Let’s cut to the chase. There is no better way to spend $250 on ebay on a camera, unless old engravings of Seraphim, pictures of honeycombs, or lotus seed heads frighten you. This is a camera that took a thrashing in early reviews, maybe because reviewers didn’t get past the short learning curve (or never made it to firmware 1306, where the image processing hit its peak.
The Light L16 computational camera was another one of those late 2010s products that ended up being a flash in the pan, in no small part because the insect-like attention span of internet reviewers was insufficient to understand what a genius piece of engineering this is.
Imagine 16 x 15mm diagonal sensors in two focal lengths, a laser, and a high-intensity LED illuminator. Now imagine that this camera does a steroidal version of the iPhone’s Portrait mode, selecting focal lengths to use, building depth maps, and cranking out photos that are 80 megapixels (at 28mm and 69mm fl equivalents), 52mp at peak performance, and minimum 14mp. The camera can crank out a 14mp JPEG from this (using 5 cameras’ data), or you can run it through the Lumen software to get staggeringly large DNG files (n.b., not Bayer DNG files, but it’s not like you would ever need to up-res files this large using Adobe).
The basic hardware is an ARM64 Android 6 device with a bunch of highly specialized imaging equipment added. The dozen-plus cameras are randomly distributed over the face of the unit and tied together with unit-specific calibration information. To dispel one persistent myth, these cameras cannot addressed by generic Android imaging apps like OpenCamera. At least they cannot if you want to focus at distances other than 20cm.
The Light includes a hefty Li-Ion internal battery and 256Gb of internal storage (recall that this listed at $2k in 2017). The camera’s hardware includes GPS, so it is capable of geotagging your photos (yeah!). The GPS function, though, is very hard on the battery, especially with the final release of the firmware. I managed to side-load a couple of navigation apps (Sygic and Here WeGo), and they function as expected (thought GPS ping interval might be too slow for driving).
Ergonomically, the Light is far better than a cell phone – because it has a dedicated shutter button and a place to grip the camera on the right side (left side, you need to be careful with your fingers – but the camera will vibrate if you block one of the lenses). As to the controls, if you can operate a camera on a mobile phone, you can handle it. Focusing can either be by face recognition or arbitrarily touching a subject on the screen.
From a semiotics standpoint, the camera just looks like a big cell phone. It does not actually attract very much attention. In what you trade off in image quality from a full-frame A7rii, you make up for it in not standing out too much.
The flat form factor makes this pocketable (in the back pocket of Levis or a coat pocket). You will want to keep the camera in its soft case (or use at least a rear screen protector) because it’s all glass son both sides.
Battery life is good; it is supposed to go all day; the four units I tested NIB after 5 years of storage all charge and discharge as expected. It really behooves you to actually power down the camera when not in use – otherwise, depending on what features you have enabled (GPS, WiFi, Bluetooth), it may wear itself down gradually.
Note that unlike the Lytro Illum (review almost done on that too!), you might want to actually focus this camera because everything is shot at f/2). Pictures come out with a simulated aperture of f/15.2 – meaning almost everything is as sharp as a tack, but when you dial back the effective aperture, you will see exactly where the camera focused. An Illum, by comparison, lets you refocus arbitrarily with arbitrary aperture settings, but in doing so, it throws away almost 90% of the data it captures.
Image quality is why you came here, right? Rather than retreading subjects seen in other treatments, here are the points I think that others have missed on this camera:
First, this is generating between 52 and 80mp at maximum resolution (28-35mm, 69-75mm), the rest being digital zoom, with attendant resolution loss (150mm is 12mp). This is real mp, not your cellphone binning 3/4 of the data from a 48mp sensor. The purpose of having 52mp is to brutalize images with perspective correction without leaving many clues. Interestingly, there is little variation in quality between center and edge, but then again, since these images are composites of 10 or more smaller images, it makes sense. And it is good pixels. Click on the picture below (no, no distortion correction…) and blow it up to 100% (it is full-resolution). Every brick is sharp, even in the extreme corners.
Second, the color is phenomenal, like the old Kodak 14ns and Leica digital M cameras. Slightly disappointing is that no version of the firmware has the “Baz Luhrmann Elvis Movie” color rendering.
Third, as you can see in the 28mm shot below, apart from the slight camera tilt on my part, there is little if any distortion. This should be expected, since there is a lot of stitching and blending and correcting going on. That compositing is 99.9% invisible – and the 0.1% is when the camera is operating at 80mp – and manifests as things like a mismatched one-pixel-wide line in a limestone block wall (Light probably decided that 35 and 70 are where you are 100% free of any artifacts). That said, anyone’s chances of seeing a 1-pixel-wide artifact on an 80mp image, especially at web size are…. zero.
Fourth, the L16 runs at much, much higher ISOs than a cell phone, more like a camera with a 1″ or APS-C sensor. Above is ISO 2400. If you have ever seen EXIF data from an iPhone, you see low ISOs and very long shutter speeds (tied to the miniscule focal length of lenses). This is due to the physics of sensors – your cell phone has tiny pixels that can’t capture many photons – hence the shutter needs to be open a lot longer.
Fifth, forget everything you think you know about apertures. The L16 returns a simulated aperture of f/15.2, which is really different groups of cameras focused at different distances, computed and focus-stacked into massive depth of field. The reality is that all the cameras are shooting at f/2 (they are all 28mm or 70mm FOV). You don’t get diffraction from this “very small” aperture because it is not really very small, but you do get tons of depth of field even in low light. The tradeoff is that depending on the subject-background separation, you may not be able to reduce depth of field completely in post (it depends on a lot of things: subject/object distance, difference to the next furthest thing in the frame, complexity of the focused subject). I would guess that in most situations where you would use an L16, you would take the deep depth of field and run with it.
Finally, in its highest-performance use case, it’s still partially beholden to sensor size. This is not necessarily a bad thing; it just means that Light pictures just come off a little grittier than a Leica full-frame at higher ISOs. This is not so much the case at other focal lengths (like, say, 150mm), where there is more averaging.
It is crucial that you have a platform to run the Lumen image conversion software. This does not run on either of the most recent MacOSes (11 or 12); however, it runs fine on Windows 10 and 11. I use it in Windows 11 on a Parallels VM on a Mac Studio Ultra and export the DNGs to a folder that gets picked up by Lightroom.
One thing to bear in mind is that the Lumen software is not great at simultaneous exports of files from several L16s. It can import them fine, but the way exports work, if files from two cameras have the same native filename (L100006, for example), the second one to export overwrites the first one. So think in batches. Or export from one camera at a time,.
The software is not particularly fast when run on a VM (it takes a couple of seconds to export each file); if you are a particularly heavy user, consider a dedicated machine. You know, like the one you already have to run your Flextight, Pakon scanner, etc.
Firmware (guide for the soft-minded)
The firmware on Light cameras is difficult to upgrade these days because the update server is offline. So you are likely going to be stuck with the camera features you have on day one.
Unless you are prone to serious self-doubt and OCD freakouts, 126.96.36.199 is the latest firmware that actually impacts the on-image performance of the camera. Since I have used cameras from 188.8.131.52 to 184.108.40.206, here is the marginal value of each additional feature:
- Priority modes: We added Shutter priority and ISO priority modes to give you easier access and more control when shooting on the go. –> You won’t use this.
- AWB presets: Choose from five different white-balance presets when composing your scene. All options—from Incandescent to Fluorescent to Daylight to Cloudy (and Auto)—are viewable in real time on the L16’s touchscreen. –> Pointless because you have to use Lumen anyway, and it can adjust this.
- On-camera editing: Now you can adjust color, contrast, tint and more as soon as you snap your photo. Bonus: These basic edits will even carry over to Lumen. –> Pointless because you have to use Lumen anyway, and it can adjust this.
- Histogram: Curious whether you’ve captured the right exposure? With the L16’s new histogram feature, you’ll know as soon as you open the photo in gallery. –> You won’t use this.
- Metadata: Find your photo’s EXIF data much easier in gallery mode. –> You won’t use this.
- On-camera rating: Pick your favorites on the go. The camera’s 5-star rating system will now carry over to Lumen. –> I would highly recommend editing only on a computer.
- Pocket assist: The L16 can now detect once you’ve stored it away in your jacket. It will automatically turn on standby mode to save your battery. –> Causes camera to freak out.
- Image-quality indicators: We added a couple new icons in gallery mode to show you when you’re viewing a preview versus a higher quality, processed image. –> Not actually useful.
- Low-light assist: When you’re shooting at a higher ISO in auto mode, your L16 will now utilize image stacking to capture significantly more detail and much less noise. –> Doesn’t seem to do anything.
- Tripod assist: The L16 now has a sixth sense. When the camera detects stability and stillness in auto mode, it will lengthen the exposure time and lower ISO to improve image quality. –> Not helpful; can lead to slow shutter speeds on handheld shots.
- Basic editing tools: We added the ability to crop and rotate your images on camera. All of your edits will save automatically and transfer to Lumen when you import. –> Helpful if you get bored; otherwise a gimmick.
- Tutorials: We updated the L16’s onboarding tutorial to help you get up to speed faster. –> This camera isn’t that hard to use; these popups are annoying.
- Key focal length: We made it easier to zoom to 75mm, which provides the best edge-to-edge resolution. –> It might be a touch easier, but this was actually enabled in 220.127.116.11.
- Usability: A few of our basic camera modes got a facelift. It should be easier to see which mode you’re shooting in. –> Didn’t notice any great improvement.
- Home screen: We made a few tweaks to the L16’s home screen experience, making it easier to access settings, software updates, and the feedback app. –> Didn’t notice any great improvement.
- On-device depth editing: We added the ability to adjust depth effect on your L16. You can now change the effective aperture from f/15 to f/2 and add that beautiful background blur. You can also change the focal point using your L16’s touch screen. –> A little gimmicky.
- Video recording (beta): Your L16 can now record single-camera video at 1080p and 30fps. The video is based on using either the 28mm camera or the 70mm camera, allowing you to zoom all of the way from 28mm to 150mm. –> Your iPhone is better for video.
- Editing presets: Customize and create presets to easily edit your images in your style – all on your L16. Presets include color and geometric edits. Any changes will carry over to Lumen and be applied to the full (up to 52MP) resolution. –> Much less punishing to edit on Lumen
- Power save mode: Maximize your L16 battery life with new Power save mode in the Android menu. The advanced settings even let you customize which functionality is turned off –> Almost makes up for the fact that this firmware is more punishing on battery life.
- Capture experience: We updated the capture screen to include resolution (approximate megapixels) and handshake warning for low-light. –> Somewhat helpful for people who can’t remember that 35 and 75 are the best, 28 is good too, and 150 is the worst. Also, what can you do with a handshake warning?
- Lumen deletion: Now you can delete images in the L16 gallery directly from Lumen while your camera is plugged in. –> Helpful if you shoot 1,200 images between trips to the host software.
- Android third-party apps: We added options to allow you to install your favorite Android third-party apps. Please note that the L16 does not have access to the Google Play store. In order to download these apps, you must do so by downloading them from a third-party Android app store. –> Ok. There is probably a use case for this (see my note on nav software), but it’s not obvious. You can download installers from apkmirror.com and install them. You need software that runs on Android 5.0 plus; not everything will install on this machine, and no camera apps work.
The L16 is misunderstood, under-appreciated, but also a little bit tricky. It is a good substitute for a mobile phone camera, and if you can trade some grain for a lot of flawless, a good substitute for a Sony A7rii if you use fairly normal-length lenses. The software is not the easiest, but the reality is that once files are in DNG, you’ll be doing everything in Lightroom anyway.
It is terrible to find yourself beset by Heliopan and B+W filters that keep coming loose but don’t have slotted retaining rings so you can get a grip. At best you have rattling glass. At worst, a ring screwed in from the back can let the glass hit the front surface of some lenses or jam your Hexar AF’s focusing system.
Here is a quick trick: take a popped (and clean) “punch ball” balloon (the type children have with the rubber band attached to the top), lay it it over the retaining ring you want to turn, and push your fingers to the edges (so you are pressing laterally on the retaining ring through the balloon.
Now rotate the retaining ring (with your fingers) clockwise (locking ring facing up) – or turn the filter mount counter-clockwise (the lens glass and retaining ring should always rotate in the same direction). After you get a feel for it, the ring will screw in and secure the glass.
For extra never-come-unscrewed-again-ness, add a tiny drop or two of Loctite® Purple to the threads of the retaining ring (you have to take it all the way out before you do this). Make sure that you get all the thread locker off the glass before it dries and be sure that ring is screwed down tightly.
By the way, this trick can also work with retaining rings that are slotted, as well as lens beauty rings. Be aware, however, that for high-value optics, you want to be very, very careful in touching the glass with rubber that could be contaminated with grit.
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,
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.
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.
When I was a second-year high school student, my English teacher came in, opened his copy of Adventures in American Literature to a poem, and (purported to) read the following:
I think I shall never see / A poem as lovely as a tree / Blah blah blah. Bullshit / I hate Robert Frost /
It obviously was Joyce Kilmer and not Robert Frost whom he was skewering, but he was making a point. Although teaching methods like this might not seem as radical today, it’s hard not to have that Robert Frost feeling about “Lomography.” Some talent. But mostly boring pictures that are made interesting by lens defects, art defined by intentional and random flaws in raw materials, and a semiotic that has become so routine as ot disappear into the noise of Flickr.
The Lomo LC-A 120 fails of its one essential purpose. Its lens is actually excellent. When you think about wide-angle lenses for 6×6 and up, the 38mm f/4.5 Minigon XL is quite wide. I use a 35 APO-Grandagon on a Horseman SW612, so I have some pretty developed ideas both about what is wide and what is good.
The spoiler alert here is that the LC-A 120 is a combination of a phenomenal lens with what might qualify as the worst $450 camera. In the history of ever. Not the G.O.A.T. but an actual goat.
Lens. Let’s start with the 38/4.5 XL. It is not a real XL like a Schneider 38mm; this barely covers 6×6 at anything but the smallest apertures. But it does have a couple of principal virtues when you shoot it with TMY: it has virtually no barrel distortion and is sharp from edge to edge when stopped way down. You almost have to wonder if this is an Arsat PC lens repurposed into a medium format one.
With black-and-white film, one comment on lateral color shift, which seems to be what gives Lomo pictures their unique “color.” That and film that is way past its color prime.
Click on the picture below and then scan from side to side. Yes, it’s scanned on a Flextight and straightened slightly. But holy frijoles, it looks a lot like a $2k lens on a pano camera (granted, such a lens would cover a frame a lot larger than 55×55).
Focus. Focus is a bit more problematic, having steps of 0.6m, 1m, 2.5m, and ∞. The focusing lever snaps from position to position with a non-reassuring plastic “pop,” does not exactly match the marks, and stays put(!) when you slide the lens cover (and focusing scale!) upward to close the camera. The difficulty of zone focusing when you don’t know the shooting aperture is an unknown margin of error. A 38mm lens on medium format does not exhibit pan focus except at very small apertures. I did test operation with a Contameter external rangefinder (the late plastic one that actually goes to infinity), but if you drop four hundred and fifty on a camera and another hundred on a rangefinder, you might as well buy a Fuji GA645w.
Exposure controls. The original LC-A was zone-focused and aperture priority. With that setup, at least you know what will be in focus. The LC-A 120 has fixed program exposure that only has one combination of shutter speed and aperture for any EV. The nominal spec is “unlimited” time to 1/500 second, but it’s unclear whether the stopping down is linear to the light level or not. You would think that on a camera like this, you might want to keep the shutter speed low to keep the aperture small. Sometimes the unintentional shallow depth of field works:
You effectively can apply exposure compensation (important when using Diafine) by changing the star-shaped ISO dial on the front.
Viewfinder. The viewfinder is clean and clear. And plastic. And lacking any horizontal or vertical reference marks that would tell you if the camera is level (or square to objects in the picture). This would make architectural photography difficult absent either a tripod and level – or a shoe-mount electronic leveling device. On a half-press of the shutter button, one light means the camera is reading and two means underexposure. Coverage looks like it is about 90%.
Shutter. The shutter operation in the camera is like a press shutter – pressing the button cocks and fires. If you engage the MX switch, you can repeatedly make exposures onto the same piece of films. You can even do it by accident, like this:
You will actually need the MX button for those situations where you mostly press the shutter (releasing the wind and locking the button) but don’t actually take the shot.
Flash. Flash is actually a place where aperture control is important. Lomo has no explanation for how you should use flash except that you should set your automatic flash for 4.5 (as if any automatic flash doesn’t just jump from 4 to 5.6). Shooting with flash does not trigger a short synch speed; everything is essentially rear-curtain.
Build quality. Burying the lede, or not. It is terrible. Horrible. The camera body is plastic. It’s not flexible, but it has all the charm of the pebbled plastic around the back seat of a family sedan. The camera back compensates for its lack of sophistication with wide foam seals.
The film tensioning leaf springs (note to Lomo: thank you for including these, unlike the foam blocks in the Belair) are attached to the film gate, which popped out of the camera the first time I tried to load it. The film gate has two significant (and apparently intentional) light leaks at its upper corners. Oddly, these were not plugged with foam seals. They should be.
Loading is not easy. You need to release the hubs with little switches. Pull the hubs down to release the spools. When you install a spool, at least theoretically, as long as the ramped portion of the hub is facing you, it should be possible to snap the film in. It’s not that easy. This seems like another place where a simpler mechanism (like a metal hub on a leaf spring) would work better and make people happier.
The frame counter does not depend on the movement of the film, just the movement of the takeup spool. Many LC-A 120 users seem to get fewer than 12 pictures on a roll. Presumably this is the product of fat-rolling the film, worsened by the imprecise frame counting that does not compensate for thicker films and backing papers.
I was able to nail it by putting the start mark of TMY right at the right “edge” of the lower-left film guide (i.e., halfway to the camera’s own start mark). I was lucky. Twelve frames took you to within 1cm of either end of a 120 film. Frame counting would better have been left to a red window here. At least the framing would be consistent.
But where from here? The heartbreak of this camera (if you can call a feeling about an inanimate object such) is that like the Lomo Belair 6×12, the camera started with some good bones and a great concept and was executed terribly. The Belair had bad light leaks and poor focus but decent lenses an an automatic shutter. Looks like Lomo landed in the same place here: great lens, functional autoexposure system, rickety everything else.
Maybe the fault is that the lens suggests the camera is better than it is. Maybe I just received an unusually good copy. Maybe my expectations were unrealistic.
You might think for a hot minute about remounting the lens, but when you add up the cost of a (controllable) Copal shutter and a focusing mechanism, plus whatever you are attaching it to, it’s far too much money. It’s also unclear how this lens is mounted in the camera – you might have to replicate a fair amount of the physical setup of the Lomo to make it work. Two of these lenses in a twin-lens setup? That would be neat, but you’d probably be close to the price of a bargain bin Rollei when you finished with it. Well, it was a nice thought, anyway.
Cameras like this are bought by fools like me / But only F&H can make a Rollei.
This is just a quick note on a technical problem that plagues digital Leica cameras when used with older Nikkors: back focus. It is gratifying to know that Leica has finally recognized that many of its lenses don’t work so well on digital Ms due to “focus errors” that allegedly compound over the years. The real reason is probably more that film planes are actually and unintentionally curved, and a lens that makes the grade at the center there back-focuses elsewhere.
I was struggling a bit with a 10.5cm f/2.5 Nikkor, which though absolutely lovely aesthetically is one of the worst-engineered Leica lenses ever from a mechanical standpoint. And it back-focused. It back focused more with some Leica M adapters than others, but still.
Strike one with this lens is that the aperture unit rotates along with the entire optical unit. This means that if you adjust the collimation washer (for reasons I don’t fully understand, it’s always 0.05mm needed with any lens – just about the same thickness as Scotch tape), you also then have to reset the aperture ring to read properly. Also not 100% sure that infinity optical focus was really the problem.
Strike two is that the amount of front cell movement needed to compensate for back focus is absurdly great. So here, you’re messing around with focal length, but this the same way the MS-Optical Sonnetar gets calibrated…
Strike 3 is that the RF cam is not adjustable at all, with the tab pushed by a plunger running on a wheel that fits in a spiral track in the helicoid. Guess how this tab was adjusted for infinity at the factory? With a file. It makes sense, in a way. Calibrate the fixed infinity point on the focal plane by shimming the optical unit, calibrate focus at infinity by grinding the RF tab, and fix close focus by shimming the front cell. But it utterly sucks when you find out, 60 years later, that the tolerances that looked good on film with a Leica IIIc look like holy hell on digital.
So when you are dealing with focus errors, you have to imagine that the standard is a 51.6mm lens. At that focal length, if the RF matches the film-plane focus, the focus will always be correct, even if the infinity stop of the lens is beyond “infinity” on the scale.
For a telephoto lens, the rear cam still pretends it moves like a 51.6mm lens, but the actual optical unit moves much further. Hence, in a lot of cases, you can simply use a thinner LTM adapter (I think I’ve written about this before… somewhere). Most cheapo ones are thinner than the 1.0mm they are supposed to be.
But there is a different way to hack this with the 135mm, 105mm, and 85mm Nikkors: simply apply a thin and even coat of clear nail polish to the RF tab on the lens. This is a trick that you could theoretically do with lenses that have a rotating RF coupling ring (not tab), but it works exceptionally well with the Nikkors because the camera’s RF roller simply rests on the tab and doesn’t roll along it. This means that you only need to get the coating thickness right over a very short distance. Materials needed:
- Sally Hansen clear top coat (not “nail nourishing,” just the hard kind).
- CVS Beauty360 brand Nail Polish Corrector Pen (essentially a marker full of acetone that you can use to thin or remove extra nail polish).
- LensAlign focusing target (if you own a Leica, you really want one of these anyway, just to figure out what the devil all your lenses are doing as you stop down).
- Reading glasses.
So basically all you need to do is put a very thin coat of polish on the polished surface of the tab. Let it dry for 20 minutes. Here is the goal:
- At f/2.5, your focus should be such that the 0 point is barely focused, with most of the DOF in front.
- At f/2.8, your focus should be dead-centered around 0. The lens is actually way sharper here than at f/2.5. Doesn’t seem like much of an aperture change, but it is.
- At f/4, your focus will be such that 0 will barely be in focus, with most of the DOF to the rear.
- From f/5.6 down, the DOF will grow so that 0 is always in focus.
If it works, you’re done. The focusing errors this might induce further out are subsumed by depth of field increasing. If you need another coat, add one. If you are now front-focusing too much, use the Corrector Pen to remove some of the extra (or use a very fine nail buffer to remove some).
Never file or try to grind down the tab if your lens is front-focusing. Unless you can do it totally square, your lens will behave differently on different cameras. Leave this situation to a pro.
This is an article originally written in 2001; with a lot of updates.
How did these things get started?
The former Fujisawa-Shoukai had quite a bit of pull over Konica. Recall that by 1992, Konica had made what was seen as its last serious film camera, the Hexar AF, with its legendary 35mm f/2 lens. F-S, as we will call it here, commissioned in 1996 a run of Hexar lenses in Leica thread mound (LTM). This was long before the what people in the U.S. called a “rangefinder renaissance;” in fact at the time, very little in LTM was being produced in Japan, with the exception of the Avenon/Kobalux 21mm and 28mm lenses.
The first product of this program was the 35mm f/2L Hexanon, which looked like this:
This lens is simply a clone of the Hexar AF lens, right down having the same filter size. The coatings look identical, which is not a surprise. Consistent with some other contemporaneous LTM products, it did not have a focusing tab. On close inspection, the scalloped focusing ring looks like that on a Canon 35mm f/2 rangefinder lens, or more contemporaneously, the 21mm Avenon/Kobalux lens. The chrome finishing on an alloy body is reminiscent of modern-day ZM lenses. None of this, of course, will disabuse you of the notion that the Japanese lens production industry revolves around common suppliers. This lens shipped with a black flared lens hood (no vents) and a bright sandblasted chrome “Hexanon” lens cap that fit over the hood.
F-S would then go on to commission the 50/2.4L (collapsible) and 60/1.2L Hexanon lenses. The latter is famously expensive now; I have an email from F-S where it was 178,000 yen (about $1,400). The 50/2.4 will get its own article here.
In 2000, around the time that Avenon was re-releasing its 21mm and 28mm lenses as “millennium” models, F-S had another run of the 35/2 made. These were at least superficially different from the silver ones:
- At the time, black paint was all the rage, so the lens was executed in gloss black enamel and brass. The enamel in the engravings is almost exactly the Leica color scheme.
- The filter size decreased to 43mm, the aperture ring moved back, and the focusing ring thinned out to give the impression of “compactness” and justifying the “ultra compact” – UC designation that was historic to some Konica SLR lenses.
- The focusing mechanism changed to a tab (which helped justify the thinner focusing ring and lighter action).
- The coatings changed to a purplish red to help support the notion of “ultra-coating.” As you might know, multicoating can be customized for color.
The close-focus distance (what would be the third leg of a UC designation) and focusing rate of the helicoid (0.9m to ∞ in about 1/4 turn) and overall length did not change. The new lens was priced at 144,000 yen, which in dollars would have put it at just under the cost of a clean used 35/2 Summicron v.4 (at the time, these ran from about $700-1,200) and about half of what a Leica 35mm Summicron-M ASPH would cost.
Handling versus Leica lenses
Since both of these are optically identical, it might make more sense to discuss the ways in which these are similar to, or different from, the vaunted Summicron v4 King of Bokeh License to Print Money®. They are both like the Leica version but in different ways.
The UC has the same smooth tab-based focusing as the Summicron. It is very smooth and fluid. That said, the aperture ring is very “frictiony.”
The original L has a focusing feel a lot like a Canon RF lens, owing to the similar focusing ring, which has more drag and no tab. The aperture ring, however, has the same “ball-bearing-detent” feel as the Leica.
The overall length of all three lenses is similar, though as noted above, there is something of an illusion that the Leica and UC are smaller than the L.
The Konica lens, like the Hexar lens it was based on, is a clone of the 3.5cm f/1.8 Nikkor rangefinder lens, but for all practical purposes, the Hexanon is the same lens as the Summicron 4. As you can see, there is a very smooth falloff from center-to-edge wide open and pretty much eye burning sharpness at f/5.6,
Whoah. That looks familiar! Below is the Leica 35/2 v4 as shown in Puts, Leica M-Lenses, their soul and secrets (official Leica publication). Except the Summicron’s optimum aperture is a stop slower.
On interchangeable-lens bodies, all three lenses have the same focus shift behavior, requiring a slight intentional back-focus at f/2 and front focus up to f/5.6. It’s not like on a 50 Sonnar, but it’s there.
The original chrome version is a lovely lens and a nice match for chrome Leicas, at about 1/3 the price of a chrome Summicron v4 (yes, they exist…). If you like Canon lenses, you’ll be right at home with it. On the other hand, the UC version is smooth and sexy but getting to be as expensive as a 35/2 Summicron ASPH, which is actually a better lens.
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.
Mark my words (as if they are that important): the future will not look kindly on the gimmick-bokeh that dominates the aesthetic of 2000s photography, just as we get a chuckle out of 1970s pictures with excessive sunsets, lens flare, and nipples. People yet to be born will wonder why photographers in the 2000s took insanely expensive lenses, better than any ever designed to date – and cheaper – and then used them to simulate astigmatism, near-sightedness, and macular degeneration. The most charitable explanation will be that photographers were trying to show solidarity with the visually impaired.
The buzzword (today) is subject isolation. But why are we isolating a subject from its context? What’s wrong with the context? Are we creating millions of pictures of the same peoples’ faces with nothing else in the shot? Are they people or products?
In the present, good composition can still be shot at f/16. Small apertures are also obligatory on larger-format film cameras because a lot of those lenses have serious light and sharpness falloff at the edges at their maximum apertures, especially with the focus at infinity. Nobody buys a $3,000+ 6×12 camera to get the types of pictures you could see from a $250 Lomo Belair.
There is a reason that early autoexposure SLRs used shutter priority: if you had to make a choice for what would be in focus, it would be your subject; if you had light to spare, you’d want use as small an aperture as your lowest desired shutter speed would support. And that thinking underpins historic picture-making. Intentionally shallow depth of field is not a feature of most of the world’s most iconic images. Arnold Newman did not need shallow depth of field to shoot Stravinsky. Eugene Smith did not shoot Spanish policemen as an exercise in subject isolation. And David Douglas Duncan captured every crease in the face of an exasperated Marine captain. How about Richard Avedon with his Rollei and every celebrity on earth? There are exceptions, but throughout history, wide apertures were primarily driven by a need to keep shutter speeds high enough to avoid blur. Light constraints are not such a consideration when ISO 6400 is a thing on digital cameras.
The worst part about bokeh, and the one no one talks about, is that it can actually be unpleasant by causing eyestrain (or maybe brain-strain). In many ways, a human eye – if you looked at the whole image projected on the retina at once – resembles a cheap Lomo-type lens: sharp in the middle (the fovea) and blurry at the edges. It even has a complete blind spot (the punctum caecum). The eye has a slow aperture, estimated by some to be f/2.8. But, dammit, everything looks like it is in focus. That’s because your eyes are continuously focusing on whatever you are looking at. Your brain is continuously piecing together fragmentary information (the blind spot thing is incredible – vertebrate biology beat Adobe to content-aware fill by about 500 million years). The end result is what looks (perceptually) like a scene where everywhere you look, things are in focus. It’s actually pretty amazing that this works.
In every photo, there is a compression of three dimensions into two. More depth of field allows your eyes to wander and allows you to process the scene fairly normally. When you look at bokehlicious pictures, definition is concentrated on one object (and often just a piece of it). You might find your eyes (or visual perception) constantly trying to focus on other aspects of the scene besides the subject. But neither your eyes nor computational photography can remove extreme artifacts once they are “flattened.”
Scroll back up to the picture at the top. Same composition, shot at f/8 and f/1.5 with a 50mm ZM Sonnar. Look left and look right. On the left, you can look almost anywhere n the scene and see whatever visual element you want to scrutinize, at at least some level of detail. On the right, you are always and forever staring into the Contractor Ring®. You can try to focus on other elements of the picture on the right, but the information simply is not there. Need an aspirin?
And it can be fatiguing, more so that the aesthetic is played out and that anyone with an iPhone X can play the game. Pictures with ultra-shallow DOF don’t look natural. They are great every once in a while, or if you need a 75/1.4 Summilux to get an otherwise-impossible shot, but otherwise, get off your ass and move the camera (or your subject) into a position with a reasonable background.
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[2008-11-02] I have heard only one good argument for hunting marine mammals to extinction. It came from my friend Leo, who pointed out that mammals spent millions of years evolving from sea life – so what kind of perverse animal wants to go back to the ocean?
The idea of perversity comes to mind when people criticize current optics as being attacked as “too sharp,” “too contrasty,” or having “bad bokeh.” This seems to happen most with new rangefinder optics coming out of Leica and Zeiss.
As a preliminary matter, it is totally OK to buy a previous-generation lens because it is all one can afford (or all one wants to spend for a particular focal length). But now that we have that out of the way, let’s talk about the seals and the whales.
The inexorable tide of history
Query whether at any point in optical history any optical designer pulled back because a design exhibited too much sharpness, too much contrast or too little uncorrected spherical aberration. To the contrary, if Berthele, Berek or Mandler had been able to incorporate mass-produced aspherics, they no doubt have been building aspherical Summicrons and Summiluxes instead of Sonnars, Elmars or 35mm pre-aspherical Summicrons. By the standards of yesterday’s optical designers, today’s multicoated, aspherical, retrofocus wideangles would seem like gifts from the gods.
One can always dumb-down a lens that is sharp or contrasty by stopping it down until it diffracts, using a softening filter, diluting your developer, going down a grade in optical printing, changing the RAW development curve, or even simple mis-focusing. If you are consistently do the opposite of any (or all) of these, you probably really want a lens that is sharper and more contrasty. One would wager that of all of the Photoshop or Lightroom controls, the most popular are the ones that make pictures more snappy.
Some people would make the argument that lower-contrast optics maximize dynamic range on digital cameras, but this is an argument that only carries water in scenes with 500:1 contrast ratios – and even then would assume that anything of interest lay in the shadows (hint: take a look somehow how JPG compression is set up – to preserve highlight detail, which perceptually is where the interest generally is). Uniformly low-lighted scenes generally call for higher-contrast lenses because those scenes actually have a very limited brightness range.
Bokeh or baka?
If the justification for looking at old lenses is “bokeh,” question why it is even a concern. Bokeh seems to have become an end only in the past 15 years – and it is legitimate to question why it merits so much internet bandwidth. My personal observation, based on the existence of things like the Nikon Thousand and One Nights site, is that it originated in the nostalgia of some older photographers in Japan: “When I was 18, I really wanted a Nikon SP…”
But there are practical reasons to ignore the bokeh question altogether. First, most of the discussion of bokeh seems to revolve around the use of lenses 50mm and shorter (or 35mm or shorter on a camera with a crop factor) for purposes of taking close-range pictures. Many of these pictures just as easily could be taken with lenses twice as long at twice the distance (example: a portrait at a meter), Consider that:
– A 50mm lens (on a 35mm camera) at f/2 and a meter has a depth of field of 36mm (about 1.5 inches)
– A 90mm lens (on a 35mm camera) at f/2.8 and 1.8m has a depth of field of 50.6mm (about 2 inches). Even shot at f/2 (assuming it has that aperture), it would still have 36mm depth of field.
With a longer lens, one is not crowding human subjects or hitting their faces with the unflattering distortion that comes with short lenses. And we don’t see systemic complaints about bokeh with longer lenses (no doubt because with four or five elements they are less corrected in general), so if one has the light to use one, why not? What’s that you say? You don’t have enough light? Can’t afford a telephoto? Even if your only available optic is a short, fast, hypercorrected aspherical lens, the look of the background can be vastly improved by manipulating the relative distances from camera to subject and subject to background.
Second, many photographers appear to emphasize (and rely on) bokeh to make up for what are really severe compositional defects in photographs (point light sources in frame, relatively busy backgrounds, etc.). The use of bokeh for this purpose goes hand-in-hand with the “wide-open, close-up” school of photography that not only leans on bokeh to tidy up backgrounds but also uses shallow depth of field to increase interest in what ordinarily would be unremarkable subjects. Shooting with a camera on shutter priority is an excellent discplinary exercise. With far less conscious control over depth of field, one composes far more carefully.
Finally, perhaps best way to forget about bokeh as a factor is to ask oneself just how many of the great pictures in history were ruined due to bad bokeh. The answer is is, “none.” No one even thought of the concept until the late 20th century, and it is arguably more wrapped up in romanticism than anything that has ever been validated as sound photographic practice.
This is the text of the page that had its debut in 2001 and (for better or worse) helped trigger Hexar-mania. Last update was late February 2018.
Overview: (Scratching off where there was grime)..”H-E-X-A-R.” Captain, HXR is a Canonet that was sent out of our solar system in the late 1960s. It encountered a machine planet where the computers examined it, understood its mission, and elaborated on its mechanics. It grew, and it evolved… and gained consciousness.
Generalities: Autofocus camera with high-speed 35mm f/2 lens and leaf shutter. Form factor is similar to a Leica M.
History: the Hexar came about in 1992, reportedly a last vanity project for the Konica engineers who worked on the FT-1. Or so the story goes. Some of the key technologies on the Hexar, such as a sealed lens barrel, projected brightline finder (zoom on some models, albeit always with fixed framelines), and tri-window AF showed up first on the 1988 models MR640 (weather resistant) and shock-resistant Genba Kantoku (“Site Supervisor”), a ruggedized camera designed for construction sites. In fact, the wind motor of the Genba K. sounds like the Hexar in “loud” mode.
Do you also see a resemblance to the Fuji GA645 with the autofocusing side-pod module?
Before you confuse the Genba K. with a poor man’s Hexar, understand that the lens and operation are totally different; the Genba Kantoku has a 40/3.5 (3 elements, 3 groups) or 40/3.5-60/5.2 bifocal lens (3/3 and 6/6) of completely different construction. And on the Genba Kantoku, here are your controls. All of them: flash on. Flash off. Self-timer. Manual rewind. No nonsense here.
Later models of the Genba Kantoku (the 28mm and 35mm second-generation models in 1994) apparently acquired the Hexar’s funky electronic shutter and accordingly had maximum shutter speeds of 1/280 sec.
Construction. The construction is all metal, with the exception of the top and bottom covers, which are a period-typical black chrome (or bright chrome) plated on polycarbonate. Which is a good thing because if they were brass covers, this would be a very heavy camera. Konica made a big deal about the front barrel being a heavy alloy casting to add the retention of precision in focusing.
Lens. The lens is the Hexar’s raîson d’etre. In fact, it is legendary.
The 35mm f/2 Hexar (actually, Hexanon) lens has the imaging qualities of the 35/2 Leica Summicon-M and the general design of the Nikon 3.5cm f/1.8 W-Nikkor (the rangefinder lens from the 1950s and 60s – you know, the one whose Leica screwmount version sells for $1,800 and up today). Konica won’t go further than to call the design “Gaussian,” but Nikon has acknowledged on its 1001 Nights Site that this is a Nikkor derivative. Konica’s own technical materials reflect this design intent, although they also mention a slight recomputation aimed at allowing an electronically controlled aperture and shutter to be inserted between the lens groups. The aperture has 6 blades that form a perfect circle down to f/5.6, after which point, aperture shape is not that important.
This lens has been revised slightly and rereleased as the 35/2L Hexanon (chrome) and its optical twin, the 35/2 UC Hexanon (black paint), both in Leica mount. These are beautiful lenses run in limited numbers (1,000 and 2,000 respectively).
The lens out of the original Hexar AF has been independently converted by many into a Leica M lens (though this takes a lot of work and frankly is not as elegant as Konica’s own ported versions). But it is a lot cheaper way to do it.
This camera featured in a Konica white paper that discussed the camera’s total control of chromatic aberration. It also posts some impressive MTF compared to the lenses whose formula and optics it replicates. Wide-open, it exhibits a very smooth falloff from the center; at f/5.6 it is uniformly great.
Viewfinder: The viewfinder is a 0.7x window, with crosshair reticle for 2-channel infrared autofocusing, green light for focus confirmation, focused-distance indicator, shrinking-field, parallax-corrected projected framelines, and +/- indicators for over/underexposure. The front and back covers are glass, which is good for durability.
Rangefinder and limitations: It is probably not a stretch to say that this camera has the most sophisticated active autofocusing system ever put in a camera. The heart of the system is a unique 2-channel infrared rangefinding system that gauges distance in 290 steps out to about 10m. It uses a central emitter and two receptors to help eliminate errors caused by parallax or subject reflectivity. If the camera fails to see a return IR beam, it focuses to 20m, which is the hyperfocal distance of its 35mm f/2 lens.
That is already insanely good, but the camera then applies an aperture-specific focus correction to account for focus shift (also described in a Konica white paper). The Hexar’s lens is optimized for wide-open operation; its spherical aberration causes the focus point to shift as the apertures get smaller. The Hexar calculates this error and corrects as its goes. Too bad AF SLRs don’t have this feature.
But wait. This camera also can automatically compensate for 750nm or 850nm infrared film, too. No IR marks, no guesswork.
And for the free set of steak knives, the camera’s AF system is temperature-calibrated as well.
If you need true infinity focus, you hit the MF button once. If you hold it down, you can set your distance manually (and the camera remembers every time you come back – useful for hyperfocal technique).
Nice design features: Programming, programming, programming. This camera is built around a first-rate lens and two key concepts. One is hyperfocal focusing. The other is perfect balancing of flash using a combination of techniques, including traditional distance-aperture programming, rear-curtain synch, and stopping-down mid-exposure. It is important to note that the Hexar cannot use high-voltage flash units like the early Vivitar 283. Only modern, low-synch-voltage units should be used to avoid frying the internal circuitry.
The black model features a silent drive that slows focusing and advance to the point of being absolutely silent. Even in that mode, it still focuses and advances faster than you can. In fact, this camera can focus, compute exposure, and control flash in complete darkness. Instantly. You can add silent mode and a number of other advanced features to the Hexar Silver, etc. through a control sequence that you can find on the ‘net.
Odd design limitations: 1/250 second top speed. Not that odd, really, if you consider the clear aperture those shutter blades have to cross and the fact that electronically-controlled shutters have different design limitations. Did you really think your Canonet QL17 shoots 1/500 at a true 1/500? Didn’t think so. Some people complain that you can’t use 800 ASA film with this camera outside. That misses the point, which is that you use lower-speed film to take advantage of the lens’s resolving power. Even 400-speed film is pefectly adequate, as in the big picture below (Kodak Supra 400). There is no cable or remote release, but I am not sure if this is a problem in a camera without a mirror to cause vibration. It does have a self-timer.
- For the complainers about the top shutter speed, the workarounds should be fairly obvious: for outside shots (or inside with flash) get an ND8 filter, which takes a 3200-speed film down to 400. You will have to make sure that you change the ISO setting.
- Another way is to just change films mid-roll, which is easy on this camera. When the camera reaches the end of the roll (which takes a lot longer than you think), it rewinds the film. Or you can use a ballpoint to press the manual rewind button. When the leader is about to be sucked into the canister, the camera pauses for 3 seconds, displaying [–]. This is your cue to open the back and take the leader-out cartridge. Otherwise, it finishes rewinding and displays . The film advance is precise enough that the camera can be shot with one roll of film, rewound, loaded with another type, switched back to the first, and advanced (lens cap on) to the same spot on the first film (hence the leader-out). Go two frames past where you left off (you can actually do one).
In Operation: With a very short learning curve, this camera is a snap. Ergonomics are identical to an M6 with a grip. On P, you set it to your preferred aperture and it stays as close as it can without blowing your lowest hand-holdable shutter speed. Metering is dead-on, and the whole thing is so quiet most people think it’s digital — or ask when you are going to take the picture (although you already had). The shutter is completely vibration-free. Flash operation is perfect every time, even more accurate than TTL, because it is not thrown by subject reflectivity.
Balance/feel: This camera balances really well and feels really solid, which is all you really need. The wheel that controls the aperture is on the top, and accessible by your right forefinger. It feels… good. It could use textured grips, but it’s not a big deal.
Durability: It’s a tank. Well, two (major) incidents. First was pulling the camera off my desk. Camera hit two drawer handles, put a nick in the floor. No damage. Christmas — got really loaded at the family party and dropped camera in the snow on the way back into the house. My sister came in the next day with the camera frozen in a sheet of ice. I chipped the ice off and very thoroughly dried it. No damage – and no fungus or haze 7 years later. It took the picture above after all of this! Because you have the luxury of a 46mm filter size with this camera, I strongly recommend screwing a B+W KR1.5 into the lens and leaving it there. When you have a filter screwed in, the lens barrel becomes almost completely air- and water-tight (all movement is within). As you can see above, it does not degrade lens performance to do so.
Long-term issues: Note that the 2-position shutter switch (focus… shoot) is rated for about 30,000 cycles – and it will eventually wear out. If you started with a new camera today, you would never physically be able to hit this limit. But since the oldest Hexars are now almost 25 years old, watch for this. The symptom is that the focus does not lock when you push the button halfway down in “loud” mode – and it becomes a problem for off-center subjects. To some extent, cleaning the switch can help, but the ultimate fix is to replace the dome switch with a similar DSLR part, which will set you back $100-150. But once you have that done, it seems unlikely that you will wear out the next switch.
Accessories: Hexars are no different to accessorize than any other compact, fixed-lens camera. But here are some suggestions:
- Flash: HX-14 flash is the default choice. Not much flexibility, insecure mounting, no thyristor. Very tightly integrated with the camera and can automatically activate flashmatic mode. A Nikon SB-20 is a more powerful, more flexible option, but you need to set the PFL mode. Recently, I have had great success with the Nikon SB-30, which is small, power-efficient, flexible,
- Filters: I would recommend a B+W MRC nano. Thin and repels everything.
- Case: avoid the soft case.
- Strap: get a wrist strap or a very thin neck strap. I would think about a Peak Designs modular strap that can exchange for a wrist strap or a neck strap.
Bottom Line: I think the ultimate test of the best all-around camera is what you would grab if told that you were leaving on an around-the-world trip and you had five minutes to pack. This would be mine.