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The right way to design a prime lens...and the wrong way

The right way to design a prime lens...and the wrong way

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At least one MILC camera maker is starting to get it

August 10, 2011

A couple of lenses for mirrorless interchangeable-lens compact cameras are actually user-friendly. Here's how I separate the lenses made by and for engineers from the ones made for photographers.

When I'm on the street shooting, I need information, and I want it now.

As a photographer who likes to shoot fast-moving and evolving situations on the street, I want to know my exposure, ISO and focus settings at a glance. I also like to be able to quickly, intuitively focus and change those exposure settings. There's a time and place for autofocus and smart exposure, but I want to be able to do things myself most of the time. And so, I gravitate towards cameras and lenses that reflect my shooting style.

With MILC (mirrorless interchangeable lens compact) cameras, lens design falls into two categories: lenses designed by engineers for snapshooters, and lenses designed by photography enthusiast engineers for photographers. To explain, let me show you three lenses. One of them is included for historic reference. The other two were introduced for use with MILCs within the past year and clearly demonstrate these two divergent lens design approaches.



Collapsible Leica 50mm f/2 Summicron lens: This lens has loads of information! While most MILCs operate aperture from a dial on the camera, this lens, designed for the compact (for its time) Leica M3, has a focus ring with a tab at the base of the lens that lets you know just by feel where focus has been placed. When you look down upon the camera-mounted lens, a focus distance scale shows you exact focus, while a depth-of-field scale lets you determine the hyperfocal distance at a glance. So, I know that when I'm focused at 3 meters, everything from about 2.5-4.5 meters will be in focus at f/8.

Old-fashioned? Yes. No AF option? True. Funky style? A matter of opinion. But remember that this is the kind of lens Henri Cartier-Bresson used to capture some of the most compelling images of the 20th century. It commands a premium price in the used market (around $1,000). If you're serious about documentary or street photography, this is a great kind of lens to have. Too bad they stopped making it decades ago.

 

 

Sony 16mm f/2.8 pancake lens for NEX cameras: Yes, it's very small and unintimidating, and that's a plus. But unlike the Leica, this lens gives me none of the information-at-a-glance that would help me. Yes, there's a focusing ring, but it is blank. Not only does it not tell me focus distance at a feel or glance, and not only does it lack any kind of depth-of-field indication, but it is a challenge to even find a way to switch from AF to manual focus. Here's how you switch from AF to MF on the NEX-3:

  1. Select the unmarked menu button on the back of the camera.
  2. Select the on-screen “Camera” icon and go two clicks down to AF/MF select and choose “Manualfocus” [sic].
  3. Turn the focus ring on the lens and the center of the image is enlarged so you can focus (although if you're focusing in direct sunlight, you will need to shield the finder so you can verify that focus is accurate.)
  4. Press the shutter release lightly to de-activate the center enlargement focus-aid feature.
  5. Compose the picture.

Whew! You are finally ready to shoot.

By the time you've jumped through all these hoops, your subject is a block away, the next batter has been retired, and the game's over. And even with all of that, it's hard to tell if you've focused accurately, and there's no clear-cut way to quickly determine your hyperfocal distance. I actually used this lens mounted on the NEX-3, and shot with it first on manual focus on the streets of New York City, and didn't get any shots worth showing despite the camera's outstanding resolution. My images were either out of focus or my timing was off because I couldn't easily confirm focus and the technology interfered with the picture-taking process. I switched to AF but didn't do much better—it was no match for the action on the streets of New York. Recommendation: If you have this lens, keep the camera on AF and take your chances.

By the way, this is not a knock specifically on Sony—all MILC manufacturers make similarly limited-function pancake lenses. But there's hope...

 

Olympus 12mm f/2.0 Zuiko lens: Olympus makes a 17mm pancake lens similar to the Sony 16mm and this is one of the two lenses that the new E-P3 is bundled with (the other is a kit zoom lens). But at the same time that Olympus unveiled the E-P3, they also announced two premium prime lenses, the 12mm f/2 (above) and 45mm f/1.8. On a MFT camera, their coverage is equivalent to a 24mm and 90mm lens, respectively. But the big news is that Olympus has brought back the depth-of-field scale! Pull the lens focus ring down to disable autofocus and it reveals the DOF scale, just like the one on the Leica. In an instant you can tell that, when focused to about five feet at f/11, everything from 2 feet to infinity will be in focus, or at f/8 from around 3 to approximately 10 feet will be sharp—useful information! Push the focus ring back up and the lens becomes a full AF optic. The only thing missing? A focus tab. (Someone could create a cottage industry selling focus tabs for this lens!)

 

How did the Olympus 12mm lens do on the streets? Almost every shot was perfectly in focus, whether I used manual or auto focus. Bottom line? Functionally, the Olympus 12mm lens is the winner of these three lenses. It does AF quickly and accurately, but very easily lets you switch to manual focus in an instant. While I haven't had an opportunity to spend an extended time with the 45mm lens, my brief experience with it was similarly impressive. If it's true that the selection of lenses is key in deciding which interchangeable-lens camera to buy, then Olympus may have earned itself some new customers.


It seems serious, knowledgeable photographers are willing to spend more for a well-designed lens. And some are willing to forego the superior resolution of APS MILCs for the more user-friendly shooting experience. I hope Panasonic, Pentax, Sony, and Samsung (as well as any other potential MILC-makers who may be waiting in the wings) are paying attention as they design new lenses for their respective interchangeable-lens compact camera systems.

If  the enthusiastic responses to the Olympus lenses are any indication, they should sell like...pancakes!

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