Perhaps because I have never had any formal training in photography, nor in any visual art, I came to understand the capabilities and versatility of wide angle lenses only rather recently. I had always been attracted to photographs showing impossibly wide landscapes and deep perspectives, and I knew that they were generated with wide-angle lenses. But I did not quite knew how. I made a few half-hearted attempts at making this sort of compositions in the film days, with a 28mm Rokkor first, and then with a rather lousy third-party 24mm lens. I never got it to work, thanks to my lack of formal training. I simply did not grasp that, in order for these composition to work, one needs a very strong foreground element, or lacking that, enough near-field material in the right place to create that “sucking” feeling that draws you like high vacuum into the remotest places of a wide-angle image. Re-inventing the wheel is the story of my life, and this was no exception. The amount of experimentation needed to re-invent this particular wheel was, however, beyond my patience and beyond the amount of money that I was willing and able to spend on film and processing. Then came the switch to digital photography which made experimentation possible, and the wheel began to take shape. But, because I entered digital photography with four-thirds cameras, I was limited to dedicated digital ultra-wide-angle lenses, and I never felt at home with the operational and aesthetic limitations imposed by technology. Eagerness to try some of the legendary wide-angle lenses from the analog era was what first got me thinking about abandoning the four-thirds system for Sony full frame mirrorless cameras – awareness of the many other advantages came only later.
As I write this, a few years later, I own two 21mm lenses: an OM Zuiko 21mm f/3.5 and a Hexanon 21mm f/2.8, and it is this last one that I wish to discuss here. Although extraordinarily sharp as virtually all other Hexanons that I have used, if not more so, it is at the same time strikingly different from most of them in its color rendition. Color is beautiful and accurate, but noticeably more subdued than in traditional Hexanons. Color perception is subjective, so I will attempt a musical metaphor. Where the old Hexanons might have been created by Gustav Mahler, the newer lens may be the work of Claude Debussy. In one case you look forward to the orchestral fireworks, in the other one you just wait to be whisked away by a cascade of soft yet pure sound. Compare the images in this gallery, all generated with the 21mm f/2.8 lens:
with those that accompany older Hexanons that I have written about. I say “old” and “new” because the 21mm f/2.8 comes from a later Konica era. In his comprehensive website, Jean-Jacques Granas discusses the collaboration between Konica and Tokina, that began in the late 70’s and continued probably to the very end of the Konica SLR system in 1987. In addition to the 21mm lens, I own another two of the primes that were born of this collaboration – the 24mm f/2.8 and 40mm f/1.8. All three lenses are physically very much alike, and they certainly render very similarly. The sharpness of all three is almost surreal, it makes you feel that you can actually touch the objects in your screen (see, for instance, any of the photos in the gallery above that show rocks and running water). The color rendition of the 24mm lens is identical to that of the 21mm, and the 40mm lens, if a bit more vibrant, is nevertheless different from the “old” Hexanon look in this respect (I plan to write about these other two lenses in future posts). I believe that none of these three primes was ever made in any other mount, which strongly suggests, as Jean-Jacques points out, that they are Konica designs manufactured by Tokina. Does this matter? It does to me, even if on a purely emotional level. Tokina is certainly known for some excellent lenses in their own right, but I want to think of these three marvelous lenses as pure Konicas. I may be a scientist by profession and inclination – but photography is my non-scientific escape…
The out-of-focus rendition of the 21mm f/2.8 Hexanon also deserves mention – the bokeh is truly beautiful for a lens with such a short focal length. You can see this in the several images of yellow coneflowers next to a stream in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of New Mexico. Some of them were shot fully open, others probably at f/4 (I don’t keep notes – I have no patience!). Look at the incredible sharpness on the flower heads. In the fully open shots this sharpness slowly melts away into the background, beginning along the petals. In the photos taken at f/4 or thereabouts the whole flower and stalk are sharply in focus against the blurred background. But in both cases the out of focus areas have a kind of softness that one tends to associate with fast normal primes, not with ultra-wide-angle lenses. Close the lens to f/11 or f/16 and you have the classic “zero to infinity” look of the great ultra-wide-angle lenses. Sharp corner to corner, with no discernible chromatic aberration, well- controlled vignetting (I have not corrected for light fall-off in any of these samples) and mild distortion, which is generally easy to fix in Lightroom (I did apply some minor corrections to a few of the images, especially those with trees).
Although neither cheap nor easy to find, this is a truly phenomenal lens. It is different from the 21mm Zuiko. The Hexanon is sharper and vignettes less, the Zuiko is more balanced, smoother and with quintessential Olympus color. I love them both and will never part with either of them – they don’t compete, they complement one another. If you have not yet weaned yourself from modern mass-market software-enhanced monstrosities and upgraded to vintage manual focus lenses, then perhaps I have given you some reasons to at least think about it. And to you two famous photography brands still in business, I must say: “you have much to learn.”