There's More To Lenses Than Focal Length
Six Thoughts On Buying Your Next Lens

Supermodel USSR competition, 1991. Sometimes, you need all the speed you can get. I used ISO 1000 film (Scotch/Ferrania, of beloved memory) and the 90mm f/2 Summicron wide-open on a Leica. If I'd had a 75mm f/1.4 (Leica) or 85mm f/1.4 (Contax) I'd have used that.
Photos © 2003, Roger W. Hicks, All Rights Reserved

Ask most photographers what lenses they would like to add to their outfits, and the first thing they start talking about is focal length: one wants an ultra-wide, another, a fast tele for sports photography, and so forth.

Fine. But there is a lot more to lens choice than this. There's quality, of course: that one is so obvious that it is hardly worth discussing here. But what about speed? Or compactness? Or close focusing? Or shift capability? Or soft focus? Or even filter size? All of these have, at one time or another, influenced my choice of lens. I suggest they should influence yours, too.

1) The Speed Factor
Speed is less important than it used to be, because films today are so much faster. When I first took up photography in the 1960s, Tri-X (ISO 400) was regarded as fast, and Ektachrome-X (ISO 160) was a special-application, expensive, high-speed color film. But those speeds are more than doubled today, even before you start "push" processing for extra speed: if you do, of course, you have ready access to 3200 and more in black and white (Kodak's TMZ, Ilford's Delta 3200) and 1000 or more in color (Fuji's RSP).

Even so, there are good arguments for more speed. Faster lenses are easier to focus, whether manually or automatically. They make differential focus easier. They save you having to change films as light levels fall, either wasting part of the film, or missing pictures because you don't want to change the film, or (riskiest of all) rewinding the film and leaving the tongue out, with a view to re-loading it later. And there are always those times when you need every ounce of speed you can get, even with the fastest film at your disposal, because there just isn't enough light.

This is one reason I don't use zooms: they are just too slow. Other reasons include sheer weight and bulk, and of course the fact that I use manual-focus rangefinder cameras, for which zooms aren't available. And while modern zooms deliver vastly better quality than those of yore, there's no denying that the very best prime lenses are still (and will always be) superior in contrast, resolution, and freedom from distortion.

Admittedly, you can have too much speed. Not only are ultra-fast lenses bulkier and more expensive than slower ones, but depth of field can be embarrassingly small at close focusing distances. This is why I am perfectly happy to have a 50mm f/1.5 as my fastest 50mm lens today (Voigtländer Nokton), instead of the 50mm f/1.2 that I used to have for my Nikons. And I'd have to try the 35mm f/1.2 Voigtländer before I decided I couldn't live without it.

Mertola, Portugal. A further advantage of compact lenses, not mentioned in the text, is that they don't look "professional": you look like just another tourist wandering around. In Mertola this doesn't matter, but in some countries (especially France) people get all bent out of shape at the idea of being photographed by a professional. This was a 35mm f/2.5 Color-Skopar on a Voigtländer Bessa R2, using Kodak's EBX.

2) Compact Size
This is of course my second argument: compactness. I actually have two lenses in several focal lengths; one faster, heavier, and bulkier, and the other much more compact. Rather than switching films when the light levels fall, I switch lenses: 21mm f/2.8 for 21mm f/4; 35mm f/1.7 for 35mm f/2.5; 50mm f/1.5 for 50mm f/2.5; and 90mm f/2 for 90mm f/3.5. This allows me to go on using my favorite color film, Kodak's EBX, for consistent color rendition and saturation, instead of having to switch to something faster.

These slower lenses are all cheaper than their faster counterparts and often, slower lenses offer better contrast and color saturation than the faster ones. They make the camera-lens package smaller and lighter, and with a rangefinder (which I normally use) it is no harder to focus a slow lens than a fast one. And there are always people who never shoot in low light anyway, for whom the extra expense, weight, and bulk of a faster lens can hardly be justified.

It may sound extravagant to switch lenses instead of films, and in a sense, it is; but I offer two defenses. One is that because I use rangefinder cameras, all the lenses I own are pretty small, so the extra weight in the camera bag (if I carry two different speeds of the same focal length) is similar to that of carrying extra film. The other is that if you shoot a lot of film, the extra expense of faster films mounts surprisingly quickly. A roll of Fuji's Provia F-400 is around $2.50 more than a roll of Provia F-100, so the extra for 100 rolls is $250.

Still life. Frances Schultz shot this using an old
90-180mm Vivitar Series 1 Flat Field macro lens that focuses to 1/2 life size. Continuous focusing from infinity to the close-up range is infinitely more convenient than fiddling around with close-up lenses and extension tubes. Film was Fuji's Velvia: this was before we switched to Kodak's E100VS and EBX. The camera was a Nikon F.

3) Filter Size
Slower lenses bring me to filter size. All my slow lenses take 39mm filters, whereas for the fast ones I need three different sizes, all bigger, all more expensive. But I don't normally want filters in poor light, so during the day I can survive with the slower lenses and one set of filters.

4) Close Focusing
What about close focusing? Until I can afford the latest 90mm f/4 Macro-Elmar-M, which focuses to 1/3 life size (with an adapter), this is one of the pleasures I have to forgo because of rangefinders. Even so, my 90mm lenses do focus to a bit under 1/10 life size, which is good enough for me, most of the time. If I need to focus closer, it is normally only in the studio, so I switch to a reflex and a purpose-built macro lens. But in the days when my wife Frances Schultz used mainly reflexes, her favorite lenses for a long time were a 90mm f/2.5 Vivitar Series 1 macro (for Nikon) and a glorious 100mm f/2.8 Zeiss Makro-Planar that we had for a few months with a Contax outfit on loan from the importers.

It is worth adding that I often carry a 200mm f/3 Vivitar Series 1 (on a Nikon F) to supplement my Voigtländers, because rangefinder cameras aren't much good with lenses beyond about 90mm. This lens, long out of production, focuses to around 1/4 life size, or 1/2 life size with a tele-converter fitted. This is one reason why I use the 200mm f/3 more than my old Nikon 200mm f/4.

Arc de Triomphe, Paris. A fairly typical traffic jam around this legendary landmark. Without a shift lens, the Arc de Triomphe itself would not loom quite as impressively. I borrowed Frances' 35mm f/2.8 PC-Nikkor to shoot this on one of my last rolls of Fuji's RFP, possibly my favorite film of all time, in a Nikon F. A gendarme politely waited until we had finished before coming over and explaining that we really should have a tripod permit.

5) Shift Capability
What about shift lenses? These are very expensive, it's true, but they are also very, very habit-forming. Over 10 years ago Frances fell in love with the 35mm f/2.8 PC-Nikkor, and indeed it replaced her 90mm f/2.5 as the lens she used most of all. When she switched to Voigtländer rangefinder cameras, we had an adapter made to allow use of the 35mm f/2.8 on those: it's surprisingly easy to judge the degree of rise in the viewfinder. And her Alpa is the 12 S/WA with the shift movement, unlike my non-shift 12 WA.

6) Soft Focus
Moving on to soft focus, this is not something I would normally bother with in 35mm, but in larger formats (especially 5x7" and above) it can be extremely effective and even in 35mm there's the wonderfully over-the-top 90mm f/4 Dreamagon. The number of applications of the Dreamagon is limited, but it really lives up to its "Dreamy" name and the effect is far, far better than any soft-focus attachment, even the legendary Zeiss Softar. And if you can find and afford one, there's the justly legendary 90mm f/2.2 Thambar from Leica.

Flowers. The Dreamagon has taken these flowers to the edge of unrecognizability--but it's an effect you can't get any other way. Use a high saturation film (here, Kodak's EBX) and bracket on the side of underexposure, or flare will take away all the color. Camera was a Nikon F.