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January 4, 2013
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Why were/are 35mm film lenses not very sharp?

:iconrockthesky:
rockTheSky Featured By Owner Jan 4, 2013  Hobbyist Photographer
[link] - Photography site of Jim Brandenburg. Some truly remarkable work there, and lots of it! The colour and light in each of the photos is really interesting to me. It looks so natural. I'm assuming most of his work was taken with a film camera. He's certainly been around long enough that a lot of the photos on his site are probably film pics scanned in. What I don't get is why so many of them (not all) lack sharpness that a lot of digital cameras had. Could it be that he just wasn't good at focusing? There wouldn't have been auto focus necessarily. A lot of the photos just seem soft. Does anyone have any ideas why that is. What is it about film/film lenses?
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:iconrockthesky:
rockTheSky Featured By Owner Jan 8, 2013  Hobbyist Photographer
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.
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:iconmildlyreactive:
MildlyReactive Featured By Owner Jan 6, 2013  Hobbyist Photographer
It's more likely the film's problem than the lens. My 50mm summicron from 1955 is still sharper than any modern zoom lens I've ever used.
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:iconfallisphoto:
FallisPhoto Featured By Owner Jan 8, 2013
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.
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:iconmildlyreactive:
MildlyReactive Featured By Owner Jan 8, 2013  Hobbyist Photographer
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.
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:iconfallisphoto:
FallisPhoto Featured By Owner Jan 8, 2013
"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]
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:iconolda-g:
Olda-G Featured By Owner Jan 5, 2013  Hobbyist Photographer
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.
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:iconstevecaissie-stock:
SteveCaissie-stock Featured By Owner Jan 5, 2013  Professional Photographer
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.
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:iconchristrevino:
ChrisTrevino Featured By Owner Jan 5, 2013  Professional Photographer
All of my Super Takumar and Pentax M and A lenses are sharp and render color wonderfully.

The only time I have issue getting them tack sharp is when I am shooting at f/1.4 where the depth of field is so shallow breathing throws it off.

Depending on who scans my Film images they may not always appear as sharp as when I throw them back on my DSLR.
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:iconfallisphoto:
FallisPhoto Featured By Owner Jan 5, 2013
My Xenons are sharp as needles and those were made back in the 50s.
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:iconmad-shrewd:
mad-shrewd Featured By Owner Jan 5, 2013
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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:iconfallisphoto:
FallisPhoto Featured By Owner Jan 6, 2013
Well, things like IS, autofocus, autoexposure, and so on don't really count, because they are not really parts of the lens (or don't have to be). If you are looking at improvements to the glass itself, I believe that the only really significant improvements since the 50s have been in retrofocus lenses, zoom lenses and in lens coatings. It's pretty old technology that people have been fiddling around with for decades, and there really isn't that much more, if anything, that hasn't already been done with it.
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:iconrockthesky:
rockTheSky Featured By Owner Jan 8, 2013  Hobbyist Photographer
What is IS? tried googling it, but seems there isn't much of an explanation. Why is it not part of the lens?
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:iconfallisphoto:
FallisPhoto Featured By Owner Jan 8, 2013
Image stabilization, which can be built either into the lens or into the camera, so sometimes it is and sometimes it isn't part of the lens. The thing is, it doesn't have to be.
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:iconmad-shrewd:
mad-shrewd Featured By Owner Jan 6, 2013
I agree with you there. But, I would like to add Defective Optics. Most of the changes I've seen seem to be in terms of the coatings they apply to the lenses and the groupings.
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:iconfallisphoto:
FallisPhoto Featured By Owner Jan 7, 2013
Well, there are, of course, things like the older Sigma and Quantaray lenses; those were pretty awful. I have an old Quantaray zoom lens I was given as a gift, and that is pretty much a paperweight. Zoom lenses made before sometime in 1998 usually left a lot to be desired too, so that Quantaray of mine pretty much epitomises the very worst of all possible combinations. Good 35mm lenses are just as sharp as good digital camera lenses though. It isn't the format that decides whether a lens will be sharp or not. Some of the kit lenses that come with digital cameras are not very sharp either.
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:iconmad-shrewd:
mad-shrewd Featured By Owner Jan 4, 2013
Well, digitizing is always an issue. Even with the best equipment you're adding an additional step to get your product.

I do have to disagree a bit with FallisPhoto about lenses, some manufacturers design lenses differently for digital. Tamron, for example, has it's Digitally Integrated line and you'd never want to use those with film. Basically they focused all the sharpness and quality to the middle of the lens where the digital sensor actually makes use of it. Since 35mm is by definition full frame, it has to use the edges as well.

Also some of the newer dSLR sensors can really test a lens' ability to resolve detail in a way that film cameras never would be able to.

But, as a general rule you're not going to be seeing much impact from that and I don't believe that it's going to be a big enough difference to really notice. I usually have more trouble making sure that the film is completely flat when I'm doing my scanning. And that the scanner is properly focused, which presumably a professional would make sure was handled correctly.
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:iconfallisphoto:
FallisPhoto Featured By Owner Jan 5, 2013

"...  in fact, MOST of them are exactly the same."

The key word there is most.

A Skopar is a Skopar, whatever it's on. A Synnar is a Synnar, no matter what it is on. A Sonnar is a Sonnar, no matter what it's on, and so on. Digitally integrated lenses, of course, are different, but I believe those are still in the minority.

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:iconolda-g:
Olda-G Featured By Owner Jan 5, 2013  Hobbyist Photographer
I have learned that 'designed for digital' generally means nothing more than that the lens only covers an APS-C sensor, but not a full-frame or 35mm film. Modern lenses often have coatings that reduce internal reflection off the shiny sensor that film lenses lack. Film lenses often produce more chromatic aberration on digital images than they did on film probably due to sharpening algorithms. This is an easy fix though with modern software. I think several of the old film lenses have special character and are nice to have as part of ones arsenal. My Pentax M 50mm f/4 macro is an ancient Tessar design and it still works great on digital.
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:iconeyeballman:
eyeballman Featured By Owner Jan 5, 2013
Some, very high-end lenses are actually designed to take into account how digital sensors and film differ in the layout of their light-gathering components.

With film, red, green and blue light are recorded on separate layers of emulsion. Because these layers overlay one another, red, green and blue light must be focused to slightly different distances from the center-plane of the lens.

With digital, the different colors are captured by photosites that all sit in the same plane. This means that the lens must focus all three colors the same distances from the center-plane of the lens.

While I don't know of any 35mm lenses that go to this - rather extraordinary length - to ensure maximum sharpness, I do know of several LF lens manufacturers (most notably Schneider and Sinar) that do.
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:iconfallisphoto:
FallisPhoto Featured By Owner Jan 5, 2013
I Imagine my Xenons and Xenars would work great on digital cameras too.
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:iconfallisphoto:
FallisPhoto Featured By Owner Jan 4, 2013
It's probably because, if he posted those photos a long time ago, they are probably scanned prints. That's not the best way to do it, but that was all there was back then. Film lenses are no different from digital lenses, in fact, most of them are exactly the same.
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:iconrcooper102:
rcooper102 Featured By Owner Jan 4, 2013
It could be caused by a myriad of reasons. I really doubt it was his optics. Most of it looks pretty sharp to me, honestly, some aren't perfectly sharp but that could be just him slightly missing tack sharp focus himself when spinning the focus wheel. It also could be caused by how it was scanned or processed once scanned. It also could be how he resized them for use on the web. Some of them look almost intentional as well to create a dreamy haze effect which can be achieved through a myriad of techniques such as using special filters.
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