A follow up to some of my more esoteric thoughts on image qualty. I mentioned in the last post my curious use of a cheap old not-so-special 28mm/3.5 Nikon while hosting a lighting workshop. I could write that off as a whim given I wasn’t actually working — at least not in terms of making images for myself or anyone else. I also only shot about a dozen images so that’s not much of a test, or a track record, or even a cursory evaluation of any piece of gear. All true. It didn’t really matter and I certainly didn’t spend much time behind the wheel actually doing photographic work on that occasion.
Fast-forward a week. Another weekend spent at Atomic Canary:Baltimore. Not a super busy weekend but certainly a huge diversity of photographic ventures. Pretty much all over the map. A photo-walk that we sponsored, a bunch of testing for some upcoming education events, some model tests, a few still-lifes, some web marketing fodder for the studio, and one of my more off kilter projects that I took on (long story for another day), and more. Outdoor, indoor, strobes, speedlights, window light, all of it. Let’s just say I spent the better part of two strait days shooting. Much more than I’ve done in a long time. I brought two camera bodies, a gaggle of lenses, and of course that lowly 28/3.5 Nikkor pre-ai prime I got for free years ago. Take a guess what I shot all weekend — yep the 28/3.5. I quite literaly only makde five frames with my AF 50/1.4 G.
In my last non-review I stated that there’s absolutely no reason to use this lens over modern glass. It’s certainly not better. My pro-zoom is far better at 28mm let alone stopped down to f/4 or f/5.6. Heck it’s even slower by 2/3 stop than the zoom. There’s a couple of factors related to IQ that are worth considering. None of those things has to do with better in any measurable way. We’ll smaller and lighter could be considered better but that’s about it. The fact is that used at f/5.6 and faster it’s commendable that it’s any good at all compared to modern glass it’s a lot worse from an image quality perspective, there’s a reason even the 28mm primes have twiice as many elements now.
Let’s file this under learning things you probably already knew. For one different gear affects the way you shoot. Intellectually you can rationalize that it doesn’t but one way or another it does, either technically due to constraits or lack of them that the gear imposes but just as importantly if not more it affects your psychology while working.
Starting with a characteristic of older manual focus glass that’s inarguable — the focus feel. Obviously you can turn your AF off with any lens and use it manually. I certainly do that. Here’s the rub, I only do that when it makes technical sense. In other words when it helps me get the image quicker, easier, and more effectively than auto-focus. I don’t do it for feel. Most AF lenses range from terrible to somewhat horrid in the way they feel. The tactile experience is definitely not even close to the realm of sublime. You think the way a camera and a lens feel in your hand doesn’t effect how you shoot? Sure it does. I loved the feel. I loved it so much it’s actually beginning to influence what lens I might purchase next. I’m actually considering a modern non-AF lens, like a Zeiss or something. Not right now but it’s now part of the equation and not for any practical of value sense. Maybe even a 28mm like that lushious 28/2.8 biogon — who would have thought. This part influeces quality of image for sure even if you measure less image quality.
Okay, so what about the prototypical, non-artsy-fartsy, rubber meets road kind of image quality. Technically I would consider this old lens “acceptable” when used at f/4 - f/5.6. You may consider it unacceptable if pixel peeping. Especially on the edges of the frame. It’s not optimized for digital sensors for sure. The fine detail resolution is not crazy. My 50mm 1.4 smokes it at f/2. No kidding, no exaggeration. So why would one use such a lens besides the feel, the free part, and the size/weight?
Ever notice the effect of better technically in terms of resolving power in many cases actually makes your images look worse? No, not locked down on a tri-pod under controlled testing conditions but more in real-world lower light slower shutter speed or more dynamic circumstances. I have in both semi-technical as well as more psychological terms. Not just with digital or super modern glass but even with film. Consider this — TRI-X is not at all any good in 35mm from a fine detail point of view. It can look super sharp on the edges but rendering fine detail — not in 35mm. This is part of it’s forgiving nature in my book. It tends to look about the same if shot perfectly or even a bit imperfectly. TMAX 100 on the other hand resolves crazy amounts of fine detail. Geuss what; Under similar circumstances for whatever reason the TMAX 100 if not perfect with all that fine detail rendered looks kinda lousy where the TRI-X looks great. Part of this is psychological part is technical which you can break down into all the bits and components you want. I won’t try — not that important. Consider that truth and a metaphor for the important part — how it affects your shooting in the moment.
With the 28mm/3.5 the fine detail looks about the same give or take no matter if its locked down or shot a little shaky — not crazy but just a bit. Same goes for exact point of focus when used at any reasonable distance and aperture. Can you tell exact point of focus vs a hair one way or another… not in the real world. This effect tends to influence two things. First, while shooting you aren’t faced with focus plane anxiety which you might be even with a 28 at f/4 or f/5.6 when shooting close. Yep even that wide a bit off and you can see it very clearly on a big screen or heaven help us at 100%. Good chance that if only subconciously affects how much of your head is engaged in checking perfect focus constantly when it doesn’t really matter in terms of quality of image — as in interesting and exciting vs technically good. The second effect goes hand in hand during the edit process. No matter who we are there’s a strong tendency to pick the “technially better” version of two similar images even thought the slightly off image is actually more interesting. I’m not talking about wildly different. At some stage we can all get past the realy boring image that’s perfect and choose a crazy good image that’s not. I’m talking about the rationalization process when they are similar but the expression is ever so slightly different. That kind of thing, those images where we say secretly “man I wish this one was as good but this one has a hair more detail so we’ll go with that because they’re close”.
Food for thought. Obviously based on application but I will say if you are shooting handheld in only semi-controlled circumstances at higher ISO’s and largish apertures then the application already implies “not perfect” so why wouldn’t you optimize your psychology and your gear that supports that to correspond…