It is not often that one can get it all. But matching the best of twentieth century photographic engineering – or perhaps art – to the best that the twenty first century has to offer is very very close to getting it all. Mirrorless cameras have finally come of age. Olympus and Panasonic where the pioneers in the field, but the true turning point, in my view, was the full-frame Sony A7. It is not just the size of the A7’s sensor what made it such a landmark. To this day, several years after its launch, it remains one of the best sensors available in terms of dynamic range, color accuracy, noise suppression, and resolution – and many if not most of the cameras ahead of the A7 are its brethren, such as the A7R and A7RII. With the very recent launch of the Sony A9 the days of the DSLR are almost certainly numbered. The A9 promises autofocus and shutter speeds unattainable with moving mechanical parts. These are features that are not important to me, but they are certainly crucial for wildlife and sports photography. Add the small size and weight of mirrorless cameras and it is game over for the big guys.
Many film-era SLR’s were masterpieces of engineering. Simply handling an Olympus OM-1 was, and still is, pure sensory overload. But swinging mirrors and optical viewfinders were a necessity dictated by the lack of any other way of doing things. If one is recording the image with a digital sensor, and if technology makes it possible to construct electronic viewfinders with near instantaneous refresh rates and life-like resolution and color rendition, then the mirror is as obsolete as piston-engines in an airliner. I know, you may be thinking that nothing can replace seeing the real thing through an optical viewfinder. I used to think that way too, until the first truly excellent electronic viewfinder appeared in the Olympus EM-5, followed by the even better one in the EM-1 and in full-frame Sonys. Since becoming “all mirrorless” I have tried to use optical viewfinders and I find them limiting and disconcerting. No focus peaking nor image magnification (both critical for the other part of my story, told below), no real-time feeling for white balance, no possibility of adjusting brightness, the list goes on. And of course, mirrorless cameras have wonderful and bright LCDs and instant hands-free switching between it and the viewfinder. Most of the time these days, and unless I am in strong sunlight, I compose on the LCD. For me, that brings back the wonder of seeing the frosted glass of the Rolleis and Mamiyas light-up with colored images.
There is also the issue of film. Diehards still maintain that film is better than digital sensors. I respect their nostalgia, as I have my own nostalgia for better times, but this is simply not true. It was probably true until about ten years ago, but not now, not for quite some time already. Film does not have the dynamic range of current sensors. Period. If you are not aware of this you probably have not shot with Sony full-frame cameras. Film is not capable of going above ISO 200 or thereabouts with any sort of decent resolution and contrast – remember Ektachrome 400? It was terrible. And Kodachrome, great as it was in its 25 and 64 incarnations, was horrible as an ISO 200 film. Remember when you had to to use colored filters to adjust white balance? Even then, it was mostly guess work with no possibility of fixing it after the fact. Exposure bracketing was a rather expensive and often futile proposition. Enter histograms and free reusable storage. I could keep going, but I’ll let you decide what else is better about digital recording vs. film. I do want to add one last thought, though. Permanence. Emulsions, no matter how good (read Kodachrome) are not permanent. Numbers are. There is some uninformed opinion going around that digital information can degrade with time as much as the chemical information stored in film. This is not true. Systematic redundant backup of digital files makes them effectively permanent. In contrast, copying film on film always leads to loss of information. Chemical information is not permanent.
Digital cameras have come a long way, will continue to evolve, die and be replaced by better ones. But cameras are just recording devices. The soul of an image is not in the recording medium, be it film or digital sensor. Those undefinable qualities that make an image what it is are given by the lens that created it. Digital-era lenses can be surgically sharp, they can have enormous resistance to flare and mind-boggling contrast. If they have flaws, they are usually corrected by software (that is what “lens profile” means in Lightroom). In other words, they are impersonal. Their images may be very difficult to tell apart from one another. But look at images produced on digital sensors by some of the great analog lenses of decades past. After a while, it becomes second nature to identify the supreme sharpness, perfectly balanced contrast, accurate colors and unique flare of Carl Zeiss lenses (from both sides of the Iron Curtain – both Contax and Carl Zeiss Jena). Or the sweet sharpness of Zuikos. The contrast and razor-sharp rendition of Hexanons. The vivid colors of Fujinons. The unique color, sharpness and “feel” of Schneiders (nothing else looks like them) and the bokeh of Meyers. The astonishing optical quality of Soviet lenses. And, of course, the beauty of Leicas, perhaps the only modern lenses that are every bit as good as those from the 50’s and 60’s. But for those of us who can’t afford Leicas, there are the many other great mid-century German lenses, Zeiss above all, as good as, if not better, than Leicas of the same vintage. And the many late-century Japanese jewels from Olympus, Konica and Fuji. It is unlikely that lenses like these will ever be made again. They were not only magnificent pieces of slide-rule engineering, they were inspired works of art. Lenses such as these will never die, just as the Illiad, the Icelandic Sagas or Mahler’s symphonies will never die. They will forever be beyond the comprehension of the mindless social media masses, certainly. But they will never pass away.
Many manual focus lenses from half a century ago produce images that are simply unobtainable with lenses designed and manufactured by computers. They force the photographer to become close to his images, in ways that impersonal software-controlled modern lenses never will. They force you to take things slowly, think, feel, become a better photographer. And when all of this is done, we can record the image in ways that film was never able to do. And here is one final purely technical point that makes the marriage of mirrorless cameras with old manual focus lenses such a happy one. Because of the short flange distance of most mirrorless systems, it is possible to use virtually any lens ever made on them (Sigma cameras with Foveon sensors are an unfortunate exception). It is indeed the best of both world.
Funny how I feel something similar about cars. Modern engines and engine-control systems have given us performance that was unthinkable a few decades ago, and have turned the horrors of tuning carburetors and distributor points into nothing more than bad memories. But I am not driving unless the car has three pedals and a transmission that allows me to shift when I well damn feel like it – otherwise you simply steer, you don’t drive.
So there it is. I often give talks on this topic and find that people are both surprised by the possibilities of decades-old lenses and eager to give them a try.The image gallery above is taken from the selection that I show in my talks.