In recent years, the professional photography world has been increasingly obsessed with perfection. Professional cameras are more expensive as expectations, demands and the drive for perfection has increased.
For example, the bar for autofocus has been raised exponentially. Today, autofocus must be blazingly fast and quiet, if not silent. Today’s cameras are also expected to provide continuous eye-autofocus that keeps the focus even as they momentarily turn their head away or have something move in front of them. There are even talks of continuous animal eye autofocus and the use of AI for assistance not only with focusing, but composition of the shot.
This strive for perfection has also extended into lenses. High quality lenses are getting larger and more expensive as the number of elements increases, and instantaneous autofocus is demanded. Today’s professional lenses have much less chromatic aberration (aka. color fringing), vignetting and distortion. This is due mostly to the number lens elements having doubled, tripled and even quadrupled in comparison to older lens designs.
There is a cost associated with all of that extra glass being added to lenses though. The more glass you pass light through, the less color saturation, dynamic range, “3D pop” and character will be captured. Your image will not have many “imperfections”, but it will be rather clinical, technical and lacking what art photographers call character. A YouTube photography personality made the great analogy of taking a Filet Mignon (light), throwing it into a grinder (the ever increasing number of lens elements) and turning it into hamburger meat.
Now if you are a real estate, product, medical or reproduction photographer then clinical reproductive lenses with no “imperfections” and no character to them are exactly what you want, and this trend in photography is wonderful. But as an art photographer (primarily), I look at the results, size and cost of these new lenses and sigh. Then I go to Ebay and the used section of retailers to find deals on older dreamy lenses that many photographers now shun and call imperfect.
Another famous photographer recently stated that the worst new lenses provide better results than the best vintage lenses. This is now a common stance taken by many towards vintage lenses, and it is just silly. Sometimes it frustrates me for a moment, but then I quickly remember that this increasingly popular belief benefits me. As more photographers shun vintage glass and manual focus, the more prices will drop. These days I am able to buy 2 older manual focus Carl Zeiss lenses in mint condition for less than the cost of one newer lens.
So while most of the photography world gravitates to “perfect” lenses that grind the light into a consistent yet boring result, I will gravitate towards older, manual focus lenses that are smaller, less expensive, and provide higher levels of saturation, dynamic range and dimension. And yes, they also provide some “imperfections” that I actually appreciate because they give the image character. After all, when it comes to artistic photography, the goal is not boring perfect reproduction of the scene. Art is imperfect, it provides a different perspective and is anything but just reproducing what is in front of you.