My Crazy Lenses – Topcor R 30cm f/2.8 and its Modern State-of-the-Art Counterparts – „Supertele-Lenses“

  1. Travel on my time-machine
  2. The known Facts – Topcor 30cm f/2.8
  3. Topcor 30cm f/2.8 – Optical Performance
  4. The Reference: Canon EF 300mm f/2.8 IS USM
  5. Three more 300mm f/2.8-teles
DSCF2458_Alle300f2,8-5_blog
Fig 1: From left to right – Tropcor R 30cm f/2.8, Arsat Yashma 300mm f/2.8, Tamron SP LD (IF) 300mm f/2.8, Minolta AF Apo-Tele 300mm f/2.8, Canon EF 300mm f/2.8 L IS USM

1. On my time-machine:

I own the Topcor R 30cm f/2.8, which I am looking at here, since a few years – but I have not used it too often.  It is very heavy, long and dark, giving the impression of a tank-breaking weapon: you definitely will get trouble at any security check nowadays … and in the best case you will earn compassion instead of admiration! Too bad, because it is an ingenious piece of optical engineering.

Information about Topcor lenses today are rare and not always reliable. I will restrict myself to reliable information and I will try to verify legends … or destroy them.

So I entered my time machine and travelled back into the year 1958. I was 13 years old at my arrival there – and at the Topcon (Tokyo Kogaku) factory I met a team of innovative engineers, who were fanatically burning for the QUALITY of their products – and really proud of it! The year before (1957) they had introduced a new SLR-camera (Topcon R), which was designed in Bauhaus-style, i.e. with clear and modern lines – and they were ready to ignit a firework of innovations around the SLR-concept within the next few years (from first-in-industry TTL-exposure-metering to first electric winder).

And they had introduced a line of lenses for this SLR-system-camera, among which the Topcor 30cm f/2.8 peaked out. Another „first-in-industry“-innovation.

I looked around in the photo-stores and could not find any Canon- or Nikon-SLRs there: the dealers told me, that both companies were just bringing out SLRs. It seemed, that the Topcon-people had considered the German SLRs, which were already on the market, as their competition. Personally at that time I was already a SLR-user (of my father’s Contaflex – which means, that from time to time my father was still allowed to use it himself).

Everybody, who is acqainted with the rules of the market, would have expected, that shortly after an innovation like the Topcor R 30cm f/2.8, the major competitors would bring out a similar product.

But that did not happen – so I returned in my time-machine. Finally I found out, that it took the new japanese competitors more than a decade! And there was no comparable Lens in Europe, as far as I could see. 13 years later Nikon presented a prototype, to be tested during the Olympic Winter Games of Sapporo in 1972.

The real next step was taken by Canon with a 300mm f/2.8 Lens for their new FD-System, using a lens made of FLUORITE in 1973 (some say 75)! This was finally 16 years after the arrival of the Topcor-lens … and just in that year, when Topcon stopped the production of their supertele-lens.

2. The known facts:

This Topcor R 30cm f/2.8 monster-tele-lens with 300mm focal length was presented to the world in 1958 („Topcon Club“ says 1957!) – one year before Canon or Nikon started to produce any SLR – and 13-16 years before any other lens- or camera-maker presented such a fast 300mm tele-lens. Not only at the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo but all the time until 1972 it was without any competition. As a consequence, there even was produced quite a number of lenses with Nikon mounts! Next to Topcon, Canon brought out its Canon FD 300mm f/2.8 S.S.C. Fluorite lens in 1973 – setting the level for professional superlele-lenses for the next decades and until today.  Just a few years later Topcon went completly out of the business with SLR-cameras and lenses. Sad, but even the extensive book „Topcon Story“  by Marco Antonetto and Claudio Russo (1) does not answer the question „why?“.  Today Topcon is a market-leader in geodesic instruments.

Stephen Gandy (3) estimates –  cameraquest.com  – that 700-800 lenses have been produced in total during 18 years of production.

Topcor-R-300f2,8_DSCF2335_blog
Fig. 2a: R.Topcor 1:2.8 f=300mm on Topcon SuperD- source: fotosaurier
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Fig. 2b: R.Topcor 1:2.8 f=300mm – source: fotosaurier
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Fig. 2c: Lens scheme of Topcor 1:2.8 30cm  – source: http://www.topgabacho.jp/Topconclub/lens3.htm

The lens is made of six single lenses in four groups – of which lens no. 6 (group 4) is the filter (diameter 39mm), which is, of course, part of the optical design! This filter is an early (maybe the first) example of a filter which is positioned in a slot in the rear part of the lens-body. In the book „Topcon Story“ (page 128) there is an error in the spreadsheet listing of the data of the R.Topcor-lenses: the data in the last line are the data of the „300mm 2.8“ and not of the f/5.6-lens. Here the no. of elements is „five“, which is correct, when you don’t count the filter as an active optical member …

The lens has a preset diaphragm and has a built-in sunshade (telescoping in two stages!). It is 383 mm long (from camera-flange to front-edge of the pulled-back sunshade – total length with shade pulled out is 477 mm)  and weighs 3.1 kgs (without front and rear caps). Measured at my sample (ser. no. 34.1359). The initial sales-price was $ 1.125,–. (In the literature  you will find: 415/412 mm length and 3.3 kgs weight).

It may be interesting to mention here, that right away from the introduction of the first Topcon-SLR, an extremely ambitious lens-program was planned – however, realized only partly. The Topcor R 13,5 cm f/2.0 (6 lenses) had also preset diaphragm and it was discontinued with the Topcon RE camera system – so it is said to be extremely rare. It has a yellowish color cast (due to rare-earth-glass?), not a big problem with todays digital cameras …

However, a 50mm f/0.7 lens, which is mentioned in „Topcon Club“ only, was never made for the SLR-camera market – maybe, this was one of the very early oscilloscope-registration-lenses, which are also known from Germany and GB even at WWII-times.

And a 1000mm f/7 catadioptric lens was only experimentally made in 1958.

„Topcon Club“ (2) writes about this:

„The interchangeable lenses which appeared with the appearance of TOPCON R are various kinds of the Auto Topcor of 35mm/100mm, and R TOPCOR (a preset diaphragm) of 90mm/135mm/200mm/300mm among these – although the bright thing and the dark thing were prepared about 135mm and 300mm – it should mention especially – it is the „high-speed lens“ of 135mm f2 and 300mm f2.8. 50mm f0.7 – such a bright lens was already completed during wartime by the Tokyo optics. Do you believe it ? Although possibly this grade was an easy thing, even so, the 300mm f2.8 lens will be an astonishment thing in 1957. I talked in detail on „the page of TOPCOR“ about this lens. We have to wait for marketing of the product of NIKON which is the next 300mm f2.8 lens at any rate till 1977. However, TOPCON did not build the super telephoto lens 500mm /800mm those days. Furthermore, the Refrector Topcor 1000mm f7 is appearing in the catalog in ’59. However, this was not launched regretfully.“

Later – from 1969 on – a RE Topcor 500mm f/5.6 telephoto-lens was even produced with automatic diaphragm and meter coupling!

Can such a fast long telephoto lens like this early 300mm f/2.8-design without Fluorite- or ED-lenses be any good – on the scale of professional photography? There are hints, that rare-earth glasses were used to make these lenses (also for the other famous 13,5cm f/2.0, also supplied since 1958). But I do not know details about this.

I will answer the question about the optical quality here – also comparing this lens with a modern top-notch tele-lenses like Canon EF 300mm f/2.8 L IS USM, which I personally classify as today’s state-of-the-art reference, supported by photo-friend Thomas, who borrowed his Canon lens to me.

Finally I will take a glance on a state-of-the-art modern astronomical refractor, which normally does perform at diffraction-limited resolution on stars!

Topcor 30cm f/2.8 – The Optical Performance on analog film (year 1969):

Stephen Gandy (3) wrote in his blog:

WIDE OPEN its resolution was 56lines/mm center and 34lines/mm at the edges.  By f/8 it was 80 lines/mm center and 65 at the edges.   Many normal lenses don’t achieve this sharpness — much less 300/2.8 leviathans !  Camera 35 summed it up by saying „INCREDIBLY FANTASTIC.“  I would have to agree.

(In the original text in Stephen’s blog, the reported resolution values are noted as „56mm“ or „34mm“. I have taken the freedom, to correct this to what it should read: lines per mm, „lines/mm“!)

The resolution values, which I use in my digital IMATEST measurements, typically are given in „Line-pairs per picture-height“ = „LP/PH“. Picture-height being 24mm with 24×36-format, you have to divide the „lines/mm“-values by two to get to „line-pairs“ – and then multiply with 24 to achieve LP/PH.

The highest given value of 80 lines/mm corresponds to 960 LP/PH stopped down to f/8 in the center or 760 LP/PH at f/8 at the edge – the lowest value 34 lines/mm with open diaphragm at the edge corresponds to 408 LP/PH.

What does that mean?

In 1969 the test results for resolution were measured on film – „Modern Photography“ used Plus-X Pan with standardized development – and the reading of the „just resolved“ line-pattern was done with a standardized enlarging glass … I personally used the method myself at that time, too, and it is quite reproducible as long as the same person does the reading … It is somewhat sensitive to the vision-capabilities of the reading person! And of course the grain of the analog film material (negative b&w film!) is the limiting factor for the resolution-reading on film for really high resolutions.

Today’s modern 24 MP-sensors deliver resolutions of 2,000-2,400 LP/PH using MTF30 (30% contrast) as  the parameter for reading out the resolution values from the MTF-curve. My Sony A7R4-Camera (62 MP), which I use for my measurements, has a Nyquist frequency of 3.168 LP/PH and delivers up to 3.800 LP/PH-readings with the best known lenses.

The following spreadsheet gives an overview on the physical data of the Topcor-lens and the other lens-monsters, analysed here:

300f2,8_physData
Fig. 3: Physical Data of the five 300mm f/3.8-Lenses – source: measured by fotosaurier

3. Topcor 30cm f/2.8 – Optical Performance

My IMATEST-Results of the optical properties of the Topcor R 30cm f/2.8 lens:

To exclude potential vibration-initiated degradation of resolution in my test-shots at these long focal-lengths I used my heavy (>10 kgs) and sturdy astronomical telescope-mount:

DSCF2537_Topcor_AufAstroMontierung_blog
Fig. 4: My massive astronomical lens mount – here with SonyA7R4 attached to Topcor 30cm f/2.8 – source: fotosaurier
DSCF2535_OnTargetTop
Fig. 5: The set-up keeps the lens and camera steady even at 0,4 seconds. – source: fotosaurier

Following you see the results of my IMATEST-measurements:

Topcor_R-300f2,8_Spreadsheet-23
Fig. 6: Optical measurment-results for Topcor R 300mm f/2.8 adapted to Sony A7R4 with 62 MP – resolution values given in LP/PH – source: fotosaurier
Topcor_R-300f2,8_Graph-23
Fig. 7: Resolution measurement-results for Topcor R 300mm f/2.8 as graph – source: fotosaurier

The lens is unique at that time regarding to „speed“ – an extremely ambitious piece of optical engineering. Remind, that the distortion is practically zero and the CA-area in the center 0,8-1,4 pixel – 1 pixel at Sony A7R4 is 3,8 microns on the sensor!

What is center, what is part way and what is corner? In the following graphs from IMATEST you see: „Part-Way“ is the large part of the picture extending close to the narrow side (left/right). „Corner“ is the narrow area outside the second dotted circle on the picture below.

DSC07122_Topcor300f2,8_8,0_Multi-ROI_2023-02-04_01-00-54
Fig. 8: „Center“ resolution is calculated as mean from the values inside the inner circle (in my setting always two values), „part way“ is the mean of all values between the inner and outer circle, „corner“ is the mean of all values positioned outside the outer circle – source: fotosaurier
DSC07110_Topcor300f2,8_8,0_Lens_MTF_2022-11-29_22-55-46
Fig. 9: Topcor R 30cm f/2.8 resolution plotted over radius of picture circle – source: fotosaurier

So, let’s compare the measurements to the value, that were given in analog times on film:

The comparison in the spreadsheet Fig. 10 shows: The  lens „out-resolves“ normal analog films by far! Stopped down it reaches the limits of the analog medium even at the edges of the frame! 

Analog-digital-resolution
Fig.10: „Camera35’s“ resolution measurements for Topcor R 30cm f(2.8 of 1969 on film compared with digital IMATEST values (at 30% MTF = „MTF30) with Sony A7R4 – source: fotosaurier

I found no real technical explanation, how Topcon-engineers managed to generate this phantastic lens at that time without ED/LD/AD/Fluorite-glass. There is a second tele-lens – the 13,5cm f/2.0, also introduced 1958, with first-in-industry potential – and finally the Topcor 2,5cm f/3.5 super-wide, which surprises with best-in-class resolution values (see my blog-article on historical 24/25mm-lenses!).

If somebody knows the secret: please, tell us!

Look at a sample picture taken with the Topcor at the end of this article at 65% enlargement size (see Fig. 24).

Now, let’s have a glance on some other historical Superteles:

Alle_300er_2,8_DSCF2573
Fig. 11: From left to right: Topcor R 300mm f/2.8, Canon EF 300mm f/2.8 IS USM, Minolta AF Apo-Tele 400mm f/2.8, Tamron SP (60B) 300mm f/2.8 LD (IF), Arsat Yashma-4H MC 300mm f/2.8

4. The Reference: Canon EF 300mm f/2.8 IS USM

Canon-EF_300f2,8_DSCF2451_blog
Fig. 12: Canon EF 300mm f/2.8 IS USM – source: fotosaurier

Canon EF 300mm f/2.8 IS USM is rated as the reference of this class of lenses.  In this case it is not the latest „Mk II“-version of it, which came out 2011 –  but the first version of 1999, which is tested here. It represents nevertheless already the top-class of the super-teles (as all its predecessors since 1973!)

Here are the IMATEST results of its optical properties:

Canon-EF_300f2,8-L-IS-USM_AF_Spreadsheet
Fig.13: Optical properties of Canon EF 300mm f/2.8 IS USM from my IMATEST-measurements, with autofocus – source: fotosaurier

And here the Graphs of resolutions center, part way and corner:

Canon-EF_300f2,8-L-IS-USM_AF_Graph
Fig. 14: IMATEST-Resolution (LP/PH) of Canon EF 300mm f/2.8 IS USM – center – part way and corners – source: fotosaurier

Not may comments necessary to this – the figures and graphs should speak for itself … Just to mention: the distortion at the Topcor-lens is even lower than that of the Canon – but both are neglectable for a supertele!

Canons leadership in this class of professional supertele-lenses was generated by the policy, not to drop a product into the market, which was „just possible“ at present, but to persue a consequent plan for the future: to solve the „secondary spectrum“-problem of long tele-lenses, which means to use extreme „anormal dispersionlens-materials, which do the job without optical compromising.

So in 1975 – 2 years after Nikons first presentation of its first 300mm f/2.8 ED-lens (which was not very convincing and had to be replaced four years later by the ED-IF-version) – Canon introduced their FD 300mm f/2.8 Fluorite-Supertele, in which they used a front-lens made of fluorite-monocrystal material (no glass!) and a UD-glass-lens. This lens was already praised close to perfect (absence of chromatic aberrrations). Canon accepted for this a compromise, which made the lens longer and heavier: to protect the soft and sensitive fluorite-crystal-material in the front lens, there was a fixed additional plane protection element of glass in front!

Finally new fluorite-glass-formulations became available, which allowed to drop the sensitive crystal-lens. Over the introduction of Autofocus (EOS – 1987) and still more glass-elements, Canon finally introduced the legenday lens EF 300mm f/2.8L IS USM in 1999 with very fast AF and image-stabiliser, which is tested here.

Enjoy the results!

5. Finally – three more 300mm f/2.8-teles:

  • Minolta AF APO-Tele 300mm f/2.8 (1985)
  • Tamron SP LD (IF) 300mm f/2.8 (60H) (1984)
  • ARSAT MC Yashma-4H 300mm f/2.8 (1990?)

For these three lenses I also have to thank foto-friend Thomas, who borrowed them to me!

5a. Minolta AF APO-Tele 300mm f/2.8 (1985)

Minolta-Apo_300f2,8_DSCF2460_blog
Fig. 15: Minolta AF APO-Tele 300mm f/2.8 – source: fotosaurier

This lens had a mechanical defect: the diaphragm could not be closed below f/5,6. However: in these lenses principally mainly the open aperture is really significant – why should you carry around such a weight, to make pictures with f/11?

Minolta-AF-Apo-Spreadsheet
Fig. 16: Optical properties of Minolta AF 300mm f/2.8 Apo – source: fotosaurier
Minolta-AF-Apo-Graph
Fig. 17: IMATEST-Resolution (LP/PH) of Minolta AF 300mm f/2.8 Apo – center – part way and corners – source: fotosaurier

This Minolta lens comes closer to the Canon-legend than any of the others – but with quite some distance in resolution in the corners open aperture.

Excelent lens!

5b. Tamron SP LD (IF) 300mm f/2.8 (60B) (1984-1992):

Tamron-SP_300f2,8_DSCF2475_blog
Fig. 18: Tamron SP LD (IF) 300mm f/2.8 (60B) – source – fotosaurier

This is the shortest and lightest lens of the quintuple, which arrived even one year before the Minolta – containing two low-dispersion (LD) lenses – with manual focusing:

Tamron-SP_300f2,8_Spreadsheet
Fig. 19: Optical properties of Tamron SP 300mm f/2.8 LD (IF) 60B – source: fotosaurier
Tamron-SP_300f2,8_Graph
Fig. 20: Imatest resolution graphs of Tamron SP 300mm f/2.8 LD (IF) 60B – source: fotosaurier

Tamron – third party winner: Great Lens!

5c. ARSAT MC Yashma-4H (1990?):

Yashma_300f2,8_DSCF2478_blog
Fig 21: ARSAT MC Yashma-4H – source: fotosaurier

I do not know much about this lens. Funny about it is to me, that in most cases, when it is offered as a used lens, it is given the addendum „sovjet lens„! In 1990, when it was delivered first (I saw other sources with the date 2007 …) the Sovjet Union no longer existed – which means that, ARSAT being located in KIEW, the lens has UKRAINIAN roots.

As far as I know, it was generally produced in Nikon-mount.

ARSAT_Yashma_300f2,8_Spreadsheet
Fig. 22: Optical performance of Arsat MC Yashma-4H 300mm f/2.8 – source: fotosaurier
ARSAT_Yashma_300f2,8_Graph
Fig. 23: Resolution graphs of ARSAT MC Yashma 300mm f/2.8 – source: fotosaurier

Open aperture and stopped down the lens is convincing in the center – about 10-15% below the other superteles – but with still very good CA in the center.

From f/4.0 it is also very good in the large part of the frame – just 10% below the Topcor.

In the corners it is on par with the Topcor open aperture – but it does not improve so much while stopping down. For analog film use it was also a good lens – with exception of the softer corners with typical CA-values of non-apochromatic lenses … and a much higher distortion than all the other superteles.

What about apochromatic correction in supertele-lenses?

Lenses of 300mm f/2.8 need apochromatic correction to be really sharp. The chromatic aberrations („secondary spectrum“) are the major restictions in sharpnes for these long focal lengths all over the frame! All these lenses, tested in this report, have apochromatic correction – in varying degrees of perfection! In the ARSAT Yashma the apo-correction is only partly successful.

Herbert Börger

fotosaurier, Berlin 13.02.2023

Literature:

1- „Topcon Story – Topcon Enigma“ by Marco Antonetto and Claudio Russo, by Nassa Watch Gallery, Collectors Camera Publishing, CH 6907 Lugano, Switzerland – 1997

2- Web site „http://www.topgabacho.jp/Topconclub/FPslr1.htm

This, the first super fast long telephoto lens produced for any camera system world wide, came to the market in 1957. This was a large and heavy lens, with a 130mm maximum diameter, a length of 412 mm and a weight of 3.3 kg. The optical design was one of 6 elements in 4 groups. The selling price, at the time, was 135,000 Yen making it the most expensive lens on the market. Special filters slide into a slot at the rear of the lens barrel and this lens was probably the first to use this method. Unlike the 135mm f2 R Topcor, this lens was listed in catalogues into the later half of the 1970s. Because of it’s large aperture it was chosen as the official lens of record for the Tokyo Olympics. An odd thing concerning this lens is that many of those remaining have been modified for the Nikon mount, while those with the original Topcon mount are very scarce. The early lens case was made of leather but later on Topcon began supplying a hard case with the TOPCON emblem promontory displayed. The R Topcor 300mm f2.8 lens still compares favorable, with regards to regards to sharpness and contrast, to modern lenses with fluorite elements. Today this lens is almost forgotten but was highly praised in former times.

3- Web site of Steven Gandy: „https://www.cameraquest.com/top30028.htm“


Fig. 24
: Mathäuskirche in Hambühl, seen from 1,2 km distance with Topcor 300f2,8  (taken at f/5,6 with Sony A7R2 at iso800) – narrow vertical crop of nearly full frame, which you see here at about 65% enlargement – „ooc“ – no post-treatment of the picture) – source: fotosaurier

My Crazy Lenses / Meine sehr speziellen Objektive – Focal length 24mm / Brennweite 24mm – FoV 84° – Part I

What was the real improvement in SLR-wideangle-lenses since the invention of the retrofocus principle over the last 65 years? Does my personal judgement from analog-film-days which lead to the definition of „legendary optics“ – which I kept in my lens-portefolio over that time – correlate with objective resolution-measurements? Here are my findings.

Actualisation: Im my first published version there was an error regarding the year of appearance of the Topcor 2,5cm-lens, which was communicated to me by a reader: thank you: it’s 1965 instead of 1959! But this difference does not change anything in my findings and conclusions …

1 – Introduction

24mm focal length is a real milestone in spreading the field of the view in wideangle lenses, coming down from FL 35mm over 28mm. For the SLR-camera-user this age started with the appearance of the retrofocus lenses in the 1950s. Several designers came out with this optical principle within three years – with Pierre Angénieux earning the honours of being FIRST (in time and quality – 1950, 35mm f/2.5) in this disciplin.

This is a report about SLR-lenses for 35mm-still-foto-cameras with focal lengths (FL) between 23mm and 25mm.

This is a report about a number of legendary lenses, which I happen to own or could lend from a friend  („phothograf“), most of them being milestones of optical engineering in their respective design-periods.

Drei_24er-Oldies_DSCF1838
Fig 1: three of the very first historical retrofocus-lenses with FL 24mm and 25mm – source: fotosaurier

Over the decades of my own practical use of SLR-lenses (of nearly all makers-brands!) has lead me to an understanding of the quality for normal photographic use.

This collection of test candidates does NOT claim to be a COMPLETE collection of all design legends of 24mm/25mm. There is a large gap in time with prime-lenses between 1984 and 2015. That means: the legendary first historical aspherical lenses in this range are missing in the comparison. If I ever will be able to get hold of them for a test, I would update this article. The modern lenses tested for comparison are (of course) all aspherical types!

In spite of the fact, that important legendary lenses of the 1980s and 90s are missing here, this report allows to draw some interesting conclusions about important steps in optical lens-engineering, which finally lead to Ultra-Wideangel-Lenses which have uniform resolution and contrast over the complete field of view (FoV).

I have always looked for a method to show the quantitative progress in optical quality of photographic lenses over the nearly last 100 years – and I think I have found a good way to understand this progress with my new comparison-charts (Fig. 4 and Fig. 5 see below). What was surprising: the progress over time is independent of the lens-maker and brand. It is generated by a sequence of milestone-like innovations by singular design-legends, innovative calculation progress, creation of new glass-formulations and finally the lens-making-process – espacially allowing for the production of aspherical lens-surfaces! Once the innovation-step is basically made, it is spreading around the globe very quickly (typically within one or two years!).

There are few lenses, which stand out of the general quality-development curve, reaching a higher level of resolution earlier than most others – to be seen here mostly in Fig. 5:

ATTENTION: These measurements are made with USED lenses today, some of which are more than 60 years old! There are influences from ageing and wear (even abuse …) which have become part of the lens-properties when we measure them after long time. However, I only make measurements with samples of lenses, if the optics are clear and undamaged and the mechanics do not show excessive wear or abuse.

Vier_24+25er
Fig. 2: Starting with big-big negative front-meniscus-lenses (at left Angenieux Retrofocus 24mm f/3.5 and Zeiss Jena Flektogon 25mm f/4) the lens-designers soon learnt to reduce the front-lens diameter (at right: Distagon 25mm f/2.8 for Contarex and Olympus OM 24mm f/2,0), creating better results and generating lens-bodies, which were more acceptable  – source: fotosaurier

2 – Data section for 15 historical 24/25mm-prime lenses, 3 modern 23/25mm prime lenses and 4 modern zooms at 24mm-setting:

Auflösung ETC 23-25mm korr

Out of this Chart I have filtered two separate charts, showing the development of RESOLUTION over the decades.

Fig. 4 shows the center-resolution open aperture (blue) and stopped down to the aperture with the highest resolution (green) in the center:

23-25mm_Resol_Center_korr

23-25mm_Diagram_Center_korr

The second chart is showing the corner-resolution at open aperture (blue) vs. the best resolution-value stopped down (green) in the corners (mean value over all four corners) – where „corner“ means a value of 88% – 92% of the full picture circle of the lens which is 21.5 mm radius:

23-25mm Resol_Corners_korr

23-25mm_Diagramm_Corners_korr
Fig. 5: Corner Resolution-values  of 21 Lenses at FL 23-25mm at open aperture (blue) and optimum aperture (green, which means: the aperture at which the weighted mean of all the 46 measurement-places over the 24x36mm-frame is maximum. (The maximum corner resulution-value of the individual lens may be higher.) – source: fotosaurier

You see, that nearly all of the difference in resolution of historical top-notch wideangle-lenses for SLR is in the corners of the picture (and of course also continuously in-between center to corner areas). This is easy to understand, because the difficulties for lens-correction rise dramatically with the FoV, which is here 84 degrees corner to corner diagonally.

Besides the resolution, there are other important properties, which improved dramatically over these six decades of lens-engineering history:

a – Chromatic aberration (CA in pixel): It is very low in all these lenses in the center. It typically ranged between 4 and 8 pixels in the corners for the very first lenses of this type. It stayed around 2-3 over the time before aspherical lens-surfaces could practically erase it. Today with the best modern lenses, the value is close to zero (under 0.5) without camera correction and zero with correction.

Among the early lenses the Zeiss Distagon 25mm f/2.8 (though not really outstanding in resolution compared to the other early lenses) pops out, because it had already values of 2-2.5 pixel in the corners – together with the „unicorn“ Topcor 2,5cm f/3.5.

Please consider, that the CA-value in pixel for the same lens is the higher the smaller the pixel size of the sensor is  – here 1 pixel is 3.77 µm.

b – Linear distortion (%): distortion shows – from the beginning – the biggest differences between the legendary lenses of the different designers and brands. The designer has to do a compromise-job in each lens, balancing out the design between resolution, chromatic aberrations and distortions. 0,5 pixel is a very good CA-value even acceptable for acrchitectural work (though „zero“ would be better, of course), 0,75-1,0 pixel is a good compromise-value and 1.5 pixel just acceptable for alround use.

Looking at the spread-sheet Fig. 3, it is surprising, that Angénieux with the very first retrofocus-lens of this wide angle decided to go for nearly „ZERO“ distortion in his design! He had gone close to zero in the 35mm and 28mm-designs before that, too! Probably he wanted to give a statement of his art, because this was really difficult at that time … At the same time he accepted a somewhat higher CA of 7-8 pixels (corresponding to 0.03-0.04 mm). In my collection of top-notch lenses such a low distortion does not appear again before the modern Zeiss Batis Distagon 25mm f/2.0 – and only the legendary 1971 Minolta MD 24mm f/2.8 (including the VFC-Version) came very close with ca. 0.18-0.29% distortion in my measurements.

c – The close-focusing system: there are further innovations to consider, e.g. the lens-design for close focusing. Here one of the important innovations is the floating-element close focusing system – introduced 1971 by Nikon and Minolta first for wideangle lenses as far as I know. This is one of the early merits of the two 1971/75 24mm-Minolta-lenses.

3 – Conclusions:

3.1 Center-resolution:

Since the early days of geometrical optic lens-design with Petzval, Abbe and Seidel, lenses could be designed absolutely perfect for nearly unlimited image-quality (resolution and CA) „on-axis“, which means: in the center of the picture-field … And the  famous designers did it all the time – as soon as they used 4 or more elements in a photographic lens-system.

The first time, I found a proof for that, was with my resolution-measurements on Bertele’s first Ernostar 100mm f/2.0 from 1923 (a four-element-design WITHOUT COATING!). Compared to the legendary Leitz Apo-Macro-Elmarit 100mm f/2.8 from 1987, this lens achieved 98% of the resolution in the center – but only in the center! See my Ernostar-Bog-Article here. (This was the very first report in my photo-blog …)

So, it is not really surprising, what Fig. 4 is telling us: all top-notch lenses show a very high resolution level in the image center since the invention of the retrofocus wideangle design in the 1950s – and they are all on the about same level – though being historical lenses with up to 65 years of age on their back! The reason for that result is, of couse, that only legendary lenses of all brands are taken into the comparison! Maybe the Takumar-lens happens to be one of the weaker examples …

The Olympus OM 24mm f/3.5 „shift“ drops down somewhat against its neighbours. That is no quality issue: this lens has an image-circle diameter of 57mm for up to 10 mm shift! It came out 1984 long before Canon brought out its famous tilt-shift-lenses … Look at the corner-resolution result of this lens in Fig. 5 – it resolves extremely even over its FoV!

in this graph I marked two horizontal lines: one for the resolution of 2.000 LP/PH (linepairs per picture height), corresponding to the resolution of a 24 MP-sensor, which today is the de-facto-standard for  modern digicams. It normally has 4.000 by 6.000  pixels – and 4.000 pixels in the picture height, corresponding to 2.000 Linepairs. At the same time it is just (+15%) above the 21 MP which I estimate for the resolution of modern analogue (general purpose) film emulsions.

The other (upper) horizontal line marks the 3.184 LP/PH Nyquist-frequency of the Sensor in the Sony A7R4-digicam. This is physically the limiting resolution-value for the camera itself. Today, however, the software-algorithms in the camaras can generate structures in the picture, which are typically 15 – 20% higher in resolution, compared to the Nyquist-frequency. And they do this without creating an artificially looking „oversharpened“ picture! Good job!

This means:

All the legendary historical 24/25mm-retrofocus-lenses for SLR-cameras do out-resolve the modern 24 MP-Digicams in the center – mostly even with open aperture! And many of these lenses even come very close to (or exceed) the Nyquist-Frequency of my 60,2 MP digital camera.

Among the historical lenses two examples peek out a little bit (they peek out much more in the graph for the corner-resolution!):

The legendary 1965 Topcor 2,5cm f/3.5 exceeds the Nyquist-frequency of 3.184 LP/PH – and stopped down to f11 it is in the center the highest resolving of my 24/25mm-lenses until today. Together with the tremendous result of its corner-resolution it is one of the exceptional lenses, which I call my „UNICORNS„. Until today, I have not found any explanation for the astonishing early level of performance of this lens – how could that have been achieved? (15 years before the next-best Olympus-lens!) – and who did it? – and where did this person go afterwards, when Topcons innovative power faded out, to bring in her/his inginuity? (… to Olympus?). (This observation refers to other early Topcor-lenses al well!)

The other unicorn peeking out here is the Olympus OM 24 mm f/2.0 of 1973. In my lens-collection it is exceeded only by the 40 years younger Zeiss Batis 25mm f/2.0. But, to be honest, the difference is not really that dramatical – considering the four decades …

Referring to the zoom-lenses (set at FL 24mm) in this test: I just was curious, where the modern zooms would stand in such a comparison. We learn that the 1kg-Monster-Tokina 24-70mm zoom at 24mm has one of the best results – even at f/2.8 … in the center of the picture.

At the end of the line-up of 21 lenses I put the Fujinon-Zoom 32-64mm f/4 at 32 mm on the Fujifilm GFX100 (33x44mm – 102 MP), which corresponds to FL 26mm on „full-frame 35mm“. This shows, that for an essentially higher resolution in the picture-center, we today have to go to a larger sensor-format.

3.2 Corner-resolution:

Fig. 5 contains the important informations of this comparison-test. It shows, that step by step all the improvements in innovative design, glass-formulations and aspherical surface-generation were needed to bring finally the corner-resolution of the picture up on par with the center resolution at 24mm focal length, which is possible today – but only with the use of aspherical lens-elements!

In the graph for the corner-resolution I have added a third horizontal line, which marks the resolution at 50 Lines/mm – corresponding to 600 LP/PH. This is needed to judge the corner-resolution of the early historical lenses.

In the 1960s a wideangle-lens was rated „very good“, when it achieved a resolution of 40 Lines/mm (Modern Photography and others). I have written an article about this already here (in German).  Open aperture most super-wideangle-lense started open aperture in the range of 26 to 32 L/mm in the 1950s and 60s. Stopped down practically all the tested historical lenses surpassed the 40 L/mm-limit.

From 1958 on (ENNA) the stop-down corner-resolution rises continualy (with the exception of the two „unicorns“, already identified in Fig.4) until end of the 1970s,  it arrives close to the 2.000 LP/PH-level, which means: from now on the top-notch-lenses out-perform standard analogue fine-grain film (1977 Nikkor and 1984 Olympus). This last step was then achieved by the use of extraordinary dispersion glass-types.

The two „unicorns“ in this test arrive much earlier at this level: the Topcor 2,5cm f/3.5 out-performs analogue film already in 1959 and the 1973 Olympus OM 24mm f/2.0 exceeds this and comes close to todays modern aspherical lenses.

The modern aspherical prime-lenses are represented in my test by two very different samples:

There is the 23mm f/4 Fujinon, which originally is a GFX-lens – but in this test it is measured in the 24x36mm-Mode also with 60.2 MP on the GFX100, achieving the state of the art for 24x36mm lenses (Batis and Sigma-i) as a middle-format lens!

Just as I made my measurements for this test, the SIGMA i-Series 24mm f/3.5 arrived as a representative of a new thinking: no „impressive“ technical data   – but (hopefully) impressive preformance instead. The result shows: it achieves reference status on a 60.2 MP-sensor with corner-resolution at 85-95% of center-resolution, plus zero-distortion, zero-CA and very close focussing!

Also great news: modern zooms like the Sigma G 12-24mm f/4 – measured at 24mm – arrive now at this level of prime-lenses also in the corners!

As I had no samples of the early historical aspherical lenses in this test, we can not see, in which steps the aspherical lens surfaces moved the wideangle-performance in the picture-corners to the present level.

Maybe this gap can be filled out in some future times.

NOTE 1 – All resolution-values, which are published in this article, refer to MTF30 – what means: the point on the MTF-curve (see Fig. 7), which hits the 30% contrast value.

NOTE 2 – in Part II of this Article I will share some more informations about each individual lens (including pictures, MTF-curves and  lens-schemes).

Appendix: Method of measurement and definition of results

I use the set-up and software by IMATEST with the original IMATEST-Target. I use the large SFRplus-Setup-Image with a physical hight of 783mm bar-to-bar vertically. The distance from target to lens-flange is 0,97 meters. In this area 46 targets are analysed and I share MFT30-weighted-mean-resolution-values (all-over, center and corner), edge-sharpness, linear distortion and maximum lateral CA-values.

Resolution-values are given in Line-Pairs per Picture Height (LP/PH) – where the picture-height is always 24mm. Edge-sharpness is given in pixels (width 3,77 µm).

#TestChart_Angén90f2,5_f2,5
Fig. 6: IMATEST test-target 783mm-bar-to-bar distance. Resolution is NOT measured in the small concentric targets, but at the outside-edges of the black boxes, which are tilted b ca. 5 degrees – source: fotosaurier.

For the measurement I used a SONY A7Rm4 with 60,2 MP-resolution which has a pixel-width of 3,77 µm. The theoretical resolution-limit of the sensor is 3.184 LP/PH (Nyquist Frequency).

The camera setting is used basic as delivered from factory at ISO100 and exposure-compensation of -0.7 stops, using out-of-camera JPEGs. All measurements are made with the identical camera-body (which is important for a precise comparison: I have used one other (earlier) body of this model in comparison, which gave resolution-values between 50 and 200 LP/PH lower than my own camera-body). The repeatability with this method I estimate at 2-2.5%, using ALWAYS manual focusing on the lens with maximum focusing enlargement (11.9-fold) in the camera-viewing-system. Measurement is repeated with re-focusing until a stable maximum resolution at open-aperture of the lens is found and then pictures of the resolution-target are taken with the focussing made wide open for all full down-stops of each lens.

Edge profile (edge-sharpness) is the width of the rise from 10% to 90% intensity at a dark-bright edge in the test target – measured in pixel (width 3,77 with the camera used) – Example shown here for the latest 24mm-prime-lens SIGMA i-Series 24mm f/3,5 – at open aperture f/3,5:

Edge+MFT_Sigma24f3,5
Fig. 7: Edge-profile (top) and MTF-curve (bottom) from the IMATEST software – here the perfect graphs for the brand new Sigma 24mm f/3.5 – at open aperture. I will publish these Curves for all the lenses in PART II of this article – source: fotosaurier

Cromatic Aberration (lateral in the picture-plane) is also measured in pixel separate for red against green and blue against green over the full picture field – in the spread-sheet I note the maximum value, which is in most cases for blue and for most historical lenses in the corners of the picture – sometimes however in the intermediate area.

For more details of testing read my special blog-Article here.

Copyright: Herbert Börger

Berlin, March/April 2021

Long Telephoto-Lenses and Temperature

Would you expect, that the optical performance of your photographic lenses can be seriously influenced by the operating temperature? Have you ever realized lack of sharpness in extreme environmental temperature conditions?

The simple answer is, of course, that within the specifications for use, given by the makers, there should be no such concern. But it is not that simple.

For amateur astronomers with their mostly very long telescope-focal-length optics (mirror or lens) this fact is very common:

before using the instrument in the clear and mostly cold winter-nights, you have to put the telescope early enough outside (shielded against due) to bring it into a thermal equilibrium with the ambient air at the time you start your observations. The reason: during essential temperature-changes of the optical components (mirrors, lenses) and their mounting devices, their surface-shapes and adjustment change and destroy the extremly precise optical alignment – until the thermal equilibrium is restored. The refractor-lenses may be mounted to allow for some thermal differences, but large mirrors have to be mounted and adjusted extremely precise, so that the cooling-down of the mount, that holds the mirror, may even generate mechanical tension on the mirror – and that generates optical distortions! So we should remind: the absolute temperatures are not the problem – but the thermal transition stages from warm to cold or opposite way!

This fact is also an important design aspect for telescopes: the preferred structure is „as open as possible“ to allow the air to circulate and to generate a good heat-exchange with the internal telescope structure to speed up this process. While the air gets colder during the night, the instrument’s optics can follow close enough to keep the temperature difference low.

There is an impressive document in the archives of the Mt. Wilson Observatory (near L.A., USA) describing the „first-light“-moment of the new 2,5 meter mirror telescope (Hooker-Telescope) on November 1, 1917 – use this link to the adventurous story! („First light“ is the moment, when somebody looks through the finished instrument for the first time.) Here the first-light moment at Mt. Wilson is described near the end of the long text in this link and shows, what a three hour cool-down time made to the optical properties of the 2.5 meter mirror, (which was made by George Willis Ritchey – and allowed for the detection of the expansion of the Universe by Edwin Hubble shortly after taking this telescope into service.).

Picture 1: 2,5 m (100 inch) Hooker-telescope on Mt. Wilson: just struts hold the mirrors to ease the circulation of air for for a fast achievement of  temperature equilibrium – source: Ken Spencer, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Many instruments in astronomy are closed assemblies, using a corrector-plate (Schmidt-system) or meniscus-lens (Maksutov-System) in the entry of the tube and the mirror at the rear-end (catadioptric telescope – see also my specific blog-article here.) The big disadvantage of these closed systems is the „inertia“ in cooling down due to the closed volume in the telescope tube. Therefore often slits around correctors and mirrors are placed, which allow for sufficient circulation of air through the tube – and even active ventilation is used to shorten the period to reach equilibrium. In some big modern telescopes, the mirror may even be actively temperature-controlled.

Picture 2: „Closed“-tube optical system Maksutov-Cassegrain-Teleskop – source: Wikipedia – Author: Halfblue – http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/.

Long telephoto-lenses for normal photography can not be open systems, because the lens-barrels definitely have to be tightly sealed to avoid the invasion of dust, humidity or corrosive gases.

This means, that you have to plan and prepare carefully to bring your equipment to ambient temperatueres in time to avoid these thermal problems. For photographic equipment this would equally refer to the situation, when you come from climate-controlled environment (e.g. hotels) into wery hot (and humid) areas. There is an additional problem, that in bringing cold equipment into hot-humid environment, there might be condensation of humidity on the lenses/mirrors.

This problem is even more delicate with catadioptric lenses (mirror/lens-systems often called just „mirror-lenses“ – in German „Spiegel-Objektive“). In these the surface-shape of the mirrors and the adjustment from mirror to mirror is extremely sensitive for the optical performance of the lens-systems.

I have to-date not realized this with focal lengths of up to 350 mm (though it might be also there to a certain dergree) – but this is definitely an important aspect for focal lengths between 500 mm and 1,000 mm or longer.

From which focal length on these problems may occur, will mainly depend of the type of optical system  – and of course the resolution of your cameras sensor!

Here I want to show you this effect with an example of a catadioptric lens of 800 mm focal length: the Vivitar Series 1 Solid Catadioptric 800mm f/11, used on the Sony A7Rm4 (60,3 MP, 35mm format – 3.77 µm pixel-pitch).

DSCF1516_SolidCat_an_NEX

Picture 3: Vivitar Series 1 Solid Catadioptric 800mm f/11 – source: fotosaurier

It was the first day this year with just sligtly above zero outside temperature (+2 degree Celsius) and very clear air. At ca. 1:15 p.m.I set out the 800mm f/11 lens on the tripod on the balcony and tried to focus on my favorite landscape test target: a roof-top at about 40 m distance.

The advantage of this target is, that it has large AND fine details, low contrast AND high contrast areas and – most important – a sufficient depth, so that I can detect focusing errors very well!

DSC06513_A7R4_VS1-800f11_rooftop_nach3h_blog

Picture 4: Overview picture – complete field of view of the „roof-top“ landscape target in ca. 40 m distance taken with Sony A7Rm4 and Vivitar Series 1 Solid Cat 800mm f/11 – this is the „sharp“ picture after the cool-down period of the lens – source: fotosaurier

It was nearly impossible to meet the positive focus position – so I did the best guess and made the photo – and here is the 100%-crop around the focus-position, which is the first steel spring at the right side of the roof edge:

DSC06506_A7R4_VS1-800f11_rooftop-start_crop67%

Picture 5: The 67% detail of the focus-area (clamp and spiral-spring!) made 15 minutes after setting the lens outside. Best guess of focus, however, you will find no sharper point in front or behind – the distance scale on the lens says 50 meters in this non-equilibrium temperature situation – source: fotosaurier

At this point of time the lens internally is still on room temperature of about 21 degrees … starting to cool down for about 15 minutes, which it took me to set everything up and focus carefully – but desperately, becaus no really sharp focus was seen in high viewing-magnification.

I had focused using the maximum viewfinder enlagement in the Sony camera and was sure: this is not a really sharp picture. But I could not find a better focus. Picture 5 is a 67% crop of the image taken. And as the subject has some depth: no – there is no better focus to be seen on this picture in front or behind the plane of the spring.

I left the lens with camera in this position for three hours and refocused the lens: now I experienced a quite snappy focus – and you can see the same crop-area here:

DSC06513_A7R4_VS1-800f11_rooftop_nach3h_crop67%

Picture 6: The 67% detail of the focus-area (refocused!) after additional 3 hours of the lens outside – source: fotosaurier

The gain in sharpness is damatical – and it exists over the whole field of view, not only in the plane of focus! Also out-of-focus areas show higher contrast now.

However, it connot be ignored, that this catadioptric lens in this picture does by far not use the potential 3,168 Line-Pairs per Picture Height Nyquist frequency of the cameras sensor. My estimate is, that we have here an MTF30 of about 1,100-1,200 LP/PH. So either the three hours of cool-down time were not yet sufficient – or the lens may be not better than this.

(The 1,200 LP/PH MTF30-resolution would correspond to 100 Lines/mm in older „analog“ data. Very good CATs in the 1970s had center-resolutions (measured on film) between 50 and 60 Lines/mm. This relation makes sense, as the difference (factor 0.6 lower for film!) may be owed to the effect of grain and the thickness of the emulsion.)

The „Solid Cat“ 800mm f/11 is a massiv piece of optics – the lens barrel is nearly completely filled with glass, as you see in the lens-scheme:

VS1_SolidCat_800f11_pat_grau

Picture 7Lens-scheme of the Vivitar Series1 Solid Cat  – source: Perkin Elmer Patent application

It is an absolutly unusual mass of glass – so I would not exclude, that the cooling time should even be longer to reach the thermal equilibrium. My plan is, to make a sequence of photos taken in shorter intervals and over a longer time – as soon as the outside temperatures go down again.

I am not so happy with the fact, that I had to use landscape-scene-shots to demonstrate the performance of the lens, however, for 800mm focal length my IMATEST testing-arena is too short. Maybe I will make a parallel IMATEST-trial then with a 500mm CAT.

So, please, consider this as a first teaser for the topic which has shown clearly, that photographic lens performance may seriously suffer during the time, a lens is undergoing strong temperature-change and before equilibrium is reached.

I promise to come back with a more elaborate research-plan soon.

Herbert Börger

Berlin, December 4th, 2020

Aphorism of the day: Scientific research is most successfull, when it brings up more new questions than it has answered. (fotosaurier)

Copyright: fotosaurier

My Crazy Lenses / Meine sehr speziellen Objektive: Focal-Length 40 mm / Die Brennweite 40 mm – Part I

40 mm/45 mm (or 43 mm) is one of my very favorite focal lengths: in fact it corresponds very close to the diagonal of the 35 mm still photo format!

… and it is the perfect focal length for street photography – and it may be the best, which can happen to you for all situations in which you have just one focal legth to choose, which means: you have no choice really …

The first camera, which very early „socialized“ me for Single Lens Reflex Cameras was the Contaflex II with Tessar 45mm f2.8 of 1953.

Contaflex-II_900

It was the time before the German photo industry „suddenly“ collapsed and when the local camera dealer still could repair a Contaflex II mechanically just within a day! (And there was nothing else really but mechanics – you will not seriously call a Selen photosensitive cell „electronics“?!)

This history may have strongly influenced me in my preference for this focal length – but you may also find one thousand good reasons for this focal length, which is the „real normal focal length = the diagonal of the 24 x 36-format“ indeed: longer than 35mm, shorter than 50mm.

In early times most of the point-and-shoot-cameras with fixed (built-in) normal lenses had 38mm to 45mm lenses … and there are still some today.

In fact this focal length was ALWAYS present in the photo industry for system cameras – and I own some of them:

Tessar 45mm f2.8 as fixed lens in the Contaflex II of 1953
„New“ Tessar 45mm f2.8 for Contax/Yashica-Mount – a 1983 design based on new glass
MD-Rokkor 45mm f2.0 – a pancace-type standard lens for Minolta SRT cameras of 1978
Minolta M-Rokkor 40mm f2.0 with Leica-M bayonet  (for the 1973 „CL“ Leica/Minolta)
Olympus 40mm f2.0 – an ultra compact pancake design of 1978 for OM cameras
Planar 45mm f2.0 for Contax G1/G2 of 1994

… and the modern available to-date lenses:
Fujinon 27mm f2.8 pancake design for APS-format X-trans sensors (correspond. to 43mm)
Panasonic 20mm f1.7 for Micro Fourthirds (corresponds to 40mm at FullFormat)
Batis (Distagon) 40mm f2.0 for Sony E-Mount (FullFormat) of 2018
Sigma 40mm f1.4 for Sony-E-Mount (FullFormat) of 2018
Fujinon 50mm f3.5 for Fujifilm GFX50/100 with sensor 44mm x 33mm

From this list of 11 lenses you can make the conclusion how important this focal length is to me!

… and there is an interval of 65 years in making betweeen all of these lenses!

There are other famous historical lenses, which are not available to me:

I once owned a Nikkor 45mm f2.8 pancake-lens of 1977 on the Nikon F3M – it was a just average Tessar design. The Pentax DA 45mm f2.8 Limited is famous (a Gaussian!). As far as I know, Canon never played around with something like that … nor did Leica! What a pitty!
There is as far as I know also a modern Voigtländer lens 40mm f2.0, which I never tried! As it is an „Ultron“-design (and also includes an aspherical lens) it should also be of top notch performance. About the Voigtländer Nokton 40mm f1.2 aspherical I know nothing but that it probably is a „Distagon“-type lens as my Batis is …

Now here is my odd couple of the week:

–> look at the Olympus 40mm f2.0 pancake vs the Sigma 40mm f1.4 !

OddCouple_OM+Sig_
Bild 1 / picture 1: Olympus OM 40mm f2.0 und Sigma 40mm f1.4 – David and Goliath?

The Olympus 40mm f2.0 is a modified (6 lens – 6 groups!) double Gauss design – but extremly sophisticated due to the extremely short physical length combined with a very respectable speed of 2.0 at a length of 26mm and weight of 146 grams – Filter diameter 49 mm … and the close-focusing ability to 0.3 meters in spite of its compactness! You must however consider, that the OM is made for an SLR: that means, to put it on the same mirrorless Sony-E-Mount-Camera, the adapter adds another 28 mm. But in spite of that – the optical construction is actually pressed into the 26 mm length – including space for a filter-thread… Sitting on my Olympus OM 3Ti camera body it is as perfect package!

The Sigma 40mm f1.4 DG HSM / Art for E-Mount is a monster weighing 1,200 grams and stretching over a length of 157mm. It is composed from 16 lenses, which are stacked nearly face-to-face in the volume of the assembly – including all types of modern glasses  … and even one aspherical lens! And it uses 82mm diameter filters … You could call this a „stretch-limousine“ of modern photo-technique … When you put it on a Sony A7R you feel crazy – and in the street everybody thinks, you are peeping into the crowd with a super-telephoto! That is somewhat embarrassing.

And no: it has NO tripod-thread somewhere near the lens+camera-center-of-gravity. So you have to balance the massive lens on one hand while you take care of that tiny miniaturized camera at the near end of it…

Could there be any rational sense in the making of the Sigma-Monster? Serving exactly the same purpose on the camera: taking a picture with an angle of view of circa 57 degrees?

O.k., lets try:

The lens has a very high speed – I do not know personally any other 40mm-lens with f1.4 so far  – at least for FullFormat. (There has been a 40mm f1.4 for Olympus Pen HalfFrame-Cameras in the nineteen-sixties and yes: there is even a Voigtländer Nokton 40mm f1.2 now for 35mm) … and this Sigma is the best photographic lens I know at present for 35mm-format (independent of focal length and brightness)  – a fact that might justify even the price … Beware: this is my personal ranking – nothing more nor less.

The optical qualitiy of the lens is overwhelming … I instantly saw the brilliant performance of this lens – just through the finder of my Sony camera! An extraordinary situation! At f1.4 !!!

So now let us look at the resolution facts measured with IMATEST. For this I use generally the Sony A7RM4. How much better is the super-ambitioned super-modern Sigma against the antique Olympus gem of 1978?

The spreadsheet shows some other historical and modern lenses for comparison purpose.

(Remark: As I cannot measure resolution with a fixed lens in an analog camera like the Contaflex II, I chose a typical 50mm-Tessar of the nineteen-fifty/sixties from Zeiss-Ikon for the first comparison-position. The „old“ Tessar from 1961 is what you expect from it (based on 1902 invention by Paul Rudolph): good anastigmatic design but a little bit soft.

Tabelle2_Odd-Couple-40mm

Bild2 / picture 2: Resolution, edge-profile width, distortion and  CA for a group of 40/45mm-lenses for 35mm-FullFormat (In the same range of FoV – 56 degrees –  I added data for the corresponding Fujinon 27mm-lens for APS-sensor format of X-H1 and the 50mm-lens for 33x44mm-Format of GFX)

(Bemerkung zu der hier neu hinzugefügten Spalte 4 – „Kantenschärfe“: das ist die Breite des Übergangs an einer standardisierten Hell-Dunkel-Kante von 10% bis 90% (in Bildmitte) – siehe untenstehendes Bild 2

Remark in reference to the column 4 width of „edge-profile“: this is the width of the transition from white to black at a standardized edge between 10% and 90% of brightness (in the center) – see picture 2 below, upper graph:

Kante_Sigma40f1,4

Bild 3 / picture 3: Edge profile (10-90% rise – upper picture) and MTF-curve (lower) for Sigma 40mm f1.4 fully open (f1.4). Absolute perfect performance! Remarkable MTF-result: MTF is stunning 0.403 at Nyquist-frequency and drops slowly stopping down! Excelent lenses like the Batis 40mm f2.0 start at 0.3 and reach 0.35 at optimum f-stop (f4.0).

Note: in this comparison I left out the potential options for 40-45mm focal length in zoom-lenses! This is a focal length, which is available in many zoom lenses, of course. And once you are using zoom-lenses, this is a viable option, too. But it would have led to an epic length of the article (adding about the same number of zoom-lenses to the test-field of fixed focal-lengths …)

The optical quality-results of the Sigma 40mm f1.4 / Art (on the 62 MP Sony A7R4 –  Nyquist frequency: 3.168 LP/PH):

  • At f1.4 the weightet mean resolution of MTF30 over full frame is 93% Nyquist-frequency (center 102%, corner 78%)
  • 10-90% rise of edge profile is 0.96 pixels at f1.4 – which is lowest at this f-stop
  • MTF at Nyquist-frequency is 0.403 at f1.4 – going down to 0.34 at f5.6.
  • Center resolution is max. at f2.0 with 110% Nyquist-frequency (3.472 LP/PH)
  • weighted mean resolution is max. at f5.6 with 99% Nyquist-frequency
  • at this f5.6 f-stop the corner-resolution (average over 4 corners!) reaches 88%
  • The differences of resolution between f2.0 and f8.0 are irrelevant under practical photographical aspects: 3.017 – 3.141 LP/PH weighted average over the full frame!
  • Distortion is -0.01% to -0.1% – at most f-stops around 0.05% – let’s say: „ZERO“
  • Lateral Chromatic Aberration (CA) is max. 0.1 mostly ca. 0.03 pixels around f5,6
  • Autofocus is excellent!
  • Due to the high image-contrast, manual focusing is very easy, fast and precise with this lens!

(LP/PH means: Line pairs per picture hight – picture hight für Sony A7R4 is 6336 pixels.)

Conclusion: The Sigma 40mm f1.4 is a highly convincing lens opticaly and in build quality. A bit closer focusing range would have been nice for its price (like the Batis 40f2.0 – and even the pancake OM-40mmf2.0 focuses closer!) – the handling on the Sony mirrorless camera is a serious task … I cannot recommend to put the camera with this lens on a tripod for day-to-day-work – just using the tripod-thread of the camera-body! (For my IMATEST test-frames it worked just o.k.). I would recommend to use this lens on a massive and solid D-SLR to be really happy with it! Personally I would use it for Street Photography and for Architecture – if there were not the handling restrictions.

And what about the optical merits of the compact side of the „Odd Couple„? —- The Olympus OM 40mm f2.0?

The merits are fantastic – even in comparison to modern lenses – especially under the aspect of its compactness. I was very amazed, when I read, that the lens was considered by Olympus as a low-cost alternative to other standard lenses (entered at just below 80 Dollars!). In spite of that (and the quality!) there were not so many sold … (good for the price on the second hand market – eh-yes, good for the seller only!).

This lens was designed just a few years before the exciting new glass-types (like ED-glass) entered the industry – delivered from 1978. In the center it is just about 3% behind the Batis – even open at f2.0. In the corners it starts low – typical for the time (see the MD 45mm f2.0). Stopped down to f8 it improves dramatically in the corners (at 90% of the FOV!) – resolving ca. 7% close to the corner performance of the Batis 40mm. This resolution-perfomance of the OM 40mm f2.0 is much better than it could be used practically on the normal analog film-emulsions of the 1970s times (or even today) – with good contrast at the same time.

The price, this Olympus OM-lens has to pay for its compactness is obviously the distortion (at -1.5% still really acceptable for the time) and the CA – twice as big than contemporary „standard-Lenses“ and 20 times larger than typical today (not to forget both properties could be corrected afterwards today as well!).

Stopped down this ultra-compact Olympus OM-gem  40mm f2.0 reaches results in practical picture-taking, which use the resolution of the 62 MP mirrorless sensor seriously! Look at the two comparison-shots of a Montbretia-colony below, which are taken free-hand, manual focussing. The depth of the scene allows to judge, where the sharpness-plane really is. And with a large number of similar objects you have the chance, to hit one of these with the focus-point exactly. At least you can tell: no – it is not the lens, which is not sharp: it is you, who focused wrong …

I chose a „nature-scene“, because in this you have the chance, that below the larger structure of the object there is still a sub-structure … and below that another sub-structure … and so on! The picture of a bicycle-frame does not offer too much of that … I did focus at the stamens of the highest upright blossoms near the center. (Natural sunlight came from the right side.)

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Bild 4 /picture 4: The scene for the comparison shot – here with Olympus OM 40mm f2.0 at f8  – distance ca. 0.9 m (on Sony A7R4) – MANUAL focussing

Following are sections at 100%-view-level (no corrections made on the data-file):

Here with the Sigma-lens I exactly hit the target, which I focused (blossom in the middle of the three) – on a big screen you see the wonderfull plasticity of the stamens-details even on this level of enlargment. Red is a difficult colour and the contrast within the blossom-leaves is very low.

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Bild 5 /picture 5: Detail of this scene – here with Sigma 40mm f1.4 at f8 (H:1325 pixel)

Next is taken with the Olympus OM 40mm f2.0: the focus sits about one cm more in front compared to the Sigma-shot: here it is the right blossom with stamens – nearly as sharp as with the sigma. I had not noticed, that a wasp had settled on the Montbretia flower – exactly in the focal plane …!

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Bild 6 / picture 6: Detail of the scene with Olympus OM 40mm f2.0 at f8 (H: 1300 pixel)

Next picture:  Look how the insect pops out from the picture with the Olympus OM-lens at 0.9 meters focusing distance, with a surprising plasticity even at 100% viewing-enlargement (see picture 7) – even the fine hairs on the insects body starting to show.

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Bild 7 /picture 7: Detail of a second shot with the wasp taken with Olympus OM 40mm f2.0 at f8 (height: 763 pixel) – at 100%-enlargement (picture taken at distance 0.9 meters!)

Conclusion: if you like to stay nearly „invisible“ in the street (where corner-resolution rarely matters!) and if you are well used to and experienced with manual focusing (MF), this more than 40 years old Olympus lens-design still is a valid option to use – even on the Sony A7R4! My copy still is clear and contrasty (obviously!). Near the center, the detail-resolution is really comparable to the Sigma monster-lens stopped down (f5.6 … 8.0). The merits of the Sigma-lens are its phantastic performance between f1.4 and f2.8 and into the corners – at practically zero distortion and CA!

The closest modern competitor to the Sigma 40mm is the Batis 40mm f2.0 (Distagon), which is just slightly behind the Sigma in every single optical property – fortunately it is also somewhat behind in price … and very-very-much lower in weight. As mentioned already it focuses very close! In practical picture-taking situations, you would probably not be able to tell which picture is made with the Sigma and which with the Zeiss-Batis – if close focusing is not part of the game…

The optical properties of all the other historical lenses in the comparison show very well the typical development in optical quality of standard-lenses over the time since just shortly after World War II (from 1953 – when I was 8 years old).

Two of these lenses ar made not for SLRs but for Rangefinder-Cameras, with the typical short distance between the rear of the lens and the film/sensor (rear focus). Especially at wider field of view this leads to light-rays, hitting at very flat angles onto the picture-plane. That is no problem with analog film – but a desaster with digital sensors!

These RF-lenses are the Minolta-M 40mm f2.0 (for Leica-M-Mount, coming with the Minolta CL in 1973) and the Planar 45mm f2.0 for the legendary (Autofocus!) Contax G1/G2 – early 1990s. Both are suffering severely under the oblique-ray-problem on the Sony-Sensor leading to very low corner-resolution in my measurements! This does not reflect the real performance on analog film!

The Planar 45mm f2.0 was famous as one of the best standard-lenses of its time – and I can confirm, that there is no such corner-resolution issues on analog film with my Contax G2. Interesting, that the issue vanishes stopped down to f8. Together with the Sonnar 90mm f2.8 on the Contax G2 you had one of the best lens-sets  of the 90s (plus autofucus!) on one of the most beautiful cameras EVER… That you could additionally have a crazy HOLOGON 16mm f8 on this camera makes it even more remarkable.

Sensational is the „New Zeiss Tessar“ 45mm f2.8 for Contax SLR – an extreme pancake-lens  (length 16mm !) based on the new glass-types of the early 1980s. In this Zeiss has extended the performance of the famous 4-lens-Triplet (invented 1902) to the level of the best double-gauss designs (Olympus 40mm and Contax-G-Planar 45mm). Only the edge-profile-sharpness did not arrive at the level of the Gaussians. It was also edited as aniversary-lenses for both Contax-aniversaries 1992 (60th) and 2002 (70th) – the latter one together with the Contax Aria: a much beloved combination, which I owned once.

Stopped down (to f8-f11) it nearly reaches the performance of the modern Batis 40mm! This lens was very expensive for a 4-lens design (starting at DM 698,00 – later € 449,00)! Due to this probably not too many should have been sold – however, still today it is legendary! The legend is justified by the measured data.

The Angénieux-Zoom 45-90mm f2,8: I could not resist to put this first Photo-Zoom of Angénieux (designed ca. 1964 – delivered exclusively for Leica SL/Leica R from 1968 to 1980!) into this comparison. The reason: in the 1960-70s in Germany, the so called „German doctrine“ was common sense, which says: „No zoom-lens can ever reach the performance of a fixed-focal-length lens!“ I can testimony this myself: that is what I thought at that time, too. And it was unfortunately confirmed, after we bought the first cheap zoom-lenses for amateurs.

For the professional cine-lens sector, this was not true any more since 1956/1960 – when Pierre Angénieux launched the first 4x-cine-zoom-lenses in production … and 10x-zooms since 1964. (More details about this in my article about Pierre Angénieux – a detailed analysis about his photo-zooms will follow soon in this blog.)

Look at the resolution-data of the 45-90mm-Zoom at 45mm: it reaches 96% of Nyquist-frequency on the 62 MP-Sony in the center. It is on par with fixed-focals of that time – and even wide open it surpasses them in the corners!

Finally I put in at the end of the comparison list, the (in my opinion) most under-rated Fujinon-X pancake-lens 27mm f2.8 (corresponding to 43mm at full-frame). It reaches 125% Nyquist at f4.0 on the Fujifilm H-1 (24 MP), has low distortion and perfect CA and corner-sharpness values. It is a bit soft in the corners wide open. Perfect for street-photography!

Berlin, 7. August 2020

fotosaurier – Herbert Börger

P.S.: I personally own all lenses and cameras, about which I am writing here in my blog. There are no lenses, which the maker or distributer has given to me for free or temporarily. And as you see, there is no advertisement in my blog… and I do not ask for other „support“ from you than that you tell me, if you have found an error. Of course, you are welcome to share your own experience with us in comments.

PPS: Parallel to the Sony A7R4 I shot the same scene with the 50mm f3.5 lens on the Fujifilm GFX100 (also stopped down to f8.0) – which corresponds exactly to the 40mm focal lenth on 24x36mm. See the following detail of the Montbretia blossoms – here again the rightmost blossom with stamens is exactly in the focal plane. The structueres are recorded here even with higher smootheness and plasticity, which is the advantage of the 100 MP sensor, an excelent algorithm and a very good lens as well, which resolves up to 5.051 LP/PH (at f5.6) in the center!

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Bild 8 / picture 8: Detail of same scene with Fujinon 50mm f3.5 on Fujifilm GFX100 at the same distance of 0.9 meters. (height: 1439 pixel)