I was recently looking at some Leica lenses and was surprised to hear about how "flawless" the image was. The ideal of almost zero distortion, no color fringing and pin sharp from center to edges. It struck me as a very clinical way to approach an artistic pursuit. We all understand that it is not the gear that makes an image, but can the gear be too perfect to allow some character?
If you look at the image above, you have a wonderful little Chinese girl, dressed in a traditional hat during their National Day Celebrations. This image is one of my favorites because of the girl's expression, her hand gesture and the lady eating noodles in the background. When I look at this image, I am not thinking of the perfection of the glass, in fact, this image would be wonderful with any glass.
As a photographer, I am not interested in capturing the truest rendition of a scene. I am interested in conveying a feeling, and image detail does not carry through to the emotional. A shot of a temple in Xi'an China can be photographed a great many ways. Each visitor attempts to create their own memory of the scene. Some look to some detail of the building, others try to capture the entire magnificence while others focus on the light and shadow to convey a feeling.
Irrespective of the approach the photographer takes, the clinical perfection of how a lens captures the scene is not important. In fact, we use modern digital filters to dumb down the image, to add color casts and to remove detail. Why do we do these things if perfect rendition is what matters?
The answer is simple, in the digital world we are able to capture a perfect rendition of a scene, and so is everyone else on the planet. We need something to stand out, to let the world know that an individual took this image. We take the straight photography movement, championed by the lines of Paul Strand, Edward Steichen and Alfred Stieglitz and return back to pictorialism where the artist feels the need to make an image unique.
What Man Ray did in his darkroom with techniques like Polarization, is now being done on computers, cell phones and various applications. I do not criticize any of these movements, it is the world of art, and it will change and move depending on the pressures in society. I do however wonder why seek the perfect lens, why not go after the one filled with character?
I recently bought the 7artisan 50mm lens for the Leica M mount. This is a f/1.1 lens, making it the fastest that I own. I bought it for about USD 360. Every review I read compared it to the Noctilux (a USD 10,000 lens) and argued about all the limitations the lens has. When I took the first few images with the lens I really liked it. The images have all these odd, results that make it unique. The lens is imperfect and this gives it a character and that is what I want my images to have.
So the next time you are looking for a lens, why not try some old, used lens with scratches, dust and yes, even fungus? You might be surprised at the artistic results it gives you!
Patrick...confirmed film & digital photography addict.