Work Versatile and X-Factor Lenses : New ways to view the lens landscape

Tamron modern prime lenses used during my commercial photoshoot with Lexus Canada.

While my full time commercial photography job is taking a lot of time out of my hands and away from this blog, it has also led me to refine my lens choices and have better perspectives on the optical features of lenses. This has helped me grow as a photographer and yes, I've sold off 16 of my lenses while acquiring some more. 

Recap of older mindsets

As I've previously stated, there seems to be lenses made for daylight and night time shooting relative to the amount of optical correction applied in their designs and element count: 

  • A day lens would display a pleasing amount of 3D pop in day or ideal lighting, it would break down in challenging lighting under a large amount of fringing and chromatic aberration

  • A night lens would be designed to correct the fringing and chromatic aberration, yet wouldn't be able to transmit as much micro-contrast and tonality as a day light in ideal condition.

This line of thoughts will eventually evolve.

A Water Drop Torture Test into 3D Pop Obsession.

Nikkor AF-S 50mm 1.4G being bloomy, hazy, harsh on bokeh, fringy and having trouble with contrast while having weird vignette… was this supposed to be a night lens ?!

As I continued to shoot with my 30 or so lenses from the cover photo of this article, more and more flaws from lenses that were too far on either side of day or night kept showing up:

  • Many day lenses would display some harsh bokeh due to strong circle outlining and would need to be closed down to soften the circles. This would impact the focus falloff drastically to a point of losing the ability of the lens to render out of focus foreground and background elements in a pleasing way.

  • Such day lenses would also leave strong and visible purple fringing around the edges of highlights in most high contrast areas of the image, even during the day.

  • Some of the best day lenses out there are manual focus and while I don't quite mind the practice, the amount of circumstances that need to align for them to be used at their optimal potential is quite higher than that of the convenience and spontaneity of a well calibrated and reliable autofocus system.

  • On the other side, some AF-S G night lenses I owned seemed to be in limbo between not corrected enough (still displaying harsh bokeh and haze near maximum aperture), too corrected or simply boring to use. The pop would only show up at night on such lenses and become unpleasant during the day due to a lack of tonal saturation and indecisive micro-contrast rendition.

Not sure how long I can tolerate having all these image defects (fringing, harsh bokeh outlines) appear in my pictures despite great 3d pop and tonality…

The Exercise that Killed Off 16 Lenses.

An attempt at a new diagram, any lens scoring in the orange zone would be on their way out of my collection

I was starting to drift into disillusion after realizing that most of my lenses didn't seem to stimulate the excitement I expected out of them at work. While the expected 3D pop was present after pairing lens with the proper lighting, other attributes (like focus speed, bokeh quality, CA/Fringing control) were going haywire. I honestly got into a state of self-doubt and redid some tests to decide which lens would be able to excel at most attributes (somewhat in order of importance) in most situations within personal tolerance level which were raised:

  1. Ergonomics: It has to fit in my Thinktank Turnstyle 20 containing 1 body, 1 battery grip as part of a lens setup geared towards the subject I'm shooting. Relative to its purpose and the nature of its design, it also has to be pleasant to manipulate (switch around), balanced on a battery gripped camera, etc...

  2. Focus Operation: Focus method should be fast, accurate, reliable and predictable enough to catch a moment instinctively. Most manual focus lenses failed that very first attribute.

  3. 3D Pop: It must display some clear hints depth separation.

  4. Tonality: The resulting RAW tones must be relatively easy to post-process, roll off/transition in an exciting way that is pleasing to the eye.

  5. Bokeh Quality: Foreground and background bokeh circles shouldn't display outlines that are too strong from center to edges. Many vintage lens and some modern lenses failed that metric.

  6. CA/Fringing control near maximum aperture: Related or unrelated to bokeh, lens must render the scene with a near unperceptible amount of CA/Fringing when the picture is viewed fullscreen on a 27inch monitor. Most vintage lenses failed this test.

  7. Resolution/Haze: still my least important aspect of a great lens as most subjects in focus will be usually rendered clear if the lens scores well on attributes 1 to 5. I barely gave importance to that test aside from checking if the lens displayed a level of haze/dreaminess that was bothersome to the sharpness.

  8. Extra features: Lens can be used with USB dock calibration for ideal autofocus reliability. Lens can have Optical Stabilisation to help with instinctive shooting or extreme lowlight handheld shooting of static subjects on nightwalks. Lens is performing surprisingly well for the nature of its optical design. Bonus points really.

Lets apply some analysis here:

Despite slight onioning, Tamron 45VC (left) is still cleaner and smoother than the harsh soap bubble bokeh of the Nikkor AF 50mm 1.4D (right)

Nikkor AF 85 1.8D only renders a fringe-less image at f2.5 (left) vs f1.8 (right) there gets a fail

After the exercise, these are the lenses that survived quite well (some I acquired post exercise):

  • Nikkor AF-S 20mm 1.8G ED: excelled on all fronts. Still a lens that dominates its focal length.

  • Nikkor AF-S 24-70mm 2.8G ED: surprising amount of pop for a zoom. I use it on most events I work on.

  • Nikkor AF-S 28mm 1.8G: I had to rebuy that one since it really performed above average on all fronts as well.

  • Tamron AF 45mm 1.8VC: Took me a while to get used to the Tamron method of moving into focus and rendering 3d pop/Tonality but once I did, I was able to appreciate its excellence on attributes 5 to 8. I also had to get the USB Dock to properly set the lens. The VC performance is quite game changing.

  • Micro-Nikkor AF 60mm 2.8D: my normal macro. It's corrected and resolving by nature.

  • Tamron AF 70-200 2.8VC G2: I needed one and boy does this one deliver! Granted, it's not the best scoring in 3d pop/tonality but the other attributes are maxed out so I acquired it!

  • Tamron AF 85mm 1.8VC: my new 85... surprisingly poppy and tonal despite the high amount of correction. Predictably inferior to the 105DC on these mentionned attributes but a master at every other ones. It's close to near perfect as fast as modern lens design would go.

  • Nikkor AF 85mm 1.4D: I don't own that lens yet, but I want one… so bad. While it struggles at attribute 2-6-7 and doesn't quite offer anything for 8, the way it handles 1-3-4-5 is interesting enough, more on that later. It’s just so close to the Zeiss 85mm 1.4 Planar ZF.2 in results but adds autofocus. Has a lot of X-Factor.

  • Tokina Macro AT-X 100mm 2.8: my telemacro. It's corrected and resolving by nature.

  • Nikkor AF 105 f2DC: surprisingly clean of image defects despite its low element count. Granted the CA/Fringing metric was predictably scoring lower than modern lenses but still within tolerance levels. I was quite stunned by the results. The lens designer must have had a stroke of genius when he made that lens!

  • Nikkor AF 180mm f2.8D: a quite safe lens too on the border of CA/Fringing failure, yet still within tolerance level.

The lenses that "barely made it" are:

  • Nikkor AF 24mm 2.8D: fails number 5 and 8, performs borderline on 6-7 and maxes out 1-2-3-4 so it stays, but usually takes a backseat to the 20G and the 24-70G

  • Nikkor AF 28-70 3.5-4.5: Small zoom, great at 1-2-3-4-5, borderline on 6-7 and surprising for 8. It's my photobooth lens.

  • Nikkor AF 35mm 2D: same story as the 24 2.8D but takes a backseat to the 28 1.8G and might get soon replaced by the Tamron (which carries the same benefits as the 45 and 85VC) if I don't decide to upgrade to the Nikon Z system.

  • Voigtlander SLII 40mm f2 Ultron: My wife gifted me that lens for my 30th birthday. There's no reason stronger than that!

  • Zeiss ZF.2 50mm 1.4 Planar: A reminder of the times when I was chasing 3d pop exclusively and the most useful focal length of that quest.

  • Nikon 100mm 2.8 series E: I'm adapting it on the Fuji as compact cheap telephoto prime... it's alright.

You can see how the other 16 lenses from my lens collection were quick to leave the house on their way to new owners. I had to refine the collection to maximise the frequency of use of every piece. 

This all disappeared under a week.

This all disappeared under a week.

Work Versatile vs X-Factor Lens

If you have read that long into my story, I am about to reveal my new method of describe lens genres. It has to deal with the white swan / black swan balance theory: The white swan will aim to be neat and clean, perfect on almost all aspects whereas the black swan will be attractive, seductive, emotional with a lot of immeasurable impressions. Instead of day and night lens, I decide to bring forward 2 new types that helps me select lenses for work:

  • Work Versatile: It's a lens made to take money shots. By excelling at attributes 1-2-5-6-7-8, it will always render a clean and neat image effortlessly. It leans towards the white swan side of things. However, in order to "please me" the lens will still need to show some competence to reach my standards on attributes 3-4 thus showing its versatility to be used in both daylight and night time without much compromises on the other metrics. Since most Sigma ART lenses can't reach a competent score on 3-4, they are still out of the race. This kind of lens comprises most of my current lens collection.

Tamron AF 85mm 1.8 VC showcasing some great Work Versatility there. It’s well corrected while still displaying great depth!

  • X-Factor: It's a lens that renders in a very unique way. It's hard to describe how it does it but it definitely puts attributes 3-4-8 forward to an miraculous level. Its users will be completely smitten by the results and will often speak emotionally about it. It leans towards the black swan side. I was seeking for lenses like these when going after 3d pop a few years ago. However, to prevent getting stung by such ability, I wish for the lens to still have some level of "work versatility" within tolerance. The Nikon 85mm 1.4D, the 105DC and the 180 2.8D all fall into that category. The Zeiss 85mm 1.4 Planar ZF.2 would also have a lot of X-Factor but not enough work versatility to make it into my desires. This kind of lens is quite rewarding to use. I am still happy I own a few of these.

Nikkor AF 85mm 1.4D isn’t as perfectly corrected as the Tamron but has a whole lot more X-Factor.

This new evaluation method puts a lot less importance in the element count of a lens but more on the way manufacturers handle the quality of the glass compounds, the coatings and optical element designs in order to deliver a look that leans on either side of the Work to X-Factor spectrum. When asked for lens recommendations, I will always lean towards work versatility with a hint of X-Factor rather than the opposite. The lens that gets the sure bet results will excel at a larger range of photography than the specialized one. Once you have that base covered, you can add in the X-Factor lens, just not before.

Onward towards future lenses

I’m starting to believe that not all lenses are made out of the same glass and some will have “miracle” glass and coating to reach satisfying microcontrast/3D Pop and Tonality levels while having many elements. Modern lenses will for sure continue to populate the shelves of photography stores while vintage lenses will continue to be sought after and discussed among mirrorless camera adapted lens users. In the search of ideal lenses, it will be important to situate them within the areas of compromise of Work Versatility and X-Factor.

Yannick Khong25 Comments