Modern science is relentless. Countless hours and dollars are spent developing ways to improve upon what we already have, all toward a perceived, yet unattainable, state of perfection. The problem, of course, arises when one asks just who is determining “perfection,” and the obviously related questioning of just how universal this version of perfection might or might not be.
Camera optics have undergone tremendous development over the last century and a half. Without a doubt, many of these changes have genuinely and irrefutably improved the quality of images that may be obtained. But once the threshold of reliably clear, sharp photos without serious aberrations had been reached (arguably by the early 1960s), one has to wonder about diminishing returns on investment.
One of the technological advances now taken largely for granted is applying coatings to optical lenses. This has been around for decades; the vast majority of post-war lenses are coated. Coatings limit internal reflections within a lens, allowing more light to reach the film (or sensor) on the other side. They also reduce flare and aid contrast. Without a doubt, coating lenses has improved measurable optical quality.
But uncoated lenses are not to be ignored, simply cast aside as inferior technology. Certainly, they are old – the last was probably produced in the 1940s – but (advertising notwithstanding) that doesn’t mean they’ve outlived their usefulness. And once one starts shooting with uncoated lenses, their distinctive qualities become apparent.
As the above discussion suggests, uncoated optics will usually produce images that are a little lower in contrast, particularly “micro-contrast” (a term I’m not particularly fond of, but a favorite of that particular sort of camera gear enthusiast who obsesses about things like the ultimate resolving power of lenses). This may create what is sometimes called an old-fashioned look, particularly with traditional grain films – not a bad thing at all in my book, but then that shouldn’t really surprise anyone reading this.
Flare is not well-controlled, which can be annoying if you’re not expecting it; if you know it’s going to be there, you can either tame it with a lens hood or accept it and the look it creates. In bright light, especially reflected, diffuse light, contrast will drop further without a hood, but the effect can be nice nonetheless.
Things get even more interesting when you move to color. When color film became more readily available in the late 1940s or so, camera manufacturers immediately started labeling their lens as “Color-Corrected” or some such, suggesting that the old uncoated lenses were not suitable for the newfangled color film. A great marketing angle to be sure, but hardly accurate. Color film works just fine with uncoated lenses, though the look of the photos is definitely different.
First off, the palette is somewhat shifted from what we have come to expect. For want of a better characterization, it creates a “vintage” look, like prints or slides from forty or fifty years ago, prints that have perhaps faded a bit but still retain colors that remind us of a bygone age. Of course, the obvious point to consider here is that those “vintage” photos may have simply been taken with uncoated lenses, but why spoil the illusion….
Color photos often take on some additional saturation when shot through uncoated lenses, especially with high-saturation film emulsions like Kodak Ektar, while retaining the lower contrast character mentioned earlier. The result is that even vibrant colors often end up looking soft rather than harsh, as they might with super-sharp, higher contrast modern lenses. This can produce some very pleasant results.
So why would one want to shoot with admittedly “inferior” uncoated lenses? Well, because a lot of people seem to think they’re outdated and therefore useless, you can pick them up for cheap. And maybe, just maybe, microscopic sharpness with perfect true-to-life color rendition is not the pinnacle of photography, not an end in and of itself. Sometimes you want a photo to look a bit soft, a bit imperfect, a bit “vintage,” to capture a particular mood or scene. In best Machiavellian tradition, the ends do indeed justify the means. So grab yourself an old uncoated lens and have at it. And tell the optics snobs to stick it while you’re at it.