Testing a camera

“I’m going to run a film through it to test it” is what people say. But what do they do? If you stumble across the apocryphal 50p Leica or Nikon in a flea market or charity shop, how do you even know it works?

The first thing, even before putting film in it, is to check that the shutter works. Always wind-on the camera before changing shutter speeds. You really only need to do this with Russian and some other old cameras, but it is a good habit to get into. Teach your hands the habit and you might avoid breaking something in future.

With focal plane shutters, you are looking for both curtains to move smoothly without binding. When you wind-on the camera, the gap between the shutter curtains or blades should be closed as the shutter is re-cocked. The different shutter speeds should sound different. It is not unusual for the slower speeds to either not work or to be much slower than they should be. Your decision – it might free-up with use, you could pay to get the camera serviced, or you avoid using the slow speeds.

Open
Needs a clean. The mark on the shutter is due to it being left uncocked. No obvious holes.

With leaf shutters, the ones that are built into the lens, you can listen to check that the speeds sound different. The slower speeds on old cameras can often be either very slow or frozen. Again, they might loosen-up in use or you could avoid using the slow speeds. Don’t bother trying the self-timer. It has probably never been used and will stick part-way through its run. If it does you will have to try persuading it to finish so that you get control of the lens back.

What shape are the light seals in? If they are sticky, broken or absent, it’s pretty straightforward to replace them.

Does the camera back (or base for that old Leica) fit properly? If not, the camera may have been dropped. Check the lens mounting at the front as well, this might get damaged if the camera was dropped.

Take a look through the front of the camera with the lens off as you work the shutter. Do the internal bits all move as they should? Does the mirror on an SLR swing up and return? Does the aperture-closing plate on a screw-mount SLR swing forward and back? Take another look at the shutter – can you see any wrinkles, bald spots or holes?

Take a squint through the lens. Threads of fungus needn’t be the end of the world: some lenses are simple enough to clean yourself and some can be serviced. Or plan to throw the lens away. Lenses can also be cloudy, scratched, dusty or have the glued elements separating. However bad it is, at least try shooting through it to see what sort of effect you get.

Put the lens on and try focusing the camera. Does it focus at about the right distance? You can recalibrate the rangefinder on many rangefinder cameras, but I don’t know how you would fix an SLR that didn’t focus correctly (unless it’s due to having the wrong lens on it).

If it has a lens, does it focus smoothly and does the aperture close-down properly? Many SLRs have a method of closing the aperture down to the set value at just the point you press the shutter. Does this work? Does the lens close-down to the same size of hole each time? Does it open up immediately again? Sleepy apertures are a common problem with old lenses. You can pay to have it serviced or put up with it and shoot with a pre-closed aperture. Or throw the lens away and keep the camera body.

Cosmic
Needs a clean. The lens looks OK. The rust is external.

So – all that before you put a film through it. If the camera passes these basic tests then it might work. Now put the film through it.

Try to shoot at all the workable shutter speeds. Shoot stuff at infinity and close up. Shoot some close-ups with the subject in only part of the frame, so you get plenty of out-of-focus background. Make it really obvious in the close-ups where the point of focus was or shoot a ruler or a long fence. Take some shots into the light. At least one interior is useful, with bright windows and lots of stuff in the shadows.

When you get to see the results, the first things to look for are that the frames are about the same density and are evenly spaced. Even density means the camera was exposing correctly at different shutter speeds and that the lens aperture is closing correctly. Even spacing means the mechanical windy-on bits are working. You can also check the film for scratches.

Neg sheet
The spacing is a little irregular but the exposure seems fine.

Did the camera focus correctly close-up? There are ways of calibrating some rangefinders to fix this, but it would be an unusual fault in an SLR. The out of focus background in some shots will give you a sense of whether you like the lens or not. Some will give a sharp subject on a smooth background while others will make the out of focus areas look busy and distracting.

Shooting into the light will give you a sense of how well the lens resists flare. For the interior shots with bright windows, look at any halo around the bright spots and whether there is detail in the shadows or it is hidden by flare. You can improve things with a good lens hood or just call it character.

So there you have it: you now have a fair idea of how well the camera works and if there are any dodgy settings to avoid. Which might be why it was in the charity shop in the first place.

The new instant camera?

I’m a lucky old dog, because for my birthday I was given a My First Camera Insta 2. Rather than APS, this thing ought to be taking on the world by storm.

What you get in the box is basically a mobile phone camera with a thermal printer, in a neat package with big buttons. This has to be the best social camera there is. The camera is cute. It looks like a bear with one eye open. Press the print button and the bear pokes its tongue out.

First 1

First 2
Also available in blue

Instant picture cameras are great, but they have issues. Each picture is unique – when you give away the picture it has gone. And instant film is expensive. But what this camera does is let you take reasonable quality colour digital pictures and save them to a memory card. You can then print single or multiple copies directly from the camera. The prints are on thermal paper, so are contrasty and lack detail. But they are immediate and perfect for sticking on a fridge or in a wallet. The prints have an image area of 83 by 48mm, so have a nice slightly panoramic ratio of around 1.7:1 which is roughly 25% wider than a standard 35mm frame.

Bear set

Specifications? The lens appears to have a horizontal angle of view of around 48 degrees, so the equivalent of a 40mm lens on 35mm. It shoots at a choice of resolutions, the best being 12mp. If set to 12 though it does seem to default to 9 on power-down. But nine is fine: this is not a pro camera. It also shoots video and has a selfie lens. See why it feels like a repackaged mobile phone? There is a clue in the name it gives a memory card when you format it: Dragon Touch. So this is likely to be a little Android tablet at heart.

I fell in love with it immediately. We now have six prints on the fridge, one in each of our wallets and a couple more up around my desk.

The camera comes with two rolls of ordinary paper and one of sticky-backed, and Amazon does a box of 20 for £6.50. At around 60 prints per roll, that’s a lot cheaper than instant film.

Any down sides? There is a bit of shutter lag. But hey, it’s digital – take a dozen pictures as the marginal cost is zero. Print the good ones. On the highest resolution it does some hard compression to the files, so there are jpg artifacts. Leave it on 9mp.

Bear 1
Why do selfie cameras reverse the image? To make it look like what you see in the mirror? I see a handsome fellow, so it must work.

Would I take this out to do ‘serious’ photography? No – this is a people camera. Would I use it for street photography? Yes – it looks cute enough to make people smile and you can give them a print. This camera is putting the fun back into taking pictures of people.

I’d also recommend this to anyone who’s feeling bored with their photography or creativity: get some lo-fi fun back in your life with a pukey bear cam.

Mooning

You know how it is – a full moon on the horizon looks huge, but it shrinks as it rises. It’s inconsistent too: it keeps changing shape and it moves around the sky. So how do you get those Hernandez shots with a perfect moon in the perfect place?

Cheat, obviously.

With Photoshop or Gimp it’s easy enough to combine a moon shot with a foreground, but you can do the same thing with film too.

I got the idea years ago; from someone else, obviously. I was reading something from a photographer whose name I am afraid I have forgotten. He was off on honeymoon and planned to shoot landscapes to cover some of his costs. To make them special he shot one roll of film with full moons to double expose them later. But let’s get to the method…

The idea is to mark and load a roll of film in such a way that you can line it up to shoot the frames again as double exposures.

The first thing to do is to mark the inside of your camera. Load a film, keep the back open and make sure the film is lying flat and tight and the camera is fully wound on. Mark the film with a pen to match the camera marking. Close the camera, wind on two frames and start work.

Back 1

Back 2

Next, you need a moon and a notebook. The idea is to take a full roll of shots, placing the moon in different parts of the frame and at different sizes and noting these plus the frame number.

How do you expose the moon? Easy – it’s in bright sunlight so you could Sunny 16 it on a clear night, although to be more accurate you need to give it an extra stop of exposure using the perfectly named Loony 11 rule. How do you find when the moon is full or crescent? An ephemeris.

Carefully rewind the film, keeping the tail out of the cassette. When you want to use it, reload and line it up with the marks again. Fetch your notebook and look at your notes. Use a polariser, filter or time of day to render the sky dark, or at least darker. Expose and shoot for the foreground.

With luck and a fair wind, you will get big moons in your skies.

Moonrise over her hairbrush

Playing with the focal length of the lenses you use for the moon pictures and for the overlay changes the relative sizes and can give you the big moons you wanted. It can also look totally false or you can mess it up completely, but that’s how we learn, right?

Moon Rhine

Have fun.

Favourite camera or lens

Pick your top three lenses. What’s your favourite camera? If you could only shoot one type of film, what would it be?

Those are difficult questions, not because I have so many to choose from but because I don’t think I have favourites. Well, with film I probably do. Not with lenses or cameras though.

But if I don’t have a favourite, does this mean I lack discrimination? I don’t know. I can tell my lenses apart and I can pick one lens out of several that are similar to get an effect I want. But I’m not sure that I favour one lens or camera over another.

I’m very lucky – like a lot of photographers I have several cameras and lenses. This means I can use either what takes my fancy or what gets the job done. But I don’t find myself always using the same camera or lens. I don’t automatically pick up a certain camera or lens, so I guess I really can’t have favourite. I’ll spend a period using one camera and then probably put it away and use something else for a while. Unless I’m after a specific result, in which case I’ll use the combination that delivers it. For example – I wanted a mild telephoto lens with a wide aperture on digital to shoot something indoors that I could not get close to. So I used a 50mm f1.7 on an APS-C camera. Neither lens nor camera became a favourite and I’m not sure I have used them together since.

Actually, I think that having a variety of kit means I don’t need to have a favourite. Part of the joy for me in having options is that I can play with them. I do have kit I like because it’s a bit special, and by that I mean that it’s fun to use or does something unusual or in some cases has sentimental value. This would be the place I should provide a list of the things I claim are not my favourites so that I can show-off my wonderful toys. Instead, I’ll just say that I’ve got some stuff I like for a mixture of practical and sentimental reasons. If you have read any previous posts, you will have seen the results from some of these or read my reasons for liking them. One that I haven’t written about is a Pentax 15mm lens. This thing is awesome but a bit specialised. I may write about it but it’s hardly something that you can pick up in a charity shop. As for the rest of the kit, the whole point of it is whether it can produce the result I want. In this context I think that favourite means ‘does what I want it to’. So I have definitely had kit that was the opposite of favourite. There was the Nikonos that I just couldn’t love; I’ve got a little Fuji splashproof camera that has bad shutter lag and takes so long to start that the moment has usually passed; I’ve got a couple of zoom lenses that add little to a camera than poor handling and greater weight. The only one of these I have done anything about is the Nikonos as it was the only one with a resale value (if you don’t love something, let it go). Basically, cameras and lenses have to be good enough and reliable enough to do the job – the rest is marketing.

Teeth.png
For this you need a camera that can be operated with one hand.

So, of all the rest of my huge investment in kit, is any of them my favourite? No – I like using them. Would I replace them if one of them broke? Probably not. The various lenses have their own special thing and I’m keeping them because if I sold one of them and changed my mind, I probably couldn’t afford to buy them again. Would I take them to my desert island? Nope – I am unsentimental enough to want something sandproof instead.

But that’s just me. Do you have favourites? What makes them so?

The Golden Hammer

It’s actually a Goldammer Goldeck II, but it was advertised on fleabay as a Goldhammer and that is what it has become.

Goldammer was a German manufacturer that produced cameras from the 1920s through to the 1960s. The Goldeck II that I have dates from somewhere around 1958. It has a 75mm f2.9 lens made by Steiner, a German manufacturer of binoculars and camera lenses. The shutter is labelled as a Pronto and provides speeds of B and 1/25 to 1/200. On mine the aperture appears to have one drooping blade, so the central hole is not round. But knowing this, I will just open it up a bit to compensate. Anyway, it might do something interesting to the bokeh.

The camera’s distinguishing feature is the telescopic lens mount. The lens is normally stowed close-in against the body, but this is not the position it shoots from. Give the lens a twist and it extends out on a chromed tube to lock in the shooting position. A nice touch is that the shutter is locked when the lens is in the closed position. Why the tube? Probably because it was cheaper and easier to make than a bellows and collapsing the lens makes it an easier package to carry around.

G closed
Lens stowed. The ribbed bar is the shutter release, which is locked by the fitting on the camera body.

The camera feels an odd mix of good and cheap. The lower ends of where the spools are held in the camera hinge out for loading. Nice feature. The camera body is metal and the top plate is a smooth pressing with a satin finish. The lens pulls out and locks on its tube. Fiddly but nice. The viewfinder is small. The strap lugs are bits of thin sheet metal. The sliding cover for the frame-counter window is thin and barely works. But for 99p and delivery, it beats a Holga.

The main win is the lens. Maximum aperture of f2.9 and it focuses down to 3.5 feet (imperial measurement despite being German). Stick a little rangefinder in the cold shoe and we have a working package.

Gold open

If you want your photography to slow you down, this is the boy for you. Extend and lock the lens; measure and set the exposure; measure and set the distance; cock the shutter; oh, where did my subject go? There is no interlock on the shutter, so you can do multiple exposures at will. And you will unless you get into the good habit of winding on after every shot. Another thing that beats a Holga is that it winds-on nice tight rolls of film – none of the light-leaking fat rolls you get with the plastic fantastic (or indeed with my Ensign). Perhaps unusually it pulls the film from right to left, so the wind-on knob is the one on the left. The knob on the right does rotate, but only to record the speed of the loaded film as a reminder.

The viewfinder is small, as I said. Due to the size of my nose it’s actually easier to shoot the camera as though it was in portrait orientation: on its side. When you take a shot you can see the shutter cocking lever spring back at the bottom edge of the viewfinder. At least you know you took one – the release is quite firm and takes more pressure than you might expect for a leaf shutter.

So I took my new precious out for a walk, and as you do with a strange new camera I loaded it with a strange new film – Ilford Ortho-plus.

Goldeck,  Ortho 80

So it really can be focused and it can throw a good background. The ortho film also darkens male skin tones for that rugged look.

Incidentally, this is what ortho film does relative to normal full-colour:

Ortho comparison

It is effectively blind to red and renders blues very pale. Tomatoes go black.

Ortho 80, Goldeck

As you can see, the Goldeck can be focused like a ‘real’ camera with the aid of a clip-on rangefinder. The lens opens wide enough to do soft backgrounds as well and allows the use of a slow film like Ortho 80.

Goldeck, Ortho 80

So colour me happy. I think I have found my Holga substitute.

A cheap digital light meter

I’ve been playing around trying to repair a lovely old Weston light meter (of which more anon). I also have a variety of other old light meters, all of which read slightly differently. I do have one meter that I bought new, but it’s getting to be as old as its owner. So which one is to be the reference standard against which I can test and adjust the rest?

The simple answer would be to buy a new meter. But that’s expensive and, well, easy.

Then I had a stroke of clever. Commercial illumination meters are much cheaper than photographic light meters, but they read in Lux. A quick search online found that there is a Lux to EV conversion (Lux is two to the power of EV times 2.5 – don’t panic: clever people have done the sums already). So I splashed out on a Chinese-made luxmeter for under a tenner delivered.

Amazingly, the intercontinental postal system is up and running again. What I got was a chunky gadget about the size of a TV remote.

Lux01

The meter can read from 0.1 to 200,000 Lux, which is about -4 to 16 EV. That’s a useful range. My little book of notes tells me that -4 is ‘night away from city lights or subject lit by half-moon’ and 16 is ‘subject in bright daylight on sand or snow’. EV 15 is where the sunny 16 rule applies. So basically this meter could cover everything I am likely to encounter.

My next job then was to build a Lux to EV converter. Now Lux is a logarithmic or exponential scale. We should all be familiar with exponential curves by now but what it means is that while EV 1 is only 5 Lux, EV 13 is 10,240 Lux. The meter handles this fine by switching scales but I was going to need to build a little conversion table on a card. My ideal would be a circular table like you get on an old light meter so that you can dial-up the reading and the ISO and see all the exposure combinations. The straight table to convert Lux to EV at 100 ISO is easy, as is the table that gives the options at different ISO – see lower below. The circular calculator took longer. I had to work out how many layers of disk I needed and what was on each layer. One of the scales also had to progress around the disk in the opposite direction to the others.

Lux03
Earlier versions

After a few attempts I got it right. I took a reading with the luxmeter and converted it to a shutter speed and aperture. I took a reading with my best meter, the Sekonic, at the same place and ISO. And they matched. Result! My Sonic meter is accurate, I have a tool to test the others with and I have a new digital light meter. Go me!

Lux02

I will get hold of some plastic sheet and see if I can make a better version of my wheel calculator. In the meantime it’s actually easier to print a small card with the Lux to EV conversion on one side and some common starter values for each EV and ISO on the other.

Luxtable

EVtable

Lux04

The advantage of using a card is that you can also add a rangefinder to it.

Enjoy!

PS
I did build a better version of the paper wheel.

Whel

 

 

Percussive learning

Percussive learning in a world of automation is what it says in the subtitle to this blog. What that means is me making mistakes. My old boss used to say “if you think you’re good, you’re not comparing yourself with the right people”. In my case, I think the right people have me well outnumbered. It’s been very humbling to find that stuff I have just learned is well-known to everyone else. So this blog is not instructional – I have no secrets to impart. Where I witter about something technical, try it yourself before assuming I’m right.

Oops!
Slightly uneven development, perhaps?

But one thing I have learned is that it’s ok to make mistakes. And if you accept that you will make them and that being wrong doesn’t mean you’re stupid, then you get to learn. Learning means thinking about your mistake and working out why you didn’t get what you wanted. Or maybe looking at a picture and asking yourself why you are less than delighted. What would have made it better? Then think about how to do more of that.

This means reflection. It means saying honestly to yourself “I wish this was more…” and then working out what more means. If the definition of madness is repeating something and expecting a different outcome, then reflection is the road to sanity. The aim of reflection is to not repeat the same mistakes. Many of them will be similar, but what you are hoping for is to break things differently each time. Or if not break things, then to hone in on that thing in the picture you want to do more of.

I’d like to introduce you here to another idea – that of reducing variability. Anyone involved in manufacturing will know this inside-out (see above for me being outnumbered). Every process has a natural level of variation. What the manufacturing people strive to do is understand what this natual level is and then reduce it as far as possible. Then, if the output moves outside the expected range, you know that something is wrong.

Bob Godfrey, The Enid.
Wave your hand under incandescent light and you will see the same effect

What I have learned in photography is that my methods need to be precise, so that I can understand why something went wrong or be able to repeat something that went right. Mostly this means consistent exposure and development. I always use a light meter for example. Then, by looking at my results, I learn to understand and use the light meter better. I have been a bit of a tart for different developers in the past but I’m over it now. When I started out I developed just about everything in Aculux. These days it’s Rodinal for its keeping qualities. Like the metering, I always use a thermometer to get my chemicals to the right temperature and I use the same method of development and agitation every time (unless I am deliberately using stand development). So the results are that the negatives should be correctly exposed and consistently developed. Any variations that show up were either a deliberate choice or a mistake.

Anyway – that’s the theory: reduce variability so that it’s easier to understand what happened when the unexpected occurs. And then keep trying new things to see what happens. Break things with deliberate care.

 

Ars longer

I’ve been scanning a load of my parents’ and grandparents’ old negatives. Amongst all the fuzzy shots of relatives on holiday was one film’s worth of long-term shots taken in my parents’ garden. They were taken by me of a family occasion. I had obviously given both the prints and the negs to my parents so they could make reprints. I’d forgotten all about the pictures and the occasion. But aside from that, I’d forgotten how good a long lens is for pictures of people.

These days I tend to use standard to wide angle lenses. I get environment and context in the shot. But the simple joy of seeing a single figure separated from background, not particularly aware of your presence – it’s great.

Ben and Sally

It was a sunny Summer day and I was using 200ISO colour negative. I only had two long lenses at the time and it was obvious from the shots that I didn’t use the zoom. So these were shot on a 135mm lens. It was bright sunlight and I know I was shooting with flash, so the fastest shutter speed I could have used is 1/125 which means this lens must have been stopped-down and not wide open. It still blurred the backgound nicely though.

I think this focal length has gone out of fashion: it’s thought to be too long for portraits. One of the photo podcasts described it as a focal length that was invented to let German hill-walkers pick out a detail on the other side of the valley. I guess it would be too long for indoor portraits, but it worked perfectly in my parents’ garden. I’ve even got full-length portraits.

Roy Friday

So I’m back in love with the 135. The one I was using at the time was a Pentax – the SMC Takumar f2.5. In the years since the aperture blades have become oily and slow, so I need to send if away for some TLC. But a Vivitar f2.8 came up on eBay at under ten squids and now it is mine.

Back in the old days we used to know that with a 50mm lens on 35mm (or full frame) held portrait, a person would nicely fill the frame at about ten feet. I just did the sums again and the field of view for a 50mm lens on a vertical 35mm frame is two meters at nine feet (ooh, nice mixed metrics – it’s 2m at 2.8m distance).

Slap a 135mm lens on and the distance increases to 24′ (7.4m). So yes, you’re unlikely to be shooting full length portraits indoors. I do like the effect though and it will come in handy with our current distancing and separation.

Down sides? I had obviously not used the Pentax lens much in recent years. Perhaps it really was a bit too long for people and not long enough for sport. I do remember that it was never out of my camera bag at the time. Perhaps then it was just me changing the sort of thing I shot? Maybe I got old and slimmed-down the camera bag?

So it looks like I’ve rediscovered the modest tele lens. Let’s see what I do with it during my government-allowed exercise period.

Changing DX codes

The DX code is a black and silver block-pattern code on 35mm film cassettes, introduced in 1983. It is used by some cameras to set the ISO and by film processing machines to tell them about the film. All well and good, but sometimes we want to push or pull the film and this means setting a different ISO in the camera. If the camera can’t be controlled or over-ridden, you can change the code on the film cassette itself.

This is a typical code:

DX codes on canister
Three silver, black, silver, black = 200 ISO

The code is read as shown – with the barcode and film at the top. The ISO coding is the top half of the code and forms six panels read left to right. The first panel is always silver/ metal.

And an aside – the lower half of the code panel shows the length of the film and its tolerance for over and under exposure. This one is 24 exposures and +3 to -1 stops.

You change the ISO by scraping the black paint off one or more squares or by covering them with tape. The camera uses electrical contacts to read whether a square is conductive (silver) or not (black).

There is a table below of the codes that correspond to each ISO.

DX codes

So one of the common hacks would be to rate a 400 ISO film as 800. To do this you need to scrape the black paint off panel 2. To push it to 1600, leave panel 2 and scrape off panel 3.

For more information, plus how to decode the lower section, see here.

It’s also possible to make a completely new code by scraping all of the panels and covering some of them with tape. There has been a revival in using some of the other films in Kodak’s former catalogue. Many of these are known by code number instead of a common name so it may not be obvious what ISO to use. There is a handy decoding list here for Kodak and here for Fuji. So should you find yourself trying to shoot Kodak 2430 in an automated camera or trying to reload old film cassettes with a different film, help is at hand.

… And another aside – follow that link for an appreciation of just how many types of film Kodak made.

Simple lenses and choppy bokeh

Remember the film title Things to do in Denver when you’re dead? Well this is things to do in the house when you are trying to not be. In the house I mean, although not being dead is important too.

Despite all the therapy and support, in times of idleness one’s fancy can turn to things of bokeh. Or the unimportant bit, as we used to call it. That’s when you realise you have several lenses of the same focal length but different construction. And you wonder why, and what the difference is between them. And if the really clever or expensive lens is actually better than the cheap one. And what better means. And if this means you need to buy more lenses. Or find better backgrounds.

So you find the adapter that mounts your cheapo nasty analogue lenses on your digital camera. This takes two hours and uncovers more interesting old lenses. But you only have one version of each of them. So when it gets dark and eBay closes for the night you come back to the plan. One focal length, one aperture, one scene: the ultimate shoot-off. But is it fair to compare a lens that can do f1.2 with a lens that has a maximum aperture of f3.5? Do you compare them all at the same aperture or at their widest? More time passes.

After a few more beers you decide that the reason you started this (and it is totally your fault) is to see what the backgrounds looked like. Kind of an aide memoire of which lens to use to get which effect. So it’s fully open aperture on all lenses to get the best of their aberrations. But to use a scene where the point of focus is close, so that we get lots of the fuzzy. And we reassure ourselves that we haven’t gone all Photography With Classic Lenses and that we still have a sliver of pride and self respect. And then we laugh and drink more beer.

So – big question: what sort of fuzzy does it for you?

Me? I’m a smooth guy. I like the out of focus areas to just look less sharp. I want my background to be background. Smooth tones. No magic circles or swirly. Nothing that looks like the subject is stood in a whirlwind or bubblebath. The only reason to use the weirder lenses might be that the pattern in the background somehow adds to the shot. Otherwise it’s the background. But that justifies the other lenses, right?

Now, some of the theory to this is that the rendering of the background is affected by how well-corrected the lens is for spherical aberations. And a simple magnifying-glass lens gets better corrected for other aberations by adding more elements to the design along with different types of glass. It’s fairly easy to make a reasonable lens at small aperture sizes, but the wider you want the lens to be the more clever the design has to be, which often involves yet more bits of glass. So the argument is that a simple lens ought to have more textured out of focus areas than a more complex and better-corrected lens.

So where does that leave me on a Sunday afternoon? I have, in the same focal length, lenses with from 3 to 7 elements. I have lenses that span the all famous design formulae. To be honest, I have a sufficiency of lenses. And I have time.

So, the simplest lens is no lens. But I have no pinhole cameras at the moment so this is out. Same with a simple meniscus (but been there, done that on medium format) or a doublet. Got a triplet though.

So I’ve got:

  • Triplet – a Meyer-Optik Goerlitz Domiplan 50mm F2.8.
  • Four elements in three groups (Tessar) – an Industar 50-2 50mm f3.5.
  • 6 elements in 4 groups and probably a Planar design – Rikenon 50mm f1.7.
  • 6 elements in 4 groups, but a Biotar design – Helios 44 58mm F2.
  • 7 elements in 6 groups, probably a version of the Planar – an Auto Yashinon 55mm F1.2.

This is what I had to hand – I am not spending time on eBay looking for a five element lens.

Now, everyone buys the Domiplan lens because it does bubble bokeh: out of focus highlights turn into circles. With only three lens elements, it doesn’t really correct for much at all.

At the other extreme, the Yashinon has seven elements, not so much to make the lens sharper but to manage the aberations in a design that is more than two stops wider than the Domiplan. Somewhere in the middle might be the sweet spot of fast enough and smooth enough – the Goldilocks lens.

My first idea was to shoot them with a nearby lamp as my subject and a window behind to give me some highlights. That didn’t really work, as they all looked quite similar. The only one that stood out was the Yashinon. This was because the design that was pushed to work with a front element almost two inches in diameter caused some crescent-shaped highlights away from the centreline of the lens. This is the downside of pushing a lens design this far.

TOMIOKA

So instead of dithering indoors, I persuaded Wilson‘s cousin Gilbert to stand in as my model in the garden. He’s a rugged fellow with plenty of skin texture, so ideal.

Domiplan pair
The background is quite busy and showing bubble highlights
Industar pair
Smoother background. This is a lens I like.
Ricoh pair
Nice – I’ve had this lens a long time and I can see why.
Helios pair
The background is getting a little swirly.
Yashinon pair
What background? Was it foggy?

So, what do I think?

Well, one thing was that some of the lenses had noticeable field curvature. In each case I focused on the B in the centre of the lens than reframed the shot. In some, like the Domiplan, the sharpest point has moved nearer the camera. Something to be aware of – I can’t just reframe some of these lenses if I use them wide-open.

The Domiplan is a cheap lens that does the bubble trick on background highlights. It’s OK for that but it can make the background look quite busy.

The Industar 50-2 is great – I really like this lens. It’s tiny and it renders backgrounds smoothly. A bit of a pain to use though, as the aperture is manual.

The Ricoh/ Rikenon is the standard lens that came on my first SLR camera. It does a good job and doesn’t intrude. It works on my film kit and on the digital and gets the highest praise: it just works.

The Helios is a real cult lens because it can make backgrounds look swirly. It’s slow to use, as mine is one of the older ones with a preset aperture. Given the choice I would usually take the Industar, because it is so much smaller and lighter than the Helios.

The Yashinon is bonkers. It does crescent-shaped highlights, it does completely fogged backgrounds, it can see in the dark. On digital it also gives coloured fringes and a bit of a glow to things – see the shots above. Unless you want to shoot at F1.2 all the time it needs to be used on a proper M42 mount, so I use it for film work.

My conclusion? The Domiplan and the Helios are special effects lenses. The Industar is a superb pancake lens with good rendering. The Ricoh is a rock-solid standard. The Yashinon is there for when you really do need to separate the background or to take pictures in the dark. And your mileage may vary.