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.
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.
2 – Data section for 15 historical 24/25mm-prime lenses, 3 modern 23/25mm prime lenses and 4 modern zooms at 24mm-setting:
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:
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:
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:
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!
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.
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, showing the state of the art for these modern aspherical lenses.
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).
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:
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