Schneider Digitar Lenses

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The $25,000 Megavision T2 on the left, a $7 Lisco film holder on the right. Notice how small the sensor (the green square) is on the T2 vs. the sheet film.

When Bob Shell asked me to take a look at Schneider's new line of digital lenses, I said "sure." After all, I'm a fully modern digital photographer, and anything aimed at the digital professional is of great interest to me. When I started to think about it a little bit I got curious--digital lenses? What's digital about them? Are they made of glass, or are we talking about some weird new digital technology...hey, maybe they're sonar lenses, or some other new tech lens design. Well, let me fill you in. These are good old-fashioned Schneider lenses.

Designed and manufactured in Germany to Schneider's typically high standards, the Digitar series of view camera lenses is a 10 lens family that ranges from an outrageous 28mm to a normal 150mm. Two of the 10 lenses are optimized for Macro photography, in 80mm and 120mm focal lengths. How about 28mm lenses for a 4x5 view camera? Wow--how did Schneider pull this off?

Here's the 47mm lens mounted in a Cambo recessed lensboard. OK, how do you get a cable release in there?

The answer is both simple and complicated. First of all, the 28mm lens is not some super-duper fisheye optic for 4x5 sheet film. When Schneider says these are "digital" lenses, they're talking about digital camera backs like the Leaf DCBII, Volare and Kantare, the Megavision T2, S2, and S3, and the Dicomed Big Shot cameras. These digital cameras use a very small 2048x2048 or 2048x3096 pixel area array sensor. While these backs are often purchased in mounts for medium format cameras like Hasselblads, many studio photographers need the wings and tilts of a view camera and purchase the backs for view usage. The dilemma is easy to figure out. Mount a 11/4" square sensor on the back of a 4x5 view camera and your super-wide 90mm lens becomes a mild telephoto, your ultra-wide 47mm Super Angulon becomes a normal lens, and your 210mm normal lens becomes a telephoto better suited for shooting NFL games than tabletop product shots.

Besides the focal length problems, sharpness suffers. Even the best lens designed to paint a circle of light wide enough to cover the full diagonal of a 4x5 piece of sheet film can match the resolution of a lens designed to cover a 3x3cm area. For example, where a conventional lens might be adequately sharp all across the film area at f/8, a smaller lens designed to fill a smaller area will often resolve many more lines per mm wide open, and improve even more at f/8 to f/11. The bottom line is, if you don't need to fill more than a 60mm circle, why do it?

Schneider sent Shutterbug three Digitar lenses to test, the wide 47mm f/5.6, the normal long 60mm f/4.0, and the longer 80mm f/5.6. Since I shoot with a scanning camera, there was no way to review these lenses with my existing equipment. A quick call to Calumet's excellent CDS (Calumet Digital Solutions) got us a fresh Megavision T2 three-shot camera. While the T2 offers a stand-alone camera solution for the T2, it also can be bolted to a view camera, and offers live on-screen focusing. When bolted to a Cambo Ultima view camera, the T2 was first put through its paces with my standard 210mm Fujinon lens. While this is a very long lens for this sized chip, the Fuji is a very sharp lens with excellent color reproduction. To test the camera back I put a can of Coke in the scene and took a few shots. Everything looked pretty good to me, and it seemed hard to believe that Schneider could improve upon this performance from a modest $600 lens.

The 80mm Apo-Digitar is a brutally sharp lens, with the near-perfect Apochromatic performance that pro digital cameras demand.

Once the Schneiders were bolted to No. 0 recessed lensboards it became obvious to me that there was a serious lack of planning here. The lenses shipped in No. 0 Copal press shutters. A press shutter automatically opens the lens up when in the "T" mode. This allows for wide open focusing. The problem was this: Since we're shooting digital with a three-shot back, we're using the software as the shutter. We want the lens open but stopped down. The only way to do this was to insert a cable release, switch to "B," and fire the shutter to open it up, but leaving the lens stopped down. Here's the problem--when mounted in a recessed lensboard, a cable release won't fit. To get the shots down I stuck a small paper clip into the shutter release to open the lens. Anyway, if you're in the market for these lenses, buy the standard Copal shutter.

I shot the same Coke can with all three lenses. My first reaction was "big deal." The images looked about the same. While the Schneider lenses might have had a different color balance than my Fujinon, in digital photography you traditionally get a neutral balance from the gray square of a Macbeth color checker--so the lens and lighting become somewhat immaterial. When zoomed in to 100 percent the Schneider shots did look sharper, but when I applied some interpolation and unsharp masking to the images the differences became really dramatic.

I took the standard 2048x2048 18MB files produced by the T2 and interpolated them up to 4096x4097 48MB files. Since the T2 images have absolutely no color or pixel interpolation applied by the software, they interpolate up beautifully, still besting all but the most detailed film images. Now that I had some really big files, I needed to sharpen them. I hit the files with 160 percent unsharp masking, a very severe sharpening. The Fujinon file looked OK, but I did notice that the type on the can was not razor sharp, and there appeared to be a reddish-purple fringe surrounding the letters. The Schneider images were quite a bit sharper and showed no signs of fringing. The results when compared side by side were stunning.

The sharpnes was easy to figure out. The smaller image circles of the lenses allowed Schneider to design a lens that was sharper in a smaller image circle. The color fringing was interesting. Since the T2 shot three separate images using red, green, and blue filters, the chromatic performance of my Fujinon lens was tested. It turned out that the Fujinon focused the three different colors at different planes, resulting in a color shift. The Schneider lenses, all being of Apochromatic design, didn't have this problem.

If you've made the investment in high-end digital camera equipment, the whole question of value becomes something of a moot point. If you can find the clients for this kind of work, the purchase price becomes secondary, since even the most expensive piece of equipment can be amortized pretty quickly. That said, the Schneider lenses are somewhat expensive. While the $1577 list price for the 60mm and 80mm lenses is quite reasonable for a lens with this level of performance, $2165 for the 47mm and a whopping $3049 for the 28mm lens seem a little steep. Since the only real competitors for these lenses, the Sinaron Digital lenses are even more expensive and may only be used with expensive electronic shutter assemblies, the Schneiders are really the only game in town for this kind of work.

While the number of photographers in the world shooting with a Loral or Philips chip camera back mounted on a 4x5 view camera is probably fairly small, kudos to Schneider for devoting this level of research and design to this tiny population of top pros. These little jewels are the perfect solution for the studio catalog photographer using state of the art digital camera technology. I suggest that you investigate the technical specs at: www.schneideroptics.com/large/digitar/digitar.htm.

For more information, contact Schneider Optics, Inc., 285 Oser Ave., Hauppauge, NY 11788; (516) 761-5000; fax: (516) 761-5090; e-mail: info@schneideroptics.com or web site at: www.schneideroptics.com.

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mastereed's picture
Very helpful reference. Keep

Very helpful reference. Keep your reviews coming. Thanks for this. Authorhouse