During my residency, one of my mentors offered me the following advice, “Stop when you start to believe your own B.S.” For reasons I will not get into here, this advice is critical in the radiology world. I think it is just as applicable to the photography world given that much of what you read and hear about online related to gear is pure opinion.
With this post, I fear that I am crossing the B.S. line and I am not following his advice. What I am about to write seems intrinsically wrong but I can’t get myself to see the situation from any other vantage point.
Nonetheless, over the course of the last several years, I believe that when I am shooting a Leica film camera (1), lens choice doesn’t matter as much as I think it should. In the vast majority of situations, because of the nature of film, the max 1/1000 sec shutter speed, and rangefinder limitations, as long as I am not shooting garbage glass (e.g. when comparing lenses of approximate equal quality and age), it doesn’t matter much to me which lens I use. If I am correct, this is important for other normal people to hear and consider.
My analysis is based on the following observations I made over the last 5 years owning and using rangefinder cameras. If I am wrong about any of them, this is where my analysis falls apart. When you contact me to tell me I am an idiot, I would focus your ire on the following:
- Above a certain aperture, let’s say f4-5.6, most lenses, as long as they are not junk, perform well. Even most vintage lenses perform at least reasonably well at higher apertures and there is not enough difference between most lenses at higher apertures for me to get worked up about the differences between them. Therefore, if you are shooting at higher apertures (which is essentially required in many situations with a maximum shutter speed of 1/1000 sec) lens choice is less important.
- Film adds a tremendous amount to the look of an image. Between grain, the color imparted by the film stock, processing, pulling, pushing, scanning, overexposing to avoid muddy shadows to create pastel looking images as the YouTubers are want to do in 2021, etc. film, processing, and scanning are as much of a determinant in the final appearance of the image as is the lens choice. In my experience, film even goes so far as to hide major lens flaws (2).
- To really appreciate some of the main differences between lenses, I find I often need to shoot at wider apertures AND at close focusing distances. In my hands, however, it is difficult to nail focus on moving objects, at close focusing distance, wide open, with a rangefinder. So, even if I somehow could find a lighting/film combination that would allow me to shoot wide open, I probably wouldn’t shoot wide open if I could avoid it anyway. I prefer in-focus images to demonstrating the awesome rendering of a lens.
- Nailing focus is preferable to missing focus. Nobody cares about my out-of-focus art. People don’t care about bokeh as much as you would think. With film, even if I am shooting roadkill (I don’t generally shoot basketball hoops, gas stations, garden gnomes, or parked cars) I am generally less inclined to shoot wide open just to help assure proper focus.
- There are very few situations during the day (at least living where I live) where I can shoot at an even remotely open aperture, outside, with a maximum shutter speed of 1/1000 sec. Even if I did happen to shoot garden gnomes and parked cars, I couldn’t do it without an ND filter or some sort of ultra-slow ISO film which are tools I don’t generally mess with.
- There are very few situations at night or inside where I would purposefully shoot without a higher ISO film. This is important because with higher ISO film the film adds even more to the image and goes further to obviate the differences between lenses even if I was shooting wide open.
- I don’t own many fast (faster than 2 or 2.8) rangefinder lenses. This is because the older and less expensive ones don’t perform well wide open and some of the newer ones are either too expensive or too large for me to want to use on a rangefinder. Is there a use case for a fast rangefinder lens – of course. For me, however, because of the size, I generally bring something else if I am going to need/want to shoot at f1.4.
The sum total of all of this is a situation where, at least for me, when I am using my Leica film camera, lens choice is less important. Because I can’t shoot wide open during the day given the 1/1000 sec shutter speed limitation, I cant appreciate many differences between lenses on daytime images. At night or indoors, even if I shoot wide open, in my opinion, the film is such a big determinant of the appearance of the image so much so that the contribution from lens rendering is less impressive to me. Moreover, high ISO film will mask minor lens flaws and differences in rendering.
As long as I have access to a relatively good lens (e.g. we are not talking about pure garbage or a lens that is obviously broken, fungus ridden, or has excessive “cleaning marks”), I will pick a low contrast vintage lens that flares or a modern style high contrast lens that doesn’t flare in a focal length and a lens the size/speed that I will want to carry or think I need and get on with it. After that decision, as long as I am comparing lenses of approximately equal quality, Voigtlander, Zeiss, Leica, Ricoh, Minolta, Canon, elmarit, cron, biogon, sonnar, whatever. As far as image quality goes, the differences are not large enough or important enough for me to get concerned about with a film rangefinder.
Now before, the naysayers say nay, it is worth mentioning what I am not saying. I am not saying that there are no differences between lenses. I am not saying, I cannot create a situation where I can demonstrate differences. I am not saying that I am all blind like Warby Parker and I can’t see differences. I am only saying as a normal person, shooting normal things that might sometimes have a pulse, in normal situations, with film, on a camera with a max shutter speed of 1/1000 sec, those differences and anything but meteoric and, therefore, lens choice isn’t all that interesting to me when shooting my film Leica.
There are obvious counterarguments and situations where my analysis does not apply. For example:
- If you are prone to shooting things with your camera on a tripod, at night or indoors, with slow film, and your subjects are either dead, dying, or inanimate, your situation would be different and lens choice would be important when shooting on a Leica film camera.
- You are using a specialty lens like something from MS-Optical or (gasp) something with the word thambar on it (4).
- Your appetite for missed/blurry images might be larger than mine when you are shooting film
Before you take my Leica fanboy membership card away…again…it may be of interest to note that, even with the 1/1000 sec limitation, I try to use my Leica film camera whenever I can for personal and travel use and leave the SLR home. This post is not an argument against Leica film cameras in general. Size and ergonomics are important. That rangefinder wins over SLR in a lot of situations for me. More importantly, I find my Leica film camera images superior to my SLR images. They seem sharper overall. There are theories online about why that may be true but the reason is unimportant to me. I know with certainty that the images from my film Leica are sharper than images from my OM-4 with Olympus glass and Contax RX with Zeiss glass (3)
If you disagree with this analysis/opinion, please contact me by email or DM at @leicalensesfornormalpeople and explain to me why I am starting to believe my own BS because, as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I am afraid I am doing just that.
- My thought process is entirely different for digital and modern SLR cameras. With digital, the lens (since there is no film) does all of the heavy lifting. Moreover, digital cameras and modern SLR’s have much higher shutter speeds so I am more prone to shooting wide open. I am also more inclined to shoot wide open with my SLR because I can see what I am getting in the viewfinder. Finally, I am more inclined to shoot subjects wide open and take more risks with focus on digital (even a digital rangefinder) because I can check focus with the LCD.
- ….and I don’t mean small flaws. Please remember, that the Konica M-Hexanon lenses do not even focus properly on a Leica camera yet people swear by them in the old photo forums. One would have to assume that someone shot them wide open but couldn’t even see that they weren’t focusing properly. As another example, there are loads of lenses that look great on film but fall apart when shot on digital. The film hides lens flaws.
- If you are keeping score, for anything commercial I am shooting where I have to get the shot, I take the Contax SLR for the auto winder, higher maximum shutter speed, better close focusing, ability to easily focus an 85mm lens, and ease loading film. The minor improvement in image quality of the M7 does not outweigh the usability benefits of the SLR if I am working with a model or under pressure. O.K. Now you can take my fanboy card away from me. Maybe I don’t deserve it anyway.
- All I want for the holidays this year is something with the words MS-Optical on it but Thambar? Really?