Sunday, February 18, 2007

Why I Seldom Write About Lenses These Days...

Lens connoisseurship has been a significant hobby of mine for more than ten years now. I call it a "hobby" because it really doesn't have very much to do with photography; what careful testing of lenses mainly shows is that the performance differences between good modern lenses are (for practical purposes) small, sometimes vanishingly small—in fact often requiring that selfsame careful testing even to distinguish! As for the differences that can be more easily detected, such as bokeh rendering and flare characteristics, these are largely a matter of taste in most circumstances.

I can't remember exactly when it was—three years ago? Five?—but I also essentially "retired" from writing about lens connoisseurship in public (I still do it with certain friends in private). There are a number of reasons for this. Chiefly, I think, it has to do with what I just mentioned—that testing lens performance doesn't have a whole lot to do with photography—and the fact that this is so widely misunderstood amongst a certain kind of hobbyist, who are eager to argue the opposite. (In truth, lens connoisseurship can sometimes actively interfere with photography...I've become so good at detecting the visual cues of aberrations that I zero in on them all too quickly when looking at pictures, and I personally find it very difficult to find lenses I'm wholly satisfied with.) Secondly, I have come to deplore "drinking wine by the label," and the eternal necessity of fighting against snobbism, prejudice (the word in its literal sense, of "judging in advance"), and a phenomenon I don't have a name for, the hardened tendency of so many consumers to believe that more expensive things must be better (and their assumption that I—rather than they—must have some ulterior motive if I don't automatically accept that view). Third, I have come to realize that a lot of my own preferences, although often strongly held, are really just a result of the fact that I have refined my own personal tastes and values through extended, one might say excessive, investigation. That is, I know what I like. And while I know what I like, I concede that what I like is mainly a matter of taste (albeit educated taste) and I get tired of arguing about it. I no longer find disputation and contention interesting, amusing, fun, or productive; I'm sort of over it, you might say. I know what I know and I don't really care all that much if others agree with me or not.

Another aspect of all this is that digital de-emphasizes some of the importance of the optical characteristics of the camera lens. Bayer array sensors just don't resolve microdetail very well, and they don't seem to "interact" with the lens image like film does to create a unique "fingerprint." Of course, images are more malleable in digital—you can correct even compound distortion with DxO, for instance, and of course there is a huge range of corrections for "grain" and "sharpness" and so forth. And yet, digital just doesn't render highlights as well as film does, and the subtle and distinct ways lenses render highlights is one good reason to care about optics.

Finally, many of the lenses I care about are lenses for film cameras. While it is not true that "no one cares about film any more," it is true that fewer people do. For this reason, writing lens reviews would seem to have less general appeal now than it used to. (Despite this, I keep mulling over the notion of writing a book about lenses.)

This is the first of three related posts, in descending order this time (anti-blog style)—continuing below.


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