially still are) three issues here: crop, depth of focus, and dis-proportion. First, the crop came from the fact that tilting an easel meant that the projected image was trapezoidal and not rectangular, meaning that from the get-go, it had to be enlarged until the paper was filed. This still happens with digital. Second, the depth of focus issue is related to the fact that enlarging lenses are designed to project to a surface that is a uniform distance from the enlarger (i.e., projecting one flat field onto another). You would have to stop down the lens severely, or use a bigger focal length, which in turn required a taller enlarger column to maintain the same magnification.

The digitization of perspective correction uses computation to project the flat image onto a skewed plane, using interpolation and unsharp masking. This solves the apparent sharpness issue, but it degrades quality. Finally, dis-proportion comes from the fact that straightening converging verticals starts from a place where certain details are already compressed via the original perspective. For example, looking up at a tall building from a short distance, the windows look shorter (top to bottom) than they would if you were looking straight at the window from its own level.

So even when you manage to re-skew the canvas/field/whatever, you now have an image that is too “fat.” On enlarging paper, you would be forced to make a cylindrical correction to the negative (which is not practical in real life). On digital, there are specific transformations that you can perform to correct (for example, the adjustable ratios on DxO Perspective and Lightroom.

So skewing is a useful technique, but it’s still better to skew less.

Shifting your thinking: the mirror years

View cameras have used the concept of shift and tilt to adjust for situations where the viewpoint was wrong (shift) or depth of field was insufficient (tilt). Raising the front standard of a bellows-type plate camera was always standard practice to improve photographs of tall objects, especially in an era where wideangle lenses were not super-wide by today’s standards. Lens board movements were easy to achieve because there was always some distance between the lens mount and film plane in which to insert a mechanism to raise the lens relative to the film. And because there is no control linkage between the lens/shutter and the rest of the camera, you’re not losing automation. You never had any!

But these cameras were not small. The smallest bellows-type camera with lens movement features was the Graflex Century Graphic, a delightful 6×9 press-style camera. On many bellows-type cameras, though, there was no real provision for using a shifting viewfinder. The press-style cameras had wire-frame finders that provided a rough guide, but nothing could tell you whether the lens was actually level outside a gridded ground glass. Later in the game, the Silvestri H would present as the first camera with automatic finder shift, as well as a visible bubble level. Linhof used a permanently-shifted lens assembly (and viewfinder) on the Technorama PC series, and Horseman provided shifted viewfinder masks for the SW612P, though these were available only as “all the way up/down” or “all the way left/right.”

The shift mechanism, though, could not be adapted to SLRs easily due to three constraints:

  • Most SLRs lenses are retrofocal – meaning that the nodal point of the lens is more than the stated focal length from the imaging plane. It takes a ton of retrofocus to insert a shift mechanism into an interchangeable lens that has to focus past a mirror box. More retrofocus means bigger lenses So when perspective control lenses began to appear for SLRs (35mm and 6×6), they were huge. Maybe not huge by today’s standards, but a 72mm filter size is pretty big for a Nikon SLR whose normal filter size is 52mm.
  • To achieve an image circle large enough to allow shift around what is normally a 24x36mm image circle, it is necessary to use a wide field lens and stop it down severely (illumination with almost any lens becomes more uniform as it is stopped down).
  • Most cameras can only meter PC lenses correctly in their center position, wide-open. Where shift mechanisms eliminate direct aperture linkages to the camera, you’re back to the 1950s in metering and focusing – then shifting – then manually stopping down to shoot (now corrected by the use of electronic aperture units in $2K plus modern Nikon and Canon PC lenses).

Viewing is not a lot of fun with 35mm SLRs; when stopped down, PC lenses black out focusing aids (like split prisms and microprisms) and still require careful framing to keep parallel lines parallel. So you need a bright screen – plus a grid or electronic level. Suffice it to say, a lot of people regard perspective control to be a deliberative, on-tripod exercise when it comes to SLRs and DSLRs. Maybe it’s not.

A new perspective: full frame mirrorless?

So here come mirrorless cameras (well, they came a while ago). Now you can fit any lens ever made to any mirrorless body. The optical results may vary, but at least physically, they fit.

— Getting the lens in place

So I grabbed the nearest available PC lens I could find, which was a 28/3.5 PC-Nikkor. Not AI, not even from this century. Released in 1980, it is a beast. I plugged this into a Konica AR body to Nikon lens adapter, and from there into a Imagist Konica lens to Leica body adapter. Why all these kludgy adapters? The answer is actually pretty simple: the Imagist has the correct tolerance to make infinity infinity, and the Konica adapter does the same. This is not a small consideration where you might be zone focusing a lens.

Then I plugged this kludgefest into a Leica M typ 246 (the Monochrom). Because why not start with the OG of mirrorless camera platforms? Of course, you can’t use a rangefinder with a Nikon SLR lens, so I plugged in an Olympus EVF-2 (which is the ‘generic’ version of the Leica EVF-2.

— Getting it to work

The Nikkor has two aperture rings. One is the preset, where you set your target aperture. The other is the open/close ring, which goes from wide-open to where the preset ring is set.

I turned on focus peaking and set the preset for f/22 and the open/close for f/3.5. I was able to establish that infinity was correct.

Next, I stopped down the lens (both rings to f/22), expecting that just as on an SLR, the EVF would black out. Worked perfectly.

I hit the “info” button to get the digital level, and it was off to the races. The lens has a rotation and a shift.

— But how well does it actually work?

The functionality is actually surprisingly good. On a Leica, it’s just stick the camera in A, stop the lens down to f/16 and 22, and point and shoot.

The digital level obviates the use of a tripod or a grid focusing screen, and you really just frame, turn the shift knob until the perspective looks right, and there you go. There are a couple of limits

You can’t use maximum shift along the long side of the film, but the only penalty is a little bit of a tiny shadow in the corner. And that’s with a full-thickness 72mm B+W contrast filter. You get 11mm shift up and down (i.e., along the short dimension of the firm) and 8mm left and right (nominally; as I stated, you can get away with more under some circumstances).

Aside from that, there are some minor annoyances like making sure you haven’t knocked the aperture ring off the shooting aperture. Or knocking the focus out of position (it’s a very short throw…).

BUT THE DUST! And here is the rub – shooting at f/16 and f/22 brings out every dust spot on your lens. Normally, you would shoot a Leica M at f/5.6, f/8 max. But PC lenses – like their medium and large format cousins – are designed to max out their frame coverage at very small openings. So I had never cleaned the sensor on my M246 in four years, and I got to spend an evening working on a hateful task that included swabs and ethanol and bulbs and the Ricoh orange lollipop sensor cleaner.

— And how sharp?

Very. Diffraction is supposed to start becoming visible at f/11 on this combination at 1:1, with it showing up in prints at f/22.

Pictures stand up to the old 1:1 test, except in the corners where you have over-shifted along the long side. Recall that in lot of situations, two of the last bits of corner are usually sky, where a tiny amount of blur is not going to be of any moment.

How well this will work on a color-capable camera is a question, especially since lateral color would come out. But right now, this is posing the most acute threat to 6×4.5 cameras loaded with TMY.

End-stage​ Nikon manual focus


There must have once been an awkward moment when Homo sapiens neanderthalensis saw a gangly baby Homo sapiens sapiens and wondered, for the first time, what the future would be like. The Neanderthals basically merged into the surviving human line (or were eaten —  the explanation seems to vary now) — and essentially disappeared. But not before giving Europeans those nettlesome brow ridges and occipital buns.

Neanderthal shock happened sooner in the Canon world than it did for Nikon. Canon released its last mainline* manual-focus camera (the T90) in 1986. Canon did not then engage in a merging of genes but instead a lens-mount genocide. FD lenses faded fast as EOS came to rule the jungle. Nikon took a few more years to get there in 1990 with its last manual focus camera, though that camera lingered for five years on the market — and Nikon never really gave up on the F-mount. Well, not immediately. Like Neanderthals, some degree of interbreeding was available, but all that fur began to repel people after a while.  All of this was 23 years ago now.

By the way, when the last newly designed Nikon MF SLR went out of production, this was dominating the disco:

Nikon would in 2001 release the FM3a, but like the contemporaneous Beatles 1 album. It was just a rehashed FE2 with a new shutter. And that was so long ago that kids born then are old enough to vote. If you were an adult excited about the release of the FM3a, you’ve probably just passed out of the “18-35” demographic, if not past the “uncool 44” milestone. But don’t worry – Nikon has your back with retro-rerun cameras like that, the S3 and SP. Because it’s more fun to reminisce with cameras that were shiny and new (the first time) before you were born.

* By mainline, I mean serious and mass-produced. Yes, Canon made a craptastic T60 and Nikon made (or branded…) the FM10, but these were cameras for developing markets or students.

Detour into how Nikon’s product strategy: so many cameras

It would not be a Machine Planet article without a detour into some kind of editorial, and here is one: digital cameras did not usher in the age of meaningless upgrades and gimmicks designed to excite camera buyers into “one more body.” Film SLRs were the greatest feature-chase of them all: the lenses and the film are the ultimate determinants of performance on a film camera; everything else is metering, motor, and in some cases autofocus.

Consider that in 1980-1985, Nikon fielded five prosumer cameras based on the same platform (FM, FE, FM2, FE2, and FA), at the same time it fielded three based on an intermediate architecture (EM, FG, and FG-20), and a next-generation intermediate (N2000/F-501). All of these variations revolve around binary features/exclusions: needle meter or not; matrix metering or not; internal motor or not; program mode or not. And you thought Sony had a short attention span?

To be fair (why start now?!), by the sunset of Nikon’s manual focus cameras in 1995, post-processing was out of the reach of most people. Photoshop was at version 3 and barely able to handle the tasks it routinely handles today (it also fit on 5 Mac floppies…); scanners were insanely expensive; and if you had a bad slide, you were out of luck. If you had a bad negative, you were mostly at the mercy of Candice at Fox Photo to maybe run that one neg through the Fujitsu at N-N-N-3 instead of N-N-N-N (this person actually existed, was roughly my age, and was quite cute).

Even when Nikon made the jump to autofocus, this proliferation continued, with performance carefully meted out between models that used the same AF module (consider that the N50, N70, N4004, N5005, N6006, N8008/s, and F4 used the same module – with outcomes so different, you have to wonder what they were holding back.

But what was going on with the lenses?

Nikon’s lenses had a more tortured history that got off to its first wrong turn when Nikon started releasing metered prisms. That would have been the time to revise the mount to include aperture information (relative and maximum). Almost the entire subsequent drama of Nikon lenses was a product of trying to fix that: prongs, AI, AI-s, CPUs. When the Photomic metered prism came out in 1962, Nikon already knew that it was enough of a market force that it could have moved to a meter coupling in the body without losing its user base. For six long years, Nikon’s meter prisms required the user to set the maximum aperture of the lens on the meter, manually.

Actually, that didn’t just stop in six years. In 1968, Nikon introduced the FTn finder, with its semi-automatic indexing: mount the lens; turn the ring right, turn the ring left, done. The kludginess of this solution was only more glaring when companies like Konica were releasing lenses that could transmit maximum aperture information with a pin on the back of the lens (as opposed to a poky thing screwed onto its aperture ring) and using irises that were consistently linear, so as to allow automatic control of the iris. Granted, shutter priority did not predominate as a single-factor autoexposure method, but the point was that Nikon was well behind the curve. By 1971, Canon’s pro bodies had moved the meter cell to inside the body and were transmitting relative aperture position invisibly.

Nikon’s Aperture-Indexing (AI) lenses did away in 1977 with the prong, song, and dance because they fit cameras that only needed to know how many stops the selected aperture was away from wide-open. If anyone knew what the max aperture of the lens was, it was the user – not the camera. AI was in a way a step backward from the FTN, since it was only a system for transmitting relative apertures. And AI-only bodies turned out to be the full-employment act for repair people and machinists – because mounting an old lens on an AI body, absent modifications to the lens, the mildest of which was a new aperture control ring, would cause damage. AI ushered in a tiny doubled aperture scale, the Aperture Direct Readout (ADR) that some cameras could display in their viewfinders via a wedge prism, like the F2AS, F3, FA, F4, and F5.

The next iteration, AI-s (1981) brought Nikon almost up to date. It finally added a maximum aperture indexing pin to lenses (as well as a pin that transmitted the focal length to the camera. The only camera to fully implement this scheme was the FA, for its program and shutter-priority modes. There were three implementations of AI-s:

  • The FA used the full AI-s protocol for AI-s lenses, going open loop when shooting AI-s lenses (because it knew the maximum aperture, focal length range, and stop-down rate) and selected a program based on focal length. It went closed-loop when shooting AI and AI-converted lenses. By “closed loop,” I mean the camera reads the scene, stops down, takes another reading, and finally fires.
  • The FG and its replacement the N2000/F-301 all used a similar open/closed-loop setup, except these cameras could not read the focal length via the pin and thus only used one program (or one selected by the user)
  • The N2020/F-501 would act like an N2000/F-501, but it could switch to P-Hi from P-Auto when a CPU-equipped lens with a longer focal length was mounted.

Of course, with closed-loop exposure, the only value of AI-s is purely informational; the FA and FG/N2000 systems don’t really need to know maximum aperture to work. And when it comes to “Program” operation for AI lenses, is it really programmed in the sense of a neat little graph – or is it shutter speeds programmed against apertures stopped down against the maximum?

A tale of two cameras

Nikon’s technological peak came with the FA, pretty much the most sophisticated camera anyone had ever seen. Four (count ’em!) exposure modes – Program, Aperture, Shutter, and Manual, all powered by two MS-76 cells. Matrix metering with any native AI lens. Program shooting with any AI-s lens. LCD display in the viewfinder. And… it wasn’t quite ready for prime-time, developing a reputation for having flaky electronics and poor matrix metering. Or so people say.

In 1990, the successor to the FA, the N6000, hit the scene. The N6000 kept most of the FA feature set but swapped in some new features. Incoming ones included:

  • A 2 fps internal motor drive to replace the bulky MD-15
  • Auto film loading
  • Power film rewinding
  • Auto bracketing
  • Slow and rear-curtain flash
  • DX code reading
  • Automatic balanced fill flash
  • An “analog” (graphic) over/under-exposure display that pops up in manual mode
  • Exposure mode indicator in the viewfinder

You could argue that the N8008 was the successor to the “technocamera” FA, but the N8008 was an autofocus camera. Or you might have argued the F4, which is a cross between an F3, an MD-12, and an FA. The departures with the N6000 were somewhat less notable:

  • Elimination of interchangeable focusing screens (which were apparently not a popular feature of the FA)
  • A new reliance on CPU lenses (AF and AI-P), which allowed the correct aperture to show in the viewfinder without an ADR display
  • Loss of program mode for AI-s lenses (due to CPU dependency)
  • Loss of matrix metering for AI-s lenses (same)
  • Loss of a mechanical shutter speed
  • Loss of 1/4000 sec on the shutter
  • Change from MS-76 button cells to the somewhat less common CR223A/CR-P2.

But for all intents and purposes, this was “it.” Although Nikon continued to sell (not make) the F3 into the mid-2000s, the only newish manual purpose-built manual focus design was the FM3a, which is little more functionally than an FE2 with a shutter that could also be governed mechanically. It also followed a six-year period in which the N6000 was off the market.

On Earth-399, Nikon made manual focus cameras from 1959 to 2270. But that is also the universe in which “George Washington freed the slaves… Abraham Lincoln was regarded as the father of his country… and George Custer became president of the Indian Federation.” (“Superman… you’re DEAD… DEAD… DEAD,” 1971).

First in/last in (F3AF/F3)

Nikon had always managed to be both early and late to the AF party. The Nikon F3AF emerged in 1983, just three years into the F3 era. In fact, it came onto the scene at the same time the DE-3 High Eyepoint finder came out (this is the thing that makes the F3 into the F3HP, the most popular variant). The F3AF was the first camera to use electronic contacts to control lens focus, using a contact system that is eerily similar to current Nikon lenses – but with a motor-in-the-lens implementation that most people came to associate with Canon. The manual focus version of the F3 proved wildly more popular and became one of the longest-running Nikons in history, with a 20-year run. That is catalog time, not necessarily production time. When it was time for the F4, Nikon was playing catchup with Minolta and Canon on AF, whose amateur cameras were upping the stakes.

The forgotten Nikons (N2020/N2000)

In 1984-1985, just after the F3AF, Nikon made another pair of cameras, one with AF and one without. These were the N2020 (F-501) and its value-engineered little brother, the manual-focus N2000 (F-301). These were essentially a motorized version of the FG. According to lore, the N2000 was a last-minute decision from the accountants. That’s believable since it allowed the company to drop the FG and make two cameras on a common set of tooling. But it cannot actually be true, because the N2000 was the first of the two cameras to be released – and by a year.

Rather than the interchangeable screens of the N2020 (B/E/J), the N2000 had a fixed K screen (split prism plus micro prism collar), a LED shutter speed display (but no AF indications), and no automatic selection between programs (on the FA, this had required a post on AI-s lenses; on the N2020, it required a CPU to tell the camera the focal length). Common to both cameras, though, was a traditional control layout, a coreless drive motor for film advance, auto-loading, an exposure compensation dial, DX coding, plus pretty much everything the FG had – save the +1.5EV backlight button (the N2000/N2020 had an AE lock button that served much the same purpose). One mystery is why the N2020 was typically sold with an AAA battery holder rather than the N2000’s AA – since it is fairly obvious that the battery chamber was designed around AA. The smaller batteries required a special inset tray. But on the plus side, they do shave some height and weight off the assembled body. And the N2000/2020 is a pretty heavy body.

The N2000 is a camera with a level of elegance that we forget about: a large, bright, spartan viewfinder, a normal control layout, and a certain fluidity of shooting. Motor drives can be very important if you are left-eye dominant. Plus normal batteries that you can buy anywhere. Plus it has nice, sharp edges. It’s just not a camera that has the simulated chrome that is so popular with “the kids today.” And yes, by simulated, meaning that pretty much every “chrome” camera post-1980s has plastic covers.

But what about the N6006/N6000?!

The N6006 is something of a hidden gem in the Nikon line; it has most of the things you like about the N8008 (sans 1/8000 top speed, AA batteries, and high-eyepoint finder) in a smaller package. It is actually pleasant to shoot, though it does carry the stigma of using 223 lithium batteries. That might have actually made a difference a few years ago, when you could walk into a drug store and buy CR123As and 2CR5s, but today, all lithium batteries are more Amazon than the corner store.

The N6006 is one of many Nikons that share the AM200 AF sensor array (the others being the N4004/F-401,N5005/F-401s, N8008/N8008s/F-801/F-801s, and the F4. As you might have surmised from the AF performance differences in these bodies, CPU speed and motor torque are huge determinants of speed. The F4 is tops in both CPU and motor power, and the N4004 has the smallest brain and smallest muscles. The N6006 and N8008 are mid-range, and the N8008 has a more powerful motor.

The little brother, the N6000, loses some functionality compared to its AF twin: no spot metering (because that comes from the AF module), no built-in flash (spite?), and a slightly smaller LCD display (that omits the AF confirmation dot, obviously…). But all the same, it is much smaller and lighter. Oddly, it still does support (or for P and S, requires) CPU lenses. As an adjunct for occasional manual focus with otherwise-AF lenses, it is fine; in fact, examples of the N6000 sell for less than the price of any manual-focus-friendly interchangeable screen for any SLR or DSLR. So I would ask, are you better off…

Nikon SLR Accessory Finders


An action finder can be really useful for situations where it is hard to look into the viewfinder – like when you are wearing a space helmet.  Or oversized Italian sunglasses.  This is a picture I took with my DA-20 on a recent vacation.


This article [2007] came about because everything I have seen about accessory viewfinders seems to have been cut and pasted from manufacturers’ literature.  This article will (hopefully) help you determine whether you should use one or more of these.  Remember: Nikon sold one accessory finder for every 1,000 F-series bodies.  Although this is a convenient excuse for why the F6 has a fixed prism, it also should tell you that most people learn to live with the standard pentaprism that came with their camera bodies.

Action Finders: DA-2, DA-20, DA-30

The action finders are all huge and heavy (so not for wimps), but they give you some flexibility – like not having your camera jammed in your face.

In an SLR system, eye relief and magnification are closely related concepts.  The higher the eyepoint, the greater the distance the entire frame can bee seen from the eyepiece. The greater the eye relief, the lower the magnification.  The Nikon action finders are designed around an eye relief of 61mm (2.5 inches); the magnification is 0.6x.   Contrary to popular myth, an action finder does not produce a big, “TV-like” image.  It simply lets you see the whole viewfinder from a little bit further back.

Can you use an action finder all the time?  Yes and no.  Because it lowers magnification, the action finder makes it a little more difficult to use telephoto lenses.  If you are relying on focusing screen aids (such as split-image rangefinders, microprisms, etc.) or autofocus, the lower magnification won’t have much impact.  If you use groundglass focusing, life gets a little harder.

Do you need the expensive rubber eyecup?  Yes.  Beware of all the action finders missing this useful part.  Your eyeglasses are not in danger from the action finder eyepieces; rather, the rubber eyecup keeps your eye at roughly the right distance from the viewfinder.

Every viewfinder really has only one eyepoint: the eye position where the whole viewfinder is visible.  Nikon’s high-eyepoint pentaprisms are designed to focus when eyeglasses are pressed up against the eyepiece.

This means that diopter correction is relatively simple: you just pick the correction lens (or setting on an F4, F5 or F6) that works in one position.  You may notice that you use different viewfinder corrections for glasses and contact lenses with the same prescription; part of this is the difference in distance from the camera’s viewfinder system.

With an action finder, your eye could be anywhere in the range from right against the eyepiece to the magic 61mm from it.  Although this does not seem like a very big range, your eye works very hard to see the focusing screen as the distance increases and diminishes – much the same way that a camera lens needs to extend or retract much more when it is focusing on a close object.  The rubber eyecup keeps your eye at the “right” distance: the one where the average eye can focus comfortably.  If you don’t use the eyecup and press your eye up to the finder, you might find your eyes a little bit fatigued after a while. Unfortunately, the usual solution for this problem is absent: the action finders have no built-in adjustment and there are no accessory diopters.

The F3 action finder (DA-2) meters the same way that the F3 standard one does – it doesn’t.  On the F3, centerweighted ambient metering and centerweighted TTL flash are measured by a sensors in the camera body.  The body of the finder is made of brass.  The eyecup is rectangular and snaps on over a large rectangular plastic frame on the back.

The F4 action finder (DA-20) gives you a choice of centerweighted or spot metering via a switch on the side of the prism (like the DP-20).  The DA-20 outer housing is plastic.  It features a normal TTL hot shoe (no locking pin).  The DA-20 has a similar eyecup to the one on the DA-2. The DA-2 provides an abbreviated viewfinder information display (the lower display is actually part of the DP-20, not the F4 itself)

Exposure mode Small window (left) ADR window (center) Focus ind.
P or P HI “P” + auto-selected shutter speed Minimum aperture of lens (or other aperture and “fEE” in left window) Minimum aperture of lens (or other aperture and “fEE” in left window)
S Auto-selected aperture Minimum aperture of lens (or other aperture and “fEE” in left window) Minimum aperture of lens (or other aperture and “fEE” in left window)
A “A” + auto-selected shutter speed Aperture set on lens Minimum aperture of lens (or other aperture and “fEE” in left window)
M Shutter speed + reading of how off from normal exposure (e.g. +2.0) Aperture set on lens Minimum aperture of lens (or other aperture and “fEE” in left window)

One variation of the DA-20 (which I assume was made for underwater work – and which I stupidly returned to KEH) has a built-in illuminator for the lens aperture ring.  It comes on whenever the meter is on, so watch your batteries.

The F5 action finder (DA-30) gives you matrix (not 3D or color), centerweighted or spot via a similar switch to the one on the DP-30 (standard F5 finder).  Its body is made from a crinkle-painted l.ght alloy.  It has a locking hot shoe.  Given its functionality, I suspect the DA-30 shares its electronics with the DP-20 (the F4’s standard finder).  The DA-20 also has a similar eyecup to the one on the DA-2.  You get all of the same viewfinder information that you get with with the DP-30 (standard F5) prism.

Magnifying Finders: DW-4, DW-21, DW-31

Magnifying finders are fun.  They eliminate the light loss from the pentaprism and give you a magnified (6x) view of the whole focusing screen.  Distortion is very low.  These have very low eyepoints and are designed to be used without eyeglasses (precisely why the Nikon magnifying finders have correction from +3 to -5 diopters built in.  Once you press your eye all the way in, it’s a revelation.  These have three (by my count) multicoated elements.

Magnifying finders are very useful with standard groundglass focusing (D-screen) and with astrophotography (M-screen).  You can actually use them for anything with the sole exception of (1) situations where you need to keep the camera high (at eye level) and (2) situations where you lose track of left-to-right movement. The latter is related to the fact that all magnifying finders reverse the view left to right.

The DW-4 (F3) gives you centerweighted ambient and TTL flash metering.  The DW-21 (F4) and DW-31 (F5) give you spotmetering for ambient and for flash.  The F4 and F5 magnifying finders require the oddball SC-24 TTL cord, which plugs into an eight pin connector on the back of the finder.  I am not sure why the first flash needs eight pins, since the hot shoe only has five pins (three dedicated, one hot shoe contact, one shoe).  The SC-24 terminates in a standard Nikon TTL hot shoe.

Magnifying finders (and waist-level finders) seriously impede taking vertical shots.

Waistlevel Finders: DW-3, DW-20, DW-30

First it killed the Rolleiflex.  Now it’s killing me.  35mm SLRs started with this type of finder; thank heavens it didn’t survive in  the mainstream.  The pentaprism displaced the waist-level finder – and the fact that a pentaprism shows everything correctly, right-side up and correct left-to-right, and not brightness, carried the day.

Today, the waistlevel finder has only three real uses: shooting above crowds, shooting from low angles, and shooting on a copystand.  The DW-3 (F3), DW-20 (F4) and DW-30 (F5) are essentially the same thing: just a popup hood through which you look at the top of the naked focusing screen from a foot or more away.  This makes manual focusing difficult and pretty much defeats any focusing aid in your focusing screen.  Things are better with the autofocus cameras.

Each has a small 5x magnifier that provides a small, highly distorted view of the center of the focusing screen.  While this is sufficient for copy (and some macro) work, it is pretty unpleasant for general use.  This is no different from a standard Rolleiflex TLR viewfinder.  The only reason people tolerated it on Rolleis was that in the olden days, medium format pentaprisms were so dark as to be useless.

Metering and TTL flash are similar to the magnifying finders.  The F4 and F5 versions use the same TTL connectors that the magnifying finders do.

The principal virtue of the waist-level finder is that it is cheap, simple, compact, and lets you do a couple of unique things.  If you don’t do those things, skip this type of finder.

Maximizing your Nikon FH-869S


Is there a problem here?

Nikon packages terrible directions with the standard medium format holder for its high-end scanners.  Rather than going crazy with your FH-869S and pining for an FH-869G glass carrier,* let me suggest the following to maximize the usefulness of the medium-format (“Brownie”) carrier that came with your Nikon LS-8000ED or LS-9000ED.

*  There is nothing wrong with a glass carrier except dust, inconvenience, skewed negatives, expense, rarity, and a tiny amount of overall resolution loss from the antinewton glass.  For some negatives (panoramic, warped, etc.), they are indispensable.

A better way to use your glassless holder:

1.  Make sure the rubber grip strips are clean.  This is crucial – and probably responsible for most of the complaining about the standard carrier.  Clean them with a cotton swab and the alcohol that comes with a cassette tape cleaning kit (or Radio Shack “Non-Slip Fluid,” 44-1013).  DO NOT touch the strips with your fingers afterward.  Even your skin oil can make them too slick to work.

2.  Turn the carrier so that the open-close slider is on the bottom and the end that enters the scanner is on the left side (see the picture at the top).  This is going to establish the orientation that you will need for the rest of these directions.

3.  Use your forefingers to open the gripper latch at the top.   Position the film so that it “corners into” the end of the carrier with the two prongs and the film channel at the top.  The end of the filmstrip should be fully supported.  Now push the negative strip up toward the ridge at the top of the channel underneath the gripper latch.  Get it as even as you can (and it should be possible to get it very, very even).  Snap the latch down.

4.  Make sure that the open-close slider at the bottom (the one with the “Pac Man” symbol) is in the rightward (“open”) position.  Open the bottom gripper latch.  Slide the bottom gripper assembly upward until the film edge uniformly contacts the ridge.   Be aware that the gripper assembly can be rotated slightly around the open-close slider.  You will probably not be able to get it perfect, but the beauty is that you don’t have to.  When you have it as close as you can, snap down the film latch.

5.  Now gently pull the bottom gripper toward you.  Note again that it still pivots around the open-close slider.  Get it tight and pivot it until the entire film is flat.  This gives you a last chance to make sure that the film is evenly tensioned.

6.  While holding the gripper assembly in position, use the last couple of fingers of your strong hand to push the slider left, to the closed position, to lock things down.

7.  Run over the film with a rocket blower.

8.  Scan.

9.  Stop complaining about this carrier.

All SLR lenses are Coke® bottles, right?


Click to enlarge. The eyes are the focus point. What lens took this?

The advent of digital photography has made a couple of things clear: (1) many pros did not have so much talent as ability to overcome barriers to entry and (2) much of what you were told about lens quality – in terms of SLR versus rangefinder – was (or is now) untrue. This second point bears some examination.

What is the state of play on SLR vs rangefinder lens quality? The perception of SLR versus rangefinder lenses was developed when both shot on film, and there has been a major reversal of fortunes. Film was not sensitive to the angle of incidence of light coming from the back of the lens, and because rangefinders did not have mirrors, lens designers could make symmetrical lenses whose rear elements might sit just a few millimeters from the film surface. This knocked out distortion, incurred a little bit of vignetting (which was largely absorbed by the latitude of negative film, and resulted in a compact package.

SLR lenses, on the other hand, had to design around mirrors. So lenses under 50mm generally had to start with a longer focal length and then compensate it down by introducing a negative element in the front. This retrofocus arrangement generally compromised distortion and sharpness slightly, but it produced a good enough result that SLRs were able to exterminate rangefinders as mainstream cameras. But today, when the imaging surface is a flat sensor with a Bayer pattern, chromatic aberration, angle of incidence, color shift, and vignetting became big issues for traditional rangefinder lens designs. Even Leica’s very expensive wide-angle rangefinder lenses, on Leica’s very expensive bodies, were now capable of returning disappointing results in terms of color shifts and vignetting.

The goal today is sometimes called telecentricity, which is commonly understood to be the situation where light rays hit the sensor parallel to the lens axis. It is still achieved by retrofocus designs. It is telling that many Leica and mirrorless wide angles that avoid color shift and vignetting are creeping up in size to SLR lenses. Witness Leica’s fast wide-angle lenses, which are quite large – especially when you compare aperture to aperture. A 21/3.4 Super Elmar has a 46mm front thread; the 21/2.8 Elmarit-M has 60mm, which is only a hair smaller than a 20mm f/2.8D Nikkor (at 62mm). But nowhere is this phenomenon more stark than in Fuji XF lenses, where the register is shorter, lenses cover an APS-C image circle (much smaller than a 35mm camera’s) nor have to clear a mirror, and the lenses yet are 80-90% as large as SLR versions of the same.

Why do SLR lenses meet our expectation bias? In one sense, it is fair to complain about the quality of SLR lenses because the end result is not what we want – and measured as a system, they indeed underperform. But in an era where SLR lenses are being adapted for use in other things, it is fair to deconstruct what part of this is fairly attributed to parts of the system we are no longer using, such as the traditional SLR itself. And let’s be clear about this: until the advent of mirrorless cameras, the SLR (or DSLR) was the only way to achieve perfect, parallax-free framing and to reliably focus long telephotos and macro lenses.

— Focusing wide-open, shooting stopped-down. All SLR lenses are focused wide-open, which makes focusing accuracy vulnerable to focus shift. This phenomenon, which comes with spherical aberration and “good bokeh,” means that a lens might be perfectly focused at a wide aperture but back-focused when the aperture stops down for shooting. This same thing afflicts both rangefinders and SLRs, only in rangefinders, it is written off as “focus shift” and in SLRs, it is called “being a poor performer.” Aspherics and floating elements help mitigate this – and both are in play on modern lenses of all types.

— Suboptimal focusing screens. You can’t win with a single screen on an SLR. The original SLR focusing screen, a plain ground glass, excelled at focusing telephoto lenses because as the focal length increased, so did the magnification of the subject that the photographer sought to focus. But this screen was dim in the corners and sometimes dim, period. It also failed with wide-angle lenses, where the details critical to focus were actually reduced. Over time, SLRs developed focusing aids like split-image center reticles (actually tiny rangefinders). They also introduced fresnel surfaces to brighten the corners. These made it simpler to focus lenses 50mm and down, but they degraded the ability to accurately focuses lenses 85mm and longer.

— Small viewfinder magnification. A key constraint of camera viewfinder systems is that eye point and magnification are in direct opposition. In practical terms, this means that to be able to see the whole picture through a reasonably-sized viewfinder, especially while wearing eyeglasses, the picture must be reduced. This degrades the focusing abilities of every SLR focusing screen.

— Taste-making. The problem with publications like Popular Photography (and now sites like DxOMark) is that they focus the user’s attention on tests that bear little or no necessary connection to real life.The old-school photo magazines paid little attention to rangefinder lenses, so the tests of SLR lenses were generally focused on the relative merits at huge enlargement factors, and not surprisingly, among SLR lenses, the results favored more expensive glass (the larger advertising budgets of the major companies is always suspicious as well). This did not affect the sales of SLR lenses in general (because at the time no one really liked rangefinders), but it did lead to a perception that anything other than a name-brand Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Minolta, or Konica was garbage. This was an inaccurate and unfortunate perception for three reasons: (1)  Cosina, Tokina, and Sigma were making some of the major brands’ lenses under contract; (2) some of the aftermarket lenses performed adequately for the purpose; and (3) the blanket perceptions about these products, particularly third-party lenses, has landed literally millions of completely usable (if not in some cases very good) lenses in landfills.

— Leica people. Yes, we said it. For all of the doctors, economists, attorneys, CPAs, and engineers who own these and similar rangefinder cameras, there is a widespread misperception that MTF figures for SLR lenses – like home run statistics for Japanese baseball – need some kind of implicit adjustment downward to be comparable to MTF for rangefinder lenses. Not so. MTF is MTF, and it is measured in standardized procedures that do neither the camera body nor care about the lens design itself. It is of some note, conversely, that Leica’s presentation of 5lp/mm (a largely obsolete measure relevant primarily to optical prints) leads to an impression that Leica’s MTF numbers are “higher and flatter” than comparable brands.

Turning the world on its head. Two things changed the picture (so to speak), and quite radically.

— First becoming last. As noted above, he advent of 24x36mm (“full-frame”) digital cameras has exposed just how poorly some traditional rangefinder lenses perform when they project images onto flat sensors. That negative effects are minimized on smaller digital RF and mirrorless platforms (because those corners are effectively cut out of the picture) is immaterial; the only compelling thing about using rangefinder lenses on another camera is killer wides. And frankly, native APS-C lenses – because they are designed correctly for digital sensors – crush adapted rangefinder wides.

— The closed circuit. One of the things that makes mirrorless cameras really, really good is that their autofocus systems can gauge focus from the sensor itself. But this benefit – which bypasses all of the focusing infirmities of SLRs. But the same advantages obtain when attaching manual focus lenses. Not only can the user see the image exactly as resolved by the sensor; he or she can see it at greater magnification or with focus peaking. Getting virtually any lens on to any body never seems to cost more than $30, and there is now plenty of opportunity for exploration on an epic scale.

How do SLR lenses do on digital bodies?  The answer is, “it depends on the lens.” The first place to start is the adapter. It needs to be plane-parallel and to have the correct register. Many adapters are off-kilter and are cut short to “assure” infinity focus. They will need to be shimmed sometimes to achieve correct infinity focus (if you want to scale-focus wide-angle lenses). Once you get past that, this is what you can expect. Over the next few posts, we will explore some favorites, but we will spill the beans on a few “sleeper” lenses here. Caution: be careful with M42 (Pentax Screw Mount) lenses with automatic apertures – you may need to disconnect the stop-down pin to get to shooting aperture.

— Wide angles (<35mm). Because these lenses have a palpable focus point wide-open, an EVF, either at magnification or with focus peaking, is the best way to focus these. Consider also that if you are shooting traditional rangefinder wides and actually focusing them, you have to look first in the camera’s viewfinder/rangefinder window, then switch to an external finder. An EVF kills both birds with one stone (or look). Wide-angle lenses will generally perform best close-up, where errors in infinity register will have the least effect (and you should never be aiming for infinity with shorter than a 35mm lens anyway – since subject details are getting too small to give any impression of sharpness). If your thing is close-up, wide-open shots, the Vivitar 20mm f/3.8 Auto is one of the best and cheapest things going. The header picture for this article is shot with it, wide-open on an M typ 240 (which is way more resolution than any historic 35mm-format lens was ever made to handle). Reasonably low distortion (-5 on Lightroom, if you have any straight lines in the shot), high sharpness (click to get it full-size, then blow it up to check out the eyes, which are the focus point), nice bokeh, and reasonable vignetting. Vivitar lenses should not be ignored; this was a company that often employed its own lens designers in the U.S. and produced many manual focus lenses that were quite good (disregard the autofocus products and recent-vintage manual focus lenses, which can be pretty bad). Did we mention that it often costs less than $60? The Tokina RMS 17mm f/3.5 manual focus lens is also pretty good, though it often shows up a bit overpriced. Adapted wide-angles are not as compelling on APS-C cameras – because they become slowish, semi-wide lenses with huge form factors.

— Normal lenses (50mm-60mm). This is the place where there is not much point to adapting lenses – except on APS-C cameras, where these behave like fast-ish short telephotos. The lens that came with your camera is going to outperform an adapted lens – and focus both faster and more accurately. Plus you already own it. One exception is in super-speed (f≥1.2) normal lenses, which become the equivalent of a 75/1.2 on an APS-C camera or remain an awesome 50/1.2 on your Leica M or Sony A7. If Leica users need EVF to accurately focus the $10K 50/1 Noctilux, you shouldn’t feel bad about using one to focus your 1970s Nikkor. The nice thing about 50/1.2 lenses and 57/1.2 lenses is that they were every SLR manufacturer’s showpiece lens; the optics are almost always great. The other use case for adapted normals is for lenses with “character,” such as Tessars and Sonnars. The Soviet Industar 50-2 (50mm f/3.5) and -61 (f/2.0) (both 50mm Tessar, M42 SLR mount) fit this bill.

— Telephoto lenses (≥75mm). Assuming that you can get a high enough shutter speed to use these (you generally want the reciprocal of 2x the focal length or faster), this is where things get fun. SLR telephotos are often a stop or two faster than rangefinder telephotos, and they often have slightly lower contrast wide-open (which was never historically a problem, since for most of history people used these lenses to shoot high-contrast, low-light pictures). Focusing is less challenging due to the higher magnification, and with many of these, focus peaking suffices (magnification would be absurd). From a quality perspective, even cheap telephotos work really well. Here, we would jokingly tell you to “go big or go home.” A worthwhile lens to try is the Konica Hexanon AR 135mm f/3.2. This is the best of Konica’s SLR 135s, it is the cheapest ($50 on Ebay), and it focuses down to a meter. Make sure it’s the 3.2 and not the 3.5 or 2.5. The Soviet Helios-40-2 (85/1.5) is a cult favorite, but there is no argument that it is cheap at $300-400 these days. It was fun for a C-note, but those days are over. The Soviet  Jupiter-9 (85/2) (Sonnar, M42 SLR mount) is also a solid portrait choice.

— Zoom lenses. There are only three true “zoom” lenses for digital rangefinders: the 16-18-21mm Tri-Elmar, the 21-35mm M-Hexanon Dual, and the 28-35-50 Tri-Elmar. The first two are expensive ($>2000), and the third is kind of ho-hum. And none of them is a true zoom; they are all lenses that have two or three discrete focal lengths. This is an area where the things that are most fun are not intuitive. Wide-angle zooms can be unwieldy when adapted to digital cameras; telephoto zooms can be somewhat challenging to control (but have some merits). The midrange zoom is where your sleepers lie, and if you are a heavy EVF user, a good, compact 35-105mm is not a bad thing to have around. One to check out is the AF 35-105 f/3.5-4.5D Nikkor ($100-150 used). This is a tiny, aspherical, internal-focusing push-pull zoom. It is quite sharp and contrasty, and if you ever get back to your Nikon DSLRs, it is quite a nice lens. It was not a cheap lens when it came out, but selling at around $100 today, it’s one to consider.

— Novelties. Many fun (and very occasional functional) accessories were made for SLRs – cheap fisheye lenses, 90 degree attachments, telescope adapters, and the like. For occasional use, these can be economical and entertaining. Fisheyes in particular are something that are, for most people, not worth investing in. Many of these lenses want 24×36 sensors to reach their full, ahem, potential.

Conclusion. It’s probably not good to counter one generalization (that old SLR lenses are no good) with another (that they are all good). For people who occasionally need a focal length, frequently use EVFs to focus heavy fast lens or telephoto users, or are already zone-focusing wide lenses, older SLR lenses are an avenue that might be helpful. Not every SLR lens is a great performer at a small pixel pitch, but there is value in seeing what can be done more simply and cheaply than forking over another several hundred (or several thousand) to buy a native RF or mirrorless lens that comes out of the bag once or twice a year.