Vintage lenses: flawed but beautiful

Over the years I have acumulated quite a lot of gear. While I will probably never stop lusting for new shiny cameras and lenses, with my current collection I can fulfill any project to my, and my clients, satisfaction. From photography to videography, from macro to landscapes to watersports, it is all there. As the mirrorless photography world matures, upgrades are less interesting each year, and I will keep working with what I have for the foreseeable future. 

However…

Where the new modern models and lenses start to loose their attraction, the vintage photography world does not. Over the years I’ve bought and sold quite a few old vintage lenses, ranging from the 50s to the 80s and to modern non-autofocus products. When I started out with my very first dslr (the Canon EOS 1000D, for those interested), manual focussing was something from the stoneage. Outdated and obsolete. I’m from a generation that had never seen cameras without autofocus. As such, it was hard to imagine the tactile feeling of focusing a lens, and the joy that this can bring. It took me a while to get into the idea of using vintage lenses on modern bodies, and that this could give a different experience from using autofocus lenses. Not necessarily always better, but different and pleasing nonetheless. 

Over the years since my first MF lens, the Samyang 12 mm f/2 (which I’m still using professionally, in favour of the Zeiss Touit 12 mm with autofocus), I’ve collected quite a lot manual (vintage) lenses, and it is not seldom that I step out of my front door with a bag that contains more manual focus lenses that native autofocus lenses. 

A distinction must be made here between vintage and non vintage manual focus lenses. Some manufacturers still make modern lenses without autofocus (Leica, Voigtländer, modern companies like Samyang), which are manual focus but specially designed for modern digital bodies. These lenses are made with modern machinery and contain the newest coatings, and therefore deliver optimal image quality on a digital body. Vintage lenses are designed for analog cameras and are usually made without the newest developments in lens technology. As such, the usually have characteristics that would not be tolerated in mondern lenses: flaring, colour shifts, abberations. Some older lens designs cause less sharpness than we are used from modern lenses. Others are just as sharp, but are less contrasty than we are used to. Every vintage lens is different and has characteristics that you can like or hate. The results you get are not perfect, but that is not the point. An images does not need have the perfect image quality to be a good photograph, as our veneration of the old photography masters proofs. 

A few months ago I bought another vintage lens that is legendary in vintage photography circles: the Helios 44M-4. This lens is a 58 mm f/2 lens that, together with its brother, the Helios 44M-2, was produced with an M42 mount in the Sovjet Union from 1958 to 1992 on a massive scale. It is one of the most widespread lenses in the world today, and because of this, it is quite affordable. The main attraction for many is the ‘swirly bokeh’ effect that this lens offers (instead of perfect round bokeh balls in the out of focus areas, the bokeh has a circular pattern to it, with squashed ‘cats eye’  bokeh). On modern lenses, an inexcuseable effect, in vintage lenses hightly sought after. I was curious what the fuss was about and got one. And hated it..

The lens itself is ugly. I used it a few times, got other projects, and put it in my lens drawer with the intention to sell it again. Not helping was the fact that the 50-ish focal length is the most found focal length in my lens drawer. Nor did I really manage to create the ‘swirly bokeh’ effect that I expected (a full frame sensor would probably help in that regard). Recently I was looking for something different and gave it a second chance. I put it on the Fujifilm X-T4 for a few walks in the neighbourhood, and this time I did fall in love. I have the suspicion that the M42-Fx adapter that I use has a slightly wrong thickness, as the lens is very good at close focusing, but does not reach infinity unless you stop down to f8. This allows you to photograph quite close up, giving you smooth and beautiful bokeh (not necessarily of the swirly type). As I love close focusing lenses, this one has just climbed my favorites ladder and has surpassed the Voigtlander 50 mm f/1.5 Nokton, which is stunning to look at and delivers excellent image quality, but can not focus as close, and was 10 times its price. Also surprising was the resolution this lens delivers, details are clear even at high magnification.

I will continue to put the lens trough its paces, and will also check the drawer for other forgotten gems (like the 50 mm Meyer-Optik Oreston f/1.8 that I haven’t used in ages but has the same close focusing strengths and is razor sharp). Some results from this lens are below.

And here it is: the Helios 44M-4 on my trusty Fujifilm X-T2. The lens itself is quite compact, but with the M42 to FujiX adapter makes the lens a bit longer.
A Jpeg image, straight from the camera and decreased in size. I liked the contrast and sharpness of this image. Taken at f/2 with the X-T4 with film simulation Acros + green.
Taken with the X-T4 at f/2, film simulation Eterna. I’ve never really used Eterna except for video. The muted colours really made this image for me though.
A bokeh test. Taken with the X-T4 at f/2. Not sure of the film simulation.
Another bokeh test. Straight from the camera and resized, Fujifilm X-T4 at f/2 with film simulation Acros + green.
I liked the symmetry of this image with the striped poles flanking the winding path and the dogs flanking the biker. Fujifilm X-T4, probably taken at f/8. Not sure of the film simulation.
Fujifilm X-T4 at f/4 in Acros + green. When I walked past the goat had a magpie on its back. I liked the black and white combination of the goat and the magpie, but the magpie flew off and didn’t return. Still liked the image of the goat..
A resized close-up of the goat, showing the amount of resolution this lens has!
Another bokeh and resolution test: Fujifilm X-T4 at f/2. Based on Classic Chrome, but edited.

The milky way over the Wadden Sea

This image was taken with the X-T4 and the Laowa 9 mm. The sky was a 4 minute exposure using the iOptron Skytracker Pro at 800 ISO, the foreground a 20 seconds exposure at ISO6400 without the tracker.

As an avid sailor, I try to make it a habit to make a sailing trip to the Wadden Sea, a tidal sea in the north of the Netherlands, at least once a year. Naturally I try to combine this with taking photographs, and as it offers a stunning landscape with its mudflats and wide horizons, usually I come back with a crop of images that I’m really happy with. However, one image has been eluding me for the past 4 years. I had in mind to photograph our flat bottomed ship (a Vollenhovense Bol, for those interested in such things), high and dry on the mudflats, with the milky way in the background (astrophotography being another genre which really interests me). This is not as easy as it sounds, however. The area of the Wadden Sea is generally one of the darkest in the Netherlands, so no problem there. The problem is in the tides, and the weather of course. Apart from having to be granted a clear night sky, a feat by no means a given with the weather patterns in the Netherlands, the timing with the tides must be exactly right. The ship must be on dry land somewhere between 11 PM and 1 AM, there should me no moon, and the ship should also be floating again at a not too ungodly hour to continue what is in the first place a holiday.

In april we managed to grab a weeks sailing, and on the final day I was granted a clear night sky. However, the moon was up and ruined any chance of a good milky way shot. In addition, the bottom of that part of the sea where we had parked for the night was not solid sand, but a sort of sludgy ooze. Not the best ground for a tripod. As one of our shipmates was an astronomer, we banded together with our photography and astronomy apps, and concluded that the best chance to get a nice holiday and good weather, and make my dream photograph, was August 13th. As it happened, we could rent the ship again that week and we booked it on the spot (helped also by the fact that this was a holiday that was solidly Coronoa-proof, something quite uncertain for other holidays at that time). 

So, last week was that week. How did it go? Well, the 13th of August was cloudy, so no joy. Fortunately, we saw that coming and made the most of the few nights preceding the 13th for some attempts. The best opportunity came on the 9th. We had beached our ship on the mudflats just northeast of the little harbour of Noordpolderzijl, Groningen. We knew that between 10 PM and 1 AM we would probably be dry on the flats, and hoped for solid sand. Our wish was granted, and apart from the light pollution of the large city of Groningen to the south, the conditions were perfect.

Usually I only bring my small travel tripod on holiday, but as there was so much photography at the core of this holiday, I decided to bring my large and heavy tripod. To protect it from the sand and the residual salt water the bottom part of the legs were wrapped with garbage bags and ductape. I also decided to bring my iOptron startracker, as this tripod was sturdy enough for its weight. As camera I was a bit torn between the Fujifilm X-T4 and the Fujifilm X-T2, the X-T4 winning in the end by a narrow margin (although in hindsight I think I would have preferred the X-T2, there were some weird issues with unsharp images on the tripod, but this might have been due to shifting sands). The 9 mm Laowa and 12 mm Samyang completed the kit.

Between 10:45 and 0:45 I played around on the sand next to the ship, as my shipmates were stargazing in the dark. After some preliminary shots of the milky way and deciding which angles were best for the ship – milky way combination, I tried some extra shots with the star tracker. As at 0:30 the moon rose (also a magical sight) and the water started to rise again, I got back on board. Trying to edit a milky way photo on an iPhone really doesn’t do it justice, and the tracked images could not be edited anyway (as the foreground was blurred due to the motion of the star tracker), so really checking the files had to wait until we got home. 

For the final figures I cannot admit to few edits. The best files were obviously the ones where I had used the tracker (at ISO 800, in order to keep the shutter speeds at a manageable level), but these files had to be combined with the other images which had a sharp foreground. No problem for the mostly straight horizon, but not so easy for the ship, which I had to manually remove the background from using a wacom tablet and pen. Combining the cleaned up forgrounds with the milky was was then easy, although I might take a few more tries to really clean up the files. 

‘it has been a dream photography project that has come to fruition after several years’

I hope I haven’t bored you with my ‘little’ story above, but as I said, it has been a dream photography project that has come to fruition after several years of – not exactly failure – but lack of opportunity. I’m pleased with the result, and one of the images has already been bought by the major sailing magazine of the Netherlands as its opening spread (parly financing my holiday, which is nice). I hope you like the result as well!

For those interested in some technical stuff: I used the iOptron Skytracker Pro for the sky section of these images. At ISO800 I was looking at 4 minutes exposures. In hindsight I think I could also have gotten away with 8 minute exposures, but Wadden Sea sand is not the greatest of supports for the tripod, so at that time I didn’t risk it. I was also limited in my time on the sand as the water and the moon would rise shortly after 0:30. The 12 mm Samyang was used at f/2, its brightest possible aperture, while the Laowa 9 mm was used mostly at f/2.8, and once at f/4, as the Laowa has some horrible vignetting that is most visible at f/2.8. Shutter speeds for exposures without star tracker were 15 seconds for the 12 mm and 20 seconds for the 9 mm (its wider field of view allowing for a slightly longer shutter speed).

[Snapshot] Project Neowise

As everybody and his uncle is now posting images of the comet Neowise online, I had to get a go at it. Light pollution where I live is heavy, and cloud cover frequent, but in the past week there were 2 clear nights in which to capture the phenomenon. It took a while to find it, but once you know where to look it gets easier.

[Fujifilm X-T4 | Fujinon XF 16-55 mm f/2.8 | 16.5 mm | f/4 | ISO500 | 30 seconds]
I found I liked a landscape shot with the comet in it much better than a shot of just the comet with a bit of foreground, so the comet is quite small in the photograph. The shutter speed is on the long side, and the comet is showing a bit of a trail because of it.

[snapshot] Zeevonk/Sea Sparkle at Katwijk

Sea Sparkle in the waves. Unfortunately there was too little Sea Sparkle to make it very spectacular, and too many people to make it very comfortable to be there. Fujifilm X-T4, XF16-55 mm f/2.8 at f/2.8 and ISO6400. Shutter speed around 1/10th of a second.

Yesterday a friend enthusiastically apped me that it was the perfect day (night) to go to the beach and photograph Zeevonk, or Sea Sparkle, a small sea creature that exhibits bioluminescence when disturbed. Never having seen the phenomenon in real life, I signed on to a late night trip to the beach.

Unfortunately, we were not alone. I guess half the local residents and a lot from places farther afield were there as well, in a swim, walk and disturb frenzy, hoping to see the beautiful blue glow appear. It was there, but not in very great quantities. Sometimes you could see a wave appear blue. Just as if it was lit up from below. Pretty enough, but not entirely spectacular. It was nice to see it for the first time though! And a nice place to test the X-T4.

I read a news article that the Sea Sparkle is appearing more often than before, so maybe again soon?

It is all about stuff

In our current society there is an odd, but perhaps understandable, obsession with stuff. Especially new stuff. And nowhere is this more apparent than in the world of electronics. Every so often a new iteration of the iPhone, or any other smartphone for that matter, is launched, with ever more new features that we are told we absolutely need. It is the same in camera-land. Every other year (or more often) camera manufacturers launch a new camera, a new lens, a new feature. Users start reading reviews (or viewing them, in this youtube-fueled age), and it is often easy enough to convince yourself you need this new camera, these new features. I am, by no means, immune to this. 

I’ve done this often enough. I’ve bought enough cameras, lenses, bags or accessories in the past few years to finance a few expensive holidays. Partly I can excuse myself. I’m a professional photographer, I need stuff to work. And I would be right. But as Kevin Mullins, a professional wedding photographer from the UK, writes on his blog: ’there is stuff that you need. And there is stuff that you want.’ The line between those two things is easily blurred. Recently I’ve been trying to ‘unblur’ the line, and have started to get rid of some of the things I thought I needed (and it is surprising to see how many things you find out in hindsight to be unnecessary). In recent months, cameras, lenses, and accessories, have been flowing out of the house in a steady flow. It is not just that I find that I don’t use some of those things, it is also that by reducing the number of choices I have, I make my photographical life much simpler. I’m not a minimalist, and probably never will be (I still have 2 choices for a 35 mm lens, not to mention the 5 50-ish lenses I have in my drawer), but I am slowly reducing my quite extensive collection (because that is basically what it is).

‘New gear doesn’t help you take better photographs, but the right gear does!’

Now you might think that reducing my photographical clutter would also involve not getting new stuff into the house. And that is correct, up to a point. However, with the motto ‘New gear doesn’t help you take better photographs, but the right gear does!’, I decided, that for my professional work, I needed one more thing. Replacing the sold X100, X-E3, X-Pro2 and second X-T2…, is the new Fujifilm X-T4. A brandspaninking new camera. I have been testing it for several days now, and must admit I’m not yet over the moon about it. It is an electronic powerhouse, don’t get me wrong. The menu mentions items I’ve never even heard of. The autofocus is so fast I’m not even seeing it lock on. It shoots fifteen frames per second. And maybe that is one of the things that feels wrong about it. It is just a bit too glib, too silent, too subtle. I liked my X-T2 better. Then again, I don’t need to be over the moon about it. I just need to use it for assignments, and in that field the X-T4 will probably deliver in spades. So here I am, back to ‘just’ 4 cameras.

I’ll keep my Fujifilm X-T2 as a weather sealed back-up, and I will keep using the old X-Pro1 and X70 for personal photography or projects. And that is it. There are still a drawer of lenses and a cupboard of bags to slowly empty (to a non-photographer, they will probably still look ridiculously filled). For now I think I’m on the right path, and I will be content with the stuff I have (speak to me again in a year).

In all this there is the unusual situation that I now own Fujifilms first X-mount interchangeable lens camera, and their latest. It is an odd comibation to have next to each other, and a testament to how far the camera world has come in just eight short years. On the one hand the (in modern sense, it was launched in 2012) ancient X-Pro1, with it’s slow minimum shutter speed of 1/4000 seconds, it’s limited amount of AF points, its sometimes hunting or slow autofocus, its clunky shutter sound. And on the other hand the recent, top of its class, X-T4. With lightning AF speed, a fully articulating screen (I need to get used to that by the way), a focus joystick, more AF points that my fruit tree has lice, and soo soo many more functions. The coming days and weeks will show which of these – the dinosaur or the tesla – I will enjoy shooting with more.

My apologies if I seem to be rambling a bit. I’ve been wanting to post something on the update cycle of electronic products, the cleaning up of my photography clutter, the rediscovery of the X-Pro1, and the purchase of the X-T4, and somehow all of these things wound up in the same post. Maybe I’ll try to do separate posts on these topics later! Hope you are well and happy photography.

To not leave you with no photographs at all, above one of the testshots with the new X-T4. One thing I do like very much is the classic negative film simulation that this photo was taken in. I like the somewhat muted, not very contrasty look. Taken with the X-T4 and XF 23 mm f/2 at f/2.