The Problem with Modern Optics


This blog post has ben syndicated by Yannick Khong. It and the images here are being used with permission.

When I wrote about the right kind of lenses at the beginning of this year, I laid out clear indications of characteristics people should not be buying for most photographical practices. I then wish to talk about modern lenses.

Recap (with lens diagram)

Based on our “right” gear manifesto, lenses shouldn’t be (or aim to be):

  1. Sharp: all lenses today are SHARP. Most modern lenses emphasize sharpness in the edges and corners where NOTHING INTERESTING IS TRULY HAPPENING (most of the time).
  2. Corrected at max aperture: It is a modern belief that you are supposed to get perfect corner to corner resolution at the maximum aperture of the lens. WRONG.
  3. Amazing at bokeh: Achieving blurred circles of confusion in your shot is as impressive as your ability to afford the lens.
  4. Unidimensional: And there you have it, the result of 1-2-3 turns your lenses into a specialized lens for extreme low-light photography and nothing else, thanks to the addition of up to double the glass element count in the barrel.

The Outdated Quest for Speed led to the Quest for Resolution

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Up until recently, camera sensors couldn’t achieve usable image quality above ISO 1600. Fast lenses were then great options to freeze motion in low ambient light but they were not well corrected. Fast forward a few years later, many camera sensors have reached or crossed the useable ISO limit of 6400. This increase in sensitivity gain would allow lenses to be used at smaller aperture rather than at their native to correct for chromatic aberrations. Yet the birth of the Zeiss OTUS and Sigma ART prime lens series in late 2012/early 2013 encouraged the idea of a massive highly corrected fast aperture prime lens described as optics with “no-compromise”. This was wildly accepted by photography gear critics and a community of image resolution seekers, yet the results of such a thing are quite far from versatile.

The Wrong Message

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Even today, the lens review industry considers “high performance optics” to possess properties located well below the high-aperture and optical correction by glass element line of the diagram. This, of course, educates the consumer to seek “optical correction” in order to fully enjoy the value of his high-resolution camera. The message is usually transmitted through:

  • 100% crops of each areas of the frame, emphasizing corner and edge correction for edge to edge resolution.
  • 100% crops of the blur circles of confusion (the bokeh)
  • Numerical “sharpness” values based on how many “lines of resolution” is measured
  • Persecuting vignetting and distortion as defects of the lens

Often referred as a “cold and clinical lens”, such an ideal lens has quite limited abilities, especially if the user wishes to shoot other things aside from high-contrast for “ultra-lowlight or ultra-thin-dof handheld photography”: a lens in the red zone, below the “line of realism” wouldn’t perform as well for spaces, still or moving life capture compared to a another with much less correction and much more 3d as well as tonality. These high-speed lenses not only cost more since their require more corrective glass, but the micro-contrast treatment would need to be applied at abuse.

Modern prime lenses fall below what’s natural

Sigma ART 35mm f1.4 (13 elements including 3 ED + 2 plastic ASPH + 1 FLD glass) Notice the flat nose and head.

Sigma ART 35mm f1.4 (13 elements including 3 ED + 2 plastic ASPH + 1 FLD glass) Notice the flat nose and head.

If we look at those approximative diagrams per brand/system, we notice the gravity of the obsession for optical correction.







By either cheapening glass quality or relying too much on micro-contrast treatment (ineffective against too many glass elements), modern lenses are barely able reproduce the imperfect life despite heavy post-processing by the user. Of course, they were built to photograph in situations where the human eye cannot reach or recognize. Their rendering are often described as “digital” or “flat”. You simply cannot cheat the diagram.

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Nikkor AF-S 35mm f1.8G (8 elements including 1 plastic hybrid asph), Notice the flat nose and head.

Older prime lenses don’t just have character, they simply record life

Nikkor AF 35mm f2D (6 elements of multicoated pure glass), Notice the 3d nose and head.

Nikkor AF 35mm f2D (6 elements of multicoated pure glass), Notice the 3d nose and head.

Many people shoot film because they believe in a “there-is-something”, “true”, “organic” and “genuine” reproduction of life with “interesting” or “unique” character. Simply put, those low-element count multicoated “film” lenses were built for maximum physical transparency, 3d rendering and rich tonality. These also possess such life recording abilities when used on a digital camera. If we look at most lenses made before the surge of high-element count primes, many of them share common design and rendering properties.




Lenses used by professionals then, lenses used by the professionals in the know, now.

Nikkor AF 105 f2DC (6 elements of multicoated pure glass) Notice the 3d nose, head and trees

Nikkor AF 105 f2DC (6 elements of multicoated pure glass) Notice the 3d nose, head and trees

Solution for modern lenses: improve glass and coating quality on old designs


Zeiss Distagon ZF.2 35mm f2 Notice the 3d nose, head and scotch glass

Zeiss Distagon ZF.2 35mm f2 Notice the 3d nose, head and scotch glass

The late 9 elements Zeiss ZF.2 35mm f2 Distagon is very close to striking the absolute balance of maxed-out quality glass and coating while flirting with the limits of optical correction before losing the ability to reproduce life. A lens of such versatility would definitely produce more life-like images than the digitally flat ones that the review world is advocating. Had manufacturers revisited old optics such a philosophy, we would witness the true evolution of life-like image quality. Sadly, the solution will require way too many changes in the industry.

A Call for Change

Nikkor AF 85mm 1.8D (6 elements of pure multicoated glass) Notice the 3d nose, head and depth around the protester girl

Nikkor AF 85mm 1.8D (6 elements of pure multicoated glass) Notice the 3d nose, head and depth around the protester girl

If people are listening right now and realizing the gravity of the situation, here are some suggested changes in photography gear talk:

  • A clear indication of lens application specialty based on where the lens is situated within the lens intention diagram.
  • If a lens is made for extreme low-light and thin-dof shooting, don’t suggest using it on anything else!
  • An honest discussion on the lens’ renditional abilities based on how it measures on the 3 opposing properties of the lens diagram.
  • A better and simplified (5th grade level vocabulary) education of lens usage in relation to modern sensors of high gain and advanced SNR firmware algorithms (i.e. encouraging correction by aperture instead of correction by glass element)
  • A strict demand for true improvement to modern optics by rejuvenating old designs with improved high quality glass and coating.
  • A better and simplified education of lens design (what plastic elements do vs. full glass vs ED, etc…) to justify eminent increased pricing.
  • A more critical and educated demography of users.

New Lens Acquisition Behaviour

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Simply buy the lens design that is made closest to your desired photography style. There’s a high probability that most of the lenses made for capturing life are affordable, out there and deemed “obsolete” by today’s review standards. Although these are increasingly hard to find in good shape, I wish you good hunting!

Tudor looking at the Voigtlander 58mm shot with Nikkor AF 85mm 1.8D (6 elements of pure multicoated glass)

Tudor looking at the Voigtlander 58mm shot with Nikkor AF 85mm 1.8D (6 elements of pure multicoated glass)

  • Mauro Rodrigues
    Unknown Unknown Unknown Unknown

    You should have used the same model in the same pose in the same environment and actually shot a side-by-side comparison. It’s difficult to find differences presented in this manner.

  • Mr_Electability
    Unknown Unknown Unknown Unknown

    “Flat” nose on someone with southeast Asian genes; “3D” nose on someone with European genes. Maybe the lens isn’t the cause?

    Plus, what others said.

  • J.L. Williams
    Unknown Unknown Unknown Unknown

    This entire article seems to be nothing more than an exercise in converting subjective personal preferences into impressive-looking diagrams and authoritative-sounding assertions.

    The author simply picks lenses he likes and awards them labels such as “true-to-life,” “3D”, and “natural.” He tries to recruit us to his viewpoint by assuring us that if we buy in, our pictures will “record life” and “be natural,” marking us as “critical and educated” users. Golly gee, who wouldn’t want that?

    I guess I might be more responsive to the author’s evangelism if I could figure out what he thinks he means by “natural,” “3D,” etc., but the article supplies no help here. His laudatory or derogatory labels seem to be applied completely arbitrarily to an assortment of banal images; one blob of pixels doesn’t look any more like a “3D nose” than another blob of pixels, to choose one example. What the heck is he actually talking about? Absent a genuinely effective analysis of what qualities he finds desirable in some images and undesirable in others, all his terminology boils down to nothing more than “me likee” or “me no likee.”

    In fact, if you sift out all the undefinably subjective cruft, the whole article reduces to this: “Lenses I like are better than lenses I don’t like. Manufacturers should make more lenses I will like. Other photographers should like the same lenses I like, and praise photos taken with them.”

    Hard to argue with that, but is it useful?

  • Greg Podolec
    Unknown Unknown Unknown Unknown

    Has anyone noticed this? I’ve been harping on this since DSLRs came out. To me, even allowing for differing conditions at time of shot, many DSLR images I’ve seen, including mine, look like someone cut out a person from a magazine page, and then pasted it on another magazine page. I’ve noticed this effect almost exclusively with people pictures. DSLRs and modern lenses render edges waay too sharp and harsh. I think this contributes the flatness he mentions. There was a more gradual, graduated edge with film and older lenses, like my Nikkor Ai/s lenses and Zeiss/Contax T*s.

  • Lotus Eater
    Unknown Unknown Unknown Unknown

    I had to check the date wasn’t 1st April after reading this.

  • siphonophoros
    Unknown Unknown Unknown Unknown

    All those wanting a clinical demonstration of Mr Khong’s theories might want to take a look on his website. He does make some interesting points.

    • Turbofrog
      Unknown Unknown Unknown Unknown

      The clinical demonstration on his website literally disproves his point.

      It shows that the two lenses are slightly different (primarily that the Nikkors are slightly lower contrast than the Sigmas and have a slightly different DoF transition), but to suggest that one is “flat” and the other is “deep” is ludicrous. It is pixel-peeping to the highest degree. It’s embarrassing.

      …of course, me suggesting that will merely get me a condescending pat on the head, and the suggestion that I am not enough of an artist to recognize the distinction. The entire premise of the argument is unfalsiable because it is 100% subjective interpretation.

  • Fred Ethelman
    Unknown Unknown Unknown Unknown

    The author of this article is a delusional idiot of epic proportions. I’d bet him my left arm and right hand that he would fail a blind test of his stupid and ridiculous theory.

  • Hector
    Unknown Unknown Unknown Unknown

    It’s an interesting idea but modern post processing may as well compensate for the supposed lack of micro contrast on newer lenses and lack of perfection on older ones.

  • zoomphoto
    Unknown Unknown Unknown Unknown

    Optics (lenses) don’t really have “problems”, they each have their own individual personality, just as people do.

  • Ryan
    Unknown Unknown Unknown Unknown

    I fail to see any difference in these pictures besides some looking more sharp than others. It’s true that older lenses tend to have more character(flaws) than their newer counterparts.

    I’ll take more “flat” images with less chromatic aberration better overall sharpness over some of these older lenses you mention.

    Illusory correlation might be best to explain these differences IMO.

  • Refurb7
    Unknown Unknown Unknown Unknown

    Who can take this seriously? The comparison of the the woman in the greenhouse (modern lens) with the woman outside (old lens) seems completely inadequate to the author’s theses. The woman in the greenhouse is in FLAT, soft lighting, petty directionless except from above. Hence, the photo looks FLAT. The woman outside is in sunny, contrasty light, with the light at an almost optimal angle for creating a 3-dimensional look. Hence, the photo looks 3D. She also has a catchlight (the sun) in her eyes, which adds life to the image.

  • Wesley Coleman
    Unknown Unknown Unknown Unknown

    Not article-related, but I think you forgot to truncate how this article shows up on the main page. The entirety of it shows up in the feed (sans comment section).

  • PhotogHA
    Unknown Unknown Unknown Unknown

    It’s really aggravating when an article like this is written with so much conviction, but there is no controlled side by side comparison, just a lot of elaborate conjecture and diagrams.
    This comes across as so misleading.

  • Miroslav Majstorovic
    Unknown Unknown Unknown Unknown

    Interesting food for thought, but until I see an unbiased side by side comparison with the same body, shot RAW and with same post processing, using different lenses of the same focal length, I wouldn’t look too much into this. Yes, you can call modern lenses sterile and say that they lack character, but they are simple devoid of optical flaws present in older design lenses. Especially for older people, that started out on film, it could be apparent that modern lenses are vastly different in character, but that doesn’t simply translate to being boring and lifeless. The images you used to illustrate this don’t tell anything, the comments about the photos are completely subjective and without side by side examples, there’s no way to tell how would those lenses compare in rendering a particular scene with it’s own light, colors, distance and everything else. This seems a bit like cherry picking.

  • Turbofrog
    Unknown Unknown Unknown Unknown

    It’s illustrative that there are no side-by-side comparisons using “flat” and “3D” lenses on a tripod with the same subject and the same light. This whole story is an example of confirmation bias – you’re interpreting the images in a way that reinforces your preconceived romantic ideas of optics.

    The depth in your images is from:

    1) More direct light.
    2) Low macrocontrast lenses that have have had saturation and contrast blasted in post to compensate.
    3) Greater field curvature.

    You clearly put a lot of work into those charts and illustrations. It probably would have been a more productive use of time to actually try and test your thesis with two lenses at the same time rather than presenting us your conclusion with no data to back it up.

    I use plenty of legacy lenses and enjoy them, but assuming that you can draw specific trends about something as abstract as depth rendering from their element count is just a fundamental misunderstanding. In fact, one of my lenses that renders “depth” the nicest is a Canon FDn 50-135/f3.5 zoom lens with 16 elements in 12 groups, and some of the first molded aspherical elements, all traits of modern glass that you abhor…

  • Unknown Unknown Unknown Unknown

    I agreed to this article as much as older lenses have more characteristics, but then, examples basically showing difference in lightings…. One of the basics I’ve learnt when I was studying photography at school…

  • Unknown Unknown Unknown Unknown

    You are wrong putting Loxia 50. It has the same design as Planar T* 2/50 ZM: “Planar with 6 lens elements in 4 groups”. Zeiss hasn’t changed its design because it is normal focal length, so it doesn’t have problems on the edges. To some extent I can agree that Zeiss lenses do have some special out of focus rendition, so there is no need for larger aperture.
    Regarding film: each film has its own color response, tonality.. character. Digital, when, white balance has been corrected, is neutral, and by that boring. That is why first response for digital boringness were Instagram, and “I shoot film”. Now, there are a lot of possibilities, presets, filters to give some emotion to this boring photo straight from camera. Sensibility of photographers also moved from “instagrammy” towards more natural, yet emotional processing. Cinema is moving in the same direction with its color grading, more heavy than photography though.

  • Ben Olry
    Unknown Unknown Unknown Unknown

    How is it that fast lenses are not moved to the left in all those diagrams?

    • Refurb7
      Unknown Unknown Unknown Unknown

      Maybe because the article is BS.

  • Fredrik
    Unknown Unknown Unknown Unknown

    I would love to see an experiment with “3d” and “non 3d” lenses in varying light on the subject to compare because in this article it seems as the 3d noses were just in a direct light and the modern lens noses in flat light. Then one could further refine and understand what’s makes a image pop and not pop.

    • Vladimir Khudyakov
      Unknown Unknown Unknown Unknown

      3D or not 3D depends of light, not a glass.

      • justadude
        Unknown Unknown Unknown Unknown

        i’d say it depends on both although extreme examples could be used to skew the argument.

  • jamie_c_maldonado
    Unknown Unknown Unknown Unknown

    I’m continually disturbed and annoyed by the sterile perfection of modern cameras/lenses. Sharpness is pretty great, but I could never put my finger on what else bothers me, other than a massive preference of the medium/large format look. This might be on to something. No amount of plug-in magic can make up for the different rendering of lenses or formats. (Though panoramic stitches can sometimes get there with static subjects.)

  • Steve Solomon
    Unknown Unknown Unknown Unknown

    Interesting article, but where is FujiFilm?? I’ve got 35 years’ experience with Nikon, Olympus, Pentax, and Schneider, Fujinon, and Nikkor large format optics, and my current Fujinon lenses are some of the best, in terms of sharpness, tonality, color, and yes, that most subjective “3D look”!

    • Greg Podolec
      Unknown Unknown Unknown Unknown

      Reviews I’ve seen put the X-Series Fujis on a pedestal slightly “better” than the famous brands we know. Don’t know their standards, though. They have a unique “look” – like Zeiss or Leica do. I can see no difference between a modern Nikkor or Canon lens. They produce identical images. I worked for Fujifilm for eight years. Became privy to an interesting fact. Without revealing too much, Fuji made, or still makes, the lenses for a famous medium format brand. They have also made the lenses of another famous brand.

      • Steve Solomon
        Unknown Unknown Unknown Unknown

        Hi Greg.
        Yes, good points! And I think it’s common knowledge that Fuji makes lenses for the Hasselblad System. They obviously know optics, which is a major reason I went with their X-System. As I’m not an “Action shooter” by any means, and value image sharpness and clarity, it seemed like a logical choice. Not to mention that Fuji seems to listen to photographers’ feedback, as evident by their substantial firmware updates.

  • Jie Qi Ng
    Unknown Unknown Unknown Unknown

    Wtf? Look at that nose, see how 3D / not 3D it is; plus a triangle of unquantifiable units with absolute conviction in labelling lenses as if it is science?

    So what if I want my 85 do be good in both landscape (edge to edge sharpness) and bokeh? So what if I want my 16-35 to be equally good when I am shooting close up product or environmental portrait?

    People want it, manufacturer built-in, the sales and profit do the rest of the talking. Hell, Zeiss made 55 otus for laugh and amusement, then they receive so much order that they are forced to increase production for the “oh-no-too-perfect-inorganic” Otus line.

    Film look? Organic rendition? Hello, Lightroom and Photoshop or any other post editing software, heard that before? Anyway, there’s always some film cameras out there with loads of vintage lenses, happy hunting!