Unsolicited editorials on cameras, lenses, film, developer, and black and white photography in general.

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Location: New Orleans, Louisiana, United States

Sunday, November 19, 2006

The Latest Photographic Casualty

No, it’s not a famous photographer. They seem fine lately. It is the single focal length lens. I have a bunch of 50mm lenses for 35mm cameras. I like 50mm lenses because they don't produce distortion, they are relatively compact, their optics are generally superb, and because they are readily available for a low price. For decades, if you bought a 35mm SLR, it came with a 50/1.8 to 50/2 normal lens.

The television and movie industry wasted no time embracing the zoom lens. No longer did they have to lug enormous turrets with single focal length lenses swinging into place. Designing a zoom lens was a challenge as the lens had to not only change focal lengths but also remain in focus at all focal lengths. This meant much more complex designs, many elements, and many air-to-glass interfaces. This convenience was at the expense of resolution and contrast. The first zoom lens I purchased for 35mm was something of a revolutionary product back in the 1970’s. One of the commercial photo magazines reviewed a Komuranon zoom lens that was reportedly on an optical par with prime lenses. Its capabilities were modest (I think it was a 35-70mm or thereabouts). Finally one could purchase a zoom lens without sacrificing optical quality. Since then, modern coatings, computer-designing, aspheric elements, and special forms of glass have produced zoom lenses that are much better than the earlier models. I still find them to be too big (if their largest aperture is f/2.8 throughout the zoom length, they are enormous), and their optical quality is never what it should be at the extremes of their focal length. But that isn’t my objection. What bothers me is that, with the exception of macro lenses, single focal length lenses are absent from the new product lines of Canon, Nikon, and Pentax. There appears to be very little R&D on prime lenses for SLRs, and cheap zooms are replacing 50mm lenses on SLRs. I recently bought a Pentax film SLR (after searching for days on the Internet). I have three Limited Edition silver Pentax lenses and I wanted a silver body for them. Adorama, B&H, and even some of the Brooklyn stores that I would never normally frequent had none. I finally found a kit at Freestyle and ordered it. It came with a Pentax 28-80 3.5-5.6 Taiwanese zoom lens sans lens hood. The front element is, for lack of a better term, wobbly. I googled a search for it and found that it is available separately for anywhere from $39 to $59. Okay, you get what you pay for, but I would have rather paid nothing for it. A 50/2 autofocus Pentax lens would have served me much better.

So, is anyone making single focal length lenses for 35mm SLRs these days? No, because virtually nobody is making 35mm SLRs these days. Sigma surprised us with a 30/1.4 for dSLRs. Most R&D is going into zooms for digital SLRs, and few of them seem to be as good optically as my Komuranon from the 1970’s. After all, they are being produced for the general public who know nothing and care little about purple fringing, chromatic aberration, and flare. So, I dug in my heels, went to www.keh.com, and stockpiled a set of prime lenses for my Contax manual focus SLRs. They are small, fast, optically marvelous, and will last me a lifetime.