zeiss

Micro-Contrast and Other Nonsense by Michael Jin

Even though I don’t exactly have money pouring out of my orifices, I’m always on the lookout for new (and sometimes old?) and interesting camera equipment. One of a biggest benefits of switching from a DSLR system to an MILC system has been the fact that I can find an adapter to fit just about any DSLR or SLR lens ever made onto my Sony A7RIII. Sure, I had by Helios 44M, Helios 40-2, and a few Jupiter lenses back on my D850, but it was much harder to find lenses to fit that camera since they had to be specifically modified to achieve infinity focus and even when you got one that was, manually focusing on a modern DSLR was just not a very fun thing to do.

Because of this, I’ve found a whole world of vintage lenses that has opened up to me since getting my new camera and this is nice because a lot of older lenses tend to be cheaper than the new stuff. How does one go about sorting out good lenses from bad ones, though? As I’ve said, I don’t have tons of money so I’m constantly reading lens reviews so try to get an idea of their characteristics and performance… and so begins my rant.

© 2019 Michael Jin. Pentax Super Takumar 55mm f/2 (M42 Mount) on Sony A7RIII.

They say that a picture is worth a thousand words. As I read these reviews for lenses, I really start to get that feeling. Going through essay after essay of people driveling on and on in their efforts to describe the visual characteristics of these lenses quickly begins to feel like listening to Food Network hosts describing whatever garbage that they’re munching on for the camera. I’m not sure where the language originated from (and I admittedly don’t care enough to go looking), but you start to see the same fucking words over and over again applied to EVERY SINGLE LENS. If you’re at all interested in photography, you’ve probably seen them, too. How many lenses have “CREAMY BOKEH", “BUTTERY SMOOTH BOKEH”, or some variation of this? How many lenses “DRAW WELL” or “RENDER IMAGES WELL”? And, for fuck’s sake, how many lenses have “GREAT MICRO-CONTRAST”?

WHAT THE FUCK IS MICRO-CONTRAST?

© 2017 Michael Jin. NIKKOR 85mm f/1.8G on Nikon D810.

More importantly, however

WHY THE HELL SHOULD I CARE?

Unlike most things in life, I’ve actually taken the time to try to look up what the hell “micro=contrast” is simply due to the ubiquity of the term’s use in discussions of lenses and the fact that people constantly talk about it like it’s the most important thing in the world. As far as I can tell, there doesn’t seem to be any universally accepted definition of what this term means nor have I found an unequivocal method of testing for it. It seems more like bullshit jargon made up by people and thrown around in discussions to sound smarter than other people or simply as a catch-all term used to quantify all of the shit that people can’t actually describe with other words.

On the one hand, I get it. If you put me on the spot and asked me to describe how any given lens renders, I would have an incredibly difficult time explaining it to you. If you asked me to start comparing lenses to each other, this would only get more difficult. For you, the reader, this might be disappointing if I was positioning myself as some sort of expert in these matters so I need to find SOME way to describe what’s going on even if I can’t quite put my finger on it. I think “micro-contrast” is pretty much the photographic version of “umami”. You can’t point out exactly what the hell it is, but you “know it” when you encounter it. It also happens to be the universal fallback for any argument that involves justifying the price of a really really expensive lens when every quantifiable metric favors the cheaper lens.

© 2019 Michael Jin. Mir-1 37mm f/2.8 Lens (M42 Mount) on Sony A7RIII.

Whether it’s Bokeh, Micro-Contrast, Peceptual Megapixels (an even more egregiously coined term), or whatever else, I find that I’m really tired of reading about this crap. Here’s an idea: WHY NOT JUST SHOW ME? Considering that all of these reviewers actually have their hands on the lenses that they are reviewing, it’s pretty amazing how much crap some of them can write while not showing a damned photo other than some test charts or the occasional plan gray shot to show the vignette at different apertures. Does anyone seriously care about this shit? If you show me some nice photos taken with a lens, I’m not going to ask you what the MTF chart looks like or how many “perceptual megapixels” the lens resolves.

Sure, tell me what the lens feels like. Describe how well the focus ring is dampened or whether the lens suffers from focus breathing. These are all things that are an essential part of the use of a lens that you can’t convey through an image. But by God, why the hell would you bother trying to describe the visual rendition that a lens creates when you can just take some damned pictures and post them?

© 2017 Michael Jin. Zeiss Milvus 50mm f/1.4 ZF.2 on Nikon D810.

Anyway, I just felt like letting loose after a round of reading through some vintage lens reviews. If you’re a reviewer and you happen to be struggling with how to describe a lens. Do us all a favor and just go out and take a fucking picture.

© 2017 Michael Jin. Helios 44M 58mm f/2 on Nikon D810.

Oh, and the latest lens that I’ve been eyeing? It’s the Jupiter-9.

Why I Traded In My Zeiss Milvus 50mm f/1.4 by Michael Jin

© 2017 Michael Jin. All Rights Reserved.

The Zeiss Milvus 50mm f/1.4 is an absolutely superb lens. For those of you who follow this stuff, it was one of the two lenses that received a new optical design when Zeiss migrated from their now CLASSIC series to their current MILVUS series. For many, it is a lens that they aspire to one day own due to its solid build, sleek design, razor sharp rendition even wide open, and bokeh that completely obliterated backgrounds. I will grant that I've yet to experience any of Zeiss's OTUS series lenses, but the Milvus 50mm f/1.4 was flat out THE BEST NORMAL FOCAL LENGTH LENS THAT I HAVE EVER USED. With very little distortion and vignetting, its rendition of scenes was absolutely clinical in every way imaginable.

I remember the day I ordered the lens. I can't say that I was the proud first owner of it, but whoever owned it and sold it to KEH took good care of it and it looked absolutely mint the day it arrived. I remember attaching it to my D810 and having my jaw drop at the files it produced. Sure, manually focusing with a DSLR was a complete bitch, but when I was able to slow things down, it made for some fantastic imagery. I even attached it my Nikon FM2n and gleefully pushed frame after frame of film using a lens that was sharper than anything available back in the days when 35mm film was commonplace.

© 2018 Michael Jin. All Rights Reserved.

But alas, as time went by and the novelty wore off, I found myself leaving the lens at home more often than not. First of all, it was pretty heavy and added a bunch of weight to my bag. Secondly, while the size of it felt right on my D810 and my later D850, it felt awkward on my FM2n. This might have been mitigated somewhat if I purchased an F2AS or F3HP, which are larger bodies, but the FM2n is what I had and it just felt strange attaching this lens to this camera. I suppose the biggest reason I stopped taking it out, however, is that the lens was just "too perfect" in a way.

This might sound incredibly stupid, but bear with me. Sharp, accurate, and clinical are certainly very good qualities for any lens and the Milvus 50mm f/1.4 checks all the boxes. The problem for me is that it's pretty rare that I'm looking for really clinical rendering out of a 50mm lens. Certainly for my wider lenses that I might use real estate, I want as sharp, accurate, and clinical as possible, but for standard focal lengths and telephoto lenses, I've come to focus more on interesting (maybe "painterly) aesthetics. In this regard, the Milvus 50mm f/1.4 becomes a pretty boring lens to use. Don't get me wrong, I'm not obsessed with swirly bokeh, soap bubble bokeh, or similar gimmicks (I have already gone through that phase and have since traded in my Helios 44M and Helios 40-2). Honestly, I'm not sure how to describe what it is that I'm looking for in a lens, but I definitely know it when I see it and the Milvus 50mm f/1.4 simply wasn't cutting it for me, which discouraged me from carrying it around even more than the weight of the lens. In a sick twist, I ended up actually purchasing a NIKKOR 50mm f/1.4 AIS which I started using far more than the modern Zeiss lens.

I'll never say that the old NIKKOR lens is better than the Zeiss—at least not in any quantifiable aspect. The decision to finally part with the Zeiss lens was a difficult one for me because it defied all logic that I should let go of one of the finest lenses that I've ever had the pleasure of using, much less owning. In the end, however, I decided that a lens sitting in my cabinet would be better served going to someone that is actually going to use it and the money I get for it better served by purchasing something that I will be more encouraged to carry around at this stage in my photographic development.

After some long nights of reflection, I finally made the trip to Adorama today, traded in the Zeiss Milvus 50mm f/1.4 and picked up a Voigtlander 58mm f/1.4 Nokton SL II S. It's a lens that I've been looking at for a while now and I've seen many photos taken with it. While it may not be as technically competent as the Milvus, it is smaller, lighter, and most importantly, I find the way that it renders scenes to be more to my personal aesthetic tastes. Coming back home and attaching the lens to my D850, I can say that I'm definitely pleased with how things have turned out and I'm looking forward to using this lens for a long time.

If there's a take-away that I've learned from all of this, it is that expensive gear is not always the best nor is it necessarily going to provide the qualities that you're looking for. I dreamed about owning Zeiss lenses for so long and even now, I still have several Zeiss lenses on my Amazon Wishlist, but more important that the cost of a lens, its stature, or ratings, is whether you are personally happy with it.