Lens Envy

Lens Envy

I was realizing the other day I haven’t acquired any new lenses in quite awhile now. I stubbornly resisted, as did many others, in selling off my hard-won collection of 35mm format optics for ones that would better suit the crop-sensor digital SLRs. That 16mm fisheye, for instance, was worse than useless on a 1.5x crop camera, and my otherwise lovely 20mm superwide was not only less wide, but also miserably unsharp on the earlier digital bodies – for reasons I have not yet understood. The good news was that these two optics were restored to their former glory (and sharpness) when used on an appropriate full-frame camera (ie: same size sensor as a 35mm film frame).
So I got my favourite lenses back when I got the right size sensor.
But the question is, are there any other lenses I should be looking at?  What can’t I do now that I could if I forged ahead into the world of newer optics? There are some interesting new stabilized zooms, but I’m not a big zoom guy. I have an 80-200mm and a 24-50mm – the latter I bought because it worked with my large collection of 62mm filters at the time. That short zoom doesn’t get too much use these days. I often prefer to go out with the 20mm, a 35mm and either a 50mm or an 85mm – all sharper and faster than zooms. I’m quite happy with my hand-picked set of primes, for the most part.


So what was my last lens purchase? After some thought I realized I traded up my 50mm 1.4 Ai to an Ai-S a couple of years ago – but that’s not really a new addition to the bag, and just continues my perversity of preferring an all-metal manual 50mm to the newer AF versions.
Before that, I acquired the 200mm Leitz Telyt that Doc Mendels had in his estate at the time of his passing. I wanted to own at least one of his prized optics, and that one spoke to me on a couple of counts. Firstly, it could only be used as the Doc used it – not without a whole pile of adapters to mount it on the SLR of your choice. Fortunately, it came with a bunch. Secondly, it was very sharp.
Don’t feel left out if you don’t recall the lens I’m referring to. It is an “orphaned” optic from Leica rangefinder past. As they stand, most rangefinders can’t practically be used with lenses longer than 135mm (and not so well with those anyway). The Leica guy of the ‘50s or early ‘60s tried to keep up with the SLR crowd by adding a Visoflex housing to his trusty rangefinder, thus converting it into a somewhat kludgy SLR. Leica made a range of long lenses and macros specifically for such use. When Leica brought out the Leicaflex SLRs it spelled the end of the Visoflex era.
Visoflex stuff isn’t very collectible or valuable even in the overheated Leicaphile world. So if you can find a use for one of the optics you can get them for a relative bargain, considering their quality.
I can fit the 200mm onto my Nikons in two ways – one with the focus mount and adapters, and the other with the Leitz bellows and adapters. For instance, with the 200mm f4.0 lens head screwed into the bellows, on the back I have a short M-mount extension tube, an M to M-39 adapter, a shim, an M39-M-42 adapter, and finally an M-42 to Nikon adapter. It’s goofy, but it works. Using the lens head in its own focus mount is worse because I have to come up with just the right amount of extension to precisely replace the missing Visoflex.
But the bellows mount is where this oddball combo shines. Sure, the Telyt is a pre-set lens, so you have to remember to manually operate the aperture before shooting – but I can focus from infinity down to 1 metre. And I have adapters to put other fun things like enlarging lenses on the bellows front. And unlike the old bulky Nikon bellows I seldom used, this bellows is compact and stuffs into a camera bag for adventures in the great outdoors. It also bears mentioning that this Telyt is the sharpest 200mm lens I’ve yet come across.
So, back to my title – of what do I have be envious?
Well, it hasn’t escaped my attention that many younger photographers these days are paying attention to lenses of similar vintage to my old Telyt – despite the newer digital cameras around their necks. Their sharp eyes quickly spot the vintage Pentax Spotmatic on the shelf – but the first question out of their mouths is not what model it is (original SP, or SP1000, SPII…). No, they want to know what lens it has – the camera is irrelevant.
Those old screw mount lenses often have gorgeously smooth focusing. And if you can find a super-multicoated Pentax lens, even better.
But they’re not interested in recreating the old look of Tri-X developed in Microdol with these lenses. Nope, there are a host of adapters out there to put them on newer DSLRs and on the so-called “mirrorless” cameras. These photographers are looking for optical qualities that they believe these vintage lenses possess. My testing doesn’t always bear this out. I’ve pitted old optics like the older Nikkors and Pentax 50mm lenses against the newest autofocus offerings from Nikon and Canon, and found only minor differences. A good lens is a good lens.
Then again, there’s also a roaring trade in notoriously poor lenses – especially those from behind the old Iron Curtain. Shiny aperture blades, so-so coatings, and questionable build quality apparently lead to flare and aberrations that are seen as attractive in hand-held rock videos shot on DSLRs and mirrorless bodies. To those too young to remember the cold war, old Soviet stuff is chic, apparently.
At least they’re having fun. And the rise in cheap adapters coming out of China keeps those options open.
But not for me.
Sad to say, Nikon users are left a bit out in the cold. Nikon’s 1959 lens mount has the deepest flange to film (now flange to sensor) measurements on the market. Canon’s EF (EOS) has the shortest, which means there is room to mount an adapter on a Canon digital to fit a Nikon lens – or a Pentax lens, or a Zeiss-Contax lens. It doesn’t work the other way round. If such an adapter existed (some do) to put such oddball lenses onto a Nikon they won’t focus to infinity.
One of my customers learned the hard way the other day. He was being shipped a Nikon to Canon FD adapter, so he could pick up some of the old FD lenses that were going for a song. I assured him it wouldn’t work as he expected. He disagreed, saying he was told it would work perfectly.
When it arrived, I handed him a 50mm FD to put on his Nikon body. It mounted nicely, but he quickly found he couldn’t focus more than about a foot away. The depth of the Nikon body, plus the adapter added up to a nice bit of lens extension. Close focus only, and not what he had in mind. There are adapters out there with compensating lens elements in them, but few find them satisfactory.
The only reason the ancient Telyt works on a Nikon is that the lens was intended for the very, very deep extension of the Leica body plus Visoflex housing (look up a picture of one if you don’t fully understand my description). I actually have to add extension to get the lens to focus up properly.
I have to say if I had a full-frame Canon body these days, I’d definitely be horsing around with oddball “orphaned” optics.
I’m not quite sold on the mirrorless concept. Actually, I don’t get it at all. I can’t imagine anyone trying to shoot their son’s soccer game while holding a camera out at arm’s length and squinting at the screen in bright daylight. Those things are indoor cameras, and I like to go outdoors with my photography.
Does it really make sense to forego proper meter coupling, aperture coupling, and autofocus just to make use of an old optic that may have largely imaginary benefits over a newer model?
Frankly, if it inspires you to experiment, try new things, and have fun making new images – then yes, it makes all the sense in the world.

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~ by windsorphotooutfitters on February 1, 2013.

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