When Interchangeable Lenses don’t…

Everyone knows the benefits of interchangeable lenses. Anyone who has been in the photography game for a while has probably used at least one or two interchangeable lens cameras, and some (Your Humble Filmosaur included) have vast colonies of lenses that seem to multiply all on their own, migrating and attaching themselves, lamprey-like, to any camera body they can find.

The voraciousness of lenses for camera bodies is strictly limited, however, by the fact that each can accommodate one, and only one, lens (unless you’re doing it very creatively wrong). Once a lens has attached itself, the camera is safe from further predation. Perhaps it is as a result of this natural limitation that some cameras and lenses seem to form a symbiotic relationship, rarely if ever separating from each other. This unnecessary pair-bonding is little-understood by the scientific community, but we can at least offer a theory.

Some cameras and lenses just seem to go together. They achieve a kind of mutually-beneficial balance that makes each seem to perform beyond its own individual potential. This phenomenon is sometimes seen among the fixed-lens subspecies, as might be expected, but it remains surprising when it manifests itself in the more complex realm of interchangeable lens cameras. When it does, something magical happens…(cue slow motion close-up)

OK, enough channeling David Attenborough. The point of all this is to say that some cameras and lenses just work together. In my collection there are three combinations that seem to remain more or less permanently attached because they just work.

First up is perhaps the most classic of all, a Leica IIIc with a 50/3.5 collapsible Elmar and a SBOOI viewfinder. It’s small, handy, and extremely capable. I shot my whole trip to Germany last year with this camera alone. It fits in a coat pocket. It’s discrete. With zone focusing and reasonably consistent light, it’s as fast to use in the street as any point-and-shoot. If I had to live with one camera and lens, there’s a very strong likelihood that this would be it.

Closely related is a relatively new combination, a Leica IIIa (which originally came to me with a Summar attached, as described here) with a Nikkor 28/3.5 and matching viewfinder. Everything that I said about the IIIc/Elmar combo applies here as well. I’m less acclimated to the 28mm focal length, but I’m finding it is a nice compliment to 50mm in a two camera travel kit.

Finally, my venerable Canon P, after much experimentation, seems to have settled down with a Canon 35/1.8. It may seem a bit odd, given my 50mm inclinations, but I shot more in 35mm last year than I had before – mostly due to my dalliance with my Hexar AF – and I’m more at ease with it as a result. The P’s viewfinder is 1:1, rare for the 35mm focal length, which makes it easier to use in the street. The package balances well.

These three might as well be fixed lens cameras at this point. Some rigs just work, and if something works, why mess with it?

Meet the Lens: Canon 35mm f/1.8

Oh the speed! The blazing speed!

OK, that’s a stretch. But this is the fastest wide lens I’ve got by a pretty good margin, the previous leaders in this category holding the line at f/2.8. Jumping from that to f/1.8 is fairly significant, but “Oh the fairly significant speed increase!” just didn’t sound as good.

Much as with the swap of my Canon 28/3.5 for a 28/2.8 that I recently reported here, this was neither a planned acquisition nor a particularly necessary one. Rather, it was the result of an opportunity and the realization that I could make it happen with little additional cash outlay if I sold something I already had. In this instance, the decision was easier, in that the Serenar (Canon) 35/2.8 I had, nice lens that it is, was simply not getting much use.

Unlike the 28mm focal length, where I had (and still have) one and only one LTM lens, the 35mm field was a bit more crowded. In addition to the 2.8 Canon, I also had my lovely W.Acall 35/3.5 and my hacked Nikon L35AF 35/2.8 glass in an LTM mount; the Jupiter-12 35/2.8 that was my first foray into this focal length had already been sold for lack of use. The thing about these lenses is that each has it’s own signature, and the differences are on par with what one expects in the more common 50mm lens offerings. The Canon and the W.Acall are both double-Gauss Planar-type lenses, but the former tends toward a slightly harder look, while the latter is gloriously creamy. The Nikon follows the Sonnar formula, but with a somewhat more modern feel than is typical due to design and coatings. The Jupiter is a Zeiss Biogon copy, a non-retrofocal design, and looks quite different as a result (but apparently not different enough for me to keep it around, though that’s more the fault of the ergonomics, which are not terribly user-friendly).

When the 1.8 appeared for sale, deciding what to sell was not terribly difficult. The W.Acall, the most recently acquired of the crop, was not going anywhere – the rendering of that lens reminds me of my Summitar, perhaps my favorite 50mm lens. The Nikon hack is, well, a hack – I did have a couple people express interest in buying it back when I first showed it, but it’s not a showpiece so getting a meaningful amount for it (I have a lot of hours in putting it together, even if it looks a little more like an arts and crafts project than a proper lens) would be unlikely. Plus I like the compactness of it. That left the Canon. It’s a fine lens in lovely shape, complete with the original caps, case, and matching viewfinder, but I just wasn’t using it. So the usual dance was initiated: try to sell one lens in order to fund another. It didn’t take too long, and soon the 1.8 was on its way to me.

Once it arrived, in spite of it being quite serviceable as-is, I went through it and gave it a detailed cleaning and refreshed the lubricants. The construction of the 1.8 is lighter than the older all-brass 2.8, with the focusing barrel made from aluminum. The shape of the new lens is more cylindrical as well, and a substantial void between the optical block and the outer shell adds to the feeling of lightness relative to exterior dimensions. There’s nothing wrong with the construction, but it clearly reminds anyone who has used the older lenses that they have encountered something from a newer generation.

All well and good, you say, but how does it perform? Well, let me tell you. It’s nice and sharp in the center even wide open, getting predictably soft in the corners. Both the corners and the out-of-focus areas, which are often going to be quite prominent when shooting wide open, exhibit some interesting characteristics. Both exhibit a bit of “movement,” looking a little swirly at times and somewhat busy, and out-of-focus areas in the center lose a notable amount of contrast, though this contrast loss is less pronounced out toward the perimeter of the frame. It’s an odd effect, though one that could be useful. Stopped down it’s predictably sharp, with moderate contrast and fairly high resolution. I haven’t tested it with color yet, but with B&W it falls closer to vintage rendering than modern.

While I’m sure I could be happy with the Canon 35/1.8 as my only 35mm lens, it doesn’t quite reach the very high rendering benchmark set by the W.Acall. For low light shooting, or perhaps as an all-purpose travel lens, the Canon might be the better choice however – two stops is enough to make a meaningful difference in real-world use. As a bonus, this also works as a fast 50mm-equivalent on my Fuji X-E1, which adds to the flexibility of that camera as well.

Meet the Lens: Canon 28mm f/2.8 LTM

It seems like just yesterday I was introducing the predecessor to this lens, the Serenar (Canon) 28mm f/3.5. The latter was and remains a fine lens, and I had no complaints about it. The only reason it has now gone to a new owner (who reports that he too is pleased with it) is that I allowed myself to be seduced by the promise of a little more speed and slightly better resolving power. I’m weak. There, I said it.

The new arrival looks a bit more modern on the outside; the beginnings of the shift in Canon’s design philosophy can be seen here. As such, I find it looks a bit more appropriate on my larger Canon bodies (as shown here on my fetching L1) than the smaller Barnack Leicas. It’s still quite solid, but it lacks the feeling of being carved of a single chunk of brass that the old 3.5 had. On the plus side, the glass is more recessed in the body, and the aperture ring is larger and easier to read. Pretty minor differences, really. And while we’re on the subject of minor details, since this lens came to me from Japan, I’m unreasonably happy that it’s marked in meters rather than feet. I’m one of those odd Americans who, for reasons I cannot fully explain, prefers metric markings on their camera equipment.

Optically, the 2.8 demonstrates many of the same basic characteristics as the 3.5 did: vignetting wide open, good sharpness spreading out toward the corners as you stop down some. The differences lie in when things shift; whereas the 3.5 didn’t really feel sharp across the frame until f/8, the 2.8 manages similar levels by f/5.6. Practically speaking, this gives the latter a little more flexibility in addition to the 2/3rds of a stop in absolute speed advantage it holds.

Contrast is moderate, and not terribly different across the aperture range, for both lenses. The 2.8 appears to have a slight edge in resolution, but not really enough to make a meaningful difference in real-world performance. Color rendering is fairly similar as well, and consistent with older Canon lenses, with a slightly muted feel overall. Flare resistance is good. In short, both lenses produce photos that look pretty similar most of the time.

If you’re reading this thinking a) that there’s no big surprises, and b) wondering why I bothered, you’re not alone. I’m not sure that I really gained anything important. But that’s how it goes sometimes, I suppose. I’ve still got a good 28mm lens for my LTM cameras, so I didn’t lose anything either. As long as I broke even (more or less), I can’t complain.