Just wanted to say a big thank you to everyone who posted here. Gave me a whole lot of insight into processing film for digital, and the shortcomings of scanning negatives in. I remember being taught how to do that back in photography class in high school. Never did I think it would cause the images to lose so much sharpness.
Well, if you want to get into rangefinders, and stick to 50mm or wide angle lenses, that isn't really fair. The top of the line lenses from Leica, Rodenstock, Schneider, Zeiss and Voigtlander, on good 50s, 60s, 70s and especially 80s rangefinders can leave nearly anything in the dust that's the same format. That includes every single one of their own modern DSLR lenses. The lenses on rangefinder cameras are just plain sharper than ANY of those on SLRs or DSLRs -- because the retrofocus lenses they have to use on SLRs and DSLRs have to focus the light farther back into the camera than is optimal and have to add extra lens elements to accomplish this. Rangefinder lenses can do the same thing with fewer lens elements, which tends to give you sharper photos, and if you look at the top of the line 50mm and wide angle lenses from the best of the best, nothing else has much of a chance. SLRs and DSLRs don't begin to really shine until you start getting over 135mm for film and 75mm for digital. The lenses on SLRs and DSLRs *are* located at the optimal distance for telephoto lenses. The manufacturers of rangefinder cameras recognized this and you won't find rangfefinder lenses longer than 135mm manufactured by Leica or any of the other top brands I mentioned earlier.
Well, that's just plain not true. That summicron is sharp, but my Nikkor AF-S 50mm 1.4g is much sharper wide open. My 35mm f2.5 Voigtlander Color Skopar isn't even sharp at all(I can tell even using film), barely better than a 35mm 1.4 ais wide open, and worse stopped down. If you've used a rangefinder, you'll know that using lenses longer than 135mm is impossible because the viewfinder doesn't magnify enough for you to see clearly anymore, it'd just be a tiny little square. This has nothing to do with flange distance. Current mirrorless systems like 4/3s have telephoto lenses with quality just as good if not better than any Canon or Nikon tele, with a much shorter flange distance. It has much more to do with lens design than just the difference between rangefinder and slr. But for the most part, Leica lenses are excellent, I would love to see how the 50mm apo-summicron destroys everything else in sharpness.
"My 35mm f2.5 Voigtlander Color Skopar isn't even sharp at all"
Your Color Skopar is far from being Voigtloander's top of the line lens. Voigtlander's top of the line is the Heliar. Next comes the Heligon.
"If you've used a rangefinder, you'll know that using lenses longer than 135mm is impossible because the viewfinder doesn't magnify enough for you to see clearly anymore,..."
Which is one reason why SLRs and DSLRs perform better with long lenses, as I said. However, it is also because SLRs and DSLRs have mirror boxes, which require the lens to be located farther away from the film plane than is optimal with normal and short lenses. However, the placement IS optimal for telephoto lenses, and that is another reason why rangefinders do not have lenses longer than 135mm.
"It has much more to do with lens design than just the difference between rangefinder and slr."
Uh... I thought that was what I said. Rangefinder lenses and SLR/DSLR lenses are totally different, because SLR/DSLR lenses need extra elements in order to focus the image past that mirror box. That's a basic rule. This will probably explain it better than I can: [link]
Many have already mentioned that steps involved in converting film to digital always costs something in sharpness.
The digital era has had some effects on style as well. Digital processing generally puts an emphasis on edge acutance, much more so that film images. This has nothing to do with lens sharpness, but is more to do with software processing (yes, in camera jpegs are produced by software). The anti-aliasing filter of most digital cameras intentionally induces blur to avoid moire so some sharpening is required (unless using medium format or a Nikon d800e or Pentax K-5 IIs). Many like to accentuate the edge sharpness even further with digital. This is neither good nor bad, it is just a style that is distinctly digital. Some photographers try to avoid the high edge acutance that screams digital and try to produce a more film like image. Again this is neither good nor bad, it is just a style.
Film lenses differed in various qualities including sharpness as do modern lenses. The same lens often varies quite a bit with aperture. The film era Nikon 50mm f1.2 is bitingly sharp when stopped down a little, but many like to use it wide open where images are soft and dreamy with only a narrow focal plane.
There’s also the recording medium itself to account for what you perceive as a lack of sharpness. Film has grain, to varying degrees. Digital captures at high ISOs have noise. Used to be that you’d rarely want to use anything over ISO 200 unless you were intentionally going for the artsy grain look, in which case you’d break out the TMX-3200. The resultant softness of the image had as much to do with how the silver halide grains clumped together as with the characteristics of the lens you were using. His shot of two boys walking in China, for instance, looks to my – admittedly untrained – eye as though it were shot early in the morning, probably with a Pentax or Canon* 35mm on 400 ISO film, at a wide aperture in order to get the shutter fast enough to limit obvious motion blur.
As for whether older lenses are as sharp as newer ones, I’d say it really all depends on the specific lens and manufacturer. I have a bunch of old Mamiya 645 manual lenses that I use with a digital back. I even popped one of those on a Phase One IQ140 recently and took it out for a spin. As far as I can see, it’s every bit as sharp as the new lenses, but then, these are pro-grade cameras and lenses.
*I say Pentax or Canon only because those were common photojournalist cameras in the ’70s and ’80s, not because I have the faintest clue what he was actually using. I’m guessing.
I'm not sure where I would go to verify, but I think sharpness was something that was pretty well understood by the '50s. When I look at the lens charts for newer lenses, especially Canon that does revisions, the newer lenses typically have features to widen the number of scenarios where you can still produce usable photos. As well as improvements to the edge to edge sharpness along the full zoom range.
You know things like IS and reductions to Chromatic Aberration and distortion. Sharpness itself, at least as far as primes go, is fairly straightforward compared with some of the other advances in lens technology.
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