Lenses: Back in the Good Ol’ Days

I’ve had a Canon EOS 450d for a week now (see previous post for general excitement about it). With it, I got a Canon EF 18-55mm IS lens. My first few goes with it, I was awed by the clarity, the colour, and the mechanical ‘click’ it makes when you take a photo. It didn’t take long though to realise the shortcomings.

I’m now used to the interface. It makes sense, and most things can be accessed quickly and effortlessly – in fact I have no issue with the camera body itself.

My bone to pick is with the lens. I realise of course that this is the entry model lens, a lens aimed at getting first time SLR buyers out the door feeling happy and content. I just didn’t realise how much this actually limited the output until I started doing actual work with it. Sure, you can ignore it with wide scale, sunny photos from the deck, but when you’re trying to get a sharp image of a glass bottle, things start getting fussy fairly quickly.

So my search for a new lens began. My criteria were: capable of fairly close macro, capable of zoom, capable of wide angle, and most of all – clear, quality, and didn’t suffer from chromatic aberration. Oh, and came in at under NZ$200. Too much to ask? Apparently.

After a couple of days of scouring the internet, Trademe.co.nz, and multiple online forums, I was no wiser to the solution to my problems. I had found plenty of lenses, ones to rave about, ones to condemn, ones to be indifferent about, and ones that no one could actually decide on. My eye then happened to cast on my collection of Pentax lenses – given to me by my father, along with a beautiful 35mm Asahi Pentax SLR. I reminisced on the beautiful photos it delivered, and found myself pining for the ability to use it in a commercial setting, wishing that the old film camera was still competitive for in-house use. That started a thought process – what COULD I use from that camera? Research started in earnest, looking at a way to use the quality, old fashioned lenses from the Pentax.

It turns out, the answer was actually ridiculously simple. It was a beautifully simple piece of equipment – an M42 conversion ring. This took the traditional thread mount of yesteryear, and converted it to – in my case – an EOS bayonet mount. Needless to say, I was ecstatic.

I hear you say – surely new technology has IMPROVED lenses? Surely older lenses cannot compete with modern processes?

Let it be heard right now – you’re right. Top notch modern lenses are better. They deliver sharpness, accuracy, and beautiful colour, and they deliver it quickly. The problem comes in the budget/middle-of-the-road lenses. Back in the day, photography wasn’t as commonplace as it is today. There wasn’t today’s huge demand for it, but the demand that there was for it demanded quality. The range in prices was smaller, but the spread in quality was also a lot smaller – even the cheaper ones were of a very high standard.

Enough talk though, lets look at the actual results. Here’s a simple set up I did today – a frosted bottle in a light box. All attempts were made to equalise the exposure – identical settings produced a very very different result. First, lets look at the overall picture:

On first glance, it appears that Canon holds the upper ground in colour saturation, producing nice, vivid colour. However, upon comparing with the actual product, the ‘orange’ isn’t actually an orange – it’s a creamy yellow, closer to the Pentax rendition. The Pentax definitely was the leader in detail, both in highlights and shadow – the Canon seemed to add a lot of contrast, which possibly makes a nicer, more dramatic image, but that’s not what I’m looking for – I’m looking for information preservation, to better allow me to make the decision in post processing. Distortion wise, the Pentax image looks much more straight on and closer in, despite the tripod and bottle not moving between shots.

Looking closer at the images gives us a better idea of the quality of image:

Here the difference is a bit more evident. The Canon seems to have lost quite a bit of detail, only loosely showing the pitting in the frosted glass, and losing out on much of the detail in the glass refractions. While a certain amount could possibly be gained in stopping down the exposure slightly, there seems to be a lot lost regardless – in other parts of the bottle, it looked like a Gaussian blur had been added to the image. The Pentax however manages to show the glass in relatively glorious detail, and capturing much more depth in the glass refractions.

When zoomed into the cap, we can see the difference in detail – The dents around the top of the cap are almost completely filled in with the Canon lens, while the Pentax preserves details there. Again, in the glass and water details, there seems to be a blur on the Canon image, while the Pentax records much more sharply.

So surely there must be downsides to this step back in technology? Otherwise, wouldn’t everyone be doing it?

The first issue that one hits is the Depth of Field preview. I’m lucky on my Pentax lenses that they have a Manual and Auto switch. This allows me to preview the depth of field, then switch it to manual to take the photo at the correct aperture.

The second is the interruption of light metering. While the camera will set the shutter speed according to the aperture, it takes some guess work to get that working right. There’s only so much the camera can offset a bad aperture setting by!

Thirdly, the focus is more difficult than on a film SLR, and much more difficult than the auto focus on most modern lenses. On film SLR’s, focus aids were built into the view finder, with split images that came together once focused, or other similar displays that aided in getting precise focus. Digital Auto Focus has been developed to a point where it is almost unnoticed… until you don’t have it.

So? Worth it? Depends on your needs. If you’re like me and spend plenty of time in a darkened studio with a still subject, then it’s worth considering, especially if you’ve got a limited budget. If you spend more time out and about, photographing moving subjects, or in lighting that is changing quickly, or need images that look good straight from the camera, perhaps a more automated, intuitive system is your cup tea.

What ever you prefer, remember: Don’t diss the old timers. Sometimes they may end up kicking your ass.

One thought on “Lenses: Back in the Good Ol’ Days

  1. Really interesting post, I have a bunch of old SLR lenses so I might just look into getting a conversion ring now. Thank you

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