2 June, 2002
Weekly Column By
The cover of the March 2002 Popular Photography proclaimed, "The 3 greatest prime lenses we've ever tested!!!", yet nowhere inside the issue was the cover blurb referenced. Hint: this was one of the three. For the others, read on.
The Best (Autofocus) Lenses Money Can Buy
Photographers love to discuss lenses. Scientific lens tests are accorded great respect by photographers; ratings and rankings are much-discussed; and the web is peppered with anecdotal user reports — not only at sites such as photographyreview.com and photozone, but at general photography sites, photographers' personal home pages, magazine sites, and so on.
This is in one sense ironic, because we may at this point be in an age when lens quality doesn't really matter very much any more. Digital processing in Adobe Photoshop — by applying sharpening, unsharp masking, and contrast controls — can make digital prints mimic "looks" once obtainable only by using great optics. Also, with computer-aided optical design, modern quality control methods, and the constant winnowing of fierce, sustained competition, true "dogs" among lenses have dwindled away almost to nonexistence, and the once fairly wide gamut of lens quality has gotten all bunched together at the very top. In some case, unsung, uncelebrated optics actually surpass the standards of lenses our predecessors prized.
And yet we still do seem to care. Great discussion and debate centers on what seem to be points of the remotest arcana is the AF version of Nikon's 28mm f/2.8 lens as good as the older AIS version? (Answer: no.) Is the current 6-element Leica Summicron-M as good as the older, more luxuriously designed 7-element version? (Answer: yes.) How good are the new Voigtländer rangefinder lenses? (Answer: very good, but, with one exception, not quite as good as their Leica counterparts.)
Metal and Plastic
Of course, our discussions do tend to center around certain makes. Leica vs. Zeiss, Canon vs. Nikon. Within each brand's lore, certain "facts" tend to go unchallenged. For instance, you'll read on Nikon or Olympus discussion groups that Nikon's or Olympus's 50mm f/1.8 are among the best lenses you can buy (nowhere near true), or that Leica's 50mm Summilux-M sells poorly because it's so expensive (utter nonsense! If Leica lenses sold poorly because they're expensive, Leica would have gone the way of Miranda and Exakta by now. The Summilux-M sells poorly because optically it is a rather substandard lens (for Leica, that is).
There's also been a lot of discussion as to whether modern plastic AF lenses are as good as older, metal ones. Interestingly, plastic in lenses used to be anathema to sales. One of Canon's early fluorite lenses got widely slandered because it employed a plastic band around the circumference of the element grouping, and the august French maker of movie camera lenses, Angenieux, never achieved the status it wanted for its annual forays into 35mm lensmaking because customers wouldn't believe that polycarbonate was actually a better material (lighter, less temperature sensitive, more dimensionally stable) for lens barrels than metal. Nowadays, lenses can have plastic barrels, plastic elements (for instance, acrylic-bonded hybrid aspherics), and can actually wobble to the touch, and people still don't seem to mind. My, my.
In the current debate, some lensmakers get shortchanged for various reasons. In some cases, they've left the playing field. In others, they've diluted their lines with poor-performing economy lenses. Or, they may simply not make very competitive cameras, or an adequately complete line of lenses or accessories. Konica's Hexanon AR lenses were once highly thought of, for instance, but people still seem surprised at the quality of the little Hexar's fixed lens.
Or take the case of Pentax. Pentax, one of the great cameramaking concerns of the past half century, was the leading SLR manufacturer of the 1960s — but it got caught remaining too loyal to an obsolete lensmount (M42 or "Pentax" screwmount) and it never learned Nikon's canny trick of bending over backwards to appeal to pros as a loss-leading sales strategy (and a strategy Canon was later to use against Nikon itself. Live by the sword). So photographers have forgotten that Pentax screwmount lenses — gorgeously crafted, smooth-focusing, no-holds-barred designs — were once revered by photographers as being among the best ever made. Asahi, in the days of the Spotmatic, ran neck-and-neck with Zeiss as the world's leading lensmaker. Who remembers? Now, the talk is all Leica and Nikon and, more lately, Canon.
You'll never convince a Leicaphile that anyone else in the round world can make a lens. Trying is a fool's errand — Leica's not a camera any more, but rather a religion, and its priests will vociferously consign you to the nether regions if you blaspheme. So let's put aside for a moment the historical competition among the great marques of manual focus and ask a different question: who makes the very best autofocuslenses that money can buy?
Ne Plus Ultra
It's got to be Nikon or Canon, right? Each of these Goliaths, with their vast lens lines and cost-no object fast lenses and zooms, have won the battle of public opinion going away. So here's a shocker. The real answer may be Zeiss and Pentax! Zeiss, with the jewel-like little G lenses for the Contax G1 and G2, and Pentax with its little-heralded but lovely Limiteds.
Okay, I grant you, Zeiss and Pentax don't win any sweepstakes, or any popularity contests either. In a sense, each is an also-ran among 35mm photographers today. Neither the Zeiss G lenses nor the Pentax Limited SLR lenses can really compete with their actual rivals — Leica M still kills Zeiss for range of choice and available lens speeds, and Pentax doesn't even make a true professional SLR to compete with the likes of the F5, the EOS-1v, and the Minolta Maxxum 9, although the recent MZ-S is certainly a step in the right direction.
But six out of the seven Zeiss G lenses are true aristocrats. Each is a legitimate bearer of a truly great historical name — Hologon, Biogon, Distagon, Planar, Sonnar — and for performance, can hardly be touched. Especially if you shoot color, they may be equaled, but not surpassed.
And nobody pays all that much attention to Pentax. Pentax does have some pretty pedestrian optics in its bag, it's true. What many photographers aren't aware of is that Pentax still also makes some of the best SLR lenses on the planet. For pure picture quality, taking bokeh into account, my considered opinion is that the Pentax 50mm f/1.4 is the best fast fifty (and I say that having carefully tested damn near everything out there). The FA 24mm f/2 is certainly one of the best 24mm AF lenses going. And if you were to directly compare the Leica 80mm Summilux-R, the Zeiss Contax 85mm f/1.4, the AF-Nikkor 85mm f/1.4, and the Pentax SMC-FA 85mm f/1.4, it would be very clear to you that the latter lens absolutely belongs in the company of the former three. For portraiture, it might even edge the others out.
Yet the very best AF SLR lenses made today are the Pentax Limiteds. There are only three, and they have focal lengths apparently chosen by means of occultish numerology: there's a 31mm f/1.8 wide, a 43mm f/1.9 "true" normal, and a 77mm f/1.8 short tele. All three are made of metal (imagine that), focus manually more than passably well, and are of an size and weight that doesn't constantly penalize you, whether you're lugging them around or holding them up to your eye on a camera. They have beautiful matching metal lens hoods and a feel of quality that puts them above virtually all other AF lenses.
Let's not forget Pentax's 645 autofocus lenses which are also superb — Ed.
All three are utter standouts optically. With the vagaries of personal taste taken into account, no lens, however deluxe, can be called the "best" for everyone, but the Limiteds are certainly among the best. Popular Photography in its March 2002 issue called the Pentax SMC-FA 31mm Limited one of the greatest prime lenses it had ever tested (the other two were the Voigtländer Heliar 50mm f/3.5 and the Nikon Nikkor 45mm f/2.8P Tessar-type. This wasn't clear in the issue itself, but I contacted the Editor, Jason Schneider, who confirmed it). Yet all things considered, the 77mm may be the best lens of the three. A nearly ideal short tele, the 77mm Limited is superb — contrasty, excellent for portraits wide open, with a truly beautiful, delicate bokeh that compliments the almost 3-D vividness of the in-focus image. Tops in its class? There are certainly a lot of great short teles out there. But I can't name an AF SLR short tele I'd put above it.
Granted, three lenses doth not a legend create. But if you're wondering which autofocus lenses are ne plus ultra, I submit that little has changed since the days of Kennedy and Kent State, Barbie and the Beatles, when "the Pentax" was the best-selling SLR there was and Zeiss was the world's most prestigious cameramaker. Each optical house may be a stately shadow of its former self in the minds of 35mm photographers today, and lens quality may not matter any more anyway — Canon and Nikon are awfully darned good, and nobody makes any dogs, and it's all going digital anyway. But when it comes to the best autofocus lenses in the world, whether for a viewfinder camera or SLRs, it's still Zeiss and Pentax, baby, same as the old days.
© Mike Johnston 2002
Mike Johnston writes and publishes an independent quarterly ink-on-paper magazine called The 37th Frame for people who are really "into" photography. His book, The Empirical Photographer, is scheduled to be published in 2003.