Most lens review websites are pretty straightforward. This one – maybe not so much. The reason is that unlike other websites, I am not pretending to offer any sort of objective advice or make what I am doing seem even remotely scientific. This website is well researched and painfully agonized over – but decidedly not scientific. There is a difference.
You will also find I use a different language to judge and review lenses. I find that the language used on some lens review sites is incomprehensible, designed to befuddle, and uses and misuses jargon geared toward making us believe that we are being informed by a “grand all high exalted mystic ruler” rather than a person or friend who can actually explain (to my pea brain anyway) why someone should or should not purchase a lens.
To overcome these issues, all of the reviews on this website organized based on the following format:
1. Lens history and purchasing considerations: This is a short guide to the minimum amount of knowledge you need to know if you want to go and buy this lens. Some lenses have years of history and between all of the different versions so it can be difficult to decide which version to buy.
3. On garden gnomes and parked cars: This section is an assessment of lens usability in the real world.
This site was started because of my frustration with recommendations regarding vintage and manual focus lenses I found on other websites and online forums. It seems that people reviewing lenses and making recommendations must just take pictures of garden gnomes and parked cars because I don’t see how they actually use some of these lenses in real life outside of their backyard. Garden gnomes don’t move. Neither do parked cars. They also don’t get mad at you while they are waiting for you and your little hipster rangefinder trying to find focus thinking to themselves “we would be done already if he just used the iPhone but we still are going to have to tell him how impressed we are by his stupid hobby even though he is still jacking around with that silly thing.”
Making vintage lenses work for me means they need to be useable. What was acceptable 50 years ago might not be acceptable today. Short focusing throws are important. Sticky helicoids are deal-breakers. Focusing tabs are (probably) critical but that will be determined. The way the aperture clicks, sounds, or feels is irrelevant. There will be no mention of “build quality” because I probably couldn’t get a lens back together again after I took it apart to assess the “build quality” anyway.
4. Does it have Soul? This section is an assessment of image quality.
Describing why people like images from one lens or another is (apparently) difficult and prone to starting fights in online forums and in the comments on YouTube. One the one hand, there are MTF charts and other tools that seek to offer an objective performance of a given lens. On the other hand, there is a morass of terms like 3D-pop, Leica look, micro-contrast, character, rendering, and all the rest that seem to do more to trigger the internet trolls rather than actually help anyone make decisions about lens performance over in real-world situations.
On one end of the spectrum, there are lenses that are often described as “character” lenses. The Helios 44-2 is one of these lenses. For me “character” is a euphemism for “this lens is pretty junky, you know it, I know it, the images look like someone slapped an Instagram filter on them, they flare uncontrollably, and there is no possible way that if you were doing a web project you would ever use this stupid thing because if you did, you would look back in 5 years and say to yourself “self, what were you thinking? Those images look so stupid, gimmicky, and dated.”
On the other end of the spectrum are lenses that are characterized as “the best [enter stupid clickbait title].” For example, “the best 50mm vintage lens for your Fuji” or “the best manual focus lens for under $200.” You might also hear these lenses described as “modern” lenses. “Best” or “modern” in this case seems to be a euphemism for “holy cow, I just found a “technically excellent” lens for $200 that does the same thing as this other lens I just spent $1200 on at the camera store. I am a genius. All I need to do is turn this barrel and I can save $1155? Let me tell the world!!!”
What I am searching for is the sweet spot between “character” and “technically excellent.” My bet is that if you are still reading this, you are doing the same thing. If you want a perfect image you can use your iPhone, your Sony, or an X100 but you are looking for something different with…wait for it…a little Soul”
When I am referring to Soul it is an homage to Steve Huff of stevehuffphoto.com. In his reviews and posts, he is always chasing the “heart and soul” of an image. As he states….” for some reason or another, my Leica files seem to breathe. They seem to have captured the moment with more reality and tend to be a bit more powerful. I really can not put my finger on it but it’s true…..It’s in the color, the rendering and the way certain lenses work with certain bodies.”
That right there is what this website is all about.