I do a lot of hiking. Fortunately, I have a variety of options relatively close to home, but it is inevitable that even those many varied trails will sooner or later become familiar. From a photography standpoint, this tends to reduce substantially the interest in shooting in those places, as I’ve already shot them many times before. Sure, they make for good places to test equipment or kill the end of a roll, but there is little expectation of finding great inspiration or producing much that is new or different.
In an effort to overcome the photographic curse of familiarity, I decided to head out with the specific purpose of taking a series of photos that looked different than what I had produced before. After a bit of thought, I settled on the idea of trying to create a slightly surreal, unsettled, vaguely mysterious look. I loaded my Canon L1 with Tri-X and mounted my recently-acquired Serenar 50/1.9, a lens known to produce some funky effects wide open, with a #25 red filter mounted to shift the tones around from where they would normally be and to allow me to open up the aperture even in good light.
As you might expect, the results were a bit hit-or-miss. Some things just looked normal, some were too dark, and some simply didn’t work, but there were a handful that captured the feel I was after to some extent. I decided to present them here in the order they were shot rather than rearrange them – a hike being a sort of self-contained journey, it seemed appropriate to use the photos as mileposts.
Very early on in this exercise, I wrote about Fuji Superia 400 in what were rather unflattering ways. It’s still not my favorite film by a long shot, but I’ve also come to understand a bit more about how film characteristics are affected by other factors, so it seemed like perhaps I should write an update taking these things into account. Problem is, I haven’t shot Superia 400 in ages, so instead I decided to take a more thorough look at its slightly slower cousin, Superia 200.
Each film emulsion has its own character – color palette, grain, latitude – but I have come to appreciate more and more that the end product is not solely the result of the film. The lens has an awful lot to do with it as well, not just in terms of sharpness, but in color rendition and tonality as well. This should perhaps be a fairly obvious realization, but Your Humble Filmosaur is not always the sharpest tool in the shed. Note that these photos were not altered in any way except to remove dust from the scans and to add the watermarks.
Take for example this photo I recently posted. Superia 200 shot with a 1950s-vintage Canon Serenar 50/1.9. The colors are muted, tending toward a pastel-like palette, with low overall contrast. Not unpleasant at all in this shot, but a particular look to be sure, and one that might not be well-suited to other subjects. If one were to make a judgement about the film based strictly on this and other photos from this particular camera/lens combo (as I did in my earlier condemnation of Superia 400), you might form the impression that this film is going to produce these colors in any camera with any lens.
As the photo above shows, this is clearly not the case. This was taken with my Pentax SFX and a Pentax M-SMC 200/4, a considerably more modern lens than the Serenar, with more modern coatings. The camera was shot in aperture priority mode, ensuring proper exposure; not that the earlier shot was incorrectly exposed, but one should not fail to account for variables. Here the colors are vibrant and saturated, with higher contrast as well – if I were shown these two shots and asked if they were taken on the same film stock, I would have to guess that they were not, the differences in appearance simply being too great. And yet it was the very same film, from the very same production batch even.
What is going on here? Well, simply put, these examples demonstrate that the lens is a major factor in determining the look of the photo; not just the sharpness, not just the depth-of-field, but the color and contrast as well. Certainly, different films add important variables to the mix as well, but not the only ones. Having acquired many cameras and lenses, and shooting more types of film through them, I’ve begun matching films to cameras to achieve particular looks – for example, I’m not going to load Superia 200 in my vintage LTM rangefinders if I want high saturation; Kodak Ektar would likely be a better choice, or I could simply choose a different (probably more modern) camera. If nothing else, such considerations should make the end results a bit more predictable.
Having taken a look at the color side of things here, we now turn to monochrome; without a doubt, this lens will see far more use with black-and-white film (as will most of mine these days), so there’s good reason to look at it closely. Removing color from the equation also helps to more easily identify some of the rendering characteristics of the lens. So let’s see what it can do.
I’ve shot in several different conditions with the Serenar 50/1.9, so hopefully I can present a sufficient variety of examples to give a good sense of the range of images one might expect – and it is quite a range. Having a less-than-perfect optical design, the qualities of the images produced are very much dependent upon the settings chosen, especially the aperture. More modern lenses will often produce fairly similar levels of sharpness and contrast across the frame from wide open to fully stopped down (I know that there are measurable changes in this, but I’m talking about photographs of real-world subjects, not test charts); that is not the case with the 50/1.9, as we will see.
The photo above was taken wide open (with a red 25 filter in place). You can clearly see that, while there is reasonable center sharpness, there is also considerable and rapid fall-off in sharpness toward the corners. There is some field curvature as well. As with the color photos shown earlier, overall contrast is low. The surrealistic look here is obviously not suited to general purpose photography, but can be used to good effect in some situations.
Another shot taken at full aperture. The multiple bright light sources show clearly how the Serenar glows a lot wide open. This roll was pushed two stops in development, so contrast is somewhat higher and the tonal range is compressed. To my eye, this lens is particularly well-suited to street shooting at night – the grainy, atmospheric photos it produces on pushed Tri-X or HP5+ have a timeless feel to them, which I like very much. In spite of the shallow depth of field available wide open, I did not find it terribly difficult to shoot quickly (of course, you will compromise ultimate sharpness at times, but then if you’re using this lens, that’s not your objective in the first place).
One more wide open photo (again with red filter) shows the unique character of the out-of-focus areas (I’m really trying to stop using the word bokeh entirely). The transition is fairly smooth, but somehow unsettled. It’s really swirly in the center, with bright points forming oddly shaped artifacts. It reminds me a lot of Petzval lenses, and should be quite suited to portraits.
Stopping down a bit, things sharpen up fairly quickly and the photos start to look a lot more “normal”. From f/5.6 or thereabouts, there isn’t a lot to distinguish photos from the Serenar from those made with many other 50mm lenses, at least at first glance. Contrast comes up nicely, though certainly not to the levels of ultra-sharp modern lenses; it still looks a bit vintage, but nowhere near the way it does opened up. Since the aperture scale lens only goes down to f/11 (though there is a little additional movement past that mark, giving perhaps f/12.5 at the full stop), there is no concern about diffraction. Center sharpness remains quite high all the way across the aperture range.
This last picture shows how relatively flare-resistant the Serenar is. There is a bit of flare, but in fairness I did provoke it by shooting essentially straight into the sun. As always, a dirty or scratched lens might be more prone to flare of one sort or another, but clean and in good shape, you can shoot into the light (I’m not a big fan of the term contre-jour either, but it’s better than bokeh) without too much concern. I normally keep a hood mounted, though I take it off when using filters; in this case (and most others), it’s more for protection of the lens than flare control.
So that’s a look at the Serenar 50/1.9 in black-and-white. Hopefully, between this post and the previous one, there’s now a slightly larger body of objective information out there for those interested in this lens. Subjectively, I’m really happy with the images it has produced thus far. I love the look wide open at night, especially combined with pushed film. It’s an unfairly maligned lens, I think; it certainly has it’s limitations, and significant ones at that, but once you’re aware of them, it’s easy to work around them and even use them to your advantage.